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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

"The Coffin Maker" - lead story in The Heartsick Diaspora - a collection by Elaine Chiew - 2019

I find posting upon collections of short stories very challenging.  In most cases, including those in The Heartsick Diaspora,
Elaine Chiew's debut collection, the stories were often not written with inclusion in a unified book initially in mind. There are fourteen stories in The Heartsick Diaspora. I have read all the stories at least once. The collection is very much involved with the diaspora of Singapore residents. (Just being curious, a search revealed the term "Singapore" is used sixtyone times in the collection.) Singapore itself is very much a city built on several diasporas, that of Chinese, Indians, Malays with a culture imposed through centuries of colonialism.

Today I will post on the lead story, "The Coffin Maker", in The Heartsick Diaspora, set during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.

February 15, 1942 - The Japanese occupation of Singapore begins

Under the control of the Kemeitai, the Japanese Military 
Police,  around 40,000 adult male residents of Chinese heritage.are rounded up and shot.

September 12, 1945 - The Japanese surrender Singapore to the British.

As the story opens a Kempeitai officer, accompanied by a female interpreter, has entered a coffin maker's shop.  He is there seeking a hardy coffin made of top quality wood for a Japanese officer killed in a  skirmish with Singapore freedom fighters.

The interpreter makes the coffin maker think of his mother and his sister.

"In the dimness of the shop interior, the interpreter was backed by a halo of light; it filigreed through her silver-threaded kimono, so that for a moment, the coffin maker imagined she’d hidden flickering fireflies inside her robe. She shuffled in her clogs. The way she moved reminded.  him of his mother’s pigeon gait–his mother with the tiny bound feet that he used to massage at night with Tiger Balm because of the pain. The interpreter ’s hair, done up in an elaborate bun, was jet-black and with her head bowed, her neck was long and lily-white, just like Mei, his sister. She’d powdered her face so white it made him think of dead maidens and kabuki dolls. Even so, she was the loveliest thing he’d set eyes on during the Occupation."

In this we get a deep glimpse into the history of Singaporians of Chinese descent.  I believe his mother's bound feet, a terribly painful process speaks of an upper class background, a structure now. largely destroyed.  The interpreter tries to make herself into a traditional Japanese cultural token.  Of course the coffin maker is nervous, knowing on whim the officer can have him executed.  The officer asks him about the wood he has available.  Few Singaporians can now afford expense coffins.

There is much history in this story, we learn about Chinese resistance societies, the horrors of Nanking, and the personal history of the coffin maker.  The officer makes him very nervous
 when he asks him about his mother and sister.  A week later he learns something terrible has happened to his sister. 

The story line takes us deeply into the ways residents try to communicate with each other.  A few years ago I was deeply into the work of Elizabeth Bowen, an Anglo-irish writer of great talent.  She was an air raid warden in this same time period of our story, out  during the bombing of London making sure all lights were out and people were in shelters.  Later she said the bombing raids greatly increased her libido, prompting her to have sex with near strangers.  I was very intrigued to see an echo of this in Chiew's story.

Next month I intend to post on at least four more stories from The Heartsick Diaspora. I anticipate doing at least seven More posts on her stories followed by an overview.  Needless to say I would not devote such attention to a writer unless I greatly admired them and believed in their future. 

I give my total endorsement to this collection.

"Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015).
Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore.
Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London.
Elaine lives in Singapore" . From her publisher

Mel u

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Child Cephalina by Rebbeca Llyod - 2019

The Child Cephalina by Rebecca Lloyd - 2019

The Child Cephalina, a dark work in the Gothic tradition, is set in London, commencing in 1850.  I was mesmerized by this book from the very start.  Rebecca Lloyd has earned a place of honour in the  company of William Hope Hodgson, Angela Carter, W. W. Jacobs,  Algernon Blackwood and my favourite Ireland's Sheridan Le Fanu.

The story is narrated by Robert Groves, a confirmed bachelor.  He lives with his long time housekeeper Tetty and a fourteen year old boy Ebast who helps around the house. Robert is doing research for a book he is writing about children from the poorest parts of London.  Once a week he interviews some of them, trying to discover how they live and survive.  Many live on the very savage streets of impoverished parts of London.  He feeds them so they are willing to talk.  One day a very strange girl, Cephalina, about eight shows up, with a disturbing fey beauty. 

Teddy, a woman from a village straight out of Thomas Hardy, at once sees the girl as a dark creature, a danger to the household.  Robert is fascinated by her but he does not want to upset Tetty, who very much runs the household, so he is cautious.  He does know what can happen to beautiful young girls on the streets of London and he feels protective to her.  He dismisses Tetty's warning as just country superstition. Lloyd paints a marvelous picture of Cephalina.

Getting London street children to open up is not easy for Robert Groves, many of them are petty criminals and they fear being turned into the police. On his first encounter with Cephalina he learns her probably now deceased mother gave her to the Clutcher family. Cephalina refers to them as her "owners".  Robert is afraid she may be sold sexually to the many gentlemen that visit the Carruthers.

Initially the household is struggling financially, Tetty is stressed trying to manage things and often clashes with Robert about money.  Robert earns fees from articles he contributes to magazines and from royalties on books.  He is getting very favourable feed back from his publisher on his latest book, Wretched London, The Story of the City’s Invisible Children and feels optimistic about the future.

