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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Angela Anglada 1983, translated by Martha Tennent, 2010

The Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Angels Anglada is a work so beautiful it will haunt many  readers for a lifetime.  The 
hour and a half it will take you to read this book might well be the best experience you will have this month.  Set in one of the ugliest places ever created, the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in 1941, Anglada shows us how remembrance of the beauty of art and of love can sustain us through very dark times.  

The story opens in 1991 at a classical music concert in Krakow, Poland.  The narrator, a musician traveling in Eastern Europe, met and was enchanted by a female violinist from the concert.  She is twenty years his senior.  He takes her out to dinner and they bond over their love of music.  He makes arrangements through his agent for her to join in his four person group on a short tour.  He notices an elegant violin she plays and she begins to tell him the story of how the violin came to be created.  

It is 1941, Daniel has just arrived, in a train with other deportees, most all Polish Jews, at Auschwitz.  Upon arrival people are divided into two groups, those felt not able to work as too old, under fourteen are sent at once to be executed 
They are lead to believe it is for a shower.  Daniel, a violin 

maker, a luthier, when asked his occupation says “Cabinet Maker”, thinking that may keep him alive.  He is assigned to make shelves and cabinets for the sadistic, cultivated camp commandant.  Four inmate classical musicians are playing at a party.  One of the violins is damaged and Daniel tells the musician, they stay in the same barracks, that he can fix it and he does.  The camp commandant hears of this and he tells David he is to make a violin for him.  Daniel knows as long as he is working on the violin he will be safe from punishment or harsh physical labor.  He finds out the commandant and his sadistic doctor friend, modelled on the horrible Josef Mengele, have made a bet involving him.  If he can produce a quality violin the doctor will give the commandant a case of wine, if he cannot, he will be sent to the lab of the doctor for experiments testing how long one can be immersed in freezing water and survive, a death sentence.  

I don’t want to reveal the close but I cannot imagine anyone not loving it.

In a very interesting touch, included in the chapter 

beginnings are actual translations of manuals and reports from Auschwitz, treating it as the very profitable enterprise it was.  The last chapter will, I think, very much move most readers.  I felt a powerful sense of joy and relief as I read the closing chapter.

This book is suitable for young adult readers but will resonate with the most cultured of readers.

I’m seeing this as excellent book for teachers to use for advanced high school readers.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR MARIA ÀNGELS ANGLADA (1930–99) is one of the most important figures of Catalan twentieth-century literature. Her success as an author was confirmed in 1978 when she was awarded the Josep Pla Prize for her first novel, Les Closes. She subsequently became one of the most respected and widely read of all Catalan authors, with works such as No em dic Laura, L’agent del Rei, and El violí d’Auschwitz.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR MARTHA TENNENT, a translator from Catalan and Spanish, was born in the United States, but has lived most of her life in Barcelona, receiving her B.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Barcelona. She recently edited Training for the New Millennium: Pedagogies for Translation and Interpreting and has translated the novels Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda and The Invisible City by Emili Rosales.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Who Will Write Our History - Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from The Warsaw Ghetto by Samuel Kassow, 2007

I offer my gratitude to Max u for The Amazon Gift Card which allowed me to read this book

An Autodiactic Corner Selection for March

November 1940 -The Occupying Germans confined 450,000 Jews in a Ghetto in Warsaw.  

April 19, 1943 - The Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto began when the Germans started to transport Ghetto residents to Treblinka for execution 

Who Will Write Our History - Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto by Samuel Kassow is one of the best done works of history I have ever had the great pleasure of reading.  It has won twelve awards and been translated into thirty languages.  

I first began reading Yiddish literature in December of 2013 when Yale University Press gave me the full Yale Yiddish Collection, nine classic works.  I perceived a culture deeply into reading, with a profound respect for knowledge and a great sense of humour.  I began to read non-Fiction relating to Yiddish speakers.  I was deeply impacted to learn that upon being liberated from the concentration camps many asked for something to read.  In the last year or so I have been reading short stories by Yiddish Language writers, gradually learning more about the culture.  I have sought out the best works on the Holocaust which I see, among ,many things, as a direct attempt to destroy the reading life.

