Elena Shirman

Elena Mihailovna Sherman was a Russian-Jewish writer who died in her mid thirties and left a fascinating if albeit brief collection of poetry. You will piece together why such a remarkable poetess dies at such a young age.

I discovered Elena in Young Jewish Poets Who Fell as Soviet Soldiers in the Second World War by Rina Lapidus. A book which translated some of her work in English and is analysed by Lapidus herself who naturally writes her own opinion of what she thinks of Sherman’s work, stating that there was a feminist slant to it however, such a slant would be watered down in her later poetry. The reason being will later be explained (it was a man, it’s always a man..).

I won’t go in too much detail about her upbringing as it is explained better others. After college she did a couple of clerical jobs and became a journalists eventually writing for articles for the Soviet army. At some point Elena became a teacher where she eventually met and fell in love with a young student of hers 10 years her junior called Valery Marchikhin

Valery would would have in fact be the biggest influence in her later poetry and her love for him is what appears to be her drive, although we know that she wrote to him a lot and wrote about him in her poetry, I am not too sure on how close they’re relationship was. Elena would eventually give up on Valery when she suspected her love was unrequited. This would lead to her most famous poem called The Last Poem. To put in bluntly this poem is Elena giving up her love for Valery and facing the perceived fact that they will never be together. It has been said that Elena confronts the fact that she will die soon. The politics and world events of her time would put support to that idea. I however, agree with Rina Lapidus in suggesting that Elena was probably writing about an end to one period of her life as she moves on from thinking about Valery. Valery died in 1941 during the second world war fighting for the Red Army and chances are Elena was not aware of this fact. Not long after in 1942 Elena would also sadly pass away under extremely tragic circumstances.

As described by Rina Lapidus from witness that saw it, Elena when working for the Soviet army paper Molot and travelling with colleagues to the province of Rostov her home province (near the border with Ukraine) the Nazis had seized the area and captured Elena among others, the Nazis also ascertained she was Jewish. As she was in her home province they found her parents also. They forced Elena to dig graves for her parents and then they shot them. The next day they asked her to dig another grave after which they took the shovel from her and beat her with it repeatedly murdering her in the process. Heaven only knows the fear and pain she was suffering before and during that awful event which happened to many more at the time. Were it not for a witness who saved the remains of what work Elena had left in her personal affects we may well have lost a significant fragment of Elena’s contribution to the cultural richness of the world.

Although Elena was alive during the Soviet era under the rule of Stalin and was present and fell victim to the horrors of the Second World War, Elena herself was very much her own person, an individual with her own thoughts and ideas and was definitely not part of a clique. She was emotional and passionate. When she loved she wrote with such passion, when she did not like anything she definitely made it clear. The only downside I can think of is that I do not know the first language of Elena to really appreciate the impact of her words and just have to make the most of a traslation.

If you can find a copy of Young Jewish Poets Who Fell as Soviet Soldiers in the Second World War by Rina Lapidus (my copy is on my Kindle) give it read, it writes about Elena and other Jewish writers also. We are lucky to have some knowledge of Elena of her works and her life and there many other publications out there about her. It does make you think though in times of such great tragedy where many lives were lost, there are so much that we lose. The lives of others, their talents, their contributions to enrich the culture of our world and it is important that we do not forget not just who they were but what they were. Writers, lovers, best friends and those who cared for their family, friends and neighbours. A million deaths is not a statistic, it’s a loss of something that we have to take years and years to get back.

I feel better for knowing that Elena Shirman existed. Knowing that someone wrote with the passion with how I thought about people I have loved and cared for in my own past. Thank you Elena.


Angelita Unearthed by Mariana Enriquez (Translated by Megan McDowell)

This is the first from a short story collection by the Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez from The Dangers of Smoking in Bed only recently translated in English as far as I’m aware.

Angelita Unearthed is a short story dark yet interesting and surreal and shows us how (in Argentina as it does in many other cultures) how we live and survive changes over generations. The narrator lives alone, thinking she has disappointed her father by not making him a grandfather in his lifetime. She definitely does not live the same life as her grandmother who had many siblings. Something happens however, that almost definitely brings those old times to the forefront. The ghost of her dead grant auntie Angelita appears before her. Angelita was only a baby when she died and she appears to our narrator fleshy and decaying and thus we get to see what the write Marian Enriquez is all about and what I suspect I will be expecting from her in her subsequent stories. We read how our narrator interprets Angelita’s actions and what she wants also learning that her grandmother’s superstitions had an element of truth to them.

