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Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fruit of Her Hands: The Tale of a Medieval Jewish Woman Survivor

Why did I decide to read this book?  It's about a medieval woman who studied Talmud and married a very prominent Rabbi.  I have read Maggie Anton's books about Rav Hisda's daughter, and I'm interested in reading about other Jewish women who were scholars. Unlike Rav Hisda's daughter, who is mentioned in the Talmud, the protagonist of this novel is fictional.  The Rabbi she married, Meir of Rothenberg known as the Maharam, is an important historical personage but we know nothing about the woman he married, his married life or his household.  Many of the major events described in the novel are nevertheless well-documented and known to have either happened to Meir of Rothenberg, been witnessed by him or occurred within his lifetime.  See Wikipedia article on Meir of Rothenberg.


The description says that the protagonist, Shira, was rebellious. Shira's father, a  Rabbi in Falaise, France, had allowed Shira to study in the same classroom as his own students when she was a small child.  She never assumed that she would be limited to the domestic sphere when she married. Considering how repressive her husband was toward women in general in his official pronouncements, modern readers might not think she was rebellious enough.   Although her relationship with Meir had its stormy periods, she evidently loved him and was notably loyal to him even when she didn't agree with his opinions.  She tried to do what was expected of her as a Rabbi's wife.  As such, she played a supportive role in his life.
I was most interested by the censorship theme in this novel.   This theme first raised its ugly head in a collision of extremists.  None of the participants were willing to compromise.  This sounds like a description of many current political figures in the U.S.

 On one side was a rather notorious trouble making student of Shira's father known historically as Nicholas Donin.  When I first saw that name, I knew that it wasn't possible that this could have been the name by which he was called as a Jewish student. Beginning in the medieval period, Jewish men have typically had secular names in the language of the country where they reside, and religious names in Hebrew or Yiddish.   Nicholas would not have been an acceptable name for religious purposes.  These would have included his studies of religious texts.  It astonishes me that none of the students who were his opponents in the novel raised this issue.  I think that it's probable that he actually had a Jewish religious name that vanished from the historical record.  Maybe it was Nachman or Naphtali.

Regardless of what his actual first name might have been at the time, Nicholas Donin thought that Jews should stop reading the Talmud because the only book they needed was the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides who was a Jewish leader in Islamic Spain and Egypt.   Maimonides was brilliant and very highly regarded by current Jews, but why toss out all other perspectives?  I was shocked that all the other students and their instructor, Shira's father, wanted to toss Maimonides.  They maintained that Maimonides was a heretic.  I had never been taught that Maimonides was ever viewed by any Jewish community as a heretic.  I knew that the Jews of the Arab world and the Jews of Europe lived and thought differently, but I hadn't expected ringing denunciations. I imagine that Maimonides may have been too much of a scientifically oriented rationalist for European Jews who lived in a context where both rationalism and science had been demonized by the Church.  It seemed like all the Jews in France, with the exception of Nicholas Donin, were united in opposition to Maimonides and actually wanted to burn his books.   Since Jews had no authority to burn books,  they asked the Church to do it.  Shira's father expelled Nicholas Donin from his school.  Later Rabbi Yechiel of Paris excommunicated him.  That was Act One of the censorship battle.

Once censorship becomes thinkable, it will happen again.  Act Two happened a year later.  Nicholas Donin had converted to Christianity and become a Christian monk.  He proceeded to travel to Rome, and convince the Pope that it was the Talmud that needed to be burned.  Then he returned to Paris to enforce the Pope's new edict.  The Jewish community of Paris, where Shira was now living with her husband, was horrified.  Yet I couldn't help but think that karma was biting them back.  If they had been conciliatory and inclusive toward Nicholas Donin and the works of Maimonides the previous year, they wouldn't have been fighting for their right to study Talmud.  Fanaticism has always had a destructive impact.   Am I blaming the victims?  In this case, the victims had previously been persecutors.  There is a lesson to be learned from this role reversal. 

 By the way, both Act One and Act Two actually happened. See this You Tube video on the subject.

One of the domestic disagreements that Shira had with her husband was also theological.  Her husband was opposed to the marriage of  their Paris maidservant to a sculptor of gargoyles.  He thought it was idolatry.  Shira disagreed.  As a fan of fantasy novels, I was interested in this disagreement.  I learned something I hadn't known before about gargoyles.  Their role wasn't religious, but functional.  Their purpose was drainage. The gargoyles funneled rainwater from the cathedral's Gothic spires to the street level.

