Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

I love books that focus on artists, and have always been fascinated with the 17th century Dutch Masters.  Their work always seemed to be telling me stories about people's lives.  When I lived in New York, I felt privileged to be able to look at the Vermeer painting, "Girl Asleep" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I mention this because Dominic Smith, the author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, placed a condition on winning a copy of this book on Authorbuzz.  He wanted readers to e-mail him about a 17th century Dutch painting. So I won my copy  by posting him a message regarding "Girl Asleep" and my experience of the painting.   This means that I must mention that I got the book for free from the author, yet this is still an honest review.

                               


At the time when I was a teen obsessing about this Vermeer work, I didn't know that there were woman painters in 17th century Holland.  Sara de Vos in Smith's novel is a fictional character, but there were real female 17th century Dutch Masters.  The best known is probably Judith Leyster. The Wikipedia article about her that I've linked contained a self portrait of Leyster that I can reproduce below because it's public domain.

                               


I don't imagine that Leyster normally wore a ruff when she was painting because it would have gotten spattered with paint.  The fictional 17th century painter, Sara de Vos,  wouldn't have dressed that way either when she was working.    This self portrait represents how Judith Leyster wanted to be viewed. She dressed formally in order to gain respect.

 The Last Painting of Sara de Vos deals with women in the art world needing to be respected.  There were two female protagonists.   In addition to Sara de Vos, there was the contemporary art historian and curator, Ellie Shipley.   Ellie was hiding a crime that she committed when she was a poor struggling art history student during the 1950's.  Sara de Vos was also impoverished, and violated the regulations of her art guild.   Poor individuals may be forced to earn money in ways that society condemns.   If they become more prosperous, they have the luxury of becoming more circumspect,  but the past still haunts them.

It seems to me that Ellie felt a kinship with Sara de Vos, and that this was why she included Sara in her doctoral dissertation on Dutch woman painters of the 17th century even though this artist had only one authenticated surviving work at the time.  Ellie wanted to be Sara de Vos.  Ellie's advisor  thought Ellie should scrap her chapter on Sara de Vos saying "If Dickens had written a single book none of us would know his name."   I disagree and I'm pretty sure that Ellie did too.  There are some writers who are only known for one work that has echoed down the ages.  For example,  Miguel de Cervantes is only known for Don Quixote.  More recently,  Harper Lee may have written two books, but her reputation was built on only one.  I think that if Dickens had only written A Tale of Two Cities, we would still have remembered him.  The work by Sara de Vos is portrayed memorably in Smith's novel.  When I wish I could see a painting by a fictional artist, I know the author has done an excellent job of ushering the reader into the world of the character's creation.

Marty de Groot, the contemporary owner of the Sara de Vos painting that is the main focus of the narrative, was unsympathetic for a large portion of the novel. Another author would have allowed him to become a caricature, but Dominic Smith develops him so that he has dimension.  I didn't identify with Marty de Groot as I did with Ellie Shipley, but ultimately I felt that he was trying to be a decent human being.

I read a review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos on Goodreads which said that "nothing happened in the end".   That reviewer meant that there wasn't a big dramatic blow up over Ellie Shipley's crime.  Yet I felt that there was satisfying karmic balance even though it wasn't conventional justice.  

   

  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Gone To Soldiers: A Novelistic Journey Through World War II With Some Amazing Guides

I have loved Marge Piercy's poetry and her science fiction novel, Woman on the Edge of Time.  For me, she is a feminist icon.  When I received a request from the publisher to review the new e-book version of her 1987 novel Gone To Soldiers, I decided that it was time that I read it.   When I agreed to review this book, I had no idea of its length.  I remember marking it as currently reading on Goodreads, navigating to the book's page on the database and seeing 800 pages for the first time.  Those who are daunted by carrying around a print tome, may prefer to access Piercy's saga on their e-readers or tablets.  I know that I did.  Yet next time I will check the page count beforehand, so that I can give the publisher or author a more realistic time frame for when they can expect a review.  I received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this honest review.

                                 


The title comes from the Pete Seeger protest song, Where Have All The Flowers Gone? .  The Wikipedia article that I've linked reveals that Seeger wrote it in 1955,  but it's inextricably linked with the 1960's anti-war movement.   So I expected that Piercy wouldn't have idealized WWII.  I imagined that her depiction of the war would be more ambivalent, and I wasn't wrong.   Readers can expect to find suffering, death and horror in Gone To Soldiers, but also compassion, bravery and triumph.