I found this short story (which is less than ten pages long) fascinating because there was an element of the familiar about it. There are old stories from my family from my grandparent’s generation of brothers and sister they had who died young. I, like the narrator definitely don’t have a family of my own. The difference being with our narrator is that she suddenly gets a stark reminder from Angelita about her family’s past. There is apparent strangeness that I have come across in writers before (Kafka etc) and Enriquez does a good job in putting something that you would expect from an older story in a more contemporary setting along side the anxieties and thoughts of the modern day along side something we would never consider. In this case a decaying zombie baby ghost who is also a family member. I have yet to look at the other short stories but if this first one is anything to go by I’m sure I will not be disappointed.

Hello everyone

Hi guys, just to say I’ve not dropped off the face of the earth, a perfect storm of health problems among other things has limited the amount of time I’ve had for actual reading although I have started reading a fascinating book about Rosemary Kennedy.

I’ll be back I promise, love you all.

One Year Anniversary Ramble.

Today is my one year anniversary from when I started this blog and as to mark this event I thought I would just do a light easy one. Not so serious, I have already done a 2020 year review and just over part way into February things still feel relatively the same. My friends and relatives around the world are all fed up with the global pandemic, nothing is wholly uncertain and people’s live have irrevocably changed. On the good side (for me at least) I have probably kept in touch with more people than I ever have.

Anyway, moving on from that , I’ll keep it book related. Having finished reading about The Assassins I have been doing too much reading. There are a couple of books that I’m casually going through, some of which I have read before. Some which are taking me longer than I thought it would take me to read them but I don’t mind picking it up from time to time. This is specifically the case for Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. I am also reading House of Leaves by Danielewski which I have already read before and I’m just jumping through random book on my Ebook (does anyone else do that is that just me?). So that’s about it on the reading front. In case you haven’t noticed I don’t really read the latest thing out there. I like what I like and I might come round at some point to reading that ‘trendy thing’ eventually. More than likely when everyone else has forgotten about it.

Here is one of my personal favourite books. My Dinosaur Adventure.There is only one unique copy of it because it’s one of them children’s adventure books my Grandad gave me for Christmas when I was a boy. It mentions me by name and where I lived at the time. It was about me and my adventures with dinosaurs. I remember showing it to my friends and they said they had their own versions also. I was a little underwhelmed after that but I have kept it none the less.

Do any of you guys like it when authors sign their books? I have a fair few myself. I have two of Ian McKewan’s signed by the man himself with just his name. The same with Andrew Graham Dixon (art critic). In the world of football I have the biographies of Ian Rush and Michael Owen signed and I have have the honour of seeing what Andy McNab’s face after he signed a copy of his book Fortress among others. It is not liked their first edition signed copies of Don Quixote but they are special to me. Also sadly my favourite writers are no longer in the world of the living.

Anyhow, I hope you all making the most of life during this pandemic and reading something interesting. Thanks for reading this far. I don’t know when the next book blog post I’ll make will be but I will lock on to something eventually.

The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis

If you ever played the game Assassin’s Creed and its many incarnations or the first Broken Sword game, you will be made aware of the Order of Assassins. They were part of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam which would come into conflict with Sunni Islam ever since there was an argument on succession of who was to lead the Islamic religion. This book by Bernard Lewis goes on to tell about their history and formation.

The Assassins were a group of people who would be responsible for giving us the name ‘assassin’ although there was more to them than that. Bernard Lewis writes about their history and legacy and how they may have influenced modern Islam. Bernard Lewis is of course writing from an American perspective about a world he is not a part of and is seeing from afar. The Assassins were famous around the time of the First Crusade where they would assassinate targeted victims. This was due to the fact that they did not have the numbers to perform open pitched battles with their rivals and more than likely did have anywhere near the budget for such a type of warfare. Even though they have been associated with rivalling the likes of the Templars during the First Crusade, they actually had more conflict with other Islamic organisations before finally being taken down by the Mongol Horde (although it is said that some survived for much longer).

