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, May 19, 2018

Pogrom: Kishinev and The Tilt of History by Steven Zapperstein

An Autodidactic Corner Selection 

Pogram Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Seven Zapperstein is a wonderful book.  It tells a detailed story about a pogram that took place in Tsarist Russia in April 1903 and included the murder of 49 Jews, the rape of many Jewish women and girls, the wounding of about 600 and the robbing and destruction of over 1000 Jewish owned homes and businesses.  Zapperstein goes into a lot of detail about what happened during those three terrible days in 1903.  People from neighboring areas actually brought in wagons to carry away stolen items.  

News of the pogram was widely written about in the American and English press.  The Hearst newspaper powerhouse gave very heavy coverage of the pogram.  Zapperstein explains how this journalism lead to the creation of The NAACP largely by New York City based Jews who saw in the wide spread lynching of Black men in the American south a horror much like the Kishinev Pogram.  Zapperstein details how to this very day the pogram caused most American Jews to be liberals.

One of the most valuable parts of this great history is Zapperstein’s account of how pogram lead to one of the most evil forgeries ever done, the 1909 production of The Protocals of The Elders of Zion.  This work, in which an Assembly of Jews allegedly laid out a plan to achieve world domination provided much of the justification for the Holocaust and is believed to this day by many idiots to be real.   It was written in part to excuse Russian government backed pograms. For me this alone makes this book must reading for the autodidactic.

Zapperstein also covers Jewish literary treatment of the pogram, iCultural impact it had on the founders of the Israeli Army.

Pogram Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Seven Zapperstein is an elegant work, deeply researched, very well organized.  It is not overly academic.  I think anyone with a serious interest in 20th century history will be glad they read this book.  It is must reading for those into Jewish history.

Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University. He has also taught at universities in Russia, Poland, France, and Israel; for six years, he taught at Oxford University. For sixteen years he was Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford. He is the author and editor of eight books including The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History (1986, winner of the Smilen Prize for the Outstanding book in Jewish history); Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (1993, winner of the National Jewish Book Award); Imagining Russian Jewry (1999); and Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (2008, shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award in Biography, Autobiography and Memoir). 

Zipperstein’s articles have appeared in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the Washington Post, The New Republic, the Jewish Review of Books, Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere.  He was editor of the journal Jewish Social Studies for twenty years, and the book series Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture for a quarter of a century.  Together with Anita Shapira, he is series editor of the Yale University Press/Leon Black Foundation Jewish Lives series. Zipperstein is the immediate past Chair of the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Jewish History, in New York and is currently Chair of the Stanford History Department's Graduate Studies Committee.  .  From Stanford University

Mel u

Thursday, May 17, 2018

“The Wrong Question” - A Short Story by Janet H Swinney - from The Bombay Review - 2017

Last month “Drishti” by Janet H Swinney impressed and delighted me so much I asked the author if she had other stories online that I could read and post about.  Happily she sent me links to two of her stories.

“Drishti” centers on a Life Guard working the beach at a resort in Goa.  In just a few pages she opened up the world of the life guard.  

 “The Wrong Question” is set in a Yoga Shala, a long standing famous center for spiritual teaching.   Today is the Guru’s 95th birthday and a massive celebration is getting started.  One of things I liked a lot about “Drishti” was the very knowing way Swinney contrasted the western tourists drawn by the hedonistic reputation of Goa with Indians who work and visit the resorts.  In “The Wrong Question” she shows western    seekers of wisdom who have traveled from afar to listen to the Guru speak.  Swinney made me feel like I was part of the event in these wonderful lines:

“It feels like a public holiday, the sort of day when everyone heads for the ghat. Long before one gets to the yoga shala, one can tell who’s heading there. Groups of five and six thread their way through the town’s back lanes, dressed in their best. The Western men wear shorts with multiple pockets and sandals that bristle with straps, while the women have been shopping in some over-priced emporium and have chosen cotton kurtas with crude, block printed patterns and over-generous pants. This is their take on authenticity. The locals have a different view. The men are dressed like bank managers in stiffened shirts, and well-pressed trousers; a daughter or a servant has polished their shoes vigorously for them before they left the house. The women are cocooned in silken saris that are as tightly coiled as croissants from the German bakery. Sleek plaits, as thick as tyre tread, hang down their backs and wag across their backsides. On street corners, the fruit and vegetable vendors uncloak their barrows, wondering what trade they might attract at this early hour of the morning.”

