Thursday, October 19, 2023

Poem: The Smoke Rises High In The Negev Sky


Photo by Hanan Greenwood

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

New Poem: Dreams

Each dream, said Freud, is a wish unfulfilled,
A longing for an unreachable goal,
Obscure desires deep in our subconscious
That haunt us even as we sleep.
The nighttime is the mind’s chance to rebuild,
Fulfill the longings of each desperate soul
To awaken memories of a distant promise,
That lie dormant, hidden somewhere deep.
A world without order, a world without sense
Awaits us each night when we hibernate,
Each detail a mystical connection
That exists not in our waking state.
The search for meaning, the search for clues,
Answers to life’s riddles as we snooze
Friendships lost; tasks yet undone
That when we awake are soon forgotten.
Random images from a long time ago,
From out of childhood’s unconscious mind
That stalk us each night after bedtime
From out of the darkness and obscurity.
If only we could finally crack the code
And bring light to this eternal mystery!

Sunday, October 23, 2022

More on Universal Truths in Literature

My most popular post without a doubt is “Why We Need Universal Truths in Literature,” which has garnered over 4,500 views. This is shocking enough, and I never stop asking myself why a post about a tired old concept like “universal truths” would attract so many readers, especially given that we are already living in post-modern, post-rational world.

Or are we?

As I wrote in my previous article, Humans have an insatiable desire for truth, and good literature and art in general awaken the knowledge of these truths that exist in our subconscious, especially since truth appears to be embedded in our DNA. In this sense, truth can never be excised, no matter how much we are told the opposite or subjected to propaganda. We know truth when we hear it, when we see it, and when we read it. We are drawn to truth like moths to a flame because it awakens in us concepts that are eternal, and can never be expunged from our souls. This is the reason why art and literature are usually the first things to go in totalitarian societies because art brings us dangerously close to the truth. It awakens us to the lies and distortions that  we are subjected to. Art allows us to transcend our present situation, no matter how dire or repressive, with timeless concepts. It envelops our humanity in a cocoon of eternal wisdom and meaning that shield us from lies and deceit. Art is transparent. It allows us to see deep within a concept to its universal qualities and how they apply to our lives. Art never hides the truth: it illuminates and glorifies it. Art preserves the truth for future generations, teaching us what it means to be human in a chaotic and often dangerous world.

The Function of Art

If you ask the average person why they pick up a book to read, most people would say to be entertained, to get a thrill, to experience a romance, to travel, to learn, to feel some emotion. Hardly anyone would say they want to encounter a truth. For what is a truth? Who says if something is true or not? Who gets to decide these matters? 

One of the many functions of art is to express emotions, to enrich mankind with teachings, to immortalize stories and heroes. But also, one of the functions of art is to teach us what is true about ourselves. This seems a little self-contradictory since it would appear that it was the job of the natural sciences to give us truth. But rather than being didactical, literature can demonstrate the truth about our humanity in a more effective way: via the characters' behavior and actions, thus teaching a concept in a rather stark and more memorable way.

Allow me to illustrate.

Not too long ago I was reading an old classic called "Moonfleet" by J. Meade Falkner (1898), a historical novel about a young orphan who gets involved with smugglers. About four chapters in, I wasn’t too impressed with the novel. It was only when I reached Chapter 5 that I was awestruck. Un the first two pages of Chapter 5, I encountered no less than four universal truths. This is astounding given the fact that most novels are lucky if they contain even one universal truth. Here were four in a few paragraphs! How was this possible?

In the story, the orphan (John Trenchard) has lost his mother and father early on. He lives with an uncaring aunt who hated his father and resents having to raise him. Because young John feels so alienated in his aunt’s home, he often goes out wandering, and on one night, he spies some smugglers and follows them to their hiding place (a crypt) where he is unwittingly locked up and left to die.
James Trenchard is an orphan who finds himself in peril in "Moonfleet."

