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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Living With Wolves--Fact and Fiction

The fiction is Lone Wolf  by Jodi Picoult which led me to the memoir of Shaun Ellis, The Man Who Lives With Wolves.

Here is what I had to say about Lone Wolf  on Goodreads:

                                     2012 Golden Mask Award for Most Viewed Book Review           

 The wolf researcher, Luke Warren, is an interesting character though not completely sympathetic. The character I liked most was his son, Edward. I also consider him the most pivotal character. All the other characters react to what Edward has decided or done.

I gave some thought to the meaning of the title in the context of the novel. Many humans think that a lone wolf is one that prefers to be alone. Yet wolves are a social species. A lone wolf wants to be a member of a pack. As shown in this book, humans aren't very different from wolves. Humans do tend to seek out membership in a pack.

Though Luke Warren's accounts of wolf behavior are scattered throughout the novel, the main focus is on the behavior of the  very human Warren family pack. I liked the ambivalent ending which is both saddening and hopeful.


After reading The Man Who Lives With Wolves it seemed to me that Jodi Picoult read this memoir, imagined the perspective of  Shaun Ellis' family, and chose to construct a novel focusing on that aspect.  It would be possible to write other very different novels focusing centrally on a more sympathetic version of a wolf researcher like Shaun Ellis, or perhaps a novel from the perspective of the wolves that chose a human wolf researcher as a pack member.  Shaun Ellis is intriguing enough to be the subject of any number of books.

This is definitely the best book I've ever read on wolves.  It's an example of how truth can outshine fiction.   I can understand why Jodi Picoult focused on a fictional version of the family of a Shaun Ellis type of researcher.  Yet the main theme of her book is fairly universal.  It could have dealt with the family of any man who prioritizes work over family.  Shaun Ellis's work is unique.  He wants to make a difference for wolves, the relationship between humans and wolves, and for the environment where all the species on this planet live.  Yes, he may have deceived himself about his ability to balance human family life with his all-consuming career, but many others have been failures in this area.  It doesn't make him a bad human being--only a flawed one. 

Shaun Ellis is not a scientist.  He has no advanced degrees.  What he does have is the gift of animal empathy.  He has a particular attachment to wolves and their evolutionary descendants, the dogs.  I have read statements by biologists that dogs are radically different from wolves.  Shaun Ellis is quite certain that dogs and wolves have a great deal in common.  Since wolves and dogs can interbreed, they can't be two entirely separate species. His advice about understanding dogs in terms of specific wolf pack roles has the potential to revolutionize the way we look at dogs. It is obvious that wolves and dogs are completely different in their social orientation.  Wolves are oriented toward other wolves.  Dogs seem to be primarily oriented toward humans.  They lack the drive toward the self-sufficiency of a wolf pack.  Certainly, that's the result of enculturation.   Thousands of years of domestication  has bred this wolf sub-species that looks to us rather than their own kind. 

I appreciate that Shaun Ellis wants to help the Nez Perce who assisted him in gaining his initial experience with wolves.  It's laudable that he wants to pay them back, and that he feels a kinship to Nez Perce wolf advocate Levi Holt.

  Here's a wonderful article from the World Wildlife Federation website about what the Nez Perce have been doing to preserve wolves.

Nez Perce Re-Introduce Wolves in Idaho



Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ancient Roots of Japan

I was led to Harukor by Honda Katsuichi after I read his book The Nanjing Massacre, and searched for others by him available in English.

Harukor is from the perspective of an Ainu woman.  The book is categorized as fiction, but there is a great deal of introductory background  material.   I considered this fortunate since I knew little about the Ainu before picking up Harukor .  Honda decided to write a novel about the Ainu because nothing is definitely known about the way they lived in pre-history. The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Japan.  It didn't surprise me that their history is very similar to that of  Native Americans.  I wondered if they are related to any North American peoples.

The religion of the Ainu is animistic.  Everything has a spirit.  This includes objects.  I enjoyed a story that is told in the novel dealing with the dancing spirit of a cooking pot.  Yet another story in which six men are beheaded simultaneously by one sword was very much over the top for me.

The ending of Harukor segues into their recorded history.  It begins the tale of the conflict-ridden relationship between the Ainu and the Japanese.  Honda says that he meant to finish it, but I didn't find any other books by him about the Ainu in English.  Perhaps there is another that is still untranslated.

