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review 2019-11-19 17:06
The Canadian Girl, or the Pirate of the Lakes: A Story of the Affections (attrib. to Mary E. Bennett)
The Canadian girl; or, The pirate of the... The Canadian girl; or, The pirate of the lakes; a story of the affections - Authoress of Jews daughter

This is an enjoyably bad oddity, a romance fiction set in Upper Canada, obviously by an English author who gleaned her knowledge entirely from reading. It is confidently ascribed in various sources to the almost completely unknown Mary E. Bennett, who was sister to a publisher. The date given to the work on the copy I read (the University of Toronto, Robarts library copy) is suspiciously early, given that the only other edition available dates from 1870, and "The Jew's Daughter" referenced on the pictorial title page ("by the author of") is actually dated 1839 in some sources. Hard to say - there is no reference to confederation, and the "governor" introduced has a fictitious though plausible name, Markham.

 

Though I have called it a romance fiction, the author herself appears to have had difficulty with genre classification. "To those who think that the orders of fiction should be preserved as distinct from each other as the orders of architecture, both the treatment and design of this work will give great offence. It is not strictly a domestic or a sentimental story, neither is it an humorous or a fashionable story; nor does it claim kindred with any decided school whatever, but partakes, perhaps, of all." Actually, the structure is pretty much standard romance fiction, but it runs into some difficulties because the hero, Clinton, is at first set up as a dissolute villain who seduces an innocent damsel (named, of course, Lucy). That being the case, even when the husband of the woman he loves, Lady Hester, conveniently offs himself, he cannot be allowed a happy ending, but has to meet an untimely and entirely out-of-the blue end based on a forgotten incident from 700 pages before: his sins find him out, as it were. None of these people is the "Canadian Girl" of the title. That honour goes to Clinton's sister, Jane - that's a spoiler, sorry - a rather pallid character who ends up paired with Lucy's similarly pallid brother to provide the happy ending.

 

The setting of the novel is similarly conventional: there is the relative safety, and consciousness of social mores, of aristocratic or middle-class houses (even here in the New World, a pirate ends up actually being a nobleman, with a mansion to inherit, while Arthur & Lucy's father is a clergyman). Then there is the thrill of the uncivilized "out there" - and in Canada the wild can be much more wild than the woods and forests of England. Here, the author demonstrates the difficulties of building a world you're completely unfamiliar with, when the resources at hand were so very limited. It is true we get a fairly splendid if rather over-wrought description of Niagara Falls and that general region, obviously drawn from travel literature. However, our author fails miserably to populate early Ontario with the right kind of wild threats. There are, it is true, a couple of First Nations people, the Christianized kind, of course, introduced in the first chapter. But they are not presented as any kind of threat, and instead of having any ongoing presence are soon supplanted as primary woods-dwellers by a band of gypsies! By and large, the flora and fauna of these woods are also easily transferable back to the more familiar and comfortable British setting. It makes one suspect that an earlier attempt at a romance may have been grafted on to the more exotic setting, though that's entirely speculation on my part.

 

The Pirate of the Lakes, of the subtitle, is a quasi-sympathetic figure whose sins, by the end, are largely being excused by dint of introducing more villainous characters who are "worse" than him. Here is the last of several self-justifications (he has just poisoned himself to escape the gallows).

 

"But suicide is a great crime, my son," interposed the Pastor.


"I fear it is," gravely returned the Pirate. "Heaven pardon it! but still, to my mind, the circumstances of my case partially excuse the deed. I have never shed blood except in self-defence. I have not deserved a public death. Perpetual imprisonment, exile, any punishment short of death I had deserved - but not death. I did not feel bound, therefore, to render up myself to the gallows. No law of God required me to do so. Such being my view of the case, I felt at liberty to dispose of myself in the way I have. The honourable name I have inherited is hereby saved from some degradation, and yet i have suffered the full penalty of my misdeeds."

