Monday, May 20, 2013

What Story Do You See?

I had an amazing experience on Mother's day. I discovered my older brother is AWESOME! Admittedly, my mom and dad are also awesome, but I tell them that all the time. But my brother? This is the boy who picked me up, threw me across the living room and concussed my head into the wall. This is the boy who taught me that no room in the house was safe. This is the boy who smashed my right hand with a bowling ball and to this day I'm unnaturally left handed. Truth be told, I learned to handle a knife at the ripe old age of 6, pick a lock at age 7, and he's still scarred with teeth marks in the center of his back.

Violence aside, my brother did teach me my multiplication tables when I was 4, all the known species of whales at age 8 and how to fly a plane at age 12. He also taught me how to use power tools and not lose a finger. What I remember most, is him building train sets in the garage complete with detailed plane crashes, ripples in ponds and WWII bomb sites. I marveled at the worlds he created. Then for 20 years we went our separate ways and I forgot that he built dioramas.

Last weekend, my mother asked him, "When's your next Nerd Olympics?" That's when I learned that my brother, my injury inducing, fear provoking (he's calls it confidence building), but highly educational brother, is a gold medalist diorama creator. I never even knew these competitions existed, but holy crap, my brother is phenomenal!

Above is a current project he's working on, a bombed out bridge with an urban cafe and a live-in studio above. And a river. Good grief, he built a river. You can see how he builds everything at this website:

Below are two other award winning diorama's. What stunned me are the multitudes of stories his diorama's tell. My mom is an avid reader and my dad is a writer. So I guess it's no surprise their two kids turned into storytellers.

Grandma's Quilt
I love this one! My brother even sculpts the people, which I really think is his key to storytelling. I have to ask my brother how the fleeing pantless soldier is able to stand at that angle. That guy is hauling butt. The vixenous sisters already miss him, and have absolutely no respect for the months of work that went into sewing the quilt that shields one sister's indiscretion.

Captains, Castles & Kings
What's the story here? What are these boys playing at? There are two boys holding shields and hurling rocks at each other. The youngest boy is wearing an oversized helmet backward and raising a stick into the air, commanding his troops below. Spikes protect his tank/fort against a siege. The older boys have a vague recollection of the horrors of war, but the youngest is king of his castle, completely ignorant that the tank he currently claims as an invincible fort is also the weapon that killed his father.

What stories do you see?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: Part 4

Floor plan of the Villa dei Papiri by Carlo Weber ca 1750

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero and friend of King Charles, became the first to attempt opening the papyrus scrolls as they emerged from within the villa.  A self-proclaimed "gifted" and "extraordinary" alchemist, di Sangro used mercury in an effort to soften the charred, brittle papyrus.  The mercury dissolved the scrolls, and many of them were lost...

Part 3 of this series continues the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the Novel Travelist mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here we continue this story.


Four years after Charles succeeded to the throne, he married.  His father, King Philip V, had sought a French bride for his first born in a feeble effort to cling to the French throne.  Queen Elisabetta’s wishes prevailed, however, and Charles married Prussian Princess Maria Amalia, who had grown up in the very Austrian palace containing the first statues excavated from Herculaneum - the three veiled females and the statue of Cleopatra.

Meanwhile, the second factor involved in bringing Herculaneum to light was the Enlightenment itself.  The Grand Tour was in full swing, and the aristocratic travelers known to Italians as “milordi” – “my lords” – came from far and wide throughout Europe.  Rome was a quintessential stopping point, and then Naples as well.

As rumors of the ancient treasures began making their way across Europe, increasing numbers of Grand Tourists became determined to see the ruins for themselves, as well as to purchase the multiple replicas of Herculaneum booty that were suddenly all the rage.  Artists who could faithfully reproduce these coveted artifacts found abundant work in Naples.

Camillo Paderni Print, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library
One such artist was Camillo Paderni, who was both fascinated by the flawlessly frozen cross-sections of ancient Roman life and appalled that these cross-sections were being so brutally destroyed.  As he toured the excavation sites, Paderni produced image upon image of the world formerly unbeknownst to the public.  He also began writing letters of complaint about excavation leader Alcubierre.

