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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Like Mayflies in a Stream-- A Fresh Approach to the Epic of Gilgamesh

When I came across Like Mayflies in a Stream by Shauna Roberts in an Amazon historical fiction search, I knew that it was a novel dealing with ancient Sumer.  I'm interested in reading books taking place in ancient times. So I purchased it and it languished on a shelf for years.  This year I added it to a Goodreads group TBR challenge and I'm glad I finally got to it.  You see, I hadn't known it was a  retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh  with an unusual approach.


I've read a number of Gilgamesh retellings dealing with the perspective of Gilgamesh, his companion Enkidu or the Goddess Inanna.  None dealt with the perspective of the people of Uruk under the rule of Gilgamesh.  This definitely wasn't a democratic society, but there were limits to what people were willing to endure.   There was such a thing as tyranny in ancient Sumer.  

Sumer was portrayed as a patriarchal society, but Gilgamesh's greatest atrocity in this novel was mistreatment of women.  Modern female victimization is often shown as an isolating event that separates the individual from her context.  Roberts shows the impact of  abuse of women on the men in their lives.  These women have fathers, brothers and husbands.  Family life was destroyed.

People in ancient times expected their gods to help them--particularly when there was a great injustice that was disrupting the social fabric.   They couldn't take their King to court or organize mass protests against his behavior.    Modern readers who live in constitutional democracies might think these Sumerians were pretty passive to have allowed these abuses to go on for so long.

Modern readers might also draw parallels between Gilgamesh and authoritarian figures in our era who believe that they can commit any wrong without penalty.  I felt that Like Mayflies in a Stream does speak to our time.   I could relate to the feelings of the people of Uruk that society was broken, and could never be restored to what it was before Gilgamesh uprooted all their norms.

This version of  the Epic of Gilgamesh is tragic, but it certainly has power.  I have placed this novel on my keeper shelf.  I will remember it for some time.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Song For A Lost Kingdom-- A Novel of Music,Time Travel and Jacobites

I received Song For A Lost Kingdom from the Canadian author , Steve Moretti, via the promotional freebie website Prolific Works, and fell in love with the premise.  So I immediately volunteered to provide Moretti with feedback without having read a single word that he'd written.   I'm glad to say that I haven't regretted that impulsive decision since then.


A facile description of Song For A Lost Kingdom would be that it's Outlander with music. This is true, but in a limited way.    If you love Outlander because it's about time travel to 18th century Scotland, then Song For A Lost Kingdom may be the sort of book that you'll enjoy.  Yet if you're an Outlander fan because of  the romance between Jamie and Claire, then you may be disappointed by Moretti's novel.  There is romance in the novel, but it isn't the central focus. The time traveling 21st century protagonist, Adeena Stewart, is a musician.  Music is Adeena's primary commitment in both time periods.   That's what I loved most about this book.  It shows that music can transcend time and place.

Another significant difference between Outlander and Song For A Lost Kingdom  is that the time travel method isn't what you would normally expect.  I read another novel that utilizes the same concept, but approaches it superficially.  Moretti gets extra points for making the fantastical seem so real.

Unfortunately, this time travel technique makes it easy for 21st century characters to believe  that Adeena is hallucinating rather than time traveling.  Even Adeena isn't sure about what's happening to her for almost the entire novel. She has serious medical problems.  Couldn't she also be mentally ill? Some readers might assume that the time travel is  an elaborate fantasy that's all in Adeena's mind.

It did seem to me that Adeena was irresponsible in some of her decisions.  This is partly the result of immaturity.  She is accustomed to being rescued which means that she never needs to grow up and face the consequences of her actions.    So she  is an ambivalent character.  Her dedication to the music she loves is admirable, but the wreckage of her personal life  could make readers want to slap some sense into her.  Some of us may find her similar to people in our own lives which makes her recognizable if not always likeable.

