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Monday, December 31, 2012

Angels and Outcasts: Portrayals of the Deaf in Literature

Angels and Outcasts is an anthology of stories and excerpts focused on the deaf published by Gallaudet University.  It came to my attention because Gallaudet has recently published a second anthology dealing with newer writing called Outcasts and Angels.  My review of the first of these anthologies is below.


For the first two sections of the anthology dealing with fiction by non-deaf writers, I mainly valued the introductions rather than the stories themselves.  The introductions to each story explain how it reflected attitudes toward the deaf during the period when it was written.  Although a number of the authors are well-known, their literary status didn't guarantee that they understood the deaf  well enough to portray them in fiction.

A recent example is a critically praised novel called Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding. The link will lead you to my review of the book on Goodreads. I didn't see any other review that discussed whether this was a realistic portrayal of a deaf character. Yes, the style of the author is beautiful and it does portray that period in Romania very well, but it's supposed to be about a deaf artist.  It seemed to me that the author wasn't qualified to write such a book.

 For some authors represented in this anthology deaf characters were symbolic.  While it is the prerogative of  writers to include symbolic characters, I was looking for stories about real people.  I was putting myself in the place of  deaf readers who might pick up a book focusing on a deaf character hoping to find someone who is like themselves or maybe even a role model who will inspire them.  I have always looked for female protagonists who inspire me.  I would have felt very depressed if I never found any.

This brings me to the best story in the anthology which takes place in a school for the deaf and blind. The introduction calls this a favorite story for deaf students.  It's "Why It Was W On The Eyes" by Margaret Montague. The introduction characterizes this as an oralist story that promotes the idea that deaf education should be exclusively concerned with lip reading and learning to speak.  I disagree with this interpretation.  It seemed to me that the signing perspective was also well represented in this story, and that it advocated for the availability of all means of communication in schools for the deaf.  The central character was extremely sympathetic.  It was a double handkerchief story.  Yet I don't think that it implies that this character's situation calls for a universal prescription of oralism.  If anything it shows that deaf students are unique individuals whose backgrounds can determine their communication preferences.

The section devoted to the writings of deaf authors contained the piece that I found most insightful.  It was the excerpt from The Deaf Mute Howls by Albert Ballin. I was shocked to learn that people who are characterized by Ballin as "semi-mute" were used to promote oralism.   This means to me that they weren't really learning to speak because they already could to a certain extent. It seems likely to me that they weren't born deaf.  Not having been born deaf gives a deaf person a different perspective on the hearing world.  They may not identify with the deaf community and may not choose to learn signing.  Oral communication and lip reading would seem most suitable for these individuals.  Yet it's wrong to deny signing to the born deaf as Ballin illustrates so well. Ballin actually met Alexander Graham Bell.  I was very interested in how he portrayed this extremely influential figure in the oralist movement. I was astonished to learn that Bell had learned signing to communicate with his deaf wife.   This doesn't seem consistent with his advocacy of oralism.  Ballin also experimented with combining ASL with pantomime, and he tried to convince Hollywood directors of silent films to learn ASL as their means of communication with actors during filming.  Yet this would mean that the actors would need to learn ASL, and Lon Chaney was the only actor in Hollywood at the time who knew how to sign.  I hadn't known that the silent actor Lon Chaney Sr. was a CODA, a child of deaf adults.  Find out more about him from The Wikipedia Article on Lon Chaney Sr.  Ballin sounds like he was a brilliant and creative individual.  I am now much more motivated to obtain a copy of The Deaf Mute Howls so I can discover more about his life.

The Ballin excerpt alone made this anthology worth reading, but I am looking forward to reading Gallaudet's second anthology Outcasts and Angels.


Friday, December 28, 2012

The Tent of Miracles: Jorge Amado on Afro-Brazilian History

I've been wanting a good excuse and the time to read The Tent of Miracles by Jorge Amado.  My good excuse was the Around the World in 52 Books challenge which is only 90% complete at this point.  Since December 31st is coming up fast, I fear this 2012 challenge will remain incomplete.  At least the holiday season gave me the opportunity to read a book that was recommended to me as a Candomble novel. Candomble is an Afro-Brazilian religion.  I'd like to know more about it.  After doing a search, I discovered that The Tent of Miracles isn't the only book by Amado with a great deal of Candomble content.  Jubiaba is another one of his works that deals prominently with Candomble, but Jubiaba is not as easy to obtain in English.

