Review: ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman

The DovekeepersThe Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Masada The last bastion of the Jewish freedom fighters against the Roman army symbolizes the end of the Kingdom of Judah at the end of the Second Temple period and its violent destruction. On the mountaintop there are remains of magnificent palaces from the reign of King Herod and silent committees for the Roman siege and the bitter end. The mountain that became a symbol.” – Masada National Park Website

Our knowledge of the siege of Masada by the Roman legion comes to us primarily from the chronicle written by Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader who was captured by Rome in an earlier battle, became a Roman Citizen, and was commissioned to write about the Jewish-Roman war. Josephus’ account, which some consider problematic and likely to have a Roman bias, has been enhanced by conservation, restoration, geographical, and archaeological work that’s ongoing at the site in modern-day Israel.

Alice Hoffman’s imagined and heavily researched retelling of those final days at Masada through the eyes of four strong and complex women characters, Aziza, Yael, Revka, and Shirah, breathes new life into our understanding of what has been called the Giant Revolt as well as the freedom fighters’ culture, daily lives and spiritual beliefs. These four women are Masada’s dovekeepers, looking after massive dovecotes where the birds are fed and cared for, the eggs gathered for food, and the excrement taken to enrich the mountain’s gardens and fields.

The storyline follows these women–who to varying degrees follow the outlawed practices of witchcraft–as they travel to the mountain, become part of the daily life and commerce of the community there, and as the Roman Legion approaches and begins its siege, how they coped with the developing reality of a Roman victory.

These four women, as well as many other players in the story, are deeply developed by Hoffman to the extent that we know their inner-most thoughts and dreams and the secrets of their souls. Hoffman’s penchant for magic plays a strong role here. Since the outcome of the novel cannot go against history, the magic will not defeat the Romans. But it will play a role in the characters’ lives.

Magical realism ties the book together in many respects because magic cannot be separated from the four women’s view of the world or their daily practices. Also, like modern-day traditional witchcraft and conjure, magic cannot be easily separated from the place where it lives. The result for the reader is an immersion into Masada. What we know after reading the novel may not be wholly factual (thought Hoffman defers to Josephus’ account), but it is definitely true.

The truth of the matter is that we come away from this wondrous book, having read a compelling story and with a greater understanding of what it might have been like to be trapped within that mountain fortress nearly 2000 years ago. Some critics say The Dovekeepers is Hoffman’s masterpiece. That’s an understatement. You must read it when you’re ready to read it, for it’s not an easy story. It will probably change you. Some day–but not today–I will forgive Alice Hoffman for plunging me into the horrors and triumphs of that faraway world.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two Florida folk magic novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” Learn more on his website.

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Feds Nab Bad Writers Committing Crimes With Plot Generators

Washington, D.C., January 2, 2018, Star-Gazer News Service–Homeland Security Agents announced here today that a massive sting operation has resulted in the arrest of thousands of writers with low Amazon rankings committing crimes with the help of plot generator software rather than writing great American novels.

Chief of station Liberty Valance said that the writers were caught when the modus operandi of a “larger than usual” number of crimes matched the formal structure of short stories and novels.

“Over and over again, we were seeing exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution,” said Valance. “We also saw a correlation between writers who purchased plot generator software who were getting rich even though their Amazon rankings–with numerous one-star reviews–were in the toilet.”

Publishing insiders have worried for years that plot generator software was more likely to be used for planning perfect crimes rather than perfect fiction.

“If a writer’s any good, s/he doesn’t need a software package to create the plots for his or her novels,” said Bennett Surf, director of the American Association of MFA (manufactured authors) Colleges and Universities.

Analysts discovered that writers were launching their plot generator apps and typing in phrases like “knock over liquor store,” “make money via insider training,” “run over granny with a reindeer,” and “overthrow government” rather than using the software for the purpose for which it was intended.

“That purpose,” said Surf, “was bilking prospective writers out of hundreds of dollars by selling them a product that promised that a lack of imagination and writing skill need not keep their fiction off the New York Times bestseller list of the Pulitzer and Booker prize winners circles.”

Valance said that most of those caught designed first person crimes rather than third person or omniscient narrator crimes, making it easy for profilers to “pin the tales on the wannabees.”

A white paper issued by attorneys for the top ten plot generation applications said that the programs were dispensed for purposes of fun and relaxation, and that all of those “spending hard-earned cash” for the products signed terms of service agreements in which they promised not to use computer-assisted plotting for anything other than novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

“We even banned the use of plot generators for poetry because sonnets and limericks are usually horrible and potentially criminal,” said Plots-R-Us CEO Bill Smith.”

“There never have been any writing shortcuts (other than sleeping with somebody in the publishing business) and now–thanks to the Homeland Security Department’s agents and analysts–crime no longer pays as well as it did,” Valance said.

