Follow by Email

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Many Many Many Sects of Hinduism

In The Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism Swami Achuthananda, whose name translates to Eternal Bliss, would like us to know that Hinduism isn't truly polytheistic.  He also tells us that Western scholars say that Hinduism is henotheist.  That is my experience of Hinduism as well.  What does henotheism mean?  I was taught that it means this:  "There are a great many Gods worshiped by all the peoples of the world.  This one is ours.  You worship your God, we will worship ours, and we will all get along." My theory is that in the most ancient times when humans were nomads within defined territories, each small group of nomads probably had its own God.  When humans settled down, all these peoples met and discovered that their Gods had different names and attributes.  I think that henotheism would have been the solution to this religious convergence.  It would have been what made the most sense to people at the time, and I think that it makes the most sense of the Hindu religion.

It is important to note that Swami Achuthananda's teachings about Hinduism are not the only ones.  That is in summary the main point that I have to make about his book, but I do have other things to say about it as well.  I received it from The Bookplex, and here is my review.

                                                   


There is an approach to Hinduism called Vedanta.  It's very common in books about Hinduism directed at Western monotheists.  It goes like this:  Although there are three major Gods of Hinduism: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, Brahma is the High God and the only one that all Hindus worship.  This is exactly what Swami Achuthananda tells us.  Western monotheists are always very happy to hear this.  Yet in Western cities where there are large communities from India, there are Hindu temples.  If you go to those temples, you can find out that there are other approaches to Hinduism.

For example, there is a Shaivite approach.  The God of Shaivites is Shiva.   Shaivites believe that Shiva created the universe.  How can this be if Shiva is the Destroyer?  Well, in the Shaivite perspective, Shiva creates and destroys.   He danced the universe into being and at the end of the current era (yuga), it will be destroyed.  Then Shiva will re-create it.  This has happened before and will continue to happen eternally in an endless cycle.  It's a Shiva centered view of Hinduism. I would think that it would be truer for Shaivites to call Shiva the Reincarnator rather than the Destroyer since they perceive him as being in charge of the cycle of death and re-birth.  Shaivites are only one example of the enormous diversity that can be found among the sects of India.

Another theological difference in approach deals with the issue of attachment. Vedantists value detachment.  They teach that if you are attached to anything, you will not become enlightened.  At the other end of the spectrum is the Bhakti Movement.  Bhakti means devotion.  On Know India, an official Indian government website, there is an article about the Bhakti Movement   Those who follow the Bhakti  approach value strong spiritual attachments rather than detachment.  It involves very deep abiding love for your God which is definitely an attachment. They are usually Shaivites and Vishnaivites, worshipers of Vishnu. As an abstract deity, Brahma generally doesn't attract Bhakti. My mystical Jewish Rabbinical ancestors valued something similar called Devaikut which means adhesion or devotion.   Perhaps this is why I relate more strongly to the Bhakti strand of Hinduism.  Mystical attachment doesn't mean that the Bhakti Movement is opposed to asceticism.  In fact, they are strongly attached to asceticism and go to great extremes.  Going to extremes shows your commitment.  Being advocates of detachment, Vedantists are much more moderate in their religious practices.  
 
Swami Achuthananda  criticizes Westerners for publishing the Vedic hymns separately without the Brahmana.  From the description of the Brahmana, these are commentaries.  The Old and New Testaments of Judaism and Christianity are usually published without commentaries in English.  The text of these testaments are considered divinely inspired.  Commentaries are not considered divinely inspired and therefore have a different theological status. Some might say that publishing religious texts without commentaries allows readers the religious freedom to interpret them for themselves.  This idea was a major impetus for the Protestant Reformation. The reformers wanted to be able to decide what the Bible meant without intermediaries deciding for them.   Swami Achuthananda apparently thinks that those who read the Vedic hymns without the Brahmana are reading them out of context.  Yet doing so could allow a new generation of readers to come up with interpretations of the Vedic hymns that are more relevant to them. I have a particular interest in doing this sort of thing. According to the Old Testament, my ancestor Jacob met an angel and wrestled with him.  Since I have never met an angel, I wrestle with texts instead. 

