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





Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald- 1988

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The Beginning of Spring is the third novel by Penelope Fitzgerald which I have the great pleasure of reading.  Prior to today I have posted on her Offshore, her acknowledged by all masterwork, Blue Flower based on the life of Novalis, one of her numerous short stories and Penelope Fitzgerald:A Life by Hermione Lee.

When I was recently learned the Kindle edition of her The Beginning of Spring was on sale for $2.95 i pushed in a happy decision the buy now button.  

The Beginning of Spring takes place  in Moscow in 1913.  The British born wife of an Englishman, himself born in Moscow, has suddenly abandoned him and her three children.  He thinks she probably hated living in Russia and has headed back to London.  

The man owns a moderate size print shop.  His business requires his hands on direction so his first priority is to find someone to take care of his three young children.  

To me the wonder of this novel is in the many small details.  We see the mass of regulations, each one hiding someone looking for a bribe, his business must deal with.  We learn lots about the many Human Resources challenges his business faces.  We are along for his search for a nanny.  

To me I greatly admired how Fitzgerald let us somehow feel tidal wave of destruction coming to Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution without belabouring things.  People sense danger but they try to remain hopeful.  In one brilliantly done scene a prime minister who had promised to help the peasants and avoid a revolution is assassinated.  

Interesting things happen the kids and the nanny.  We wonder why his business manager is pushing a nanny on him, a beautiful young woman.  A mystery about her disappearance is subtly revealed toward the close of the novel.

There are beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside, especially lovely at the start of Spring that evoked Chekhov and Turgenev for me.

I enjoyed reading this novel and hope to read more of her work.  The average estimated Reading time is under three hours, well worth the time.

From Manchester Guardian 

 Penelope Fitzgerald, that quiet genius of late-20th-century English fiction, who was born during the Great War at the end of 1916, began to publish in 1975. Over the next quarter of a century, she wrote the nine novels, three biographies (of Edward Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and the Knox brothers, her father and uncles), and the many essays and reviews that brought her such critical acclaim and a devoted following. In 1995, her haunting masterpiece, The Blue Flower, made her famous in her 80s. Since her death in 2000, the publication of her stories (The Means of Escape), essays (A House of Air) and selected letters (So I Have Thought of You), brought out by her executor and son-in-law, Terence Dooley, and by HarperCollins, have sustained her posthumous reputation.



Friday, December 15, 2017

”The Search” - A Short Story by Sholom Aleichem - 1899, translated from Yiddish






From Blazing Saddles.  
Yiddish Indians 




“Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists - rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”  - Isaac Singer 


Sholom Aleichman (pen name for Akasholem Rabinowitz, born 1859 in the Ukraine 1859, died in New York City in 1916) is the most loved, best known Yiddish Language writer. Fluent in Russian and Hebrew he choice to write in Yiddish, then the language of the “commen man”.  The movie Fiddler on The Roof was based on his characters.  He was a hugely prolific author, with easily over 250 short stories, numerous novels and plays as well as journalism.  Famously when he met Mark Twain he said “People call me the Jewish Mark Twain”, to which Twain replied “And they call me the American Sholom Aleichman”. 

I have been able to find about fifteen of his stories online either as texts or Podcasts.  The works in Yiddish are now in The Public Domain but most of the translations are under Copyright protection.  I will this month post on his “The Search”. (1899 is my guess for date of publication, if you have first publication data, please leave a comment.). 

“The Search”, podcast time about twenty minutes and perfectly read by Jerry Stiller, is set in a small shtetl in Eastern Europe.  A stranger has stopped in the synagogue to pray on a holy day.  He sets his bag down as he prays and when he goes to retrieve it 1800 Rubles are missing!  He goes nuts, yelling and screaming.  It was not his money but that of his boss, he will be ruined. The Rabbi says we will ask everyone here to empty their pockets.  Everyone complies but the spoiled son in law of the richest man in town.  The Rabbi tells him he must allow, he doesn’t want the synagogue to get known as a house of thieves.  Refusing all the while, saying it is an insult to him, and claiming the visitor is lying about having the money to try to make a claim on the synagogue he is forcibly searched.  It turns out he was hiding a pocket full of throughly chewed chicken bones and some dried plums.  To find out what happens with the money, listen to the podcast.

Probably the rest of the book blog world already knew this, but about two months ago I discovered what a literary treasure trove there is on  YouTube.
On Yiddish culture alone on YouTube there are lots of great stories and lectures by experts.  Yiddish Short Stories can be read without a knowledge of the history of Yiddish culture but the more you know the more you will get from them.  I will link some of the lectures in future posts. 

Mel u







Thursday, December 14, 2017

”The Conversations of the Jews” - A Short Story by Phillip Roth, 1960,included in Goodbye, Columbus and other Stories





1969 was the last time I read anything by Phillip Roth, it was the then controversial Portnoy’s Complaint, about a young Jewish man’s sexual obsession with a blond shiksha, a 

Yiddish term used repeatedly by Portnoy to refer to his non-Jewish girlfriend.  (I think this expression has passed into common usage in America since 1969, thanks to TV programs like Seinfeld.)

