August MacGregor

Celebrating Sensuality. Intended for mature audiences, 18 and over


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A Rare Orchid

orchid_byAl-E

I wasn’t planning on posting about Prince, but I changed my mind after hearing musical tributes to him and remembering the amazing array of songs he left us. This looking back reminded me of David Bowie’s passing, in how impressive the compiled output was. The range of styles, the depth of lyrics, the catchy melodies that slipped into your head and stayed there. Both of these musicians were role models in how they plunged into their creativity and crafted spectacular works that grabbed from various inspirations of what came before them — and then they inspired works to come afterward. Prince may not have been on the top pop music charts in recent years, but he reminded us of his prowess when he rocked the SuperBowl’s Halftime Show. Thank you, Prince, for making the soundtrack of our world sexier, groovier, and funkier.

Photo by Al E. (Flickr).

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Passion

Roald Dahl quotation about living live with passion

Before a writing or editing session, sometimes I stroll around Tumblr sites as a warm-up. This weekend, I came across this quote from Roald Dahl (from Ginger Wonder Wild), and it spoke to me — especially being in the mindset after putting together a guest post for Just Add Tea.

A few years ago, I made the decision to ramp up the energy I devoted to writing. I wrote well before that, but it shared attention for many other things in my life. Since increasing my time spent writing, it’s been quite a ride.

Cold on some days, lukewarm on others. But when the writing flies white-hot and passionate, holy smokes, it’s an exhilaration. Losing myself in the story. Hurling down a highway in a convertible, in bright sunshine, without worry of flashing blue lights in my rear-view mirror, a police officer pulling me over for speeding.

(The cop comes later, on editing days. And he’s a stickler for correct punctuation.)

Along with this experience, I’m delighted when I see other people click with something that — I would guess — gives them a similar rush. I read it in their poetry and stories. Hear it in their music. Taste it in their food. It’s a gratitude that they took that extra step to share their passion with the rest of the world.


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Invincible Summer

sunshine, by Susanne Nilsson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Susanne Nilsson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

― Albert Camus

*****

Source: Goodreads. The photo above is used under the non-commercial Creative Commons license. Click on image to jump to photographer’s Flickr page.


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Agents of Provocation: Cartoons, Banned Books, and “Offensive” Art

Last week, I — like many, many others — was horrified about the murders in the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Twelve people were killed and more were injured. Among those killed were members of the editorial staff, cartoonists, and a police officer. ABC News has short bios on a few of the victims.

Then I was heartened to see people rise up with Je suis Charlie in Paris and all around the world, on Twitter. It’s profoundly moving seeing tons of people unify like this, in support of the freedom of speech against those who wished to silence it.

There was not only that unity, but another behind another rallying cry: Je suis Ahmed, to respect Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was murdered in the attack. This unity was to support a Muslim who died in defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their cartoons. As reported on MTV.com, Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) wrote this powerful tweet:

I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed

Ahmed Merabet wasn’t on the Charlie Hebdo staff, and he still died in support of the freedom of speech.

About Charlie Hebdo and this freedom, I think The Economist described them very well in this writing:

The magazine had the right to publish everything it did, and French law is right to allow it to. There can be no “but” in that sentence. Even when a picture or opinion is imprudent or tasteless, unless it directly incites violence it should not be banned. Charlie Hebdo lampoons all religions, not just Islam—but it would have the right to single out that faith if it wanted to, just as Islamists in Europe are entitled to denounce Western decadence if they so choose.

People have a right to draw tasteless cartoons; paint tasteless paintings; click tasteless photos, produce tasteless movies; write tasteless articles, poems, and books, etc. Others have a right to complain about all of those works. But those who are offended by the works do not have the right to pick up guns and slaughter the creators of those works. That’s not justice. That’s murder.