This book deals with issues concerning India and Hinduism that are quite controversial.  One is the Aryan invasion theory. Swami Achuthananda tells us that it never happened.  I found an abstract of a PubMed article from 2009 that corroborates this statement. It's India's Aryans Genetically Indigenous To India . Yet it does seem to me that something cataclysmic did happen in ancient India.  Swami Achuthananda's  section about the archaeology of early India posits that the center of the civilization from which the Vedic hymns emerged was the Sarasvati River which dried up 2500-4000 years ago depending on which scholars you believe.  I think that this implies major climate change. The chaos resulting from environmental disruption could have also brought about drastic social change.  These transformations might have included the caste system which was responsible for a great deal of discrimination against the people at the bottom.     

Swami Achutananda wants us to believe that Hinduism is more tolerant than other religions, and I actually believed that this was true until I read this book.  It was in the pages of this book that I learned that after non-Hindus have entered a Hindu temple, Hindu priests perform a cleansing.  I learned that Indira Gandhi was not allowed to enter some Hindu temples because she was married to a Parsi.  Oh, and then there was the fact that 40%  of Hindus weren't allowed to enter Hindu Temples until the early 1900's because they were Untouchables. It's all about purity.  In Hinduism, some people are regarded as  pure and others are regarded as impure. Which people are impure has changed over time, but the idea that some people are impure has apparently remained.  Orthodox Judaism has an idea that women's natural functions make them impure.  I read a novel this year called Rav Hisda's Daughter which theorized that this was a Zoroastrian idea that wasn't part of Jewish practice until the Babylonian Exile.   If there had been an Aryan invasion, the Hindu believers of India could say that their intolerant ideas about purity were imposed on them by outsiders, but they don't get to say that anymore.

Swami Achutananda argues that the caste system was not racially based because there isn't more than one race in India.  What is race?  It usually means a genetic difference in skin color. Are there genetic differences in skin color among the peoples of India?  This definitely appears to be the case. There was a November 2013 article about these genetic skin color variations  in Popular Science which can be found at Genetic Skin Color Variation in India.  So whether or not the caste system originated as institutionalized racism, there seems to be race and racism in India. This prejudice about skin color hasn't gone away in India any more than it has in the United States.  See this item from Time about reaction in India to the most recent Miss America and this article Stop Pretending That India Isn't Racist in The Hindu. Some racist Americans have historically interpreted the Old Testament in a manner that justified their ideas. See blog article on racist interpretation of the Old Testament . I feel that the Hindu caste system has been used to justify racism just as the Bible has been used to justify it.

I think the main problem with Swami Achutananda is that he is oblivious to his own biases.  I had to filter out the bias in order to benefit from this book, and that was a difficult process.


                                         


                                                     

                              





Monday, October 21, 2013

Improbable Women: Exploring Women Explorers of the Middle East

The subjects of  Improbable Women by William Cotterman are women from wealthy families who were explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was an era when ladies like these were supposed to be homebodies or charitable lady bountifuls if they engaged in any activity. This unconventionality made them seem very interesting to me.  I had heard of all of them, but had never read anything about them. So I appreciated the fact that the publisher Syracuse University Press made this available for download on Net Galley.

                                                     


I saw a review on Goodreads which criticized Cotterman for including the ancient Queen Zenobia of Palmyra as an indulgence on the part of the author because there is no evidence included in the book that all of his explorer subjects were keenly interested in Queen Zenobia as he claimed.    Freya Stark did write about  Queen Zenobia in  Rome on the Euphrates, but it seemed to me that Isabel Arundell Burton only went to the ruins of Queen Zenobia's Palmyra because her husband, Sir Richard Francis Burton was going and they both wanted to prove that an El-Mesrab tribe escort was unnecessary.  So I thought the comment that Queen Zenobia wasn't quite relevant to this study was a fair one, but I was nevertheless delighted that she had been included because I wanted to know more about her.

