Friday, September 22, 2017

Female solidarity: endearing or racist? You decide ...

Greetings, commies and libtards!

Here is an actual illustration intended to represent female solidarity in the workplace. Forged by a well-meaning Eastern European artist in the 1960s. Do you find it endearing/inspiring or offensive/racist? Note the pan-Slavic female is in the center. Her Western European sister is to the far right. Whose hand is on top? That's right. The Slavic woman's. The rest of the women are looking aside, while the Slavic woman is looking right at you. So, while the illustration is supposed to represent equality, it clearly establishes ethnic superiority of the Slavic group. Or am I reading too much into it? You decide.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Death Knows My Name: social commentary through the eyes of a demon - a novel by Kellie Wallace

Greetings, Commies, Aussies and Yankees!

Today's recurring guest is Kellie Wallace, a young Australian author of numerous historical, dystopian, YA and cross genre novels. Her latest release is a paranormal thriller with strong romantic and philosophical elements Death Knows My Name.

After the tragic drowning of her brother eighteen years ago, Aleida Fuller has lived her life communicating with the supernatural. She can see and speak to the dead, as if they were still walking the earth. Despite being welcomed in the spirit world, Aleida lives a closeted existence. Her reclusive mother refuses to accept her abilities and the local townsfolk think she’s a fraud.

When mysterious traveler Rafe Jenner arrives in town, Aleida’s dull life is irrevocably changed. He’s handsome, strange, and oddly alluring, with piercing eyes that turn red in the dark…

As Aleida and Rafe are teamed up to solve a crime for the Sheriff’s Office, a great evil lurks in the shadows. Bloodthirsty for Aleida’s soul, Hell-bound demon Albinus roams the earth, shedding blood and taking lives in search of her. He will stop at nothing until he gets what he wants. Aleida must draw on her physic abilities and her new-found alliance with Rafe to battle Hell’s agents before her soul is lost forever.

My thoughts:
One of the most captivating parts about this novel is the philosophical / existential component. Rafe, a jaded soul-snatcher who has been around the block a few times, struggles to keep his red eyes from rolling as he watches the decay of the human race. He notes that in the past century people have gotten fatter and dumber - and more skittish and squeamish around the subject of death. At the same time, he eats the same "dumb American food". He is not above having whipped cream on his pancakes. I guess his supernatural body does not metabolize carbs and fat the same way a human body would. Oh wait, moving from one body to another, changing hosts every century or so, is taking its toll on Rafe's supernatural essence. He is starting to feel more and more human. (The premise of the novel will remind you of an acclaimed indie film "In Her Skin" starring Scarlet Johansson, featuring the predatory wanderings of an otherworldly entity that entices and gobbles up lonely men).

It is not surprising that Rafe's unlikely human ally is Aleida Fuller, a young woman burdened by the disturbing gift of communicating with the dead, the gift she had developed following her younger brother's drowning death. Aleida seems to have achieved a sort of philosophical acceptance of her gift and her place in the world. Naturally, she cannot keep that gift to herself - it makes her too useful in investigations. It also makes her a great target for exploitation. Who would not want a girl like that on their side? Personally, I find it refreshing that Aleida has no qualms about milking her gift. She does not get all high and mighty about having a "special mission". She is not above offering her services to bachelor parties and Halloween seances, just as Rafe is not above eating American diner food. That self-deprecating humility is what makes them such suitable allies.

One thing I wanted to mentions is that even though the author is Australian, most of her novels are set in America. She is very familiar with American pop culture and everyday practices. It's not unusual for Australians to romanticize Americans - and vice versa. I commend the author on writing yet another thrilling, witty, philosophically challenging novel.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Stiegler Artworks - unique affordable gifts inspired by Nature

