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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Controversial Bones in an English Archaeological Mystery

Elly Griffiths has been writing a mystery series about English archaeologist Ruth Galloway.  So I keep on hoping for some interesting archaeology in these books.  So far there hasn't been, but there were other aspects of A Room Full of Bones that piqued my interest.  My review is below.

First, let's get my historical problem out of the way.  Ruth Galloway finds herself dealing with the remains of a fictional medieval bishop named Augustine Smith.  For me, the biggest mystery was how someone with that name got to be a bishop.  Bishops were normally selected from noble families.  Many had French names because they were descended from the Norman conquerers like the Kings of England themselves.   Someone with the surname of Smith was descended from a smith, and would definitely be a commoner. Commoners didn't usually advance in the church during the medieval period.   In the novel itself,  we are told that this fictional Smith family was ennobled by Queen Elizabeth I.  That would have been a century or more after Augustine Smith became a bishop.  It wasn't impossible for someone named Augustine Smith to become a bishop in the 14th century, but it was improbable.  For Griffiths, the name of  this character is apparently not problematic, so she doesn't offer an explanation for Augustine Smith's elevated status.  I know that I'm being picky, but novelists who deal with historical content need to do basic research.  That way when historical amateurs like me review their books, they won't be including a paragraph like this one.

The sub-plot dealing with the repatriation of Australian aborigine bones was actually much more interesting to me.    For those who are interested in the Australian government's policy about repatriation, you can read it at Repatriation Policy August 2011 .  The UK co-operates with this policy. 

This novel mentions an aborigine who turns out to be the only poet to have written a poem on a sick bag aboard a hijacked airplane.  See Aborigine Poet Hijacked By Palestinians . If I hadn't seen this poet's aborigine name in this book, I would never have known about this 1974 incident.

 In the context of repatriation of bones, Ruth Galloway was reminded of a painting called "Can These Bones Live?"  I was intrigued enough to do a search for it because I wanted to see what Ruth found so striking about it.  The link is from the BBC website. It was painted by George Frederic Watts and can be found at the Watts Gallery in Surrey.  According to the George Frederic Watts article on Wikipedia, Watts was a Victorian painter who was known for the symbolism in his work.   

Frankly, Griffiths often invests more drama in the personal life of her protagonist than in her cases.  As a mystery fan, I find this disappointing,  Yet this particular novel did concern itself with some weightier matters that gave it more substance.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Votes For Vixens: Tara Chevrestt Improves on The Bostonians

I like the historical subjects that Tara Chevrestt  chooses.  I wish I had a reasonable pretext to blog about her book Ride For Rights when I read it.  It was about a pair of society women who rode motorcycles across the U.S. during WWI to prove that women could be motorcycle dispatch riders.  Tara posted all her research to her blog , Book Babe . She did a very thorough job and there was absolutely nothing that I could add.  The only thing that I would want to add here is that Ride For Rights is still a candidate for my top ten reads of 2012, and I read it some time ago.

 This was the most original historical fiction book that I've read which was published in 2012.                                                    

The purpose of this blog entry is to discuss Tara's new suffragette novel, Votes   for Vixens.  What a great title!  My review is below.

The description made Votes for Vixens sound like it would be similar to the classic The Bostonians by Henry James.  I hoped that the characters and their lesbian relationship might be more engaging, and that the book might be more overtly feminist.  Tara met all my expectations.  I enjoyed reading Votes For Vixens far more than The Bostonians .I also found it to be an accurate reflection of the time period, its politics and its mores.

Once the protagonists first encountered each other in New York City, they lived in Italian Harlem.  This area of Harlem is now known as Spanish Harlem, and I hadn't realized that it was populated by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century.  Today NYC's Little Italy is in the Canal St. area.  I was born in NYC, so it's interesting for me to discover a previously unknown aspect of its history.

