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Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Novel From An Afro-Cherokee Perspective

Although I don't normally read Christian fiction because I don't like novels that are too overtly didactic, I am very interested in books that deal with Afro-Natives.  That's why I chose to read and review Abraham's Well by Sharon Ewell Foster which is the story of an Afro-Cherokee woman who was born a slave in a Cherokee family.

                                                        


Armentia, the central character of Abraham's Well was brought up among the North Carolina Cherokees believing herself a part of the Cherokee nation.  When  most of the Cherokees were expelled from North Carolina and forced to walk The Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, Armentia and other Afro-Cherokees endured the same privations as full-blooded Cherokees.  I should have realized this.  I knew that the Cherokees were a slave-holding people and that there were Afro-Cherokees among these slaves, but  I had never previously read or viewed any portrayal of the Trail of Tears that depicted Afro-Cherokees.  When a minority is written out of history, no one imagines that they participated in events.

 I did a search for Afro-Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, and found an article dealing with the subject on CNN's blog by historian Tiya Miles  Pain of the Trail of Tears.  Tiya Miles co-edited the anthology Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds which I reviewed on this blog in June 2012 in an entry called "Is There A Place For Afro-Natives?"

This book also made me aware of a group of Cherokees called the Keetoowah. In this novel, Sharon Ewell Foster portrays the Keetoowah as a politico-religious organization of Cherokee Christian abolitionists.  After coming across an article by David Cornsilk  on The History of the Keetoowah Cherokees from The Cherokee Observer,  I had to conclude that this is not an authentic representation of the Keetoowah .  They have had a long and complex history that included various factions.  There have been many Cherokee traditionalists among the Keetoowah who followed the ways of their ancestors.  They also did establish an alliance with white Christian missionaries for political reasons in 19th century Oklahoma after the Trail of Tears.  Today the Keetoowah are a recognized band of the Cherokee nation.

Despite the inaccuracy I discussed above, I'm glad that I read Abraham's Well because of its Afro-Cherokee perspective.  I also found the novel moving at various points, but I now want to read history on this subject.  I expect to read Ties That Bind, a study about an Afro-Cherokee family by Tiya Miles in the near future.



                                                       

Friday, March 22, 2013

Mayan Interface: Shamanism Goes Virtual

If you told me that I was going to read a book dealing with an archaeologist assisting with the development of a virtual exhibit about the city she is studying, and that I would enjoy it, I wouldn't have believed you.  I wouldn't even have laid odds that I would select such a book for review.  Yet the summary in the e-mail that I received from The Bookplex made it sound interesting.  My review is below:



                                                         

I tend to prefer novels that demonstrate their themes through the events of the plot rather than bringing the plot to a halt while the characters discuss ideas.  So I thought that the didacticism in this novel did become too overt at times.  Yet I did consider the resolution of the plot  an eloquent statement about the value of sacred cycles in any culture.

I enjoyed some of the character background.  I think I would have loved to have been a child with a puppeteer as a parent like central character Lydia Rosenstrom. The bond that resulted from Lydia’s shared experience with her niece Ivey made their relationship seem more intense.  I also thought that the background of computer genius Claude Vandermeer made him more sympathetic to me. 

There were aspects of the characterization that I didn’t care for.  Although Mayan Interface is not New Age oriented as a whole, Lydia exhibited certain New Age attitudes that I occasionally found bothersome.  I also didn’t like the fact that the Maya holy man was called   “Nacho”.  It seemed to me that naming him after a snack trivializes him.  It’s hard to take a character with such a name seriously.  On the other hand, I wondered if the historical personage who became the VR persona of one of the characters was too imposing for him.  Perhaps the authors were attempting to show that he had large aspirations.

The novel itself had large aspirations  that I rather admired .  I liked the main thematic thrust of this novel.  The idea that time doesn’t exist on the plane that is accessed by mystics, mediums and shamans is common to a number of spiritual traditions.

The idea that virtual reality  might have unpredictable impact on people is an important observation that we need to heed.  We have already seen that our entertainment technology can have negative effects on some individuals in the case of 3D movies.   Perhaps one of the lessons of this novel is that we should be more cautious about technological innovations.  

