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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Madame Daeng Wows Me in Colin Cotterill's Latest Dr. Siri Novel

I belong to a F2F mystery group that meets in a local independent bookstore.  Sometimes this group introduces me to a mystery series that becomes a must read for me.  Since I have a taste for the unusual, this doesn't happen very often. The group tends to select fairly standard police procedurals.  So I didn't expect much from a book with a title like The Coroner's Lunch. At least I didn't until I discovered that the book takes place in Laos, that Dr. Siri, the coroner central character, is quite unique, and that supernatural events have an affinity for him.  His staff and coterie of friends are also very memorable.  I read every single one and continued to love the characters even though the plots in the succeeding volumes didn't meet my expectations. This brings me to the most recent title in the series, The Woman Who Wouldn't Die.


 The greatest strength of this book is the excerpts from Madame Daeng's memoirs.  I enjoyed learning about the role she played in the history of  Laos.  I discovered  from these memoirs that the French created Lao refugee camps to cultivate Lao hostility toward the Thai, but this tactic backfired on them.  Instead an anti-French Lao independence movement  emerged from the camps called Lao Issara.  Lao Issara, which was not Communist, actually became the governing faction of Laos in 1945.  The Wikipedia article to which I've linked summarizes the reasons why Lao Issara didn't remain in power. 

This series has been a pretty wild ride especially when it comes to the paranormal, but in this book the mystery's solution can be arrived at by employing the rather mundane Occam's Razor. (The simplest explanation is the one that will turn out to be true. ) This is a principle of logical reasoning that I would never have thought had any place in Dr. Siri's  world  where the improbable  is almost to be expected.  For me, it's a disappointment that a case that seems so intriguing should be resolved in such an ordinary way.  There is also some unbearable cutesiness toward the end.  So aside from Madame Daeng's memoirs, this book was disappointing as a whole.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Sukkah and the Lulav--A Feminist Perspective on a Jewish Holiday

I found out about the existence of a series of books called A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud while I was researching my blog entry on Women in the Talmud which I reviewed in March. The volume on Massekhet Sukkah by Shulamit Valler,  a section of the Talmud dealing with the holiday of Sukkot, was available to me through interlibrary loan.  I feel fortunate that any of these books are available through public libraries in the U.S. because these are books published in Germany which would be extremely expensive for me to obtain.


   Considering that Sukkot is a family holiday, Valler wondered why the Talmud would exempt women from dwelling in the huts constructed for Sukkot.  The singular of hut in Hebrew is a Sukkah, and oddly enough the validity of  the Sukkah belonging to Queen Helene of Adiabene is discussed in the Talmud.  Valler deduces that women were not exempted from dwelling in the Sukkah during the Second Temple period when Helene of Adiabene lived.   See Helene of Adiabene on the Jewish Women's Archive for more information.  This Queen was a convert to Judaism and very devout.   She would not have built a Sukkah if she hadn't been encouraged to do so by the Rabbis who instructed her.  They evidently had no problem with her Sukkah and used to visit it on Sukkot on a regular basis.

Another piece of  evidence that women weren't always exempt from living in the Sukkah includes Shammai putting a Sukkah like covering over his daughter in law when she was giving birth on Sukkot.  If she wasn't required to be in a Sukkah, why would she need the covering?  My only question about this as evidence, is that it's known that Shammai was stricter than other Rabbis. Yet he was not unique in including women in the commandment of the Sukkah.  In the Talmud it's described how Abbaye found Rav Josef sleeping in his Sukkah with his new wife under the wedding canopy.

Then there was the case of Rabbi Eliezer's ruling about an Epitropos (overseer) employed by King Agrippa that he must eat two meals with each of his two wives in her Sukkah.  This was also in the Second Temple period.  The requirement was that two meals per day should be eaten in a Sukkah. It seems to me that the requirement should attach to the practitioner, not to the Sukkah.  A Sukkah is a structure.  It doesn't have religious obligations.  So it should be two meals regardless of how many Sukkot you visit per day.  Modern Talmudic scholar Adriel Schremer said that Rabbi Eliezer made this ruling that the Epitropos with two wives needed to eat four meals because he believed that men should be monogamous, and he wanted to make it more burdensome to be polygamous. This case is yet another indication that women had Sukkot, and that they lived in them during the holiday.   