The White House praised Valance for no longer being a decorative drapery. “Today, it’s curtains for wordy criminals,” President Trump tweeted.

–Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter

 

 

 

New Year, New Look, New URL

For the new year, I’ve changed the WordPress Theme for this blog’s look and feel as well as the URL:  https://malcolmsroundtable.com/

I used the previous theme for quite a few years and was especially fond of it. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to it some day. But for now, a clean slate for 2018.

The picture is all about magic, though I can’t promise my novels or blog posts will float in the air in a cloud of blue smoke. Being more consistent than usual, I’m using the same picture here as I do on my Conjure Woman’s Cat website.

The magic on this blog comes from my novels, at present the Florida Folk Magic series published by Thomas-Jacob Publishing in Florida. Already released are Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman. I’ve promised my publisher the third book in the series by Spring.

You’ll also find magic in posts here that relate to life itself, the idea being that we’re all on a hero’s journey or a heroine’s journey in an attempt to become the best that we can be. Life transforms us. There’s a synchronicity to it that tends to put in our path the very things we need whether they’re experiences, people, epiphanies about the cosmos, the environment and our stewardship of it, or even books, music and songs.

As an author, I can’t help but talk about books, writing techniques, and publishing. Sometimes you’ll find a review of a book I enjoyed, or a tip about making stories and novels better, or an occasional feature called “Book Bits” that lists links to reviews, author interviews, and publishing news.

While I’ll often mention other books and authors from Thomas-Jacob Publishing, I don’t review my colleague’s books here or on Amazon or GoodReads because doing so just doesn’t look right. They don’t review my books either. But all of us talk a lot about the books we like for the same reason a NASCAR driver talks about a new engine: we can’t help it.

One thing you won’t find here very often is politics because, as I see on the news and on Facebook, that’s hard to discuss without getting into a shouting match. I don’t think those shouting matches make things better. Nonetheless, my old-school reporter character Jock Stewart (from my novel Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire) will occasionally contribute a satirical news story post about real or imagined events that probably have political overtones. (Authors really don’t have as much control over their characters as readers believe, so I’m innocent here when Jock writes what he writes.)

I really don’t think the New Year gives us a clean slate any more than any other day, but this seemed like a good moment for some shameless self-promotion about this blog and its new look. As always, I appreciate all of you who stop by and read my posts and hope that your journey through 2018 is everything you desire.

–Malcolm

 

 

Mama Don’t Allow No New Year’s Resolutions ‘Round Here

“Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.” – Oscar Wilde

If you are driving along a wilderness highway and approach a bridge with a sign that says, “80% of the cars trying to cross this bridge will fall off,” would you drive across the bridge?

Most people will probably say “no.” Ironically, nearly all of those people who say “no” make New Year’s resolutions even though (according to this study) 80% of these resolutions will fail.

Experts (whoever the hell they are) say that we make resolutions because we feel guilty for being naughty during the holidays when we ate too much, drank too much, slept around too much, and stole too many of our kids’ presents out from under the tree.

Mama’s view of resolutions was this: “If you’re so all-fired gung-ho about reforming, you would have done it already.” Since Mama didn’t care much about what the neighbors thought, she didn’t care much about the peer pressure that induces people to announce on January 1 that they’re turning over a new leaf.

She tended to think resolutions were an all talk, no action way of life. While it’s easy in the middle of a hangover from hell to blurt out, “With God as my witness, I’me never going to drink again,” it’s sheer vanity to stand up in front of a bunch of your best friends and say, “In 2018, I will be kind to my fine feathered friends because they might be somebody’s mother.” Everybody applauds, and thinks, “wow, what a saint.”

If you’re lucky, none of those people will be around when you take your 12-gauge shotgun out to the duck blind and shoot a lot of Mallards out of the sky for dinner.

Like Mama, I think resolutions are just showing off. Many are probably made because people are staring at you expecting you to reform or because you’re drunk and don’t know any better or because Mr. Jones caught you sleeping with Mrs. Jones whereupon you thought it best to say, “Oops, wrong bedroom, but rest assured I’ll never do this again.”

Some resolutions may have a dash of merit, as in Jame’s Agate’s “New Year’s Resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time.” I like Marlene Dietrich’s “I resolve always to be myself, and not to let them influence me!”

Basically, most of us are who we are and, in spite of a few complaints, we’re comfortable with that. No wonder we fail on January 1st when we tell a bunch of drunks at a party, “I’m going to stop being who I am.”

I grew up thinking that most of what I did wasn’t any of Mama’s business. If I made a New Year’s resolution, I didn’t tell anybody about it, least of all her. If it failed, well, no problem, it only had a 20% chance of succeeding anyway. If it succeeded, people thought I was simply walking the straight and narrow more often than before.

It wouldn’t be a vanity thing, you understand.