                                                      & & & & & & & & & & &

Lydia Rosenstrom isn't just an archaeologist.  She is also a visionary who has trained with a Maya shaman.  When I first read this background, I imagined  that this aspect of the character would probably be modeled on the books of Casteneda whose authenticity is very questionable, but I was pleasantly surprised. The authors, Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin, seem to have done their spiritual homework. 

We learn in Mayan Interface that the shaman or holy man is called a "hmen".  Google thought I had mis-spelled "hymen" when I used it as a search term.  Yet when I scrolled down in the result, I eventually scored with a Google books excerpt at Hmen in Maya History and Religion .  According to John Eric Sidney Thompson ,the author of the excerpt who was an English archaeologist that specialized in the Mayans, the hmenob (plural of hmen) are the last surviving  remnant of the Maya priesthood.  As a minor village religious functionary at the bottom of the priestly hierarchy , a hmen was beneath the notice of the conquistadors.  I thought that was an interesting piece of historical context for this novel.

On the other hand, I am taking a course in legal reference at library school this semester, so I noticed a possible legal problem.  The artifacts that Lydia was studying actually belong to Mexico, but Lydia was assisting in incorporating them in a virtual exhibit at an American museum.  At no point in this novel is it ever mentioned that Lydia got permission or even consulted with the Mexican authorities about this project.  In a course on archives, I learned that a curator should never include images in an exhibit without permission.   When I did a search on this topic, I found a very interesting article called Digitization in an Archival Environment by Sally McKay of the Getty Research Institute that originally appeared in the Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship in 2003.  This article has a section on the legal aspect of digitization which emphasized that  ownership needs to be dealt with before any digitization project begins.  I would like to believe that Lydia or the museum did consult with the Mexican authorities beforehand.  If they failed to do so, I believe that they would have been behaving unethically. The issue of cultural imperialism raises its ugly head.  American museums need to respect the fact that Mayan artifacts are part of Mexico's heritage, and I feel that this should be done in fiction as well. 


Monday, March 11, 2013

Eye of Mercy, Eye of Transformation--Jorge Amado Envisions a New Society in Jubiabá

When I was working on the review for The Tent of Miracles  by Jorge Amado, which I posted in December 2012, I discovered that another Amado novel, Jubiabá , also deals with Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion that interests me.  I recently finished reading it.  My review is below.

                                                    


                                                        
This is an earlier work of Jorge Amado, so it isn't as sophisticated as the novels he wrote later in his career, but it is heartfelt and Amado's characteristic themes are very much present.  According to a Brazilian Biography of Jorge Amado ,it's also one of the first portrayals of an Afro-Brazilian central character in fiction.

 We follow the adventures of Afro-Brazilian orphan Antonio Balduino in what is known as a picaresque novel .  Like Don Quixote, the most renowned picaro, the central character tries to be a hero in a society where heroes don't exist.   Over the course of the narrative, Antonio's idea of heroism changes, and he does become the hero that he set out to be. 

The character named in the title, Jubiabá , is a Candomble priest and healer. He is a respected man who teaches  Antonio some important lessons.  The most emblematic concept that Antonio learns from Jubiabá  is "the eye of mercy".  Antonio eventually comes to the conclusion that "the rich had let their eye of mercy dry up".  This statement about the wealthy doesn't just apply to Antonio's Brazil.  It could easily apply to contemporary American politics.