The Guru has developed a fondness for sweets and it seems every devotee wants to place a garland on his shoulders.  People have come from all over the world to hear him speak.  I really like the brief vignettes of several western, they seem English, letting us see how the teachings of the Guru impact them:

“The guru begins to recite. They all press their hands together in prayer and look sternly into their chests, joining in dutifully.
‘Yogena cittasya padena vacam…Malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena….’
With the culminating ‘Om,’ they breathe a collective sigh and look up at him expectantly.
‘You see,’ he says, settling himself to the task in hand. ‘What is yoga? This is what I want to say. Yoga is the controlling of the activity of the mind. Only if the mind still does your true nature emerge. No matter where you come from, whether East or West, your mind is full of this and that. Taking your children to school every day; doing your job at the office; worrying about your promotion; cooking your husband’s dinner. So many things are there. So many small decisions also: rice or naan; paneer or gobi; trousers or pyjamas. But while your mind is busy over there, there is no peace, there is no stillness. It’s like the machine, so many of you Westerners use in the gym, or like the buffalo grinding corn in the village. People are thinking: how can I stop this treadmill? How can I get off? Am I right?’
Members of his audience acknowledge that he is.
‘So what to do?’ He pauses for effect. ‘First, we must know that the mind can be managed. There are so many managers these days.”

Swinney is a very talented artist with a deep feel for her subjects.

Next month I will post on a third of her stories.  In August The Lakeview Journal of Literature and The Arts,  I am an Advisory Director, publish one of her stories.

I hope to read many more of her works

I greatly enjoyed this story and endorse it to all lovers of the form.

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1935 to 1939 by David Cesarani - 2016, 1081 pages

I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read this book.

An autodidactic Corner pick

“Who is on the lookout from this strange tower to warn us of the coming of new executioners? There are those of us who sincerely look upon the ruins today as if the old concentration-camp monster were dead and buried beneath them. Those who pretend to take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps. Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not heed the cry to the end of time.”  Jean Cayrol

Those without a real understanding of the Holocaust and the tremendous impact it still has on the world have little hope of an understanding of international politics. 

All teachers of history should read Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1935 to 1939 by David Cesarani.  This is a long book but once you read this you will know way 

more than just the basics.  Cesaranj begins his opus by telling us most people who know about the Holocaust, and of course with every passing day as ignorance becomes a mark of pride,
fewer have even heard of it, learned about it from TV shows.  Most think it was confined to concentration camps in Germany.

Cesarani integrates the political history of the rise of Hitler to the Holocaust.  He makes it very clear it was not just Germans who enthusiastically murdered Jews.  The Poles and the Lithuanians helped kill in the millions in mass shooting episodes.  It sickens me to see the current governments of Poland and Lithuania trying to deny their governments were fully complicit and eagerly cooperated in the murder of Jews.  France for sure has the blood of my beloved Irene Nemirovsky on her hands.  Ukrainians, Romanians, Hungarians all we’re happy to get rid of Jews in their areas.  Partially it was a form of robbery as the property of the Jews was then up for grabs.

Most who talk of the Holocaust try to say it was all caused by Hitler and the Nazis but almost all Germans approved of the Holocaust but of course after the war none of them 
of them had ever even known what was happening.  

Cesarani goes into depth explaining why Hitler hated Jews so much.

He talks about various plans for removing Jews either to Madagascar or far Eastern Russia.  There is chatter on the internet now that Zionism is tied to Nazi ideology and from Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1935 to 1939 by David Cesarani you can understand why people think this or try to claim it.

Cesarani talks about what happened to camp survivors who had no place to go.  Most did not want to return to destroyed homelands to live among those who wanted them gone.  Most survivors wanted to go to either The USA or Palestine.  Much of the strength of Israel comes from the spirit of Holocaust survivors who helped form Israel and made “Never Again” a sacred motto.

Read Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1935 to 1939 by David Cesarani and you will be much closer to understanding world events.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogene Hermes Gowar - 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogene Hermes Gowar, set in late Georgian London in the 1780s focuses on a middleaged never married merchant, Mr. Hancock and his future and eventually actual wife.  This debut novel is already on best seller lists in The UK.  The Irish Times and The Guardian both have spoken of author’s very real ability to transport us to the taverns, the streets, inside the busuness of merchant shipping, Mr Hancock’s primary occupation.  We dont just see London, we hear it, smell the smells, notice all sorts of small details.  

As The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens the captain of a merchant ship financed by Mr. Hancock has just arrived back and is reporting the results of the voyage to him.  A trip can take up to two years, Mr. Hancock has investors eager to reap their promised rewards.  Mr. Hancock is completely shocked when the captain tells him he traded the ship for the body of a mermaid.  He did receive enough cash to pay off the investors.  Mr. Hancock cannot believe the captain would be so stupid but he becomes convinced maybe he can make a fortune, way more than the lost profits, by charging people to see the mermaid.  Soon he is rolling in Guineas.  

