Search This Blog

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Gone To Soldiers--Marge Piercy's Amazing World War II Saga

I am again writing an extended version of a Book Babe review for this blog.  I like doing research for my reviews, and I tend to think that the audience for this blog has more interest in reading that sort of review.  

I have loved Marge Piercy's poetry and her science fiction novel, Woman on the Edge of Time.  For me, she is a feminist icon.  I received a request from the publisher to review the new e-book version of her 1987 novel Gone To Soldiers. So I decided that it was time that I read it.   When I agreed to review this book, I had no idea of its length.  I remember marking it as currently reading on Goodreads, navigating to the book's page on the database and seeing 800 pages for the first time.  Those who are daunted by carrying around a print tome, may prefer to access Piercy's saga on their e-readers or tablets.  I know that I did.  Yet next time I will check the page count beforehand, so that I can give the publisher or author a more realistic time frame for when they can expect a review.  I received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


The title comes from the Pete Seeger protest song, Where Have All The Flowers Gone? .  The Wikipedia article that I've linked reveals that Seeger wrote it in 1955,  but it's inextricably linked with the 1960's anti-war movement.   So I expected that Piercy wouldn't have idealized WWII.  I imagined that her depiction of the war would be more ambivalent, and I wasn't wrong.   Readers can expect to find suffering, death and horror in Gone To Soldiers, but also compassion, bravery and triumph.

For feminists, it's important to note that much of the narrative is a story about women, and some were extraordinary.   My personal favorites were Jacqueline, Bernice and Louise.

I'll start with Louise because Gone To Soldiers opens with her perspective. Originally, I wasn't impressed with her.  The multiplicity of her talents, her fortitude and resilience are gradually revealed over the course of the narrative.  She wrote both fiction and features for magazines such as Collier's.  She briefly became a propagandist for the U.S. government because she thought that she'd be able to promote awareness of the concentration camps. She was galvanized by the suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm , a Polish Jew who was a member of the Polish government in exile in London.  He left a suicide note saying that his action was a protest against the deaths of Polish Jews in concentration camps. Unfortunately, Louise wasn't allowed to write about that subject as part of her propaganda job.

Later, after the war was over, Louise visited the Displaced Persons camps in Germany and testified to the Harrison Commission about post-war atrocities against concentration camp survivors. This was an investigation convened by Earl G. Harrison who was appointed by President Truman to inspect the Displaced Persons' facilities.  Harrison produced The Harrison Report  to document the results of his investigation.  I was shocked to learn from this book about the role that  U.S. General Patton played in these atrocities.  When I ran a search on the subject, I discovered a Washington Post article by Richard Cohen  called What Bill O'Reilly Ignored About George Patton which criticized O'Reilly's biography of Patton for failing to deal with his antisemitism.

As a journalist, Louise's travels bound the characters together.  Although Jacqueline and Bernice never met each other, Louise had the opportunity to interview both of them.

 Louise encountered Bernice first.   Bernice was a pilot, and eventually joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  Her entire life was focused on flying--getting an opportunity to fly, and then trying to find a way to keep flying.  Readers may be astonished by how far she was willing to go to continue being a pilot after the war was over.  Her refusal to ever give up on her dreams was what I admired most about her.  To learn more about the WASP,  I recommend The WASP Official Archive at Texas Women's University.

Jacqueline began as a sheltered Paris teenager who I found immensely irritating because of her complete lack of empathy.  The German occupation of France shattered her life and reshaped her personality.  The crucible of war and oppression accomplished the most marvelous metamorphosis for this character.  It also fundamentally changed her priorities and her loyalties.  I respected Bernice and Louise a great deal, but I came to love Jacqueline.  Her struggle to survive truly moved me.

My favorite male characters were Daniel and Bernice's brother, Jeff.   Daniel had a tremendous facility for languages and a preference for Asian cultures.  I found him unusual, and I learned a great deal from his experiences.  Jeff was an artist, but he desperately wanted to do something heroic so that his life would mean something.  I think that his life did mean something because he lived and loved with intensity, authenticity and a sense of commitment to everything he did.

A boy who was acting as a courier for the Resistance appeared briefly in this book.  He was an Eclaireur IsraĆ©lite de France.  I learned from the Wikipedia article that I linked in the last sentence that this is a French Jewish Scouting organization founded in 1923. They were banned by the Vichy government.  They later re-formed in 1969 and became co-educational.

The viewpoint characters in Gone To Soldiers illuminated a number of aspects of  the world they inhabited.  Even when I didn't particularly identify with a character, I felt that I understood more about each slice of the realities of WWII that these characters represented. It is often said that a novel is more than the sum of its parts, but I believe that it was the segments of individual perceptions that gave this book significance.  