If anything the book reminds us that not everything during the Crusades were as simple as they first seemed. Even though the European forces had their own conflicts and rivalries, so did the Muslim forces. The Sunnis under Saladin for example and the Shias with Assassins around places like Alamut and Masyaf. The Assassins themselves are presented as a fascinating group. We get to read what their contemporaries thought of them. Despite everything that may have been said about them it always appears that they did what they thought they had to do to survive under the circumstances. They never committed mass atrocities but went straight for their intended targets. If they could not do that they would at least make their presence known as was the case with Saladin who without killing him gave him a clear message to stay away. Lewis writes about the myths legends and truths about the Assassins and is a fascinating read especially about a group of people I personally would never have given too much thought about outside of computer games. This book at the least makes you understand why such groups are as they are and what they need to do to have an influence in their own worlds.


Haruki Murakami and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Translated by Jay Rubin)

As you may well be aware, not a lot of us are working right now and those of us who do not have the option are finding our one ways of getting by. We’ll get through this and we can’t let this bring us down. I thought therefore I would do a write up with respect to people and characters who are also not working. To see what it is how they are thinking and how they are written.

This is probably not the best way to start such a post but here goes. I both love and hate Haruki Murakami’s work at the same time. I never like the main protagonists, I found Toru in Norwegian Wood unsympathetic, Kafka in Kafka on the Shore to be somewhat irritating. I thought he was an unlikeable Oedipus with an imaginary friend. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and End of the World had a narrator who was a bit of yuppie who also I did not really warm to.

Murakami novels to me at least always had a bit of suburban pretentiousness to them. Murakami drops in that characters listen to classical music, Beethoven and the like. He also makes his characters think about philosophers like Hegel but it is done in such a way that instead of having some meaning to the story it is as if Murakami is saying ‘ooh look at me and the laa di daa things I know’. Also having the lyrics of Danny Boy appear at the end of Hard-Boiled made me cringe for some reason. Don’t even get me started on the necessary violence, Johnny Walker’s prolonged torturing of cats and description of humans being skinned. Murakami cannot write a sex scene without embarrassing himself, just have a read of IQ84..

Having said that and despite the long list of things I hate about Murakami every book of his I have read, I have read cover to cover. I have thought about and contemplated the stories and the plots and the worlds Murakami builds. My favourite of the ones I have read (I haven’t read them all) is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Wind-Up follows the story of Toru a man who has just recently left his job and had become a bit of a house husband and from first impressions not all bodes well for him, his wife who although he loves appears distant, his cat is missing. This start a series of events where he meets a number of fascinating characters and has a number of interesting experiences. Without going in too much detail we read about Toru’s missing cat and later his missing wife. Toru would come across a young girl called May who he would have deep conversations, the psychic Kano sisters who help try to find Toru’s cat and assist him throughout his current thinking. We meet Noboru who is the opposite of Toru, he is obsessed with his work, his brother in law and not really a nice man at least not to Toru. There are a number themes that appear in the book. How we control other people and influence them, how we handle our past. There’s the concept of power, lust and social alienation. Toru himself hides in a hole, contemplating his life and what he has gone through in the story. If there is anything personally for me that I discovered about Toru is that at his core he is a good man. Good people attract to him, bad people even if previously good go further away.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru realising the world around him and what people are and maybe for the first time meets people who are different to him who exist quite literally in his own back yard (where he would discover the wind-up bird).

This is a book about the self, relationship with others realising our own worth. For me this is one of the more tolerable Haruki Murakami novels and if you have never read anything of his before I would highly recommend this one. The themes are interesting and presented well. The characters are fascinating and make up for the fact that when you really think about it, not a lot is going on in terms of adventure.

Note on the English translation, as far as I am aware, the translator Jay Rubin does not include all of the original Japanese original. For better or for worse I do not know but despite that there is still something here to hold on to. That felt personal and that made me contemplate things in my own life.

[Vintage Books, Kindle edition]

NeoCab by Chance Agency and Fellow Traveller

Now yes I’m aware this isn’t a book. However, I do think having different ways of reading stories can only be a good thing for the most part. This is not the first video game I have looked at, Grim Fandango being the last one. I wanted to write up about a traditional Visual Novel. If you don’t know what they are, they tend to be narrative driven games (hence why I wanted to do a post on them) often but not wholly with a Japanese anime theme to them with the majority of them on the PC. They can cover a number of topics and have a wide array of settings. Choices can be made in them which can affect what ending you get in the story. The one I am going to talk about is not entirely in the tradition of such visual novels but one I wanted to discuss none the less.

This is Lina who has come to visit her friend.

