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, 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

Saturday, February 10, 2018

“Kola Street” - A Short Story by Sholem Asch - 1948?-translated from Yiddish

Very Comprehensive Bio on Sholem Asch from the Yivo Encyclopaedia of Eastern European Jews

“Sholem Asch discovered new human resources among the east European Jews, his story “Kola Road” becoming famous as a celebration of the proste, the common folk, and the grobe yungn, the vulgar ignoramuses.* -  Irving Howe, from World of Our Fathers:The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the World They Made and Found 

“Kola Street” is an unflinching look at the violence and social conflicts within Jewish society in Warsaw in the days between the world wars.  The story begins with an account of the Kola Street Jews, the roughest elements of Jewish society and their relationship to upper class Jews.  The narrator tells us that the rich may scorn the common people of Kola Street but whenever gentile thugs come to attack them they call for the help of Kola Street residents.  When -ever funds are needed to support scholarships for the study of the Torah, the rich ask Kola Street for help.  After a very interesting prelude in which Asch gives a wonderful description of the various aspects of the community, he begins a marvellously lively story about a horrible fight between two Kola Street clans over pigeons. We see the at times violent households in which masters beat their servants and petty quarrels turn into deadly street warfare.

Sholem Asch was Born in Poland in 1880, in 1914 he moved to New York City.  A financially fortuitous marriage left him able to devote full time to writing.  He was very prolific in numerous genres.  Please see the link above for more details.

The run time of this podcast is 43 Minutes. It read by Ron Lieberman, introduced by Leonard Nimoy and was translated by Norman Gueterman.

I hope to post upon his famous novella, The Jewish Soldier this year.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - 2014

The Bone Clocks is the first work by David Mitchell I have had the great pleasure of reading. For sure I hope it will not be the last.  It is a super creative amazing set of six interrelated narratives all connected by Holly Sikes and two duelling sets of immortals.  We first meet Holly when, age 15, she runs away from home to get away from her domineering mother.  Holly hears voices sometimes. The year is 1984.She has a 25 year old boyfriend and her plan is to move in with him.  Upon arrival at his house, she finds him in bed with her best friend.  She takes off for parts unknown. She encounters a strange old woman who asks her for asylum.  Holly takes her for mad but she is an immoral.  Her younger brother disappeared from home right after she left.  This disappearance has a key part in the narrative. 

There are five more narrative lines, one set in Cambridge in 1991.  The third section is about the trials and tribulations of a one time literary superstar now struggling with debt and writer’s block.  The fourth section is about a war correspondent. The fifth section is a really fun pure fantasy world narrative about the two battling groups of immortals. Both use humans, the Bone Clocks, to live on.  One is reborn over and over and the outer drains souls.  The final section is set in Ireland in 2043.  Holly Sikes, who became a famous writer, is trying to survive in a dystopian world brought on by climate change and political upheavals.

There are nit picking reviews online.  Ok I concede it is not perfect but it was a lot of fun, the fantasy element was intriguing, the people real, and there are lots of exquisite sentences and concepts.  All the narratives are tied together and it was exciting to see what develops.

David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell co-translated from the Japanese the international bestselling memoir, The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children... from

I hope  to read Cloud Atlas this year.  

Mel u

Thursday, February 8, 2018

World of Our Fathers:The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the World They Made by Irving Howe - 1976

World of Our Fathers:The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the World They Made by Irving Howe is a very valuable, highly interesting book. It is a social, cultural, and economic history of the migration of two million     Eastern European Jews to America.  All arrived at Ellis Island in New York.  More than half the immigrants settled in New York City.  In 1880 there was an estimated 60,000 Jews in the city, by 1914, there was about 1.1 Million. World War One and the Russian Revolution ended this wave of immigration.

The massive immigration began in 1880 when the liberal Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Shortly after this the government allowed
Anti-Jewish pograms all over Russia.  This sparked a desire to move to what was seen as a near promised land, America.  Most arrived with little more than a few rubles and the clothes on their backs.  All spoke Yiddish and most also spoke Russian.

Howe begins his narrative with a description of life in an Eastern European Shetl.   We see the terrible oppression, the lack of opportunity, the violence directed against Jews.  Unlike some immigrant groups, the Jews came largely as families. We see how hard it was to pay for their passage.  We are given a very vivid account of  arrival in New York City, from the much feared medical screenings at Ellis Islands to the dishonest agents waiting to fleece them. We see families settling into crowded tenement apartments in poverty stricken areas.  The men at once went to work,often in the garment industry working at least 12 hours a day for very low wages.   Women and children often worked in factories.  Howe goes into a lot of detail on the labor conditions.  I was moved when he told how most factory workers brought books to read on their breaks.

Quickly it is realised one must know some English to get anywhere in America.  Education for the young is a top priority.  

There is really a lot covered in this book, everything from diet changes, child rearing, like everywhere the young learn English much faster.  Howe tells us about the thriving Yiddish Press and writes very illuminatingly on Yiddish Literature in America.  He covers novelists, poets and the very important Yiddish theatre.  We learn how Yiddish heritage performers highly impacted American movies and the start of television.  We see the children and grandchildren of garment workers become lawyers, doctors, famous intellectual theorists and move way out of the tenements. They were normally very liberal in their politics and Howe shows us the impact of Yiddish activism on Labor Laws.