During all the time he is sealed up in the vault, his aunt never goes looking for him. She never worries about him. In fact, she doesn’t even care that he’s gone. She's almost glad to be rid of him. It takes his teacher to go looking for him after he fails to appear in class several days in a row. But the teacher doesn’t go looking or him initially because he fears he’s missing. He goes to the aunt’s house to pay him a sick call, since he believes the boy is sick, and is shocked to discover the boy is not sick, but missing. When he asks about the boy, the aunt merely shrugs her shoulders and says, “He is run off I know not where, but as he makes his bed, must he lie on it. And if he run away for his pleasure, may stay away for mine. I have been pestered with this lot too long, and only bore with him for poor sister Martha’s sake. But ‘tis after his father that the graceless lad takes, and thus rewards me.” She them slams the door in the teacher’s face.

Initially the teacher believes the boy has run off to sea, but after putting a few clues together, he realizes the boy has been shut up in a vault and thus saves his life.

In these few paragraphs I learned some shocking universal truths. And by universal, they apply to everyone regardless of time or place. They apply to all humans on the basis of our shared humanity:

a) There’s a danger in being with people who don’t care about you. You must have someone to care about you and inquire after you.

b) You never know who will be your friend in the end and who will be your enemy.

c) Visiting the sick is not just a nice thing to do. It could literally save someone’s life.

d) When one does not love you, they will not care about you or ask about you.

In the end, the teacher finds John Trenchard close to death, and with the help of the local tavern-keeper, nurses him back to life. When John goes back to his aunt’s house, instead of welcoming him back home, she greets him with harsh words and does not let him cross the threshold, saying she would have no tavern-loungers in her house. She tells John to go back to the tavern and he realizes that his aunt’s home has never been his true home:

“When I heard such scurvy words, felt the devil rise in my heart, and only laughed, though bitter tears were in my eyes. So I turned my back upon the only home that I had ever known, and sauntered off down the village, feeling very alone.”

And thus I learned still another universal truth: that people use religion and morality as a means to emotionally abuse people and exclude them.

"Moonfleet" is a great adventure novel about a boy overcoming terrible odds, but in the end, it is also a teacher of important truths. A simple story with such profound wisdom and moral teachings! 

We ignore the teachings of art and literature at our own peril.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

New Cover Reveal: Island on Fire - Romantic Historical Thriller

So pleased to reveal a new cover for ISLAND ON FIRE, a romantic historical thriller set in the Caribbean, during the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique. I released the book in 2018 after three years of research and writing, two trips to the island where I immersed myself in the culture, history, volcanology, and archeology. I visited two volcano museums and explored parts of the city that were never rebuilt. I have written about my
harrowing journeys through volcanic ruins, confrontations with insects, and the sweltering heat. But it was all worth it. Especially when I received a wonderful review from Publishers Weekly that called the novel "a memorable romantic thriller."

For the new cover I wanted a more evocative image that highlighted the exotic jungle flora, the danger of the volcano, and a character whose life is in peril. Love this new design by Tim Flanagan at Novel Design Studio. He got the imagery perfect including the historical feel of the novel.

The novel is now on sale this Fall for .99 cents - Kindle version and $8.99 for the paperback. Take advantage of these new low prices to immerse yourself in a story of danger, romance, intrigue, adventure, and voodoo mysticism set at the turn of the last century on an island that is about to erupt from within, culminating in the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. 
You can buy a copy of ISLAND ON FIRE by clicking HERE. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Socrates: A Poem

One day while strolling in Athens town
I met a man of great renown
A scholar known as Socrates
This philosopher put me quite at ease
Great sir, said I, can you teach me—
The secrets of your philosophy?
And so, this Greek said with a wink:
“I cannot teach; I can only make you think!”
And so, I endeavored on a whim
To learn the secrets of his acumen
What made this man second to none?
He said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
And then he said the strangest thing:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
That knowledge is a virtue; and ignorance a sin
For greatness comes in knowing that we know nothing.
His philosophy was all I yearned
Yet there was so much more I had to learn
He said, “Education is the kindling of a flame
Let it not burn out and die in vain!”