 

This is a Victorian novel. There's a lot of Protestant moralizing. Since it's set partly in English Canada and partly in French Canada, the characters are perforce split between Protestant and Catholic, and the dancing around the issue would provide some interesting fodder for those interested in the state of anti-Catholicism in England - if the publication date is indeed 1838, then the whole movement towards Catholic emancipation is still well within living memory for the readers. One character in a historical flashback (the Pirate's mother) is immured in a nunnery and treated harshly, but other than that the tone is often remarkably conciliatory towards, at least, lay Catholics.

 

The writing isn't bad; it's what you'd expect from an intelligent woman with a strong background in the products of the circulating library. It's both literate and thoughtful, in entirely derivative ways. Absurdities aside - or maybe partly because of the absurdities - I quite enjoyed reading "The Canadian Girl".

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review 2017-10-27 11:44
A clean romance, where fate, faith, and history come together.
By Light of Hidden Candles - Daniella Levy

Thanks to NetGalley, to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team. If you’re an author looking for reviews, check here) and to the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel fits into several genres. It is a romance (a clean or sweet romance. I’m not sure if the same that there are Christian books, there is also a category for Jewish books, but if there is, it would fall into that as well), where fate seems to conspire to unite the two protagonists whilst their faith separates them (Alma, the young American woman is an Orthodox Sephardic Jew, while Manuel, the Spanish young man is not only Catholic but he is considering priesthood). It is also a historical novel. Both protagonists have always wondered about their past, their genealogy and family histories, and are fascinated by some stories about their ancestors that have been passed down for generations although with little in the way of evidence to confirm them. They end up joining a project to do some family research in the historical archives in Madrid and they pair up as a team. Whilst we follow their research and investigation, with alternating chapters in the first-person, told from each one of the protagonists points of view, we also have some chapters set in the XV century in Spain (1492), told in the third person, from the point of view of Miriam, a Jewish young woman whose father’s dealings with conversos (Jews who had converted to Catholicism) gets him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (yes, Monty Python get a mention, don’t worry). The book is also a book about religious and personal identity and faith, and it goes into a fair amount of detail about the Jewish faith, not only about customs but also about points of faith and doctrine. For both, Alma and Manuel, their faiths are fundamental parts of who they are and they are both determined not to allow their friendship to cross boundaries and develop into something that is impossible if they are to remain faithful to their beliefs. I think you probably can guess where this is going.

The characters are likeable, quirky (especially Alma. Manuel seemed too good to be true at times, but then, male characters in romances sometimes are, and this is not a story full of rogues), and easy to empathise with. Alma’s family and her interaction with them feel real and give the reader a good sense of the joys and the struggles of trying to keep the tradition alive despite the pressures of the modern world. Manuel’s mother is very peculiar, although everything is explained later, and he does not have other contacts or close family, so his chapters focus mostly on his doubts about his faith and on his relationship with Alma. Their interaction is sometimes funny (rather than Romeo and Juliet this is more like Much Ado About Nothing), sometimes poignant, and sometimes deep and reflective. They can be at times naïve (they have both lived what appear to be quite sheltered lives, despite their very different backgrounds and circumstances), unaware, and blinkered (there is much made of the prejudice in Spain, both in the past and now, but they don’t seem aware of any issues on that respect in the USA), but they are devoted to their families and their projects, they are well-liked by all they come in contact with, and meet interesting people whose stories illustrate multiple aspects of living according to a religious faith.

The novel travels with the characters, providing a wonderful background for the story (New York, Granada, Madrid, Lorca, Cartagena), without long and tiresome descriptions, just enough detail to fire up the imagination and transport the readers there.

There is mystery (well, there are several mysteries) and coincidences, luck, and fate play a huge part in the story. I don’t think many readers will be surprised by what happens, although, like in many romances, the beauty is in the detail, the process, and in how seeing how things will come together in the end. And yes, the ending is satisfying.