The Tent of Miracles is the second book I've read by Jorge Amado.  The first was The War of the Saints which was recommended to me as a book with a primary focus on the Yoruban spirit Oya who is widely known as Yansan in Brazil.   I read The War of the Saints some time ago.  It had tons of magical realism, but I remembered thinking at the time that I wanted more spirituality, ritual and folklore.  That's when I was told to read The Tent of Miracles.

The fictional central character Pedro Archanjo fought against racism and religious discrimination in early 20th century Bahia.  When I researched this book, I discovered that Amado had based Archanjo on  Manuel Raimundo Querino, an Afro-Brazilian writer who did all the things which Amado credits to Archanjo.  See Querino Paper. This actually looks like a section of a paper  that is part of Columbia University's files. There is no indication of who authored this paper. Pages 14-16 of the pdf  deal with the connection of Querino to Archanjo in The Tent of Miracles.

Archanjo is also known in the novel by the Yoruban title Ojuoba.  This means "the Eyes of the King".  Xango is the Yoruban spirit of kingship. (His name is variously spelled Chango, Shango and Xango in different cultural contexts.  Xango is the Brazilian version.) Xango had ordered Archanjo to "see all, learn all and write it down on paper".  

The title of the book comes from the shop of the character Lidio Corro who is a miracle painter.  His shop became a gathering place for those interested in Carnival, Candomble and the Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira.   Pedro Archanjo was a close friend and supporter of Lidio's, and gave the shop its name.

One of the delights of this book for me were all the names from Brazilian history that are mentioned in this book.  Any of them could open a door to an amazing story.  There is a statue of Maria Quiteria mentioned in this book.  She turned out to be the first woman in Brazil to wear a military uniform.

The Candomble priestess Olga de Alaketu is mentioned in this novel, but oddly enough it's in the context of practicing Voodoo.  I figured that Jorge Amado must have known that Candomble and Voodoo are different traditions with different origins and practices. The spirits of Candomble are the Orixa from Yorubaland in Nigeria.  The spirits of Voodoo are called the Loa and are usually Fon spirits from Dahomey, but Voodoo also includes spirits from the Congo.   I have read about Voodoo in Haiti and New Orleans, but had not expected to find it in a Brazilian novel with a focus on Candomble.  The Wikipedia article on Olga de Alaketu  that I linked mentions that Jorge Amado knew her and attended her ceremonies.  So when he says in The Tent of Miracles that she was a daughter of the Loa known as Papa Loko as well as the Orixa Yansan, I assume that Amado knew what he was talking about. Papa Loko is a very important Loa as you can see from the article about him that I've linked.  This implies that Olga de Alaketu combined Candomble and Voodoo in her practice.  Academics call this syncretism which always interests me.

Although I had heard about the discrimination against Afro-Brazilian religions in the first half of the 20th century, I had not read about it before in either fiction or non-fiction.  There are a number of scenes in The Tent of Miracles that depict instances of prejudice.

 One manifestation of this discrimination shown in this book was the attempt to remove Candomble from Carnival.  The white upper class feared the influence of Afro-Brazilian religions on Carnival, and banned the Afoxes and Blocos Afros from appearing in Carnival.  As the Bahia cultural article that I've linked states, Afoxes use Candomble music and songs in secular contexts.  The Samba which is now inextricably associated with Carnival in Brazil comes from the Afoxes and Blocos Afros in Bahia which first appeared in the 19th century.

The Tent of Miracles also portrays police invasions of Candomble ceremonies in Bahia.  As a result, some Candomble ceremonies were moved to the surrounding countryside while other Candomble practitioners left Bahia entirely and relocated to Rio de Jainero.

Yet religious discrimination is also shown in this book as being brought to an ignominious end. The character Pedro Archanjo played a role in ending it.  Archanjo says in this book that "One day the orixas will be dancing on the stage."  This is a prediction that has come true in modern day Brazil. 

I was very glad to learn so much about the history of Candomble and other significant aspects of Brazilian culture through reading The Tent of Miracles.  I hope to read Amado's novel Jubiaba in the not so distant future.