 There's another argument in favor of gargoyles that Shira missed. It's useful to know the exact wording of the ten commandments if you're getting into a debate with a Rabbi about one of them.  In this case, it's the second commandment.  Let's take a look at what it actually says:

Are gargoyles a creature seen in the heavens, on the earth or in the water?  No, they are not.  They are completely imaginary.  So not only aren't they made with a religious purpose, but they aren't images of anything real.  I am confident that the idolatry case against gargoyle creators should be dismissed. 

Despite the fact that Shira didn't bring up my argument, the Maharam conceded that Shira was correct.  She won that particular dispute.

As students of medieval history know, the situation for Jews in Europe continued to decline.  Shira and her husband had to deal with all the terrible manifestations of Christian persecution.   If there was any peace and joy to be had in Shira's life, it was temporary.  I was impressed by Shira's ability to persevere and recover from every horrible trauma that she and her community endured.   Shira may not have been a feminist in our terms, but she was a strong woman.  I am here today because there were women like Shira who sustained their families, and picked themselves up after every disaster.  




Sunday, August 24, 2014

Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Complex History of Quakers and Slavery

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is one of the best books I've read this year. I found it provocative and original.  It dealt with the reasons why Quakers who were abolitionists might not want to be publicly associated with the cause, and the dangers of assisting escaping slaves. I reviewed it on Book Babe here . The research source that Chevalier cited most prominently in her acknowledgements was this book, Slavery and the Meetinghouse by Ryan P. Jordan.  I decided that I needed to read and review it on this blog.


I learned that Quakers who were abolitionists didn't all agree about how the abolition of slavery should be achieved.  The most important distinction among abolitionists was gradualism vs. immediatism.

 Gradualists, some of whom were slave owners themselves, thought that the emancipation of slaves needed to happen gradually.  Another characteristic of  gradualists is that some believed in shipping freed African Americans back to Africa, or  moving them West as had been done with the Cherokees and other East Coast Native American peoples.  This was called "colonization" which was a euphemism for forced removal.  Many people don't realize that Abraham Lincoln was a gradualist who supported "colonization" in Africa.  He would not have emancipated the slaves when he did if he hadn't been forced by political pressure.   (See Lincoln and Negro Slavery. Also see my remarks on the subject in my review of the alternate history novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln on Book Babe.)

Immediatists, who we would now describe as the real abolitionists, thought that emancipation of African American slaves couldn't wait.   Gradualists considered them irresponsible radicals. Quaker leaders, who were wealthier than most Quakers according to a sociological study cited in this book, tended to be gradualists.  They "disowned" many immediatists which was equivalent to excommunication.  Immediatism was first proposed by British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824.

Immediatist Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier thought that "colonization" by sending former slaves back to Africa would be a re-enactment of the "Middle Passage"--the horrifying voyage that those kidnapped into slavery in Africa  had to undergo to reach  America.  Whittier thought that African Americans had suffered enough.  They shouldn't be forced to endure another ordeal.  I find Whittier's argument persuasive and powerful, but he apparently didn't convince gradualist Quakers.

An important gradualist Quaker objection to immediatism is that it was associated with violence.  Gradualism's quiet unobtrusive change was perceived as more in accordance with Quaker philosophy.  A common Quaker gradualist position was that God would see to it that slavery was abolished in his own time. 

 I think that modern Quaker activists have been influenced by Gandhi.  Gandhi tried to promote a revolution that was both non-violent and immediate through his concept of satyagraha.  This idea that change could be both non-violent and immediate altered the way people thought about protest movements.

Yet in the 19th century abolitionist movement,  some Quaker immediatists abandoned the principle of non-violence and started carrying guns. John Greenleaf Whittier proclaimed that although Quakers wanted peace, a country that practiced slavery couldn't be at peace.  This happened in a context where abolitionism had become increasingly dangerous.  The Quaker abolitionist Grimke sisters watched Pennsylvania Hall being burned by a pro-slavery mob in 1838.  Pennsylvania Hall had been funded by Philadelphia abolitionist Quakers to be the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The belief that violence over slavery was inevitable culminated in Quakers fighting in the Civil War with the purpose of bringing about the abolition of slavery.  Jordan includes the statistic that at least 25% of draft age Quaker men in Indiana fought in the Union army during the Civil War.

