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





Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“There Was No Creek and I am Still Alive” - A Short Story by Jenny Zhang, author of Sour Heart




Jenny Zhang on The Reading Life



Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang’s collection of short stories centring on young female Chinese immigrants living in The United States, is showing up on numerous Best Books of 2017 lists.  Were I to publish such a list on The Reading Life, for sure it would be included.

In December I have a Mini Short Story Project.  My goal is to post upon four Yiddish Short Stories and four 21st Century Stories by Americans.

Today’s American story could be right out of The Headlines, immigrants, pedophiles, social media controversies, the collapsing of the Family are all central to the story.  Our plot begins when the narrator, on the cusp of puberty when we first encounter her, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants now living in America.  We follow up to fifteen.  Her father is at first very protctive, he worries she will either drown in a creek or be murdered by grown men she meets online.  She has sex limited to touching with them and one of her teachers, her favorite one.  By now her father has left the family, living out on The street.   The scene in which the girl sees him and he apparently does not know her was very moving.

Her mother seems clueless about her daughter’s sexual activities.  

This is a very well done disturbing story.  It rings with truth.

I hope to follow Zhang for a long time.


Jenny Zhang, 33, was born in Shanghai and raised in New York. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction. She has two published collections of poetry, Hags and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, for which Zhang was compared to “a 21st-century Whitman, only female, Chinese, and profoundly scatological”. Sour Heart, a collection of short stories about New York’s Chinese American community largely told from the point of view of young girls, is the first book published by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Lenny imprint at Random House in the US.

Mel u






Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick - 2004




A Very Good Biographical Article from The Jewish Woman’s Encyclopaedia







When I was five minutes from finishing Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick I stopped reading.  It was eight PM and I wanted to start my next day with the sad pleasure of completing it still ahead of me.

As the novel opens our narrator Rosa , an eighteen orphan from the Bronx when we first meet her, has just gotten a job as a live in nanny for a family of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, it is 1935.  The father was at one time a highly regarded expert on an obscure Jewish sect, far from the main stream.  The mother, in an almost catatonic state when Rosa meets her, was once one of Germany’s leading physicists, an amazing accomplishment for a woman.  As the novel proceeds, we learn gradually the history of the family, she may have had an affair with the famous Ernin Schrodinger, he might be the biological father of one of her sons.  Her husband knows this and we see the impact of this on the marriage.  We see the family dynamics alter and Rosa grows through her relationships.

There is also a difficult teenage daughter and three younger rapidly Americanising sons.  The father is working on a scholarly project, eventually Rosa becomes his helper, the mother’s care giver and nanny for the sons.  

The family has a benefactor, a young man named James.  He was the basis for a highly successful series of children’s books his father wrote , sort of modelled on the Winnie the Poo series.  Once his father died he inherited a fortune with a perpetual income from sales.  

Rosa is a very bookish young woman,  loves Jane Eyre.  We see her develop, we learn about her strange father.  We see what it was like for the once wealthy refugee family.  

The Kindle edition of this book also contains two essays by Ozick, a brief interview and a set of questions to aid teachers and book club groups.

I look forward to reading much more of her work.

Mel u





Monday, December 11, 2017

“The Cafeteria” - A Short Story by Isaac Singer - December 28, 1968,in The New Yorker - translated from Yiddish



A Good Introduction to the History of The Yiddish Language

Obituary for Isaac Singer, from The New York Times




Isaac Singer was born in Poland in 1902 (some records reflect 1904),in 1935, concerned over Nazi Germany, which invaded Poland in 1939 and would have meant death in for him, he moved to New York City.  He continued to write books and novels in Yiddish.  In 1978 he was awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature.  Many now consider his Collected Short Stories his crowning achievement.  He was dedicated to preserving Yiddish cultural heritage in the face of the Holocaust in which six millions speakers of Yiddish died.  Here are his closing remarks in his 1978 Nobel Acceptance Speech.

