Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Historical fiction - Sarah, by Marek Halter

This is an ambitious book. It takes us into the mind of its characters, particular Sarah's.  "She did not need to look down to know that her tunic was stained. She could feel the fine woolen cloth sticking wetly to her thighs and knees ... Fear, disgust, and denial mingled in her mind." 

Was it physical revulsion or youthful rebellion or ... that drove this twelve year old against what seems to be the tradition of her society when "Bridal blood" appears at the onset of puberty. This sets her off on a willful rebellion against her father's plans for her betrothal. But this reader cannot relate to this - nowhere does the author provide a hint WHY Sarah resented her predicament.  "In exchange for a few shekels of silver or a few measures of barley," she would be given to a man. Should someone reading this in the 21st-century project into the story a present-day motive?

Ichbi Sum-Usur, her father, notices that she has a stubborn streak as strong as his own but Sarah does not appear motivated simply to thwart her father. All the details regarding oaks and terebinth, the ointment of cypress that a Sumerian groom puts on the brow of his betrothed at their nuptials, the odors of almond, orange peel, sesame seed oil, the olive oil in woolen tampons - appear as smoke and mirrors to distract the reader. 

The poor thing is twelve years old and reads in the eyes of her prospective groom his judgment of her - "thin, graceless, without breasts or hips." It seems creepy that a wedding is planned for her and this man, but we don't have any inkling that this is what propels her to flee her home (in a posh section of town reserved for Sumerian nobility) to find a kassaptu, a witch, who could sell her herbs to prevent fertility. (The word reportedly appears in Sumerian incantations against witchcraft.)

Sarah's rebellion, in that it is unexplained, does mirror Abraham's against the traditions of his own tribe - the many gods, made of wood or clay, that even his father Terah worshipped. This reader was left with the impression that his arguments against the many gods make more sense than his faith in the One, invisible and unrepresented, who speaks very occasionally to him. The same wilfulness, lack of clear motivation, shrouds both main characters.  For Abraham, it was a leap of faith. A reader of this novel does not expect to make a similar effort to follow the story.

As a result, the book lacks the "why" that would carry a story, but not a plot. The author relies on the traditional, Biblical story for a guide to what happens and when. Thus the narrative moves along despite the absence of motivation that a reader can detect in the main characters.

Many other things are brought to life in this book. Sarah's embarrassment over Lot's infatuation, her distrust of Eliezer of Damascus - a boy that Abraham brings into his trust, her intriguing ambiguity over Pharoah's advances. Despite the book's brevity, each of these motifs leaves the reader with a sense of understanding - but not the desperate resort to those herbs.

The author has stretched to cover all the high points of the Biblical story and added many details regarding ancient history. This is entirely an author's prerogative. It is also the fate of those who write historical fiction to have to decide how much history to include. This is a matter of judgment, but there are consequences.

Choosing to make Sarah a Sumerian is a huge step that allows the author to avoid the question of whether and how Sarah is related to Abraham. Tradition speaks of her as having the same father as Abraham and there is within some circles much anguish over the taboos that had to be finessed. 

Making her the daughter of a Sumerian nobleman solves this. Sarah is not only from a different family but from a different people, a different civilization. But it raises other questions. The Sumerians are obscure but not so obscure as to preclude raising other questions regarding the timeline of the events retold in this novel.

The Sumerian aspect becomes entangled with Halter's choice to tell his story with several appearances by Melchizedek. This is an enigmatic figure about which Jewish, Christian and other traditions have an uneasy body of knowledge. Such a figure might have been left in the mists of legend. But he lives and breathes in this novel with a remark that suggests he is the first of the Hebrews. If he is a "historical" figure, when did he live and was it any time that made an association with Abraham possible or likely?

Can one ignore these questions on grounds of an author's discretion?

