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Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Ventriloquists: Resistance Journalists Thumb Their Noses At The Nazis

Sometimes I receive free copies of a book from the publisher in two formats.  The publisher will have confidence in a book if it deals with World War II, the most popular historical era.  Yet if it's written by a debut author, they know it will need more promotion. So Park Row Books went the extra mile for the World War II  debut novel, The Ventriloquists  by Evan Roxanna Ramzipoor.   I got a digital ARC from Net Galley and a paperback ARC directly from the publisher by mail.  I wanted to review this book sooner, but I had so many earlier review commitments and suddenly it's almost the end of December. The Ventriloquists was released at the end of August.  I would like to thank the publisher for their generosity.


First, let me count the reasons that I loved The Ventriloquists.

1) The focus on World War II Resistance journalists

I always notice books with central characters who are journalists.   I have reviewed a number of books on this blog dealing with  journalists. I will hyperlink my review of the most recent one at  To Live Out Loud, a novel by Paulette Mahurin about Émile  Zola and his advocacy for Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer who was falsely accused of treason in 19th century France.  I'm more likely to consider these books--especially if they are journalists who take great risks with their work.   Anti-Nazi journalists in Nazi occupied Belgium were  definitely in this category.

2) Exceptionally heroic women characters

Although the protagonist is the real historical journalist, Marc Aubrion, my favorite character in The Ventriloquists is the fictional Lada Tarcovich who was a whorehouse madam and a smuggler, but also a great deal more than that. She was a lesbian, a bold activist who knew how to get things done for the Resistance and the character who uttered my favorite remark: "When a shiny black boot comes to town, it always steps on words and women first."

Andree Grandjean was mentioned in the author's archival source, but as a barrister.  Ramzipoor made her a judge who risked her career to use her wealth and influence to help the Resistance.  (Please note that a Wikipedia list of the first woman lawyers and judges of Europe states that the first woman judge in Belgium was appointed in 1948 after WWII. Readers can decide for themselves whether they regard Judge Grandjean as an intolerable historical inconsistency or a minor faux pas.)
Finally, there was the fictional Helene who we meet first in the current day framing narrative as an old woman, but in occupied Nazi Belgium she was twelve and engaged in some very daring escapades on behalf of the Resistance.

3) Satire as a Significant Act of Protest

Some acquaintances who don't know me very well think I don't have a sense of humor, but I love satire. My only issue is it can't be goring my ox.   Very few people appreciate jokes at their own expense or that target the groups and causes that they identify with, and I am not one of them.  I am a huge fan of Oscar Wilde who satired  aristocrats and the wealthy. Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw could also be a great satirist.  I read through his complete works as a teenager, so I know some of his more obscure plays with real bite.  Monty Python has my abiding affection as do the late night satiric comedy shows in the U.S. 

Marc Aubrion conceived of the idea of lampooning the Belgian newspaper Le Soir which had become Nazi propaganda.  His Resistance group planned to distribute Le Faux Soir through the same outlets where Le Soir was sold. They knew the Nazis would find out quickly, but it would give Belgians hope.  That is no small thing in dark times.  Le Faux Soir actually existed.  Some copies survived in private collections.

4. Great Dialogue

I have to admit that I won't read a novel if its main appeal is witty dialogue.  Such exchanges aren't a substitute for characterization.  I also want fiction to have a plot with events that interest me and some genuine thematic heft.

Having said that, snark is a wonderful ornament in the context of an unfolding drama.   Snarky heroes seem more courageous to me than the grim tight lipped ones.  They are also far more entertaining.  The suave poetic banter of  playwright Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac during his fight scenes is what makes him stand out.   I feel that the witty moments of Marc Aubrion and Lada Tarcovich are gifts to the reader.

My Summary Judgment

I've seen criticisms that the book is too long or that the narrative was too scattered.  One Goodreads reader was confused about who was narrating at some points.  I didn't have these problems.  I thought the length was necessary for character development, and that the identity of the narrator was clear to me from context. I am also accustomed to novels that alternate narratives taking place in different periods which have become quite common in historical fiction.

I found The Ventroloquists original because the role of journalists in the WWII Resistance was previously unknown to me.  I was glad to learn about Le Faux Soir, and appreciated how much courage it took to take the necessary risks.  I'm glad this book was written and I think that more readers should be aware of this aspect of WWII. 




Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Bookshop in Berlin: A Blog Tour and Review

When a major publisher offers me a newly translated World War II memoir for a blog tour review, I sit up and take notice.  I was also inclined to read it because the author was a Jewish bookstore owner.  A title like A Bookshop in Berlin implies that it delivers a first hand perspective on the Nazi persecution of Jewish owned stores before the Holocaust began. This sounded like it could be a riveting perspective.   So I accepted a free copy of this memoir by Françoise Frenkel.



Françoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, she opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin with her husband. Frenkel's bookshop miraculously survived Kristallnacht, when hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed. But in the summer of 1939, with war looming, Frenkel fled to Paris. She sought refuge across occupied France for the next several years until finally, on her third attempt, escaping across the border to Switzerland, where she wrote a memoir documenting her refugee experience. Her memoir, originally published in 1945 as Rien où poser sa tête (No Place to Lay One’s Head), was rediscovered in an attic in southern France in 2010 and republished in the original French as well as in a dozen other languages. This is its first publication in the United States. Frenkel died in Nice in 1975. 


When I started this book, I wanted to know why a woman who was born Frymeta became Françoise. As I read further,  I theorized that she felt more at home in a nation that was probably more welcoming to her than Poland may have been.  Readers won't find out about her childhood experiences in Poland.  We  also learn very little about her family, but they must have been successful financially.  Frenkel had the opportunity to leave Poland and pursue an education in Paris.  Those Paris years shaped her identity and her life goals.  

I found Frenkel's omission of her husband from her memoir more startling than putting Poland behind her.   The preface by Patrick Modiano reveals that she and her husband opened the bookshop together.  His name was Simon Raichenstein, he was born in Russia and died in Auschwitz.  I wanted to know more about him.  I feel that he deserves to be remembered. We have no way of knowing whether she didn't mention him because it was too painful to mourn his loss in public through the pages of a memoir, or her relationship with him wasn't really significant to her.  We don't know how they met or why she married him.

There is no way to determine what role Simon Raichenstein might have played in the decision to open a French language bookstore in Berlin in 1921.  Presumably, he was supportive since he helped her run the store.   We do know from this memoir that many people advised against it including the Consul General at the French Consulate in Berlin.  He thought that anti-French sentiment in Germany was so strong in the aftermath of WWI that the bookstore would fall victim to an arson attack.   Some readers might question Frenkel's judgement at that point, but it turned out that the French language bookstore enjoyed great success during the Weimar Republic.