As I absorbed the events last week — the murders, rallies, and the two enraging hostage incidents — I also thought of books and artwork that created controversy because they were considered offensive. I decided to do some research on these…

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Banned Books

"Animal Farm," Anne Frank, and "Ulysses" -- images from Wikipedia

“Animal Farm,” Anne Frank, and “Ulysses” — images from Wikipedia

Books are banned for a multitude of reasons, and Wikipedia lists them in their page “List of books banned by governments.” Here are some examples (quotes are from the Wiki article):

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell. “A play of Animal Farm was banned in Kenya in 1991, because it criticizes corrupt leaders. In 2002, the novel was banned in the schools of the United Arab Emirates, because it contained text or images that goes against Islamic values, most notably the occurrence of an anthropomorphic, talking pig.”
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. “Banned from the U.S. mail under the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act (Comstock Law) of 1873, which banned the sending or receiving of works containing ‘obscene,’ ‘filthy,’ or ‘inappropriate’ material.”
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank. “Banned in Lebanon for ‘portray[ing] Jews, Israel or Zionism favorably.'”
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. “Banned in UK until the 1930s. Challenged and temporarily banned in the U.S.A for its sexual content.”
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Banned in the Confederate States during the Civil War because of its anti-slavery content. In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in Russia under the reign of Nicholas I because of the idea of equality it presented, and for its ‘undermining religious ideals.'”

How many of these books would you consider classics? Ulysses is numero uno of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.” It’s not the only previously banned book on the list, either. Comparing the list of banned books against the list of “Best Novels” comes up with several overlaps: Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lolita, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath (to name just a few).

Has a previously banned book ever changed your life? Did it change how you view the world, perhaps seeing a little through someone else’s eyes?

Now let’s turn to art…

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“Offensive” Art

List25.com has a post on 25 Most Offensive Paintings Ever Created. This list opened my eyes about what, during the history of visual images, raised the hackles of people. Actually, “raised the hackles” might be soft here. Outraged might be a better expression.

For example, as List25.com describes, the Catholic Church and public found Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at 28 to be blasphemous. Why? Because he painted himself in a position traditionally used for depictions of Jesus Christ.

"Self-Portrait at 28" by Albrecht Dürer (1500)

“Self-Portrait at 28” by Albrecht Dürer (1500)

Then we have this lovely lady: Olympia, by Édouard Manet. What’s the big deal, you ask? She’s a naked woman, and art is full of naked women. True, it is. But Victorine Meurent (her name, but nicknamed Olympia by Manet) wasn’t a figure from myth, like the nudes that had been painted before. She’s a prostitute, not an angel or a goddess from myth. On top of that, she’s not ashamed to be lounging naked. All that spurned scandal in the Paris Salon back in 1865. You can read about it on Salon.com, which says, “Manet was perhaps the world’s first shock artist.”

"Olympia" by Édouard Manet (1863)

“Olympia” by Édouard Manet (1863)

Pablo Picasso pushed art further by depicting nude prostitutes in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (translated: The Young Ladies of Avignon). Picasso painted the five women with mask-like faces and bodies that are angular planes. A style that’s a far cry from Manet’s sumptuous Olympia. However, Picasso’s painting helped surge forward Modern Art, in moving toward more abstract and two-dimensional representation of figures. The painting was exhibited in 1916, and it — like Olympia — created a scandal in Paris. The History Channel has a good article about this artwork.

"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Pablo Picasso (1907

“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso (1907

There are other artworks not on List25.com that have caused controversy. The Independent has the slideshow “Banned, Censored and ‘Offensive’ Artworks” that doesn’t have any overlap with the List25.com works.

Included in The Independent’s slideshow are Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a “ready-made” public urinal piece that he signed “R. Mutt”; Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, which depicts Mary with oil paint — next to elephant dung and a collage of pornographic images; and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of Christ upon the cross that had been soaked in the artist’s urine.

One last example, as it came to my mind in doing research: Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer whose images of homosexual BDSM created controversy in Washington, DC, before they were exhibited, in 1989. The exhibit was to set the explicit photos in a separate area, restricted by age. Something I completely support, as I warn readers that my erotic ebooks are meant only for those who are 18 years and older.

I wonder what Mapplethorpe would say that next month, 50 Shades of Grey, the best-selling BDSM erotica, is going to hit mainstream theaters?

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Let’s Wrap This Up

Cartoons can have powerful ideas. Books and art can have powerful ideas. Not everyone is comfortable with those ideas.

Is part of the power of art to provoke and stimulate? I don’t mean provoking by inciting violence — and I don’t mean stimulating in the sexual sense. I mean, as in the Merriam-Webster definition for provoke: “to cause the occurrence of (a feeling or action).” Also, on that same webpage, I mean stimulating as “suggests a rousing out of lethargy, quiescence, or indifference.”