Neo Cab is a game available on the Nintendo Switch (of which I played it on) and on the PC (that might depend on the storefront you use) and as described by its publisher Fellow Traveller ( https://fellowtraveller.games/games/neo-cab/ ) is ‘an emotional survival game about gig labour, tech disruption and the experience of being a driver-for-hire.’

Our heroine is Lina a taxi driver (of the Uber variety) in a world where such drivers are slowly disappearing in a world of driverless cars and emerging new technologies. She travels to the city of Los Ojos a futuristic metropolitan city with neon lights to stay with an old friend Savy. We learn that despite their now apparent friendliness to each other they did not end on good terms previously. After just meeting her friend Savy for a brief moment, Savvy has things to do, she says she’ll meet up with Lina later but leaves her with a smart bracelet that can read your emotions displaying what it shows with a certain colour which is called a FeelGrid. Savvy later goes missing leaving with Lina with nowhere to stay while she is in the city only having a taxi and the money she has available to get her by.

Savy, Lina’s friend who she has come to live with. She doesn’t appear in most of the story but is still a key character.

Whilst trying to find out what happened to Savy, Lina picks up passengers each with their own stories which can also affect what happens in Lina’s story. We meet Liam a photographer who also is not a local to the city and becomes a friend, an overprotected child, a cult member, a statistician, tourists, a cult member among others. Each night, depending on which passenger we choose to take to their destination we learn more about about them, Lina and Lina’s story as well. With each story and decisions made will have an affect towards the end of the story when we finally find Savy.

Note the bottom left where we can see Lina’s emotions which are colour coded based on the FeelGrid.

Within the story we learn about a powerful big tech corporation known as Capra are trying to push a law banning human driven cars to push their own agenda which of course affects Lina’s livlihood. She has also had run ins with them in the past having been fired by Capra to replace her with a driverless car. Some of the topics of conversations with your passengers will relate to this.

When we finally find Savy towards the end of the story there are multiple endings which will change varying on your emotional state, what conversations you have had previously, what you have said previously and what you intend to do next. What I found good was that it really tested your friendship with Savy and how people are perceived by yourself and others. Is she worth it as a friend? Are you better off with or without her? You the player and reader are key in helping Lina in how she thinks.

I liked how the game made you look at things from different perspectives. We also learn how things are not all as they seem on a first impression. For example there is one passenger we find out is actually a con artist. It is not until we ask questions that Lina finds out why people are as they are. When discussing you relationship with Savy to some of the passengers (they’re called paxs in the NeoCab lingo) that they question the friendship. The game is as much about Lina’s friendship with Savy as it is with her relationship to Capra.

Although the game is story driven there some game related elements. The conversations you have can affect your star rating when each passenger reviews their trip. Not having a 5 star rating will exclude some passengers from wanting to use you for example and the company Lina works for is expected to have a minimum rating to do the job. Picking the right dialogue options therefore is important to get a good rating. You also have a choice of which hotel to stay at which can also affect how Lina is thinking. How we decide what Lina says can affect her emotions that are displayed are on the FeelGrid. Certain option on dialogues can only be selected depending on Lina’s emotions at the time. For examples if she is angry there are some dialogue options we cannot select for her because she is too riled up. There is a certain degree of budget control with getting electricity for your car and what type of hotel you can get but it is not wholly vital to the game.

I think the developers missed a trick in not having a free mode where you can pick up different passengers and control your budgets away from the story. The closest game I can remember similar to this was a side quest in Yakuza 5 where you also have conversations with passengers. The difference in that one was that you could also drive the taxi in an albeit simple road layout

NeoCab for me is a good game in that I was wanting more of it. I wanted to know more about Lina, Savy and the world they inhabit.

[Released 2019]

Plot Holes [With a look the second and third story from The Innocence of Father Brown]

I was going to do some extra write ups on the second and third stories from the Innocence of Father Brown [Edit: I have since I have put these as part of my look at the Father Brown Stories] . The Secret Garden and The Queer Feet respectively. The Secret Garden would feature the detective Valentin and The Queer feet would feature Flambeu both from the first story. However, I have decided not to because I suspect I would be covering familiar ground on both. The main point of concern would be that I would be going over some of the main bugbears of mine, them being plot holes and inconsistencies along with that I would include continuity errors also. I can easily buy into a world regardless of how fantastical or absurd the setting may well be. This is the case for sci-fi and fantasy genres for example. If anything however, makes me question why a character would do a particular thing or makes me go ‘as if’ then that’s when I have problems. There are many examples of such. It is worse when I never notice them myself but somebody else brings them to my attention and then I can’t stop but think about them. In some cases you can explain it away with an unreliable narrator (Agatha Chrsitie and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) where as in others you can’t.