This is a very rich information loaded book.  Anyone interested not just in Jewish history in America but in American history will love this book.

Howe tells us Yiddish began to become a Language with fewer and fewer speakers. We learn how the immigrants reacted after WW II when they learned of the Holocaust and the devotion to Israel.

If a merit test had been put on the two million Yiddish speaking immigrants nearly none would have been admitted.  American would be a much poorer place if this had happened. 

“Howe was an emblematic New York Jewish intellectual, a man of modest origins who rose to pre-eminence in the serious study of ideas, literature and politics. He was known for many things, including a large, steady output of essays on culture and literature, the advocacy of democratic socialism and chronicling the Jewish experience in America. National Book Award Winner
Perhaps his most famous and widely read book was "World of Our Fathers," a history of Eastern European immigration to the United States that won the National Book Award in 1976.
Dissent, the magazine he founded and edited for nearly four decades, was for most of that time a leading journal of a certain kind of American politics. It was deeply critical of the abuses of capitalism and what its writers sometimes saw as the paranoia of this country, but it was even more repelled by leftist totalitarianism, in the Soviet Union, Cuba or elsewhere.” from the New York Times Obituary 

1920 to 1993

Mel u

Sunday, February 4, 2018

“Platonic Love” - A Short Story by Yenta Serdatsky (1948) - translated from Yiddish by Jessica Kirzane

Last month I posted upon two very moving translated from Yiddish short stories, both centred on an isolated lonely Eastern European woman  immigrant now living in a  America.  After reading these two stories by Yente
Serdatsky I was delighted to find her story “Platonic Love”, wonderfully translated by Jessica Kirzane posted online (at the link above).  

“Rosh Hashanah” is about a very lonely socially isolated Jewish immigrant woman who on the culturally very important holiday Rosh Hashanah, feels an almost overwhelming sense of longing for the old days back home, surrounded by family.  She knows she hurt her mother badly when she abandoned her faith in God.  Her American friend, a woman she works with, takes her out on the town to raise her spirits.

“Two Heads”, I like this reading life story so much I placed a quote from it in my side bar, is about a young immigrant woman living in a big city rooming house.  Her only joy in her life is in Reading.  The long empty next door apartment has just become occupied.  She cannot help but wish it is a man who loves books as much as she does.  The ending is really powerful.

“Platonic Love”  centers on a lonely Russian woman, now living in America (I think the reader may assume these stories are set in New York City.). She is highly cultured and lived with her aunt.  She is separated from her husband, back home. She works in a bookstore.  She gets off work at noon on Saturday but she has gotten into a habit of meeting an American married man for intellectual conversation at a cafe.  This has now been going on for years.

You can read this story in just a few minutes so I will just provide a brief sample of the story:

“The other patrons of the café knew that there was “nothing” going on between the two of them, and this made them all the more curious to know what the unseen bridge was that linked these two lives, these two souls, for a few hours every week.

She was a wealthy young woman, born in Russia. In her home country she had gone to school, and after she graduated she went on to study in Switzerland. There she learned philosophy and all kinds of other academic pursuits, but no trade or profession.

While she was learning she had been very happy. She had made many friends among the students, and clambered over the tall Swiss mountains with a large shawl wrapped around her arms. For a little while she learned how to ride a horse and a bicycle.

Her beauty and athleticism made her very popular and many of the young students were in love with her. She had loved one of them in return and they were married. She had his child, who died after a year. A while later she split up from him and they went their separate ways.”

Yente Serdatsky (the author), neé Raybman (1877-1962) was born in Aleksat, near Kovne (Kaunas), Lithuania. Her first story, “Mirl,” appeared in the Warsaw periodical Der Veg in 1905. Serdatsky immigrated to America in 1907, initially living in Chicago and then New York, where she published stories, one-act plays, and sketches in many Yiddish periodicals across the political spectrum. She served on the staff of the Forverts, and her writing appeared regularly in its pages until 1922. Serdatsky’s selected writings were published in book form in 1913. After a 27-year hiatus, Serdatsky’s work appeared in the Nyu Yorker Vokhnblat from 1949 until 1955. Her fiction and dramatic works often focus on the loneliness experienced by radical intellectual women and are notable examples of feminism in Yiddish fiction.

Jessica Kirzane (the translator) is a PhD Candidate in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University. She holds a BA in English Literature and Jewish Studies from the University of Virginia (2008) and an MA in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University (2011). Her scholarly interests include the representation of marriage in American Jewish fiction and the concept of race in Yiddish fiction. Her translations have appeared in Pakn Treger and The Trinity Journal of Literary Translation.

There is a deep loneliness in these stories, informed by the knowledge you will probably never see your loved ones back home again.  

I offer my great thanks to Jessica Kirzane for this sensitive and elegant translation.  I hope to read more of her work going forward.

Mel u