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Steampunk Carnival: A Mystery Set In An Alternate Timeline

Last year  indie author Cassandra Leuthold won the first giveaway I've done on this blog.  When I sent her the giveaway copy of Jade Dragon Mountain, a historical mystery by Elsa Hart which I reviewed here , she wondered if I wanted a copy of one of her books for review.  Since I like steampunk, carnivals and mysteries, I decided to read Steampunk Carnival which is a mystery that takes place in an alternate steampunk timeline.  I did receive my copy from the author in return for this honest review.


Cassandra Leuthold's late 19th century steam-powered carnival is actually called Steampunk Carnival in the novel.  This is an admittedly odd choice.  The term "steampunk" didn't exist in the 19th century in our timeline.  It was invented by science fiction writer K. W. Jeter in 1978 to describe the alternate history sub-genre in which steam powered technology is further developed and becomes dominant.   In the 21st century, steampunk sensibility has become a sub-culture that has influenced art, fashion and popular culture.  If you were to initiate a search for "steampunk carnival", you would discover that there has been a Steampunk Carnivale in Knoxville, Tennessee since 2013. Judging from the video and the accompanying article in Knoxzine at the link I've provided, it isn't actually a carnival with rides.  It's more of a steampunk inspired exhibition.  So it's not the same phenomenon that Leuthold describes in her book.

It occurred to me that since Steampunk Carnival does take place in an altered version of history,  the term "steampunk" could have been invented in that version of the late 19th century.  Leuthold does provide an explanation for the carnival being given such a name which I considered reasonable.

Katya Romanova, the protagonist, assists and guides the carnival's guests.  With that surname, I wondered if Katya was pretending to be related to Russian royalty, but Leuthold never really delves that much into her background. It isn't a factor in the mystery. In an atmosphere of fear and suspicion due to the carnival's owner having received death threats, Katya finds the dead body of the carnival's head of security.  She had also found a perplexing  notebook which caused her to wonder about the origins of the carnival.

I ended up liking Katya.  At first I agreed with a review that called her shallow.   She did seem very concerned with her costumes and her appearance.  Yet I don't believe that every woman who enjoys dressing up should be condemned as superficial.  Katya was loyal to her friends and cared about justice.  She also displayed bravery and became more independent over the course of the narrative.  One of her motivations was to prevent her fellow carnival employees from being abused or exploited.  So I  concluded that Katya was really a decent human being.  There were other likable characters in the novel which balanced the despicable ones such as the carnival's owner and the murdered man.

The resolution of the mystery was not entirely unexpected.  I couldn't have known the identity of the killer, but I did suspect that something had happened along the lines of what turned out to be the actual chain of events.   I still found it an entertaining read, and I would be willing to read another book by Cassandra Leuthold.




Monday, April 4, 2016

Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Sephardic Perspective on Israeli History

I've been busy trying to finish my final project for library school so I can get my degree.  This is why I haven't posted for a long while.  I will soon have an MLIS degree.  Please be patient with me.  I am trying to catch up on the books that I've committed to review.

The publisher of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi contacted me about reviewing this book for Book Babe. I am now doing a longer version including more topics and research links for this blog. I have to say that the title didn't exactly attract me.  I was disinclined to read a book about a beauty queen, but the author is Israeli so I looked beyond the title.  I discovered that it's a family saga that partly deals with the period before Israel was a state.   My grandmother, who was born in what was then the Ottoman Empire in 1905, spent her childhood in Jerusalem.  So I'm always interested in learning more about the history of Jews in what would later be known as Israel. I agreed to review it and received an ARC via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


I have to admit that Luna, the title character, was unsympathetic. I found her self-absorbed and superficial.  She  always wanted to be the center of attention.  Her sister Rachelika thought that love redeemed Luna.  I disagree since she spent so much of her life acting like a spoiled brat.   I thought that Luna's mother, Rosa, was the strongest woman in this book.  This is by no means a feminist narrative.  Rosa was married into the Hermosa family without her consent as was typical during that period.  Marriages were usually arranged then. The reason why I call Rosa strong is because she survived the loss of her parents at a young age and always did what needed to be done under challenging circumstances.  Luna didn't respect her mother because she cleaned the homes of British occupiers for a living before she married.  Luna's attitude toward her mother definitely didn't endear her to me.   I thought Rosa was doing the best she could to keep herself and her younger brother alive without assistance from anyone else.

