Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Weirdest Holiday Traditions: the Tió

Look at this little guy. Doesn't he look adorable and toasty warm wrapped up in his blanky?

Hello! I'm the tió!

Now let's set the holiday mood: Imagine it's Christmas and the tree is all set up and glowing. The children are in the living room taking care of their pet log, feeding it cookies and milk like any normal kid would. In walk Mom and Dad holding sticks. "Okay, kids," Mom says. "If you want your presents you have to beat the crap out of the log--literally."

And so begins the pooping of the tió, one of the most beloved holiday traditions in Catalonia.

Say what?

Let's get the basics:

The Tió de Nadal (Christmas log) is a very widespread Catalan tradition (also celebrated in neighboring regions just outside Catalonia). During the month of December, families set up the tió as part of their holiday decoration (I got a small one just under my tree). Children feed it a little bit each day so that, come Christmas, it'll be fat and ready to poop. Yup. Poop. That's the whole point of the tió: you gotta make it real fat so it'll poop out tons of presents. Some families buy various sized tiós, in order to "make it grow" as the days go by. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (depending on the home), it's time to get together as a family and beat the crap outta the tió.

Say what?

Okay, okay, I swear people actually do this! A lot of people! Many city halls even set up tiós in parks and plazas so kids can go whack it. There are even several songs to go along with the whacking process. Here are a couple, along with loose translations:
Different types of turró.

Caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó!
Caga tió! 

Poop tió,

Poop turró [nougat candy],
hazelnuts and mató [type of fresh cheese]
if you don't poop well
I'll hit you with a cane!
Poop tió! [And the beating continues.] 

And another one:

Caga tió,
Delicious mató cheese with honey.
tió de Nadal,
no caguis arengades,
que són massa salades!
Caga torrons
que són més bons!

Poop tió,
Christmas log,
don't poop herrings,
they're too salty!
Poop turrons, [nougat candy]
they're more delicious!

So what does the tió actually poop? Smaller presents, similar to what we would call stocking stuffers in the US. Some also poop nougat candies, chocolates, or even a dried herring to indicate it's done pooping. All this, of course is planted by the adults under the tió's convenient blanket while the kids are distracted and out of the room. There's usually something for everyone, though the kids understandably get the big poopie haul. "Look, honey! Your Tió pooped out Dora the Explorer!" (This sentence was actually spoken at my sister-in-law's home.)

So let's just leave that there, mmmkay?

Let the festivities commence!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: Kafka on the Shore


I'm officially disgruntled. You might have seen my recent post Review As You Read, in which I blundered through most of Kafka on the Shore and wrote a vague summary (didn't want to give things away) along with my reactions (I was equally pleased and bored).

Now that the story is over, I'm neither pleased nor bored. I'm frustrated.

Let me be clear: I enjoy mythology, I enjoy metaphysical meanderings, I love riddles--especially existentialist ones... Pondering my existence and treading on the verge of non-existence are themes I also investigate (to a limited degree) in my work. So why am I so dissatisfied with Kafka on the Shore?

Basically, I find it too open to interpretation. Don't get me wrong: I do enjoy open endings, but everything has to have a limit. Take the ending of the film Inception, for example. I know no movie is without sin, but I particularly enjoyed the free-interpretation ending in this flick. In my personal version, the happy ending is no more than a dream within a dream--a lie the main character tells himself. Other viewers argue that the ending is reality--check Cobb's wedding ring, etc.

In Inception we have an open ending, an unanswered riddle, and to me that's fine. Let's look at another example: Life of Pi. There is a heavy religious element (which some complain is shoehorned in), but also a gut-wrenching tale of survival. Which version of the story should we believe? Animal? Human? What really happened to Pi? Is the tiger a representation of his inner self, or was he truly on a boat with this massive feline? All unanswered questions, but not remotely as frustrating as Kafka on the Shore because, one way or another, readers can choose their own answers.

Having said that, let's return to Kafka on the Shore. Just off the top of my head:

What the hell happened to Nakata as a child? What's the meaning/use of the flute made out of cat souls? Is Johnnie Walker really Kafka's father? If so, does that make Kafka's father a cat murderer and possibly a meddler in the dark arts? Did Nakata ever manage to recover the part of himself that he lost in that freak accident we still know almost nothing about? Why'd he suddenly die? Is Colonel Sanders the same "entity" as Johnnie Walker? Why can't we get to see the flute? What the hell is that white creature that tries to go into the entrance stone? What the hell is that town hidden in the forest? Is it a sort of limbo? Other dimension? Afterlife? Too...many...frustrating...questions!