Mr. Hancock’s teenage niece lives with him and he has servants.  We get to know everyone in the household.  Soon the next big phase of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens when three afluent looking men offer to rent the mermaid for a week, to be the center piece at a party at a high end brothel, frequented by the cream of London Society.  

Now we are going to The brothel!  Mr. Hancock, a stranger to such places, is a bit uncomfortable dealing with the madame but he negotiates a deal.  A great party is arranged, girls dress as mermaids.  Mr Hancock is there, the mermaid has brought him riches.  He is fascinated by the girls, is shocked to see distinquished members of parliament with half naked girls in their laps, and is taken by one of the girls.  He has no experience with brothels and prostitutes and even though the madame tries to get him upstairs, he does not indulge.

I admit I most enjoyed the descriptions of brothel life.  One of women he meets used to be a house girl but found a wealthy retainer.  Sadly she recently lost him but does not want to go back to servicing all comers. Mr Hancock, now quiet rich, he feels the mermaid has brought him luck in his merchant endeavors, eventually decides he wants to marry her.  The woman is not real interested but she tells Mr. Hancock if he can find an other mermaid for her she will marry him.  He hires his old captain to find another one.  He returns with a life mermaid.  They marry, build a grand house, she becomes pregnant but miscarries.  

To me I thought the novel went down hill a bit after the marriage but maybe I just like the descriptions of brothel life more than rest of the novel.

There is a scene where the brothel keeper is sentenced to the pillory that totally brilliant.

I am very glad I was given a review copy of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.  I think anyone interested in 18th century England Will enjoy this debut novel.

There are lots of wonderful things in this book.

The author’s very interesting blog.

IMOGEN HERMES GOWAR was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship in 2013 to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is her first novel and was a finalist in the Mslexia First Novel Competition and short-listed for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award. Her previous studies in archaeology, anthropology, and art history, and work in museums inspire her fiction.. from the publisher.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

“The Border” - A Short Story by Issac Singer - first published May 7, 2018 in The New Yorker - translated from Yiddish by the author

I wish to thank Michael Alenyikov, author of a marvellous collection of interrelated of stories Ivan and Misha for letting me know of the publication of “The Border”. 

Here is a portion of my thoughts on Ivan and Misha:

 Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov is an interrelated set of short stories about two fraternal twins, one bi-sexual and one gay, and their father, Lyov. The first story is set in Kiev (the largest city in the Ukraine) in Russia, where they were born.    In the brief prologue (set in the 1980s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union) we learn that the wife of Lyov and mother of the boys died before they were six.   The father is a doctor.   After only receiving one year of medical training and was sent out into the horrors of WWII in the Ukraine to remove limbs from soldiers,  without anesthetics.   They live in a large apartment complex in the style of the times.   The father keeps promising his sons a better life, a new mother, a new apartment, but nothing really happens until he moves the family to New York City and the stories start in the of medical training and was sent out into the horrors of WWII in the Ukraine to remove limbs from soldiers,  without anesthetics.   They live in a large apartment complex in the style of the times.   The father keeps promising his sons a better life, a new mother, a new apartment, but nothing really happens until he moves the family to New York City and the stories start in the late 1990s.    Alenyikov gives us a wonderful feel for the immigrant experience.    

Alenyikov does a great job of creating a sense of physical place, not something a lot of writers do well.   This ranges from the small apartment of Ivan to New York City.   We also get a very clear sense of how everyone lives.    I confess when I read a story about a person I like to know what they eat and we do in Ivan and Misha.   

Alenyikov's  treatment of the sexuality of the brothers is simply brilliant.  I liked that there was no discussion at all about how the two brothers "got that way", no suggestion that there was something wrong with them.       It is just who they are and everyone in their lives accepts it including them.   There is one very shocking scene that took a lot of real daring to write.   

There are some really wonderful minor characters in the novel. There is the handsome as all outdoors young Mormon missionary in the big city for the first time who does not know he is gay until Ivan seduces him and there are madmen right out of Howl.   There is an elderly lady with a very mysterious past who goes from Ivan's cab customer to one of his closest friends.     I liked her a lot and I think you will also as you try to figure her out.

There are tragic elements in the stories.   There is death, serious mental illness and Aids in these stories.    There is also a sheer love of life that comes strongly through.   Readers of Russian literature will love all of the references and will have fun deciding if they agree with what  the characters say about the various writers.   

