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

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Class Portrait" by Tobias Wolff (January 6, 2003, in The New Yorker)


I offer my great thanks to Max u for the gift of a New Yorker subscription which made it possible for me to read "Class Pictures" by Tobias Wolff.

"Class Pictures" is my first exposure to the work of a very distinqushed writer, Tobias Wolff (1945, Birmingham, Alabama, U S A).   The story is set in a very elite  private school that caters to the high school age sons of wealthy  Americans.  The time is around 1960.  Most of the students will go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.  Wolff does a fine  job of giving us a feel for the school.  The boys are quite competitive both in academic achievement and in letting others know of the wealth of their family.

Every year the school invites a famous writer to read his work and spend time with the students.  Each  year there is a writing contest among the senior class boys and the winner gets a private meeting with the visiting writer.  Robert Frost is the writer this year and all of the literary leaning boys have submitted poems for the contest.   I will leave the rest of the plot unspoiled.

I enjoyed reading this story.

It can be found here.




Monday, September 15, 2014

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad - 1900



I have seen the excellant movie based on Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad a couple of times so I had an idea as to the plot.  I have read a few short stories and novellas by Conrad since I began blogging five years ago but Lord Jim is my first major Conrad novel.

Lord Jim is an excellant sea faring white man in the tropics novel. Conrad's prose is majestic, his descriptions of the terrible storm at sea that ruined his life, and his characterizations are first rate.  Some might find the descriptions of Malaysian persons racist but this just means it is reflective of how the narrator thought, not necessarily Conrad himself.  The picture below, done to sell Classics Illustrated, brings out the attitude toward South East Asian women exibited throughout Lord Jim.


Lord Jim is exciting, a classic, and I am glad I read it.  I preferred The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent

In 2015 I hope to read his Nostromo. 


Mel u

"Wildwood" by Junot Diaz (from The New Yorker, June 11, 2007)




My great thanks to Max u for the gift of a New Yorker subscription that made it possible for me to read "Wildwood" by Junot Diaz.

Most of Junot Diaz's stories focus on young Domican men living in New York, New Jersey or Santo Domingo.  Their biggest preoccupation in life is finding women.  They are fixated on bodies with a woman with a large well shaped posterior being the biggest prize.   It is all about being macho while in most cases being very devoted to and near dominated by their mothers.  "Wildwood", named for a city in New Jersey, is very refreshingly told from the point of view of a teen aged girl, giving us an insight into how the prey feels about the hunter.

The narrator lives with her mother and younger brother.  Her mother works three jobs to support them and afford a house. The father deserted the mother after three years.   The mother is harshly dominating.  In the culture the oldest daughter is supposed to do a lot of the house work.  The mother becomes increasingly abusive and the daughter longs to run away.  She begins become sexually active and we know the patterns of abuse and abandonment will continue.

There is a great plot in the story which I will leave unspoiled.

You can read it for a while in the archives of The New Yorker.


I think this might be my favorite Diaz story so far.

Please share your favorite Diaz story with us.





Friday, September 12, 2014

Phedre by Jean Racine -1677


Recently I read and posted on an excellant book Mousier Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein.  From her I learned of the great importance of the drama Phedre by Jean Racine to Proust.  She points out the many rerferences and echoes of Phedre in In Search of Lost Time.    Twenty pages of  Guermantes Way is devoted to the narrator's thoughts on seeing it preformed.  It informs, my post read research indicates, Proust's views on sexual jealousy, something very important in Proust.  In order to begin to appreciate the  extreme depth of Proust, I knew I needed to read Phedre.  

Jean Racine (1639 to 1699) was one of three great 17th century French playwrights, along with Moliere  and Corneille.   Phedre is based on a story from Greek Mythology.  Racine developed themes from previous plays by Euripides and Seneca. In the long ago I read the Euripides play.   Phedre is "high art" in the categories of Susan Sontag. Phedre is married to Thesus, King of Athens.  She is in love with her step-son Hippolyte who is in turn in love with Arica.  Arica is a princess of the royal Athenian house that Thesus drove from the throne so such a romance could be seen as treason.  The plot also includes two ladies in waiting to Phedre, the tutor of Hippolyte, and a confidant of Arica.   The plot action begins when Hippolyte pretends to start  a journey to find Thesus, who has been gone for six months but really is going to join Arica.  The plot action becomes very intense.  Napolean, per a new biography of him 

Even one reading I felt the power of this work and can see it echoing in the many tangled relationships in Proust.  I would like to see it preformed.  Naplolean, as documented in a new biography by Andrew Roberts, loved Phedre.

