A Head for Sculpture: Madame Tussaud

marie antoinette2

Madame Tussaud: Her Life and Legacy by Geri Walton,

Pen and Sword History,

Sept 2, 2019



Merveilleux! Picture a talented young woman being forced to sit on a chair with the decapitated head of, oh, say one of her best friends or more enjoyable dining guests from last week in her lap, making a mold of the face so as to be able to render it in wax. Now put a maddened crowd in front of this girl, a crowd that insists on watching, and you get an idea of what kind of pressures Marie Tussaud had to endure and truly, what shaped her in becoming the world’s most famous wax sculptor. Geri Walton uncannily knows how to give the reader a fantastic ride. Walton’s stupendous research into (you name it) all people and trends that impacted Marie Tussaud’s life, which would include the absolutely tumultuous French Revolution, and her ability to render each person or event in a way that will most interest the reader means she (Walton) understands human nature. This is no dry history book. This is the kind of biography that will have the reader sharing intellectual tidbits at barbecues. I, who have taken more than one class on the French Revolution when obtaining my French degrees, was more absorbed by this book than anything I remember reading on the same subject in college. No disrespect is meant to the writer when I say that I had to drop the book in pure terror when reading about The Terror that overtook France. We talk a lot about how the Nazis persecuted other nations (after wiping out so many of their own people due to ethnic prejudice) during WWII, but The Terror was an example of how a crazed mania can cause wanton slaughter by a people to their own population for the most spurious of rationales. My hair stood on end. I appreciated the astute assessment of marketing propaganda employed by Curtius, Marie’s father, who taught his daughter all he knew. Marie learned, herself, to be a good promoter, which does not mean she was truthful. However, her skill was astounding. I spent hours looking up the figures I was reading about and I can easily see Wellington visiting Tussaud’s wax figures to stare at Napoleon for days and days, to contemplate his enemy. I admired Marie Tussaud’s survival instinct, her ability to cut her failure of a husband off, and her careful management of resources. What a book! Fantastic.



Heavy Poems with a Light Touch–Acrobats of Sound

Acrobats of Sound by Colin Pink

Poetry Salzburg, University of Salzburg, Austria, 2016

If not for the radiant twinkle, the sparkle of hope that readers of Pink’s verse have come to expect, some of the themes in Acrobats of Sound might weigh down our hearts. To his and his editors’ credit, Acrobats of Sound unfolds with wordplay that makes the reader smile in delight and lean forward in anticipation of the next whimsical juxtaposition, as in “The Pencil Fears the Eraser”:

The blind man’s memory is touching

A bone dreams of finding a buried dog.

The film stars’ smiles go out at night.

A lighthouse dreams it’s lost in the fog.

A jug pours emptiness out of itself.

The ringing silence of the blue bells.

The true secretly loves the false.

A demon vacations to warmer hells.

A lost postcard misses the sea.

The ledge is scared to look down.

The weather never complains.

A fake smile betrays the frown.

A fish never sees the sea even on holiday.

The umbrella tingles at the touch of raindrops.

A letterbox swallows every word.

The stage is wary of anxious theatre props.

A clock is never impatient no matter how late.

A stone never hides its feelings.

The pencil fears the eraser is always behind it.

The paper slowly unfolds its meanings.

In his stories and theatrical productions, Pink is known for a light touch that exposes the wounds of mankind unexpectedly, but not without hope. His nimbly astute eye seems never to blink, for he snares the tiniest memorable details, the truisms that we otherwise might miss for turning our heads or sipping tea. That is how he asks us to reconsider post-traumatic stress disorder in “Return of the Warrior” or the trivializing of war memories in “American Civil War Bubblegum Cards.” In the latter poem he says he almost sees himself, for “in one scene a little boy is hanged as a spy; he looked a bit like me, it made me feel sad, I guess that’s what it was meant to do.”

Pink’s appreciation of art and his endless temptation to juxtapose contradictory concepts show up in “The Raft of Medusa” which

hangs in the Louvre, its cargo of corpses, glinting

Beneath brown varnish, like celebrities caught

In a reality TV programme, permanently on pause.

The canvas is indeed so big, in an emergency we could

Actually use it as a raft, float down the Seine, astonish

The flaneurs as we wave from our improvised bateau.

Let’s run through the salons, like cool sixties movie

Icons, not care how many tourists we knock over,

In our race to prove we are still able to misbehave.

A poet wouldn’t be one without contemplating our tragedies, and from the “Panther in the City,” “Elegy for NYC” and the darkness who “cultivates your cowardice” in “Darkness Spoken,” Pink reminds readers that we might fall backwards into depravity at any moment. What else was the use of Lee Miller’s photography, Pink seems to suggest in “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Tub.” Both poet and publisher want to help us refocus, for the only illustration in the entire collection is a cobblestone printed along with “The Cobblestones of Berlin.”

