Wednesday Videos Present: The Christmas Collider

WednesdayVideoOK, this is adorable.  From the YouTube blurb:

A mysterious, yet strangely familiar visitor turns up at the Digital Science offices in London and deposits a package on one of the desks. Inside the box – an instruction manual explaining how you can build a working particle collider solely from seasonal decorations, and discover the secrets of quantum mechanics from the comforts of your very own home of office.

This entirely scientifically accurate video was created by Digital Science to celebrate the 2013 winter holidays. For more information on who are and what we do, please visit http://www.digital-science.com/

Presenting:  The Christmas Collider!

Legacies of War: an Interview With Steven Mix

263f8beeb37f6ea3c29eb2e44ddde42e_400x400I had the great pleasure of meeting Steve at Convolution 2014, where we were on a panel at which we had to answer questions pulled out of a hat at random.  It was a hilarious experience and I certainly hope to repeat it at future cons!  

Steve has a pretty amazing story behind his novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never, and I’m so happy that he’s agreed to talk about his experiences here. Steve experienced a traumatic brain injury in the military as well as PTSD.  His comments about PTSD in particular are intense but ones that I think we all need to here.  I’m very grateful to Steve for sharing such personal and powerful information.

Tell us the origin story of your novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never!

I had nine concussions in the army (on record) and after my last one a bunch of weird things occurred. My eyes spasmed and shook in bright light. They thought it might be a seizure sign. It still happens, and I can’t drive a car now because of it. The strangest thing was I couldn’t stop thinking about zombie pop culture. I did feel like a zombie at that point so maybe it influenced it a bit. I would later find out that some people with traumatic brain injuries can get obsessions with things. Everything from playing piano music to collecting coins. My obsession just happened to be dark and fun. About a year after the army that obsession bled into my dreams, and I had these visceral nightmares about zombie attacks. I always woke up with a mixture of fear and excitement. They were fun! I had been carrying around a notebook everywhere and wrote everything down to balance out the short term memory issues. It just made sense to try and write a novel. If everything was written down, my memory and cognitive issues weren’t a huge deal. I could always look back through my notes and step things through my confusion. So that’s how Goodbye from the Edge of Never came to be.
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How did reading help you when you were overseas, and how has it helped with your recovery?
Reading was a good distraction overseas. Fiction takes you away and keeps your mind off the war. Nonfiction reminds you to be diligent in your duties because better soldiers than you have done greater things. Celebrity magazines remind you of home. Sad, but true. I think the number one thing you find in guard towers overseas is celebrity magazines.
After my head injury, reading has just helped to keep my brain, less foggy. You can tune out and do most things in life. Watching movies, cleaning around your house, making coffee, but the second you pick up a book you have to soak in imagination.

Are there any books that you feel do a good job of depicting the effects of a head injury?  Do you think that it is important that authors depict the kind of injury accurately?  Why?

There is a book called, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. She suffered a stroke and wrote a book about it. It captures the frustration of a TBI pretty well. It describes a lot of the little things. I remember hearing people say things to me and knowing I understood the definitions of their words, but I couldn’t sort out what they were trying to get across to me. Or I would reach for a word, and it was just gone. That still happens. It feels like it is there, but I just can’t reach it. I also remember feeling like I smothered in some kind of static from an old television channel. Whether I was talking or thinking or even breathing, I was just drowning in static. I think Jill Taylor’s book explained some of that well. Also the book/movie The Vow, gets the emotional side right. I would get angry or find myself fighting back tears and not understand why. I don’t know if a doctor had explained to me that I might find myself uncontrollably emotional. It was pretty confusing and frustrating to my family. I felt like I was just torturing my loved ones flying off the handle, for no reason. Then I saw Kim Carpenter’s account of it in the movie The Vow (sorry; I saw the movie first!)  That was where I went, “Oh my god, that happens to me! Exactly like that!” For the record, my wife made me go to that movie. She swears we’ve lived a reverse version of that story, although I think she just wishes I was built like Channing Tatum. Hell, I wish that too.
For me, it was important to find these other examples because I felt like I was a lunatic. I thought that no one could relate with my experiences. I just felt confused and awkward. It was a relief to find out I wasn’t the only person having these these things happen to them. As it turns out, some of my issues were pretty common.
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As someone who has lived with a traumatic brain injury and with PTSD, what do you wish people knew about these conditions?  How can people support veterans?

