Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book Review ~ How an untimely bath in the river changed the course of history.

The Rise and Fall of Paradise by Elmer Bendiner, Available for $10 or less.

RiseFallThis is one of those treasures that have rested on my shelf for some time; an intriguing title that captured my attention during an afternoon browse.  I finally made time to visit it and I’m glad I did.  I am a history nut.  Consequently I will plow through rather uninteresting books in search of some tid bit of information that enlightens me about a person, place or event.  This little gem required no plowing.  Written in delightful prose and full of wit and genuine style, Bendiner starts your journey in the modern day country side of the towns and cities which, in the distant past, were part of Andalusia; the Caliphate of Cordoba.  Traveling through the Spanish country side he points out the present state of the ancient towns and gently walks you back to a time over 1,000 years ago to the land of Cordoba as it prepared itself for the reign of the Moors.  I shall give you a brief picture of this fascinating adventure.

It was during the 6th and 7th centuries that the Roman influence had deteriorated to nothing more than a caste society.  Members of society were locked into professions by birth, there was abject poverty, the influence of aristocracy was waning and the Roman infrastructure was laid waste.  Coming out of the forests of eastern Europe, the Germanic tribes the Visigoths, Sueve, Basques and Franks cleared away the dross of the old empire by pillaging, raping and plundering throughout the countryside, converting to Christianity as they rampaged the continent.  Once established, competing Christian dogma kept the various kingdoms in constant battle.  That is, of course, when they were not all busy trying to convert or eradicate every last Jew on the continent.  Baptism, death or exile were the only choices offered.

In the meantime, the Muslim kingdoms had conquered most of the North African shores.  Spain was looking quite tempting at the time, but not enough was known to risk entering the country for conquest.  Then along comes an incident at a river side when the reigning king of the Visigoths came upon a maiden fair and, well, you know the rest.  Her father was not amused and convinced the Muslim army to make “an investigation.”  Europe was ripe for the picking and the “investigation” turned into a complete rout.   Reaching Cordoba, the Muslim forces held a siege for three months until the Jews and dissident Christians within the walls helped the invaders reach their goal.  Thus the door to Europe was flung wide open.  This was in 713 CE.

Islam was having difficulty deciding the lines of succession from the great prophet and one of the families which suffered a falling out was the Omayyads.  What could have been the last remaining prince of the line found his way to Cordoba to establish a emirate at least ostensibly answering to the Caliph is Damascus.  Communications weren’t all that great in that day so the Emir had far more freedom than was probably appreciated in the far distant capital.  This enterprising survivor was the first Abdar Rahman and he was the father of a long line of rulers who, at times, were quite brilliant.

This is the ground work laid down for the dawning of a Renaissance that occurred much earlier than taught under that name.  It occurred in the 10th century.  Granted, there were stops and starts, wars and weak, inattentive rulers, but many were men who sought to bring education and economic health to their kingdoms.  Their rule was tolerant to both Christians and Jews and, in fact, both prospered well.  Europe became a stable place and prosperity was reaching the lowest of the low.  No one went hungry.  The arts, sciences, medicine, and education were available to all.  Non-Muslims were taxed but not persecuted and, in fact, the Muslim judges went out of their way to foil the martyrdom yearnings of many young Christian fanatics.  Sadly, not all took the hint.  It was, indeed, a tolerant and wealthy kingdom.

Bendiner describes the political maneuverings of the kingdom, the search for writings from all over the known world to be translated into Arabic (lost when a later regime purged the library).  He tells of the legends of Jews who traveled the world as merchants.  They returned to Cordoba with much that fueled the economy of Andalusia.   With dry wit, Bendiner reports the follies and foibles of monarch and subject alike.  Eventually, this lovely paradise was desired too greatly by those that would use it and abuse it.  But, for a shining century, the plains of Spain nurtured a kingdom built on the talents of all of its people.