The style of the narrative is as if it might be a weekly serial work in Household Words, a journal owned by Charles Dickens.  I want to share a bit of the story so you can have a feel for the wonderful style:

"I paused for a long time before I finally dipped my pen into my inkpot and put the nib to paper. I fancied that in my letter to Mrs Clutcher I should appear to be a sorrowful middle-aged man who was very close to his mother and upon her sudden death was thrown into a troubled and regretful grieving from which he could not fully recover."

I don't want to reveal much of the plot, in the tradition of a serial story, every chapter has a new revelation and left me eager to know more.  We do learn the Clutchers hold séances in which they claim to put people in contact with deceased loved ones.  Robert, accompanied by his friend, goes to a seance. Lloyd's creation of this is just perfect, I felt I was there and I was even a bit scared.

Fifteen years ago my mother passed away, this participated a kind of mental break down in me.  I actually began to ponder ways I might get in contact with her.  When I discussed this with a cousin I am very close to she asked me how I would do this and I know they were worried.  I say this so you can see how I am impacted by the scenes of desperate people seeking contact with the departed while being defrauded by con artists.  I can see myself in 1850 going to a seance. The seance is a gem, perfectly done, very dramatic.

The city of London in 1850 is evoked with cinematic vermisitude. You can smell the filth, struggle to breath in the fog and avoid the horse droppings.  There are several very interesting minor characters and a trip to Tetty's home town.  

The ending is shocking, a perfect close.

The Child Cephalina is tremendous fun, there are a steady stream of revelations and surprises. The characters are very real, 
the relationships are complex and interesting.  I sense a very high intelligence at work.

I cannot imagine anyone not loving this book.

Author supplied data

"For the most part I write short stories, and while many of them were first published in literary journals, in 2014, I had two collections of my stories published at the same time, Mercy with Tartarus Press, which is a beautifully made hardback book, and The View from Endless Street, a paperback published by WiDo.
Some of my stories could be described as psychological horror and others as magic realism, and from time to time I write about ghostly things. What interests me most is the inventive ways we deal with what life throws at us, and the ability many of us have to slip easily between our invented worlds and the shared world, as if travelling back and forth down a long worn path."

Rebecca Lloyd has  experiences that go way beyond the literary.  I strongly suggest all read my Q and A session with her.

Here is a sample

1. I love moths, and the English names for them; they are poetic and fascinating – Lover’s Knot, Hart and Dart, the moth Uncertain, Mother Shipton, Cream-spot Tiger.
2. I think I would like to go up in an air balloon, but I’m also nervous of heights, and so now I just watch them floating over my house in the summer and wave up to the little people in the baskets, and imagine they can see me and are waving back.
3. My garden is full of toads, frogs and newts, and every night in summertime I go out with a torch and see how many of each I can spot.
4. I’m very bad at wrapping presents; I always make a real mess of it, and have been advised that I should use tissue paper.
5. I think I should swim more because I do love it, but I never seem to be able to fit it into my day.
6. I don’t know if I was a day-dreaming child or not, but I wish that the idea of day-dreaming was thought about more kindly by adults, because in day-dreaming you are using your imagination, and it is a precious thing.
7. When it isn’t cold or windy, or raining, I love to take my bike out and cycle down leafy lanes and along the side of the river.
8. I love clouds and how you can imagine faces and animals and landscapes in them. I’ve watched clouds since I was little, and think I always will.
9. My favourite food is prawns – I could eat them till the seas run dry.
10. In my best dreams, I am flying, sometimes above fields, sometimes high up by the ceilings in vast rooms.

I look forward to following the career of Rebecca Lloyd for many years.  

Mel u

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Rush: Revolution, Madness and The Visionary Doctor Who Became A Founding Father by Stephen Fried - 2018

Rush: Revolution, Madness and The Visionary Doctor Who Became A Founding Father by Stephen Fried - 2018 

An Autodidactic Corner Selection

(Information from Rush: Revolution, Madness and The Visionary Doctor Who Became A Founding Father)

January 4, 1746 - Philadelphia

April 19, 1813 - Philadelphia

1768 - Receives a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland,  then most prestigious medical school in the world. While there he learned French, Italian and Spanish.  He met Benjamin Franklin who was  very impressed by him and was a great positive influence in his life.

July 4, 1776 - Signed the Declaration of Independence, representing Pennsylvania.  He would late represent Pennsylvania at The Constitutional Convention

1776 to 1881. Surgeon General for the Continental Army.  He introduced numerous reforms designed to promote the health of soldiers. Death rates were often higher on both sides from disease than battle.  He never participated in combat but he was often under fire while doing battle field work.  George Washington praised his courage and they became close friends

1797 to 1813 - Treasurer of the US Mint

Benjamin Rush was a pioneer in greatly improving the treatment of the seriously mentally ill.  When he first began practicing Bedlam like conditions were the norm.  Patients were chained to the ground.  He began programs of good food, pleasant outdoor periods and simple work.  He began talking to patients, trying to see what might have caused their issues.  In his medical practice he treated freely the poor, which was most people.  During a terrible Yellow Fever out break in Philadelphia most doctors left the city.  Rush stayed behind and making no fees, treated many people.  The cause was not yet known and their was no cure but good food and rest saved many.
He wrote many articles on his medical research as well as several books.  As everyone did, he bled his patients.  He was the personal physician of Thomas Jefferson, sometimes George Washington and other prominent persons. He never tried to profit from his connections.  He taught at several medical schools, young doctors were eager to apprentice with him.

