Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Culture, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Saturday, March 23, 2019

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell -2006





The Gateway to David Mitchell on The Reading Life


Black Swan Green is the forth novel by David Mitchhell I have recently read.  My first was The Bone Clocks, then Slade house followed by his set in 18th century Japan The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I will I hope in April read his aclaimed Cloud Atlas.

Green Swan Black (to my surprise this is the name of the small English town in which this coming of age story is set.  The plot begins around 1980, you can tell  the period by the occurrence of the Falkland Island War.  The central character is a very normal teenage boy.  His father is the district manager for a big
grocery store chain.  His mother is a house wife.  He has an older sister with whom he has the usual conflicts.  The family is close enough and well provided for.  At first I was slow to get involved in the story, I might have abandoned the book if it was an ARC. I soon realized that Mitchell has found a way to make the day to day life of an English teenager as engrossing as a haunted house story and as fascinating in details as his novel set in 18th century Japan.  We are in a pre internet no mobile phone which now does require historical knowledge to treat in a novel.

There are teenage cliques, social rankings of the Boys, rules their code of behaviour requires, the biggest fault would be ratting out another boy to a teacher.  There are interesting characters, a crazy school bus driver, a scary resident with dobermans, gypsies, and my favourite, a mysterious older French woman who, when she learns he writes poetry, begins to try educate him about literature.

Things do happen in the family.  Dad loses his job for cheating on his expense account, Mother gets a job selling fine art and does very well.  His sister has a new boyfriend and goes to college.  There is more.

I just loved this phone conversation the mother had with the daughter:

““You’re still coming home for Christmas, right?” “Day after tomorrow. Stian’s driving me down. His family owns this mansion in darkest Dorset.” “Stan?” “Stan?” “No, Stian. He’s Norwegian, Ph.D. in dolphin language? Didn’t I mention him in my last letter?” Julia knows exactly what she “mentions” in her letters. “Wow. So he speaks in dolphin with you?” “He programs computers that might, one day soon.” “What happened to Ewan?” “Ewan’s a dear, but he’s in Durham and I’m up here and … well, I knocked it on the head. In the long run, it’s for the best.” “Oh.” But Ewan had a Silver MG. “I liked Ewan.” “Cheer up. Stian’s got a Porsche.” “God, Julia. What sort? A GT?”

This is not that long a work, maybe 260 pages.  I liked it a lot once I got into it.

DAVID MITCHELL is the award-winning and bestselling author of Slade House, The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.



























About the Author DAVID MITCHELL is the award-winning and bestselling author of Slade House, The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.  -from the publisher

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy - 2017




The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy - 2017

November 24, 1961 - Shillong, Indis

1997 - Wins the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, with sales of over eight million and translations into forty languages

I read The God of Small Things about 13 years ago, before I began my blog.  I don't recall a lot about it, I know now if I had a blog post on it reading that alone would largely restore my memory of the work.  Like millions of other of her readers I was pleased when twenty years after her first book she published a second one.  The Kindle Edition was originally priced at $14.95 and that seems an unfair price for an E book of a novel.  I put it on my Amazon watch list and monitored the office until I found it on sale for $2.95. (As of today it is back up to $11.95.)

I am getting behind on my postings so this will be a brief post.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a big sprawling novel with lot of characters set in and is an intimate portrait of a huge very ancient tropical megacity, bigger than Manilla.  It is the story of people left behind in the mad rush to create wealth for New Indians.  New developments destroy very old structures of kinship that once sustained a very, I mean very diverse population.  

The aspect of the novel I like best centered on a transsexual individual, called in the culture a Hijra and her struggles to make a life for herself, find a family and love and even raise a child.  In her late teens, her father is ashamed of her, she moves in with a group of Hijra.  Hijra's are discriminated against but represent something once importantin Indian society.  The treatment of Hijras should put this on LBGTQ lists. There are lots of characters, many threads of plots and the prose is a pure delight.  

Delhi is a brutal place for those who do not fit in the vision of the future of India of the leadership.  We spent a good bit of time in Kashmir, we see the difficulties between Muslims, Hindus, and Shiks,. We witness the horrible tradgey of the Bhopal Chemical disaster.  There is violence, hatred, and decay every where along side great beauty.

This is a challenging book but very much worth your time.






Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Orphan Handler" - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - from White Dancing Elephants - 2018- Announcing a New Reading Life Project





Today we are initiating a new permanent Reading Life Program centering on  Short Stories by South Asian Women.  We will include in this program Short stories written by women set on The Indian Subcontinent and stories by writers who self identify as of South Asian ancestory.  We hope to post on classic writers as well as authors just starting out.  We are seeking suggestions.

In the nearly ten years in which i have maintained The Reading Life i have never seen as much attention given to a debut Short story collectionas that given to White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.  So far i have posted on three of her marvelous very creative stories, all have death as a core factor and deal with the interaction of persons of Indian background with western countries.  The title story involves a miscarriage, another an Indian father’s impending murder of his mentally handicapped daughter.  Another story takes us to the horrible Bhopal Chemical plant disaster in which over 30,000 died. 

I have just finished Reading The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrup Frye.  He talks extensively and very learnedly about the various ways in which myths are used to structure literary works. In all three of the stories I read prior today we can see Bhuvaneswar very profoundly use ancient Indian myths not only as part of the rhetoric structure of her stories but she shows us how people retreat into deeply rooted ancient archetypal myths to help with the otherwise unfathomable aspects of their lives.  She overlays the ancient myths with modern reality.  

I will quote a bit from Frye to try to clarify my meaning.

“We have, then, three organizations of myths and archetypal symbols in literature. First, there is undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons, and which takes the form of two contrasting worlds of total metaphorical identification, one desirable and the other undesirable. These worlds are often identified with the existential heavens and hells of the religions contemporary with such literature. These two forms of metaphorical organization we call the apocalyptic and the demonic respectively. Second, we have the general tendency we have called romantic, the tendency to suggest implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience. Ironic literature begins with realism and tends toward myth, its mythical patterns being as a rule more suggestive of the demonic than of the apocalyptic, though sometimes it simply continues the romantic tradition of stylization.  

In today’s story, “The Orphan Handler” In just a few pages we see Bhuvaneswar exemplify the romantic implied  to overlap mythic patterns on human experiences in a fashion  very suggestive of the demonic.  As the story opens a new van full of girls is brought into the orphanage to have them all branded with a hot tattoo iron.  

“At dawn, another van with girls comes in and Sister Agnes takes them onto the back veranda, branding them with a tattoo iron and threatening them not to scream. Then she checks for scabies and lice, wearing non-latex hypoallergenic gloves. Then she leads them, even the ones who are weeping quietly, into a vast gay room with bright-colored streamers and balloons and glittering signs spelling out birthday greetings, even though not one of them has given us their real birthdays or names. Then she initiates the change that is our little spiritual secret: the transformation of orphaned girls with special powers, the powers to change into wild creatures of various kinds, into future housekeepers, grounds cleaners, toilet scrubbers, perhaps a secretary or two, or God-fearing wives. After the birthing rite come songs, a ritual that never fails to irritate Mother Superior Devi. Before erecting this orphanage-cum-vocational school, Devi had been arrested for drug trafficking in Kamathipura, where prostitutes lived and where indeed she was involved in heroin. In jail, she learned to read the Bible and took orders as a nun. Now she gives us orders and sporadically allows us to watch a blue movie or two, just to remind us that God accepted her because of, and not in spite of, where she had been, and how blind we would be to think that anything we ever did would be beyond his Love.”

The story is narrated by an orphanage worker in charge of new girls, seventy years old, she entered the orphanage at sixteen.  They are ritualistically given new identities.  If the girls have parents she sends letters to their parents saying they have died.  She prefers girls in filthy clothes as experience has taught her that their parents won’t look hard for them.  In one heart breaking line she tells us that once and a while a troublemaker of a mother shows us looking for her daughter.  Sadly they often are branded.  (I am assuming branded women are not acceptable as wives.)

The woman profits when concerned parents, thinking their daughters have died, send items to be included in their funereal arrangements.  


