#EightCandleBookTag

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I’m joining in with a Word Press Book Challenge, suggested in the interests of festive inclusivity :-).  The idea is to mention one book for each of the eight nights of the festival of Chanukah, which starts tonight. So I have amused myself by listing eight books, some of which are old favourites and some of which were new reads this year, with (gloriously tenuous – I have an over-vivid imagination) links to the Chanukah story.  I’ve got football, the Chalet School, Coronation Street, Little Women, Renaissance Italy and the Napoleonic Wars in here, amongst other things.  I know.  I’m weird.  Also, if you Google “Chanukah”, it comes up with a really cute cartoon – give it a go!

Thanks to  The Chocolate Lady   for suggesting this.  Sorry that I’m not very good at finding books to fit categories suggested elsewhere, but these are my eight books … in no particular order.

The Lights of Manchester by Tony Warren.  Lights – Chanukah, Festival of Lights.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, and that’s important, and wonderful up to a point, but it gets rather silly when, for example, you get people claiming that the new CATS film is racist because the colour of the fur on one of the costumes doesn’t match the actress’s skin tone … without stopping to find out that he character concerned, Victoria, is also known as “The White Cat”, so her fur has to be white.  It’s nothing to do with racism!  I do wish everyone would try a bit harder to look for the good in society, instead of assuming the worst.  Most people are actually rather nice.  Anyway, in this lovely book from the 1990s, written by the late creator of Coronation Street, the main character is white and Protestant, but her soul mate and eventual husband Barney is Jewish, her best friend Mickey is gay, her friends Judy, Monica and Delia are all Catholic, and Delia’s husband Carlton is black.  Tony Warren wasn’t trying to make a point, or to prove anything, or to accuse anyone of anything, like some people seem to do incessantly.  He was just writing about life, and people, and Manchester life and people in particular. I first read this book just before the festive season in 1992.  It’s an all-time favourite.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.  The baddies in the Chanukah story are Syrian.  Except that they’re actually Greek.  Like Cleopatra and the rest of the Ptolemy brigade were Egyptian, but actually Greek.  Anyway, the baddies are the rulers of  “Coele-Syria”, an area now forming parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and are generally referred to as “Syrians”.  This book, also set in Manchester, came out this year, and is about Syrian refugees.  It’s an important subject, and I love the way it uses a traditional GO-type format to tell a modern-day story.

Circe by Madeline Miller.  As I said, the Syrian baddies are actually Greek!   This book’s about Greek gods rather than real Greeks, but I’m including it because it’s the last book I read.   I believe there’s a mini-series coming, so fingers crossed that it’s shown somewhere I can see it!

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  The Chanukah story isn’t actually in the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Old Testament, although it’s in the Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox versions … I always thought it just wasn’t in, but apparently it depends which version you’ve got.  How very confusing!   Anyway, I was going to say that, although it isn’t actually in the Bible, but make that “although it isn’t actually in all versions of the Bible”, it’s still a religious story, and they tend to feature blokes as heroes, so it’s great to have a book which focuses on some of the female characters in the Bible … and this one’s become hugely popular.

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler. This is primarily set in the very lovely city of Porto. No, it isn’t about football: it’s about the Napoleonic Wars. It’s also about crypto-Jews. There’ve been a lot of times during which, for one reason or another – being Jews or Muslims in the Spanish or Portuguese Empires, being “heretics”, belonging to a Christian denomination that’s on the opposite side to the authorities during/after the Reformation, belonging to any religion in a strict communist regime – people have been able to practice their religion only in secret. This was also the case in the Chanukah story, in which the Syrians-who-were-actually-Greeks were busy Hellenising everything. According to a great historical tradition dating back two millennia (ahem, which was possibly invented in the 19th century, rather like a lot of those wondrous “age-old” Christmas traditions, but never mind), Jews meeting in secret to study religious texts would, if caught by the Greek-Syrian authorities, pretend to be playing a game with spinning tops.  No spinning tops in this book, sadly, but Richard Zimler’s books are always interesting.

