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, June 23, 2018

“Happy New Year” by Sholem Aleichem - A Short Story 1906- translated from Yiddish by Curt Levmet

“Imagine, every single one of them up to Mr. Big; yes, the czar himself takes bribes. Don’t be shocked—Mr. Big accepts them too, if he gets an offer. What’s that? You don’t believe me? You’re all laughing, eh? Well, have fun . . . Ready now? Have you all laughed yourself dry? Now gather round me, brother Jews, and listen to a story that happened a long time ago to my grandfather, may he rest in peace. It happened in the good old days when Czar Nich was boss....”

Sholem  Aleichem’s work is the heart and soul of Yiddish literature.  To most he is the genius behind Fiddler on the Roof.  He is a great writer, his stories, mostly about Eastern European Jews are wise, delightful, often hilarious and very wise.  Mark Twain on meeting Aleichem told him people often call him “The American Sholem Aleichem”

“Happy New Year” is set on a Russian train, as are numerous of his stories.  Many of the stories are structured as one person telling others on the train a story, maybe a bit apocryphal but anchored in real life events.  Jews could talk freely as the Goyim on the train could not understand Yiddish.

Our narrator is repeating a story his grandfather told.  It seems a New Czarist official had taken over the area in which the family lived.  To everyone’s shock, he won’t take a bribe!  Unheard of, even “The Big Man”, the Tsar takes bribes, it is how things are done.  His grandfather went to a highly regarded Rabbi for advise.  I don’t want to spoil the delightful plot but the grandfather ends up smoking a cigar and having tea with the Tsar and a new bribery friendly official is soon put in place.

Sholem Aleichem, the pseudonym of a Russified Jewish intellectual named Solomon Rabinovitz (1859–1916), created many of the most enduring works of modern Yiddish fiction. Born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, he received a traditional education and lived in Kiev and Odessa before immigrating to New York City. Upon his death in 1916, the New York Times published a front-page obituary, memorializing him as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” More than 100,000 people attended his funeral procession, making it the largest New York City had ever seen. His humorous representations of the rhythms of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish life have had a lasting influence on modern Jewish literary traditions.

Curt Leviant is the translator of Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Grade, I. B. Singer, and Avrom Reisen, and the author of ten critically acclaimed works of fiction, the most recent of which are King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son. His novels have been translated into seven European languages and into Hebrew and Turkish. But not yet into Yiddish.

I read this in the 2018 Pakn Treger Translation Issue, published by the Yiddish Book Center. 

I really enjoyed this story and I thank Curt Leviant for this elegant translation.

Mel u

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The House of Rothschild The World’s Banker 1849 to 1998; Volume II

An Autodidactic Corner Selection

The House of Rothschild : Volume 1: Money’s Prophets 1798 to 1848 by Niall Ferguson and The House of Rothschild Volume 2: 1849 to 1998:The World’s Bankers are close to essential reading for anyone into not just 19th century European history, banking history, Jewish 
history but much of European literature, especially that of Balzac (who fashioned an important character in La Comedie Humaine on James Rothschild), Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust.  The Rothschild’s created the international bond market and this made the dazzling world of The Guermantes possible. They created a form of upper Class wealth seperated from ownership of land and in so doing changed The landscape of European life and literature, especially that of France.

As Ferguson says in his introduction there is a great deal of web space devotrd to the Rothschild’s and it is all pretty much trash.  The Rothschilds are part of the fantsies of the right and the left.  Ferguson’s work gives the truth about the history of what by around 1850 was the richest family in the world. He explains how they became so wealthy in fascinating detail.  We learn of their government contacts, their private information networks, how governments received loans, how the bond market worked and also currency trading.  We learn about how laws dictating where Jews could live impacted the family.

I was fascinated to learn about how James Rothschild was part of The Comedie Humaine.  James Rothschild walked behind Balzac’s coffin and secured the future of his widow by buying her house for ten times the market value.

“Literal-minded modern scholars tend to dispute the notion that James was the model for Balzac’s fictional banker Nucingen. They point to obvious dissimilarities: Nucingen is said to be from Alsace, he is the son of a convert from Judaism, he has no brothers, he is too old (at sixty in 1829) to be James, has only one daughter and so on. Yet Balzac himself told his future wife in 1844 that James—“ the high Baron of financial feudalism”—was “Nucingen to the last detail, and worse.” And a careful reading of the relevant parts of Balzac’s great work shows how much of Nucingen was inspired by James. None of the other financiers of the day is more plausible as a model; fictionalised he may be, but Nucingen is James, to the extent that Balzac could never have created the former had he never known the latter. Nucingen is first introduced in Le Père Goriot (1834-5) as the husband of one of the two self-centred daughters of the impoverished vermicellier Goriot. He is a “banker of German origin who had been made a baron of the Holy [Roman] Empire,” speaks with a thick, phonetically-spelt German accent (for example, “quelque chose” becomes “keke chausse”) and lives in the rue Saint-Lazare, “in one of those light houses, with thin columns [and] mean porches which are considered pretty in Paris, a true banker’s house, full of expensive elegance, ornaments [and] stair landings in marble mosaic.”

The Rothschilds were  the wealthiest family in history.  They created international banking, they are said to have financed both sides of all Major wars, including The American revolution and The  Wars of Napoleon.  Ferguson explains in great detail how family developed a jewelery business that acted as the banker for a few minor German princes to a firm of incredible wealth and power.

Ferguson shows us ways the five branches of the Family stayed unified while spread to five cities in Europe.  

Rothschilds married other Rothschilds, especially the men.  Marrying cousins was relatively common in the limited marriage market of affluent Germanic Jews. 

“not even the royal families of Europe were as closely inbred, though self-conscious references to “our royal family” suggest that the Rothschilds regarded them as a kind of model”.

As the years advance the family gets involved heavily in Railroads and silver mines, they were very involved in Brazil.

Ferguson tells us what happened to the family during World War One. The Nazis did confiscate some of the assets of the Vienna branch.  One family member died in the Holocaust.

The family had ties to American Jewish banking houses but never opened an American branch.

At 1000 plus pages, these are books for the serious.  For those who want to understand banking history, they are invaluable.

Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for twelve years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. 

He is the author of fourteen books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award. In 2001, after a year as a Houblon-Norman Fellow at the Bank of England, he published The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000.  More detail can be found at

Mel u

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Moon Opera by Bi Feiyu - Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt - 20@8 - 140 pages

The Moon Opera is about the backstage drama and political underpinnings involved when a rich cigarette factory owner offers to underwrite a second production of a classic Peking Opera.  The opera was last staged twenty years ago.  The female lead, in a jealous rage, assaulted her understudy and has been working as a singing teacher ever since then.  The factory owner will bankroll the opera only if the old star returns in the lead.

There is a lot of drama between the characters, we do learn a good bit about how  operas are staged.  There are romances and we learn about the last twenty years in the life of the diva.

I found the details on the opera production interesting, the characters only possibly engaging.

I bought this book, in a Kindle Edition, on sale for $1.95. I checked and it is now back up to $9.95.  I cannot endorse the purchase of this book at full price and in fact endorse it mildly only those who want to read a story about Chinese opera.

BI FEIYU, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Prize for Three Sisters, is one of the most respected authors and screenwriters in China today. He was born in 1964 in Xinghua, in the province of Jiangsu. A journalist and poet as well as a novelist, he has been awarded a number of literary prizes, including the Lu Xun Prize for 1995–96. He cowrote the film Shanghai Triad, directed by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

Avant Bousweau 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

“The Menace at The Gate”. - A Short Story by Janet H Swinney, 2016

Janet H Swinney on The Reading Life

“The Menace at the Gate” is the third marvelous set in India short story by Janet H Swinney which I have had the great pleasure of reading. I would not repeatedly read stories by an author if I did not find their work intriguing, interesting and insightful.  

Swinney has the gifts of a first rate writer of historic fiction.  Using background details derivitive from reality, she creates characters in and of their time, persons  with a strong feel of vermisilitude and settings with near cinematic  vividness. I can feel the heat, the sensual overloading, the political chaos and clash of cultures that are her the daily life of those in her stories, whether it be on a beach in Goa, the birthday observation of a venerated guru or, as in “The Menace at The Gate” the coming of age of a young woman in violent times.

As the story opens a young woman, maybe 18, is trying to sleep but the sweltering heat and the swarms of mosquitoes that won’t leave her alone keep sleep away.  We are in a violent place, learning of acts of terrorism and political kilings.  She lives with her parents, her aunt and uncle from England are visiting.  As she tries to sleep, problems treated in her classes run through her mind.  To make it worse, her period is late.

In opening of the story you can see the skill of a serious artist:

“Her period refused to come. She lay in turmoil beneath the ineffectual ceiling fan. No position brought relief from the heat. After days of tossing and turning and lying in limp sheets, her shoulders and her buttocks were disfigured by the blemishes served up by prickly heat, and the monsoon was still an age away.