In Tara's note about her research at the end of the book, she said that her main source was Jailed for Freedom by Doris Stevens which is a suffragette memoir from the period described in Votes for Vixens. When I did a search for it, I discovered that Jailed for Freedom is available in various e-formats for free on Project Gutenberg . 

This book made me curious about the strategies used by the National Women's Party.  I found an article on the Library of Congress' photographic archive, American Memory, called  Tactics and Techniques of the National Women's Party Suffrage Campaign . I was very interested to find out about the pageants produced by Hazel MacKaye.  Her first was performed on March 3, 1913 in Washington D.C. on the steps of the Treasury Building.  100  costumed women represented female historical personages or ideas such as Freedom and Justice.  The reporter from The New York Times wrote that it was "one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country."  Also mentioned was a MacKaye pageant about the life of Susan B. Anthony performed at the 1915 National Women's Party convention.

After I read that article I ran a search on Hazel MacKaye and found a blog post Dedicating The Portrait Monument that discussed the 1921 ceremony in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building to dedicate sculptures of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in yet another Hazel MacKaye pageant.

Although this is a novel that deals with a lesbian relationship and there is some erotic content, it doesn't adhere to the conventions of either romance or erotica.  I found it to be realistic without affectations or illusions.  So I would categorize Votes for Vixens as literary fiction.  We need more historical novels like this one, and the chances are that Tara Chevrestt will write them.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Francesca Pascal: Good But Not Great


This is the third in Frederik Nath’s trilogy of novels taking place in France during World War II.  I received it from The Bookplex for review. I recently read the previous volume, Farewell Bergerac and liked it very much.  I also liked Francesca Pascal,  but I have to say that I didn’t find it quite as satisfying a read as I’d hoped. 

In  Nath’s author’s note that is appended to this novel, he wonders if he’s portrayed Francesca Pascal believably since he’s never previously written from a woman’s perspective.  He has no need to worry on that score.  She was both credible and appealing as a mother, an independent woman and an artist.  I admired her courage.  Participation in combat is not the only mark of courage.  Sometimes courage is the ability to endure. Endurance involves always remembering who you are. Francesca Pascal maintained her sense of identity in the forefront of her mind no matter what happened. 

Although I believed in Francesca as an artist, her obsession with the painting “Paysage Le Mur Rose” by Matisse is a total mystery to me.  I thought I might get a handle on her conviction that it represents France if I looked at it online, but I still have no clue.  Such ideas are very subjective, of course.  I personally find certain paintings of the French countryside by Van Gogh more emblematic.  I wish that Nath could have expanded on exactly what it was about “Paysage Le Mur Rose” that meant so much to Francesca.  It would have given me more insight into her character. 

 The portrayal of Francesca’s gay friend, Charles, was a disappointment to me.  He seemed to have so much potential at the beginning of the book, but over the course of the narrative he disintegrated into stereotype.  Stereotypes have a basis.  People do behave stereotypically in real life, but in fiction stereotypes aren’t very interesting to me because they are a predictable element. I imagine that the reason for taking the character of Charles in such an obvious direction was to provide Francesca with a dramatic inner conflict.  Yet I think that Nath had an opportunity to do something innovative with Charles, and he threw that chance away.  If Nath had chosen to develop Charles differently, he could have had his own storyline focused on his perspective. I realize that this would have required a completely different structure for this book, but I think it would have been more memorable.

To find out more about "Paysage Le Mur Rose", see Wikipedia on Paysage Le Mur Rose  where you can take a look at the painting and read about what is known of its actual history.


A Storyteller of Guatemala

Roberto Moulun is a former psychiatrist who was born in Guatemala, but now lives in Mexico.  He has been highly praised as an oral storyteller.  Kirkus has a wonderful review of his anthology The Iguana Speaks My Name which was published this September.  These were good reasons for me to select this book from Net Galley.  My review is below.

