November 29, 2013

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy,
they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. ~Marcel Proust

November 28, 2013

The First Thanksgiving

Having grown up in Europe, I'm very ignorant of American history (I know, shame on me!).  So, in celebration of this year's Thanksgiving, I decided to read a little into the history of the holiday.

According to the American textbook The American Tradition, here's how the first Thanksgiving took place:

After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth
Harbor for their settlement.  Unfortunately, they had arrived in December
and were not prepared for the new England winter.  However, they were
aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow
corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and
prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first
crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

However, when delving further into the history of this country, I came up with some interesting facts which shows the truth behind this almost Disney-filtered version of history (as in happy endings for all):

  • Summer of 1526:  500 Spaniards accompanied by a hundred or so slaves, found a town near the mouth of the Pee Dee River, SC.
  • November 1526:  Slave rebellion. The 150 surviving Spaniards leave while the slaves flee to the Natives (and thereby become the first true settlers of the United States).
  • 1565:  Spaniards massacre a settlement of French Protestants at St. Augustine, FL.  They then spread out throughout the US, introducing horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs, among other things.
  • Late 1500s:  Spanish Jews settle in New Mexico.
  • 1607:  The London Company sends settlers to Jamestown, VA.
  • 1614:  Dutch living in Albany.
  • 1617:  A plague strikes in New England, making the Black Plague of Europe pale in comparison:  within 3 years, it wipes out between 90-96% of the population in southern New England.  Survivors flee the corpse-infested fields to the next tribe, bringing the disease with them so that even Natives who had never seen a white person die as well.  King James of England gives thanks to the "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending "this wonderful plague among the savages."
Pilgrims and colonists land from the Mayflower
  • 1620:  "Mythic origin of the country we now know as the United States," Plymouth Rock. The truth is that the plague has weakened the Wampanoags so much that, fearing the Narrangansetts to the west, the chief of the tribe, Massasoit, allies himself with the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims and other colonists chose Plymouth because it already had clear fields recently planted with corn while being located near a source of fresh water.  They're helped by Squanto, a Native who's escaped slavery in Spain only to return to his devastated village and who, therefore, can't help but to throw his lot with the Pilgrims & co.
Chief Massasoit and his warriors
- Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • Fall 1621:  celebration of the first Thanksgiving which is, in fact, a Native American observation of the autumnal harvest celebrations. 

Additional notes:  The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth also suffered from disease and half of them died in the first year after their settlement in the New World.  Relations between the Pilgrims and the local natives still alive at the time also started off reasonably well.  But for the next 15 years or so, more epidemics wiped out the natives (mostly via smallpox).  Many natives surrendered then to alcohol and began to listen to Christianity (the only religion present at the time which supposedly explained the reason behind those devastating times).  This decimation of the Native tribes allowed the settlers to spread out their territory without being challenged for the next fifty years.

James W. Loewen article.

November 26, 2013

A Character's Strength

Reading through Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, I've landed on a passage that describes what this agent believes is the true reason why people can project themselves into the main characters of the story.  And it's not because that character's nice or you feel sympathy for it.  No.

As Mr. Maass describes it when talking about why he loves the character of Scarlett O'Hara is that "[s]he has qualities that [he] would like to have: courage, willfulness, pride, ego, with. One word that can sum up all of that is strength."

And so it is that Mr. Maass believes that it's the strength of the protagonists that draws readers to them.  He adds that strength is "fundamental to sympathy," so much so that sometimes, when it's the antagonist who's really strong, we tend to remember that character better than the true protagonist (ex: Hannibal Lecter).

There are different kinds of strength, however, and each evokes a different level of sympathy:

  1. Physical:  Conan the Barbarian.  
  2. Endurance:  James Bond.
  3. Cunning:  George Smiley (John le CarrĂ© character)
  4. Integrity:  Howard Roark (the Fountainhead)
  5. Love:  Jane Eyre
Conan the Barbarian; 007; George Smiley; Howard Roark; Jane Eyre

But the greatest strength, Mr. Maass argues, is self-sacrifice, which shows a true strength of spirit.

November 19, 2013

Why Trash Sells

Just reached an interesting passage in The Career Novelist that discusses why Mr. Maass believes trash books sell so much better than their "exquisite stylist" counterparts.  I know this is slightly belated (over a year or so), but I feel it to be a great response to critics of the Twilight series, or even Fifty Shades of Grey (though I haven't read the latter, and I do believe 50 Shades' success may have had more to do with the hype around its kink appeal).

His answer is simple, really.  "What most people want from a novel is not fine writing but a good story."  Though people may interpret "good" differently, but in these so-called "trash" novels, the authors have managed to "create characters to whom anyone c[an] relate, and g[iven] them problems that we all understand."