That is, provoking what was considered standard — as in what Dürer, Manet, and Picasso’s artworks did. Maybe Dürer painted himself in a Christ-like way because he wanted to remark on the artist’s role in creating. Maybe Manet painted Olympia because he wanted to show she was beautiful, even though she wasn’t an angel or goddess. Maybe Picasso painted women’s faces as masks to suggest that this might be a truer portrait of people, given the masks they wear to cover thoughts and emotions they’d rather not share.

Each of these artworks provoked. This resulted in negative reactions from some viewers. But what about in other people? Did the artworks provoke questions? Did the artworks cause the viewers to consider possibilities that they hadn’t thought of before?

To me, that’s a power of provoking, stimulating art. Of learning about someone else’s view point. Of seeing the world in a different way.

I’m not saying every piece of art has to be provoking. The painting below is beautiful. If it was hanging in my house, it would add a loveliness. But it doesn’t cause me to think beyond: “That’s really pretty.”

"Poppies" by Henri Fantin-Latour (1891)

“Poppies” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1891)

Some images of the rallies in Paris show people holding up pencils. It’s a powerful show of support for those who were murdered at Charlie Hebdo.

What I’m hoping is that those pencils are also put to paper. Where drawings and writings are sparked.

Because I hope cartoonists keep drawing to lampoon. Go ahead and draw tasteless illustrations. As cartoonist Ted Rall wrote in his opinion piece on LATimes.com about political cartooning: “If it’s in good taste, it ain’t funny.”

I hope authors keep writing books that make me think. Hey, if your book is banned, you’re in good company — and you might even make a “best novels” list.

I hope artists keep painting works that cause me to see the world in different ways. I hope directors keep producing TV shows and movies that I think about for weeks after I see them. I hope comedians keep helping us question our culture while making us laugh.

Because I want to hear about the world through the viewpoints of others. Inspire me to question what I previously took for granted. As David Berreby wrote in his tremendous article, “To Uphold Freedom of Speech, Go Listen to One You Don’t Like” on Huffington Post.

One last thought: Given the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo last week, I think the consequences of publishing a work that could provoke should be considered. Because, as the murders showed, not everyone is willing to just listen.


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“The Hobbit” Trilogy: Story vs. Crammed with Action

The final movie in Peter Jackson’s trilogy version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s single book, The Hobbit, doesn’t disappoint with action. With a title of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, the movie delivers on that promise with an epic battle involving dwarves, elves, orcs, humans, and all sorts of wild creatures.

And, oh yeah, a hobbit. That guy is in the main title, after all.

The final movie in The Hobbit trilogy reminded me of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s actual trilogy of books, The Lord of the Rings. In both trilogy-ending movies, a long, sustained battle takes up most of the flick. At least the battle seems to take up most of the flick — and most of the day.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I like action in movies and books. I thought The Battle of Five Armies was an entertaining movie. It was a big improvement over the first movie in the series, An Unexpected Journey, which was one chase scene after another and would’ve been a stronger movie had it been chopped in half.

After I saw The Battle of Five Armies, I thought of how a vessel (book or movie) can substitute tons of action for story. Yes, there is story in The Hobbit movie trilogy, but it’s very stretched out — and the gaps are crammed in with action.

Sometimes, that’s okay — because it can lead to an entertaining product. Sometimes, though, it leads you wanting for more substance.

Here’s where I’m coming from in this: I write erotica under a pen name, and I write non-erotica under my real name. You can say that the erotic stories I write are very predictable. You know that much of the time, the climax of the story is going to be a climax. Yes, I went there. And it’s true. When you start off reading my erotic stories, you know that the characters are going to eventually either go after each other like howling wolves wrestling in the forest, or they’re going to make sweet, sensual love.

In other words, a vessel crammed with lots of action instead of lots of story.

But, I figure, that’s sometimes what readers want. There are times when viewers don’t want a porn movie to have a plot. They want attractive people gettin’ down to business. They don’t watch porn for story. There’s It’s a Wonderful Life for that. Sorry for calling out your movie, Frank Capra, but that really is a compliment.

It can be the same for me in writing some of my erotic stories. I want to create interesting characters and have them get down to business. Some of my stories start with frisky dialogue, then shift into the sex. Other times, the characters have a problem they want sort out.

But that’s not all of the time. Because I also like to craft story. I look at it this way: There are books where the sex is the story. And there are books with a story that can include sex. (Speaking of books for adults here, not literature for children.) Those two categories are much different. In one track, the characters connect physically and emotionally (not always, though), and that’s the whole story. In the other track, events outside of the sex happen, and the characters have to deal with those.