“Mother Superior Devi can smell women who change—and the girls, the special girls, with powers to transform into animals, well, many of them inherit this capacity from their mothers. Girls in grey are easy fish: calls are cursory, inquiries disinterested. It isn’t even grey that they’re wearing. It’s filth, their clothing washed if you can call it that in refuse-tainted water, in puddles that slum dwellers make do with for small ponds. There is a smell on these girls that is distinct, not just a smell but a texture—the unwashed clinging even to the newly-washed, the smell of their hair still rank though it is combed and gilded with flowers. Only the transformations astound me. At night, manacles aren’t enough. Mother Superior Devi has gone into deep pockets, money retrieved from her former lucrative life, to build tunnels and dungeon rooms equipped with chains and cages and even one exhibit with rocks and grass where girls who become panthers can be contained, where the wildness of these girls can be transformed in changes more powerful and still more devastating than their earliest age, around age five or six, when they first must have discovered that as girls, they had a secret; when they first sounded a different voice, thrilling to them in its forbidden and unexpected grace. What was it like when you discovered you could roar? I asked a beautiful fourteen-year-old girl-cub-lioness one time, a girl whose eyes were golden brown and her hair matted from life in the slum. But by then she had already been branded and subdued. Doubtful that she knew anymore what to answer; grateful she’d be, shortly after, for how the Mother made her forget, helped her attain a quieter, more durable violence.”

The nuns have license to sexually enjoy the girls and indulge in same sex activity but she is too old for that now.

I see the story as overlaying very ancient myths about female sexuality onto a very cruel setting.  The story is set Mumbai, in a world far from the glittering prosperity of the multinational corporations, elegant mansions and five star hotels but we can be sure some of the owners of the corporations, hotels and mansions have helped make Mother Superior Devi Rich.  Branded girls don’t work in The front of elegant establishments but maybe a few lucky ones scrub the floors.

You can read “The Orphan Handler" at the link below


Publisher's webpage on White Dancing Elephants


Author's Webpage


Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2, and featured on the Other Stories podcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts. She is a practicing physician.



Oleander Bousweau
Mel u




















Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2, and featured on the Other Stories podcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.  She is a practicing physician.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Dark Young Man by Jacob Dinezon - first published 1877 - translated from Yiddish by Tina Lunson,edited by Scott Hilton Davis - 2019








The Dark Young Man by Jacob Dinezon - first published 1877 - translated from Yiddish by Tina Lunson,edited by Scott Hilton Davis - 2019

1851  - Born in New Zhanger, Lithuania

1877 - The Dark Young Man is published and goes becomes one of the best selling Yiddish language novels of all times.

1919 - Dies in Warsaw

I strongly urge everyone to read the fascinating biography on the Jacob Denizon Project linked to above.


I first began reading Yiddish literature in translation in December of 2012.  Yale University Press inspired my interest with a gift of The Yale Yiddish Library Collection. The alleged theme of my blog is literary works about people who lead reading centered lives and I quickly came to see how central reading was to Yiddish culture.  

I think my favorite work of Yiddish literature is the deeply hilarious profoundly revealing The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl by Sholem Aleichem, on whose work the movie The Fiddler on the Roof is based.  In the stories of pogroms by I. L. Peretz a terrible history was brought to life with incredible depth and feeling.  Denizon was friends with them both. These two writers along with Sholem Abramovitsh whom I have not yet read are considered the classic must read Yiddish writers.  Of course the issue in any literary culture  whose work endures is only partially based on merit, writers come in an out of fashion.  I think in the case of a literature like Yiddish from a partially destroyed culture dependent on translations for works to be read this is very much true.  Of course most publishers are shy to produce the works of relatively unknown writers in translation for fair to them business reasons.

Thanks to the selfless dedication and strongly focused work of Scott Davis, Jacob Dinezon (I urge all to read the very informative webpage on Dinezon I link to at the start of this post for background information on Dinezon and his relationships with other now much better known writers) Dinezon will soon become a canon status Yiddish writer.

Aside from the very exciting plot and string character development in The Dark Young Man this book is a very important part of Yiddish literary history.  It sold over 200,000 copies, written in a language many saw as not suitable for literature, below Russian or Hebrew in status.  It brought Denizon security and he would became an important figure in the largely Warsaw based literary community.

The plot begins as a young man, Yousef, leaves his family home to go to work for the family headed by Meyshe.  Yousef is essentially the hero of the story, Moyshe, the villan, is a very domineering father,very concerned with keeping traditional values, especially with regard to his right to pick, with the services of a matchmaker, an important figure in the community who were not always bcompletely truthful about a potential partners merit. ( They were paid after the match was made.). Meyshe's daughter Roza and Yousef fall in love.  They want to marry but Meyshe wants her to marry a man from a family that will be advantageous to his business.  He comes to see Yousef as his nemisis, out to steal his daughter.  The daughter wants to marry Yousef but neither she nor Yousef will violate the traditional values that require the approval of the Father.

 Moyshe begins to spread malicious lies about Yousef to turn Roca against him.  

I will leave the rest of the plot untold.  This is a melancholy and melodramatic work.  Everyone suufers as the father forces his will on his family.  It gave me better  feel for the match making process.  I have three unmarried adult daughters and can project myself into this situation. Women were bound by the rule of their father until married.  Readers of Jane Austin and many other 19th century  writers will immediately relate to The Dark Young Man.

Yiddish writers often derived much of their income from theatrical works and certainly an exciting movie could be made from this book. Lots of exciting if not happy things happen.

Jewish Story Teller Press has brought into print brand new first ever translations of two more of Denizon's novels, Hershel: A Jewish Love Story and Yosele: A Story from Jewish Life which sounds a bit like Oliver Twist.  They have also published a collection of stories and essays under the title Memories and Scenes- Shtel, Childhood and Writers (I have previously posted on this collection and it is both culturally significant and a delight to read.)

In April I hope to read Yosele:A Story of Jewish Life as I'm wanting an inside look at Shtel schools, then Herdhel in May.

I salute and thank Jewish Storyteller Press for these very important publications.  


Mel u









Sunday, March 17, 2019

Up North - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant -first published November 21, 1959 in The New Yorker -included in Home Truths







"A short story is what you see when you look out of the window."
Mavis Gallant

April 11, 1922 - Montreal

1950 - moves to Paris

September 1, 1951- publishes, in The New Yorker, her first short story.  She would publish 116 stories in The New Yorker. 

February 18, 2014 - passes away in her beloved Paris

Katherine Mansfield set a number of her short stories on trains, with women talking to men they never met, opening up to a stranger they knew they would never see again.  "Up North" is such a story.  Set around 1946 or so, when Gallant must've been dreaming about leaving Canada, the woman is the English war bride of a Canadian soldier, she is with her son who barely remembers his father.  They are headed  Abitibi, in northern Quebec to join her husband who drives a bull doxer for an aluminum company.  We never learn how she came to marry a Canadian soldier or anything at all about her life in England.  Gallant is a master at using small details to illuminate the past and see into the future:

"He looked all at once ridiculous and dishonored in his cheap English clothes –the little jacket, the Tweedledum cap on his head. He outdistanced his clothes; he was better than they were. But he was rushing on this train into an existence where his clothes would be too good for him."

The woman hates the train berth.  She begins a conversation with a man sitting near her and her son.  We learn her husband is a laborer.  Her son has never heard anyone speak French and in an intriguing aspect of the story mistakes a group of Frenchmen for elves.  Her son asks the man if he has ever seen a ghost.  No he has not but where the boy is going he will find lots of Indians, who do see ghosts.

I think in Quebec in 1946 the expression "up North" was more than just a location,it means an almost wild west kind of place far from civilization in Montreal, and light years from London. If the woman thought the train was shabby wait until she gets to Abitibi and takes up the life of a mining camp wife.

We leave the story worrying for the future of the woman but more so her son.  His father seems a bit of a brute.

We also wonder about the future of the man on the train.

Do you have some favorite set on a train short stories?

Mel u











Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Prodigal Parent - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first published in The New Yorker, June 7, 1969 - included in Home Truths








"Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death. The only question worth asking about a story — or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall — is, Is it dead or alive?".. 

Mavis Gallant

April 11, 1922 - Montreal

1950 - moves to Paris

September 1, 1951- publishes, in The New Yorker, her first short story.  She would go onto publish 116 stories in The New Yorker. ( I greatly enjoy looking at the covers of the issue in which a story was published.)

February 18, 2014 - passes away in her beloved Paris

Thinking about the quote from Gallant with which I began this post, all her stories past her test-she can put so much life in just a few pages.

The story is narrated by a man retired with a small pension.  He has just arrived from a long drive from the East Coast of Canada to Vancouver Island on the Pacific.  His wife has divorced him and he has come to stay with his 28 year old daughter.  She is divorced , childless and having an affair with a married Irishman.  The father/daughter relationship is not an easy one.  The father's bluster covers up his shame of having to live with his daughter.  She has bought some cabins and is working on turning them into a retreat for city folks.  

