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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Hand of Miriam--A Jewish Historical Fantasy Reviewed by a Jewish Highlander Fan

I agreed to review the steampunk fantasy Her Majesty's Witch by Eva Gordon this month, and received a free copy from the author via Book Sprout. Her Majesty's Witch is the sequel to  Hand of Miriam.  Eva Gordon recommended reading the previous novel before the sequel.  I had actually purchased  Hand of Miriam back in 2017.    I was drawn to the concept, but review commitments or library due dates would keep on getting in the way.  So I'm glad that my promise to review Her Majesty's Witch gave me this opportunity.

                   


I was mainly looking forward to Hand of Miriam because of the Jewish content which is relatively rare in fantasy.  Eva Gordon made the wise decision to provide us with a female protagonist who is a secular Jew with more religiously observant relatives.  This meant that Bayla, the protagonist, would have some familiarity with Jewish culture, but that there would be fewer references to Jewish practices that would need to be checked for accuracy.

When I learned that Bayla's family were Ladino speaking descendants of Spanish Jews, I was concerned that the character's name might be inconsistent with her background.  You see, I knew Bayla as a Yiddish name for Jewish women of Ashkenazi/Eastern European descent.   When I researched the name , I learned that the Yiddish name was originally spelled Baila, and that Bayla was also a Spanish name with a completely different meaning from the Yiddish equivalent.  I  am happy to say  that this Orthodox raised Jewish blogger found no Jewish cultural errors in Hand of Miriam. 


The most prominent Jewish cultural symbol was the hand shaped protective object known as a Hamsa.  The hyperlink points to an article on My Jewish Learning.  As an American Ashkenazi, I hadn't heard of the Hamsa until I was gifted with one by an Israeli who informed me that it was also Islamic.  I was intrigued by the fact that the Hamsa is cross-cultural.  I hadn't seen it referred to as the Hand of Miriam until I read Eva Gordon's book, but in researching for this post I did see this association in  various online sources.

Now I need to weigh in on the swordfighting aspect of this novel.  My perspective on this  topic comes from having seen  every Highlander TV episode numerous times.  This is because I'm a Highlander series fan.  The main protagonist in Highlander: The Series uses a katana as Bayla does in The Hand of Miriam. 

The most important point I want to bring up about swordfighting is that you need significant practice with it.  Duncan MacLeod is portrayed as training constantly with his katana on the Highlander series.  There is a scene in which Bayla manages  to successfully use a katana without any previous scenes in which she practices.  Later in the novel, she does do sword training, but that early scene stuck out for me as not very believable.

There's also a scene in which Bayla produces her katana from nowhere.  She wasn't wearing the long coat Duncan MacLeod usually wears to conceal his katana, nor was she wearing any other garment where she could have kept it. Actually,  there were numerous instances when characters on Highlander: The Series produced swords from nowhere.  Highlander fans decided there must be a magical Katana Space in another dimension from which katanas could be plucked when needed. I suppose Bayla might have her own version of Katana Space. 😄

 I admit I was not fond of seeing Jack the Ripper in Hand of Miriam.  Some authors seem to be unable to resist throwing him into the mix. I consider the Jack the Ripper murder case a predictable element in books that are set in England during the Victorian Era.

Although I have some criticisms of  Hand of Miriam, I did enjoy reading it.  I hope that Her Majesty's Witch is equally entertaining.

                       
             

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Larger Than Life: An Inspiring Novella About Elephants by Jodi Picoult

It was nearly the end of 2019. I was looking for a novella that I could finish before the year was over, and feel good about it.  It had to be a different experience from the total nightmare that was my last read.  Yes, it had been important for me to read The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, but I wanted a narrative about a heroic woman who was struggling to do the right thing.  This didn't mean that there wouldn't be terrible things happening.  I just wanted a window into the life of a woman who wanted to make the world a better place.