Aside from his great love of art, Pink demonstrates an unwavering fascination with philosophy, which he studied at the University of Southampton. It is hard not to wonder whether his professors of philosophy received the double-entendres that regale the readers of Acrobats of Sound. We can get a peek of Pink’s mischief inside “Pandora’s Box”:

You would not know,

to look at it,

what it is.

A plain, unadorned,       

rather worn, wooden box

No warning signs

attached to it.

No Health & Safety

stickers seal it.

No seal at all

protects it.

It invites opening

with mute resignation.

Go on, don’t resist,

open it;

you know you want to.

Let’s find out what’s inside it;

you can’t stand idle beside it.

How does it feel

when you touch it?

Is it cold or warm

with something

                                broiling within?

What’s that tapping I hear?

O, just your impatient foot.

Go on, no one’s looking,

                do it now!

You know you’ll feel

So much easier

when everything is

out in the open.

Wild Bill Hickok, First Gunfighter of the West

Not since Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser have I read a book on the Old West that grips me as much as Wild Bill, The True Story of America’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. Wild Bill (whose real name was James) is a historical character whose story is fascinating and ultimately tragic in much the same way as Princess Diana’s. For one thing, it is impossible not to like Bill Hickok. He was too chivalrous not to like, even love, as so many men and women seem to have, both close-up and at a distance. Hickok favored justice and the underdog. He cared about those in need of help. Hickok was astonishing for his courage and God’s grace upon him during the Civil War. (Advice: Read slowly. Your jaw will drop.)

Clavin’s measured and analytical (without being negative) approach to this biography makes reading it a joy. It seems he wisely wants to avoid the fate of Nichols, the journalist who wrote the 1867 piece in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on Wild Bill Hickok that made the young sharpshooter an overnight national folk hero. (Writers and cowboys share the experience of the rough ride, even if one is more psychological.) Clavin tells how that one story changed the lives of both writer and subject.

Another element that makes Clavin’s book valuable is his sensitive descriptions of people whom Hickok knew or who impacted the change of the West for good or ill. Clavin has a great sense of the right touch. He fuels the reader’s interest with sensitively drawn depictions (starting with the prologue) of people like Davis Tutt (friend turned foe of Hickok), James Chisholm, half Scottish and half Cherokee, a kind man who spoke 14 native American dialects, Calamity Jane (whom Old West TV fans will remember from the phenomenal series Deadwood created by David Milch)–there is a great story of Jane and a loan–General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and an assortment of unsavory people. The reader will be glad to know about them all. Setting the stage and explaining the co-players is so important. We want to grasp Hickok by the place and people of his era, after all.

The way towns are described gives great pause. The ones we live in today are no way what they once were. Clavin pulls the reader back to a past full of drama and tragedy today hidden by malls and modern streets. Kansas readers of this biography may appear downtown with startled expressions.

I appreciated learning from Clavin that although Hickok tried to live up to the image created (perhaps disastrously) by Nichols, he was true to himself in ways that helped shape society–in my opinion, for the better. (How do we continue to tolerate, or for that matter, produce, creatures like McCall?) I really do not want to give too much away.

I got the sense that Hickok did what he did because of his values. As I was reading, I could not get the comparison with Princess Diana out of my head: both she and Hickok were beautiful, talented, graceful human beings with flaws because they were human. They were daring, loved and hunted. They touched the people of their time and they paid the price for their gifts. Thank you, Tom Clavin. You have done a marvelous job in painting a haunting and moving picture of Wild Bill Hickok and the America he lived in. Thank you, as well #NetGalley and #St. Martin’s Press. This will not be the first book I purchase hardback after reading the ebook version.

Post Holiday Blues

Right after any cheery event, the mood turns gray. It can be you or it can be your nearest and dearest who suddenly are crabby, cranky, unresponsive, and seemingly bent on proving that all the love expressed in the holiday card was a sham, an expression by some other being.

Adults are children grown up. After a visit to Disneyland, who gets cranky and peevish? Could it possibly be we had an overdose of fun and goodwill?

There would not be sci-fi if this sensation did not resonate. Some other being. . . some creepy, otherworldly creature who doesn’t love but wants to bite your head off or cut you off emerges the day after festivity. God Willing, it is certainly a this-life-only manifestation; otherwise, those entering the gates of Paradise might turn into residents one would expect to find in the flames.