The Candomble scene in this novel that I most appreciated is the one in which the spirit known as Exu demands to be honored.  He is called "the devil" in this novel and is often viewed that way in Brazil, but he is a Yoruban power who is far more ancient than the Christian devil.  Exu is also known as Elegua in Santeria and Papa Legba in Voodoo.  He is the opener of the way without whom nothing can begin.  He is also a trickster who is known for causing a disturbance.  In an earlier scene,  Jubiabá sends Exu away before the ceremony as is done traditionally in Candomble.  Why include a disturber in your religious pantheon at all? There can be no change if the status quo isn't disturbed first.  Even if all you want to change is a personal habit, your routine needs to be disturbed.  That's why Exu is so necessary in order to start any enterprise. Not all manifestations of Exu are seen as satanic in Brazil.  In Umbanda, another Afro-Brazilian religion, there is such a thing as a "baptized Exu" , a concept that is discussed in the Google Books result that I've linked which is taken from Umbanda: Religion and Politics in Urban Brazil  by Diana DeG. Brown.  It seems to me that seeing Exu as a helpful spirit, makes people realize that new beginnings in their lives are possible.  Things can improve. A being who promotes readiness for change should be honored.

Amado makes an error when he portrays the male Yoruban spirit Omolu as "the terrible Goddess of the bladder".  Omolu , who is also known as Babalú-Ayé  in Santeria, does have a terrible dark aspect as a bringer of plague and other diseases.  Yet worshippers also appeal to Omolu as a healer who can cure disease.  Later in the same scene, Amado associates Omolu with St. Roque  .  The French site to which I've linked tells us that St. Roque was known for stopping the bubonic plague, and devotees still pray for St. Roque's intercession in cases of AIDS.  So Amado's mistake was at least partly rectified with a very appropriate patron saint. 

Despite the rawness of  Jubiabá, there is still much of value in this novel and I was glad that I read it.  I look forward to reading Amado's Sea of Death which is supposed to be a very lyrical Candomble novel that focuses on the Lady of the Sea, Iemanja, a very beloved figure in Brazil.

  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Looking For Answers About Women in the Talmud

After reading Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton which I reviewed on this blog last month, I decided that I needed to know more about women in the Talmud.  So I obtained Women of the Talmud by Judith Z. Abrams, hoping to learn a great deal more about particular women mentioned in the Talmud.  It didn't have as much of that sort of content as I anticipated.

 In this review I will discuss what I consider to be the highlights of Abrams' book and my view of its shortcomings.



I think the biggest revelation of this book for me wasn't about women.  It was that Aramaic wasn't the language that everyone spoke during the Talmudic period as I had been taught.  Only the literate upper class spoke Aramaic which is why the Talmud was written in it.  Everyone else spoke Hebrew.  This came up as the reason why Rabbi Yehuda's maid was the authority about the meaning of certain Hebrew words.  This means that Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, which portrayed Jesus and his disciples (all common folk)speaking Aramaic was inaccurate.  But more importantly, it means that the division between a rabbi and an ordinary person labeled "Am Ha'aretz" was linguistic as well as religious.  Abrams tells us about Rabbi Chiyya Bar Abba visiting a village that was violating the laws established by rabbis right and left.  She imagines that they wouldn't have listened to him.  This would have been especially true if he tried to point out what he viewed as their errors in Aramaic which they wouldn't have understood.  It seems to me that Rabbinic Judaism could not come to be practiced more widely until the rabbis and ordinary Jews shared a common language.

I was also interested to learn about a form of  punishment for Jewish heterodoxy called Niddui.  It takes effect for up to thirty days. Abrams says that it translates to ostracism.  It looks to me like it's related to the Hebrew word for menstruation, Niddah.  Women are pretty much ostracized during Niddah according to Jewish law.

Sometimes Abrams doesn't notice possibilities.  For example, in the case of the unnamed woman in the Talmud  who asked about Enoch, Abrams thinks that she was either a Christian or someone who wanted to explain the Jewish perspective on Enoch to Christians.  As someone who had some ancestors who were Kabalists,  I'm aware that in  Jewish Kabalistic tradition Enoch became the archangel Metatron.  He is very important to the Kabalistic approach.  It was forbidden for women to study Kabala, but what if the woman mentioned in the Talmud who asked about Enoch defied that prohibition?   This would be a very interesting possibility.  I am wondering if Rav Hisda's daughter will be taking up the study of Kabala in future books of Maggie Anton's series about her.