Rush was anti-slavery, always voting as an abolitionist.  However he did purchase a fourteen year old boy who was a household servant until he was nineteen at which time Rush signed documents of Manumission.  The suggestion of Fried is that Burns bought him to keep him from being sent to a sugar plantation and freed him as soon as he could take care of himself.  The man became a merchant marine and anytime he was not at sea he stayed at the house of the Burns, a relationship that continued even after Burns passed.

Freid goes into lots of details on the political career of Burns and his time as a Surgeon General.

He married at thirty and was a faithful husband and good father.  Freid talks a lot about Burn's marriage.  As was common, they lost several children early on.

Two of his sons became very successful.  One was troubled by alcoholism and killed his best friend in a duel over their differing interpretations of a play by Shakespeare.  Rush was very opposed to dueling. Fried traces out the impact of this event, which he deeply regretted, on the life of the son and Rush.  He bonded and became very good friends with John Adams who also had a dysfunctional alcoholic son.  They maintained a very lengthy correspondence.

I endorse this book to anyone into the era of the American Revolution.

"Stephen Fried is an award-winning journalist and New York Timesbestselling author who teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Pennsylvania. He is, most recently, the author of the historical biography Appetite for America, and the coauthor, with Congressman Patrick Kennedy, of A Common Struggle. His earlier books include the biography Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia and the investigative books Bitter Pills and The New Rabbi. A two-time winner of the National Magazine Award, Fried has written frequently for Vanity Fair, GQ, The Washington Post Magazine, Rolling Stone, Glamour, and Philadelphia Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, author Diane Ayres". From Penguin Random House

Mel u

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry by Ned and Constance Sublette - 2015 - 752 pages

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry by Ned and Constance Sublette - 2015 - 752 pages

An Autodidactic Corner Selection

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry should be required reading for all teachers of American history.  It shows how slavery corrupted all slavers and inflicted terrible cruelty on the victims.  I cannot find a way to adequately praise this book. Those taught the after school cartoon version of the founding of America will be shocked maybe even hurt by what they learn about God - Like figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  This book left me feeling humbled by my own ignorance of American history.  

Date line (from information in The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry)

1513 circa - The Spanish first introduce slaves in their territory Florida

1619- First record of slaves entering into Virginia on a Dutch Ship

1623 - Dutch East India Company begins to aggressively import captured persons from Africa.  Throughout the slavery era, western trading companies backed by sovereign powers encouraged war between African tribes in which those taken in war were sold.

1641 - Puritans codify slavery - allowing prisoners of war to be held as slaves, a codicil that will have very destructive consequences on the West Coast of Africa.

1776 - The USA begins the revolutionary war.  Thomas Jefferson authors the declaration of Independence.  His words elegantly claimed liberty was a right of all.  

1781 - Hostilities end in America's victory

1783 - The Treaty of Paris recognizes America's independent status.  The territory of the USA is extended to Mississippi.  A massive political fight began over the expansion of slavery into new areas

In the constitution slaves count as 3/5th of a person, this gave slave holding states a big advantage politically.

1810 - the importation of slaves into USA is banned.  This was sponsored and pushed for by then President Thomas Jefferson.  The as taught in schools myth is that this showed Jefferson, a slave owner, long term wanted to end slavery.  The exposure of the venality and self-serving reasons for Jefferson's actions is presented in completely convincing details. By stopping the import of slaves those already here became much more valuable.  It became very profitable to breed slaves.  When a slave was too old for field work, Jefferson cut their food rations in half.  He was such a poor business man, on his death his slaves had to be sold by auction to partially liquidate his debts.  He is acknowledged as very well read, an elegant writer, and a first rate horseman.  His slave mistress had the same father as his deceased wife.  His mistress, Sally Hemmings was three quarters white, then called a quadroon.  Children of enslaved women were slaves.  

The costliest slave was a light skinned early teenage female, called "A Fancy Girl".  In auctions in New Orleans, they were sold naked. Owners had full sexual rights to slaves and many a southern matron sold off slaves resembling their husbands.

1803 - The Louisiana Purchase doubles the territory of the country, opening up a vast market for slaves.  New Orleans become a major city for the slave trade

1821 - Florida becomes a USA Territory

1830 era. Slaves are subject to experimental surgery, mostly on women designed to make them better breeders.

By 1850 there were about four million enslaved persons.

1861 - civil war begins, the southern states wanted slavery.  The common poor people of the southern states were told it was a war for liberty, that the north wanted to have their slaves take over.

1865 - 13th Amendment is signed freeing the slaves.  This was intended, and it worked, to destroy the financial system and economy of the south.

The biggest theme of The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry  is to show how slaves were more than just labor.  Slaves represented a huge stock pile of wealth.  You could borrow on them at the bank, breed them and sell of your surplus (children were put to work at about age five, women impregnated as soon as biologically possible.  Banks would package together loans on slaves and sell them, just as are housing loans now.