Frenkel's persistence, resourcefulness and courage in the face of Nazi persecution make her admirable.   I also found out about the Italian occupation of Provence during WWII as a result of this book.   This was a research opportunity for me. I would love to know more.   Perhaps the re-publication of Frenkel's memoir will encourage more publishers to release French books about WWII in English.  This would be a tremendous benefit to those who read in English who are historically inclined.  




Monday, November 18, 2019

Superhero Thought Experiments: Can Comics Provide Philosophical Insights?

This former graduate student is unintimidated by academic studies.  The idea that superheroes can provide insights into philosophy may sound strange to some. Yet I have an interest in quirky academic works that make forays into popular culture, and would like to encourage this behavior. The last time I blogged about an academic study that dealt with television, movies and comics, it was Speculative Blackness by André M. Carrington  which I was delighted to review here.  So I hoped to make some useful discoveries when I agreed to read and review Superhero Thought Experiments by Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg. I received a digital copy free of charge from the publisher.


When I looked at the authors' profiles on Goodreads, I discovered that they had contributed to two critical anthologies dealing with comics that interested me. The first is Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice and the Socratic Way. Cool! I play on team Socrates. Then there is actually a philosophy anthology devoted to my favorite superhero, Wonder Woman and Philosophy!  I wouldn't have discovered these books, if I hadn't read this one.  So that's an extra benefit of reviewing this anthology.  The main benefit of this book, is that it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own views of the superheroes that the authors discuss.

In his introduction, Gavaler attempts to define superheroes.  He says that "there is no single necessary or sufficient condition, but only a list of potential ones".  I would start from the word superhero, and would ask two questions.  How is this individual a hero?  How is the individual super?  If the individual is not a hero, he, she or they might be a villain. It could also be that he, she or they might be someone who wants to live an ordinary life, and doesn't want to be involved in saving anyone.  If the individual has no superpowers he, she or they might be a costumed vigilante.  This is a category for some of the greatest most legendary heroes such as Robin Hood and Zorro.  I have no trouble categorizing Batman and Green Arrow as heroes who aren't superheroes.  I still love them.

I can agree with Gavaler and Goldberg's conception of the early Batman as solely centered on his oath to fight criminals without considering the consequences of his actions to ordinary civilians.  Yet one crucial point that is important to my conception of early Batman, is that Bruce Wayne was  grieving when he swore that oath.  This is psychology rather than philosophy, but if philosophy doesn't take a character's context into consideration then it's of limited use for analysis of fictional characters.  Batman's context was that he was traumatized by the violent death of his parents when he committed himself to his mission.  This is the reason why Batman is "imprisoned by his past", as the authors of this book say.   If Batman was too narrowly focused on stopping criminals in his early phase, I would consider his trauma the contextual explanation for his behavior. I also believe that empathy is the bedrock of ethics.  You can't think of the ethical implications of your actions on others without empathy.  Batman's empathy was inhibited by his trauma.

In the chapter about Twin Earths, the authors ask us to imagine an Earth devoted to corruption and chaos called Earth 3.  I don't need to imagine it.  I believe that we live on a planet in which an increasing number of societies are already living in the corruption and chaos of Earth 3, while a few are trying to hold back the corruption and chaos.  Chaos is a consequence of corruption.  When everyone can bribe their way out of following the law, order isn't possible.  The result is chaos.  The supervillains in charge of Earth 3 are portrayed as battling the police.  Yet it seems to me that in a world where corruption reigns, the police would be corrupt.  The only people who would battle these supervillains would be vigilantes who would be generally  regarded as foolish or insane.  They would also be likely to pay the price of their convictions with their lives.

There is a discussion of retcons  (retroactive continuities) which involve changing events in the past, and reboots which involve throwing away the entire continuity and starting a new one.  Gavaler and Goldberg consider whether names or backgrounds are more essential.  My perception is that they are discussing identity.  How do we define identity? People change their names for a variety of reasons without believing that they have become someone else.  Some name changes reflect a self-perception that this individual has become someone else, but  I believe that memories which encapsulate your background are your identity.   This is illustrated by Marvel's Thor being depicted as having been punished by Odin with amnesia that caused him to forget that he was Thor.  There is a science fiction novel that I read this year which also shows that memories are identity by positing beings that embody extracted memories. It's called Mem and I reviewed it here.  I  viewed Mem  as a flawed book, but it's nevertheless a powerful one on the subject of identity.

I was amused by philosopher Donald Davidson's thought experiment in which a swamp creature convinced everyone he knew that he was Donald Davidson.  Apparently, Donald Davidson didn't believe that the swamp creature's ability to write articles was a sign of sentience.  I have entertained the notion that a great number of academic journal articles without an iota of original thought weren't written by sentient beings. Yet it could be that like the authors of these unreflective articles, the swamp creature was aware that he needed to publish or perish.

There are some aspects of this book that I have neglected to mention in this review.  I confined myself to the observations that I considered most relevant and significant on the subject of superheroes. Even though I didn't always agree with Gavaler and Goldberg, I did consider Superhero Thought Experiments interesting and thoughtful.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Deep: Where Is The Heart of This Book?

The premise of fantasy novella The Deep by Rivers Solomon is so intriguing that I was sold on it immediately.   The descendants of pregnant African women that were thrown overboard by slavers during the Middle Passage became mermaids and established an undersea society.  I requested it from Net Galley and was thrilled when I was approved just before the release of this publication.  I couldn't wait to read it.   I prioritized it as my first read of November and this is my honest review.


I discovered that the premise of The Deep wasn't the original creation of Rivers Solomon.  The men's names listed on the cover are the members of Clipping who wrote a song  inspired by the work of Drexciya , and developed it into an Afro-Futurist story line that goes well beyond Solomon's novella. I'd love to see Clipping's entire plot played out in a full length novel.   If you want to know more about  Clipping's song "The Deep"  go to the web page that I've hyperlinked.                   

Readers will also need to know that they will not be seeing the first hand accounts of kidnapped African women who experienced the horrors of the Middle Passage in Solomon's version.

