Monthly Archives: November 2014

Review: Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People

The Anglo-Jewish situation is depicted with extreme precision and accuracy in the novel, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, by Israel Zangwill. Being a second-generation Jew of Polish and Latvian heritage, he grew up the midst of the Anglo-Jewish economic and social scene in Victorian England. As both a child and an adult he lived in the Whitechapel Ghetto of London. Through life experiences, he was involved in the social situations portrayed in Children of the Ghetto, first published in 1892.

Petticoat Lane and surrounding streets in the area known as the Whitechapel Ghetto are given illumination that fills the reader’s senses. From the food stalls and carts, to the shops, clothes, and daily goings-on, Jewish life and its hardships take on new meaning through Zangwill’s exacting descriptions and vivid word-paintings. He leaves nothing unturned, and his descriptions resound with vivid clarity.

Food takes on new meaning, as the majority of the immigrant Jews live day to day in a hand to mouth situation. They have “fast days”, not associated with Jewish holidays. These are the days that they don’t have food to eat. They get free food three times a week, and try to make it through to the next handout by fasting. Life is harsh and difficult, and within the social stratum of it, the Jewish factors illuminate.

Esther Ansell is a young girl whose mother died. She is left to be a surrogate mother to her siblings, and is still a child, herself. She is confronted with all of the challenges of raising children, including feeding them and clothing them. She is an avid reader, loves books, and has goals of becoming a writer. Her father is constantly studying Torah, and when he isn’t doing that he is praying. He does try to earn an income, but never seems to entirely succeed. This reinforces the family’s strife and keeps them in a constant state of poverty.

Raphael Leon is a man torn between two worlds, the ever-changing societal politics and economics, and the traditions of old. Character after character take on the burdens of the past in their attempt to move forward. Some characters manage to unload the baggage, others are caught in the folds of tradition, and can not let go. Retaining strong traditions within a modern environment is difficult for some, less difficult for others. Within the movement of secularism, many Jews practiced their traditions behind closed doors, illuminating a sign of the times externally.

The younger generation, born inside the Ghetto, find themselves in a disparate situation. They go to school, the Jews Free School, established for children of penniless Jewish immigrants. Their primary language is English, and they have adapted to secular standards. This generation of Jews is in transition between the traditions and mores of their Ashkenazi and Sephardi parents and grandparents, and between the modern society of their time period. They are in a quandary of sorts.

The forces of the old homeland and its traditions versus the modern day society are sharp and concise, and the reader is taken back to an era in transition. It is a time when the Orthodox Jews of the “old country” find it difficult to assimilate into modern English society. Yiddish is the language they speak, and their children speak English outside the house, but speak Yiddish inside. Even at that, some of the children are reluctant to continue speaking it, even inside the house. They are Anglo-Jews, and they are the individuals who will mold future generations of English Jews.

Many of the characters portrayed are in double-bind between the past and here and now. Hannah Jacobs, for instance, has a chance at love and marriage. Due to a legality that dates back to the existence of the Jerusalem Temple, she is not able to marry the man of her choice, David Brandon. Her father, Rabbi Shemuel, is insistent on that factor. Hannah and David dismiss that theory and plan to meet, run off, elope and marry in a civil ceremony.

Sam Levine believes in “muscular Judaism,” a movement that encourages both mental and physical strength in order to foster efforts to achieve a Zionist national state. Within his beliefs lies his parental roots, that never let him forget where he came from. Jewish transition and the Jewish homeland, although his goal, is restricted at times due to his ancestry.

Within the streets live a varied blend of Jews, and some with differing traditions and life styles. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and their customs and religious practices differed. Along with that, their common denominator, Judaism, did not necessarily bring them together in a harmonious way. The Orthodoxy and the Heterodoxy are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some Jews felt superior to others, and some exhibited charitable tendencies to the less fortunate Jews in order to gain status within the Jewish community and within English society.

Zangwill’s historical novel is an intense read, yet one that also exhibits humor within the pages. Jewish humor is like no other, and through euphemisms filled with humor, and through humorous moments during gatherings, the Jews often get through their days, days of a life of hardship. Zangwill is forthright in his descriptions, describing every minute particle of Jewish life. His portrayal of the Ghetto streets, Ghetto homes, Ghetto life, Ghetto amusements, Ghetto Jews, and Jewish traditions is masterful. His own upbringing gave him the foundation to write the novel, and he filled the pages with brilliant scenarios, taken straight from his own background.

Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People is an incredible read. I felt the characters were realized, and found them to be credible. The novel is filled with societal, economic and political mutation. The comparison of “then and now” is astounding. The reader is taken to the heights of a changing Jewish England, a changing London, and a society fluctuating in constant transformation and metamorphosis. I gained so much from this historical novel, from the social journeys and searches, to the scenarios of the time period, it was as if I was physically there. I was infused with Victorian London in every aspect, due to Israel Zangwill’s mastery with his stunning prose.

