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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Arab Women Rising: Good News From The Arab World

I downloaded Arab Women Rising for free from Amazon because I knew I wasn’t getting the whole story about developments in the Middle East in American media. The only news I hear about Arab women in the Middle East deals with suppression and discrimination.  This book deals with Arab woman entrepreneurs starting their own businesses in Arab nations.

Arab Women Rising was published by Knowledge@Wharton  which is the online business journal of The Wharton School, an influential business school at the University of Pennsylvania founded in 1881 by businessman Joseph Wharton. 

Although an American institution published the book, the co-authors Nafeesa Sayeed and Rahilla Zafar are Arab women who interviewed the subjects of this celebratory collective biography.  According to the introduction, far more Arab women are starting businesses than Arab men.  Essma Ben Hamida, who co-founded Enda Inter-Arabe with Michael Cracknell in Tunisia in order to provide micro-loans for new businesses, says women tend to be more receptive to receiving small loans than men. 

On the other hand, I was very interested to learn that funding for started by Esra Al-Shafei  to provide information about protest movements throughout the world,  is primarily funded by the Omidyar Network which was started by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of EBay, and by the Shuttleworth Foundation founded by Mark Shuttleworth in order to promote open access to information on the internet.

Yet how do Islamic leaders react to these women starting businesses?  Many women are starting businesses that are completely compatible with Islam.  The most notable example is Best Mums, a business that makes modesty covers for breastfeeding, founded by Sally Sabri and Doaa Zaki  in Egypt.  The authors tell us that Islamic sheikhs consider these modesty covers very Islamic because their consensus is that women should remain covered while breastfeeding even in front of other women.  This demonstrates that a woman’s business can produce products for other women that support Islamic practice.

I was impressed by Yasmin Helal’s organization, Educate-Me which is described on Synergos, a website associated with AWSI, Arab World Social Innovators.   The approach of Educate-Me is called “dream driven development”.  The participants in the program, who are impoverished children, are asked what they want to learn. Then they are expected to think about implementation of the project.  I was reminded of Jhumki Basu, an educator who was a pioneer of democratic science teaching in the United States.  I reviewed her biography, A Mission To Teach on The Unmasked Persona’s Reviews here.  I think that if Jhumki Basu were still alive, she would be a strong supporter of the efforts of Educate-Me to help young people from poor families to realize their dreams. 

I am thankful that Knowledge@Wharton decided to be the bearer of good news about women in the Arab world by publishing Arab Women Rising.  I recommend this book to readers who are interested in the Middle East, women entrepreneurs and innovators in general.

                       Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono            

Friday, April 18, 2014

Velva Jean, the Jane of All Trades, Tries Her Hand at Flying

I love stories about characters from the Appalachians and about female aviators.  So I expected great things from Velva Jean Learns To Fly by Jennifer Niven.


One of the problems is that I found this to be a slow starter.  Velva Jean doesn’t start to learn how to fly until Chapter 13.  People uninterested in country singing, Nashville or Appalachian culture may become restless.  Her first solo flight happens on page 109.

As a novel about a woman pilot, it lacked the dramatic intensity of Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith or the unusual perspective of Call Sign: White Lily.  I’m interested in the Appalachian aspect, but once she started flying she didn’t seem identified with her culture in the way that Lilia Litvyak of Call Sign: White Lily was always Russian. 

I also was uncertain of this character’s focus.  Why did Velva Jean want to become a pilot?  She wanted to become a country singer in the first book and apparently switches her vocation to spy in the third book.  I wondered if she was really a sensation seeker who craved excitement rather than someone committed to a particular vocation.

I actually felt more interested in Velva Jean as a musician.  In Chapter 34, which is the high point of the book, Velva Jean goes to a juke joint with Butch Dawkins who knew her from her small mountain community.

Butch Dawkins was my favorite character in this novel. Not only is he a musician, but he is also half-Choctaw and a code talker.  I had thought that only Navajos were code talkers during World War II, but this is not the case. This book caused me to research code talkers.  From the Wikipedia article Code Talkers, I learned that Choctaws pioneered code talking in World War I.  I also discovered that there were Basque code talkers transmitting information in the Basque language during World War II primarily in Hawaii and Australia, but there was a shortage of Basque speakers.

I felt that Velva Jean Learns To Fly improved at around 75%, sad to say.  It was hard for me to wait that long for the content that interested me.

                         Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono            



Sunday, April 6, 2014

Originality Is Synthesis --Fantasy Worldbuilding in Sabrina Flynn's A Thread In The Tangle

I've been a fan of fantasy since I was a pre-teen in the 1960's reading Witch World novels by Andre Norton.  It's still my second most read genre after mysteries, but I now tend to prefer fantasies based in our own world such as historical fantasy and urban fantasy.  What was once called high fantasy and is now called epic fantasy usually seems too derivative to me. They are either too much like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter these days. This is ironic because an epic fantasy is meant to be an original fantasy world built from scratch by the author. I judge the worldbuilding and the magic system on the rare occasions when I do read this type of fantasy.  The roots of the author's world can usually be traced to one obvious source.  This makes the book appear formulaic.  Worse still, when the magic system isn't derived from that same source ( in an effort to appear original), it's usually internally inconsistent which is when I hurl the book across the room.

