Tag Archives: literary fiction

The casual vacancy

The casual vacancy / J.K. Rowling

I have to be honest: I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while. I’m not really sure why. I’ve known pretty much all along what I wanted to say about this one, so hereit is.

The casual vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s big post-Harry Potter novel. It’s almost completely unolike Harry Potter – it’s firmly grounded in the Muggle world, and it’s definitely written with an adult audience in mind. Still, it retains the strong social conscience of the Harry Potter books.

Brief plot summary

Pagford, a stereotypically lovely English town. A member of the local parish council suddenly drops dead. The attempt to elect a replacement for Barry Fairbrother will reveal the many deep-seated divisions hidden behind the seemingly idyllic surface of Pagford.

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The adventures of Menahem-Mendl

This book is going to represent a drastic shift from the types of books I normally review.

The adventures of Menahem-Mendl / Sholom Aleichem*

I figured it would be a good idea to celebrate the Christmas season with a classic of Jewish literature. Sholem Aleichem, “the Jewish Mark Twain”**, is notable as one of the first Jewish authors to write primarily in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. He’s notable outside of Yiddish circles for writing the stories that formed the basis for Fiddler on the roof.

Like Mark Twain, Aleichem’s writing is characterized by combining humor with social criticism. Aleichem’s works, while facially comedic, are almost tragic in their depiciction of the lives and struggles of Eastern European Jews. Also like Mark Twain, his work is deeply rooted in the author’s cultural context to the point where a reader lacking that cultural context is likely going to miss out on most of what is going on.

*The author’s sobriquet is now generally romanized “Sholem” instead of “Sholom”, but most editions of this book that I’ve seen use the older “Sholom” spelling.

**Perhaps apocryphally, upon hearing this Mark Twain is said to have countered that he was the “American Sholem Aleichem”

Plot summary

Told in the epistolary format, The adventures of Menahem-Mendl follows the titular “hero’s” attempts to make a fortune through a series of ill-advised business schemes. His letters to his wife (who remains in their tiny hometown while Menahem-Mendl travels through the major cities of Russia) are alternated with her caustic, frustrated replies.

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