Greetings, commies!
One of life's joys is meeting other commie mommies - from other states. There is so much to learn from our former countrywomen. We bring so many talents and customs from the old country. Today I wanted to share my latest discovery: a gift shop specializing in souvenirs and garments inspired by Native American and Nordic folk traditions. Irene is a fellow Eastern European mommy married to Nate Stiegler, a poet and artist. Together they run a gallery/shop. In addition to Nate's original artwork, you can find a selection of durable, unique garments and shoes made of wool. I ordered two pairs of slippers from Irene, and they arrived at my doorstep a few days later. She was extremely helpful about making suggestions about the size and the design. It's not too early to start thinking about getting holiday gifts. If your loved ones appreciate something unique, crafted with care and expertise, definitely consider ordering from Irene and Nate.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Microaggression in the world of historical fiction

Cultural sensitivity training sessions have become a common cover-yer-arse trend in the workplace, infiltrating all industries. What about historical fiction? We are a bunch of passionate, sensitive, imaginative and opinionated boys and girls (and some gender fluid). What about the callousness we encounter on daily basis? As a historical novelist, I look back at my experiences, and my victimhood alert goes off. How many times have I been a victim of microagression? And I am not the only one. After talking to a few of my fellow historical novel authors, I realized that we all have been victimized and deserve retributions (or at least a free B&N gift card). More and more authors use social media to promote their works. Interviews and blurbs contain bits of their biographies that sometimes reference their ethnic heritage, marital status, religion. Any time you share something personal about yourself, you are in danger of having your work evaluated through a lens of bias. There's nothing like being told by someone who hasn't even read any of your works what you should be writing about and which topics you should avoid. Here is a list of comments I have gathered over the years. 

Wow, you speak English real good.

I certainly hope so - after twenty-five years in the US.

So why did you decide to become a writer? Don't most Russians work in IT?

For the record, I am not Russian. Russian is my first language, but I do not identify myself as Russian any more than an Indian who speaks English identifies him/herself as British. Some Russian Americans are doctors, lawyers and financial advisors. I am not good enough at math. As we say, if you can't calculate - write. If you can't write - write historical fiction.

You should write about YOUR heritage.

Thank you. I already have. Too bad you weren't paying attention. Look me up on Amazon. Seriously. Take a look at my list of titles, and you'll see that several of my novels are set in Central Europe. 

Why do you write about Irish history? You are not Irish.

Why do you write murder mysteries? You are not a murderer, I hope. But, since you asked, cultural appropriation is my guilty pleasure. 

So you write women's fiction?

I do write fiction, and I do have two X chromosomes, but my work does not fall into the women's fiction category.

So you are an immigrant author?

I am a first generation American who happens to write. I do not view the world through the prism of my immigrant experience.

You make Catholics look like douche bags in your books. Is that because you're Orthodox?

I do have antagonists who identify themselves as Catholics, but it does not make me anti-Catholic. For the record, I am Protestant. My personal beliefs do not affect my portrayal of Catholics. You find douche bags in many religions. However, if a novel is set in 15th century France or early 20th century Ireland, there is a good chance that the antagonist will be Catholic. If you insist on labels, I am a misanthrope. I hate all people equally.

Please share YOUR experiences of microaggression.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lullaby for My Sister - Italian-Canadian family drama by Nancy Barone

Ciao campagni! 
Today's guest is Nancy Barone, the author of a family drama Lullaby for My Sister set in the Italian community in Canada. Yes, you can expect some Italian stereotypes - some flattering and some critical.

When Valentina and Lucy Mancino’s mother died, and their father turned to alcohol to cope, Valentina quickly understood it was up to her to run the household and take care of her little sister. But Valentina was only nine years old. And when their new step-mother moved in, along with her two sons, Val also knew things were about to change for the worse.

Fifteen years later, while Lucy is flailing in life, Val is running a successful career, but she’s also hiding a terrible secret. She soon discovers that her former home is suppressing secrets of its own—many unspeakable truths are dying to be told.