Another of Alcubierre’s critics was Johann Joachim Winckelmann.  Antiquarian and well-respected writer, Winckelmann’s scathing commentaries brought the methods of Alcubierre into the light and into posterity, observing that Alcubierre knew “as much of antiquities as the moon knows of crabs.”

In 1750, Alcubierre was pulled to a different post and replaced by Karl Weber, who produced the first true maps of the Villa dei Papiri and its surroundings as well as the many tunnels now leading through the area.  Approximately 1100 additional scrolls were found under Weber, and King Charles himself was fascinated with them, until the inevitable fate of monarchy politics intervened.

King Charles’ father Philip, the King of Spain and of the two Sicilies, had died in 1754.  By 1759, Charles could no longer shirk his responsibility to the kingdom, and he reluctantly left for Spain.  Governing in Naples in his stead was a temporary stand-in until Charles’ spoiled, eight-year-old son Ferdinand could come of age.  Excavations at Herculaneum were forcibly halted in favor of ongoing efforts at Pompeii, and so the secrets contained within the Villa would once again be forced to wait.

Charles’ mother Elisabetta, the woman who had first initiated the work, died.

To be continued in part 5, June 6...

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chowing down in Hyderabad

Before I left on my first trip to India, I was warned by one of my Indian friends that the food is spicy.  "I've eaten Indian food here before", I said.  "It is not the same here as in India", he replied, and then he began to snicker.

That was worrisome.

What I found was that the food in Hyderabad is really good; and yes, it is spicy.  There is a wide variety of cultural influences there (East and West, North Indian and Southern Indian, Hindu and Muslim) that combine in some crazy and exhilarating ways in the resulting local cuisine.

I was told that the state of Andhra Pradesh (the state Hyderabad is located in) is known for having some of the spiciest food in India (this is, of course, hotly debated by people from certain other regions).  It was also very spicy, but not necessarily in the way I expected.  I thought that I would be eating a lot of dishes with tremendous spicy heat, but the dishes are spicy not in the sense that always burns out your mouth (although there are some dishes that do this), but in the sense that the flavors are all strong.  So the hot dishes are hot, and sour dishes are sour, and the sweet desserts are really sweet.  The bottom line is that if you travel here, and you can't handle spicy foods, you are going to have some difficulty surviving.  For those types of people, there is really only the starches.  Luckily, there are a large variety of delicious Indian breads and rice available: Northern naan and roti, fried puri, crispy and spicy papad, and the crepe-like Southern specialty, the dosa.  The spiciness of the main dish is normally allayed by the concurrent consumption of bread or rice (with rice actually being the more traditional accompaniment).  One of my co-workers who traveled with me from the States attempted to follow a no-carb diet he was on.  That turned out to be not such a good idea.  Both the meat and vegetables were heavily spiced, and he filled up on that, and didn't eat any of the bread or curd that would have alleviated the spice.  Indigestion ensued.

In Southern Indian areas like Andhras, it is common to eat with one's hands, i.e. no utensils.  This can be a bit unsettling to see at first, primarily because a) it involves eating types of food (for example curry and rice) that you would never imagine eating with your hands, and b) when people do it, they really handle and touch the food a lot before putting it in their mouths.  Eventually I got used to seeing it, but I didn't try it myself.  At the end of the meal, you will typically get brought to you a dish with warm water with soap or lemon in it to wash your hands with.

The dish that Hyderabad is famous for is the biryani,  The dish is really good, and evidently is hard to find a good example of in the States.  Biryani  is a steamed rice dish cooked with chicken or lamb and spices.
There is a stereotype that all Indians are vegetarian, but while vegetarian practice is common, meat consumption is also common in Hyderabad.  There is a large, mostly non-veg Muslim population in Hyderabad, and the younger generation in general seems to have less aversion to meat eating.  The common meats are chicken and lamb.  Amusingly, when I was dying for a Western hamburger, I managed to find one at the local Chili's.  The burger was made of buffalo, of course.  It turns out that at least one preconception I had  (no beef eating in India) was pretty accurate.

The culmination of my culinary experience came, naturally enough, at McDonald's.  I ordered the McSpicy Paneer sandwich.  It was vegetarian, spicy, and yet still familiar with that oh-so-soft bun and crispy and greasy Chicken McNugget-style fried batter.  I was able to experience the clash of East and West in one spectacularly unhealthy bite.