-The Grandchildren of the Ghetto, is a sequel, Israel Zangwill’s second book, which was published separately (although some editions have condensed it with The Children of the Ghetto).

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Review: Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood, by Irene Nemirovsky, translated from the French by Sandra Smith, is an illuminating work in many aspects, in my opinion.

It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.” So begins the second sentence of the first page, setting the languid tone for the rest of the book. The novel doesn’t have a sense of extreme urgency, and I attribute this to the fact that Nemirovsky was mindful and extremely aware, in her writing about country life.  The book vividly evokes the preoccupation that the narrator, Silvio, has with the memories of his past.

Silvio, in his middle age, likes nothing more than to sit at home in the evening by the fire, sipping wine and daydreaming of days gone by.  He has a passion (his own unique “fire“) for writing in his journal about the past and the lives of others, a passion born through his youthful travels and romances.  He seems content, until circumstances cause a spark, and his “fire” begins to flare up.

What is apparent to Silvio, is not necessarily apparent to those who reside in the seemingly idyllic countryside.  The cold and often frigid personalities, are seemingly uncaring, wrapped up in their own lives, yet vividly aware of every happening within the confines of their world, each incident passed down through the generations.  Silvio is almost like a bystander, as if he is watching the lives of three women from behind a curtain. Nemirovsky brings us a story line with three distinct women seeking peace, happiness and love.  How their lives intertwine, and how their love and betrayals interweave is told brilliantly by Nemirovsky, through word imagery that heightens our senses, bringing us flashes of country scents, food for the soul, time and place, in the countryside of France.

The old cliche that “blood is thicker than water“, holds true regarding the adult children in this novel.  They display the same “fire in the blood“, the same passion as their mother did.  The “fire” has been passed down from one generation to the next, ignited and blazing full force, slowly turning into burning embers on a pyre, in the flicker of time, until the last remnants of ash turn to darkness.

Nemirovsky was extremely cognizant of the culture and mores of the era pre-World War I.  Her novel is a brilliantly told story, and a sentient reflection on country life, the light and eventual darkness, the fire and the eventual defusing of the embers.

Until recently only a partial text of Fire in the Blood was thought to exist, typed up by Irene Nemirovsky’s husband, Michel Epstein, to whom she often passed her manuscripts for this purpose. Two additional pages were found to have been in the suitcase that Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise Epstein, carried with her.”  More pages were later found, and you can read about that in the “Note on the Text“, in the front of the book.  You will also want to read the “Preface to the French Addition” in the back of the book.

Irene Nemirovsky died at Auschwitz, and her death is listed as Typhus, but recent documents suggest otherwise.

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Self-Publishing: Quest & Quandary?

To self-publish or not to self-publish, that is the question, I mean quest or quandary.

I find that there are so many self-published books on the market, and a good percentage of them are what I would call unsuitable, word garbage, not well-written, books with fillers, books unedited correctly, books that were self-published so the writer could equate themselves as a published author, and so on. But, don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant self-published books that I feel have not received their proper attention. Self-publishing is a booming market, and an extremely competitive one. In the quest for book publication, there seems to be a quandary regarding self-publication.

I came across a few good articles on the subject:

Self-publishing’s vices and virtues, in my opinion, is one article that summarizes the quandary quite aptly.

Is Self-Publishing Killing Books? This article depicts the other side of the coin.

I Planted My Self-Published Book on Barnes & Noble’s Shelves…And People Bought It – This article describes a unique way of selling a book, albeit, with no profit to the author, but profit to the store (even though the book is not in their inventory).

Should You Self-Publish Your First Book? Should you? Read the article and decide for yourself.

This is an interesting article: 3 Things I Learned About Self-Publishing

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Review: The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, by Alice Munro, is a compelling book, filled with amazing stories that this reader enveloped herself in, from the first page until the last page.

The stories are connected by both Flo and Rose, two main characters the reader sees depicted throughout the pages. Their lives are depicted with masterful imagery, and with detailed visuals into their thoughts and feelings.

Flo is Rose’s stepmother, a determined, somewhat brash and arrogant woman. She is seen in the first story as a woman who has a love/hate relationship with Rose. One minute she is verbally forcing Rose’s father to physically punish her, the next minute she is showing extreme compassion, and stating that the punishment went a bit overboard. She is in an awkward situation, yet one she has created herself.

Rose, in the same first story, is very aware of Flo’s mindset. She is also a determined young girl, and even with all of her insecurities, is emotionally strong when it comes to her dreams, and filled with goals that don’t necessarily meet Flo’s expectations. Flo doesn’t value education, and prefers the comfort and security of her small-town life, where she can gossip about everyone, and where she fits in like a glove.

As he matures, her life takes on new forms, and she becomes experimental with sexual trysts. These often feel as if she is in control, yet she is not, and becomes confused regarding love and sex, often mixing up the differences. She is unsure of herself, although she seems to be a woman of strength, with no conflicting issues. Inside of her is a woman struggling with interacting with men, with the differences in social class/stratum, and with herself and identity.