As I looked down the list of novellas that I could read on my Kindle,  I thought about authors who had really delivered more than once with powerful stories dealing with significant themes, and characters who lived in the real world but needed to make a difference.  It occurred to me that Jodi Picoult could be the author I was looking for.  Her themes run the gamut, but when she has written about someone who cares about animals I have been totally hooked. I hadn't read about elephants in either fiction or non-fiction, but Larger Than Life would be an opportunity for me to learn about this threatened species. I downloaded the novella for free from Amazon as a benefit of my Prime membership.

                          

Larger Than Life was published five years ago.  Some readers might say that the time for me to review it has passed. Admittedly, it's been some time since I've read Jodi Picoult.  Yet when I started Larger Than Life I felt like I'd come back home.  I was home even though I was in Botswana because Alice Metcalf is just the sort of protagonist that I love to read about.

I was very moved by Alice's attachments to elephants that she had studied in African wildlife sanctuaries. Her dedication to the survival of elephants was inspirational.

Over the course of the novella, Alice's characterization deepens as we discover how her mother encouraged her to become a scientist, and her ambivalent relationship with her mother.  Ada Lovelace, the originator of the computer algorithm was also encouraged by her mother, Annabella Milbanke.  In fact, the parallels between the mother/daughter relationships of Ada Lovelace and Alice Metcalf  seemed so strong to me that I wondered if Jodi Picoult had partly based the background of her protagonist on that of Ada Lovelace.

I saw a review of  Larger Than Life on Goodreads that complained about all the elephant facts.  Alice is an elephant researcher.  It would be strange to me if a story about a woman who does research didn't contain any facts about the subject she was researching.  Alice was researching elephant memory.  A study in Namibia mentioned in this novella revealed that elephants could survive drought because the herd matriarchs remembered the location of water holes that they hadn't accessed in years.

 I am interested in human memory. So I was reminded of  indigenous Australian songlines which allow them to remember the locations of waterholes and other natural features. The hyperlink will take you to the Wikipedia article about this topic.  Indigenous Australians may have something in common with elephants, but they don't have the memories of elephants.  Humans use mnemonics to assist us in recalling what we have learned.   Human memories are also built through networks of associations.  This is what allowed me to remember songlines.  The next link in my associative network was Bruce Chatwin ,who wrote The Songlines, which is where I found out about this type of mnemonic. I consider it delightful to exercise my memory in this way.  I enjoy books that give me the opportunity to do that.

 Larger Than Life is a prequel to  the Jodi Picoult novel, Leaving Time.  I loved Larger Than Life.  So I'm definitely going to want to read Leaving Time in the foreseeable future.

                           




                           

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Memory Police: A Dystopia of Learned Helplessness

I am starting this review after awarding this book Best Translation of the Year in my 2019 Retrospective post.  The quality of Yoko Ogawa's Japanese prose must be superb to inspire an English translation like the one Stephen Snyder provided.  The Goodreads page for The Memory Police notes that this translated edition was listed by the National Book Award as a finalist in the category of Translated Literature in 2019.

                         

I was trying to decide whether the genre of this book was science fiction or fantasy until relatively late in the novel.  There is much that is left mysterious by the author, but I came to the conclusion that the Memory Police were more likely to have been using some unknown technology rather than an unknown magic.  So I chose the genre label Dystopian Science Fiction.  Other readers may have a different take on this issue.

Regardless of genre, this is the most horrific book I've ever read.  I've previously indicated elsewhere that I'm not a fan of horror.  My feeling is that real life is horrific enough without adding to the horror through the media we consume.

The response of the unnamed protagonist of The Memory Police to the slow disintegration of life on the island where she lives will appear to be unacceptably passive in the eyes of many Americans.  Another perspective is that she is stoic.  It seems to me that stoicism is admirable in the face of suffering that can't be prevented.   Japanese people say "Shikata ga nai" about such situations.  I've linked the Wikipedia article about this phrase.  Most of the characters in this book do seem to think that stoicism is called for.   Those who disagree are the ones who are likely to be arrested by the Memory Police.

