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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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940, 178 pages)



 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is classic example of what is often called "Southern Gothic" literature.  Like others in this genre such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, McCullers deals with misfits and social outsiders in small towns in the American South of the 1930s, a period of legalized racism and gross social prejudice. McCullers (1917 to 1967-Columbus, Georgia, USA) wrote four novels and a number of short stories. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is by far her best known work. It was a best seller on publication and has never gone out of print. It is a dark deep look into an ugly period in American life. I think reading it is now almost a "rite of passage" for bookish young Americans. (The book is very regionalized and time centered in its diction and social references and will present an additional challenge to some readers for that reason.)     I have previously posted on one of her short stories, "The Jockey", which is a very  good work.


I have wanted to read this book for a very long time and I am so glad I have at last done so. There are just some amazing passages and scenes in this book. It is all the more amazing to think the author was only 23 when it was first published. The story line centers around a deaf man named John Singer and the people he encounters in a small "backwoods" American town. We meet a number of very lonely isolated people. There is Biff Branson the owner of a small cafe where a lot of the "action" of the novel takes place. Mick Kelley is the young female lead struggling to find herself and a friend. Rounding out the cast we have an alcoholic labor agitator ("outside agitators" were a big "bogey man" type of figure in the American South of the 1940s to the 1960s blamed for social unrest and the declining willingness of African Americans to accept discrimiation) and Doctor Copeland, an idealistic Marist African American,  who gives a great lecture on Marist and the American South.

There are a lot of blog posts on this novel.     What I liked best about it was the relatiionships between the two deaf men, the treatment of the reading life of Doctor Copeland and the novel's depiction of race relations.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  is about coping with being alone.    It is about the roots of racial hatred.   It is beautifully written.    Some of the violence in the novel is almost over powering.   

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  is a strange wonderful book, strange in the way Wuthering Heights is strange and Jane Eyre is not.     This may not be a "happy feel good book" but it does take a deep look into the night.   

I found The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  a compelling read.    Much of the prose is beautiful.    It  might  seem or be dated to some and requires a bit of understand of the time and setting.   I liked this book a lot.   


Mel u

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gujarat, India Dalit (Outcaste) Short Stories

"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature" by Meena Kandasamy (5 pages, 2007)
"The Flame" by Harish Mangalam (6 pages, 2008)
"The Hell" by Dharmabhai Shrimali (5 pages, 2006)
"Untouchables" by Chadu Maheriya  (5 pages, 2007)


Dalit Short Stories from Gujarat India
Documenting the Outcaste Experience
More on Poverty Porn
I have recently been posting on the five short stories that are short listed for the Caine Prize for African literature.    In reading posts by others on these stories I learned a new to me literary term,  "African Poverty Porn".    The meaning of this term is still in flux but basically it refers to works written about and by people from Africa that use the poverty of many African people to sell stories to western readers who find stories about child soldiers, pregnant ten year old girls, refugee camps and starvation somehow exciting.   This is a huge topic but as soon as I read of the term I could see there was something very interesting in this concept.   My first thought was, "well then was Charles Dickens writing poverty porn when he described the orphanage in Oliver Twist or was Victor Hugo doing so in the wonderful parts of The Hunch Back of Norte Dame that  depict the mock court trials of the underworld in Paris in the 15th century?      Of course poverty porn could be great literature or hum can it be?  


My recent venture into the South Asian Short Story, a now life time interest and permanent part of The Reading Life, has opened up many new exciting reading and learning windows for me.    There are dozens of cultures and languages just in India alone, each with its own literary tradition and its own relationship to the English literary tradition.    I am partially finding this a bit overwhelming but I am taking it one story at a time with each work read leading me to the next one, hopefully with a greater appreciation and understanding as I go along.    Stimulated by claims of other bloggers that some of the Caine stories (and the whole Caine enterprise by some) are "poverty porn" I wanted to look at some short stories by people born into the Dalit (Untouchable) caste from the Gujarat region of India that portray the life experiences of the most poverty stricken people in India, some 165 million.    I choose stories from this part of India because there are two brilliant editions of Muse India (2007) that focus on Dalit Literature from the Gujarat region (North Western) of India.  (There is a good background article on Gujarat here)


"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature" by Meena Kanasamy  is an excellent place to start.    She is the editor of The Dalit, is an award winning poet, a translator of numerous works on Dalit studies into English, has a PhD in linguistics, and was a writer in residence in 2009 at the University of Iowa International Writers Program.   She is very active as a political writer and speaker in the area of Dalit and Women's rights in India.   I want to quote a bit from her essay (which you  should read if you are at interested in the concept of "poverty porn"-here is the link  She has a very interesting blog that I now follow.)




