52 weeks – 10 March, 2013

Book

The Dovekeepers - coverThe Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman. This is a big, sweeping book set in the Middle East, in the year 70 C.E. It tells the story of four unusual women who arrive in separate ways at Masada, a mountain in the desert, after Jerusalem has fallen to the Romans. Nine hundred Jews are besieged there for many months by a Roman legion.

The four women are: Jael, the daughter of an assassin and a mother who died giving birth to her; Revka, the baker’s widow; Aziza, who has been raised as a boy and has the skill of a warrior; and Shirah, a wise woman who is revered and feared for her witch-like skills.

The language of the book is heavily poetic and Biblical in tone, which works for this story of mysticism, violence, love and loss. Here is Jael as she was growing up:

When I became a woman, I had no mother to tell me what to do with the blood that came with the moon or escort me to the mikvah, the ritual bath that would have cleansed me with a total immersion into purity.  The first time I bled I thought I was dying until an old woman who was my neighbour took pity on me and told me the truth about women’ monthly cycles. I lowered my eyes as she spoke, shamed to be told such intimate details by a stranger, not quite believing her, wondering why our God would cause me to become unclean. Even now I think I might have been right to tremble in fear on the day that I first bled. Perhaps my becoming a woman was the end for me, for I had been born in blood and deserved to be taken from life in the same way.

I didn’t bother to ring my eyes with kohl or rub pomegranate oil onto my wrists. Flirtation was not something I practiced, nor did I think myself attractive. I didn’t perfume my hair but instead wound the plaits at the nape of my neck, then covered my head with a woolen shawl of the plainest fabric I could find. My father addressed me only when he summoned me to bring his meal or wash his garments. By then I had begin to realize what it was that he did when he slipped out to meet with his cohorts at night. He often wrapped a pale gray cloak around his shoulders, one that was said to have been woven from the strands of a spider’s web. I had touched the hem of the garment once. It was both sinister and beautiful, granting its wearer the ability to conceal himself. When my father went out, he disappeared, for he had the power to vanish while he was still before you.

I think The Dovekeepers could have been edited more tightly. The historical detail is at times spelled out at unnecessary length. Sometimes Hoffman tells us what we should be feeling rather than letting us feel it for ourselves. And the hushed tone of awe and mystery and portent occasionally gets a bit much. But, all in all, it is a worthwhile read and brings to life the historical facts of the fall of Jerusalem and the siege of Masada.

Music/Movie

Heat and Dust - DVD coverHeat and Dust is a Merchant Ivory production from 1983, based on the book by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Olivia (Greta Scacchi in her first major role), the new wife of Douglas, a colonial administrator, is bored by the life she is condemned to lead with the other memsahibs in Satipur in the 1920s. The other British expatriates are older and unsympathetic. The exception is Harry Hamilton-Paul (Nickolas Grace), an amusing companion who spends a lot of time at the palace of the Nawab (Shashi Kapoor), a charming scoundrel who is suspected of being behind various abuses of power and massacres.

Soon, Olivia is also spending time with the Nawab, thereby shocking both the other expatriates and the women of the Nawab’s palace. Olivia becomes fascinated by the India she sees under the tutelage of Harry and the Nawab. She has an affair with the Nawab and inevitably becomes pregnant, setting off an epic scandal. And then — she disappears.

I think this story could stand on its own; however, there is a parallel story set in the 1970s. Anne, Olivia’s great-niece, has come to India to investigate what happened to her great-aunt. Anne, played by Julie Christie, also eventually comes under the spell of India and takes an Indian lover. But there is obviously less shock value in the later story, so it is not as compelling. Anne’s tracking down what happened to Olivia is the interesting part here.

The colonial world of the Twenties is beautifully evoked, as is the feeling of the heat and dust that seem to echo the emotionally choked atmosphere. The Nawab is a bit of a caricature of an Indian prince and I didn’t see any real connection between him and Olivia, so their eventual affair wasn’t convincing to me. Greta Scacchi, however, is perfect in the role of the restless, bored young wife.

Food

StrawberriesLike most people who enjoy food, for many years I wouldn’t buy summer fruit out of season. It was always worth waiting for the short sweet local produce season.

For some things, that has changed in the last couple of years. The strawberries that used to be large and beautiful but tasteless are now more likely to be delicious and to give you that succulent taste of summer early in the year. Whatever dubious laboratory farming methods have achieved this, I am currently content to just accept the results as a bonus. And, after all, we may have one of those very brief local strawberry seasons again this year: last year, you would have missed it if you blinked. I think that’s enough rationalizing — let’s get out the vanilla ice-cream.

These are Driscoll organic strawberries from California.

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