Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The People of Godlbizhits by Leyb Rashkin - 1936 - translated from Yiddish by Jordon Finkin - 2017

I’m seriously behind on my postings now thus my post Will be brief. I Will draw from the  brilliant preface done by the translator Jordan Finkin.  

The People of Godlbozhitis, at 602 pages, is a large scale collage of the lives of the people, say around 1920 in an imaginary Polish town.  Most of the residents are Yiddish speaking Jews but the  very large cast of characters also includes Polish Catholics, Russians, and other groups.  It is not a one plot line novel.  Almost every chapter starts and finishes a story.  Some chapters Focus on rich bankers, others on the poorest.  Personal connections are very important.  The conversation are wonderful and feel very real to me.  There is humour and heartbreak.  Some dedicate their lives to extended their extended Family.  Others live off their in laws.  

I was kindly given a Review copy of this book.  Everyone into Yiddish needs to add this book to their list.  I offer my thanks to Professor Finkin for this translation.  There are also lots of very illuminating footnotes that I found very useful and edifying.  

“Leyb Rashkin (pen name of Shol Fridman; 1903/4–39) was born in the shtetl Kuzmir (in Polish, Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą), the prototype for the shtetl Godlbozhits.2While writing short stories on the side, he had several jobs, including as administrator for a Jewish cooperative bank, an institution that figures prominently and critically in the novel. The People of Godlbozhits, Rashkin’s only novel, was published in 1936 and won the Peretz Prize of the Polish Jewish PEN club in 1938.3Rashkin would ultimately perish while fleeing the Nazis to the Soviet Union. What he left behind was a remarkable microcosmic depiction of a shtetl—indeed, in the words of one critic,“civilization”—one that would soon cease to exist. Why this book languishes unfairly in obscurity is a good but not a difficult question. Historically speaking, the Second World War and the author’s death at its outset were not, shall we say, auspicious. A six-hundred-page book, moreover, will always be something of a challenge. But of course, translation is key. Without a readership, all works will wither. As Mikhail Krutikov notes Of two debuts that were awarded literary prizes—the seventeenthcentury historical fantasy Der sotn in Goray(Satan in Goray; serialized in 1933; published in book form 1935) by Isaac Bashevis Singer and the realistic shtetl novel Di mentshn fun Godl-bozhits (The People of Godl-bozhits; 1936) by Leyb Rashkin—one became famous as the first step in the most successful Yiddish literary career of the twentieth century, whereas the other fell into oblivion because its author perished in the Holocaust.” from The translator’s preface 

Mel u

Monday, February 19, 2018

White Teeth by Zadie Smith - her debut novel - 1999

“White Teeth” was the debut novel of Zadie Smith.  It turned her into a literary superstar.  I have previously posted on three of her novels, Swing Time, On Beauty, and NW as well as several of her great short stories.  I have also read a few of her essays.  Her new essay collection, Feel Free, is getting rave notices.

I am getting a bit behind in my posting so I will be keeping this to a reading journal format.  

Set in working class London, it revolves around two men, one from Bangladesh and one London, who served together in the British Army, in Italy, during World War Two.  There adventures in the war are fun and exciting.  Back in London we follow them and their families for many years.  All in all a wonderful read full of delightful prose and sharply observed social insights

I hope to read her Autograph Man soon.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown 2017

Beth Underdow’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s  Sister has   been getting lots of very good reviews.  I enjoy first rate historical fiction so when I found it was marked down temporarily from $11.95 to $1.95 (as a Kindle edition) I hit purchase now. (It is back to $11.95). 

Set in the area of Essex, England in in 1645, the novel centers on Alice, recently widowed and pregnant with her late husband’s child.  She has no money and her only way of surviving seems to be to return to the house in which she grew up.  There are dark memories there.  

Her bachelor  brother owns the house now.  He is a minister and a witchhunter.  He is based on a real witchhunter, one who condemmed over 100 women to death.   In the period accidental deaths of lifestock, for example, were often blamed on women, especially those showing mental abnormalities.  There were barbaric tests to determine if a woman was a witch.  Underdown does a good job letting us see how witch finding was done.

The novel spends a lot of time going over things that happened in the past.  Underdow does a good job with the atmosphere and the climate of fear.  Alice herself begins to feel her Brother suspects her.

