M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Friday, February 5, 2016

Our Crowd The Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham(1967, 412 pages, issued as an E Book 2016 by Open Media Publishing)



Our Crowd The Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham elegantly and fascinatingly  tells the story of how  German Jewish immigrants who came to America starting in the 1840s or so with little more than the clothes they wore and a bit of money if they were lucky ended up founding financial and retail empires that shaped the development of the nation. This book is not just the story of how a a few German Jewish immigrants got wealthy in America, it is very much the story of the development of America into an International financial power.  This book should be read by all into American history and of course Jewish history, and for sure by all teachers of American history.  

The story begins on a boat to America.  German Jews were subject to many restrictive laws, for example in most cases they could not own farm land.  Many men supported their families as traveling peddlers.  When they arrived in America, through the New York port, the founders of great families became traveling peddlers, carrying heavy packs of goods to families in places where there were no stores.   Immigrants began to spread out around the country, as they prospered they bought wagons and set up stores.  One of the big goals of the men, who in most cases came alone to America, was to bring their wives over, then all of their extended family.  The extended family was then used to open branch stores all over the country.  One of the first big successes of a family came when they had the foresight to set up a store in San Francisco as soon as the gold rush began.  The story of how two members of a family made it from New York City to California and set up shop was very exciting.

Soon some  families had enough capital to set up merchant banks, dealing in government bonds, financing railroads, entering into partnership with the Rothchilds and J. P. Morgan.  As the families became very rich they became very clannish, marriage could be sanctioned only with some one from "Our Crowd".  I was fascinated to learn that if no suitable bride could be found among the families, a young man would go back to Germany in search of a suitable wife from among wealthy German Jewish families.  The wealthier the families became, one would have to say tne more elitist became their  attitudes.  The grandson of a traveling peddler would not deign to dine with the owner of a huge store.

There is a lot to be learned about the history of American finance from this book.  The banks of the families were heavily involved in development of American railroads.  We meet a lot of interesting people in this book.  I was so intrigued when I learned that a family bank helped the Japanese finance their defeat of Russia in the Russian Japanese war.  This defeat helped cause tne eventual collapse of Czarist rule in Russia.  In a kind of deep irony, we can see this as payback for the vicious anti-Semticism and pograms of Czarist Russia.  

At first most Jewish immigrants to New York City were Germans, as time went on many thousands of Russian, Yiddish speaking Jews began to arrive.  I have read in the works of Joseph Roth, Iréne Nemirovsky, Stefan Zweig and numerous Jewish histories of the very mixed attitude of commonly called European Jews from Germany and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire toward largely Polish and Russian Jews, some times referred to as "Yids". The families felt an obligation to help them but they also did not want "real Americans" to see them as related to the Russian immigrants.  By the time the Russians took over the tenements of New York, the families were in grand mansions on Long Island.

As time went on, most male family members stayed in the business,  women married others in "Our Crowd".  Big families were the norm.  Jobs were often found for in laws as well.  

There is a lot more in this wonderful book.   It reads like an exciting novel, with the immigrants brought vividly to life.  Our Crowd The  Great Jewish Families of New York City is an very  informative book.  For fiction readers, I think it will help us understand the many literary works set in New York City by writers like Edith Wharton, Henry James, and numerous others.  I see it as must reading for those into the economic and social history of America and for sure for those interested in Jewish history.

I was kindly given a review copy of this book by Open Road Media Publishing.  

I hope to read this year Biringham's The Rest of Us The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews.



Stephen Birmingham is an American author of more than thirty books. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1932, he graduated from Williams College in 1953 and taught writing at the University of Cincinnati. Birmingham’s work focuses on the upper class in America. He’s written about the African American elite in Certain People and prominent Jewish society in Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, The Grandees: The Story of America’s Sephardic Elite, and The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. His work also encompasses several novels including The Auerbach Will, The LeBaron Secret, Shades of Fortune, and The Rothman Scandal, and other nonfiction titles such as California Rich, The Grandes Dames, and Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address. Birmingham lives in southwest Ohio.  - official bio

Mel u

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rosamond Lehmann A Life by Selina Hastings (2002, 512 pages)





Just a few days ago I read my first work by Rosamond Lehmann, An Invitation to the Waltz.  I am now reading her first novel, which was received with great acclaim and made her famous, Dusty Answers.  

I greatly enjoy reading biographies of authors.  A good literary biography has to find a way to talk about the tale without losing the teller.  The temptation for biographers is to work backwards from the works and derive the writings of an author from her or his life experiences.  The literary biography is getting off to a very good start in the 21th century.  Recently I have read and posted upon very good biographies of Marcel Proust, his translator C. K. Scott Moncreiff, Colette, the Italian writer, Elsa Morante, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a neglected American writer, the incomparable Clarice Lispector and Iréne Nemirovsky.  Selina Hasting's Rosamond Lehmann is a suberb edition to this list.  