Mr. Maass doesn't just stop there, however.  He goes on to state that the more cultivated people feel such familiar subjects/characters/etc. are cliche and overused.  Yet the popularity of such novels may prove Mr. Maass's second thesis true:  "Trash sells because readers want their values and beliefs affirmed in their fiction."  In other words, "readers want a mirror in which to see themselves as they would like to be; not as they are, but as they hope to become." (I mean, why else would Photoshop be so popular?)  And the messages that these books provide "reflect profound truths," even if they sound simplistic and trite.

Mr. Maass concludes the passage with a lesson for novelists:  don't "dish tired plots on overcooked themes, but think about what you want to say:  your meaning, point, or moral. If it's something new, fine. If the message is familiar, then by all means put it across to readers in a fresh and exciting way."

November 15, 2013

Embracing Life

Tang poet Li Bai,
as imagined by the Song artist Liang Kai.

I'll wrap this Mighty Mudball of a world all up in a bag 
And be wild and free like Chaos itself!

~Li Bai (701-762)

November 12, 2013

The Art Of Propaganda

"To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns. But this army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy."
~Mao Zedong (1942)

A tactic that goes back centuries, if not more.  The Romans liked to assimilate their conquests' cultures to theirs so people wouldn't feel like rebelling.  And the use of TV and cartoons now is still used all over the world for propaganda (or brainwashing)--for "proving" a cause's "justice," or keeping people tame and happy while the government does its dirty business, for example.
North Korean Comic that shows Americans being devoured by
alligators after the later complained about human rights


November 7, 2013

The Mystery Of The Death Ship

Straight out of a scifi or horror movie, is the tale of the SS Ourang Medan.

On a hot day in June 1947, an SOS message in Morse Code is picked up by ships in the Strait of Malacca that chilled those who heard it to the bone: "All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge.  Possibly whole crew dead." This was followed by some gibberish, then two final words: "I die."

The message of distress is found to come from the SS Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter, and soon an American merchant ship, the Silver Star, goes to the rescue. But as the Silver Star draws nearer to the troubled ship, the crew notices no immediate sign of life aboard.  They rush to board the Ourang Medan only to find the ship's captain dead on the bridge and the corpses of his crew laying about--even the communications officer is dead, crumpled over the telegraph.

And every single dead man bears the same expression:  one of abject terror.  Yet not one of them shows any evidence of harm.

Despite the blazing heat, the rescue team finds the ship's hold to be unpleasantly chilly as it continues its search.  Finally, when it's clear no living person is to be found, the captain of the Silver Star gives the order to tow the Ourang Medan back to shore.  However, in the process of doing so, the crew notices dark smoke billowing out of the cargo hull.  The would-be rescuers barely have a chance to cut themselves loose and rejoin the Silver Star before the Dutch ship blows apart, so violently it rises in the air before plunging back down and swiftly sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

The first official account of this unexplained event is first reported in 1952, yet there doesn't seem to be any
record of the ship itself.

Did the ship really exist? Some searchers have speculated that the SS Ourang Medan's hold may have contained highly illegal substances of "'Zyankali' (potassium cyanide) and nitroglycerin."  Others venture that the ship may have been transporting nerve gas or other biological weapons that had been created by a team of Japanese scientists whose experiments would have made the Nazis look like choirboys...

Mysterious Universe (includes more background info on the Japanese team of evil scientists).

November 5, 2013

Galactic Collision

Meet Andromeda

As Mary Poppins would say, "sometimes a person we love through no fault of his own can't see past the end of his nose."

So today, I shall take you to a galaxy far, far away... or not that far away, and getting closer every hour, every minute, every second!  To the Andromeda Galaxy which is currently about 2.5 million light-years away from us, but after traveling 400,000 km/hour is to collide with our beloved Milky Way in approx. 4 billion years.

Andromeda - Milky Way Collision

Yeah, so you'll have to wait for your great-great-great-great-great-great-great(^x) grandchildren to see it (if the Earth is still around (though according to some, even Earth won't be around to witness the grand event).  But still it's kinda cool to think about these two majestic galaxies forming a new, Megalaxy (excuse the lame pun, the original text used "supergalaxy") together.  The process is expected to be somewhat like this:

1) Love at first sight! The two galaxies feel each other's gravitational pull irresistible!
2) The two lovebirds start a mating dance, orbiting each other.
3) The mating -- Andromeda and Milky get busy, creating a 3D galaxy from two flat spirals.

Theories suggest that this mating won't affect our little solar system, but considering there are others who state that our solar system will be going suicidal with the sun turning red giant on us, who truly knows?

All Hail our future Megalaxy!
Smithsonian Magazine

November 1, 2013

Season's Greetings Giveaway!

In anticipation of the Holiday Season
I've organized a new giveaway
For everyone must have a reason
To be merry. Enjoy Blood of the Fey!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Blood of the Fey by Alessa Ellefson

Blood of the Fey

by Alessa Ellefson

Giveaway ends December 01, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win