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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Speakers of the Dead: The Costs of Medical Progress

Back in the 1970's I read a historical novel about Dr. John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish physician who is regarded as a medical pioneer.   I can't recall the title or author and couldn't find it on the internet, but that book was the one in which I discovered that doctors once  stole corpses from cemeteries in order to learn about human anatomy.   More recently,  I read The Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone, a historical mystery which took place in late 19th century Philadelphia only a few years after autopsies became legal.

The subject of this review, Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders, is a 2016 historical mystery that takes place in New York in 1843 when resistance to medical dissection of human corpses was still extremely high in the United States.  So medical schools continued to break the law in order to teach students anatomy.

                                   


By choosing to center his story on a fictional medical school for women which didn't exist in New York at the time,  Sanders has epitomized the anxieties of an era.  Respectable women were regarded as The Angel of the House  during this period.  The Wikipedia article to which I've linked refers to a popular poem that was published more than a decade later, but it crystallized the attitudes that had been part of the Anglo-American zeitgeist for some time.  Women were expected to swoon if anyone so much as mentioned the darker aspects of life. According to Victorian ideology, women were supposed to be too delicate to be exposed to such things.  Men existed to shield women from reality.   This means that women who cut up corpses were total iconoclasts.  I had no difficulty in believing  that they in particular would be subjected to mass outrage as they were in this novel.   They hadn't merely stepped outside women's sphere, they had shattered it and left the wreckage behind them.  There was a women's medical school in neighboring Pennsylvania a few years later, so Sanders was tweaking the chronology a bit.  He confesses to altering chronology in his author's note. This didn't bother me because he set up such an interesting social conflict.

The real first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, was one of the medical students in Speakers of the Dead.  Her name was Elizabeth Blackwell, and she had an unusual background.  Sanders has Blackwell speak about her father as an abolitionist, but my research revealed a man who was generally at odds with society, and he raised a set of children who were dissidents.   Elizabeth Blackwell's sister followed her into medicine, and her brother Henry Browne Blackwell became a women's suffrage supporter who married the women's suffrage activist Lucy Stone.  The Wikipedia article dealing with him includes the protest against the marriage laws that they read aloud during their wedding ceremony.

I haven't yet mentioned the amazing protagonist of this book.  It's Walt Whitman.  Other reviewers say that this isn't the Walt Whitman that they knew.  I guess they didn't actually read all his poems.  I did, and I consider him one of the most brilliant and unconventional poets in the English language.  So it didn't surprise me that he was taking on the establishment of his day as a young journalist.

Some mystery readers dislike historical personages as detectives because they don't think it likely that they'd be investigating crimes.  Newspapers that report crimes are also expected to uncover facts about them.  So I would think they'd have no problem with Walt Whitman solving cases during the journalistic phase in his life.

Actually, Speakers of the Dead wasn't so much of a whodunit.  Walt's challenge was to convince the authorities to arrest the man he knew to be the perpetrator.  This turned out to be a very risky undertaking.   Even though I knew that Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Blackwell  would survive the events of this novel, I still found it quite suspenseful.

I definitely wouldn't mind reading more Walt Whitman mysteries.  This may be J. Aaron Sanders' first novel, but it already shows evidence that his future work may be astonishing.

                                     




                           

Thursday, December 29, 2016

True Colors of Betrayal: Characters Don't Always Evolve In A Straight Line

I promised J.C. Kang that I would read True Colors of Betrayal in January when he sent me a review copy.  Well, I got to it a bit early thanks to my new one book at a time reading policy.  Reading print books at home and e-books on mass transit has not been a good idea for books in either category.   The digital review copies were being completed more slowly, and there were so many print books that weren't getting completed at all.  I'm already seeing a small improvement in the number of books that I'm getting read.

True Colors of Betrayal is the third book in J. C. Kang's Daughter of the Dragon Throne series.   The main protagonist of this YA fantasy series is Princess Kaiya, a member of the Imperial family in an alternate version of China known as Cathay and Hua.  I reviewed book one, The Dragon Scale Lute, here and book two, The Dragon Charmer, here.  As usual, this review is an honest one.

                                   


Based on the foregrounding of the male character on the cover, you might think that he was the protagonist.   I imagine that he is Tian.  Tian is Kaiya's childhood friend who was exiled from the Imperial court for reasons that you will discover in this novel.   His narrative role is mainly action hero, but he's protecting Kaiya.  Characters are seen in relationship to Kaiya who is still the protagonist.

If Kaiya had continued to progress in the direction that she was headed at the end of  The Dragon Charmer she would have been an even more formidable leader at the close of True Colors of Betrayal.  Unfortunately, her momentum was disrupted by trauma.  This is the fate of far too many women, but it isn't a natural stage of development.   Kaiya was hijacked on her life journey. She was transformed into a survivor who would never see the world in the same way again.

The antagonists in this novel are the Teleri Empire. I originally thought they might be an alternate Mongol horde.  Yet on reflection, after reading this book, the closest parallel to the Teleri seemed to be the Castor clones of the BBC science fiction series Orphan Black  for a number of reasons which would be serious spoilers.

There was a long chase sequence in this novel that I found rather uninteresting.  It has always seemed to me that all chase sequences are the same.  The only way they can diverge is by mode of transportation which doesn't really provide enough variety.  The plot picked up for me after Kaiya stopped fleeing though the resolution was rather bleak. 

I sincerely hope that Kaiya can fully recover from her victimization. Judging from the description of the fourth novel in the series, she has a rough row to hoe.

                               


                                   

Friday, December 16, 2016

India Was One--A Cautionary Tale For Divided Nations

I apologize for being late with this review.  I promised the anonymous author a review in October, but blog tours and commitments to publishers over the last two months made it impossible for me to read and review India Was One until now.  I purchased the book on Amazon some time ago, but when I read books on my Kindle, they are almost always books that I've been asked to review by authors, publishers or promoters.  When the author contacted me on Goodreads and requested a review more recently, I put it on my priority list.

First, I need to explain that this isn't historical fiction about the partition of India and Pakistan by the British in 1947.   It's contemporary fiction taking place in current day India and the U.S.