Monday, December 24, 2012

Tarzan's Jane For 21st Century Readers

When I read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs as a pre-teen, I remember detesting Jane. For me, Jane was the lure that brought Tarzan back to "civilization".  I was fascinated by Tarzan's relationship with the apes and I wanted him to stay in Africa.  Yet what if Jane wanted to establish a relationship with apes? There is a Jane who did this in real life. Primatologist Jane Goodall is one of my heroines.  For more information about Jane Goodall, go to the Jane Goodall Institute Website . I was delighted to see that Goodall graciously provided a blurb for Robin Maxwell's  new novel, Jane.  I realized then that Maxwell's version of Jane must be radically different.   Jane was authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate.  It was timed to coincide with Tarzan's 100th anniversary.  For more information about Tarzan's centennial, see The Tarzan Portal and The Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Website.  Here's my take on Robin Maxwell's re-visioning of Edgar Rice Burroughs' character, Jane Porter.

As an adult , the first time I engaged with the Tarzan mythos was when I saw the movie Greystoke in the theatre.  I enjoyed Christopher Lambert's performance as Tarzan in England upsetting Victorian values.  The Jane of that movie may have tried to be supportive, but she was ill-equipped to understand him.  Later I saw a syndicated Tarzan series on television starring Wolf Larson  as a modern environmental activist and protector of the wild.  Jane was an ecologist. (See the Wikipedia article on that series at Modern Tarzan series.) That Jane represented me.  I could imagine that I was on the frontline against the poachers and corporate destroyers of Africa along with Tarzan.

I knew that Tarzan had been a heroic fantasy figure for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I felt that women deserved their own heroic fantasy figure in Jane.  Yet the Wolf Larson  television series displaced Tarzan in time.  He obviously wasn't the character that Burroughs had written about.  He couldn't  be the 19th century child of English nobility who was brought up by apes that had so fascinated me when I was young.  Yet could there be a Victorian era Jane Porter that could stand by his side in Africa?

I had high hopes for Robin Maxwell's  Jane.  I had loved her Signora Da Vinci in which she imagined Leonardo Da Vinci's  mother as a very extraordinary woman.  Her Jane Porter is also very far from ordinary. She is a medical student in an era where women weren't accepted in the medical profession, and she dared to support Charles Darwin's controversial ideas about evolution.

I felt that this novel's Jane is a bridge between Victorian England and Tarzan's jungle.  She understands both perspectives and can mediate between them.  She and Tarzan are equals.  They switch teacher and student roles.  Jane wants to be as much at home with apes as Tarzan.  So this isn't just a romance.  Jane wants to become like Tarzan, and is eager to be taught by him.   She is also a woman who is strong enough to follow his example.

I am sure that there are readers who will consider Maxwell's Jane Porter unrealistic or historically inaccurate.  Let me assure these readers that there were tough women in the Victorian period who became explorers in areas of the world that European men considered daunting. See in particular the article about African explorer  Mary Kingsley on Wikipedia . So there is a historical basis for Maxwell's version of Jane.  I admit that I also prefer this Jane.  I feel that she speaks to women in the 21st century like me who want to be Jane and walk in her footsteps.





Saturday, December 22, 2012

More Than A Midwife: The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard

I love both American Revolution novels and books about midwives.  There's a series of mysteries that take place during the American Revolutionary period by Margaret Lawrence  whose protagonist is the midwife Hannah Trevor.  I am a fan of the Hannah Trevor series, but its perspective on the American Revolution is very different from the perspective of  The Midwife's Revolt, the subject of my current review. There seems to be some disagreement about its release date.  I obtained it from Net Galley which states that the release date is January 1, 2013, but Amazon says that it was released in October of this year.  So I don't know whether this should be considered a pre-publication review.

  Lizzie Boylston, the protagonist of The Midwife's Revolt, came from a privileged family and her husband also came from upper class origins. That's how he came to be related to the real historical personage Abigail Adams who is a major character in this novel.  The revolutionary leaders were all landowners and most were successful professionals.  Lizzie and her husband were poor as newlyweds because they married without the consent of their families, but they owned land and had a reasonable expectation of being prosperous one day. Another woman might have turned against the American Revolution after her husband died in a revolutionary battle. Yet Lizzie remained a staunch revolutionary.  Although she was an independent woman of strong principles, I believe that  Lizzie's social connections with revolutionaries also insured that her sympathies would remain with them.  Lizzie's life was a struggle, and there are points in the narrative when Lizzie felt desperate.  Still, she had resources that those on the bottom of the social order didn't possess.  In this book,  we don't really get to see the perspective of those who were truly poor and desperate as we do in the Hannah Trevor novels which display a very ugly side of colonial and revolutionary America.

