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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mapmaker's Daughter: Choosing To Be Jewish in the Midst of Persecution

I had no expectations of The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona when I decided to read it.  I had never read this author.  I had seen the book in my Goodreads friends feed and was curious.  Yet when I didn't have time to finish the book and was forced to return it to the library, I checked it out again because I was so impressed by what I'd read.

It deals with a fictional woman who was born Jewish in 15th century Spain.  Her family converted to Christianity but she never really stopped being Jewish.  If you think this is another book about the hidden Jews of Spain, you would be wrong.  This is a very different story. 


In the first two sections of this book the accomplishments of fictional  protagonist Amalia were really impressive.  As an adolescent she created a signing system for her deaf father, and presumably taught it to him so that they could utilize it for communication.  Then she became his interpreter.  Since her father became the mapmaker for Prince Henry the Navigator, he traveled in exalted circles and so did she.  She had a facility for spoken languages and learned a number of them.  Later she translated a great deal of Hebrew poetry into Portuguese for the Duke of Braganza.  She also wrote her own poetry.  She became the instructor of the grandchildren of the King of Granada, and then returned to her birthplace to teach the future Queen Isabella of Castille.

Yet Amalia maintained family as her haven when she felt a need for support.  What's interesting about this is that it wasn't her genetic family of conversos.  Amalia had actually chosen a prominent family that remained Jewish, and were leaders in the Jewish community of Andalusia, as her own.  They warmly embraced Amalia.  They were the Abravanels. The Abravanels of this era are known historical personages.   See the Wikipedia article on Isaac Abravanel who is a significant character in this novel.

So I felt that the third section in which Amalia made a permanent life for herself among the Abravanels  and completely identified with them also made a strong statement.  She could have made another choice, and become a fervent Christian converso like her sisters.    She had a number of opportunities to take that road.  She could have joined Ferdinand and Isabella's court as a converso, but it was filled with intolerance, danger and suspicion. She had previously experienced a culturally vibrant court in Granada where her knowledge was valued and her Jewish religion was respected.  It's easy to see why Amalia decided to distance herself from the monarchs known as Their Most Christian Majesties.    

Yet what about her father the mapmaker and the maps he made?  I was impressed with her father. He refused to continue making maps for Prince Henry the Navigator when he discovered that the Portuguese prince was using them to build the slave trade.  Both Amalia and her father thought that slavery was wrong, and that participation in it would be a betrayal of the memory of their Biblical ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.

I also liked the fact that Amalia's father was a deaf character who was widely respected for his profession. Thanks to his daughter's sign language and her role as interpreter, being deaf didn't hold him back.  Judah Abravanel says in the novel that if Amalia's sign language became more widely known, it could bring people together and reduce conflict.   I smiled at that point because it reminded me of  "The Bridge of Signs" proposed by deaf writer, Albert Ballin.  I blogged about it at The Unmasked Persona here .  Ballin believed that people could communicate by deaf sign language when they had no other language in common.  Yet deaf sign language isn't one language by any means.  In The Mapmaker's Daughter, the signs utilized by Amalia and her father were a language known by only two individuals.  Today there are national sign languages, but they are all quite different. They also each have dialects and idiolects.  Idiolects refers to individual variations in signing.  They make sign language a very expressive means of communication for individuals.  So the vision of an international "Bridge of Signs" that I encountered again in this novel is utopian and highly unlikely.

After her father's death, the only thing that Amalia had left from her father was his atlas.  Some other reviewers of this book didn't understand why the atlas kept on being brought up.  I believe that it represented mesorah, a Hebrew word which literally means that which is passed down.  It is through mesorah that a culture and a people survive.  Amalia shared the atlas with her daughter and grandchildren.  It was a link to her father that could be passed down through the generations of the Abravanel family.  That is the way that she preserved her father's memory.  The dictionary definition of mesorah is tradition, and family tradition is of paramount importance in a Jewish context.  I appreciated the significance of the atlas for Amalia and her descendants.

For me, the themes of Jewish survival and the maintenance of tradition were very well demonstrated by Laurel Corona through the story of Amalia in The Mapmaker's Daughter.  


Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Cure For Dreaming--When Magic is Called Hypnosis

 I first read the description of The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters on Bad Bird Reads, a review blog by Jennifer Bielman.  I was fascinated. This YA historical fantasy deals with the use of hypnosis, which was called mesmerism in the 19th century, when this book took place. The hypnotist was hired to change the beliefs of the teen suffragist protagonist by her anti-suffragist father.  What a plot line!   Although I didn't win the blog's giveaway, I did manage to get hold of a library copy recently.


I know enough about hypnosis to understand that deeply held beliefs are unaffected by it.  Hypnosis can't force you to act against your conscience.  Please read The Myths of Hypnosis by hypnotherapist Barrie St. John. The 18 year old hypnotist in this novel, whose stage name was Henri Reverie, didn't succeed in changing Olivia's feminist principles.  Instead, according to the description of the book, he awakened a power in her to see the true nature of people she encounters.  This is a very cool power and it goes well beyond the limitations of hypnosis.  Judging from the cover alone, I had no doubt that something paranormal was going on in The Cure For Dreaming.  Hypnosis can cause people to do improbable things, but not impossible ones.  Violating the law of gravity by floating in mid-air is not the result of hypnosis.  It's magic.

So Henri Reverie was practicing an art that he may have thought was hypnosis, but was of a far more ancient origin.  Since Olivia did indeed acquire that power, I didn't think that Henri Reverie was fraudulent.  He seemed completely sincere and well-intentioned.  Unfortunately,  it never occurs to him that bringing about brain alterations in other human beings might not be ethical.  This does eventually occur to Olivia, but she sees it as a feminist issue.  Henri Reverie was a man who was taking control of women which was exactly what Olivia was fighting against.  He considered himself a supporter of women's suffrage, but he was interfering with women's independence.  This is very starkly shown in a climactic scene.  Henri comes to regret his actions, but only because Olivia finds them regrettable.

Henri Reverie was working in a context where men thought they were helping women by denying them intellectual stimulation.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was subjected to to this "therapy", wrote about it in The Yellow Wallpaper which is mentioned in The Cure For Dreaming.  Gilman was attacking the practices of  Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell.  The Wikipedia article on him to which I linked mentioned that Virginia Woolf was also victimized by Weir Mitchell's approach which was known as the "rest cure".  The theory was that women's minds are too weak to deal with intellectual stimulation.  I am convinced that Virginia Woolf's  powerful mind was broken by being denied the sustenance it needed, and that this was what drove her to suicide--not any inherent mental weakness. Her loving husband never seemed to notice that Virginia Woolf's condition worsened when she was subjected to the "rest cure".  Olivia feared that her father was headed in the direction of subjecting her to the "rest cure" as well.  It was the favored method of dealing with intelligent and rebellious women during that era. 

Yet in the real world, hypnosis also became a tool to alter the minds of  women who were causing trouble for their families.   The very first instance of psychoanalysis involved using hypnosis to attempt to cure a woman whose more bizarre symptoms probably arose from severe internal conflict between the attitudes of her conventional family and her own desire for independence.  This was the famous case of Anna O.  documented in Studies in Hysteria.  Her actual name was Bertha Pappenheim and she wasn't cured by hypnosis or by psychoanalytic theories.  Her symptoms slowly diminished once she lived on her own, and began working as an advocate for trafficked women.  I reviewed a novel about Pappenheim on Book Babe here. Like Henri Reverie, Pappenheim's therapist  Josef Breuer, truly believed that he was helping her.  I think that the real experience of Bertha Pappenheim and the fictional experience of Olivia Mead both show that well-intentioned men can help women in constricting family environments most by supporting their choices.

I wanted to like this book more because of the women's suffrage theme, but I think that it would have been better if Henri Reverie had been more introspective, and thought about the implications of his actions.   I also wished that Olivia could have learned to accept her magic powers.




Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman in Black: A Role For A Professional

This is the current edition of a crime thriller by Rene Natan that was originally titled Operation Woman in Black.  Since I haven’t read the earlier edition, I don’t know if there are any differences in the text of the editions.  Yet I have seen both covers.  The earlier cover was too monochrome and it looked amateurish.  The cover for the current edition is much improved.    The lighter background color with its subtle shading makes the yellow title and the white byline more visible.  I also thought that the silhouette portrays the type of character that the Woman in Black is intended to be more effectively.

Take a look and compare the covers for yourself, readers.



This book contains more characterization and background than is typical in thrillers, but the flashbacks did turn out to be relevant to the plot.  So I thought that the book was well-structured.  Although it took a while to show the relevance of certain plot lines, they did all tie together. 

I was interested in the use of what is now known as voice conversion technology in The Woman in Black. There apparently was software capable of converting one voice to another as early as 2000.    I enjoy research and consider awareness of technology a priority.   I found articles dealing with developments in voice conversion, its possible applications and its limitations. A recent article that I found referred to it as "voice spoofing" and dealt with uncovering it.  Obviously, this technology can be utilized by criminals.  In The Woman in Black it was employed by law enforcement, and was considered experimental.  Any technology can be abused.  Certainly, voice conversion has potential for misuse in a variety of contexts. 

The copy editing in this edition was exemplary.  I didn’t notice a single typographical or grammatical error.

There was one important issue, however.   I wondered if the woman chosen to play The Woman in Black was truly qualified for her role when she couldn’t describe the primary perpetrator after she encountered him.  Someone involved in a police operation of this nature should be capable of giving detailed descriptions if she is going to be truly useful in apprehending criminals.  The result of her incapacity was that the operation lasted longer than should have been necessary.  The police protagonist would have been able to identify the chief malefactor much earlier if he had chosen someone with investigative skills as The Woman in Black.  These skills seemed more crucial to me than her resemblance to the original Woman in Black.  There are techniques that could have been used to alter the appearance of a more qualified police operative.

So I have to conclude that this was a suspenseful read with some interesting characters and relationships, but there was also a significant plot flaw that subtracted from my enjoyment of the novel.

This is my honest review of the copy that I received for free from The Bookplex.



Saturday, November 22, 2014

Random: An Unpredictable Shape Shifter Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy writer Alma Alexander comes up with some really great concepts.  She wrote a pair of novels that took place in an alternate China which centered on a group of women friends who communicated with each other in a women's language.  This was based on an actual Chinese tradition, but by setting it in an alternate universe she could ask herself some interesting "what if" questions dealing with Chinese history.  I was also inspired to find out more about the real women's language that once existed in China.  Eventually, Lisa See wrote a novel about it called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  Since I'd already encountered the idea of a Chinese women's language in Alma Alexander's  The Secrets of  Jin Shei, I didn't find it as original as most of Lisa See's readers. 

Recently Alma Alexander offered Random, her newest book, to all her fans on Goodreads as a free review copy.  I'd been following what she had to say about the book on her blog and I was very interested.  This is a shape shifter fantasy with a huge difference.  What if a shifter changed into the last warm blooded being he or she saw when the full moon arrived?  That's Alma Alexander's premise.  This variant is called a Random in her fantasy universe.  If the concept of a Random shifter intrigues you as much as it intrigued me, you'll want to read this review.


I should tell readers that this is a YA novel because some people reading this blog may be avoiders of YA fiction.  I used to be one of those people, but then I discovered that some of the best authors who are currently writing were tackling some very provocative themes in YA novels.

 One of the reasons why I didn't read YA is because it usually deals with high school.  I admit that high school was an ambivalent experience for me.  I also have a taste for the unusual, and intensely dislike the common stereotypes of teen behavior.  Stereotypes in general are boring and predictable, but I find stereotypes of teens downright repellent.

 One of these stereotypes is the "mean girl".  This trope involves a popular girl who leads a clique of girls who are all so anxious to be popular themselves that they imitate her behavior.   In so many YA novels, the authors never imagine that the influential popular girl is a good role model. No, she is usually vain, selfish and cruel.  Her influence causes the culture of the entire school to become toxic.   One of the things I really liked about the high school aspect of  Random is that Jazz, the protagonist, finds that the most trustworthy and loyal friend she has in her own age group is a girl that is the popular leader of a clique who is empathic, insightful and generous.  Of course it helped that the popular clique leader is a shape shifter like Jazz.

Unfortunately, Jazz had an older sister whose experience of high school was damaging and ultimately tragic.  A major plot strand of Random was Jazz's struggle to discover and deal with the truth about her sister, Celia.

Another important theme of Random is immigration.  Jazz's family had come from Russia.  Although Jazz was born in the United States, her parents and older siblings had changed their names and abandoned their culture in the hopes that they would be more accepted by Americans.  Due to this decision to hide their Russian identity, Jazz feels cut off from the rest of her family.  Since the United States is a nation of immigrants, this theme will resonate with a great many readers.  I personally feel that sacrificing a family's past impoverishes family life and American society as a whole.

I realize that prejudice is the main reason why minorities hide traits that can be kept secret.  The most prominent difference between Jazz's family and the majority of Americans couldn't be hidden.  Shape shifters must register.   Some of the laws regulating shape shifters established by America's government in Random are reasonable ones that are based on a concern with public safety.   Yet they were often enforced in a barbaric and discriminatory fashion.  The foundation of bias is fear, and Randoms might make people especially fearful because they are unpredictable by nature.

One of the reasons why I read science fiction and fantasy is because I am a xenophile.  A xenophile enjoys encountering strangeness.   There is such a thing as too much predictability, too much blandness.  The opposite attitude of xenophobia is a more common one.  Some xenophobes do read science fiction and fantasy.  They prefer shape shifter novels that portray the shifters as monsters who are hunted down and killed.  These novels are always from the perspective of the hunters.  Novels written from the perspective of "monsters" could make them  seem too sympathetic.  Alma Alexander's  choice to focus on a shape shifter girl whose family faced persecution makes xenophobes seem like monsters.

From a thematic perspective, Random is a very eloquent defense of those who are different.   Yet the choice to hide strangeness from the readers (along with the xenophobic characters) feels inadequate to a xenophile.  Like Jazz, who feels a sense of loss over never having truly known her family members, I miss seeing characters named Svetlana  and Goran instead of Celia and Malcolm.  I miss seeing Russian vocabulary and customs.  More importantly, I wanted to see behind the closed doors of  Turning Rooms where some characters shifted into animals.  As an animal lover, I wanted to peer inside the minds of these alien beings who share our planet with us.  Some authors accomplish this very successfully.  Faith Hunter's portrayal of Beast in her Jane Yellowrock series is particularly noteworthy.

I am also not fond of  books that end abruptly leaving a very obvious narrative thread dangling due to the momentous revelation in the final scene.  Authors seem to believe that this practice increases sales of the next volume in the series, but many readers find an unresolved ending unsatisfying.  I am one of them.    It's not that I regret reading Random.  I thought it was original and very moving, but it did have shortcomings. The failure to provide what I consider to be a proper ending is one of them.  



Friday, November 21, 2014

The Conjure Man Dies: A Harlem Renaissance Murder Mystery

The title of this book, The Conjure Man Dies, was what hooked me.  I wanted to know more about this conjure man.  I have an interest in African diasporic religion.  When I received the book from the library, I was surprised to learn that it was originally published in 1932.  Then I researched the author, Rudolph Fisher , and learned that he was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  It's the first mystery in which all the characters are African Americans.  I learned from a review in Curtain Up that there was a play based on the book that was first performed in 1936.  The review dealt with a 2001 production of the play.  It also revealed that Morgan Freeman holds the option for a film based on this work.  These are the reasons I decided that The Conjure Man Dies merited a full scale blog review.


Despite there being a police detective investigating the case, I felt that the real protagonist of this novel was Dr. John Archer before I knew that author Rudolph Fisher was a physician.  I thought that Dr. Archer was the best developed and most sympathetic character. Rudolph Fisher's background also explains why the medical details seemed so authentic.

