Monday, December 31, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman ****

In 73 CE, it was clear that the Roman siege of the desert fortress at Masada would be successful. Rather than be captured, tortured, and enslaved, the entire population committed suicide, even though this was against Jewish law. All ... except two women and five children.
The stories of women have often gone unwritten, and The Dovekeepersis [Alice Hoffman's] attempt to imagine those stories.
This book tells the stories of four women in a time dominated by patriarchy - cold and abusive fathers and lovers - and before modern medicine - painful, dangerous childbirths and sick children. In the midst of these challenges, Revka kills the four soldiers who raped her daughter, Aziza dresses as a boy to fight the Romans, and Shirah uses the old knowledge of herbs and outlawed goddesses to aid women in childbirth and love. These are stories of passion and power.

But to be clear, these are difficult stories to read. This is not a triumphant story of Jewish victory like Exodus or the many other stories recorded in the Old Testament. This is a historical story of tyranny defeating piety, faith, and bravery. Starting with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, this story explains some of present day Israel ... fulfilling promises to the 960 Jews who died at Masada on April 16, 73. Wikipedia report that the remains of those who died were reburied with full military honors in July 7, 1969 - almost two millennia after the fact.

One anecdote reports that fathers did not see their children until they were ten days old and suggests that the father did not want to become attached to a child who would soon die. In the same light, I wonder whether fathers (and some mothers) discounted the value of daughters because they couldn't bear loving someone who was destined to live as women lived.

A hard book to read and a harder one to forget.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson ***

It's 2312 and the billions still on Earth would be starving and worse were it not for the imports of food and resources from the settlements stretching from Mercury to Neptune, especially from the hollowed out asteroids called terrariums. The threat is from robots with qubes (quantum computers) for brains that pass the Turing Test, and planet killing attacks from space. The heroine is Swan, 113 years old, with her own implanted qube among other modifications.

Too clever by half. This newest novel by Kim Stanley Robinson - 2312 - is an ambitious work  of wide-ranging cultural and literary references along with creative imaginings of our possible technological future. True to much science fiction, the novel features long discussions among the gods (after all these characters are 300 years smarter than we poor readers) on history, philosophy, and human nature.

With a nod to Heinlein, 2312 presents some new answers to the sexual mysteries. Group marriages, separation of sex, child rearing, house keeping, etc. Since were 300 years in the future ... anatomical flexibility. Swan has been both a father and a mother. Warning: there is one big sex scene ... but true to the genre, most of the energy is expended on the engineering considerations of coupling two partners who have both male and female parts.

In addition to numerous erudite references to literary (Emily Dickinson is a favorite) and musical (classical is favored) references, the (unnumbered) chapters are interspersed with (numbered) Lists and Extracts - fragments on some topic which I imagined can be plumbed for some mystical knowledge. I skimmed them.

I highly recommend this book for its creative view of the future, but as a novel, not so much. The plot is totally predictable and just a framework for the technology and pontification.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

i am intelligent by Peyton Goddard *****

What is the relationship between mind and body ... between intelligence and communication? Consider Steven Hawkings, Dolphins, and Peyton Goddard. Peyton Goddard can not control her body (like Steven Hawkings) and cannot speak (like a dolphin),  I Am Intelligent is her memoir written with the help of her mother and FC (Facilitated Communication which uses a keyboard and an assistant).

The book's first half (prior to FC) chronicles the first  20+ years of Peyton's life. I found the  intentional and unintentional abuse so horrific that I needed to skip over parts of the first seven chapters, often reading as little a one or two sentences before turn to the next page and the next page again.

However, interspersed with these incidents of incompetence, insensitivity, and violence were also the efforts of her family and dedicated teachers to help Peyton. She was variously diagnosed (labeled) with aphasia, autism, low intelligence, communication deficits, and a variety of other psychological and neurological disorders. She was treated by a variety of amateurs and professionals and a pharmacopeia of medications including: Tegretol, Clonidine, Lithium, Miralax, Colace, Paxil, and antibiotics.

In contrast, the second half of the book (starting with Chapter 8) was inspiring and I often found tears, joyous tears, streaming down my cheeks, as I read this part.

On the one level, this book is a condemnation of the worst and a showcase for the best in special education and the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). On another level, it is about the dedication and challenges of parents with children in this system.

However, it also raises such important question about intelligence and humanity ... enough so that it can be read by anyone who thinks about the human condition.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

In One Person by John Irving ****

It's 1955, William Francis Dean, Jr. (AKA Billy) is enrolled at Favorite River Academy, a all-boys prep school, in First Sister, Vermont. He is bisexual, and as the cliches and stereotypes demand, obsessed with his and everyone else's  (yes, EVERYONE else's) sexuality. Thus opens, In One Person, John Irving's 13th novel, but the first I've read.

In addition to the caricatures of teenage boys, the book is peopled with stereotypical gays, lesbians, transvestites, and parents. Despite this manage of (titillating?) sexual differences, the book aspires to literary heights with extensive references to the classical canon with special attention to Shakespeare, Dickens, and Flaubert. I was waiting for the sly reference to John Irving himself, but the author thankfully resisted this affectation.

However, this modesty is balanced by the strangely recursive plot where Billy is an author who writes of sympathetic LGBT characters to preach for more tolerance among his readers. In One Person is certainly an example of such a book. This structure makes the book both more of a heavy-hand polemic and a clever literary exercise.

The book has two parts. The first half is Billy's self-obsessed, sexuality-obsessed years in high school among incidents of sexual yearning, anxiety, confusion, repression, discovery and deceit. As if to balance the message of tolerance with the traditional cautionary messages, the second half kills off almost everyone, usually from the horror of AIDS, but car crashes and senility get their share of victims.

I felt this book missed it's boldly stated goal of promoting tolerance by including too many characters paraded like a circus sideshow, and not enough characters with enough depth to be sympathetic. As a final poetic demonstration of self-loathing the author biography highlight's John Irving's long wrestling career; wrestlers are given a special role in this book as a class including those with poor impulse control, and the often cliched homophobic homoeroticism.

Read at your own risk.