Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald - 2019

Gateway to Elizabeth Macdonald on The Reading Life 

Fairlight Publishing 

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald,2019

Sometimes writers pass from being subjects of my posts to  very valued contributors to The Reading Life.  Since i began posting on her work in May of 2013 Elizabeth MacDonald has kindly done three guests posts.  One on a short  story by the great Irish writer Maeve Brennan. (Like Michael Scott, the central figure in A Matter of Interpretation and MacDonald herself, Brennan left  her home country to live in exile.). She also contributed an article on Language and Gender and the interplay between language and culture as well as a fascinating essay “Journey of the Imagination: A Locus of Transformation”.  Additionally she allowed me to publish one of her short stories.  She also very generously participated in a wide ranging Q and A session I am quite proud to have on The Reading Life.

Here are my thoughts on her collection of short stories,A House of Cards:

“I first encountered the work of Elizabeth MacDonald in May of 2012 when I read and posted on her dazzling collection of short stories, The House of Cards.  It was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007.   It is a beautiful work set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy.      Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a strong feeling for this comes through in the stories.    It is almost a Keatsian reflection on the nature of beauty, with Tuscany as  a deeply pervasive backdrop.  These stories do not just talk about the beauty of Tuscany, but rather they also create a beauty of their own worthy of their setting. They are about being Irish and living in Italy. In closing out my post I said, "I really love this collection and I totally endorse it to all devotees of the art of the short story. The prose is of the highest quality.    There are fragments that stunned me with their beauty."”

Needless to say I was delighted when I was able to read her already highly reviewed debut novel, A Matter of Interpretation.  

A Mater of Interpretation is set in the period from 1183 to 1230.  Michael Scot, a historical figure, is the central person in the narrative.  He was a high ranking Catholic cleric, tutor to Frederick II when he was child.  Later he would become his physician and astrologer.  MacDonald made me feel i was in room with Scot.

 The story line is both linear and circular.  It begins and ends in Scotland in 1230.  Along with Scot we travel over much of Southern Europe. At age 17 he goes to Paris to be receive an education grounding him in the classics, science and medicine, mixed in with a heavy dose of Church doctrine.  In 1201 he  
given the position of tutor to a six year old who will one day become Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.  This position will shape his life for better and worse.

MacDonald very vividly makes clear the power struggles and treachery of court life.  We learn how intertwinded Church and Court politics were.  

From 1201 to 1210 he remains in Palermo, attached to the court, as Frederick’s tutor.  He reads deeply in Aristotle and commentaries.  This is kind of a grey area in Papal doctrine.  Living in intrevals in Rome, Toledo and Cordobo he begins, with help of a young Jewish scholar to translate Arabic commentaries on Aristotle into Latin.  He is fascinated, as was I, by then Muslim Spain,a very exotic place for a boy from the Scottish Hills.  He also studies medical treatises in Arabic, astrology and occult practices.  Lots of exciting things happen
to him.  MacDonald does a very good job building the relationship between Scot and his assistant.  There Is an interesting subplot I really enjoyed about the career and matrimonial aspirations of his helper.  I found their close relationship very touching.

Scot has enemies jealous of his relationship with Frederick II who try to suggest he may have begun to practice black magic.  Perhaps he was converted to a Muslim.

There are a lot of intriguing events.  We are there when Michael runs from a mob.  MacDonald opens each new segment with masterful descriptions letting us see how his travels impacted Michael.

A Matter of Interpretation is a deeply researched work.  The prose is elegant.  This is historical fiction of the first order.

I found it fascinating.  I think most would.

Below is. small sample of reaction to her work

The characters, setting and the issues at stake will all linger long after you’ve finished reading it.’ – Domitilla Campanile, Professor of History, University of Pisa

‘In lush historic prose, Elizabeth Mac Donald leads the reader on a complex journey, where all interactions are tinged with superstition and suspicion.’ – Nuala O’Connor, author of Becoming Belle

‘A Matter of Interpretation stages with mastery and verve the eternal conflict between knowledge and truth… A lesson for our own times.’ – Zrinka Stahuljak, Professor of Medieval Studies at UCLA

‘A fascinating sliver of history and a truly original book.’ – Alan Robert Clark, author of The Prince of Mirrors

‘Mac Donald’s style is crisp and captivating.’ – Biancamaria Rizzardi, Professor of English Literature, University of Pisa

‘This extraordinary novel ranges wide across the political and religious map of medieval Europe.‘ – Peter Sirr, Translator, Novelist and Award-Winning Poet
‘A book to read with a glass of port and a dagger nearby.’ – George Szirtes, poet and translator
From Fairlight Publishing 

Born in Dublin, lives in Pisa. Writer, translator. Forthcoming novel ‘A Matter of Interpretation’ (Fairlight Books 2019). Teaches at the University of Pisa - from MacDonald’s twitter feed.