I found this book kept my attention and I wanted to see what would happen next. The ending was exciting and satisfying.

As to purchasing it, I can say if it goes back down to $1.95 I can endorse it for fans of historical fiction.  

Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel, and is out with Viking in the UK and Ballantine in the US in Spring 2017. The book is based on the life of the 1640s witch finder Matthew Hopkins, whom she first came across while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery.  From

Mel u

Friday, February 16, 2018

”Getting Ideas”. - A Short Story by Farah Ahamed - 2018

“Getting Ideas” by Farah Ahamed

Farah Ahamed on The Reading Life

“Getting Ideas” is the sixth Short Story by Farah Ahamed upon which I have posted.  I have been reading her work since April, 2015. Obviously I see Ahamed  as writer of significant talent and insight.  

“Getting Ideas” focuses on Aisha, a Syrian refugee living in the UK and working for a NGO, an international human rights organisation. His father has given her advise: “‘We don’t want any problems with the law. Remember, no one will defend your rights. You’re invisible, a refugee. Give thanks for what you have. Be on your guard and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.’”  She lives alone.  People pretty much treat her as if she is invisible when she is not at work.  Then one exciting day her boss offers her a position as a Children’s Rights Coordinator in Tanzania.  She will be in charge of evaluating the effectiveness of Aid as it applies to schools supported by her NGO.

Her first assignment takes her on a long journey over rough roads, accompanied by a driver and a  young Tanzanian woman who now works for the NGO.  They are on their way to visit a school, supported by aid from her NGO.  Her young assistant graduated from the school five years ago.  Ahamed does a masterful job letting us see how Aisha feels.  She has gone from the UK, where she was near invisible to an important high status official in rural Tanzania.  Depending on her report the school, and the director, can receive much more aid or be cut out.

In a very subtle scene, we see the driver almost, maybe just to himself, mocking her as a representative of USA provided aid.  He knows he is supposed to be humble before her but I sensed resentment.  Of course aid is subject to misuse and appropriation by corrupt officials and maybe he knows this and Aisha seems naive to him.  

Upon arrival at the school all the students, it is a girl’s school, sing a song in honour of Aisha.  The students have developed a play, on their own, to preform for her.  It is, per the male director, meant to show the aid money is helping the girls.  

The performance of the play is a very powerful emotionally moving scene.  It is important that first time readers be allowed to experience this on their own so I will not say much.  It is right out of the #metoo movement so much in the news.  I felt very proud of all the women in the story.  

“Getting Ideas” is a first rate story .  In just a few pages we experience very different cultures and we see a liberation I was not expecting.  I know Aisha will grow into a strong woman and I hope the girls will also. 

I hope to follow Ahamed for many more years.

Farah Ahamed is a short fiction writer. Her stories have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Thresholds, Kwani?, The Missing Slate, and Out of Print among others. She was highly commended in the 2016 London Short Story Prize, joint winner of the inaugural 2017 Gerald Kraak Award and has been nominated for The Caine and The Pushcart prizes. She was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, DNA/Out of Print Award, Sunderland Waterstones Award, Asian Writer Short Story Prize, and Strands International Short Story.

Mel u

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

“The Little Red Umbrella” - A Short Story by Blume Lempel (1981)

“The Little Red Umbrella,” translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, appeared in The Brooklyn Rail: In Translation (Brooklyn, NY: April 2016

“She recalled going to hear T.S. Eliot by herself, without either female or male companions. When she entered the auditorium, all the seats were already taken. Standing room was also limited. Someone stepped on the foot she had recently sprained. The wound appeared to be bleeding, but removing the shoe was not an option. People were packed together so tightly that she was barely able to free herself from the curious hand groping under her coat. The tension in the auditorium was overpowering. When the poet finally stood up and began to read, something in her tore. Over the heads of the audience, the gaunt creator of “The Waste Land” reached her and transformed her into a kind of exotic wild animal, from whose depths emerged a hysterical scream followed by a harsh hiccup. After that incident, she stopped attending poetry readings. The shame of being led from the auditorium stayed with her for many years. Janet now thought that had it not been for that incident, she herself might have written poetry. Instead of writing, she married, raised children, and then lived alone —one more widow on the flooded market. Dilettantes did happen by to share the double bed. They came and went like stars in the night: a washed-up actor, a sock manufacturer, a card player, a man who had left his wife and child to travel around the world in disguise. The rendezvous with the poet came like a jolt from the very heart of life, awakening the butterflies from their lethargic dozing. White silk wings hovered in the air.”- from “The Little Red Umbrella”

