Friday, May 31, 2019

CC Spin: Stories of Walter de la Mare

Short Stories, vol. 1, by Walter de la Mare

When will I learn not to read giant collections of short stories all at once?  I regret it every time.

Walter de la Mare sure wrote a whole lot of short stories.  They were for an adult audience and published in magazines at the turn of the century, when there was an endless demand for them.  Volume I covers 1895 - 1926, so a good bit more than just the turn of the century. 

These stories are mostly somewhat spooky.  They're not outright scary or horror; they're gently unsettling, or creepy, or disturbing, but they're not usually obvious about it. 

Some of them are rather thematic.  There were four or five stories in a row featuring characters inspecting gravestones for interesting, amusing, or pathetic epitaphs, which I sincerely hope were real epitaphs de la Mare had collected himself.

One story, one of the more obviously spooky ones called "The Riddle," had a detail that I believe may well have made its way into John Bellairs' The Mansion in the Mist.   

But, the trouble is that when I try to read an entire collection of short stories, I very soon get pretty tired of whatever the short stories are.  This is nearly 500 pages' worth of de la Mare being gently unsettling, and I just didn't want that much all at once.  So while I didn't finish the collection, I did get a good dose of de la Mare, and I believe I could spot one of his stories at 100 paces.  I'm going to call it good.

So that was a fairly successful Spin, I think.  I hope another one shows up soon -- and meanwhile, tomorrow is the start of 20 Books of Summer!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Baho!

Baho! by Roland Rugero

If you're trying to read around the world, some countries have abundant literature available in English (Nigeria, for example) and others, not so much.  Since I'm late to this project, I'm benefiting from a minor but noticeable trend to make global literature more available in English.  I'm seeing more books published from countries that haven't previously been available -- my TBR pile includes the first novels from Madagascar, Guinea Bissau, and other places.  (I also got to read the first literature to come out of North Korea, but that's more a function of smuggling than of publishers taking notice.)  And this is the first Burundian novel available in English.  It was written in French, but also contains a good deal of Kirundi, which is left in and a translation added.

Nyamurgari, a mute teenage boy, is out working and tries to ask a girl where he can go to relieve himself.  Frightened, the girl thinks he is trying to rape her, and screams for help.  Nyamurgi wants to explain everything, but first he has to run away...and then a mob is after him.

As Nyamurgi flees, other people's perspectives break in.  An old one-eyed woman tending her goats remembers the time before the drought, before the war that shattered her country, and she keeps an eye on Nyamurgi through the whole ordeal.  We are shown parts of Nyamurgi's childhood, scenes of local life, and memories from Nyamurgi's uncle, an ex-soldier who is planning to save his nephew from the mob.

Although tribal names appear only once in the entire novel, memories of the war between the Hutus and the Tutsis keep erupting into the story from below.  Everyone is living with unbearable memories they try to forget; everyone is afraid.  Nyamurgi becomes a scapegoat for their fear, but the story also offers him a chance at escape.  Maybe the people can escape their past, also?

The one-eyed old woman has respect for every thing living.  From a young age she knew to respect the Twas, the third ethnic group after the Hutus and the Tutsis.  It was even murmered that she might be one of them, by her father's bloodlines.  But it does not matter!  The essential thing is to live.
This is an extremely short novel, really a novella, and yet it manages to fit in several perspectives with stories of their own.   Because it switches perspective often (which is apparently a Burundian storytelling technique, I liked that) and is sometimes kind of opaque, I wouldn't classify it as an 'easy' read.  It actually took me a few days to read it, when I thought I'd be able to zip through.  It's a really interesting novel and, I think, a good choice if you're making a list of global or African literature to read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Women Talking

A remarkably hideous cover IMO
Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

Whoof, this is a difficult one, folks, so you have been warned.  First a very short background, then the novel, then some information about the reality.

For a few years in the mid-2000s, women in a particular Old Order Mennonite colony in Bolivia suffered from mysterious night-time violence.  In 2009, nine men were arrested and charged with drugging entire households with an anesthetic spray in order to rape girls and women.  They were convicted in a mass trial and are in jail.

Miriam Toews, who grew up in a more liberal Mennonite family in Canada, wrote Women Talking as a sort of novelistic response to the events in Bolivia.  I don't know that she's actually trying to portray the people and events; the characters are based on people she knew, and she doesn't seem to have gone to Bolivia.  I really get the feeling that she tidied everything up a lot for her narrative, which may have been necessary, I don't know.

