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Monday, June 29, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven: A Novel of Bitter Irony in 1930's Ethiopia

This is another of my posts from Book Babe that I've decided to copy to this blog.  It took me a while to figure out how to write this review without major spoilers, but I think that I managed to do it while still dealing with the issues that I wanted to address.

I really liked Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.  Black Dove, White Raven seemed like it would be unusual because Wein's young pilots grew into maturity in Ethiopia.  It was unusual all right.  It nearly ripped my heart out.


 Rhoda Menotti and Delia Dupré were stunt pilots who performed together in the U.S. in the 1930's.  They had to perform for white only audiences because the venues were all segregated.   African-American Delia became involved with an Ethiopian pilot in Paris and gave birth to a son. She wanted her son to be raised in an environment where he wouldn't be considered inferior because of his race, and intended to take him to Ethiopia. Rhoda was offended by their segregated shows, but Delia insisted that they had to take any money they could get.  She wanted to earn enough to live in Ethiopia, so that her son could be free of American racism.

When Delia died in a tragic accident, Rhoda honored her friend's intentions for her son.  She went to live in Ethiopia with Delia's son, Teo and her own daughter, Emilia.  I admired and respected Rhoda for her loyalty to Delia's memory, and for treating Teo as part of her family.  Rhoda was a credit to her Quaker background. She used her piloting skills to help people in Ethiopia.   

 Ethiopia in the 1930's was no utopia.   There was a nightmare at the heart of Ethiopian society from which it had yet to awaken.  Teo was caught up in that nightmare.   He was trained to be a pilot and became quite accomplished.   When he was sixteen his life took a terrible turn that Delia would never have anticipated.  I wept for Teo. His mother wouldn't have even considered bringing Teo to Ethiopia  if it had occurred to her that such a thing could happen to him.

Rhoda's daughter Emilia also learned to fly as a teenager, but the drama of this book centered on Teo.  Emilia was better at navigation than at flying.  She didn't actually enjoy flying which I found disappointing.  Yet she was intelligent, resourceful and immensely loyal to Teo.

I was captured by the originality and intensity of Black Dove, White Raven  until Rhoda's husband, an Italian military pilot, did something that I considered unbelievable.  It was against military regulations and wasn't consistent with the love and concern with which he had previously treated his daughter, Emilia.  So it was both implausible and reprehensible.  The spell that Elizabeth Wein had woven was broken for me at that point.

For most of this book, I thought it was the best novel that I'd read in the first half of 2015, but the out of character behavior of Orsino Menotti, Rhoda's husband, was significant.  This means that it won't get a five star rating on Goodreads.



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tidewater: Can There Be An Authentic Novel About Pocahontas?

I wrote this post for Book Babe to give it a wider audience, but I also wanted it on this blog.  So it's the latest in my series of copied posts.

I am one of the many people who loves and cherishes the mythical Pocahontas.  In fact, I played Pocahontas in a Thanksgiving play in elementary school.  This was long before she became the subject of a Disney movie, by the way.  Disney didn't invent the legendary Pocahontas.  Disney didn't even popularize the story.  Pocahontas became a popular legend during her own lifetime.  She achieved celebrity status and was the darling of London society when she was barely out of her adolescence.

 It was Paula Gunn Allen's biography, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat that caused me to re-examine the myth.  Allen was a Native American author who sought to revolutionize the way history is written. She wrote her biography in such a way that she could include speculation and imaginative re-creation of events in the manner of historical fiction.

This leads me to Tidewater by Libbie Hawker.  I think that if Hawker included a list of the roles that Pocahontas played in the title of her novel as Allen did, it would be rather different.  Perhaps her title would read Jester,Linguist,Political Adviser and Spy.  The only thing that Hawker and Allen would agree on is that Pocahontas was a spy.  It seems to me that every author who has written about Pocahontas has their own version of her.

How authentic is Hawker?  How much authenticity is possible when it comes to Pocahontas?  How much authenticity is desirable within the context of historical fiction?  These are questions that I will be tackling in this review. I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher via Net Galley.

It's important to realize that we don't have any contemporary account of Pocahontas written by her.  It would have been theoretically possible for Pocahontas to have kept a diary after John Rolfe taught her to read and write in English, but I think she was too busy living her life to write about it.  The only contemporary account that we have is the one that catapulted her to the 17th century equivalent of superstar status.  It was authored by John Smith.    Keep in mind, that this was a man who made his living by writing self-aggrandizing memoirs.   He was neither the first nor the last writer whose career centered on inventing himself.  Can we believe anything that he wrote?  In her author's note, Hawker wrote that she found Smith sympathetic and selectively credible.   Unfortunately, it's difficult to decide what is truth and what has been concocted by the author to make him look good when there is only one source available.    It comes down to individual judgment and preference.  Both of these involve subjectivity.  This is how we can have different versions of Pocahontas that are all completely valid.  We don't really know the truth about her.

I believe that when you are writing any kind of fiction you need to tell a good story about characters who the readers will consider interesting and plausible.  When you are writing fiction about a historical personage, you are constrained by what can be definitely known.  We do know the birth and death dates of Pocahontas.  If Pocahontas was a child when she first encountered John Smith, as seems to be the case,  it is not plausible that she would have fallen in love with him.  This is why Libbie Hawker didn't give us a Pocahontas who was motivated by romantic feelings toward Smith even though it certainly does make a good story.

Is Hawker's Pocahontas interesting?  She is complex, but not always sympathetic.  I included political adviser in the list of Pocahontas' roles in this book even though she made some poor recommendations.  She was too young to have mature judgment and she was trying too hard to be influential.  Ambition was her most significant flaw.  As she grew older, she came to understand that  ambition had caused her to make some serious mistakes.  Unfortunately, this didn't stop her from making more of them.  She was blinded by her desire for recognition. 

Hawker believes that Pocahontas showed John Rolfe how to grow tobacco successfully in Virginia's climate.  If she married Rolfe for the sake of her people as she claimed in this novel, then that sort of assistance was another serious error. This was a colony that was established for profit. Pocahontas apparently wasn't aware that the colony hadn't produced anything that gave the Virginia Company any return on their investment.  If  John Rolfe hadn't successfully grown a profitable strain of tobacco, it's very possible that the colony would have been terminated and the Powhatan Confederacy might have ceased to have an English problem--for that generation at least.

Hawker provided a glossary of terms in the language of  Pocahontas' people, the Powhatans.This is one of the few novels that I've encountered in which terms that are in the glossary were hyper-linked within the text in the digital version.  This makes the glossary more useful in this format.  Looking for terms in the glossary using search is much more time consuming.  I wish that hyperlinks in the text were standard for all novels that have a glossary.

I think that Tidewater is a good novel that's well-plotted with memorable characters.  Though I do wish that Paula Gunn Allen had decided to write a novel about Pocahontas instead of her non-traditional biography.  Then we would have had two compelling fictional versions of Pocahontas that contravene the myth.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rock With Wings by Anne Hillerman

I wrote this review for Book Babe, but I discovered that I had some things to say about several different issues that I wanted to see on this blog.  So I copied it.  I've been doing a lot of that lately, but it seems to be the best way to post regularly on two blogs.

Some people stop reading a series that they read regularly after the original author has died. I'm one of those people who continues to read a series that's been taken over by another writer after the death of the original author if I liked the series.  I sometimes think that the new writer is an improvement.

Anne Hillerman, the daughter of Tony Hillerman, is an improvement when she writes the perspective of Jim Chee's wife, Bernadette Manuelito.   Bernie, as everyone calls her, is a Navajo Tribal Police officer like her husband.  As a feminist,  I'm always hoping to see a woman officer being portrayed as the equal of male officers in police procedurals.  Most police procedurals have male protagonists. That's why I've been pleased by Anne Hillerman's primary focus on Bernie's perspective.


One of the problems that I had with this book is that it seemed to me that Chief Largo was deliberately giving Bernie minor cases while Jim Chee got the high profile action.  I think that the Chief was trying to protect Bernie, but she ended up in a dangerous situation anyway and acquitted herself well.  So Anne Hillerman was really showing that Bernie could handle danger, but I was impatient with all the minor cases that got piled on Bernie.

I also disliked the fact that Anne Hillerman felt the need to pander to the popularity of zombies.  The case that Jim Chee was investigating involved all sorts of illegalities surrounding the making of a zombie movie in Monument Valley.

The associate producer of this movie philosophizes about horror movies saying that "When things go haywire, it's nice to have something to blame that's out of our control."  He thinks this explains the popularity of horror movies. I've always thought that the main appeal of horror is the demonizing of difference.  Horror makes it OK to hate beings who are different because in horror they're always monsters.    I'm absolutely not a fan of the genre. 

 So Anne Hillerman brings zombies into Navajo country.  Traditional Navajos would consider zombies a type of chindi.   Chindis are the spirits of the dead.  The traditional Navajo fear them, consider anything that has been touched or associated with the dead polluted, and avoid mentioning the names of any dead individuals.  In the Navajo religion, it's believed that mentioning the names of dead people summons their chindis.  I would have thought that there would have been some objection from traditional Navajos to the theme of the movie, but apparently the money that the film industry brings is too good to pass up.  When Chee discovers a grave in Monument Valley which would pollute it with  actual chindis (rather than fictional ones), that does become a matter of deep concern to Navajo authorities.

Bernie's most important case ,which started out with her pulling over a speeding motorist, turned out to deal with solar energy.  I'm not sure about the politics of this author on the subject of climate change, but this novel surrounds the solar industry and the use of solar power on the Navajo reservation with all sorts of negativity.  There are extremely unscrupulous individuals using coercion to get people signed up for the installation of solar panels on their property.  There are malfunctioning solar panels and a Navajo elder who objects to solar panels.  He is coming from the perspective of someone who has never had electricity in his home.  This character believes that part of hozho, which is the Navajo concept of harmony,  involves living in a natural way.  He gets up at dawn and goes to bed when it becomes dark. According to this outlook, people who incorporate artificial light in their lifestyle are living out of balance with nature.  It's an interesting viewpoint, but  in my opinion those of us who want to continue utilizing artificial light really need to find a clean renewable source of energy like solar.  I find it troubling that in Rock With Wings the only characters who talk about the benefits of solar energy should be indicted.

I'm interested in reading about opinions other than my own, but my idea of balance is that ideally all perspectives should be fairly represented in both fiction and real life.

Rock With Wings contains some moments of wonderful characterization and deals with one of my favorite American landscapes, but I'd rather not read about zombie movies. I'd also prefer to see a more even-handed presentation of the issue of solar energy.



Friday, June 12, 2015

The Just City: One Reviewer Who's Playing on Team Socrates

This review was intended for Shomeret: Masked Reviewer, but it originally appeared on Book Babe.

The odd thing is that like author Jo Walton, I read Plato when I was fifteen. My father had allowed me to read anything on his bookshelves.  So I read his leatherbound  edition of Plato's writings.  My reaction to Plato's Republic was quite different from Walton's.  Reading The Just City caused me to remember.  I was horrified by it. I didn't think that it could possibly be a utopia.  It was too regimented and undemocratic.  Yet Jo Walton says in the notes appended to the novel that she wanted to re-create it at the age of fifteen and that this was the origin of The Just City. 

When I discovered the existence of this novel , I had forgotten how I felt about Plato's Republic when I was fifteen. I was curious about what Jo Walton would do with her re-creation of  Plato's idea of utopia.  It did seem like an original concept.  


What I liked most about the concept when I picked up the book is that the city was established by the Goddess Athena.  I thought that was immensely cool ! What I disliked about it is that Plato's Republic was being conflated with Atlantis which Plato wrote about in the Timaeus and Critias  dialogues.

  Plato described Atlantis as being a maritime power that was the rival of Athens which the Gods destroyed.   A civilization that rivaled Athens brings to mind the legend of Theseus.  The Minoans were so powerful that they could demand the youths of Athens as tribute.  Prince Theseus was sent as tribute to King Minos.  He was supposed to be sacrificed to the Minotaur at the heart of the Minoan labyrinth.  Many of us know how he survived the Minotaur with the help of the Minoan Princess Ariadne.

