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Monday, January 26, 2015

Forty Days Without Shadow: A French Thriller Dramatizes The Issues of the Sami of Lapland

I wrote this post for Shomeret:Masked Reviewer, but it originally appeared on Book Babe.

When I was a child my favorite book was Lapland Outlaw by Arthur Catherall which I got from the Weekly Reader Book Club.  Catherall’s children’s book may have involved some inaccuracies, but it taught me that people in other cultures have different values which need to be respected.   The sixteen year old Sami boy who was the central character had grown up as a nomadic herder of reindeer.  He felt panicked by being enclosed within four walls and fought to maintain his ancestral way of life. 

I haven’t visited with the Sami through the pages of a book for a great many years, but it was my memory of Lapland Outlaw that caused me to obtain Forty Days Without Shadow which is an English translation of the French thriller Le Dernier Lapon by Olivier Truc. 


The protagonists are Klemet Nango and Nina Nansen who are officers of the Reindeer Police. Klemet Nango is a Sami who feels cut off from his culture because he was forced to attend boarding school where his language and cultural practices were forbidden.  This is similar to the experiences of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.  Nina Nansen is a Norwegian woman who is a recent graduate of police academy.  She insists on being respected by other male law enforcement officers.  The Sami are very alien to her, but she makes an effort to learn their customs. The Reindeer Police are responsible for enforcing regulations regarding reindeer herding, but Klemet knows the local herders.  This is probably why he and Nina are assigned to investigate when an antique Sami drum goes missing from the museum, and a herder is stabbed to death.    

I was very interested in finding out more about the Sami.  I found it especially intriguing that the roofs of traditional Sami tents were covered with interlaced antlers that were supposed to be arranged so that you could see the sky through them.  This is similar to the huts that are constructed for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  My Jewish ancestors were also once nomadic herders.  Perhaps this is why I feel a connection to the Sami. 

I also found out from this novel why the situation for the Sami and reindeer in Finland is so different from Norway and Sweden.  I located additional information about Reindeer Herding in Finland from a website on the Sami maintained by the University of Texas.  The events of this novel take place in Norway where ethnic Sami still have the exclusive right to herd reindeer.   Some of the Sami depicted in this book have definitely modernized.  I got a kick out of Klemet’s uncle writing songs in the Sami language and performing them on You Tube.  Here’s a Modernized Example of a Sami Song on You Tube  and here is a More Traditional Example .

Sami drums were used in shamanistic ceremonies.  The old traditional drums that had belonged to shamans are very rare.  The drums are usually covered with symbols which have been studied by anthropologists who may or may not be mistaken in their interpretations.  Each drum is unique and the symbols may have had personal meaning for the shamans who owned them.   I found an artist’s rendering of a Sami shaman displaying his drum on Wikipedia which is in the public domain because the artist created it in the 18th century.   I wanted readers to see how amazing these drums are, so I have included the image in this review below. 

I thought the characters were well drawn and well-motivated.  I found both of the protagonists sympathetic, and although the villains weren’t at all sympathetic, they were very credible.  I appreciated the fact that Nina played an active role in the case.  Since she knew French, she went to France to interview the French collector who had donated the drum to the museum to find out more about the stolen drum and the circumstances in which he acquired it.  She also brought about a major break in the case due to her rapport with a female Sami who trusted her.   

This was an excellent novel from the thriller perspective.  There were issues involving party politics in Norway, racism, World War II and predatory behavior by mining companies.  It was a suspenseful and involving story line from start to finish.  I loved Forty Days Without Shadow.


Friday, January 2, 2015

The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice: The Honor Killing of a Woman Artist

In The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice American journalist Fereby McCullough Jones investigates the killing of  a woman in the Druze community of Israel who had become her friend.  Reviews of this book often remark that life for Druze women is so terrible, but they don't get the larger point that author Amy Logan is making.


 We like to think that honor killing is something that happens in other countries, and in cultures other than our own.  In first world cultures, honor is considered an old fashioned concept.  Yet if you replace the word "honor" with the word "reputation", then you see that honor killings happen everywhere.  If honor were about personal integrity, then no one would kill another person for it.  If you don't maintain your own integrity and do things that you believe are wrong, there is no one to blame but yourself.   It's the idea of externalizing honor and making other people responsible for maintaining it that has brought about this worldwide legacy of murder. It is important to emphasize that the people who are most often held responsible for maintaining the honor or reputation of families are women and children.   Their actions don't just reflect on themselves, but are seen as reflecting on the entire family unit.   The punishment for actions that are seen as injuring the family reputation is often a lifetime of abuse rather than murder, but abuse can become murder when emotional control is lost in a moment of fury.