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists - rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

“The Cafeteria”, wonderfully read in the Podcast from The Great Short Stories of Eastern European Jews hosted by Leonard Nimoy, is one of his most famous short stories (the runtime for the podcast is fifty minutes, I could not find the story online).  Set in New York City, maybe around 1953, it is narrated by a man who could well be Singer.  He tells us he eats his lunch at an inexpensive cafeteria, even though he now has the money to eat anywhere, so he can spend time with other Yiddish speaking persons who frequent them, many are Holocaust survivors.  There is much political debate among the mostly male group.  Some have fitted in perfectly in their new country, others have issues.  

One day a woman, originally from Moscow, joins the luncheon crowd and soon attracts a lot of attention.  She is single and lives with her father.  He lost his legs in a Siberian work camp but his spirit is strong.  The narrator becomes friends with her, we learn she has a wealthy suitor.  Her father wants her to marry the man, a bookbinder, for security but she refuses to marry a man she does not love.  Her husband died fighting the Germans.  

As the story processes Singer shows us how the Holocaust has shaped lives, many, including perhaps the narrator, have “survivor’s guilt”. A good bit of time goes by.  After a long break the narrator returns only to find the cafeteria was destroyed in a fire.  I do not want to tell too much more of the plot of this wonderful story.

“The Cafeteria” is clearly the product of high intelligence honed by much experience and deep reading.  

I first read Singer in 2011, he was my introduction to Yiddish Literature.  I wish his Collected Stories were available as a Kindle.  

Four Hollywood movies were based on his work, I think Yentil is the most famous.  

Mel u













Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez








The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America by Andres Resendez (2016) should be on Reading list of anyone with a serious interest in the colonial era history of Spanish ruled South American, the Caribbean Islands and the western United States.  All teachers of history should read this book and all libraries that are able should stock this book.  It is a very illuminating account of what Resendez calls “The Other Slavery”, that of Indians, largely but not entirely by colonists from Spain.  He correlates this to transportation of Africans into slavery in much detail, as he knows this is what most will think about when they hear the words “Slavery in America”.  He estimated about four millions Indians were enslaved by the Spanish  colonists, as everything from sugar mill workers, silver and gold mine workers, House servants of all sorts 
beasts of burden, concubines (the Spanish came without women), and agricultural labourers.  Slaves were even used as foot soldiers in raids to acquire other slaves.

Slavery was widely practiced throughout Pre-Columbian America, which made it easier for the Spanish to enslave natives.  There were numerous variations of slavery, from outright chsttel slaves, to those sentenced as slaves for punishment to those in debt bondage.

Resendez tells us a full history of Indian slavery would require a book at least thirty times as long as The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America.  Instead he focuses on selected places and times detailing How slavery functiioned in a variety of social and economic circumstances.  The Spanish Crown was actually against the enslavement of Indians so we see the many ways the for from Spain colonists kept slaves, using The many loopholes in the regulations.

We get to know several leading colonial slavemasters, we go along on slaving raids, we learn the value of different types of slaves.  We also learn How slavery played a role in the very diverse Indian  societies.  Resendez takes us everywhere from the huge Mexico City area to small pueblos in what is now The American southwest.

Indians were often shipped for from home, I was shocked to learn of 1000s of Indians taken from the Carolinas to work in the deadly sugar fields on the Caribbean Islands, in the 1600s. Resendez in a fascinating page even talks about slavery as a pre-colonial part of Society in The Philippines.  

Indians societies were ravaged by European diseases to which they had no immunity, especially smallpox.  It is not possible to give exact numbers but Resendez says the combined impact of slavery and disease reduced indeginous populations in many areas to less than ten percent.  In Florida The death rate was close to 100 percent.  He tells about how the early Mormans looked at the Indians and spends a good bit of time in old California, showing us how Indian slaves labored but did not profit from the gold rush.  We learn how Indians treated their own slaves and traded in captured colonial children.  

Resendez takes us up to The American Civil War Era and in his very interesting epilogue talks about slavery in the 21st Century.

The Other Slavery-The Uncovered Story of Slavery in America by Andres Resendez is a very well constructed narrative, fully documented.  There is much more than I have mentioned in this book.  

I highly recommend this book.  