 Song For A Lost Kingdom is composed of  comfortable elements of the familiar and intriguing elements of the mysterious.   Yet it's the music that continued to haunt me.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Scalpel and the Silver Bear--The Memoir of a Navajo Surgeon

When I first encountered The Scalpel and the Silver Bear by Navajo Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, I wondered how she overcame the Navajo prohibition against contact with the spirits of the dead referred to as chindi in so many Tony Hillerman novels.  This barrier, and my curiosity about how traditional Navajo healing became part of her medical practice, were what drove my interest in reading this memoir.


 It did turn out that emotional discomfort over exposure to chindi was a hurdle for Alvord in medical school, but why didn't this issue arise when she first told her family that she planned to become a physician?  I discovered that Alvord came from a family who weren't traditionalists.  In fact, she was following her father's dream.

When Alvord graduated from medical school, she came back to Navajo country to serve her people at an Indian Health Service hospital.  Alvord initially thought that Navajo traditional healers could calm her patients before surgery, but she discovered that they could also use what sounded to me like a form of biofeedback to control bleeding.

Later Alvord went back to her alma mater, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire,  to teach medical students how to relate to Native patients.

I thought that Alvord's experiences were fascinating, and that she had a number of valuable insights to share with readers.  I also felt that The Scalpel and the Silver Bear was moving--particularly in the section that dealt with her difficult pregnancy.   I would recommend this memoir to anyone who is interested in Native Americans or in alternative approaches to medicine.


Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Public--A Movie Dealing With The Rights of the Homeless

Today I saw a newly released movie called The Public.  It takes place at the downtown Cincinnati Public Library, and was actually filmed there which lends it authenticity.  Emilio Estevez directed The Public, wrote the script and starred in it.  So it was  obviously a project that he felt was of urgent importance.  He did an advance screening of the movie at the American Library Association's annual conference in 2018.  Here's a report on that screening from Information Today.

The events in this film are fictional, but I could easily imagine that they might actually happen.  The Public takes place during a bitterly cold winter in which some of the homeless were freezing to death because there weren't enough beds in Cincinnati's homeless shelters.  Seventy homeless men decided to occupy the library as a protest.   This was a desperate unplanned action.   These men just didn't want to die and didn't know what else to do.

Although the central theme of the movie was the rights of the homeless, I felt that it was also a struggle over who would control the public narrative about this event.   Would it be the compassionate and principled librarian, Stuart Goodson, (portrayed by Emilio Estevez) who wanted the action to be perceived as a non-violent protest in the tradition of  Gandhi and MLK?  Would it be the image obsessed prosecutor, Josh Davis, (portrayed by Christian Slater) who wanted this event to be perceived as a hostage crisis which required the intervention of a SWAT team?  Josh Davis' false narrative  brought the issue of the over-militarization of local law enforcement to the fore as well.

While this movie is of particular interest to those concerned about the homeless, The Public has so much immediacy that all moviegoers are likely to feel that it has tremendous impact.


Monday, March 25, 2019

The Peddler of Wisdom: Healer, Diviner, Rebel

 This post is an expanded version of one that I originally wrote for Flying High Reviews, my blog for books with strong female protagonists.  The original version of this review appeared here .

I'm glad to be reviewing a historical fiction with a strong woman protagonist during women's history month.  I won a digital copy of The Peddler of Wisdom by Laura Matthias Bendoly in a giveaway on the Historical Fictionistas group on Goodreads.  The author sent it to me as a gift from Amazon, and this is my honest review.


Central character Irène Guéri is a healer and a diviner who resides in Les Échelles, a fictional village in the south of 17th century France. Les Échelles was invaded by an army of  Sardinians.  Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean.  In the 17th century, it was under Spanish rule.  See the historical section in  the Wikipedia article about Sardinia here.  The Sardinians were  led by Domenico, a tyrannical nobleman with strange obsessions that involved cruel practices.  

When Domenico demanded that the villagers consult his alchemist/physician instead of Irène, I expected that she would become the victim of a witchcraft hysteria which were quite common in the 17th century.  It turned out that I was being too pessimistic.  While there were a few collaborators with the invaders,  most of the village wanted to resist Domenico. So Irène became a rebel. I love women who take a stand.

There were other amazing female characters. One of them was Bijou, a female raptor who was very protective of Noisette, the ten year old girl who'd adopted Bijou.  I was also impressed by the courage of  Irène's closest friend, Simone.

There's a romance element in The Peddler of Wisdom.  We even get a HEA ending.  Yet I wouldn't categorize this novel as a romance.  I think that the romance content is insufficient.  I would say the same about characterizing The Peddler of Wisdom as a fantasy.  There is a great deal of discussion about magic, but there are relatively few magical acts.   I wouldn't count Irène's Tarot readings as magic.  For me, they exhibit insight/intuition.   

I did have some problems with the Tarot aspect of The Peddler of Wisdom. In order to discuss the most significant one, I need to explain the structure of Tarot.  The Tarot is composed of Major Arcana,  and Minor Arcana.  The Major Arcana are the trumps.  All of them have illustrations.  The Minor Arcana are  the court cards of each suit (King, Queen, Knave AKA Jack and Page) and what were known as"the pip cards" in a playing card deck.  These are the numbered cards in the suits.  Until the 20th century, these would have displayed representations of  the suit in the quantity that matched the number of the card.  So the Three of Cups would show three cups with no human figures or any additional illustration. The first fully pictographic deck was the Waite-Smith deck.  Occultist Arthur Edward Waite was the designer and Pamela Coleman Smith was the artist.  This deck was published in 1910.  This means that there should be no numbered Minor Arcana in Irène's readings that are illustrated with anything other than playing card "pips" which are those representations of the suit that I mentioned previously.   I suppose it's possible that a hand drawn 17th century deck might have been fully illustrated, but I wonder about the motivation.  It would have been a great deal of additional work.  The numbered cards could be interpreted using concepts from numerology.  This is why I was so astonished to find that there were fully illustrated numbered cards in Irène's readings.  I can't imagine why that would have happened when there were nothing but pips on those cards in any playing card deck that existed at the time.

I also noticed what is likely to be an editing glitch.  In one of Irène's readings, she lays  out the Five of Swords twice.   There should only be one of each card in the deck.  I find it very odd that this error went unnoticed during the editing process.
Some would say that the 17th century was too early for Tarot divination since the earliest historically recorded use of Tarot for that purpose was in the 18th century.  Tarot images were originally utilized for playing cards, not as divination tools. (In my review of Braided Dimensions here, I complained that there was a Tarot reading taking place in Wales before playing cards existed in Europe.  I would be inconsistent if I didn't even mention the earliness of the readings in this book.) I should point out that recorded history has tended to focus exclusively on the doings of the wealthy and powerful.   Irène learned about divination with Tarot cards from a Romani woman.  It seems to me at least possible that the Romani might have been reading Tarot somewhat earlier than history indicates.

The Romani are called "gypsies" in this book.    I have been guilty of using the term "gypsies" myself, but that was before I learned the history of  "gypsy" as a pejorative.  It's enough for me that members of this ethnic group prefer Romani.   My policy is that people should be called what they want to be called.  Of course, 17th century Irène wouldn't have known better.  It did bother me that Irène was insulting toward Romani  at the end of the book.   Hurtful stereotypes about the Romani have been common and they still do have a great deal of currency.  Irène seemed advanced in a number of ways.   That comment caused me to think less of her.  It also left a bad taste in my mouth since it was literally the last thing Irène said.

The protagonist of The Peddler of Wisdom was by no means perfect, nor did she need to be perfect.   Characters seem more real if they have flaws or complexity.   A number of characters in Bendoly's book were well-developed including the villainous tyrant Domenico who had a background, and an unpredictable degree of ambivalence.

Despite the problems mentioned in this review,  I did like The Peddler of Wisdom for the most part, and was glad to have the opportunity to read it.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Bones Of The Earth-Eliot Pattison Once Again Brings His "A" Game To Tibet

When I realized that there were no mysteries in my March reading line-up, I decided to default to one of my favorite series.  There were ARCs from two of them waiting to be read.  I chose Bones of the Earth by Eliot Pattison because it's going to be released later this month.  I love Eliot Pattison's protagonist, Shan Tao Yun, once a highly skilled investigator in Beijing who was transformed into a dissident and an ally of Tibetans by his government's policies.

