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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.

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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


Monday, July 29, 2013

The Rainaldi Quartet: A Legendary Violin Brings Murder to Cremona, Italy

The Rinaldi Quartet by Paul Adam is a book that I suggested for the mystery F2F group that I attend, and they selected it.  I was pleased because it sounded unusual. The central character who investigates the case is luthier Gianni Castiligione. Luthiers  make stringed instruments. The Wikipedia Article on Luthiers shows a picture of a luthier's workshop in Cremona, Italy where this book largely takes place.  The mystery is about more than the murdered luthier, Tomasso Rinaldi.  It deals with a quest for a legendary violin.  I hoped to get an education about luthiers, violins and their history.


I did learn a great deal. I researched a number of violinists referred to in this book who were previously unknown to me.  In this context, I would like to mention Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Not only did his tremendously valuable Del Gesu violin get stolen as we are told in this novel, but I learned from Louis Spohr on Wikipedia that his opera Jessonda was banned by the Nazis because it deals with a romantic relationship between a Portuguese general and a princess of India which the Nazis considered an example of  heinous race mixing.

I really liked the perspective of The Rainaldi Quartet .We get to see into Gianni Castilliogne's mind. We get insight into how he experiences music and his love for violins. I was impressed by what he had to say to Rainaldi's granddaughter, a budding violinist.

Other good points of this novel were the plotting, the background about luthiers, violin dealers and the history of violins. I was also interested in the historical and cultural background of Cremona, Italy.The story about the violin dealer at the Festival of the Dove was quite vivid.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Original Death: A Mystery of the French and Indian War by Eliot Pattison

I would have read Original Death by Eliot Pattison eventually because I am a fan of his Colonial American mystery series to which this book belongs.  I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it a good deal sooner since I was provided with an advance copy by publicist Julia Drake.


One reason why I like this series is because it reminds me so much of the classic Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper.  Another reason is because protagonist Duncan McCallum was exiled to America on suspicion of being a Jacobite.  I have a sentimental attachment to Jacobites that goes back to when I was a wee child enthralled with Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  For more of my observations on Jacobites see my March 2013 post Playing Red Rover With William Wallace .

Yet the best reason to like a mystery is a plot with unexpected twists.  Original Death definitely delivers plot twists. When the revelation of whodunit finally came, I could honestly say that I didn't expect it.

The characterization was excellent. The anguish of Duncan's Native American companion Conawago over the village massacre that he and Duncan encounter was quite moving as was Duncan's inner conflict precipitated by this mystery. There were also some wonderful side characters such as Hetty the Irish seer, Kassawaya the Oneida warrior woman and the real historical personage, Colonel William Johnson. I was grateful for Pattison's recommendation of a biography of William Johnson in his author's note.  I will want to read White Savage by Fintan O'Toole and probably review it on this blog.

There were also some instances of lyrical prose which lend extra power to this novel. For example when Duncan is reflecting on the Native American perspective he says to himself that  "The settlements, the armies, the endless flow of farmers were like rot in the root of their world."  As a poet myself, I was pleased by the alliteration.

I can recommend this novel to fans of historical mysteries and of the Sara Donati novels that take place in the same period and were also inspired by the Leatherstocking Tales.  I would say that I recommend it to fans of the bestselling Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon as well except that Outlander fans seem to prefer gargantuan tomes with too little plot to justify their length.  Eliot Pattison's books are never over written.  He certainly deserves a wider audience for his work.

Monday, July 15, 2013

East Meets West in Shanghai Love

When I read the summary of Shanghai Love by Layne Wang I was interested in the inter-cultural relationship that is the focus of the novel.  It deals with the intersection of two people with very different histories and backgrounds--a Chinese woman and a German Jewish man.  To find out more about this intriguing meeting of East and West, I requested a review copy from The Bookplex. 


Layne Wong writes in her author’s note that a novel dealing with a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany  in Shanghai  deals with an obscure topic.  It’s not as obscure as it was once.  Prominent mystery writer S.J. Rozan’s  Shanghai  Moon , published in 2009, brings her  Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin to Shanghai to investigate a case involving Jews in Shanghai during World War II.   Many readers became aware of  World War II  Jewish refugees in Shanghai as a result of reading Shanghai  Moon.

What I valued most about Shanghai Love was the female central character, Peilin.  She might seem weak to many American readers, but she comes from the Chinese cultural matrix where duty to your family comes first.  She would not be an authentic character if she simply threw her traditions aside.  I also loved the role played by Chinese herbalism  and Taoist ritual in this novel. 

I wondered why the German Jewish male protagonist’s name used the French spelling, Henri.  A German version of the name would be Heinrich.  A possible explanation could be that his  family originally came from Alsace which was part of Germany until  it was annexed by France in the 18th century.   It’s also possible that  his original name was Herschel which is Yiddish, and a more likely name for someone of his background.   He could have changed it because Herschel would have been associated with ghettoized Jews.  A French name like Henri  would have sounded more sophisticated.

Henri is in some ways fairly typical of his culture of origin.   Many German Jews  were assimilated, and  only loosely affiliated with the Jewish community during this period.  Yet I didn’t find him as interesting as Peilin.  I respected his dedication as a physician.   His openness to Chinese culture was unusual as is shown by the insularity of other Jewish refugees in Shanghai Love. On the other hand, he exhibited a pattern of terrible insensitivity in his personal relationships, beginning with his first love in Germany,  that bothered me.  I think that the events of the novel forced him to mature eventually, but  I would have found Henri  more likeable if he had become more empathic earlier. 

