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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Swiftian Post-Apocalyptic Novel That Is Both Fun and Thoughtful

If Jonathan Swift were alive in the 21st century he might have written something very like Hello World 5000.  Like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, this book deals with a journey through an unfamiliar landscape.   In terms of our current genre labels, the book is post-apocalyptic and dystopian.  As I said in a previous review, I don't enjoy dystopias. I usually avoid them because I expect them to be grimdark to the max.  Yet because author  Jeffrey Grant Hunt brought Swift's sensibility to his dystopia, I thought it was actually a fun read.  That's why I'm telling my readers about this book after reviewing it for The Bookplex.


 Royal, the main viewpoint character, pretends to ignorance while weaving sly satiric commentary into his account.  I enjoyed his voice though he can’t be considered a trustworthy narrator.   For example, his history of the internet mixes fact with whimsy.

Readers shouldn’t expect realism from this novel, or a story line that would make sense if taken literally.  The plot and description are fanciful. In accordance with Royal’s rule book, The Decon Manual For Homeless Soldiers, “We make it up as we go along.”  Yet when it seems like there can be no serious purpose in writing the book, readers are jarred out of complacency by a mordant jab at our assumptions.

Hunt has one of the characters say “my crimes against the reader are too numerous to mention”, but frequent errors in the text isn’t one of them.  I only found one which was of the sort that wouldn’t be found by a spellcheck program. 

The title and cover imply that everything that is taking place is part of the videogame Hello World 5000 that is briefly mentioned in the book.  Is it really?   Perhaps Hunt’s main point is that trying to establish what is real isn’t an especially worthwhile activity.   If you go along for the ride you might discover that there are other things that are more important.  


Monday, September 28, 2015

Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts by Teri J. Dluznieski

 This is another of my reviews that I copied from Book Babe.  I thought that I made some points in this review that would interest my readers on this blog.

Why am I reading a book called Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts?  Am I getting into the Halloween spirit early?  Such a title may lead readers to wonder what you feed a hungry ghost.  I have an answer to that question.  You feed them whatever they want.  This is actually a serious answer.  I've encountered the term "hungry ghost" in a Chinese cultural context.  It means ancestors who have been ignored.  No family members have established altars or made offerings to those ancestors.  In Chinese tradition, this shows tremendous disrespect for ancestors. 

 Getting back to the book, the title is somewhat inaccurate.  Although there is definitely one hungry ghost in the plot, there is no indication of any others.  The single hungry ghost doesn't make an appearance at a cafe.  There were no invisible hands preparing lattes that hadn't been ordered.  If that's what you were expecting, you must look elsewhere for a ghost ridden cafe.

I first encountered Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts on Goodreads where author Teri J. Dluznieski was offering free copies in return for reviews.  I promised one in September, and I'm managing to do that in September's final week.


Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts is really about Wayra, a college student who was brought up partly in Peru and partly in Vermont.   This hybrid childhood is due to her parents making differing choices about where they wanted to live.  In Peru her mother had given her some training in her family's tradition of shamanic healing.   She is currently living with her father in Vermont where she's going to college, performing healing  ceremonies for illegal immigrants who can't see medical doctors, is a mentor to a brilliant  young girl and oh yes, she does work at a cafe.                                     

Wayra is not portrayed as one of those idealized characters who juggles her numerous responsibilities perfectly and should be nominated for sainthood.  On the contrary,  she can't handle it all as well as she hoped, she has nightmares and makes errors in judgment.  I found Wayra sympathetic because I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed.

I was interested in the content about healing .  Wayra  gives a woman recovering from flu an herb that is a mainstay of the Peruvian diet.  It's called maca .  My link is to an illuminating article about it on WebMD.  I'd never heard of it before and it looks like it can be useful for a variety of purposes. 

I was also very interested in the description of Andean shamanism and the folklore on which it's based.   I have always known that it's unwise to assume that a concept from a tradition that I haven't studied is identical to one in other traditions that I have studied.  Yet I did assume that the Andean concept of the "bubble" was the same thing as an aura.  When I started reading Dluznieski's non-fiction book on shamanism, Dancing In Your Bubble, I realized my error.  The Andean idea of  the "bubble" has some things in common with an aura, but is much more complex.  It's important to realize that while there are similarities between traditions, there are also unique elements that can be significant.