Take the time to browse the website of Fairlight books, they have a diverse collection of interesting works.

I hope to follow the work of Elizabeth MacDonald for many years.

Mel u

Rome to Toledo and 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Everywhere She Went - A Short Story by Ethel Rohan - 2019

Gateway to  Ethel Rohan on The Reading Life 

I first began following the work of Ethel Rohan March 13, 2012.  Since then I have posted eleven times on her works.  She also kindly contributed a guest post and participated in a Q and A session.  Obviously I hold her in great esteem.  You can see my feelings in this selection from an old post.

My thoughts on Ethel Rohan, from March 2014

“Last year I read a story, "Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan, a totally new to me at the time  writer.    I read it during Emerging Irish Women Writers Week.   I never expected to read a story during this week that I would end up regarding as belonging with the greatest short stories of all time.  I read it four times in a row I was so amazed.   Since I read that story for the first time, I have read, I estimate, at least 1000 other short stories including most of the consensus best short stories in the world.  After reading "Beast and the Bear"  again yesterday and this morning I am completely convinced it should already be counted among the world's greatest short stories.  I was in fact so shocked by the power of this story that I wanted to be sure I was not overreacting.  I sent a fellow book blogger whose taste I know to be exquisite and educated through decades of reading short stories and she said only the very best short stories she had ever read, she is noted authority on Virginia Woolf, could compare to it.   I know this sounds hyperbolic but it is how I feel.  I do not lightly say a short story written by an author I had never heard of the day before I read it belongs with the work of the greatest of short story writers but that is my opinion.  In a way I felt a sense of satisfaction in that I am open enough in my perceptions and judgments to be able to make such an assertion.”

Since I wrote this Rohan has published three collections of short stories, a memoir about Dublin and a highly reviewed debut novel, The Weight of Him.

Yesterday I was pleased to discover that she has just published a new short story “Hard to Say” in The Irish Times (readable online.) Rohan often writes about how psychic hurts from long ago linger
 on, impacting in ways even the injured may not fully understand.  Even a small can longer for a life time.

The central character in “Hard to Say is a teachers in a Girl’s School and lives with her boyfriend.   When she was sixteen her best friend Hazel disappeared.  The pain of this often returns as an involunary memory.  To make it all worse her boyfriend, who works in a big office, has a new employee named Hazel that he is dumb enough to talk about a lot with her.  She cannot help but think “what if this is my Hazel”.

The closing of the plot is very interesting.  

I enjoyed this story a lot, just as I knew I would.

I hope to follow her work for many more years.

Bio Data from author’s website 

“Ethel Rohan’s writing often centers on the body—its joys, secrets, memory, urges, splendor, and horrors. When she writes, she’s stolen away.
Rohan’s debut novel The Weight of Him (St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books, 2017) was an Amazon, BustleKOBO, and San Francisco ChronicleBest Book. The Weight of Himwon a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award, and was shortlisted for the Reading Women Award.
She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobodyand Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. She wrote, too, the award-winning chapbook Hard to Say(PANK, Editor Roxane Gay) and the award-winning e-memoir single, Out of Dublin(Shebooks, Editor Laura Fraser).
Rohan was longlisted for The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, winner of the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award,and shortlisted for the CUIRT, Roberts, and Bristol Short Story Prizes. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesWorld Literature TodayPEN America, The Washington Post, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, and GUERNICA, among many others. She has reviewed books for New York Journal of Booksand elsewhere.
Her stories have also published in various anthologies including Without You: Living With Loss (Ballpoint Press, 2018); Reading the Future: New Writing from Ireland(Arlen House, 2018); THE LINEUP: 20 Provocative Women Writers(Black Lawrence Press, 2015); WinesburgIndiana(Indiana University Press, 2015); DRIVEL: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors(Penguin: Perigee, 2014). She is also a contributor and associate editor to the anthology Flash Fiction International(W.W. Norton, 2015).
Rohan has taught writing or was a featured author at Listowel Writers’ Week, Belfast Book Festival, The London Short Story Festival; The Abroad Writers’ Conference; Los Gatos-Listowel Writers’ Week; the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival, Book Passage Corte Madera; San Francisco State University; San Francisco Writers’ Grotto; San Francisco Writers’ Conference; Green Mountain Writers’ Conference; among others. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Rohan lives in San Francisco where she received her MFA in fiction from Mills College and is a member of The Writers Grotto.