Jodi Daynard doesn't completely whitewash the revolution.   There are some terrible things done in the name of the revolution in this novel, but the revolutionaries are in general portrayed as admirable, upright and sympathetic.  The Hannah Trevor novels were disturbing. They caused me to re-evaluate the revolution, but The Midwife's Revolt doesn't challenge received historical views in any major way.

On the other hand, one of the reasons why I enjoy reading books about the midwives of the past is because they operated outside of the conventional norms for women.  They also had knowledge of herbs. Herbalism and other traditional healing practices made them vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft as is shown in  Love of Shadows by Zoe Brooks which I reviewed in October. The title of that post is "Love of Shadows: A Novel in Praise of the Persecuted".  Lizzie Boylston, like other historical midwives that I've encountered, didn't heed the opinions of others. She rode her horse astride as men did, and engaged in activities that were even more unacceptable in her social milieu.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved was the friendships between women.  These were honest relationships that could be ambivalent.  I appreciated that complexity.  The presence of Abigail Adams as one of Lizzie's friends underlines the feminist emphasis of the novel.  She is most remembered for telling her husband, who was to become the second President of the United States, to "Remember the ladies."  For this alone, she is honored by modern advocates of women's rights.

 A more obscure historical personage who played a role in this novel was the Tory inventor Benjamin Thompson who later became known as Count Rumford.  There is a page on Count Rumford with a number of links to further information on this fascinating figure.

A second subject for research that I found in The Midwife's Revolt was  an object that Lizzie used called the London Dome. I discovered that it was a hearing trumpet that magnified sound for the hard of hearing.  I found a picture of it at London Hearing Trumpet.  If you click on a link beneath the image, you will  be able to rotate the object and see it from all sides. In the novel,  Lizzie acquired it from a Tory doctor who is said to have learned that London physicians utilized it to listen to the heartbeat of  a patient, or a fetus in the womb.  It sounds like a precursor to the modern stethoscope, but according to The history of stethoscopes , it was invented in 1816 by Rene Theophile-Hyacinthe Laennec who seemed to have known nothing about the use of hearing trumpets by doctors.

My research topics show that a couple of Tory characters in this book are portrayed as innovators.  This is highly unusual in an American Revolution novel.  So The Midwife's Revolt turned out to be more original than it first appeared.




Why Western Noir is Incompatible With The Romance Genre

My latest review for The Bookplex is of  Wild Desert Rose by Van Holt which is marketed as a Western Romance.  Most Western Romances are written by Romance writers and they are predominantly Romances intended for the audience that reads Romance novels.  Van Holt must have hoped that this book would have crossover appeal, but his noir approach really doesn't work for Romance readers.  I'll explain why it's unworkable in my review.

There are differences in the audience profiles for Westerns and Romances, and differences in the expectations of these two groups of readers.  So I wondered how Western writer Van Holt could make a Western Romance work.  It seemed to me that one of the two genres would need to predominate. I feel that Wild Desert Rose succeeds as a Western.  Van Holt understands the Western demographic and has a great deal of experience with meeting their expectations.  Unfortunately, I don’t feel he understands the Romance genre, its readers or their expectations. 