A really impressive character is a friend of the protagonist who is only referred to as the old man.  I want to call attention to one scene in which the protagonist and the old man were waiting on line for some time for an examination of their papers by the Memory Police before boarding a train.  An anemic girl collapsed and the old man carried her to the train.  This struck me as an act of kizuna, a Japanese  concept of compassion and generosity during an emergency.  I learned about it from The Kizuna Coast, the last Rei Shimura mystery by Sujata Massey which I reviewed here.  The old man's action was noteworthy because it shows that the Memory Police's attempt to destroy all social cohesion wasn't successful so long as someone like the old man was alive to illustrate the value of kizuna.

At one point, the novelist protagonist quotes from a source she's forgotten. "Men who start with burning books end by burning other men."  I tracked it down.  It's a quote from Heinrich Heine's play Almansor which was published in 1823. The play takes place in Grenada, Spain when it was conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella. Heine's hero, Almansor, is a Muslim.  He spoke that line when he found out that the Koran had been burned in the public square.  Almansor was performed only once on August 23, 1823.  A riot broke out.  It was never performed again.  For more information about the historical use of this quote, Heine's play and his context, see this article by Shlomo Avineri from The Jewish Review of Books.   I was glad that Yoko Ogawa gave me the opportunity to research this Heine quote.  It's a rebuke to book burners everywhere.

The novel that the protagonist of The Memory Police was working on seemed to be a portrayal of the island's tragedy on the scale of a single relationship.    When I looked at what is happening in Ogawa's society as an abusive relationship writ large,  I began to perceive her intent as a warning against the "Shikata ga nai" attitude. The approach of these dystopian authorities  seemed to me very much like the strategy of learned helplessness utilized by domestic abusers.  If your government is taking its cues from the kind of people who should be in prison for torturing their spouses, you know it's on the wrong path. 

The history of humanity has largely been one of tyrannical rulers who, like domestic abusers, find ways to convince the general population that they have no choice but to go along with their limited and hopeless lives.  Democracy, a system where people have choices, has been a relative blip on the historical radar.  It's here for a few centuries, but may be gone tomorrow.  When democracy is gone from the world, will we all be saying the equivalent of "Shikata ga nai"?

                        

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My 2019 Retrospective



Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles
                                        
My views at the end of 2019 are 31,190 which totals to around 9,000 views during the course of the year.  So my number of views per year is increasing.  I'm happy with that.

My most viewed post was on High Flying Reviews as usual.  What was unusual about it is that it was a guest post by an author promoting her book.  The book was Wingmen by Almond Jones.  You can find that post here . I think it was so popular because it's a historical fiction novel dealing with women in aviation.  Women in aviation is a special focus of  High Flying Reviews. That was the only post I provided on that topic in 2019.  I'd love to review more books on women in the aviation field in 2020.

The most viewed post on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer was my blog tour review of  A Bookshop in Berlin by Françoise Frenkel.  This WWII memoir was originally published in 1945 in French.  The English translation for the new U.S. edition is a publishing event. I suppose that's why I suddenly got hundreds of views for this post overnight.  That's this blog's equivalent of going viral. You can find my post about Frenkel's memoir here.

That does it for statistics.  So I will now move on to my favorite reads of 2019 that have won:

                                        The Golden Mask Awards

The Best Book of the Year

Algorithms of Oppression by  Safiya Umoja Noble


This is also the Best Non-Fiction and the Best Net Galley that I read in 2019.  This book caused me to think about search and changed my search behavior.  When I read a book that I feel changed my life in some way, it's usually got a lock on best book of the year. You can find my review of Algorithms of Oppression here.

The Best Fiction of the Year

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

This is also the Best Book Published in 2019 and the Best Science Fiction that I read in 2019.

I read more great science fiction in 2019 than I have for some time.  There is more science fiction on  my top ten for 2019 than any other genre.  I've been finding more original science fiction dealing with the themes that interest me.

The Future of Another Timeline deals with a time war for women's rights.  There is no other book  in 2019 that I found more inspiring. 

The Best Fantasy of the Year

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is a quest fantasy taking place in the 1920's replete with Mayan deities and mythology.   I didn't expect to love it, but it completely won me over.  See my review  here.