Another example of Abrams not noticing a possibility involves a very strange passage in the Talmud about Rabbi Eliezer disagreeing with the rest of the Talmudic sages.  He is excommunicated even though a voice from heaven endorses Rabbi Eliezer's position.  Abrams said that the lesson is that you shouldn't go against the majority.  Should Jews in general not go against the majority?  Then the Jewish religion would not exist because Abraham, the Biblical founder of the religion, had to go against the majority among his people to pursue his spiritual path.  I was taught by my parents and rabbinic instructors that the majority isn't always right, and that I should be prepared to go my own way which is indeed what I have done.  So why was Rabbi Eliezer really excommunicated?   There's something very wrong with a voice from heaven being disregarded --unless the other rabbis didn't believe it was genuine.  Maggie Anton portrays Talmudic figures practicing magic in Rav Hisda's Daughter.  Rabbi Eliezer might have been excommunicated for perpetrating some kind of fraud through a spell or ventriloquism.  This would have been a hidden reason concealed behind the ridiculous argument that a voice from heaven should be ignored because the Torah is no longer in heaven.  I would have thought that the Jewish position would be that the God who wrote the Torah is in heaven and is the ultimate authority.

Because I am interested in deaf issues I noticed Abrams discussion of the Talmud's view of the deaf.  The Talmudic rabbis viewed those who were born deaf as mentally incompetent.  This is scarcely a unique attitude.  Abrams said that there was no way to communicate with those who were born deaf at that time.  According to Wikipedia on Sign Language there was mention of ancient Greek deaf sign language in the Platonic dialogue Cratylus.  This means that deaf sign language did exist in the Talmudic era.  So communication with the deaf was possible.

Women of the Talmud seemed rather limited to me.  It didn't delve deeply into the topics that it covered. So I found it unsatisfying.   I discovered that a single volume is available through interlibrary loan from  a series published in Germany called A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud.  I requested it and look forward to seeing what it's like.

                                                         

Jacob's Cellar Could Use Some Renovations



 Sometimes I like a book conceptually and find the central characters engaging, but the book's structure isn't ideal.  This is what happened when I read Jacob's Cellar by Richard G. Sharp which I reviewed for The Bookplex.

                                                  

I liked this book despite the fact that I considered it structurally flawed.  I was won over by the loveable Grandpa Fentress, who turned out to be more than a bit of a scamp, and some remarkably entertaining twists in the narrative.

Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that very few events in Jacob’s Cellar were shown as happening to the characters in real time.  More than ninety percent of the novel is conveyed through exposition, dialogue about events that had already happened, and letters.  It seems to me that this is not the most effective way to construct a narrative.  It lessens the impact of the novel.  I often felt distanced from the characters, particularly at the outset. I had a hard time identifying who all these people were, and how they were related to each other. I wished that I had a chart of the Ebhart family for reference.  I might have had an easier time if there had been some flashbacks so that I could have had more direct contact with the more historically distant characters.  They would have been better fleshed out, and therefore more memorable.

The expository passages sometimes felt long and tedious.  This was especially true of the narration about the Civil War.  The author was showing off the extent of his research, but not contributing very much in the way of excitement.

I honestly feel that Jacob’s Cellar was meant to be three books.  The first would be about the earliest generation of the Ebharts in America.  Since the 18th century is my favorite period in American history, I would definitely have loved a firsthand account of the Regulator Revolt and the Battle of the Alamance.  The second would deal with the life and death of the mysterious Jacob, and the third with his son Jake’s experiences in the Mexican War and the Civil War.  The drama of Jake’s war experiences could have been brought to life more successfully by showing them as they happened through the eyes of both Jake and Adelita. 

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 Miscellaneous Notes

I couldn't help noticing that the opening to this novel recalls to mind the Biblical Jacob's Ladder sequence.  I wondered if  the author was inspired by the Bible to write Jacob's Cellar or if he inserted the Biblical parallel later on in the writing process. 

There's an incorrect Poe allusion in this book.  It should be "The Cask of Amontillado", not "The Raven".  I really don't spend my time trying to catch authors in errors, but I remark on them if I do notice them.

