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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wolf by Alma Alexander (Were Series # 2)--When A Shapshifter Series Shifts Genres

I categorized Random, the first book in the Were series, as fantasy.  Like most shapeshifter novels, there is no explanation given for the phenomenon.   It might as well be magic.   Yet in Wolf  I found werewolf staffed laboratories.  The plot is centered on a genetics project and gene therapy.  Clearly, this is science fiction.   There is a certain appropriateness in a shapeshifter series that morphs into a different genre.
The comic Girl Genius added a corollary to science fiction writer Arthur Clarke's third law here . Clarke's Third Law is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The Girl Genius corollary is "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science."   Readers still don't know how  Alma Alexander's shapeshifters originally came into existence.  So the jury's still out on this series.  The shapeshifting itself might still be magical, but there is genetics involved.  As far as I could see, the genetics in Wolf operates the same way as genetics does in our world.  So I can't call it anything but science.  Perhaps Wolf could be said to belong to the hybrid sub-genre known as science fantasy.


Alma Alexander requested that I read this book before reading and reviewing Shifter, the third book in the Were series.  I have to admit to having been reluctant to read Wolf.  I love the real world wolf species.   It always seemed to me that werewolves in wolf form should behave like actual wolves.   Yet I've rarely seen that.   Authors of werewolf fiction usually either idealize their wolves, or portray them as monsters born of human prejudice.   Alma Alexander does neither.  She avoids the issue. 

 In Random Alexander draws a curtain over the actual shifting by having it take place behind a locked door.   In Wolf there is no locked door.  We see the characters just before they shift, then there's a fadeout.  Mal, the viewpoint character, doesn't remember his experiences as a wolf.  So the narrative doesn't resume until after the shift three days later.  I feel distanced from the characters' wolves.   I'm not appalled as I am when I see werewolves portrayed as uncontrollably savage killers who attack humans because they're bloodthirsty.  (Real wolves avoid humans.  They only attack humans to defend themselves or their packs.) Yet I am disappointed because there is no wolf presence in this book.  Frankly,  I expected to be disappointed.   I would have been quite astonished if  Wolf successfully portrayed both the human and wolf aspects of werewolves.

From a thematic perspective, this isn't really a novel about werewolves.  It's a novel about the misuse of drugs and the misuse of science. Authors have often used science fiction to disguise their writing about serious social problems. 

 First, there is the familiar story of a drug that has been widely distributed without the population that is taking the drug (often very unthinkingly) being fully educated about it.   How many of us know everything we should know about common pharmaceutical remedies that we can pick up without a prescription?   Let's take acetaminophen as an example.   Do you know how easy it is to overdose on this pain medication? 

Then there's the genetics lab that is doing experiments on people without getting consent and making sure that their families know nothing about it.   They tell themselves that their subjects are valueless.  There is nothing new about medical atrocities.  They have happened in the United States in mental institutions and in the American South.

I appreciate Alma Alexander's thematic focuses in this novel.   They cause readers to think about these issues.

 The strongest aspect of Wolf  is character development.   Mal matures over the course of the book.  His growth process is painful and very moving.   Yet he has family and friends to help him through.   By the way, I just loved Asia.   She had her own growth process.  During the course of the novel, she had to re-define family and make painful choices.   I am hoping to see more of Asia in the third book of the series.


Monday, December 28, 2015

In A Different Key: A New History of Autism

This history of autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker comes on the heels of Neurotribes by Steve Silberman which was published in 2015.  In A Different Key will be published this coming January.   I haven't yet read Neurotribes.  Based on comments I have seen, these two books have different perspectives on various topics.  I saw an open request for reviews of In A Different Key on Goodreads and received a copy from Net Galley.

I will use the term autist in this review.  I first encountered it in The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin, but in Wiktionary the earliest usage was in 1995 by Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist on Mars. Just as a matter of practicality, I feel it's better to use one word rather than two (e.g. autistic individual) especially when I'm going to be typing it often.  Donvan and Zucker don't use autist in their book.

My own association with autism is primarily through friends who are parents of autistic children.  I have recently come to know an autistic adult.  I also believe that I have known autists who have never been diagnosed because they are high functioning.  In earlier generations the criteria for autism were narrower, and diagnosis much less frequent. I have read several books by Temple Grandin , the memoir of Eustacia Cutler (Temple Grandin's mother) which I reviewed on Book Babe here, and a few memoirs by other autists.  I knew nothing about the history of autism before reading In A Different Key.