The Best Mystery of the Year

Bones of the Earth by Eliot Pattison

My favorite mysteries are usually historical, but Eliot Pattison has been writing a series dealing with a Chinese detective taking place in contemporary Tibet that at its best has moved and intrigued me.  This is the last book in the series,  and I found it very satisfying.  See my review here.

The Best Thriller of the Year

The Shotgun Lawyer by Victor Methos

Before 2019 I had never heard of the legal thriller author Victor Methos, and I might have gone on that way if his novel, The Shotgun Lawyer,  hadn't been a book of the month at the face to face mystery/thriller book club that I attend.   A lawsuit against a gun manufacturer certainly caused me to sit up and take notice.  I also found the characterization honest and refreshing.   See my review here.

The Best Historical Fiction of the Year

The Ventriloquists by Evan Roxanna Ramzipoor

Of course you've read tons of WWII historical fiction.  So have I, but I haven't previously seen a book about Resistance journalists who decided to put out a satire of a Nazi controlled newspaper.  It's even more amazing that this actually happened.  The Ventriloquists will give you respect for the courage of dedicated journalists. See my review here.

The Best Contemporary Fiction of the Year

Larger Than Life by Jodi Picoult

I don't read very much contemporary fiction, but Jodi Picoult is an occasional exception.  I'm more likely to love a novel that deals with humans who are devoted to wild animals.  In Lone Wolf  Picoult asked us to consider the impact of having lived with wolves on human family members.  So when I saw that Larger Than Life had been offered to Prime members for free, I was drawn to this novella about a woman who was deeply committed to the survival of African elephants.  It was one of the last books I read in 2019.  I don't always blog about the books I read, but my post about Larger Than Life will definitely appear in January.  There's lots of bloggy type substance in this novella. I also look forward to the novel dealing with the daughter of Larger Than Life's protagonist, Leaving Time.

Best Graphic Book of the Year

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei was the only book on the final ballot of the Goodreads Choice Awards that I loved enough to vote for. Takei's book certainly deserved to win.  I had also nominated it in the category of memoirs and autobiographies, but it never made the ballot.  Yet I can tell you here that They Called Us Enemy also won a Golden Mask Award for Best Memoir of 2019.  Shealea, one of my favorite bloggers, complained about how few authors of color are nominated for Goodreads Choice Awards.  Goodreads should consider improving the diversity of candidates in the future, and you might want to consider reading my review of  this graphic memoir here.

Best Indie Book of the Year

Sands of Eppla by Janeal Falor

I've been awarding best indie to books that many people wouldn't truly consider indies.   This award should definitely go to quality books that are at a disadvantage when it comes to distribution.  I acknowledge that.  This year I found an unusual epic fantasy by an indie author whose protagonist is blind and an extraordinary heroine. I reviewed Sands of Eppla for Story Origin, one of a number of websites that tries to promote indies.  I also reviewed it on this blog here.  I would like to emphasize that although Falor has created a society where status is based on a type of romantic relationship, it is not a romance novel.

Best Translation of the Year

The Memory Police  by Yoko Ogawa

 I consider The Memory Police the most horrific book I've ever read and I emphatically DON'T WANT TO READ HORROR!!  So what is it doing on this list of Golden Mask Award winners? Well, it's complicated.  The simple explanation is that it's more than a horrifying book.  Since I read Ogawa's nightmarish novel near the end of the year, my review will appear in January.  I'll be dealing with my complex reaction to The Memory Police at length on this blog.

The Memory Police is, in my view, a science fiction dystopia.  Yet it certainly wasn't my favorite science fiction novel of the year.  I support Hopepunk which  is the most recent term for the purveyors of optimism in genre fiction.

That's why I decided to give this book a Best Translation award. Translation of a book is an attempt at bridging cultures, and I'm all in favor of that. I think that translation is significant enough to be recognized as a category in a list of this sort.  I've been seeing lists of best translations elsewhere, and members of the Read Women book club on Goodreads are challenging themselves to read more translations of books by women.  I do think that the translation of  The Memory Police is very effective and well-written.  So it does deserve this award.