 



Sunday, March 3, 2013

Playing Red Rover with William Wallace--On A Foreign Field by Hazel West

Did you play Red Rover as a child?  It involves bringing people from the opposing team over to yours.  I think that Red Rover is a particularly apt central metaphor for a novel about a captured English knight who learns about the Scottish rebels he'd been sent to fight, and changes his perspective.  The novel is On A Foreign Field by Hazel West.

                                                      
Here's some background that reveals my perspective on this topic. I was a teenage Jacobite whose imagination was fueled by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. The Jacobites were supporters of the Scottish Stuart Kings after Scotland had formally become part of a new entity called Great Britain through the Acts of Union .   I read a great many books dealing with The Battle of Culloden . I also became a fan of the Highlander TV Series.  In the Battle of Culloden the Jacobite cause was led to defeat by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Yet the Highlander TV series contained an episode called Through A Glass Darkly that questioned the value of the Jacobite cause and the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The link to "Through A Glass Darkly" that I'm providing will allow you to watch this episode for free on Hulu.  Contacts with Scottish fans of the Highlander show also exposed me to other perspectives on Scottish history. The Jacobite phrase "Charlie is my darling" was not the slogan of everyone in Scotland. In fact, I learned that many contemporary Scots thought the Stuart prince had been "a right Charlie" which is UK slang for being a fool. See Wiktionary definition of Charlie.  It's the third definition under noun.  I  began to question whether the restoration of the Stuart dynasty would have benefited Scotland myself.  Had the Stuarts ever really cared about the Scots?  Did any royal house care about more than maintaining its own power?

I knew that before the Stuarts ruled in Scotland there had been an earlier hero of the cause of Scottish independence who hadn't been a prince or even a nobleman.  His name was William Wallace.  His story was popularized in the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart .  As a commoner in the 13th century, William Wallace never expected to rule Scotland.  He simply wanted to end the tyrannical abuses of English rule. Surely from the perspective of this democratically inclined American, William Wallace made a far better iconic figure than the Bonnie Prince. Yet I had never researched Wallace or even read historical fiction about him. 

Hazel West has written a William Wallace novel that I still haven't read called Freedom Come All Ye. I decided to read her second novel dealing with William Wallace, On A Foreign Field, because it has an unusual focus.  As I indicated above, the central character is an Englishman named Reeve Montgomery captured on the field of battle while he was fighting the rebel forces led by William Wallace.

Reeve originally condemns William Wallace's  battle strategy as being dishonorable.   This is what I had to say about that in a Goodreads discussion of On A Foreign Field :

   At the outset Reeve thinks that William Wallace's tactics are "foul play". I didn't agree, but I think that this  was a common view historically. Many peoples believed that the only fair way to fight was the way they were trained to fight. So if someone used tactics that were outside their training, they were considered dishonorable. In fact, I read that the longbow was considered dishonorable by knights trained to fight with the sword. They thought that slaying at a distance was wrong. Now in the modern world nations routinely drop bombs which is considerably more distanced than the longbow.
I think that war is not a game. Rules for combat are for sports competitions. The reality of real combat is quite different. In the case of the Scots fighting against the English for their independence, it was a desperate struggle. William Wallace's tactics were pragmatic. He did what worked.

Wallace did what worked, but Hazel West also portrays him as being ethical.  He doesn't believe in mistreating prisoners like Reeve Montgomery which is one of the reasons why Reeve begins to change his attitude toward the Scottish cause.

There's another unexpected ally of William Wallace mentioned in this book, a French pirate. I did research on this individual.  His name was Thomas de Longueville.  Here's a site that contains his story: Pirate Joins William Wallace .  It also intrigued me that this pirate was known as The Red Rover. The Electric Scotland website says that Sir Walter Scott incorporated the tale of the Red Rover becoming a follower of William Wallace into The Fair Maid of Perth which you can download for free from Project Gutenberg at the link I've provided in your format of choice.  There was also a novel by James Fenimore Cooper called The Red Rover.  It deals with a pirate, but it's totally unrelated to Thomas de Longueville and William Wallace.

