Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Culture, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt - 2009. - 875 Pages

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

The Children’s Book is a long, complex challenging book.  I loved it.  It deals with the interrelated lives of several English families from late Victirian times up through World War One.  (It for sure brought back very fond memories of a long afternoon in The Victoria and Albert Museum, then known as The South Kensington Museum.)

As you would expect, all the major literary review sources did features on The Children’s Book.  Everyone of course praised it but all found something negative to say.  (This seems almost required in press reviews.). I will just make a few random Observations about some of my favourite aspects of the book.

The center of the book is the large Family of a well known writer of children’s stories, Olivia Wellwood. some say she is loosely based upon Edith Nesbit.  She is from a very artistic family involved with progressive causes such as seeking the right to vote for women.  She writes stories for each of six children (several are i included and they are all a lot of fun, late Victorian gothic).  We follow the Development of the children up to the end of WW One.  There are also other families.  We discover dark secrets.  There is even a German family and a trip to prewar Berlin.  We are reminded the European monarchs are  all cousins. The family knows J. M.Barrie and a night watching Peter Pan on the London stage is a central element.  The World War One Poet Rupert Brooke is a close friend of one of the characters and Oscar Wilde shows up at a huge international fair in Paris.  The children discovering their direction in life and their sexuality is very well shown.  We see the hypocrisy in the class snobbish attitudes of the Fabian society members, touting social equality while enjoying a very privileged existence.

Byatt helped me grasp the impact of history on the characters in chapters devoted to current events, mostly in The UK.  We know terrible events are coming.  We kind of have a feel for a Society run by the people in Saki’s stories, way out of their depth.  

One of the very interesting characters is a young man, Philip, who is found as a runaway hiding in the museum.  The Wellwood family takes him in.  He goes on to become an apprentice to a famous potter.  Through him and his sister we do get a window on the poorest of the people of the UK.  I enjoyed seeing Philip and his sister develop.  

The denouement of the book is in the carnage experienced by the children,now grown,  in the fields of France.  We also see how this impacts the women.  I admired the struggle of Dorothy to become a surgeon.

There are enough characters in The Children’s Book for a huge Victorian novel.
There is a great deal to learn about UK society in the book.

The Children’s Book requires a commitment of time and attention on readers. Those willing to give the book what it deserves will be very happy to have encountered it.

In 2013 I read and posted on her Booker Prize Winning Possession. Prior to blogging I read The Biographer’s Tale.

I hope next to read The Virgin in The Garden.

Mel u

Sunday, February 17, 2019

JORINDA AND JORINDEL - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first published September 19, 1959

Jorinda and Jorindel - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first  published September 19, 1959 in The New Yorker

Jorinda and Jorindel - a Grimm's fairy tale, first published by the Grimm Bothers in 1812.  (The animated podcast linked to above is very enjoyable, no translator or reader credit is given.)

Mavis Gallant

Born August 11, 1922 in Montreal

1950- moves to France

September 1, 1951, publishes her first short story (In The New Yorker)

February 18, 2004 - dies in her beloved Paris

I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant since 2013.  I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a weekly basis.   I am following along as I can. 

Recently I was delighted to find a collection of sixteen of sixteen mostly set in Canada short stories by Gallant,Home Truths for sale in Kindle format for $1.95. it is now back up to $9.95.  Buried in Print has just reached these stories so I will be reading along on all these works. Today's story is reprinted in that collection.

Just as was the prior featured story, "Thank You for the Lovely Tea", "Jorinda and Jorindel" is set in Canada in the 1930s.  In both stories we see a contrasting of Americans and Canadians.  In this story an American, Mrs Queen lives in Canada and worked as a servant for a wealthy woman.  It seems almost she was dumped  in Canada when her employer moved to California.  Here are her private thoughts:

"Mrs. Queen came out to Canada with Lady Partridge. The wages were low, and she had no stomach for travel, but she was devoted to Lady P. and to Ty-Ty and Buffy, the two cairns. The cairns died, because of the change of air, and after Lady P. had buried them, she went out to her daughter in California, leaving Mrs. Queen to look after the graves. But Mrs. Queen has never taken to Canada. She can’t get used to it. She cannot get used to a place where the railway engines are that size and make that kind of noise, and where the working people are as tall as anyone else."