This story focuses on the blind date of a fifty year old Jewish widow and  poet, a Holocaust survivor.  She first caught his eye at a Hanukkah party, he did not meet her there and now he has called to invite her for a dinner date.  He tells her on the phone he is a poet.  He tells her he will take her to a French restaurant.

Her mind wanders over the time she heard T. S. Eliot lecture.  I think memories of “The Waste Land” push thoughts of world history.  She meets the poet, the idea was she would be carrying a red umbrella in case he does not recognise her. He does not meet her expectations, she was anticipating a man of Byronic good looks.  He is a Holocaust survivor, clearly Jewish.  He briefly alludes to his status.  It turns out he will take her to a Hungarian restaurant he owns which is in a building he also owns.  She feels almost obligated to the poet.

This is a very good post Holocaust story.  It can be read in the pictured collection.

Yiddish did not die In The Holocaust.  There are few languages so much cherished, especially a language spoken as a first language only by small groups.  There is intense scholarly study of Yiddish literature. The attack on The Yiddish speakers of Europe by The Nazis failed.  It was an attack on a people who cherished Reading, Books,  Knowledge as intrinsic goods.  

Blume Lempel was born in the Ukraine in 1907.  In 1929 she moved to Paris to be with her brother.  She loved Paris, married there, and in 1939 she and her husband moved to Long Island, New York.  She stayed there until her death in 1999.  She had three children and began to write short stories in Yiddish, was widely published and won many awards.  She was fluent in English, French, and had a working knowledge of Russian.  She choice to write in Yiddish to speak for those lost in the Holocaust and to defy those who wanted the language wiped out. I am so glad I have found this collection and I thank the translators for this labor of love.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hell’s Cartel:IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys - 2008

I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to acquire this book.

“I am listening, Herr Rathenau,” replies Smaragd of IG Farben. “Tyrian purple, alizarin and indigo, other coal-tar dyes are here, but the important one is mauve. William Perkin discovered it in England, but he was trained by Hofmann, who was trained by Liebig. There is a succession involved. If it is karmic it’s only in a very limited sense . . . another Englishman, Herbert Ganister, and the generation of chemists he trained. . . . Then the discovery of Oneirine. Ask your man Wimpe. He is the expert on cyclized benzylisoquinilines. Look into the clinical effects of the drug. I don’t know. It seems that you might look in that direction. It converges with the mauve-Perkin-Canister line. But all I have is the molecule, the sketch . . . Methoneirine, as the sulfate. Not in Germany, but in the United States. There is a link to the United States. A link to Russia. Why do you think von Maltzan and I saw the Rapallo treaty through? It was necessary to move to the east. Wimpe can tell you. Wimpe, the V-Mann, was always there. Why do you think we wanted Krupp to sell them agricultural machinery so badly? It was also part of the process. At the time I didn’t understand it as clearly as I do now. But I knew what I had to do..” from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1973

I first became aware of IG Farben’s role in Nazi war effort when I read, in 1973, Gravity’s Rainbow.  (The company is mentioned 18 Times.  Other GR Readers will perhaps recall that IG Farben is said to have been tracking Tyrone Slothrop long before the war.) Hell’s Cartel showed me Pynchon had his facts right, of course.  

This very wonderful history begins with a very thorough account of the state of the chemical industry in Germany after World War I.  There were lots of competing firms.  The production of dyes from coal by products gave the industry an initial focus.  Jeffreys shows how IG Farben was formed from the merger of lots of chemical companies.  Many of the future executives of IG Farben had PhDs in chemistry and related fields.  Some were Nobel Prize Winners.Jeffreys tells us how a giant German corporation, at one time the fourth biggest in the world, essentially made the Nazi War effort possible, profited greatly from the Holocaust through slave labor and the sale of poison gas. Farben was involved in the death of millions both by their war products and their use of slave labor.