When I was looking for European women in Syria who had been associated with Queen Zenobia and Palmyra, I found a page dealing with Middle Eastern Hotels With A History  that included a story about the Baroness d'Andurin who  purchased the Zenobia Hotel near the ruins in Palmyra, renamed it La Reine Zenobia and dressed as Queen Zenobia.  Now there was a woman who was fascinated with Zenobia.  Yet I think that if I really want to know more about this Queen who challenged the Romans, I should probably read Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt Against Rome by Dr. Richard Stoneman.

 Hester Stanhope, the first of these women explorers, is definitely my favorite.  Her father, the Earl of Stanhope, supported the French Revolution and wanted to give up his title. He removed the coat of arms from his gates and decided to call his home Democracy Hall.  I found his eccentricity delightful, but he was ironically a rather authoritarian parent.  (It's Jacobin irony.  As is well known, the Jacobins ended up being extremely undemocratic when they achieved power. This is why the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English hero who rescued the French aristocrats from their totalitarianly inclined government, has so much appeal to the democratically inclined even though his creator was no democrat.) Yet Hester Stanhope's  life certainly shows that she could be as eccentric as her father had been in her own way.

I was unimpressed by what Cotterman tells us about Jane Digby.  Her life seemed to be largely a catalog of her romances which often seemed to illustrate poor judgment.

The section on Isabel Arundell Burton also deals with her husband, Richard Francis Burton.  I learned about Burton marrying women in India in order to learn their languages. This was apparently a practice of the English during the Raj.  The women were called "walking dictionaries". When I searched for  "walking dictionary in India under the Raj", my top result was a historical fiction called The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey which seems to be about a woman who played that role .  I have an ARC of this novel and hope to get to it eventually.  My perception of Burton is that he always wanted to be the first Englishman to do what no other Englishman dared to do.  I find it unlikely that he was a sincere convert to Islam, but there is considerable disagreement about this issue among scholars. There is a very interesting article on this subject by John Wallen in The International Journal f Applied Linguistics and English Literature called "Sufi, Christian or Buddhist? Richard Francis Burton's Parameters of Belief " .  There are many approaches to Richard Francis Burton, so I decided to give my readers a peek behind the hood of Wikipedia. Articles have pages called "talk sections" in which inaccuracies and controversies are discussed.  Anyone can access them by clicking on the talk tab next to the article tab at the top of every Wikipedia page.   The Wikipedia Talk Section on the Richard Francis Burton Article should give readers an idea of all the controversies that surround this rather colorful historical personage.

Isabel claims to have been in contact with a gypsy named Hagar Burton who predicted her marriage to Richard Francis Burton,  but he searched for Hagar Burton whenever he ran across gypsies and never found her. Isabel also claimed to have the prediction in Romany, but a gypsy tribe named Burton probably would be Travelers of British origin rather than true Rom.  So if Hagar Burton did exist, it's very likely that she wouldn't have been able to write a prophecy in Romany.

After her marriage to Burton, Isabel traveled with him and helped to obtain diplomatic positions for him. She was in Brazil with Burton when he became the British Consul to Brazil in 1864. They lived there until 1867.  Due to my interest in the history of Brazil, I would love to know more about this period in Burton's life.  I did find an archival copy of Burton's memoir of his experiences in Brazil at archive.org .The link I provide accesses the first volume of the memoir.  There is a second volume also available at archive.org .