At one point Honda compares an Ainu woman with shamanistic gifts to an Itako spirit medium.  Since spirit mediums are an area of interest for me, I did some research on Itako mediums.

According to a Brandeis University website, Itako are blind female shamans who become possessed with the spirits of the dead.  Wooden figurines and traditional chants are often used by them to achieve trance.  The women begin their training as teens.  See Itako Spirit Mediums .  A page on a website called Jezebel, The Dying Arts of the Itako , quotes a New York Times article saying that Itako mediumship is disappearing.  The article appeared in 2009.  At that point there were only four Itako spirit mediums left in Japan.  There used to be hundreds of them.  Becoming an Itako was once the best future open to blind women in Japan.  Now there are other opportunities available to the blind.  Yet Itako mediumship is supposed to be older than Shinto.  Perhaps Itako practices are derived from Ainu shamanism.

There is a book about Japanese shamanism that has some discussion about Itako mediums. So readers who want to learn more should turn to  The Catalpa Bow  by Carmen Blacker.

I did learn something about the Ainu from Harukor ,but I suspect that this is just the beginning for me.  I will be astonished if I don't blog about a book dealing with the Ainu within the next month or so.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Historians, Novelists and Painters Bringing Past Horrors To Light

After reviewing The Nanjing Massacre by Honda Katsuichi last month, I decided to pursue the subject further.  I found The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography edited by Joshua A. Fogel  in the sources of the Wikipedia article on Honda Katsuichi.

One of the problems in historical discussion of this event is what the editor of this anthology calls "the numbers game".  Greater numbers of dead are supposed to lend more significance.  The numbers for the Nanjing Massacre depend on what is included.  Honda Katsuichi included the killing of prisoners of war and other massacres of civilians en route to Nanjing.  His concept is that the Nanjing Massacre was not a single event.   It must be seen in context.  Mark Eykholt in his essay "Aggression, Victimization and Chinese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre" is concerned about how the inflation of numbers  undermines the legitimacy of survivors' claims.  It also allows Japanese critics of  the historicity of the Nanjing Massacre (and there still are some who claim that it never happened) to dismiss it completely.

An item used as evidence has also compromised the historical case for the atrocities in Nanjing.  In "The Challenges of the Nanjing Massacre", Daqing Yang discusses a  photo submitted as evidence to the post-war Tokyo Trial  which has been challenged because the Japanese soldiers depicted were wearing summer uniforms.  The established time for the Nanjing Massacre is the winter of 1937-1938.   It seems to me that this invalidates that particular photo.  It doesn't mean that there was no massacre.

Yang wants to get beyond facile denial and deal with the causes of the atrocities.  This is not intended to justify them.  The causes of events are central to the business of writing history.  So Yang brings up that a poorly organized  retreat stranded 100,000 Chinese soldiers in Nanjing.  A great many hid among the civilian population.  In Ha Jin's novel , Nanjing Requiem, he depicts Chinese soldiers taking shelter with the foreign missionaries.  Honda Katsuichi's book contains Chinese soldier survivor narratives.  I recall one case of a soldier who constructed a civilian identity for himself which was corroborated by his new falsified family.  This explains why the Japanese military suspected male civilians of fighting age of  being soldiers.

From "A Battle Over History in Japan" by Takashi Yoshida I learned about the existence of Unit 731, the headquarters for experimentation in chemical and biological warfare by the Japanese military.  The Wikipedia article on Unit 731 was very informative.  An article on its source list The Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731  revealed that there is a book dealing with this subject called  Factories of Death  by Sheldon Harris.  There has been an updated edition due to the de-classification of American documents related to Unit 731.  There is also a book by the highly respected Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo that portrays the horrors of  Unit 731 experiments through fiction.  The title is The Sea and Poison for which I have seen some insightful reviews. There is continuing discovery of what Unit 731 did. I  found a Huffington Post article that appeared last year about the excavation of  a former medical school in Japan after a nurse who worked there revealed the facility's hasty coverup of  its presumed participation in Unit 731 war crimes.  This article can be found at
Not all Japanese in Nanjing at the time were either committing atrocities or attempting to bury them.  Daqing Yang revealed that a Japanese journalist reporting from Nanjing about the atrocities wrote a novella about them in 1938.  I looked up the name of this journalist, Ishikawa Tatsuzo, and discovered from Wikipedia that the English translation of his Nanjing massacre novella is Soldiers Alive .  Ishikawa fell afoul of  Japanese censorship regulations.  He was arrested and imprisoned for writing about the atrocities. This would be a great book to feature for Banned Books Week.

