Monday, December 15, 2014

The Seven Good Years and other stories of I.L. Peretz translated and adapted by Esther Hautzig


This book is a collection by one of the master Yiddish writers, I.L. Peretz.  I love folklore and don't have many of the Jewish culture.  This book was adapted for children but they bring to life the culture and the plight of the 19th century European Jew.  

Most of the stories deal with a man and wife with their family dealing with dire poverty in a European village.  Often a supernatural being, an angel, the prophet Elijah, a magic Rabbi or elderly, pious lady who is now dead comes to visit and rewards the family's piety with gold, money or prosperous circumstances.  

Sometimes they are tested as in The Seven Good Years.  A man, Tovye, is very poor but meets Elijah, who gives him seven years of plenty.  Tovye laments to his wife what does it matter to be prosperous for seven years when they will only return to poverty afterwards.  His wife, Sarah, insists that they be grateful for what they have now and not worry about what comes next.  At the end of the seven years, Tovye find that his wife has been a wise and good steward with their money and saved up so they still have good fortune.

The stories show the mettle and inner strength of these families as in Peace at Home.  Chaim is only a porter with no money but he and his wife, Hannah, still adore each other and don't consider their poverty.  When Chaim asks the Rabbi what he must do to enter into paradise, the Rabbi gives him several instructions:  Learn the Torah, read the Talmud, pray ardently- all of which Chaim insists he is unable to do.  The Rabbi says he must then serve water to the scholars.  Chaim is delighted!  This he can do.  The Rabbi says that he will then be able to enter paradise.

But what about Hannah? Chaim wants to know.  The Rabbi informs him that Chaim's wife will be his footstool in heaven.  Chaim returns home, throws his arms around his wife and insists that she will never be his footstool.  God will allow them to be equals in heaven.

I find this story interesting because I ask myself, is Peretz denying the authority of the Rabbi?  Or can Rabbi's teaching be questioned, unlike the Pope's who Official Catholic doctrine asserts is Christ's spokesman on earth? I'm not familiar enough with Jewish custom to know.  It would seem that Peretz certainly feels the injustice of so unfair a proclamation.  Of course, as a Christian (and a woman) I have Galatians 3:28 to fall back on (God is not a respecter of persons, all are one in Him.)

Every story seems to contain a test for the protagonists.  In their harsh circumstances will they fall  into temptation or rise above it and do the right thing?  The supernatural visitors are not known until afterwards, thus invoking the lesson that we do not know who is watching us so don't be good for the praise of others but because it is the right thing to do.

One story I found disturbing was The Poor Boy.  A beggar boy approaches a man at a soup kitchen for a little change in order to pay for a night's shelter.  The man harshly turns the boy away.  He hasn't hardly any money for himself.  Then he is plagued by guilt.  He searches for the boy but can't find him.  The man argues within himself.  He should have helped the boy. No! He shouldn't, the boy will never learn to help himself.  He hasn't any money, he should trust God's provision and give what he has.  He even begins to regard himself as the murderer of the boy because of his neglect.  Back and forth he debates.  Finally he returns to the soup kitchen where he is again approached by this poor child.  He gives the boy a ten cent piece.

The next day the boy asks again and this time he turns the boy away.  He leaves the soup kitchen ashamed of himself.  He remembers his late grandfather's words:  "He who is not pious lives with heartache and dies without consolation."

All of the stories end with some kind of moral.  Since none of the stories sugar coat the hardship the families endure, the message must be to find that inner strength that will see one through to be good and moral no matter what.

This differs somewhat from the Christian message which states "Through Christ I can do all things Who gives me strength (Phillipians 4:13)." These stories seem to indicate that the Lord rewards those who do right, but without an intimate relationship with Him. 

The stories are illustrated with the soft charcoal drawings of Deborah Kogan Ray which give them an added poignancy.  A very nice collection of interesting stories that provide an insight into traditional European Jewish culture.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Moritmer


Years ago I used to watch the BBC series Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS.  I think my favorite part was the theme music by John Horovitz.  Rumpole had his own charm, however.  He was the underdog in a system filled with twits and crooks.  Even though he usually comes out on top he goes through a lot of twists and turns to get there.  Of course, there'd be no story if he didn't.