                           


I often discuss genre in books. India Was One straddles two genres.  The first 75% is a romance dealing with the relationship of Jai and Kaahi, the two protagonists.  The last 25% is a powerful thriller type plot dealing with how Jai and Kaahi are separated in a divided India.  Actually, there is a sub-genre of romance called romantic thriller.  This book could fit into that sub-genre.   Given the predominance of romance in the content that would be the best solution.

Unfortunately, the title and cover are marketing the novel to the wrong audience.   The audience segment that prefers their thrillers without romance is complaining about it in their Goodreads reviews.  Marketing for a romantic thriller novel could display the characters on the cover with barbed wire between them, and have a title which indicates that it focuses on them.  The new title could be something like Jai and Kaahi: Two Lovers Divided.   The cover and title are important signals about the content.   An Indian should consider what signals he wants to broadcoast to the book buying public. 

Now I'd like to address the Hindi vocabulary problem.  Books with a significant number of words from languages other than the main language of the text should  have glossaries.  So instead of bogging the story down with Hindi script followed by the English transliteration and the English definition, the transliteration alone could be included in the text.  Then readers could look it up in the glossary where they would find other information about these words if they're so inclined.  Most people associate glossaries with print books.  Yet glossaries can actually be facilitated in digital format by hyperlinking the words in the text to their definitions in the glossary.  This means that readers can go directly to the word in the glossary and then hit the back button to resume reading without losing their place.  The first time I saw this in a novel in e-book format it was Freedom of the Monsoon by Malika Gandhi, an excellent historical novel about the Quit India movement.   I reviewed it on my previous blog here

Although I learned a great deal about India from India Was One that did interest me, I would have preferred less cricket content.   I understand that cricket is culturally important in India, but I would still have liked to read less about the details.   Since I enjoy reading about martial arts and karate in particular, I would have loved to switch out pages about cricket for additional pages about Jai's participation in karate.   Indian readers of this novel would probably disagree with me.  To each their own.

I noticed that Kaahi was opposed to the violence of karate.  It wasn't until I learned that she was a Jain relatively late in this novel, that it made sense.  I had read about the Jain devotion to non-violence in other books.   Then it occurred to me that Jai must not have known that Kaahi was a Jain, or he wouldn't have invited her to watch karate.  This implies that religion isn't that important to Jai, or he would have discussed religious beliefs with her earlier in the relationship.  Sports seem to  play the role of religion in Jai's life.  I have encountered men for whom this is true, so I find it believable that Jai and other male characters in this book lead such sports centered lives.

The last quarter of the novel makes it more significant.  The theme of divided countries is of urgent importance for our current world. Many countries, including my own, are extremely troubled by ideological, economic and religious divisions.   If people believe that they can't live together in peace, then countries may splinter like North India and South India in  India Was One.  That last 25% of this book shows readers how this unwillingness to deal with diversity can have terrible impact.  Our world is in the process of imploding along its fracture lines.  Learning how to co-exist with differences is the most paramount priority of our time.


                                   




 
 


                              

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Code Blue-An Israeli Dystopia That Seems Too Real

2016 has been an amazing year for dystopias.   There are currently two dystopias that are candidates for my top ten reads of the year, and there may be more by the time 2016 comes to an end.  I believe that this sub-genre has come of age.

 When I was a morose teen in the 1970's, I read nothing but dystopias for a while.   This was a time when the only dystopias that were widely read were 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World.  There were a number of other dystopias that had been written by science fiction writers.  Most people have still never heard of them. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to be inspired by my reading rather than depressed. As an adult, I only began selectively reading dystopias again relatively recently.  I feel no compulsion to read the most popular dystopias or all their imitators.  I am interested in dystopias that sound unusual and deal with themes that interest me.

Code Blue by Zvika Amit was on a list of indie books from a book promoter seeking reviews.  Even though I agree to review very few books, I always read these solicitations carefully in case I come across something that could be extraordinary.  This novel is an English translation of an Israeli book that takes place in the very near future in which Israel's government is overturned by a military coup that establishes a theocratic dictatorship.   I was so fascinated by the premise of this dystopia that I couldn't wait for the promoter to provide a free copy.  I wanted to get started on it right away, so I purchased it on Amazon.  As you will see, this is an honest review.

                                 


When I read this book, I thought the premise was completely original.  I have since learned from a  2005 review of Code Blue in Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, that it had a predecessor.  You can read that Ha'aretz review at Too Close For Comfort .  It deals with reaction to the book in Israel.  I found it highly illuminating.   I investigated the previous Israeli military coup dystopia.  It's called  The Road to Ein Harod  by Amos Kenan.  Based on reviews I read on Goodreads, Kenan's dystopia is apparently a reflective literary novel awash in allegory.  Some readers found it inaccessible.   Code Blue isn't at all similar.  It's a suspenseful narrative with a great deal of verisimilitude written in the style of a thriller.

Gavrush, the main protagonist, illustrates the dangers of West Bank settlement expansion.   He is a relatively moderate West Bank settler compared to the  coalition of extremist zealots that he assembles to bring about the coup.   Gavrush is a well-developed  character whose flaws are very credible.  Gavrush believes that he is acting in the best interests of Israel, but his primary motivation is a selfish one.  I also think that he has a myopic perspective since he didn't foresee the consequences of his actions.   This makes him typical of political leaders.  The unnamed Prime Minister whose overthrow Gavrush plots, has far more stature because he comes to understand that the West Bank settlements aren't viable in the long-term.  On the other hand, he doesn't foresee the short-term consequences of his policy proposals. 

Gavrush's mistress, Rinat, is also an important viewpoint character.    The Ha'aretz review has a dismissive attitude toward her, but I respectfully disagree. I thought that Rinat was intelligent, courageous and principled.   It may very well be the Rinats of Israel that will pull the country back from the precipice.   Those who say that Code Blue is about the ineffectiveness of those who share Rinat's views should re-read the book from beginning to end.  They should also consider the success of Gandhi.  Non-violent resistance isn't always ineffective. 

Although I recommend Code Blue, this edition wasn't exactly perfect.  The English translation of Code Blue was occasionally awkward probably due to lax editing standards .  I found one error very noticeable.  Apparently, an editor decided to initiate a global change of every incidence of "I am" and "you are" to I'm and you're.   This wasn't always appropriate.  There were numerous emphatic uses of I am and you are that should never have been modified.  Over the course of my reading, I began to find these infelicitous contractions annoying.   This problem could have been ameliorated by a thorough review of the manuscript by a native English speaker before publication.