Lehmann (1901 to 1990) was born into an affluent family.  Her father was the founder of the literary journal Grata, a liberal member of parliament, a world class rowing coach and a pretty decent father.  Lehmann grew up pampered living a beautiful house on a river.  She was home schooled up until she entered Cambridge, just about the time women were first granted degrees.  She had a deep love for literature, particularly the great Victorian writers.  

Hastings tells us that as a writer and a woman Lehmann was always somehow in the not completely benevolent shadow of her great beauty.  (When I read this I thought of Clarice Lispector.)  She published seven novels, a collection of short stories and a spiritual autobiography.  She frequently lectured and was a vehement anti-Fascist.  

Once Lehmann graduates from Cambridge, Hasting structures the central part of the biography as an account of the men in Lehmann's life and the vagaries of her relationships.  She married in 1928, Wogan Philipps, Second Baron of Milford and an accomplished  artist.  They had two children, a son Hugo and a daughter Sally.  The marriage slowly disintegrated as the husband became deeply committed to communism and fought in the Spanish Civil War.  They divorced and she never remarried.

       Wogan Philips


 
  She had four long term love affairs, in each case her lover left her, sometimes for another woman.  Her longest romance was a nine year relationship with Cecil Lewis, a post Laureate of England.  She never got over the extreme almost unbalanced bitterness she felt toward Lewis, who was in fact married to another woman for the duration of their affair, when he left her for another woman, a well know actress.   Lehmann like and needed male validation of her beauty and sexual charisma.  I was surprised to learn of her brief fling with the James Bond Ian Fleming, on two trips to Jamaica. She has her share of short term relationships.


The biggest tragedy in the life of Lehmann was the death of her beloved daughter Sally in 1958.  Sally, also called STH,  was living in Indonesia where her husband had a government position. She died of a virus.  This event pushed Lehmann into a thirty year involvement  with spiritualism.  I learned, and it made perfect sense, that Spiritualusm first came to favor in England because of all the deaths of young men in their prime in World War One.  Of course Spiritualusm was fraught with many charlatans who claimed to let you communicate with the dead.  Lehmann for many years would write out letters from her daughter detailing the after life and was deeply involved in Spiritualusm. 

Hastings has a personal connection to Lehmann and I greatly respected her keeping this for the end of the book.  

For sure Hastings, who is deeply knowledgeable about the era, loves the work of Lehmann.  Lehmann. was  not, as I perceive her, always a joy to be around, she had a large ego combined with a strong need for male validation and a phobia of abandonment that impacted all her relationships.  She was highly intelligent, very into the best of literature, conscious of the power of her beauty, maybe as she aged a bit deluded on this, in need of validation from high status literary men, knew every body who was anybody in England, a writer of sublime power.  At her very best she belongs in the top ranks of 20th century writers.

There is a huge amount to be learned from Rosamond Lehmann A Life by Selina Hastings.  I strongly recommend it to all with an interest in the period. It is the very model of a literary biography. I would suggest you first read at least her Invitation to the Waltz.  

I have begun Hastings biography of Somerset Maugham, a close friend of Lehmann who stayed at his chateau in the south of France on several occasions.

Mel u




Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

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Lory of Emerald City Book Review is hosting a brilliant year long event, Reading New England in which participants are asked to post on literary works  set in New England or nonfiction relating to the area.  She has provided us with a lot of great suggestions and has organized the event around reading themes for each month.  To participate all you have to do is read and post on one New England related book and link it up on Reading New England Home Page.  Lory has given this a lot of thought and I think a lot of wonderful posts will come from participants.

New England was first settled by those seeking the freedom to practice religion their way.  It should be noted that this does not mean they wanted full freedom for all to worship or not as they pleased.  It meant they wanted a community where they could impose their own beliefs on all, where witches could be burned, the land of aboriginal inhabitants taken and people could be held in slavery.
New England developed into the home of America's first homegrown great writers and thinkers.  


Sarah Jewett was born and died South Berwick, Maine.  Her father was a highly regarded physician.  For those not familiar with the state, Maine in the winter is terribly cold, just going outside unprepared can be your death.  It in Jewett's time was a land of pine forests, heavily dependent on the fishing and seafaring industries.  The Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella,  is set on an offshore Maine  island.  It is basically a set of interrelated sketches about people living on the island.  The people on the island pretty much know each other so there are definite connections.  