With a traumatic brain injury, I don’t know what to tell people. I was pretty lucky that I could learn ways to work around some of my issues. Just keep waking up and hoping the next day you’ll feel less foggy. Get a good support network filled with a neurologist, a cognitive therapist and family that care about you. Read other’s accounts of it, so you don’t feel so alone. Hell, even write me, and I’ll be glad to talk to you about what you’re going through.
We haven’t discussed much PTSD/Survivor’s guilt up to this point, but that one is hitting home for me right now. I lost my Sgt Major on November 21st, 2006 and my friend Chris Mason on November 28th, 2006. I named both my son and a character from my novel after Mason. I’ve already got some emotional issues from my head injury. I’m sure you can imagine how hard things can get when I edge near these anniversaries. I usually confide in my good friend who was my roommate in the army.
Except, Kevin killed himself this past June.
I had sat up most of the night talking to him before it happened. I even got him laughing. I was pretty certain he was calm and in good spirits.
Now survivor’s guilt is eating me alive because I feel like I should have known better and somehow reached out further. Maybe I could have somehow known and hopped on a bus or a train to drag him away from that fate.
We took different paths though. I gave up drinking. He drank more. My wife fought to keep me sane. His wife divorced him and took his kids from him. I decided to write and use creativity to crawl away from my monsters. He gave up drawing and pretty much embraced his demons.
His dad and the rest of his family loved him, but I’m sure he just pushed them away.
There’s no easy answer for any of this. You need to talk to other people who have been through these things, so you don’t feel alone. Everyone needs family and friends who they can lean on when this stuff feels too heavy, so you DON’T FEEL ALONE! If you don’t have this kind of a support group or you aren’t getting the help you need, reach out.
Don’t keep drinking. Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t change. Don’t let go of your creativity. Do reach out if you need help. The rest of us are out here fumbling through this stuff, and we don’t want to be alone either.

Book Review: Goodbye From The Edge of Never, by Steven Mix

goodbye-from-the-edge-of-never-steven-mixGoodbye from the Edge of Never is a weird, fun, confusing, and wildly uneven book by first-time writer Steve Mix.  Disclosure – I met Steve at Convolution 2014 and he flattered me to bits and gave me a free book, which he signed.  So, obviously, I have huge bias in favor of Goodbye, although I also have some bias against it as it’s a horror/action book with a lot of gore and that is not my genre of choice.  I’m also aware of the book’s back story, which makes the book far more interesting than it is on its own merits.

Bias aside, I thought this book was a mess, but a fun, interesting, creative mess.  Twenty years from now I don’t think Steve will think of this as his best-written book, but I do think he’ll still be writing and publishing, since this first effort shows a lot of promise.  We have an interview with Steve coming up tomorrow and you won’t want to miss it, as it contains powerful stuff about brain injury and PTSD.

If you are reading Goodbye, be sure not to skip the foreword.  In the foreword, Steve describes the origin of the book.  Following nine concussions (as well as PTSD and several other injuries) in the course of military service, he began having dreams about zombies.  As he struggled with his own physical and mental healing, he wrote this book as a therapeutic experience.  Knowing this puts the book in a different light, particularly the action sequences.

Goodbye features a motley cast of characters who travel California post-zombie-apocalypse.  Donathon is a gunslinger, Ashley takes out zombies with her beloved baseball bat, and Mason is an artist who loves pop-culture references.  Zombies have mutated in many exciting and bizarre ways and humans have adapted in methods ranging from forming enclaves staffed with slave labor and with traveling raves.