Ned and Constance Sublette supply hundreds of horrifying details on the slave trade.  They go into much detail on the political infighting over slavery in the era up to 1865.  Eight of the first twelve presidents owned slaves.  Andrew Jackson is given a very negative portrayal, very well deserved.  

Slave ownership destroyed much of the integrity of slave owners.  Few seemed to realize the hypocrisy of claiming you believe all men are entitled to freedom while owning slaves.  

This book will shock many.  It did me.  I am very grateful to Ned and Constance Sublette for the hard work behind this book.

To not read this is to be willfully protected by ignorance.

Mel u

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky - 2010 - translated from German by Tim Moht

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky tells a darkly comic heart breaking story of three generations of Russian women living through the last days of the Soviet Union.  The narrator is Rosalinda Achmetowna, a bitter woman full of contempt and hatred for just about everyone and everything.  A lot of the fun of this delightful work is trying to see what truth there is in her many pronouncements.  She is very abusive to her husband and is very verbally abusive to her daughter, Rosa, in her late teens when we meet her, calling her retarded while lamenting she will never find a man, a perpetual burden.  The daughter shows up pregnant and Rosalinda accepts Rosa's claim it happened in a dream.  There is an very gruesome abortion attempted by a neighbor lady, involving a long hat pin, which is seems to solve the problem but it doesn't. I needed a break after that section.

When Rosa's daughter is born, Rosalinda slowly comes to love her.  Before she knows it, she schemes to steal the girl from Rosa who she regards as mentally unfit to be a mother. There are all sorts of crazy events set in a corrupt society. 

There are numerous cool descriptions of Tarter cuisine.

I enjoyed this book a lot.  I recently acquired in a flash sale a second book by Arlina Bronsky, Baba Dunja's Last Love, set in Chernoby and hope to post upon it in January.

Alina Bronsky
The Daily Beast calls Alina Bronsky "an exciting new voice in the literary world." Bronsky is the author of Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Born in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town at the foot of the Ural Mountains in central Russia, Bronsky now lives in Berlin... From Europa Editions

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser - September, 2019

Susan Sontag

January 16, 1933 - New York City

Notes on Camp- 1964

December 28, 2004 - New York City

Susan Sontag's essay Notes on Camp has an important to me only place in my reading life.  I was maybe 19 when I somehow read it, a freshman in college.  I had been an avid reader for maybe 12 years by then but I just saw things as one book at a time, I did not conceive of a giant set of interconnected works with a history.  I had not yet begun to in anyway classify books or see them as part of a larger world.  This was before the internet.  I was raised by very intelligent people who were concerned with the practicalities of making a living.  I had no guidance.  Maybe that was for the best but Notes on Camp changed that.  I saw very smart people were heavily into reading, treated it as almost a sacred activity.  I reread Notes on Camp once more yesterday.  I am far from agreeing with all her remarks but her sheer brilliance shines through.

In September of 2015 I read and posted on Why the World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser, a marvelous biography.  When I saw he had published a biography on Susan Sontag I added it to my Amazon wish list.  The original price was $19.95 but I lucked into a flash sale for $2.95 (it is back up to $19.95).

At 793 pages, this is a very comprehensive biography.  Sontag was most famous toward the end for being the personification of New York City public intellectual.  If you are interested in Sontag you will be fascinated by this biography as I was.  Those who are merely curious will have a hard time finishing.  To get the basic out of the way, she was raised by an alcoholic mother.  Moser spends a lot of time talking about how this combined with the mental issues of her mother, with several marriages, impacted Sontag.

Sontag was bisexual.  I lost count of all the romantic partners mentioned.  Most were in literature and the arts. She had an unsuccessful early marriage to a college professor which produced her only child, David.  It seems she preferred sex with women.  Her relationships were passionate though far from drama free.

Moser details all her books, novels, collections of essays, a work on her trip to Hanoi during the height of America's war there, which she deeply opposed.  She wrote a very influential book on photography and all sorts of articles for publications like Commentary, The Partisian Review, and The New York Review of Books.

Sontag seemed to be searching for security and love she did not receive as a child.  She was incredibly well read, heavily into one of my favourites, Joseph Roth.  Moser described a meeting she had with Thomas Mann, then living in Los Angeles.  Later in life she said she found all European literature in The Magic Mountain.  She loved science fiction movies, opera.  She would sometimes read twenty hours straight.  She did drink quite a bit and used the drugs popular in her circles.

I was fascinated by Sontag's
relationship with the very famous very rich photographer Annie Leibovitz.  Sontag was striking looking, Leibovitz, who Moser says had sex with many of her famous photo subjects, male and female.  She was quite rich and ended up supporting Sontag, spending millions on her.  Sontag abused her verbally in public in an almost sadistic fashion.

There is much more in this book.  To the curious general reader, you might get bored.  For me, it was a deep look at a woman I had long admired.

Mel u

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Beautiful Place by Amanthi Harris - 2019 - 560 pages

The plot line centers on a young Sri Lanka woman, Padma.  After an unsuccessful try at university she now lives and manages a luxurious villa, hosting a stream of foreign guests. The property is owned by an Austrian expat, a very successful architect, living in Sri Lanka.   He adapted her when she was quite young from her abusive but lurking in the background still father, Sonny.  Going to Sri Lanka is not a casual holiday for Europeans or Americans.  Often villa guests see themselves on a kind of spiritual guest, hoping to achieve a spiritual ephifany from the temples.  Of course European visitors are intrigued by the thought of a sexual encounter with for them "an exotic woman from the East".   The extreme wealth disparity of the country and the under valuing of female children has created many venues for prostitutes. This should be seen as but another pernicious legacy of colonialism.

Setting the novel in a luxury guest villa means the clientele are affluent.  As a structural device it enables Harris to bring new characters on stage for the single Padma to encounter. Seeing her and the guests size each other up was great fun.

Harris depicts the lush tropical beauty of Sri Lanka, for sure I would love to sample the curries she describes and sit on the beach reading something like A Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse.

We get to know a good bit about Padma's father Sonny who shows up looking for money.  The nearby village is replete with thugs (a term borrowed from Hindi long ago) drug peddlers, crooked local 
politicians, relatives wanting to spy on Padma, some to ask her for money and Aunts wanting her properly married.

Many in the local area are jealous of Padma's easily acquired wealth.  A friend of Gebhardt, a European practitioner of Yogi and the author of a less than flattering book on Sri Lanka (Harris introduces the history and divided politics of the island through quotes from his book- a very nice touch, he adds some drama to the plot.

Padma's family wants to exploit her.  There is more to Gebhardt than meets the eye.  I really liked the slow way Harris develops her characters.  Everyone in Beautiful Place is at least interesting and real.  The atmosphere, pervasive poverty, long periods of ethnic conflicts introduces a sinister underlayer to the beauty Harris so skillfully presents.

From Salt Publishing

Amanthi Harris was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in London. She studied Fine Art at Central St Martins and has degrees in Law and Chemistry from Bristol University. Her novella Lantern Evening won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 2016 and is published by Gatehouse Press (2017). Her short stories have been published by Serpent’s Tail and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Afternoon Readings.

I greatly enjoyed and was very much drawn into Beautiful Place.  I hope to follow the work of Ananthi Harris for many years.

Mel u


Thursday, December 12, 2019

Micromégas - A Short Story by Voltaire - 1752 - An Early Work of Science Fiction

November 11, 1694 - Paris

May 30, 1778 - Paris

Last month I read and posted on a work of great fame as well as personal importance to me, Candide by Voltaire. I first read this work in 1964, lead by a reference to it in The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman.  Candide was my first read of a classic and before I read Fadiman's wonderful guide I never knew there was such a thing!  I reread Fadiman's section on Voltaire.  In addition to Candide, he suggests Letters to the English and two works that are close to short stories in format, Zadig, which I read long ago and will reread next month and today's work Micromégas.

In a time when the world was being transformed by global exploration, stories of travels to strange lands were popular in 17th century Europe.  Educated people were captiva by storied of people encountered by exploration parties, living so very differently than Europeans.  Gulliver's Travels, 1726, is a famous example.  Fadiman suggests Micromégas may have been inspired by that work but I don't know if Voltaire read that or just knew of it second hand.  

Micromégas, just a few pages, is about a fantastically large being from another world.  It is structured as a conversation between a being from Saturn and  Micromegas. Voltaire knew Saturn had a ring and five then discovered moons. We learn that Micromegas will 
live over a million years and is about 100,000 Kilometers tall.  
He tells the academic from Saturn he has met beings that live 100 million years and have many times the 72 senses of a being from Saturn. Of course the life spans of humans are puny in comparison and we have only five senses.  Underlying this is the no doubt completely unacceptable to the clerics of France notion that God created many worlds much better than Earth.

Micromégas is a fun fast read.

Mel u

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Rich Brew How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture by Shachar Pinsker - 20

A Rich Brew
How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture by Shachar M. Pinsker

Finalist, 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience, presented by the Jewish Book Council

Winner, 2019 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, in the Jewish Literature and Linguistics Category, given by the Association for Jewish Studies

I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it in an E mail from The National Jewish Book Council.  My favourite story by Stefan Zweig, "Mendel the Bibliophile" is set in a Jewish cafe in Vienna.  For sure I wanted to learn about the role of cafes in the development of Jewish modernarity, the theme of Pinsker's  book.
Sadly for me the Kindle edition was priced at $29.40 so I just added it to my Amazon Wish List.  I regularly monitor the list for price drops and when I saw it was being offered for $1.95 I at once hit "purchase now". (The price still holds today, a great value.). 

Anyone into Yiddish Literature and the culture of Ashkenzi Jews will be very glad they read this book.  The work opens with an account, the time period covered is roughly 1850 to 1950, of how Jewish men came to find in cafes and Jewish delis a new "home away from home".

The cafe culture in six cities is explored.  There are chapters on Odessa, portrayed as a city with a shady reputation, Warsaw and Vienna cafes were centers of intellectual, political and philosophical debate, in Berlin the shadow of what will come haunts us.  Many Eastern European Jews moved to New York City. Pinsker explains the tremendous proliferation of Yiddish publications, theater in New York City.  Immigrants wanted a place to hang out with a feel of home. The last city covered is Tel Aviv.

Jewish cafes were originally all male, the sexes did not casually socialize together.  Over time female writers and intellectuals came to be be accepted.

