“The Bad Beginning” (Book the First of A Series of Unfortunate Events) By Lemony Snicket (1999) 162 pages, Started March 14, finished March 16.
So I wanted a fast, fun read (especially after “The Last Jews of Kerala” which was neither fast not fun.) And I guess this qualifies as both, if you consider reading about three children who just lost their parents in a fire, are forced to wear itchy clothes and then have to move in with an evil thespian to be fun. And if you think a lot of little word-definition asides are fun, and not irritating. (I went back and forth on that one.) Considering that this is a YA (possibly even childrens’) book, it is very dark, but you can’t say you weren’t warned, I mean, look at the title. There are 13 stories in this series (all of which have been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time) and the first few were consolidated into a movie a few years ago. I am not sure if it was because I saw the movie, but I had a continual sense of deja vu while reading this one. I knew I had started it a few years ago, but I was about 90% sure I hadn’t finished it. Although why I thought that, I have no idea– the pages are very small, the print is rather large, and its a pretty hard book to put down once you start. So once I finished it this time, I became rather certain that I had actually read it before. But no matter. I’m counting it as one of the 50 anyway. One other aside– the author, Lemony Snicket, is really Daniel Handler, the accordianist for the Magnetic Fields, one of the all-time best bands in the whole world. And he also wrote a really funny (and also very dark) Chanukah book called “The Latke who Wouldn’t Stop Screaming”, which really is a kids’ book; because its only about 20 pages and is mostly pictures, I probably shouldn’t count in the final tally.
“The Last Jews of Kerala” By Edna Fernandes (2008); 222 pages- Started March 1, finished March 14.
This was another one for our local Jewish Book Discussion Series, and it was just OK. The group met to discuss this one on March 8, before I was even halfway finished, and it took me a fair amount of energy to actually make myself complete this after hearing the discussion. The general concensus was: good topic, poorly written book. I can’t say I really disagree, although I did actually think it got better as it progressed. One very irritating thing about this book was the glaring lack of images: no maps, no gorgeous landscapes of India, no photos of the people described in the book. So it seems to have been published on a low budget, was poorly edited, and parts of it were boring and confusing. The book group concluded that this have been a few long articles instead of dragged out into a full length “history”.
But despite all that– I didn’t hate it. Some sections were better than others. Fernandes is OK at interviewing peeople and describing personal histories, it’s just that when she tries to tie together the big picture things start to fall apart. The story is sad, but also interesting: two separate communities of Jews in Kerala (a region in the southwest of India, that I would have been able to tell you more about if there had been a map in the book. ugh.) are both dying out. One is a group of native Indians (The “black” Jews) and the other is a community of Europeans ( the “white” Jews) who migrated to India hundreds of years ago. According to this account, the white Jews treat the black Jews pretty horribly, and Fernades’ theory is that if they had only been willing to intermarry, it would have saved both populations from their imminent extinction. My own opinion is that it only would have postoned the inevitable… there are less than a dozen white Jews left, and maybe 50 black Jews. Although if the white Jews hadn’t been so exclusionsary, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Curiously though, in the past generation these communities did start to intermarry (although not without a lot of horrendous behavior from their families) and it doesn’t seem to have helped much. On the bright side, though, many of the offspring of the Kerala Jews have migrated to Israel and are doing OK there– they are at least trying to keep their unique Jewish/Indian culture from dissapearing entirely.