Books I read in October

Three adventures of very different sorts this month: Yiddish for Pirates, Walking to Mercury, and The Fifth Sacred Thing.

Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

A novel exploring the events surrounding the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain. Slightly oddly, the hero is an Ashkenazi Jew from Eastern Europe whose shtetl was destroyed. That would explain why the title is Yiddish for Pirates instead of “Ladino for Pirates”. Some of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and later, conversos who practiced Judaism in secret, actually did become pirates, according to the history of this era that I read in January. There are also some distressing sections about the auto da fé (burning heretics and lapsed conversos at the stake).

This book is full of linguistic pyrotechnics in Yiddish and English. I enjoyed working out the meaning of all the Yiddish words in the book (I speak German, so I can usually work it out because there are lots of German words in Yiddish). It’s told from the point of view of the main human character’s faithful parrot Aaron, an African Grey. This is rather appropriate, as the main human character is called Moishe (Moses), and Aaron was Moses’ brother.


Walking to Mercury, by Starhawk

This is the prequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing, and tells the story of Maya Greenwood, Rio, and Johanna.

If you loved Maya in The Fifth Sacred Thing, you’ll want to know the details of her earlier story. It’s an interesting book — somewhat lengthy, but given that it was written quite a while ago, it deals with many of the issues of racism and identity that are still current now.

I particularly appreciate that Maya is bisexual, and refuses to be boxed in by lesbian separatism, which was a big deal in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the lesbian separatists of yesteryear are the trans-excluding radical feminists now.

I’m very fond indeed of The Fifth Sacred Thing. I have reread it more than once and still find it unputdownable, but Walking to Mercury could have benefited from quite a lot of editing. It could be half the length that it is. The structure is interesting: Maya is travelling in Nepal and looking back on her youth; but personally I feel that the real action is happening back in her youth, so the story should’ve focused on that.

(Check out Christine’s review of City of Refuge, the brilliant sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing.)


The Fifth Sacred Thing

I then decided to re-read, for the umpteenth time, The Fifth Sacred Thing. I love this book so much. I start crying near the beginning, when Bird is in prison, and cry at various points during the story. Re-reading it is like visiting old friends. Bird, and Madrone, and Maya, and Sam, and all the great characters.

I note the inclusion of the Ohlone, the Pomo, and the Miwok (Indigenous Peoples of California) too. It would have been good if there were some characters from those cultures.

I’d like to have seen a trans or nonbinary character in the story too (but it was written in 1993). Pleasingly, the sequel, City of Refuge, has more trans and nonbinary characters.

Other than that, I still think it holds up really well as an exploration of non-violent resistance.

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