I believe that this depends. Everything an author writes builds a world. If the author invests his story with pieces of Sumerian facts or lore, then "consistency" requires that the world created jibes with known facts. An author is free to choose to write fantasy, for instance, but to write about Polish knights or Luftwaffe battle tactics begins the process of circumscribing his novel, his artistic freedom. In choosing to write of Melchizedek as the king of Salem, who called his people "Hebrews," Halter brings the question of known facts upon himself.

Not an expert on the history or legends of Melchizedek, I am however aware as Halter must be that tradition makes him a son or grandson of Noah through Shem. This is most inconvenient for a historical Abraham - usually dated around 2000 B.C. But a "historical" Melchizedek must be dated close to 2500 B.C. - if we accept the tradition that he was somehow related to Shem. And it should be noted that Shem as the great-grandson of Enoch, whose life overlapped with his as well as Adam's, is a link to the Creation. Halter has wisely chosen to disregard this complication, but he himself invited this by inserting so much of Melchizedek into his story.

I found understandable Sarah's love-hate feelings towards Hagar. She was a gift from Pharoah who wanted nothing left that would remind him of the woman Abraham passed off as his sister. The picture of a rambunctious Ishmael is likewise engaging though brief. But what is one to make of Sarah's request in the prologue when she is on her deathbed - that both Isaac and Ishmael would gather with all the people at her tomb? Nothing in the story shed further light.

Finally, in the mystery that, since Kierkegaard, one confronts with fear and trembling - the sacrifice of Isaac that Ywvh asks of Abraham - Halter has given Sarah an enviable role in resolving this heart-rending turn of events. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Startup - a "millennial" novel?

Startup by Doree Shafrir is a funny, light read that makes one feel old. Oh, to be thirty again--even though characters in their thirties in this novel wish to be in their twenties.

The title cues one's expectations though there are some who might quibble over the choice of New York for the location of this story. The companies and groups named include TakeOff, TechScene, StrollUp, and Startup Bootcamp. The characters talk about seed funding, unicorns, valuations, and "faking it till you make it."

The workday begins with "Morning Rave" which reminded me of the company calisthenics that Japan, Inc. introduced. The characters consume coconut water, use meditation apps, never hail a cab or ride on the bus. This is the age of Uber. Of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat - better, you know, for sexting than Twitter.

Into this millennial world, some rain must fall. Nannies get sick and even Engagement Ninjas have to deal with toddler demands when the husband is uncooperative. And how does the wife cope with her obsessive shopping habits? Supplemental income - selling her underwear, it seems. Then there is that sexual harassment thing. The consequences of such for this story are weightier than fake news and fake identities.

Without a doubt, this is not the world of Jane Austen or John Cheever. It does not pretend to be. For a while, I was pleasantly transported into a world that, alas, I shall never experience. 

But that is why we read, isn't it?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Setting up a Website

The following is a Public Service Blog.

I thought I wanted a website and decided to purchase a "domain" from X, a most highly regarded "platform."

Then I learned that the site should be hosted by Y, another most highly regarded -- you get the picture. So I signed up for that. It turns out that a website needs a template (as a high school senior needs clothes for the Prom); so I try to get that. That is when it got complicated. The details were messy, so I took a break for prayer and fasting.

It turns out that this venture requires more preparation than I thought. As with the exploration of the levels of the after life, one needs a Beatrice for a guide. I don't believe the details are worth repeating except to say that anyone wishing to setup a website should examine the basics and confirm them with someone knowledgeable - is there a computer club in the neighborhood? A class you could take at the local community college? A friend who has a website you admire?

Seriously now, I recommend those wishing to set up a website as opposed to a blog do the following (CAVEAT - be prepared to spend two weeks not two minutes or two hours at each step):

1. Search for "how to" or even "here's how" advice on the web or in libraries. Here's an example.

2.  Look at a dozen websites of established authors you admire (e.g., Michael Lewis, Scott Turow) and of new, Independent authors you have come across. Do not let yourself be intimidated! Examine the different links these sites have (Layout, Navigation, Design.) How are the "pages" organized? Are there links to electronic bookstores other than the "Zon"? Take copious notes!