In the novel, eight women are gathering in a hayloft to discuss what they should do in response to the mass rapes.  The perpetrators are arrested, all the men have gone to town to post bail for them, and these few women are taking this chance to be together and formulate a response to the demand put upon them: that they either forgive the perpetrators, or be excommunicated.   The colony's schoolteacher, August Epp, is taking minutes since the women are illiterate, and he's the narrator.  They have three possible routes open to them: they can stay and fight, do nothing, or leave.

As the women discuss their options, they also work through their relationships with each other and the implications of leaving or staying.  They want to be true to their beliefs, and they don't think they can just stay and pretend nothing happened.  But they know almost nothing about the world outside their colony; they don't even speak Spanish.

This is a gripping novel.  It's pretty short and not at all a difficult read, so it's fast and compelling.  That said, I have some problems with it.  Even before reading anything about the real-life case, I wasn't sure I should buy the idea that all the women are completely illiterate, never having gone to school at all.  (I don't know that much about Mennonites, but in my limited experience they're big on literacy.)  I'm not sure I love the idea of using a man as the narrator for this story, even if he's as sympathetic as August is, and widely considered to be not actually a Man.

After reading the novel, which I did without ever having heard of the Manitoba colony, I found a couple of articles about it.  This article from Vice is the fruit of a months-long project that included stays with a Manitoban family.  I learned from it that these are Old Order Mennonites, somewhat more radical than the Mennonites I have met, but the girls still go to school and learn to read, though they don't get as much math and accounting as the boys do.  I also learned that far from trying to bail out the perpetrating men, colony leaders were the ones who turned them in, deeming the case too difficult for them to deal with on their own as they normally would.  As far as I can tell, Toews both neatened up the story and also made it worse in several ways, which you would think would be quite difficult to do.  I'm not sure we needed it to be made worse.

After that, I found a fascinating series of articles written in a Canadian Mennonite publication.  I link to the first one, but I would recommend that if you start, you stay with it through at least all four installments -- they aren't that long -- and perhaps the two 'extras' as well.  From this, I learned quite a lot, including that the jailed men may not have been the actual problem; they may have been scapegoats to cover for a much deeper and more widespread issue (the Vice article touches on some aspects of this, but doesn't go into it much).  On the other hand, it's hard to know for sure and we can't just castigate all the men of the colony.  It's much more complex than that.  And this series has some very insightful things to say about the ways in which we tend to assume that we have all the answers and can speak for a group of people we see as backward and primitive.  Commenting both on Toews' novel and the actual colony, the author says:

...I wanted to better understand those women. Instead, I feel I read what a literature-steeped, progressive, Torontonian might have colony women think. 
But to the extent that the book views colony Mennonites through a North American lens, it contradicts what seems essential in supporting colony women. In the context of interviews and Toews’s earlier writings—including a 2016 non-fiction essay for Granta entitled “Peace shall destroy many”—it is hard not to see in Women Talking a bias towards formal education, literature, and urban western society. That is, a bias towards the narrative of civilization, progress and progressiveness.
Our adoption of progress and civilization—including its rampant individualization, materialism and inherent sense of superiority—is largely why colony Mennonites consider us devoid of moral authority and see us as unwelcome intervenors. It’s a shortcoming as glaring to them as their patriarchy and closedness is to us. We see ourselves as better; they see themselves as better. And the women remain isolated behind a wall of men, beyond the reach of concerned North Americans.
So.  I'm ambivalent about this novel.  While it's good to bring these issues into the light, and there was much that I appreciated about the story as it was written, I also feel like it might be a disservice to tidy up the story so much.  And I think it's really strange to take an utterly horrific real-life event and make it worse for a novel, as if it needed...help?  Sensation?  A clearer message?

Monday, May 27, 2019

Down Among the Sticks and Bones and All Systems Red


Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

AND All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

I read two short, modern SFF novels, so I thought I'd bundle them, though they have little in common otherwise.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones:  Twin sisters Jillian and Jacqueline have been forced into certain patterns by their unseeing parents...and then they find a staircase in the closet, that takes them to the Moors.  A different law holds sway there.  They're taken in to the Master's castle, and while Jack chooses to go and live with the local doctor, Jill chooses a princess' life.  Will they be able to save each other when the time comes?

This story was fine, but a little too Angela Carter-esque for my taste.  There was a lot to like, and I enjoyed it OK, but the overall impression was not my style.  I also found it hard to believe in the parents.