Clans of mosquitoes infested the room, convening under the bed, as well as in the adjoining bathroom, where you took your pants down at your peril. Every night, before coming to bed, she fumigated the entire place with Deet, and plastered herself with Odomos. It made no difference. The evil empire persisted in rude good health, while she lay upon the bed like a living sacrifice. Despite a monstrous nightgown and cotton socks that came up almost to her knees, her ankles, wrists and toes were swollen with multiple bites, the flesh ripped raw with scratching.

Her mind was in no better state. Her head was filled with equations that she could not solve. The reek of formaldehyde from the lab was still in her nostrils. She had never guessed when she chose her subjects for Ten Plus, that even Biology, which was her favourite subject, would involve so much chemistry. She thrashed about the bed, struggling with valencies that were at odds with one another, and the chemical description of photosynthesis that she could not complete.”

We learn of terrible violence.  In a very vivid scene the woman tries to relieve her stress through a casual sexual encounter, one that would horrify her conservative parents.

I dont want reveal too much of the exciting story line.  The conclusion was very unexpected, dramatic and perfectly wrought.

I endorse this story to all lovers of form.  It can serve as an object less about to write historical Short fiction.

I look forward to following the work of Janet H Swinney for many years.

Author supplied data

Repentant education inspector, based in London but with ties in India.
Eleven of her stories have appeared in print. The most recent of these, 'Political Events Have Taken a Turn,' appears in ‘The Sorcery of Smog.’ (Earlyworks Press 2018). Other stories have appeared online in ‘The Bombay Literary Magazine’, ‘Out of Print’, ‘Joao Roque’ and the ‘Indian Review’.
She was a runner-up in the London Short Story competition 2014, and nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012. Her first collection of stories will be published shortly by Circaidy Gregory Press. She is currently working on a play based on stories by Manto.
Find her on Facebook at Janet H Swinney – Addicted to Fiction, or at

Mel u

Thursday, June 14, 2018

“The Smith: Or A Tale of a Man that Poisoned His Wife” - A Short Story by M. J. Berdcyzewski - 1902,translated from Yiddish 2018 by James Adam Redfield


A detailed biographical article

“The birds, real and imagined, speak Yiddish, and the wind at my window speaks Yiddish —because I speak Yiddish, think in Yiddish. My father and mother, my sisters and brothers, my murdered people seek revenge in Yiddish. No world language is comparable to Yiddish, with its unique sighs, its unmatched sense of humor. After the melody has died away and the tears have ebbed, there remains an echo that travels on the wind. Do not wipe out the language that accompanied your people to the mass grave, the echo says. Do not take up the murderers’ sword with your own hand. Do not allow the word that bloomed in bitter climes to wither. Remember Amalek. Remember Hitler. Do not extinguish the spark that smolders in the ashes. Those who deny the past can have no future. Remember”. Blume Lempel

Today’s story is very dark, a story of murder, of hatred of women, including a vivid description of death by poison.  Like many a short story, it is a tale told on a train trip by a very dispicable man to a trapped listener.  

The narrator relays to us the story.  A man was more or less forced by his family into a marriage.  He described his wife as a woman with no good qualities, nasty, ugly and a terrible housekeeper.  He grew to hate her but it got much worse when his younger brother married a beautiful, kind, and loving woman devoted to being a good wife. His jealousy drove him to poison his wife.  As she is dying he cries out trying to make his neighbors think he does not know why his wife is dying.  He ends up sentenced to six years in prison.  He is back now.

This story is an important edition to my expanding admiration for Yiddish Literature.

I read this story in The 2018 Pakn Treger Translation Issue from The Yiddish Book Center.

Micha Josef Berdyczewski, born in Ukraine, died in Berlin (1865–1921); Micha Josef Bin-Gorion from 1911 on) was a prodigious man of letters in multiple languages (Hebrew, German, Yiddish) and literary forms. He is remembered as an innovative prose stylist and polemicist on Zionism and Jewish identity; as the “Jewish Nietzsche” (Y. L. Peretz’s epithet); as an essayist and scholar on Jewish history and religion through the ages; as an anthologizer of Jewish folklore; and as a pioneer in Jewish autobiography. His Yiddish writing, however, remains obscure and disconnected from this vast corpus due to its short period (1902–1906), spare idiom, and restricted set of themes—themes inspired by a return to the shtetl and the language of his youth, through which he hoped to reanimate the spirit of the Jewish people. And yet (as Sholem Aleichem was among the first to note) there is a remarkable emotional range and realistic depth in this collection of stories, one acts, character sketches, and rewritten folktales.