For A Thread in the Tangle Sabrina Flynn seems to have drawn the elements of her fantasy world from a multiplicity of sources. What's really interesting is that she's drawn them from mythology rather than from other fantasy novels.  Tolkien built Middle Earth from mythology.  He used the Norse and Celtic mythologies which are the building blocks of his British heritage.  Sabrina Flynn has gone to the same well as Tolkien, but she's found aspects of these mythologies that didn't interest Tolkien.  She's also used elements from other cultures.  This results in fantasy worldbuilding that doesn't seem quite so formulaic.

In the area of magic, I was intrigued that healing  spells can be overused like antibiotics. Such a limitation gives this world's magical system more verisimilitude.  I also liked the magical use of runes and how that was developed.  It's interesting that there are various strength levels for a binding rune.

On the other hand, I  was deeply puzzled by the relationship of central character Isiilde to her magic.  She is powerful, yet powerless.  She was supposed to be receiving magical training.  If someone has a magical ability that's out of control, it's common sense that the number one priority of training, should be to teach her to control it.  Why does it occur to no one to do that?   The Wise Ones who were supposed to be training her were perhaps not so wise.  I was waiting for Isiilde to realize that if her power were under her control, she would have total control of her destiny.

For me, this was a major flaw in the plot, and interfered with its believability.   I liked the main characters, but I was continually shaking my head over the situations in which they found themselves.  It seemed to me that matters should have gone in a different direction.  Perhaps in the next book Sabrina Flynn will deal with these problems.

                                          Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono            


Friday, April 4, 2014

Mysticism in a Mystery Set In 16th Century Venice

I really love unusual mysteries.  The Aquatic Labyrinth by Alistair Fontana has quite an original approach.  The Da Vinci Code has popularized puzzlers involving history and mysticism, but many of these are quite formulaic and lacking in insight. Let me assure you that Fontana's book is very different. 

I was reminded of Umberto  Eco's mystery The Name of the Rose.  Eco's book isn't similar to Fontana's in content, but they are alike in being mysteries that are also novels of ideas.

The most famous labyrinth is the one that appears in the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne.  Theseus had to slay a Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth.See Theseus and the Minotaur  in the Wikipedia article on Theseus.   Labyrinth is now regarded as a synonym for maze, but some scholars speculate that it's derived from "labrys" which means double axe.  A description of a Bronze double axe from the ancient Minoan civilization on Crete that can be seen at the  British Museum includes this theory. The theory is based on the idea that the labrys marked sacred sites such the labyrinth in the Theseus myth indicating its religious significance. 

 Fontana's novel deals with labyrinths that exist on the physical plane, and symbolic labyrinths that are totally conceptual.  I was delighted to discover that books which connect to each other could be considered a type of labyrinth called "rhizomatic".  For more discussion of symbolic rhizomatic labyrinths see Borges 2.0: From Text To Virtual Worlds by Perla Sasson-Henry on Google Books.  Sasson-Henry points out that for Borges a book in the mystery genre can be regarded as a rhizomatic labyrinth with many branching paths. Only one path in a mystery's labyrinth leads to the solution.  Yet this mystery's plot twists demonstrated that Venice itself can be seen as a labyrinth, and a very dangerous one in the context of the shifting politics of the 16th century.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciate is the information about the history and culture of Venice.  Particularly fascinating to me is the symbolic marriage of Venice to the sea which is still celebrated in Venice on Ascension Day.   See the Marriage of the Sea Ceremony on Wikipedia.  This event made a colorful addition to the plot of The Aquatic Labyrinth.

The character that I found most notable is Sara Copio Sullam, an actual historical personage, who was a poet and a thinker who was accused of heresy.  For more information see the article about her by Howard Tzvi Adelman on The Jewish Women's Archive.

I admit that I didn't always agree with Fontana's version of  Sara.  He has her thinking that allegories are a strategy to make men feel more learned than they are.  I think that allegories are codes used by people who know a great deal, but are afraid of the consequences of expressing what they know publicly.  When the consequences include being denounced to the Inquisition, disguising what you know in elaborate ciphers would definitely seem wiser.

There was a great deal of value in The Aquatic Labyrinth.  I found the story very compelling toward the end, and I identified with the character of Sara.

Yet I do have criticisms.  As much as I liked the thematic, historical and cultural content, I did think that characterization was a weak point of this book.   It seemed to me that the only well-drawn complex character was Sara. Another problem is that some significant events weren't shown.  Fontana chose to tell us about them indirectly. There was also a great deal of overt didacticism.  In fiction, I  prefer a plot that demonstrates the ideas that the author wants to communicate through its events, rather than being told about these ideas in the manner of non-fiction.

I do recommend this book to people who are interested in labyrinths, the history and culture of Venice and novels of ideas.

                                           Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono