A bundle of letters

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(This review of A Bintel Brief is edited from a post which originally was written for my Angelfire page around 2003 or 2004, but never published. I was saving my book reviews to publish as a list of links on a master page when they were completed, but that mentally unstable blogger and her sycophantic friends had my entire webpage taken away from me before that could happen. I was lucky to recover as many book reviews as I could from cache searches.)

4.5 stars

This book is a collection of letters from 1905–67, from a very popular feature in the Yiddish-language daily paper Der Forverts (The Forward). Originally a minor advice column for those who felt they had nowhere else to turn, it soon became wildly popular. People presented all sorts of problems, none too bizarre, personal, or embarrassing to hide from all-knowing editor Abraham Cahan.

Many subjects in the early years concern marriage, anti-Semitism, deadbeat husbands, unemployment, poverty, and labour unions. Others include feeling ashamed of having red hair and a husband who refused to shave his beard.

A childless woman said her husband of seven years kept reminding her it’s “sooner rather than later” till the time they must divorce. Under traditional Jewish Law, a man may divorce his wife if she hasn’t had any kids in ten years. Mr. Cahan began his response, “The husband is severely scolded for his inhuman behavior towards his wife.” He said childlessness is no reason to divorce a loyal, loving wife, and comforted the wife by saying she might still become a mother in the next three years.

Later subjects include Zionism, wanting to make aliyah (move to Israel), intermarriage, differences in religious practice among family members, the Shoah, and:

A man overcome with emotions when he encountered the Polish Gentile who’d murdered his sister, brother-in-law, and niece after pretending he was going to hide them from the Nazis. The editor said it was good he’d restrained his urge to kill the man when he ran into him by a boxing match, and that he shouldn’t take justice into his own hands.

A mother-in-law acting like a young woman and being a real drain on her daughter-in-law

A young man upset that the vibrant Jewish culture his grandparents grew up with isn’t being exhibited by his generation

Concern over a son who, while married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish kids, put up a Christmas tree

A wife addicted to television.

No matter what the problem was, these people poured their hearts out to the wise, all-knowing editor, confident he or other readers would have a solution.

This is a great historical document, but the editorial commentary was written in the late Sixties, and therefore can be quite a bit dated.

The introduction says there are many similarities between the hippie movement “of today” and the freethinkers at the turn of the twentieth century. The comments about intermarriage are also very dated. The reasons and consequences have vastly changed, and most parents no longer force their children to break up with a Gentile.

There are also dated comments to a letter about a young woman who’s upset her parents, esp. her ultra-Zionistic father, by pretending to be Christian at work. He says that even nowadays, some Jews have to pretend to be Christians to work in certain places, and that one of his sisters wore a cross necklace to work and tucked it inside her clothes when she was on the bridge home.

Another fun bit of datedness comes from a letter sent in by “concerned” parents during WWII. They’re very deeply upset one of their sons has begun refusing to eat meat, and that he still refused to eat it when they took him to a restaurant to show him “everyone” eats meat. The editor’s response was no better, suggesting they take him to a psychiatrist who’ll figure out what gave him such a “terrible” idea and induce him to start eating meat again.

Following this is a letter from the Society of Jewish Vegetarians in America, giving information about their group and surprised the editor didn’t refer the parents to them. They rightly pointed out that more and more people are becoming vegetarians, and that it’s very possible to have a healthy diet without meat.

Still, however dated parts of it are, it’s a great chronicle of life in a certain place, culture, and time, which sadly is vanishing.

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An ahistorical slap in the face

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Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Do adults not want to read about other adults anymore?

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Warning: Potentially unpopular opinions to follow.

My entire life, I’ve most preferred to write about young people. Even when my characters age into adulthood, I still see them in my mind’s eye as they were in their younger years. With the exception of parents, I only wrote about people around my age until I was in my mid-teens. In fact, my Atlantic City characters were written pretty unrealistically as adults until I was an adult myself! I had such little experience with writing about realistic adults, they inevitably felt like overgrown adolescents playing at being grownups.

I’ve honestly never had any problem with adults reading books intended for a younger readership. If you’re writing about young people, it stands to reason that you need to be familiar with the category. That was actually what helped me to realize I (mostly) really write adult literature that just happens to have young protagonists, instead of books that would be considered YA or MG by most folks nowadays.