The Father Brown story of The Secret Garden sees the head of police Valentin who we meet in The Blue Cross become the criminal. For an intelligent mind like Valentin, it just seems odd that he would commit a murder on his own property, discard part of the body nearby where it could be easily found. What is even more reckless is inviting Father Brown who you already know is of some remarkable intellect to property at the night of the murder and if anything would be able to figure out what is going on. Valentin’s motivations also seem to be a bit much to justify murder in my opinion.

In The Queer Feet, Flambeau tries to steal some silver from some exclusive elite club of snobs in a hotel and Father Brown stops him. I just found it odd that either of the two would know that the silver cutlery of the club exists in the first place.

These are not the worst examples of plot holes or inconsistencies and the stories themselves are still gripping though they are still noticeable to me. You see it in movies as well of course. In Back to the Future 2, old Biff goes back in time to give the almanac to young Biff by stealing the time machine and then going back to his own time as if nothing has happened. I would have thought that would have caused some paradox. Then again the whole concept of time can cause such plot holes depending on how you look at it.

Other examples in literature would be Dr Watson’s war injuries changing location from one story to another in the Sherlock Holmes tales. In the Speckled Band it appears that exotic snakes from hot climates can survive in the mild English climates. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was notorious for such inconsistencies however, he can be forgiven by the fact that despite everything the stories are really about Sherlock as opposed to the stories themselves (with some notable exceptions of course)

I remember reading the otherwise good Rebus novel by Ian Rankin The Resurrection Men and wondering why Siobhan did not get the police to trace the killer’s IP address instead of getting clues about him over Internet conversations. Another one thought it does not bother me as much is why does Frankenstein create such a large man? Would it not have been safer to start small?

I am only referring to books and media I can think of as I type. I believe the greats like the Harry Potter book for example have a number of plot holes and some of Dan Brown’s books are just plot holes from start to finish. Although I must say despite that, he knows how to make people turn a page and so long as a glaring issue is not in the way then that’s all that matters.

Father Brown and The Blue Cross (From The Innocence of Father Brown) by GK Chesterton

Valentin, the great French investigator, head of the Paris police is on the trail of the great criminal Flambeu who has eluded capture from the police of three countries, a master of disguise his only distinguishing feature is his tall height. Valentin gets a lead that Flambeau may well be on his way to London to a Eucharistic Congress in London.

Here looks see the start of two great minds of the detective and criminal on a duel on who can out think the other. Like Holmes and Moriarty, Bond and Blofeld. This is nothing like that however, that would be too predictable. No, our real hero is a short round unassuming priest of all people. This priest comes across as some what bumbling and does not appear to be anything like the great Valentin. They meet on their way to London on a train and he politely warns the old priest about telling everyone what expensive things he is bringing to the Conference, a blue cross being the main thing.

Without going into too much detail the detective manages to follow a convenient trail that leads him to track down Flambeau who is with the old priest who suspects Flambeau is on the trail of the blue cross. It is later found out that the priest Father Brown was on to Flambeau. Father Brown tests Flambeau to see if he is a criminal or not whilst in disguise and realises for a priest he had a disappointing grasp of ecclesiastical theology so leaves a trail for the police to come and find them and arrest Flambeau.

Father Brown is similar to the Agatha Christie sleuths Poirot and Marple, appears relativity harmless. He is a man not of action but of realising how others think based (going on this story) what has been told to him in confessions. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who relies on deduction and observation, exhausting all possibilities, Father Brown has his suspicions tests them and draws his conclusions based on psychological and spiritual observations. Where as Sherlock is a man of action who knows his martial arts and can get involved in a bit of rough with Holmes and Lestrade among the others from Scotland Yard, Father Brown is more intellectual and spiritual and will try to achieve his objective. His course is that of good and he can confront those who try to justify their actions by reminding them how it is wrong.

There has been many adaptations of the Father Brown Mysteries. The BBC produced one starring Mark Williams of The Fast Show Fame (you ain’t seen me, right). As great and marvellous as he is as the character I do think he’s a bit tall for the character.

I am a big fan GK Chesterton. I find his life as fascinating as his works and I adore his works The Man Who was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I recommend you all to give him a look.

[From The Complete Farther Brown Collection, Kindle Edition]