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

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead - 2019

My Post on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Anyone interested in learning more about the depth of racism in Florida society should read Nickel Boys. Set in a reform school in northern Florida,very near the   state capital, Tallahassee, during the 1960s.  At that time Florida was very much a segregated state in which it was taken for granted by those in power that African Americans were inferior to whites.  This was a matter of law not just custom.  

Our central character, Elwood is a straight A student with a scholarship to a black college awaiting him.  He lives with his grandmother.  One day long ago his parents just took off for California leaving him behind.  He hitched a ride with a black man in a New Plymouth.  It turns out the car was stolen and Elwood was sentenced to reform school as an accomplice.  Blacks and white students are in separate housing and don’t much mingle.  The “House masters” run the gamut from a few decent and fair to sexually abusive near sadists not above beating a boy to death.

The school has a system for allowing boys to advance in privileges and get released. Basically it boils down to being obedient and subservient.  The school is run in a very corrupt way, supplies meant for the boys are sold and the boys are rented out to do work on the houses of the richer people in the area.

Boys who act up are beaten with a leather whip in a special building, called The White House. Sometimes boys just disappear.  Elwood’s grandmother comes to see him, many of the families want nothing to do with the inmates.

Elwood tries to gain strength from the words of Martin Luther King, he becomes friends with another boy, one that looks on Elwood as totally naive 

Whitehead takes us way into the future and shows us what happened in later years to the boys.  Some did well, most did not, but all bore mental scars and were damaged by how they were treated at the school.

The Nickel Boys is Florida history, Florida before Disney World, the Latin influx.

I highly recommend this book.  Reading time is under four hours.  I think it would be a great book for Florida High schools.

Below is an extract from The Smithsonian Institute Magazine on The School.

“Many of the human remains found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Florida’s first juvenile detention center for boys, were buried over a century ago. But questions about their identities—and what exactly happened at this notorious school—have remained alive throughout the center’s brutal history. Who is buried in the school’s many graves, and how did they die?
Now, thanks to a new reportby archaeologists and forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida, some answers have finally emerged. NPR’s Laura Wagner writesthat an investigation of the Marianna, Florida institution, which only closed in 2011, has revealed scores of marked and unmarked graves and sets of remains. In the report, researchers discuss work that revealed 55 on-site graves and 51 sets of remains. Using the remains they did find on site, they made seven DNA identifications and 14 other presumptive matches.
The report is the final step in a four-year process of excavation and archaeological exploration at the school. The detention center opened in 1897 and was initially run by governor-appointed commissioners, but the governor and cabinet of Florida later took control. 
Its original mandate within Florida state statutes was to actas “not simply a place of correction, but a reform school, where the young offender of the law, separated from vicious associates, may receive careful physical, intellectual and moral training." The boys were to to be restored as honorable citizens that contribute to society.”

Read more:

Colson Whitehead is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Underground Railroad, which was a number one New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Mel u
Oleander Bousweau 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Friends Indeed by Rose Doyle - 2002

My Post on The Flight of the Wrens by Orla McAlinden

"The Wrens of the Curragh were an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives in an area called ‘The Curragh’ on the plains of Kildare. The name comes from the shelters they lived in, hollowed out “nests” in the ground which they covered with layers of furze.
Throughout the 50-odd years they lived on the plains of Kildare, they were reviled, stoned, beaten, spat upon and abused. They were refused goods by local shopkeepers and were burned out of their nests. They died in ditches from exposure and disease. Even the workhouse refused them, putting them into low hovels separated from the main building.
They were ordinary women who through circumstance put themselves beyond the pale of respectable society.

They supported each other within their community such as it was; sharing the little they had. There was little choice for those who lived as Wrens, they were ostracised by society, church, state and community of origin.  Some preferred the relative dignity and control it offered them. Many others saw life on the Curragh as infinitely preferable to the workhouse.  With no means of earning a living the only thing they had were their bodies which they offered for payment to soldiers on the Curragh Camp." From Irish Origins

The Wren Society lasted about fifty years.

Friends Indeed by Rose Doyle is the second work of fiction I have read focusing on a group of Irish women struggling to survive in the middle of the 19th century, a terrible time for the Irish.  I have read in several places that living conditions for most people were better in Calcutta than Dublin.

The Flight of the Wrens by Orla McAlinden begins at the height of the famine, 1848.  Friends Indeed by Rose Doyle begins ten years later.  Both are stories of a struggle of women to survive, of friendship and betrayal, both are stories of the Irish disapora. The two books are very different.  I strongly urge anyone interested in the lives of Irish Women in the 19th century to read both these fine works.