For Book Babe's readers, it's important to note that much of the narrative is a story about women, and some were extraordinary.   My personal favorites were Jacqueline, Bernice and Louise.

I'll start with Louise because Gone To Soldiers opens with her perspective. Originally, I wasn't impressed with her.  The multiplicity of her talents, her fortitude and resilience are gradually revealed over the course of the narrative.
As a journalist, Louise's travels bound the characters together.  Although Jacqueline and Bernice never met each other, Louise had the opportunity to interview both of them.

 Louise encountered Bernice first.   Bernice was a pilot, and eventually joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Her entire life was focused on flying--getting an opportunity to fly, and then trying to find a way to keep flying.  Readers may be astonished by how far she was willing to go to continue being a pilot after the war was over.  Her refusal to ever give up on her dreams was what I admired most about her.  Longtime readers of this blog will know that the WASP has been a special focus of Book Babe, but there may be some of you who know little or nothing about them.  To learn more about the WASP,  I recommend The WASP Official Archive at Texas Women's University.

Jacqueline began as a sheltered Paris teenager who I found immensely irritating because of her complete lack of empathy.  The German occupation of France shattered her life and reshaped her personality.  The crucible of war and oppression accomplished the most marvelous metamorphosis for this character.  It also fundamentally changed her priorities and her loyalties.  I respected Bernice and Louise a great deal, but I came to love Jacqueline.  Her struggle to survive truly moved me.

My favorite male characters were Daniel and Bernice's brother, Jeff.   Daniel had a tremendous facility for languages and a preference for Asian cultures.  I found him unusual, and I learned a great deal from his experiences.  Jeff was an artist, but he desperately wanted to do something heroic so that his life would mean something.  I think that his life did mean something because he lived and loved with intensity, authenticity and a sense of commitment to everything he did.

The viewpoint characters in Gone To Soldiers illuminated a number of aspects of  the world they inhabited.  Even when I didn't particularly identify with a character, I felt that I understood more about each slice of the realities of WWII that these characters represented. It is often said that a novel is more than the sum of its parts, but I believe that it was the segments of individual perceptions that gave this book significance.  










                             

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

I've been busy trying to finish my final project for library school so I can get my degree.  This is why I haven't posted for a long while.  I will soon have an MLIS degree.  Please be patient with me.

The publisher of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi contacted me about reviewing this book for Book Babe.  I was disinclined to read a book about a beauty queen, but the author is Israeli so I looked beyond the title.  I discovered that it's a family saga that partly deals with the period before Israel was a state.   My grandmother, who was born in what was then the Ottoman Empire in 1905, spent her childhood in Jerusalem.  So I'm always interested in learning more about the history of Jews in what would later be known as Israel. I agreed to review it and received an ARC via Net Galley in return for this honest review.

                                     

I have to admit that Luna, the title character, was unsympathetic. I found her self-absorbed and superficial.  She  always wanted to be the center of attention.  Her sister Rachelika thought that love redeemed Luna.  I disagree since she spent so much of her life acting like a spoiled brat.   I thought that Luna's mother, Rosa, was the strongest woman in this book.  This is by no means a feminist narrative.  Rosa was married into the Hermosa family without her consent as was typical during that period.  Marriages were usually arranged then. The reason why I call Rosa strong is because she survived the loss of her parents at a young age and always did what needed to be done under challenging circumstances.  Luna didn't respect her mother because she cleaned the homes of British occupiers for a living before she married.  Luna's attitude toward her mother definitely didn't endear her to me.   I thought Rosa was doing the best she could to keep herself and her younger brother alive without assistance from anyone else.

The Hermosa family, which is at the center of the narrative, originally came to Palestine from Spain when the Jews were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.  This community of Jews are known as Sephardim because they came from Sepharad which is the Hebrew word for Spain.  They spoke Ladino which is a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew.  They were proud of their roots in the land and their ability to co-exist with Arabs.  Later settlers in Palestine came from Eastern Europe and were known as Ashkenazis.  I am descended from Ashkenazi Jews.

I was interested in reading about the customs of the Sephardic Jews as described in this novel. There were some that seemed alien to me.  This is especially true of  the idea of selling your infant children to a neighbor and even calling them "slaves" in order to fool the demon Lilith who was supposed to kidnap children.  Lilith was imported from Zoroastrianism during the Jewish exile to Babylon.  The ancient Persians believed in a type of demon called the Lilitu.   Feminist Jews have a different version of Lilith as a truly admirable figure. The feminist  version is derived from a Jewish folkloric tale in which Lilith was Adam's first wife who refused to be dominated by him.  I would think that the feminist version of Lilith would want to free children who'd been sold as slaves.   Although the children were bought back by their families of origin a few weeks later, I find this practice extremely repulsive.

