THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker

Now this was certainly a fun read, combining the golem myth with the jinni (or geni) myth in what turns out to be Love, Actually.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale. “

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There are lots of fascinating and lovable human characters populating the tale, and although this is fantasy/fable/magical realism/sorta historical fiction, it is also a ripping tale, as our British counterparts might say, and is a page turner of the first water.  Loved it.  LOVED it.

Some definitions for you.

‘of the first water’.  Ever wondered where that expression came from?  Wonder no more.  Of course you already know it means of the finest quality, as in That was a play of the first water . This idiom refers to a grading system for diamonds for their color or luster (compared to the shininess of water). The system is no longer used but the term, used figuratively since the early 1800s, has survived it.

Golem – In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing.  The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the golem was brought to life and afterward controlled. According to Moment Magazine, “the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope and despair.”

Jinni – as in I Dreamed Of  —  Jinni, plural jinn, also called genie, Arabic jinnī, in Arabic mythology, a supernatural spirit below the level of angels and devils. Ghūl (treacherous spirits of changing shape), ʿifrīt (diabolic, evil spirits), and siʿlā (treacherous spirits of invariable form) constitute classes of jinn. Jinn are beings of flame or air who are capable of assuming human or animal form and are said to dwell in all conceivable inanimate objects—stones, trees, ruins—underneath the earth, in the air, and in fire. They possess the bodily needs of human beings and can even be killed, but they are free from all physical restraints. Jinn delight in punishing humans for any harm done them, intentionally or unintentionally, and are said to be responsible for many diseases and all kinds of accidents; however, those human beings knowing the proper magical procedure can exploit the jinn to their advantage.

Belief in jinn was common in early Arabia, where they were thought to inspire poets and soothsayers. Even Muhammad originally feared that his revelations might be the work of jinn. Their existence was further acknowledged in official Islam, which indicated that they, like human beings, would have to face eventual salvation or damnation.

Now, go forth and amaze your friends and enemies with your erudition.

What makes this story so fun is that it is highly unusual to have a golem and a jinni in the same tale becauze they come from different cultures and myths.

Apparently there is a sequel.  See ya later  – I am off to locate a copy.

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ONLY TIME WILL TELL by Jeffrey Archer

Official:  “The epic tale of Harry Clifton’s life begins in 1920, with the words “I was told that my father was killed in the war.” A dock worker in Bristol, Harry never knew his father, but he learns about life on the docks from his uncle, who expects Harry to join him at the shipyard once he’s left school. But then an unexpected gift wins him a scholarship to an exclusive boys’ school, and his life will never be the same again.

As he enters into adulthood, Harry finally learns how his father really died, but the awful truth only leads him to question, was he even his father? Is he the son of Arthur Clifton, a stevedore who spent his whole life on the docks, or the firstborn son of a scion of West Country society, whose family owns a shipping line?

This introductory novel in Archer’s ambitious series The Clifton Chronicles includes a cast of colorful characters and takes us from the ravages of the Great War to the outbreak of the Second World War, when Harry must decide whether to take up a place at Oxford or join the navy and go to war with Hitler’s Germany. From the docks of working-class England to the bustling streets of 1940 New York City, Only Time Will Tell takes readers on a journey through to future volumes, which will bring to life one hundred years of recent history to reveal a family story that neither the reader nor Harry Clifton himself could ever have imagined.”

Somewhat soap opera-y.  A villain who is a bit over the top and extremely transparent, a boy who is just too good to be true, a hero of the Boer War who sequesters himself in an old train car, and gives fabulous wonderful advice.  You know, that kind of thing.

It was readable without being memorable.  It is the first of a series.  I will pass on the rest of the series.

 

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EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

One of Pym’s better books, I think, humorous, and even though written and set in 50’s England, strikes a familiar note today in probably any country.

Excellent women are  those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women whom everyone takes for granted. As our protagonist, Mildred,  a mild-mannered clergyman’s daughter, gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors–anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door–the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

Her friends and neighbors would often ask her to do things in a tone that suggested, “Oh, well, since you’re single, YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO, so could you please _______ for me?”  I think many unmarried women today get that same treatment, as do women who have no children at home who get asked to babysit since being currently without a child on the premises they have nothing to do.

Here’s a lovely quote for you:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

It has occurred to Mildred that she seemed to be always making cups of tea to soothe someone, to mark some small occasion, to reduce the anxiety of others.  And asks herself

So did he remember me like that after all — a woman who was always making cups of tea?  Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one.