As I read this story the first time I thought it felt different from most other Gallant stories, it had a strange almost fey feel, like a fairy tale.  The characters are seeming  archetypes.  There is a lot in this story, an American lady escaping prohibition, a titled lady, her move  to California after her dogs are left buried in Canada begs for symbolic ramblings but above all there are children, especially a boy who lives ten months of the year in an orphanage spending two warm months working on his uncle's farm. (Shades of a cross gender myth of Orpheus?) and his female cousin, they are about eight.

I acknowledge when I read this the first time I did not know that Jorinda and Jorindel was a Grimm's fairy tale.  After watching the video of the story, on my second reading I a was trying to see how the stories are related.  In the Grimm Fairy tale, an evil old fairy woman turns beautiful young women into Nightingales and cages them.  She has captured the love of a young man's life.  The story turns on how he gets her released, the fate of the fairy and the sevenhundred women she had turned into Nightingales.

In a way, everyone in the story is captured, some by convention and family, some by poverty, some wealth.  I wonder is the orphan boy a captured Nightingale waiting to be saved?  There is a lot, as there is in all her stories, to think about here.

Mel u

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Yosele" -A Short Story by Blume Lempel. translated from Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, 2016

In Image above, upper left Blume Lempel in Paris, to the right Blume and her husband to be in Paris

"So here I sit, writing from right to left. My older brother watches over me, telling me what to write in Yiddish. I can’t very well ask him not to speak in the language of exile. Blessed with the gifts of a prodigy, he knows what I’m thinking. Yiddish is not a language of exile, he answers my unspoken words —it is mame-loshn, our mother tongue. I have tremendous respect for my brother. He believed in the goodness of man, the goodness of all. He met with a double disaster —disappointed first in his faith, then in himself. Now he watches over me, directing my stories from beyond the grave with a sure touch. This is how it
was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. Each according to his ability must convey what he saw, what he lived through, what he thought, what he felt. You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers" - from The Fate of the Yiddish Writer by Blume Lempel

Blume Lempel

Born 1907 in The Ukraine

Moved to Paris in 1929, to be near her brother who lived there.

While in Paris she worked as a furrier and attended night school.

1939- having married and had two children, her Family moved to New York State, out of concern over rising anti-Semiticism.  Many in her extended Family died in The Holocaust as would she and her Family had they not left.  In 1942 French authorities in a compromise with the Germans, agree to arrest and turn over to the Germans all foreign born Jews. 

1943- begins to publish with a Short Story, all her writings were in Yiddish.  In part this was her way of defying those who wanted the magnifcient Yiddish Cultural tradition destroyed.

In 1950 the Family locates permanently in Long Island.

1999 passes away.

Her stories are a world class literary treasure.

In a number of works  by Holocaust scholars I have read, the sense of guilt felt by Jews who safely set out the war years in exhile is treated.  Nearly all lost family in the Holocaust.  Lempel upon learning of the murder of her brother, her father and step mother isolated herself in her house for years.  She was finally drawn out by a desirebto tell the stories of the lost and the might have been.  How this happened is explained in this very good article,  

Modern in Autumn
The Belated Discovery of Blume Lempel
Written by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Published Spring 2019 . In Pakn Treger- The Magazine of the Yiddish Book Center.   Linked below

"Yosele" is a very powerful story about Holocaust survivors.  In it Lempel mixes current events with life during the Holocaust.  It is not an easy work to understand.  The central figures are an elderly married couple, their years hiding from the murderers were long passed.  As the story opens, the wife had just fell to her death from their apartment window.

"When Tsirele Zilber fell out of the window and died, neither the radio nor the newspapers reported the news. After all, there’s no limit to the misfortunes that can befall a person. Every day in New York, people are killed, injured, raped, robbed, and burned. Many speed the end by their own hand. There was no doubt that Tsirele’s death was an accident. No one suspected suicide. Yoyne, her husband, did wonder, but he buried the thought deep within himself, along with all his other suspicions."

I really have to recast the plot of this story to any large degree.  When the couple met, Tsirele was delirious with fever, her prior husband and child had been killed by Ukrainian supporters of the Holocaust.  They soon married, the husband, a widower, had an eight year old daughter.  The life long guilt of the wife was her in ability to see the daughter as anything but a poor substitute for her lost son.  She lived with deep guilt over what she deeply felt was an adulterous marriage to Yoyne.