Yet frankly, I didn't find Isabel very admirable. She had some Lady Bountiful projects such as sheltering abused animals and giving medical care to the poor.  It's important to realize, however, that not only didn't she have medical credentials, she had no training in nursing.  Burton was afraid that she might harm someone, though that apparently never happened.  It also bothered me that Isabel claimed to be Jane Digby's friend, yet she and her husband were involved in undermining the business of the El-Mesrabs which was the family that Jane Digby joined when she married an El-Mesrab. I felt that Isabel was not being loyal to Jane Digby if indeed she was Isabel's friend.  I should also disclose that  before I read about her in Cotterman's book, the only thing I knew about Isabel is that she burned Burton's unpublished writings after his death.  I couldn't forget this as I read about her. One of the courses I'm taking this semester in library school is the Intellectual Freedom Seminar.  I have a tremendous antipathy toward book burning.

Gertrude Bell, another of Cotterman's subjects, had an aunt and uncle with a house in Teheran.  She stayed with them and learned Farsi. She was a climber, an archaeologist and did a great deal of interesting political work, but Cotterman seemed too interested in her unhappy romances.

Freya Stark was the last and most recent of the women covered in this book.  She traveled in the Middle East a great deal, but she was sent there as a propagandist for the British because she knew Arabic.  At one point, she was assigned to speak in the U.S. to convince Americans to support the British Mandate in Palestine.  She said that she'd rather be fighting Italian guerrillas.  I've been reading about how Jewish intelligence operatives played an important role in helping the British gain control of Palestine.  Readers who want to learn more should access this article on the NILI spy group. The British Mandate betrayed the expectations of both the Jews and Arabs who helped to bring it into existence. Freya Stark may have been an excellent propagandist, but this tour to gain acceptance for the British Mandate in Palestine must have been a notable failure.

After reading Cotterman's study,  I will want to read full scale biographies of both Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell.  I know that there are excellent books on both women.  I think that the main value of  Improbable Women is to whet the interest of readers, so that they will want to find out more. 





                                             

Friday, September 20, 2013

Crimes Against Animals are Valiantly Opposed in The See Through Leopard by Sibel Hodge

Sibel Hodge is a UK author who decided to do a giveaway of her latest release on the Goodreads group All About Animals . I had just joined the group after seeing it in my Goodreads friends' feed and was surprised to find that new members are eligible for giveaways.  This is not the case in all groups.  Some groups require that you have a history of activity in the group in order to participate in the group's giveaways.

I was delighted to receive a copy of The See Through Leopard, a YA novel about a griefstricken British teenager whose life is transformed by a leopard.  Last year I'd read Endangered by Eliot Schrefer which received the National Book Award.  Endangered focuses on an African teen whose mother runs a refuge for primates.  I consider it the best novel I read in 2012.  I hoped to be as impressed by Sibel Hodge's book.

                                                         


  I thought this was a wonderful cover, but it did lead me to expect a sentimental novel without realism.  This is not the case.  Sibel Hodge has evidently done a great deal of research on leopards and the situation of wildlife in Kenya.  A portion of the profits from this book's sale will be going to  Panthera, an organization for the preservation of big cats.

The book opened in England where the protagonist, Jazz, was shattered by the death of her mother and the circumstances surrounding it. Jazz also experienced bullying at her school.  This reminded me of  Apollyon, a novel dealing with bullying by UK author, Hilary West. My 2012 review is at Apollyon Review .  The bullying intensified Jazz's suffering.  It was obvious that Jazz was in crisis.  Jazz's father, a veterinarian, decided to move them to a game reserve in Kenya where he and his wife had worked before Jazz was born. It's there that Jazz encountered the leopard who changed her life.

There were a variety of different species at the game reserve, so Sibel Hodge had an opportunity to enlighten us about elephants,lions and rhinoceroses as well as leopards.  Did you know that elephants can hear infrasound,  that there are staged hunts for lions and a black market trade in rhino horns?