Kassow brilliantly focuses on the efforts of a group of Jewish intellectuals confined to the Warsaw Ghetto to complete a comprehensive account of Jewish history in Eastern Europe and detail all aspects of life in the Ghetto.  Their intention, which they largely completed, was to place all these reports in 
metal containers and bury them.  The hope was that post war someone would find them.  They were discovered a few years after the war, The very real fear was that Jewish history and the Yiddish Language would be wiped from the face of the earth.  

Kassow presents very well done bios of each of the numerous archivists, sadly most did not survive the war.  We learn a great deal about life in the Ghetto.  I came to understand how much preserving their history and culture meant to those involved in the archive project.

There is very much more I should say about this book but I will simply say if you have any interest in Jewish history, the Holocaust, WWII, Polish attitudes ( a very at best mixed picture) and the way the Ghetto ran then read this book.  Really I think any one who loves history will be glad they read this great book.

Samuel D. Kassow is the Charles Northam Professor of History at Trinity College. He is author of Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia, 1884–1917 and editor (with Edith W. Clowes and James L. West) of Between Tsar and People: The Search for a Public Identity in Tsarist Russia. He has lectured on Russian and Jewish history in many countries, including Israel, Russia, and Poland.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

“Red Sari”. - A Short Story by Amanthi Harris - 2004

Website of Amanthi Harris. Included are Images of her Exquiste Art Work

I dedicate this post to the people of Sri Lanka with the hope their country can find the peace they deserve.

Last month I posted upon the award winning novella Lantern Evening by Amanthi Harris.  Today I feature one of her early Short Stories, “Red Sari”. Both works center on a young woman from Sri Lanka who now lives with her parents in London.  In both stories Harris develops very subtly the relationship between the domineering mother who wants to follow the traditions of Sri Lanka and her daughter, trying to assert her independence.

As “Red Sari” opens the daughter, getting married soon to a man not of her heritage, probably English, Mother thinly hides her disappointment, is admiring a dress in one of those glossy bridal magazines.  Her mother insists she must get married in a sari, as tradition dictates.

Soon they go wedding day shopping, in a section of London that almost recreates an Indian shopping district. Harris made me feel I was there.  They stop for a snack and cold drink in a place the mother says “has everything from back home”.  Sri Lanka is politically and culturally a very divided country.  The patrons quietly look each other over trying to decide what “side” everyone is on. 

Harris paints a wonderful picture 

“Winter arrived and I went with my mother to look at saris and jewellery for weddings, to a part of town like a town in India , but with Debenhams and Argos , and Tesco and an Iceland . Squat men walked hunched through the streets, jackets zipped to their chins, and women pushed prams, carried shopping, held umbrellas up against the December drizzle. Old women tottered in sandals and woollen socks, duffle coats tight over sari frills that splashed with rain and mud from the pavement. Among them my mother and I walked, damp clinging to us, a dark grey sky unshifting above. We were headed for a sari shop that was recommended by someone my mother knew, but we stopped first at a canteen selling bhajis, puris, samosas, jellabies and even the rose- pink faluda drink that had been her favourite once.
‘They have everything here now,’ my mother observed.
We went around the counter and chose and sat down to eat, but it seemed strange to have no air conditioning, no sun outside, no squall of horns, no roar of traffic, no coconut trees against a blue sky above the shops. The faluda frothed in her glass, bubbled pink from the red jelly sweetness at the bottom. I almost saw her then, in cafés in Colombo with her cousins and friends, and how she and I might have been able to talk together as she had with them. She sat now, looking around her at the people in the canteen, looking them over carefully, table after table. And the people looked at her”

(Many affluent people from Sri Lanka have left the country because of violence between Muslim and Buddhist factions.  In today’s Washington Post I found the government has declared a state of emergency due to recent sectarian violence.)