Once I read the section of Guermantes Way that deals with the narrator's thoughts on seeing an operatic performance of it, I hope to reread it.  






Culturally this is a work of great importance.



Mel u





Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eve and David by Honore de Balzac - 1843 (Part Three of Lost Illusions - A Component of La Comedie Humaine




Eve and David is the final novel in the trilogy of works that makes up Honore de Balzac's Lost Illusions.  Eve and David are the sister and brother in law of the poet, Lucian.  The final novel focuses on all the efforts and problems of Eve and David as they try to help him and work their way out of problems caused by these matters.   Much of the novel focuses on the paper making business of David and his attempts to invent and put into a practice a process  that will revolutionize paper making and make him wealthy. Balzac goes into great detail about the paper making industry.   Of course there are ups and downs twists and turns a plenty.  

Lost Illusions is exciting and historically edifying.   There is a lot of depth in the characterizations.  
I would not follow C. K. Scott Moncreiff in calling it "the greatest novel ever written" (of course he read the real thing, not a translation). I also think Moncrieff was given to enthusiasms and I do not know the context in which he made that remark.  I think the greatness of Balzac is in  the vast world he created and mirrored, not for individual works but I am only a Balzac neophyte.  Lost Illusions is the longest component of La Comedie Humaine.  

I think the next large Balzac work I read will be the four part Loves of a Courtesan which follows Lucian back in Paris.

Balzac must have been a near writing machine.   I just found out today that in addition to his fiction he ghost wrote a huge memoir of one of the mistresses of Napolean, which became a big seller.

Mel u





The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886




My Posts on Thomas Hardy

I think I first found out that some few books were considered great literature from reading The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman back around 1960.  The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is one of nineteen English language novels on the list.  Written in a time before political  correctness and such, Fadiman acknowledges his list is swayed to English language works.  Since beginning The Reading Life five years ago I have read two Hardy novels,Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native and several of his short stories.   I am very glad I have at long last read The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Thomas Hardy was greatly admired by Marcel Proust, who regarded him as a flawless artist.

The novel begins with a young man making a very terrible decision while drunk.  He sells his wife and baby daughter to a sailor for five crowns.  From this act, the plots line and the lives of the central characters develop.  The man tries to find them, having done it a time of emotional confusion, but he cannot.  He takes and keeps a vow not to touch liquor for twenty one years, he having already lived that long.  Twenty years go by and the man has changed, through hard work and application he has built up a good business and become mayor of his town Casterbridge.  In a cultural that celebrates drinking, he has kept his vow.  I really don't want to give away much more of the plot that Hardy worked so hard to make consistently exciting, surprising and one has to say, often depressing.  There are lots of twists and turns.

As I read on in the novel, I came to marvel over Hardy's ability to show how events can change some people or maybe better said how they can reveal them.   There is unremitting tradgedy, one bad thing after another happens.   Hardy does rely on a few devices of melodrama for his big events.  Hardy makes the English countryside and the created community of Wessex County come very vividly to life. There are lots of very interesting minor characters and the main figures are brilliantly realized.  

Some say Hardy is a "depressing writer" depicting a world of unending misery.   I think at the very end of The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy is addressing this.




What Hardy novel should I read next year?  back to back Hardy a little too deeply sad for me now. 

Mel u

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"The Flowers of May" by Francisco Arcellana - 1951 A very moving short story by a National Artist of the Philippines





Francisco Arcellana (1916 to 2002) was a highly regarded poet, essayist, critic, journalist and teacher.  It is for his short stories that he is best remembered.  He is considered one of the first writers of the modern Filipino short story in English.    It is his lyrical style that became the role model for a generation of writers.   He was proclaimed a national artist of the Philippines in 1990 and was given a state funeral.  Much of his career was spent at The University of the Philippines Diliman, not far from where I live. I have previously posted on his short story "The Mats".

"The Flowers of May" is almost a Filipino version of "The Dead" by James Joyce.  There were no memories of snow covered countryside in the consciousness of many Filipinos in 1951 but there are memories of the beautiful flowers of May, of May in the churches of Manila and in the old walled city. The narrator thinks of his sister Victoria who died in May.  The narrator speaks of the great depth of pain of his father, his morher's perhaps futile attempt to comfort his father over the loss.  He speaks of many dead from his family.  The story is very well set in place but the concerns are universal.

This is a beautiful heartbreaking story.  There cannot be much worse a thing than for a beloved child to pass in youth.  Faith offers the consolation of an early entry into heaven and perhaps an eventual reunion but this can be cold or even a mocking comfort.

"The Flowers of May" is about how life can be turned into a charnel house,a great city into a dark necropolis.  This is a world class short story.

You can read it here.