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The Black Dahlia
The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars McCarthyesque Noir, May 23, 2014
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Violence and darkness aside, the worlds of Cormac McCarthy and James Elroy share important common ground. Both are populated by outsiders on quests to define themselves in a most imperfect world.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, Elizabeth Andersen's wonderful The Mythos of Cormac McCarthy is the first I am aware to identify the theme in McCarthy's works. The action of outsiders in search of their identity certainly holds true in Ellroy's Black Dahlia.

Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, the fictional cops on the Black Dahlia case in Los Angeles, are both rogue cops. Blanchard is Bucky's mentor and goes so rogue that he crosses the Mexican border (also big in McCarthy's works) in going AWOL from the LAPD. Bucky is guilty of suppressing evidence, in addition to assaulting fellow officers, breaking and entering, going on sexual rampages with a suspect in the case, and dereliction of duty, which in Bucky's case seems like a misdemeanor.

This is a deeply personal book for the author, for the uninitiated. It is dedicated to his mother, who like Elizabeth Short, the real Black Dahlia, was murdered without a resolution to the crime. Fertility, birth, and the relations we build around those events at the center of our lives also figure prominently with these characters, whether it's the ghost of Blanchard's kid sister who is snuffed, Betty Short's infertility, Kay Lake's fertility (Buck's love interest and a victim of a sexual predator herself), and the women of the Sprague family.

At this late date (TBD originally was published in 1987), it seems unnecessary to mention that Ellroy's noir is every bit as dark as McCarthy's dystopian The Road, or his Blood Meridian, although Cormac's works are top drawer literature in contrast to Ellroy's genre.

But that is not to take anything away from Ellroy's work. While I am a late comer to noir, Ellroy's works are unsurpassed on my scorecard.

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
by Chris Hedges
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.36
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5.0 out of 5 stars An effective polemic against war, despite author's claims to the contrary, May 15, 2014
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Hedges' professes his book is not a polemic against war, but if it isn't that, then it's nothing; and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is something.

It's the strongest polemic against war that I have read.

Hedges is particularly adept at describing how the various national myths of war works on the cumulative thinking of a population and deludes them into the righteousness of their cause. War gives an illusion of purpose, meaning, a reason for living, all dispelled quickly enough. While Hedges focuses on myths, the similarities are so similar that there is essentially one myth at the core. Its variance from country to country, and war to war is not as significant as some might think.

He also draws extensively on the literature around war, from the Illiad - spelling out the qualities needed by soldier going into battle - and the Odyssey - the obverse qualities required of those returning from armed conflict - to more modern texts such as Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.

At times the text is repetitive, which is not a major problem over 185 pages. His invocation of Freud while analyzing the myths of Eros and Thantos did not resonate with me. I think his text would benefit from excising Herr Freud's observations.

The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel
The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel
by Benjamin Black
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.34
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars High marks for The Black-Eyed Blonde from a noir initiate, May 15, 2014
Noir, for me, is an acquired taste. While I have been addicted to noir on the silver screen for some time, the literature held little appeal to me. Go figure.

But while breakfasting recently with a friend, who confessed the need to get away from the genre after finishing James Ellroy's LA Quartet, it suddenly dawned on me that the time was right.

The Black-Eyed Blonde was the only thing in stock at the book store next door and I ripped through it in three days before moving on to the LAQ. It really was unputdownable, although I realize that there are fans of Chandler's Marlowe who find Black's portrayal is lacking. A Marlowe aficionado I'm not.

Black/Banville's novel lacks the grittiness and edge of Ellroy's work and it's PG stuff in comparison. It's family friendly noir. Noir you could gift to your mother in law. But then, Chandler's Marlowe in contrast to Ellroy's noir also is pretty pale.

The writing is TBEB's greatest strength and the text pulls the reader along gulping hands full of pages at a sitting. It is a most entertaining read.

On to James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia.

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
by Alice Goffman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.68
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An on the ground look at those On the Run, May 2, 2014
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On the Run is an on-the-ground authentic look at an emblematic neighborhood in Philly where more than half the men at some point have a warrant out for their arrest, causing them to be on the run. On the run from the police. On the run from parole officers. On the run from the courts. On the run from girlfriends. On the run from those who would use their vulnerability to victimize them.

This is the world behind the statistical sketch Alice Goffman paints in her preface. Briefly, the US locks up five to nine times more people than western Europe. More than in Russia, or China, excluding Stalin's reign. And it's the Black communities suffering the brunt.

Blacks, who make up 13% of the population, account for 37% of the prison population. 10% of black men are behind bars compared with 1% for whites. 60% of Blacks who do not finish high school will go to prison.