The protagonist of this novella is Yetu who is the historian of this underwater culture.  This doesn't mean that she's written books about their history.  She carries their entire history within her mind.  Yetu tells us repeatedly about the pain of these memories.  I can imagine that they would be painful, but it's difficult for me to fully identify with Yetu if we aren't allowed to experience any of these historical memories in the course of the narrative.  We are told about them in some sort of chaotic montage.   Since Yetu's difficulty with enduring her people's history is supposed to be the central conflict of Solomon's The Deep, I think it's really crucial that we feel some part of it with her.

 I don't claim that this novella is a complete failure.  We are shown part of Yetu's life before she became a historian and what happened to her later in the narrative.   I felt that these aspects of the novella were stronger and more emotionally resonant.   Some might argue that these do represent the heart of the novella.  It's been called a re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson's tale, "The Little Mermaid".  I do see that a radically revisionist retelling is part of what Solomon is trying to accomplish here, but I don't perceive it as central.

I think Solomon was attempting to write about history, its transmission and its importance to society as a whole.  These weighty themes somehow got lost in the telling.  The message got submerged in the ocean's depths.  From an intellectual standpoint, I can see that Solomon intended to include these ideas.  Yet she didn't do any more than touch on them before they sank, and disappeared from view.  This reviewer is not a deep sea diver.  So I cannot retrieve them.  I can only tell you that it seems to me that the heart of Rivers Solomon's The Deep is missing.




Saturday, November 2, 2019

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction--A Special Issue of Uncanny Magazine

So this is a first.  I have never blogged about an issue of a magazine previously.  Uncanny Magazine is devoted to science fiction and fantasy.  They have done a series of  special issues entirely written by members of marginalized groups.   I supported  Uncanny issue #24 Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction on Kickstarter and received a free digital copy.   I decided to read it now for a buddy read on a Goodreads group.                      
I think that at the outset the idea that these marginalized groups were "destroying" science fiction or fantasy was meant to be satiric.  There were certain fans that have been called "sad puppies" who said things like "Women are destroying science fiction."  So it seemed to me that these special issues started with "Women Destroy Science Fiction" to twist the tails of these "sad puppies".

 Subsequently, members of these groups have let it be known that science fiction and fantasy were portraying them negatively or not meeting their needs as readers.  So they actually did mean to destroy science fiction and fantasy in the sense of re-conceptualizing it. They had visions of  science fiction and fantasy that would be more inclusive.  Their Destroy series issues would be about why some science fiction and fantasy was problematic for them, and what they wanted to see in these genres.

I am particularly interested in disability issues.  So I am now going to proceed to my review of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction.

There were two stories in this issue that really impressed me.

My favorite story in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is "Disconnect" by Fran Wilde. I feel that this story is more magical realism than science fiction.  There is a veneer of science because the plot involves scientific studies, but so many things that happen in this story are fantastical.  Readers may believe that these events are the protagonist's hallucinations.   The protagonist has constant crippling anxiety and she lives in what I considered a Kafkaesque context which exacerbated her anxiety.  I expected this story to have a pretty dark ending, but instead it's a triumph.  I thought that "Disconnect" was astonishing and original.

The fiction editor, Dominick Parisien, said in his introduction that not all the stories in the issue would deal with disability prominently because identity is complex, and disability is only part of a disabled person's life. "The Frequency of Compassion" by A. Merc Rustad, the second of the stories in this issue that I considered excellent, has an autistic protagonist, but wasn't primarily focused on autism.  It involved the ethics of first contact and gender.  I found it powerful.

The two essays that I liked most were the first and last that appeared in the essay section.  They were wide-ranging essays that brought up numerous issues.

I thought that  " Design A Spaceship" by Andi C. Buchanan was the most extraordinary because it gave me so much food for thought that I felt stuffed with reflections. Buchanan asks a great many pointed questions.

There was one question that I would like to bring up in this review because it brought to the fore some thoughts I'd already had about a particular character.  Is assistive technology in science fiction for the purpose of making the able audience more comfortable with disabled characters?  This had actually occurred to me with regard to Star Trek: The Next Generation's blind character Geordi La Forge's visor.   The audience doesn't have to see his blind eyes.  Of course the actor Levar Burton isn't blind, but I think that it could have been possible to give him blind eyes in post-production.  Instead they found a way to hide his eyes.  Then it occurred to me that we never saw Geordi in his cabin with his visor off because Geordi didn't have a personal life.  I feel that he was largely an undeveloped character.  And then he was cured which made able viewers even more comfortable with him.  This really irritated me.

"The Future Is (Not) Disabled" by Marieke Nijkamp also asks a plethora of provocative questions.

Nijkamp poses questions about the idea that all disabilities will be cured in the future. Will these cures have side effects? Can everyone afford them?  Is health care a right or for profit?

This last essay in the issue also proposes some assistive technologies.  I'd actually seen one in a short story that appeared in a 2018 indie science fiction and fantasy anthology for stories centering on disabled protagonists called A Different Kind of Hero.  "Difficulty: Unlimited" by Anthea Sharp had a protagonist with a wheelchair that could hover above the ground. I found it to be a well developed story. One assistive technology mentioned by Nijkamp that I'd like to see is robot service dogs especially if the robot dogs are very advanced AIs who could become fully developed characters.

Among the poems in this anthology, I preferred the narrative poems that had a story line.  The only narrative poem that focused on disability was "You Wanted Me To Fly" by Julia Watts Belser.  It also contained some wonderful poetic phrases and made a strong statement.

Finally, there is a section of personal essays that are about personal experiences of the authors.  I had two favorites. One was "Nihil de Nobis, Sine Nobis" by Ace Ratcliff which focused on Ratcliff's criticism of ableism in The Expanse which Ratcliff tweeted about.   I also loved "The Only Thing Faster Than Tonight, Mr. Darkness" by deaf contributor Elise Matheson which is about auto-captioning on You Tube.  I had also noticed their inaccuracy.  I found a recent article about this problem which appeared this year in The Atlantic Monthly called When Is A Caption Close Enough?  by Linda Besner.  To be fair, You Tube auto-captions have improved.  Google is quoted in Besner's  article saying that they have improved by 50% since 2015 which is a great deal of progress.

I would recommend Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction.Readers may find stories, essays or poems in this issue other than the ones I've mentioned that feel significant to them. I would also like to point out that Uncanny has recently published Disabled People Destroy Fantasy which I look forward to reading when I have enough time to devote to it.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Blackbird Blues--A Deeply Human Novel Taking Place in Chicago in the Early 1960's

When I'm offered a historical fiction novel for review, I give it serious consideration if it deals with topics that interest me and seems unusual. Blackbird Blues is a first novel by journalist and psychotherapist Jean K. Carney that was pitched to me by publicist Jennifer Vance.  I was interested in this book because it had a female protagonist,  and centered on music, racism and illegal abortion. I had not read a novel taking place during this period in which a character had to go through the process of abortion.  I thought it would be provocative and intense.  So I accepted a copy for review.