I am glad to be now including,  after a forty-eight year hiatus, a posting on a work by Phillip Roth.  Happily there is a reading of “The Conversion of the Jews” on YouTube, read by Jerry Stiller.  (Run time about 45 minutes)

As the story opens we meet three Jewish boys, in their teens.  One of the boys has gotten in trouble with the Rabbi at Hebrew School.  The Rabbi hit him in the face when he asked if God could make a woman pregnant without sex.  He also has sent a note for the boy’s mother to come to school for a conference.  Like many teenage boys he and his friends enjoy challenging authority figures.

I don’t want to spoil the quite exciting cliff hanging action that takes place on the day the boy’s mother is scheduled to visit the school.  

I enjoyed this story.  Jerry Stiller did a very good job in the Reading.


Roth was Born
in Newark, New Jersey, The United States
March, 1933.

Philip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and include American Pastoral (1997) (winner of the Pulitzer Prize). In May 2011, he won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction. - from Goodreads.  



Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“There Was No Creek and I am Still Alive” - A Short Story by Jenny Zhang, author of Sour Heart




Jenny Zhang on The Reading Life



Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s collection of short stories centring on young female Chinese immigrants living in The United States, is showing up on numerous Best Books of 2017 lists.  Were I to publish such a list on The Reading Life, for sure it would be included.

In December I have a Mini Short Story Project.  My goal is to post upon four Yiddish Short Stories and four 21st Century Stories by Americans.

Today’s American story could be right out of The Headlines, immigrants, pedophiles, social media controversies, the collapsing of the Family are all central to the story.  Our plot begins when the narrator, on the cusp of puberty when we first encounter her, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants now living in America.  We follow up to fifteen.  Her father is at first very protctive, he worries she will either drown in a creek or be murdered by grown men she meets online.  She has sex limited to touching with them and one of her teachers, her favorite one.  By now her father has left the family, living out on The street.   The scene in which the girl sees him and he apparently does not know her was very moving.

Her mother seems clueless about her daughter’s sexual activities.  

This is a very well done disturbing story.  It rings with truth.

I hope to follow Zhang for a long time.


Jenny Zhang, 33, was born in Shanghai and raised in New York. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction. She has two published collections of poetry, Hags and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, for which Zhang was compared to “a 21st-century Whitman, only female, Chinese, and profoundly scatological”. Sour Heart, a collection of short stories about New York’s Chinese American community largely told from the point of view of young girls, is the first book published by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Lenny imprint at Random House in the US.

Mel u






Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick - 2004




A Very Good Biographical Article from The Jewish Woman’s Encyclopaedia







When I was five minutes from finishing Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick I stopped reading.  It was eight PM and I wanted to start my next day with the sad pleasure of completing it still ahead of me.

As the novel opens our narrator Rosa , an eighteen orphan from the Bronx when we first meet her, has just gotten a job as a live in nanny for a family of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, it is 1935.  The father was at one time a highly regarded expert on an obscure Jewish sect, far from the main stream.  The mother, in an almost catatonic state when Rosa meets her, was once one of Germany’s leading physicists, an amazing accomplishment for a woman.  As the novel proceeds, we learn gradually the history of the family, she may have had an affair with the famous Ernin Schrodinger, he might be the biological father of one of her sons.  Her husband knows this and we see the impact of this on the marriage.  We see the family dynamics alter and Rosa grows through her relationships.

There is also a difficult teenage daughter and three younger rapidly Americanising sons.  The father is working on a scholarly project, eventually Rosa becomes his helper, the mother’s care giver and nanny for the sons.  

The family has a benefactor, a young man named James.  He was the basis for a highly successful series of children’s books his father wrote , sort of modelled on the Winnie the Poo series.  Once his father died he inherited a fortune with a perpetual income from sales.  

Rosa is a very bookish young woman,  loves Jane Eyre.  We see her develop, we learn about her strange father.  We see what it was like for the once wealthy refugee family.  

The Kindle edition of this book also contains two essays by Ozick, a brief interview and a set of questions to aid teachers and book club groups.

I look forward to reading much more of her work.

Mel u





Monday, December 11, 2017

“The Cafeteria” - A Short Story by Isaac Singer - December 28, 1968,in The New Yorker - translated from Yiddish



A Good Introduction to the History of The Yiddish Language

Obituary for Isaac Singer, from The New York Times




Isaac Singer was born in Poland in 1902 (some records reflect 1904),in 1935, concerned over Nazi Germany, which invaded Poland in 1939 and would have meant death in for him, he moved to New York City.  He continued to write books and novels in Yiddish.  In 1978 he was awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature.  Many now consider his Collected Short Stories his crowning achievement.  He was dedicated to preserving Yiddish cultural heritage in the face of the Holocaust in which six millions speakers of Yiddish died.  Here are his closing remarks in his 1978 Nobel Acceptance Speech.