And that is what holds the viewers' and readers' interest.  Not the plot, they're simple enough, but the sparring of wits between Rumpole and the other casts of characters, some who give as good as they get.  I find this far preferable to other British comedies, where, as funny as the heroes (Little Britain) and heroines (Catherin Tate) are, the objects of their wit are little more than cardboard stage props who stare blankly as they are used as a verbal punching bag.  This is true of the first couple of seasons of House.  Hugh Laurie's character got zinged as often as he zunged.  This is not true of later seasons, hence my loss of interest in the show.

But back to the topic at hand.  At one of the many book fairs I'm addicted to attending, I found a novel of Rumpole, so I dug deep into my pocket for a quarter, paid the grateful library staff member ("Our wing of President biographies is saved!") and took it home to read.

What I liked:  The writing.  John Mortimer is as fluid a writer as I've read.  Reading the book was like riding a inflated innertube down a semi-rapid river.  Funny?  Yes.   Satirical?  Very.  I have no idea whether Mortimer's parody of a judicial system run by power grabbing simpletons is accurate (he was a barrister for a while) but it certainly is scathing.

I also like Horace Rumpole.  He is not the all wise oracle who sets the rest straight.  He's really not all that scrupulous himself.  He prefers to make little money getting petty crooks, whom he knows are petty crooks, out of jail, to advancing to circuit judge or something his wife ("She who must be obeyed") and friends would like to see him do.  His reasons are apparently that the judicial system is a group of dishonest power mongers.  Him?  Why he'll just stick to rescuing guilty car thieves and house burglars because he has his self-respect to preserve, or whatever internal reason motivates him.

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror was  written recently after 9/11 and Mortimer no doubt wished his writing to be current and relevant so he decided to write a book about a Pakistani living in London who is accused of terrorism.  I suppose Mortimer's point is to calm everybody down,  to stop looking at our eastern brothers and sisters as dangerous world up-heavers.  The problem is he uses such annoying stick puppets to do it.

Everyone in the book knows this man is a terrorist.  Why?  Because he's from Pakistan, doggone it! From Rumpole's wife to the other lawyers, the judge... EVERYbody knows this man is dangerous because aren't all swarthy members of the human race dangerous? This is the pugnacious attitude everyone character in the book except Rumpole adheres to. The only clear head is Rumpole who chooses to defend the man.

The tale weaves in and out and takes the reader down a pretty good path of uncertainty.  Is the man a terrorist?  Isn't he?  You just don't know till the very end.  The plot development is very good and if the supporting cast could have been portrayed as rational human beings I could have enjoyed the story far more than I did.  As it is I was left with a fifty-fifty feeling that I'll pick up another Rumpole book.

There are hundreds of Rumpole books and Mortimer eventually earned himself a knight hood.  I'd like to read some of his earlier works and see if they contain the same politically correct slant or not.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Avianus tranlated by David R. Slavitt

We're all familiar with Aesop's fables but I had never heard of Avianus before so when I came across a copy I snatched it up and read it.

The Roman writer Avianus lived four centuries after Christ. By this time the Roman Empire had become the Holy Roman Empire, but Avianus was still a pagan and his fables reflect his personal beliefs.  His stories are a little longer than Aesop's but never more than a page long and are as often as not about people as animals and their dealings with each other as well as the usual interference-for good or bad- with the ancient Roman gods.  I did not realize how tenaciously some people still held on to those pagan beliefs, even centuries into the A.D. years.

The stories are pithy and can be extremely sarcastic at times.  They are not really moral lessons for children so much as social commentaries for adults.  They can also be witty and poignant.  One such fable is of a cute baby contest that Jupiter held on earth.  For a joke he chose the monkey's baby.  Everyone laughed at such an ugly little baby being chosen.  The mother monkey cherished her baby all the more, proclaiming Jupiter's judgement as affirmation of her own love for her child.  Everyone laughed even more but then fell silent "in awe of such blind passion."

Another fable goes as such:

Ooh la, la!  The leopard preens, 
glides along, sashays, parades
its grand rosettes. No jungle scene's
so grand as when a leopard's there,
with its gorgeous pelt and that debonaire
bon ton.  "The lion's beauty fades,

to a tawny insignificance
in comparison," the beast maintains,
so pleased with himself.  But then, by chance, 
a fox pops up to say, "Come, come, 
you're handsome enough.  But dumb, dumb, dumb!
What are good looks compared with brains?"