All of this is well known, and has been known for more than three decades. What Goffman does is bring the reader face to face with people caught in this cycle. She follows a group of young men in whose neighborhood she lived and shared their lives for six years while a student.

She introduces us to Chuck. His predicament with the law begins after a scuffle on the playground in high school. It sets in motion the cycle described in the statistics above. He does time for it. Upon release, he's denied re-admittance to high school because he's turned 19. A chippy arrest follows for failing to appear in court. Chuck is on the run.

There is an art to running. Chapter one begins with Chuck teaching his 12-year-old brother how to run: not to a relative's house - the cops armed with enhanced technology know places the refugee frequents. It's to a church lady's house ultimately. In addition to Chuck, Goffman introduces us to four other friends with legal entanglements. It's these entanglements and the subsequent running from them that form the warp and weave of their world, and the world of their families.

Running from the police is an art that according to Goffman resulted in 58% of the men succeeding in eluding the police despite the fact that the enforcement officers devote up to five squad cars in one instance to pick up one suspect on a minor charge.More than 70% of the time, the police had no idea who it was they were chasing in instances where the target escaped.

Running requires the ability to spot police well in advance.

For those who have done time and report to a parole officer, running from the parole officer also becomes an issue. In a quite humorous anecdote, Goffman recounts the instance of Jevon, a born natural actor, who develops a business on the side by taking curfew calls from parole officers. In addition to parroting his client's voice, he is briefed on identifying information the parole officer requests to ensure he has the right subject. It may seem like a lot of trouble to go to, but the penalty for missing curfew in the chippy world of law enforcement in the Black community is two years.

The author herself is caught up and subjected to what might be considered enhanced interrogation. It's what the women of men on the lam suffer, midnight raids with their living quarters turned upside down and subjection to intimidation to reveal the whereabouts of their sons.

Of course, those caught up in these legal entanglements cannot go to the law for protection or to register grievances. Others know this and take advantage. In once instance, a boy's car is torched because he's late in making a payment to a drug dealer. In another, one of the boys is mistaken for someone else and beaten severely suffering injuries that have been with him into his adult life. He refused medical treatment at the hospital because a parole violation would be filed against him for curfew violation.

In one instance, however, the boys in the hood sought the protection of incarceration by turning themselves in to the law to avoid a shooting war that broke out. One even asked his parole officer for a urine test he knew he would fail.

This is well worth the read to better understand the numbers that are all too familiar.

Memory and the Mediterranean (Vintage)
Memory and the Mediterranean (Vintage)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $11.84

5.0 out of 5 stars The three times of history, March 23, 2014
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Stuck in the winter from hell, I am diving into my Mediterranean shelf as I can't afford to be there.

Braudel is most widely known for expanding how historians practice their craft. He considers three times in his work: geologic, social, individual.

Greece and Rome don't enter the picture until the last two chapters. Most of the text is devoted to the preceding 15,000, or so, years.

He does an excellent job of tying Greece's emergence as a power in the Middle Sea environs to its geography and how that shaped the evolution of its colonizing city states. He does the same for the other groups around the Middle Sea during the eras covered.

His command of social events and trends helps integrate the geologic and individual times. He's able to surmise much of individual life from social events, including the emergence of powerful scribes with introduction of the alphabet technology.

One thing that greatly impresses me is how slowly things developed. Trends that now take years to develop globally, if that, took centuries to unfold.

This was originally published in the late '60s after he'd set the manuscript aside to work on other books. Despite its brevity and innovation, it has proved a slow read for me, probably because of difficulty I have with ancient history.

But, it is well worth the effort and the best volume on ancient history in my limited reading experience in the field.

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
by Peter Baker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.26
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5.0 out of 5 stars The gold standard on W's administration, March 23, 2014
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Days of Fire has the deserved reputation for being the gold standard of the Bush/Cheney administration.

One review says the book offers nothing new, yet ties together what we know about W's administration and puts it all in a meaningful context that rings true. That assessment is dead on in the eyes of this one-eyed reader.

I wasn't in the White House at the time (come to think of it, I haven't even done the tour thing), but his treatment of W's relationship with Cheney is nuanced and seems more accurate than the portrayal of the vice president as a mad puppeteer.

Cheney, in Baker's estimate, had considerable influence at the beginning of the administration because Bush leaned on him. But, as Bush gained experience he distanced himself from Cheney as the vp veered farther and farther right.

Bush also comes off as overwhelmed by the tough challenges facing him, many of the problems of his own making. In addition to the 9.11 crisis, there were the two wars Bush launched, an impending economic crisis, and governing an administration that had more than its share of infighting (Cheney/Rumsfeld vs Rice/Powell, with enough supporting warriors on both sides to make a gladiator movie).