My thoughts
Having almost lost my mother at the age of seven, I certainly felt very emotional reading this book. There are very few things that can scare a child more than hearing "You have to be a big, strong girl". In her novel "A Lullaby for My Sister", Nancy Barone explores the nightmarish scenario of two sisters, five and nine, losing their mother under mysterious circumstances, and their father and uncle dropping cryptic messages and not allowing them to attend the funeral. Men do not deal with bereavement well. The girl's father, whom the older daughter Val, the narrator of the novel calls by his first name Luigi, plunges into alcoholism, while dumping parenting responsibilities on his 9-year old. To keep herself from coming apart, Val corresponds with her dead mother through letters. Fast forward twenty-three years. Val is a successful career woman, determined not to let her dysfunctional childhood hold her down, but her younger sister Lucy is unconsciously resentful, immature and detached from reality. The scenario is so common, it will make you cry. In terms of the style and the content, for those of you who read family sagas and women's fiction, some of it will sound like deja vu. I mean it in a nice way. It's not that the author is aiming to massage the readers' traditional sweet spots by combining familiar elements. It's just that what she describes is so common. The characters and the situations are recognizable and relatable. A picture perfect mother in a summer dress with a string of pearls, battling her demons - and bequeathing them onto her family after her death. You will find yourself nodding and shaking your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

1906 - a novel of the San Francisco earthquake and fire

Commies and heretics,
Do not miss this interview with a Renaissance man by the name James Dalessandro. An acclaimed author of historical and crime fiction, a filmmaker and lover of opera, he joins us today to discuss his literary and cinematic projects. He is best known for his novel 1906 depicting the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Dalessandro has held a few jobs that many people in the world of literature and performing jobs would consider dream jobs. However, even someone as accomplished and well connected as him runs into challenges. Your humble host Connecticut Commie thanks our guest for his time and candor.

MJN: Your novel 1906 describes the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Disaster films having become quite popular in the past few decades, especially with the advancements in special effects. If your novel was to be turned into a movie, which director would you pick? As a screenwriter, I am sure you have thought of that.

JD: Barry Levinson was the first signed director, then Brad Bird at Pixar was on the project for 6 or 7 years - it was supposed to be the first live action for him and Pixar.   But everybody kept changing the script and the story.   I would have to say Peter Jackson would be my first choice:  he knows how to blend real story telling and visual effects.   The problem with "disaster" films - I really loathe that name - is that they've become all disaster and no story.   After 1906 was dumped by Pixar and Brad Bird, Warner Brothers put "San Andreas" into production.  The hokiest, most preposterous pile of garbage, but everyone kept saying "but the visual effects were so good."  Is that we've become:  we give up history, story, human drama for things that a 14 year old can do on his laptop?    The Rock rides to their rescue of his daughter in a rubber boat, and forget that a million people just drowned?    Peter Jackson would be good.  Right now the film is in limbo... the money they spent in going away from my story is appalling.  The dumped the characters, the truth about what happened - the lies, the cover up, the tragedy and heroism.  It might never get made.  Sadly. 

MJN: 1906 is narrated by a young female reporter Annalisa Passarelli. I am sure that in the early 20th century there were not many female journalists, and their activity was usually restricted to writing articles on the topics of fashion, housekeeping, and if lucky, art and entertainment. What were some of the educational institutions in the early 1900s that produced female journalists? Berkeley comes to mind.  

JD: The most influential journalist of all time was Nellie Bly from the New York World.   Staring in the 1880's, she went undercover to expose the horrors of mental hospitals, baby peddling rings, wholesale political corruption.   She went around the world in less than 80 days, alone, to show it could be done after the publication of Jules Verne's novel - the first person to solo circumnavigate the globe.   The most famous journalist in America at the time.  The women's rights movement was in serious swing, and women were rebelling and fighting for rights and equality.   Nellie was the inspiration for my fictional Annalisa Passarelli and lots of other young female writers and journalists.   What was Emma Goldman's statement - well-behaved women never changed anything.  I need a strong woman amidst all that testosterone.   I'm married to one of those women.

MJN: I noticed that several of your novels are set in San Francisco and involve the opera house as a setting. Do you find that the glamor of high art makes the grisly component of murder and mayhem in your novels more jarring?

JD: It kind of turned out that way.  I'm a big opera lover:  I'm writing the libretto for an opera right now, based on one of my film scripts, called THE ITALIAN GIRL.   I like to say that I have a lot of low friends in high places.. .and vice versa.  Smart people with class tending bar and building houses.   I try to see the big picture in films and books - the little guy and gal set against a big back drop.  The Tenderloin to Pacific Heights.   Opera is the most amazing music, and I'm a fan of it all.  I wrote the House of Blues Radio Hour for Dan Ackroyd and created "Rock On" with Ray Manzarek of the doors.   I used to ace the Downbeat Magzine blindfold test to identify artists in new jazz releases.  But opera is heaven to me, particularly the Italians - Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verde and Puccini.  I have a dog named Giacomo Poochini.   Americans don't like it because they don't understand the words.   I'm an Italian citizen, I speak the language fairly well.  I have dual citizenship.   Life is too short not to love opera.

MJN: One of the critics compared you work to that of Dashiell Hammett. It is always scary to read what the critics have to say about your work. Some of the comparisons are surprising. Have you ever been surprised by a comparison made by a critic? Do you feel flattered when your work gets compared to that of other iconic authors? I imagine, some writers having mixed feelings. On one hand, it's flattering, but on another hand, you probably wonder, "Why must I be compared to XYZ? Doesn't my work stand on its own two feet?"

JD: Some people take umbrage, I find it tremendously gratifying to be compared to Dashiell Hammett, who created the modern Noir detective thriller.  A brilliant writer.  That was "Bohemian Heart" you're referring too.  Another one compared me to Raymond Chandler - given the snappy one liners and metaphors from my P.I. Frankie Fagen. It's certainly more like Chandler's work.   Both were great writers.    None of that bothers me at all, I find it encouraging.   What bothers me are comments that question our integrity or scholarship - no writer earns universal praise.   I just read a review from a reader, online, who said she had to wade through a dumb, phony plot about political corruption before she got to the earthquake in 1906.   That dumb, phony plot is exactly what happened.  The day before the 1906 earthquake, prosecutors handed down indictments for the Mayor, all 18 members of the Board of Supervisors, the Police Chief and half the judges in town.  It was a plot hatched in the Oval Office of Theodore Roosevelt to to go war on urban corruption.  And those under indictment used the fire and chaos to fight back at their enemies, burning their houses, and hailed themselves as the great saviors of San Francisco.  It was bullshit.   The Army got drunk, shot hundreds of innocent people as suspected looters, then they all lied about the death count.   They used dynamite to stop the fires and all that did was spread it.   If that's a dumb, phony plot then the moon is blue cheese.  But you learn to slough it off.  It doesn't mean anything, other than some people are too lazy to look up a few facts before they slam someone.  Me:  I look before I shoot.   That stuff annoys me, but it doesn't bother me.   Dashiell Hammett - he's the Buddha. 

MJN: You have a history of working with large publishing houses. You also mentioned that you had a hard time selling your novels set in San Francisco to a New York publisher, because the setting was not "local", and the publisher feared that New Yorkers would feel "alienated". I imagine this is not the most ridiculous excuse you ever heard. Did you ever circle back with that editor after your novel was released via a Californian publisher?

JD: I've had my books published by Putnam Penguin (Citizen Jane) and St. Martin's Press (BohemianHeart).  And yes, it was the dumbest excuse I've ever heard.   Several publishers called 1906 - which was the greatest disaster in American history and the victim of a century long web of lies and coverups - a "regional story."  So was Hurricane Katrina, by that criteria.  That would make the Civil War a border conflict?   A lot of the New York publishing establishment - not all, but a lot - dismiss San Francisco as a pretend urban city that doesn't measure up.   Wallace Stegner is one of the great writers of the American West (Angle of Repose), won the Pulitzer Prize and was never reviewed in the NY Times.   That's an insult.   The NY Times once dismissed Jack London's "Call of the Wild" as just another dog book.   I love the NY Times, can't live without reading the Sunday Times, including Arts & Leisures from cover to cover.   But we're provincial and marginal, and that's unnecessary.   We gave the world Mark Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammet, Gertrude Stein, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner.   Amy Tan.  Even Allen Gingsberg broke through here.  Find me a city that can match that list.   They'll do a book set in Appalachia or the rural South, but San Francisco - not so much.    So I wanted a San Francisco publisher all along, and that's what I got - Chronicle Books.    And they're now all out in Digital/Kindle, which has given all of us a new life - our books are never out of print.  That's a gift from the tech world, and for that we are all grateful. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Chelles Abbey: a Medieval oasis of girl power - and the grinch who crashed the party!