The 1960's are usually associated with hippies and protests, but all of that was happening toward the end of that decade. The early sixties mirrored the convention-bound 1950's that had come before it to a very large extent.

Readers will need to understand that women in the sixties had far fewer options than they do today.  This is the situation that brought about the 1970's feminist movement.

Protagonist Mary Kaye O'Donnell came from a devout Irish Catholic family who also had limited means.   They couldn't afford to send their very bright daughter to college.  So she chose to become a nun with the reasonable expectation that she might be given the opportunity for further studies through the Church.  Although the Catholic Church wanted those who entered convents to have a vocation, people often made such a decision for practical reasons rather than spiritual ones.

Mary Kaye also had a talent for singing, and she loved jazz.  Her mentor in this area was Sister Michaeline, a jazz singing nun.  Some readers of this review may be saying to themselves that they never heard of a nun like that one.  Since I knew that nuns might come from a variety of backgrounds, I wasn't surprised.  Like Mary Kaye, I began the book thinking that Sister Michaeline was very admirable.  I particularly admired her prison ministry.

Yet eventually we learn about the tragic past that motivated Sister Michaeline's actions, and her deep unhappiness that was caused by serious mistakes.  All the major characters in Blackbird Blues were complex human beings who did things that they should not have done.   I understood why they behaved as they did, but certainly none of them qualified for sainthood.  My feeling is that Sister Michaeline's worst mistake was caused by unacknowledged racism which had terrible consequences for everyone in her life.

Mary Kaye's mistakes were typical for teenagers.  I have always believed that straight A high school students would be smart enough to avoid such pitfalls.  Yet Mary Kay was also remarkably sheltered which went a long way toward explaining why she ended up facing the same sort of dilemmas as many of her contemporaries.  She was fortunate in having an extremely supportive father.  He too had his flaws, but his unwavering loyalty to Mary Kaye made him stand out for me.

Those who are accustomed to the protection of women's choices regarding procreation may be disturbed by the description of illegal abortion in Blackbird Blues.  Considering the current concerted effort to undermine women's freedom of choice in the United States, this is probably the most significant aspect of the novel.

There was something that I learned about Catholic history from a reference to it in Blackbird Blues. Pope Gregory XVI wrote an encyclical banning Catholics from participating in the slave trade in 1839.   There's an article about this Pope and his anti-slavery encyclical that appeared in The National Review.  Since I'd never even heard of this Pope, I found that pretty memorable.

So there is more than one good reason to read Blackbird Blues.  It has really good characterization and significant themes.  I applaud Jean Carney for having the courage to address these themes in her first novel.



Saturday, October 12, 2019

Eleanor Roosevelt's Vision of Democracy

I saw a reference to The Moral Basis of Democracy by Eleanor Roosevelt in a Book Riot  list/essay in which the Book Riot author found this 1940 book significant for 2019 readers.  I also noticed that yesterday was the day dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt in The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont.  So I read it on October 11 which was yesterday.


The opening sentence may feel resonant for current readers:

"At a time when the whole world is in a turmoil and thousands of people are homeless and hungry, it behooves all of us to reconsider our political and religious beliefs in an effort to clarify in our minds the standards by which we live."

The historical section dealing with the approaches of the founders of the various colonies was occasionally eye opening.   For example, Quaker William Penn wanted to do away with inheritance entirely.  And people think some of the Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential race are radical!  There isn't one of them who goes to that extreme.

 On the other hand, William Penn's idea that prisons should be workhouses is unfortunately being replicated in our current prison system.   Involuntary labor is slavery.  I am reminded of Slavery and the Meetinghouse, a book which I reviewed at the hyperlink I provided.  It shows that there were hypocritical Quaker slaveholders who were reluctant to abolish slavery and excoriated Quakers who were strong advocates for abolitionism.  I believe that any society that allows slavery in any form isn't truly democratic.

Eleanor Roosevelt credits Benjamin Franklin with a view that may be terrifyingly prescient. In this book, she has Franklin state that the American Constitution would last until our society becomes so corrupt that it would be incapable of being anything but a dictatorship.

Roosevelt also tells us that Thomas Jefferson believed that the right to property was about everyone having the opportunity to own property.  She says that it isn't about concentrating all property in a few hands, and giving those few people unlimited rights.  That obviously isn't democratic.   Roosevelt believed that Americans had been led away from democracy by "the gods of Mammon".

I also agree with Roosevelt's emphasis on the importance of widespread citizen participation in democracy.  Today we see the emergence of networks to facilitate participation in an effort to salvage American democracy which is under threat.

Many readers will find Eleanor Roosevelt's style old fashioned and even offensive in terms of current political attitudes.  I did think that in advocating for Christianity as most consistent with American democratic values, she was ignoring the fact that there are two Christian approaches whose values are so fundamentally different that they lead their adherents in opposing directions.   Some Christians believe that wealth and success are a sign of favor from God, and that poverty is a sign of God's disfavor.  Therefore nothing should be done to help the poor.  Other Christian sects believe that God considers all human beings His children who are equal in His sight, and that they therefore should do everything they can to equalize opportunity for all.  These two approaches have divided America throughout its history and continue to do so today.

 Eleanor Roosevelt's perspective has its limitations, but I do think that she nevertheless has insights to offer us.   So we should be inspired by the nuggets of wisdom that can be found in The Moral Basis of Democracy.


Friday, September 27, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow: A Mayan Historical Fantasy For Hispanic Heritage Month

I've been wanting to get to Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia because I'd seen good reviews of this Mayan historical fantasy from advance readers. I decided to read it now because it seemed perfect for Hispanic Heritage Month. While I was reading this book, I also saw the amazing movie Coco a second time at a public library event for Hispanic Heritage Month. Both Gods of Jade and Shadow and Coco deal with the Land of the Dead in a Mexican context though their perspectives are very different.  One major area of dis-similarity is that while Coco is a Disney children's movie that adults can also enjoy, Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely isn't for children.  It's been mis-shelved  by some readers as a YA or children's novel on Goodreads.  I saw that the author also commented about this issue on the book's Goodreads page.


I think the beautiful cover rich in Mayan symbols was what first attracted me to this book.  I had no previous experience of  Silvia Moreno-Garcia's work, but this cover made her latest novel stand out for me.