There are several ways to cope with the earthly GRAY DAYS. It is the time to remember stored-up ethics, values, and goals. Abruptly upon awakening the day after–a holiday, wedding, birthday–a sane person will extend their fingers around to see if the backbone is still there. This is the individual we have to rely upon–the self.

Consider Your Audience

Whose attention do you crave?

Getting others’ (positive) attention is what 90% of life is about even if we deny it. Going to school to learn how to live effectively in society has the endgame goal of gaining others’ positive attention–at the very least, in that we will not be arrested and thrown into prison (a negative attention result). The programmer who becomes a hermit to code a software game of his/her dreams that others will play cuts himself off from convivial society for the future positive benefits of gaining others’ attention.

Some people mistakenly think that by being mean or authoritarian, the attention gained will increase their value. These individuals have a grand sense of self-worth, which might be altered if they were to consider how insignificant their presence is to the happiness of others. They may argue that the happiness of society is a hollow value, but they are wrong. Without happiness, or at least the contentment of society, chaos reigns. (Chaos is also about getting attention but in the form of fury and despair.)

Writers are intensely aware of the need to get others’ attention. As W. Somerset Maugham once put it, a writer understands that without gaining attention, the reader will not move from the first paragraph to the second (and the writing fails). Choice of methods for shaping those paragraphs to attract attention will chisel out various audiences. The best method is the one that appeals to the widest number of readers, leading to one of the first considerations writers must face at the outset of a project: who will care?

Naturally, the writer must care or no one else will.

Annie, the piglet who left too soon.

Sometimes student writers wring teachers’ hearts with true tales of love. My student Melina sent me a touching story which she agreed I could share:

Annie the baby.

“I hate to miss assignments or have excuses but I do not have the heart or mental strength today to work on the two assignments and for that I am sorry.

About a week ago or more we got a baby pig who was the sweetest thing. She was my baby. I fed her every night and morning. I played with her and snuggled her all day and night as she slept with me every night. I hated being apart from her.

Annie is loved.

Last night, I took my brother to the movies and when I came home I grabbed her food bowl to make her happy cause I knew she hated the cage and would be excited to get out and eat. The second I walked in, I knew something was wrong as she didn’t grunt or squeal as she usually does when I walk in and she is in the cage. I found her lying on her side.  I tried to touch her and she did not respond and she had seizures. I picked her up and held her, trying to warm her up but she kept seizing. We took her to the vet and [he said the problem] was something she was born with and no matter what it was, her outcome was very poor so we made the decision to put her down so she did not suffer. [The Veterinarian told us that] pigs can stay like that for up to three days. My heart is completely broken and I have cried since I found her.

I understand if I cannot make up the assignments and have to accept zeroes as it is my responsibility to do my work. Thank you for your time and understanding. I hope you have a good rest of your week. Once again, I apologize.”

8 Myths Embraced by Writers

Some myths will function in the life of a writer, even past 18 years of age. For instance, Santa Claus with his sleigh and Shakespeare being a regular guy with a regular education are two that, embraced or not, won’t change writing careers. Writers may hold onto those or discard them, with little discernable effect.

But writers who believe in other myths are going to have to invest heavily in Tylenol and Kleenex tissues. Once these myths are uprooted, writers may hope to achieve contentment and reason:

1. Getting an agent is a perfect reason to buy champagne. (Sure, Moet et Chandon would like you to think so.)

2. An agent will get your work published. (Apparently, you do not know many other serious writers.)

3. Getting a well-known established agent will get your work published by a bonafide mainstream publisher. (See #2, please.)

4. There is a magic number of queries that, if you can just hold out until you reach it, will guarantee that the agent or editor meant for you by your fairy godmothers will say yes. (I have the numbers locked in my office safe. They correspond with your birth date and genre. Send me a $39.00 Paypal transfer along with your birth date and the genre you write in, and I will get that right to you. Maybe.)

5. If you know someone important, that person will help you get published. (Considering that children helped Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, I would cultivate those immature ties. Friendship with children is the road to a healthy mind and creativity!)

6. Placing first in a literary contest will help you get noticed by agents and editors, leading to a lucrative book deal. (Perhaps. Perhaps not. Take it as praise and don’t pin all your hopes on this.)

7. If you do not get a contract with a well-known publisher, then you should quit writing. (Ah . . . . maybe for a week? If you are meant to be writing, you will come back to it. Despite the Tylenol and Kleenex, there is hardly anything more health-giving than the catharsis of writing!)

8. If you self-publish a really good book, readers will find it and write reviews. (Readers will not find it unless you learn to market. As people are generally distracted and thinking of themselves, most will not leave reviews. You will have to figure out a way to get reviews!)