There is still much to be explored in W's administration. Baker notes a change from W the cowboy early on, to a more distant and less impulsive executive in the second term, but does not examine why the change. Lots of ground there to be explored.

And, while there are many instances examining in detail how Cheney's influence faded, again there is room for others to examine why that was. Was W just fed up with the infighting, did he think Dick was, well, a dick, or did he begin to see Cheney as as a manifestation of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott's character in Dr. Strangelove).

Baker does a good job in pulling materials from many, if not all, the books written by former administration officials and putting some of they key assertions in a meaningful context that sometimes undermines self-serving, if not delusional, claims made by the former officials.

Killing Mister Watson
Killing Mister Watson
by Peter Matthiessen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.77
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mr. Watson, a study in ambiguity, March 23, 2014
This review is from: Killing Mister Watson (Paperback)
Edgar J. Watson is in the pantheon of American bad guys, right up there with Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden.

If your honest, and who among us is not, he is an ambiguous figure, like Holden. Oh, don't get me wrong, I know the jury of readers, feeling compelled to decide one way or the other, would sent Edgar J. and The Judge to the scaffold and then go home to settle down to a nice family dinner on linen table cloth and never have a doubt about the rightness of what they'd done.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be disappointed if my daughter were to marry EJ, or someone like him. There is a vast middle between the poles of good and bad, and like most of us, EJ falls somewhere in the middle, just more so.

More so because, like Holden, his actions occur between poles set a little further apart than most of us. And given that his actions unfold on the moral frontier of the 10,000 island region (not land and not sea) of Florida, that context should have some bearing on those who would judge him.

Call me amoral, but I never felt compelled to judge EJ. After all, he did in Belle Star and one can really get their knickers twisted up trying to decide whether murdering the baddest girl to pursue the outlaw career track is a good thing, or a bad thing. It's EJ's thing is all, a line in his bona fides is all.

And how 'bout the way EJ's neighbors did him him? Whose moral code countenances that?

A Division of Spoils (Repr of 1975 Ed) (Raj Quartet/Paul Scott, 4) (Phoenix Fiction)
A Division of Spoils (Repr of 1975 Ed) (Raj Quartet/Paul Scott, 4) (Phoenix Fiction)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.25
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fires of destruction consume the Raj even as fires of creation birth a modern nation, March 23, 2014
Siva's arc, the deity of firey destruction and creation, comes full circle in the fourth volume of the Raj tetralogy.

Through Scott's pantheon of characters we see the Raj crumble, while simultaneously India is born through the rupture of its partition. We see the firey destruction of both the old colonial order, as well as any attempt at unifying a Hindu/Muslim nation; while at the same time India is born in fire.

Any illusions that may have sprung from the metaphor of the painting The Jewel in the Crown with Queen Victoria presiding over a diverse but subservient and orderly Raj, or for that matter springing from Ghandi's idealism, goes up in smoke, a Siva puja (or smoke offering).

In the end, there is a feeling that all of the characters through which we have seen the demise of the Raj and the simultaneous birth of India, are all carried away as smoke on the karmic winds.

Those of the Raj, the middling class of Britain who ruled the subcontinent for more than two centuries through the East India Company and then through the Raj, reap the karma of their administration.

And the people of the subcontinent reap their own karma in the violence between it's two major religious sects whose differences were accentuated by British rule.

All are in a limbo, a bardo. The characters of the Raj, middling English at home, are marginally English at this point because of their experiences in ruling a foreign land. There is a lineage of female characters, the last of which Sarah Layton determines to leave, only to stay at the end because she is no longer English, even if she also obviously is not Indian either. Other characters of the Raj are faced with the same decision.

Muslims who have been elevated by the Raj to ruling positions are faced with their social order going up in flames as a modern nation, and a Hindu one at that, is born. Their sons become sacrificial offerings.

But it is in the character Hari Kumar, wrongly accused of raping an English woman and railroaded by the Raj on sedition charges, who answers the key question posed by Scott here: "what is the difference between dharma and karma?"

Both are tricky sanskrit terms and like many sanskrit words their meaning covers a spectrum of meanings in English, or even when specific their definitions are multilayered and complex.

Dharma is both religious or philosophical teachings, but also it can accurately be translated as any phenomenon. All phenomena are dharma.

Karma on the other hand is easier to define, but harder for the western mind to grasp. Karma can be translated as action. Action has three parts: cause & effect, but also motivation. Karma falls into three categories: good (that which eases discomfort and suffering known as dukha), bad (increases dukha), and neutral. Karma is both individual, but also collective. A group of people generates collective karma.