The Conjure Man, Frimbo, was a highly ambivalent character. This ambivalence caused me to wonder if his background was falsified.  Was he really an African king or a graduate of Harvard University?  We only have Frimbo's word for it.  He was clearly a very intelligent man.  I read an interesting academic article by Adrienne Gosselin about The Conjure Man Dies which compares Frimbo to the Egyptian God, Osiris.  There are certainly some parallels to the story of Osiris in this book, but I would also identify Frimbo with the African trickster deity, Anansi, because he seemed to me a master of deception.  Due to Frimbo's acts of misdirection, most of this novel deals with figuring out what was done rather than whodunit. 

The mystery is cleverly constructed with a number of plot twists that are surprising.  The most surprising development had me exclaiming, "What just happened here?"  It caused me to entertain the notion that Frimbo could have been a genuine practitioner.  Some of the stories told about him sounded like he had real powers of sorcery, but he behaved too much like an illusionist for me to surrender my doubts about him.  In the end, I disliked his arrogance and tendency toward duplicity.

The Conjure Man Dies has been criticized for its Amos and Andy type of dialogue that seems so dated today.  I confess that I wasn't enamored with that dialogue either.  It made most of the characters seem like caricatures.

So there were aspects of the book that I liked, and it certainly held my interest. Yet my feelings about Frimbo and the dialogue lowered it in my estimation.



Saturday, November 1, 2014

Lights of Madness: Was Joan of Arc Sane?

 Lights of Madness by physician Preston Russell has the goal of determining whether Joan of Arc was insane.  He lays out all the evidence and all the theories about her in his book.  I thought that he was taking an approach to Joan of Arc that I hadn't seen before, and decided to review it for The Bookplex.



This book includes an account of Joan of Arc’s life mainly relying on the transcripts of her trial.  There are numerous endnotes.  I have no complaints about Russell’s accuracy, but it would have been enormously convenient for readers if these notes had been hyperlinked within the text in the electronic version.  I have seen this user friendly feature in textbooks.  I think it should be standard in any digitized book that has endnotes or a glossary.   

Sometimes the trial transcripts were eye opening for me.   I have read numerous books about Joan of Arc, but I had never seen that she "gave hard clouts to camp followers" with the flat of her sword.  This testimony means to me that Joan was judgmental toward other women who may or may not have been prostitutes.  Some camp followers were the impoverished dependents of soldiers who had no homes to which they could return.  So when I read about those clouts, I made a note that Saint Francis has just gone up a notch in my estimation and Joan of Arc has gone down a notch.   Joan may have been trying to prove her piety.  Those clouts were a rebuke to women who were sinners, or so she supposed without having heard their stories.  

There is also a section dealing with portrayals of Joan of Arc since her death.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the background for Mark Twain's book on Joan.  Russell tells us how Mark Twain's interest in Joan was inspired. A fragment of a page from a life of Joan of Arc blew into  Samuel Clemens' hand when he was a teenager long before he took the Mark Twain pen name. I noticed this because of my interest in Afro-Brazilian religion. Oya, the Yoruban spirit of the wind, has many faces.  In Brazil some consider one of them to be Joan of Arc. In Haitian Voodoo, Joan of Arc is often associated with Erzulie Dantor in her revolutionary role.  Perhaps if Russell had known that Joan had been syncretized in the African diaspora, he might have included it in his history of Joan's portrayal since her death.

The aspect of this biographical study that I found most useful was Russell’s discussion of all the attempts to diagnose Joan of Arc.  As a physician, his views on this topic seemed authoritative.  I also very much appreciated Russell’s perspective on the the medicalization of spiritual figures.   Those who search for an appropriate diagnosis for this particular saint definitely need to read the trial transcripts thoroughly as Preston Russell has evidently done.

The cover and internal illustrations enhance the experience of reading Lights of Madness, so that it seems less dry and academic.

Although there were a handful of typographical errors, I found the book very readable.  I would recommend it to any reader who wants an in depth exploration of Joan of Arc’s life and a thoughtful evaluation of her psychology based on the extensive evidence available.