Thursday, January 30, 2014

My to-do lists

I'm a big fan of to-do lists. Ask anyone who works with me. I have an electronic to-do list that covers everything I'm supposed to do that isn't addressed by some other entry on my calendar. I consult it when I begin each day. I use it to write my status reports. I use it to nag people who owe me topics to be edited. I live and die by my to-do list.

As a result, most people think I'm really organized and efficient. That is the end result, of course. The truth is, I know I'm not very efficient or organized. (I have the personality tests to prove it.) Left to my own devices, I'd forget everything and happily piddle away the day on the internet. So, my to-do lists are mostly in self-defense.

I realized awhile back, however, that the books I buy are another type of to-do list. There are books I think I'm interested in. There are books that I think I should or will be interested in. There are books about things I once thought I might be interested in and might be interested in again. . . . someday. 

Don't get me wrong. I read. A lot. I average 1.5 books a week. Sometimes more if the book is really gripping or I'm sick in bed. I sometimes read two or three books at the same time. Still, against all the books in the world, that's a small dent.

I suppose I could make a list of all those books I want to read, but I'd probably lose it since I can't think of a digital reminder that works as well as the little alarms that go off for my online to-do list. So, I buy the book instead. 

Before the advent of Kindle, I brought home stacks of books from Borders, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books, Goodwill, and garage sales. I'm even organized enough to mostly alphabetize them by author last name; hardbacks in the living room book shelves; paperbacks in my office. I occasionally purge a few when I realize I will never read them, but I'm never as heartless with books as I am with shoes. 

Now, I have three Kindles that are slowly filling up with books that I am reading or will someday read. 

All these books are the to-do list of my future life. Proof that I have a future. Sometimes, I think I keep books in reserve against a time when I might not be able to go out and get books or can no longer afford them. I'm a book survivalist. It makes me happy. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Love-ArtistThe Love-Artist by Jane Alison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was initially excited about this book. The opening was catchy and the writing very descriptive. I always like the idea of turning a mysterious actual event into fiction. In this case, Ovid, the Latin poet of the Roman Empire, was banished  from Rome by decree of the emperor Augustus. The reasons for his banishment are not known. Alison demystifies the historical event by making the exile the result of a smashup love affair between Ovid and a witch named Xenia and a plot by Augustus's granddaughter Julia. The love affair, she posits results in Book VII of the  Metamorpheses: Medea.

At some point, I became aware that I was "plodding" through the book. Almost nothing happens on the page, but rather one feels as though one is reading about events that happened long ago. Now, this IS a historical novel, but I want to feel some immediacy when I'm reading it.

The writing became overly florid. Or as one reviewer said: The writing IS lyrical - and many times too much so. You're left floating in a sea of prose and often the ground of reality is left so far below you can't even see it.

Ovid and Julia had no (for lack of a better word) character arc. Xenia was more complex, but rather predictable. In the end, I wondered if one of Rome's greatest writers wrote only because he worried about being forgotten. I suppose if the result is The Metamorphoses, he might be forgiven for that.

I also wondered if people unfamiliar with Augustus's Rome would follow some of the events that are only obliquely referred to? I have read a lot of novels and studied the history of that period, and I was left scratching my head.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

That Liz Taylor/Cleopatra/Isis Costume

The fabulous Liz Taylor costume in Cleopatra is a mash-up of two of the outfits typically worn by Isis.

What Liz wore

This costume comes from the epitome of old Hollywood epic movies. I loved those movies, and I nearly fainted when I saw this costume on the big screen. 

What Isis wore

Naturally, the greatest goddess in the Egyptian pantheon could come nowhere near the fabulousness of Liz Taylor, but she did her best. The first picture is of Isis in one of the depictions of her with wings (not easily seen in Liz's costume, but definitely there). In the second one, Isis is on the throne, and the goddess Ma'at (also winged) kneels before her. (Yeah, the ancient Egyptians did some mash-ups of their own.) There you see the vulture crown and scale-like texture of the dress. 

The movie 

If you don't remember or have never seen the gaudy spectacle for which the costume was designed, well thank god for youtube. Liz isn't actually on stage until about 6 minutes in.

Old Hollywood, what a trip!

Now you know why young Michalea threw a hissy fit to see this movie.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why I write about Isis and ancient Egypt

The old Quincy Public Library
A long time ago (circa 1960) in a city far, far away, I had a home away from home in the Quincy Public Library. As you can see, it was an amazing building. I particularly appreciated the location of the children's reading room in the tower. (Thanks to Tiger Imagery for this amazing photo of the old library, which really captures the magic I felt as a child, and for all the other beautiful photographs of my home town.)

There were three books I checked out so often that the librarian restricted me to checking them out once a month; no renewals. One of those books was Cleopatra of Egypt. (I now own my own copy, so this is no longer a problem.)