"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature (by Meena Kanasamy)
Mahatma Jotirao Phule was the first to use the word Dalit in connection with caste. However, the word Dalit came into popular currency with the advent of the militant Dalit Panthers. In Marathi, the word Dalit means ground crushed, broken down and reduced to pieces. This name was chosen by the group itself, and it contained in it an inherent denial of pollution, karma and caste hierarchy. The Dalit Panther movement, was a self-conscious movement among the ‘Depressed Classes’ who sought to follow the militant and revolutionary Black Panthers of America. Dalit literature grew out of the Dalit Panther movement which was established by two writers Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale in April 1972. Like Black Literature, Dalit writing was characterized by a new level of pride, militancy, sophisticated creativity and above all sought to use writing as a weapon. 
Today's Dalit Literature that occupies a pride of place is actually born out of the heinous system of untouchability and caste discrimination that have been practiced in India for the past millennia....

Dalit writers were quick to point out that the 2000 year old history of oppression has not been documented at all: it is a literal holocaust that has slipped by without being put into words! 

Marathi Dalit literature is the forerunner of all modern Dalit literature. It was essentially against exploitation, and made use of writing as a method of propaganda for the movement. It was not immediately recognized by the mainstream which was obsessed with middle class issues."
.

I think we can see from this that one can write literature about the experiences of the very poor that does not simply pander to the needs of richer readers.   All three of the stories I will briefly post on today were written by people of Dalit backgrounds (someone correct me if this is wrong please) who have educated themselves.   (Two of the authors are Medical doctors).   All of these stories have been translated from Gujarati.    As I read these stories,  I thought of Frank O'Connor's central thesis in The Lonely Voice: A Study in the Short Story that short stories are about people in "submarginal groups", those who have no one to speak for them.    (O'Connor's book has some real flaws but is also flat out the best thing written on the short story as a literary genre.)    The Dalit of India are are 165 Million people who fit (or did)  this idea perfectly.


Dalit's were only allowed to do the most undesirable kind of work.   For 1000s of years it was illegal for them to learn to read and write.    Much of their work was devoted to waste disposal and the cleaning of toilets.  (Imagine 600,000,000 people with no access to toilets with sewers and you see the immense amount of very hard, very nasty, unhealthy and dangerous work to be done.    This is a long way from Ballywood.    Dalit  women were widely employed as toilet cleaners.   There lives were shortened by diseases and they suffered terrible abuse by their husbands and worse if widowed or abandoned.  
  


"The Hell" by Dharmabhai Shrimali is about a woman teaching her daughter how to go from house to house picking up what ever needs to be disposed of.   Human waste was placed in a tin can, often a leaky one.     In a very well done scene the mother tells her daughter she will not be well received by her future mother in law if she is not used to picking up rotten carcases of dogs and cats.    The only life the daughter can hope for is to marry into another Dalit family and slave away as a garbage woman until she is old enough to be a mother in law herself (if she is lucky enough to make it to that age.)   "The Hell" lets us see for ourselves what the lives of the people in this story were like (You can read it Here)




"The Flame" by Harish Mangalam is an interesting story that gives us some insight into the kind of medical care Dalit people received.    It is kind of in the form of a rant of an older man about the inability of doctors to cure his eczema.   It is interesting and his cynical observations about the financial motivations of the medical establishment were really spot on and funny.    Mangalan is the General Secretary of the Gurarat Dalit Association, a government official, and the author of numerous works of fiction, essays and translations.  You can read "The Flame"  HERE.


"Untouchables" by Chadu Maheriya is a near heartbreaking story.    Those of us interested in post-colonial literature need to stop for a moment to reflect that in the case of the Dalit people of India, a horrible institutionalized millennium old form of internal colonization was in place when the English arrived.   This story deals directly with the lives of female toilet cleaners.   To put it mildly, there is deep sadness in the idea that for 1000s of years millions of seven year old girls knew they were going to grow up to be toilet cleaners just by an accident of birth.   When very lucky, they will be married into another Dalit family where people work together to survive.   With all to common bad luck, she will be abandoned or widowed with children at a young age and considered little better than a "public woman" (a term I learned in The Man Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan).   Mahariya is a government official in Gujarat, the editor of a well known collection of Dalit poetry and an anthology of memoirs of Dalit mothers.    "The Flame" can be read HERE.