The prose is beautiful.   There are many exquisitely done images.   I will restrain myself from comparing his work to the great Russian masters but this  could be done without condescension or pandering.   

My thoughts on “The Border” by Issas Singer.

Issac Singer

1902 Born near Warsaw 

1935 - Moves to New York City

1978 - receives Nobel Prize for Literature 

1991 - dies Surfside, Florida 

“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 

“The Border”, most likely written around 1980, was published for the first time this week, in The New Yorker.  An archivist found it while working in his vast collection of papers.  Singer first wrote it in Yiddish and then translated it into English.  It is suggested in The New Yorker that Singer or his publishers, he was a frequent contributor to the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward (I have posted on a number of stories from this publication, often called just Forward) may have felt the conversations between two Holocaust survivors, one who kept strongly to his faith and one who developed, while in the camps,
a hatred for the very notion  of God.  

There are only two characters in this story, both older retired men who were Holocaust survivors who after the war moved to New York City.  The man who kept his faith, now retired and a widower after forty years supporting his family with a pushcart took in another retired Holocaust survivor more for company than the rent money.  The other man lost everyone in his family.  He does not  accept that any God seen as good could have allowed the Holocaust.  When the other man begins his prayers he berates him:

“To whom are you praying? To the God who made Hitler and gave him the strength to kill six million Jews? Or perhaps to the God who created Stalin and let him liquidate another ten million victims? Really, Reb Berish, you’re not going to bribe the Lord of the Universe with a pair of phylacteries. He’s a first-class son of a bitch and a terrible anti-Semite.”
“Pfui.” Reb Berish grimaced. “Go away.”
“How long will we keep cringing before Him and singing Psalms?” Melnik continued. “I’ve seen with my very own eyes how they threw a Jew with a prayer shawl and phylacteries into a ditch full of shit. Literally.”

Berish talks to him about freewill, about acts of great kindness and self sacrifice among camp inmates.  They argue about women, Berish expects to meet his wife again in the afterlife.  His companion launches into a tirade against all women, especially Jewish women.  He tells Berish his faith is for children:

“What are you crying for? This is humanity, the crown of creation. My theory is that all men are Nazis. What right do we have to slaughter a calf and eat it? The one with the knife slaughters. It’s just as Hitler believed: might is right. As for God, He’s a Nazi to end all Nazis. The arch-Hitlerite. He has more power than anybody else, so He tortures everybody. You see, I’m not an unbeliever. There is a Gehenna, there is. Why should people suffer only on earth? They’re tortured in the hereafter, too. God has His own Treblinka, with devils, hobgoblins, demons, angels of death. They burn the poor sinners or hang them by their tongues or by their breasts. All the details are there in ‘The Rod of Punishment.’ But there’s no paradise. When it comes to death, I become a real heretic.” 

Both men are lonely and they need each other’s company.  After breakfast they go out to see what the women in the neighbourhood are doing.  

“The Border” is a powerful story, a very worthy edition to Yiddish literary treatments of Holocaust themes.

You can read this story here. 

My post, from November, 2011 on Ivan and Misha is here

Mel u

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

“The Pegnitz Junction” - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant- 1973

1922 Montréal, Canada

2014 Paris 

Buried in Print’s Mavis Gallant Short Story Project has motivated me to read along with her. Gallant published about 200 Short Stories, in The Collected Edition of The Short Stories of Mavis Gallant I have access to ninety of her stories.  Buried in Print is Reading them all and I’m following along as I Can.  Today, following lead of Buried in Print, I will be post on “The Pegnitz Junction”, the longest work in the collection.  

Gallant packs a huge amount into the novella length work, you can see a master at work. The story takes place shortly after the end of World War II.
The main characters are a young woman, her lover and his young son.  They are on a train, starting in Paris.  (Pegnitz is a small town in Bavaria.)  The couple are on a holiday and problems with the train system means everyone must be rerouted at the Pegnitz Junction.

As often once happened and maybe still does, people on a train knowing they will likely never see each other again, are more open with a stranger than someone they know.

Everyone on the train has been emotionally damaged by the war.  In the conversations  on the train we see how perceptions change, how we project things upon strsngers.  The couples relationship has also been born in the pain of the war.

This is a very powerful work, highly compressed with a very European, to me, feel.  We sense the characters concerns over the future, what kind of world will the man’s son grow up in?

Be sure to read the post of Buried in Print for her deep feeling for the story.

Next in the project is “The Old Friends”, I will post on that also.

Mel u