They first stop in at a jewellery store but they leave without  a purchase.  The mother says the groom does not even know he is supposed to buy the wedding jewellery.  

The next shop is a cloth store where they will buy material for the Sari, against the wishes of the daughter who wants to be married in the dress from the magazine.

The daughter and mother quarrel over the material but the daughter gives in. 

I really liked this scene in the cloth shop.

“I can’t wear this,’ I said.
My mother turned to the chorus and rolled her eyes.
‘It’s not me,’ I said again.
The women looked at me and seemed to be waiting, as if more was needed as explanation.
‘I don’t like it,’ I said, and a particular type of pause, of something final, settled between us all.
‘This is what happens,’ my mother sighed. She shook her head. The women watched her, listened, breathing softly, their eyes expectant.
‘Back home they would not argue, no?’ my mother said.
The women nodded. They did not look at me, only glanced away, and then at each other. I caught the eye of one who seemed to be the youngest; I caught her just as she was staring into my face as if I was something she had never seen. I glared at her and at all of them. Couldn’t they see what I looked like? I didn’t look right. How could I get married looking like that?
The pitted-cheeked woman’s red lips pursed.
‘You should try to please your mother, no?’ she said coldly”

I will leave the very enjoyable ending untold.  You can purchase on Amazon the anthology in which it it is published Kin:New Writings by Black and Asian Women, edited by Karen McCarthy.

“Red Sari” packs a lot into five pages, family dynamics, immigration issues, bridal jitters and more.  You can see her skill as a visual artist manifesting itself in her fiction.  

Next month I will post on another story by Amanthi Harris, this time one set in Sri Lanka. 

“I was born in Sri Lanka and  grew up in Colombo. Later I moved to London where I have been ever since, with an escape now and then to Paris and to Sint Truiden in Belgium, to Goa and Cornwall and currently the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain where I am on sabbatical.

“I studied Chemistry then Law at Bristol University, and far more usefully, Fine Art at Central St Martins. I’ve been a terrible trainee solicitor, a very bored editor of law books and a blissfully contented bookseller, writing and making art along the way. I’ve had short stories published, one of which, Red Sari is taught in schools in Sweden and I have also had stories commissioned for and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Afternoon Readings. I won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 2016 with my novella Lantern Evening which is published by Gatehouse Press.

I have a Fine Art practice using drawing, painting and 3D and am with the V22 artist collective.
I also run StoryHug an Arts Council England funded project using art and stories to inspire creativity and community.” From the author

Mel u

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay - 1956 - Her Last and Greatest Novel

1881 to 1958, England

Rose MacAuley was a very prolific author, with 23 novels and 15 works of nonfiction.  She was a much awarded writer and was inducted into The Order of The British Empire.

Her last and regarded by all as her best novel is The Towers of Trebizond

I have found that one book sometimes happily leads me to an entirely new to me writer. After recently loving Our Spoons Come From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns I read a good article in The Guardian suggesting that as Comyns deals with poorer women in England Rosamund Lehmann and Rose Macaulay treat the upper Middle Class from the same period. I have read all of the fiction of Lehmann but had not previously heard of Rose Macauley.  Some quick research found her highest regarded novel The Towers of Trebizond on sale as a Kindle for $0.99.  I bought it and overall quiet enjoyed the novel.  

The plot, said to be partially autobiographical, revolves around three people from England on a trip by Camel through Turkey.  Our narrator is Laurie, her very eccentric aunt Dot and a high Anglican Clergyman are along also. The characters are very English, the sort of persons found in Saki, socially and otherwise.  Part of the  purpose of the trip is the convincing of Muslim women to convert to high Anglican.  Nobody gets converted. We never quite catch onto why this is a good idea, maybe it is just an excuse to get the clergyman to sponsor the trip.  All sorts of funny and interesting things happen to them, including a scary sequence in which a Turkish counselor office confiscated Laurie’s passport while they determine if she is a spy.  Her aunt and the clergyman disappear for a while in the Soviet Union, where they elope.