The extremely controversial issue of illegal immigration is another important focus in this novel.  Dluznieski gives opponents of a path to citizenship for illegals some food for thought.  

There were brief mentions of phenomena in Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts that I wanted to know more about such as  Barefoot College, guerrilla gardening and Bowenwork .The information at the links I've provided are a good start for those who want to know more.

 Although this book is a fascinating look at Wayra's life, the cliffhanger ending was very jarring.  There were a bunch of narrative threads left hanging.  Even when a book is the first volume in a series, I prefer some degree of resolution. This was my biggest problem with Cafe of the Hungry Ghosts and I consider it a serious one.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Blue African : An Extraterrestrial Examines Apartheid

When I first encountered The Blue African by L.W. Samuelson as a book available for review on The Bookplex website, I thought it might be a satire, but it turned out to be something else--a seriously intended indictment of  humans behaving badly.


I really loved the premise.  Imagine an alien from another planet arriving in apartheid South Africa.  What would he think of apartheid?  How would he deal with it, and how would South Africa deal with him?  Although The Blue African can be very overtly didactic at times, I found it both entertaining and moving until toward the end of the narrative.

I noticed that other reviewers were put off by the cover.  I associated it with old fashioned pulp science fiction and thought it was appropriate. It clearly communicated to readers that this is science fiction. 

I had some problems with character names.  I thought that the name Porter was too human ordinary for an alien. At 43% Porter was suddenly Logis.  I assume that Logis was the original name of the character and that this was an editing error.   There is mention of a woman from Porter’s planet who had a Greek name.  Perhaps Samuelson was originally going to give all his aliens Greek names.   Without a reasonable explanation, aliens with Greek names lack credibility.    At one point the protagonist, Porter Tellez, was given an Afrikaner name as an identity change.  Then he pretended to be an Englishman.   At the same time, a minor character with an English name was introduced, and he turned out to be an Afrikaner. This seemed incongruous. Later, there was an evil character with a name that was almost the same as a villainous historical personage.   I found that unsubtle.  

From a characterization perspective, I appreciate the portrayals of the African characters in Soweto.  I also found Porter likable until late in the novel. Samuelson evidently didn’t want Porter to be too idealized.   He had Porter make an error that I found inconsistent with the character as previously established.  I also thought the attitude Porter eventually takes toward humanity as a whole based on television and rather limited experience was very troubling.  I didn't understand why he had such a negative opinion of  the whole human species when he seemed to think so highly of the majority population of South Africa.  If that holds true for all nations, then it's possible to conclude that the majority of the planet are decent beings trying to survive the depredations of a greedy minority.  Yet that apparently isn't what Porter thinks.  If others of his species agreed with him, it could lead to a very dystopian future and I am not a fan of dystopias.   So despite what seems to be a happily ever after ending, I was left with a queasy feeling.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

Are The Haredi Jewish Taliban?

Yes, I know that my post title is inflammatory, but the question comes to mind after reading The War on Women in Israel by Elana Maryles Sztokman.  Author Maggie Anton read and reviewed it on Goodreads and it sounded like a book that I needed to read.

The Haredi that I've seen in New York have never seemed threatening.  They just wanted to be left alone to practice Judaism in the way that they choose.  I have no quarrel with that.  Those in their community who want to leave should be allowed to do so, however.  I recently reviewed Julia Dahl's mysteries that dealt with individuals who had been brought up Haredi, but wanted to live a different life.  The first was Invisible City which I reviewed here , and the second was Run You Down which I reviewed  here. It's important to point out that these books took place in New York, not Israel.

 When Haredi live in a nation in which freedom of religion is a founding principle, they should expect to be treated with respect.  On the other hand, they should also expect that the imposition of their beliefs on people who don't choose to follow them will meet with considerable resistance.  In fact, there is mention in this book of  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling Haredi in 2011 that they could rent buses if they wanted them to be gender segregated, but segregation on New York public buses was prohibited. 

The situation in New York is very different from the one in Israel.  Like the United States, Israel was founded by people fleeing persecution in Europe.   Yet the United States originated from thirteen colonies settled by people with varying backgrounds.  Puritan Massachusetts was  different from Quaker Pennsylvania, for example.  Over the centuries, the US has become a diverse population of immigrants from all over the planet.   There were differences among the founders of Israel too.  Some were religious, but others were secular.  Despite these divisions, their intention was for Israel's population to be a homogeneous one with a single dominant religion. This has turned out to be a problematic proposition in many ways.  So the issue of freedom of religion has been very controversial in Israel.

