The Sweetness of el Dia de los Muertos

diadelosmuertos-640x360First of all, like Halloween, there’s candy and revelry, but this short animated film by three female film students shows how the process of solemn remembrance tied to festive celebration can help ease the hearts of loved ones left behind. I’ve heard stories (someday I hope I’ll get to see) of gorgeous scenes of people visiting cemeteries overnight with picnics and flowers and the altars they’ve built, enjoying the peacefulness amid candles set like fairy lights all over. Per the description:

Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world in other cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico where the day is a bank holiday. The celebration takes place on October 31, November 1 and November 2, in connection with the Christian triduum of Hallowmas: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world. In Brazil Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain there are festivals and parades and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.

h/t: Laughing Squid

Also, keep reading below, because our Terrie’s doing an online Halloween bash on Wednesday, October 28th!

Ginning the Bestseller Lists, Old-School

imageI came across a fabulous write-up on the hoax of I, Libertine, which conned the New York Times bestseller list, also literary reviewers, publishers, and booksellers (even a lit professor) in the mid-fifties. Not because it wasn’t an obvious hoax. I encourage you to read the whole post to see how funny but transaparent the hoax was, and how easily it could be detected by people who asked questions rather than pretending to have the answers. From the blog of author J. Mark Powell:

Shep [Jean Shepherd, radio host and satirist] may have been working in Manhattan, but having been born and raised in Hammond, Indiana (where A Christmas Story is set, by the way) he still had Midwestern sensibilities. One thing that astonished him about New Yorkers was (and still remains) their slavish obsession with Top 10 lists. “The 10 Most Beautiful People…” “The 10 New Looks for Summer…” “The 10 Hottest Movies…” Shep felt New Yorkers blindly followed whatever appeared on those lists without thinking or questioning them. The one that got his goat most of all was The New York Times Best Seller list for books….

But here’s the thing: in Shep’s time, despite its name, the criteria for making the list involved more than just book sales. It included customer requests for and questions about books to book sellers. So if a retailer had a stack of a particular book that wasn’t selling, he could gin up enough queries about it to get the title included on the best seller list, which then made people go out and buy it.

You have to read it all to marvel and laugh at how long the hoax went on, how many people knew, and how many other people fatuously pretended to have read the book or to have met the author. The truly turgid cover above came rather late in the game, actually, when a real book was finally written to fit the hoax. Yes, it also hit the bestseller list.

There are still ways that people try to shift this list or that one, and the keepers of the lists still put their own thumbs on the scales, too. But also, for me, the story also highlights the way that people still assume if they haven’t read about it or seen it from a handful of media outlets, something couldn’t possibly be happening or be true. I’ve come across this more in New York than other places I’ve lived, to be frank. The downside, if there is one, of immersion in perhaps the preeminent media capital of the world is that people within may not look outside very often, assuming they already know all that’s worthy of knowing. Therefore, a story that’s unremarked and unreported in the northeast ends up working like a very successful “conspiracy,” because a huge number of people (in this case, listeners across 37 states) know something of which the self-appointed tastemakers and trendsetters remain ignorant and/or are satisfied to have other people remain ignorant.

In some salons, Frederick R. Ewing was considered the acme of success, but who among us will ever compare to his reach (not to mention his genius)?How do you define a writer’s success? How tough are you on yourself about your own?

Enjoy the Sweaty Dog Days with Celestial Erudition!

canis_majorWe’ve had a pretty mild season, but it is mid-August, so these are precisely the dog days of summer! This name given to the hottest days of the year in the northern hemisphere is reputed to have come about due to Sirius, (also Canis Major, Sothis in Greek, or Sopdet, Isis’s star to the Egyptians).

Often visible in the evenings of spring and winter, during this time of summer, the sky’s brightest star (after the sun of course), appears to us to be “far” enough from the showoff that it’s actually visible in the morning skies, just before dawn. It appears to us to twinkle, even to be multi-colored. This time also marks the season when the Nile would flood, its yearly inundation bringing fertility in its wake, and also being associated with Isis’s tears for her dead husband Osiris, who was, in Egypt at least, the constallation we call the hunter Orion. In fact, if you follow the line of Orion’s 3-star belt behind him, you can’t miss bright Sirius just above the horizon in this picture. Whether as a goddess or best friend, the star is known for its fidelity and radiance.

Orion-and-Sirius

Sirius is the bright star near the center of the picture. You can draw a diagonal line from the mountain peak through it and then the belt of Orion.