Her husband thinks back to the time they were told by someone that the Germans planned to kill all the Jews.  He at first thought this had to be crazy, his German neighbors were so nice, Germans so civilized.  In future years he had German neighbors in New York City.  He wondered how he would act if things were reversed

"After each encounter with the neighbor, a melancholy overtook him. At night he lay in bed wrestling with the question of what could turn a person into a murder-machine. He wondered whether he himself could ever be part of such a mass psychosis. Would he be able to split open the head of his neighbor’s only son merely because he was German? Would he be able to watch his neighbor’s house burn down and not run to the rescue? Could he set it on fire himself and watch to see how his neighbor reacted? These macabre thoughts kept him wide awake until he swallowed a pill that would transport him from nightmarish reality to nightmarish dream."

We learn the truth about death of Tsirele as the story closes.

Lempel takes us deeply into the lasting impact of the Holocaust, sometimes a victim will linger on fifty years, then die.

(This story was originally published in 1986.)

Mel u


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka - 2003 - from THE CAKE TREE IN THE RUINS Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Works I Have So Far Read for The Japanese Literature Challenge 12, ending March 31, 2019.

  1. “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
  2. The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
  3. "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
  4. “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.
  5. Killing Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami- 2017
  6. The Master Key by Masako Togawa - 1962 - translated by Simon Grove
  7. "The Elephant and its Keeper" - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari
  8. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada - 2014 - translated by Margaret Mitsutani
  9. “The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story.
  10. “The Soldier and the Horse” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story
  11. "The Soldier and the Horse". - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka - 2003 - no post
  12. "Mr. English" - A Short Story by GENJI KEITA -1985- no post
  13. "The Old She Wolf and the Little Girl" by Akiyuki Nasaka - 2003

Akiyuki Nosaka’s Stories, set in the closing days of World War Two, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 a date noted at the start of each story focus on the most innocent victims of the war, very young children and animals.  The stories have a fairy tale feel, the animals are very effectively  
anthropomorphic rendered, putting us totally seeing thinks from the animals perspective.  One of the two stories I have posted upon is about a very lonely whale brought to a very bloody end by his love for a Japanese submarine.  The other begins in the Tokyo Zoo.  There is no money to feed the animals so a decision is made to kill the animals, including a very gentle elephant raised in the zoo.  His keeper of many years takes him out into the countryside.  We feel the great bond between them, not even shattered in death.

Today's story "The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl" is set in then Japanese occupied Manchuria.  The Japanese ruled Manchuria very cruelly but now they are fleeing, running from the imminent arrival of the Russian Army, bent on oregaining their honor from the Sino-Japanese war.  Those running are mostly women, children and old men.  The men were all drafted into the Japanese army, even the forty plus year old father of the Little girl in our story.  The Chinese know the Japanese will lose and treat the refugees as the Japanese treated them in their Glory days.

There are only two characters in the story, a little girl of about four and an elderly female wolf who has left her pack, which she up until recently lead, to find a peaceful place to die.  The young girl has contacted measles, her mother, fleeing in a large group, had no choice but to abandon her.  At first the wolf plans to stalk her a while and then have her as a last meal.  Then she starts to think that her pack would never abandon a young pup, what must these humans be like.  She begins to bond with the child, feeds her and protects her.

When the wolf and the little girl meet, the girl mistakes the wolf for the abandoned family German Shepherd, Bella, who she loved.

"Thirsty, the wolf took a drink from a small stream, then caught two field mice to appease her hunger. She had just started running as hard as she could to catch up with the group again when she suddenly caught sight of something red in the grass. Pricking up her ears, she could hear a hoarse voice crying. It didn’t immediately occur to her that it might be a human child, but as she cautiously approached she saw a small girl tottering through the grass. The only reason she didn’t pounce on the girl and gobble her up right away was that the edge had been taken off her hunger by those two field mice. And then she was quite taken aback when the little girl showed absolutely no fear upon seeing her, but instead called out “Belle!” and flung her arms happily around her neck. The girl stroked the wolf ’s neck and back, sobbing, “Where’s Mama, Belle? Go find her for me!” The wolf didn’t understand what she was saying, but the girl clearly thought that she was a friend and so she submitted to her, thinking how odd it was for a human to be so unafraid of a wolf. The little girl didn’t smell of the things the wolf hated most, leather and gunpowder, but instead was permeated with the scent of milk. This brought back memories of all the cubs that, not so long ago, she herself had given birth to and raised. Come to think of it, the little girl’s sobbing voice was not unlike the wheedling cries of a newborn wolf cub. Before the wolf realized what she was doing, she was cradling the little girl between her front paws, just as she had done with her own cubs, and was licking her face and hands, which still smelt of her mother’s milk. The little girl snuggled up to her. Now and then she called loudly, “Mama!”, but her only answer was the sound of the wind crossing the wide-open plain. She began sobbing again, but when the wolf licked away her tears she became ticklish and wriggled."