I would recommend this novel to readers who love romances with a big dose of both fate and faith, who like clean novels (no swear words, no sex), are interested in the Jewish faith and its history, and enjoy the company of warm-hearted characters who deserve the best of luck.

 

 

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review 2016-11-17 09:51
Some things never change
In The Shadow of David (The Secret Rebellion Book 1) - Martin Baggen

Thanks to NetGalley and the author for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel will polarise readers. Because of its rewriting (or perhaps reinterpreting) the facts of the life of Jesus (or Yeshua in the book) committed Christians might find it difficult to read (if not altogether offensive). Entire episodes of the life of Christ depicted as sleights-of-hand set in order to gather support and get all Jews together under a Leader will sound irreverent at the very least.

Those readers with no particular attachment to Christian beliefs might have other issues with the novel. The story is told from many different points of view, alternating but not always in the same order, by characters whose names are sometimes very similar. Especially at first, this might be confusing, as we are not sure where we are or who is talking to us. Readers who have at least a superficial working knowledge of the Bible will come to identify many of the historical figures/characters that appear in the novel, although I personally think a cast of characters with brief information and perhaps identifying them by the names they are best known would help.

All the characters are intriguing, especially to people who might have read very different versions of them. I particularly enjoyed Myriam (Mary Magdalen), who in this version is a shaker and mover, a thinking woman, and one determined to get her people out of the Roman clutches. She’s strong, independent, determined, and takes charge of her destiny without hesitation (although there are doubts, unavoidably so).  Yeshua is difficult to reconcile with the image I have of Jesus, but that doesn’t make him any less interesting (perhaps more interesting even). The book is quite short and although there is no time spent delving deeply into each character, there is enough to whet readers’ appetites and to make us hope for more development in future instalments.

The book doesn’t provide lots of detail about the places visited and is not heavy on descriptions. On the other hand, it does a good job at portraying the politics, the economic relationships and the power struggles between the different players. It manages to give an utterly modern spin to the conflicts of the time. This is not the history of dusty respectful tomes that only list “facts” but rather, a dynamic and familiar state of affairs that will make us think.

This reimagining of the story of Jesus as a conspiracy/ploy to conquer power and move people might not fit in easily in the category of historical fiction (not enough detail, too many liberties taken, not sure about how closely the language and customs have been adapted from the originals), but as a challenge to our preconceived notions and a new way of looking at a story that perhaps we’ve never dared to question, it succeeds. And it has some pretty amazing characters too. You might like it or not, but I can assure you that if you read it, you won’t forget it in a hurry.

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text 2016-11-01 14:56
Jews vs Zombies
Jews vs Omnibus: Jews vs Aliens and Jews vs Zombies - Naomi Alderman,Daniel Polansky,Sarah Lotz,Shimon Adaf,Rachel Swirsky,Eric Kaplan,Rebecca Levene,Lavie Tidhar,Sarah Anne Langton

So that happened! 

 

For whatever reason, I ending up being assigned a bunch of Jewish science fiction (or science fiction written by Jewish writers, if you prefer) by my editor, which ended up being a fun mini-class. I picked this up as it's edited by the fabulous Lavie Tidhar. His A Man Lies Dreaming is one of those most bananas alt-history pulp meltdowns; it must be seen to be believed. 

 

I only read Jews vs Zombies, but BL doesn't have anything but the omnibus listed. Like most short story collections, it's a mix of better and worse. "Zayinim" by Adam Roberts is a standout, a sly alt-history that could easily keep going to novel length, given the richness of the detail. "The Scapegoat Factory" is funny, which one does not expect from zombie fiction, as is "the Friday People", but there the humor is black as pitch. The real Talmudic ones didn't work for me, too abstruse, but they may work for others. Definitely a better collection than the silly name implies. 

 

Ta da!

