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Review: Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, by Peter Manseau, is a novel that is quite an accomplishment in many aspects, but especially in Maseau’s ability to convey the adversities and horrors of the Russian pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century.

Itsik Malpesh was born in Kishinev during the the Russian pogroms, to a well off family. The events of his birth, as told to him by his mother, are what has shaped his life, and shaped his perception on love. This novel is Itsik’s story, although it reads like a memoir that could be based on an actual person. That is due to the fact that the format includes a novel-within-the-novel, which is part of Manseau’s writing brilliance and creative edge.

Itsik is a poet, and he has considered himself one since he was a young boy. In 1996, he gave his poems, written in Yiddish, to a translator, to be translated into English. The translator is not Jewish. He works at a warehouse that is storing Yiddish books, books of a dying language, a language that is becoming lost within the modern world of the mid 1990s. He reads and speaks Yiddish. He is not Jewish, but has been assumed to be so, and does not reveal the truth about himself in order to try to win the affections of a co-worker named Clara.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter has an unusual format, with chapters alternating between “Translator’s Notes”, and Malpesh’s notebooks, “The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh”. Malpesh’s notebooks details his life story, his love for Sasha, and the people and events that played a major role in his life’s quest towards his bashert, his destiny. He believes that his poems are a masterpiece, and his arrogance shines through the pages. His determination to publish his works, and his steadfastness in keeping the memory of Sasha alive, is the only thing that motivates him. From shoveling goose feathers and excrement from the floor of the down factory, to his learning to read Russian through the tutoring of a fellow yeshiva student, the novel takes Malpesh to Odessa, takes him penniless to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, and with each step, Sasha is at his side, through his poetry.

Manseau has given the reader much to ponder as far as bashert/destiny is concerned. What about the ramifications of believing in bashert or destiny? It isn’t always the romantic vision that one replays in their mind. It can imprison individuals, can hold them back from moving forward with their lives, unmotivated and not choosing to exercise their free will. What about the events and tragedies that can lead up to that moment when a person meets their soul mate, their bashert or destiny? Does it then signify that it is fine for others to possibly die or be involved in horrific situations all in the name of bashert? I asked myself these questions while reading the book. I asked myself many other questions, such as what is the meaning and the depth of language as far as our identities are concerned?

The heightened images also include some humor, and the book isn’t entirely depressing or dark. The Eastern European Jewish immigrant and their experiences are portrayed with extreme illumination, and nothing is left to the imagination. We experience Malpesh’s frustrations, his heartbreaks, the tragedies, etc., through his eyes, and through the compelling and creative imagery of Manseau.

In my opinion, Peter Manseau has written a classic novel, and one that will be considered such for decades to come. He touches on the very core elements of life, such as ethics, responsibility, language, and our roots. Both happiness and sadness fill the pages. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is masterfully written, and the pages evoke an extremely strong sense of time and place, immigration and assimilation, love and longing, and language and identity. I highly recommend Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter to everyone.

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Review: The Post Office Girl

Here I am, writing another review of a book written by Stefan Zweig. This one is entitled The Post Office Girl. It is a book that concerns a female postal clerk in a small town in Austria.

The pages depict the poverty in her small town in Austria, post World War I. Zweig is extremely detailed in his word-imagery, and his descriptions exhale life lived on the edge of survival. The country was in turmoil, and he shows how the main character, Christine Hoflehner, lives a rote life, burdened with monetary insufficiency, and an ill mother. She feels life drags on from day to day.

It literally does, until a telegram arrives. She has been invited to take a trip to visit her aunt Clair and her uncle, who are vacationing in Switzerland. She packed a few meager belongings in a straw suitcase, and journeyed by train to see them, through a naive mindset. That telegram changed the course of her life, and altered her personality. The reader sees her transformation, immediately.

Her aunt and uncle are vacationing in an ultra swanky hotel, one that caters to the elite. Christine was in awe, at first glance. She feels inadequate, and feels as if she is being looked upon as one of the staff members. Her aunt sees the perception, and gives her a few dresses, and some accessories to wear. With her new apparel, she begins to gain a sense of worth. She literally changes, dramatically, from introvert to quite the extrovert in her interactions and behavior. She sees life through new eyes.

Unexpected events occur that lead her back home. Once there she feels cheated, defeated, and feel entitled to the life led while on vacation. She feels out of place in a world healing from turmoil and political oppression. She takes it upon herself to travel to Vienna for a weekend getaway, and visits her sister and brother-in-law, also living in poverty.

The story continues with her impressionable mindset, and her being persuaded to delve into areas she never would have thought of, on her own. To tell you the occurrences would be to spoil the story. I will just say that she is not the same Christine the reader views in the beginning. The initial vacation caused her to perceive life and social mores differently. She becomes angry, and her anger sets her on a course of negative decisions.

Stefan Zweig is brilliant and masterful in his story telling, within the pages of The Post Office Girl. He leaves no stone unturned in his assessment of human behavior and minute details. The story is a stark study of human behavior and morals. The book is a valuable work of literature, exploring social standards and their impact on individuals caught in the fray.


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Book Diva Review: Simon’s Family

Simon’s Family, by Marianne Fredriksson leaves us to ponder what defines family.

This was a well-written novel on the aspects of what it means to be a family. Families come in many forms, such as, biological, extended family, imaginative families, and those we choose to be part of our family. Extended families play an important role in Simon’s life.

Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov are eleven years old friends. Isak is Jewish, and from a wealthy home, and when Simon visits Isak, he begins to see the differences in their life styles. When Isak visits Simon, he finds a family surrounded with love and caring. Each one comes to discover their differences, their similarities, and their uniqueness, within familial confines.

The story takes place during the pre-World War II period continuing through the war. This exceptionally insightful story deals with mothers and sons, three generations of women, and how they affect their sons, both emotionally and physically. T he book also sends a strong message on how we assimilate into society, the way we choose to fit in.

Issues of stability and fear are detailed, as if we are within the bodies feelings the emotions of the book’s characters. The word-imagery is vivid. The book grapples with how fear plays a major factor in some lives, and how it can imprison us, if we let it.

Familial roles are played out, by relatives, friends and others…with the children always at the end of the rope, as a tug-of-war progresses and continues. The novel is a metaphor for the relationships between mothers and sons, and is exquisitely written, with beautiful depictions.

I would recommend Simon’s Family, by Marianne Fredriksson to everyone who is interested in societal structure and cultural boundaries, and those interested in the difference and sameness, within all of us. It is a Jewel of a book!

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Book Diva Review: Goliath’s Head

goliaths Goliath’s Head, by Alan Fleishman, is a novel that depicts the oppressing life of being Jewish in Russia during the late 19th century and early 20th century, specifically the pogroms of 1905.

Those pogroms were the precursor to the 1917 revolutions, which ended in Communist/Bolshevik control of the country. That the Revolution of 1905 became a defining force in the pogroms, and over 3,000 Jews were killed. They were not necessarily killed by government forces, but by individuals who banded together against them. Hatred was prevalent. Avi was coming of age during one of the most tumultuous times in Russian history.

Avi Schneider is the main character, and at nine-years of age becomes a hated boy, hated by Viktor Askinov. Viktor’s father is influential, and as the son, he constantly lets Avi know that there will not be repercussions for his tormenting and brutal behavior against Avi. He feels he can do, and get away with, anything he chooses to undertake. His father will take care of any situation for him.

Avi’s family and all Jews are constantly under surveillance, and forced to live in the Pale of Settlement. They are able to work, but unable to live within city/town limits. Their daily borders are within the Pale. And, to top it off, the riots and Antisemitism against the Jews were a part of daily life, the fear ever present.

Avi matures, marries, has family. Within that realm, he becomes part of a group who try to stop the stronghold of inhumane antisemites who are trying to overtake the village he lives in. A plan unfolds. Avi must decide what to do. He is basically left with two choices, save himself and his family, or fight for his beliefs, his people, his community.

Fleishman is brilliant with his word-imagery, creating scenes the reader can see before them. Goliath’s Head is a compelling and powerful read, and this reader read it straight through. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. The story is much more than historical fiction, history that Fleishman brings to life, masterfully. I highly recommend Goliath’s Head to everyone.

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Book Diva Review: The Postmistress

the postmistress review If you like historical fiction, The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is a book in that genre.

The novel details some of the darkest days in modern London during World War II told by a female journalist named Frankie Bard. She works with Edward R. Murrow in relaying the messages of war through the radio. Her voice is heard in a small town in America. Ears are glued to the radio, even in the post office, where the postmaster, Iris James, works.

Frankie inflects tones within her voice that capture the listening audience. Once she is done speaking over the airwaves, she literally is finished with the story, and lacks empathy and interest in finding out the results of the after effects, and affects of the individuals involved. In other words, her job is finished for the day.

From London she travels by train throughout Europe, recording individuals and their stories. While doing this her lack of empathy and comprehension of her surroundings and of the people around her, provoke serious incidents that have horrific repercussions.

I found the fact that Iris is not mentioned often in the book a bit odd, seeing as the title infers her character, making it sound as if she was the central figure. And, by the way, during that time period, the word “postmistress” was never used. Postmaster was the given job title, whether it was a man or woman who held down the job. Iris even mentions that in the book.

I found the characters to be flat, not fully developed, and not individuals I found appealing. I did not like Frankie and her sharp attitude. That is okay. There is nothing to say the reader has to like a character. I will say that the Blake did a good job in depicting her, and the word-images that follow her encounters.

I felt Iris to be a bit to standoffish, and felt that she was much too organized, obsessively so. She ran a tight ship within the realm of the post office and the mail system. Even though she denied it, she did have her mind in other people’s business, knowing who, what and where mail was going, and the whys and wherefores of it. She was a busybody, not a gossip, but one who knew everything about everyone in town.

The Postmistress
is a novel not only of time and place, but also one of emotions. The story details the women and how they send, receive and handle the news of war. It is a novel that defines emotions of individuals during a time of crisis and horror. Some are indifferent, some display their feelings, and some control them and inhibit them in order to move through the day. Their resulting emotional state leads them down various paths.

Sarah Blake did an excellent job of bringing imagery to the reader’s mind. Her historical information was spot on, regarding London and the Blitz.

On a scale of one to five, I rate The Postmistress a three.

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Book Diva Review: The Devil and Miss Prym

thedevil The Devil and Miss Prym, by Paulo Coelho touches on Good and Evil, and what the difference is between the two, and/or even the similarities. It might read like an adult fairy tale, but that does not lessen the intensity, or diminish the ability to provoke thought about the subject matter, about people, and how far their greed will take them. It also leaves us to wonder about purity of heart.

Miss Prym, is at the forefront of the novel, along with her interactions with a stranger who comes to town. She is given a chance to change the town for decades to come, but will she? And, the residents, once they learn the secret, how will they react..will greed or fear motivate them? Or, will it be a combination of both? I won’t elaborate on the plot, as you must read this book yourself, and inhale the contents, the word-paintings that fill our senses.

Prym…could be interpreted as “Prim”, and with Miss Prym’s innocent and pure appearance, her visual essence and illumination might not actually be the way it appears, and her inner core and soul might reflect hide another illumination.

“There is no such thing as good, virtue is just one of the many faces of terror, the voice said.”

What is the difference between good and evil, and do we, as individuals incorporate some of each, in ourselves. Can one flourish without the other. And, is evil produced from fear of the consequences we will receive, or motivated by other forces, external or internal? What about goodness? These are just some of the questions Coelho leaves us to ponder, in this well written and thought-provoking novel.