The theme of conflict between Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews was important to this book.   I thought that if there was a curse on the Hermosa family as Luna thought, then the curse was prejudice against Ashkenazim.  Yet as Ashkenazim became more powerful, they began to discriminate against Sephardim.  This pattern of Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardi Jews continued in modern Israel. 

Another aspect of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem that interested me was the theme of terrorism and how it's portrayed.  It's often said that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.  I tend to draw the line at the victimizing of innocent civilians.  So did Gabriel, Luna's father.  He had no interest in supporting terrorists even if the terrorists were Jews.  There is a character in this book who joined a terrorist organization engaged in actions against the British occupiers.  There were other characters who were sympathetic to such actions.   Terrorists and their supporters tend to believe that the ends justify the means.   Even if I am sympathetic toward the goals of terrorists, I believe that innocent blood on their hands will taint their cause, and that Gandhi's non-violent approach is a better model for freedom fighters.  Yet I am glad that the author of this novel portrayed a spectrum of viewpoints on this issue.

I have to say that the characters I really loved in this novel were Gabriel and Luna's husband, David.  They weren't saints, but they were men who were committed to doing the best they could for their families.  I appreciated their sense of responsibility, just as I respected Rosa's endurance.  Rosa, Gabriel and David gave The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem stature and pathos.    




Saturday, February 6, 2016

Daughter of Destiny-- The Evolution of Guinevere From Mean Girl To Queen

Some would say that we don't need another Arthurian novel.  I'm not one of those people.  I believe that the Matter of Britain, which is what the Arthurian myths are called by those who are centrally concerned with them, needs to get retold in every generation.   I'm also still holding out for my ideal Arthurian novel.  The Mists of Avalon wasn't it.  I was more interested in Marion Zimmer Bradley's portrayal of the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot than any of the women.  More recently there was Gwenhwyfar  by Mercedes Lackey.   That version of Guinevere as a warrior was a good deal closer to my ideal than anything else I'd seen.   She was almost what I was looking for.   I could see why Arthur (who was a warrior king) would feel a common bond with that Guinevere and would be impressed with her.   She was strong and capable. She also despised courtly intrigue as much as I do.  Yet I wanted a Guinevere who could be a convincing and authentic priestess as well as a warrior.   I thought that Daughter of Destiny by Nicole Evalina would give me the Guinevere that I was looking for.  I received a free copy from the author in return for this honest review.

                                       


I was delighted that Guinevere was sent to Avalon to be trained as a priestess in this version.   Yet at eleven years old, she was clearly too young to appreciate the lessons she was learning or the importance of her psychic gift.  I can understand that she couldn't be an inspiring figure at that age, but I didn't expect her to manifest as the most hideous female adolescent trope in YA fiction.  This was a character limned with acid.  She was the Mean Girl incarnate-- obsessed with minor slights and plots of petty vengeance.   Instead of befriending the other priestesses in training, she was boiling over with envy of any girl who seemed to be powerful or favored by the senior priestesses.  Ugh!  I found her completely despicable.   She was the opposite of sympathetic for me.

Then tragedy struck and Guinevere seemed to be on the road toward maturation.  At a couple of points, I thought she was in danger of a Mean Girl relapse but that didn't seem to be happening.  It helped that she was faced with an adult version of the Mean Girl on a daily basis.  Guinevere definitely didn't aspire to be just like her. That's a good thing because the Queen of Britain should be building alliances rather than making new enemies.   Unfortunately, royal courts tend to be a seething cauldron of rivalries.   Can this Guinevere rise above all the spitefulness when she wears a crown?  I hope she can.   But the truth is that I didn't sign on for this sort of Guinevere.   I wanted her to be so much better than MZB's Guinevere in The Mists of Avalon, and so far I'm not certain she can measure up to my expectations.

I have to confess that I'm more interested in the future of  Isolde than I am in Guinevere.   She's no saint, but she's adventurous, resourceful and is generous towards those she considers friends.  I'm wondering about how someone as resilient and pragmatic as Isolde gets caught up in such a tragic story as the one she's credited with in Arthurian myth.  Well, since Evalina starts with the premise that Arthurian myth got it wrong, I'll be rooting for Isolde to overcome future adversity.


                                        

Monday, January 25, 2016

Soundless by Richelle Mead-- Are The Deaf Disabled?

Although I've never read this author before, when I read in the description that YA fantasy Soundless by Richelle Mead deals with a deaf community, I knew I had to read it.  I have an ongoing interest in deaf topics which is also a focus of Book Babe.  In addition, Fei is a strong female protagonist.  Those are the reasons why I am posting this review here.

                                   



For most of this book, I thought it was absolutely brilliant.   It showed the competence of deaf people in their occupations, and their determination in surviving under extremely difficult circumstances.     The vicious prejudice and exploitation that they face represent emotional disabilities of the non-deaf population.

Protagonist Fei is a painter.  In most social contexts art would be considered a luxury that people who are struggling to survive can't afford.   In this village, art is communication.   In a low tech society like this one, non-deaf people would have a town crier who would provide an oral account of important events.   Deaf people need their news in a visual medium.  Fei was one of the painters who was assigned to observe and record what was happening in the village.    She would then create a written account illustrated by paintings which would be displayed in the center of the village.  She learned to paint swiftly so that her people would have the news on a daily basis.  She was essentially taking the role of a journalist.  Like the best reporters she had the courage to take tremendous risks to find out the truth about what was being done to them by those who had power over them.

The end of this book seemed unworthy of the rest of the narrative.  It was a magical  deus ex machina ending.   I found this dictionary definition of deus ex machina  from Merriam Webster .  It's "a character or thing that suddenly enters the story in a novel, play, movie, etc., and solves a problem that had previously seemed impossible to solve."  I admit that there was some foreshadowing, so the ending didn't come out of nowhere, but it was still a letdown for me.  I wanted it to be as interesting and imaginative as the rest of the novel.   



                                   


Friday, January 22, 2016

The Maid of Heaven--Joan of Arc's Unusual Ally

When I saw a summary of The Maid of Heaven by Aidan James and Michelle Wright on the publisher's website, I was intrigued.  It's the third in the Judas Reflections series about an immortal Judas Iscariot.  I hadn't read any of the books by these authors about the immortal Judas before, but I was particularly interested in this one because it involves Joan of Arc, one of my favorite historical personages.

  I admit that I hadn't been reading books dealing with strong women suitable for review on Book Babe.  At last I have a  Book Babe novel.  I received a free copy of The Maid of Heaven  from the publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

                                       


First, I ought to say that Judas is the viewpoint character.  His name in the 15th century is Emmanuel Ortiz and he came to France expressly for the purpose of fighting for Joan of Arc's cause.   Joan of Arc had some unusual allies in real life such as Gilles de Rais who became known as Bluebeard, but certainly Judas Iscariot would stand out.  This is not a saintly Judas.  He enjoys his life for the most part.  This is why I commented in my book journal that if immortality was supposed to be a divine penance, it wasn't working.   He does experience angst at times, but it doesn't put a halt to his recreational activities.   He reminded me of the Immortal Duncan MacLeod from the Highlander television series.  Duncan MacLeod also lived with gusto, and was interested in fighting for great causes at one point in his life.

I liked the portrayal of Joan of Arc for the most part.  She is courageous and has tremendous fortitude.  When she was wounded with an arrow, she drew it out herself.  I have read of this stalwart Joan in many books.  Yet there were two anomalies in this portrait of Joan.

 According to the trial transcript, Joan had vowed to dress as a man.   In this novel, it's a pragmatic choice.  She dressed as a man in battle and when she was imprisoned in order to avoid rape.   Unfortunately, the trial transcripts reveal that she was raped a number of times while awaiting trial.   This is mentioned in the novel.  Judas is enraged when he learns of it.

The other anomaly is that in this book Joan was not a virgin before she was captured by the English.  Saints aren't supposed to be sexual, and most authors seem to have the attitude that Joan couldn't engage in consensual sex because it would weaken her.  I think this is a puritanical attitude.   The authors of The Maid of Heaven evidently don't believe this is true.  It humanizes Joan, but it doesn't make her less strong.  I was actually glad that the authors had made this choice, but it is a controversial one.  This Joan doesn't think of herself as a saint, and she mocked Judas when he suggested that she might one day be canonized.

I thought that The Maid of Heaven was unexpected and a compelling read.   I might be interested in following future adventures of the immortal Judas--especially if he encounters any other favorite female historical personages.    

                                

Monday, December 14, 2015

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker: Blog Tour and Review

 Welcome to this stop on the TLC Book Tour for:

DAUGHTER OF SAND AND STONE by Libbie Hawker
Publication Date December 1, 2015.



Description from Amazon.com:

When Zenobia takes control of her own fate, will the gods punish her audacity?
Zenobia, the proud daughter of a Syrian sheikh, refuses to marry against her will. She won’t submit to a lifetime of subservience. When her father dies, she sets out on her own, pursuing the power she believes to be her birthright, dreaming of the Roman Empire’s downfall and her ascendance to the throne.
Defying her family, Zenobia arranges her own marriage to the most influential man in the city of Palmyra. But their union is anything but peaceful—his other wife begrudges the marriage and the birth of Zenobia’s son, and Zenobia finds herself ever more drawn to her guardsman, Zabdas. As war breaks out, she’s faced with terrible choices.
From the decadent halls of Rome to the golden sands of Egypt, Zenobia fights for power, for love, and for her son. But will her hubris draw the wrath of the gods? Will she learn a “woman’s place,” or can she finally stake her claim as Empress of the East?

                                                    REVIEW

I've been looking forward to this book ever since I read that Libbie Hawker was writing it.  This year I reviewed her Pocahontas novel on Book Babe here.  I found it interesting and absorbing.   Daughter of  Sand and Stone is a book dealing with Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.   She was a warrior queen and a rebel against the Romans like  another favorite of mine, Queen Boudica of the Iceni.  I lick my chops and salivate when I learn about historical fiction dealing with Zenobia.  I received a copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this honest review.

The first time I read a Zenobia novel I was disappointed.  It was The Rise of Zenobia by J. D. Smith.  I reviewed Smith's version on Book Babe here.  My biggest problem with it was that Zenobia wasn't the protagonist.  It was her general, Zabdas.   I felt distanced from Zenobia.  In Daughter of Sand and Stone, Zabdas plays an important role, but the main perspective is very definitely Zenobia's.

I feel that it's also important to mention the recent destruction of Palmyra by ISIS in the context of any current review of a book about Zenobia. Here is an article about it from the U.K. Guardian.  Zenobia loved her city and it means a great deal to modern day Syrians who are opposed to ISIS. Ancient Palmyra and Zenobia are essential parts of  our world heritage, but they particularly belong to the history of Syria.  It seems to me that anyone who participates in preserving the memory of ancient Palmyra and Zenobia is engaging in an act of defiance against those who seek to destroy them.  That's what Daughter of Sand and Stone means to me.  It's an act of defiance.

Like Libbie Hawker's Pocahontas, her Zenobia is ambitious.   In the case of Pocahontas, it's definitely a flaw due to lack of maturity.  She simply craves attention and her ambitions are comparatively small scale.  On the other hand, Hawker's Zenobia wants an empire and to reign as Queen in Egypt like her maternal ancestor, Cleopatra.  She is continually told  by members of her family and later by a Roman Emperor that she is  going beyond the bounds of women's sphere.  I think this is a strength.   We need women like Zenobia.  She had courage, vision and intelligence.  She deserved to succeed.

Hawker extrapolates from Roman primary sources for the ending of her novel. In Hawker's very detailed Author's Note she says that a number of writers on Zenobia don't believe the official Roman version and I confess that I don't either.  Within the context of the book, it was anti-climactic.  So in addition to my feelings that it was out of character and not a fit ending for Zenobia, it wasn't a good ending from a dramatic perspective.

Yet up until that ending, I was cheering on Zenobia and feeling so delighted that we got a modern novel about the Warrior Queen of Palmyra in which she lives and breathes.  It may not be the ideal Zenobia novel, but it perpetuates her legacy at a time when I think it's particularly important to do so.

                                  ***************
Links for more information about Daughter of Sand and Stone



Author's website: http://libbiehawker.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/libbie.hawker?fref=ts&ref=br_tf

 

Libbie Hawker’s TLC Book Tours TOUR 

STOPS:

Monday, November 30th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, December 1st: Bibliotica
Tuesday, December 1st: Life is Story
Wednesday, December 2nd: Reading Reality
Thursday, December 3rd: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, December 4th: Thoughts from an Evil Overlord
Monday, December 7th: Luxury Reading
Tuesday, December 8th: Spiced Latte Reads
Wednesday, December 9th: Book Dilettante
Thursday, December 10th: Mom’s Small Victories
Friday, December 11th: Book Nerd
Monday, December 14th: Book Babe
Tuesday, December 15th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, December 16th: The Reader’s Hollow
Thursday, December 17th: Books a la Mode – author guest post
Monday, December 21st: Raven Haired Girl
Tuesday, December 22nd: The Lit Bitch
Friday, December 25th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, December 29th: I’m Shelfish
Tuesday, December 29th: Time 2 Read
Wednesday, December 30th: Broken Teepee