As you might have noticed, these questions don't really refer to the big picture. They're book-specific, plot-specific, however you want to call it. These are the worst, in my opinion, because they can easily make a reader feel frustrated and lose interest in the story. Their abundance makes me wonder if I might have blacked out during a few pages...or chapters. What's worse is that, as the action progresses, the questions just keep on piling up--and never get resolved! When absolutely every plot point raises a question that never gets answered, my BS meter starts to go off.

All these loose ends and unfulfilled promises build up so that by the time I reach the end of the novel I'm far from awed. I'm frustrated and not in the mood to ponder any longer--not when the questions I'm left with don't have any life-enlightening meaning to me. Not when the promise of dark fantasy (initiated by the character Johnnie Walker and his infamous soul flute) fizzles out into a mish-mash of pseudo-philosophical representations.

The answers are always just out of reach: a page away, just one more page, just a little more, then we'll finally understand. Not this page? Turn another one. Oh... Not in this chapter? Then maybe in the next one. Yeah, the next one for sure. Or not...

Let me illustrate my frustration with a sample from the book.

The last chapter contained a true kick in the gut for me. Kafka has just returned from "beyond" (whatever, whenever, and wherever the heck that is). Two WWII soldiers apparently frozen in time guard the entrance and lead Kafka back out to the cabin in the woods where he was staying. Soon, a man called Sada comes to pick him up and take him back to the library, his usual residence. This is part of the conversation that ensues:

     "Did you run across the soldiers?" Sada asks casually as if he'd asked me what time it was.
     "You mean those two soldiers?"
     "Right," Sada responds, glancing at me. "You went in that far, eh?"
     "Yeah, I did," I reply.
     His hands lightly gripping the wheel as he manoeuvres it, he doesn't respond, and his expression doesn't tell me anything.
     "Sada?" I ask.
     "Hm?" he says.
     "When you met those soldiers ten years ago, what did you do?"
     "What did I do when I met those soldiers?" he repeats.
     I nod and wait for his answer.
     He glances in the rear-view mirror, then looks ahead again, "I've never talked about that to anyone," he says. "Not even to my brother. Brother, sister--whatever you want to call him. Brother works for me. He doesn't know anything about those soldiers."
     I nod, saying nothing.
     "And I doubt I'll ever tell anybody about it. Even you. And I don't think you'll ever talk about it to anyone, either. Even to me. You know what I'm trying to say?"
     "I think so," I tell him.
     "What is it?"
     "It's not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can't express."
     "There you go," Sada replies. "Exactly. If you can't get it across in words, then it's better not to try."

Page 496 of my edition (last chapter).

My reaction:
Are you serious? Did that just happen?

It's scenes like these which make me wonder if the author isn't having a hoot at our expense. I've seen them in book forums: loyal readers discussing and debating and picking apart every meaningless detail in an effort to understand something--anything. To me, that's grasping at straws. I'm the kind of person that wants answers. More or less straightforward answers. Maybe I'm too pragmatic. Maybe I'm too literal, though I do understand things aren't black or white but actually an ample gradient of tones of gray. People can have different answers for the same question, and they can all coexist.

Being open to interpretation isn't really the problem--I already mentioned this with examples such as Inception or Life of Pi. The problem is being too open to interpretation. So open, in fact, that the story begins to resemble more a pantomime of a riddle than an actual riddle.

Unfortunately, this is the sickening feeling I get after reading Kafka on the Shore. As I mentioned in my Review As You Read post, I generally enjoyed Nakata's chapters more than Kafka's because they were more straightforward and the action seemed to be leading somewhere. However, I felt cheated. Chapter 16 was for me a turning point in the story. Johnnie Walker needed to murder cats and devour their beating hearts in order to create a flute with the cat souls. The question is WHY? Why, God in Heaven, WHY?

Walker cruelly murders three cats as Nakata watches, helpless. Johnnie Walker wants Nakata to kill him, and finally the old man snaps and does just that. It was a shocker of a chapter, and it promised many things--things which never really came to term. Sure, Walker does make a final appearance in which the boy named Crow pecks out his eyes while he cackles with laughter. He even taunts us by mentioning that he now has the soul flute, but it's in his bag and he doesn't feel like taking it out. *Disgruntled grumbling.*

It seems we readers are always left with a sense of "aaaaaaaaaaaalmost there!" I could go on for days. That's how frustrated I am right now.

Let me finish my long list of negatives and give a quick nod to the positives: the novel does offer several beautiful passages. My favorite is when Kafka enters the forest for the first time and realizes how dangerous it truly is. The descriptions of the trees, guarding their realm, really brings the entire scene to life. Another segment I truly enjoyed appears near the beginning, in which a person's torment is compared to a sandstorm raging all around, a natural disaster we must overcome.