The gorgeous picture above is from the youth blog of the Delaware Nature Society, which has more info on naked-eye stargazing. And here’s another story about the star from India, as reported by Deborah Byrd at EarthSky:

In India, Sirius is sometimes known as Svana, the dog of Prince Yudhistira. The prince and his four brothers, along with Svana, set out on a long and arduous journey to find the kingdom of heaven. However, one by one the brothers all abandoned the search until only Yudhistira and Svana were left. At long last they came to the gates of heaven. The gatekeeper, Lord Indra, welcomed the prince but denied Svana entrance. Yudhistira was aghast and told Lord Indra that he could not forsake his good and faithful servant and friend. His brothers, Yudhistira told the Lord, had abandoned the journey to heaven to follow their hearts’ desires. But Svana, who had given his heart freely, chose to follow none but Yudhistira. The prince told the Lord that without his dog, he would forsake even heaven. This is what Lord Indra had wanted to hear, and then he welcomed both the prince and the dog through the gates of heaven.

Finally, on the subject, Wikipedia offers this Homeric quote from the epic poem, the Iliad:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.

Now doesn’t that make the sweat in your toga feel altogether more expansively erudite?

Summer Means Happy Birthday, Roller Rinks!

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

Did you know that today, August 11th, in 1866, the world’s first roller rink opened? (Because that happy event occurred in Newport, Rhode Island, I expect that our own Anne-Marie Sutton knows a lot more about it than I do.) But roller skating must’ve been a great way to manufacture your own breeze before electric fans and A/C, so opening in the dog days of summer makes perfect sense!

Did you also know that there’s a National Museum of Roller Skating in Nebraska? Well, there is, and from it, I learned that the first roller skate in recorded history was invented way back in the 1760s by this dignified-looking gent here. We’re also told:

Merlin wore a pair of his new skates to a masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London. Though he was a well-known inventor, he was not a good skater. He could not control his speed or direction and crashed into a large mirror, severely injuring himself and possibly setting back the sport of roller skating for years.

All the early skates were in-line, and the father of the modern, 4-wheel, easier to manuever skate is James L. Plimpton, who, I gathered from The Pandora Society, also founded the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) and, on its behalf, rented the dining room of the Atlantic House, a resort hotel in Newport, to convert for open skating. And that, as they say, is history.

vault-6-navy-lg

The image below is an engraving of Victorians skating indoors, and came from Curbed‘s interesting history of the roller rink, its attendant immoralities (!), and its growth with the nation, by Scott Garner.

Interior of a Victorian roller skating rinkPerhaps coincidentally, or not, this week is also the 35th anniversary of when the roller-skating-disco cinematic awesomeness that is Xanadu opened at the box office. It was about an artist who’s bored with his work and stuck in a rut until he meets one of the Muses. (Couldn’t we all use that kind of assistance?) People‘s Drew Mackie says:

Roller skating. Greek mythology. Hollywood. Olivia Newton-John. Gene Kelly. Electric Light Orchestra. By some measures, Xanadu should have been a hit.

It wasn’t, however. Upon its release in theaters on Aug. 8, 1980 – 35 years ago this week – the disco musical Xanadu was met with negative reviews and middling box office returns. That didn’t stop it, however, and this hypercolor fantasy has persisted, becoming a cult favorite in spite of its inauspicious beginnings.

XanaduIf you’re a glutton, as I am, you can read lots of little known facts about the production and the talented people involved, many of whom went on to do things better-received, though, to be fair, the soundtrack album was a mega-monster international hit. I also didn’t know the fact the film is kind of a sequel of a sequel and also, sadly, was Gene Kelly’s last, for which he choreographed the number he performed with Olivia Newton-John.

So yeah, having a dull day? Take yourself and you various pads and braces and helmets and grandchildren out to have some fun on wheels. After all, the Hickory Record tells me there’s a man who skates every week and just turned 89! Gene Elliott says, “I don’t feel old. When I get out there on that floor, it takes me a while to get loosened up but once I do, I’m back in my 60s and 70s.” I admit it, I have no excuse.

Skating Around the law by Joelle CharbonneauAnd because it’s Women of Mystery, I must also shout-out to Joelle Charbonneau, who’s since become hugely popular with her cool sff/dystopian adventures for younger readers, but who’s also written the Skating Series of mysteries, Book 1 being Skating Around the Law. Description: Rebecca Robbins is a woman on a mission–to sell the roller rink she inherited in her rural hometown and get back to her life in Chicago. Fast. What she didn’t count on was discovering a dead body head-first in a rink toilet. Now Rebecca is stuck in a small town where her former neighbors think she’s a city slicker who doesn’t belong, relying on a police department that’s better at gardening than solving crimes. With the help of a handsome veterinarian, a former circus camel, and her scarily frisky grandfather, Rebecca must discover the identity of the murderer before she becomes the next victim.

So, whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, hope you’re rolling on with summer fun!

Boring Characters? Write Them Secret Spirit Animals!

Cup of Carolina Wren photographed by Suzanne LaPalme

Cup of Carolina Wren photographed by Suzanne LaPalme

If you’re like me, you have writerly tendencies, I mean, irritatingly stubborn habits of style that vex you. When facing these, I really appreciate an icebreaker, like one of those party games that might feel dumb but gets me out of talking to/about the same old people the same old way. This can be especially helpful with necessary secondary characters. They don’t have your heart like your protagonists or your oddball sidekicks, but they’re critical to the action and can’t read like wallpaper. So here’s one idea: If you’re fatigued to distraction and self-loathing by the way you’re characterizing, but can’t seem to think up anything new, try writing a character as an animal.

I do NOT mean writing “She was a wren of a woman.” You’ve written that and you’re done, what else can be said? No, no. Keep the identification of your character’s spirit animal to yourself. But, when you struggle for a description or a reaction beyond the usual (are you typically a tracer of eyebrow heights, an eye-color obsessive, a smile documenter, a recorder of chuckles, a wink-counter, a freezer of glances, or sketcher of fidgets, until you scream at your own monotony?), then take a break from yourself. Think of what’s true for the wren.

In whatever scene this character appears, you can pop in elements of the wren’s coloration, its high activity level, its attribution of humility and industriousness, how it disappears when alarmed, its ground-feeding focus on mundane details, its willingness to chat and chat. “Nosy busybody” gets repetitive, but it can be tough to think of other, richer ways to imply that. If you start dotting in the characteristics of a wren or whatever animal fits, without even saying that’s what you’re doing, the characterization starts to get round and full and to hold together. Moreover, it rings true with us as readers.

Whether country or city folk, we know something about ubiquitous little brown birds, and they are part of our subconscious and collective understanding of the world, as well as part of our conscious education. A la Jung, animals are archetypes, too. So beyond earth-wise mothers and power-mad tyrants, tapping into this kind of animal archetype, without using overtly comparative terminology or labeling, I think you may be surprised how well readers make the intuitive leaps of understanding. They’ll comprehend the characters in subtler ways than simply recalling what you flat-out narrated at them. When bright readers (and all ours are clever, of course!) get to fill these imaginative gaps themselves, it’s an enjoyable process that engages them more deeply with the writing. Most of all, a secret animal identity like this can bring revelations to the writer of what might be in-type and playing against it for a particular character. Then, the writer can thoughtfully employ either side of that axis as the story demands. A character’s spirit animal does all this while giving you a blessedly new range of behaviors, sights, sounds, even smells to get you out of your description-reaction rut.

So, if you have a secondary characters that feel boring or repetitve, try writing them with secret spirit animals!

Image via the lovely Birds and Blooms site.

TV’s Hannibal: Gross, Perverse, Artistic. I Like It!

Mads Mikkelsen stars as the cannibal and serial killer Dr. Lecter in TV's Hannibal

Mads Mikkelsen as TV’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Based on Thomas Harris’s novels, the Hannibal TV series, created and produced by Bryan Fuller, is not for the squeamish. But I’m not. I just ask that gore be purposeful, be interesting, be done with care for what it causes and the consequences. Hannibal mines the rich inspiration of art that’s in the books and marries it with aesthetically inventive visuals, sharp but minimal dialogue, and great performances to make a show that doesn’t feel or look like any other. Dramatic, cultured, very close-up and personal, it meanders the deceptive byways of the human mind. As far as shows that could be considered mainstream horror, you can think of Hannibal as the other end of the axis that the also-unique Walking Dead occupies.

For me, the shock value of the usual red-dyed corn syrup wore off after, oh, maybe watching the already dated Toolbox Killer in high school. Most horror isn’t that horrible once you’ve seen a bunch, and when you suspect a new story is just graceless, hopeless, manipulative three-card monte, it can lose its appeal. I make an exception for trope-licious campy fun, sometimes great fun, as TV’s American Horror Story often plays in this sandbox. In my least favorite kind of horror, the effects of all the bizarrities and carnage have no cumulative effect on the characters. They could be stepping through the stations of Candyland for all it matters. That’s how you know the writer made the victims of cardboard, because not even their nearest and dearest seem to care. The slaughter-forget-repeat cycle isn’t that captivating.