Without giving too much away, it seems to me that Hari Kumar is the character who masters the answer to the question, to which he did not have an answer when posed to him originally by an English classmate in boarding school.

The answer lies in one's experience. It's not intellectual.

For most of the Raj Quartet, Hari is suspended in that bardo of being neither English, nor Indian. But in the end, through the suffering of being unjustly accused, imprisoned, and mistreated in the Raj's penal system, he stays true to his compassion for Daphne Manners and burdens all the false accusations and abuse (emotional and physical) to protect her. Faced with his accuser's madness, he bests the Raj police official Robert Merrick and the Raj system, which also is neither Indian, nor British.

Through this journey, Hari comes out a teacher, who not only lives dharma, but I think it's fair to see that through his skill in the English language, a detriment early in the quartet, he becomes a bridge between the English and Indian influences in the new nation.

Of all the characters who have made the journey spun by Scott, Hari is the one whose experiences are forged in the potentially destructive crucible (fire again) of persecution into karma that reduces suffering for those around him.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 3: The Towers of Silence (Phoenix Fiction)
The Raj Quartet, Volume 3: The Towers of Silence (Phoenix Fiction)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.92
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5.0 out of 5 stars The individual as the entry point into history, January 26, 2014
A key to unlocking The Towers of Silence, Paul Scott's third installment of the Raj Quartet, is none other than the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who assayed that the individual is the portal to history.

That is unless the reader would rather choose entry through the towers of silence used by the Parsees (a Zoroastrian community that fled Muslim conquering of Persia) during their funeral rights to lay their deceased out for the vultures to feast on.

Either way, the infinite land of Scott's work serves as the silent backdrop from which violent events arise.

So, for the sake of our sanity, let's not enter through the towers of silence. Gruesomeness aside, the individual offers a more accessible portal. But all ends up receding into the same silence from whence it came anyway in the world Scott paints.

As was the case in the second volume Day of the Scorpion, the women continue to dominate center stage, especially the visionary Barbara Batchelor, Barbie to her friends, and to Scott. Barbie is a missionary on the periphery of Raj society. She is taken in by Mabel Muir, herself an outsider who senses well ahead of her fellow Brits the ebb of the Raj's tide.

And, Mabel runs counter to the herd. When unarmed civilians are slaughtered at Amristar by troops led by Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the Raj community rallies around their general and sets up a defense fund. But Mabel makes a sizable contribution to the fund the Indians set up for families of the victims.

It is largely through the individual characters of Barbie and Mabel - both alluded to as towers of silence, by the bye - that Scott examines the Raj during the end of World War II as fundamental shifts shake things up in the emerging Indian nation. But other characters also serve as portals into history.

Barbie and her visions are shaped by Emerson's essays, including: "'There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time.'" Her dreams - some of which accurately anticipate events and understand unexplained occurrences - conjure "the figure of an unknown Indian: dead in one aspect, alive in another. And after a while it occurred to her that the unknown Indian was what her life in India had been about."

The fact is that much of her life has been frittered away on failed attempts to teach children in a missionary school that is adrift in India, neither sanctioned by the Raj, nor embraced by Indians. And this failure runs parallel to much of the Raj's tenure in the subcontinent.

The difference is that Barbie has the courage to explore the failings of the Raj, something that never occurs to mainstream Raj society whose energies are devoted to maintaining the myth of the Raj. In the words of one of the military matrons, "There would be no chain of trust if there were no chain of command." Mabel, on the other hand, already knows.

This review, as any review of the Raj quartet is bound to be, is just a sliver of the pie. The characters are the action as they evolve and mutate, pinging off one another and reacting.

Mildred, Mabel's daughter in law, deserves a brief mention. She is the third of the many triangles signaling a "danger zone" among shifting characters. She herself, like all the characters, has a quality that alienates her from others, yet she is very much a player in the Raj's Pankot society.

The characters also are bestowed a mix of qualities that not only make them difficult to pin down for those who inclined to pass judgment, but also make for interesting exchanges with others. This is especially true for the villain/hero Reginald Merrick, a police official whose qualities simultaneously border on the psychopathic and all that is virtuous about the Raj.

On the one hand, he is accused of torturing Indian suspects brought in for questioning, or suspected of wrongdoing, in his eyes. At the same time, he is lauded for keeping a lid on things in a way that is judged fair, even by those who are in a position to criticize him.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion (Phoenix Fiction) (Vol 2)
The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion (Phoenix Fiction) (Vol 2)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.86
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5.0 out of 5 stars Scott shifts gears in the second volume of his quartet, January 9, 2014
The second volume of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet shifts focus more exclusively onto the deteriorating British Raj administration in contrast to the opening volume which invested more attention to the insights, perspectives, and myths of Indians during the birthing of their state. And it is the women who take over center stage.