I really do like English writers, and Barbara Pym has a true eye for observing the human condition.  As she says about our Mildred

We, [a confirmed bachelor friend] my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier. . . . Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation.

 

THE CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Translated by Sonia Soto

When a well-known bibliophile is found dead, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment. He is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas’s masterpiece. Aided by a mysterious beauty named for a Conan Doyle heroine, Corso travels from Madrid to Toledo to Paris on the killer’s trail in this twisty intellectual romp through the book world.

Alllllll righty, then!  Hot diggity!  A book about books.  Can there be anything better?  No.  The answer to that question is no, unless it is a book about books written by a wonderful writer, and translated by a wonderful translator.

Our guy Corso is hired by two different people to investigate two different manuscripts.  One is to ascertain if a handwritten manuscript of a chapter of Dumas’ most famous work is a forgery, and the other is to find the other two extant copies of a book on Satan written in the 1660s, and for which the publisher was burned at the stake, along with all but these three copies, of his infamous book.

The Dumas inquiry is set up by a Dumas fanatic and book collector, to follow the steps of the novel, and Corso is just part of the ‘play’.  The other is set up by a collector who has gone over the edge and wants the three copies which contain a key to summoning the devil himself.  None of this ends well.

Fun read, a mystery for you mystery fans, lots of references to famous (old) books, and to Dumas and his works. If you like Dumas and/or demonology, you will love this.  If you like puzzles and the secrets of the occult, you will love this.

First published in 1998, it has had several later publishings.  It won a bunch of awards, and rightly so.

 

HOW TO BE BLACK by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston is the director of digital at The Onion, the cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics, a stand-up comedian, and a globe-trotting speaker.  He was named one of the 100 most influential African-Americans of 2011 by The Root and one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine.

It is pronounced 8baa-ruh-TOON-day.  It is derived from the very common Yorubwa Nigerian name Babatunde. A literal translation comes out something like “grandfather returns”

This guy had a wonderful mother, gotta say that right up front, who set him up for success by exposing him to African pride groups as well as enrolling him on scholarship in an elite Quaker school, one which Chelsea Clinton also attended.  His intelligence and ambitions got him into Harvard, and he sure has a background we all wish we had.

He is something of a black activist, but then, I think that almost all black people have to be something of a black activist just to get through their daily lives, I am ashamed to say.  His book is a satiric look at the struggles of being black in America, interlaced with biographical details of his life.

A lot of the satirical material is a bit over-the-top;  it goes on too long, like a SNL skit that is about three minutes longer than the audience’s attention span.  But then, I, a little old white lady, am not the prime audience … then again, maybe I am.   For me, he is at his best when he sounds a more serious note, and stops trying to be the funniest guy in the room.  He is interesting, clever, and has a lot to say.

Very enjoyable book.  It was published in 2012, when Obama was still in office.  I would love to see an update, and have his views on our current situation.

LOSING MARS by Pater Cawdron

Disaster strikes in orbit around Mars. A Chinese spacecraft is disabled, stranded near Phobos. Well over a hundred million miles from Earth, their only hope for rescue comes from the American base on the edge of the Vallis Marineris on the surface of Mars. The Americans need to decide, do they lose Mars or their humanity?

Six scientists are on Mars for two years to map some of the terrain, and examine the rocks etc.  Three couples, one of which is a lesbian couple.  While out roving, one of the guys falls over a ledge into some kind of crevasse, and needs rescuing, which is done by the first person narrator, a botanist, whose spouse is the mission’s doctor.

Then, they are alerted by NASA that the nearby Russian ship which is orbiting Phobos, and exploring its surface. is in trouble.  Seems there was an explosion.  Our narrator feels they should attempt a rescue, which means using their only return to USA vehicle.  They can got to the Russians, but then must leave for Earth, leaving the others behind on Mars for the remainder of the mission.

So our narrator, once again playing hero, and another woman, take off for the rescue, and find nobody on the Russian ship, although NASA is telling them that of the 4 man crew, there are now registering only two heartbeats.  The woman takes a jet pack and enters the Russian ship, experiences something weird, and nothing more is heard from her.  Our botanist hero then goes after her, to find himself caught up in some surreal thing where he skips in time to various situations in his life, stuff in the past, the future.  He is pulled back into reality by the voice of his crew chief and his wife.  He manages to get back into his own rescue vehicle.

Then there is some convoluted stuff and he is asked to stop by Phobos as he passes it (could ya pick up a loaf of bread and quart of milk on your way home?) to take some pics, he crashes on Phobos, ends up finding some kind of huge cavern with hundreds of dessicated bodies of four-armed aliens, dead for millenia, gets involved in a lot more time travel horse pucky, finds the female who was with him in some kind of coma, rescues her, find the two Russian astronauts, also in comas, rescues them, and takes everybody back to Earth (along with the bread and milk and a Hershey bar), where he spends the next 50 years not telling anybody about any of this because the technology is so far advanced he is afraid that humans will destroy themselves in heartbeat.

Pros:  lots of good science kind of stuff, lots of good nitty gritty details of life on a dead planet, and NASA routines, some real creativity about the aliens, etc.

Con:  “I’m just a poor simple botanist”  schtick is really annoying.  He is the only hero we have in the story.  It is awkward having the narrator narrating how humble and wonderful he is.  For me, it would have worked better with an omniscient narrator.

Con: Too much moralizing and preachiness.  The last quarter of the book was for me really a drag, with too much wandering around time-space and hallucinating yada yada yada.

Three stars, maybe four if I’m having a good day.

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER – Musings on Book Covers

We are always admonished not to judge a book by its cover, but of course we do — prejudging is part of our DNA.  If we didn’t, if our foreparents had  waited to get all the info before making a decision, our ancestors all would have been fast food takeout for the local sabre tooth tiger  and we wouldn’t even be here to be discussing this.  We are a visual species.  We were visual beings long before we were talking beings.   We learned to recognize the patterns that meant danger — big teeth, speed coming at us,  veggie configurations that meant poison, topographical features that signaled height and certain death if we fell off them.  And of course, our fellow hunter-gatherers.  The guy with the pointy thing aimed at us boded ill, the guy with the rock in his hand about to throw at us certainly wasn’t a good sign.  So, yeah.  We judge visually.  We had to.

And then along came books.  (Admit it — you were singing “And then along came Jones” in your head, weren’t you.)  Book covers were plain plain plain with nothing to suggest to the potential reader anything of its contents.  It wasn’t until the advent of dust jackets and paperbacks that we readers could get a hint of things to come within the book’s pages.  Hot damn!

Which brings us to today.

Even ebooks today have cover art.  And this cover art is important to help us decide whether we care to investigate that book further, and possibly even buy it.  If it is cheesy and amateurish,  we are sure the contents of the book are amateurish.  If it is classy and beautifully designed, we feel the contents will have value.   Professionalism outside signals professionalism inside.   You know, dress for success.

I am in love with book covers and what they tell me or don’t tell me about the book it covers.  I love the art. I love the conception of the designer.  I love seeing how well it fits or doesn’t fit the tone and content of its book.   I love when I read that a best friend, or spouse, or dear neighbor did the design, or took the photo used for the cover.  Isn’t that just the loveliest thing?   You never got this kind of thing before the emergence of indie books and self-publishing.

Just looking at a cover, without even reading the title, you can pretty much guess the genre.  There is a certain dark, creepy art, often with blood dripping down the cover, that is de rigueur for post  apocalypse and zombie books.  Political thrillers often have government buildings pictures, or some scene behind a gun scope.  Military thrillers of course have helicopters or tanks.  Cozy mysteries usually have a sweet scene of a porch with plants,  or a garden, or some such.   More serious mysteries tend to have a dark cover with some depiction of the theme.  Crime stories often feature yellow crime scene tape running across the cover.  Noir mysteries are generally dark covered, often with blood drops.  Horror has bloody knives, and paranormal has wispy ghosts and cemeteries.

I could go on and on.  Sweet romances usually have a couple embracing or almost embracing.  Hotter romances usually have some  dude with his shirt unbuttoned showing off ever so casually his six pack.  Serious literature tends to have a plainish cover, often a scene of a generic meadow with a single tree.  Or a three part pale color bleed.   The font choice tends to be the same.   REALLY serious literature often has a black cover, or a third black, two-thirds grey or off white.  No picture.  Just austereness,  saying in polite tones,  “I Am Serious.  No Snickering.”   Light, humorous books always have a bright, kicky cover, often in a semi-cartoon style.

Go to Goodreads  and just randomly look at books.   See if I’m not right.   You CAN judge a book by its cover.