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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Islam in Saudi Arabia

Since reading and reviewing Halal Monk  I've been looking for more books that will help to fill in the blanks in my knowledge of Islam.  I've read so much about Wahabism, the dominant sect of Saudi Arabia, from the perspective of its opponents.   Yet I knew nothing about its history.  I also wanted to know about the beliefs of Wahabis  from a source that might be less biased than the sources I've previously encountered.  I don't imagine that there is such a thing as a completely unbiased source about any subject.  Islam in Saudi Arabia was published by Cornell University Press and was written by David Commins, a professor of history at Dickinson College.  He has done research on Wahabism in Saudi Arabia and has written a previous book on the subject called  The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia.  I downloaded Islam in Saudi Arabia from Net Galley and this is my honest review.
I think my most important takeaway from this book in the context of Saudi culture is that Wahabism is a longstanding ally of the Al Sauds who rule Saudi Arabia.  The 18th century founder of the tradition, Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab was very close to the Al Saud family of that generation.  As the power and status of the Al Saud family rose over the centuries, so did the religious influence of Wahabism.   The relationship between the Saudi monarchy and Wahabi clerics has been uneasy at times.  There has even been violent conflict over the role of religion.

 Wahabism sees itself as the most pure monotheistic sect of Islam.  Their criticism of other sects reminds me of  Protestant Reformation preachers condemning the saints of the Catholic Church.  Christianity has also had its controversies over monotheism. 

  Wahabi clerics usually concede the political realm to the government, and the  Saudi government usually allows Wahabi clerics to control all matters of religious life.  The Saudi situation isn't like the American idea of separation of church and state.  The Saudi monarchy does interfere with religion if religious leaders criticize them.   Since 9/11 there has been some liberalization of Saudi media.  Many issues are now openly discussed that had never previously been aired publicly.  The one thing that is still never allowed in Saudi newspapers, television or online forums is condemnation of  the Saudi government.

When I was reading the section in this book about women and sports in Saudi Arabia, I tried to think of sports that women could play veiled with the hijab prescribed by Wahabism called the  full niqab which covers a woman completely except for eye slits.  I thought that this hijab could interfere with vision. So  I did a search on veiled women playing sports.  I found pictures of veiled woman athletes, but none were wearing the full niqab of Wahabi women.  There was an article dealing with Muslim women wearing sports hijab at the 2012 Olympics.  The women shown were Shiites.   Unfortunately, sports hijab doesn't meet Wahabi standards.

Yet does hijab really block vision? I found an article that deals with this question as it affects driving.  Should Driving While Wearing Burqas Be Illegal?  The case involved an Afghani woman driving in France wearing the hijab prescribed by the Taliban which covers the eyes with a mesh screen.  Her lawyer argued this wouldn't impact vision.   The article advances the view that if this sort of hijab wasn't allowed for driving, then motorcycle helmets should be banned instead of mandated.   Yet I looked at the narrow slits of full niqab and thought that they weren't comparable. An Afghani woman in her hijab might really have a better view of the road than a Saudi woman in Wahabi hijab.  Does this mean that Saudi women really shouldn't drive?  I have a modest proposal.  Maybe the Wahabi  clerics should give permission for Saudi women  to wear the Afghan form of hijab while driving.

 I read  about a concern that soccer players wearing hijab in hot climates might be adversely affected in an article by Qanta Ahmed M.D. on Hijab in Sports  Yet it occurred to me that U.S. football players wearing helmets during hot weather would probably have the same problem.  I think that  a climate controlled dome would be a solution for both hijab wearing soccer players and helmet wearing U.S. football players in hot climates.   Another problem that Dr. Ahmed mentions involving the safety of hijab when a player is being tackled might be more intractable.   Perhaps hijab should not be worn for contact sports. 

I noticed that there is currently no digital edition of this book available for sale.  If Cornell University Press decides to make Islam in Saudi Arabia available in digital format, I would recommend that the endnotes be hyperlinked within the text.   As a reviewer who downloaded this digitally, I had a more difficult time checking sources than I would have had with the print version.  I couldn't simply turn to the correct page.  I have said this in a review before, and I think it cannot be said too many times.  Hyperlinking to endnotes should be standard practice for scholarly non-fiction in digital format.

This review is based on a publishing proof.  The final version may have revisions, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention any problems that I noticed during my reading of this proof.  I had some organizational issues.  It seemed to me that Commins couldn't decide whether he was going to present his subject chronologically or topically.  He tried to do both, and the result was a great deal of unnecessary repetition.   My preference would have been one consistent organizational approach.