                               







                                    

                                       

                                      


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Point of No Return: A Tragic Novel of An American Jewish Soldier in WWII

When I agreed to review  Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn for the publisher of the new digital edition, I knew nothing of the author.  The name was familiar, but I should have known more of her.  She led an extraordinary life as a war journalist, novelist and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Without this background, I began reading my ARC from Open Road Media via Net Galley without any expectations or preconceptions.

                                     

                                      
 Gellhorn wrote  Point of No Return soon after WWII.  It was first published in  1948.  According to her Afterword that appears at the end of the book, she had been a witness to events in this war as a journalist who traveled with British troops.  Although I have read quite a number of WWII novels, I hadn't read any that were written by a woman author who had experienced the war first hand.

Many combat oriented war novels tend to bore me because their action is abstract and distanced without the thoughts and feelings of soldiers.  They may have done their research, but their battle scenes aren't involving.  I read historical fiction because I want to know more than what happened.  I want to feel that I'm actually there.  Martha Gellhorn delivered authentic characters and showed us what they were really going through.   Now that I know that she was a participant as a journalist, I realize that this wasn't just research for her.

Although Gellhorn was involved in WWII, she wasn't on the ground with  American soldiers like Jacob Levy, the protagonist of  Point of No Return.  Yet as an American of assimilated Jewish background herself, she understood him.  Jacob Levy was brought up without religion.  His name remained as the only identifying marker of his Jewishness.   Many American Jews are completely secular and will find him very relatable.  I also found him sympathetic even though my upbringing was not similar.   I have known people like him who didn't  feel like they were part of the Jewish community.  They primarily identified with being Americans.   That's why Jacob Levy volunteered for WWII.  He wanted to serve his country.   My uncles, who came from a more religiously observant Jewish background, felt the same way.   They both fought in WWII.  One of them survived the Battle of the Bulge as Jacob Levy did.   This particular uncle never told war stories, so I never knew what the Battle of the Bulge was like for him.  After reading this book, I think I know why he never talked about it.   Gellhorn's depiction of that battle was visceral.  It had nothing in common with a Hollywood movie.

Jacob Levy had what he obviously thought was a romance with a woman.  It felt very significant to him, but it seemed to be largely based in fantasy.   I thought they had no common ground.  There is a myth that the attraction of opposites is a successful formula for a good relationship.   It has always seemed to me that such an attraction is like a soap bubble, and that a lasting relationship is built on commonalities.  Since this is a literary novel rather than a romance,  Gellhorn doesn't provide a happily ever after ending.   It's my hope that Jacob eventually found something more durable to sustain him.

The resolution of  Point of No Return is extremely powerful.   Gellhorn tells us in the Afterword that the reason she wrote the book was to exorcise what she saw at the concentration camp in Dachau soon after its liberation.   When she wrote the book so soon after that event, it must have felt like a raw wound.   Seeing a concentration camp after it had ceased operations can never be equivalent to the trauma of a survivor of the camp, but I imagine that it would still leave a mark on someone's soul.   She wanted Jacob Levy to be the keeper of that memory.   I don't imagine that you ever really can erase such images.  In 1948, Jacob Levy probably was a proxy for all those Americans who never thought such things were possible.   There may be current readers who optimistically believe that humanity can change for the better, and that we aren't a violent species.  If you are one them, reading this book to the end may engender some doubts about the perfectibility of humankind.  This is not the sort of novel that leaves illusions intact.

                                 
 



Friday, November 25, 2016

Aphrodite and the Rabbis--Greco-Roman Influence on Judaism

I knew about some of the things that Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky discusses in Aphrodite and the Rabbis from previous reading.  I even reviewed Sefer HaRazim , which Visotzky mentioned a number of times in his book, on this blog hereSefer HaRazim contains references to Greco-Roman deities, Pagan types of magic and theology that could only come from Pagan sources.   I also knew about Pagan images in ancient synagogues.  This review will contain the points raised in Aphrodite and the Rabbis that surprised me most.

                           

Contemporary Jews know that  we have historically been a matrilineal culture.   I was amazed to learn from Visotzky that Jews used to be patrilineal until the Roman period.   He thinks that the reason was that Romans changed their law regarding children born outside of wedlock.   They decided that such children would be viewed as having descended from their mothers.   Why was this Roman legal change so significant for Jews?  I think this implies that there was a massive and truly horrific problem during the Roman period of Jewish women being raped by Roman soldiers.   The Rabbis must have decided not to abandon these women and their children.    In a patrilineal descent community, they would be outcasts.   If Jews became matrilineal, their community could still embrace them.  It was a compassionate decision that causes me to think much more highly of Roman era Rabbis.   

I had been taught that synagogues didn't exist until after the destruction of Herod's Temple because Jewish practices were completely centered on the temple in Jerusalem.  Visotzky informs his readers that in the period before the destruction of the second Jewish temple, there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem alone.  Why were they built?  They apparently had a number of purposes. I thought that I would mention two of them.  They provided Jewish ritual baths and they provided rooms for travelers arriving in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, so they wouldn't need to violate the Sabbath by continuing their travels.  The Sabbath is a day of rest, so this is an important function that is not usually associated with synagogues in the modern world.

 I knew that many Jews in the Roman period didn't speak Hebrew, but I thought it was because the language of the majority of Jews was Aramaic.  Apparently, Aramaic was the language of village Jews, but the language of the urban sophisticates was Greek.   Visotzky tells us that in the Talmud, Rabbi Levi wanted the Jews of Caesarea to stop reciting the Shema in Greek.  The Shema is the most essential Jewish prayer.  It is a statement of monotheism like the Islamic Shahada.   Rabbi Yose responded that if the Jews of Casearea didn't recite the Shema in Greek, they couldn't recite it at all.  They knew no other language.   That amazed me.  I've always thought that urban people in the ancient world were cosmopolitan and multi-lingual.   Apparently not.

 I liked Visotzky's conclusion that the syncretism in Roman era synagogues such as the numerous zodiac mosaics, validates Reform Judaism which interprets Judaism through the lens of the surrounding culture.  This was apparently the same choice that Roman Jews made.  So Jewish history has repeated itself .  Perhaps the central theme of Visotzky's book is that there are more continuities between ancient and modern Judaism than his readers might have thought.