I also found out about the Nanjing Massacre mural created by the Japanese artist couple Maruki Iri and Toshi from Yang's essay.  The Marukis are best known for their Hiroshima panels.  During a U.S. tour, they were urged to balance their perspective by painting about Japanese atrocities.  They accepted that challenge.  Their Nanjing Massacre mural can be found by scrolling down on The Forgotten Holocaust  web page.  According to the Maruki Gallery For The Hiroshima Panels , the Marukis were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 to honor their work. 

It's important to honor all the Japanese who have struggled against the official policy of denial or minimization of the Nanjing atrocities. 


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Wide Embrace of Marta Morena Vega

I consider myself a student of all the various spiritual paths, but have developed a special interest in African diasporic traditions.  These are beliefs and practices brought from Africa to the Americas by means of enslavement. Santeria is one of these religions.  It is a syncretic combination of  Yoruban traditional religion and Catholicism.  The original purpose of this syncretism was concealment.  Slaves hid the fact that they were continuing to practice the religion of their ancestors behind a facade of Catholic saints.  This syncretic approach has been retained.  Those who are aware of Santeria know what the Catholic saints represent to its practitioners.  Those who know nothing of Santeria will see only Catholic altars.  I learned of the existence of Santeria about twenty years ago.  I read a few books by Migene Gonzales-Wippler dealing with Santeria beliefs and practices, but had read no other books about Santeria.

I recently came across a YA memoir about the experience of growing up Puerto Rican in New York by Marta Moreno Vega.

Here is the cover:

I was interested in Vega's  relationship with her grandmother who maintained Santeria altars.  I also noted  references to the spirits of Santeria in music and in daily life. I thought that this author felt very genuine, and that she had a great deal  of  coraz√≥n, a Spanish word which is inexactly translated as "heart" in English. 

 After reading this memoir,  I wanted to know if Marta Moreno Vega had written more about Santeria.  Yes, indeed she had.  I then discovered The Altar of My Soul which is the subject of this review.

I think what is most important about Vega's spiritual approach is that hers is a path of reconciliation.  Although she herself is Puerto Rican, she received her Santeria training in Cuba and she organized an African diasporic religion conference that took place in Nigeria, the home of her ancestors. In The Altar of My Soul she makes reference to other African diasporic religions such as Candomble from Brazil and Vodun from Haiti.  Her perspective is international.  She welcomes and celebrates both the commonalities,  and the diversity of all the communities that make up the African diaspora.   To paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman, Vega's spirit is large.  It can contain multitudes. 

I did learn a great deal from this book.  I learned Santeria vocabulary that I hadn't previously known and some patakis that were new to me.  Patakis are stories about the Orisha, who are the Yoruban spirits. I also hadn't heard of the Orisha known as Ayan in Nigeria and Anya in Cuba before I read this book.  She lives inside the drums.

 Research on Santeria Drumming

Anya/Ayan -- article including interesting information about bata drums as well as Ayan.

Interview With Santeria Drummer

 Interview With Amelia Pedroso   Amelia Pedroso was a Santeria Priestess in Cuba who argued for women being able to play bata drums. 

Women Playing Bata Drums in Cuba This is a blog post about a group of women drummers  called Obini Bata who are overcoming the prohibition against women drummers.  There are some lovely photos.



Friday, May 18, 2012

Searching For A Solution To Devestation

Although I have an interest in science fiction novels that deal with environmental themes, I was not so enthusiastic about my latest choice for review from The Bookplex.  I have posted my review below.



This science fiction novel takes place in the not so distant future when over-population, climate change and environmental degradation have had their long predicted devastating impact.  Two scientists are portrayed as working on solutions to these problems.  My feeling is that the ecological damage is even now too massive for one of these solutions to be considered a realistic one.  The Next: An Omen shows some difficulties with that approach, but I think that the author may be overly optimistic to imagine that it would work at all—except on an extremely limited basis.  The other very risky attempt at a solution is the subject of a suspenseful subplot.