I thought that all of this information was very interesting, but there was also the sort of repetition that is common in academic studies.  I find repetition annoying.  It causes me to lower my estimation of a book.  Despite the redundancy, Slavery and the Meetinghouse might still be one of the best non-fiction books that I'll read in 2014.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Artist by Eric Drouant--A Thriller Plagued by Errors and Missed Opportunities

Artist seemed as if it had a great deal of potential when I first started to read it.  The eyes of the woman on the cover just drew me in to this crime thriller, and the letters CLV on her forehead intrigued me.  I wanted to know what these letters meant.  I am reviewing this book for The Bookplex.



This the third book in a series devoted to Cassie Reynold, who has the paranormal gift of remote viewing. Since I hadn’t read the first two books, I would have been interested in seeing a sample of Cassie’s gift in action.  Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.  There is a reasonable explanation for Cassie avoiding the use of remote viewing within the context of this plot.  It was necessary for pragmatic reasons on her training assignment whose purpose was to develop the more conventional skills of law enforcement officers.   I understood that, but I was nevertheless disappointed. 

Although I did find Cassie sympathetic for most of the book, I thought she did get too intensely involved in the serial killer case over the course of the narrative.  In fact, she definitely seemed out of control toward the end of the book.  If I were her handler, I would have grave doubts about her.  She could very easily go rogue, and her paranormal gift might not be enough of a justification for retaining her as an agent.  Perhaps prolonging her training could settle her down.

There was also a very serious problem with the professional qualifications of the serial killer.  He is supposed to be an academic in the history field, but he confused two well-known figures in his period of specialization.  The character is thinking about artists being unable to survive by art alone, and said to himself that  Michelangelo had to make his living designing machines and weapons. Although Michelangelo was a military engineer, he isn't known for making use of this skill consistently to supplement his income.    Although he did design fortifications for Florence, (see military his other architecture projects weren't military. It was Leonardo Da Vinci who designed machines and weapons for military purposes throughout his career to  maintain his usefulness to the rulers who were his patrons.  I would think that many readers would notice this discrepancy.  For this reason, I don’t find the serial killer credible as a history instructor.  His personal background seemed fairly typical for serial killers in crime thrillers.  Yet if a character is supposed to be established in a particular profession, then he must be convincing in that role.

There was one police procedural mistake, and an instance of an experienced police officer reacting like a rookie in an exchange of fire.  It would have been more believable for Cassie to have had such a reaction.  She was the one who was the rookie.  In addition, I didn't believe that an undercover officer who was a recovering alcoholic could sustain a cover as a homeless alcoholic. The character says that he pours cheap wine over himself to maintain his cover.  This should have triggered a relapse into dependence on alcohol. This character played a minor role, but an author who wants to be well-regarded needs to ensure that every character is equally plausible. Drouant needs to understand more about the psychology of addiction before he decides to include another addict in recovery in a book.

Artist is supposed to take place in New Orleans, but there was relatively little sense of place.  There were occasional superficial references to New Orleans culture, yet I didn’t feel that I was in New Orleans when I was reading this book.  A reference in this novel to a shed underneath a house sounded extremely unlikely since most of NOLA is below sea level, though it might be possible if the house was elevated. The "raised basement house" with the "basement" at ground level is a distinctive feature of New Orleans architecture. (See Row of "Raised Basement" Houses .)  New Orleans is a city set apart by its special place in history,the arts and geography.   Drouant's narrative should have made more use of its unique attributes.  I felt that this particular story line could easily have taken place in any American city. 

There were fifteen copy reading errors in this book.  Two of them occurred in the same sentence.  There was also one example of poor sentence structure.  A writer needs to keep track of the subject of a sentence while composing it.  A policy of limiting sentence length would make this task easier.   The author should definitely have had this novel professionally edited.  Errors distract readers causing them to be less involved in the book.

Although the plot of Artist was well-paced, the flaws that I’ve enumerated above outweighed this one strength for me.  For this reason, I can’t recommend Artist to other readers.  I hope that future books by this author will show improvement.