There is mention in the Talmud of a type of Sukkah not built for the holiday called a Women's Sukkah.  Valler thinks that this is a menstruation hut. There were never any menstruation huts in the land of Israel, but there were in Babylon due to Zoroastrian influence.  This is shown in the novel Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton.  Not all Jewish families in Babylon confined menstruating women to huts in Anton's book, but some did. 

Even more interesting to me is the issue of  what is valid as a lulav.  A lulav is a branch that is shaken on Sukkot to bring rain.  It is said in the Talmud that a Ba'al branch is valid, but an Asherah branch isn't.  Ba'al and Asherah are both Pagan deities.  One would think that neither would be valid because they are associated with Pagan worship.  Valler wants us to know that a plant that didn't need watering was called a B'aal plant, so they weren't actually recommending something associated with Pagan practice.  Yet she also tells us that they were called Ba'al plants because whether or not they received water was up to Ba'al.  So it seems to me that the terminology was Pagan, and so was the lulav.  Ba'al was a rain god.  It's said in the Talmud that the lulav is phallic.  This is why an Asherah branch isn't valid.  Asherah was a goddess.  Valler doesn't say that Judaism adopted the lulav from the Pagans, but it does seem like an inescapable conclusion.

Finding substantiation of Pagan borrowings in Judaism is important because it shows that Judaism was probably more like other ancient religions than the Rabbis want us to believe.

I found reference to an essay on whether Huldah might have been a prophet of the goddess Asherah in this book, and a book called The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah by Judith M. Hadley.  This is the direction in which I will now be taking my research.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Oz Reimagined: Toto, I Don't Think We're Over The Rainbow Anymore

I never read the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, but the movie was an integral part of my childhood.  I also loved Was by Geoff Ryman which dealt with "the real" Dorothy Gale and the value of escapism.  Ryman's book showed me how a mythic narrative like Oz lends itself to the kind of re-visioning that happens in the anthology Oz Reimagined edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen.  There were several really powerful stories.


  The title "One Flew Over The Rainbow" points toward One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.  Readers shouldn't be in any doubt about the thematic emphasis of this story.   Like Kesey's novel, it deals with the patients at a mental institution.  Dorothy is one of them.  The metaphoric use of characters from Oz might seem heavy handed to some, but I thought it was very apt.  It's not for those who expect a story for children.  This is a dark vision for adults.

 "The Veiled Shanghai" by Ken Liu is more complex.  It takes place in an alternate steampunk Shanghai in 1919 where all the residents are under police surveillance through a device called the "Panopticon".  I ran a search for Panopticon and discovered that the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham had the idea of creating prisons in which the prisoners were under constant surveillance.  The Wikipedia article Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon discusses it in detail.  He believed that the knowledge that they were always being observed would reform the prisoners.  Of course, the technology for such a project didn't exist in the 18th century.  It does exist now. There are an increasing number of contexts in which citizens are under surveillance.  Ken Liu brings the Panopticon into reality in the early 20th century in his alternate Shanghai.  Dorothy Gee from our Shanghai arrives in the alternate version of the city and gathers companions who are parallel to the Oz characters.  Liu also plays with elements of the history of China during this period. This is a very interesting and involving story.

"A Tornado of  Dorothys" by Kat Howard utilizes the familiar Oz matrix, but it's a repeating scenario.  Many incarnations of the characters are trapped in their roles in an infinite loop waiting for the Dorothy who can end it.  I loved the way it was resolved.  It was truly magical. 

Although other stories in the anthology aren't on the same level as the ones I've mentioned, I do recommend it.  Oz can be a mirror that reflects back what we see in it.


The First Rule of Swimming: A Croatian Island Can Be Home or a Prison

I was definitely surprised to find that  a major traditional publisher like Little Brown was allowing me to download one of their books on Net Galley without an approval process. That certainly shows how much things are changing in the publishing industry. It looks to me like Little Brown took a risk on a first novel by a relatively unknown writer.  Perhaps they thought that casting a wider net during the pre-release phase would help the book find its audience.  The book is The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic who has a short story anthology and a memoir to her credit.


