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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow - 1975

1915 - Born Lachine, Canada

1976 - Nobel Prize 

2005 - Dies Brookline, Massachusetts 

Long ago I read several of Bellow’s novels but not Humboldt’s Gift.  I recently had my initial encounter with America’s Orpheus, Delmore Schwartz.  Schwartz  was a fast living substance abusing writer who seemingly fits the role of a poet driven to an early, at fifty fat where he was once gorgeous, death from a heart attack in a flea bag hotel in New York City.  I learned that Saul Bellow had written a novel dealing with the relationship of a commercially and intellectually sucessful writer, making huge money from a Broadway play and movie rights, to a character totally modeled on Schwartz.  Most of the action occurs in the writer’s home town, Chicago.  

In Chicago, imagine Robert Frost’s poem, we meet gangsters, real and pretend, lofty intellectuals, dangerously seductive women, greedy lawyers representing ex-wifes, and all sorts of big City characters.  To me book felt dated, especially in the conversations in which everybody tries to sound Chicago back streets tough.  What I did like most were all The literary references relating to The Reading Life of the characters, especially Humboldt who is the Schwartz figure. This is very much a rooted in Chicago in the 1970s novel.

The treatment of women seemed really dated.  We get to know about The breast sizes and shapes of all The many women.  Women are nurse maids, muses, more or less whores (hey we are in Chicago), gold diggers, etc but not valued in terms of their relationship to men.  All that matters is their looks and willgness to have sex. The narrator, Charles Citrine, has lots of adventures, lots of women, Too much money and Too little.  

Prior to reading  this I felt sad to have completed Our Sppons Come From Woolworth by Barbara Comyns.  I was relieved when I at last finished Humboldt’s Gift.  It was interesting to see The usage of the Schwartz figure but overall I was disappointed.  I can see lots of energy and talent went into The book.  Maybe it was just not a book for me anymore as it might have been once. My opinion is a minority one.

Mel u

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Spoons Come from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns - 1950

If anyone out there has read works by Barbara Comyns, please leave a comment

I have wanted to read Our Spoons Come from Woolworths for a long time, being intrigued by the title.   I ended up loving this book beyond my abilties to articulate my feelings.  Five entralling hours.  

The story begins in the 1930s in England, when 21 year old Sophia Fairclough, an aspiring artist, marries against both their parents wishes, Charles, a painter of the same age.  Sophia must be the mainstay of the family.  Charles will not abandon his painting to take a job in the opening years of their marriage.  The couple struggle along in grinding poverty, living from Sophia’s earnings as an artist model, some family help and Charles does sell an occasional painting.  To  Charles great horror Sophia gets pregnant.  Sophia is uneducated and naive.

“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control.”

When she tells her mother-in-law she is pregnant she is told she should not have trapped Charles into the responsibility of marriage so young.   Things get harder and harder.  The three chapters devoted to Sophia’s days in a charity hospital are very grim reading. (This is not the England of Rosa Lehmann and Rose MacAuley.) The women are given no respect.  Sophia hopes Charles will love the Child but he tells Sophia he wanted a girl.  

Things get interesting as Sophia has a relationship with an older man she models for.  Of course it turns horribly tragic and leads to great pain for Sophia.  

Sophia is just so interesting.  At times I wondered if she was of normal intelligence but I think her series of mistakes arises from having very little education and no life guidance. 

The novel may not seem it at first but it is a highly sophisticated work of literary art.  Sophia is a brilliant character, a master’s creation.

Spoiler Alert.

Things end up wonderfully for Sophia, who you feel great empathy for.  The final two pages are a great joy to read.  I almost yelled out “I love it” I was so happy for Sophia.

I was said to learn, as far as I can tell, that none of her other 10 novels are available as Kindles.

To biographers looking for a subject, Barbara Comyns might be a good pick 

BARBARA COMYNS (1909–1992) was born in Bidford-on-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire, one of six children of an increasingly unsuccessful Birmingham brewer. Living on the run-down but romantic family estate and receiving her education from governesses, she began to write and illustrate stories at the age of ten. After her father’s death, she attended art school in London and married a painter, with whom she had two children she supported by trading antiques and classic cars, modeling, breeding poodles, and renovating apartments. A second marriage, to Richard Comyns Carr, who worked in the Foreign Office, took place during World War II. Comyns wrote her first book, Sisters by a River (1947), a series of sketches based on her childhood, while living in the country to escape the Blitz, which is also when she made an initial sketch for The Vet’s Daughter (available as an NYRB Classic). This, however, she put aside to complete Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). The Vet’s Daughter was published in 1959. Among Comyns’s other books are the novels The Skin Chairs (1962) and The Juniper Tree (1985; forthcoming from NYRB Classics), and Out of the Red into the Blue (1960), a work of nonfiction about Spain, where she lived for eighteen years.  From New York Review of Books

Mel u

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The People of Godlbizhits by Leyb Rashkin - 1936 - translated from Yiddish by Jordon Finkin - 2017

I’m seriously behind on my postings now thus my post Will be brief. I Will draw from the  brilliant preface done by the translator Jordan Finkin.  

The People of Godlbozhitis, at 602 pages, is a large scale collage of the lives of the people, say around 1920 in an imaginary Polish town.  Most of the residents are Yiddish speaking Jews but the  very large cast of characters also includes Polish Catholics, Russians, and other groups.  It is not a one plot line novel.  Almost every chapter starts and finishes a story.  Some chapters Focus on rich bankers, others on the poorest.  Personal connections are very important.  The conversation are wonderful and feel very real to me.  There is humour and heartbreak.  Some dedicate their lives to extended their extended Family.  Others live off their in laws.  

I was kindly given a Review copy of this book.  Everyone into Yiddish needs to add this book to their list.  I offer my thanks to Professor Finkin for this translation.  There are also lots of very illuminating footnotes that I found very useful and edifying.  

“Leyb Rashkin (pen name of Shol Fridman; 1903/4–39) was born in the shtetl Kuzmir (in Polish, Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą), the prototype for the shtetl Godlbozhits.2While writing short stories on the side, he had several jobs, including as administrator for a Jewish cooperative bank, an institution that figures prominently and critically in the novel. The People of Godlbozhits, Rashkin’s only novel, was published in 1936 and won the Peretz Prize of the Polish Jewish PEN club in 1938.3Rashkin would ultimately perish while fleeing the Nazis to the Soviet Union. What he left behind was a remarkable microcosmic depiction of a shtetl—indeed, in the words of one critic,“civilization”—one that would soon cease to exist. Why this book languishes unfairly in obscurity is a good but not a difficult question. Historically speaking, the Second World War and the author’s death at its outset were not, shall we say, auspicious. A six-hundred-page book, moreover, will always be something of a challenge. But of course, translation is key. Without a readership, all works will wither. As Mikhail Krutikov notes Of two debuts that were awarded literary prizes—the seventeenthcentury historical fantasy Der sotn in Goray(Satan in Goray; serialized in 1933; published in book form 1935) by Isaac Bashevis Singer and the realistic shtetl novel Di mentshn fun Godl-bozhits (The People of Godl-bozhits; 1936) by Leyb Rashkin—one became famous as the first step in the most successful Yiddish literary career of the twentieth century, whereas the other fell into oblivion because its author perished in the Holocaust.” from The translator’s preface 

Mel u

Monday, February 19, 2018

White Teeth by Zadie Smith - her debut novel - 1999

“White Teeth” was the debut novel of Zadie Smith.  It turned her into a literary superstar.  I have previously posted on three of her novels, Swing Time, On Beauty, and NW as well as several of her great short stories.  I have also read a few of her essays.  Her new essay collection, Feel Free, is getting rave notices.

I am getting a bit behind in my posting so I will be keeping this to a reading journal format.  

Set in working class London, it revolves around two men, one from Bangladesh and one London, who served together in the British Army, in Italy, during World War Two.  There adventures in the war are fun and exciting.  Back in London we follow them and their families for many years.  All in all a wonderful read full of delightful prose and sharply observed social insights

I hope to read her Autograph Man soon.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown 2017

Beth Underdow’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s  Sister has   been getting lots of very good reviews.  I enjoy first rate historical fiction so when I found it was marked down temporarily from $11.95 to $1.95 (as a Kindle edition) I hit purchase now. (It is back to $11.95). 

Set in the area of Essex, England in in 1645, the novel centers on Alice, recently widowed and pregnant with her late husband’s child.  She has no money and her only way of surviving seems to be to return to the house in which she grew up.  There are dark memories there.  

Her bachelor  brother owns the house now.  He is a minister and a witchhunter.  He is based on a real witchhunter, one who condemmed over 100 women to death.   In the period accidental deaths of lifestock, for example, were often blamed on women, especially those showing mental abnormalities.  There were barbaric tests to determine if a woman was a witch.  Underdown does a good job letting us see how witch finding was done.

The novel spends a lot of time going over things that happened in the past.  Underdow does a good job with the atmosphere and the climate of fear.  Alice herself begins to feel her Brother suspects her.

I found this book kept my attention and I wanted to see what would happen next. The ending was exciting and satisfying.

As to purchasing it, I can say if it goes back down to $1.95 I can endorse it for fans of historical fiction.  

Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel, and is out with Viking in the UK and Ballantine in the US in Spring 2017. The book is based on the life of the 1640s witch finder Matthew Hopkins, whom she first came across while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery.  From

Mel u

Friday, February 16, 2018

”Getting Ideas”. - A Short Story by Farah Ahamed - 2018

“Getting Ideas” by Farah Ahamed

Farah Ahamed on The Reading Life

“Getting Ideas” is the sixth Short Story by Farah Ahamed upon which I have posted.  I have been reading her work since April, 2015. Obviously I see Ahamed  as writer of significant talent and insight.  

“Getting Ideas” focuses on Aisha, a Syrian refugee living in the UK and working for a NGO, an international human rights organisation. His father has given her advise: “‘We don’t want any problems with the law. Remember, no one will defend your rights. You’re invisible, a refugee. Give thanks for what you have. Be on your guard and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.’”  She lives alone.  People pretty much treat her as if she is invisible when she is not at work.  Then one exciting day her boss offers her a position as a Children’s Rights Coordinator in Tanzania.  She will be in charge of evaluating the effectiveness of Aid as it applies to schools supported by her NGO.