3. Talk to people you meet. Ask for advice, comments on your "work-in-progress" as in various stages of building the website before you invite the whole world to visit.  Writing is a lonely occupation; fight the urge to stay in your bunker, study, cave ... Join a writing group. Take classes at the library or community college. Join online groups like Goodreads or Scribophile or ...

Then pick a name.

What should one name the website? Authors agonize over questions like this - what to title the novel? What do we call the baby? A search is easy to perform and, just for fun, one could search in different languages. Pashtun boy names? Mongolian girl names? There's nothing wrong with John and Mary and, in fact, if one's last name is Tjoa, one should keep it simple.

Here is my new website. It rejoices in the nickname of a character in the first book I published, The Battle of Chibi.

Sleeping Dragon Books

Please feel free to leave a comment on the website or here on this blog - or at the associated Facebook page.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Libation Bearers

[Greek and Trojan women come to tend the grave of Agamemnon, the victorious leader of the Greeks against Troy. This is an excerpt slightly adapted from Agamemnon Must Die, Createspace, Kindle, and Smashwords, 2014. See tab for BOOKS on this site. I offer this here to give some of my attempts at poetry an airing.]

 [Bust of Aeschylus who lived in the 6th century B. C., probably from the 4th century B.C. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.]

We hail and laud thee, O Agamemnon, king of men.
You who returned victorious from your mighty labors
On the broad plains of Troy as you did from
Your many expeditions to establish
The will of Zeus throughout this land.
O king, we have faithfully maintained your shrine,
As enjoined by Lord Aigisthos and his Lady Clytemnestra.
At every new moon, we have come
To honor your memory with fresh libations,
To sweeten the air with boughs of laurel,
And to sweep away grime and filth, from man or beast,
Or from the wind and the weather, that should foul your memorial
Or tarnish your memory.
We implore you to keep the city safe and the plains fertile!
We beseech you to guard over us against pestilence,
As well as hostile swords and spears.
We pray peace be with your spirit for you have
Made all who live in the Argolid proud.
Hail Agamemnon, king of men!

[The Greek mourners.]

Ou-ai, listen also to our woe for our grief overflows.
We, whose fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers followed you;
We, who have waited in vain for their return.
Our number is great; those here are but the few
Who have sought the protection of the palace
From hunger and homelessness. No one can protect us
From the gnawing pain of sorrow and loss.
It is not greater than those of our number
Who enjoy the comfort of remaining family.
They suffer still from the anguish of their loss.
But our eyes have grown dim from the tears we have shed.
Our voices have become hoarse from the cries we have raised.
Our hearts have dried up with our hopes and love.
Only these shells remain: bereft, benighted, beyond hope.
Are our fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers with you?
Do they do you honor as we do? As we must, by command
Of our lord and our lady?
They followed you gladly for love of their king;
We beseech you to share with them the libations we have brought.

[The Trojan mourners.]

Ou-ai, ou-ai, hear us, most fearful king of men,
You who led those myriad ships and men against us.
Foolish Paris gave you your moment and you grasped it.
Hector and Priam loved him too dearly to abandon him.
To what end? Ou-ai, to what end?
Those we loved most dearly, our fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers—
All fell before your swords and flames.
They made you pay dearly, they did.
Us, you and your men gathered as trophies and war brides.
Fully half of us could not bear the thought of such fate.
They embraced us, then threw themselves
Into Poseidon’s watery clutch.
Fully half of those left among us were sick and lost at sea,
Joining their captors in that briny sepulcher.
Yet another half of those who arrived here
Have since succumbed to taunts, torment, and terror
As prisoners of war. We remain,
We do not deserve better. We have seen how
Those captured before Priam’s walls have fared.
We know the cruelties that Troy visited on those who
Fell into its snares or yielded to its armies.
We who are left of your trophies and able still to walk
Have joined in pouring the libations to you,
King of men, to join in your sorrow
And share in your grief. Know this, that the libations we poured
For you, we have poured also for ourselves.
Ou-ai, ou-ai!