 I appreciated the fact that neither of the scientists is demonized.  They are both well-intentioned men who are trying to save the world under very adverse circumstances.  Other characters involved in the implementation of these scientists’ plans exhibit both the strengths and flaws of humanity.  There are characters that show tremendous adaptability and heroism.  Others are remarkably shortsighted, and display the terrible tendency to scapegoat that has brought about many of the worst tragedies in human history. 

Kelly Madison, a paranormally talented teen who plays a central role in the opening of the novel, becomes much less pivotal later in the narrative.  The author  seems to imply that she’s very important to humanity’s future.  Her gift is rather wonderful, but the book never clarifies how Kelly can develop into a key factor in averting the global catastrophe. I expect that there must be a sequel in the works which will include another rather mysterious character whose part in events is unexplained. 

This means that The Next: An Omen really doesn’t stand on its own.  The story is unfinished.  I would have preferred more of a resolution.  I admit to having less tolerance for cliffhangers in this case than I normally do.  You see, the reader of this book is being left dangling when the fate of the entire human race is in the balance.  Don’t do this to us, Mr. Douse.  


The book Our Vanishing Wilderness is mentioned in The Next: An Omen as being read by one of the characters.  I had not read this environmental classic which was first published in 1969. I was interested in finding out more.  Strangely enough, I couldn't locate any reviews, but there were a couple of items of interest.

The authors of Our Vanishing Wilderness Mary Louise Grossman and Shelly Grossman also wrote a TV series of the same title that aired on PBS.  The New York PBS station has made it available for viewing on their website at  Our Vanishing Wilderness: The TV Series

I also discovered that Mary Louise Grossman later wrote as Mary Louise King.  There is an illuminating essay by her dealing with the writing and publication of Our Vanishing Wilderness which can be found at
Breaking The Glass Ceiling

Although it is not the first book dealing with environmental matters, it was a significant one.  Another classic in this field that appeared in the sixties is Rachel Carson's highly influential  Silent Spring   


Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Anti-Langdon Thriller "Hero"

 If The Pelican Code by Tim Lea really was intended to be a conventional thriller, it doesn't succeed very well.  When I reviewed it for The Bookplex, it appeared to be a different sort of book entirely.  Below is my review.


A thriller is expected to deliver exciting action sequences throughout the novel.  In The Pelican Code there was no contemporary thriller type action until the second half of the narrative.  What do we get in the first half?  There are historical flashbacks to the Elizabethan period.  These are very appealing to readers who enjoy historical content.  The contemporary sequences weren’t quite so interesting to me.  We find out a great deal about the personal lives of the protagonist and antagonist which didn’t seem very relevant to the plot.  In retrospect, I can now see what Tim Lea was trying to achieve through this personal focus.

The author invests a great deal of space in humanizing the central character, Toby Malone.  I couldn’t help comparing him to Dan Brown’s academic thriller hero, Langdon.  Langdon comes from the same tradition as James Bond.  He is always well-dressed and suave.  The moment I saw the passage about Malone wearing rumpled suits, I realized that Tim Lea was setting him up as the anti-Langdon.  Readers who want to see more realism in their central characters will appreciate that, but the character Malone had larger aspirations.   
Malone’s hero, Christopher Marlowe, might have been an Elizabethan version of James Bond himself.  It is thought that he engaged in espionage. There is only a brief reference to Marlowe being engaged in secret work for England’s interests in The Pelican Code.  I would have liked to have seen something of Marlowe as a spy in a flashback since this is a thriller. Certainly Marlowe’s life was a great deal more interesting than Malone’s.  Some characters considered Malone’s identification with Marlowe pathetic.  Identifying with an admired historical personage isn’t contemptible.  It’s wonderful to have a source of inspiration.  Unfortunately, Malone’s relationship to Marlowe is obsessive which presents problems for him in his personal life.  In current parlance he could be considered a “fanboy”.  I think that Tim Lea is dealing with the issues raised by the fan phenomenon.  Is it worthy of respect? Can someone like Toby Malone put being a fan of Christopher Marlowe in perspective?

