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Georgias

By Georgiaross
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Yiddish for Pirates

Yiddish for Pirates

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Literature, a hilarious, swashbuckling yet powerful tale of pirates, buried treasure and a search for the Fountain of Youth, told in the ribald, philosophical voice of a 500-year-old Jewish parrot.

Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his n …

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Chapter One

Moishe as a child. He told me stories. Some were true. 
   At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother. 
   A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon and what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands. 
   He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the unknown edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky. 
   And nu, perhaps along the way there might be a zaftik maideleh or two, or his true love, who knew secrets also. 
   So this Moishe put the cartographer before the horse and left. 
   Luftmensch, they say. Someone who lives on air, someone whose head floats in the clouds of a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue.
The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So, nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychik sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears. 
   And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatte cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken in the drownedling, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again. 
   Everything began again. Each week with its Shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Moebius strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever, his father said. His father was a mensch. His mother also. Good people. But though they spoke of it, they never tried to find out "and then what happened?" They knew. Second verse same as the first, a little bit more oysgemutshet worn out, a little bit worse. 
   Before he climbed out the window, Moishe left a letter for his parents. 
   If the world is a book, I must read it all. 
   He had packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants. 
   He had come across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. When he was eventually discovered—after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying greps, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, so better to wait until he was alone and his mother out at the mikveh.
   When he unwrapped the old tallis—a prayer shawl—that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer. 
   Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts that seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
   But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alef-beys of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge. 
   It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no one—not the rabbis or the shammes or the other men—could find it. 
   So Moishe took the book and left.

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By Gaslight

By Gaslight

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

A magnificent literary historical-suspense novel in the tradition of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, and Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1885. In a city of fog and darkness, the notorious thief Edward Shade exists only as a ghost, a fabled con, a thief of other men's futures -- a man of smoke. William Pinkerton is already famous, the son of a brutal detective, when he descends into the underworld of Victorian London in pursuit of a …

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Excerpt

From The Woman in the Thames: Part One
1885
London

He was the oldest son.
     He wore his black moustaches long in the manner of an outlaw and his right thumb hooked at his hip where a Colt Navy should have hung. He was not yet forty but already his left knee went stiff in a damp cold from an explod­ing Confederate shell at Antietam. He had been sixteen then and the shrapnel had stood out from his knee like a knuckle of extra bone while the dirt heaved and sprayed around him. Since that day he had twice been thought killed and twice come upon his would-be killers like an avenging spectre. He had shot twenty-three men and one boy outlaws all and only the boy’s death did not trouble him. He entered banks with his head low, his eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty as if fixed for strangling. When he lurched aboard crowded street­cars men instinctively pulled away and women followed him with their eyelashes, bonnets tipped low. He had not been at home more than a month at a stretch for five years now though he loved his wife and daughters, loved them with the fear a powerful man feels who is given to breaking things. He had long yellow teeth, a wide face, sunken eyes, pupils as dark as the twist of a man’s intestines.
     So.
     He loathed London. Its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn
until the right arse stumbled in. Here he had seen nothing green in a month that was not holly or a cut bough carted in from a countryside he could not imagine. On Christmas he had watched the poor swarm a man in daylight, all clutched rags and greed; on New Year’s he had seen a lady kick a watercress girl from the step of a carriage, then curse the child’s blood spotting her laces. A rot ate its way through London, a wretchedness older and more brutal than any he had known in Chicago.
He was not the law. No matter. In America there was not a thief who did not fear him. By his own measure he feared no man living and only one man dead and that man his father.
 
It was a bitter January and that father six months buried when he descended at last into Bermondsey in search of an old opera­tive of his father’s, an old friend. Wading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles, his own busi­ness in London nearly done.
     He was dressed like a gentleman though he had lost his gloves and he clutched his walking stick in one fist like a cudgel. A stain spotted his cuffs that might have been soot or mud but was not either. He had been waiting for what passed for morn­ing in this miserable winter and paused now in a narrow alley at the back of Snow Fields, opera hat collapsed in one hand, frost creaking in the timbers of the shopfronts, not sure it had come. Fog spilled over the cobblestones, foul and yellow and thick with coal fumes and a bitter stink that crusted the nos­trils, scalded the back of the throat. That fog was everywhere, always, drifting through the streets and pulling apart low to the ground, a living thing. Some nights it gave off a low hiss, like steam escaping a valve.
     Six weeks ago he had come to this city to interrogate a woman who last night after a long pursuit across Blackfriars Bridge had leaped the railing and vanished into the river. He thought of the darkness, the black water foaming outward, the slapping of the Yard sergeants’ boots on the granite setts.

He could still feel the wet scrape of the bridge bollards against his wrists.
     She had been living lawful in this city as if to pass for respectable and in this way absolve herself of a complicated life but as with anything it had not helped. She had been calling herself LeRoche but her real name was Reckitt and ten years earlier she had been an associate of the notorious cracksman and thief Edward Shade. That man Shade was the one he really hunted and until last night the Reckitt woman had been his one certain lead. She’d had small sharp teeth, long white fingers, a voice low and vicious and lovely.
     The night faded, the streets began to fill. In the upper windows of the building across the street a pale sky glinted, reflected the watery silhouettes below, the passing shadows of the early horses hauling their waggons, the huddled cloth caps and woollens of the outsides perched on their sacks. The iron-shod wheels chittering and squeaking in the cold. He coughed and lit a cigar and smoked in silence, his small deep-set eyes predatory as any cutthroat’s.
     After a time he ground the cigar under one heel and punched out his hat and put it on. He withdrew a revolver from his pocket and clicked it open and dialed through its chambers for something to do and when he could wait no longer he hitched up one shoulder and started across.
 
 
If asked he would say he had never met a dead nail didn’t want to go straight. He would say no man on the blob met his own shadow and did not flinch. He would run a hand along his unshaved jaw and glower down at whatever reporter swayed in front of him and mutter some unprintable blasphemy in flash dialect and then he would lean over and casually rip that page from the reporter’s ring-coil notebook. He would say lack of education is the beginning of the criminal underclass and both rights and laws are failing the country. A man is worth more than a horse any day though you would never guess it to see it. The cleverest jake he’d ever met was a sharper and the kindest jill a whore and the world takes all types. Only the soft-headed think a thing looks like what it is.
     In truth he was about as square as a broken jaw but then he’d never met a cop any different so what was the problem and whose business was it anyway.

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