Otherwise, I tend to be fairly comfortable with my faults as well as my strengths. Being superstitious, I worry that if I got rid of a fault, I’d crash and burn somehow because it was sustaining me more than I knew.

So, I have no resolutions for 2018 because I don’t want to get rid of anything that seems wrong but that’s actually working. Maybe some of the so-called positive things about me are ruining my life. Needless to say, it’s best not to tamper with the way things are.

If pressured by drunks at a party, I always have a few resolutions handy. I resolve to stop running with scissors. I resolve to wear clean underwear when I leave the house. I’m going to stop brushing my teeth with Sani-Flush. I resolve not to sleep with Mrs. Jones if Mr. Jones is in town.

That’s throw away stuff, but it’s handy at New Year’s Eve parties.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

Excellent Source for Self-Publishing Help

“I was recently tasked with putting together a publishing workshop for my local library. As I researched and gathered information, I realized everything they needed to know was available right here, on IndiesUnlimited.com.”

via Everything You Need to Self-Publish – Indies Unlimited

As author Melinda Clayton says, there’s a wealth of information stashed under the Knowledge Base and Resource Pages menu selections on the Indies Unlimited main screen. Sometimes I think we become so accustomed to the menu selections on blog-oriented sites, we forget they’re there and miss out on the links and other information they lead to. We read the posts of the day and move on.

Self-publishing can seem like a daunting process when an aspiring writer first decides to take the plunge. In addition to Indies Unlimited, you can find helpful resources on sites such as Poets & Writers, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Jane Friedman, and Writers Digest.

The information is “out there.” Half the battle is knowing where to look.

–Malcolm

Oh Lord, Take Away That Homogenized and Blended Milk

“My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.” – Alice Hoffman in “Practical Magic”

When I was little, I despised the arrival of homogenized milk because I believed it was synonymous with milk that had lost its character, in part because milk from different breeds of cattle was mixed into a blander product (such as the Guernsey/Jersey/Holstein Triple Blend championed by Foremost). And, practically speaking, there was no cream on top for coffee or cereal.

Some folks use the word “homogenized” to speak of a world in which all cultures, races, traditions, and religions are accepted. I have always hoped to see such a world. But there is a danger in putting the wrong spin to it, that is, shaking it up like homogenized milk so that all of its wondrous components lose their identity.

Every culture, religion, race, and tradition has unique gifts to add to a nation’s culture, to the world’s culture, to our discussions of issues and values and goals. When we gloss over these gifts for the sake of convenience–or perhaps for the sake of an easy conformity–we are burying the gold each of us has to offer.

We used to laugh about all the individualists in high school, college, and first jobs who went out of their way to look the same as everyone else. While we saw them as lemmings, that view was an insult to lemmings. Star Trek would later capture mindless conformity with its Borg civilization. As Wikipedia describes it, “The Borg are a vast collection of ‘drones,’ or cybernetic organisms, linked in a hive mind called ‘the Collective’ or ‘the Hive.'” When an individual was assimilated into the Borg, s/he lost his or her individuality. One had to admit, the Borg was a very efficient (and as the good guys on the Starship Enterprise discovered) very deadly.

Long before Star Trek’s Borg cautionary tale about homogenization turning sour, authors and other thinkers who had not yet been assimilated into the addictive sameness we often find (and willingly create) in modern society warned us about the evils of (figuratively speaking) of same-same homogenized milk. My favorite has always been Emerson’s comment in Self-Reliance:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

I was a terror when any of my teachers in high school and college advocated doing things a certain way because that was “what as done” or because they (those misguided teachers) saw education as hammering out children on a Henry Ford assembly line. They hated my Emerson comment, telling me that (like recruits in a boot camp), you need to be broken down and made all the same so that you will emerge from school with a firm foundation. I was told to leave the classroom more than once for responding that “by the time I have that firm foundation I’ll be a mindless automaton.”

I saw that foundation not as a Brave New World wonder, but as soul-stifling indoctrination. Some say our schools have gotten worse in that respect since I was a student. I applaud those who say that we should celebrate our differences even though I think most little minds are ruled by the hobgoblin that wants to sandpaper away those differences because automatons are easier to predict and control, living and working as they do–as Pete Seeger sang in his famous 1963 song “Little Boxes”–“And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

Walmart is a manifestation of over-homogenization because it kills off local businesses run by local people, each of whom as a different looking storefront, a different philosophy, and an individualistic approach to his or her products and customers. Social medial debates are often a manifestation of over-homogenization because they play out with all the people on the left sounding just the same and all the people on the right sounding just the same as though each group acts via ticky tacky pronouncements from its own Borg mother ship. Since I grew up at a time when people still remembered where our Christmas traditions came from, I mourn the fact that across the county so many of them have been lost or, worse yet, shaken up into a plastic bottle of homogenized celebration in which we’re told that the components have new meanings–as in the fiction that the Twelve Days of Christmas end on December 25th instead of beginning on December 25th.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions because they tend to sound like practices we should have all began a long time ago rather than waiting until January 1 to proclaim “I’m no longer going to kill people I don’t like” or “I’m no longer going to drink a quart of whiskey a day” or “I’m going to stop hating people who aren’t just like me.” Good Lord, are we so homogenized that we need a specific day each year to see the light or turn the other cheek or find our true path? Even though most of these resolutions sound good, they will fail because–as Tanya Tucker sang in 1992, “Well it’s a little too late to do the right thing now.”