The Hermosa family, which is at the center of the narrative, originally came to Palestine from Spain when the Jews were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.  This community of Jews are known as Sephardim because they came from Sepharad which is the Hebrew word for Spain.  They spoke Ladino which is a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew. (Ladino is still spoken, but it's an endangered language.  Recently Israeli singer Sarah Aroeste released an album for children called Ora de Despertar  in an effort to preserve Ladino, according to the Times of Israel.) The Sephardim who had been in Palestine since the 15th century were proud of their roots in the land, and their ability to co-exist with Arabs.  Later settlers in Palestine came from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish and were known as Ashkenazis. Yiddish is a mixture of German and Hebrew written in the Hebrew alphabet.  I am descended from Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews.

As a result of further research on the languages that Jews spoke in the Middle East, I discovered  Haketia which is a dialect of Ladino mixed with Arabic which was spoken by Spanish Jews who settled in Morocco.  I had thought that the language of the Jews who settled in Arabic speaking nations would have been Judeo-Arabic.  Maimonides was a Spanish Jew who eventually settled in Egypt.  His language was Judeo-Arabic.  Judeo-Arabic is a dialect of Arabic with a slight admixture of Hebrew which was written in the Hebrew alphabet with some modifications for the sounds in Arabic that don't exist in Hebrew.  Maimonides must not have identified with Spain or the Spanish language even though he was born in Spain. The harshness of being forced to leave the land of your birth can change your cultural identification. Someone who maintains a connection with Spain through their language is Spanish identified-- like the Ladino speaking Sephardic community shown in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. 

I was interested in reading about the customs of the Sephardic Jews as described in this novel. There were some that seemed alien to me.  This is especially true of  the idea of selling your infant children to a neighbor and even calling them "slaves" in order to fool the demon Lilith who was supposed to kidnap children.  Lilith was imported from Zoroastrianism during the Jewish exile to Babylon.  The ancient Persians believed in a type of demon called the Lilitu.   Feminist Jews have a different version of Lilith as a truly admirable figure. The feminist  version is derived from a Jewish folkloric tale in which Lilith was Adam's first wife who refused to be dominated by him.  I would think that the feminist version of Lilith would want to free children who'd been sold as slaves.   Although the children were bought back by their families of origin a few weeks later, I find this practice extremely repulsive.

I was fascinated by the description of how Mercada, Gabriel Hermosa's mother, did divination with molten lead.  I learned from Wikipedia that it's called molybdomancy  and that it's a Turkish custom for assisting those who have been afflicted by the evil eye. Divination can be done with anything.  I have seen divination by reading the patterns of scattered chick peas. 

Apparently naming a child after a living relative was not only acceptable in this Sephardic community, but expected.  I actually found this somewhat shocking because I was brought up with the Ashkenazi belief that naming a child after a living relative was a curse on that relative who would then die because the child would be considered a replacement.  Based on this idea, you could never name a child after a parent until that parent was already dead.  So children in my Jewish milieu were often named after grandparents or even great-grandparents if the grandparents were still alive. 

The theme of conflict between Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews was important to this book.   I thought that if there was a curse on the Hermosa family as Luna thought, then the curse was prejudice against Ashkenazim.  Yet as Ashkenazim became more powerful, they began to discriminate against Sephardim.  This pattern of Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardi Jews continued in modern Israel. 

I was also interested in the portrayal of terrorism in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, and the way terrorists are perceived by the characters.

One point I wanted to bring up is that over the course of the novel I learned that the terrorist organization called the Etzel is the same as the Irgun, the name I know for that particular group.  Their full name in Hebrew is phonetically Irgun  Tzvaee Leumee in English.  The Hebrew acronym for that name is phonetically Etzel in English.

 It's often said that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.  I tend to draw the line at the victimizing of innocent civilians.  So did Gabriel, Luna's father.  He had no interest in supporting terrorists even if the terrorists were Jews.  There is a character in this book who joined a terrorist organization engaged in actions against the British occupiers.  There were other characters who were sympathetic to such actions.   Terrorists and their supporters tend to believe that the ends justify the means.   Even if I am sympathetic toward the goals of terrorists, I believe that innocent blood on their hands will taint their cause, and that Gandhi's non-violent approach is a better model for freedom fighters.  Yet I am glad that the author of this novel portrayed a spectrum of viewpoints on this issue.

I have to say that the characters I really loved in this novel were Gabriel and Luna's husband, David.  They weren't saints, but they were men who were committed to doing the best they could for their families.  I appreciated their sense of responsibility, just as I respected Rosa's endurance.  Rosa, Gabriel and David gave The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem stature and pathos.