I may be the only reviewer who wants to discuss the theological premise of  Gods of Jade and Shadow.  It's essentially the opposite of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in which  "everywhere around the world they're coming to America" to quote the lyrics of another Neil.   Gods from other continents are looking to take up residence in the United States in Gaiman's highly regarded urban fantasy.   In the world of Moreno-Garcia's book, Gods would never want to do that because their power comes from the land where they were born. The further they go from it, the more their power diminishes. Since we have very successful world religions, this premise doesn't seem at all likely to me.

Nevertheless, there are indigenous religions that appear to be really centered on the land of that particular people with rituals that must be performed at specific sacred sites.  The religion of my ancestors was once very much focused on the temple in Jerusalem. There is still tremendous reverence for that site in Judaism.  Yet  after the national traumas of the Babylonian Exile and the destruction of the temple by the Romans, Jews needed to find a way to practice their religion wherever they went.  Judaism can now be found world wide, but it does have roots in what is known as the Holy Land for three religions.  So I can see where Moreno-Garcia's theological premise comes from.  

I get the impression that Moreno-Garcia's books tend to be rather dark which is not my preference.  I am also aware that Meso-American mythology isn't exactly replete with sunny optimism.  So I expected Gods of Jade and Shadow to have a certain fascination for me, but didn't expect to love it as much as I did.

I wouldn't call this a sweet novel.  There's a romance without HEA which is a crime from the perspective of romance fans. Yet Casiopea Tun is such a great protagonist.   She has the true nobility of integrity.  She refuses to accept a dark future for humanity though fighting this evil comes at a high price. This is the sort of heroic fantasy that I find inspiring.  So many books are competing to be as noir as possible that it's more difficult than it once was to find protagonists that make you want to stand up and cheer. My feeling is that in our terrifying contemporary world, we need  heroes like Casiopea Tun more than ever.





Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Call Upon The Water: An English Novelist Writes About Marshes

The first time I noticed swamps as a setting was the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox based on the life of real 18th century American revolutionary Francis Marion which I watched with fascination when I was a child.

As an adult, some of my friends were nature lovers and environmentalists who were aware of the need to preserve wetlands as a vital habitat for a variety of species.  They took me to visit local wetlands and encouraged me to support the cause of saving the swamps.

 Fast forward to 2018 when Where The Crawdads Sing by first time novelist Delia Owens became a mega-bestseller.  Nearly everyone I knew on Goodreads loved the unexpected tale of the despised and abandoned Marsh Girl, Kya.  I am a colossal avoider of widely hyped books, but I loved Kya  too.

More recently, I came across a Smithsonian article called Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom.  I  arrived at the realization that rebels, runaway slaves and marginalized people had been living in the swamps for centuries, but I thought this was a prototypical American story.

I had jumped to a conclusion too quickly.  It was an English story too.  That's what I found out through Call Upon The Water by Stella Tillyard which was offered to me in advance of publication for review by the publisher through Net Galley.  I seized upon it as an amazing example of serendipity.

In England, the marshes were called fens.  There was an 11th century English revolutionary associated with the fens known as Hereward the Wake.  He is said to have led opposition to the Norman Conquest from the fens.  Eventually,  in pursuit of more arable land ,English property owners sought assistance  in draining their fens.

 It occurred to me while reading this book that claiming ownership of the fens and draining them is a continuation of the centuries long trend to diminish the commons.  The commons were lands that weren't privately owned.   Anyone could access them. The poor could survive by gathering edible plants, hunting and fishing in the commons.  Without the commons, the poor were completely dependent on the benevolence of landowners and employers.  The people who inhabited the fens could no longer make  an independent livelihood from the fens once they were drained.  The fens would become farmland, and their crops would be harvested for the benefit of the landowners.

  Draining wetlands had been central to the history of  the Netherlands.  For the Dutch, this was an essential nation building process.  I found a podcast and article about this swamp draining history from Amsterdam Radio. It's no wonder that when England sought to drain the fens in the 17th century, they called upon Dutch experts.

Call Upon The Water  primarily deals with the experiences of one of these Dutch swamp draining experts. Fictional character Jan Brunt arrived in England  in 1649 to assist in draining the Great Level. He meets Eliza, a local fenwoman.  He is impressed by her intelligence and her interest in his work. He feels compassion for Eliza and comes to love her.   Yet he really hasn't got a clue about what motivates her.  The trouble is that the reader doesn't really understand her either.

This is because of the author's choice to limit Eliza's perspective as a narrator to  the final chapters.  If this were a mystery like Where The Crawdads Sing, I would applaud Tillyard for enhancing suspense by causing us to continually wonder about Eliza.   I feel that Call Upon The Water is literary fiction, and that the lengthy absence of Eliza's perspective lessens the power of the novel. It also occurred to me that some readers might think that the author is telling us that Jan Brunt's perspective is the most important one. He does seem to be the most fully realized character.   He grows over the course of the narrative.  His orientation toward his work  and his feelings about wetlands change over his lifetime.  I wanted to have the same insight into Eliza's thought processes to perceive her entire character arc.  I wanted to know more about who she really was. Instead Eliza tells us that she had  no story until her viewpoint narrative began.  I found this frustrating and disappointing.

The Eliza we see in her viewpoint narrative is very pragmatic.  She knows what she wants and how to accomplish it.  She seems to have very little ambivalence, if any, about her choices.  She lacks vulnerability.  I find her understandable and worthy of respect, but not always sympathetic.   Brunt did have regrets about his choices.   So for me he is much more sympathetic.  

Aside from my problem with Eliza's characterization, I thought Call Upon The Water was an insightful historical novel that caused me to reflect on a variety of issues.  I also never thought I could end up admiring a character like Jan Brunt when I identify so strongly with outsiders like Delia Owens' character Kya.  That's an achievement as far as I'm concerned.  So bravo to Stella Tillyard.


Monday, September 16, 2019

The Second Biggest Nothing: Dr. Siri's History Hides A Lethal Threat

Ever since I discovered The Coroner's Lunch through the F2F mystery group that I attend, I have been a fan of the always entertaining Dr. Siri series by Colin Cotterill.  The only Dr. Siri book that I've reviewed on this blog is The Rat Catcher's Olympics.  You can read it here.  Edelweiss is enabling my Dr. Siri addiction by once again providing me with a copy of the most recent book, The Second Biggest Nothing, which I am happy to review.  


