This day in history

JRR Tolkien

From Infogalactic: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again is a fantasy novel and children’s book by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.

What makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so memorable is that the world Tolkien creates is wondrous, terrifying, and fascinating, yet instantly recognizable. The reader soon discovers that underneath the text, a learned, wise, and benevolent soul is joyfully at play with profound truths. I think Tolkien’s works best illustrate the insight that effective fiction reveals only the tip of the iceberg, stimulating the reader to discover for himself the story’s deeper meanings. Tolkien the scholar was an authority on ancient myths and languages, yet also a modern man who had seen war and knew the dark and bright crevices within the human soul. Tolkien the writer crafted an entertaining tale that guides the reader toward a vision that inspires both caution and hope.

That’s quite an achievement.

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How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.

In the United States — yes, the United States1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.

And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.

Amazon Best Sellers in Fantasy Anthologies & Short Stories

Amazon New Releases

UPDATE: #1 New Release for Fantasy Anthologies on Amazon!

The latest issue of Sci-Fan Magazine, which includes my story “Fate’s Daughters,” just hit the Amazon bestseller list. It’s currently #12 in its genre, comfortably ahead of some hack named George R.R. Martin, who’s at #15.

My deepest thanks to my beta readers and supporters.

Fate’s Daughters

SciFan

SciFan Magazine has published my latest story, “Fate’s Daughters.” It’s available in paperback on Amazon.

The protagonist, Dr. Thomas Lear, delves into Scottish mysticism to master the secrets of da-sheallahd, or second sight, and uses that knowledge to prove the existence of spin-off “daughter” universes, the most profound and disturbing theory in quantum mechanics. Lear discovers how to find and observe alternate versions of his life, and learns what would have happened if he hadn’t made choices he has long regretted.

He also learns all choices, good or bad, have repercussions — and that even what we think are good choices can have shocking consequences.

An instructor leading an improv workshop I attended at Queen City Comedy in Charlotte inspired this story. E.B. urged everyone to “let go” and react honestly to the scenes they were acting out. At one point she said, “We’ve forgotten how to focus! The only thing that matters is happening in the place and moment you’re living in right now.” Her words hit me, and I kept thinking about them after the workshop was done. That advice is just the medicine we need in our distracted age.

BTW, if you want to know more about daughter universes and quantum mechanics, Space.com has this short, helpful article, one of the pieces I read researching the science behind the story.

I am indebted to several beta readers for their invaluable insights as this piece evolved, including the Dark & Stormy Plotters League, which is the sci-fi/fantasy critique group of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. But I want to give special thanks to Cathleen Townsend for her inspired suggestions, all of which I incorporated into the manuscript. I salute l’artista migliore!

Greeting the Sun

Cahokia chief

My wife and I just got back from visiting our daughter and son-in-law at Scott Air Force base. One of our stops was the Cahokia Indian Mound near Saint Louis, Missouri, the site of the largest Native American city north of Mexico.

Cahokia Mound

Beginning around 900 AD, the Cahokians, a Mississippian people related to the Sioux, broke the ground with stone hoes and transported dirt by basket to construct the central mound, which became the heart of an urban center of up to 40,000. The chief and a handful of priests lived on the mound, and the city grew around them.

Cahokia view

The mound is higher than you think, as you can see from this view from the top. Just over the first stand of trees in the foreground is a burial mound. Past that you can see wooden posts from the Cahokia Woodhenge. Downtown Saint Louis lies on the horizon.

Cahokia Woodhenge

Here’s a closer view of the Cahokia Woodhenge. Like Stonehenge in England, it served as a calendar that marked solstices and equinoxes. A priest standing on a platform in the middle of Woodhenge’s five circles of cedar posts would perform a ceremony called “Greeting the Sun,” during which he would observe and announce significant astronomical events. The posts standing in the site today were authentically recreated in 1985 using stone tools similar to the ones displayed in the nearby Cahokia museum:

Cahokia axes

Gazing down on the Cahokia Woodhenge from the great mound, I imagined the excitement and sense of mystery the people felt on the completion of a multi-generational work that connected them to their past, the land on which they depended, and the celestial powers that guided their lives.

Total Eclipse a once in a lifetime experience

Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to Congaree National Park just south of Columbia, South Carolina, to view the Totality. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

The park’s eclipse program began with a hike down a nature trail to the Congaree River. But we saw some gorgeous things along the way, including stunning wildflowers and General Greene’s tree.

General Greene's Tree

General Nathaniel Greene commanded the colonies’ Southern forces during the Revolutionary War, and crossed the Congaree near this spot on his way to confront the British in Charleston. This tree is over a thousand years old.

Here are two Golden Orb spiders we stumbled upon during our hike. The large female is just visible against the trees in the background. The hopeful, tiny male is clinging to the web just above her, waiting for the right moment. He probably doesn’t know what happens after the blessed event. We didn’t stick around to witness it.

Golden Orb spider

We reached the viewing area on the eastern bank of the Congaree River. Even though we had ISO-approved solar viewing glasses, I relied mostly on my pinhole camera to watch the Moon’s progress. The camera worked great. The big advantage is that you can look at the image as long as you want. Even with the glasses, you should only gaze at the sun less than a minute at a time.

Pinhole camera

And you can always create your own hand-made crescents!

Make your own crescents

The light slowly dimmed, casting an eerie glow on the river and surrounding forests. Then, finally, the moon crossed directly in front of the sun, and we were enveloped in Totality. The air turned cool, and crickets began chirping.

Totality

That’s Venus emerging from the sudden darkness to the right of the Sun, now blocked off by the Moon.

Ten Minutes to Totality!

What a show! It was a thrilling, mysterious sight to behold, completely different from the partial eclipses I’ve seen. I’m glad we went.

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