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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.