The girl gets sicker from the measles.  The old wolf now has a purpose, to take care of the girl.

As the story proceeds we learn what life was like for the fleeing Japanese but the story ends on such a cruel note I cared little for them.

Mel u

Monday, February 11, 2019

"Neela: bhopal, 1984" - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - From her collection White Dancing Elephants - 2018

I first became aware of the amazing stories of Chaya Bhuvaneswar in a news letter from PEN.  It was announced that she, along with four other writers, was shorted  listed for their annual award for Best Debut Short Story Collection. On her website, one of the best and most respectful to readers of author websites I am familiar with, I learned of numerous awards and looked through the glowing reviews.  

Years ago when I first began posting on short story collections I followed standard procedures, post briefly on a few of the stories then conclude with metaphor laden concluding remarks and issue a recommendation.  Sometime ago I moved toward focusing on individual stories.  If I like a writer as much as I do Chaya Bhuvaneswar I post on numerours of the stories.  This seems more respectful of the writer, better for serious readers and for me also.  Writing about a work seems to increase my understanding and helps me recall the story.

Last month i read and posted upon the wonderful title story, “White Dancing Elephants”.  Today I am posting on a very different story, one you may read at the link above.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit it did not know  about Bhopal disaster before today.  On December 2nd, 1984 a gas leak occurred at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India owned by Union Carbide.  It produced the worst in history industrial disaster.  Over 500,000 people were injured by the gas leak.  3500 were acknowledged immediate casualties and up to twenty thousand died with in weeks.  Over 30,000 suffered permanent injuries. (The long legal battle to seek reparations is detailed in my links.) Many were blinded.

“Not for another thirty or maybe a hundred years will the water and land be safe again, as pure and unpolluted as they were hours before. Before the air burned and became a hateful thing. neela: bhopal, 1984  Eight thousand years ago, children huddled with their mothers Eight thousand years ago, children huddled with their mothers in cool caves. Those caves are hidden deep in a forest, miles from here, and would have been so much safer than shantytowns around the factory in Bhopal City, the easily penetrated houses of corrugated metal and scavenged plywood. The walls of those shacks are sheets of plastic with small holes...”

She awakes to find her three brothers dead.  She runs to the forest,trying to escape.

“All three of your brothers, limber and clever boys, were gifted at nosing out delectable refuse, edibles in the garbage. They were like scavenging dogs, little ponies. Long ago they nicknamed you Neelagai—antelope, for your thin quick legs, your skill at finding enough unspoiled food for all of them—and when they pretended to hunt you, none of them could find you here. Other hunters have found you at the edge of your forest: methyl isocyanate, fleet-footed mercury, and Sevin, the most experienced killer, creeping like ground brush."

This is a heartbreaking story, of indifference and greed of the very rich inflicting horrible cruelty on thousands of the poorest people in Bhopal.

The last words are hard to cope with.

I will read all of her stories.

CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, story South, aaduna, r.k.v.r.y. and elsewhere. She has received a Henfield writing award, a Rhodes scholarship, and is a frequent public speaker on social justice as well as trauma and recovery. Her debut short story collection, White Dancing Elephants, was selected as the winner of Dzanc Books' 2017 Short Story Collection Prize.  From  the publisher's webpage

Mel u

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch - 2018

The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch

Growth of Jewish Population of Montreal

1941 - 63,000

1951 - 80,000

1958 - 100,000

The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch is a groundbreaking essential work, both for content and methodology.  It is a study of the immigration of Eastern European Jews into Montreal and their integration into Canadian society, after the Holocaust.  Most arrived with very little money, normally speaking Yiddish, Hungarian or Russia but little English.  Unlike early waves of immigration in which a man would come first, establish himself and then bring over his family, post Holocaust immigrants often came as families.  The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust focuses on immigration from 1947 to 1954.