 I might not have decided to review In A Different Key if I had known how long it was.   That's the main reason why I haven't read Neurotribes yet. Both are important books, but they are quite a time investment. I had to put In A Different Key aside several times due to other commitments.   It took me almost all of December to read it.

This isn't a dry academic tome although it does have endnotes and a bibliography.   It's a book written by journalists for a popular audience.   Their priority is to tell a compelling story which they do with style.   I also feel that they try to include all perspectives though I think they have strong opinions of their own on this topic which are implied by their manner of presentation.  Caren Zucker is the mother of an autist.  John Donvan's brother in law is an autist.   

We get the life stories of all the important players in the history of autism, so that we know what motivated them.

I was very interested in Leo Kanner, the first to diagnose someone as autistic in the United States.  He was an Austrian Jew who arrived in the U.S. in 1924.  At the time that he diagnosed Donald Triplett in the 1940's he was considered the leading child psychiatrist in the country.  He was on record as being publicly opposed to euthanasia for the disabled which was probably motivated by his knowledge of Nazi extermination.  He arranged for the emigration of numerous Jewish refugees to the U.S.  during WWII.  Yet as far as autism is concerned, Kanner seems to have vacillated a great deal.  It seems to me that he became overly impressed with every new approach that showed promise.  He is still historically important.  I would like to read his autobiography, but it looks like I'd have to go to the APA archive and get permission for access to it. 

Austrian autism researcher Hans Asperger has been the subject of ongoing controversy about whether he was a war criminal during WWII.  According to a review in the UK publication The Spectator by UK autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, Steve Silberman, the author of Neurotribes came to the conclusion that Asperger wasn't a war criminal.  (To be completely fair, not everyone agrees that this was Silberman's conclusion.  Yet I've read more from those who believe that he vindicates Asperger.) Baron-Cohen doesn't mention whether Silberman had access to the unpublished documentary evidence discovered by Third Reich medical historian Herwig Czech which indicates that Asperger participated in a Nazi extermination program for children who were considered too disabled to ever become functional.   The authors of In A Different Key did have access to this evidence. I read excerpts of what Asperger wrote in reports about the children, and other rather damning statements that Asperger made. 

One of the reasons why Asperger was thought to be innocent was because he was a devout Catholic.  Yet the Catholic Church gave known Nazis certificates that cleared their reputations of any possible charge that they had been Nazis.  Such a certificate was called Persilschein after the German laundry detergent, Persil.   There is a book written in German about this subject  in the bibliography of In A Different Key. It was published in Frankfurt in 1991. The title was translated to English as Persil Certificates and False Passports: How The Catholic Church Aided The Nazis by Ernst Klee. Austrian medical  historian, Michael  Hubenstorf  was highly suspicious of Asperger because he was a member of a Catholic organization called Bund Neuland that was deeply anti-semitic and published Nazi propaganda about Jews.  It seems to me that Donvan and Zucker did their research on Asperger thoroughly and that their condemnation of Asperger is very justified.

The highly functioning autists who identify with the label Asperger's Syndrome would also refuse to believe that Hans Asperger was a war criminal, I imagine.  In A Different Key describes how upset they were when Asperger's Syndrome was dropped as a diagnosis from the APA diagnostic manual.  The main reason wasn't Asperger's activities during WWII.  It was because Asperger's Syndrome was thought to be vaguely defined and therefore not very useful.   I think that the concept of autism in general is just as amorphous, but I will never use Asperger's Syndrome to describe high functioning autists again.   I don't think a war criminal should be honored with a syndrome. 

There was a statistical revelation in this book that was quite significant.  In 1963 autism researcher Victor Lotter was hired by Middlesex County in England to discover how many autistic children would need services. This was the first time anyone had ever tried to determine the prevalence of autism. The description of Lotter's process showed the subjective nature of autism diagnosis.  The description of how he arrived at his results showed how inaccurate statistics can be.   He put the 61 children he'd decided were autists on a list that he ordered from most impaired to least impaired and then eliminated those below 35.  He didn't know for certain that the children he'd eliminated wouldn't need services.  It was an arbitrary decision.  He then reported that 4.5% of the children in Middlesex County were autists.   This somewhat bogus statistic was later generalized to the entire world by researchers, and was more recently used to argue that there is a world wide autism epidemic in the 21st century.  This shows that social scientists should be more cautious about drawing conclusions from statistics. 