 Except for Eliot Pattison and Jodi Picoult,  the authors of my other favorites are new to me and were great discoveries for the year 2019.

                       
   
















                 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Ventriloquists: Resistance Journalists Thumb Their Noses At The Nazis

Sometimes I receive free copies of a book from the publisher in two formats.  The publisher will have confidence in a book if it deals with World War II, the most popular historical era.  Yet if it's written by a debut author, they know it will need more promotion. So Park Row Books went the extra mile for the World War II  debut novel, The Ventriloquists  by Evan Roxanna Ramzipoor.   I got a digital ARC from Net Galley and a paperback ARC directly from the publisher by mail.  I wanted to review this book sooner, but I had so many earlier review commitments and suddenly it's almost the end of December. The Ventriloquists was released at the end of August.  I would like to thank the publisher for their generosity.


                               


First, let me count the reasons that I loved The Ventriloquists.

1) The focus on World War II Resistance journalists

I always notice books with central characters who are journalists.   I have reviewed a number of books on this blog dealing with  journalists. I will hyperlink my review of the most recent one at  To Live Out Loud, a novel by Paulette Mahurin about Émile  Zola and his advocacy for Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer who was falsely accused of treason in 19th century France.  I'm more likely to consider these books--especially if they are journalists who take great risks with their work.   Anti-Nazi journalists in Nazi occupied Belgium were  definitely in this category.

2) Exceptionally heroic women characters

Although the protagonist is the real historical journalist, Marc Aubrion, my favorite character in The Ventriloquists is the fictional Lada Tarcovich who was a whorehouse madam and a smuggler, but also a great deal more than that. She was a lesbian, a bold activist who knew how to get things done for the Resistance and the character who uttered my favorite remark: "When a shiny black boot comes to town, it always steps on words and women first."

Andree Grandjean was mentioned in the author's archival source, but as a barrister.  Ramzipoor made her a judge who risked her career to use her wealth and influence to help the Resistance.  (Please note that a Wikipedia list of the first woman lawyers and judges of Europe states that the first woman judge in Belgium was appointed in 1948 after WWII. Readers can decide for themselves whether they regard Judge Grandjean as an intolerable historical inconsistency or a minor faux pas.)
 
Finally, there was the fictional Helene who we meet first in the current day framing narrative as an old woman, but in occupied Nazi Belgium she was twelve and engaged in some very daring escapades on behalf of the Resistance.

3) Satire as a Significant Act of Protest

Some acquaintances who don't know me very well think I don't have a sense of humor, but I love satire. My only issue is it can't be goring my ox.   Very few people appreciate jokes at their own expense or that target the groups and causes that they identify with, and I am not one of them.  I am a huge fan of Oscar Wilde who satired  aristocrats and the wealthy. Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw could also be a great satirist.  I read through his complete works as a teenager, so I know some of his more obscure plays with real bite.  Monty Python has my abiding affection as do the late night satiric comedy shows in the U.S. 

Marc Aubrion conceived of the idea of lampooning the Belgian newspaper Le Soir which had become Nazi propaganda.  His Resistance group planned to distribute Le Faux Soir through the same outlets where Le Soir was sold. They knew the Nazis would find out quickly, but it would give Belgians hope.  That is no small thing in dark times.  Le Faux Soir actually existed.  Some copies survived in private collections.

4. Great Dialogue

I have to admit that I won't read a novel if its main appeal is witty dialogue.  Such exchanges aren't a substitute for characterization.  I also want fiction to have a plot with events that interest me and some genuine thematic heft.

Having said that, snark is a wonderful ornament in the context of an unfolding drama.   Snarky heroes seem more courageous to me than the grim tight lipped ones.  They are also far more entertaining.  The suave poetic banter of  playwright Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac during his fight scenes is what makes him stand out.   I feel that the witty moments of Marc Aubrion and Lada Tarcovich are gifts to the reader.

My Summary Judgment

I've seen criticisms that the book is too long or that the narrative was too scattered.  One Goodreads reader was confused about who was narrating at some points.  I didn't have these problems.  I thought the length was necessary for character development, and that the identity of the narrator was clear to me from context. I am also accustomed to novels that alternate narratives taking place in different periods which have become quite common in historical fiction.