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review 2016-10-01 15:17
This is history, through a glass darkly.
Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto - Tilar Mazzeo

Thanks to Net Galley and to Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books for offering me a free ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I had not heard the story of Irena Sendler before I read this volume, and it is one of the great untold stories of War World II, unfortunately not the only one. In the last chapter of the book (before the copious acknowledgements and notes) the author speculates about the possible reasons for that neglect, including how tough life was for those who had supported the Polish Resistance in the years after the war, under Soviet control, and also personal difficulties and even change in religious feelings. By the time Irena Sendler wrote her memoirs she was in her nineties and it must have been impossible to recall all the details of what had happened at such a cruel time, fraught with risk and physical and mental hardship. I could not help but wonder if the fact that she was a woman also had a bearing on it. Heroism is expected in men, for whom it is OK to put duty or fighting for one’s ideals before family and heart matters, but when it comes to women, the general discourse looks at them in a suspicious manner if they put ethics, politics or ideals before their role as homemakers and their families. Sendler also always said that the task of saving the children was a team effort and insisted on giving credit where credit was due, and collective events always make for a story less easy to sell and less straightforward to tell. I learned a lot, not only about Irena Sendler and her collaborators, but also about what Poland went through in the war, the resistance movement in Warsaw and Poland, and the strength of individuals set on helping others, no matter how big the odds against them. Although there were betrayals and terrible things (not only on the German camp) taking place, there are also incredible feats of bravery and generosity. It is easier to fully comprehend what certain events might have meant for the population when one has a human being (be it an invented character in historical fiction or a real person in non-fictional accounts) to follow and empathise with. In this book, we follow not only Sendler but also the experiences and fates of many of her friends and collaborators, and also of some of the children who were rescued by the whole team. The book is detailed and follows a chronological order (apart from a short Prologue set at a particular dramatic moment for the protagonist), building up from the early times before the German occupation, providing us enough information about Irena to understand where her ideas came from, and showing clearly how quickly things deteriorated, at first for Jews only, but eventually for everybody. It is not an easy book to read, not because of the writing, but because of the content. Some of the images the book creates: of the effects of the epidemic illnesses, of the contrasts inside the ghetto between the glamorous cabarets where champagne flew a few streets from where others were dying, mothers throwing their children over the wall to try to save them or the Jewish family who sent a gold crucifix and a baptism gown for their baby when they were informed he’d have to be converted to Catholicism to save him, I will not forget. There were blackmailers, and unknown kind strangers, people who would not join in the cause but helped given a chance. This is not a story of battles and big armies (although they are there too, in the background), but of individual and small guerrilla resistance, of the everyday battle and of the people who would help, because of their beliefs and ethics or for money. Perhaps the best-laid plans fail because they never take into account the individuality of the cog in the machine and how they can subvert everything, both for good and for bad. I recommend this book to anybody interested in this historical period but perhaps not as familiar with the history of what happened in Poland as with events in other places. It is also a great read for anybody interested in inspiring stories of human endurance, resistance, bravery and fighting against all odds. Although the book is not a memoir of Irena Sendler’s life, and only makes a passing reference to what happened to her after the war, it centres on her and her role in saving the lives of over 2500 Jewish Polish children. Sendler is not presented as a heroine with no weaknesses and the book tries to show her doubts and internal struggles when trying to decide what to do, worrying about her mother and her lover, Adam, but sometimes putting herself and others at untold risks without thinking about it. It tries to remain close to the documentation, data and witness accounts, although I recommend reading the author’s note before reading the book itself, as that explains the process of creation of the book and how the different materials are incorporated into the final narration, including the use of italics to indicate material the author has written and added to make up the missing parts. In one of the reviews I saw they mentioned pictures, but I got an ARC e-copy with no photographs on it, so I can’t comment on them. There are very extensive notes of the sources at the end that will be useful to people wanting to explore further the materials and a cast of characters that will be useful to keep track of the many characters (especially as some of them had to change identities and names). I also noticed that there is a version for Young Adults that is worth exploring. In sum, an important work to bring attention to a figure and a movement that deserves to be better known and remembered. A must read.

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