But it’s not merely horror, because Hannibal is also a lawless serial killer. Whether his pursuers on TV are now retired, estranged, or recuperating, it’s their connections to law enforcement, FBI specifically, that brought them into contact with Dr. Lecter. This show is set before the events of the novel Red Dragon– seen in the movie versions Manhunter (1986) and Red Dragon (2002)–and the even later-set novel Silence of the Lambs, the basis for the 1991 movie of the same name. In the TV series, we’ve gotten to backward to see the FBI’s star-profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikklesen) for the first time. We have explored the earliest, dangerous, see-sawing interaction of hunter and hunted. Later, we know, the cannibal will perfect with profiler Clarice Starling a method of corruption which is in-development here with Will Graham. Now, in the show’s third season, Hannibal has escaped the U.S. after dramatically revealing himself as no ordinary psychiatrist-consultant to the feds. His pursuers, who are all now also profoundly wounded victims, are closing in. Which is exactly what he wants. What he craves.

I know this kind of fare is NOT to the taste of everyone among the WoM or our regular visitors, not by any means. However, I thought I’d make a stab (ha) at trying to explain the appeal of the form and of this show in particular. I’ve been doing weekly show recaps at Criminal Element. Each week, I try to explore at least one of the cultural or artistic elements raised in the episode with more detail as bonus info, if you will. The episodes you’ll notice are all named after courses or categories of cuisine. Season 1 was French, Season 2 was Japanese. This season, which takes place partially in Florence and Palermo, is appropriately Italian. So here are the links to those posts if you’re interested!

Hannibal 3.01: an “Antipasto” of Drains and Snails — more on comic opera Don Pasquale and the medieval torture device called the Catherine Wheel

Hannibal 3.02: “Primavera” Springs Will Graham — more on true-crime killer, Il Mostro, the Monster of Florence, and Botticelli’s painting Allegory of Spring

Hannibal 3.03: “Secondo” Means Choosing — more on ancient Rome’s meat apportioning and how Death’s Head moths and entomological imposters are used on screen

Hannibal 3.04: “Aperitivo” Whets the Bloodlust — more on the conspiracy to kill Caesar, mythological death goddesses, and John Donne’s sonnet “A Fever”

This will be the show’s last season on NBC, and credit to them for sticking so long with something so different. However, I have high hopes this quality show will be picked up by another network or streaming service. After all, it has a built-in base of passionate fannibals, and there’s a whole world of cuisine, art, architecture, and music left to explore!

Juror # 5

I am on jury duty this week and I have been selected for a trial. This is actually my third time as a jury member. One homicide. One dental malpractice civil suit. One criminal misdemeanor.

courtroom1

Did you ever see the thrilling drama Twelve Angry Men, in the classic movie, the excellent tv version or on stage a few years ago? 12-Angry-Men-Images

And of course who could ever forget the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird? Peck

Ah, actually it isn’t much like that. However, anyone who writes or reads about fictional crime would find this an interesting experience. Even the dental suit – a week of dental charts! – became interesting for the human interactions in the jury room. I met a man who works for Spike Lee on that one.

Since I cannot write about this time until it is done, and am kind of trapped, far from my computer, for the duration, this will be my brief post for today. A full report is promised as soon as I am sprung.

The Telling Visual Art of Famous Writers

I’ve done posts with artworks portraying readers and writers, but I don’t remember specifically artworks by writers. I found Print magazine has a wonderful article with just loads of such images, “The Visual Art and Design of Famous Writers” by Steven Brower. After pointing out how often the creative people he knows, and he himself, participate in more than one of the arts, Brower writes (bolding mine):

…in addition to writing works that have shaped our culture, many poets and authors have practiced visual art as a vital component of their creative output. From William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski to Henry Miller and Sylvia Plath, renowned writers of the twentieth century made paintings, drawings, and collages. These creative outpourings enhance our understanding of their authors’ written works, and stand on their own merits as well.

I’ve borrowed a few images and captions to whet your appetite for the rest of the article, which I hope you’ll go peruse! Some of the authors had an extensive background and took their art quite seriously. Rudyard Kipling grew up among professional and very well-known artists–here’s the illustration he did for one of his tales.

Kipling's drawing for “How the Wale Got His Throat,” from Just So Stories

Kipling’s drawing for “How the Wale Got His Throat,” from Just So Stories

Some of the writers were casual, consistent enthusiasts, like H.G. Wells, whose journals are full of friendly, informal cartoons (“picshuas”) from everyday life, or like Dylan Thomas, who’d frequently doodle pictures of other patrons at the bar. Mark Twain sent cute rebus puzzles to his family.