The Translator David R. Slavitt takes some license in translating the fables and putting them in poem form.  He also doesn't shy from using modern vernacular and idioms.  So unless we can read Latin we'll never know how accurate his translation is, however, I think the spirit of Avianus' work must come through.  At least someone's quick, penetrating spirit does.  We'll have to trust Slavitt that it is Avianus' wit and candour but perhaps colored by Slavitt's own.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer

Unlike the biography of Alistair McGrath, this biography was written by a former student and personal friend of Lewis.  No doubt because of that, the tone is much softer, less clinical, but fortunately not tainted with any subjective sentimentality.

Sayer studied under Lewis at Oxford where he also knew J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was a member of his inner circle and was his friend throughout his life.

While Sayer gives a lot of the same information as any other biographer as far as a chronology of his life goes, he also gives a much more personal touch to those facts.  His writing is much more like a story narrative so one feels as though they are reading a novel than nonfiction.

Sayers goes farther back into Lewis' ancestry.  He allows us to see what sort of families produced his parents, going back to the great grandfather and how they came to Ulster.

That is one thing the biographies have shown me is that Lewis was an Irishman.  He seems so English and I suppose it is because he was a Protestant but also because at such a young age he moved to Oxford and lived there the rest of his life.  Unlike other Irish writers, such as Yeats, Joyce or Heaney, we get no Irish flavor in his writing.

Lewis' mother was kind and loving.  Lewis and his brother Warnie would refer to each other as "Archpigiebotham" (Warnie) or "APB" and "Smallpigiebotham" (Jack) or "SPB" because their mother would often warn them that if they didn't improve their behavior she would "spank them on their piggiebottoms." They used these nicknames for the rest of their lives.  Warren would refer to Jack as his "beloved SPB."  Both she and their father read voraciously to them.  Books spilled out of every nook and cranny.

A cute exchange with his father is recorded.  Jack sat down in front of his father in his study and informed him that he had a prejudice against the French.  When his father asked why, Jack crossed his legs put his fingertips together and said, "If I knew why, it would not be a prejudice."

When Lewis was ten his mother died of abdominal cancer.  His father, who had just lost his father and brother, had no emotional endurance for two young boys.  They were carted off to boarding school in England.  This tearing away from his family, while still in the throes of grief to go to another country far from home to a boarding school that proved to pattern itself after Oliver Twist, was instrumental in Lewis rejecting God.

Unlike McGrath, Sayers does not believe that Lewis was too shy or sensitive and needed to "buck up".  He sites sources that show the headmaster at this school was not only abusive, but insane.  This all played major roles in forming Lewis' beliefs.

Luckily he eventually wound up with a personal tutor, Kirkpatrick.  This was instrumental in developing Lewis' writing skills.  Eventually he wound up at Oxford but how he gained entrance is interesting.

In order to be admitted into Oxford, one has to pass not only the exams in subjects you excel at, such as languages, you had to pass all exams.  Lewis was hopeless as mathmatics and his scores prevented him entrance.  However, by serving in the military during WWI, he became exempt from passing the math tests and was admitted after all.  Can you imagine one of England's most profound writers and apologists almost not making it because he was no good at math?  It gives me encouragement since I am a math retard.

As with McGrath's biography, we learn of Lewis' relationship with Mrs. Moore, their residence at the Kilns, although Sayers plainly states that whether there was anything other than a mother- son relationship is a mystery.  He might have been covering up or he might be simply telling what he knows.

A couple of chapters are devoted to his war work, his radio broadcasts and also his writing of the Narnia Chronicles.

Sayers descriptions of Joy Davidman differ somewhat than McGrath's as well.  According to Sayers, Jack did develop love for Joy and he didn't marry her against his will, only to discover true love at the end.  They had a wonderful, loving relationship, even though she was a typical loud, brassy New Yorker.  Sayers goes into more detail of the development of that relationship and focuses a little more on Joy's desperate love for Jack.

We all know of Lewis' conversion which is faithfully recorded and the rest of his life.  What I enjoyed about this biography was the obvious warmth and, yes, joy that it exudes as it should when one is writing about a beloved friend.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Week Like Any Other Novellas and Stories by Natalya Baranskaya

Natalya Baranskaya is considered one of the Soviet Union's finest short story writers.  Most of her work was written in the 1960's but were eventually translated into English after the Soviet's fall.

A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories is a collection of short stories. They are mostly about women and their lives in Soviet Russia.  It's important to remember she wrote these stories and they were popular in the Soviet Union during her lifetime.  Therefore don't expect any commentary on the harshness of living under a totalitarian regime.