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Incredible True Story of America's First Shots Fired During WWI

On the evening of March 21, 1915, the German steamer ODENWALD attempted to quietly pull out of the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, without customs clearance. As the ship was leaving the harbor, she was “met with a brisk machine gun fire from Morro Castle," said German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff in an angry letter to Secretary of State Robert Lansing. A few minutes later, "a solid cannon shot struck the water a short distance in front of the ship's bow, raising a column of water from ten to twelve feet high. The engine was immediately stopped and backed at full speed. The forward motion of the ship ceased at once. In spite of which she was fired upon about three minutes longer. Marks of the bullets can be plainly seen in various places of the ship and hull. It was only through luck that no human life was lost in that onslaught."

This Caribbean tale of drama and conflict occurred just after Germany declared their policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” in February of 1915, when they would sink any merchant ship heading to Great Britain without warning. This policy angered neutral countries, especially the United States. The tactic was only abandoned in September 1915, after the sinking of the LUSITANIA and ARABIC. But in the meanwhile, tensions were high. Germany desperately needed supplies. So, they ramped up their supply network through passenger ships of the Hamburg-America Line. The United States knew this, and knew that any ship that made it to Germany would prolong the war, prolong the agony. So, they disallowed Germany to make use of their neutral ports, among them, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Odenwald in San Juan harbor.
The ODENWALD was a German merchant freighter (a coal collier) that began to service the German Navy days after the beginning of the war. Her duty was to serve as support freighter for the cruiser SMS Karlsruhe whose mission was to patrol the eastern Atlantic in search of enemy merchant vessels to raid and sink. She sailed into San Juan harbor around August 6 1914, possibly seeking refuge from a British squadron of warships. Since the U.S. was neutral, it is possible that her crew claimed to be a merchant ship, but the U.S. authorities suspected otherwise.

On two thorough searches by harbor officials, the ODENWALD was refused permission to sail. Tensions were high among the sailors and harbor officials. “There was no ground upon which to decline to issue the papers,” insisted Bernstorff. “The reckless action of the harbor authorities in opening fire on the steamer without warning was not justified by the circumstances of the case.” Secretary of State Robert Lansing defended the action, saying that “in her endeavor to leave port, the ODENWALD “committed a willful breach of the navigation laws of the United States…which made it necessary to employ force to prevent her unauthorized departure.”

Were the port authorities justified?

When war broke out in August 1914, the United States tried to remain neutral. Still, American ships carried food, ammunition, and raw materials to Britain and Russia, which remained a thorn in the side of 
the Kaiser. In addition, German ships were subject to strict regulations as to how long they could remain in port, and what they were allowed to carry. When the ODENWALD tried to pull out with a shipload of supplies bound for U-boats in the Atlantic, her sister ship, the S.S. 
PRÄSIDENT was hovering nearby, waiting to see how far they could push American patience with their willful breaching of the navigation laws of the United States. The PRÄSIDENT was a German vessel that served as both passenger and cargo ship before the war. When the war broke out, she also began to serve in the German Navy as a support vessel to the cruiser Karlsruhe by providing radio communication and supplies. She arrived in Puerto Rico in December 1914 to take refuge from British and French cruisers that were hunting her and eventually was interned by the U.S. government.

Unfortunately for the Germans, the officer on duty was a determined military officer who was having none of it.

Col. Teófilo Marxuach (1877 – 1939)
Col. Teófilo Marxuach was a Puerto Rican military officer who took decisive action that would make him known as the person who ordered the first shots fired of World War I on behalf of the United States. Born in Puerto Rico under Spanish rule, he studied military engineering in Guadalajara, Spain and received a lieutenant's commission in the Spanish Army. After the Treaty of Paris (1898) transferred control of Puerto Rico to the United States, Marxuach resigned the Spanish Army and joined the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry, commissioned with a rank of second lieutenant. In 1908, the U.S. Congress reorganized the regiment as part of the regular U.S. Army and Marxuach took an oath of U.S. citizenship along with his new officer’s oath. That same year, he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant and stationed at El Morro Castle.