I learned from In A Different Key that one treatment used on badly behaving autistic children became more widely used.  In 1964 autism researchers Wolf and Risley were the first to use "time outs" which gradually decreased the tantrums of an autist only known as Dicky.  Wolf and Risley believed that the tantrums were an attention getting strategy.  If he was sent to the time out room, he got no attention from anyone.   Eventually, Dicky's tantrums stopped all together.  This was an important outcome because corporal punishment was much more common before the discovery that time outs could be effective.

I considered In A Different Key one of the best books I've read in 2015 because there was so much that was completely new to me.  I will be thinking about this book for some time.



Monday, December 14, 2015

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker

As promised in yesterday's review of The Butterfly Mosque, I am copying my review of Libbie Hawker's novel about Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in Syria.   She  remains an icon and an inspiration to the Syrian people in stories under the name Bat Zabbai or daughter of Zabbai  which Libbie Hawker's Zenobia uses as a battle name.  I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this honest review. My review from Book Babe is below.


I've been looking forward to this book ever since I read that Libbie Hawker was writing it.  This year I reviewed her Pocahontas novel on Book Babe here.  I found it interesting and absorbing.   Daughter of  Sand and Stone is a book dealing with Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.   She was a warrior queen and a rebel against the Romans like  another favorite of mine, Queen Boudica of the Iceni.  I lick my chops and salivate when I learn about historical fiction dealing with Zenobia.

The first time I read a Zenobia novel I was disappointed.  It was The Rise of Zenobia by J. D. Smith.  I reviewed Smith's version on Book Babe here.  My biggest problem with it was that Zenobia wasn't the protagonist.  It was her general, Zabdas.   I felt distanced from Zenobia.  In Daughter of Sand and Stone, Zabdas plays an important role, but the main perspective is very definitely Zenobia's.

I feel that it's also important to mention the recent destruction of Palmyra by ISIS in the context of any current review of a book about Zenobia. Here is an article about it from the U.K. Guardian.  Zenobia loved her city and it means a great deal to modern day Syrians who are opposed to ISIS. Ancient Palmyra and Zenobia are essential parts of  our world heritage, but they particularly belong to the history of Syria.  It seems to me that anyone who participates in preserving the memory of ancient Palmyra and Zenobia is engaging in an act of defiance against those who seek to destroy them.  That's what Daughter of Sand and Stone means to me.  It's an act of defiance.

Like Libbie Hawker's Pocahontas, her Zenobia is ambitious.   In the case of Pocahontas, it's definitely a flaw due to lack of maturity.  She simply craves attention and her ambitions are comparatively small scale.  On the other hand, Hawker's Zenobia wants an empire and to reign as Queen in Egypt like her maternal ancestor, Cleopatra.  She is continually told  by members of her family and later by a Roman Emperor that she is  going beyond the bounds of women's sphere.  I think this is a strength.   We need women like Zenobia.  She had courage, vision and intelligence.  She deserved to succeed.

Hawker extrapolates from Roman primary sources for the ending of her novel. In Hawker's very detailed Author's Note she says that a number of writers on Zenobia don't believe the official Roman version and I confess that I don't either.  Within the context of the book, it was anti-climactic.  So in addition to my feelings that it was out of character and not a fit ending for Zenobia, it wasn't a good ending from a dramatic perspective.

Yet up until that ending, I was cheering on Zenobia and feeling so delighted that we got a modern novel about the Warrior Queen of Palmyra in which she lives and breathes.  It may not be the ideal Zenobia novel, but it perpetuates her legacy at a time when I think it's particularly important to do so.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Butterfly Mosque: An Individualized Approach To Islam

G. Willow Wilson is an American Muslim who has written a highly regarded novel, Alif The Unseen, which I haven't read.  I did read Vixen: Return of the Lion, a comic book series which is available as a graphic novel.  I loved the African location and folklore content.  I thought it was excellent and I hadn't noticed that G. Willow Wilson wrote it at the time.  I just found out that she was the author from her website.  I've been trying to find time to read the first Ms. Marvel graphic novel, which I knew she'd written.  She is the first female Muslim superhero. I know it's a must read for me.  It's been on my library books pile twice, and I had to return it unread.  I guess that I need to request it a third time.

The Butterfly Mosque is her memoir dealing with her conversion to Islam, and how her life changed afterwards.  I wanted to know about her approach to Islam, and how it worked within the American and Egyptian contexts that she navigates.