All in all, I had a great culinary experience in India.  There was a surprising amount of Western influence, but ultimately the food was probably the most different from California cuisine that I've had in my travels so far.

Travel Notes:

-- If you are writing about the tech industry in India, one thing to note is that it is a lot more formal than it is in the States, especially when compared to the West Coast.  By formal, I don't mean attire, but rather the adherence to hierarchy and the interaction between employees and their managers.  In my case, I would walk into the cube area where my team was located at the Hyderabad office, and they would all stand to attention immediately, and would not sit until I left the area.  This never happens to me when I visit my team at my home office (I'm lucky if they even notice I'm there, ha ha).

-- When you write about India, take care to pay attention about what region you are writing about.  There are large language, religious, and culture differences depending on the area of India you are focusing on.  There is a general division made between the culture of Northern and Southern India, and that difference is often even further sub-divided based on region and religion. 

-- One interesting quirk about fitness and exercise: like in the U.S., there is a growing interest in health and fitness.  However, one thing that is not common or popular is running in the streets.  For one thing, it is not safe; you are likely to get killed due to the crazy traffic (see my previous post).  The other thing is, as my friend laughingly put it, "If you run in the street in India, you will be arrested, because the police will assume you stole something!"


Friday, May 3, 2013

Turning Real People Into Characters

Photo by Sara McBride

The people one meets in life often inspire literary characters. It’s interesting to read an author writing about another author and how she might have met real people that morphed into literary characters we now know and love. 

I’m reading Scott Southard’s new book A Jane Austen Daydream and marveling at how the characters are often a mash-up of several defined Austen characters. For example, Mrs. Catherine de Bourgh, with a sickly, pale daughter, is the physicality of Lady de Bourgh and her frail daughter Anne, but the character contains the jubilence and vulgarity of Mrs. Jennings from Sense and Sensibility, and the silliness of Miss Bates from Emma. Not just personality traits are witnessed, but also behavior habits, like in Emma, in an effort to include her elderly mother in conversation, Miss Bates is constantly asking her mother's opinion, but then continuously rattles on with or without a response. Scott Southard’s character of Mrs. Catherine de Bourgh demonstrates the same behavior, but toward her sickly daughter. 

I expected A Jane Austen Daydream to be filled with “Real Life” people from Jane Austen’s world that directly and precisely resemble her well-defined characters. The film Becoming Jane is extremely guilty of this. But instead, Mr. Southard has given truth to the practices of an author. Authors take pieces of people and jumble them together. 

In one scene alone, Mr. Southard gives us pieces from several Austen books. The high-and-mighty, always-extolling-advice personality of Lady Catherine de Bourgh is contained in a slender, tolerant woman who asks that her guests do not embarrass her, and offers advice on how a lady should present herself at a ball. Also in the scene are Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, the aforementioned Mrs. Jennings/Miss Bates character and her sickly daughter. In the single scene, there is the creation of the malevolent Lady Catherine de Bourgh by transposing a personality of one person into the physicality of two others. 
We also witness Jane Austen and her sister conversing about the ball, much as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice often do. Then Jane Austen is slighted by the woman giving advice, much like Fanny in Mansfield Park or Anne Elliot in Persuasion is never considered worth anyone’s real attention.

Rarely does a real life person or scenario completely transpose themselves into a novel. We, as authors, take pieces of events and people and mix and match to our liking. I’m pleased that Mr. Southard realized this when creating the fictional character of Jane Austen. All of Southard’s characters incorporate pieces of Austen’s characters, but nothing is blatant, it is all subtlety, as Austen is herself. 

Another interesting point about Scott Southard is the he’s a He! Very few men have the nerve (or interest) to tackle Jane Austen. I’m very much looking forward to finishing his novel and gaining a man’s perspective on the iconic authoress. 

A Jane Austen Daydream, by Scott Southard is published by Madison Street Press, is available from Amazon.

So next time you’re on a plane and the drunk christian scientist seated next to you wants to buy the entire row a drink (This happened to me last Friday!), do what Jane Austen does (According to Scott Southard), and embrace the eccentricities of your fellow humans. Make a study of behaviors, traits, sayings and histories and start cobbling together the puzzle pieces of a character. You never know when parts of a Lady Catherine de Bourgh or a Mr. Bennet might leap out at you.