All Systems Red: Far in the future, planetary exploration is sponsored by corporations, and the lowest bidder wins the job -- which means that safety equipment doesn't always work like it should.  The security android for this surveying expedition has hacked its own software and calls itself Murderbot.  It just wants to be left alone to watch serials and figure out what it is, but then the mission group on the other side of the planet goes dark and the scientists have to figure out what happened, so Murderbot is along for the ride.

I really liked this one.  It did remind me a lot of a Doctor Who episode (say, early 11th Doctor), but I like Doctor Who.  I enjoyed Murderbot's perspective, the story was good, the characters were well-done.  It's really a novella, and I think there are four in the series now.  I might even read them.


_______________________________________________

I do have to admit that the word 'Murderbot,' while awesome, also brought this old Muppet show clip to mind, which was probably not what Wells was going for.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Playing Back the 80s

Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits, by Jim Beviglia

This was just a fun book for me to look through.  Beviglia really just wrote letters to absolutely everybody who had a hit song in the 80s, asking for the story behind the song.  If he got an answer, he did an interview and published the story -- just one song per band.  As a result, the book is a little hit-and-miss; presumably Madonna didn't bother to reply (I don't like Madonna anyhow so that was OK with me), and he says in the foreword that although he's a big fan of 80s rap, nobody responded, so there's no rap and it makes him sad.

The selection is stronger on early 80s material than on the later years, and I would say that it's heavy on groups that were not as well-known.  The Police appear, but not U2 or Depeche Mode.  No Cyndi Lauper.  However, many of my own favorites are here, like Men Without Hats, Corey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Talking Heads, and lots of others.  There were also some songs I just didn't know, like Lunatic Fringe by Red Rider.

The fun thing about this book was that it was obviously necessary to listen to each song as I read about it.  I tried to just read the book at first, but it would describe some particular feature of the song, like the delayed chorus of Journey's Don't Stop Believin', and I'd have to go find my phone and bring up Google Play so I could figure out just what he was talking about, and so pretty soon I just sat on the couch playing each song as I read, even if it was a song I don't really like (*cough* Eye of the Tiger).   A bunch of new things made it on to my playlist!

I definitely do not love all the songs listed.  For some reason that awful thing Cry by Godley & Creme is there (how was that a hit??), and I've always hated the Piña Colada song but I'm hardly the only one.  There are some real oddballs, like Styx' Mr. Roboto, one of the weirdest songs ever, and one of my all-time favorites, Georgia Satellites' Keep Your Hands to Yourself.

So much fun.  For those of us who loved the 80s, anyway!


I decided I had to include one video, but it was hard to pick just one.  I figured on going with the ultimate 80s ballad, Don't Stop Believin', but it doesn't seem to be around.  So I pick the cheerful lunacy of The Safety Dance!




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Alienated America

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney

After the 2016 election, we all saw a lot of people trying to figure out just how and why Trump won.  There's been a lot of blame going around, but I've never really seen an explanation that I thought really hit the nail on the head, until I ran into this book.  Carney focused in on the original, core Trump fan base -- not the people who eventually voted for him because he was the Republican nominee, but the people who really cottoned on to his campaign from the beginning -- and looked for the common denominator.

Carney's thesis was that certain segments of the population really resonated with Trump's declaration that the American dream is dead.  A lot of people didn't agree with that at all, but that's because this is all geographically based.  There are plenty of places in the US where the American dream is dead, and those are the places that produced Trump's core.

Carney describes a cycle that includes three major ingredients: jobs, families, and community support.  If you have all three, the result is a thriving community.  Start losing them, and you get a downward spiral in which unsupported families fall apart or cannot form, which produces people who aren't well-suited for working, and community breaks.

A major thing I took from this is that you can't have just a person/household and a state.  People need middle-size institutions -- local organizations that they contribute to and that provide support and meaning.  These things can, and should, come in a wide variety of flavors: neighborhood sporting groups, the PTA, the bird-watching association, the Lions or Rotary, the quilt guild and the library and the local churches.  But churches turn out to be the really big one.  They've always been important in American civil life, and when churches close, there is not a lot to replace them and it is a real loss, especially to the lower-income people who need community most.

I suppose that this is because churches are some of the very few institutions that bring a very wide variety of people together and then explicitly expect them to support and help each other and the wider community.  My church congregation is mostly made up of people who are not particularly like me.  There are all ages and income levels and backgrounds, and we are organized to produce community almost automatically, by teaching each other's kids, by paying attention to needs, by being expected to show up and do certain things on a regular basis.