Drinking plays a big part in the family history.  There is so much in this painful conversation:

"“It’s not my fault. I wouldn’t keep on falling for lushes and phonies if you hadn’t been that way.” I put my glass down on the packing case she had pushed
before me, and said, “I am not, I never was, and I never could be an alcoholic.” Rhoda. seemed genuinely shocked. “I never said that. I never heard you had to be put in a hospital or anything, like my stepdaddy. But you used to stand me on a table when you had parties, Mother told me, and I used to dance to ‘Piccolo Pete.’ What happened to that record, I wonder? One of your wives most likely got it in lieu of alimony. But may God strike us both dead here and now if I ever said you were alcoholic.” It must have been to her a harsh, clinical word, associated with straitjackets."

There is so much for us to fill in here.  We see the King Lear connection a bit further on in the story.

"She had sent for me. I had come to Rhoda from her half sister Joanne, in Montreal. Joanne had repatriated me from Europe, with an air passage to back the claim. In a new bare apartment, she played severe sad music that was like herself. We ate at a scrubbed table the sort of food that can be picked up in the hand. She was the richest of my children, through her mother, but I recognized in her guarded, slanting looks the sort of avarice and fear I think of as a specific of women."

The man and his daughter get into arguments that seem to reveal a lot.  

“Oh,” she cried, with what seemed unnecessary despair, “what did you come for? All right,” she said. “I give up. You asked for it. You can stay. I mean, I’m inviting you. You can sit around and say, ‘Oxbow was a Cheswick charmer,’ all day and when someone says to me, ‘Where jer father get his accent?’ I’ll say, ‘It was a whole way of life.’ But remember, you’re not a prisoner or anything, around here. You can go whenever you don’t like the food. I mean, if you don’t like it, don’t come to me and say, ‘I don’t like the food.’ You’re not my prisoner,” she yelled, though her face was only a few inches from mine. “You’re only my father. That’s all you are.”

I have three adult daughters.  Once my wife would go out of town to family property she would give me instructions on taking care of the girls, now it is the other way round.



Mel u






Friday, March 15, 2019

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015






The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015



Works I Have So Far Read for The Japanese Literature Challenge 12, ending March 31, 2019.



1 “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
2 The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
3 "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
4 “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.
5 Killing Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami- 2017
6 The Master Key by Masako Togawa - 1962 - translated by Simon Grove
7 "The Elephant and its Keeper" - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari
8 The Emissary by Yoko Tawada - 2014 - translated by Margaret Mitsutani
9 “The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story.
10 “The Soldier and the Horse” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story
11. Mr. English" - A Short Story by GENJI KEITA -1985- no post
12.  "The Old She Wolf and the Little Girl" by Akiyuki Nasaka - 2003



Akiyuki Nosaka’s Stories, set in the closing days of World War Two, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 a date noted at the start of each story, focus on the most innocent victims of the war, very young children and animals.  The stories have a fairy tale feel, the animals are very effectively  
anthropomorphic rendered, putting us totally seeing things from the animals perspective.  One of the three stories I have posted upon is about a very lonely whale brought to a very bloody end by his love for a Japanese submarine.  The other begins in the Tokyo Zoo.  There is no money to feed the animals so a decision is made to kill the animals, including a very gentle elephant raised in the zoo.  His keeper of many years takes him out into the countryside.  We feel the great bond between them, not even shattered in death. The other is about an old she wolf and the orphaned by war child she adopts.

Today's story, "The Red Dragon and the Cockroach" set in the final days of the war when most Japanese realized they had no change to win and focuses on an eighteen year old man selected to fly a kamakazi suicide raid on an American battle ship.  He would fly an old outmoded one propellor plane known as the Red Dragon.  Zeroes were too valuable for this. The planes were very slow and have in many attempts never successfully hit a target.  The young man is politically naive.  He   wonders if in the end the full population of Japan will be massacred, as he is told.  When he is told to be proud of dying for his emperor, he thinks only of the pension he hopes his mother will get.  He adopted a Cockroach as a pet.  He took it with him on his flights.  In three attempts his squad of three planes has not found a Target.  He takes his pet along on his last flight.  His plane runs out of fuel and crashes.  The roach survives.  He does also but as the story ends he had jumped into the Sea of Japan, planning to swim to his mother's house.

Mel u