When I was sixteen, I accompanied my family on a tour of Israel. When the tour visited Jerusalem, women in the tour group were warned about the standards of dress expected in Mea Shearim where the Haredi lived.  Women had been stoned there.  I thought at the time that I would simply stay out of Mea Shearim.

The War on Women in Israel deals with the conflict that has resulted over Haredi attempts to impose their standards for women on the rest of Israel.


Israel has no separation of church and state as the U.S. does.  Their established religion is Orthodox Judaism.  Many of their laws conform to Orthodox Jewish traditions.  The trouble is that there is more than one approach to Orthodox Judaism.  In Eastern Europe, the religious ancestors of the Haredi were known as Chasidim.  Their emphasis was on faith and strict obedience to their Rabbis' rulings.  They called their opponents the Misnagdim  which literally means those who are against.  My own ancestors were Misnaged Rabbis.  They emphasized Talmudic scholarship.  The Talmud is actually a series of debates about Jewish law.  So Misnaged communities prized the ability to argue well, and decide which interpretation you would follow.   Their flexibility and rationalism meant that they were more likely to assimilate successfully within modern society.  Today the Misnagdim are called Modern Orthodox. So both the Chasidim and the Misnagdim considered themselves Orthodox Jews, but they were diametrically opposed.

Originally, the Chasidic/Haredi  population in Israel was small and limited to Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.  Now there are many thousands of Haredi and they have large presences in a number of cities.

The first case in this book that really got to me was the one of Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a 17 year old girl who performed on the Israeli version of The VoiceThe Voice is a very popular singing competition in the U.S.  I'm a big fan myself.  Ophir and her family lived in a religious settlement which expected behavior in accordance with Jewish Orthodox standards. She took second place, then came home to a suspension from school for singing in front of men.  I looked at some Jewish opinions that were in opposition to the school's decision.  One Rabbi said that the prohibition was against a man listening to a woman singing.  Men didn't have to watch her performance.  Another Rabbi said that the prohibition was only against a woman singing seductively which Ophir didn't do. Yet another said that the prohibition only applied to a woman singing religious songs during a service because it would distract a man from prayer.   So there was a variety of views on the topic.  Why was a very stringent Haredi oriented opinion imposed on this talented teen?   Why did her school feel she had to be silenced?

This book devotes considerable space to the Women of the Wall.  These are women who want to pray in the women's section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem which is a remnant of the second Jewish Temple built by Herod.

One of the reasons  why this has been a problem is because they pray aloud which is considered a distraction to praying men in the Orthodox perspective. So both Modern Orthodox and Haredi believe that women's voices shouldn't be heard at all in public prayer.

A reason why the Women of the Wall clash with Haredi is because they want to pray with a tallit ( prayer shawl) and tefillin which are also known as phylacteries.  These are required for men in Jewish law.  This is why Orthodox Jewish men wear them at prayer services daily.  In the view of the Modern Orthodox women are neither required nor prohibited from wearing the tallit and tefillin.  The Haredi are absolutely adamant that women may not wear them.  This book doesn't discuss why the Haredi are so opposed to this practice but I found   a couple of illuminating articles on the Chabad website. (The Chabad are a worldwide organization who are the largest and most influential sect of Haredi.) You can read about the Haredi perspective on this issue at Is It Appropriate For A Woman To Wear A Tallith? and  Why Don't Women Wear Tefillin? 

The Women of the Wall practice that attracts the most Haredi ire was that they  want to carry a Torah and read from it. Here's a 2015 article from The Jerusalem Post  dealing with a recent Women of the Wall incident.  This  article shows that Israel still refuses to recognize freedom of religion for non-Orthodox Jews, and that women are on the front lines of this religious war. 