Church makes it easy to do service work on both a large scale and one-on-one.  This has always been true -- for example, in my congregation, nobody had to think up the idea of getting the teens to feed the homeless, it just happens that our turn comes around, and the kids are expected to show up and do it.  After the Camp Fire, though, I saw it work on an enormous scale.  Everybody in town wanted to do something, and they did -- but it was easy to find things to do through the churches.  There was a website at mine that let people sign up to host families and say whether they could deal with pets/wheelchairs/babies/etc. so people were matched up easily.  Trucks of toys arrived and the kids were told to organize them into a giant Christmas store (the usual police-sponsored Toys for Tots, only huge).  Most teens would have liked to do something like that, but a lot might not have the opportunity as easily.  Trucks of furniture showed up and the call would go out to come unload.  At the same time, if one elderly lady with asthma was suffering from the smoke, a call would go out and somebody would come up with an air filtering machine, take it over there, and get her taken care of. 

A bunch of teens organizing a zillion toys for kids who lost their homes
I don't know of a secular equivalent of this, but we need to figure one out.  Church is becoming less common, but those community needs are still there.  The dissolution of community life appears to be driving a lot of our problems.  I talked about this with my oldest, who is totally uninterested in church but retains a lot of that community training, and who was very interested in the question because it's very visible.

Anyway, there was a lot more to this book -- it's quite long and contains a lot of fascinating analysis, both of communities that are disintegrating, and of ones that are thriving, plus a lot more. 

The same three things we saw with the erosion of the family we see with the erosion of community: it is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map. 

Half the problems we think of as problems of poverty are problems of eroded civil society.  half the problems we think of as problems of modernity are really problems of eroded civil society. (147)  [I recently saw another book making this point: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg.  The first chapter is about libraries!]

When central government grows past a certain point, civil society retreats. (157)

This is the tendency of a large central state: when you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the horizontal bonds between individuals.  What's left is a whole that by some measures is more cohesive, but individuals who are individually all less connected to one another. (197)

...we couldn't tell the story of Trump without discussing community.  They story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind out opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality. (205)

Just as Occupy Wall Street turned to the central state for relief from alienation and disenfranchisement, Trumpism offered a strongman to restore things to their proper order.  The contradiction should be obvious, though.
The disenfranchisement Americans have felt is not really a matter of the federal government being taken away from the people -- Washington was always too distant, always too large for any individual or family to have meaningful sway.  Modern disenfranchisement was really the disappearance and erosion of the layers of society where an individual and a family can make a difference. 
But once that middle layer of society is gone for long enough, many people -- especially those most effected by its absence -- can no longer imagine it or see its value.  Instead, knowing in their hears that they are political animals made to shape the world around them, they look to the most visible level of politics (because it's the one that is still there and not fading) and imagine that it's at that level that they're supposed to live their potential as political animals. (214)

Local institutions of civil society allow for more pluralism, more voice, and more human-level politics.  Centralized politics raise the stakes and make the ordinary man feel powerless. (216)
I'm officially declaring this one to be a Book Everyone Should Read.  Whether you do or not, though, think about what you are doing in your community, and whether there is more you could do in some way that fits you.


________________________________________
The whole time I was reading Carney commenting on the community benefits churches bring, the same line kept repeating in my head, so here it is:


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

20 Books of Summer

Hooray, it's that time again, when we start planning our summer reading and Cathy posts her #20booksofsummer challenge!


Cathy says:
Can I keep up my winning streak and complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge this year?
From 3 June until 3 September I will be attempting to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in with your own 20 (or 10, or 15!), read along with some of the books or just cheer me on as I try and get that dreaded 746 down by another 20 in just 3 months.
So I spent a happy evening checking out my TBR and library shelves, and here is the result.


 It was very difficult to pick 20 books and I wound up with 22, telling myself that two are alternates in case I hate some.  I was quite tempted to choose 20 books from different countries for my Reading All Around the World project, but I decided that I wanted a variety.  I wound up with 4 Around the World titles (that is, for countries I haven't hit yet), 12 Classics Club books, 6 from my TBR (3 from Adam's list and 3 random), 3 chosen for WIT in August, and a few just for fun because I want them.  I have plenty more if I run out.
  1. The Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher (CC)
  2. Four Birds of Noah's Ark, by Thomas Dekker (CC)
  3. Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer (WIT)
  4. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen (RAAtW, TBR, WIT)
  5. Paradise of the Blind, by by Duong Thu Huong (CC, RAAtW, WIT)
  6. The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (RAAtW)
  7. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola (CC, RAAtW)
  8. The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie
  9. Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry by Hartmann von Aue (CC)
  10. Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (CC)
  11. A House Full of Females, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (TBR)
  12. Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch
  13. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett (CC, TBR)
  14. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope (CC, TBR)
  15. The Wanderer (Anglo-Saxon bits and bobs) (CC)
  16. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut (CC, TBR)
  17. The Plague, by Albert Camus (CC)
  18. The Lais of Marie de France (CC)
  19. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier (TBR)
  20. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
  21. The Pendulum, by Julie Lindahl
  22. Ganga, by Julian Hollick (TBR)
I sure hope I'll have more time for reading this summer than I have had lately!  There are so many fascinating books out there...and I find more at work all the time.  Right now, my brain is telling me to "stock up for summer" despite the piles of books all over the place.  I tried to resist but it didn't work very well.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life, by E. M. Shepard

Last Christmas, I had utterly failed to find a good gift for my mom and had fallen back on nice socks.  We all like socks, but still.  And on December 23, Lory posted about her new book -- a memoir by E. H. Shepard, who illustrated Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.  This was clearly the ideal gift!  It didn't arrive for weeks, but eventually my mom got a really good present, and then I borrowed it too.  Naturally!





Drawn from Memory is the story of Shepard's early childhood until the age of 8, and it is utterly charming.  He was a the child of a fairly ordinary middle-class Victorian family in London, albeit one with theatrical and artistic connections.  It was 1887, and life was very exciting, what with horses and cabs, ships in the seas, and a Jubilee for the Queen.  Shepard just shares a succession of memories of ordinary Victorian life, from childhood illnesses to exciting moments such as a neighborhood fire or a trip to the pantomime.  Such as:

I remembered very well my first introduction to sea-bathing. Father and Mother had been in for a dip and had taken Ethel with them. Cyril and I were handed over to the tender mercies of the Bathing Woman. This formidable female was dressed in a serge bathing dress and a straw bonnet.  She had red and brawny arms and her skin looked as if it were covered with barnacles. As she spent most of her life in the water, this may even have been the case. Her method was simple: the more difficult subjects, like my brother and myself, were tucked under her arms, where, our tender skin suffering acutely from contact with the rough serge, we were carried out to sea. The protesting body was then ducked, not once but several times, according to how the victim took it. The more he yelled, the more the duckings, until, nearly asphyxiated, he was reduced to silence. The torturer, meanwhile, in what was supposed to be a soothing voice, repeated, 'Dippy go under, dear!'  with each immersion, though her final remark to me did not sound like that. It took a lot to reduce me to silence and I was handed back to my parents with the comment: 'Well, that's the last I want to see of 'im!'
When Shepard was ten, his mother became ill and died, which was an enormous shock and loss to them all.  Thus he begins his second memoir at that point, when his life was shattered.  He and his siblings went to live with the aunts for a while.  School also began around then and was quite horrible for a while.  There were, however, many better moments as well, and as young Ernest had always been talented at drawing, he started to attend art classes.  This memoir goes all the way up through art school, his engagement with his wife Florence (Pie), who was a talented painter, and the beginning of their married life.

Both volumes, as you'd expect, are liberally sprinkled with lovely little illustrations.   They're a joy to read and I'd highly recommend them to anyone interested in Victorian life or, as we might say, the lives of great illustrators.  Shepard's work is so well known -- almost anyone would recognize the drawings of Winnie the Pooh -- and this might be a nice selection for any Pooh or Wind in the Willows fan.

"simply messing about in boats"

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Born a Crime

I feel like it's been a really long time since I wrote any posts, but I guess it hasn't been all that long really.  A lot has happened, is all.  I went on a trip!  I visited one of my best friends, who now lives in Utah, and we went to a women's conference at BYU.  I spent a leisurely hour touring the BYU main library, and now I need to live there.  Otherwise, I've mostly been working a lot -- just a week and a bit left to go! -- hanging out with the family, and trying to get sort of caught up with the house in spare moments (a bootless effort, I fear).  Two very busy weekends in a row have meant no time for Howling Frog and now I have a large pile of books!  One of which is...