                                       

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Other Einstein---A Novel About Einstein's First Wife

I received my copy of The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict from Net GalleyOn Flying High Reviews, I'm participating in the blog tour.  On this blog, I'm expanding on that review. So now I'm wading into the really interesting controversy surrounding Einstein's first wife.


                             


Mileva Marić wanted to be a physicist when she was young. She was admitted to Zurich Polytechnic to study physics and mathematics with two strikes against her.  The first was being a woman in a very male world.  The second was being from Serbia which was considered a cultural backwater in Western Europe.   I am citing facts at this point. There is a Wikipedia article dealing with Mileva .   If you want to see how much about that article is in dispute look at the Talk section.  There has been an editing war over this article.   Both sides are absolutely certain about things that can't be known with absolute certainty.

This is what is not in dispute.  Mileva met Einstein at Zurich Polytechnic where they were both students.  They fell in love and she became pregnant.  She had to drop out of school without finishing her degree, and they married.   This is a sad story, and it has happened to a great many women.  She never realized her dreams.

Historical fiction deals with what isn't part of the historical record.   How did Einstein treat his wife when they weren't in public?   Did Mileva contribute to Einstein's scientific work?   These are questions that are open to speculation.   No one can really claim to know the truth about them.  Marie Benedict has as much right to an opinion as anyone else.   She did the research and came to a conclusion that isn't at all palatable for supporters of Albert Einstein.  Some sources say that he was verbally abusive toward Mileva in public, and that he called her ugly.  Below is a public domain photo of Mileva that I found on Wikipedia.  You be the judge.

                                  


  It's said that Einstein burned out early because he never did any great work after he developed the theory of relativity and published it in 1905.   Could his estrangement from Mileva be the reason why he no longer produced any other brilliant new theory?  I don't know, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility.

Benedict's version of Mileva isn't a feminist icon.   She made choices that I wouldn't have made in her circumstances.   In fact, Marie Curie appears briefly in this novel.   This great woman scientist tells Mileva that the only differences between them are the choices they made and the men they married.   Madame Curie's husband dedicated his life to supporting her career.   Benedict portrays Einstein as having deliberately undermined Mileva.  I wanted  her Mileva to be stronger.

There's a Serbian word that applies.   While I was researching this review, I remembered that fantasy writer Alma Alexander, who wrote several novels that I loved, is also a Serbian.  So I did a detour and ran a search on Alma Alexander's blog  for references to Serbia.   I found the word "inat".  She said that it could be translated as stubborn, but it's in a whole different order beyond stubborn.  Given the circumstances in which Mileva found herself, she needed to be more than stubborn.  I was waiting for her to find her inat.

I wanted to comment on Benedict's portrayal of Albert Einstein.   I noticed that he was repeating phrases and I didn't think they were a response to what Mileva said or did.   My theory is that these were phrases he heard from his own father and that he was seeing his parents when he spoke them.   He had become his father and Mileva had become his mother in Einstein's mind.  He was replicating the relationship between his parents.  He may not have realized that he was doing  this on a conscious level.   This is how patterns of abuse repeat themselves.   I thought that this depiction of Einstein's behavior showed insight into this syndrome and allowed me to understand his motivations.

A number of reviewers believe that  Benedict's Mileva was a product of her historical environment and the dominant culture.   The truth is that the 21st century isn't that much kinder to women.   Any woman who becomes involved in a relationship with a man in the same field may still face the same problems.   She may be ignored and her work may go uncredited. Then like Benedict's Mileva, she may be shoved out of her field while her significant other or husband is lionized.  This is why this book has significance even if the real Mileva wasn't a scientific genius.   It could be a wake up call to young woman readers who may be on the verge of making a terrible mistake that could destroy their future careers.

For me, the value of The Other Einstein is learning of Mileva Marić's existence.  Whatever the truth might be about her, she deserves to be known rather than buried in obscurity.   Now anyone who has read this book can examine what is known about her, and make their own decisions about what they believe concerning the issues that Benedict has raised.

                               

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chroma: Light Being Human

Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken (1968) alleged that aliens had visited our planet in ancient times.  Von Daniken believed that alien contributions included the Egyptian pyramids.  The novel Chroma: Light Being Human  by Denele Campbell posits that alien energy beings visited Earth long before the pyramids.  I received a digital ARC of this book from the author in return for this honest review.

                                 

 
I like the idea of beings composed of light and music.  The various colors and musical notes that represented their personal qualities were a different approach to creating alien characters.   Yet as a librarian, the strings of numbers separated by decimal points that were part of each individual's designation, reminded me of Dewey Decimal classification.  I kept on wondering if I should be shelving the Chroma. 

The need to participate in the lives of mortal finite physical life forms is understandable.   Limitation makes existence more intense.   The unending life of the Chroma lacked purpose.   So they found their sense of purpose by observation of physical species at first.   The Chroma entity nicknamed B4 seemed to become emotionally involved in the lives of individuals.  There are some very lyrical descriptions of B4's experiences and perceptions. 

 Eventually, they started feeling as if  Earth was their laboratory, and that anything was justifiable if it could be considered an improvement.  I lost sympathy for the Chroma when I realized that the needs of individuals weren't a priority for them.   Even B4 seemed to have lost sight of  the importance of particular beings in the species that were the subjects of experimentation.   This is probably a consequence of the Chroma belief that sharing consciousness as a group is paramount.  Their super-human immortality also gave them an impossibly long range perspective.   They thought on the scale of evolution.   

It seems to me that evil lies in extremes.  Forgetting community and focusing solely on your own needs is one type of evil, but focusing solely on the group whether it's a community, a country or a species also often leads to terrible consequences despite the best of intentions.

 I feel that there should be a balance between the needs of the group, and the needs of the individual.   Maintaining that balancing act is challenging, but this doesn't absolve beings whether they are human or non-human from the responsibility of attempting to achieve that balance.  Scientific experimentation also needs to be done responsibly.    That is the conclusion that I took away from my reading of this novel.   Other readers may feel differently.   I wanted the Chroma to have a wiser and more complex understanding of the consequences of their actions.  