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Gypsy Crown From Hyperion: An Expurgated Version of an Australian Series

Australian writer Kate Forsyth is a new discovery for me.  I found out about her latest book, Bitter Greens, which is a retelling of Rapunzel that will be released in the U.S. in October 2014.  I requested it on Net Galley and will be blogging about it on Book Babe in October.

So I then took a look at other works by Forsyth to see if anything interested me.  I discovered that she had written a series for children called The Chain of Charms that intrigued me because I'm interested in cultural content about the Roma who are commonly known as gypsies.
 The version of this series that was available to me through inter-library loan was The Gypsy Crown published by Hyperion. I was initially happy to obtain what I thought was an omnibus edition of the entire series which had originally been released in six volumes in Australia.


 The Chain of Charms is a quest series in which two gypsy children seek six charms that had been scattered among six gypsy clans.  Each Australian volume is devoted to one of the six charms.  I knew something was wrong when the tale of how the charms were scattered was told in the edition that I had, and there were only five charms!  How did this happen?  Which one was missing?  I still haven't gotten the first question answered, but a comparison to a list of the Australian volumes to the list of charms in the tale told in this version of The Gypsy Crown showed that the fourth charm, the Cat's Eye Shell, was the one that had been redacted.

I view this from the perspective of a future librarian. One of my favorite classes in library school was the Intellectual Freedom Seminar.  I wrote a paper on expurgation for that course, so I am especially sensitive to this issue.  Publisher expurgation is not unusual.  It's especially common in children's books.  Sometimes it's a preemptive attempt to prevent the book's banning in schools.  I don't know that this is the reason why The Gypsy Crown was expurgated by Hyperion.  Since I haven't read the expurgated material, I don't even have grounds to speculate about Hyperion's motivations.  Yet I am opposed to expurgation regardless of the reasons behind it.

The Hyperion edition also causes bibliographic confusion.  In Australia The Gypsy Crown is the first volume in the series, but the Hyperion edition is a good deal more than that.  It's also less than readers might reasonably expect.  As a "librarian" on Goodreads, which means that I am a cataloging volunteer who helps to maintain the database,  I felt it was necessary to add a note to this edition's description that only five of the six books in the series were included.  To make an edition specific note, I first needed to separate it from the other editions of The Gypsy Crown on the Goodreads database.  Even though it's the most popular edition on Goodreads, it remains separated from the others because the content is different.  

Some readers will be wondering why I don't simply review what's there rather than discussing what's missing.  I'll be getting to that, but I feel that it's important for readers to know what they're getting when they pick up a book.

In addition to the cultural aspect, I was interested in the book's historical context which is well-portrayed. It takes place in 17th century England during the rule of Oliver Cromwell.  This is known as the Commonwealth period.  Puritanism was the state religion.  Those who didn't conform to Puritan doctrines and practices were persecuted.  Music, dancing and theater were banned.

Since many of the Roma made their living as performers, they were likely to become targets of Puritan intolerance.  Luka, one of the thirteen year old protagonists, is portrayed as a gifted violinist.  He and the female protagonist, Emilia, are the only members of their clan who remain unimprisoned after a performance that was the opening event of the narrative.  The main motivation behind the quest for the charms is to free their family members.  Emilia's grandmother, a seer, had told her that the charms must be reclaimed in order to accomplish this goal.

Emilia and Luka encounter a number of royalist agents who sought to re-establish the monarchy.  One such royalist was a highwayman who only robbed Puritan "Roundheads".  This character claimed that many highwaymen were royalists.  This turned out to have some factual basis. I did a search that revealed a page about Royalist Highwaymen. There was also a reference in this book to a secret royalist organization called The Sealed Knot who have a page that shows that they were considered too cautious by more warlike royalists. 

The fantasy aspect of this book involves spells done by Roma characters.  Emilia discovers that although the charms can help with her magic, she can do magic without them.  If magic comes from within the practitioner, then objects like the charms are only needed as symbolic focuses.  I was pleased that Forsyth takes this approach. I prefer it over the competing theory that all the power resides within the magical artifacts.

Although I enjoyed reading about these characters on their quest, I am  aware of a hole in the narrative.  The Cat's Eye Shell is still calling to me. American readers who also feel this lack may need to venture on a quest themselves.