I have great faith in The Future of Ethel Rohan

Mel u l

Friday, September 6, 2019

J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin - 1979 with a new introduction by the author in the 2003 Yale University Press Edition

J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin - 1979 with a new introduction by the author in the 2003 Yale University Press Edition

Andrew Birkin is recognized as the world's leading authority on J. M. Barrie.  

James Mathew Barrie

May 6, 1860 - Kirremuir, UK

1897 - Barrie meets the Llewelyn Davis family.  The Llewelyn Davies family played an important part in Barrie's literary and personal life, consisting of Arthur (1863–1907), Sylvia (1866–1910) and their five sons: George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894–1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921) and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980).

December 27, 1904 - Peter Pan first staged, in The Duke of York’s Theater in London.  Gerald du Maurier  played Captain Hook (he was the father of Daphne du Maurier and the brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davis.). Peter Pan was played by Nina Boucicault,a star of the London Stage.  The play was a great success, staged over and over.  From this the already successful Barrie became set for life and world famous.

June 19. 2937 - London

1953 - I first encounter Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, Wendy and the Lost Boys watching the Disney cartoon version of Peter Pan.  (It is on YouTube).

J. M. Barrie created a character known the world over.  If you describe a man as a "Peter Pan" it means he is really still a little boy under his facade.  

Flash back to 1954 in America.  There are only three tv channels, color programs still rare.  The biggest TV event of the week for me was Walt Disney World, Sunday nights at Eight PM on the ABC network.  It is here I first saw the cartoon version of Peter Pan.  Tinkerbell became a trademark for the program. Now sixty five years later I learn the back story behind the inspiration for Peter Pan.  Birkin goes into lots of fascinating details about the original staging of the play.  A big challenge was getting Peter to fly.  Tinkerbell was treated as a ball of moving light.  Stage settings and custom design were a crucial factor in making the transition from the house in London to Neverland.  Birkin goes into lots of detail on these matters.

In the cartoon. Captain Hook is played strictly for laughs. In the first stage version he was meant to be a kind of tragic figure, a highly cultured man somehow not able to operate in normal society but not in place among the pirate crew.  He was played by England's most gifted actor.

Much of J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter is devoted to detailing Barrie's relationship to a family with five sons, the Llewelyn Davis family.  Barrie was married, a marriage portrayed by Birkin as a strange one, he had no children.  One day while walking in Kensington Park in London he met George and Jack out with their Nanny, they became He becomes close through repeated encounters in the park.  My chsnce a few months later he meets their mother, Sylvia Davis at a Christmas party.   She and the five boys become close with Barrie, spending lots of time together.  This relationship will be the most important one in his life.  It was also a great blessing to the Davis Family.

In 1907 when Arthur Davis, father of the boys dies "Uncle Jim" becomes even closer.  He provides significant financial help to the family.  He assumes the role of guardian. He had no ulterior motive at all.  

Barrie had lots of well known literary friends and Birkin drops some fascinating tidbits.  Barrie had nonsexual crushes on various actresses and he used his influence to get them parts.  I learned a lot about the theatrical world from J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter.

Barrie comes strongly through as a very good person.  