The author’s bibliography is provided in a narrative form.  This is extremely helpful because he describes the history as it has been provided.  As is the usual case, most of the written record has been preserved by persons with an agenda.  It was his mission to describe the Caliphate not as a Christian, Muslim or Jew, but as an historian; watching the workings of successful and visionary rulers “When Arabs and Jews Built a Kingdom in Spain.”

It you want to know more about history but just can’t swallow those dates and places and people things; this type of adventure could be just the thing.  It’s a very different perspective on a time in history when minds were allowed to explore and create and society found some small bit of justice.

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Current Era, My Journey with Job

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research ~ What Ingredients Make a Cake Part III

This is a continuation of a series I started about just how science fiction and fantasy writers stay up on the latest to give their tales substance.  This week we have Cindy Koepp, a teacher, an author, a craftsperson and the loving mother of an African Grey parrot.   For Cindy research is a part of the fabric of life as well as an “as needed” exercise in her writing.   From sword fights to aerial (or space) dogfights, seeking that perfect piece of information is what it’s all about.

From Cindy:

remnantResearch for Fiction Writing?

Most days of the year, I teach 3- and 4-footers in 4th grade.  In Texas, that means writing is a huge concern.  Recently, I gave my students an assignment of locating three facts and three opinions in a little reading book they were given.  One of my students lamented that he couldn’t find facts anywhere in his book.  It was, after all, fiction.  When I told the student that I do as much research for my fiction as I do for my nonfiction, he was flabbergasted, but it’s true.  Sometimes the research occurs long before the work on the story ever begins.  Sometimes I don’t go digging for details until I need them.

Real Life as Research

I find it hard to believe that most of twenty years have passed since the first time I put on some loaner armor, borrowed someone’s foil, and tried my hand at Renaissance fencing.  Even at sundown in central Texas I often felt cooked wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a four-layer jacket and hood, gloves, and a fencing mask. Even with all the bulk and temperatures in the nineties, being properly suited up was better than risking a foil or epee up the nose.

During the next few years, I learned two styles of Renaissance fencing: Spanish and Italian.  My studies were as much on the tennis court where the group practiced as in the library reading, and sometimes translating, books about Renaissance culture.  At the time, I had no idea that this information would prove handy in my writing. After all, I was working on science fiction, and the characters were not armed with blades of any sort.

A few years later, I had an idea for a fantasy novel involving a regent who’d rather be training her griffin.  I wrote the original rough – very rough – draft of Lines of Succession, a book currently under contract with Under the Moon Publishing.  Since the main character loves fencing almost as much as she loves her griffin, all that study and practice came in handy.  I ended up with three different styles of fencing in the story, one for each of the fictional countries known for their martial skills.  One group uses a mutation of the Spanish style I’d studied.  Another took on a close approximation of the Italian style.  The last?  I totally made that one up based on things I thought might be possible.

Last summer, I started a serial called The Condemned Courier with JukePop Serials, and that one, too, has had a lot of input from my fencing adventures.  The main character is a fencing instructor who was tasked with discovering a traitor.  For that tale to work, she has to be very competent with a sword.

I have another case of research long before any project was conceived.  I’ve had parrots since I was in high school.  Some have been little shavers like cockatiels.  Now I have a goofy African Grey.  Parrots are a real hoot, literally and figuratively.  They have each had different personalities and their own flair for bizarre antics.  I had a cockatiel who would wolf whistle, and if I either didn’t answer him or if I answered him “incorrectly,” he would repeat the wolf whistle very slowly until I “got it right.”  One of my other cockatiels would have qualified for the parrot version of the X-Games.  She would walk off the side of the cage and fall more than halfway before she started flapping her wings.  At first, I thought she’d just been klutzy, but when I put her back on top of the cage, she did it again and again and again.  She’d also fly to my purse and go exploring, taking everything out one thing at a time and inspecting it carefully.  I had a cockatiel who made spitballs out of whatever bits of paper she could get her beak on.  My dusky pionus beat up his toys.  My white-capped pionus strutted around his cage and gutted jalapeños for snacks.  My African Grey chatters and destroys oatmeal boxes.  She’s also learning all the bird calls from a new clock donated by an interested student at Christmas.