Technically, the writing is awkward.  I, for one, would like a complete moratorium on the phrase “lush vegetation”.  There’s a running motif of people saying something followed by a careful description of their tone of voice.  I have to tell you, dear readers, that the first few times this happened, it was awkward, and by the end of the book, it was annoying as hell.  When someone give directions, it is not necessary to follow this by saying that the person spoke in an informative tone.  Let the dialogue speak for itself.

Also, this book is written in the “throw in everything cool style.  This made for madcap fun, but I didn’t have an opportunity to attach to any of the characters.  I never understood what the stakes were (which may have been the point, actually – I may be longing for an end game where the point of the book might be that all you can do is survive day-to-day).  Villains appeared out of nowhere, and I didn’t have an emotional investment in the confrontations.

Technical issues and character issues aside, this book survives largely on the basis of “rule of cool”.  While reading about someone driving a wheat harvesting combine through a crowd of zombies is extremely gross, I can’t deny that it’s cathartic.  In fact, I think you could safely determine whether or not you’ll like the book by assessing your level of interest when I use “wheat harvesting combine” and “zombies” in the same sentence.

There’s some great moments of humor, mostly involving Mason’s obsession with art.  There’s some great “Oh yeah!” moments (helloooo combine).  There’s also a really haunting, evocative chapter early in the book that describes someone becoming a zombie.  As his senses become increasingly distorted, his sense of smell overtakes all his other sense as well as his memory and coordination.  It’s this kind of beautiful and insightful writing that makes me think that Steve has a long writing career ahead of him.  That and the art jokes, and the combine, which really I just can’t say enough about.

Technical issues aside, I think this book would be a good fit for hardcore horror and zombie fans.  Steve is a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, and it shows in the hallucinatory, madcap tone of the book.  If you like that kind of hallucinatory, more-is-more writing style, then you’ll like the book.  Also gore…so much gore.

Virtual Cookie Exchange: Persimmon Cookies and the Value of Time

VirtualCookie Exchange Blog Hop (1)We’ve all been to those parties (or at least heard of those parties) where people exchange cookies.  The idea behind these parties is that each person leaves the party with a vast number and variety of cookies for all their holiday entertaining needs, although if by “people” you mean “me”, at least two-thirds of those cookies will be consumed solo while watching Miracle on 34th St.

Since we can’t actually send cookies through the screen, author Linda Poitevin (author of the Grigori series) put together this Virtual Cookie Exchange, in which we trade recipes.  Linda kicked things off with Snowballs.  The following week Mia Marshall, urban fantasy author, shared a recipe for Urban Legend Christmas Cookies.  Marie Bilodeaux, science fiction and fantasy author, shared Chocolate Chip Cookies of Might and Magic.  Kerry Schafer shared her recipe for Melting Moments.  Kerry writes urban fantasy – and also has a blog with a gorgeous design that I covet.  Not to be outdone, D.D. Syrdal took a break from writing about vampires to post a recipe for Ruby Linzer Bars.

Persimmon Cookies are a family favorite that my Grandma Mac always made.  After she died, no one made the cookies, because we couldn’t remember what kind of persimmons to use (hachiya), but at last the secret was unearthed and I can make the cookies again.  They are so closely associated with my grandmother that the first time I baked them for my mom she cried.

My grandmother was never going to win “Mother of the Year”.  She encouraged sibling rivalry between her six children to suit her own ends, and placed high demands on the older children in particular.  She failed to protect them from predators.  She said horrible things to them.

But once she became a grandmother, she hit her stride.  In my mind, grandmothers, ideally, only have to fill one purpose – they adore you. Grandma Love, as I experienced it from Grandma Mac, was unconditional and unfettered by worry or responsibility.  The closest thing I could compare it to is Dog Love.  Grandma Love at it’s finest is similar to Dog Love in that it says, “You are perfect just the way you are and I adore you in an utterly uncritical manner.”  People who have not known the love of a dog are saying, “What?  She compared her grandmother to a dog?” and people who have known the love of a dog are nodding their heads and saying, “Ah, she was a fantastic grandma, I see that now.”