I really enjoyed all the illustrative references to Yiddish and Hebrew language literature.  One of my very favorite works of Yiddish literature, The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl  by Sholem Aleichem is referenced numerous times. This book has a special place in the history of my blog.  Seven years ago Yale University Press gave me the nine volume Yale Yiddish Library.  The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl was the first work of Yiddish literature I have read.  I have been reading in the field ever since.  Pinsker refers to events in the letters numerous times.  I would recommend this book just on the strength of the literary references alone to those with a strong interest in Jewish history and culture.

He closes the book with an account of cafes in our time.  

I thank Professor Pinsker  for this elegantly structured highly edifying book.  

From the website of Shachar  Pinskar

I am a literary scholar and cultural historian with specialization in multilingual modern Jewish culture in Palestine/Israel, Europe, and America. I have a joint appointment at the department of Middle East Studies and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.
I am the author of two award winning books, A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (NYU Press , 2018),  and Literary Passports: The Making of Modernism Hebrew Fiction in Europe(Stanford, 2011). My third book (in progress) is A Silent Language? Yiddish in Israeli Literature. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph. Ellis -1997

The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph. Ellis -1997

Thomas Jefferson

April 13, 1743 - Sheffield, Virginia

July 4, 1776 - Declaration of Independence published, Jefferson was the primary author.

Term  Third as President of the USA
March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809

July 4, 1826 - Monticello, Virginia

Joseph Ellis presents Jefferson as a very complex man, open to numerous interpretations.  In his opening chapter he details how widely divergent American political factions have claimed him as an icon.

His biggest contribution to the future of the USA while president was the Louisiana Purchase which nearly doubled the territory of the country.  The biggest stain on his character was his attitude toward slavery.  Ellis tries to explain why the man who wrote the most elegant affirmation of the natural rights ever did not just own slaves but could be very harsh.  He had, Ellis details the proof of this,  a slave mistress on whom he fathered children.  As Ellis details, owners had full sexual access to their property, a child by a slave woman and an owner was a slave.  Slave women could not say no.  

Ellis details the complicated legal steps Jefferson tried to take to make it look like he wanted to end slavery.  He was very concerned about what would be fate of 1.5 million freed slaves. He saw the white race as superior.  Here is a direct quote from Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia: “they secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.” Once out of office, he basically abandoned his probably in bad faith anti-slavery talk.

Jefferson was highly cultured, undoubtedly brilliant.  Ellis tries to show the full man.

I am currently reading The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry by Ned and Constance Sublette.  They treat and explain in a fashion that convinces me that Jefferson's anti-slavery rhetoric was designed to make him wealthier, they see him as deliberately lying where Ellis presents him as self deceiving, believing his own rhetoric.  This quote from their book is very revealing of his character: "When Jefferson’s slaves got too old to work, he routinely cut their rations in half."

Ellis also goes into his hatred for Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson championed a vision of a bucolic America, run by plantation owners with a very limited federal government where Hamilton, who was very anti-slavery, wanted a strong central government. Jefferson had people spread rumours that Hamilton was in the pay of foreign countries and embezzled from the Treasury.  These were lies and probably Jefferson knew this.  Hamilton did have an extra-marital affair and Jefferson's allies made sure this was made public news.  His vice president killed Hamilton in a duel.

Jefferson was a poor public speaker and his second term as president is considered by most historians as a disaster.

Jefferson never took part in military action during the war.  Ellis goes into the controversy still undecided as to whether he feld in a cowardly fashion when the British army entered Virginia, of which he was governor. Her certainly could have fought.

Once out of office Jefferson moved  to his estate at Monticello.  Ellis details what a poor business manager he was, he inherited significant wealth but ended up having to sell many of his slaves to pay a portion of his debts.  He did start a nail factory run by teenage slaves which was a success. He was always physically fit and a good horse rider. He liked fine wine, good food and loved books.

Joseph John Ellis is an American historian whose work focuses on the lives and times of the founders of the United States of America. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won a National Book Award and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History

Friday, December 6, 2019

A People’s History of the American Revolution - How Common People Shaped and Fought for Independence by Ray Raphael - 2001

A People’s History of the American Revolution
How Common People Shaped and Fought for Independence by Ray Raphael - 2001

"The Best Single-Volume history of the American Revolution I have read" - Howard Zinn

An Autodidact Corner Selection

July 4, 1776 - The Declaration of Independence Signed, authored by Thomas Jefferson, second president of the USA

October 11, 1781 - The British Surrender at Yorktown, ending combat

September 3, 1783 - Treaty of Paris Signed in which England ratified American Independence.  The USA was granted all land east of the Mississippi River but for Florida.  The American negotiators and signers were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens.

Most books on the American Revolution Era focus on the famous men of the period.  Recently I read biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and a work on Benjamin Franklin's time as America's minister plenipotentiary to France by Stacey Schiff.  American school children, or at least they were decades ago, were told about how the founding fathers won the war.  As to why Americans wanted to break away from England, we were told about the tea party. The leaders, called the Founding Fathers,  had and still do have an almost mythological status.  

There  was no mention of slavery or the American Indians.  In fact virtually nothing was said about the life of common people.  