I have to confess that I haven't loved all the books in the series.  It's particularly unfortunate that the last time I was provided with a review copy of a volume from the Inspector Shan series, it was Mandarin Gate which I ended up liking less than I anticipated.  See my review on my earlier blog here.  Let's just say that I didn't consider it one of Pattison's best.  I hoped to have a better reading experience with Bones of the Earth  which I downloaded from Net Galley.


The central conflict in this book was over the building of a hydro-electric dam which involved destroying a mountain under the protection of a type of pre-Buddhist  spirit known as Gekho. Bon is the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.  According to a web page dealing with Bon that I found, Gekhö means demon tamer.  That web page also contained an image of a Gekhö spirit.

 Since the Chinese authorities don't believe in demons or protective spirits, their view was that Tibetan superstition was standing in the way of progress.   There was also an archaeological team at the site which included an American woman.  They too were regarded by the Chinese in charge of the dam project as an obstacle to be removed.  Yet strange events were associated with the dam project.   Was there really a spirit protecting the mountain, or did these incidents have  a more rational explanation?

Character development was another strength of Bones of the Earth.  I particularly liked seeing more of the human side of Chinese Colonel Tan, Shan's superior.  While Tan needed to be ruthless when he was challenged by would-be rivals, he also displayed compassion and decency.  There was a minor character whose name I enjoyed.  Her name was Tinkerbell though she was often called Tink. I found her rather unexpected.  Shan himself was in a state of change, moving on to another stage in his life.

If this is really the last book in the Inspector Shan series, as the description states, I can say that I thought that it ended well.   I would like to imagine that  Shan's future life is going to be happy, or as happy as can be managed in Chinese occupied Tibet.  Bones of the Earth ranks with the best books in this series.   The political, spiritual and personal elements combined to make this book a superior mystery.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Drops of Cerulean: A Tale of Houston History and Reincarnation

I got a request to review Drops of Cerulean by Dawn Adams Cole from publicist Wiley Saichek.  Wiley Saichek normally promotes mysteries and thrillers.  This book is in neither of those categories.   It's a dual period novel dealing with reincarnation.  Fortunately, I am a very eclectic reader with an interest in spiritual themes.   I downloaded a review copy from the publisher via Net Galley.


Drops of Cerulean reminded me of Braided Dimensions, a recent read by Marie Judson which I reviewed here.  Both books deal with a mysterious spiritual connection between two women who live in different historical periods.  Dawn Adams Cole and Marie Judson have different spiritual perspectives.  After reading Dawn Adam Cole's Q&A, I would say that my own spiritual approach is more akin to Marie Judson's, but I feel that there is room for a great deal of variation in spiritual outlooks.

Although I was critical of some fine points in the portrayal of medieval Wales in Braided Dimensions, I had no such problems with  Drops of Cerulean.  Everything that I checked out about Cole's depiction of life in Houston, Texas during the 1930's was authentic.  As a native of Houston, Cole would certainly have been motivated to get every detail right.

I hadn't been aware that the Great Depression hit Houston later than in other parts of the United States. This means that it lasted for less time in that city.  So I imagine that it would have been easier for Houston to recover economically.  The characters in Drops of Cerulean from the well-heeled Doyle family had some setbacks during the Great Depression, but they seemed to have pretty much retained their wealth and status afterward.

Prejudice was an important theme in Drops of Cerulean.   Historical protagonist Ilona had to deal with ethnic and class prejudice.  Her son Cadmus later faced prejudice over his gay identity.  They both experienced rejection by the Doyles.

Delphina appeared late in the narrative, but she turned out to be a pivotal character.   I wondered if her name was intended as a connection to the ancient priestesses of Delphi who were visionaries like Delphina.

I appreciated the integration of the themes in this book with the lives of the characters, and the times in which they lived.  The spiritual aspect wove them all together in a satisfying way.   I would give Drops of Cerulean four stars.