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Oracle Bones, by Lydia Kwa

November 16, 2017

Oracle BoneOracle Bones, by Lydia Kwa. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.

4 stars

An exciting narrative of ghosts and spirits, Buddhism and Taoism, and power politics which include women, set in seventh-century China and written by a Chinese Canadian woman.

Lydia Kwa is a Canadian who came to the country in 1980.  While she was earning her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she began writing and publishing her poetry.  She established her clinical practice in Vancouver where she continues to practice, but she also has made room in her life to become an established author who has published several novels.

Oracle Bones interweaves two narratives. In one, a nun saves a young girl from slavery and brings her to a cloister where she is educated.  In the other, a woman gains the Chinese throne by being more ruthless than her competitors.  In both stories, Kwa uses traditional male versions of Chinese history and mythology but subverts them with the inclusion of powerful women.  Both stories are also full of magical powers and the spirituality of Buddhism and Taoism.  As the stories intersect, dangerous conflicts surface over the control of a magical object, a bone oracle.

Although the context is sometimes strange, Kwa tells her stories with grace and clarity.  Her extensive experience in psychology is reflected in her treatment of her characters.  In her hands, the Tang dynasty in China carries tense reflections of our society today.  A list of the major characters at the front of the book is helpful.

I recommend this book to those who are excited by new versions of old narratives and who like drama and excitement combined with psychological insight.  And to those who love magic.

Gardasil: Fast-Tracked and Flawed. Helen Lobato.

November 11, 2017

Gardasil: Fast-Tracked and Flawed. Helen Lobato.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2017.

4 stars

A valuable critique of how Big Pharma has pushed a dangerous vaccination that has gotten governmental support for its widespread use on teenagers without adequate conceptualization, testing, or honest information about its risk.

Spinifex is a wonderful feminist press in Australia with a mission to publish exciting fiction and non-fiction on controversial issues.  Anyone interested in the facts behind women’s contemporary issues will profit from keeping up with their publications.  For them, “publishing remains political.”   Helen Lobato is an Australian critical care nurse and independent activist who has researched and spoken on women’s medical issues. She has a degree in Media Studies and hosts radio programs centering on women’s affairs and health.  She writes about a complex topic with clarity and abundant research.

Lobato sees a cluster of related mistakes that have been made relating to this controversial vaccine said to eradicate cervical cancer. The idea that HVP virus is sexually transmitted has been disproven.  There is no good evidence that the HVP virus is even connected to cervical cancer.  Even the idea that cancer is essentially a virus is now being questioned.  There is no way to prove that the vaccine will prevent cancer which would only occur decades in the future.   In developed nations, pap smears are a reasonable method for identifying and dealing with cervical cancer, a disease that is declining even where vaccination is not offered.  The impact of environmental factors such as poverty and malnutrition as contributing factors needs to be considered when evaluating trial results.

Another set of problems that Lobato identifies is that very real harm that has happened to some of those girls and boys who have been vaccinated.  Positive media excitement over this drug has been widespread, and governments have given it out for free in schools.  Parents and those receiving the drug cannot make “informed consent” when information about the possibility that it is not effective and the risks it poses have been withheld.  The stories of those who has died or become seriously and irreversibly ill are extremely moving.

I am particularly sensitive to the young people who have been hurt by this vaccine. I have a weird medical history of surprising and dangerous reactions to drugs that do not cause such reactions in others.  Unsurprisingly, my immune and neurological systems and my brain have been affected.  I share Lobato’s concern that we must stop letting Big Pharma get away with such irresponsible actions.

This book is not a screed against vaccination.  Instead Lobato provides an important case study in what Big Pharma has done to increase profits while putting others at risk.  Her account is primarily about what happened in Australia.  Because the problem is global, she includes data from many countries.  Merck, on whom she focuses, is an American based company.   I see no reason to doubt her account, but even if you disagree with her, you need to know and address her concerns about this drug and the way in which international power brokers threaten all of us.  It is our responsibility as good citizens to expose and stop international corporations from controlling our lives.

This book should be read by all who care about knowing what the take-over of global power means for those being put at risk—in this case young teenagers.

Weeping Water, by Karin Brynard.

November 8, 2017

Weeping WaterWeeping Water, by Karin Brynard.  World Noir, April 2018. Translated by Isobel Dixon and Maya Fowler.  Forthcoming!

5 stars   FAVORITE

A superb novel, a well-crafted murder mystery, a fine rendering of complex characters, and an account of how the shift to fairer treatment of one group brings fierce reaction from another in South Africa and wherever the process is occurring.

Karin Brynard is an Afrikaner who grew up in the northern cape of South Africa, the setting for this book. She worked as a political reporter covering the freedom struggles in the 1980s.  When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, she was a political correspondent for a national Sunday paper with a privileged view of events. She has published two previous award-winning novels.  Weeping Water was originally published in Afrikaans and was translated into English by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon; both of them are native people of the region.

Brynard has written a fine mystery with lots of conflict and suspense, but she has done much more in Weeping Water.  She has created a variety of complex characters who change and develop as they are forced to face what is happening to them and those around them.  In addition she reveals the economic, political, and social tensions awash in rural South Africa after the ending of apartheid.  Afrikaners, non-Afrikaner whites, and a variety of blacks interact, threatening each other with loss of wealth, power and identity

No character is a simple stereotype of his or her heritage, but land reform has resulted in resentment, greed and disappointment that structure the conflicts.  Some of the major characters are non-Afrikaner whites.  Inspector Albertus Beeslar is the police officer, a classic detective who is newly arrived in the small town after a murky experience as a cop in Johannesburg.  He is called in when a young woman, Fredericka Swarts, and her adopted child are found killed in their isolated farm house.

Fredericka’s estranged sister, Sarah, proves essential to solving the mystery. They face a variety of Afrikaners; a rabble-rouser and his parents who simply want to return to a non-violent past and a farmer who had fallen in love with Fredericka.  Blacks also play key roles in the book. They include Beeslar’s clueless rookies, the woman who had been a nanny for the Swartz sisters, and Dam the educated, competent farm manager whom the Afrikaners try to blame for the killing. Brynard calls him “the new South African.  As one of the characters remarks, all believe that they have been abandoned by those in power in their country.

The harshness and the beauty of the Kalahari is ever-present in the book and as is the simple presence of heat on people trying to function there. The name of the farm at the center of the book is Huilwater, which translates as Weeping WatersAs in any semi-desert land, access to water is essential to the plot.

 I had known that South Africa had problems after the end of apartheid, but I had only a vague sense of what was happening there.  Brynard helped me understand the country’s ongoing conflicts.  I also came away from the book with a deeper grasp of the conflicts that are occurring in my own country and in all regions where power is shifting.

I recommend this book to a variety of readers, including those who care about people and social/political issues and those who enjoy books full of suspense and conflict.

Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? By Heath Fog Davis.

November 3, 2017

Beyond Trans
Beyond Trans:  Does Gender Matter?  By Heath Fog Davis.  NYU Press (June 2, 2017).

5 stars

A thoughtful account of the obstacles that transgendered individuals face in our gendered world and suggestions for change.

Heath Fog Davis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University.  He transitioned into being a male when he was thirty-eight. As a girl growing up, he was a tomboy who often dressed as a boy.  He relates the humiliation he regularly faced when he used public restrooms designed for women.

Beyond Trans clearly reveals that the rigid enforcement of two gender identity is both harmful and misguided.  Rules requiring us all to be either male or female often have no relevance in the situations where they are enforced.  Davis gives us examples of how the labeling gender on bus passes leaves some trans vulnerable to the drivers to define which gender they are.  And yet actually riding the bus is not an activity that must be gendered. He was part of the effort to remove gender labels on the buses in Philadelphia.  Other examples he discusses include restrooms, sports, and single-sex colleges.

I know little about individuals who are trans and appreciated Davis introducing me to the invisible ways in which they are hurt and humiliated.  He also pushed me to think in new ways about the rigidity of our society’s gender definitions.

I urge others to read this book and think about the issues it raises for all of us who dream of more inclusive world.

Betrayal at Iga, Susan Spann.

October 29, 2017

Betrayal at IgaBetrayal at Iga, by Susan Spann. Prometheus Books, 2017.

4 stars

An engaging mystery, another in a series featuring a Portuguese Jesuit and his Japanese friend and protector in sixteenth century Japan.

Susan Spann is an American woman who is an expert in Japanese culture and history.  In college at Tufts University, she focused on Asian Studies and then went on to law school.  Once her law career was established, she turned to her love of Japanese history and started her series about Father Mateo and Hiro Hattori. This is the fifth book in the series.

When Father Mateo came to medieval Japan as a missionary, he was granted a ninja master, Hiro Hattori, as a translator and protector.  In previous books, the pair has solved several mysteries.  This time they visit the home village of the Hattori clan. When they are there, representatives from a rival clan arrive to negotiate a sensitive peace deal.  The leader of the rival clan dies of poison, and the murderer must be found.  Mateo and Hiro lead the investigation.  The search for the murderer reveals the details of clan life as more murders take place and the situation becomes increasingly tense.

I really enjoy books like this one which give me a well-told mystery set in another time and place.  I like being able to learn about people I could never know through a story that reveals how a culture actually works.  I particularly appreciated Spann’s treatment of women in the narrative, and I just wish that I knew more about its accuracy.  Thanks to Susan Spann for this series.

I strongly recommend this book as a good mystery and a window into medieval Japan.  Although it is one of a series, it also works well as a stand alone book.

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo.

October 27, 2017

<Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo.  Restless Books, October, 2017.

5 stars

Translated from the French by Allison M. Charette

5 stars

Epic historical fiction about a slave and his master’s daughter caught in the violence and mass killings that erupted in Madagascar in the early nineteenth century when Christianity and modern technology threatened traditional religion and power structures.

Naivo is the pen name for Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa.  Madagascar is his home country. He has worked as a journalist there as well as a professor in Paris.  Now he is a Canadian journalist.  He has published a number of short stories, which have not been translated into English. Beyond the Rice Fields is his first novel. It was published in its French original version in March 2012 by Éditions Sépia in Paris.

The love story of Tsito and Fara, the dual narrators, ground the national story of terror and destruction of nineteenth-century Madagascar.  Tsito is a slave, his family killed and himself sold into a family in another traditional village.  Despite his status he has a relatively happy childhood alongside Fara, the beautiful daughter of his new masters.  As they become adolescents, Christian missionaries open a school nearby which they both attend but neither become Christians.  Both leave the village and the rice fields, taking different paths. Repeatedly separated, they are regularly reunited in a nation facing rapid changes in many facets of life. Their lives intersect with a variety of others, each carrying his or her own stories.  Tsito becomes free, goes to England, and gives his perspective on what he finds there. Eventually he returns to Madagascar where the horrors and the destruction have increased, and the major characters are in danger.

The story has often been told of cultural conflict between traditional societies and the combination of Christianity and economic/political modernization. What is unusual about this book is the way in which Naivo is able to weave together both the overpowering public narrative with the individual stories of real people.  The issue is not which belief will the leading characters choose but whether they can survive the violence of traditional leaders threatened with religious and economic change. This is clearly a book from the view of the colonized not the colonizers.

Navio is a talented writer. He tells his story in a rather conventional manner with lots of detail and a formal style. Beyond the Rice Fields is a big book, conceptualizing a big story.  He is able to balance the complicated narratives that he tells.   His prose and his plot are both gripping.  The book is not an easy one to read, however.  This is said to be the first novel from Madagascar to be translated from the French in which it was written into English.  I found the names long and difficult and many unfamiliar words.  There was a glossary, but it was at the end of the book and hard to access in my ebook.  None the less, the book was worth of the effort to read it.

I wholeheartedly recommend it to all others ready to read a fine book that moves them into new territory.

Master Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul, by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark Burrow.

October 21, 2017

the-trouble with illnessMaster Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul, by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark Burrow. Hampton Roads Publisher, 2017.

3 stars

A new “translation” of the fourteenth century mystic which conveys the poetry of his words as a source of spirituailty.

Master Eckhart (1260 – c. 1328) was a German theologian and mystic who wrote academically in Latin and preached in vernacular German. Although some considered him a heretic during his lifetime, his writings have been popularized today, especially by those who are involved in Creation Spirituality such as Jon Sweeney.  Sweeney has published over two dozen books on topics related to spirituality.  I was not able to find information about Mark Burrow, but Sweeney seems to be an important figure in the non-denominational movement.  While this book contains information about Eckhart, little is said about its authors or their choices of which parts of Eckhart’s writing to include.

I was familiar with Eckhart from my own readings in spirituality and glad to receive a copy of Master Eckhart’s Book of the Heart.  I was not surprised to find his words moving.  Eckhart writes glowingly about oneness with God, possible only if we empty ourselves of our selfhood and pretensions. In the selections in this book, he does not write in a rational, theological manner, but expresses his mystical visions.  Certainly Eckhart’s mysticism is squarely within the Christian tradition, but he resembles Eastern religions in his celebration of the need to let go.

The authors point out that they have not provided a close translation of Eckhart, but have focused on the poetry of his words in creating spiritual guidance.  Each page of the book has a few lines or paragraphs of Eckhart’s words.  The pages are grouped around topics like Our Soul-Life, Letting Go, The Inner Spark, Radiance, Without Why, and Enough Now.  Perhaps the best way to appreciate Eckhart and this book would be read it slowly, contemplating a page a day as a path to meditation.  Perhaps the authors meant the book to be read that way, although they give little guidance.

I recommend Master Eckhart’s Book of the Heart to readers seeking spiritual depth and comfortable with this approach to Christianity.