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Book Diva Review: War on the Margins

waronthemargins2 War on the Margins, by Libby Cone is quite the illuminating book, based on her own Master’s Degree thesis in Jewish Studies. The novel depicts the effect of World War II on the English landscape of Jersey.

Little known facts abound within the pages, and the correspondence and documents that are depicted throughout the book (of which there are many) are copies of actual public notices and letters from that time period. A few actual individuals who lived through the Nazi regime are portrayed within the pages. The documents and real-life individuals enhance the drama of the daily lives forced upon the Jewish residents who remain behind on the island of Jersey.

Marlene Zimmer is a clerk working for the Aliens Office, and tries to hide her Jewish heritage from the authorities. She not only does so, but becomes friends with Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, two females who are not only artists, but lovers, also. Through their persuasion, Marlene joins the Resistance, and the story then radiates more compelling dynamics and interactions.

Not everyone is who they appear to be, and not everyone who Marlene thinks is against her is in fact against her, but on her side. Yet, there is an individual who doesn’t appreciate the kindness bestowed upon her, and looks at the glass as half empty. People are doing what they can in order to survive through the horrific events forced upon them by the Nazis, and those who are deemed in a negative light are not necessarily so, and vice versa.

The scenarios within the pages are structured around the documents, adding fact to the lives intertwined within the pages. The foundation of War on the Margins is firmly set through these historical documents and through actual radio announcements. The coldness and harshness of the statements and demands in the letters from the Aliens Office and other authoritative entities left me with chills. To think that the Jewish population in Jersey was considered less than human, is disheartening. But, through it all, they had the will to survive.

From the workers at the Aliens Office, to the non-Jewish population, the exploration of behavior is thoroughly examined. There were those who obeyed the edicts formulated against the Jewish population presented to them, and those who deemed them unethical and immoral, and did their best to help. The morals mandated and exhibited by some were exemplary.

Step by step, letter by letter, we are shown how the lives of Marlene, Claude, Marcel, and all the Jews in Jersey are stripped of their citizenship, their civil rights and their humanity. We are shown how goodness reigns in some of those who are not Jewish, and how they tried to help, as best they could. The story line is compelling. It is gripping to read the substantial content of the documents, and see how it interplays within the social aspect of life as the Jewish population once knew it. The demeaning and diminishing verbalizing and public notices, as harsh and atrocious as they are, do not lead to the Jews giving up on life, in fact it further enhances their desire to survive.

If anything, the Jews continue to find viable ways to survive the horrific advances and torments of the Nazis. Time and place is enhanced through Cone’s writing. Identity and assimilation are prime themes, as well as loss. We are able to get a sense of the realities that existed for the Jewish residents of Jersey, and how they were treated and/or mistreated. Had Hitler actually won, England as a whole would have been encapsulated within the grips and horror of what happened to the Jews on the Channel Islands. The Nazis would have extended their power throughout the nation.

Cone has written an incredible accounting of the occupation of Jersey by the Nazis in War on the Margins. She has infused the novel’s story line with facts and evidence of what actually occurred during the Nazi stronghold, and how the people were affected over time. With the gradual increase of demands set upon them by the Nazis, the reader sees how Jews were belittled and demeaned, threatened and scorned upon. She brings to light the darkness and devastation of the lives of the Jews, yet within the bleakness and realities, illuminations of hope and strength radiate vividly.

Libby Cone is brilliant at depicting the struggles and adversities the Jews of Jersey had to endure during the Nazi regime’s takeover during World War II. She introduces many little known facts and historical references within War on the Margins. I was deeply touched by the plight of those whose lives were devastated and/or those who were killed. The intelligent, compelling and sober book is a must read for World War II and Shoah/Holocaust history buffs, and for those who want to gain a more in-depth insight into the mechanics of the events and daily struggles that occurred on the Channel Islands.

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