Of course, while my grandmother’s love for me was as unconditional and unchanging and unreserved as Dog Love, it was much more complex and densely textured.  Sometimes she was the boss of me.  Sometimes I was the boss of her.  She thought Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation was cute (so did I).  She also liked the Lawrence Welk Show, thus proving that an individual’s taste can be varied.

These cookies require persimmons that are old.  That period when they are firm and shiny and look great?  Not their best time.  In that state, they are bitter and harsh and hard.  Leave them on the counter and walk away for a couple of weeks.  They have to sit on your counter for so long that they are totally mushy – like, almost soupy. That mushy goo, when mixed with flour, eggs, shortening, sugar, and spices, makes something sweet, rich, and full of nourishment.  Whenever I make these cookies, I remember Grandma Mac, and I think about how sometimes we have to wait for a long time before we turn into something sweet and nourishing.

So here’s the recipe:

1 cup of hachiya persimmon pulp

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup shortening

1 egg

2 cups flour

1 cup nuts (optional)

1 cup raisins

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teapoon nutmug

1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat pulp, baking soda, sugar, and shortening until creamy.  Add egg.  Sift flour with spices (confession – I just dump everything into my Kitchen Aid mixer).  Add to creamed mixture. Stir in nuts and raisins.  Drop spoonful on greased baking sheet.  Bake at 375 degrees for 12 – 15 minutes.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies and a lot of memories!

 

Book Review: For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose

cover._for_all_the_tea_in_china[1]For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History is a fascinating nonfiction book.  In writing about the pursuit of one man to steal tea seeds, plants, and methods of making tea from China, the author reveals the astonishing impact that tea had on the economies of China and Britain.  This is part science, part history, part adventure story.  My only problem with the book was that I would have liked more detail, and I felt that I did not know much about the personalities of the people I was reading about, which was both unsatisfying and, in the case of the Chinese characters, uncomfortable.

All the Tea focuses on the efforts of Robert Fortune (that’s his real name, y’all!) to steal tea and the secrets to making tea from China.  The East India Company was the worst company ever.  It made the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens look benign.  At the start of the book, in 1845, the East India Company was involved in a highly lucrative triangular trade in which they grew opium in India, sold it in China, used the proceeds to buy Chinese tea, and sold the tea to England.  As Britain expanded its territory in India, The East India Company realized that the Indian Himalayas might be a prime tea-growing location – if only they had the plants as well as the methods for processing tea.  If they could grow tea in India, they could break the Chinese monopoly.

The weakest part of this book is that while it focuses the story on Robert Fortune and his assistant Wang, neither person left many personal documents behind.  I have a good sense of Fortune’s accomplishments, but very little of his personality.  Meanwhile Wang is described in stereotypical, comical terms.  The normal practice in China is for people in Wang’s position to take a cut when negotiating deals – this cultural norm causes Wang to be described by the author as “crafty” instead of “astute”.  In describing Fortune’s frustrations with his servants, including Wang, the author fails to adequately explain the motivations behind the servant’s actions.  A more balanced approach would have been a great improvement.

Although Rose fails to convey respect or understanding for Wang, she does point out at length that Fortune never bothered to learn Chinese etiquette, and that he depended entirely on Wang for his survival and success.  Elsewhere, Rose takes pains to describe the unfair treatment of Chinese workers in India.  I was unaware that when slavery was abolished, Chinese workers were forced into a kind of covert slavery to fill the labor gap.  Rose also points out how damaging the opium trade was, although she does not talk much about the Opium Wars.

This book is more fascinating when it talks about tea and about history than when it talks about people.  In particular, a chapter at the end lists a number of way in which the availability of cheap tea transformed Britain.  I drove my husband crazy with this book, because every few minutes I would say, “Did you know…” and then launch into some kind of trivia while he was trying to do something else.  The historical framework is incredibly interesting and not at all well-known.  Plus, as a tea-drinker, I was endlessly fascinated by the information about tea.

This isn’t a perfect book and it left me hungering for a Chinese perspective on events.  But it is a good book for history buffs and nerdy tea drinkers.

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