December 2016


 

Guitar Heroes Flyer

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Well, why not? We’re only half way through Chanukah. Relax in your favourite armchair with coffee, sufganiya (doughnut) and a Crooked Cat book, downloaded for only 99 somethings.

Mine are called Neither Here Nor There and The Women Friends: Selina. Just saying.

I’ve chosen two reviews – one for each book – to highlight here. Both are detailed and well-thought-out. Sometimes their authors understand the characters in different ways from me. That’s fine. When interpretations differ, that’s a sign of a book that gives readers plenty to think about.

Neither Here Nor There

Neither Here Nor ThereThis book had such meaning for me- it was, in simple terms, about feeling confined in a lifestyle you no longer agree with: that is no longer right for you. That’s Esty’s story, she doesn’t belong, and feels like an alien- an imposter- so, she decides to leave the haredi lifestyle (the lifestyle of an Orthodox Jew) and moves on. Of course, as expected, there are a number of hurdles she has to first get over: her family doesn’t seem very accepting, her community disapproves and then there’s Mark.

She likes Mark and, believes he may be good for her. But, will she fit into his secular lifestyle? She can’t hold his hand without flinching, she finds it wrong whenever they sit too close. But, funnily enough, it can’t be more right. She’s moving on, independently. But will she be able to keep going?

I liked this story, mostly because I could relate: I don’t always feel as though I’m free to take up certain things- because of my religion, though I’d say it was more to do with culture. And I sometimes battle with my thoughts, when I’m rebelling against what my culture’s principles dictate. It is difficult to leave behind, or ignore, your upbringing- it’s your community. Not only do you face isolation, but confusion- you hardly know what goes on behind the other side of the fence. How the other half live, and the author of this book acknowledges that.

I just had a slight issue with the main character, she was making a big life choice and it seemed weird that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into- then again, she was a young nineteen year old. But I felt that seemed to imply she was too naive to know any better. Then there was how she automatically fell for Mark, describing him to have been handsome and the connection between them. It was too fast, and seemed improper, a stark contrast, from her actual attitude towards men- as is revealed later when she is hesitant towards Mark’s touch. Though, aside from this- the book was a delightful, engaging, read.

This book reminded me of a poem I once read titled, ‘Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan’ by Moniza Alvi. Both this book, and this poem, represent the feelings of disillusionment, confusion of one’s identity and isolation, the idea of being an ‘in-betweener’, neither here nor there.

The Women Friends: Selina

CoverFrontThis book is perfect for fans of historical fiction, with LGBTQ characters as well as an honest depiction of the “just before” Hitler claimed Austria during WW2. It’s an important read for those reasons, as well. We can all too easily forget that it did seemingly happen “overnight” because these were emotions and opinions and feelings that had been brewing in the citizens minds well before Hitler came to power, before he stepped foot into Austria. He came to power because people were already agreeing with him about everything, including the final solution.

We start off with Selina Brunner who has decided to move from the countryside to Vienna in hopes of escaping the destitute conditions world war one left much of the European countryside suffering from. She has experienced sexual assault in her past, and this is immediately brought up as one of the reasons why she was so eager to move; she needed to put her past permanently behind her. She struggles with this at first and it is not until she meets Janika, a Jewish muse of Gustav Klimts, that she is able to put action to her feelings and she falls in love with Janika. Their love is not to be, and after Janika marries a man, Selina is forced to meet other people. We see Selina meet a national socialist woman, but while they live together for a time and she does introduce her to her parents, they do not fall in love nor do they stay together.

In the end, Selina makes a choice between staying utterly true to herself and how she identifies, or marrying a Roma man to help him escape.

The entire book, while simple in some areas that begged for deeper character exploration, is one that I would say is important to read, especially right now with the way politics seem to be turning. It is a lie to say that things aren’t already bad; that’s how things like the Shoah happen. Things that were already bad, were purposely ignored until they had no choice but to come to a head in a way so horrible, there are no words to express. The author does a wonderful job of showing that it wasn’t just Hitler that caused the Shoah to happen, but the people as well. And it was also people like Selina Brunner who helped others during this dark time so that it wasn’t their last; while this story is fictitious, the heart of it rings true from page to page.

What is Christmas for me, a Jew who lives in Israel and hails from the UK? What was it?

Up to age 11, I didn’t take a lot of notice of it. There were trees with lights behind lots of windows. Radio and TV were full of it. That was about all.

At age 11, I found myself suddenly immersed in a tradition I didn’t recognise. I soon learned the tunes of the carols we had to sing every day. I sent cards to friends because everyone did and my goal was always to fit in. And then there was that art lesson….

“Today, you can draw Christmas pictures.” The teacher (I think she was called Mrs Durell) seemed to think this would be fun for us. My heart sank. Fit in, said a voice from inside. “For the Jewish children, you can draw something from the festival you have at this time if you want, but I’m told there isn’t much to draw.” A general murmur of agreement arose. I kept quiet, although I knew this wasn’t true. We had drawn pictures of Chanuka at my old school. That’s how I learned to draw a cube.

chanukadrawings

Fit in, said the voice. But I don’t know what or how to draw for Christmas. Fit in. I looked over a girl’s shoulder and copied her tree.

At university, I remember singing carols, including one about beautiful feet.

Edit: I’ve been corrected by someone who remembers much more than I. I think I was confusing our “College Carol” with the aria from Handel’s Messiah. Here’s the right one. The only connection with feet is in the words stand forth on the floor, at which we would stamp our feet.

At work, there were drinks. There were always drinks. And the following conversation in the bar with one of the men:

“What are doing for Christmas?”