Malone believes in the theory that Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare.   I don’t find this theory credible, but I was willing to go along for the ride.  The Pelican Code asks interesting questions.  Readers will be intrigued.

My View of Marlowe vs. Shakespeare as Authors

My problem is that in an alternate universe where Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, they would probably be read and staged as frequently as the plays that are credited to Marlowe.  This is to say that they wouldn’t have such a central position in the literary canon.   I think that one of the reasons why generation after generation responds to what Shakespeare wrote is precisely because he wasn’t university educated.  He had a better understanding of the common folk and their concerns.  He drew on folk traditions that university educated men like Marlowe would have considered base superstition.  He included what was considered low comedy in many of his most successful plays.  Marlowe would probably have called that pandering to what were then called “the groundlings”. Marlowe was an intellectual writer who dealt with important themes.  Shakespeare wanted to entertain first and foremost.  Yet by trying to please his audience he created so many memorable characters.  Reflecting the soul of humanity was Shakespeare’s theme, and that’s why his work lives on in the popular imagination while Marlowe’s work is mainly known to scholars.  

 I want to address the issue of Shakespeare's education.  He was actually much better educated than many contemporary Americans. At the Stratford grammar school that he would have attended, he would have studied classical Latin works.  See for a detailed discussion. 

Malone questions how Shakespeare could have known so much about Verona and Venice when he'd never been there.  Well, Shakespeare didn't need to have gone there.  He might well have been closely associated with an Italian.   There is compelling evidence that  Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets was an Italian woman named Emilia Bassano.   One webpage where the evidence that Emilia Bassano was the Dark Lady is discussed is:
If so, she could be the source of all of Shakespeare's information about Italy.

It seems to me that Malone and other advocates of the theory that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare need to be better informed about both Marlowe and Shakespeare.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Can Celtic Historical Romance Be Authentic?

It's been some time since I've read a historical romance.  When I have read in this genre, I enjoyed reading about the Celts.  That's why I chose to review Celtic Storms by Delaney Rhodes for The Bookplex.  Here is my review below.

I did like Patrick, the hero of this historical paranormal romance, very much.  He is strong yet vulnerable.  I was interested in the concept, and the situation of the O’Malley clan was compelling.  I admit that I preferred the heroine’s cousin, Kyra, over the heroine, Darina.  This bodes well for the sequel which focuses on Kyra.

On the other hand, I disliked the stereotypical villain and the cliffhanger ending.  I was already prepared to purchase the sequel.  The emotional manipulation of a cliffhanger was unnecessary. 

There were a couple of minor historical errors that I could forgive because they had no impact on the plot.  My qualms about the scheduling of the wedding because of the symbolism of that date in the ancient Celtic religion seemed to be a more serious issue, but I learned during a web search that it was actually a traditional time for weddings among the ancient Celts.  I found that there is pro and con discussion among current Pagan practitioners about the desirability of a wedding on that date.  So I no longer have so much difficulty with when the O’Malley clan planned to celebrate Patrick and Darina’s marriage.

Despite the drawbacks of this particular outing, I hope to return to the world of the medieval O’Malleys of Ireland soon.

                                                                     ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Research Inspired By This Novel

The historical/cultural inaccuracies in Celtic Storms were minor and relatively few.  This was a more authentic Celtic historical romance than many others that I had previously encountered.

The first problem I found in this novel was the use of Laird which I knew to be a Scottish title of nobility.  It comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning Lord.  Laird later became a surname in Ireland, but a look at the genealogy of Irish Laird families reveals  that these were families who emigrated from Scotland.  An example of such a Scots-Irish family named Laird can be found on  The Irish Gaelic word for Lord is Tiarna which is derived from the Old Irish Tigerna.  Delaney Rhodes could easily correct this in a new edition with a global search and replace.

Another small problem is the implication in this novel that horse drawn vehicles were an import to medieval Ireland.  I learned that archaeology places chariots in Ireland as early as 2000 B.C., and that there were innovations in chariot design particular to Ireland.

A mention of  the Goddess Rosmerta in an oath intrigued me.  I discovered that she is a Goddess of Gaul, not of Ireland.  Rosmerta is associated with fertility and plenty.  She carries the cornucopia. 

Here are the web pages that I consulted: