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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mapmaker's Daughter: Choosing To Be Jewish in the Midst of Persecution

I had no expectations of The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona when I decided to read it.  I had never read this author.  I had seen the book in my Goodreads friends feed and was curious.  Yet when I didn't have time to finish the book and was forced to return it to the library, I checked it out again because I was so impressed by what I'd read.

It deals with a fictional woman who was born Jewish in 15th century Spain.  Her family converted to Christianity but she never really stopped being Jewish.  If you think this is another book about the hidden Jews of Spain, you would be wrong.  This is a very different story. 


In the first two sections of this book the accomplishments of fictional  protagonist Amalia were really impressive.  As an adolescent she created a signing system for her deaf father, and presumably taught it to him so that they could utilize it for communication.  Then she became his interpreter.  Since her father became the mapmaker for Prince Henry the Navigator, he traveled in exalted circles and so did she.  She had a facility for spoken languages and learned a number of them.  Later she translated a great deal of Hebrew poetry into Portuguese for the Duke of Braganza.  She also wrote her own poetry.  She became the instructor of the grandchildren of the King of Granada, and then returned to her birthplace to teach the future Queen Isabella of Castille.

Yet Amalia maintained family as her haven when she felt a need for support.  What's interesting about this is that it wasn't her genetic family of conversos.  Amalia had actually chosen a prominent family that remained Jewish, and were leaders in the Jewish community of Andalusia, as her own.  They warmly embraced Amalia.  They were the Abravanels. The Abravanels of this era are known historical personages.   See the Wikipedia article on Isaac Abravanel who is a significant character in this novel.

So I felt that the third section in which Amalia made a permanent life for herself among the Abravanels  and completely identified with them also made a strong statement.  She could have made another choice, and become a fervent Christian converso like her sisters.    She had a number of opportunities to take that road.  She could have joined Ferdinand and Isabella's court as a converso, but it was filled with intolerance, danger and suspicion. She had previously experienced a culturally vibrant court in Granada where her knowledge was valued and her Jewish religion was respected.  It's easy to see why Amalia decided to distance herself from the monarchs known as Their Most Christian Majesties.    

Yet what about her father the mapmaker and the maps he made?  I was impressed with her father. He refused to continue making maps for Prince Henry the Navigator when he discovered that the Portuguese prince was using them to build the slave trade.  Both Amalia and her father thought that slavery was wrong, and that participation in it would be a betrayal of the memory of their Biblical ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.

I also liked the fact that Amalia's father was a deaf character who was widely respected for his profession. Thanks to his daughter's sign language and her role as interpreter, being deaf didn't hold him back.  Judah Abravanel says in the novel that if Amalia's sign language became more widely known, it could bring people together and reduce conflict.   I smiled at that point because it reminded me of  "The Bridge of Signs" proposed by deaf writer, Albert Ballin.  I blogged about it at The Unmasked Persona here .  Ballin believed that people could communicate by deaf sign language when they had no other language in common.  Yet deaf sign language isn't one language by any means.  In The Mapmaker's Daughter, the signs utilized by Amalia and her father were a language known by only two individuals.  Today there are national sign languages, but they are all quite different. They also each have dialects and idiolects.  Idiolects refers to individual variations in signing.  They make sign language a very expressive means of communication for individuals.  So the vision of an international "Bridge of Signs" that I encountered again in this novel is utopian and highly unlikely.

After her father's death, the only thing that Amalia had left from her father was his atlas.  Some other reviewers of this book didn't understand why the atlas kept on being brought up.  I believe that it represented mesorah, a Hebrew word which literally means that which is passed down.  It is through mesorah that a culture and a people survive.  Amalia shared the atlas with her daughter and grandchildren.  It was a link to her father that could be passed down through the generations of the Abravanel family.  That is the way that she preserved her father's memory.  The dictionary definition of mesorah is tradition, and family tradition is of paramount importance in a Jewish context.  I appreciated the significance of the atlas for Amalia and her descendants.

For me, the themes of Jewish survival and the maintenance of tradition were very well demonstrated by Laurel Corona through the story of Amalia in The Mapmaker's Daughter.  


Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Cure For Dreaming--When Magic is Called Hypnosis

 I first read the description of The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters on Bad Bird Reads, a review blog by Jennifer Bielman.  I was fascinated. This YA historical fantasy deals with the use of hypnosis, which was called mesmerism in the 19th century, when this book took place. The hypnotist was hired to change the beliefs of the teen suffragist protagonist by her anti-suffragist father.  What a plot line!   Although I didn't win the blog's giveaway, I did manage to get hold of a library copy recently.


I know enough about hypnosis to understand that deeply held beliefs are unaffected by it.  Hypnosis can't force you to act against your conscience.  Please read The Myths of Hypnosis by hypnotherapist Barrie St. John. The 18 year old hypnotist in this novel, whose stage name was Henri Reverie, didn't succeed in changing Olivia's feminist principles.  Instead, according to the description of the book, he awakened a power in her to see the true nature of people she encounters.  This is a very cool power and it goes well beyond the limitations of hypnosis.  Judging from the cover alone, I had no doubt that something paranormal was going on in The Cure For Dreaming.  Hypnosis can cause people to do improbable things, but not impossible ones.  Violating the law of gravity by floating in mid-air is not the result of hypnosis.  It's magic.

