Sunday, May 8, 2022

Cleopatra's Dagger: A Journalist in New York in 1880

Since the last book I reviewed on this blog also had a journalist protagonist, readers will get the idea that I like journalists.  They'd be right.  I count ten previous reviews of books with journalist protagonists on this blog, and seven more on my other blog.  I identify with journalist protagonists because I once wanted to be a reporter.  I got no further toward that goal than writing for school newspapers, but that was some time ago. 

 I received a copy of Cleopatra's Dagger by Carole Lawrence from a publicist back in January.  Many apologies for the delay.  I got behind with my reviews this year.  With this review, I expect to be caught up.

                                          

 

 My reviews are based on voluminous notes from my book journal on every book I read.  So I very much related to what the protagonist, Elizabeth, had to say about her process. "The very act of putting her impressions down on paper helped her to understand what she thought and felt."

Elizabeth's editor warned her not to trust the police.  He told her about the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1874 in which the police beat peaceful protestors with clubs.  I considered this indicative of the period and what it was like.  I am going to reproduce an illustration from the Wikipedia page devoted to this riot below.

                                     

 

Elizabeth's family seemed to be rather well off , belonging to the late 19th century equivalent of the aristocracy of New York. Her father was concerned that being a crime reporter was an improper occupation for his daughter.  I really liked Elizabeth's response.  "I'm not certain it's a proper occupation for anyone...[but] I am determined it will not be closed to women."  

According to the blog Women's Views on News ,  the 1880 U.S. Census recorded 288 women journalists but that their stories were much like Elizabeth's assignment to report on Mrs. Astor's garden party in this novel.  Elizabeth's articles for The New York Herald on killings would have been very atypical for the period.  Yet my favorite real woman journalist, Nellie Bly, was also working during this period and she sure wasn't writing about garden parties.  See the section in the Wikipedia article on Nellie Bly about her career. I'm glad to see a fictional equivalent of Nellie Bly in this novel. 

Elizabeth became a crime reporter when she discovered a body wrapped as a mummy on a walk, and insisted on covering the story. She convinced the detective in charge of the case that if the photo of the body was put on the front page of The New York Herald, they would find someone to identify the corpse more quickly.

When a second body was found in the East River, Elizabeth was summoned to the scene via telegram.  Detective Inspector Thomas Byrnes described her jewelry and how she was dressed.  Elizabeth said it sounded like this victim was dressed like the Egyptian water goddess, Anuket.  There was an ankh on a leather thong hanging on her neck.  I'm afraid I couldn't resist adding "Ankh if you love Anuket!" in my notes. One of the policemen who responded recognized this second victim as a prostitute named Mary Mullins.

When the mystery was resolved, it seemed anti-climactic to me. I gave the book a B.

                        


Saturday, March 5, 2022

The Choice : A Journalist Heroine in a Jewish Romance

 I haven't been posting much to Flying High Reviews  because the strong female protagonists that are my focus in this blog tend to be few and far between.   In fact, all the books I've reviewed so far in 2022 were fiction with male protagonists or were non-fiction.  So I've reviewed them on my general blog Shomeret: Masked Reviewer or posted about them more briefly on Goodreads.    Author Maggie Anton sent me an advance copy of The Choice for review.

                                        


The Choice takes place in the 1950's.  The attitudes were quite different from contemporary mores.  That's why the main female character, Hannah Eisen, was being scandalous when she removed her gloves in a man's presence. 

Back in 2014, I participated in a blog tour for  Anton's novel Enchantress.  That blog tour post included an interview with the author.  It was the last time I reviewed a novel by Maggie Anton on this blog. You can find what I had to say about Enchantress here

Apparently, Maggie Anton found it necessary to mention in her Author's Note for The Choice that she didn't get permission from the Potok estate.  Chaim Potok's The Chosen is very far in my rear view mirror.   So the issue of similarity between the two titles didn't occur to me when I was reading The Choice.  I also found more than a hundred and fifty books using The Choice as a title on Goodreads. It's really pretty generic.

The male protagonist, Rabbi Nathan Mandel, discovered that women had been emigrating to what was then Palestine for 900 years.  He also learned that 900 years ago women were counted as part of the minimum number for a prayer service (known as a minyan), and that they read aloud from the Torah in synagogues.  Since Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Mandel don't currently count women for a minyan or allow women to read aloud from the Torah during a prayer service, this was an amazing discovery for him.  I also thought this was an important revelation about the historical status of women within Judaism. 

I looked up why women aren't allowed to read aloud from the Torah by the Orthodox, and found a link to Jewish Answers which said women reading aloud from the Torah implied that there were no men present who were capable of reading aloud from  the Torah.  It would be a disgrace to the men of that congregation.  You see, men are religiously obligated to read from and teach Torah.  Women aren't. 

There is discussion of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community in The Choice.  It dealt with someone who was molesting boys in Orthodox  Jewish schools.  We learn that this wasn't just a current problem.  One Lubavitcher Rebbe  had been sexually abused by a mentor beginning in his boyhood and continuing long-term until he got married.  That rebbe had become a patient of Sigmund Freud to deal with his trauma.

Hannah, who was a journalist, had written an article about a molester at the ultra-Orthodox girls' school which had been suppressed.  She showed her article to Nathan telling him that an Orthodox clinical psychologist that they knew, who was faced with all these current sexual abuse victims, would find it interesting.  Hannah later wrote an article about the same molester abusing Orthodox boys.  Her editor didn't want to publish it, but he did want to circulate it because it included the information about the Jewish clinical psychologist who could help survivors of abuse.  He had agreed to have his name mentioned in the article.

The relationship between Hannah and Nathan began with Nathan secretly teaching Talmud to Hannah.  Teaching women Talmud wasn't allowed by Jewish law.  Nathan compared his teaching her Talmud to the activities of  19th century anti-slavery abolitionists.  I thought that this implied that Nathan believed women should be taught Talmud and that one day it would be permitted.

Hannah's mother asked if Nathan and his father had been at the 1949 Peekskill Riots.  They had been there.  Racists protesting a Paul Robeson concert had started the violent disturbance.  I looked up the Peekskill riots and found a Wikipedia article here.  I also found some reminiscences about his 1949 Peekskilll experiences by Howard Fast here . They were quite intense.  

An important issue for Hannah and other Orthodox women was filthy poorly maintained mikvahs.  These are Jewish ritual bathing facilities.  Women were expected to visit mikvahs for purification after menstruation, and before intimacy with their husbands.  The condition of many mikvahs contravened their purpose.  

According to this novel, Columbia University accepted money from the Communist Party to establish a chair for Russian Studies.  When I did a search on the establishment of Russian Studies at Columbia University, I found a statement from  Columbia's Department of Slavonic Languages that the Russian Institute was established at Columbia University due to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1946. So either The Choice was taking place in an alternate universe, or the novel was very mistaken about the source of funding for the Russian Institute. 

I wasn't mistaken in my impression that a relationship between the male and female protagonists was central to The Choice. I will allow readers to find out the specifics of how their relationship grew, and what it became.