  In an article about the game Red Rover at Red Rover Game Wikipedia states that "rover" comes from a Norwegian word for pirate.  Then the article speculates that the game was originally daring the Vikings to "come over".  Yet the request to the Red Rover in the game to let someone "come over" doesn't really make sense in that context. What if  it was originally about members of a pirate crew asking their commander, the Red Rover, if they can "come over" to William Wallace's side? The game ends with "Red Rover, Red Rover, let everyone come over."  If the game was based on Thomas de Longueville, this might indicate that all the pirates in the crew joined William Wallace's cause, not just de Longueville himself.  So the game Red Rover might not only be a metaphor in the context of this novel. It could actually preserve a part of the history behind the events of the book. 

I always enjoy learning more about history, and discovering more books through research inspired by a work that I'm reviewing.  I feel that my experience of reading On A Foreign Field has been enriched by this research.  The book now has more depth for me. 









                                                  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Witchblade/Red Sonja Gets An "A" For Concept But Implementation Isn't A Complete Success

Witchblade is responsible for getting me back into reading comic books as an adult. As a child I read Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batman and Superman, but I stopped reading comics at the age of twelve. I became a Witchblade fan as a result of the TV series that aired on TNT (2001-2002) starring Yancy Butler as Sara Pezzini, a New York City cop who was chosen by the Witchblade.  The Witchblade is an ancient intelligent artifact that has chosen female wielders for thousands of years.  Probably the most famous historical Witchblade wielder is one of my favorite historical personages, Joan of Arc, who was the subject of historical flashbacks in the TV series. The Witchblade unites with the wielder, and is said to balance the powers of light and darkness. The comic book and the TV series mainly deal with the contemporary wielder Sara Pezzini.  The original publisher and owner of the franchise is Top Cow, but it has licensed other companies to publish Witchblade. 

Most recently, Dynamite Entertainment published a six issue crossover series called Witchblade/Red Sonja. I admit that I didn't read the series when it was in print.  Red Sonja is not a character that I've followed, so I've had to research her history for this post. She is partly based on two historical swordswomen created by Robert E. Howard named Sonya of Rogatino and Dark Agnes of Chastillion, but Red Sonja was created by Roy Thomas for Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian series.  Conan the Barbarian is another Robert E. Howard character. Red Sonja became part of the Conan mythos which is set in prehistoric times in the "Hyborean Age" which is a completely fictional construct. She first appeared in Conan the Barbarian #23 in 1973. Dynamite currently publishes a Red Sonja series, and  I was delighted to learn that Gail Simone (best known to me for her phenomenal work in DC's Birds of Prey series) will start writing it in July.

The Witchblade/Red Sonja series has just been re-published by Dynamite as a graphic novel  and Net Galley offered it for review.  I selected it for review because of my interest in Witchblade.  It was written by Doug Warner with art by Cezar Razek.  



Comics definitely work better for me in print format than they do in electronic format.  I read this in Adobe Digital Editions on my computer which allowed me to enjoy the art in full color.  I was impressed with the way Cezar Razek brought Red Sonja's  environment alive, but I found some of the transitions between contemporary Witchblade and prehistorical Red Sonja very abrupt.  Perhaps they wouldn't have felt that way in print where they would probably have involved turning a page or been marked as a new section. 

 I liked the idea of  incorporating Red Sonja into the Witchblade continuity.  I also liked the fact that Sara Pezzini and Red Sonja were in a position to aid each other.  Unfortunately, there was a big police procedural plot hole on the Witchblade end.  It may sound strange that I can accept a cop who fights a supernatural villain with the aid of an ancient artifact allied across time with a prehistorical swordswoman, but can't suspend disbelief when contemporary police procedure isn't followed.  I'm the sort of reader who is bothered by inconsistencies.  I realize that if  this particular error had been corrected, an additional issue would probably have been required to resolve the plot.  Yet I think it would have been a better story.

I am hoping that the Witchblade movie that has been touted since 2009 finally does get made, and that it meets my expectations.  Meanwhile it would be really nice if a talented writer gets on board with the comic series.  I want to love Witchblade, but not every incarnation of Witchblade has been worthy.