When Fereby starts stirring up trouble in Israel, her parents in the United States become irate.  They believe that her actions reflect on them.   Fereby searches for the cultural basis of honor killing among the Druze, but the thoughtful reader may notice that she could look a good deal closer to home.  Fereby  eventually realizes how her parents' attitudes have damaged her, and begins to see connections between her own life and that of her dead friend, Leila Azzam.

It seems to me that this urge to kill for reputation actually goes far beyond family.  Political and religious murders happen when individuals are seen as injuring the reputations of their country, ethnic group or religion.  Some individuals  have been killed because they have injured the reputations of powerful corporations by calling attention to illegal or unethical actions of those corporations.  These are all honor killings.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved is Leila's art.  Leila created paintings that are rich in symbolism drawn from ancient esoteric philosophy and from folk traditions of Goddess worship. Leila's work was concealed from her family because the Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam which forbids images.  Some of these paintings are described in detail so that I could see them in my imagination.  I wished that she were a real artist so that I could see them in actuality at a real museum or gallery. The fictional character  Leila Azzam is presented as a genius equivalent to the widely admired Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo.  I would also compare her to Chaim Potok's fictional artist, Asher Lev, who challenged the beliefs of the anti-image Hasidic Jewish community through his work. Potok's novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, is an old favorite of mine.

In addition, I was interested in learning the role that reincarnation plays in Druze beliefs, and in Leila's tragically short life.

There were some wonderful characters in this novel other than Fereby and Leila.  I particularly enjoyed Fereby's  gay cross-dressing translator, Moshe.  Leila's brother, Fadi, is eventually revealed as a character of great depth and pathos.  So this is not a book that condemns all men as villains.  Amy Logan shows all her characters as individuals who are responsible for their choices.  In fact, I'd say that the central theme of this novel is that individual lives have value.

The powerful emotions and reflections provoked by The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice are the reasons why I consider this novel the best book I read in 2014.



Thursday, January 1, 2015

My 2014 Retrospective



First I'll start with a few statistics which I'll present in narrative format because I have comments on them.

I only posted 26 times since this blog was established.  I really need to do better.  I certainly hope that I will post more frequently and with greater regularity in 2015. I owe it to my readers to improve.

I'm happy that I have had more than a fourteen hundred total views.  Since it's a relatively new blog,  my number of views has exceeded my expectations.

I blog here and at Book Babe which is an older and more established blog with a following.  My assumption was that my most viewed post this year would be at Book Babe.  On the average, my posts at Book Babe do get more viewers.  Yet my most viewed post is The Merman and The Barbarian Pirate   right here on this blog.  I'd like to think that it's popular because I reviewed an LGBT fantasy novel the same way I'd review any other book.

Now I'd like to present

                                                        The Golden Mask Awards

Favorite Book of 2014

The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice by Amy Logan (2012)

This title is also the best indie  that I read in 2014 (from small publisher Priya Press in San Francisco), and the best mystery I read in 2014 as well.  Since I finished it at 11:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, I have not yet had an opportunity to review it.  My review of this amazing feminist novel dealing with honor killing in the Druze community in Israel will definitely be the first review I post in 2015.

  Favorite Book Published in 2014

Last Stop Klindenspiel by Marta Tandori (2014)

This novel dealing with a post-WWII circus in Poland is also the best YA book that I read in 2014 and the best historical fiction that I read in 2014 as well.  I reviewed it on Book Babe  here .

Favorite Fantasy Novel in 2014

Random by Alma Alexander (2014)

This  highly original fantasy deals with an entirely new approach to shapeshifters.  I reviewed it on this blog here.

Favorite Romance Novel in 2014

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond (2014)

This delightful YA Romeo and Juliet novel steeped in circus history and traditions was one that I reviewed on Book Babe here.

Favorite Net Galley in 2014

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (originally published in 2012)

This Australian import that is partly historical fiction and partly a unusual retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel was reviewed by me on Book Babe here.

Favorite Bookplex Book of 2014

How The Water Falls by K.P. Kollenborn (2014)

This powerful portrayal of South Africa's journey in overcoming apartheid was reviewed on this blog

Favorite Book Won From a Booklikes Giveaway

I won seven books from Booklikes and haven't had a chance to read them all, but the best book I did read from Booklikes in 2014 is:

Rhinoceros Summer by Jamie Thornton (2013)

This well-characterized portrayal of an American teen photographer in Africa is one I reviewed on Book Babe here.  It was also my most viewed post on Book Babe.

I would like to thank my readers for their interest in this blog, and my co-blogger Tara Chevrestt for welcoming me to the Book Babe band of reviewers.