This story cannot be separated from the social and political history which explains the rise of the Nazis to power.  Of course I thought I knew the basic story but I learned somethings new in Jeffreys’ very well structured narrative.  He takes us through the period of hyper-inflation, through the first few years of Hitler and his growing anti-Semitism. Farben had numerous Jewish employees, from factory workers to important scientists and ultimately they all had to be fired.  We see the deals Farben had with Standard Oil and French and Britain firms.

As Germany rearmed Hitler directed Farben to develop an oil substitute from coal and a rubber substitute.  Without this, the Nazis could not have captured continental Europe.  They also contributed money.  Most Farben executives were pragmatic, not ideologues though at first they did favour the Nazis over the Communists.

Farben as the war began had a huge factory workforce. They lost a large percentage of their workers to the army.  They replaced them with concentration camp inmates who were often worked to death.  Once they failed in health, they were gassed with an IG Farben product.  They also produced gas and chemical weapons, paid for horrible experiments on inmates using their products.  Farben was very involved with Auschwitz.  

When the war ended a number of Farben leaders were charged with war crimes as well as crimes against humanity.  Jeffreys does a marvellous job describing the months long trial.  Of course the defendants claimed they did not know what was going on in the concentration camps.  Further their attorneys claimed they were forced to follow the orders of the Nazis and under international law cannot be held responsible.  The defendants got of lightly, some were found innocent and at most did just  a few years in prison. Most eventually returned to scientific work.  Farben was disbanded but aspirin, which they created is being sold worldwide.

I highly recommend this this book for all interested in World War Two. As I read it, I wondered would big international firms of today  do the same thing now?

Diarmuid Jeffreys is a writer, journalist and television producer who has made current affairs and documentary programmes for BBC TV amongst others, including Newsnight and the Money Programme . He is also the author of The Bureau: Inside the Modern FBI (1996) and Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug (2004). He lives with his wife and children

Mel u

Monday, February 12, 2018

“In Dreams Begins Responsibility’” - 1937 -The Most Famous Short Story of Delmore Schwartz

You wrote the greatest short story ever written.” . Lou Reed 

… "The world is a marriage of convenience," said Laura drunkenly, "the world is a shot-gun marriage. The world is a sordid match for money. The world is a misalliance. Every birthday is a funeral and every funeral is a great relief."   Delmore Swartz 

Delmore Schwartz (1913 to 1966, Born and died in New York City) is not as much read as he once was.  I think he is seen as kind of an American Orpheus descending into the underworld of a flea bag hotel,carrying a fifth of Jack Daniels and an unlabelled bottle of pills, dying from a heart attack.  No one at the hotel knew he was a famous poet.  His movie star looks, when young, help,sustain this image.  He was very into the reading life, his parents were immigrant Romanian Jews.  I can see his roots in The Yiddish literary culture of New York City.  His parents were more comfortable in Yiddish than English.  In a way Delmore is a product of the desire of Yiddish parents that their children be highly educated. He contributed to the first edition of The Partisan Review, had bad two marriages. He was tied in with other New York Intellectuals according to Irving Howe in his The World of our Fathers.

“With Dreams Comes Responsibility” is his most famous short story.  As far as I could find, it cannot be read online but luckily we can listen to Delmore and his student Lou Reed (of The Velvet Underground) read the story, run time 24 Minutes.  I listened to both and I recommend that to those interested.

It is 1909, Swartz’s parents have not yet entered into what would turn into a hate filled disastrous marriage.  The narrator, dreaming, is in a movie theatre,back when movies were magic, watching a silent movie.  It begins with his father walking to the house of his future mother to pick her up for a date. The movie is grainy and moves haltingly.  The narrator becomes anxious.  We see his dream image of their Coney Island evening.  Then his father asks his mother to marry him.  At which point, the narrator rises from his seat and, in distress, shouts out: 'Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.'  In the dream the movie usher tells him to be quiet or he will be thrown out of the theatre. 

Delmore (no one called him Swartz) has brilliantly recreated the experience of a dream.  At 21 he knew he had written a masterpiece.  Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift is based on his life.  I read it long ago and hope to reread it this year. 

If you download the sample edition of this collection you can read all of Lou Reed’s tribute and an introduction by his biographer, James Atlas.

I also hope to read more stories by Delmore.

Mel u