I was absolutely outraged by a July 2012 incident in which a modestly dressed Orthodox woman in Beit Shemesh emerged from her car carrying her baby, and had stones thrown in her direction by Haredi.  She was carrying a baby!  Who are these monsters?   Fortunately,  neither the woman nor the baby were harmed.  She was called names and told to leave the neighborhood.  Since she was dressed according to their standards, I think the issue must have been driving.  Women driving is perfectly legal in Israel.  There is no Modern Orthodox objection to anyone driving unless they are driving on the Sabbath or on a Yom Tov (literally good day, but it means an important holiday to which Sabbath rules apply).  So I would think that it's the Haredi who believe that it's appropriate to throw stones at women who drive that should relocate to a nation that is more in sympathy with their perspective.    

My impression that Haredi have very much in common with certain types of Muslims was confirmed when I read in this book that some women from the Haredi community were wearing body covering shawls that resemble Islamic niqab.  They have been classified as a separate splinter group called the Haredi Burka Sect. Now my readers understand where the title of this post came from.  It's in the form of a question because some Haredi men actually don't approve.  The women took it upon themselves to dress in that manner.  Historically, some Jewish women veiled because it was the custom of the country for women, but veiling isn't the current custom of Israel nor is it required of women by Jewish law.  It is definitely a religious custom in some sects of Islam.  This may be one reason why a few Haredi men asked their Rabbi to prohibit the wearing of "burkas".   I was taught that Jews are supposed to avoid any religious practice of non-Jews.   The Haredi Rabbis who were consulted on this issue have decided that this garb calls attention to the women and therefore sexualizes them.  See this  article from the UK Telegraph. Other Haredi men have petitioned the city of Beit Shemesh for permission to establish a school where girls were expected to wear "burkas".  If it weren't for the fact that the Taliban are opposed to the education of girls,  I might suggest Afghanistan as a better location for such a school.

Although I already knew about discrimination against women in Israel, I hadn't been aware of the spread of Haredi violence against women, or the extent of Haredi political influence.  Any woman who is considering settling in Israel should read this book.  I would also recommend it to anyone who thinks that Israel is similar to the United States.




Friday, September 4, 2015

Run You Down: The Dramatically Intense Sequel to Invisible City

Here's another of my posts from Book Babe.  I copied my review for Invisible City to this blog.  This is the sequel.  I also thought that I had some information in this review that needs to be spread far and wide.  

I reviewed the debut mystery Invisible City by Julia Dahl on Book Babe.  It took place in the hasidic community of New York who call themselves haredi. I said in my review of the first book that I wasn't that impressed with the journalist protagonist Rebekah Roberts, and that I wished that I was reading the story of Aviva Kagan, Rebekah's mother.  Well, I got that wish.  The sequel, Run You Down, alternates between the perspectives of Rebekah and Aviva.

This book is full of tragedy, but you could almost call the murder that Rebekah is investigating a poignant footnote to the heart-rending story of Rebekah's uncle, Samuel Kagan.  Sam is the dramatic center of the book.  I was very sorry for Sam.   I understood that he was largely shaped by PTSD, and that his trauma motivated his behavior.   At the same time, it was hard to view him as a sympathetic character because some of his actions were so shockingly unthinkable.

Aviva was an important character, but largely secondary within the plot.  Her self-punishing guilt kept her away from the people she cared about most.  Yet Aviva was really a victim of her upbringing.    As much as she tried to combat it, being a member of the haredi community was too much a part of her. 

Dov Lowenstein, a disaffected ex-haredi who appears briefly in Run You Down, calls the haredi a cult.  This would explain why Aviva and others found it so difficult to leave.  What is the definition of a cult?  Neopagan author Isaac Bonewits developed a Cult Danger Evaluation Frame originally published in his book, Real Magic.  Its original purpose was to allow Neopagans to determine whether any particular religious group that they might come across was a dangerous cult.  If a group's  practices involves a high number of the characteristics that Bonewits listed, it's best to stay far away from it.  It is possible to conclude from what is written about the haredi in Julia Dahl's books that they are a cult.  Others might maintain that they preserve traditions, and are a source of social cohesion for their community.

I thought that Rebekah improved in this book, but she may be too vulnerable to be a successful journalist.  The ugliness of the crimes that she has investigated disturbs her very deeply.  At one point in this novel she reminds herself that being a reporter is what she aspired to do, but then comments "Maybe one day living my dream won't make me feel sick."

Run You Down is a powerful piece of fiction.  It also completes the Rebekah and Aviva character arc.  So if Julia Dahl continues with the series, she will need to find a new direction for Rebekah.  Perhaps additional professional training would be advisable for this character.