With erotica, sex occurs in the story — that’s why it’s erotica. But the sex doesn’t have to be the story’s entire reason for being. Erotica can have much more beyond that. Complex characters. Deep emotions besides lust, such as jealousy, anger, sadness, anxiety. Events that have nothing to do with the lovemaking.

My take-away from The Hobbit’s movie trilogy was that tons of action can be entertaining — but it has limits. Because there’s not a whole lot of story with armies just thrashing each other. Nor is there a whole lot of story with characters simply going at each other in bed (or in other sexy location).

I’m sure I’ll write more of those direct stories where just sex happens to characters. It’s a fantasy world for me and readers to dive into and enjoy for a bit before we return to the real world.

But I’m also very interested in writing where story happens, and not just one kind of action. Because those stories can be really interesting, in deeper ways that stay with you.


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Showtime’s “The Affair”: Lessons on Character Perspective

Montauk Lighthouse and Beach, by Neil R (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Montauk Lighthouse and Beach, by Neil R (Flickr, Creative Commons)

As the first season of Showtime’s “The Affair” wound down, I was compelled to write a blog entry about the TV show. Because I wanted to share how I enjoyed the show’s treatment of character perspective.

Before I get into this, first a little bit about the series. As you can guess from the title, it’s about infidelity — how an affair began, and the consequences of it. Here’s the description from Showtime’s website:

At once deeply observed and intriguingly elusive, THE AFFAIR explores the emotional effects of an extramarital relationship. Noah is a New York City schoolteacher and novelist who is happily married, but resents his dependence on his wealthy father-in-law. Alison is a young waitress trying to piece her life and marriage back together in the wake of a tragedy. The provocative drama unfolds when Alison and Noah meet in Montauk at the end of Long Island.

As a writer, I was keenly interested in the format of “The Affair.” Each episode was split into two sections: Noah’s side and Alison’s side. (Dominic West plays Noah Solloway and Ruth Wilson plays Alison Lockhart.) These two characters relayed events of a summer on Montauk to a police detective.

This split format made for an exploration of “he said, she said.” In the beginning of the season, the same scenes were told from the two different perspectives. And from that, you got to see the action through the scene of each character.

Which created an interesting study in character and seeing the events through their eyes. Because, of course, the characters came from very different places. A man and a woman. Different ages. Different homes (New York City and Montauk). One with four kids, and one who lost a child years before (not a spoiler alert, since this is told early on).

In the characters’ retelling of the same scenes, how they differ was very interesting. Their clothes were different, for example. In Noah’s retelling, he usually wore cooler clothes that seemed of a younger style. Also in Noah’s retelling, Alison wore clothing that showed more skin. When Alison narrated the scenes, the colors of her clothes were more muted.

And then, you had how each character described the affair began. Both claimed to be the one who was more hesitant, unsure, and wanted to take more time to make up their mind. Even though both admitted to mutual attraction, they described the other as more eager to start the affair.

I took all of this as a lesson in storytelling. Because so much of story is shown through character, about how the character perceives events and makes decisions. Characters come at the world from very different places. These affect how they think and act. In writing a story, an author has to use that background in framing how the character moves in the story.

How a character sees the world and acts within it shows a great deal about that character. Their background, personality, what they feel is important. That comes out in how they tell the story as narrators, as well as what they choose to do in a story.

I very much admire authors who do this well. When the decisions of the characters make sense with who the characters are. Because there are books where I’ve thought, “That doesn’t seem right.” This comes up when a character did something that struck me as out of character with who they were. That can jump out at you. But when the actions and decisions fit in character, the writing is much smoother.

True, I write erotica under a pen name — and the actions in my stories involve sex. Still, there are relationships in my writing. Characters who come from different backgrounds and have to interact with other characters. That brings up a variety of emotions: gratitude, love, friskiness, jealousy, anxiety, and anger. And I hope I strike a chord with what the characters say and do, how those fit in with who they are.

Also, I write stories that aren’t erotica under my real name — and I hope for the same thing there. Because I certainly don’t want a reader to think, “That doesn’t seem right.” I hope the actions fit, because that’s staying true to the characters. And that makes for a better story.

*****

Photo of Montauk lighthouse and beach is from Neil R, used here under the non-commercial Creative Commons license. Click here for his Flickr page.


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Magic of Books

space, by Sweetie187 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Sweetie187 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Source: Goodreads
Click on image to jump to photographer’s Flickr page.