The Captain of the ODENWALD, C. S. Segebarth, requested clearance to sail back to Hamburg the next day and 5000 tons of coal for the trip. Suspicious of the request, the local authorities decided to consult with Washington, D.C. and, afraid that the vessel would leave without clearance, alerted the commanding officer at the fortress of El Morro. Washington approved the use of force if necessary and the German captain of the ODENWALD was warned several times. Despite the Germans’ assurances that they would not leave without clearance, the soldiers on the fort made preparations in case such a situation occurred. A machine gun platoon was placed on the Bastión de San Agustín, 500 feet from the Morro Castle commanded by Captain Wood, and the heavy guns of El Morro were readied under the command of Lt. Teófilo Marxuach.

On the day in question, the customs inspector visited the ODENWALD, but his visit was cut short when the ship started her engines around 3:00 pm and began moving on the main channel towards the mouth of the harbor without clearance. The customs collector was asked to leave in a small boat. As the ODENWALD passed the Bastion de San Agustin, Captain Wood, standing on the parapet of the sea wall, hailed the vessel several times without success. The ODENWALD stayed on course and Wood ordered Sgt. Encarnacion Correa to fire warning shots with his machine gun. Failing to stop the vessel, Lt. Marxuach fired a 4.7 inch cannon of the Santa Rosa battery in the upper platform of El Morro across the bow of the ship in what is considered to be the first shot of World War I fired by the regular armed forces of the United States against any ship flying the colors of the Central Powers. When the ODENWALD stopped and dropped anchor at the mouth of the harbor under the fortress, she was eventually moved back to the upper harbor with a pilot and its supplies were confiscated. An international incident broke out when the German government accused the United States of holding the ODENWALD illegally against its will without firing the customary warning shot as required by international law. The United States government responded that Lt. Col. Burnham, commander of the fortress of El Morro Castle, made it clear that only warning shots were made and that none were aimed at the ODENWALD. Eventually, the ODENWALD was refitted and renamed SS NEWPORT by the U.S. government and assigned to the U.S. Shipping Board, where it served until 1924.

In 1917, the Germans resumed the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare against all Allied ships, which led to America's entry into the war. But they never stopped their smuggling and sabotage activities, which is the basis of my novel, THE UNLIKELY SPY, now out on Kindle and paperback.

Watch a video of Spanish historical re-enactors firing a cannon from the fort of El Morro, Puerto Rico:

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Unlikely Spy - Available for Preorder - Read a Sample Here.

Today The Unlikely Spy is available for preorder. Casablanca meets Notorious in a tale of danger, intrigue, espionage, and adventure. 

1917. Emma Christensen is a young widow who returns to the Danish West Indies to reclaim the life and the villa she left behind. When she discovers her husband has disinherited her in favor of his young heir—an illegitimate son—she turns to the one thing she knows, gambling, and soon finds herself deeply in debt.

Emma is approached by Cornelius Smith, a representative of an American shipping line, who offers an alternative: infiltrate the suspicious Hamburg-American Line and spy on its nefarious leader, Julius Luckner, to gain valuable business intelligence for his firm.

 It doesn’t take long for Emma to realize that both Smith and Luckner are not as they seem. Close to the Allies but even closer to the enemy, Emma bravely engages in missions that could blow her cover at any moment. But with the Panama Canal at stake, how far will she go to help the Allies?

The Unlikely Spy is a gripping and suspenseful World War I thriller from an accomplished thriller and historical adventure writer.

Read an excerpt here:

From the moment she left the telegraph office, Emma had an eerie feeling that someone was following her. It stayed with her all the way back to the hotel. She felt as if someone was watching her every move although she was quite certain she had slipped past the German in the lobby.