                                     



                                 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Native Shifter: A Historical Paranormal Romance That Feels Like Alternate History

I came across Cindy Borgne, the author of Native Shifter, requesting reviews on Goodreads.  I rarely review paranormal romances.  Yet authors that are new to me who are doing unusual twists on a familiar theme can attract my interest.   I say twists in plural because this werewolf romance takes place during the American Revolution, involves a hero and heroine who are Native American, and the power of shifting is transmitted magically.  It's not a virus of some kind transmitted through a bite as in most werewolf novels.   So that's a good deal of conceptual originality packed into one book.

I received a digital ARC from the author in return for this review.  Native Shifter is tentatively scheduled for release on October 24th. 

                            


The main reason why I try to avoid reading about werewolves is because I feel that humans who are capable of shifting into wolves should behave like real wolves when they are in wolf shape as I explained when I reviewed Wolf  by Alma Alexander here.   The portrayal of werewolves as uncontrollably savage perpetuates a hateful stereotype that justifies the destruction of wolves as a species.  In the historical context of Native Shifter , Euro-American settlers perpetuated the identical prejudice about the uncontrollable savagery of Native Americans for the exact same reason.   They wanted to justify their genocidal behavior.   So there is an implicit link between Native Americans and wolves that is established in this novel.   Yet when these werewolves are violent, they are violent for human reasons due to human flaws. So they are not the werewolves that I would prefer to read about, but they do interest me--not least because Borgne also shows us a Native American werewolf who refuses to engage in violence against Euro-American settlers because it's contrary to his spiritual identity.

I appreciate that Borgne invented a Native American people called the Mahasi who are enemies of the neighboring Iroquois.  This implies that they are a Northeast Woodland people.   My favorite fantasy author Charles De Lint has also created a fictional Native people in order to avoid writing inauthentically about a particular real Native American culture.   When I ran a search for "Mahasi", I found that it referred to a type of meditation originated by a Buddhist monk named Mahasi Sayadaw.   I also noticed that Borgne is consistent with standard nomenclature for Northeastern Native groups when she calls their domed habitations wigwams.

I feel that this book is potentially alternate history because if you project the impact of the spread of Native shifters, this factor alone could have radically changed North American history.  This possibility is embryonic in Native Shifter, but as a science fiction fan I am always considering what might happen "if this goes on" which is a key phrase in the development of science fiction concepts.   When I examined Cindy Borgne's website, I noticed that she has also written science fiction romances dealing with a hero who is a psychic on Mars.   So I'd imagine that she realizes that she could produce an alternate continuity.  I'll be very interested in seeing if she follows through with this idea in the sequel.

                                   






   



                                 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Confession of Jack Straw by Simone Zelitch--Right Above Might

 The Confession of Jack Straw is Simone Zelitch's  first novel.  I reviewed her most recent book, Judenstaat dealing with an alternate Jewish state, on this blog here.  After reading Judenstaat, I was curious about what else Zelitch had written and came across this book dealing with the English Peasant Revolt in the 14th century.   I'd never read any historical fiction dealing with this event, and I've always been interested in it. 

                                     

Though Jack Straw is mentioned in the historical record along with a brief confession, we know nothing else about this English rebel.  So his life story as told in this novel is the invention of the author.    Zelitch's choice to make her protagonist an easily influenced follower type is one of the reasons why I became steadily less impressed with this novel as I went on. 

I thought that the most sympathetic character was John Ball, a pivotal figure in the Peasants' Revolt.  The article that I've linked is a thorough and enlightening profile by leftist historian John Simkin.  Ball's radical preaching inspired many who might otherwise have been inclined to merely grumble about the terrible injustices that were taking place during this period.   I learned from this novel that John Ball was actually the author of the famous quote "When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?"  Zelitch portrays John Ball as a mentor and father figure to the central character.   I was bothered by his having been dishonored and degraded later in the novel by people who owed him a great deal.

My own readings in history have shown me that every well intentioned  revolution or revolt has been corrupted or co-opted for far less high-minded purposes.   It neither surprised nor disappointed me that the same thing happened to the Peasants' Revolt, but reading about it was a depressing experience.

I did like Jack Straw's role as a storyteller.  A couple of the stories he told were enjoyable, and I considered them high points in The Confession of Jack Straw.

                                     
                


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Real Food/Fake Food--Foodie Concerns vs. Health Concerns

When I decided to read Real Food/Fake Food  by Larry Olmsted after seeing it on my Goodreads feed, my main concern with fake food was whether my health was being endangered by it.  I learned that Larry Olmsted is what was once called a gourmet, but would now be referred to as a foodie.  His main concern is authenticity.  He wants food that is associated with a specific geographic location to have been made at that location in the traditional way.  He explains at great length why this is important.  He is not unconcerned with health, so there is some overlap.  Yet I found this book only selectively valuable.

                                   


Olmsted points out that local environment is a significant component of a food's unique nature.  So you can't produce the same food in a hothouse or a laboratory.  It also occurred to me that imported food is also not the same as the original because chemicals are often used to preserve it in transport.  This means that your best bet if you want real food is to be a locavore, and eat only what is grown in your area.   It is possible to create dishes from international cuisines using local ingredients, though substitutions may be necessary because some ingredients might not be produced locally.  This is where Olmsted's concern with authenticity comes in.  It won't taste the same as the original, but people who have never tasted the original won't know the difference.  Traveling to the traditional source of  foreign foods as Olmsted has done is a luxury that I can't afford.  So I feel that  food authenticity isn't really relevant to my life.

For example, when I eat parmesan cheese, I want it to actually be cheese.  I had heard that some producers use sawdust in their parmesan before I read this book.   Humans can't digest sawdust, so it doesn't have nutritional value for us. I also want parmesan to be cheese from cows who have not been fed antibiotics because antibiotics in food can have a serious impact on my health.  I really don't care whether it's Parmigiano-Reggiano made in Parma, Italy.  I'm sure it's wonderful, but it's highly unlikely that I will ever get to experience it at the source.

If you eat fish, the chapter on fish fraud is quite an eye opener.  I was unhappy to learn that less than half of the salmon labeled as wild caught is in fact wild.  He also says that wild tuna is usually farmed tilapia.  Farmed fish contains antibiotics which is in their feed.  Olmsted discusses the various seals which certify that fish is wild that can be trusted.  He recommends consulting the Marine Stewardship Council website.

If you eat beef, you might look for "grass fed" on the label.  Olmsted informs us that this only means that the cow ate grass at some point in its life.   If you want it to have always been fed grass, the label must say "100% grass fed".  I hadn't realized that the legal requirements for this label were that precise.  