The use of rhino horns in traditional Asian medicine has been thoroughly debunked, but the demand for them continues.  I discovered in an article on Rhino Powder on Chinese Wikipedia that there are numerous formulations for rhino powder that are supposed to deal with a variety of ailments and conditions.  I have respect for some practices of traditional medicine.  Acupuncture has been shown to be of tremendous value, and so have many herbs.  The basis for aspirin is willow bark.  See this report from CNN Health on the History of Aspirin .  I am not being close-minded about alternative therapies when I say that rhino horn is useless.  It is verifiable that rhino horn has no benefit. If any of the rhino powder formulations on that Chinese Wikipedia page ever do what they claim, I'd be willing to bet that it's the herbal ingredients listed that are responsible.  Rhino horn is nothing but keratin.  Human fingernails are composed of keratin.  Both rhino horn and fingernails are medically valueless. Yet if Chinese traditional medicine practitioners insist on including keratin in their formulations, they should grind up their own fingernails and let rhinos keep their horns.

The See Through Leopard isn't all lectures about animals.  There are action plot elements, and the characters are well-portrayed.  I particularly liked Zach, the young aspiring filmmaker whose father runs the reserve. Zach becomes Jazz's friend, and he is terrifically supportive. 

Although I liked this novel very much for its compelling themes and characterization, it's not flawless.  There are times when the lectures get out of hand. Readers who are more tolerant of overt didacticism in fiction  may not consider this a problem.  The most notable example is Jazz's speech toward the end of the novel.  I would have preferred breaking up the speech's text with Jazz's thoughts while giving the speech, or a bit of audience response.  Including context makes fiction more evocative. 

I have one other criticism.  I viewed a World Wildlife Federation video on You Tube called Stop Wildlife Crime the day before reading Jazz' speech.  It seems clear to me that Sibel Hodge referred to organizational materials while composing Jazz' speech. I think that she should have cited the materials she used in her author's note. Some readers will want to know.

I do recommend this book.  I actually loved most of it, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't include the flaws of a book along with its strengths in my review. 





                                                       

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Vampire Legends by Kamee Shrope: Beyond The Stereotypes



What I liked most about Vampire Legends (The Collectors Volume 1) is the characterization.  It avoids the old cliché about all vampires being evil monsters, and the newer cliché about all vampires being conventional  romance heroes.  Kamee Shrope treats all her characters as individuals whether they are vampires or human.  Since vampires are born as human beings, they should have a variety of responses to living as vampires because human beings aren't all alike in their responses to any experience.   I have no interest in reading about predators without personality or stereotypical heartthrobs with fangs. Shrope's characters are neither of these.   This is why I requested her book from The Bookplex.

            
                                             
      
                                                     
Shrope begins by telling us about two brothers  who became vampires in 800 A.D. by using a magical spell. Many readers who see that this book deals with two brothers who are vampires will think of the television series,The Vampire Diaries . Shrope might have made the decision to publish her book as a result of the popularity of The Vampire Diaries, but her ideas are her own. Shrope's Vampire Legends also deals with a prophecy about five people born with the vampire virus who would have paranormal powers. These five are known as Legends.  The Collectors are vampires who can identify them.  

I like this concept's historical dimension. The Legends and the Collectors are born in different historical periods and have varying perspectives.  I have to say that their backgrounds aren't always as specific as I would like.  For example, we are told that a character came from the period when Tokyo was known as Edo.  Since Edo became Tokyo in 1868, that's a huge expanse of Japanese history.  See the Wikipedia article on Edo 
                                                        
 A more significant problem is that  Shrope may not have thought through her concept completely.    Those who become vampires with a magical spell can’t pass on a vampire virus that had never incubated inside their bodies.  Logically, none of the other vampires can possibly be children of their blood. Their blood relationship is emphasized, so it seems to be strongly implied that the vast majority of vampires shown in this book are children of the same two sires.  Perhaps the sequel will reveal that I am wrong, and that this is a community that has always sheltered vampires from a multiplicity of origins.  That’s really the only possibility that would make sense in this context.