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

You've probably seen this book everywhere; I know I have.  I know who Trevor Noah is, but I've seen almost nothing of what he's done, since I hardly watch any TV.  That does not matter, though, because this memoir is not at all about becoming a big star in comedy.  It's about growing up in South Africa, being born under apartheid and living through the post-apartheid years.  And it's especially about Noah's mother, who is about as dauntless and brave a person as you could hope to find.

Noah, with a Swiss father and a Xhosa mother, was literally 'born a crime' because apartheid was still in full force and cross-racial dating or marriage was punishable by prison time.   As you all know, the races were strictly divided into black, colored, and white -- and little Trevor looked colored but was not, which meant that he learned to navigate a lot of different groups and speak several languages, because he figured out that if he could speak to people as a member of the group, he was accepted as one. 

He was also, evidently, about the naughtiest kid ever born -- smart and undeterred by painful experience ("I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new"). 

This memoir consists largely of three ingredients: his mom's amazing bravery, insightful descriptions of how South African society worked, and his own hair-raising adventures.  Of course, Noah manages to turn events that must have been quite terrifying into comedic episodes that make you laugh -- without taking away the seriousness of what happened.  It's a very interesting read, and deserves the attention it's been getting.







Friday, May 3, 2019

Belonging

 Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home, by Nora Krug

This showed up on the new books cart at work and I couldn't resist.  That happens a lot, and it's becoming a problem, because I can't read as fast as I can take books home...so I'm trying to only take the books that I don't have on a list.   It probably isn't helping much, but maybe I can read a lot over the summer.  (I say that every summer and it never works.)  Anyway, this was a graphic novel of sorts, and therefore wouldn't take long...

It's actually more like a scrapbook, collage, and diary.  Nora Krug grew up in Germany, and must be just about exactly my age.  This the record of her struggle with being German in the wake of the 20th century; growing up as a child with this sense of collective shame and guilt, while also not quite understanding what actually happened, and having these blank spaces where family members might have been.  The questions: what did her grandparents actually do...or not do?  How did they feel?  How do you develop a sense of heimat, of your home space, or is that not possible?

As an adult, Krug moved to New York City, married a Jewish guy, and continued to wrestle with her family history  -- her lack of knowledge of it.  This is the record of her search for information, interspersed with memories of childhood, favorite German things (often familiar to me too), and historical items picked up at flea markets.  It's entirely absorbing.

Krug keeps her focus right on World War II, and not a lot else.  There is almost nothing about the split between East and West Germany, though she spent her childhood in it.  There is nothing about reunification, which must have happened when she was about 15 or 16.  This is excellent for the memoir, but I would have been interested.

A really good read.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Zelmenyaners

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak

A couple of years ago, I read Outwitting History, about saving Yiddish literature from the dumpster of history.  IT was one of my favorite books of the year, and it put some Yiddish titles on my wishlist.  This was one of them, and I finally picked it up!

The Zelmenyaners appeared in a serial format in a Yiddish monthly magazine called Shtern (the Star), published in the Soviet Union.  It was actually two series; the first one ran in 1929 - 1930, and the second 1933 - 1935.  It became a comic family saga, about a Jewish family in Minsk.

None of the Zelmanyaners are actually named that.  Their father, Reb Zelmele, has been dead for a while now, but it's still his courtyard, with his descendants all living around in a big house, and little houses, and stables.  Bubbe Bashe is their matriarch, and she's so old she's like a little hen.  The four sons now have children and grandchildren, and so there are Zelmenyaners all over the place, all a bit alike.  And this is their story, which goes on as the USSR gets more powerful, and it shoves even those Zelmenyaners around.

The first series of stories is funnier than the second, but it's all interesting and enjoyable.  My favorite was probably Uncle Itshe, because
Apart from his family traits, Uncle Itshe has one all his own.  He sneezes like an explosion.  Once a sneeze of his caused a neighbor to faint. 
In the days of the Civil War, Uncle Itshe's sneezing was unnerving....
Me too, Uncle Itshe.  Me too.  Also he's a tailor, so he sews and sneezes, just like me.  Much later on, he has to give up being an independent and go to sew in a factory -- who ever heard of a factory of tailors?

There are all sorts of stories in this satirical story of Jewish Soviet life.  Great stuff, I wish it was better known.  Hooray for the Yiddish Book Center, and the folks who saved these books!


___________
The cover has words in Russian and Hebrew.  I can't read the Hebrew, but the Russian says народная, people.  As in, those are the people's tractors!  If you can read the Hebrew, please comment and tell me what it says.