Greetings, heretics!

Another post in my 15th century French bishops series. Today's guest of dishonor is Louis de Beaumont de la ForĂȘt, who served as the Bishop of Paris from 1473 until his death in 1492. He had spent the first decade of his episcopal tenure trying to tighten up the loose screws left behind by his predecessor Guillaume Chartier. Guillaume had been too busy locking horns with the king to pay attention to the discipline in his precinct, so Louis inherited Notre-Dame de Paris in a state of chaos, with priests and deacons roaming freely, flirting with women, reading heretical books, quoting Italian humanists and talking about the impending Reformation. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont, a reactionary, was horrified. He embarked on a mission to reverse the progressive "damage" done by his negligent predecessor. When Louis accepted the position, he was in his mid twenties and full of energy. It took him a decade to get any traction. He had no leadership experience, so he had no idea how to establish his authority and restore the atmosphere of austerity and holiness. At the same time, he did not want to openly admit that he had trouble controlling his own men.

He decided to flex his muscles by asserting his power over the Chelles Abbey. In the early 1480s he made that oasis of Medieval girl power his next target.The Chelles Abbey was a Frankish monastery founded in the 7th century. Originally it was intended for women, but eventually it gained a reputation for being a epicenter of scholarship, so more men were drawn to that place, establishing a parallel male community. Thus a double monastery was created, with men and women living, learning and exploring in close - and dangerous - proximity to each other. You can imagine all those clandestine keg parties similar to those happening on college campuses today.

The majority of nuns at the Chelles Abbey were daughters, widows, sisters, nieces and even ex-mistresses of various European monarchs. They were worldly, scholarly, ambitious women who did not necessarily focus on religion. Overtime, this trend affected the monastic discipline adversely. The focus was not spiritual refinement but scholarship. Many of the books stored at the famous scriptorium were of questionable content and marginally heretical. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont did not like the idea of women having too much forbidden knowledge, too much autonomy, too many progressive ideas. He saw the string of blue-blooded, wilful abbesses as a problem. So in 1480s he started sticking his fingers into the abbey. Catherine de Lignieres was the abbess at the time. Louis perceived her as an "enabler" of frivolities and tried to have her removed and replaced by someone he approved of, someone more conservative, who would support more traditional monastic values. As expected, he failed. The Chelles Abbey had strong ties to the cathedral in Reims, and Pierre de Laval, the present archbishop, put a stop to Louis' attempts to bully the abbess. In the end, it was not "girl power" that saved the abbey's autonomy - it was intervention from a stronger man. Pierre de Laval was older, richer, more influential than Louis de Beaumont. Pierre was closely linked to the royal family and rubbed elbows with the king, so he had more leverage. The bishop of Paris had to back off. In other words, a woman-hating bully was defeated by a woman-friendly bully.

The story does have a bittersweet ending. The Chelles Abbey did lose some of is autonomy eventually. Starting from 1500, through a degree of the Parlement of Paris, abbesses were elected every three years with the possibility of reelection, which prevented a single woman from having too much influence over the culture of the abbey. In mid-16th century the new king abolished the election and resumed the appointment of the abbesses himself. Once again, the abbey fell into the secular authority.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The history of Medieval organ in French cathedrals

 Every great cathedral has its embarrassing secret, a shameful little inadequacy that historians and tour guides prefer to downplay. Notre-Dame de Paris has its own secret: for a good portion of the Middle Ages it had a really lousy organ. Hard to believe, isn't it? Comparing apples to apples, the sister cathedral in Reims was a much more mature Gothic building with superior acoustics. It was there that the Medieval giant of ecclesiastic music, Guillaume de Machaut, served as a canon, composed and performed his pieces. He simply would not be able to fully manifest his genius in Paris. 