Ray Raphael's A People's History of the American Revolution tells the story of ordinary Americans.  We learn who signed up to fight.  It was largely young men from poor families, often lured in by a bonus and a promise of more after the war.  People married young in those days and started bigger than now families.  Most soldiers were farmers or agriculture workers.  No one signed up for more than a year.  Raphael shows us how the families of soldiers coped.  Many women became camp followers.  There were no provisions for widows and orphans.

Raphael tells us a lot about particular people, lots of details on rank and file soldiers.  There are sections on the impact of the war on women from non-elite families, on the lives of Americans loyal to England.  Both sides recruited Indian tribes  to join their side.  Most tribal groups aided the British, often being paid for scalps.  Indeginous people saw the Americans as invading enemies and the British played on this.  After the war I learned from Raphael that this turned most Americans against Indians.

The original sin of America was slavery.  The British told enslaved persons to join them and fight for their freedom.  They were also told in large numbers that if they fought for the revolution they would be freed and given land after the war.  Of course these were mostly lies on both sides.

All teachers of American history need to read this book.


Over the last two decades Ray Raphael has emerged as one of our leading writers on the birth of the United States. In 2001 his acclaimed People’s History of the American Revolution widened history’s lens to include those not generally present in tales of our nation’s founding. In 2002 The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord led to marked rethinking about the Revolution’s beginnings in academic circles. In 2004 Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past established new standards for future renderings of our nation’s birth. In 2009 he incorporated his work into an original synthesis featuring seven diverse characters, Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, and in 2011 he was asked to create another broad synthesis for a different audience: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Founding Fathers and the Birth of Our Nation. Also in 2011, with Gary B. Nash and Alfred F. Young, he co-edited a book of biographical essays from 22 noted scholars, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation. Recently he has focused on the historical context of the Constitution. Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive was published in 2012 and Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right in 2013. In 2015, with his wife Marie, he coauthored The Spirit of ’74: How the American Revolution Began. In 2017, spurred by the hit musical Hamilton!, Barnes & Noble asked Ray and Marie to provide a biography of Alexander Hamilton for a general readership: Hamilton: Founding Father. Also in 2017, Vintage (Penguin/Random House) asked Ray to provide an updated annotation of the Constitution: The U. S. Constitution: Explained—Clause-by-Clause—For Every American Today.

I hope to read more of his work.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

What’s the Meaning of Hanukkah? - A Short Story by Mende l. Moykher-Sforim - translated from Yiddish by Ri J. Turner

January 2, 1836 - Kapyl, Belarus

December 8, 1917 - Odessa, Ukraine

Shalom Aleichem called him "The Grandfather of Yiddish Literature"

As the story opens one man tells his friend he has experienced a Hanukkah miracle, his friend tells him he is talking nonsense, Hanukkah is a celebration of an historic miracle, not one person's private event.

The argument is really fun to read,. I want to share enough to give you a feel for the rhythm of the prose.
"What’s the point of arguing with a beys-medresh old-timer? As far as you’re concerned, we, today’s Jews, aren’t Jews at all, and you house-of-study bookworms from the olden days have some kind of contract with the Master of the Universe, an exclusive claim to yidishkeyt.”
“Nothing you’re saying, Ignatz, is in the least connected to the story that I mean to tell you. By the way, today’s not the right moment for such quarrels. We have better things to do—throw together a card game, eat latkes, and spend time with the crowd. That’s why I invited you over, my good fellow—but seeing as the other guests haven’t arrived yet, and you brought up this touchy subject, well—I’ll just have to give you a thorough answer. You understand, we’re all Jews, whether observant or maskilim, God-fearing or secular. I, for example, ‘dwelt in the tents of Shem’ from earliest childhood, in kheyder, in yeshive, whereas you went to ‘school’ and don’t yet know the meaning of ‘the yoke of Torah,’ yet nevertheless we’re both Jews. So what’s the difference between us? Yidishkeyt engraved itself in my heart, in my mind, and in each of my 248 limbs. I, and those like me, have a special appreciation for Jewish custom—it’s in our bones, whether we know it or not. Even if we stray, even if we convert—God forbid!—we’ll never forget the feel of yidishkeyt. But when it comes to someone like you—someone who never ‘immersed himself with Torah and devotion,’ a bal-tshuve, a newly observant Jew who didn’t bear the yoke of yidishkeyt until long after childhood—you simply can’t appreciate the true flavor of a Jewish custom, a Jewish commandment, even if you’re docile and good and perform every action with the greatest fervor.”
“Oh, go on, Shmuel; you and your nonsense! That’s nothing more than what the idlers say behind the oven in the house of study, bleating and philosophizing whether or not anyone is listening. No one’s yet proved any of it.”

The man talks about his memories of observations of the holiday when he was a young, his father and others would debate the meaning of the holiday:

"“And what did they talk about? The matter at hand, of course. Every few minutes, a question could be heard above the clamor: ‘What’s the meaning of Hanukkah?’ They wrinkled their brows, scrunched up their faces, bit the tips of their beards—but they couldn’t answer the question! One of the fellows stood up, quoted something from the Talmud, developed his argument, added new bits of evidence, interpreted it all with enthusiasm, and showed great perspicacity. From all those fine, convoluted speeches, I understood only one thing: the Gentiles polluted all the oil in the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans overpowered them and drove them out, only one small jug of oil sealed with the high priest’s seal was left. That jug should have lasted for only one day, but a miracle took place, and the light kept burning for eight full days."