My original impression of the title is that it might be religious though Cotterill has never gone heavy on theology in the past. It would also be out of character for Dr. Siri whose spirituality is based on his experiences rather than theology.  It turned out that this title is a snarky political comment which is very consistent with the tone of the series.

The primary setting of the Dr. Siri mysteries is 20th century Laos, but there are occasional wanderings elsewhere.  The Second Biggest Nothing contains flashbacks to past events in Siri's life in France and Vietnam.  Just as Mme. Daeng's diary about her history in The Woman Who Wouldn't Die increased my appreciation of Siri's wife, the flashbacks in this book increased my already great appreciation for Siri.

Since I enjoy doing research on the books I read, I authenticated the central event of the French flashback taking place in 1932.  It did indeed happen.  Of course there's no mention of the fictional Dr. Siri having been a witness to it.

I thought that the 1956 Saigon and 1972 Hanoi flashbacks gave me additional insight into the Vietnam War from Siri's perspective as a medical officer.

There was a sub-plot involving spirits in The Second Biggest Nothing in which spirits were causing deaths among young Lao men.  Siri mentions that something similar was happening among the Hmong, and named the Hmong spirit who was regarded as responsible for these deaths.  I found an article dealing with this problem called  Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome  which discussed it as a cross-cultural phenomenon though it seemed particularly notable among the Hmong.  Dr. Siri resolved that sub-plot with a sensible solution.

The murderer of the main plotline did turn out to be connected to one of the flashbacks, but his identity was completely unexpected.  There were also characters who played a surprising role in the resolution.  I thought this was one of the better Dr. Siri novels.



Saturday, August 31, 2019

Sands of Eppla: Defining Love and Independence Using A Blind Protagonist

I was enticed by the cover of Sands of Eppla, an epic fantasy by Janeal Falor.  It made me want to explore the book further. It depicts a blind woman with a monkey on her shoulder.  I have an interest in the depiction of characters with disabilities in fantasy and science fiction.  Most recently, I mentioned a young woman who is blind that appeared in the Oremere trilogy by Helen Scheuerer when I reviewed Heart of Mist here.  I was intrigued by an epic fantasy novel that centers on a blind protagonist.  This is why I accepted a review copy of Sands of Eppla from Story Origin.


Other reviewers on Goodreads have commented on the Egyptian flavoring in this novel. It isn't actually ancient Egypt.  It's an original creation of a fantasy realm by the author with a few similarities to ancient Egypt.  There is a pyramid mentioned and a sphinx plays a role in the plot. This particular sphinx flies.  The most famous Egyptian sphinx in our world has no wings.  To show readers that there are depictions of winged sphinxes, I tracked down a public domain image of a pair of winged sphinxes which is shown below.


Actually,   I considered Egyptian influence a minor aspect of Sands of Eppla.  I would like to devote more space to the themes of this book.

 Imagine a society where your status is determined by whether you have or haven't experienced love at first sight.   In our world, those few people who have found their partners that way are champions of the phenomenon. The rest of us are skeptical.  I tend to think that love is usually not a lightning strike.  It happens slowly as a relationship develops. Love is a human need.  There are different types of love.  There is love between friends and family members as well as romantic love. In Falor's rather dystopian kingdom, romantic love can only be achieved at first sight, and it's privileged beyond  any other type of love.  The Amant, who have found love at first sight, are the aristocracy.  They are also the only ones who are allowed to marry and have children.  Amant is derived from the Latin word for love which is similar in related languages. The majority who haven't experienced love at first sight are called the Odiosom.  I see this word as being derived from odious.  The Odiosom are treated by the Amant as if they were odious.  They are persecuted, and given the tasks that Amant won't do.

As a feminist, it didn't escape my attention that the only women in this society who lived on their own are Odiosom.   Yet men who lived on their own were also regarded as odious in this fantasy realm.  Independence wasn't admired.  It was seen as socially and politically disqualifying.

Now the truth is that no one is ever completely independent.  Even the most independent woman I know has a support network of friends who she can call on for advice.  Her friends recognize that they are providing input, and that she makes her own decisions.  I saw such a support network operating in the Odiosom community in this novel.

Since Cassandra couldn't see, she would never experience love at first sight and would always be an Odiosom.  As the story opened, she had been suddenly deserted by her caretaker and was living by herself without contact with other Odiosom. She had needed to become self-reliant quickly.  There was no societal expectation that Cassandra would be able to do this. Falor describes the techniques that Cassandra used to survive on her own, and I found them realistic. Her monkey companion was also crucial for Cassandra at that point in her life.  With a foundation of skills that enabled her to live without a human support network, she would be more valuable to the Odiosom community when she eventually found them.

 The concepts I've discussed are wrapped in a suspenseful plot in which Cassandra and other Odiosom are in conflict with the Amant authorities.  I consider this a five star novel which exceeded my expectations.



Friday, August 23, 2019

He Does Not Die A Death of Shame-- A Novel About Anti-Apartheid Activism in South Africa

He Does Not Die A Death of Shame by Jack Hoffmann is historical fiction taking place in South Africa under apartheid. I've reviewed two books dealing with this period in South Africa on this blog.  They were  How The Water Falls by K. P. Kollenborn which depicted a very intense and conflicted relationship between a British journalist and an Afrikaner member of the South African police. I reviewed it here. The second one was The Blue African by L.W. Samuelson which is a science fiction novel about an extraterrestrial judging humanity based on what he experiences in apartheid South Africa. I reviewed it  here.  I have also read some extraordinary mysteries taking place in apartheid South Africa by the Swaziland born author Mala Nunn which I highly recommend.

What sets He Does Not Die A Death of Shame apart is its focus on South African Jewish protagonist Zak Ginsberg and his enduring desire to become an anti-apartheid activist.  I had previously read novels about 19th century Jewish immigrants to South Africa, but those characters weren't concerned with racial injustice.  I wanted to experience a fictional Jewish viewpoint on apartheid South Africa which I would find more sympathetic, and in sync with my values.  So I requested a review copy from the author.  Jack Hoffmann very generously provided me with a print edition of his novel free of charge.


Jack Hoffmann begins with a history of Zak's immigrant family beginning with the persecution in Lithuania from which they escaped, how his parents met and married and eventually showing us how the other protagonist, Zulu Mpande Gumede,  first entered Zak's life as the son of Zak's beloved nanny and as a childhood playmate.

As adults their respective statuses under apartheid caused Zak and Mpande to embark on radically different life paths.  I knew that it was the author's intention for the two former playmates to reconnect.  So I was continually wondering when it would happen, in what context this event would occur and what the consequences would be for both of them in a society that forbids any type of relationship between the races.