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as Rob and Laura Petrie
I might have been obsessed. I recall making a scrapbook of everything I could find about Cleopatra, including a quote I heard on the old Dick Van Dyke show when Rob and Laura played Antony and Cleopatra. (I can't remember if Richie had a role as Caesarion.) Needless to say, I was out-of-my-mind-happy when Liz Taylor made a feature film, and I might have had a temper tantrum to convince my mother that I needed to see that movie.

Eventually, my obsession expanded to include other books about ancient Egypt. Somewhere along the line, I learned that Cleopatra considered herself an incarnation of the goddess Isis. She considered Julius Caesar the new Osiris and their son Caesarion the incarnation of Isis and Osiris's son Horus. After Caesar's assassination and when she fell in love with Mark Antony, she simply adjusted the story to make Caesar the murdered Osiris and Antony the resurrected Osiris. One of the few existing images we have of Cleopatra and her son Caesarion shows them as Isis and Horus on the temple walls at Dendera. And you thought I was obsessed.

Cleopatra and Caesarion as Isis and Horus at Dendera temple

With all of that going on in my feverish little brain, I began studying the myths around Isis, which proved to be even more fascinating to me than the stories about Cleopatra. Of course, once you jump into Egyptian mythology, there are gods and goddesses than you can shake a stick at, and all of them have the potential to be a great character. Voilà, you have the beginning of a novel.

How about you? What was your source of inspiration?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bring your life into your novel

They tell you to write what you know.

Horus, Isis, Osiris
The gods (the Egyptian ones, anyway) know, I've used that excuse to justify a lot of things. Like fulfilling my childhood dream of going to Egypt to see the temples and monuments. Like justifying the most expensive Nile cruise because it was the only one that actually went to Abydos, the home of the Osiris (Asar), the "love interest" in my novel, Queen of Heka: The Autobiography of Isis. I even visited Philae and the temple of Isis three times. I learned a lot.

For example, I read a novel where the author described the inside of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings as cool and damp. Not true, those suckers are hot. Leaving the tomb, the 110 degree heat of the desert feels almost like air-conditioning. They're also dry, which is why the paint was preserved so perfectly. Reading that bit of misinformation made me doubt the premise of the novel.

Do you always need to visit exotic locations to get source material? Actually, no.You can do research and mine your daily routine for experiences that apply to whatever you're writing about.

I read a post on the blog of a woman who writes sword and sorcery fantasy and who also happens to raise horses. She wrote about common mistakes people make when writing about horses . . . like the ubiquitous finding a horse when all is lost and riding for days and days and days (even though you've never ridden before) to find the gold buried under the mountain and save the world. Apparently, in reality, if you've never ridden before, you will be so chafed and your muscles so sore after the first couple of hours, you might not ride again for days, much less save the world. If horses play a role in  your novel, take a riding class or find someone who owns horses who will happily tell you all the misconceptions non-horse people have.

As for me, I have other interests besides writing, which happily feed my writing muse, such as my rather large garden. Believe it or not, Austin is almost the same latitude as Cairo, and weather conditions are similar. I understand gardening in what is for all intents and purposes is a desert. After the droughts of the last couple years, I understand it even more than I did before. I also grow and use herbs, and Isis was a noted herbalist. When I write about Isis, her garden, her frustration with drought, her herbal concoctions, I am one with her.

I also have chickens and goats, both common in Ancient Egypt. In fact, it was an agrarian society, and even Pharaohs had their kitchen garden, as did every peasant. Osiris is often portrayed as teaching people how to farm and make beer. (For the beer part, I rely on my son.)

I raise Egyptian Fayoumis, a breed seen in some of the tomb paintings. I know how those chickens, which are not nice chickens, act. After spending a few years around them, I understand why they survived into the 21st century. They fly high and fast, are aggressive, and suspicious. If a Nile crocodile came after one, there's no guarantee it would get dinner that night. I might have used that information a time or two.

Now, about the goats. . . I have read SO many novels where the hero or heroine is lost and starving  and happen upon a cow or a goat. As often as not, they are city folk or nobles who might have seen a goat or cow, but never milked one. Yet, they milk them in nothing flat and live to fight another day. If your character has never milked a cow or goat by hand, he's going to starve. It's not as easy as it looks. I watched a hundred youtube videos and still didn't get it. I finally ended up taking a class. So, yeah, I can write really knowledgeably about the frustrations of trying to milk a goat the first time.

And of course, there is all that lovely billy goat mating behavior that's just waiting to go into my novel. (The phrase randy as a billy goat came into being for a good reason.) A time or two, I compare the antics of the mischievous son of Isis and Osiris to baby goat behavior.

A new day, a new blog

I had a very depressing/infuriating/totally unnecessary experience with the company who hosted my website and old blog. It ended up with a 6 a.m. conference call on Sunday morning to a company in Melbourne, Australia. Actually, the people in Melbourne were great. Still, let's just say there are reasons I'm starting a new blog and rebuilding my website, but before that I came dangerously close booking a flight to India to kill someone.