The author’s self description from his Amazon page


I grew up in Mexico City where I got my BA and worked in various capacities--the best job I ever had was as a historical consultant for telenovelas (soap operas). After getting a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, I taught at Yale, the University of Helsinki, and UC Davis. My latest book, The Other Slavery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), tells about the enslavement and trafficking of hundreds of thousands of Indians in North America from the time of Columbus to the late 1800s. I have also written about the dawn of European colonization as seen through the eyes of the last four survivors of a disastrous expedition to Florida in the 1520s (A Land So Strange--Basic Books, 2007); and another book that explores how Spanish speakers, Native Americans, and Anglo-American settlers living in Texas and New Mexico came to think of themselves as members of one national community or another in the years leading up to the U.S.-Mexico War (Changing National Identities at the Frontier--Cambridge University Press, 2005).


Mel u
































Saturday, December 9, 2017

“A Feast for the Poor” - A Short Story by Mordecai Spector -1912- Translated from Yiddish










There was a tradition among Eastern European Jews  that at the wedding a host was obligated to provide the poor of the community with a wonderful feast.  This gives the host, normally the father of the bride, an opportunity to flash his wealth and gives him the chance to show his generosity.  In today’s very funny story, we see how the poor work this tradition.


This morning’s story “A Feast for the Poor” by Mordecai Spector (their are slight variations found in the spelling of his first name) is just a pure delight, funny and sharply satirical.   The bride’s father had laid out a bountiful feast, Spector’s description made me wish I was there, he sent his head man to the local village with three big wagons to get the poor.  His man comes back and tells him the people say they already went to another big wedding feast, they won’t come to his feast unless he gives everyone a ruble.  This is potentially a huge loss of face.  He goes to the town to negotiate on this, to see if they will take less money.  I won’t tell more so as not to spoil this delightful story.  

 Leonard Nimoy does a very good job introducing the story and it is perfectly spoken

Mordecai Spector was born in the Ukraine in 1858, to a prominent Jewish Family.  Traditionally educated, he moved to Odessa, an intellectual hotspot, at 19 and became involved with he left The Soviet Union and moved to New York City, he continued to write, largely in Yiddish until his death in 1925.  (The link from Yivo  is very good.)

This story, including the introduction, can be heard in about 16 minutes. I really enjoyed “A Feast for the Poor”.

Mel u

































Wednesday, December 6, 2017

”Gooseberries” - A Short Story by Anton Chekhov, 1888 - Introducing Elizabeth B. Yousopov, Consultant Upon Czarist Literature









As I mentioned in The Reading Life Review for November I have asked a few highly literate individuals, mostly associated with the extended Bousweau family, Ambrosia was a great help in this, to lend their occasional expertise to the blog.  As we approach our ninth year and visit five million I felt a need for help which  I am sure will enhance The Reading Life.  

Elizabeth Bousweau Yousopov is  joining us as a consultant upon Czarist Era Russian Literature.  As readers of the classic travel book, Tea and 
Tokyo With Nicky by Ruffington Bousweau, 1902, know, a strong connection was made between Ruffington  Bousweau and Grand Duke Felix Yousopov during a tour of Japan.  This connection still exists between The families. Elizabeth was married to Rolf Yousopov,  grand nephew of Felix.  The marriage was by mutual consent morgantic.  They had four daughters. She currently lives in Paris, now a widow, with two Russian Blue Cats.  She is considered a world class authority on Czarist Era Russian Literature.  When asked about post revolutionary literature she said there was none.  

Mel u

Anton Chekhov is nearly universally regarded as the greatest short story writer of all time.  He also was employed on one of the Yousopov estates to medically certify the health of serfs prior to purchasing or selling.  

“Gooseberries” is a beautiful story, structured as one gentleman telling the story of his brother’s life history to a friend as they made their way through a snowstorm.   The brother, two years older than the narrator, worked many years as a civil servant but his great dream was to own an estate in the country, one with Gooseberries bushes.  At forty he married an ugly widow for her money.  She died after three years, and at last the brother can buy an estate.  As the narrator, on his way there arrives he and his friend are shocked by the beauty of the young serf woman who greets them.  Serf Women were, of course, of mistresses of estate owners or their sons.  His brother is very happy.  The narrator  thinks to himself that the happy and content must know of the misery of others.   He feels his brother lacks the depth to see his own vulnerability.  Chekhov wonderfully evokes the beauty of the Russian country side. He rightfully says any Russian aristocrat who has ever lived in the country will see himself as from the country, not the city.  You can see this in Tolstoy and Turgenev.  

