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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Unsheltered: In Times of Paradigm Shift

The truth is that I've never previously read anything by Barbara Kingsolver.  I thought I'd read and loved The Bean Trees, but I wondered if perhaps it might have once had another somewhat different title that included a reference to a town in Maine. When I ran a search, it turned out that I was trying to recall a different book called The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute.  I read it so long ago that I'd forgotten the name of the author.  Aw Chute! 😬 Carolyn Chute isn't an author I should have forgotten, and I've just re-discovered her. I'll be picking up on that lost thread as soon as I can manage it, but it probably won't be until next year.

This time I'm blogging about the first book I've ever read by Barbara Kingsolver,  Unsheltered.  It's her most recent novel, and I won it in a Goodreads giveaway.  The last Goodreads giveaway win that I reviewed was an Amish romantic suspense novel called Her Fear.  That review is here.  I have four more 2018 Goodreads giveaway wins to fit in to my schedule.  I'm sorry that I continue to fall behind.  I have committed myself to giving each one an honest review that will appear on Goodreads at the very least.  Unsheltered  merits a longer review because it's a complex book, and my reaction to it is also complicated.  That's why it's appearing here.


It seems to me that there are two different perspectives on the concept of being "unsheltered" in this book.

 First, there's contemporary protagonist Willa's perspective.   Willa still believes in the American Dream.  I perceive this as a middle class sense of entitlement.  A key part of this American Dream is that Americans should all be able to own homes.   Her home is falling apart.  So she feels "unsheltered".  It makes her uneasy.

Another perspective is that being "sheltered" means that you don't understand what the world outside your own protected bubble is really like.  You have the illusion that all Americans have access to achieving the American Dream. Willa's daughter Antigone feels that her mother has been sheltered from the realities of existence, and considers the American Dream unsustainable.  Antigone wears her "unsheltered" status as a badge of honor.

If you get the impression that I am more in sympathy with the views of Antigone, you'd be right.  While reading Unsheltered, I alternated between feeling sorry for Willa with being annoyed with her.  A continuing source of annoyance was her calling Antigone by the nickname Tig.  Many parents affectionately nickname their children, but this one felt trivializing to me. Willa's Greek husband had named their daughter.  Antigone is one of my favorite plays in the classical Greek canon.  Willa disliked the name and didn't seem to realize that the classical Greek Antigone might be significant.

I've always seen Antigone as a symbol of resistance to unjust authority.  French playwright Jean Anouilh must have felt the same about her.  He portrayed Antigone as a French Resistance figure in his 1944 play based on the original Greek tragedy by Sophocles.  There's an essay by Alexa Rae Burk that discusses the Anouilh play, and what Antigone represents in a modern context which appears on Burk's blog here.  I was also struck by a link in Burk's bibliography to an NPR article about a performance of Antigone by female Syrian refugees in Beirut which I am also hyperlinking here.  The Syrian refugee women identified with Antigone.  It bothered me that a writer like Willa was so clueless about this cultural icon.

If Barbara Kingsolver had made Antigone the central character of the contemporary story line instead of Willa, I would have loved it. I think that Antigone's life from her own perspective instead of  Willa's uncomprehending one, would have made this a much stronger book.  I particularly would have wanted to know more about Antigone's experiences in Cuba.

The historical narrative dealing with the real woman scientist, Mary Treat and the 19th century opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution, worked much better for me.  Mary Treat was a rebel against conventional expectations in the 19th century just as Antigone was in the contemporary narrative.

 For me, Antigone and Mary Treat run parallel to each other. They both grasped the need for a re-examination of  worldviews in their respective times of change. Willa perceived Mary Treat as having been "born under the moon of paradigm shift" toward the end of the book, but didn't see her own daughter in the same light.  Why choose a protagonist who lacks insight?  I think this was a discordant decision that caused me to view Unsheltered ambivalently.



Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Storm Over Paris--A World War II Art Thriller

 The Storm Over Paris, a debut novel by William Ian Grubman, is about a courageous Jewish art gallery owner in German occupied Paris during World War II who conceives of an audacious plan to save art from the Nazis.  This is a story line that captures my interest.  So I agreed to review this book and received a copy from publicist Wiley Saichek.


The strategy that protagonist Mori Rothstein uses to save the art looks like collaboration with the Nazis.  There's a book that might seem similar called The Woman Who Heard Color by  Kelly Jones which I found very problematic.  It seemed to me that the art dealer Hanna Schmid in the Kelly Jones novel really was collaborating with the Nazis. So I would like to emphasize that Mori Rothstein only appeared to be collaborating.  I considered him quite admirable.  On the other hand, I thought that the Kelly Jones character was seriously ethically challenged.

Mori's son, Emile, played a crucial role in this plot to save the art, and his son Jacob was also involved to a lesser extent. The risks they all took made The Storm Over Paris very suspenseful.