But that's pretty much it.


Want to wonder about where we fit into the big scheme of things? Want to have your existence blown? A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking took me for a much wilder trip than Kafka on the Shore. Period.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Soul Distillery

It's been a while (over a year...) since I published my first novel, Serving Time. Many things have happened since then. The novel's sequel, Making Time, is just about ready--I only need to rewrite a chapter or two (*muffled cry of utter agony*). The third novel in the series, which is temporarily titled Out of Time, is also well underway.

It's tough juggling all these projects, so sometimes a break becomes mandatory. And what better way to relax than to slip out of the full-length novel and venture into novella? Yeah, that just about hits the spot. Toss in the tragic past of probably the most dangerous character in my series, and I got myself one humdinger of an R and R session.

Without further ado, I'm proud to present to you all The Soul Distillery.

When Robert's wife passes away, he vows to bring her back to him—even if he has to chop up his soul and feed it to the Devil. Through trades and negotiations with demons, Robert uncovers the secrets of necromancy and constructs a machine capable of stealing souls from the living and inserting them into the dead. But when resurrecting his wife implies murdering a child, Robert must choose between abandoning his quest, or condemning himself to Hell.

The Soul Distillery is now available for just $0.99.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review As You Read - Kafka on the Shore

On November 21, 2014 I began reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I'm equally thrilled and bored by the novel, and since this is quite a strange combination of sensations I thought I would share it with you all in a special post: RAYR -- Review As You Read. This post is a sort of diary where I vent out my general musings as I turn the pages of this...fantasy?...drama?...literary? novel. I'll do my best to be vague, but I should still say (just in case) SPOILER ALERT.

If you don't mind spoilers and want a chapter-by-chapter timeline, this site is excellent.

November 21 to 24

Kafka (not his real name) Tamura runs away from home on his fifteenth birthday, under the shadow of a dark prophecy (which I still don't know). This might sound a bit bland (I mean, another prophecy kid, really?), but the truth is the story has its interesting points. For example, in the very first chapter Kafka is urged on by the slightly creepy "boy named Crow," a sort of Friend? Hallucination?

Sadly, though, the following chapters were a big letdown. Kafka travels by long-distance bus and the journey is excruciatingly boring--it's like you're there with him! I guess you could say that's good... Puts us right in the scene... *sigh*

Soon after--surprise! Kafka wakes up in a garden, covered in blood, and has no idea what happened or how long he's been passed out. News breaks out that his father was stabbed to death. Hmmm... *suspicious, ain't it?*

Another main character is the old man Nakata, who experienced a very unusual accident as a child and ended up a bit dim-witted. This character is introduced for the first time through top-secret interviews (yeah, there's a whole Area 51 feel surrounding this story...). To tell the truth, at first I didn't care much for the tedious statements. However, as the unusual story unfurled, I found myself wanting to know more.

After hearing about Nakata's childhood experience, we have the pleasure of meeting him. As I mentioned, he's quite old and his delicate mental condition has him living on a government "sub city." Don't underestimate Nakata, though: there's one unique thing he can do, and that's talk to cats. Any conversation with a cat is purrrfect in my book! So far, I find Nakata's story much more engaging than Kafka's, as the old man is searching for a lost cat and comes across a very dangerous character by the name of Johnnie Walker. I'm a bit hesitant to read on, since I'm pretty sure this dangerous guy kills animals (mainly cats) for pleasure--and animal cruelty is something I absolutely cannot stomach.

Finally, I have to warn you all about a certain chapter about a library. I don't know how I pulled through. It literally sucked away my will to live and I ended up skimming a few of the pages just to get it over with. It's somewhere around chapter 3 or 4. I don't dare look back because I have the feeling that once I open those pages again the boredom will drag me down into a puddle of despair. It might just be me, but it was the most boring chapter I've ever read as far as I remember. You'll know which one it is when you come across it. Basically, Kafka investigates a library. Oh, no. The memories.

November 25

Did I say the library chapter was bad? Wait until you reach Chapter 16. It's a completely different type of bad--it's EVIL. I'll admit it's powerful. It follows Nakata on his search for the lost cat Goma into the home of Johnnie Walker, who I will now describe as Satan personified. Did I mention I can't stomach animal cruelty? I've said enough. This chapter disgusted me so much I had trouble sleeping that night--and the following night as well. However, this is for now one of the most powerful scenes I've read in the entire novel, and Walker is especially interesting. I do hope we get to learn more about him because he added a deep touch of dark fantasy to the story.

I do feel sorry for Nakata. The poor old man has been through so much--though I feel much, much sorrier for Mr. Kawamura...

November 26 to 30

Fish and leeches rain from the sky. Kafka reveals the prophecy (and it's one most of us have heard before...). Nakata, after recent horrifying events, decides to leave his neighborhood for the first time in his life. He's searching for something--though he's not sure what. As if driven by some divine force, Nakata hitchhikes his way west and eventually teams up with a young man called Hoshino, who drops everything to be his loyal follower. Together, they find the entrance stone--and open it (basically, Hoshino has to turn it over and it becomes the heaviest stone in the world). Now that the door is open...what'll happen?

So what does Kafka do while all this is going on? Basically, he makes friends with Oshima, a librarian at the famous library we read about earlier, and ends up living in the library's guest house. He learns about Miss Saeki, the head librarian, and her tragic past. Monumental coincidence: when she was younger, Miss Saeki recorded a single called Kafka on the Shore. The lyrics are the most ambiguous thing ever, but I have the suspicion we'll understand everything clearly as the pages go by.

Once again, the chapters involving Nakata overshadow the Kafka chapters, at least as far as my own personal interest goes. Kafka tells his story in the first person whereas Nakata's chapters are told in an omniscient third person narrative voice. Even so, I feel much closer and much more empathetic towards Nakata than the teenage runaway. I believe this is because Nakata sparks a sort of tenderness in me: he's sweet and naive so I want things to go well for him. Most of all, I want him to recover what he lost in his childhood accident, and I believe--hope--that's where the story is heading.

His story so far is also much more straightforward than Kafka's. Kafka's chapters involve long existentialist paragraphs, quotes from Greek plays and philosophers, and repetition of the same metaphysical questions. All this is all right--up to a point. As a reader, I usually want more action and less metaphysical moping about.

So far, I've read up to the point where Nakata and the faithful Hoshino reach the library where Kafka has been spending his days--though Kafka is away at the time because the police are searching for him regarding his strange disappearance and the even stranger death of his father.

My next post will be the conclusion and final overall opinion. Not that many pages left! I hope all the loose ends get tied up!

Monday, December 1, 2014

More Cool Name Generators!

A long while back, I posted a list of some of my favorite online name generators.

It's about time for some more, don't you think?

Fantasy Name Generator by Samuel Stoddard

This down-to-business site offers a variety of choices and results. The simple interface already promises a ton of fun, as you can choose from a list of name types: default names, short names, long names, names with dashes, consonant heavy names, vowel heavy names, Japanese names, Greek names, Dragons, Pokemon and... my absolute all-time favorites... FUN NAMES. Some of the hilarious names you can generate are "Mushy names" (Snookiepie, Foofiesnoogylips, Mooglielove), "Insults" (Dorkclod, Airknocker, Nitdoof...), and even--brace yourselves--"Mushy Insults" (Anklelovey, Goofbunker, Poofcorn...).

See ya! I'm off to scribble some flash fiction with the mushiest, most insulting characters ever.

Seventh Sanctum

Seventh Sanctum offers an ample array of different generators; just check the tab "Generator Types" and you'll see what I'm talking about. Its name generator offers anything from usual names to extreme fantasy names, pirate ship names and even tavern names--but that's not all it can do. Seventh Sanctum also offers creative prompts ranging anywhere from descriptions of new alien races to lists of (humorous) evil minions. It's an excellent resource to get those sticky creative juices flowing, or just kill some time. A feature I particularly like is that, when you are working with one generator, it offers suggestions for other generators you might enjoy. That way, you can navigate the site, hopping from one fun stop to another.

Release the supersonic android hamsters!

(Haven't you always wanted to yell that?)

Chaotic Shiny

Chaotic Shiny is a random generator for gaming and writing purposes. You can use it to make random lists of character's attitudes (e.g. "Is disdainful towards the character, and has strong feelings about it. Their feelings spring from regional stereotypes."), names for places (from real-sounding names to nonsense names), and even superstitions. There are many, many sections in this site, so it's a great idea to check out the different possibilities. I'm sure everyone will find something to get their imagination boiling!

For example, let's use Chaotic Shiny to come up with a name for our own very special spaceship! You can tell the generator to give you ship names and stats, and it will create a random list of names, along with register numbers, crew capacity, cargo space... Here goes:

Proton Smasher (PRS-789)
Sensors: Average
Weapons: Average
Shields: Poor
Crew: 7-12 members
Speed: Good
Cargo Space: Good
Passenger Space: Average
Fuel Supply: Good
Extra: Comes in many versions; some say no two of this craft are exactly alike

All in all, there are many name generators out in the interwebs. It's up to you to find the ones you like most and HAVE FUN!
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