I urge you to read the article by George Saunders, a writer Mel u greatly admires.



Elizabeth B. Yousopov
Consultant upon Czarist Era Literature
The Reading Life















Tuesday, December 5, 2017

“Master Mashai” - A Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore - 1921





The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in The Indian Short Story







The first Asian Nobel Prize winner  was Rabindranath Tagore who won in 1913 for his vast output  of poetry and short stories.    Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born in Kolkata, Indian into a family whose wealth and life style can now only be seen in movies.    His father owned an estate so huge that at one point in his life Tagore traveled through it on a luxurious barge and was met on the river bank by tenants paying token rents to him.     Tagore was educated in classical Indian literature and at age eight began to write poetry and ended up reshaping the Bengali Language.      His moral authority became so great that he was able to write the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh,.   He is considered prior to WWII and perhaps even now the most widely read Indian author both in the west and in India.   He wrote a lot of very much loved short stories, mostly in Bengali.   His stories are almost like parables and read like they could be from the wisdom books of any of the great religions.

I have been Reading the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore on and off for about six years.  I was happy to find a few days ago a digital edition of his selected stories for sale for $0.99.  Yesterday I read for the first time a very interesting story about the relationship of a spoiled young man and his tutor.

The father of the young man lives from the interest on money he inherited from his family.  Until, somewhat late in life, his wife finally has a child, a son, he is very tight with his money.  Gradually he gets used to spending money on his son.  He hires a distinquished tutor but a riff develops between the tutor and his son.




One day the son of one of the families cooks brings her son to work.  The father finds out young man is an accomplished scholar and he offers him a job as live in tutor.  His son and tutor bond, the boy calls him “Master Mashai”.  

A lot will happen, much of it very sad, as the plot advances and the boy ages.  I will leave the remaining plot action unspoiled.  The characters are all very well done.  

Selected Stories of Rabindranath Tagore is published by General Press in New Delhi.  I wish they would have included the first publication data for the stories and credited a Translator but for $0.99 I guess you should not complain too much.

You may read the story online here 




Mel u








Monday, December 4, 2017

“The Red Bow” - A Short Story by George Saunders - April 21, 2009, in Esquire



Click here to read “The Red Bow” by George Saunders

Webpage of George Saunders




In December we plan to post on at least four 21st Century American Short Stories and four Yiddish Stories.  In January we are planning to pair Bolivian and Iraqi stories.  If this works we will continue this through 2018, maybe from now on.  

This morning’s story is by George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, Booker Prize Winner for 2017 and several collections of short stories.  (You can find lots of information on his webpage, linked above.) There are a number of very interesting conversations and talks with him on YouTube, I especially enjoyed his conversations with Karen Russell.  

“Kill every dog, every cat, she said very slowly. Kill every mouse, every bird. Kill every fish. Anyone objects, kill them too.” -  from “The Red Bow”

“The Red Bow” is set in a vilage, we don’t learn where.  We know it is close to now as one of The characters checks their E Mail.  

A vilage child has been killed by a dog.  Panic spreads and in the very moving opening scene the Family whose daughter was killed shoots their other four dogs, animals like Family to them.  They are not rabid, no one knows how they got sick and really there is no evidence they are.  In a vilage meeting they vote to kill all The dogs and for extra safety the cats also.  This is all caused by the death of the one girl, based only on an irrational fear.

To me this seemed like a fable about predjudice, if one of millions of a race is a criminal, then they all are.  We see this attitude sadly spreading in American and Europe now.  If you look back to what happened to Yiddish speakers this story may have a deeper impact.  

You can read this story at the link above.  

Ruffington Bousweau, IV, Intern
The Reading Life 













Sunday, December 3, 2017

“Kaddish” - A Short Story by Dvora Baron -1916- translated from Yiddish by Naomi Seidman








Click  Here for a Very Good Basic History of The Yiddish Language 

A Comprehensive Bio on Dvora Baron - From The Jewish Womon’s Archive

Yiddish Literature on The Reading Life




This month I am setting up a Reading Life Mini Short Story Project.  The objective is to post at least once a week on a 21st Century Short Story by an American and also a story translated from Yiddish during December.  Next month I am thinking about pairing Bolivian Short Stories along with short Stories by authors from Iran.  February might be Italy and Canada .  March will for sure be Irish Short Story Month, will ponder the pairing but I might just focus on the Irish, so much there.  

A few days ago I acquired a very good book, Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories, An Anthology edited by Sandra Beck and introduced by Francine Prose.   Among the twenty two stories in the book more than half are by women.  The editor includes well done concise biographies not just of the authors but of the gifted translators also.  Francine Prose talks about the reason why Yiddish literature was so preponderantly male authored.  At $5.95 for the Kindle edition it is a solid value.  

“Perhaps what’s most striking about Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars is the force with which it reminds us that—not so very long ago and not so very far away—women had to struggle for even the smallest fraction of the autonomy and self-determination that we take for granted today. Set mostly in Europe, the United States, and Israel, mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of these fictions concern women who must fight just to entertain and express a simple opinion of their own or to exert the slightest influence on the shape of their own destinies.”. From Francine Prose’s introduction.

The creation of Yiddish literature close to ended in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland.  Academic interest in Yiddish literature is very high.   My interest in Yiddish literature was boosted when Yale University Press very kindly gave me the eleven volume Yale Yiddish Library, a magnificent collection, four years ago.  

“Kaddish” by Dvora Baron, translated by Naomi Seidman, just four pages, focuses powerfully on a young woman deeply moved over the sadness her grandfather feels because he has no son, he had ten daughters, to preform Kaddish for him, a  prayer of mourning which traditionally can be done only by a son.  The granddaughter finds a teacher who will give her the required knowledge to complete The Kaddish properly.  The ending of the story reflects the deep seated male domination of the culture.  Upon the death of her beloved grandfather, she proceeds to the funeral services at the temple to preform Kaddish.  Her way is blocked by a group of men.  She wakes up later on the pavement after they beat her unconscious. 

Dvora Baron has a second story in the collection which I should get to next year.  



Dvora Baron (1887-1956) was born in Belorussia to a rabbinic family, and immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1910. During World War I, she lived in Egypt. Baron began writing at an early age: her first stories were published in 1902. Later, she edited the literary section of Hapoel Hatzair, a weekly published by her husband, and continued to work as an editor until his death in 1937. Fluent in several languages, Baron also translated the works of Flaubert, Chekhov and Jack London, as well as many others, into Hebrew.  

As one of the first women writers of Hebrew fiction, Dvora Baron occupies a special place in Hebrew literature. She grew up in a Lithuanian shtetl, and the suffering people who came to her father, a rabbi, for advice and support are an integral part in her work. Baron was the first recipient of the Bialik Prize (1933) and was also awarded the Brenner Prize. The First Day and Other Stories is included among "The Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature" (2001). - from The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature 


Mel u



Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Two Men Arrive in a Village”. - A Short Story By Zadie Smith - from The New Yorker June 6, 2016







Zadie Smith is one of my favourite contemporary writers.  So far I have posted upon three of her novels, Swing Time, On Beauty and NW as well as several of her short stories.  I am currently slowly working my way through two of her essay collections.  I hope and predict she will when the Nobel Prize one day.

“Two Men Arrive in a Village” can be read online on the webpage of The New Yorker (see link above). There is also a podcast of Smith reading the story (run time twelve minutes).  I suggest reading it first, then listen to the elegant podcast, there is something special about listening to an author read her work.

My main purpose this morning is to just record a few thoughts on the story and to let anyone into Zadie Smith know that she has another great short story online .

The story reads almost like a parable, it is set in sub equatorial Africa in recent history, it could be many other places.  Two armed men enter a Village just as the sun sets,  they try to make themselves initially liked.  The villagers know 
 they are there to steal and will feel entitled to have sex with the young women of their picking, claiming they want to breed future warriors. 

Smith made me feel I was there, trying to be calm and brave but above all praying for them to be gone.  I don’t want to tell more of the events of the story.  I found it moving and honest.  It is a tale for five thousand years ago and from a next week CNN feature.

Mel u, Director and Founder
The Reading Life