Immigrants first priorities were a place to live and a job.  The lucky ones had family or contact already in Canada to help them.  The other were helped by various government and private organizations.  The authors go into detail about Canadian immigration laws of the period.  Workers were especially needed in the garment trade and those with skills in this area found work right away, mostly initially as paid by pieces completed factory workers.  There was no day care so where there were children normally the wife stayed home.  It was normal for men to bring work home, often to be helped by his wife.  The immigrants were very hard working, very family oriented and wanted very much  be a success. (Ten years after arriving success meant owning a house in a decent area, kids in good schools, food anxiety long gone, often owning a business or being in managerial positions.)

Just like in Israel, Holocaust survivors were often viewed by Canadian English speaking Jews as suspect.  It was wondered how they survived.  The authors show how new arrivals, mostly Hungarian Jews, sometimes also but not always speaking Yiddish, stuck together.  In part this was because Holocaust survivors could often only closely bond with other survivors.  Third generation Canadian Jew looked down on new arrivals as ignorant and though they helped them they were not warmly welcomed.  Many immigrants were in fact highly educated, having had professional positions and wealth before they lost it all.  It was sad to learn that an immigrant with a degree in engineering would find his first Canadian landlord explaining what a light switch was for.  There were lots of quick marriages in the immigrant community. Many had lost their spouses in the Holocaust.  Education of children, who quickly became translators for their family, was a very top priority.  It was interesting to see that parents might speak Hungarian or Yiddish to each other and friends but insisted their children speak only “The King’s English”.

The heart of The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust is in the numerous fascinating interviews with the immigrants.  The authors explain the methodology behind the interviews.  Most interviewed were seventy plus.
The interviews are in three sections.  The first section is devoted to experiences before they arrived and how the arranged passage to Canada.  There were set quotas as to how many Jews could be admitted.  Canada was more liberal than the USA at the time.  Many immigrants applied to the USA, Canada, Australia and South Africa, just wanting to put Europe way behind them.

Section two of the interviews deals with settling in Canada.  The authors studied the records of Jewish Social Agencies of the period.  Immigrants got some cash aid, help with rent and counseling.  Some at once found housing and a job, others struggled.  

The last section of interviews takes us on into their full integration into Canadian society, their children were professionals and their grandchildren in medical or law school.  Most, but not all of course, did very well.  We follow them from rooming houses to nice houses in exclusive areas.  Most immigrants did socialize mostly with other immigrants and we do see there was a lingering anti immigrant feeling, nearly as bad among prior immigrants as English or French speakers.

The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch should be read by anyone interested in immigration, Canadian history or post Holocaust Jewish experiences.  This is a wonderful book. I liked everything about it! The interviews were a joy to read.

In conjunction with this book, I suggest reading World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made by Irving Howe.

I highly recommend everyone visit the website of Between the Lines Books, a forty year old Montreal based publishing company.

“Between the Lines books presents new ideas and challenge readers to rethink the world around them. Our authors offer analysis of historical events and contemporary issues not often found in the mainstream. We specialize in informative, non-fiction books on politics and public policy, social issues, Canadian and world history, international development, gender and sexuality, critical race issues, culture, adult and popular education, labour and work, environment, technology, and media.” - from the publisher 

Zelda Abramson is an associate professor of sociology at Acadia University. Her areas of teaching and research include methodology, health, and family. As a public sociologist, she strives to combine academic research with social activism. Zelda grew up in Montreal as a child of Holocaust survivors.

I was initially drawn to this book through my admiration for Chava Rosenfarb, whose image is in my blog side bar.  After spending four years in Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen, five years waiting for a Canadian visa in Paris, she and her husband,also a survivor, moved to Montreal.  Already a renown author, she was met with a reception by Yiddish writers.  She wrote stories related to Holocaust survivors in Montreal as well as many other great works.  The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch helped me understand her works more.

I salute Between the Pages for publishing The Montreal Shtetl- Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch and give my great thanks to the authors.

Mel u