This book has the style and verve of performance poetry.  It also has the allusions to art and literature that are a characteristic of literary fiction.  It has a strong sense of place.  I also liked the fact that people living on the margins of society were central to these stories. These are the assets  of  The Iguana Speaks My Name.  

I do have criticisms.  Firstly, I don't think the narrator, Quince, is a clearly defined character.  His voice  often sounds like it should be the author's, but it was evidently Moulun's intention that he should be a separate persona.  Who is he?  What is his history?  I'm not entirely sure.  This is problematic because he's a somewhat unreliable narrator at times.  So it would be useful to understand more about his perspective and motivations.  The biggest clue that I found is that Quince calls St. Francis de Paula (also known as St. Francis de Paola), his patron saint.  This connects Quince to Moulun.  In the interview with Moulun by Ed Tasca, Roberto Moulun is shown to be an animal activist.  In the title novella, there is the incident of Quince and the iguana that indicates animal activism. Yet his choice of patron saint also shows compassion for animals. According to Blog Post About The Feast of St. Francis de Paola , this saint was a vegan.  Should Quince be more differentiated from the author?

 I also felt that some of the stories seemed like fragments, and that the novella was more episodic than coherent in its structure. 

Despite these weaknesses,I enjoyed the magical realist element which included seances that were apparently genuine.  Now that's refreshing. Fake seances have become a cliche in the mystery/suspense genre, and I am so very tired of them.

 I  also very much enjoyed the cultural content.  From the story "The Novena to San Martin", I learned about the existence of the first Black saint in the Americas.  (See St. Martin de Porres on the African American Registry) It interested me that an altar image of St. Martin de Porres is a Black man holding a broom.  This is because he originally did the sweeping at the Dominican monastery. My research revealed that in Voodoo Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead, is associated with St. Martin de Porres.  Yet the fact that he is accompanied by a broom led me to wonder why African-Diasporic practitioners in  Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil wouldn't associate St. Martin de Porres with the African Diasporic spirit of healing, Babalu-Aye/ Omolu who uses a broom for purification. 

Finally, I have a technology note. When I write about anthologies, I rely on the table of contents to assist me.  I can refresh my memory about a particular story by accessing it directly via the table of contents.  Since it lists all the titles, the table of contents also helps me to group stories by theme or tone.  Unfortunately, the Kindle version of The Iguana Speaks My Name that I downloaded from Net Galley has no table of contents at all.  This makes it more difficult to navigate and more difficult to review.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chojun: Okinawan Karate and the Real Miyagi

Like many people, I have seen The Karate Kid movies without realizing that there was a real Okinawan karate master named Miyagi.  I am also interested in the history and culture of Okinawa.  I blogged about an anthropological study of Okinawa in September. That blog entry was called "A Study of Okinawa: No Respect For Shamanism".   Returning to Okinawa with a novel about a student of the real Miyagi was definitely appealing for me.  My copy of Chojun by Goran Powell is an ARC from Net Galley. Chojun will not be released until December 16.

                                                         The 2012 Golden Mask Award
                                                        for my favorite Net Galley book
                                                        I read this year                  

  Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) was the founder of   Goju-ryu Karate .  He was born in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture on the main island.   This book is largely the memories of his fictional student, Kenichi Ota.  There is an amazingly compelling description of  how Kenichi first encountered Miyagi practicing karate during a typhoon.  I was transfixed by the majesty of that moment. It was the point where this book grabbed me and didn't let me go for an instant.

When Kenichi began learning karate from Miyagi, it wasn't called karate.  From other sources online, I discovered that it was often called Naha-te after the city of Naha where it was taught. Yet this conceals the origins of karate. In this novel it's known as to-te or "China hand" because Miyagi's teacher, Kanryo Higaonna  brought kung fu techniques that he had studied in China back to Okinawa and combined them with traditional Okinawan dance moves.  This reminds me of  Capoeira , an Afro-Brazilian practice that  combines martial arts and dance.