I did not get any feeling of "poverty porn" from these stories.    I think their core first audience was other people from a Dalit background.    The stories are a small way out of oppression by people whose ancestors were not allowed by law to learn to read or write.    


Do you have any thoughts on "Poverty Porn" or do you find it a useful concept?-Do the Caine Stories feel more live "poverty porn" than these three outcaste stories do?


Mel u

Monday, June 27, 2011

"A Horse and Two Goats" by R. K. Narayan

"A Horse and Two Goats" by R. K. Narayan (1970, 10 pages)

A Top of the Mark Short Story 




R. K.  Narayan (1906 to 2001-India) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.   In the last two months I have read and posted on thirty of his short stories from his 1947 collection The Astrologer's Day and Other Tales and two of his novels.     All of them are set in an imaginary  community he created, Malgudi, India (located in South Indian).    The more I learn about Malgudi,   the more I like it.    (There is some background information on Narayan in my prior posts.)

"A Horse and Two Goats" is just a flat out delightful in every way short story.   It is about an elderly,  poor man with two goats, a wife, little money and no children. He used to have a herd of forty goats, numerous sheep and even a few cows.    His  name is Muni.  Hard luck  has reduced him down to two scraggly goats.    He and his wife live in a small very minimal house next to a "drumstick tree".     I was not sure what a "drumstick tree" was so I checked.    It is a tree with super  nutritious seed pods in the shape of chicken drumsticks (OK we could have guessed that).    You can also boil the leaves for a tasty soup.     Though it is much tastier if you can throw in a vegetable or two or when very lucky a bit of meat.    The couple in part lives from this tree.

Narayan does a very good job depicting the relationships of long married couples.   In just a few lines he can make us understand their lives.   Maybe there was a time when the man was the boss  but those tines are long ago.    Muni's main occupation now is taking his goats for long walks where they can hopefully find something to eat.    His wife tells him do not come back until the goats are fed and he knows if he is gone long enough she will find some way to put together a meal for him.    If he stays out longer  maybe she will be in a good mood when he gets home.

One day the man is out for his walk with his goats.     Muni speaks no English.    A red-faced man in khaki shorts standing next to a fancy car asked him "where can I get some gasoline for my car.    I am out".    Muni has no idea what he is talking about but he knows a white man in khaki shorts next to a fancy car  probably means trouble if  upset so Mani more or less nods at whatever he says.    When the man offers Mani a cigarette, a pleasure he has not been able to indulge in for a long time, he begins to talk back to him but of course the man has no idea what Mani is saying.  The cigarette broke the ice for them.   Now the story just gets so funny when Narayan shows us what each of the men thinks the other is thinking.    As I read this I marveled at how Narayan could make the white man (an American on holiday with his wife) sound so right in his conversations.   We also see what each one of them is thinking the other is saying.   Anyone who has ever head a long  "conversation" with someone who they did not share a language with will love this story.    

As the story proceeds the American asks Mani about a very old mud statue next to his car.    Mani has no idea what the man is talking about.   Somehow the American thinks Mani owns the land he is standing on so he is trying to negotiate a purchase price for the old mud statue (which nobody cares a thing about) which the Anerican thinks is an amazing artifact of an ancient culture (and it may well be such).    As they talk on and on Mani starts to think the man wants to buy his goats (he had shown him some money).    The American assumes Mani is very knowledgeable about the old statue and is trying to drive the price up.    The American wants this statue so badly he will go home to American in a boat while his wife flies back just to be sure the statue makes it back safely.    Mani never has a clue he is interested in the statue.    When they part the American gives Mani more money than he ever had in his life, enough for he and is wife to live on for years.    He leaves the goats with the man, thinking that is what he has sold.    What he really sold was the statue that he never owned in the first place.    I have already told a lot of the plot of this story but I have left untold the great ending.   Narayan is a genius at ending a short story (not always an easy thing to do).

I think this is my favorite Narayan short story so so.    (And that is saying a lot!)

Do you have a favorite Narayan work?

Mel u

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Caine Prize 2011 Short List-Story Four

"In The Spirit of McPhineas Lata" by Lauri Kubuitsile (2010, 10 pages)


The Short Listed Stories
Forth of Five Stories


The Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded on July 11 at an award dinner in Oxford.    The Caine Prize is one of the world's top literary awards.    It is given to the author of a short story from a country in Africa.   (There is additional background information on the award in my prior post and on the Caine Prize Web Site.)    This month I am doing a series of posts on the five short stories that are short listed for the 2011 Caine Prize.