Most reviews that I've seen say that this is a book that focuses on the bond between the two sisters, Magdalena and Jadranka.  I think that the differences between the two sisters are actually more important.  Jadranka is a talented artist and an individualist. She desperately wanted to leave home for the sake of her art career.  Magdalena values tradition, community and family.  Because Magdalena values these things, she remains on the island off the coast of Croatia where she was born.  She commits to the community as a teacher, and lives with her grandmother who gave her security and a sense of home.  When Magdalena learns that Jadranka has disappeared, she never gives up on trying to find her.   Would Jadranka have done the same if Magdalena had been the one to disappear?

Since Americans have been brought up to believe that separation from family is part of the process of growing up, I imagine that most American readers will find Jadranka more sympathetic and wonder what's wrong with Magdalena.  I feel that Magdalena's choices are legitimate ones and that they are the right ones for her.    I was also impressed by Jadranka.  She is an amazingly strong woman and a survivor.  Brkic's characters are very real--sometimes painfully so.

Because I have a concern with authenticity, I need to mention that there is no island called Rosmarina off the coast of Croatia.  There is an island called Brac which may be the island that Rosmarina is modeled on, or it may be a composite of more than one island.

I noticed a reference to Our Lady of Sinj in The First Rule of Swimming. So I researched her, and learned that this Croatian Madonna is very important to Croatians and Croatian-Americans.   She is also known as Velika Gospa which is the name given to her feast day.  Read more about it at Chicago Croatian-American Church on Our Lady of Sinj.                                           

Monday, May 13, 2013

Angel On The Ropes: The Circus vs. Injustice on Another World

It's amazing that I'm discovering such good circus novels this year.  If you've read my review of The Julius Romeros Extravaganza by Hayley Lawson-Smith that I posted on this blog last month, then you know that I'm a circus fan. Lawson-Smith's novel focuses on a circus that re-imagines the sideshow.  Angel on the Ropes by Jill Shultz is a science fiction novel dealing with a central character who is a trapeze artist in a future that has many commonalities with our present world. 

One of my favorite circus novels of all time is The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In some ways it's the history of a family devoted to the trapeze. Yet the protagonists are Mario and Tommy, who would have been devoted to each other in an era with more enlightened attitudes toward sexuality. In Angel on the Ropes that era has arrived, but prejudice of another type still poisons society.  Perhaps prejudice is a human habit of mind that can never be completely eradicated.  It will always evolve new forms.  


 I downloaded Angel on the Ropes from Net Galley and read that the protagonist is a leopard. This led me to the conclusion that she is a shifter who changes into a jungle cat.   I'm definitely open to reading about shifters.  It's become a very popular feature of urban fantasy.  So I thought that the central character, Amandine, lives in a future society where the prejudice du jour is against people who can shift into leopard form. I also wondered if she had a prehensile tail that would let her swing from a trapeze as a leopard. That was a truly awesome mental image.  Then I discovered that Amandine is not a shifter and had to push my internal re-set button.   Jill Shultz's speculative imagination had gone in a completely different direction. Amandine is a one of a minority of humans who had been born with spots on her skin which resemble a once virulent disease.  Leopards are unjustly believed to spread this disease. This is the flawed rationale behind the prejudice against them.

Another important social issue emerges in Angel on the Ropes. Jill Shultz deals with our contemporary concern over the cost of healthcare in a context where medicine is run by giant corporations through showing us a powerful "if this goes on..." scenario that seemed bizarre yet frighteningly real like all of the very best science fiction that I've read. 

Even though Amandine lives in the future where the circus incorporates technology whose impact I can only see in  my mind's eye, Cristallo, the circus where she performs has historical roots. I relish historical research.  When I searched for  Cristallo's circus antecedent , Cirque Napoleon , I found this article on Circopedia, which is presumably an equivalent of Wikipedia dealing with the circus.   The article also mentioned Jules Léotard, the 19th century gymnast who originated the trapeze act on  November 12, 1859. (According to the The Encyclopedia Britannica, Jean-François Gravelet invented the tightrope act that same year.) He was apparently a very popular performer and yes, the leotard was named after him.  I also discovered a science fiction connection.  There is a graphic novel called The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard in which comics writer Eddie Campbell created a fictional nephew of Jules Léotard for a series of historical circus adventures which included superheroes. Superheroes and the circus sounds like a dynamic duo. I hope to be reading it some time this summer.