It was interesting to read about the history of various wines.  I was fascinated to find out about the longevity of Madeira from Portugal.  It can last longer than a century due to a special heating process that prevents it from turning to vinegar.  Olmsted also tells us that the American Founding Fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira in 1776.  I did wonder how he knew this.

I was shocked that tea is faked.  You don't know what you're getting in a tea bag.  It might be anything.  I am less concerned about Darjeeling tea being from India with its seal of authenticity that Olmsted describes. I am more worried about whether my tea contains toxic ingredients. I am hoping that the label organic on tea really means something since I drink a great deal of tea.

Did you know that conventional tomatoes and bananas are gassed to ripen them faster?  I discovered this information from this book. The substance used is ethylene which is naturally occurring in apples. Organic certification prevents the use of ethylene on produce.  I actually prefer the taste and nutritional quality of bananas that still have some green on them.  Ripe bananas are too sweet for me which means that they contain more sugar.  The sugar is completely natural, but still isn't very beneficial for human health.  So I'd advise that if you want less sugar, look for bananas with some green.

Even though not every chapter in this book dealt with types of food or beverages that I ever consume, I do consider Olmsted an engaging writer.  I thought that all the content in this book was interesting.  The chapters I found most significant were extremely useful and sounded an alarm about the state of our food supply.  Let the buyer beware.   Let the buyer also read the relevant chapter in Real Food, Fake Food.

                                     
 













Monday, September 26, 2016

Everfair--The "Utopia" of the " Practical Dreamers"

A frequent objection to utopian literature is that it's boring.  Fiction relies on conflict.  There is no conflict within a perfect society. One way of dealing with this problem is to develop external threats which the utopians must combat.  Yet the big question that undermines the very existence of utopia remains. Is it possible for a society that intends to be utopian to be perfect for all those within its borders? 

Everfair by Nisi Shawl is an alternate history that approaches utopia honestly by attempting to address that big question.  I received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.

                                  

Nisi Shawl's alternate historical concept is that in the late 19th century part of the Congo that had been colonized by Belgium was purchased from the King of Belgium by an organization of British socialists called the Fabian Society.  The Fabians intended to establish a democratic, cooperative and peaceful society in which individuals of all races could live in harmony, and they intended to do this in the Congo.  Anyone who knows the horrific history of the Congo during this period would be certain that these alternate Fabians who were blithely wandering into a genocidal nightmare must be quixotic lunatics who were bound to be slaughtered.  Yet one of their leaders in this novel refers to the Fabians as "practical dreamers".

In order to get an idea of the Fabian perspective, I read It's fab to be Fabian  , an article that was reprinted in the UK Guardian by 21st century Fabian, Paul Richards.  He discusses their history, and why he thinks that Fabian socialism can work in contemporary Britain.

One thing that I noticed about the Fabians in Everfair is that they were continually assuming that allies or settlers in Everfair with very different cultural backgrounds shared the same attitudes and goals as they did. Without a certain Chinese inventor who evidently wasn't a pacifist like the Fabians, Everfair wouldn't have survived for very long.  So these dreamers weren't  as practical as they thought they were.  I think that the Fabians were a catalyst for change in the Congo, but they weren't the actual changemakers.

My favorite changemakers in Everfair were women.  Bi-racial Lisette Toutournier was able to navigate between African and European factions. Queen Josina's gifts of the spirit built bridges, and kept her royal husband on track toward their mutual goals.  Fwendi's extraordinary  paranormal ability facilitated her talent for espionage.  None of these three women considered Everfair a utopia. 

It was unconscious racism that made Lisette feel like an outsider.   In fact, I believe that the establishment of Everfair was based on the racist concept of "The White Man's Burden".  This is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that promulgated the idea that it's the obligation of Europeans to bring "civilization" AKA European values to Africa.   That's the philosophy that justifies colonialism in a nutshell.  I'm sure that as the rulers who had been displaced by King Leopold of Belgium, Josina and her husband Mwenda, never lost sight of the fact that Everfair was really a colonialist presence.   Fwendi was a beneficiary of Everfair technology, but as an African woman she struggled to be accepted on equal terms.

The Fabians seemed to have perceived their purpose in Africa as benevolent.  Obviously, they weren't conscienceless killers like King Leopold, but they were still European occupiers of African territory.  So what was a utopia to the Fabians, very definitely wasn't one to the characters who were persons of color.

 I value Everfair for its originality, its insight and  the moving stories that it told about a number of well-developed characters.   I consider it a strong candidate for the finest novel that I read in 2016.

                                  
                                       


   



                              

Saturday, September 24, 2016

This Above All-- A Girl Portraying Shakespeare's Romeo

This is a review that I wrote for Flying High Reviews. I decided to copy it to this blog, so I could add an additional paragraph about Shakespeare in the context of the novel which I thought my readers would appreciate.

This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a  contemporary YA novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion and growing up in the American Midwest.   I received a free copy from the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable.  I expected This Above All to be more conventional compared to those previous outings.  In some ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very definitely wasn't.

                               


The conventional aspect was high school.   I tend to avoid YA novels that take place in high school.   Most of these have predictable character types, dynamics and plots.   This Above All contained those elements.  There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued by miscommunication.  Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean girl.  It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.

Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel. While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this novel, but it wasn't predominant.   There was a gay character named Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either.  I read a review on Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about Tony's family interactions.   Tony played Mercutio.  If it's true that Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.

I felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book.  She initially had her doubts whether she could or should be Romeo.  Yet once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her fictive male identity.   I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender character.   It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.  Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to another gender.

Women becoming fictive men is a concern of Shakespeare--particularly in Twelfth Night and As You Like It.  These plays aren't mentioned in This Above All, but I believe that Piper was definitely following in the footsteps of Viola and Rosalind.   Culli displays knowledge and affection for Shakespeare's work throughout her book without overwhelming us with scholarship. The title itself is taken from a speech made by Polonius in Hamlet.   As someone who loves Shakespeare, I appreciated how the author wove the Bard of Avon into the book.

Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix of themes.  It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper playing a male role.  Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely concerned about Piper's spiritual well being.   As I am not a Christian myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of Christianity.   Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own views about religion.  She ponders how she can maintain a relationship with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions.   It seems to me that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of the process of becoming an adult.