So Henri Reverie was practicing an art that he may have thought was hypnosis, but was of a far more ancient origin.  Since Olivia did indeed acquire that power, I didn't think that Henri Reverie was fraudulent.  He seemed completely sincere and well-intentioned.  Unfortunately,  it never occurs to him that bringing about brain alterations in other human beings might not be ethical.  This does eventually occur to Olivia, but she sees it as a feminist issue.  Henri Reverie was a man who was taking control of women which was exactly what Olivia was fighting against.  He considered himself a supporter of women's suffrage, but he was interfering with women's independence.  This is very starkly shown in a climactic scene.  Henri comes to regret his actions, but only because Olivia finds them regrettable.

Henri Reverie was working in a context where men thought they were helping women by denying them intellectual stimulation.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was subjected to to this "therapy", wrote about it in The Yellow Wallpaper which is mentioned in The Cure For Dreaming.  Gilman was attacking the practices of  Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell.  The Wikipedia article on him to which I linked mentioned that Virginia Woolf was also victimized by Weir Mitchell's approach which was known as the "rest cure".  The theory was that women's minds are too weak to deal with intellectual stimulation.  I am convinced that Virginia Woolf's  powerful mind was broken by being denied the sustenance it needed, and that this was what drove her to suicide--not any inherent mental weakness. Her loving husband never seemed to notice that Virginia Woolf's condition worsened when she was subjected to the "rest cure".  Olivia feared that her father was headed in the direction of subjecting her to the "rest cure" as well.  It was the favored method of dealing with intelligent and rebellious women during that era. 

Yet in the real world, hypnosis also became a tool to alter the minds of  women who were causing trouble for their families.   The very first instance of psychoanalysis involved using hypnosis to attempt to cure a woman whose more bizarre symptoms probably arose from severe internal conflict between the attitudes of her conventional family and her own desire for independence.  This was the famous case of Anna O.  documented in Studies in Hysteria.  Her actual name was Bertha Pappenheim and she wasn't cured by hypnosis or by psychoanalytic theories.  Her symptoms slowly diminished once she lived on her own, and began working as an advocate for trafficked women.  I reviewed a novel about Pappenheim on Book Babe here. Like Henri Reverie, Pappenheim's therapist  Josef Breuer, truly believed that he was helping her.  I think that the real experience of Bertha Pappenheim and the fictional experience of Olivia Mead both show that well-intentioned men can help women in constricting family environments most by supporting their choices.

I wanted to like this book more because of the women's suffrage theme, but I think that it would have been better if Henri Reverie had been more introspective, and thought about the implications of his actions.   I also wished that Olivia could have learned to accept her magic powers.




Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman in Black: A Role For A Professional

This is the current edition of a crime thriller by Rene Natan that was originally titled Operation Woman in Black.  Since I haven’t read the earlier edition, I don’t know if there are any differences in the text of the editions.  Yet I have seen both covers.  The earlier cover was too monochrome and it looked amateurish.  The cover for the current edition is much improved.    The lighter background color with its subtle shading makes the yellow title and the white byline more visible.  I also thought that the silhouette portrays the type of character that the Woman in Black is intended to be more effectively.

Take a look and compare the covers for yourself, readers.



This book contains more characterization and background than is typical in thrillers, but the flashbacks did turn out to be relevant to the plot.  So I thought that the book was well-structured.  Although it took a while to show the relevance of certain plot lines, they did all tie together. 

I was interested in the use of what is now known as voice conversion technology in The Woman in Black. There apparently was software capable of converting one voice to another as early as 2000.    I enjoy research and consider awareness of technology a priority.   I found articles dealing with developments in voice conversion, its possible applications and its limitations. A recent article that I found referred to it as "voice spoofing" and dealt with uncovering it.  Obviously, this technology can be utilized by criminals.  In The Woman in Black it was employed by law enforcement, and was considered experimental.  Any technology can be abused.  Certainly, voice conversion has potential for misuse in a variety of contexts. 

The copy editing in this edition was exemplary.  I didn’t notice a single typographical or grammatical error.

There was one important issue, however.   I wondered if the woman chosen to play The Woman in Black was truly qualified for her role when she couldn’t describe the primary perpetrator after she encountered him.  Someone involved in a police operation of this nature should be capable of giving detailed descriptions if she is going to be truly useful in apprehending criminals.  The result of her incapacity was that the operation lasted longer than should have been necessary.  The police protagonist would have been able to identify the chief malefactor much earlier if he had chosen someone with investigative skills as The Woman in Black.  These skills seemed more crucial to me than her resemblance to the original Woman in Black.  There are techniques that could have been used to alter the appearance of a more qualified police operative.

So I have to conclude that this was a suspenseful read with some interesting characters and relationships, but there was also a significant plot flaw that subtracted from my enjoyment of the novel.

This is my honest review of the copy that I received for free from The Bookplex.