 I learned a great deal from this book that I hadn't known about Wahabi history and practice.  I also learned about Shiites in Saudi Arabia, and how the political relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has influenced the status of  Saudi Arabian Shiites.  So I do think that this is a valuable book for Western readers.



Sunday, April 26, 2015

Remembrance Part 1: A Time of War

I decided to read Remembrance: A Time of War by A. K. Stauber for review because it deals with a Jewish woman in Poland during WWII who joins the Resistance which is a uncommon story.   I do know of male Jews who were in the Resistance in real life, but I have never heard of actual Jewish women who were able to join a Resistance cell.  I purchased this book on Amazon and reviewed it for The Bookplex.



The main strength of this book is the intense narrative focused on the horrific experiences of the Jewish female protagonist in Poland during World War II. For the most part, Anna is very credible.  She is strong yet vulnerable, though events harden her over time. 

I have no doubt that Stauber studied the history of the Holocaust, yet this book betrays her lack of knowledge of the Hasidic Jewish community.  I believe that it was an error of judgment to call any of these characters Hasidic.  They should have been urban Jews from Warsaw or Krakow who were somewhat assimilated.  Genuinely Hasidic characters would have had difficulties with the events of this storyline that weren’t even mentioned once in the novel.  The kosher diet of all Orthodox Jews is one prominent example.   Hasidic characters would have given some thought to the lack of availability of kosher food in their circumstances, and they would have made a decision about it. 

 The inaccuracies in the portrayal of these characters begin with their names which should be either Hebrew or Yiddish.  A more minor nomenclature error is that the characters refer to a Hasidic man’s strands of ringlets as “payot”.  That is Sephardic Hebrew.  These characters were Ashkenazic Jews who would have spoken Ashkenazic Hebrew.  The ringlet strands would have been “payas”. This may seem inconsequential, but any reader who is familiar with the cultural context would see that mistake as a reminder of the author’s shortcomings in this area.

 More importantly, the background of Pawel is riddled with contradictions.  The explanation for these contradictions is unworkable.  A Hasidic family would never have united in marriage with a family without the proper religious background.  Arranged marriages have always been seen as a commitment between families rather than individuals.  A Hasidic family would only consider someone from a similar type of family.  This would be the most important criterion for a matchmaker in that community.  It just wouldn’t have happened.  

It also isn't explained how Pawel knew how to use a gun.  It isn't something that someone from a Hasidic background would have learned.  Who taught him?  Under what circumstances did he learn?
On the other hand, the cover of Remembrance: A Time of War is worthy of praise.  It has an impact. The sky is dominated by the Star of David surrounded by flames and dripping blood.  I would call it a powerful artistic metaphor. The cover isn’t such an asset in the black and white version that appears on my Kindle. Without the colors it doesn’t make so strong a statement.  I would also like to point out that the author’s name is greyed out and nearly disappears in that version. 

 Unfortunately, the favorable impression made by the cover in full color is ruined by the reader’s first encounter with the text which starts with a misspelling. This is an error that should have been caught and fixed. I can’t even type that misspelling in Word without seeing it underlined in red.  It’s the only misspelling in the entire book, but a reader who sees “Prolouge” would have no way of knowing that.   Much later in the book Polish appears un-capitalized twice, but these slipups are much less noticeable.  Typographical errors that appear in the beginning of a book have a negative influence on readers.  They may even decide to stop reading it.

The Hasidic cultural background of certain characters will presumably recede and become less important in future volumes, but I experienced the inconsistent presentation of this background as a significant flaw in this book.   A consultant who is educated in all the rich complexities of Hasidic Jewish life would have been helpful.


Monday, April 20, 2015

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell--A Broken Life

I've always been interested in historical novels about women who dress as men.  Their motivations may tell us about the period in which they lived.  These women usually didn't want to be men.  They wanted male freedoms--especially freedom of movement.  They wanted to engage in activities that weren't permitted for women.  In one novel I read, the protagonist simply wanted to disguise herself  so that she wouldn't be recognized by pursuers.   Yet in Revolutionary by Alex Myers the question of the protagonist's gender identity does arise.  The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber is another book where  we have to wonder whether the protagonist dressed as a man to overcome restrictions, or really did want to change her gender.

This is a novel that took place in Victorian America. It's undeniable that women had very limited options at that point in history. The whalebone corset is a good metaphor for what  the Victorian period did to women's lives. It constricted women in confining roles so that they could hardly breathe.  Lucy Ann Lobdell, the real historical personage who is the central character of this novel, didn't wear a corset.  Yet Victorian attitudes constricted her.  She spent her entire life trying to breathe freely.  In this novel, Lobdell did tell herself that she didn't want to be a man.  Yet when she was in circumstances where it was known that she was a woman and could continue to engage in activities that were considered taboo for women, she still chose to dress as a man and wanted to be called by a male name.  Had Lobdell  actually decided to try to become a man in every way that was possible at that time, or was it because she had internalized societal attitudes and wasn't comfortable being who she was while living as a woman?

The portrayal of Lobdell's sexual preference illustrates this issue.  Although the character did fall in love with one man and marry him,  this turned out to be an uncharacteristic choice.   Once the husband was out of the picture, which happened before the events of the novel began,  our central character only fell in love with women.  So are we looking at a lesbian or a heterosexual man?  What is the character's self-perception?  It's interesting that a case study about Lucy Ann Lobdell was apparently, according to this book, the first time that the word "lesbian" was used to mean a woman with a sexual preference for women.  Before that article about Lobdell, lesbian referred to a resident of the island of Lesbos, and women who loved women were "female inverts".

My own view is that Lucy Ann Lobdell was a lesbian rather than a female to male transsexual who perceived himself as heterosexual.   Other readers might have another opinion.  Yet it did seem to me that she wanted to legitimate her relationships with women in the eyes of society by using a male name and dressing as a man.

The social recognition that Lobdell  craved was only hers briefly in a locality where no one knew that she was a woman.   As a result, she continually struggled with depression and other mental disorders.  In the newly nascent profession of psychotherapy women who resisted conventional roles were thought to be hysterics.  Since psychotherapy was only available to wealthy women, Lobdell was just locked away.  Her condition always worsened when she was isolated and imprisoned.  She was driven crazy by cultural expectations and then abandoned.  I was saddened by this waste of human potential.

I was pleased to discover a research topic within the pages of this book.  Lobdell became a convert to the Church of the New Jerusalem which was based on the ideas of Emmanuel Swedenborg. My web search uncovered the fact that John Chapman, who was known as Johnny Appleseed was also a follower of Swedenborg.  I found a web page about John Chapman as a Swedenborgian missionary that also briefly discusses the ideas of Swedenborg.  See John Chapman and Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Although the author Klaber doesn't portray Lobdell as a Swedenborgian missionary,  there is mention of  it in the book.  I think that Lobdell was drawn to the Swedenborgian doctrine of true soul mates. Swedenborg believed that people will be with their soul mates in heaven even if they weren't married to them.  This would have been a comfort to her because she seemed to have only brief moments of happiness while she was alive.

I found The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell both gripping and informative, if not inspiring.  We need to know about the lives broken by Victorian oppression.  I am glad that William Klaber has brought Lobdell to life for us in fiction.



Friday, April 17, 2015

Innocents of Oppression: Deaf Students in the UK Need A Better Education!

 I wrote this review for Book Babe, but this is the sort of content I like to see on this blog.  So I re-blogged it.  

I had some background in deaf issues before I read Innocents of Oppression by Nick Sturley.  My most recent related read was Inside Deaf Culture which I reviewed last year on Shomeret: The Masked Reviewer here.  What interested me about Sturley’s novel is that I’ve never read anything about the deaf in the UK.   Apparently the predominance of exclusive oralism in deaf education has continued in the UK.   This doesn’t just mean that lip reading and speaking are encouraged.  It means that signing is prohibited in the classroom.  I wanted to understand why this situation continues unchanged.


Innocents of Oppression dramatizes the impact of exclusive oralism on a group of UK deaf students at a boarding school for deaf boys.  Those that were not totally deaf tended be more successful with the oral method.  All the students were required to wear hearing aids even if they were completely deaf.  Instructors had microphones and thought that they could somehow reach students with no residual hearing by increasing their volume.  Teachers who rely solely on oral communication could shout into their microphones all day and still wouldn’t be heard by the students who had no hearing.    This is common sense.  I can’t imagine what the teachers, or the school administration were thinking.  It’s as if they didn’t know that it’s possible for someone to be completely unable to hear.  It’s like assuming that the blind are just near sighted, and requiring them to wear prescription glasses.  If they were that uninformed, they obviously shouldn’t have been allowed to teach deaf children.

Oralism wasn’t the only barrier to a good education in the lives of these students.  Bullying is a major theme in this novel.   This is why I don’t agree with Sturley’s title.  Students who engage in bullying or who react to bullying with equally violent behavior can’t be considered “innocents”.  While it was certainly true that their backgrounds often motivated their conduct, they were still guilty of harming their fellow students.  Breaking the cycle of abuse isn’t easy, but victimizers shouldn’t be given a free pass because they were once victims. 

Although I was moved by the resolution of the book, there was a long info dump that preceded it dealing with what had happened in the lives of the characters in the thirty years since they’d been together in boarding school.  While it’s very likely that in real life a conversation between two old friends from boarding school would consist of catching up on everyone they knew, fiction should be more entertaining.  I would have preferred selected flashbacks. 

I believe that an earlier info dump on deaf history shouldn’t have been included in the novel in any form.  The narrative purpose was bringing the protagonist up to speed, but the probable purpose of the author was educating readers.   He should have included a bibliography with recommended resources on deaf history, or placed that entire info dump on a web page and given readers the URL.

Nevertheless, I was interested to learn about the first deaf Member of Parliament, Francis Humberston MacKenzie (1754-1815).  The mention of Auslan led me to discover that Australian Aborigine peoples have ancient traditional sign languages that were developed for situations when speech was taboo.  I already knew about Native American sign languages that were used for communication between individuals who didn’t share a spoken language.   I consider all forms of communication intriguing. 

I do wish that Sturley hadn’t mentioned recreational swimming with dolphins.  The capture of dolphins for this purpose traumatizes them.  See this article from World Animal Protection and this article from Right Tourism. My concern for the rights of intelligent beings extends to non-human species. 

There was some good characterization and character interaction in this book.  I also learned a great deal about deaf education in the UK.  British families who can’t afford to send their deaf children to the U.S. for a better education need more advocacy.  I’m sure that this is Sturley’s central purpose and I applaud him for that.

Website with Video (subtitled)
Article about the author in Limping Chicken:


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Moonlight Water: A Musician Finds A New Life in the American Southwest

My favorite Western was originally published as The Rock Child and written by Win Blevins.  I found it on a library sale cart a number of years ago.  It was re-issued as Of Love and Demons in 2013.  I'm not sure that title reflects the content, but The Rock Child is still the only book I've read dealing with a Native American who meets a Tibetan nun in the 19th century American West.  Blevins also throws in Mormons and the explorer Richard Francis Burton. It's unlikely that you'll find another book in the Western genre that's more astonishing.

I have now re-encountered Win Blevins's name on the cover of a contemporary fiction novel co-written with his wife, Meredith Blevins called Moonlight Water.  Although I am a mystery fan,  I have never read any of  Meredith Blevins' Annie Szabo mysteries.  I should probably remedy that situation.   I think the occasional instances of beautiful poetic phrases in Moonlight Water are probably hers.

What drew me to this new Blevins was the Southwest cover. I first learned of its existence from a Goodreads notification of new releases by authors that I've read.


I would call Moonlight Water quirky.  I stand by the genre classification of contemporary fiction even though there's a small element of what is often called magical realism.  I will leave readers to discover it themselves.  I will also leave readers to spot a slightly altered version of one of the authors' names among the characters.  I was fascinated by the unusual Mexican-American Mormon character and wanted to know a great deal more about her.  Whether you like or dislike these offbeat facets will depend on your taste.

What I enjoyed most in this book is the role of music.  It's transcendent, and it can redeem people who may appear to be lost beyond redemption.   This is one of my very favorite tropes in fiction.  I felt that the musician characters were portrayed authentically.  Like all performers, one of the flaws of  musicians can be self-absorption.  Rob, the musician protagonist, makes an effort to overcome his self-absorption even though he doesn't always succeed.

I found the archaeology component problematic.  It's important that readers realize that the context for artifacts that have been removed from a site that wasn't properly excavated can never really be established.  This novel implies that this can be done.  The most that can be done is extrapolation based on other sites containing similar artifacts that have been properly excavated, but such a theoretical reconstruction may not be accurate at all.  There also might not be any similar site that was properly excavated because pot hunters have ruined so many sites.  Pot hunters destroy the stratigraphy  which is how archaeologists determine context.  Each level of an archaeological site needs to be studied to discover how the artifacts relate to each other, and establish the most likely date for that level.  Organic matter that is fragile and important to interpretation is discarded by pot hunters because it has no value to them.  The authors seemed to want an unambivalent happily ever after resolution, but there is none for a violated archaeological site. 

Perhaps if  Moonlight Water had been a romance  I would have expected the overindulgence in HEA.  Although there are romantic relationships between characters, this book is no romance.   Other aspects of the novel, other than the plot strand involving archaeology, are portrayed more realistically.  This is why I removed one star from my Goodreads rating.

I did notice that one of the characters in Moonlight Water is going to be the protagonist of The Darkness Rolling which is a Win and Meredith Blevins future release.  According to the description, it will be a historical mystery which I hope will successfully meld the talents of both these authors.