The book did leave me with an unsolved mystery.  A Caravaggio painting that probably doesn't exist of the Biblical expulsion of Hagar was prominent in The Storm Over Paris.  The expulsion of Hagar has been painted by many artists, but I couldn't find one dealing with this subject by Caravaggio when I ran searches. The cover of this novel looks like an expulsion of Hagar. It's probably intended to represent the presumably fictional Caravaggio painting.  The art isn't credited, so I wondered who was responsible for that illustration. I uploaded it to Google Images, and it was correctly identified as the cover for The Storm Over Paris, but no name was given for the artist.  I'm just curious about the cover, and would like to know more about it.

I also wondered if Mori identified with Hagar because those in power in the country that he had always thought was his home didn't consider him welcome to remain there.

I recommend The Storm Over Paris to those who love World War II thrillers and to those who love fiction centered on art.  This was a wonderful example of both these types of books.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Ghost Boys: Remembering Child Victims of Racism

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Awards of 2018 that made it to the final round.   Since Jewell Parker Rhodes is one of my favorite authors, I prioritized the book.  I was fairly certain that it would be worthy of my vote.   I've reviewed Rhodes' Bayou Magic and Hurricane on this blog.  The reviews can be found at the hyperlinks I've provided.  So based on previous experience, I expected great things of Ghost Boys.


Ghost Boys deals with the misperception of African-American boy children as threats due to deeply ingrained prejudice.  Jewell Parker Rhodes shows that this is by no means a new issue.  She traces it back to the lynching of Emmet Till in 1955, but there were probably other Black children who died un-noticed in earlier periods of American history.

Peter Pan is mentioned in Ghost Boys. A discussion question in the back of the book wonders about how this English Victorian children's fantasy could be connected to Rhodes' anguished protest against very real violence. I saw a troubling parallel between these works.  Like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, the ghosts of the victims portrayed in this novel would never grow up.  They are as lost to their families and communities as if they had been spirited away to Neverland.

The Latino character Carlos plays an ambivalent role in the heartbreaking story of the young protagonist Jerome, but in the end his influence is positive.  He and his family show Jerome's family a spiritual means of always remembering him through the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition.  This inter-cultural relationship of families bound together by the loss of Jerome was very moving.

The historical and spiritual dimensions of Ghost Boys deepens the narrative.  Jewell Parker Rhodes met my expectations by providing a truly meaningful portrayal of a contemporary tragedy.



Sunday, November 25, 2018

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

I've never read YA fantasist Julie Kagawa previously, but when I saw that she had written an Own Voices fantasy taking place in Japan, I couldn't resist.  I was very grateful to be approved by the publisher for an ARC via Net Galley.


I've actually read some fantasies based on Japanese legends, but none were Own Voices books.  They were all by Caucasians, and they were mainly martial arts oriented fantasies grounded in samurai films.  Shadow of the Fox has a number of similarities to those books, but the biggest difference is that Julie Kagawa gave us a character who poked fun at the samurai and their values.  The reviews I've seen don't even mention this character, but he was the one who stood out for me.

The protagonists also don't fit the formula I've seen in Japanese background fantasies.   I've seen kitsune (fox woman) characters.  They're usually destructive villains, not protagonists.  Yumeko was trained to suppress her kitsune persona and powers at a temple where she was brought up.  Then there's the samurai protagonist, Tatsumi.  Samurai tradition contends that the soul of the samurai is in his sword. This is a metaphor for the samurai's total commitment to the way of the warrior.  It isn't intended to be literal. In Shadow of the Fox, there really is a spirit in Tatsumi's sword, but it's a demon.  This is a significant challenge for a protagonist.  He had to fight that demon in order to maintain self-mastery.  So both these protagonists had divided natures.  They weren't entirely trustworthy.

My favorite character was essentially a sidekick.  His name was Okame, and he's a ronin which means masterless samurai.  Every ronin I've ever read about before is continually trying to find a master.  They're never happy unless they've sworn fealty to a lord, and can be proper samurai.  At first, I thought of Okame as a drunken fool who lacked ambition, but as time went on I realized that he was a subversive who had some really good dialogue.

I liked the fact that Julie Kagawa claimed the freedom to play with the standard figures of Japanese fantasy and move beyond formula.   I am looking forward to finding out what she does in future volumes.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Another Anne Perry Christmas Mystery

I admit that I'm usually much more impressed by Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries, but authors can't always be brilliant.  I did hope for better when I requested A Christmas Revelation from Net Galley.

This is my one hundredth review for Net Galley.  May I have many more!


I read A Christmas Garland by Anne Perry primarily because I was intrigued by it being located in India, and I did enjoy it.  A Christmas Revelation was scheduled for the December meeting of my F2F mystery group.  So I thought I'd try that one too.

What stood out about this Christmas mystery is that it dealt with ordinary working class people.   Perry has a tendency to focus on the perspectives of aristocrats and officialdom.  I applaud her for thinking that there was a story worth telling in the lives of an accountant for a clinic catering to street prostitutes called Squeaky and a street urchin named Worm that he'd adopted.  I'd be more interested in the women who were treated at the clinic.  They actually are human beings.  There could be an inspiring Christmas story dealing with them.

One thing that stuck in my craw was those character names.   It seemed to me that people who allow others to call them Squeaky and Worm should have more self-respect.  The name Squeaky reminds me of an accusation hurled at cowards. "What are you, a man or a mouse?"  Squeaky turned out to be rather heroic.   It made me think that he shouldn't put up with being called Squeaky.

The mystery itself seemed rather routine to me.   It was okay.  I'd give it three stars.



Friday, November 23, 2018

To Live Out Loud-- A Novel About Émile Zola's Life and Death

When I reviewed A Different Kind of Angel by Paulette Mahurin last month here , I said that I would be getting to Mahurin's 19th century homophobia novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, soon.  Yet I had Mahurin's Zola novel, To Live Out Loud, on my Kindle. Yes, I actually purchased it. Sometimes I do review books I bought.  😄


A more cogent reason to prioritize To Live Out Loud is because it now seems so urgently necessary to remind people about what happened in late 19th century France.  Right wing military officials inflamed an antisemitic hysteria by court-martialing loyal Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 and condemning him for treason based on falsified evidence.  For  American Jews, this is a travesty of justice that echoes through history due to recent events.

 In 2017 white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting "Jews will not replace us." Then in 2018, the worst antisemitic atrocity in American history occurred when a right wing extremist killed 11 praying Jews on the Sabbath at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue.

Dreyfus had a defender in the French press.  He was Émile Zola who wrote a searing editorial commentary called "J'Accuse!" which became famous.  I knew about "J'Accuse!", but it was To Live Out Loud that made me aware that Zola was subjected to violent attacks afterward.  Today journalists who expose injustices are no more safe than Zola had been.  There is a hostile atmosphere that encourages persecution of journalists.  So I very much appreciate that Paulette Mahurin focuses on journalists who were social activists such as
Émile Zola in this book, and Nellie Bly in her most recent novel, A Different Kind of Angel.

To Live Out Loud also made me aware of a French Kristellnacht  in the French colony of Algeria that was an incident which happened during the same period as the Dreyfus case.  According to a Wikipedia article on The History of Jews in Algeria,  in 1898 two Jews were killed and 156 Jewish shops in Algiers were attacked as a result of antisemitic hysteria among the French colonists.

My only criticism of this book is that I thought it would have been more intense if it had been from Zola's perspective.  I don't really see the need for a fictionalized friend of Zola who barely exists as a character.  After Zola's death, there could have been an epilogue from the perspective of Alfred Dreyfus perhaps.

Otherwise To Live Out Loud was a meticulously researched novel that speaks to our times.  Zola's courage and integrity are memorialized through this book.

I'd like to close with a quote from Anatole France's eulogy at Zola's funeral:

"Zola deserves well of his country for not having lost faith in its ability to rule by law."



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Rat Catchers' Olympics: Dr. Siri Mystery at the 1980 Summer Olympics

I was introduced to Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series by the F2F mystery group that I attend a number of years ago.  I said then that the first Dr. Siri novel, The Coroner's Lunch,was delicious.  I have loved this 20th century Lao doctor and his circle of friends, but I've never blogged about any of the books in the series.   It's about time that I did.  I received a free copy of The Rat Catchers' Olympics from Edelweiss and this is my review.


The first eleven books of the Dr. Siri series took place primarily in Laos though there was a foray into Thailand and a nightmarish journey into Pol Pot Cambodia.  The series has also dawdled in the 1970's for more years than that decade had.  With The Rat Catchers' Olympics Cotterill finally turns to 1980. He also leaves Southeast Asia for the circus like atmosphere of an Olympics in the Soviet Union.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the Olympics.  I watch my favorite events with rapt attention.  I also adore the human feats of skill and daring at circuses.  So calling the Olympics a circus wasn't intended to be a disparaging comment.  Yet it is a very different background for a Dr. Siri novel.

The 1980 Summer Olympics was unique for a number of reasons.  Up until I read this Cotterill novel, I only knew that it was the Olympics that the Western nations boycotted due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

 I researched all the tidbits of info about this Olympics that Cotterill dropped into the narrative.  This was indeed the first Olympic appearance of athletes from Laos.  I thought that Cotterill was engaging in wordplay when he told us that the pole vault was won by a Pole--especially when he followed it up with the shameless puntification that the gold medal in boxing had not been won by a box.  It did turn out that Polish athlete Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz  won pole vault gold and he made a defiant gesture for which he became famous.  I couldn't confirm the Cotterill assertion that more women athletes participated in the 1980  Moscow Spring Olympics than in any previous Olympics, but  it was true that the most dramatic result was the victory of the inexperienced Zimbabwe women's field hockey team who were only invited because the Soviet women's field hockey team found themselves unopposed due to the boycott.

I didn't research the post-Olympic rat catching contest in this novel because it seemed pretty clear that it was purely fictional. Cotterill invented it for the entertainment of his readers like all the wonderful dialogue that always appears in every Dr. Siri novel.

Oh yes, there are also murders in Moscow that need to be solved.   The resolution certainly wasn't what I expected, but it was in keeping with our current atmosphere of political cynicism.

The only thing I missed was the shamanic aspect which wasn't at all prominent in this particular Dr. Siri book. As a fan of the paranormal, I consider this the best part of the series.  I hope that the most recent Dr. Siri novel, Don't Eat Me, includes lots of communications from spirits.