Friends Indeed centers on the life long relationship of two young Irish women, Alicia is from an upper class family, Sarah grew up as the daughter of the family servant.  In the very exciting open of the novel Alicia has just returned from her school in Paris, Sarah and the family driver have picked her up at the docks.  As they make their way through Dublin, a herd of cattle starts go amuk, creating a very dangerous situation.  I felt like I was there.

Since Alicia has been gonemher family sold their pub and are now among the upper class.  Her mother is cold and judgemental, her father is sometimes doting but he is a serious drinker and is under the thumb of his wife.  A new servant woman seems to be running the house though Sarah's mother still works there.  Sarah rebels at the way the head servant treats her mother.  Compressing a lot, Sarah meets a British soldier stationed in Dublin.  She ends up pregnant and gets thrown out of the house.  Alicia joins her and has to learn to live poor.

Of course Sarah insists the soldier will marry her.  There are a lot of exciting, mostly sad, turns of events.  I don't want to give away too much of the plot but the major turn  is when Alicia and Sarah, in the company of a Dublin keeper of a baudy house move to the Wren Colony.  Doyle does a very good job describing the colony.

There are numerous interesting segments.  We get an inside look at an infamous Magdalene Laundry, we go along on a meeting with a major general, and we take a boat ride to America.

Friends Indeed kept me very interested.  The characters, major and minor, were very real.  I cared about both of the women.

If you enjoy an exciting very well researched set in Ireland historical novel, then I highly endorse Friends  Indeed.

Rose Doyle is a writer and journalist. Her novels include Fate and Tomorrow (set in the Congo in 1902) and Shadows Will Fall , both international bestsellers. Trade Names, the book of her long-running series in The Irish Times, was published by New Island in 2004. In 2005 she contributed to New Island's successful Open Door series with The Story of Joe Brown. Heroes of Jadotville: The Soldiers' Story was published in September 2006. Comdt Patrick Quinlan, who led the Irish UN troops at Jadotville, was her uncle...from Goodreads.

The Wrens are a perfect subject for a movie or series

Mel u

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dance of the Demons by Esther Singer Kreitman - 1936, translated from Yiddish by her son Maurice Carr 1954 - introduction by Ilan Stavans

Dance of the Demons by Esther Singer Kreitman - 1936, translated from Yiddish by her son Maurice Carr 1954 - introduction by Ilan Stavans, this edition was published in 2016.  

Esther Singer Kreitman, from a very distinguished Rabbinical family, was the older sister of Issac Baseuis Singer and Israel Joshua Singer.  Issac won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978.  Israel wrote a truly great novel The Brothers Ashkenazi chronicling Jewish life in Lodz, Poland.  Growing up the brothers received an extensive traditional education and as was normal, Esther was just expected to marry and have children.

March 31, 1891 -Bilgoraj, Poland

1912 - unhappily pushed into an arranged marriage to a diamond cutter, she joins her husband's family in Antwerp, Belgium

1914 - driven by the events of World War One, she and her husband move permanently to London

1936 - Publishes The Dance of Demons

June 13, 1954 - passes away in London

In Dance of Demons (originally titled in translation as Deborah) Kreitman marvelously takes us into the world of Jewish Warsaw and Polish Shtetls in the years prior to World War One.  The novels of her famous brothers focus on the lives of men, women are found as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives (normally in an arranged marriage), servants, cooks, and sometimes mistresses but not as central characters.  Dance of Demons turns that around.  We follow the development of Deborah.

She comes from a well known Rabbinical family.  Her father is a highly regarded Torah scholar and her brother attends a top academy.  Deborah receives little formal training but she develops a love for secular literature from books she found hidden in the kitchen.

Her parents were eager to arrange a marriage for her.  Enter a stock Yiddish character, the marriage broker.  Deborah is matched with a diamond cutter from Antwerp, Beligium.  Her parents sees this as a great match.  In spite of Deborah's strongly expressed distaste for the idea of the marriage, she is forced into the match.  It turns out to be a disaster on all levels, soon the diamond business in Antwerp collapses and her husband has little work.

In a very interesting segment, prior to the marriage and just before the war, Deborah becomes infatuated with a Polish Marxist.  The unrest and poverty of Warsaw is very well developed.  We see even among Marxists women have a secondary role.  

There is a lot in this novel.  I recommend it both for heritage readers as well anyone who enjoys a good novel

I purchased this on sale for $2.95, it is back up to $10.95.