Jewett's descriptions of the rugged natural life on the island are magnificent.  She also lets us see how living on the island shapes the personality of the residents.  One of the leading and most developed characters, Mrs Todd, is a widow who grows herbs which she prescribes for natural remedies.  Jewett takes us deeply into herbal lore. Pretty much all the old time residents go to her for healing herbs when sickness strikes.   There are also people who come to the island for just a short time, to fish and for the tranquility.  

We meet a retired ship captain.  From him we learn that many ship captains are deeply read men, often focusing on some subject one might not expect.  Captains have long hours with nothing to do and are not really supposed to socialize with their crew so many read and become highly educated, in their own way, men.  We also learn a bit about the economics of long term shipping as if impacts the island.



For sure The Country of the Pointed Firs, considered Jewett's masterwork, is for sure worth the under three hours it will take one to read it.  

I am seeking information on novels written in the 19th century set in Vermont or New Hampshire, preferably by an author from these states.

Mel u


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)


"Invitation to the Waltz is a novel almost without flaw: delicate in structure, beautifully written, minutely observed,  moving and frequently very funny. Undoubtedly Rosamond’s best work, it is on this and on its distressing sequel, The Weather in the Streets, that her reputation must ultimately rest."  - Selina Hastings



I totally agree with Selina Hastings, whose suberb biography of Rosamond Lehmann I will soon post upon, invitation to the Waltz is a near flawless work of art.  I would add that it is also incredibly funny at times and a great look into the outlook of late adolescent girls.  In one segment I will talk a bit about, I actually gasped for joy at her wonderfully wicked comedic treatment of the guests at the waltz in a small English town.

         Rosamond  Lehmann 1901 to 1990 

The novel is set in small town England and is divided into three sections.  The opening segment is about the excitement generated when a teenage girl receives an invitation to a waltz, her first.  Lehmann does a wonderful job creating the feeling of excitement this generates in the family.  We are there for all the preparations.  The central and by far the longest section is devoted to the waltz.  It is a recurring event open to people of all ages.  Of course the girls in the story are excited over which boys will be there.  Once there the big worry is who to dance and chat with.  I admit I was a bit shocked to see that at the dance was an old lecher who used the opportunity to dance with young girls and pull them into him, the girls were of course disgusted by him.  Around people their parents age he is the epitome of an English country gentleman.  

There was one conversation that was just to brilliant for words.  One of the waltz guests is down from Oxford, just a bit older than the girls.  He is a poet, convinced he and his peer group are great writers, too brilliant for anyone at the waltz to follow.  Lehmann does just an almost too perfect rendition of the pretentiousness  of the young poet and the girl's reaction to him.   Just this section made the book a wonderful experience for me.

The last segment is after the waltz.  The girls have met people of a higher social standing, realized older men may not be as gentile as their patents think they are and of course they have their crushes on the handsome young men at the waltz, 

I really liked this book.  The prose is just so elegant.  I hope to reread it, perhaps next year.

I have begun her first novel Dusty Answers.  

I was given by Open Media Publishing kindle editions of both these novels but as far as I could find they are not yet on sale.  

Lehmann had  a fascinating life, deeply involved with many illustrious and not so much people, especially in Bloomsbury.  

Mel u




Monday, February 1, 2016

The Reading Life Review. January 2016 - A Look Ahead- Brief Comments on my "review policy"


In January I only did 14 posts, the smallest monthly number  since I began blogging nearly seven years ago.  Two factors contributed to this.  One was a case of just needing a break.  Secondly I spent a week in rural Philippines where my internet access was by a cell phone and I do not care for writing longish posts on them.  There are 2815 posts on the blog.

As of today The Reading Life has received 3,871,179 page views.  The most visited posts are, as normal, those on short stories by authors from the Philippines.  The top countries of visitor residency are the USA, the Philippines, Russia, India, and Germany.  The most common city of residence is the Greater Manila Metro area, the top US state is California.

This month I posted on four works of nonfiction, all of which were given to me for review purposes.

1.  New England Bound Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren.  

2.  Ravensbrook Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm.  A post in honor of International Holocaust Day

3.  Woman of Rome A Life of Elsa Morante by Lilly Tuck.  Very good literary biography

4.  Montaine by Stefan Zweig.  An elegant appreciation 


Some Novels Read in January 

1.  Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray only 19th century work read in January.

2.  All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky- I love this author.  A Holocaust Day read

3.  Journey By Moonlight by Artel Szerb.  Arguably Hungary's greatest writer.  Also a holocaust day work.

Short Stories.

I read ten short stories while in the rural Philippines.  All are listed in a post.  Yesterday I read a short story by Paul Bowles, ""The Delicate Prey" that is considered one of his very best.  I also posted on a soon forthcoming collection Miss Grief and other Short Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson edited by Anne Boyd Rioux.  Woolson is a truly talented writer

Review Policy Notes


Unlike  most book blogs, I regularly review nonfiction, mainly history and literary biographies but I am quite open.  I look at every review book I receive.  If I have told you I will post on your book then I will. My interests are wide and I invite all to submit their works.  

Near Term Reading Plans

In February I hope to post on two novels by Rosamund Lehmann and on an excellant biography of her.  I am reading The Dogs and the Wolves by Iréne Nemirovsky.  I will post on a first rate biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson by Anne Boyd Rioux.  I will continue to read short stories, hopefully at least one every other day.

I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card.

Mel u, Editor, Founder, Curator

Ambrosia Boussweau, Euopean Director

 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray 1844 - With Scene Shots of the Stanley Kubrick Movie



Earlier this month I read William Thackeray's great classic, Vanity Fair.  Upon completing it I wanted to read another of his works.  I recalled back some thirty five years ago when I saw the 1975 Stanley Kubrick movie based on Thackeray's Memoirs of Barry Lyndon.  I still remember how beautiful the movie was, the wonderful costumes, and presentation of 18th century life.  I was not really eager to read another 1000 page novel right now and Barry Lyndon is under 400 pages so I decided to give it a try.  I ended up totally enjoying it.  

   Lady Lyndon and Barry's Son

I liked that it was partially set in Ireland.  The novel is narrated, with a few intrusions by the fictional editor of the memoirs, by Barry Lyndon.  He tells a tale a brilliant mixture of sharp insight and self-delusion. We see him go from being captured to fight in the German army to being considered, at least by himself, one of the great men of European society.  Gambling plays a big part in his life.  He is a feared duelist with the sword or pistol.  A great lover, or so he tells us, first driven from Ireland when he falsely thinks he killed a romantic rival  in a duel over a woman.  The book was initially serialized so something exciting happens in almost every chapter.  

       Lord Bullington, Barry's step son and arch enemy

Barry Lyndon is exciting with nonstop action.  Barry is convinced he is entitled to great riches and is wronged by everyone but perhaps his Irish mother.  I did not end up liking Barry but maybe i felt a bit sorry for him.

By all means first read Vanity Fair but lovers of the Victorian novel, especially picturesque adventures, should consider putting Barry Lyndon on their one of these days maybe list.


Mel u



Friday, January 29, 2016

Woman of Rome A Life of Elsa Morante by Lilly Tuck





Literary biographies are one of my favorite reading areas.  It seems the 21th century is getting off to a great start with lots of wonderfully researched and elegantly written biographies of authors in the last few years.  Woman of Rome A Life of Elsa Morante by Lilly Tuck exemplifies this.  The author of a biography of a famous author  has a difficult task.  The temptation is to use the life history of the subject as resulting in her works, to,identifying characters in an author's work with real people in her life. 

Elsa Morante (1912 to 1985) most highly regarded novels are History and the cult classic, Arturo's Island.  She published lots of short stories, a good bit of political journalism, she was a communist as were most Italian writers and intellectuals of the period.  She married in 1941 the novelist Alberto Moravio, author of numerous novels including Woman of Rome, the source of the title for Tuck's biography.   She got her literary start publishing short stories.

Morante was born into a struggling to get by high drama family.  She learned early what it meant to be a woman of Rome.  She was not of the temperment or inclination to work in a mundane job, a shop or a factory were not of interest to her. Tuck tells us she occasionally prostituted herself, as did the central character in Woman of Rome.   From an early age she developed a love for reading.   Morante and her husband were both half-Jewish.  When the Germans   occupied Rome in 1943, they moved to a remote village in the mountains and stayed there until the war was over.  Tuck shows us how from this experience came Morante's very powerful History.  (I hope to read this in February.)  I was moved when Tuck explained how Morante insisted this book be priced so as to make it affordable by as many people as possible.  The well known translator William Weaver helped produce an English language edition.   

Tuck devotes a lot of space to commentary on the novels of Morante, showing how her life experiences influenced  her work.  Morante's marriage was not a great match.  They were not at all a conventional literary couple.  Both had other relationships.  They divorced in 1961.  Morante liked handsome, artistic, sometimes bisexual men years younger than herself and Tuck elegantly describes her various relationships.  

Morante loved cats, especially Siamese cats, at times seemingly preferring them to people, an attitude I sometimes share.


"Animals are angels and Siamese cats are archangels" - Elsa Morante

I enjoyed this book a lot.  Morganite had a very interesting life and Tuck takes us along.


Mel u