The artistic peaks of The Jewel in the Crown are sacrificed to a tighter focus and more linear narrative in The Day of the Scorpion. But what emerges is a more accessible book and more linear story that doubtlessly has a wider appeal to readers, without sacrificing the overall artistic merit.

Scott does step back in time during the beginning of some narrative in DotS so that the lines sometimes overlap, but the circular space and time of JitC has given way to a more linear progression.

Also, with the compelling exception of an interview of Hari Kumar, imprisoned under false security charges for consorting with the young English woman Daphne Manners, Indians are in the background, here. And, so have men for the most part. Center stage is populated with women.

DotS works on three levels: 1) characters as the action, 2) history of the period August 1942-June 1944, and 3) mythological.

Experiential knowledge that leads to the grace associated with a fulfilled life is the main transcendent action. The transformation for Sarah Layton begins while visiting Lady Ethel Manners, the aunt of Daphne who died while giving birth to the daughter she conceived with Hari Kumar at the end of the first volume.

Lady Manners has become a pariah, an untouchable, within the Raj community for her role in bringing the mixed raced Pavrati into the world. Sarah, left on her own, feels compelled to visit Lady Manners, her neighbor who has been snubbed to this point. "What a lot you know," remarks Sarah Layton to herself about Lady Manners after the visit. It's an epiphany to her of what life can be.

The knowing that Sarah accumulates between the book's covers is distinct from knowledge derived from memory and dependent upon experience resulting in the sense of grace embodied by Lady Manners, who becomes a ghost figure drifting in and out of the narrative, but always a haunting and disrupting presence.

Sarah is twinned with her younger sister Susan, who marries, births a son, and is widowed in these pages. The contrast between the two is yin and yang stuff.

Susan is the beauty, the center of attention who lets the world orbit around her, and she absorbs thoughtlessly without weighing what it is she is absorbing. She is the darling of the Raj's Pankot outpost.

Sarah, while not unattractive, is plainer, open minded, circulates within and without the Raj community, is linked with the deceased Daphne in comparison and spirit. Her independence makes her the object of vicious gossip about her loyalty to the Raj.

Sarah also is linked to her Aunt Mabel, twice widowed, who openly cares not a whit about what the ladies of the Raj think or say. Mabel sees what the Raj has become. She recognizes its demise while the mainstream ladies play bridge and congregate for afternoon drinks, dining, dancing, and other things Raj.

When the Raj community rallies round General Reginald Dyer, who gave the order in 1919 to slaughter unarmed and peaceful civilians without an avenue of escape at Jallianwalla in Amrister, Mabel makes a sizable donation the fund for Indian victims.

The men in DotS are background actors. Mohammed Ali Kasim, a Muslim arrested in the infamous lockup of Congress, is introduced, but plays no major role.

The Nawab Sahib, who lends his guest house to the Laytons in Susan's rushed marriage, is slighted at entrance to the wedding reception, but it is Susan who saves the day by offering the Indian royalty a curtsy, causing gasps among the ladies of the Raj.

Reginald Merrick, described here by Sarah as a man with an intellectually active mind within narrow confines, unveils his theory of situational history. Briefly, it's a theory of what Merrick calls situations that are created by the need for inherent distinctions generated by man's contempt for other men, strengthening his racist credentials first offered in the first volume.

We also see a side of Merrick through the interrogation of Hari Kumar as the Raj reopens his case given suspicions about how Merrick conducted the boy's arrest. The interrogation is as brutal, physically and emotionally, as anything we have learned from recent conflicts between East and West in Asia.

History is much batted around. But my favorite pronouncement is by Lady Manners, who while witnessing Kumar's interrogation offers: "We must remember the worst because the worst is the lives we lead, the best is only our history, and between our history and our lives there is this vast dark plain where the rapt and patient shepherds drive their invisible flocks in expectation of God's forgiveness."

There is much myth in these pages as well, although it is less obvious and woven into the narrative to seem fairly seamless.

Keeping with the framework of Siva, the Indian god of creation and destruction, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance, Sarah contemplates the cycle of creation/destruction, but sees it as a mindless, consuming hunger, the hunger being enough in itself.

Susan also enacts a weird sacrificial scene with her child in the middle of a circle of fire, bringing Siva to mind.

And, yes, I think reading the first volume is required to make sense of much of the rest of the quartet.

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