Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a very approachable novel rich in characterization and many will read it and find it pleasant. It is, however, much more. The book deals with significant cultural shifts unique to the American immigrant experience, the influx of eastern European Jewry with it's traditions and language, assimilation and subsequent loss of access to that very culture. Additionally, it explores the inevitable loss as a result of translation of important works of both fiction and non fiction from original language to today's English and the collaboration necessary between translator and author (assuming the author is extant) that produces something the same, yet different from the original in the process. The novel is actually two running narratives - the translated Yiddish journals of the author and the back story of the translator. I've read it twice and will read it again.
This book is a dialogue between a non-Jewish translator, who is learning Yiddish and a Yiddish poet, whose life spans the century. The tale is a marvelous story of a poet and his muse, from the beginnings in a Russian Ghetto to an ending in contemporary Baltimore, that could easily could have come from Issac Bashevis Singer or a Jewish Dickens. In simplest terms, it is a love story. But most deeply it is a meditation on language, written and spoken, and on how we fashion our lives with words, sometimes concrete, but often elusive. It is one of the best books I have read in the past year, and will haunt me, with 'memory' and moral and intellectual quandries for some time.
Its 370 pages long but I read it in one day just because I was so caught up in this rather outrageous and comic novel which is basically a tribute to the Yiddish language. There are two main characters here. One is the voice of "the translator", who, like the actual author of this book, is a Catholic who is intrigued by the Yiddish language. The other is the voice of Itsik Malpesh, born during a pogrom in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
Through these two voices the story emerges, one of the experience of being a Jew in an anti-Semitic world, where young boys are kidnapped for the Tzar's army, where people labor at menial and backbreaking jobs for a pittance and where there is never a feeling of safety. The other voice is that of a modern young man working in an agency that restores books printed in Yiddish. He has learned Yiddish even though he is not Jewish and is romantically involved with a young Jewish woman who doesn't know his true background.
From these two voices, Itsik's story is told, how he searches for the butcher's daughter, Sasha, who, at age four was present at his birth. She is his obsession but when they finally meet up he discovers that her story is different from his. No matter though, he loves her. But by then they are both immigrants in New York, experiencing a world that has its own kind of harshness. The book spans a century and it all turns out well, but not without the characters experiencing some rather horrible events that were described so outrageously that I had to laugh out loud.
This is a fun book to read, but it is also a learning experience about the Yiddish language and a culture that has come and gone.
This easy to read page turner was penned by the son of a priest and a nun. As a student,he fell in love with Jewish fiction. Before beginning the novel read the interview with the author in the back of the book. The story of the author itself is fascinating.
The book's protagonist, Itsak, is born in a small Ukranian city during a pogrom. He flees to Odessa because of both persecution and the draft. From Odessa he emigrates to the lower east side of New York. At last he finds a home in Baltimore where he meets a Christian translater of Yiddish. This book contains everything neccessary to make a fine novel. The story is compelling. The language is fluid, rich and unpretentious. The tale is about one of my favorite subjects, the persecution of Jews and their subsequent migration to the U.S.
This non-Jewish author has captured the Yiddish cadences which flavor a successful work of Jewish fiction. He has obviously researched his subject and his subject's native language well. He is coming to address a group of readers in my city, and I expect to be in the audience. For a first effort this novel is truly amazing. I look forward to more from this talented writer. This book is a quick read and a page turner.
Too many things happened that I found ridiculous and hard to believe, and many of those things were coincidences which were so great that they made the book painfully precious. Parts of it were ok though. The character development was hit and miss.