Her first assignment takes her on a long journey over rough roads, accompanied by a driver and a  young Tanzanian woman who now works for the NGO.  They are on their way to visit a school, supported by aid from her NGO.  Her young assistant graduated from the school five years ago.  Ahamed does a masterful job letting us see how Aisha feels.  She has gone from the UK, where she was near invisible to an important high status official in rural Tanzania.  Depending on her report the school, and the director, can receive much more aid or be cut out.

In a very subtle scene, we see the driver almost, maybe just to himself, mocking her as a representative of USA provided aid.  He knows he is supposed to be humble before her but I sensed resentment.  Of course aid is subject to misuse and appropriation by corrupt officials and maybe he knows this and Aisha seems naive to him.  

Upon arrival at the school all the students, it is a girl’s school, sing a song in honour of Aisha.  The students have developed a play, on their own, to preform for her.  It is, per the male director, meant to show the aid money is helping the girls.  

The performance of the play is a very powerful emotionally moving scene.  It is important that first time readers be allowed to experience this on their own so I will not say much.  It is right out of the #metoo movement so much in the news.  I felt very proud of all the women in the story.  

“Getting Ideas” is a first rate story .  In just a few pages we experience very different cultures and we see a liberation I was not expecting.  I know Aisha will grow into a strong woman and I hope the girls will also. 

I hope to follow Ahamed for many more years.

Farah Ahamed is a short fiction writer. Her stories have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Thresholds, Kwani?, The Missing Slate, and Out of Print among others. She was highly commended in the 2016 London Short Story Prize, joint winner of the inaugural 2017 Gerald Kraak Award and has been nominated for The Caine and The Pushcart prizes. She was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, DNA/Out of Print Award, Sunderland Waterstones Award, Asian Writer Short Story Prize, and Strands International Short Story.

Mel u

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

“The Little Red Umbrella” - A Short Story by Blume Lempel (1981)

“The Little Red Umbrella,” translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, appeared in The Brooklyn Rail: In Translation (Brooklyn, NY: April 2016

“She recalled going to hear T.S. Eliot by herself, without either female or male companions. When she entered the auditorium, all the seats were already taken. Standing room was also limited. Someone stepped on the foot she had recently sprained. The wound appeared to be bleeding, but removing the shoe was not an option. People were packed together so tightly that she was barely able to free herself from the curious hand groping under her coat. The tension in the auditorium was overpowering. When the poet finally stood up and began to read, something in her tore. Over the heads of the audience, the gaunt creator of “The Waste Land” reached her and transformed her into a kind of exotic wild animal, from whose depths emerged a hysterical scream followed by a harsh hiccup. After that incident, she stopped attending poetry readings. The shame of being led from the auditorium stayed with her for many years. Janet now thought that had it not been for that incident, she herself might have written poetry. Instead of writing, she married, raised children, and then lived alone —one more widow on the flooded market. Dilettantes did happen by to share the double bed. They came and went like stars in the night: a washed-up actor, a sock manufacturer, a card player, a man who had left his wife and child to travel around the world in disguise. The rendezvous with the poet came like a jolt from the very heart of life, awakening the butterflies from their lethargic dozing. White silk wings hovered in the air.”- from “The Little Red Umbrella”

This story focuses on the blind date of a fifty year old Jewish widow and  poet, a Holocaust survivor.  She first caught his eye at a Hanukkah party, he did not meet her there and now he has called to invite her for a dinner date.  He tells her on the phone he is a poet.  He tells her he will take her to a French restaurant.

Her mind wanders over the time she heard T. S. Eliot lecture.  I think memories of “The Waste Land” push thoughts of world history.  She meets the poet, the idea was she would be carrying a red umbrella in case he does not recognise her. He does not meet her expectations, she was anticipating a man of Byronic good looks.  He is a Holocaust survivor, clearly Jewish.  He briefly alludes to his status.  It turns out he will take her to a Hungarian restaurant he owns which is in a building he also owns.  She feels almost obligated to the poet.

This is a very good post Holocaust story.  It can be read in the pictured collection.

Yiddish did not die In The Holocaust.  There are few languages so much cherished, especially a language spoken as a first language only by small groups.  There is intense scholarly study of Yiddish literature. The attack on The Yiddish speakers of Europe by The Nazis failed.  It was an attack on a people who cherished Reading, Books,  Knowledge as intrinsic goods.  

Blume Lempel was born in the Ukraine in 1907.  In 1929 she moved to Paris to be with her brother.  She loved Paris, married there, and in 1939 she and her husband moved to Long Island, New York.  She stayed there until her death in 1999.  She had three children and began to write short stories in Yiddish, was widely published and won many awards.  She was fluent in English, French, and had a working knowledge of Russian.  She choice to write in Yiddish to speak for those lost in the Holocaust and to defy those who wanted the language wiped out. I am so glad I have found this collection and I thank the translators for this labor of love.