Early in the book, while she was getting serious about conversion to Islam, Willow did two things that astonished me.  She got a tattoo of the word for truth in Arabic to remind herself of her commitment to  convert.  At least it wasn't an image of a human or animal which would have been considered idolatry.  Like the stricter Jewish paths, Islamic tradition totally rejects all art that displays images of living beings.  She also did a Tarot reading to decide whether she ought to take a job in Egypt.  Both tattoos and Tarot are forbidden in Islam.  For me, this was obvious due to my Jewish background.  Judaism and Islam have commonalities. They have the same perspective on tattoos and Tarot.   Both believe that the body is God's temple and that tattoos desecrate it.   Both believe that Tarot is idolatry.    I was utterly dumbfounded that Willow wanted to convert to a religion without having done enough research to know its prohibitions.

Willow's approach to religion doesn't involve much study.  She is intuitive and mystical.   I admire people whose faith is based on their inner experiences.   Many years ago in an undergraduate class on ancient history I learned that religio, the Latin word from which religion is derived, means to re-link or re-connect.  This implies that religion is about re-connecting with the divine.  Willow receives dreams and visions that she believes come from God.  People who have never have such experiences question their authenticity.  Those who do receive these messages are innately spiritual.  They can't relate to the idea that the universe is Godless because their experience tells them otherwise.  She says on page 231 "I didn't believe in Islam, I opened my eyes each morning and saw it."   Unlike most people born into an environment of Western scientific materialism, Willow never struggled with atheism or agnosticism.   Religion is the bedrock of her existence.

This doesn't mean that Willow doesn't question dogma.  In fact, direct experience of the divine means that you are less likely to accept other people's interpretations.   Willow feels that she is qualified to interpret the Koran for herself.    In Christianity, Protestants were originally those who claimed the right to interpret the Bible for themselves.  The Catholic Church called them heretics.  Sufism is a sect of Islam that is based on the ability to receive mystical revelations which guide their practice. They are also called heretics by those who believe that only Imams are qualified to guide the practices of believers.

Willow was lucky to find an Egyptian Sufi who was looking for a woman who was both a believing Muslim and independent minded. Willow was a rare find for him as well.  I was impressed by their compatibility.

I was  delighted that Willow's Islamic name, Zeinab, is considered a variant of Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra.   I re-posted my review of Libbie Hawker's Zenobia novel originally from Book Babe here.  I hope that Willow was thrilled by her name's association with Zenobia.

At the end of the book, Willow decided that she needed to return to the United States to fight Islamophobia, and her husband reluctantly applied for a green card to accompany her.  Even though she felt that her mission was important, Willow cried when she left Egypt because she had loved her life in Cairo.

 I felt that the book ended abruptly.  I wanted to know what happened next.  The cover flap says that Willow now divides her time between Cairo and Seattle.  How does that work out?  Does her husband still accompany her on her trips to the U.S. or does he remain in Cairo?   Does Willow work with allies in her fight against Islamophobia?  How successful has she been as an advocate for the rights of U.S. Muslims?  Will there be a second volume of Willow's memoir?  Questions, questions, questions.  This was a fascinating book, but I wish that it hadn't broken off where it did.  I might have considered the book more resolved if there had been a brief epilogue.



Saturday, December 5, 2015

Lagoon: Alien First Contact in Nigeria

After having loved Nnedi Okorafor's fantasy novel, Who Fears Death, I've been reading more of her work.   I like the way she incorporates Nigerian folklore/spirituality.  Lagoon uses a traditional science fiction trope, alien first contact, to show us Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.


I read another first contact novel called The Blue African and reviewed it  here.  They both deal with alien first contact in Africa.  The Blue African is tightly focused on the viewpoint of the alien ambassador, Porter Tellez.  Lagoon takes a panoramic view of the lives of many characters in Lagos and how they are impacted by the arrival of the aliens.  The Blue African is historical, takes place in South Africa and contains a great deal of overt didacticism about the evils of apartheid. It also was pessimistic in its outlook on humanity and not quite as well written as I would like.  Lagoon  takes place in 21st century Nigeria and contains less preachiness.  Environmental degradation is the issue that concerns these aliens particularly water pollution.  The aliens in Lagoon are also optimistic about bringing positive change to Lagos.

My only area of disappointment with Lagoon is that the panoramic perspective doesn't lend itself to deep or complex characterization.   I wanted to know more about some of these characters than I got. 

The Nigerian folklore content doesn't quite make up for the characterization deficit.  There was less of it than I hoped.   Yet that small amount of folklore was fascinating.  I was particularly interested in the Ijele masked dancing ceremony.  I found a video about Ijele on You Tube.  I'd never heard of Ijele previously.

Lagoon was interesting even though it didn't meet all my expectations. I have a copy of Okorafor's more recent book, Binti, on my Kindle and I have high hopes for it.