If you write a book review blog that focuses on YA, MG, or children’s lit, it also stands to reason you’ll be reading a lot of that. And many books written for younger audiences are so well-written they transcend age-based categories. If a book is really good, we can enjoy and relate to it in different ways at different ages.

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However, I’ve become increasingly off-put by this undeniable trend of adults now exclusively, or nearly exclusively, reading YA and sometimes MG. I’ve seen many people, YA writers or not, outright admitting that’s all they read, and that they don’t read adult books.

Many times, a trend is so pervasive someone isn’t aware of taking part in it because of social contagion. Take, for example, the explosion in first-person present tense and alternating narrators/POV characters. Of course I don’t think everyone doing that is deliberately, mindlessly following a trend. But when you’ve seen so many examples, it does start to influence you. A lot of younger writers admit they think past tense and third person are stuffy, boring, and outdated, or don’t think books can still be written that way!

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Of the YA published within the last 10 years or so, I most enjoy graphic novels and novels in verse. I also love contemporaries with a gritty, urban setting, like the late great Walter Dean Myers’s books. I’ve been sadly disappointed in a lot of the YA historicals published in the U.S., and really didn’t click at all with any of the other genres I had to read for my YA Lit class.

I’ve revisited a number of books I loved when I was younger, and many times was left wondering why I ever loved them so much. Maybe it was because I now read more as a writer than a reader, but it’s also due in part to how those books are written for a younger audience. Adults want different things out of a story than children, preteens, or teens.

So, yes, I do find it kind of weird and creepy how adult women are openly swooning over fictional teenage boys, announcing crushes on them, feeling fluttery over their kissing scenes, and declaring themselves Team So-and-So for books with love triangles.

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I’m an adult, and never had the type of high school experience often depicted in YA contemporaries. I never dated or went to parties and dances, and didn’t want to. I barely even went out socially with my peers, also by choice. And forget taking part in current pop culture!

How can you relate more to a bunch of high school kids when you’re in your thirties? Don’t you want to read about other adults, with adult concerns, in a writing style meant for adults? There’s certainly a valid time and place for those kinds of stories, just as not all adult literature is going to be Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. However, we all need a balanced diet, and too much of any one thing isn’t good for us.

I’ve also seen a lot of adults who start talking like characters in YA contemporaries. It’s really embarrassing to hear a thirtysomething soccer mom regularly saying, e.g., “All the things!” “All the feels!” “All the whatevers!” Their real-life writing style is often indistinguishable from that of an actual teenager!

This feels like deliberate cognitive stunting, avoiding engaging with writing intended for adults. Having a favorite or preferred genre (books, movies, music, artwork) doesn’t mean you should exclusively consume it. It makes us better-rounded when we sample from other buffets.

Top Ten Tuesday—All About Romance Tropes/Types

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Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is All About Romance Tropes/Types. I decided to split the list, with half the items being tropes and types I hate, and the other half being the antidote I love to see in their places.

Hate:

1. Instalove. Enough said!

2. Awesome, perfect, amazing first-time sex, whether it’s the first time for both parties or only one of them. Of course it can happen, but not nearly as often as the romance industry wants to lead us to believe.

3. The man ALWAYS being older in an M/F romance, esp. when the female lead is barely legal. Can we please have some more realistic, appropriate age differences, or at least a thoughtful exploration of the dynamic an age difference can create?

4. Rape and domestic violence (NOT to be confused with consensual BDSM!) being presented as romantic, swoon-worthy, excusable. When a female character in a romance has had a tragic past including rape or domestic abuse, it should have an original angle, and not dominate her entire life or storyline. I’m far from the only person who hates the “rape as character development” trope seen in so many movies, TV shows, and books!

5. The headless, hairless bare chest on the cover. It’s even worse if this kind of cover also includes a crotch shot.

Love:

1. A couple who’s been friends for a long time before becoming lovers, childhood sweethearts, or a couple who’s already together when the book begins. This kind of road to happily ever after, or happily for now, is so much more interesting and realistic than instalove.