This Above All is a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the  chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet.   As we have seen in the TV series Glee, communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who feel like outsiders in a hostile world.  Anyone who has felt at odds with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate to Piper.

                            

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Cover of This Thriller Would Offend The Protagonist

I decided to purchase Unassimilated by Michael Ben Zehabe from Amazon and agreed to review it for Bookplex because I was interested in the description, but I shook my head over the cover.  This is the first review that I am posting to this blog without a cover because the cover doesn't reflect the content of the book.

Imagine a central character who is a Middle Eastern refugee dealing with PTSD and culture shock.  Then think about how she’ll deal with being thrown into an undercover assignment for the FBI.  Will she sink or will she swim?  I certainly found this scenario intriguing. 

Protagonist Zoe Mousa is a wonderful character. Yet many readers will never find out about her because the cover of this book is so misleading. Perhaps the author thought it might increase sales.  Ben Zehabe may not realize that his cover amounts to deceptive advertising.   It is an appropriate cover for erotica, but there are no sex scenes in this thriller.  Not only this, but it’s a poor representation of the central character’s values.  Zoe prefers to dress modestly in accordance with her upbringing.   Another marketing problem posed by this cover, is that no one will want a post about this book to be going out to their friends’ feeds on social media. I can't even add the book to a shelf on Goodreads without the cover going out on my feed. It could cause problems for my Goodreads friends at work, or in their homes if they contain children.  This is why I won't be reviewing this book on Goodreads.

I wish that Unassimilated had a cover that better represented its content because this novel deals with some important themes.  In addition to the challenges facing immigrants, there is also the issue of technology’s increasing role.  The TV show Mr. Robot has brought the power of hackers to cause disruption to the fore.   The hacking element in Unassimilated caused me to reflect even more on how vulnerable our technology makes us.

Although I found only one typographical error, I need to point out an inconsistency in this novel.   Ben Zehabe doesn’t seem to be aware that the United States has an agency that deals with overseas espionage called the CIA. The FBI is limited to domestic operations.  This is the second time that I’ve seen this error in a thriller.

Zoe makes some serious mistakes in judgement, but I felt that they are very much in character considering her background.    My affection for Zoe deepened over the course of the narrative as I learned her entire story.    I recommend this book to anyone who likes character complexity with their thrill rides. 

                                
   

Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Experience With Reviewing For Bookplex

I have been a reviewer for Bookplex  since February 2012.  I posted my first review for them on my former blog here.   My first post on this blog was a review I wrote for Bookplex.

 Today Bookplex has asked their reviewers who blog to post about our experience with them.   Some individuals continue to say that Bookplex reviews are dishonest and that our reviews aren't valid.   They have been saying the same things for as long as Bookplex has existed.  I may not be able to change their minds, but I can tell you the complete truth about the kind of reviews I write for Bookplex.

Those who read my blog know that all my reviews are honest.   I rarely write reviews that are completely positive or completely negative.   Most of my reviews contain some criticism.   This has also been the case with my reviews for Bookplex.  I always mention Bookplex in the reviews that I write for them. So you can locate all of them with a search, but I thought I'd point out a few examples. 

  Here's an example of a review of a Bookplex book that I consider balanced.  It contained some praise for the concept, and the portrayal of Soweto residents.  It also contains criticism of  the protagonist's characterization and mentions editing errors.  I won't say that I've never given a Bookplex book unqualified praise.   Here is the post about the book that I thought was the best that I reviewed for Bookplex in 2015.  I also have an example of a review of a Bookplex book that I considered extremely flawed. You can read that review here .  Please note that even when my review is largely negative, I try not to be harsh or disrespectful to the author.   

I believe that writing reviews for Bookplex has made me a better reviewer.  Bookplex has a number of requirements for reviews. So I need to be much more thorough when I review for Bookplex.  I now take very detailed notes about books as I read them because of my experience with Bookplex.  I now pay much more attention to copy editing errors because a Bookplex review requires me to mention them, and what sort of errors they were.  I also pay more attention to the cover, and whether I consider it effective. That is another required element of a Bookplex review. 

There's definitely a serious problem with fraudulent reviews on the internet.  There are people who write reviews without having read the book.  Such a review would never pass muster with Bookplex.  Bookplex reviews need to be detailed.  I make sure that it's obvious in my review that I read the entire book from beginning to end.  Given the standards that Bookplex has for reviews, I think that Bookplex isn't part of the problem.  It's part of the solution.  

                               


Friday, August 26, 2016

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

 As a child I instinctively shied away from stories about Faerie.   I liked Tinkerbell in Peter Pan because she was vulnerable.  She was the only one of her kind, and could fade away if people didn't believe in her.  Yet in the tales, the Queens and Lords of Faerie didn't seem to have that problem.  They had immense powers which they would wield unpredictably.  I wanted predictability and dependability in my world. 

As an adult I have often said that I have an allergy to the Fae.  "Seelie" and "Unseelie" were the words that were most likely to precipitate my full blown Fae allergy attacks.   They would make me shudder.  In many stories, these are Fae factions each of which has their own royal court. I have always hated human royal court intrigues.   They're all about the acquisition, maintenance and abuse of power. I find them repulsive, and the Fae version hasn't seemed to be any different.

The last time when I deliberately subjected myself to the Fae was when I read Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear because I love fiction about the Elizabethan playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  Once the book began to spend long periods of time in Faerie, I liked it progressively less and less, and the sequel was beyond tolerance for me.  I wouldn't put up with a book focused on Fae machinations for anyone-- not even for Shakespeare and Marlowe.

 I have also been tricked into reading about the Fae.  There is a wonderful fantasy novel about a mysterious people, and the surprise twist is that they are actually the Fae.  It was a very fresh approach, and I loved it. Unfortunately, now that his readers knew they were Fae, the author succumbed to the temptation to tell a very traditional and predictable Fae story in the sequel.  I lost my enthusiasm for that very quickly.

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard is another instance of having been tricked into reading a book dealing centrally with the Fae.   There was no mention of the Fae in the description.  I was hooked by the concept of two sisters at an artists' retreat.  I wouldn't have been tricked at all if I had read the reviews on Goodreads.   On the other hand, if  I had read them, I would probably have avoided this powerful debut novel and that would have been a shame.