To be fair, installing an organ is always a huge gamble - artistic, financial and acoustic. The architects can do their due diligence, make all the right calculations in terms of the height of the ceiling and the width of the windows, use the best materials, and the end result is still not stellar. That was the case at Notre-Dame de Paris. The first instrument was installed circa 1330, and it was a dud pretty much from the start. Take two. By early 1400s a second instrument was installed on a high and narrow stone gallery above the western portal while the old organ was still being used. The new endeavor took us from bad to worse. Finally, 70 years later, in 1473 a major restoration began, including service of a large number of pipes. The process would take fifty years! According to some sources, the restorations were paid for by the Reims precinct. Louis de Beaumont de Foret, who served as the Bishop at the time, was reluctant to dish out a considerable amount of money on the instrument that nobody seemed to be able to fix. 

Naturally, one would wonder what kind of man would it take to operate such a temperamental instrument. An organist is much more than a musician. He (forgive me for defaulting to the masculine pronoun - we are talking about Late Middle Ages here) must be a musical theorist, a sound engineer, and above all, a diplomat. In addition to building a relationship with every key, every pedal of the organ, he must build a relationship with every stone of the building itself. That's the easy part. Try building a relationship with the clergy, the choir and the people who come to mass. All those diplomatic obligations do not leave much room for personal artistic ego. 

During the Middle Ages, the job of the organist usually went to an older, calmer musician, whose job was to serve as the "glue" and not necessarily showcase his own talent. Notre-Dame de Paris did not really start hosting truly remarkable musicians until the early 1600s. The first notable world-class organist was Charles Racquet, who was appointed to the position in 1618. Until then, the position was not all that desirable or fulfilling from the artistic standpoint, as there were too many physical and political restrictions.

As a historical novelist who likes to write about some of the more obscure historical periods and figures, I became obsessed with the idea of writing about the ecclesiastic music tradition in Paris on the cusp of the Reformation. After the death of Guillaume de Machaut, there was a huge void in the world of church music. Pulling figures out of obscurity gives the author a lot more creative freedom.  You can weave loose strings of biographies as well as urban lore to create an archetype. "Blood of the Stone Prince" is a tragicomic account of a fictitious child genius who rose to dangerous prominence in the 1470s. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Half-Siberian kitten needs a home

Commies, I normally do not post ads on my blog, but this lovely half-Siberian kitten needs a new home. He is a product of accidental mating of a purebred Siberian queen with an anonymous, undocumented male. The family is moving to Colorado soon and would like to find a new home for this kitten beforehand, if possible. He is going to have semi-long hair and his mother's coloring. If you are interested in this spunky illegitimate, please contact me. He is currently in Rye, NY.

I hope you do not judge the young mother too harshly. Sometimes hormones get the best of us and override common sense and modesty. Everybody makes mistakes. Innocent children should not be ostracized and penalized for the indiscretions of their mothers. Thank you, and God bless!

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Pay for my Sin" by Iryna Combs - a daringly literal approach to the Apocalypse

Maria is a Christian woman with one purpose – save her corrupt family from eternal death. As the apocalypse rages around her, she makes an unlikely friendship with one lost soul and the two women flee into the southern wilderness. Forced to take shelter in a long-forgotten church, they fight to survive as all hell breaks loose outside.

My thoughts:
Following her bestselling debut sci-fi novel Black Wings, Iryna K. Combs comes back with a bold, graphic and eloquent Biblical fantasy. You do not need to be a born-again Christian to enjoy the novel for its literary value, but it does help if you understand some of the religious references. The author takes a pretty literal, straightforward approach to the Apocalypse - as the cover and the title suggest. I applaud her for taking the risk and the literal approach that has been out of favor with authors and cinematic directors. There is a movie from the 1990s called The Rapture, where the end of the world happens exactly as presented by fundamentalist Christians, with the skies opening and trumpet sounding and people being physically pulled into the clouds. It leaves the viewer with a sense of shock. Pay for My Sin is that kind of novel.