Dance of the Demons was the inspiration for the Barbara Streisand movie Yentl

Dance of the Demons is a  major work of feminist Yiddish literature.

Ambrosia Bouswesu

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser - 2017

Website of Bram Presser

The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser was the 2018 Winner of the Jewish Book Council Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction.

The Book of Dirt is a very original work of art centering around the experiences of survivors  of the Holocaust from Prague, relatives of Bram Presser and his efforts to understand family secrets.

There are two primary figures from the Holocaust era.  One is Jakub Rand who was sent to Theresienstsft 

Concentration Camp.  He was picked by a Nazi intellectual to select Jewish authored books for a museum of extinct people the Germans planned to open after they won the war.  The account of his work brought to my mind nonfiction accounts I have read about efforts to preserve Jewish books.  He was what was called a "privledged Jew" because of his work.  He got better food and was, as long as he was needed, exempt from transportation.

Another distant relative is Frautisha Roubietova, a gentile woman who converted to to Judaism upon marriage.  Her marriage failed. When her two young daughters are selected for transport, and certain selection for death upon arrival, she finds a way for the three of them to survive.

Combined with this is the efforts of Bram Presser to discover just how these two family members came to survive.  The ambience of Jewish 
Prague during the Holocaust is brilliantly portrayed.

Presser very skillfully mixes table and history.  There are two villages featured, one with mostly Jews and one inhabited by those who believe as did the Nazis.

The Sidney Herald has a good account of how Presser came to write The Book of Dirt.

Semi-reformed punk rocker, recovering academic, occasional criminal lawyer and one-time cartoon character, Bram Presser was born in Melbourne in 1976. He writes the blog Bait For Bookworms and is a founding member of Melbourne Jewish Book Week. His stories have appeared in Vice Magazine, The Sleepers Almanac, Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing and Higher Arc. From Goodreads

Oleander Bousweau

Monday, May 20, 2019

In the Lap of the Gods by Susmita Bhattacharya - A Short Story from Table Manners, 2018

"In the Lap of the Gods", from Susmita Bhatyacharya's award winning debut collection of short stories, Table Manners, begins with a woman from Mumbai recalling her time at a camp for Christians.  When we meet her she is on a train with others bound for the camp.  She reveals she is going there hoping to find a husband, as her friend did.  Her parents are pressuring her to marry.  She has had two bad relationships with men. We see a young woman not really having a secure sense of self. 

Christians are a small percent of believers.  On the train she sees there are followers of numerous faiths.  (The train ride is marvelously rendered). To be a Christian is to be an exception to the norms of India.  She also rejects the idea of an arranged marriage.  She is trying to find not only a husband but her way in life.

She does find love at the camp, but with another woman.  The relationship is more a strongly felt crush than a sexual affair but there are strong sensual forces at play.

"There is no one else in this world. My heart beats to the rhythm of the distance hoots of the owl. My fingers stray to caress your fingers, still tightly wound around the cup of rum. I smell the smoke in your hair, the rum on your breath and I am lost. I feel like time has been suspended. I feel a sense of recklessness, of sweet danger rushing in to envelope us. I’m not sure what I want but you are guiding me. You touch my lips with yours. Ever so softly it may not have touched even. I move forward, pressing firmly into your mouth. But you lean away. You give a little laugh.
‘No,’ you say.
I laugh as well. But I climb out of the bed, unsure of my movements. You pull the blanket up to your neck and snuggle in.
‘Tomorrow,’ you say. That’s all you say. And then I turn off the light and face the wall."

Her friend wants to go to America and become a gelogist.

The narrator knows Christianity is but an infant compared to Hinduism, that the roots of Indian history way antedate that of England and America.  I feel she knows she is only on the shallowest level a Christian.  I found the reflections of the woman on this very profoundly written:

"‘You know, these hills are older than Moses. Older than mankind itself.’
I look around me. The hills glow in the dark. Galaxies swirl above, the stars powdering the sky.

‘The Ghats are older than the Himalayas. They’re more than 150 million years old and go back to the time the earth had one big continent. We are witnessing something to old, so sacred that we must stop and pay attention to it. This is the abode of the Hindu gods. And when I look at this amazing geology, I believe in god’s creation....