Van Holt’s Hellbound Western approach is edgy, cynical and dark. This is not like one of those old Hollywood Western movies in which it’s very clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.   Even the more heroic characters are ambivalent. There often seems to be little difference between those who represent the law, and the outlaws or other marginal characters who have no use for the law.  A Romance hero can be complex in the sense of having internal divisions or angst, but there has to be no doubt in the Romance reader’s mind that he is a real hero.  Otherwise these readers will reject the idea that the heroine would fall in love with the hero.  They will not believe in the relationship between the hero and the heroine.  In a Romance, it is crucial that this relationship be a central focus of the plot.  Romance readers will feel shortchanged if that is not the case.  The current generation of Romance readers love a strong erotic element in their fiction.  Sexual attraction is definitely part of Romance, but Romance readers believe in the ideal of true love.  They want to see true love embodied in a Romance novel.  Wild Desert Rose contains some strong examples of sexual attraction, but true love is entirely absent from this book.  I also don’t feel that there is a central focus on any particular relationship. The most positive relationship in Wild Desert Rose almost seemed like a tacked on afterthought.  Since there didn’t seem to be any love involved, it’s hard for a Romance reader to imagine that there would be HEA.  This is a Romance acronym for Happily Ever After.  HEA is one of the defining characteristics of Romance.  Van Holt’s characters don’t appear to be made for HEA.  Their Hellbound West isn’t a world where HEA is possible.  Happily Ever After is a phrase that comes from fairy tales.  I don't think that Van Holt believes in fairy tales. 

 So this book isn't recommended for readers expecting a Romance.  Those who love a shoot 'em up Western, but think that Westerns for 21st century readers should have a dark disturbing edge and be more realistic would definitely enjoy this book.  While I can admire the author's fresh contemporary approach on an intellectual level, I don't find the amalgamation of excessive violence with a jaundiced world view at all appealing on an emotional level.  Yes, the old fashioned Western was romanticized and the Native Americans were unjustifiably villainized.  I will say that the Cherokees, Comanches and Apaches depicted in Wild Desert Rose are neither demons nor noble savages, but they are nevertheless victims.  When I look out at a bleak Western landscape drained of hope, I can't help but think that the preference for anomie in an iconic American genre seems very much like selling one's birthright for a mess of pottage.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Mystical Novel About A Gypsy Saint

 The description of The Valley of the Silent People from The Bookplex was very compelling to me.  It told me that the novel dealt with Saint Sara.  I had seen references to her, but I knew almost nothing about her.  Reading this book led me to do further research which is appended to my review below.

                                                      The 2012 Golden Mask Award
                                                  for favorite book from The Bookplex
                                                                      this year                      

In this novel an ordinary man grieving over the loss of his wife experiences extraordinary events.   Author Greg Sarwa raises questions, but offers no definitive explanations.  Yet readers who loved The Da Vinci Code, and are inclined to symbolic interpretation, may notice some clues.

Sarwa writes lovely prose and I enjoyed reading it.  Unfortunately, The Valley of the Silent People is written in first person.  It didn’t seem likely to me that the blue collar protagonist, Joe Clatt, would choose to express himself in poetic phrases. If this book were revised, a switch to a third person perspective would only involve a change in pronouns. 

What I valued most about The Valley of the Silent People is its spiritual themes. I am not Catholic, but I have a fondness for such saints as Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi.  To them, I will now add the unofficial Saint Sara who is a central focus of this novel’s narrative.  I am grateful to Sarwa for pointing the way to her. Saint Sara is venerated by the Rom, who are popularly known as gypsies. According to the historical sources about the Rom that I have read, they are originally from India. Although The Valley of the Silent People is slanted toward Christian mysticism, I recognized Hindu elements in the Rom practices described in this book.  This appears to be an example of the religious fusion that is called syncretism by academics.  I have always been fascinated by syncretism wherever I have found it. 

                                               Resources About Saint Sara

 Wikipedia Article on Saint Sarah   I read the various stories told about her, and learned that the town in France described in Sarwa's novel is indeed where the rites of Saint Sarah take place. I also found that I am not the only one who sees parallels to Hinduism.

 Here is a page from a Rom perspective:

Rom Page on Saint Sara and Her Shrine

There are videos relating to Saint Sara worship on You Tube. 

 In French:
2012 Rom Pilgrimage to France  These are images of the most recent Saint Sara festival in France.

In Portuguese:
There are many of these, but these particular videos are very beautiful.
Brazilian Video of Saint Sara Pilgrimage to France
Brazilian Saint Sara Video
Brazilian Saint Sara Practices

To understand more about this Brazilian approach to Saint Sara translate the following Portuguese blog entry into English:

Brazilian Saint Sara Worship

I also found a very interesting blog entry about Saint Sara in the African Diasporic religion, Santeria.

Saint Sara Kali in Santeria

It was wonderful to immerse myself in Saint Sara material on the internet for a few hours, but I feel like I've only scratched the surface.  I'd like to pursue Saint Sara further in the future.