Nevertheless, she does manage to convey the challenges people had trying to combine the ingredients every human wants for a meaningful life:  work, family, friendships.  Her writing is fluid and funny at times but mostly poignant.  It occurred to me that these stories couldn't really be classified as propaganda pieces because they don't spout tired cliches about how blissfully utopian life is under Communist rule.  I wonder if because, living inside that world, Branskaya thought she was presenting an idealistic life without realizing how hard that life was compared to Western countries.

In the first story, the best one I think, A Week Like Any Other, the narrator, a young woman, describes each day and hour of her week.  The pressures of getting up, getting the kids ready for school, breakfast for everyone, rush to work, rush to lunch, rush home to make a late dinner, get kids to bed, start over.

Inside that framework we see the woman's relationship with her husband --strained-- her children--neglected, although no more than any child who spends most of his childhood in daycare--her co-workers, the pressures to succeed and not miss any work regardless of her health or children sick.  She stays late, perpetually trying to get on top of her work, never quite succeeding.  

The story sounds tedious, but it is really quite interesting.  You are the invisible party to her life.  Sympathizing with her kids as they cry for her, hoping she and her husband stick it out, hoping she gets her work done and not get fired.

The other stories are shorter and perhaps not as interesting other than they show life in the Soviet Union.  One of the stories is much like the first one except it is told from a man's perspective.  A man who is trying to get ahead at work but is having to kow tow to ambitious bosses, watch what he says or how he reacts so there isn't a government investigation, and finally having to hide in exile until different leaders come into power that make it safe for him to return to work. 

  The government inspectors are not presented as people to be feared but rather as father figures who "take care" of everyone to make things right.  Nevertheless, there is an element of fear in knowing that there is an umbrella of authority watching every trite thing you do.  

I'm surprised the author got away with exposing such obvious intrusive tactics at the hands of the government.  Maybe this kind of intrusion was so normal under Soviet policy that it occurred to neither her or government censors there was anything wrong or abnormal about it.

What disturbed me was noticing how not very different life in America has become with all our "accountability" to government regulations.  We're not too far behind totalitarian regimes.

The remaining stories are about young women in love, not always requited, a young girl who wants to live with her father instead of her mother until she realizes he has mistresses, and a girl with a bad reputation in her village and how she copes with it, also how she causes it.

Each story provides a colorful view of Russian/ Soviet culture.  I don't know if I would read anything else by the author but I did enjoy this collection. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories edited by Alan Ryan

As I said in the previous post, even though these book reviews are being published in November, these are the stories I read throughout the month of October.  Autumn is the perfect season for scary stories, although I suppose the dark wintry days and nights in January would also suffice.

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories is another anthology of stories dating from 1816 (The Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron) to 1984 (Bite Me Not by Tanith Lee).  If one starts reading at the beginning and works his way to the end, he can see a transformation of the idea of Vampirism and the stories change accordingly.

Lord Byron wrote his fragment as a part of the contest that also included Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  Whether Byron's story would have ultimately beat Shelly's will never be known because he quickly lost interest in writing it and took off for Europe with his companion, John Polidori.  This friendship deteriorated as well and Polideri and Byron parted ways on such acrimonious terms that Polideri wrote a Vampire story to its completion and to anyone who has read it, it's obvious who the Vampire is.  Hint:  Mysterious aristocrat appears at all the wealthy parties, seduces woman, and destroys their lives.  Not because he's a playboy, but because he's a Vampire(!) and sucks their blood for a living.

This collection also includes Good Lady Ducayne, Carmella, For the Blood is the Life as well as M.R. James An Episode of Cathedral History.  All of which deservedly have their place in the Hall of Greatest Vampire Stories Ever Told and been reviewed in my previous post.  That is the difficulty with anthologies.  One tends to come across the same tight circle of stories by the same authors.

 M.R. James' in 1919.  After that there is a jump of some years to 1931 and the stories develop into Science Fiction.  No longer is the Vampire simply evil.  He now is a predator, perhaps from another planet or a spiritual predator.  This last type is in perfect keeping with the older ones that were allegories of good vs. evil or the Christian being attacked by Satan.

The best example of the latter is The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth.  His vampire feeds off people's thoughts but is waylaid by a surprisingly old fashioned method. An example of the former would be Shambleau.  It takes place on another planet where a spaceman Spiff type character meets a strange woman creature who turns out to have her roots in the legend of Medusa.