Laurie makes a lof of interesting comments on Turkey, The Church, history, her family, and of course on Camels.  We meet in a very fun scene Laurie’s mother and her wealthy long time lover.  Laurie also has a lover, a married man.

This is an oddish book.  I would recommend the best of Barbara Comyns and Rosa Lehmann to all lovers of the English novel of circa 1950.  This book is just a bit mannered and eccentric to endorse unconditionally to strangers.  If you like Saki, give it a shot at $0.99.

I’m glad to have read this book but have no plans now to read more of her work.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

“On the Eve of Battle” - A Short Story by David Bergelson, 1923, translated from Yiddish by Ellen Kellman

A Ukrainian War of independence  Story by The
Author of The Best of Everything 

1884 Born in Ukraine

1913 Publishes  The Best of Everything - Classic  Work of Yiddish Modernism

1921 Emigrated to Berlin, begins to write for Forward

1934 - concerned over rise of Nazis to power, moves to Berlin, then Soviet Union

1949 - arrested, imprisioned for two years and ultimately tortured to death by Soviet Secret Police for writings preceived as anti-Soviet

A few years ago Yale University Press initiated my interest in Yiddish literature with a very generous gift of books, including The Best of Everything by David Bergelson. In my post from January 14, 2014 I said 

The End of Everything by David Bergelson (1913) is considered one of the masterworks of Yiddish literature.   It centers on the lives of newly rich Russian Jews trying to preserve their cultural identity in a country in great turmoil, Tsarist Russia.  Bergelson's title is itself a chilling prophecy of what was to happen to most of the people the novel is about.  

The central character is Mirel Hurvits, a beautiful educated woman who tries to rebel against an arranged marriage while staying within the confines of her culture.  The novel goes deeply into social and marriage customs, economic realities, family life and sex roles of the period.   Mirel is more or less forced by her parents into a marriage of convenience to a man that revolts her.  We see her disintegration as the story line progresses.

The Ukranian War for Independence, 1917 to 1921, had only ended a few years before “The Eve of Battle” was published.  Bergelson used this setting for several Short Stories published in Forward, all centerjng on a Young Jewish soldier.  There were several competing armied in this war.  There were Ukraine troops seeking independence from Russia, German and Austrian Forces, White Russians, and Bolsheviks.  In part the Ukraine was a battle ground in a war dervived from The Russian Revolution.  The Jewish character joined with The Bolsheviks as they were not preceived as as anti-semetic as the others, and they would feed him.  Plus he plans to desert once the army gets near where his fiancé lives. White Russians were known for vicious anti-Semitic 
pograms.  In the story we can see how little the soldiers cared about ideologies.  

I read this story in s wonderful anthology of Yiddish short fiction,
Have I Got a Story for You - More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward edited by Ezra Glinter with an introduction by Dana Horn was a 2016 finalist for the Jewish Book of the Year.   Founded in New York City in 1897, Forward was the most renowned Yiddish newspaper in the world. For generations it has brought immigrants news of their homelands, recipes, as well as lots of information about how to get along in America.  It also published many works of Yiddish language fiction by some of the greatest writers in the language.  

(You can learn about the history of Forward on their website 

Monday, March 5, 2018

“Grace”. - A Short Story by James Joyce from Dubliners - 1914

Born 1882 Rathgar, Ireland

Died 1941 Zurich, Switzerland 

Dubliners 1914

A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man 1916

Ulysses 1922

Finnegen’s Wake 1939

One of my goals for Irish Short Story Month, VIII is to complete posts on those stories from Dubliners I did not previously read.  After posting yesterday on “The Boardinghouse”, there were five left.  Today’s story, “Grace”, as does yesterday’s story, shows us the impact of extreme alcoholism  on Irish family life.