I found The Ventroloquists original because the role of journalists in the WWII Resistance was previously unknown to me.  I was glad to learn about Le Faux Soir, and appreciated how much courage it took to take the necessary risks.  I'm glad this book was written and I think that more readers should be aware of this aspect of WWII. 

                            





 

                     

Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Bookshop in Berlin: A Blog Tour and Review

When a major publisher offers me a newly translated World War II memoir for a blog tour review, I sit up and take notice.  I was also inclined to read it because the author was a Jewish bookstore owner.  A title like A Bookshop in Berlin implies that it delivers a first hand perspective on the Nazi persecution of Jewish owned stores before the Holocaust began. This sounded like it could be a riveting perspective.   So I accepted a free copy of this memoir by Françoise Frenkel.

                            


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  

Françoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, she opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin with her husband. Frenkel's bookshop miraculously survived Kristallnacht, when hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed. But in the summer of 1939, with war looming, Frenkel fled to Paris. She sought refuge across occupied France for the next several years until finally, on her third attempt, escaping across the border to Switzerland, where she wrote a memoir documenting her refugee experience. Her memoir, originally published in 1945 as Rien où poser sa tête (No Place to Lay One’s Head), was rediscovered in an attic in southern France in 2010 and republished in the original French as well as in a dozen other languages. This is its first publication in the United States. Frenkel died in Nice in 1975. 
                                                       

REVIEW


When I started this book, I wanted to know why a woman who was born Frymeta became Françoise. As I read further,  I theorized that she felt more at home in a nation that was probably more welcoming to her than Poland may have been.  Readers won't find out about her childhood experiences in Poland.  We  also learn very little about her family, but they must have been successful financially.  Frenkel had the opportunity to leave Poland and pursue an education in Paris.  Those Paris years shaped her identity and her life goals.  

I found Frenkel's omission of her husband from her memoir more startling than putting Poland behind her.   The preface by Patrick Modiano reveals that she and her husband opened the bookshop together.  His name was Simon Raichenstein, he was born in Russia and died in Auschwitz.  I wanted to know more about him.  I feel that he deserves to be remembered. We have no way of knowing whether she didn't mention him because it was too painful to mourn his loss in public through the pages of a memoir, or her relationship with him wasn't really significant to her.  We don't know how they met or why she married him.

There is no way to determine what role Simon Raichenstein might have played in the decision to open a French language bookstore in Berlin in 1921.  Presumably, he was supportive since he helped her run the store.   We do know from this memoir that many people advised against it including the Consul General at the French Consulate in Berlin.  He thought that anti-French sentiment in Germany was so strong in the aftermath of WWI that the bookstore would fall victim to an arson attack.   Some readers might question Frenkel's judgement at that point, but it turned out that the French language bookstore enjoyed great success during the Weimar Republic.

Frenkel's persistence, resourcefulness and courage in the face of Nazi persecution make her admirable.   I also found out about the Italian occupation of Provence during WWII as a result of this book.   This was a research opportunity for me. I would love to know more.   Perhaps the re-publication of Frenkel's memoir will encourage more publishers to release French books about WWII in English.  This would be a tremendous benefit to those who read in English who are historically inclined.  

                                








  


                         

Monday, November 18, 2019

Superhero Thought Experiments: Can Comics Provide Philosophical Insights?

This former graduate student is unintimidated by academic studies.  The idea that superheroes can provide insights into philosophy may sound strange to some. Yet I have an interest in quirky academic works that make forays into popular culture, and would like to encourage this behavior. The last time I blogged about an academic study that dealt with television, movies and comics, it was Speculative Blackness by André M. Carrington  which I was delighted to review here.  So I hoped to make some useful discoveries when I agreed to read and review Superhero Thought Experiments by Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg. I received a digital copy free of charge from the publisher.

