M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

de classics, modern fiction,

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Ox Mountain Death Song" by Kevin Barry (October 29, 2012)

"He had been planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was seventeen years old. Well, he had the hair for it, and the ferret grin, and there was hardly a female specimen along that part of the Sligo-Mayo border that hadn’t taken the scan of his hazel glance, or hadn’t had the hard word laid on, in the dark corners of bars, or in the hormone maelstrom of the country discos, or in untaxed cars, down back roads, under the silly, silly moonlight. He had soft girlish eyelashes and pig-ignorant shoulders—sex on a stick, was his own opinion, and too many of the foolish girls, the foolish women, shared it. He kept several on the string at any given time but as soon as they got weight on them he left them."

Kevin Barry is a risen star of the Irish literary world. I have posted on numerous short stories by Barry. I was happy to find one of his stories I had not yet read in a recent issue of The New Yorker.  My main purpose in this post is to keep a record of my reading and to let my visitors know of the availability of this story online.

"Ox Mountain Death Song" is set in rural western Ireland, in Sligo, Yeat's country.  It centers on a young man, profiled in the quotation, with a bad reputation as an abuser of women and the policeman who is concerned with his potential for violence.  We learn the policeman's father and grandfather were also in the guard and drank themselves nearly to death. The policeman was good friends with a doctor in the local hospital, an oncologist. He told him the young man had terminal cancer.  I will leave the rest of the plot untold.

"Ox Mountain Death Song" brings us a powerful sense of the dark, almost inbred claustrophobic, whiskey ruled world of rural Western Ireland.  

You can read the story here, for a while.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 1869

Yesterday I completed my third read of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  I first read it about forty years ago, and prior to yesterday I completed it on February 25, 2009.   As I finished it yesterday I wondered if I will complete it for a forth time.  

War and Peace is the consensus choice among list makers as the best novel ever written.  Adding my voice to this, I would only say if it is not then there is nothing that clearly deserves that title. It is not a difficult or obscure work,  the only obstacle it presents to some potential readers is the length.  I would suggest you try to read it through in a week or so if possible.  Many say that Tolstoy gets better as you get older.  My experience confirms this.  

I decided not to recast any of the plot,the themes etc.  if you need this information for school to avoid reading the book, check Wikipedia.  

The Four Books by Yan Lianke (2012)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke (Beijing, 1958), translated by Carlos Rojas, takes its title from the four books of Confucianism and the four Gospels of Christianity.  The Four Books is a very dark, brilliant look at life in a Re-Education Camp in China during the years of The Great Leap Forward, 1958 to 1961, in which the government devoted all of the resources of the country to an effort to surpass the industrial productivity of the United States.  Anyone with the hint of a middle class or above past, with any sign of a western education was sent for an indefinite stay in what were called "Re-Education Camps" in which those who once might have been a concert pianist or a famous scholar were made to do farm work or smelt iron under the brutal direction of "leaders" who were distinguished only by their mindless devotion to the ideas of Mao and his underlings.  In one heart breaking scene, a mathematician presented a solution to a centuries old problem and the only comment on it by the authorities reviewing all academic work  was "send him for re-education". 

The Four Books focuses on camp 99.  All those in this camp used to be university professors.  They are under the direction of "The Child".  No one in the book has a name, they are referred to by their old work, as say The Theologian, the Author, the Musician,  the Scholar and so on.  The camp starts out producing wheat and later smelting Iron. People are given gold stars by the Child when he approves of their actions.  With enough stars, you can in theory leave the camp and go home.  People also get stars for informing on others and just at the whim of the child.  The child begins to collect all the western and Chinese classic books the professors had brought to the camp to burn in his quarters for warmth.  Sex is forbidden.

The atmosphere of the camp is one of constant anxiety and stress with terrible punishments for minor infractions of rules.  No one can trust anyone else.  Camp residents are referred to as "criminals".

The book has a very interesting narrative structure.  The author writes a running commentary on camp activities for the child, informing on others and gets extra stars and food for that.  He is also in theory writing a real book on the experience.  

Soon the Great Famine comes in which millions died and we see the terrible impact of this.  The sole focus of life for camp members is in the search for food.  Many die of starvation and some resort to cannabalism of the recent dead.  The Child is every boss you ever hated.  He worships the "higher ups" and drives those in his camp to impossible production goals.  

I know it may not sound like it, but in many ways this is a very entertaining book, a satire on institutional power. Large cooperations like to infantilize their employees and often characters very like the Child are placed as front line managers, selected for their stupidity and venal devotion to the "higher ups".  Anyone who ever worked for a giant corporation will see that.  There is a lot of violence, cruelty and incredible hardship depicted.  Some rise to great dignity, others sink to the pits, often the same person does both.  The ending is shocking and disturbing in its depth.  

I really enjoyed The Four Books and found it a near compulsive read.  

Yan Lianke


was born in Beijing in 1958. He is the author of a huge number of novels and story

collections, all remarkable for both their subject matter and their style. He has received many literary prizes, the most prestigious: the Lu Xun in 2000 and the Lao She in 2004. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

"The Giver" by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993, 179 pages)

I like books that create alternate worlds I can . The Giver does this wonderfully.  From the very start of the book we see the world Lowry has created in its own terms as perfectly logical and consistent. We understand how things work in the society created. We can even build our house in this world easily.

Everybody lives a completely controlled life in a completely controlled environment.  Total harmony and tranquility having seemingly been achieved.  This is done without any brute force.  It has just evolved over time and everyone seems quite happy.  The rules are designed to produce a state of mind in which one is happy with one's place in life.  There is a price to pay.  People no longer see colors, no one reads anything but job training manuals, there is no passion of any kind.   There are no birds.   Even the landscape has been flatted out to eliminate any hills or valleys.   People can apply to a committee for a spouse and will be assigned a suitable one.  After three years a couple may make application for a child.  Children are produced by women designated as “birthmothers”.  Training for children is completely prescribed.  Precision in language is stressed.  Children are constantly being observed to determine their future place in society. Everybody takes a morning pill once they get to about age 11 to suppress what are called “urges”.  It is a totally blanded out society.  There is no crime, no hunger, no war and all receive the medical care they need. Everything seems to work.

At age 12 there is a big ceremony in which a committee of elders will inform a person what their life work will be.  Some will be doctors, some engineers, some laborers, some administrators etc.  Jason, the central figure in the central figure in the novel gets a very special a unique future job.   One that is only designated when the current holder of the job is near the end of his expected life span.  It is the job of receiver of memories.  No one in the community has any knowledge of strong emotions, no knowledge of what the world was like in the past before the controls were put in place.  There is no snow or rain but the receiver of memory has these in his mind.  No one has any knowledge of pain or love but the receiver of memory. Jonas’s job is to have all the memories and experience that can produce wisdom.  He is given his memories by the current holder of the position,  The Giver.  The function of the job is to provide advice to the council of elders when they are faced with a new challenge.  The current receiver of memory has 1000s of books in his home. No one else is allowed to read what they want and in fact no one wants to anyway.  If a newborn is not up to standards after a year he is “released”.  Once a person is too old he is also released.  No one knows quite what that means but is treated as joyous occasion.

Of course once Jonas begins to get memories and feelings and can even see colors, things are not as simple to him as they once were. I do not want to give away any more plot detail.  I was very interested in finding out about his training for his new job.  I found the world created in this book fascinating and very believable. The Giver made me laugh, kept  me very interested in the fate of the characters (the depictions of life in the family units –what they are called in this society-were very well done) and made me think.  I am so glad I read this novel.  I think it could be read and enjoyed by any one 12 and up.   It has won a lot of awards.  It is an easy to read book.  It did not take a long time to read it but the world Lowry creates will always be there for me to wander into.  I endorse it without reservation and will pass it along to my daughters to read.

There is an excellent post on The Giver  on Suko's Notebook

(This is a rewritten for style post from five years ago.  I decided to repost it in observation of movie based on the book.

Please let us know if you have seen the movie

Mel u

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"The Monstro" by Junot Diaz (from The New Yorker, June 4, 2012)

"Monstro" is a strange apocalyptic story by Junot Diaz set in the Domincan Republic and Haiti.  The June 4 and June 11, 2012 issues of The New Yorker featured works of science fiction by writers not normally known for this genre.   Diaz's story starts out with the narrator, a young Dominican man attending Brown University in Rhode Island hoping to become a journalist, talking about a mysterious disease that "actually makes Haitians darker" that has just begun to be noticed in relocation camps. 

Like most of the narrators in Diaz's fiction, the teller of this story is obsessed with hunting for women and is very much bonded to his mother.  The disease begins to spread rapidly.  Soon over 500,000 have it.  The disease takes a series of very strange twists.  Periodically the victims all simultaneously begin to make for about thirty seconds a terrible high pitched noise.  They cannot stand to be separated from each other.  The strange symptoms of the disease are very interesting.

The narrator is very good friends with another Brown University student from Santo Dominigo.  He comes from a hyper-wealthy family.  A lot of the story is just the two men hanging out together.  Our narrator is in awe of his friend's wealth.  

This is very much a fun story.

The story can be found here.

Mel u

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth (1926, translated 2001 by Michael Hoffman)

The Wandering Jews is the eighth book by Joseph Roth I have so far have the honor of reading.  One of the most sincere compliments a reader can pay to a writer is simply reading all their books you can.  I am committed to reading all of the translated available as Kindle edition works of Joseph Roth. (There is some background information on Roth in my prior posts.)

The Wandering Jews is a briiliant and odd collection of articles on the place of Jews in European society and culture in the 1920s.  The composition history of the book is not made totally clear in Michael Hoffman's interesting introduction.  Roth was at the time one of the best paid journalists in the world.  It appears to me he probably wrote these first to be published in journals with inclusion in a book in mind.  Roth had his issues but he was of surpassing brilliance, as smart as they come.  

I cannot read anything wriiten in 1926 about European Jews without the coming Holocaust over writing the text.  Much of current world events is driven still by Anti-Semiticsm.  Roth's book will help to understand the place of Jews in world history. 

In the 1920s and continuing on culturally there is a divide of great importance between the so called European and The Eastern European or Yiddish Jew.  As later detailed by Hannah Arendt the Yiddish Jew or Shetl Jew did not want to assimilate.  The European Jew, in the words of Roth,  totally adopted the look, the clothes, the language and the ways of their host countries.  Many became ardent patriots. Roth heeps scorn on Jews who volunteer to fight in inter-European wars.  Above all other places, the European Jew most prospered within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Roth tells us that this in part happened because the Empire was so multicultural that Jews were seen by the authorities as just another group.

There is a great deal of valuable information in this wonderful book.  Roth explains why Jews were often found in certain lines of work.  He talks in a fascinating way about the work of the peddler and installment seller, the money trader, the Rabbi, and wonderfully about the love of reading deeply found within Jewish culture.  He talks about immigration, how older people might live for decades in New York City and speak little English while their grandchildren would rise to places of prominence.  There is an interesting chapter devoted to immigration to America and a lot of illuminating insights on Zionism and Palestine.

The Wandering Jews is a brilliant work.  A miasma of bitter sadness hangs over the book 
as you read of the very old fascinating culture of Eastern European Jews knowing what will soon happen in Europe.

In one really poignant line Roth said that behind the most sophisticated fully assimilated Eurooean Jew, there are just a bit back Yiddish Jews that would embarrass them in front of the Goy.

This book also gives us a lot to ponder about in terms of post colonial issues and contemporary Middle Eastern Issues.  In my opinion, much of the political trouble in the world  has its roots in European Anti-Semiticism.   Behind much terrorism lies Anti- Semiticism.  

One of the biggests pleasures in this book is the opportunity to come in contact with the brilliance of Joseph Roth.  

"The Bear Came Over The Mountain by Alice Munro ( December 27, 1999 inThe New Yorker)

When Alice Munro won The Nobel Price short story lovers world wide felt gratified to see the genre recognized.  Alice Munro has published 139 short stories and one novel, most set in her native rural Ontario.    I was kindly recently give an advance review copy of her forthcoming collection of twenty five short stories published from 1995 to 2014,  Family Furnishings.  It is a generous collection, well over five hundred pages.  

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" was originally published in The New Yorker.  It is set in rural Ontario and centers on a retired college professor and his wife.  My main purpose in this post is to keep a record of my reading of this excellent story and to share with my readers a link to the story. 

Many have rightly said that Alice Munro can do more with thirty pages than most other authors can do with three hundred.   This is very true of "The Bear Comes Over The Mountain".  One day the professor finds his wife wandering around outside, she does not recognize him.  He has to choice but to place her in a facility.  Much of the story takes place on his visits.  She and a man their have formed a very close bond. ,He talks to the nurses their and they say these things happen but they pass.  The husband thinks back on the decades of their marriage.  We see the impact on changing habits on college life.  In time he meets the wife of the man his wife is bonded with.  She tells him not to be concerned on sex as her husband is not capable. The insights into both marriages are very moving.  The ending of the story was very satisfying. 

This is a very much worth your time story which you can read here

Mel u