The protagonist, Maria, is refreshingly naive, with a bit of Mary Magdalen complex going on. She is not mystical or scholarly woman by any means. She is the matriarch of a family that she perceives to be "corrupt" and in need of salvation. Her faith in the Gospel is straightforward and complete. So when the world starts ending in the way she had imagined it would - she is left with a strange sense of peace and comfort. How far will she go to ensure that her unsaved family has a place in Heaven?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stones Don't Speak - WWII fiction beyond the Holocaust - Nazi occupied Norway

Welcome to Nazi-occupied Norway where people try to maintain a sense of fragile and nervous normalcy. Yes, people still attend classical music concerts (as long as the program is ethnically neutral and doesn't include pieces by German composers). Regular flour is in short supply, so you have to get creative about making pancakes. Sure, they taste a little chalky, but if you add enough berry jam, they taste just like they did in the good old days. If you are a woman who is "lucky" to have naturally blonde hair, you just might capture the heart of a Nazi officer who will make your life considerably more pleasant.

You don't get too many books covering the occupation of countries like Holland and Norway. Nordic nations were considered en par with Germans more or less in terms of "racial purity". I almost wonder if authors hesitate to write on this subject, because n their eyes the Holocaust dwarfs the suffering of the Dutch and the Norwegian population. They are afraid of being met with "How dare you complain? You don't know real suffering." I've actually met authors who confessed to that. They say, "Who cares about our stories?" Well, those stories need to be told, because they involve real men and women who took part in the resistance movement. So I applaud author Gry Finsnes for writing her Tall King's Country series. "Stones Don't Speak" is her second book in the series, a sequel to "Vanished in Berlin". To set the stage, you have a German musician Friedrich who falls in love with a Norwegian pianist Ellen. Given that their respective countries are at war, the lovers face that uncomfortable dilemma. Can you still be a German patriot if you hate the Nazi regime? "Stones Don't Speak" picks up with Ellen back in Norway, trying to reestablish a relationship with her ambivalent parents and contemplating joining the resistance movement, which entails pretending to get chummy with the Nazi occupiers and tolerating a great deal of unwanted sexual attention with a straight face. But hey, wartime is not the time to get squeamish and prudish. She must put her disgust aside for a greater cause.

Author Gry Finsnes has already won my respect with her understated eloquence and no-nonsense, no-melodrama narrative style. She has that seasoned temperance of a worldly, well-traveled individual with a broad perspective. I adore her Nordic, masculine style without any needless hysteria. Her ability to describe dramatic events in a matter-of-factly, laconic fashion is what sets her works apart.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bill Thurman - brilliant musician, instructor and cancer survivor

Every once in a while, in the process of researching a particular era for your next historical novel, you stumble across a literary or musical gem that introduces you to a new realm of beauty. Sometimes it's a familiar tune with a new twist. This is how I came across Bill Thurman's music. Bill is multi instrument musician. His repertoire spans broad classical and folk selection. He was kind enough to open up about his career as performer and teacher, his inspiration and collaboration with other artists. Bill is also a sarcoma survivor. He is very candid about overcoming this challenge. The title of his last album is "Nothin' but Fiddle and a Sarcoma Survivor."  Please, check out his music. His CDs make a great gift for those who like early and folk music.

MJN: You were born in Nashville and later moved to Memphis. It is a well known fact that folk and country music are very prominent in the South. Do you feel that your renditions of European classics have been influenced by the Southern flavor?

BT: To me, regional differences in musical dialectics are really similar to the differences in language dialects. I grew up with the blues, jazz, Elvis and old "country" as well as classical music like Bach, Mozart, etc. In my teens I continued to hear more music from around the world like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky as well as Jewish and Arabic music. Much of that was because I played violin and viola in orchestras. I was also a member of the Memphis Symphony for years. In my heart I have always been a musical internationalist, even though I have loved all kinds of stuff called "American music." Like one of my old teachers stated, "If it's good music, I want to play it no matter where it comes from."