Mel u

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead- 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won The 2016 Pulitzer Price, The National Book Award for fiction, and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. Like another recent wonderful novel by an American, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, it is set in America’s 19th century.  Slavery is central to The Underground Railroad, among the most poigant figures in Lincoln in The Bardo is a slave woman. (I suggest pairing these two novels with Kindred by Octavia Butler would be great for advanced English classes.)

Historically the Underground Railroad was an organization designed to help enslaved persons to make it to freedom.  Freedom for many meant disappearing into non-slave states in the north or Canada.  To slave owners escaping was theft, and was legally a crime.  Slave owners knew if one slave out of a hundred escaped, the others will get the urge to run.  Captured slaves were subject to terrible punishments, from whipping and branding up to death, often by lyncing. In one very vivid scene a captured slave is soaked in oil and set on fire.  All the other slaves were forced to watch the punishments.  In force at the time was 
“The Fugitive Slave Act” which made helping an escapee a crime.  

One of most despicable characters in the novel is a six foot six free black man, Ridgeway, who leads a band of slave catchers who track down people and return them, for a fee of course.

Slave women were subject to sexual abuse by their owners.  Slave women were expected to produce more slaves.  Central to the plot is Cora, an escaped woman.  She lived on a cotton plantation owned by two brothers.  Whitehead vividly depicts the terrible cruelty of slavery.

In the central conceit of The Underground Railroad, there is an actual railroad for escaping slaves, with trains, engineers, stations and hiding spots.   We meet very cruel people and very kind, of both races.

This is a very exciting book, we follow Cora on her escape and we fear for her.  

Author Bio

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969, and was raised in Manhattan.
After graduating from Harvard College, he started working at the Village Voice, where he wrote reviews of television, books, and music.
His first novel, The Intuitionist, concerned intrigue in the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award.
John Henry Days followed in 2001, an investigation of the steel-driving man of American folklore. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The novel received the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
Sag Harbor, published in 2009, is a novel about teenagers hanging out in Sag Harbor, Long Island during the summer of 1985. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
Zone One (2011), about post-apocalyptic New York City, was a New York Times Bestseller.
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death, a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker, appreared in 2014.
The Underground Railroad, a novel, was published in the summer of 2016. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, and was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
Colson Whitehead's reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's and Granta.
He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, A Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Dos Passos Prize, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

He has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University, Wesleyan University, and been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond, and the University of Wyoming.
The Colossus of New York is a book of essays about the city. It was published in 2003 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) is a novel about a "nomenclature consultant" who gets an assignment to name a town, and was a recipient of the PEN/Oakland Award.  From

I highly recommend this book.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Retreat: A Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, 1984

The Retreat: A Novel by Aharon Applefeld is set in Austria in 1937.  The Retreat is a hotel with a special purpose.  Jews go there to try to learn to learn to hide any trait, speech pattern, behavior, dress or mannerism that might give them away as Jewish.  They are there to learn to pass as gentiles.  We learn the back story of some of the guests and the hotel staff.   Austria will soon be taken over by Hitler’s Germany.   The residents have no idea what is going to happen to the Jews of Austria.

From The Paris Review 

Appelfeld’s manner, his gestures, and his soft voice recall the vanished provincial Romania of his childhood, where the bourgeoisie retained traces of cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian culture. The son of a wealthy landowner, he spent his early years speaking German with his parents, Yiddish with his grandparents, Ukrainian with the maid, and Romanian at school.
In 1941, when Appelfeld was nine years old, the Romanian army invaded his home village of Jadova, near Czernowitz. His mother and grandmother were shot. Appelfeld and his father escaped but were soon rounded up and marched, over two months, to the Transnistria concentration camps, where they were separated. Once again Appelfeld escaped. He spent the next two years hiding in the forest, doing odd jobs for a group of prostitutes and thieves. When the Soviet army arrived, in 1944, he joined them as a kitchen boy and eventually made his way, via Italy and Yugoslavia, to Israel. In 1960, he discovered that his father had also survived and come to Israel, and the two were reunited.
The story of Appelfeld’s survival is told in his memoir, The Story of a Life (1999). The war years have also provided material for the majority of his novels, including The Age of Wonders(1978), Tzili (1983), and the book for which he is best known abroad, Badenheim 1939 (1975).

He died January 18, 2018

From The Paris Review 

I enjoyed this very interesting book.  It is for sale for $3.95 as a Kindle.