2. Realistic, awkward, fumbled first-time sex. I can see an awesome first-time scene if one of the parties is already rather experienced, and the virginal partner is very emotionally ready and open to being a student, but even in that kind of instance, it’s still the couple’s first time together. What worked with previous partners might not work with the new lover, and there’s a whole new dynamic if this is the experienced lover’s first time with someone s/he loves instead of a purely physical act.

3. Couples where the woman is older. As a proud puma (woman in her thirties who likes younger men), formerly a bobcat (woman in her twenties who fancies younger guys), three years away from officially being labelled a cougar, I really love seeing these kinds of match-ups. Sometimes an older woman is just what a younger, inexperienced guy needs to get his head screwed on straight and gain valuable life experience.

4. Healthy, mutually respectful relationships, including sexual negotiation and moving at a speed comfortable to both parties. It’s really sweet when someone asks permission for a first kiss, and it makes for a better sexual relationship when the couple discusses and agrees upon things in advance, while their clothes are on. If someone, e.g., has a certain fetish or doesn’t like certain things, the heat of the moment isn’t the best time to first bring it up!

5. A cover featuring the couple but with interesting details to set it apart from other romance covers. For example, a richly embellished purple ballgown, a guy with an attention-grabbing shirt, a foreboding background.

Top Ten Favourite Graphic Novels

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Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is Top Ten Favourite Graphic Novels/Comics. I haven’t participated in this for a really long time!

In no special order:

1 and 2. The two Persepolis books, by Marjane Satrapi. The Story of a Childhood is set from 1980–84, and The Story of a Return is set from 1984–94. The first book is about life in Iran after Khomeini’s takeover and during the disastrous Iran–Iraq War, and the second book covers Marji’s four years at a French-language school in Vienna and her return to Tehran. I chose the first one as my graphic novel for my YA Lit class because of my warm memories of my family’s Iranian friends when I was growing up, and couldn’t not read the sequel. So many people don’t realise Iran was a very modern, secular, Westernised country until 1979.

3. Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol. I chose this as my paranormal book for my YA Lit class. I never got into the whole paranormal trend, and really liked that the book has more of a paranormal element. I also adore a good ghost story, and the fact that Anya is a Russian immigrant. It’s a lot easier for me to relate to a contemporary character when she’s more like I was as a teen, instead of a popular kid with lots of friends and a dating life.

4. Skim, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (who are cousins). I chose this as my gay and lesbian book for my YA Lit class. This is also what would be called contemporary historical fiction, being set in the Nineties. Having been a teen in that decade, I understood so many of the references and the whole experience of having been an adolescent in those years. This isn’t an overt story of lesbian love, but rather a girl who has a crush on one of her teachers and is exploring her potential orientation.

5. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, by Brian Fies. This is the story of a father and son who go to the World’s Fair in 1939 and go through the ensuing decades, with all their changes. They’re in a timewarp, and so don’t age till near the end. I loved all the depictions of bygone technology, events, and innovations.

6. The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. I love how this story of an immigrant to the U.S. is told without any words. If a story is well-told, no words are needed to understand. It’s kind of like F.W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1924), which is bookended by intertitles but told only through pantomime acting.

7. Mendel’s Daughter, by Martin Lemelman. I found this on one of my rabbi and rebbetzin’s downstairs bookshelves one long Shabbos afternoon, and was very impressed by it. It’s the story of the author’s mother, Gusta, and her childhood in 1930s and 1940s Poland. Her family lived in a part of Poland which is now Ukraine, and thus was occupied by the Soviets before the Nazis came. Gusta and her surviving siblings hid in bunkers in the woods for two years.

8 and 9. Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang. This tells the story of both sides of the Boxer Rebellion and the years leading up to it. In the end of each book, the protagonists meet. I most enjoyed Boxers, and really understood where the Chinese were coming from. The companion, Saints, was a bit less interesting, with a less engaging protagonist. Her reasons for converting to Christianity were really shallow and insincere, and she didn’t grow much over the course of the story. Overall, I’d love to see more Chinese historicals, beyond certain overrated best-sellers of recent years.

10. A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return, by Zeina Abirached. This tells the story of a day and a night during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, when Beirut was divided into Muslim and Christian zones. Zeina and her little brother aren’t allowed to venture outside, so their apartment has become their entire universe. During this night and day, their parents are trapped on the other side of the city.