The spinning tops are actually historically accurate, i.e. relating to that period of history, even if their link to the story may possibly be a bit tenuous.  And, if you do look at the Google cartoon, you’ll see them in there.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover. This one is about football! And the author’s from Manchester, and a lifelong United fan. The link here is that the Maccabees, the heroes of the Chanukah story, whilst they were possibly more interested in playing with spinning tops than in playing football, have ended up with a load of sporting clubs named after them, the most famous being Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, who are often involved in Champions League or Europa League action. This book’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor who went on to manage Benfica to European Cup glory.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. I was trying to think of a book which involved olive oil, to go with the Chanukah oil story, but the best I could think of was a book set somewhere where I’ve seen lots of olive groves, so either Greece or Italy. This one’s set in Renaissance Italy, where the heroine, Grazia dei Rossi (who is Jewish, although I don’t think she ever mentions Chanukah!) works as a secretary for Isabella d’Este, daughter of the ruler of Ferrara and wife of the ruler of Mantua. Both of those areas have lots of olive groves!

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. A sub-plot in the Chanukah story involves a woman called Hannah, who has seven sons. Although, apparently the books about the Maccabees, which are or aren’t in the Bible depending on which version you’ve got, don’t actually mention her name, but she’s usually called Hannah … although in some countries she’s called Miriam. Or Solomonia. Anyway, Hannah and her sons are arrested by the Syrian king. Who is actually Greek. Pass the doughnuts, someone: I’m confusing myself here.  Anyway, I thought it’d be easy to come up with a book about someone called Hannah, but it wasn’t. However, we do have Hannah, the March family’s faithful old retainer in Little Women – and, seeing as there’s yet another new film version of Little Women due out later this month, I thought that that was quite apt. And I do like to have American Civil War books on my lists.

And … because there are actually nine candles, because one is needed to light the other eight, and because it seems a bit weird not to have a Chalet School book on the list, book number nine is Peggy of the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. When Peggy Bettany returns to her friends after her surprise appointment as the new Head Girl, Judy Rose teases her by chanting “See the Conqu’ring Heroine Comes” … referring to “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” which (although it’s actually a veiled reference to the Battle of Culloden!) is about Judah the Maccabee, the leader of the Maccabees.  Incidentally, someone has put up a giant lime green menorah (well, a metal one with fluorescent tape on it, but it looks lime green!) by the side of the road not far from chez moi, and, every time I walk past it, I think about all the Chalet School fandom jokes about characters liking lime green clothes, furnishings and even vehicles.  It’s certainly hard to miss!

Told you I had an over-active imagination!  Thank you to anyone who’s read all that.  Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Cool Yule, or any other form of festive greeting you prefer.  They all work.  Peace and goodwill to one and all xxx.

 

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler

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Word PressThis was a rather strange combination of topics: all of them were interesting individually, but I’m not sure how well they worked as a combination. The book kicked off in Porto, during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, with, as its main character, John Zarco Stewart, the young son of a Scottish father – there having long been a British presence in Porto, especially since the 1703 Methuen Treaty – and a Portuguese mother.

John made friends with two people a bit older than himself – Daniel, who ended up drowning, and Violeta, who was abused by her uncle and then disappeared. Not very cheerful, and poor John struggled to cope with it all. In the middle of all this, there was a lot of talk about Marranos – the “crypto-Jews” of Spain and Portugal, who were officially Catholic but practised Judaism in secret. Daniel’s family were Marranos, and there were hints that John’s mother was a Marrana as well … but it wasn’t particularly convincing because she didn’t do any Marrana stuff.   If you’re going to write about Marranos, you need someone to be lighting candles on a Friday night. It’s the Marrano thing. You can put chicken sausages in as well, if you like, but it’s very weird to do Marranos without the Friday night candles. I don’t know why the author, who is apparently an expert on the subject of Marranos, didn’t include them, but it was rather annoying.

Then John’s father went off to South Africa to look for vineyards, and came back accompanied by a Bushman called Midnight. Yes, yes, I know that we’re now supposed to use the term “San” rather than the term “Bushman”; but the book used “Bushman” throughout. There was quite a lot about San culture and beliefs, which was very interesting – sadly, the Khoi-San people tend to be the forgotten people of South African history – but the idea that a Scotsman would go off from Porto to the South African winelands and that a Bushman would move from South Africa to Porto, especially in wartime, just seemed rather far-fetched. Midnight was a healer, and had come to Europe to search for a cure for smallpox … which rather made you wonder why he hadn’t gone to somewhere with a well-known medical school, but never mind! He began working with Senhor Benjamin, a local apothecary, and was able to treat John for depression.

Next up, a hate preacher who wanted the Inquisition brought back started whipping up hatred against the Marranos, and it all came out that John’s mother was a Marrana. She suggested that John go to Senhor Benjamin – who was also a Marrano – for Torah lessons, as the only thing she knew about Jewish doctrine or practice was lighting candles on a Friday night. Hooray!! Finally, the candle thing!   But why had we never seen her lighting the candles? Oh well, never mind.

John’s dad and Midnight then went off to Britain, to meet Edward Jenner. See, I knew Midnight should have gone somewhere where there was a medical expert!   However, John’s dad came back alone, and said that Midnight had been killed in an accident.

There was an awful lot of travelling going on, considering that it was wartime!   Then the French invaded and sacked Porto. This was probably the worst moment in Porto’s history. Many of its inhabitants were murdered, raped, or died when a bridge collapsed. But it was all rather skipped over in the book. John’s father died, and two close friends, one of whom died as a result of her injuries, were raped, but somehow the horror of it all didn’t really come across … the focus was more on why John’s dad had stayed in Porto rather than fleeing as his wife and son did.

Fast forward. John’s mum moved to London, to live with her sister-in-law. Britain got an extremely good press in this book, as a nation which both took a lead in the abolition of the slave trade and which was very tolerant towards religious minorities. The “metropolitan elite”, who seem determined on insisting that everything in British history is bad, might want to read this. Although they probably wouldn’t want to read it. John got married and had two kids, but then his wife died. And then Senhor Benjamin told him that Midnight hadn’t died in an accident in Gloucestershire at all, but that John’s dad had found out that he (Midnight) and John’s mum had been having an affair, and had sold him into slavery in Virginia!

OK,that apparently explained why John’s dad had seemed so unconcerned about his own safety: he couldn’t live with the guilt. And so Midnight was, presumably, still alive. And then, re-enter Violeta, now living in New York. It transpired that poor Violeta had been people-trafficked into prostitution in London, in a story which seemed to belong more to the early 21st century than the early 19th century. This was very sad and shocking, but it was all skipped over in a few pages, when surely Violeta’s story deserved its own book. Then, it what was presumably an attempt to try to keep some sort of thread running through the book, we were told that Violeta had become a nanny to the children of a Portuguese Jewish woman living in Newcastle. What?? Were there any Portuguese Jewish women living in Newcastle in the 1820s?! Er, and then she’d ended up in New York.

John then betook himself to America. Despite the fact that Midnight was now known by a different name, and had been sold on from Virginia to South Carolina, and there must have been millions of slaves in the southern states of America at the time, he somehow managed to find the plantation where Midnight was supposed to be. At this point, we went back to the Portuguese Jewish theme, when we were told that lots of Portuguese Marranos had moved to Charleston.

Now that isn’t quite accurate. However, it was an interesting subject to bring into the book, because an often overlooked aspect of the history of the Deep South, and especially of Charleston – the ultimate Southern Rights city, the place where South Carolina declared that it was seceding from the Union, the place where the first shots of the War Between The States were fired, etc etc – is that the prejudice against Jews which, along with prejudice against Catholics, was rife in the upper echelons of Northern society, didn’t apply in the South. Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was from a Charleston Jewish family. There were many prominent Jewish people in various aspects of Charleston life even before the Revolution. Charleston, in the 1820s, had the highest Jewish population of any city in the United States. And, yes, at that point they were almost all Sephardi … but from/descended from families who’d moved there from London, or London via Amsterdam, rather than actually from Portugal. But, OK, there was that link there.

The narrative then switched from being first person John to being first person Morri – Morri being Midnight’s daughter. Midnight was missing, presumed dead. It later turned out that he’d gone off with a group of Indians (the book said Indians, not Native Americans!). The family and overseer of the plantation on which Morri was living seemed to spend all their time abusing their slaves, and the master and his heir were both murdered in mysterious circumstances but no-one ever found out who’d murdered them. Things were getting rather bonkers by this stage. Morri and some of the others were planning to escape. Then John turned up at the plantation, pretending he wanted to sketch birds, and found out that the owner knew about the plan. Then most of them did manage to escape, assisted by a) John and b) a ship’s captain from Liverpool.

So John and Morri went back to join Violeta in New York, and John’s mum and daughters joined them there too. Then Midnight turned up there too, safe and well, and everyone presumably lived happily ever after.

Too many different themes, and some very tenuous links and distinctly far-fetched storylines. But I suppose you could say that there was a general theme running through it about oppression and trying to overcome it. Really, I think it would have worked better as two separate books, one about Marranos and one about slavery. Or maybe three, because there are very few novels about the Khoi-San people. There was too much going on, and it didn’t really link together that well.  But the individual themes and characters were fascinating.  And I suppose putting them all into one book was pretty ambitious.  Just maybe a bit too ambitious.