They have floated away and we stand there in the dark. I cling to your hand, and we embrace. The ancient mountains bear witness and I feel the shackles falling. I feel so light I could fly. I am not afraid to face my parents again. Actually, I’m not afraid to face myself – I look forward to returning home and being myself. I feel your fingers caress my arm, my desire for your touch increasing as we fall back on the cold, damp grass. I want to return to the real world with you by my side. Yes, that is what I want. But I’m too afraid to think about it. I suppose we will bury our secret here in the in the lap of the Gods, with our desires just fading into memory.
‘Be like these ancient hills,’ you tell me. ‘Stay strong and independent. You do not need a man to complete you, believe me.’

I will leave the close of the story untold.  It is really a powerful work.

In just a few pages we are presented with a young woman unsure of her sexual identify, feeling unsettled in faith and in conflict with her parents expectations.

Years ago when I first began posting on short story collections I followed standard procedures, I would 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 Susmita Bhattacharya,  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.

In the months to come I'm planning to feature her work numerous times

From the author's website.

"I was born in Bombay, India in 1974. I did graphic design in college and worked as a web designer. When I married, I quit my job and jumped on board a ship to sail away into the sunset with my husband. After three years of sunrises and sunsets at sea, we decided to come ashore and test our land legs. Destination Singapore. Mandarin classes. Food court delights. French film fests. And when we could no longer stand the chewing-gum ban, we moved to Cardiff, Wales. We threw crisp packets on streets, just because we could. We became students. He a PhD in Maritime Studies, me a Masters in Creative Writing. We did studenty things in out thirties. Open house. Hostel travels. Then we had a baby. Sleepless nights. Sleepless days. I needed an addiction to cope. So I took up writing seriously. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I'm still addicted. Have finished a novel and a collection of short stories. Experimented with flash fiction with second baby on the scene. Still writing. Still on a high! "

This story is part of our ongoing project, Short Stories by South Asian Women.

I am so glad to have discovered Susmita Bhattacharya

Mel u

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal- 2019

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal- 2019

Last month I read a delightful novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal,Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows.  Set in the close-nit Sikh community of London, it focuses on a young unmarried Sikh woman trying to keep her faith while avoiding the tight strictures placed on women of the faith. The woman ends up teaching a class in writing at a community center to Punjabi widows which results in some very erotic stories.  

I was very happy to receive a review copy of Jaswal’s second novel. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters.  In it three sisters, raised in London,from a Sikh family, accede to their mother’s last request, that they make a pilgrimage together to scatter her ashes at The Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of all Sikh centers.  The mother has written some letters telling them what to do on the trip.

(My wife and I have three adult daughters and this increased my preliminary interest in the book.)

The sisters, each with their own very well developed personalities, are not initially enthusiastic about the idea, they have spent some time in India but they  are British subjects and know India will be a shock to their affluent London sensibilities.  I thought Jaswal did a wonderful job capturing the chaos and the sensual overload of urban India. Jezmeen is a struggling actress, just  publicly fired from her TV acting job hoping to break into Bollywood.  In a running gag, she resembles a famous movie star.  She is kind of the rebel of the family. Another sister is a school principal very much a follower of proper behavior.The oldest married into a wealthy family, has a perfect seeming life and is the peacemaker.  She lives in Australia now, under the thumb of her mother in law.

The sisters were never particularly close as children and know they will have to work to get along.

This is a hilarious book with numerous very well done episodes Jezmeen  was arrested at a protest rally, getting her out of jail was a real challenge for the other two sisters!   The girls are British citizens born and raised in London and part of the fun of the book is seeing their reaction to India. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is very much a spoiled sisters go to India and bond book.  There is a lot to learn about the Sikh faith in The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters.  There is a very dramatic and lengthy visit to the Golden Temple, not just a religious site but the cultural home of all Sikhs.

The personalities of the sisters is developed and their are flashbacks to their youth.  The sisters are drawn closer, the real objective of their mother.

This was a lot of fun to read.  


is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014 and was adapted into a film at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts in 2017.Her second novel Sugarbread was a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. 

Her third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Harper Collins/William Morrow) was released internationally to critical acclaim in March 2017. Translation rights to this novel have been sold in France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, China, Brazil and Estonia. Film rights to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows have been acquired by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was also picked by Reese Witherspoon’s book club and The Girly Book Club in 2018.
Jaswal’s short fiction and non-fiction writing have appeared in the UK Sunday Express, Cosmopolitan Magazine, The New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, Conde Nast Traveller and Best Australian Short Stories, among other publications and periodicals. She has travelled widely to appear in international writers festivals to conduct workshops and lectures on creative writing, pursuing an artistic career, the power of storytelling, global citizenship and social justice advocacy through literature. A former writing fellow at the University of East Anglia, Jaswal has taught creative writing at Yale-NUS College and Nanyang Technological University where she is currently pursuing a PhD. 