Jill Shultz didn't only research circus history.  She did some thinking about how futuristic performers would function if they did a retro show which does happen in the course of this novel.She realized that  Amandine wouldn't know techniques that are regarded as elementary for circus performers today.  This is really good extrapolation.

I saw a reference to a circus language called Parlari in this novel that explains why some of the dialogue sounds foreign.   It is not some futuristic slang.  Jill Shultz did not invent Parlari. She discovered it through research, and integrated it into her book.   I found a brief  Parlari glossary at a circus website.  I recognized words that are used by circus characters throughout Angel on the Ropes.  It's apparently a creole of various languages.  It's fascinating, but not unexpected that Romany, the language of the gypsies, is integral to Parlari vocabulary. 

With all the things that Jill Shultz did right, I am reluctant to point out that her book has one weakness.  I like the concept of what is supposed to be the resolution and I loved the final scene, but we are left hanging  without finding out whether the plan for a resolution worked.  I imagine that there is supposed to be a sequel, but I like books to stand on their own.  This book is really unresolved.  That is my only objection to an otherwise excellent novel.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Paris Lawyer: When Inexperience Tries My Patience

I downloaded The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier from Net Galley.  This is a French mystery novel that was very well received in France and was recently translated into English.  The central character is a lawyer who has been assigned her first homicide case.  She is defending a woman of color charged with the murder of her  husband.  It was an inter-racial marriage in a rural French community where all outsiders tend to be viewed with suspicion, but I anticipated that racism would play a role in the way that the accused woman is viewed.  I thought that this book would grapple with some interesting issues.


I will  say that Granotier has created multi-layered characters with complexity. Complex characterization doesn't necessarily make for sympathetic characters.  There were only two characters in this book that I found sympathetic and neither of them was the protagonist, Catherine Monsigny.  She didn't understand her client because of her own racism.  It's true that all defense lawyers in France are hampered by France's legal presumption of guilt until proven innocent. Catherine Monsigny also has a tendency to leap to unwarranted conclusions which doesn't serve her well either as a lawyer or as an "investigator". I  put this in quotes because she doesn't really investigate.  She stumbles on evidence, but never examines it fully or investigates further. I feel that she displays poor judgement in both her professional and personal life.  I would normally make allowances for her inexperience, but she doesn't seem to learn from mistakes.  The plot strand dealing with a mystery in Catherine's past didn't raise my estimation of her acumen at all.

Olivier, one of the characters in this novel who I did consider sympathetic, has an interesting surname that reminded me of a legacy of historical persecution.  His last name is Huguenot which is what French Protestants were called.  Huguenot on Wikipedia  is a good introduction to the topic.  It chronicles the prejudice that Protestants in France faced, and the history of their emigration to other nations including the United States. The prominent American revolutionary, Paul Revere, was a Huguenot. Yet some Huguenots did remain in France. This era of oppression ended when Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles in 1787.   If Olivier was of Huguenot ancestry, as seems likely with such a name, this would explain why he was more tolerant than others in his village.  I imagine that Granotier  gave him this name because she intended to underscore the fact that one didn't always need to belong to another race or ethnic group to be the object of prejudice in France. 

Although I already knew about Huguenots, I did learn from The Paris Lawyer that all lawyers in France are addressed as "Maître" which means master in English.  This title applies whether the lawyer is male or female.  The female equivalent "Maîtresse" is used for female school teachers and a number of other occupations according to this French-English dictionary but not for lawyers.  This can be seen as the French paying tribute to women who are lawyers. In my view, the title Maître implies that they are masters of their field and fully the equals of male lawyers.

So this book did deal with some significant themes as I initially thought, but I still don't recommend it to mystery fans.   Catherine Monsigny's shortcomings irritated me.  In fact, my opinion of her worsened over the course of the novel.