Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Voodoo Dreams
Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book combines fact and fiction. Before reading, it is helpful to read some of the biographical information about the main character, Marie Leveau.

Biographical Information by David Arbury.

Leveau is a complicated and fascinating figure in New Orleans history. Though she is famous even today as one of the most powerful Voodoo priestesses who ever lived, few hard facts are known about her life. Close scrutiny reveals many contradictions and fantastic legends about Marie Leveau, but even tales which a skeptic might find difficult to accept pale next to the proven facts of this remarkable and powerful woman's life.
Born in the 1790's, details of her exact parentage and origin are uncertain. She moved to New Orleans in her youth and was raised a devout Catholic - later becoming friends with Pere Antoine, the chaplain at St. Louis Cathedral. At the age of twenty-five, Marie joined a local freeman Jacques Paris in what was by all accounts a happy marriage. Later after his disappearance and presumed death, she lived with Cristophe Glapion. Between the two men, Marie bore fifteen children including her daughter Marie who bore a striking resemblance to her mother and eventually became a Voodoo priestess as well.
Marie Leveau's best documented exploit involved the murder trial of a young Creole gentleman, a trial which was almost certain to end in a guilty verdict for the young man. His powerful (and skeptical) father approached Marie and promised her anything if she could rescue his son. Marie agreed, asking for the man's New Orleans house in return. He agreed, and Marie secretly placed several charms throughout the courtroom. When his son was declared not guilty, the gentleman gave her his house as promised, and Marie Leveau gained the instant attention of the city's elite.
Later in life, in another well-documented event, Marie is known to have helped the wounded during the Battle of New Orleans and was so noted for her efforts that she was invited to the state funeral of General Jean Humbert, a hero from that battle.
It is certain that Marie Leveau was a feared and respected figure. Though apparantly adept with charms and potions of all kinds, Marie's real power came from her extensive network of spies and informants. The New Orleans elite had the habit of carelessly detailing their most confidential affairs to their slaves and servants who then reported to Marie out of respect and fear. As a result, Marie had an almost magical knowledge of the workings of political and social power in New Orleans. When her daughter, with her uncanny resemblance to Marie, became a priestess, legends of Marie Leveau's power only grew. Now she was ageless and could appear in more than one place at a time.
However, Marie was no charlatan deceiving her followers with tricks and intimidation. She clearly had a great passion and devotion for Voodoo. Her most famous religious mark was probably the rituals on the banks of Bayou St. John held every June 23, St. John's Eve. Voodoo rituals were also held occasionally on the shore of nearby Lake Pontchartrain at Marie's cottage, Maison Blanche. It was said that sometimes Marie Laveau herself would dance with her large snake, Zombi, wrapped around her. Voodoo worshipers believed that even the snake possessed great powers.
Marie's Voodoo was about power but it bore no resemblance to Voodoo as fictionalized by the films of Hollywood. To her, and many of her followers, Voodoo's beliefs were not incompatible with Catholicism and Christian charity. Indeed, Marie frequently visited the sick in New Orleans' prisons, and she was called upon by the city's elite to help combat the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1850's. Finally late in life as her power began to wane, she stopped practicing Voodoo and once again became Catholic solely.
Marie Leveau is a figure shrouded in mystery. She was a Voodoo priestess and a devoted Catholic. She weaved spells and charms but wielded even more influence through her earthly network of spies and informants. She ruthlessly wielded her power yet went to great pains to help the injured, sick, and downtrodden. In the final analysis, we will never know her true character, but it seems a mistake to try to choose between these disparate sides of Marie Leveau: this fascinating and complex woman was all of these things and more.

This novel of historical fiction takes readers into the dark and mysterious life of Marie Laveau. The third in a line of Maries, she continues a legacy of spirituality and voodoo. Raised by her grandmother, Marie has no memory of her real mother and longs to find out what happened to her. But grandmother forbids it, and wants to protect her from the evils of the past. They move from their home in the bayou, and Marie meets a handsome sailor named Jacques who claims to fall in love with her. Her grandmother encourages the relationship, and the two marry. Despite her grandmother's efforts to protect her, Marie cannot escape her fate, and in an act of rebellion, Marie deserts both her new husband and her grandmother to fall into the arms of the charismatic, yet abusive and controlling John, who longs to help Marie fulfill her "destiny" as a Voodoo Queen. A self-proclaimed king in his African homeland, John is greedy, vicious and cruel. And in a surprising twist, Marie discovers that he was also her mother's lover! However, John appears to be mysteriously young. Gradually, Marie discovers within herself that voodoo does indeed live. She also recognizes John for what he really is -- jealous and insane, and a very dangerous person.
Richard Dawkin
The God Delusion

Many people judge Richard Dawkins just on the title of his book alone without even reading a word. If people would actually read what they criticize, and try to really understand what is being expressed, there would be more understanding in the world instead of immediate hatred.

I saw Dawkins on Bookspan and the man is actually a softspoken and seemingly kind person who has a very strong stance that religion is the cause of much of the evil in the world. Religious extremists aren't satisified to believe and worship as they choose, they want to force everyone on the bandwagon, whether by physical force, or by psychological and emotional manipulation. If there weren't so many people like this in the world, people like Dawkins could focus on working on scientific advances to make our lives better, make the world a better place in which to live. The God Delusion is written in protest against those who stand in the way of scientific advancement and knowledge, and progress.

The God Delusion provides a very good perspective from the scientific and atheist/agnostic community. Humans are the only ones who can make a difference. If we sat still looking up into the cosmos waiting for divine intervention, nothing at all happens. This is the point that Dawkins, Harris and other atheists who are finally coming out of the closet are saying. Helping hands and thinking brains get things done in this world. While even scientists don't agree amongst themselves on many things, they all agree that they must try to work together to solve life's challenges, find cures for illnesses, figure out how to divert dangerous asteroids, figure out how to solve the problems that we can do something about, exchanging ideas and finding solutions. It's a coming together of human intelligence.
Yukio Mishima's
Spring Snow

In "Spring Snow," Yukio Mishima is as gentle and as beautiful as fresh-fallen snow.

The story of a young and handsome aristocrat, Kiyoaki Matsugae, and the beautiful and mysterious Ayakura Satoko is set just after the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century, the novel offers intriguing insights into a Japanese culture that is at once in transition while also clinging to traditions of the past.

Mishima strength is description of nature. His writing allows the reader to fully sense the wonders of Japan and he is equally adept at describing the contours of his young lovers' bodies. In addition to the sensual and sensuous wonders, the inner psychology of passion-plagued minds of the young lovers who are at the center of his story is also genius. Mishima avoids sentimentalism while walking the thin line between hatred and love, between passion and pain.

Spring Snow is composed using symbolism, description, psychology, and a gentle narrative pace. Readers looking for a fast-paced plot might find it difficult to get started, but keep reading beyond the first dozen or so pages and you will get drawn in and not be able to put it down.