The story opens with the central character passed out on the floor of a pub, he bit of part of his tongue in the fall.  Others in the pub, including a constable, get him to his feet. A friend takes him home.  We learn about his family through his wife.  She tells his friends he is not “The worse husband in the world”.  Three of his friends conspire to take him to a Catholic retreat in the hope this will help him abate his drinking.  They get into an interesting and funny debate about The Catholic Church, especially the doctrine of Papal infalibility.

You can listen to a dramatic in Irish accents reading of “Grace” on YouTube

Mel u
The Reading Life 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

“The Boarding House”. - A Short Story by James Joyce, from Dubliners, 1914

Irish Short Story Month, VIII

Born 1882 Rathgar, Ireland

Died 1941 Zurich, Switzerland 

Dubliners 1914

A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man 1916

Ulysses 1922

Finnegen’s Wake 1939

March has been Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life since 2010.  Of the    3200 posts on my blog, 628 are about Irish Literature, mostly short stories.  Dubliners by James Joyce, first published in 1914,is the most influential short story collection of all time.  The stories focus on the realities of middle class life in Dublin in the early years of the 20th Century.  There are fifteen stories in the collection, over the eight past years of Irish Short Story Month I have 

posted on nine of them.  This month I am hoping to read and post on the remaining six. (Dubliners can be downloaded for free on Amazon and on YouTube there are readings of a number of the stories.)

“The Boarding House” opens perfectly, the very model of how a short story in the hands of a master, can express so much in just a few sentences.

“MRS. MOONEY was a butcher’s daughter. She was a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman. She had married her father’s foreman and opened a butcher’s shop near Spring Gardens. But as soon as his father-in-law was dead Mr. Mooney began to go to the devil. He drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt. It was no use making him take the pledge: he was sure to break out again a few days after. By fighting his wife in 

the presence of customers and by buying bad meat he ruined his business. One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep in a neighbour’s house. After that they lived apart. She went to the priest and got a separation from him with care of the children. She would give him neither money nor food nor house-room; and so he was obliged to enlist himself as a sheriff’s man. He was a shabby stooped little drunkard with a white face and a white moustache and white eyebrows, pencilled above his little eyes, which were pink-veined and raw; and all day long he sat in the bailiff’s room, waiting to be put on a job. Mrs. Mooney, who had taken what remained of her money out of the butcher business and set up a boarding house in Hardwicke Street, was a big imposing woman. Her house had a floating population made up of tourists from Liverpool and the Isle of Man and, occasionally, artistes from the music halls. Its resident population was made up of clerks from the city. She governed her house cunningly and firmly, knew when to give credit, when to be stern and when to let things pass. All the resident young men spoke of her as The Madam.”

Joyce lets us see the strength of Mrs Mooney.  One of the major themes of Irish Literature is that of the weak or missing father.  I have illustrated this theme as it appears in numerous works.  This can be seen as a legacy of colonialism.  For sure it is exemplified in “The Boarding House” with the ruined by drink figure of Mr. Mooney.  

Mrs Mooney’s lively pretty 19 year old daughter Polly lives with her in the boarding house.  Mrs Mooney has a keen eye and is not above some scheming.  Of course she wants her daughter married well.  She notices
one of the boarders, Mr. Doran, seems to be having a romance with Polly.  He is thirty five and has a decent long term job with a major wine merchant.  Mrs Mooney figures he must have some money put away. The age difference was not the scandal it would be now and it appears they have not been fully intimate.  Mrs Mooney wants them to marry.  She knows Mr Doran’s employer may actually fire him if he learns he has been trifling with the affections of a young girl.  She also knows Mr. Doran will know and fear this.  She lets Mr. Doran trap himself.

It was interesting and fun to see Polly had learned her mother’s methods of emotional manipulation.   

I will leave the close untold.  

The remaining five stories I hope to post upon are, A Little Cloud, Clay, Mother, Grace and Ivy Day in the Committee Room.  

I also hope to post upon a few Irish Short Stories by writers new to me as well as some from the past.

Mel u