“I’m going to a conference in Oxford.”

“That’s an unusual thing to do for Christmas. Most people spend it with their families.”

“Oh, we don’t celebrate Christmas. We’re Jewish.” It had taken three months for them to find out.

Then I moved to Israel and Christmas was reduced to watching the evening service from Bethlehem on TV. That’s really all I saw of it.

Nowadays, with social media, Christmas has become much more visible to me – at least the commercial aspect of it has. Also, due to Internet connection, I am able to listen to the BBC. The other day, on Women’s Hour, there was a discussion about stories behind children’s nativity plays. Within those stories, at least two girls had been told they couldn’t be Mary because they were Jewish and didn’t have blond hair. In the podcast, after the live programme, there was mention of the fact that Mary was Jewish and also that, since she lived in the Middle East, she probably didn’t have blond hair.

I am bemused by the assumption that, while I might not take any part in the religious aspects of Christmas, I will celebrate in some way because everyone does. No. Here, work and everything else carries on as usual, even on Christmas day. This year, though, will be slightly different due to the fact that it coincides exactly with the minor festival of Chanuka. As always, schools will be open on the first day of Chanuka, which is also Christmas Day this year (and also Sunday – the first day of the week here) and they close for the rest of the festival. Work continues as usual.

By the way, as I’ve mentioned in previous years, there are about fifty ways of writing Chanuka in Latin letters, but only one in Hebrew:

חנוכה

And here’s a comedy sketch I enjoyed. Comedian Elon Gold explains why Jews are better off without Christmas Trees. https://www.facebook.com/StandWithUs/videos/10154184787887689/

Whatever festival you celebrate at this time, I hope it’s happy and enjoyable and all you wish for.

I try to write reviews for the books I read. As an author, I know how important reviews are. I don’t usually post them on this blog. I only do that for special books, and the book I just finished reading is special. It’s also very brave, as not everyone would want to reveal such details. I found it fascinating and disturbing. I identified with it and totally disagreed with it. How can I have such disconnected thoughts, and how do I connect them? My review is below.

connectingthedotsofadisconnectedlife

This book is one I would not normally have read. The true story of a woman who goes though many traumas in her life, moves from America to Israel and back and forth, and through it all never loses faith in Jesus? That last part would have put me off. Not my thing. No.

But I read it. I read it because I know the author. I met her when we were both technical writers. I knew her as someone incredibly gifted in verbal communication. I didn’t read her technical documents, but I knew she’d won prizes for them. And I plucked up the courage to email her at a time when I was only starting to realise the advantages of electronic communication. There was also a face-to-face conversation. She was extremely kind and understanding. And that’s when she shocked me by telling me about her faith in Jesus. Where had that come from? I couldn’t make it out.

dvoraelishevaNow that I’ve read her memoir, I understand. I don’t agree, but I understand. I suppose that was my main reason for wanting to read it.

Yet, there’s so much more in this book, including plenty I can agree with and even empathise with. There are the difficulties over her name, accepting the associations a particular form of the name brings up. There are the games that the mind plays, or rather that we play with our minds: “I had cordoned off my memories, my feelings, my emotions, and sometimes even my actions.”

But then I read, “If I had space to tell you the stories behind these accomplishments, you’d see that these, too, were all divinely orchestrated from above.” And my reaction was: no, I wouldn’t. As with the stories you did have space to tell, I’d see that things turned out surprisingly well. But God can’t be proved. In my mind, you might be right and you might not. For me, it doesn’t matter which.

I also had a more disturbing reaction to this book, not so much in what was written as in what was not written. Because space clearly was not the only reason to hold things back. I’m sure, as in most memoirs, facts were hidden in order to protect other people. And I felt there was another reason. The author describes a trip to China. For her, a very important part of the trip involved telling people about Jesus. Her message was that belief in the Buddha is bad and they should instead believe in Jesus. I understand her reasoning. Someone who has such a strong belief also believes that she can help others by encouraging them to share her belief.

I find that worrying. Firstly, who’s to say that one belief is better than another? And secondly, while no mention of missionary activity in Israel was made, if it happened on a short trip to China where language barriers made it difficult, surely it must happen in Israel, where there are no such barriers and the sojourn is permanent.

And so, I have a big problem awarding stars to this book. On what level am I judging it? As far as the writing goes, it is excellent, in both vocabulary and content. I am overawed at the way the book jumps forwards and backwards in time, and yet all the pieces hold together so well. I’m also disturbed by the content. For me, it doesn’t provide proof of what can’t be proved; it hints of something almost sinister. But I will go with my first impression and the fact that I read the second half in one day.

Can you name a single book that everyone likes? I very much doubt it. Readers have widely differing tastes. You only have to read the reviews of any book to see that.

thewomenfriendsselinawithbirdsSo why am I telling you that The Women Friends: Selina isn’t for everyone? Because it’s probably more controversial than some. It’s also very different from my first novel: Neither Here Nor There. It follows the fictional story of a woman struggling to survive in a strange environment in traumatic times. She gets involved in things some readers might not want to read about.

However, while little is known of the two models in Klimt’s painting: The Women Friends, the story remains true to what is known of the women who inspired the great artist, as well as to the turbulent times in which it is set.

One reader, in the first review of the book, describes the book brilliantly, although there are parts that I didn’t see in the same way. We all read different things into the same books.

Up to now, I haven’t made much of the fact that The Women Friends: Selina is a finalist in the Goethe Awards, because my name didn’t appear on the list. I’m happy to say that has now been rectified, and Emma and I are delighted that the book has reached this stage.