The ending surprised me and I am not comfortable thinking I fully understood the closing lines. 

I am grateful to Ri J. Turner for allowing me to read this story.  I look forward to reading more of her work

Ri J. Turner is currently an M.A. student in the Department of Yiddish at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is a three-time alumna of the Uriel Weinreich Summer Program at the YIVO Institute in New York, and was a Translation Fellow of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, in 2014. Her translations and original writing have appeared, in English and in Yiddish, in The Forward, Afn Shvel and Pakn Treger.

Mel u

Monday, December 2, 2019

War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945 Book by James P Duffy - 2016 - p 488

Rampage MacArthur, Yamashita and The Battle of Manila by James M. Scott - 2018, 640 Pages  

Last December in consultation with Max u, it was decided that there should be an annual post in observation of our Father's December 2, 1914 birthday.

Our Father served four years in the United States Army during World War Two.  He was a junior officer serving under General Douglas MacArthur.  He was stationed in New Guinea and shortly after the war in the Philippines.  For the initial observation last year I posted on a wonderful book, Rampage MacArthur, Yamashita and The Battle of Manila by James M. Scott .  Shortly after I posted, the author, a great speaker, did a book tour in Manila.  My wife and I attended one of his talks. Afterwards we had a lovely conversation with Mr. Scott.

The talk was held at Ateneo University and the many students there seemed very interested.  

This year I came upon a perfect book for the second annual birthday observation, War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945 Book by James P Duffy.  

Background and Time Table for World War Two in New Guinea. Based on War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945 Book by James P Duffy

December 7, 1941 - Japan attacks USA naval base at Pearl Harbor -President Franklin Roosevelt declares War on Japan

New Guinea was a prime target for The Japanese High Command.
The island could be used as a base to bomb and eventually Invade poorly defended at start of war Australia.  Japan also very badly needed the natural resources of the Dutch East Indies and with control of New Guinea they would have badly needed oil and rubber.

USA Military Operations in New Guinea
January 23, 1942 to August 1945 when Japanese forces largely surrendered.

Administration of New Guinea was divided into three zones

Dates of Japanese Invasions

Australian Zone Invaded January 23, 1942

Papua New Guinea- March 8, 1942

Western New Guinea - Part of Dutch East Indies -March 29, 1942

June 3 to June 7, 1942. Japanese Navy suffers crippling defeat at the Battle of Midway.  This made it much harder for them to defend, supply and reinforce their bases in New Guinea.  The Americans were both lucky and brilliant.  The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers. Airpower was vital in the campaign for New Guinea.  The American forces soon had total air superiority, launching massive bombing raids on Japanese positions.  

The dominant goal of MacArthur was to retake the 
Philippines from the Japanese.  In a very interesting segment Duffy explained that MacArthur originally planned to say not "I have returned" but "We have".  It was felt that the people of the Philippines had more personal faith in him than in the US Army which many felt had abandoned them to the cruel Japanese.

MacArthur landed on Letye Island on October 24, 1944, on January 3, 1945 the USA military launches a major invasion in Luzon.  

By this point the remaining Japanese in New Guinea were starving and dying in large numbers from disease.  MacArthur knew the Japanese in New Guinea had no chance so he felt secure in leaving a smaller force of Australians, Americans and native troop to wipe them out. Duffy detailed how the Japanese used natives as slave labor.  When the time came, The Papua Home Guard played a significant role in the near total extermination of the Japanese, whom they totally hated.

Combat in New Guinea  continued until August 1945. Duffy lists the Japanese companies and their commanders as they surrendered to the allied forces.

Duffy says around 200,000 Japanese died in New Guinea, many more from disease than through combat.  He estimates about 7000 Australians as well as 7000 Americans died.  I was disappointed he provided no estimate on losses of New Guinea Combat Forces  and natives.  He does strongly salute their courage and loyalty.

War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945 Book by James P Duffy provides us with detailed very interesting portraits of the major leaders among the Americans, Australians and Japanese.

Of course General Douglas MacArthur is center stage.  He emerged as a brilliant strategist, a keen judge of character,  capable of great charm when he wished, completely committed to retaking the Philippines.  Duffy lets us see his interactions with other high ranking officers.

Duffy vividly describes the terrible conditions on New Guinea.
Moonson rains kept the ground wet and produced what soldiers called a "green bell on earth". There were rugged mountains, torrential rivers, mosquitoes and flies every where combined with a steam bath heat to produce an environment as dangerous as the enemy, for both sides.  Forty percent of Americans there caught malaria, as did our Father.

New Guinea was Japan's first defeat.  At the time Americans thought Japan could be defeated only by an invasion of the country. New Guinea was seen as the first step.

Even though of course I knew the allied powers would win, Duffy turned the story into an exciting narrative.

About James P. Duffy
James P. Duffy is the author of over a dozen previous books, most on military history. His World War II titles include The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War, Target America, and Hitler's Secret Pirate Fleet. He has also written on the American Civil War and the rulers of Imperial Russia. He resides with his family in New Jersey..from Amazon

Anyone interested in World War Two will enjoy and learn from this book.

Mel u