[The image of the vase decorated with a scene from the Oresteia is that of an Italian archaeological find from the 3rd century B. C. downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. The last image is that of the cover of Agamemnon Must Die, 2014. Neither this blog extract nor anything in Agamemnon is translated from Aeschylus' Oresteia. I have used the non-prose form to approximate the "Greek chorus" and given such content as I have felt best conveys what its "message" might be in today's vernacular. Comments invited.]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival will celebrate this event in 2017 in September with races on Lake Merritt. In China, the People's Republic has declared May 30 to be a national holiday in 2017. (It has recognized this old but popular folk celebration only since 2008.)

In the Chinese calendar, the festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. Hence the festival is sometimes referred to as the "Double Fifth" similar to the celebration of the tenth day of the tenth month as the "Double Tenth" (the day commemorating the end of dynastic rule in China). This is celebrated much more in Taiwan than on the mainland as the ROC has claimed the mantle of Chinese Nationalism despite having lost the civil war. [The painting on the left dates from the eighteenth century and has been downloaded from a Wikipedia article about this festival.]

The dragon boat festival has been associated most frequently with the action of Qu Yuan, a poet and a minister in one of the seven warring states prior to the unification of China by the Qin (late in the third century B.C.). Qu Yuan had opposed a proposed merger of his home state with Qin and when he was dismissed, committed suicide by jumping into the river. It is said that the people of his state tried to save his body for proper burial by roiling the water of the river to distract the fish from feeding on it. Another servant of this state, Wu Zixu, is also said to have died on the same date, thus strengthening tradition regarding the celebration. Indeed, a third death on this date is said to have contributed as well. Cao E, a young woman's whose father had fallen into the river, searched for his body until both were found several days later, an act of filial piety by a daughter. The first two deaths were recorded in Sima Qian's classic history as both exemplified loyalty, a Confucian virtue (though their causes were hopeless).

[More recently, the festival achieved the status of a Google doodle.]

Many other folk beliefs have contributed to this early summer event. These have contributed folklore regarding luck to be earned by balancing an egg on its end and defense against illness by wearing herbs in pouches. Realgar wine was valued for its power to ward off evil as well as disease. It is probably an acquired taste.

Many Chinese folktales include references to this festival including the Legend of the White Snake, said to be one of the "China's Four Great Folk Tales." This folktale has several forms, briefly summarized in a Wikipedia article linked. The story has been brought to American theater most notably by Mary Zimmerman in New York City in 2013, see review in the New York Times, linked.

It would be a shame not to mention that the Dragon Boat Festival is a special occasion - as if one is needed - for special dumplings (glutinous rice with sweet and savory fillings, see image picked at random from very many on the Internet).

Saturday, March 18, 2017


"Real life experience is instructive, but the tuition is high."

So says Antonio Garcia Martinez (AGM) at some point in this fascinating book about an engineering grad student who became a "pricing quant" at Goldman, Sachs. He was then lured to work for Adchemy, a startup able to raise funds but not land any customers. When this realization sank in, AGM and two colleagues cooked up AdGrok through a happy combination of their skills, experience, and the fermentation process detailed in this book as the Y Combinator "startup boot camp" (there is a helpful index).

The author pauses to reflect on what personal qualities it took to embark upon a startup. The ability to persevere with single-minded focus, especially to endure what we might euphemistically call the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. AGM has a saltier vernacular, acquired perhaps from years in a difficult family situation, in the all-boys Catholic school, amidst the penury of grad school in engineering, and on Wall Street's "most competitive trading floor during its biggest market catastrophe."

He heaps scorn therefore on those who have "ideas without implementation," the American immigration visa system, slimy lawyers, his bosses - singling one out for being the only decent person in the company and naming the vicious, the vacuous, and those with "more crossed allegiances and conflicts of interest than ..." The voice is distinctive if corrosive. He does go somewhat easy on his former partners (though the British Trader and the Israeli Psychologist will easily recognize themselves). Perhaps some good comes from "Catholic guilt and Hispanic [Cuban] chivalry."