I must confess the last few stories didn't interest me at all.  They were written after 1950 and have a definite modernist viewpoint.  By that I mean that the vampire is no longer a bad person.  Oh, he or she still preys on people, sucks their blood and all that but now it is an expression of their love. Or simply their nature and since right and wrong doesn't exist anymore, who are we to judge? The straw characters who are set up to judge in these stories are very stupid, narrow minded people indeed.  At least that's how they're made to look in these stories.

  I think one of the best stories is Carl Jacobi's Revelations in Black.  A man finds an old book in a bookstore, brings it back to his apartment to read it but finds that by reading it, he has unbound the "people" that were imprisoned by it.  I like the gradual revelations the story produces and the imagery it provides.  The man's escape is very narrow and exciting for the reader.

The editor provides a brief biography of each author and other works they wrote.  As a result I've enlarged my library-especially my Kindle- with more collections by these same writers.  The good news is because of the age of these writers most of their works are in public domain.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard

It's that time of the year again when I looooove to read spooky stories.  Even though most of these stories will be posted after Halloween, I read them during the month of October.  Anyway, I think cold wintry months are the perfect time to read scary stories. 

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories does not have a large selection but they were well chosen.  These stories are mostly of the traditional: vampires symbolize evil that attempts to seduce humans to damnation.  Each story is developed along the lines of a predator, the vampire, stalking their prey in order to maintain their own earthly existence while dooming others to the same fate.

The vampire myth provokes a lot of questions.  In the Bible Satan is described as a "raging lion seeking whom he may devour." (1 Peter 5:8)  His own eternal destruction is pending and he rages against it by attempting to turn as many people away from God before that time comes.  The epitome of railing against hopelessness and striving to destroy.

The legends of vampirism, however they originated, came to become metaphors of this spiritual battle.  That's one of the reasons why I enjoy them.  The other is because a well written spooky story is just plain exciting.

Authors include Sheridan Le Fanu.  His Carmella is here.  Carmella is probably one of the best written vampire stories ever.  It is not long but very creepy.  It is told in first person narration by a young, lonely girl who develops a friendship with another girl.  Le Fanu uses the writing strategy called first person narrator, audience omniscience.  This is where the narrator is unreliable but the reader can see what's going on.  You want to dive in the book and save the person from what you can see is about to destroy them.  

This is true for the narrator in Carmella.  She informs the reader of facts that allow them to form conclusions even though she seems unable to form those same conclusions.  I don't want to give the story away.  Just know it is a tale of high suspense.

Good Lady Ducayne is different from the others because it takes place in the 19th century in New England.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon writes using colloquial dialect, giving the story an "Americana" feel. It's hard to believe it is a vampire story.  In fact the word "vampire" is never used.  A woman, Lady Ducayne, lives in a house alone, does absolutely nothing for herself, yet manages to get men to marry her and women of the village to do all her cooking and cleaning.  Every last person who helps her gets sick and dies.  It takes way too many incidents of this type to happen before finally no one in the village will help her. 

Other stories are F. Marion Crawford's For the Blood is the Life.  It takes place in Italy and involves a poor gypsy girl who is murdered but comes back as a vampire.  She waits for a young man who passes by on a certain road each day.  He has just lost all his money and friends and must now work hard all day and return to his lonely house each night.  The young man knows this woman is evil but the temptation is too strong.  I think in this case the temptation is that he has been utterly rejected by everyone else and a person will accept evil love if wholesome love is not available.

A couple of the stories are very Victorian, in that they are more melodramatic than scary, but E.F. Benson's The Room in the Tower is one of my favorites.  The first person narrator, a man, has a recurring dream throughout his life that finally comes to terrifying fruition.

The only one I didn't really care for was Guy de Maupassant's story, The Horla.  The Horla was more in line with the science fiction approach to the supernatural.  Which is to say, they write stories explaining how what we take to be supernatural has a natural explanation: like, say, aliens.  (That was sarcasm, by the way.) The Horla is a superpowerful being that is higher up on the food chain than humans.  Therefore it is not immoral for them to prey on us.  Well, according to Maupassant.  If one believes humans are made in the image of God and therefore precious to him, it's called murder.

The final story is a narration about a supposedly authenticated vampire occurrence.  This I found not too interesting either.  While I enjoy the metaphor of good vs evil, I'm not going to lose sleep over the possibility that vampires exist.  

This is the first of several "spooky" books I am going to review.  I hope I entice you to read some of them.