Mel u
Oleander Bousweau 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

“Repairing Love” - A Short Story by Alexander Spiegelblatt, 2003- translated. by Sean Sidky from Yiddish

1927 - Bukovia, Romania

1964 Emigrated to Israel

2013 - Israel

Yiddish literature effectively came to a close about 2005 with the passing of Blume Lempel, Chava Rosenfarb and now I add to that honor role, Alexander Spiegelblatt. (I know people still write fiction in Yiddish just as scholars write poems in Latin in the style of Ovid but these are just exercises.)

I have said numerous times that there is no culture more deeply into Reading than that of the Ashkenazi.  The intensify with which the Torah was studied was brought by secularized Jews to literary and philosophical studies.

“Repairing Love” meanders through Doctor Tanya Englenest’s memories of meeting her husband for the first time working as an emergency room doctor back in Romania, before she immigrated to Israel.  He did not it seems move to Israel with her and she has just gotten a letter about his dying when hit by a car. He was walking across the street while reading a book and never saw the car.  

Her husband had been brought into her hospital after being beaten by Romanian Anti-Semetic  thugs.

““From that first moment, she had not let him out of her sight. She cared for him as if he were her own, far more than she did any of the other patients they brought in at night. In the morning, she bought him a new pair of glasses, and once his broken hand was set in plaster and his wounds dressed, she took him home herself. Later, she would ask herself repeatedly what she’d seen in him and why it was that she’d treated him like family from the very beginning. But she had no answers.”

This is a marevlously crafted story, we see her husband truly lived, for better or worse and belief me there is a worst, very much a reading life.

I’m getting behind in my posting, and this segment is so marvelous i will share it

“Now the letter transported Tanya back to the moment when she’d entered his home for the first time. Florika, his long-time servant, had been standing in the open doorway. When she saw him covered in bandages she crossed herself, invoking her saints.

He lived alone on a central street in the old city. Not a wall in the four spacious rooms was bare. There were bookcases everywhere reaching to the ceiling: some of the books were behind glass, some behind closed, wooden doors, and some packed into open shelves. No light penetrated the dark, heavy curtains. The stools and benches were piled high with books and magazines; even the enormous writing desk had hardly any clear space on it. In the corner of one of the rooms stood a narrow, unmade sofa bed. Florika had not been able to keep the rooms tidy, and a thick layer of untouched dust covered the furniture and books.

Recalling this, Tanya could suddenly feel, once again, the charged and stuffy air that had hit her nostrils as she’d stepped over the threshold. The rooms both intrigued and revolted her, filling her with respect and fear simultaneously. It was the same feeling she’d had as a student in Vienna, in her first anatomy class. At that time, she’d run away, but this time she could not, and so she stood paralyzed, speechless.
He, on the other hand, who hadn’t opened his mouth the entire time he was in the hospital, now could not keep it shut. For the first time Tanya heard his high-pitched voice: nearly a falsetto. He spoke in Romanian, with a slight Moldavian accent, as if he were a Gentile intellectual deliberately revealing his roots. His words were extravagant, as if he were making up for the hours he’d been silent. He spoke about the Romanian students and their anti-Semitic mentor, Professor A. K. Kuza; he spoke about Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities; and he quoted strange Latin phrases, lines from Pascal, verses from Heinrich Heine, and other French and Romanian poets. He peppered his lofty speech with prosaic phrases like, "you must understand," "as I’m sure you know," "you’ll recall," and "I’d remind you," his voice deepening slightly as he uttered them.”

As far as I can tell, this story Is only translated into English work.  

Alexander Spiegelblatt was born in 1927 in Bukovina. In 1941, he was deported to concentration camps across Transnistria, where he would remain through 1944. In 1964, Spiegelblatt moved from Bucharest to Israel, where he would serve for over two decades as co-editor with Avrom Sutzkever of the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt. He also published eight collections of poetry, a collection of short stories and a novel. Spiegelblatt died in November, 2013.
“Repairing Love,” comes from the 2003 collection Shadows Knock on the Window. All the stories in this collection follow the lives of individuals interrupted by war, death, and the Holocaust. In this case, Tanya’s life is defined by deaths: her father, her son during the Holocaust, and her estranged husband, whose death, announced in a letter, opens the story..from The Yiddish Book Center

Sean Sidky is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2017, this excerpt comes from his fellowship project. 

My thanks to Mr.Sidky for this translation.  I hope is working on other stories by
Alexander Spiegelblatt.

Mel u