                         



As the POV character, the writer sister Imogen, is the most fully portrayed in Roses and Rot.   Her concerns are the central concerns of the book.   Through the lens of Imogen's narration, I didn't see any difference between abusive human parents and the Fae's abuse of  humans residing in places where they have power.  Kat Howard shows the various types of abuse as part of the same continuum.  I believe that she is telling her audience that the identity of the abuser doesn't matter.  Abuse is still abuse, and you shouldn't tolerate it.

I think that the singer/playwright Ariel is the character who takes the strongest stand for freedom from abuse.   It's her independence that gives Imogen the strength to do what most needs to be done.   I really admired Ariel, and at various points while I was reading Roses and Rot I thought that she was my favorite character.  By the way, I would really love to see the rock musical about Joan of Arc that Ariel proposed.  If it was written well and performed by the right cast, it could be one of the greatest musicals of all time.

I liked the statement that this book makes about HEA (Happily Ever After) most.  I think that no one ever really has HEA because we are haunted by unhappy memories that prevent unalloyed happiness.  I have always believed that there are values that are more significant than happiness.  Readers take whatever message relates to their lives most strongly from any book, but the one that reverberates for me most powerfully after I read the final page of this novel is that I'd always rather live with integrity.  That is the value that shines through in the characters that I respected in Roses and Rot.

This is certainly the best book that I've ever read about the Fae.  Faerie is left rather vague.   There is very little time spent there in the course of the narrative.   Kat Howard places humanity and human experience front and center , and that is what makes her book so powerful.

                                     








                             

                                         

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc in an Alternate WWII

This is a review that I originally wrote for Flying High Reviews.  Yet I wanted to write a more extended version, and thought it would be more appropriate to post here.

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on this blog.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.

                             

The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.
 
If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists.

This novel makes extensive and very interesting use of golems.  These are figures from Jewish folklore who will be recognized by those who encountered one in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, a very well received historical fantasy taking place in late 19th century New York.   My main criticism of Wecker's book is that she made it easy to leave the late 19th century concept of women's role unexamined by making her female protagonist a golem. Barton, on the other hand, raises questions about golems that reminded me of how Socrates disturbed the intentions of the Goddess Athena for her robots in The Just City.  This was a time travel fantasy by Jo Walton which I reviewed on this blog  here .  In my review of The Just City I declared myself on Team Socrates because Socrates stood up for everyone's rights.  While reading  The Book of Esther,   I wrote in my notes at one point that I was on Team Golem because Barton gave golems more agency than the robots in Walton's book by allowing golems to express their own perspective.   When golems show evidence of  consciousness, we have to ask ourselves about the ethics of viewing golems solely as obedient servants.  So I thought that The Book of Esther approached golems with more complexity than Helene Wecker had in The Golem and the Jinni where the female protagonist's entire personality was predetermined by the fact that she was a golem.

I decided to bring up one other issue that has been raised in Goodreads reviews of The Book of Esther.  Many people wondered about the rest of the world beyond Khazaria.   They thought that Barton had the responsibility to show us more to develop her alternate world.   They had questions about that world.     Since nothing happened outside of Khazaria in The Book of Esther, I thought that Barton's level of information was appropriate.  I believe that authors should only tell readers what they need to know when they need to know it.   I also thought that Barton's task of developing Khazaria itself was challenging enough without adding the previous alternate history of Europe as a whole.  I admit that when I saw a reference to the Ottomans late in this book, I wondered about how the survival of the Ottoman Empire in this alternate 1942 would have impacted Palestine.   In our universe, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in 1920.  Evidently, there were differences in how WWI and its aftermath proceeded in Barton's continuity.  Yet it seems to me that it makes sense to answer questions if and when they are relevant to the plot.  There may be a sequel.  If that happens, Barton may find it necessary to answer some of our questions about her world.  

                                 





Saturday, August 13, 2016

Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch-- Is a Just Jewish State Possible?

This is the second alternate Jewish state novel that I've read.  The first , The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, came totally out of left field.  The Jewish State is where?  Alaska? Are you kidding me?  It was certainly imaginative, but it didn't seem at all likely.  Judenstaat at least sounds like it could really have happened in the universe next door, not very far from our own.   So I took this book and its implications more seriously.

                             

Many left of center American Jews are very critical of Israel.  They believe that it should be a more just state.  Let's leave aside the issue of whether there is anywhere that could be described as a completely just state in the real world.  Let us consider whether a Jewish state could be more just if it were not in Palestine. Let us suppose it could be situated in uncontested territory.  If so, where could such a place be located? There were real proposals to establish a Jewish state in Uganda or in Argentina.  Yet Zelitch decided to locate her fictional version in Europe.  In her universe, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a Jewish state was established on German soil.   Some Holocaust survivors would probably have called it a blood bargain, but the rest of the world would most likely have considered it an appropriate form of restitution for the Holocaust.      

Quite a number of devout Jews believe that Palestine was promised to their ancestors by God, and it is therefore the only place where a Jewish state can exist.  My grandmother's family settled in Palestine in the 19th century.   There were also a community of Jews who made Palestine their home after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.  I read about  a family descended from these Spanish Jews in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi which I reviewed here .What happened to these Jews in Zelitch's universe?  Did they fall into a black hole? She only tells us that settlement in Palestine was a failure, but doesn't give us any specifics.   There is no mention of Sephardic (Spanish) or Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews in Judenstaat.   It was as if the only Jews in the world were Ashkenazis (German and Eastern European Jews). I found this very troubling because of a pattern of injustice in the Jewish state of our universe.  In modern Israel, Ashkenazi Jews are politically and economically dominant.  American Jews who are opposed to Israel focus on their discrimination against Arabs, but they also discriminate against Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews.   In their absence, the German speaking Jews of Zelitch's Judenstaat discriminate against the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.

Does Zelitch believe that a just society is impossible?  I believe that there is no such thing as a utopia, but that we should aspire toward a society where there is less prejudice, and less bigoted behavior on the part of those who represent our institutions.  The main goal of those in power in Judenstaat seemed to be the concealment of injustice.

I found Judenstaat thought provoking, disturbing and saddening.   It was a difficult read and I can't say that I was glad that I read it.   I'm not sure that I actually needed to read this book, but there may be much more idealistic readers who still believe that utopia is possible, and that solutions to social problems are easy.   They are the ones who should read Judenstaat.