The resolution was satisfying.  It allowed Peilin to feel that she was still behaving correctly by Chinese standards  even though she was following her personal  inclinations in the Western manner.  

It occurred to me, however, that Henri's idea that he and Peilin would face less prejudice in the United States is untrue.  Many states prohibited marriages between Caucasians  and Asians as "miscegenation" until anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967.  See Anti-Miscegenation Laws on Wikipedia .  So Peilin and Henri would probably not have had a happily ever after ending in America at that time in history.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Furies: A Noir Mystery in Roman Alexandria

D. L. Johnstone, the author of Furies, posted to a group on Goodreads.  I clicked on his name and was intrigued by what I read about this book.  It's a historical mystery taking place in ancient Alexandria during the Roman Empire.  I consider that  a very interesting setting. 


I was impressed with the thoroughness of  Johnstone's research and his ability to incorporate it into the plot without trying to overwhelm us with detail.  For those who are interested in knowing more, there is a glossary which includes the sectors of the city of Alexandria.  I learned that Epsilon sector was the site of the original Egyptian city which was called Rhakotis.   I did notice one small error.  Native Egyptians were not called "Fellahin"  during the Roman Empire . This Arabic term arose during the Ottoman Period many centuries later.  See Fellah on Wikipedia 

 Johnstone also researched the Roman aspect.  I learned about how the laws and economy of Roman Alexandria.  I also learned about the opening act at gladiator exhibitions who were called the Praegenarii
They engaged in mock combat with blunted weapons for laughs.

I was surprised that the protagonist's wife, Titania had the right to take his son when she left him in the opening of the novel.  According to Wikipedia on Women in Ancient Rome , in a marriage between two free citizens, a wife could take custody of the children if she could prove that her husband was "worthless".  Titania probably could have done so because he had lost everything he owned.

From a mystery standpoint, this is a noir novel which is not my genre.  Aculeo, the sympathetic central character, made Furies seem less dark with his sense of honor and decency in the midst of all the corruption. Another character that I really liked was Sekhet, the Egyptian healer/medical examiner who assisted Aculeo in solving the case.

Although it was Kelli Stanley who inaugurated Roman noir with Nox Dormienda,  it says something when an indie author like D. L. Johnstone can write a book that is fully the equal of a traditionally published author like Kelli Stanley.  I will be looking forward to seeing what D. L. Johnstone writes next.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fourth of July African American History Focus: A Novel About Fort Mose

I first learned about Fort Mose from a historical novel called Pirates of Savannah by Tarrin Lupo.  I was intrigued by Lupo's brief reference to Fort Mose and wanted to know more.  It was a settlement of escaped slaves in 18th century Spanish Florida that was the first community of free African Americans in the United States.  This was not something I'd ever seen in history books.  I am happy to be posting about this on Fourth of July because I think it's patriotic to heighten awareness of aspects of American history that should be better known.

When I saw that there was a novel available on Net Galley about Fort Mose I thought that this is my opportunity to become more educated on this topic. So I downloaded The Other Side of Free by Krista Russell for review.


I could see from the description that Krista Russell had written a coming of age novel about thirteen year old protagonist, Jem, who was sent to Florida so that he could be free.  Fort Mose was an unfamiliar environment for him. This meant if he didn't understand his new environment , I could learn right along with him.  That's an advantage of  having a young protagonist.  Yet I don't think this is really children's fiction despite the marketing label.  The level of complexity and sophistication in the historical background, and in the lives of the characters could be appropriate for a YA audience however.
 It became increasingly clear over the course of the novel that Spanish authorities weren't allowing the community at Fort Mose to exist in their territory out of kindness toward African Americans or because they were opposed to slavery.  The people at Fort Mose were compelled to swear an oath that they would fight the English if they were to invade Florida.  This coincided with the interests of these former slaves because they knew that they would be returned to slavery by English troops.  The Spanish had invited slaves in the English colonies to Florida hoping to incite a mass exodus that would de-stabilize English society in North America.  It would be interesting to speculate about how different life in North America would be if they had succeeded with this strategy.  Certainly, the United States of America as we know it would not exist today.  So this novel deals with a pivotal moment in American history.

Animal lovers will enjoy Jem's relationship with an infant owl who had a broken wing.  Jem shows compassion by adopting the injured young owl.  He named the owl Omen in response to the attitude of others toward him, but Jem saw the owl as a friend.  The owl got up to some hilarious antics that provide some comic relief in what is otherwise a book with a very serious tone. 

Jem is generally portrayed as naive, but that's appropriate considering his age.  I liked the fact that he did mature and come to understand more about the people in his life.

There was a funeral ritual called "teijami" performed in this book which involved using a mortar and pestle to grind rice into flour as an offering for the dead.  Since I was interested in its origin, I ran a search on "teijami" and located a description of a documentary The Language You Cry In which identifies teijami as a Mende funeral ritual from Sierra Leone.  The text of the teijami song which inspired the documentary is included in both the original Mende and translated into English.  The title of the documentary comes from a Mende saying "You know who a person really is by the language they cry in."  I don't think I've really discovered the entire truth about the people who lived at Fort Mose, but The Other Side of Free has provided me with some more clues.