The stories take place over four decades, and we see each one grow into their own, especially Rose. They become friends, and have a strong bond, one that accepts the other, flaws and all. There is no judging. Towards the end of Flo’s life, Rose becomes her caretaker.

I can not stress enough the brilliance with which Munro writes a story, and these stories are incredible jewels. Like diamonds, the stories’ facets illuminate life, life in a small town, life that is often stifling, and life that contains both the hardships, goal oriented cravings, sad moments, and joys that occur in the lives of not only Flo and Rose, but those within their life.

Small town life is depicted with sensitivity yet conciseness. The fact that Munro exhibits minute details, details that at first seem micro in concept, actually are a necessary part of the whole, the entirety. Without them the lives within the exceptional short stories would not blend together with perfect precision. The fact that they do is a tribute to Munro’s brilliant display within the stories. In fact, the stories connect in such a fashion that they could almost be defined as a novel, instead of linked or joined stories.

I recommend The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, by Alice Munro to those who like to read in depth perspectives of ordinary individuals living ordinary lives. Yet, within the ordinariness lies the extraordinary perceptions and illuminations the reader is shown, quite vividly.

Brava!

As an aside-I can totally comprehend whey Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize Prize in Literature, in October 2013.

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Bookseller’s List – 2014, and Such

A popular online bookseller has picked their 100 best books of 2014. You can read their list, right here.

I have read a few of the books on the list, which is quite varied as far as the list’s genres go.

Right now, I am reading a book entitled The Day of Atonement, by David Liss. It does not appear to be on the bookseller’s list. Nonetheless, I am totally enjoying it, so far. I will read any novel he writes, as they are, in my opinion, compelling and masterfully written.

Here is a slide show of re the New York Times best illustrated books.

The Los Angeles Times has their bestseller list up.

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Four Books I Highly Recommend

I recently finished four books which I highly recommend.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – If you are interested in animal studies (a chimpanzee being raised as a girl’s sibling, how they both interact with each other and with other family members), and how this situation altered the young girl’s life, then this is a book for you. I totally enjoyed the novel, and appreciate the author’s untiring research in order to bring credence to the novel.

Henna House – Henna is absorbing in more ways than one, along with tradition, culture, and Yemin Jews within the pages of this excellent novel.

Limbo: A Novel, holds a story line that is relevant in many aspects, especially regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in those who have been wounded while in the military, fighting a war in a foreign land.

Raquela: A Woman of Israel is an story about an amazing woman, a woman with deep regard for humanity and human life, and a woman of devotion to her country and her job as nurse during a crucial time in Israel.

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Review-Kalooki Nights

Kalooki Nights, by Howard Jacobson is an excellent book, exploring Judaism in all of its facets, giving the reader much to think about.

A Jewish cartoonist, named Max Glickman, is the narrator of this story. The story touches on many issues, including childhood, identity, pain, assimilation, memories, and friendship. It delivers considerations about what it means to be Jewish, and about growing up in a family whose father is an atheist.

Max Glickman’s childhood friend Manny Washinsky appears to be a religious fanatic (in Glickman’s eyes), along with Washinksy’s family (his brother Asher, and his mother and father). His parents rule the household with a strict hand, causing both of their sons to be in a state of constant emotional distress. Above all else, they stress the fact that their sons must marry a Jewish girl. There is no exception to the rule, no leverage or straying from that. Asher becomes emotionally involved with a girl who is a gentile, not Jewish, and he is unable to contain his emotions. Whereas Manny is brooding and silent, with nervous tics, always in prayer, always feeling as if he is the protector, always mindful, always in remembrance of the Holocaust.

It is Washinsky who brings understanding of the Holocaust to Glickman. He spurs Glickman to draw a comic work entitled “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness”, depicting in comic/caricature form the events of the Holocaust.

Glickman’s mother is Jewish and a card game addict, specifically a card game called Kalooki, and only stops to play it on the High Holy Days. His father, a born Jew, is an aethist, and is extremely intent on issues of assimilation and avoidance. He is more Jewish in his heart than he is aware of and/or wants to admit, and his life revolves around his Jewish roots and ancestry (he speaks Yiddish, for one thing). Glickman’s father would not allow Max to have a Bar Mitzvah, and wanted nothing more than for him to marry a gentile.

Jacobson
weaves his story within the Jewish world, the Holocaust, and within the world of the gentiles. He leaves us to ponder what is Jewishness, Judaism, and what is the difference and the sameness between the fine line of those who consider themselves Jewish aethists, and the practicing Orthodox Jewish community. There is an intensity within the pages, that explores the Jewish community versus the gentiles, and the interactions of both, within the varied religious and cultural expectancies. He defines the characters with pain and humor, poignancy, flaws, and humanness. He is brilliant in illuminating the humanity that we all have within us, despite our backgrounds and religious beliefs.

I enjoyed reading this book, and went back and forth within the pages, digesting all that there was presented. Bravo to Howard Jacobson’s

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