Zak could have left South Africa.  In fact,  I'm sure that many readers would  consider leaving much wiser than staying. South African mixed race comedian Trevor Noah made it abundantly clear in his memoir why he needed to leave the nation where he had literally been "born a crime".  Zak may have been born into a relatively privileged environment but his vision of tikun olam (the Jewish idea of restoring what is broken in the world) made South Africa an increasingly dangerous place for him to be.

I ran searches on Jewish anti-apartheid activists in South Africa after reading this novel.  I discovered that very prominent leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle, such as Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth First, were Jewish.  Gillian Slovo, who alerted me to the dilemmas of the Truth and Reconciliation process in post-apartheid South Africa in her novel Red Dust, is their daughter.  The anti-apartheid movement may not have needed "white saviors" in the form of these Jewish activists, but they had an inner need to strive for justice that came from their heritage.  I also believe that cooperation between courageous individuals of all races is the best foundation for a future of equality.

Do not read He Did Not Die A Death of Shame if you want a happy ending.   I learned in the course of the narrative that this title is a quote from Oscar Wilde who might seem like the last person to issue a clarion call for the sort of old fashioned values like integrity and loyalty that are embodied in the lives of Jack Hoffmann's central characters. I think that Wilde was a satirist because he hated hypocrisy.  He was willing to end his career in order to stand up for his truth.   Wilde was not the man who succeeded in bringing about  GLBT acceptance.  Zak and Mpande weren't the men who ended apartheid, but they were heroes of their historical moment.  Without such  historical precursors, the goals of the struggle might never be attained. South Africa still isn't a completely just society, but it's closer to that objective than it was under apartheid.  That's why I am glad to have encountered characters like Zak Ginsberg and Mpande Gumede who stood for their own truths.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Warrior Won: A Pregnant Woman's Spiritual Adventures

 I practice yoga, but hadn't previously read a yoga novel.  For one thing, I rarely read contemporary fiction unless it's a crime novel.  When I first encountered the title Namaslay, I imagined that it was a book about a serial killer of advanced yoga practitioners who refused to reveal their secrets. Based on reviews,  it's actually a yoga manual which takes an unusual approach.  I may want to read it some day.

Warrior Won by Meryl Davids Landau also isn't crime fiction.  With that title, it could be a thriller detailing the adventures of a Green Beret decorated for heroism. Warrior Won is indeed an adventure novel, but the adventures are of a spiritual nature.  I was particularly interested in the fact that this spiritually adventurous protagonist is pregnant. My yoga manual for many years was Inner Beauty, Inner Light: Yoga For Pregnant Women by obstetrician Frédérick LeBoyer which was given to me as a gift. Yet I was sure that I'd never seen a yoga novel whose main character is pregnant.  So I accepted a review copy free of charge from the author, and this is my honest review.


Warrior Won is the sequel to Landau's Downward Dog, Upward Fog which I have not read. Lorna Crawford is the central figure in both novels.  I consider her spiritually adventurous because she's always willing to try different practices from a variety of spiritual traditions.

For example, Lorna utilizes backwards breathing which I learned through Tai Chi. It's often called Taoist breathing.  It involves exhaling before inhaling.  I was taught that this type of breathing strengthens chi which is life energy.

Since yoga is a Hindu philosophy, it was not surprising that Lorna had integrated Kirtan into her life.  This is a Hindu performance art involving chants set to music. The culture of India also entered the narrative when one of her friends  introduced Lorna to the Ayurvedic Diets  suited to three body types called doshas. I hadn't explored the Ayurvedic approach, so I found the page I've linked on Mehmet Oz's website instructive.

Lorna isn't an idealized character.  She occasionally made poor decisions.  In one case, it could have had an adverse impact on her pregnancy. I wanted to scold her at that point in the plot.  Fortunately, she had an excellent support network-- most notably her husband, her midwife and her like-minded friends who met as a group several times during the course of the narrative to do spiritual work for Lorna.  If they were Wiccan, I would have called them a coven.

One of these meetings of Lorna's friends was called a Blessingway.  This is the English term for a type of  Diné ceremony. Diné is what the Navajos call themselves.  Landau cites a book titled The Blessingway by Veronika Sophia Robinson which is described as written for the purpose of facilitating the adaption of the Diné Blessingway for non-Native participants.  I haven't read Robinson's book, but it seems to me that she has done a dis-service to the Diné.  I have no issues with the creation of new ceremonies, but I do find it problematic to appropriate the specific term Blessingway for what looks like a more generic blessing ritual.  I found an authentic description from a Diné source at this Blessingway  page.  I feel that Landau made a mistake when she decided to utilize Robinson's book in her novel, and repeat Robinson's act of cultural appropriation by calling the ritual a Blessingway.  This is a single scene in Warrior Won. I would not tar the entire book with the same brush, but I do think that this subject is an important matter that needs to be mentioned in my review.

I would like to close by saying that I thought the characterization of Lorna was believable, and that there were times when I identified with her.  Lorna and her husband had to deal with a tragic revelation in the course of this novel.   Their process of moving through grief to acceptance was very touching. My heart went out to them.  This aspect of the novel had tremendous impact.  I feel that people could benefit from the experience of reading Warrior Won.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

They Called Us Enemy--George Takei's Graphic Memoir is a Story That Must Be Told

I've read a number of novels dealing with Japanese American internment during WWII. I certainly never expected that there would be a graphic memoir dealing with the WWII experiences of a Japanese American.  Leave it to George Takei to show us how that's done in an era when his story has a new urgency.


 There were so many moments in this memoir that provoked thoughts for me.  I'm going to mention the highlights from my notes in this review.

Takei reveals that when he was a teenager, post-WWII, he was angry that his father hadn't organized a protest against internment instead of acceding to it and bringing his family to a succession of camps.  Takekuma Takei, George Takei's Japanese born father, then proceeded to confirm his son's accusation that Japanese are too passive which is definitely a stereotype.  He said "Maybe you're right."  Takekuma definitely wasn't a passive man.  George Takei portrays his father as an activist throughout most of his life, but he was passive in this argument with his son.

 I would have defended my decision.   Protesters would have been rounded up and possibly separated from their families.  Five year old George Takei would still have been consigned to internment camps, but he could have grown up without his father.  I feel that Takekuma Takei did the best he could for his family under the circumstances.  The other observation that I'd like to make about this scene is that it's extremely honest.  George Takei was showing himself being immature in his thinking, and even showing prejudice against Japanese born people.