My voice and my playing and phrasing definitely has a "southern accent" about it. It's the culture that I grew up in. I would say that is probably true for most people, wherever they have come from. I am pretty good though about imitating other dialects and accents from different cultures or countries. It's my musical "ear." In some of the songs and instrumentals I have played, I have done several different accents within the same piece of music.

MJN: You teach fiddle and violin. What are some of the most popular requests from your students? Are there any skills and/or "touches" they are trying to cultivate?

BT: Most of the students I have received simply wanted to learn to be a "fiddler" or possibly a "violinist." The sad truth is that most of them did not have the time or the patience or the basic "drive" to listen, learn and WORK/play at it. Being a good or great musician takes a combination of things, not just one or two. A lot of them wanted to sound like one of their musical Heroes. But I often said, "you've got to make Mary Had A Little Lamb or Twinkle Little Star sound GOOD before you can hope to sound like one of your heroes.

If they wanted to hear some good country fiddlin' I would play them some of it. If they wanted to hear some good jazz or blues I would play them some. But still they MUST practice and take the time and trouble. If they don't do that, they can't get better. I also tried to teach them all how to read musical notation as well as possible, and to appreciate the difference between "reading" the music and "hearing" the music. My students who had already had some training and discipline seemed to do a good bit better when trying to learn new things.

MJN: You have performed some of the most iconic pieces like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew, pieces that will be recognized even by those who are not passionate fans of Renaissance or traditional folk music. So many people don't know what they are missing. What do you think is the most effective way to popularize some of the forgotten masterpieces? How do you take your music and put it in front of the people who did not know it existed?

BT: For music like La Rotta and The Foggy Dew as well as other old seldom heard music, I often will record another new album. My latest one is called, "Nothin But Fiddle And A Sarcoma Survivor." It has a combination of musical styles on it, and some that are rarely heard. Like "Sugar in the Gourd", an old Appalachian fiddle tune. Like Black and White, and old jazz violin tune from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Also "Glory Be To God", a southern Black Gospel song that I learned at an African American church long ago. When I speak and play in public places I will often play these tunes and songs to people who have never heard them before. Most of the people like it when I do that.

MJN: It is no secret that Renaissance Fairs are filled with anachronisms and people seeking escape from daily routines, not necessarily seeking a better understanding of a particular era. At the same time, for many people, it's the only gateway into another century. Have you made any valuable professional / artistic connections at such events with people who truly understood and appreciated early music?

BT: Yes, I have met some wonderful people because of Renaissance Fairs, Celtic Music fests and others. I love Greek music. I have gone to quite a few of the Greek food fests just to hear the great music AND sample the delicious food. Yes, I have made valuable connections with people from ancient music fan clubs as well as modern music circles. I have met good people from all over the world because of my lifetime involvement with music.

MJN: One of my favorite videos on your site is that of you playing La Rotta and Kristy Barrington performing the interpretive dance. La Rotta, an Italian piece, is said to be written by a Hungarian composer. So many Medieval and Renaissance pieces are marked as "Anonymous". Did composers strive or anonymity, or were those folk tunes truly a product of collective creative process?

BT: I believe that most of these ancient folk music tunes whether they come from Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Italy or England and Germany were born from one group or one individual at a CERTAIN point and then just played and spread around to different parts of the original areas and some even farther to other countries. Most of these people could not read, but often had a keen ear for music - true folk musicians in any country. Some would travel and teach their music to others BY EAR. Almost always the music will have all these regional variations, but a good chunk of the Old flavor will often remain. Some are better at that than others. :)

In Spain, North Africa, Central Africa and the Middle East, you know that much of this same idea has to be true. Most musicians for a long time have learned by what they heard, not by what they read on a piece of paper. However I am a firm believer in learning to read!

The "collective creative process" is like The Great Ocean of Life where the little streams and creeks flow into the larger rivers and the rivers flow into the seas and largest lakes and then the oceans of the world. Some in this process have become truly universal. Every country has contributed. To me this is one of the great beauties of music and art.