When she returned to her hotel, waited impatiently for Smith’s cable. She called down to the front desk numerous times to ask if any message had arrived for her, but the answer was always no. With no other recourse, she went to bed, tossing and turning half the night, fearing that something terrible had happened to Allendorf and now she was all alone. This was completely unexpected. For several agonizing hours she pondered what she should do, but couldn’t come up with a viable plan. The Germans were watching her every move. She was basically trapped in her hotel room, and Smith was counting on her to complete her mission. But no one could have foreseen such a reversal.

As the hours ticked by, she had an ominous feeling she couldn’t shake, that her life was hanging in the balance. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she had an unsettling feeling that would not quit.

When she could no longer tolerate her insomnia, she picked up the phone and ordered a chamomile tea from room service, hoping it would calm her jangling nerves. When the drink arrived, she splashed a bit of rum in it from her trusty flask. Yet she still had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Her eyes fell on her purse. It sat on the nightstand near her bed, just within her reach. She opened it, took out the pistol, and rehearsed priming it so she could use it in a tight spot. She needed to have the movements go like clockwork. There was no room for failure in this business. Luckily it only weighed two pounds. That made slipping it into her pocket easier. The magazine was already loaded with seven bullets. Seven chances to save her life. She gripped the pistol in her right hand and racked the slide, then added a bullet to the barrel. Now it was ready. She flicked the lever to “safe” and set the pistol down on the nightstand. Perhaps now she could sleep.

She lay down, pulled the sheet around her, and turned off the light. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but she could not fall asleep.

Outside, the moon cast a luminous glow on the surroundings. Crickets croaked their nightly serenade and the stars lit up the heavens. The palm fronds billowed in the breeze. The waves crashing on the rocks sent an ominous warning. Emma found it difficult to sleep in a different bed, and impossible to relax when she had so much on her mind, so much responsibility on her shoulders.

She got up and peered outside. Despite the late hour, there were still people milling about, laughing and heading to restaurants and casinos. Horse carriages trotted past while motorcars meandered down the streets, their glowing lights like the eyes of a puma. Sounds of amusement echoed from the restaurant below. Lights shone from the ships in Manzanillo Bay, creating a scene that was idyllic, almost peaceful. Further out, she could see the lights on the ships waiting to enter the canal. There was a long line of them that suspended off to the horizon. Each one had its own purpose and destination. Each one could be sunk at any time by German torpedoes or hidden bombs. She shivered. An explosion along the canal would cause chaos for the Allies. The Kaiser would gloat in his victory. His generals and their underlings would launch even more attacks. Emma could picture Luckner in his office toasting his triumph, patting himself on the back even as the embers of the canal still glowed.

She went back to bed and covered herself with the sheet, trying to block out her worries. But it was impossible. She had a sense of impending doom. And for some strange reason, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.

Suddenly she heard a scratching noise near her door. A man’s footsteps shuffled just outside. She froze and listened, not daring to move. Someone was fumbling with the lock, trying to break in. She sat up in bed, listening. She felt her heart stop. Yes, somebody was trying to break in.

She fumbled in the dark for her pistol. She grabbed it, flicked the safety to “fire” then eased herself off the bed. Crouching down on the floor, she listened as the noise continued ever so slightly that it was barely detectable. She sat behind the bed, aiming the pistol, not daring to breathe.

The latch turned and the door opened, allowing just enough light from the hallway to illuminate the figure of a man entering her room. When he was inside, he closed the door behind him and latched it. Her eyes widened. He tiptoed toward the bed and raised his hands as if to attack. Emma’s heart pounded as she released the pistol break and held her breath.

Available for preorder by clicking here.

A photo gallery of scenes in the novel:

The Grand Hotel, St. Thomas, Danish West Indies

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas 

Hotel Washington, Colon, Panama

U.S. ships guarding the Panama Canal, 1918

Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal.

Havana, Cuba

Fashions circa WWI.

Sophie Schiller writes thrillers and historical adventures. Her latest novel is THE UNLIKELY SPY, a WWI Spy Thriller set in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Panama. Sophie's other novels, THE LOST DIARY OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON, ISLAND ON FIRE, RACE TO TIBET, and TRANSFER DAY are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and iTunes.