Now lets talk about the romance in Vampire Legends (The Collectors).  In most paranormal romances that I have seen, the vampire heroes are macho types who never grow or change. This seems unlikely to me when a character has lived for centuries.  Maybe most romance readers prefer macho heroes, but I prefer character complexity.  Chance, the vampire romantic hero, is a whole man who is fully capable in the realms of thought, emotion and action.  He can appear to be like a playful child in one moment, a wise advisor in the next moment, and a strong protector soon afterward. 

Another aspect of this book that is different from conventional romances is the ending.  Romances are supposed to have the famous fairy tale ending "and they all lived happily ever after" which is known as HEA among romance fans.  Instead Shrope has written a cliffhanger ending which I consider a weakness of the novel. Like most readers, I find cliffhanger endings annoying because they are manipulative.  It’s a sign that the author doesn’t believe in her work .  Kamee Shrope must think that people won’t buy her next book if her first one contains a complete storyline.  I think that if readers like me are satisfied by the ending, they are much more likely to buy the next book.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Killing Custer: Custer vs. Arapahos in 2013

Killing Custer by Margaret Coel is a contemporary mystery that deals with historical re-enactment.  I actually know a number of medieval re-enactors and a few Victorian re-enactors , but all these people are hobbyists.  There isn't one of them who truly believes that he or she is a historical personage re-born.  I will not say that such a thing is impossible.  Reincarnation is a cherished belief of  Hinduism, Buddhism and a number of other religions.  Yet in the context of historical re-enactment, a belief that you really are the role you play can cause some serious difficulties in your relationships with the real people with whom you are currently interacting.  This is seen in the lives of several characters in Killing Custer.

I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher, Berkeley Prime Crime, through the good offices of the author's publicist, Julia Drake.

                                                     

I've read other books in Margaret Coel's Wind River mystery series that takes place on the Wind River Arapaho reservation.  My favorite is The Spirit Woman which deals with Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark.

While doing a search on Margaret Coel for this review, I discovered that she has also written an award winning history book on a real Arapaho historical personage.  Here's the page about this work of history on Margaret Coel's website: Chief Left Hand  .  It is among the resources listed in the bibliography at the end of the Wikipedia article Chief Niwot . Niwot  means left hand in the Arapaho language.

The connection that the biography of Chief Niwot has to the book I'm currently reviewing is that he was most probably a victim of the Sand Creek Massacre. Custer and his troops were responsible for a very similar atrocity known as the Washita Massacre which forms part of the historical background for Killing Custer.

Since I am fairly familiar with Custer's history, I thought the most interesting aspect of this novel was legal rather than historical.  Protagonist Vicky Holden is an Arapaho lawyer who has frequently taken pro bono cases for Arapaho clients.  Since this is well known among the Arapaho, I would have imagined that a case in which multiple parties were Arapaho could have led Vicky into a conflict of interest situation in an earlier book.  Conflict of interest is an important issue in legal ethics which does arise very poignantly for Vicky in Killing Custer in a way that I hadn't expected.  Even when there isn't an actual conflict, lawyers want to avoid any possibility that there might be one because the repercussions of such an involvement could end a lawyer's career. To learn more see Rule 1.7 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct on the American Bar Association website.

Yet what I enjoy most about the Wind River series is the friendship between Vicky Holden and co-protagonist Father John O'Malley, who is a priest at the St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation.  There are some wonderful  moments in this friendship during the events of Killing Custer that will gratify the fans of this series.  So I will give my fellow Margaret Coel fans a heads up that this latest installment in the Wind River series will be available very soon.  It is slated for release on September 3, 2013.





                                                               

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Book on Autism Diagnosis By A School Psychologist


I have several friends with autistic children.  As a result, I became interested in the topic.  This is why I selected Is My Child Autistic or Delayed for review when the opportunity was offered to me by The Bookplex.
 