                       

When I looked at the authors' profiles on Goodreads, I discovered that they had contributed to two critical anthologies dealing with comics that interested me. The first is Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice and the Socratic Way. Cool! I play on team Socrates. Then there is actually a philosophy anthology devoted to my favorite superhero, Wonder Woman and Philosophy!  I wouldn't have discovered these books, if I hadn't read this one.  So that's an extra benefit of reviewing this anthology.  The main benefit of this book, is that it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own views of the superheroes that the authors discuss.

In his introduction, Gavaler attempts to define superheroes.  He says that "there is no single necessary or sufficient condition, but only a list of potential ones".  I would start from the word superhero, and would ask two questions.  How is this individual a hero?  How is the individual super?  If the individual is not a hero, he, she or they might be a villain. It could also be that he, she or they might be someone who wants to live an ordinary life, and doesn't want to be involved in saving anyone.  If the individual has no superpowers he, she or they might be a costumed vigilante.  This is a category for some of the greatest most legendary heroes such as Robin Hood and Zorro.  I have no trouble categorizing Batman and Green Arrow as heroes who aren't superheroes.  I still love them.

I can agree with Gavaler and Goldberg's conception of the early Batman as solely centered on his oath to fight criminals without considering the consequences of his actions to ordinary civilians.  Yet one crucial point that is important to my conception of early Batman, is that Bruce Wayne was  grieving when he swore that oath.  This is psychology rather than philosophy, but if philosophy doesn't take a character's context into consideration then it's of limited use for analysis of fictional characters.  Batman's context was that he was traumatized by the violent death of his parents when he committed himself to his mission.  This is the reason why Batman is "imprisoned by his past", as the authors of this book say.   If Batman was too narrowly focused on stopping criminals in his early phase, I would consider his trauma the contextual explanation for his behavior. I also believe that empathy is the bedrock of ethics.  You can't think of the ethical implications of your actions on others without empathy.  Batman's empathy was inhibited by his trauma.

In the chapter about Twin Earths, the authors ask us to imagine an Earth devoted to corruption and chaos called Earth 3.  I don't need to imagine it.  I believe that we live on a planet in which an increasing number of societies are already living in the corruption and chaos of Earth 3, while a few are trying to hold back the corruption and chaos.  Chaos is a consequence of corruption.  When everyone can bribe their way out of following the law, order isn't possible.  The result is chaos.  The supervillains in charge of Earth 3 are portrayed as battling the police.  Yet it seems to me that in a world where corruption reigns, the police would be corrupt.  The only people who would battle these supervillains would be vigilantes who would be generally  regarded as foolish or insane.  They would also be likely to pay the price of their convictions with their lives.

There is a discussion of retcons  (retroactive continuities) which involve changing events in the past, and reboots which involve throwing away the entire continuity and starting a new one.  Gavaler and Goldberg consider whether names or backgrounds are more essential.  My perception is that they are discussing identity.  How do we define identity? People change their names for a variety of reasons without believing that they have become someone else.  Some name changes reflect a self-perception that this individual has become someone else, but  I believe that memories which encapsulate your background are your identity.   This is illustrated by Marvel's Thor being depicted as having been punished by Odin with amnesia that caused him to forget that he was Thor.  There is a science fiction novel that I read this year which also shows that memories are identity by positing beings that embody extracted memories. It's called Mem and I reviewed it here.  I  viewed Mem  as a flawed book, but it's nevertheless a powerful one on the subject of identity.

I was amused by philosopher Donald Davidson's thought experiment in which a swamp creature convinced everyone he knew that he was Donald Davidson.  Apparently, Donald Davidson didn't believe that the swamp creature's ability to write articles was a sign of sentience.  I have entertained the notion that a great number of academic journal articles without an iota of original thought weren't written by sentient beings. Yet it could be that like the authors of these unreflective articles, the swamp creature was aware that he needed to publish or perish.

There are some aspects of this book that I have neglected to mention in this review.  I confined myself to the observations that I considered most relevant and significant on the subject of superheroes. Even though I didn't always agree with Gavaler and Goldberg, I did consider Superhero Thought Experiments interesting and thoughtful.