The story aims to communicate some understanding of credit default swaps, basic marketing, and "how to bolt on a real-time ad exchange onto a social media platform." There is, alas, a lightweight feel to the explanation of financial derivatives, deadly when serious alternatives already exist. For an introduction to marketing, there are many textbookish and more or less entertaining accounts. One would take the pages devoted to the value of an ad exchange more seriously for after all Twitter did and paid AGM to advise on its venture. But it is very likely someone with inside knowledge of Amazon's A9 unit might have a more definite treatment of the process.

Nevertheless, AGM has written a very entertaining story. He has used many of the dark arts of novel writing, engaging hooks, building suspense, investing his characters with emotions - I would quote extracts except that my own sensibilities get in the way of such freedom of speech. Withall, this book is a testimony to the dictum that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Among all real life experiences, there are many that cannot be purchased, as they say, for love or money. Few of us will ever experience the "present at the creation" thrill or life-changing awe of deciphering a hitherto unknown language or the making or unmaking of decisions by star-crossed lovers or war-mongers. That is why we read--to extend the experience of our small lives beyond our time and space. Fiction and nonfiction both serve this purpose. One might prefer Gore Vidal's Burr to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, or not. Reading either will enrich your life, I assure you. For the same reason, read Chaos Monkeys.

Chaos Monkeys, website

Sunday, October 30, 2016


You have heard about these and were, perhaps, afraid to ask.

The thing is, whatever you write for publication will be read. So, why not have it read while you can still make changes, revisions, even "kill your darlings." If you are not writing for publication, then this blog post has nothing to say.

Of course, it depends on the genre into which your writing falls. But I like to think that all fiction from Miss Marple mysteries to young adult, romantic, post-apocalyptic, zombie fantasies follow certain rules. Do you worry about a plot hole, a point of view violation, or discontinuities of character across your chapters? You should.

If writing nonfiction, are your sentences long, do you lean heavily on the passive voice, have you done enough fact-checking? This last point is important also in writing fiction, screenwriting, drama, etc.

It might surprise you what a fresh pair of eyes might find jarring about some (perhaps unnecessary?) reference to a vintage wine or car - is it likely that the 2000 Chateau Lafite is drinkable in a scene set in 2005? If you are writing a play, do you have a friendly "dramaturge" watching your back?

Where then does one find helpful critiques? Fellow writers, friends, even family might tire on your fourth, third or even second request. You should seek out critique groups or workshops where writers exchange comments on each other's essays. These might be set up along broad genre lines - fiction, nonfiction or poetry.

The essence of these groups is an exchange of effort, so take care to keep it civil and helpful. One gives advice and tries not to advocate a change of someone else's writing preference. Offer fact-checking with suitable modesty - did you mean to use a Swahili/Parsi word in this Ibo/Arabic scene?

If you are shy and would rather not get into a direct conversation with someone over critiques, consider This enables online critiques. It is built on the premise that one's critiques might inspire others to do the same for one's writing.

Scribophile, the online writing group for serious writers

This website offers the opportunity for anonymity (you can set up your profile with a pen name) and limited exposure (your writing can be posted for "public" view or not).

It is worth your time to explore the various groups (look for your genre - broadly defined), read some of the writing posted, and decide on whether to pay for the "premium" (under six dollars a month if you sign up for one year) or free membership. There are helpful articles in the "academy" on comma usage, use of active versus passive voice, development of characters, questions regarding point of view, and of course an essay on how to write a great critique.

Finally, on the subject of civility and decent behavior, I find it irresistable to cite George Washington's teenage reminder to himself when he copied into a notebook the 110 "rules" that were commonplace in those days. These are worth reading and thinking about and are available (PDF) for free at this link.

Historical fiction - Sarah, by Marek Halter

This is an ambitious book. It takes us into the mind of its characters, particular Sarah's.  "She did not need to look down to k...