Pasteurized, non-homogenized milk was delivered to our Tallahassee, Florida doorstep by the local dairy that was about a mile from our house. (No, this is not our house.) – Florida Memory Photo.

The fact that it’s too late is the fault of that “good foundation” we were all given in school and the little-minds-ticky-tacky approach the movers and shakers who tell us what to do have done with that foundation after graduation. As you’ve probably noticed, we’re told that being all the same is being normal.

My feeling is that if we need a real New Year’s resolution to try on for size, it’s “I will no longer be normal.” Yes, I know, if you’ve a Star Trek fan, you know that it’s nearly impossible to escape from the Borg collective, and if you live in a typical suburb, you know there are homeowners associations that insist that all the homes maintain the same ticky tacky look the builder bestowed upon them, and if you live in many communities, you know that if you question the quality of produce that comes from the local supermarket, the city council has passed laws to keep you from growing vegetables in your front yard because then all the yards will stop looking all the same.

Some scientists tell us that no matter what we do about humankind’s contribution to the natural cycles of global warming and cooling, that it’s too late to do the right thing now. Likewise, it may be too late to escape the ticky tacky society that results from homogenization run amok.

But let’s give it a shot. Let’s say spilt milk is something to celebrate rather than something to cry over.

Malcolm

 

 

Conjuring up that Christmas Spirit

At some point in my life, giving gifts became a lot more fun than receiving gifts–not that I plan to turn down gifts. I don’t know when it happened. Perhaps, I became less greedy as I got older after left my parents’ household and started my own. Perhaps, my focus was on utilitarian needs that seemed too lame to serve as Christmas gift ideas for those who asked for them. I’m at a loss to explain when it happened.

Thomas Nast, 1881 – Wikimedia Commons Photo

As for why, that’s easy. Whether one see’s Christmas as “Yule” or Chrismas as a Christian holiday, Spirit takes precedence over getting stuff. We invite Spirit into our homes with wreathes and garlands and trees and lights–and for those of us who recall earlier times–with holly and Yule logs and candles and those twelve days between December 25th and Twelfth Night. Spirit encourages us to see the smiles on loved one’s faces when they open their gifts. And yes, Spirit reminds us to be gracious when we open our own gifts, items others have carefully chosen.

Spirit reminds us how to love each other within the ancient continuity of the changing seasons and their holy days. When we listen to Spirit, we see Christmas and/or Yule as more than a race to the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. It’s a series of days, a time of beauty and lights and song, a time of doing for others, a time that shows us how wonderful the world would be if the Spirit of that time stayed overtly with us throughout the year.

I’m not sure Spirit is with us on Black Friday because on that day, excessive consumerism seems to grab us by our throats and propel us toward big dollars and large numbers of presents (often from children’s lengthy Christmas lists) rather than finding that one special gift that will never be forgotten. Okay, if we get it at half price, I guess that’s okay, but not if we have to wrestle a horde of shoppers in multiple store aisles to filch it from the unwashed rabble.

Spirit probably doesn’t mind how we focus our celebrations–Hanukkah, St. Lucia Day, Christmas, Kwanza, Yule, Epiphany/Twelfth Night–as long as we conjure that Spirit into our lives and share it with others.  Trappings and gifts without Spirit are empty. If you have a favorite movie that helps you step away from the cares of the world into the wonders of this time, Spirit approves whether you prefer White Christmas or A Christmas Carol or Holiday Inn or The Polar Express or It’s a Wonderful Life. No doubt, Spirit loves more songs than we can count.

My intuition tells me Spirit loves eggnog because, as an 1890 article in the Times said, “And what is eggnog? Worcester says, “A drink made up of spirit, milk, sugar, and eggs beaten up together.” I like eggnog almost as much as mulled wine and mince pies and an endless pot of hot chocolate. Since these things are among those that remind me of Spirit, Spirit smiles upon them.

Spirit is not a shelf of booze, though being a little tipsy from time to time might help us notice Spirit because losing ourselves is the only way to find Spirit. The morning hangover reminds us there are better ways to conjure Spirit than getting drunk.  Most of us know that, of course. However you celebrate this time of year year, I hope you find the true spirit of your beliefs and share your smiles with those you love.

–Malcolm