 I believe that one of Goran Powell's themes in this novel is the power of multi-cultural fusion. Purity is a big Japanese cultural concern, but fusion is so much stronger.  Kenichi  himself was part-Chinese, descended  from a community of Chinese that were sent to Okinawa during the Ming Dynasty.

 Powell shows us that Miyagi was always conscious of his debt to Chinese kung fu, yet he also has Miyagi announce in 1939 that the art's name has been changed to karate because China and Japan were at war.  Kara-te means "empty hand".  Many explain this as a reference to the fact that karate is unarmed combat, but Chojun refers to a samurai text called The Book of the Five Rings which includes The Book of Void , a Zen Buddhist concept.  I note that Powell's first novel A Sudden Dawn,  is the story of how the Buddhist theologian, Bodhidharma originated what became the practice of the warrior monks of Shaolin. Here's a link to a Review of a Sudden Dawn  in the Huffington Post by martial arts novelist, Arthur Rosenfeld.

I've never read a martial arts novel with as much depth as Chojun.  The depth is not just in the depiction of karate, but in the immersion of the reader in the history and culture of Okinawa.  I really appreciated this book.




Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Missing Source of Guillermina's Rose

As I write this blog entry, this is the season of Dia de Los Muertos which is the festival when the ancestors are honored in Mexico, in the Mexican-American community and by many non-Mexicans in California. I look forward to the festival of Our Lady of Guadelupe ,who first appeared to Juan Diego in Tepeyac, which is celebrated in December. California was once part of Mexico. I am conscious of that history--particularly at this time of the year. 

These are the reasons why I reacted the way I did to Guillermina and the Rose which I reviewed for The Bookplex.   I may not have been born in California, but I have lived in California more than thirty years.

Let me say that Guillermina and the Rose is in many ways a wonderful book, but there was an element of tremendous importance that was missing.  I would have been remiss if I failed to mention it in the review that appears below.


The author of this book is listed as Don Cush, but the experiences described are those of Robert Nielsen, an American executive employed by a computer technology firm who makes a fateful trip to Mexico.  I’d imagine that Guillermina and the Rose is an “as told to” memoir. This means that the subject of the memoir told his story to a professional writer.

I wish I could say I was shocked by what Robert Nielsen discovered about a Catholic orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico.  Unfortunately, I am well aware of the existence of child trafficking .  Children often become victims as a result of poverty, as this author points out.  He also posits that pre-Conquest Aztec attitudes might be a factor.  Yet it seems to me that there is actually a prevalent cross-cultural belief that children are property which fuels crimes against children worldwide.  Guillermina and the Rose is the chronicle of a child who was thrown away as unwanted, and might have died unknown. Robert Nielsen not only saves her life, he discovers that she has astonishing gifts. 

Although this book is a very personal memoir, it also deals with an important trend in education. I was very interested in Nielsen’s leading edge introduction of computers into classrooms.  Pioneering efforts like Nielsen’s eventually led to the current development of online instructional programs that allow students to acquire an education without leaving their homes.  So this author’s professional accomplishments are definitely notable.

There was an editing flaw in this book that I noticed. Some persons were inconsistently named.  Names were evidently altered possibly for legal reasons. I wouldn’t bring this up except that it seems like a search and replace process for a re-named person that was almost completely successful, is probably responsible for the removal of Our Lady of Guadelupe from this book.  Our Lady of Guadelupe is extremely important in Mexican culture.  For the Mexican-Americans that I have known, she is at the heart of their spirituality.  I was taken aback when I saw the patron saint of Mexico given another name in this book.  This problem even undermines the symbolism of this memoir’s title.  Roses are a central image in the story of Our Lady of Guadelupe.  This makes the incident of Guillermina being given a rose emblematic from a religious and cultural standpoint. If there is a new edition of Guillermina and the Rose , I would definitely recommend  the restoration of Our Lady of Guadelupe to her rightful place.