I just submitted my entry for this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I thought you might be interested to see what I came up with as the "pitch," what might appear on the back cover of the printed book. Here it is:
A great city, attacked by enemies of its faith and urbanity and betrayed from within, calls upon its faith, cynicism, and chicanery to survive and seduce its anti-urban adversaries. In the summer of 1402, as the walls of Christian Constantinople tremble under Ottoman siege machines, acting ruler Ioannes VII secretly sends Ottoman Sultan “Thunderbolt” Bayezid a gift -- including the key to the city and 14-year old Princess Theodota Palaiologina for the harem. But before this surrender can be consummated, the sultan suspends his siege to confront the khan Timur (Tamerlane) who has invaded from the east, and the princess, key and treasure are entrusted to the gazi Arslanshahin (“Lionhawk”), an Islamic war chief, to deliver. To prevent the battle with Timur, Arslanshahin must reach the sultan quickly -- the conquest of Christendom’s most holy city will bring such prestige as to prevent another Muslim from attacking. But the gazi’s band of horse archers is slowed in the Anatolian mountains by their burden of treasure-laden camels and the Greek-speaking Christian princess, her demands and her retinue. Theodota, believing herself to be on a divine mission to convert her captors, makes contact with a Greek-born janissary with a confusion of loyalties, a multilingual Serbian slave girl and the resourceful Turkish women accompanying the warriors, and develops an intense and conflictive relationship with the gazi who is both her captor and protector. The novel conveys the passions of the conflicting faiths in a historically accurate portrayal of this tense moment, just half a century before the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror. It will appeal to all those eager to understand the background of Christianity’s complicated relations with Islam today, and especially to those who have enjoyed International Booker Prize-winner Ismail Kadare’s novel The Siege or the works of Orhan Pamuk.


Mother Spain and her difficult daughters

When a Peruvian friend heard, his voice trembled at the thought that I would be moving to la madre patria, the "mother-fatherland." I laughed and explained that, for me, Spain was more like an adoptive "tía abuela" (great-aunt) -- my known ancestors all hailed from more northern parts of Europe.

My Spanish American friends tend to have strong, ambivalent feelings about the Madre Patria, and because I had lived and worked for so many years in the former Spanish colonies, I shared those ambivalences. Madrileños were said to be arrogant and racist, contemptuous of Latin Americans who failed to speak with their ridiculous, effeminate lisp. Gallegos were said to be dull-witted and suspicious, catalanes shrewd and money-grubbing, and andaluces simpáticos and frivolous and not to be taken seriously. Other Spaniards -- e.g., asturianos, vascos or leoneses -- barely existed in our mental picture of the country.

These thoughts and some scant knowledge of the history -- there had been a terrible civil war, and then the cruel Franco dictatorship -- and some poetry of García Lorca were what I had in my head when I arrived on my first visit in the summer of 1981. Franco had died 6 years earlier, but an assault on parliament in February 1981 had very nearly succeeded in restoring his repressive system. (See the note by my alter ego, Baltasar Lotroyo, on this dangerous moment: Un instante que sigue reverberando.) The scary Guardias Civiles were still parading around with their bandoliers, three-corner hats and submachine guns, and the stirrings that would give rise two years later to the huge Socialist Party victory were barely discernible to a visitor.

And I had a wonderful time, made even better by the fact that I had expected to be miserable. The Guardias Civiles who approached when I had a flat in my rented car turned out to be shy and eager to help --even willing to get their uniforms dirty to crank up the jack. Nobody laughed at my accent, though I spoke like a South American, pronouncing Z's like S's. And the music, the food, the wine, the laughter, the kindness of people, the fascinating layers of history visible in caves and castles -- you can see my reactions in this poem I wrote at the end of my trip, Las cosas buenas de Andalucía.

And now, since 2006, we are living here, in Andalucía. Spain has changed enormously, mostly for the better: the democratic system has been greatly strengthened, the country is far more prosperous, and both the government and its many civil organizations are very active in aid of all sorts to needier countries, for example in the current crisis in Haiti. There are many other examples, some of them controversial, such as the military presence in Lebanon and Afghanistan, but all of them obeying a sense of obligation and international solidarity. Spain has in particular been a major contributor to economic development and cultural programs in its former colonies.

Many Latin Americans have by now forgiven Spain for the massacres of the conquistadores, the Inquisition and expoliation, for two compelling reasons: They see that Spain is no longer the same country it was in its imperial days, and they have seen that crimes like those are not specifically Spanish. In fact, Spain was a refuge for many Latin Americans fleeing the barbarism of military regimes in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere in the Americas in the 1980s.

But 2010 is the bicentennial of the first cries of independence, the beginning of the wars that finally "liberated" most of Spain's American colonies. The anger of two centuries ago, and beyond to the 300+ years of colonization, is now an atavism, but still kept alive by nationalist politicians, and we'll be hearing demands for apologies and reparations. Spain has more than apologized: its historians and musicians and writers embrace and are embraced by their counterparts everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world. And as for reparations, Spain's sponsorship of schools, hospitals and development projects in the bast 30 years has been exceptionally generous for an economy of its size. But the ambivalence persists, and so will angry cries of victimhood. So be ware.


Recent reading: On reading

Here's a fascinating book by a French brain scientist who is elegantly articulate in English. The language is important, because he uses the peculiarities of English spelling, and the consequent difficulties of inexperienced readers to interpret it, to demonstrate how many different areas of the brain must be activated to interpret something as simple as the sentence you have just read.

Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention. (Viking, 2009)

When we begin to read a page of text, we don't take in the whole page or even a whole line, but visualize clearly only a very small section at a time, moving our eyes in rapid saccades. Reading requires rapid and successive interpretations of small sets of visual marks (in alphabetic writing, no more than 5-7 letters per saccade) by neurons from several regions of the brain, interrogating the symbols until the most likely hypothesis of their meaning is established. The very first operation in each saccade is to recognize the symbols as letters (rather than corporate logos, or numbers, or something else) and attribute possible sounds to them. If the symbols invariably represent a single sound (as in Italian or German), it is quickly recognized by the phonics neurons. If they may represent several possible sounds (e.g., the letters "ough" in English), other neurons from other parts of the brain must apply grammatical rules while others evaluate context (the symbols seen in previous saccades) to narrow the possible interpetations.

Recognition of symbols as letters (or phonemes or characters in nonalphabetic systems) occurs in all humans, regardless of culture or writing system, in approximately the same section of the left brain hemisphere (Dehaene calls it the "letter box"), but requires activation of other brain sections to interpret them. Recognition of simplified symbols, or "proto letters", evolved millions of years before the invention of writing, inspired by common forms seen in nature: L, Y, T etc. Even apes recognize such symbols. What humans have been able to do that apes cannot is to learn to give different interpretations to the symbols, that is, to invent writing.

"…over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains. In brief, our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing. Rather, writing evolved to fit the cortex." Thus all writing systems in all cultures, even Chinese or the many Indian scripts, share common features: combinations of symbols of no more than 4 strokes, arranged in straight, regular lines. All (even Chinese) include some signal of sound. Those writing systems that correspond most closely to spoken sounds (e.g., Finnish, Italian, German) are the quickest for children to learn, English is the most difficult of the European languages and reading Chinese takes much longer. Phonics teaching is far superior to "whole word" approach for enabling the learner to read unfamiliar words.

There is much more to this book, including diagrams of brains and brain activity, a capsule history of the probable history of writing (how the first symbols were invented and how they evolved), anecdotes from the history of reading-brain research, an impassioned discussion of pedagogy, and chapters on dyslexia and mirror writing. It's a very complex subject, but Dehaene is a graceful writer and makes it about as clear as it can be for us non-neuroscientists.

For more on this author, see Overview - Experimental Cognitive Psychology - Stanislas Dehaene - Collège de France