H-G-Wells-doodle-speech

H.G. Wells’s sketch of himself giving a talk at the Royal Institute, 1902. “I regard this picshua as a masterpiece only to be compared to the Paleolithic drawings in the Caves of Altima.”

Just for a touch of color, here’s a piece I really like by Kurt Vonnegut, who’s done commercial illustrations and had a one-man show of his artwork.

Vonnegut, “Tout in Cohoes”

Vonnegut, “Tout in Cohoes”

Besides the poets’ and authors’ names I’ve already bolded, Steven Brower’s Print article collects lots of intersting images and/or biographical tidbits documenting the visually artistic lives of Lewis Carroll, e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Joseph Conrad, Federico Garcia Lorca, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Bernard Shaw.

Go feast your eyes, and then confess…

Do you participate in creative forms beyond writing? Why and which ones?

Dreams of Dickens, Wagner, and Van Gogh… And Yours?

Dickens' Dream by Robert Will, watercolor, 1870. Charles Dickens Museum, London

Dickens’ Dream by Robert Will, watercolor, 1870. Charles Dickens Museum, London

In Nicholas Nickelby, Charles Dickens wrote:
Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.
Bedroom in Arles, oil on canvas, 1888.

Bedroom in Arles, oil on canvas, 1888.

Van Gogh wrote:
I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream.
Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan, oil on canvas, 1912.

Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan, oil on canvas, 1912.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner wrote:
For once you are going to hear a dream. I dreamed all this [Tristan]. Never could my poor head have invented such a thing purposely.
There are now coutless guidebooks and resources for both harnessing and unleashing, healing through and profiting from dreams and daydreams…. Have you ever created something based upon a dream, or had a creative problem solved by one?

Forget Pi Day, it’s what writers do Every Day!

Let’s play a game, shall we, you doomed-to-be creative types?

Tell me whether you can get through these events and items related to today’s date, 3/25, without even a tiny, unwelcome twinge of curiosity, or even worse, an idea. *shudders*

ConstantineIn the Julian Calendar, 325 (C.E.) was known as the Year of the Consulship of Proculus and Paulinus. It marked the year of the Council of Nicea, the beginning of the colossal marble head of Constantine, and the outlawing of gladiatorial combat in the Roman Empire.

 

PercocetThe prescription narcotic painkiller Percocet comes in a popular 325-stamped dose.

 

 

 

lennon-325John Lennon’s early guitar is an oft-discussed Rickenbacker 325, an unusual model nicknamed the “Hamburg,” because that’s where he got it.

 

 

Donald_WestlakeThere are new Seattle lofts under development at 325 Westlake, an address which can’t fail to remind me of one of my favorite authors, a crime-writing Grand Master who wrote “I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong.”

 

 

Bobcat-325Bobcat makes a 325 Compact Excavator, designed for tight spaces, which “with its multi-attachment versatility, can dig everything from trenches to postholes, break up concrete and carve landscape features. Its compact size and rubber track flotation allows you to have excellent flotation through mud….”

 

bmw-325Who could forget BMW’s famous and very fast 325?

 

 

 

Winchester-325Or Winchester‘s?

 

 

 

USS-LST-325USS LST-325 is the designation for a tank landing ship (acronymed as landing ship, tank) launched in October, 1942. She participated in D-Day at Omaha Beach, Normandy, also the invasion of Sicily and Salerno in 1943. Surprisingly, she served for decades more as part of the Greek Navy, and now docks in Evansville, Indiana as a museum that still sails!

 

In addition, March 25th in history saw:

  • the founding of Venice
  • the first horse race in America
  • Sicily’s Mt Etna erupting
  • Sputnik carrying a dog into orbit
  • Cagney & Lacey’s TV premiere
  • the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
  • Elton John and Gloria Steinem and Jack Ruby born
  • the Boston Patriots becoming the New England Patriots (you know I had to mention!)
  • the Supreme Court’s ruling against “poll taxes”
  • the Great Dayton Flood
  • the first modern Olympics in Athens
  • Robert the Bruce’s crowning as King of Scots

How did you do? Most authors I know laugh, maniacally even, when people say they’ll supply a goldmine of an idea and all the writer has to do is execute it. Most writers don’t have any problem with getting ideas–they have much more trouble making them stop.

If you read this calmly and placidly with serene disinterest, experiencing not even a flicker of a “what if” crossing your mind, congratulations on having a Wednesday!

But as Flannery O’Connor, also born this day, once said: The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention. So if you couldn’t get through unscathed, well, you have my condolences. You might be a writer.