I was interested that Takei indicated in this memoir that Earl Warren's advocacy for Japanese American internment was due to political strategy. I ran a search on the topic and discovered that it was worse than that.  There's an article written by Earl Warren's law clerk in the 1970's, G. Edward White, here.  White says that the entire political class just before WWII, including Earl Warren, were deeply prejudiced against Japanese Americans.  It wasn't just political strategy.  They all sincerely believed in racist stereotypes due to segregation.  White people never met any Japanese Americans during this period.  White goes on to say that this is why it's so significant that Earl Warren openly stated in his memoirs that he'd been wrong about Japanese American internment and apologized. This may seem like too little too late, but it's actually a big deal when you consider that his fellow Supreme Court liberals Hugo Black and William O. Douglas never reversed themselves on Japanese American internment and never apologized for it.

Takei mentions that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Fred Korematsu v. the United States had been overturned.  Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who resisted internment and sued the U.S. government.  The Supreme Court at the time upheld the decision of the lower courts that internment was the prerogative of the U.S. military and the courts couldn't interfere.  It was overturned in 1983 on the grounds of suppression of U.S. Naval Intelligence's Ringle Report which found that Japanese Americans weren't in general a danger to the United States, and that the few that were had already been incarcerated before the internment order was issued.  It was the U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fahy who suppressed the Ringle Report. I hadn't heard of the Ringle Report until I did the research for this blog post today.

Takei argues that if Japanese American internment was unconstitutional, so are the current internments of refugees seeking asylum.  Racism is the motivation for both.

This is an important issue for me because like many American Jews, I have a refugee in my family.  My father was six years old when he fled Poland with his family between the World Wars because of the pogroms against Jews. See the article What Were Pogroms? from My Jewish Learning for the history of pogroms.  I actually hadn't known that the word "pogrom" is Russian until I read this article.

They Called Us Enemy should be widely read by people of all ages.   George Takei's  story brings home for all of us that internment for racist reasons is a truly terrible wrong.



Saturday, August 3, 2019

Carmen: A Gypsy Geography-- A Book on Carmen's Roots and Influence

When I started  Carmen: A Gypsy Geography by Ninotchka Devorah Bennahum in June, I didn't really have time to read it but I made time for it because I was going to see the opera Carmen live the very next day.  I decided that I would read as much of Bennahum's book as I could that weekend.  I believed that knowing something of the history and cultural origins of the opera would cause me to appreciate what I was seeing on stage so much more.  I was absolutely right about that.


First, let me say that I understand that Romani is the preferred name for the people often called "Gypsies". It's what this people prefer to call themselves.  I will refer to them as Romani after this paragraph, but the word "Gypsy" is part of the title of this book, and Bennahum consistently uses that non-preferred term.

On the weekend  that I saw the opera, Carmen, I managed to read Bennahum's chapter about Prosper Mérimée's novella "Carmen" on which the opera was based, and the chapter about the tragic history of the opera's composer, Georges Bizet.  I had a discussion with the friend with whom I saw the opera.  I told him that Bizet died thinking that Carmen was a failure and said "I should have written better music."  My friend is a huge fan of Mozart and other German composers.  For him, Carmen didn't have the musical sophistication that he preferred.  He said that it reminded him of theatrical musicals.  He thought that its resemblance to musicals is the reason why Carmen remains so popular.   Perhaps Bizet wasn't a great composer when you compare him to Mozart or Beethoven, but there is no doubt that Carmen has had some cultural influence.

I resumed reading this book after I had finished with posting reviews in response to requests from authors, publishers and publicists. So I could then read more of Bennahum's perspective on Carmen.

In the chapter about the ancient sources of Carmen, her similarities to Lilith resonated most for me.  I thought Bennahum's effort to connect her to Ariadne was more than a bit strained.

I also find it difficult to believe that the Spanish exclamation of Olé was originally Allah, as Bennahum claims. In a search, I saw this claim debunked in a blog post that was removed, but can still be found on the Wayback Machine at Ole, Allah and All. The post states that the first recorded use of Olé was in 1541 which is a little too late in Spanish history for any relationship to Allah to be viable.

Since I had recently seen a wonderfully effective Black Carmen on stage,  I was very interested in this book's discussion of the commonalities between freed African slaves and Romani in Spain.   Bennahum points out that African freedwomen engaged in the same professions as Romani women, and thinks that they also both lived in mountain caves.  I know from my reading about Romani that they have historically been tremendously concerned with ethnic purity, but I am also aware that there have been Romani who were expelled from their communities because they intermarried with outsiders.  So it seems to me possible that there have been people who are both Romani and African descended. It was nice to imagine that the marvelous Black Carmen that I had just seen, is at least feasible.

 Although there were questionable statements in this book, I also thought there were remarkable insights, and some really great footnotes.  For me, this was a worthwhile read.



Saturday, July 27, 2019

No Right Way: A Thriller Involving Syrian Refugees in Turkey

No Right Way is the second book I've read in Michael Niemann's thriller series dealing with the cases of U.N. fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen.  I reviewed the third book in the series, Illegal Holdings, here.  Like all the books in this series, No Right Way involves fraudulent misuse of U.N. funds.  I really liked the protagonist's sense of justice and Niemann's focus on important themes in Illegal Holdings.  So I accepted a free review copy of No Right Way from the publisher via publicist Wiley Saichek.


This fourth novel in the Valentin Vermeulen series takes place in the Middle East.   Vermeulen has been sent to Turkey to make sure that Syrian refugees were receiving the family allowances provided by the U.N.   I had never previously heard of U.N. funding for refugees. I found a Cash Assistance  page on the United Nations Refugee Agency site which appears to be the same program described in No Right Way. Protagonist Vermeulen  does discover that a substantial part of the funds intended for refugees had actually been stolen.

There is other mistreatment of refugees shown in this novel  through the experiences of  Rina Ahmadi, a refugee from Aleppo who is a prominent character in No Right Way.    Yet there are those who are helpful to Rina.  Rina is portrayed sympathetically though she does make some foolish decisions so that she ends up needing to be rescued.

Admittedly, Vermeulen also displays a lack of judgement at times, but Vermeulen is a resourceful survivor who can usually manage to extricate himself from the most dangerous situations.

I think that readers will consider No Right Way a very current book since so many news stories deal with the horrifying circumstances of refugees.   Michael Niemann gives us a window on every day tragedies that are happening to entire populations in our real world.