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists - rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

“The Cafeteria”, wonderfully read in the Podcast from The Great Short Stories of Eastern European Jews hosted by Leonard Nimoy, is one of his most famous short stories (the runtime for the podcast is fifty minutes, I could not find the story online).  Set in New York City, maybe around 1953, it is narrated by a man who could well be Singer.  He tells us he eats his lunch at an inexpensive cafeteria, even though he now has the money to eat anywhere, so he can spend time with other Yiddish speaking persons who frequent them, many are Holocaust survivors.  There is much political debate among the mostly male group.  Some have fitted in perfectly in their new country, others have issues.  

One day a woman, originally from Moscow, joins the luncheon crowd and soon attracts a lot of attention.  She is single and lives with her father.  He lost his legs in a Siberian work camp but his spirit is strong.  The narrator becomes friends with her, we learn she has a wealthy suitor.  Her father wants her to marry the man, a bookbinder, for security but she refuses to marry a man she does not love.  Her husband died fighting the Germans.  

As the story processes Singer shows us how the Holocaust has shaped lives, many, including perhaps the narrator, have “survivor’s guilt”. A good bit of time goes by.  After a long break the narrator returns only to find the cafeteria was destroyed in a fire.  I do not want to tell too much more of the plot of this wonderful story.

“The Cafeteria” is clearly the product of high intelligence honed by much experience and deep reading.  

I first read Singer in 2011, he was my introduction to Yiddish Literature.  I wish his Collected Stories were available as a Kindle.  

Four Hollywood movies were based on his work, I think Yentil is the most famous.  

Mel u













Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez








The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America by Andres Resendez (2016) should be on Reading list of anyone with a serious interest in the colonial era history of Spanish ruled South American, the Caribbean Islands and the western United States.  All teachers of history should read this book and all libraries that are able should stock this book.  It is a very illuminating account of what Resendez calls “The Other Slavery”, that of Indians, largely but not entirely by colonists from Spain.  He correlates this to transportation of Africans into slavery in much detail, as he knows this is what most will think about when they hear the words “Slavery in America”.  He estimated about four millions Indians were enslaved by the Spanish  colonists, as everything from sugar mill workers, silver and gold mine workers, House servants of all sorts 
beasts of burden, concubines (the Spanish came without women), and agricultural labourers.  Slaves were even used as foot soldiers in raids to acquire other slaves.

Slavery was widely practiced throughout Pre-Columbian America, which made it easier for the Spanish to enslave natives.  There were numerous variations of slavery, from outright chsttel slaves, to those sentenced as slaves for punishment to those in debt bondage.

Resendez tells us a full history of Indian slavery would require a book at least thirty times as long as The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America.  Instead he focuses on selected places and times detailing How slavery functiioned in a variety of social and economic circumstances.  The Spanish Crown was actually against the enslavement of Indians so we see the many ways the for from Spain colonists kept slaves, using The many loopholes in the regulations.

We get to know several leading colonial slavemasters, we go along on slaving raids, we learn the value of different types of slaves.  We also learn How slavery played a role in the very diverse Indian  societies.  Resendez takes us everywhere from the huge Mexico City area to small pueblos in what is now The American southwest.

Indians were often shipped for from home, I was shocked to learn of 1000s of Indians taken from the Carolinas to work in the deadly sugar fields on the Caribbean Islands, in the 1600s. Resendez in a fascinating page even talks about slavery as a pre-colonial part of Society in The Philippines.  

Indians societies were ravaged by European diseases to which they had no immunity, especially smallpox.  It is not possible to give exact numbers but Resendez says the combined impact of slavery and disease reduced indeginous populations in many areas to less than ten percent.  In Florida The death rate was close to 100 percent.  He tells about how the early Mormans looked at the Indians and spends a good bit of time in old California, showing us how Indian slaves labored but did not profit from the gold rush.  We learn how Indians treated their own slaves and traded in captured colonial children.  

Resendez takes us up to The American Civil War Era and in his very interesting epilogue talks about slavery in the 21st Century.

The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America by Andres Resendez is a very well constructed narrative, fully documented.  There is much more than I have mentioned in this book.  

I highly recommend this book.  

The author’s self description from his Amazon page


I grew up in Mexico City where I got my BA and worked in various capacities--the best job I ever had was as a historical consultant for telenovelas (soap operas). After getting a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, I taught at Yale, the University of Helsinki, and UC Davis. My latest book, The Other Slavery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), tells about the enslavement and trafficking of hundreds of thousands of Indians in North America from the time of Columbus to the late 1800s. I have also written about the dawn of European colonization as seen through the eyes of the last four survivors of a disastrous expedition to Florida in the 1520s (A Land So Strange--Basic Books, 2007); and another book that explores how Spanish speakers, Native Americans, and Anglo-American settlers living in Texas and New Mexico came to think of themselves as members of one national community or another in the years leading up to the U.S.-Mexico War (Changing National Identities at the Frontier--Cambridge University Press, 2005).


Mel u