                                                  

Author Susan Louise Peterson is a school psychologist with a great deal of experience with observing autistic and delayed development students.  Is Your Child Autistic or Delayed provides a great many insights based on her experience.  
  
 I thought the approach of having a team assessment with members drawn from a number disciplines observing the child in multiple contexts over a period of time is a sound one.  Peterson’s caution to parents about relying on the use of online questionnaires for the diagnosis of their children seemed to be particularly apt. 

On the other hand, the structure of the book which involves presenting parents’ concerns followed by a professional response lends itself to repetitiveness.  There are many similar issues presented in Is Your Child Autistic or Delayed and similar statements in the replies.  This book could be better organized to eliminate all the repetition. 

Another important criticism is that Peterson doesn’t think that medical doctors have any role in diagnosing autism and can’t imagine how an MRI applies to this process.   The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin, which I read recently, shows how the brains of individuals on the autism spectrum can be different from neurotypical individuals.  An MRI reveals these differences.  Although The Autistic Brain is a new book, the discovery that an MRI can be used as a tool to diagnose autism is several years old.  It surprises me that a professional interested in this topic wouldn’t have noticed the published studies that have validated the use of MRIs for this purpose.

There has been a shake up in the area of autism diagnosis.  Asperger's Syndrome no longer exists as a diagnostic category.  Temple Grandin says in The Autistic Brain that diagnoses are less important than solutions. She takes a pragmatic approach to those highly functioning individuals who used to be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.   It seems to Grandin that if someone's brain functions differently from the majority of people in certain areas, maybe what's needed are coping strategies rather than a diagnosis.  A child who knows how to deal effectively with issues that are considered impairments or challenges, will become a functioning adult rather than an impaired one.  I think that is the goal of both school psychologists like Susan Peterson, and those who speak from the autistic perspective like Temple Grandin. 


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Beat Movement as 1950's Counterculture in The Beat on Ruby's Street



When I first read the summary of  Jenna Zark's novel, The Beat On Ruby’s Street, which I received from The Bookplex, I thought that it had an unusual focus for a YA novel.  Yet in the course of reading this book I realized that the problems that Ruby and her family dealt with are remarkably similar to those that face current families. A book set sixty years ago may seem distant to many readers, but I was struck by how contemporary the issues were.  

                                                        
                                                          

I thought that Ruby herself was humanly flawed, yet still a strong and appealing character for the majority of the novel.  Toward the end of the book I found her somewhat stereotypical.   It was at that point that I came to understand and empathize with Ruby’s mother. I admit that I was impressed with Ruby's mother as an artist from the beginning when I discovered that she's a surrealist like Frida Kahlo. The characterization was mostly very good.  I was glad to see that the social worker was not depicted as a villain.  She was trying to do the best she could for Ruby based on her perception of the situation.

There was one failing with regard to minority characters. Although I loved the pivotal role played by the Latina character, Manuela, I was disappointed that an Asian character rated just a bare mention.   It isn’t only a matter of keeping score of how minorities are portrayed.    I truly think that Ruby’s brother would have had more depth if the author had chosen to show us his relationship with his Chinese American girlfriend.   I felt that this was a wasted opportunity. 

Still my verdict on the novel as a whole is a positive one.  The Beat On Ruby’s Street provides a fresh perspective on a much maligned decade.  The poets, artists and musicians of the Beat Movement represented in this novel were the counter-culture of the 1950’s.  People like Ruby and her family fought the dominant message of conformity.  It’s important that they be remembered.  I really appreciated the inclusion of a bibliography containing some works of the Beat poets, and histories of the movement.

                                         * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A Couple of Research  Notes

When Ruby sang "We Shall Overcome"  as a protest song, I wondered about the history of this song in the protest movement.  I found a wonderful page History of "We Shall Overcome" at the Kennedy Center website.

 I also found a piece that author Jenna Zark wrote about The Beat On Ruby Street  in a spiritual context at  The Beat On Ruby Street at TC Jewfolk