A couple years ago, I came up with a wild idea: tell a whole story from the point of view of a parrot and a dog.  I’ve recently finished the rough draft, and although I really do need to have the human characters tell parts of the tale, especially when the bird and dog are nowhere in the scene, the parrot in the story took on characteristics of each of the loony birds I’ve had over the last couple dozen years.

Research on Purpose

Not all of my research happens years in advance.  Sometimes I’m working on a project and need information on how something works so I can give my stories more realism.

I am not a pilot.  What I know about actually flying an aircraft wouldn’t fill up a sticky note, but when I wrote Remnant in the Stars, one of the main characters was a pilot, and a combat pilot no less.  I had to find out how flight physics works so I could extrapolate for how it would change in space.  While I was at it, I also studied up on dogfighting maneuvers.  I never actually use the term “Immelmann turn” in Remnant, but the pilot executes one a couple times.  She also experiences G-forces in a couple places and has to compensate for it.

Lines of Succession, for a fantasy story, had a lot of research.  In addition to fencing, I needed to know how black powder weapons work.  They were going to be loaded and fired on camera, so I really needed to know what was going on.  Fortunately, I found some sites with videos and descriptions, and my editor and some pals pointed me toward some other videos, and the mission was accomplished.

Another manuscript that took a lot of research was Like Herding Wind.  I needed to find out how old mines of the late 1890s and early 1900s in Michigan were built.  For a scene that has since been cut, I learned about the early cars, especially the Ford Fordor. Then there was medical phenomena.  Boy, did I have to do some digging for all kinds of information on medical phenomena.  The main character is an alien paramedic, and the trouble she doesn’t get into…

Research in Fiction? Oh, Yes, Please!

So, true enough.  I do indeed research very many things that I sometimes don’t use at all, but at some point in the tale, I thought I’d need it, so I paused to go scare it up.  If I do a good job, you shouldn’t be able to tell the research has been done.  In any case, I have almost as much fun learning the new stuff as I do writing the story that initiated the spark to learn.

Check out Cindy’s book, Remnant of the Stars at Amazon.  Kindle is currently available, paperback soon.   You can also visit her website: Cindy Koepp: Writing on the Edge  or her Facebook page .

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Book Review ~ Dissecting History While Writing Intrigue

The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry.  Available in various forms including paperback for around $10.00

columbusWell, I took a weekend off just recently and read a novel.  Something I haven’t managed in several months.  It was a bit irresistible; I happen to really like Steve Berry even if I don’t always agree with his hypotheses.   This one was quite an adventure; a different point of view on the motivations and goals of the celebrated and denigrated mariner, Christopher Columbus.

Just a little background is in order at least in part because those things we are most familiar with we often know the least about.  The first known observance of anything like a Columbus Day was in 1792 in New York City.   Nothing much happened after that until the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the new world.  In 1892 the president, Benjamin Harrison, called for a national observance. The holiday was used to teach ideals of patriotism including support for war, citizenship, boundaries and national loyalty: oh, and “progress.” Columbus Day was not established as an annual holiday until 1906 in the state of Colorado.  It became a federal holiday in 1937.

During the time in our history when our shores were flooding with immigrants, there was a large Catholic contingent arriving from European countries.  They were not well appreciated.  In order to capitalize on the purported religion of Columbus, the Catholic immigrants formed the Knights of Columbus.  The hope was to fight the prejudice they were facing in their new homeland.   The use of his name for the organization caused consternation as the holiday gained traction.

Italians took up the banner and worked hard to bring about public notice of Columbus’ accomplishments and it was they who pressed the hardest to establish a commemorative holiday. It wasn’t until 1971 that the official date was set as the second Monday in October (which also happens to be the Canadian Thanksgiving).

Not everyone liked the idea.  In fact, three states do not celebrate Columbus Day at all, one being Alaska.  In Hawaii they use the day to recognize their Polynesian ancestors and the founding of the island nation.  In South Dakota they observe a Native American Day.  This trend is growing as opposing parties lean toward using the holiday to observe something to do with indigenous people.  So, although the resistance to the holiday in the 19th century was mainly due to fear of giving Catholics too much influence, the trend today is much more oriented to the lost heritage of the peoples the Europeans unseated.   In South America the celebrations are most definitely oriented to remembrance of the people who lost their freedom, their culture and their lives in the European onslaught that followed.  To them Columbus only represents disease, slavery & exploitation.  I fully admit that for years I have referred to the holiday as “Yellow Fever Day.”

Columbus was not the first to find the western hemisphere.  Leif Ericson arrived in Canada in the 11th century.  A recent book entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies has raised much controversy.  Also, recent evidence indicates that the Polynesians may have been in South America as early as 1304-1424.   It was a rather busy place.  Why, then do we look to Columbus as the pivot of history?  He is a very controversial figure.  No other encounter caused as much death, destruction and loss of human dignity.  Centuries of slavery and treatment as some sub-human race crushed the peoples of the South American continent and set the tone for attitudes toward indigenous peoples throughout the western hemisphere.  What a loss of ancient wisdom.  So we ask, why?  What was the motivation behind the man that spearheaded this movement, this rape of a foreign land?

Wikipedia sticks to the mainstream tale.  Columbus was born in Genoa of a merchant class family.  Recently published writings indicate that he was a social climber par excellence and worked hard to get to the place where he could claim the aristocratic titles he so craved.  Some interpretations say that he was a devote follower of the church and his primary mission was to bring Christ to the natives.  Well, there is that thing about gold and such, too.  Of course said natives, once converted, were to serve their masters without complaint.  This was actually one of the projects that got the Jesuits in such a pickle.  They actually learned the native languages and tried to teach the remaining population to become self-sufficient and contributors to the changing economy around them.  Educated, literate people don’t particular care to be slaves.  So, the Jesuits had to be sent home, and not in good graces.

Is there another story?  Did Columbus have other goals in mind?  We have a great deal of evidence that he did not hold the natives in high regard so we can’t really picture him as concerned about their well being, spiritual or otherwise.  So what was he up to?

Steve Berry wraps a story of intrigue that takes you to Jamaica, Cuba, Austria, Prague and Florida in search of the real Columbus.  As always his afterword sorts the fiction from the known, or suspected.  This is an intriguing tale that follows the hints that history left which just might point to an alternative Columbus.  One that was a devout Jew, forced to convert to survive.  One in search of a safe haven for his own people.   Here is an article from Huffington Post that provides more details on this interesting approach.

Hints left in history.  Columbus had no problem thinking in terms of a “round” earth, no one really did.  The Greeks had known for centuries that the earth was a globe and there had been expeditions to explore the western lands.  It was just the size of the globe that Columbus miss judged.  In fact he was following the navigation notes of another European who had already reached the Americas and returned.  Though his purported goal was to spread the gospel, his initial voyage had no priest on board.  He did, however, have a Hebrew interpreter.  When his family, weary from court battles, finally settled for some small portion of what the crown had promised, they accepted Jamaica as their spoils.  His family controlled Jamaica for 150 years.  It was not Isabella’s jewels that financed the voyage; the Spanish crown didn’t have the funds to support a voyage across the Strait of Gibraltar.  It was the Jewish court advisers that provisioned the ships.

So, there you have it.  A real history mystery that many pooh pooh and others find worth the trouble to research.   Check out Berry’s book and see what he has to say.

Tell me things you’d like to know – I’m always up for a good hunt!


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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Fiction