Another thing that is known about the Minoan civilization is that it was destroyed by a massive eruption of the volcano on the island of Santorini which was definitely occupied at the time.  The Minoans wrote in a script called Linear A which has no similarity to any known language.  It still hasn't been deciphered.  This leads scholars to the conclusion that the Minoans certainly weren't Greeks.   Later the script changed to Linear B which was discovered to be a form of Greek.  The islands that had once been ruled by the Minoans had been conquered by the Greeks, but that was a post-eruption development.   I am not the only one who believes that Plato was describing the Minoan Civilization.  There are numerous scholars who have identified Santorini as Atlantis. 

So as I started reading The Just City there was this niggling voice in my head, asking what Athena had done with the Minoans who would have inhabited the island where she had built her re-creation of Plato's Republic.  That voice never went away.  I kept wondering why those of the characters who had read the Timaeus and the Critias dialogues weren't bringing up the original inhabitants of the island.  Socrates was a character in the novel.  Wouldn't he have been asking what happened to them?

I did see references to Thessaly as the location in the novel.  So it occurred to me that the Goddess Athena had placed The Just City  on an uninhabited island in the Thessalian Sporades.   Yet I couldn't find an island in the Sporades with a volcano.  Walton's fictional island did come equipped with a volcano, and the plot required it to have one.  So a Sporades island didn't quite fit.  Walton really needed Santorini, the Minoan inhabited island whose shape changed radically around 1500 B.C.E. as a result of one of the worst eruptions in history. 

Why couldn't I just relax and go along for the ride?  Maybe it's because I'm like the ever questioning Socrates.  When I was a fifteen year old I just loved Socrates.  In fact, I wrote a play based on a few of Plato's dialogues called Socrates of Athens.  Like the Minoan civilization, this piece of juvenilia  no longer exists.

I did go along for the ride to some extent.  Walton created some wonderful female characters who were part of this Goddess given experiment.  The Goddess herself wasn't one of them.  I was delighted by several human women who were brought to the island from various eras.  These were women who were non-conformists within their own historical periods.  They longed for the equality that Plato promised women in his republic.  For their sake, I wished that I could believe that Athena's experiment would succeed. The Just City did initially seem like an improvement to these women who came to instruct the children, and identify the ones who could be potential philosophers.

Yet as their pupils grew, the instructors encountered heartbreaking dilemmas in their lives that were by no means utopian.   The responsibility for many of the problems could be laid at Plato's door.  They were inherent flaws in his concept of the republic that I noticed when I was fifteen.

I didn't expect to find the God Apollo sympathetic.  His track record with regard to women in the  myths about him was abominable.   Yet in this book, Apollo wants to understand why one of those legendary women in Apollo's myths decided to become a tree.  He eventually learns the answer and it results in a radical change in his outlook.  I also really liked Apollo's unwavering support for Socrates who uncovered a major fault line in Athena's re-creation of Plato's Republic for which Plato couldn't be blamed.

As I was approaching the end of the book, I thought to myself that I could lay aside my obsession with historical detail because the book was so well-written and dealt with the issues that arose in this attempt at utopia in a complex and thought provoking manner.    Unfortunately, the abrupt ending annoyed me so much that I nearly canceled my plans to read the sequel.  And I still want to know where that grey eyed Goddess of wisdom mislaid the Minoans.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Saying Goodbye To Warsaw by Michael Cargill

I wrote this review for Book Babe.  I expected Saying Goodbye To Warsaw to be the sort of book that I would like, but that I would have difficulty finding things to say about it.  When the review began to involve historical research, I realized that this is the type of review that I like to see on my blog. So I re-blogged it.

This is the second book that I've read by Michael Cargill.   My first was the anthology Shades of Grey which I reviewed on Goodreads hereSaying Goodbye To Warsaw was selected as the Book of the Month for June on the GR group Books, Blogs, Authors and More. I belong to this group and participate in it. It's a WWII novel that takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto, and I received it for free from the author in return for this honest review.