Author Bio

Andrew Birkin was born in London in December 1945, the son of naval commander David Birkin and the actress Judy Campbell, and is the brother of actress Jane Birkin. At the age of 16 he left school to work as a messenger at 20th Century Fox’s London office. He began work as a production runner on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1965, but soon became a location scout. By the summer of 1966 Kubrick had promoted him to Assistant Director on Special Effects; later he shot the second unit psychedelic sequences over Scotland, and in 1967 supervised the shooting of the Dawn of Man front projection plates in the Namib Desert. In1968, Kubrick again engaged him as assistant director on his unmade epic of Napoleon.
After a brief stint working for the Beatles, Birkin began writing scripts for both film and television, including The Pied Piper (1970) for Jacques Demy, Flame (1972) for the rock band Slade ( which won the Mojo Vision Award in 2007!), and Inside the Third Reich (1973) which involved a year’s collaboration with Albert Speer. Having worked on an adaptation of Peter Pan for NBC in 1975, Birkin conceived The Lost Boys (1978), a trilogy of films for the BBC about Peter Pan’s creator J M Barrie, which won him awards from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain and the Royal Television Society. In 1980, Birkin won a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination for his short film Sredni Vashtar, which he also produced and directed. In 1984 he wrote the shooting script for The Name of the Rose, and in 1988 wrote and directed Burning Secret, which won two awards at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, as well as the Young Jury prize for Best Film at the Brussels Film Festival. In 1993, Birkin wrote and directed The Cement Garden, for which he was awarded the Silver Bear as best director at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1998 he collaborated with Luc Besson on the script of The Messenger: Joan of Arc, and in 2004 wrote the screenplay for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Andrew Birkin is considered to be the world’s expert on J M Barrie, having written the definitive biography J M Barrie & the Lost Boys (Yale University Press) in 1978, which has remained in print for 30 years. He has 3 sons: David, an artist; Anno, a poet and musician who was killed in 2001 aged 20; and Ned, with whom he is currently working on a script about America’s entry into World War One. He lives in Wales with his artist wife Karen.

I really enjoyed this book. I totally endorse this wonderful biography of a lovely man.

Plus the cover is very beautiful!

Barrie donated in 1928 all future royalties from Peter Pan to The Great Ormand Street Children's Hospital in London.

Mel u

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk by Elissa Bemporad - 2013

Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk
Elissa Bemporad - 2013 

Elisa Bemporad helped me understand the political, religious and cuktural challenges faced by Jews living in Minsk, now capital of Belarus, adjusting to the replacement of Czarist rule with that of the Bolsheviks. She focuses on the between the World Wars period.  She begins with an overview of Minsk just before World War One begins.

Minsk was in 1914 a heavily Jewish city, part of the imperial Russian Empire located in area of Russia, called the Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to live.

Jews occupied professional positions, were sucessful in trade and commerce.  Bemporad uses Minsk to explain what happen to the Jewish population of 
Russia when the Communists took over the government.  This was an frequently very violent period.  Young Jewish intellectuals were often in support of the  ideology of the Communists while older people feared a change.

Bemporad shows us how people kept their traditional beliefs while at least giving lipservice to anti-religious tenants of communism.  In order to get ahead, stay out of trouble you had to at least pretend to give up some of the old ways.
There is a very interesting chapter on the continuance of the custom of circumsicion.  The Kosher butcher was still an important figure.  Jews 
continued participated in labor bunds. She also talks about role of Yiddish in Minsk.  

As this period began, gender roles were clearly definded by Jewish tradition.  In theory, contrary to tradition, under Communism men and women were equal.  Bemporad devotes a chapter to “Housewives, Mothers, and Workers Roles and Representations of Jewish Women in Times of Revolution” that helped me understand these changes.  Educational and career oportunities for women expanded and cross faith marriages became more common.

The book is very well documented and an extensive bibliography is included.

Bemporad lets us see that being Jewish in Minsk was not just a matter of having a certain set of religious beliefs.  There were many who self-identified as Jewish who attended no services.  There was no contradiction to being a Jewish atheist in Minsk. Most spoke at least Yiddish and Russian.

Hanging over all histories of European Jews between wars is the Holocaust.  We see the impact on the community when Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty.  Eighty thousand Jews were murdered by Germans,nearly destroying all Minsk Jews.

Bemporad also treats The persistence of Anti-Semiticism after WW Two.

This book was published by The Indiana University Press.
They have lots of serious  books on Eastern European and Russian Jewish Culture.  

Their  website is below

Author Bio

Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Associate Professor of East European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press, 2013), winner of the National Jewish Book Award and of the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History. The Russian edition was recently published with ROSSPEN, in the History of Stalinism Series. Her new book, entitled Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, will be published with Oxford University Press in 2019. Elissa is the co-editor of Women and Genocide: Survivors and Perpetrators (Indiana University Press in 2018), a collection of studies on the multifaceted roles played by women in different genocidal contexts during the twentieth century. She has recently been a recipient of an NEH Fellowship and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Elissa's projects in progress include research for a biography of Ester Frumkin, the most prominent Jewish female political activist and public figure in late Imperial Russia and in the early Soviet Union...from The Stanford  Center for Jewish Studies.

I would happily read more works by Bamporad and greatly enjoyed this work.

Mel u