So far I have posted on "Hitting Budapest" by NoViolet Bulawayo,  "What Molly Knew" by Tim Keegan and "Butterfly Dreams by Beatrice Lamwaka.    Over all I liked all of these stories and felt the time spent in reading them was very worthwhile.   Once I have read all five of the short listed stories I will, just for fun, hazard a guess as to the winner.    All three of these stories are about the struggles of the poor to survive.

"In the Spirit of McPhineas Leta" by Lauri Kubuitsile is very different from the first three stories I posted on.   Kubuitsile is from Botswana.  She has published fourteen novels and children's books.    She has won several awards for her short stories.   

I did not like a whole lot about this story.    Maybe not everyone will relate to this but it reminded me of a script for a bad Amos and Andy Show (An American radio and then TV show that ran from about 1935 to 1952 and which made fun of  African-Americans in a grossly racist way).    I recently read Edward Said's profound Orientalism.    In this books he talks mainly about the middle east and India but a lot of what he says about the development of the attitudes of Europe toward what was once called the Orient is directly applicable to the Caine Prize stories.   One of the themes of Said's book is that in comparison to European colonizers, Asians were made to seem by "experts" as not capable of sublimating their drive for immediate pleasure in place of long term goals.  Some "experts" knew they were giving out false data and some did not but all were in the service of colonial masters.    That, in part, is one of the reasons the colonizers gave in explaining why "natives" were better off as part of  a colony than as independent nation.    It seems to me that this feeling is a dominant theme of this story.    It maybe that the story is making fun of these attitudes.    I do not think so but I am am open to the idea of it.

This story opens at the funeral for McPhineas Lata:

"This tale begins at the end ; McPhineas Lata, the
perennial bachelor who made a vocation of troubling
married women, is dead. The air above Nokanyana village
quivers with grief and rage, and not a small amount of
joy, because the troubling of married women, by its very
definition, involved a lot of trouble. But, maybe because
of his slippery personality, or an inordinate amount of
blind luck, McPhineas Lata seemed to dodge the bulk of
the trouble created by his behaviour, and left it for others
to carry on his behalf. He had, after all, admitted to Bongo
and Cliff, his left and right sidekicks, that troubling married
women was a perfect pastime because it was “all sweet and
no sweat”.


Some of the married women of the town are so upset by his departure that they  throw themselves on his grave site weeks after he is gone.    His activities were known to everyone of the village, including the husbands, who don't seem have been much bothered by the adultery of their wives.     It is almost as if he relieved them of the "business" of having to look to the needs of their wives.  Now that he is gone, the men get together in a meeting to try to figure out what he was doing for their wives that they were not.     They pool their resources and come up with some ideas to keep their wives a bit happier.    

The people in this story all seem like comic characters with no depth to them.    This story is meant to be funny but I did not find it amusing.     I was kind of relieved when I got to the end of this story (which I did read twice.)     It is very different from the other three stories I have read so far.   It is worth reading, if for no other reason, to expand your experience in this   area.     You can read it online at the  Caine Prize web page.    

I have been provided free reading material by the publisher for the Caine Prize Stoires, as I was also last year.


This is my second year blogging on the Caine Prize short stories.    Last year I think I might have been the only blogger to post on the stories, This year there is a very politically aware group of bloggers posting on each story.





One  simple way to follow the postings  is by doing a Twitter search on 
"Caine Prize".


When I complete all five posts on the Caine Prize I will try try "handicap" a winner just for fun-I invite others to please join in.   I might also do a post on the concepts of "poverty porn" and "native experts" (as the term is used by Said) as they apply to the Caine Stories.    If I do feel inclined to write such a post I will call it "Orientalism and the Caine Prize Stories".    


There are 12 more stories in this year collection of Caine Prize Stories (stories that were done at one of the Caine Prize workshops)-I will read and post (maybe in groups) on all of these stories also.    


One more short listed story to go!


2011 Caine Prize Stories-17 in all



Mel u


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Three Great Short Stories by Ladies from the American South

"He"  by Katherine Anne Porter (1927, 8 pages)
"A Visit of Charity" by Eudora Welty (1941, 5 pages)
"The Geranium" by Flannery O'Connor (1946, 5 pages)

Three Wonderful Short Stories by
Ladies of the American South

I know it  is considered in some very trendy quarters to be no longer correct to refer to a collection of women as "ladies"  but in the case of Katherine Anne Porter (Texas), Eudora Welty (Mississippi) and Flannery O'Connor (Georgia)  I cannot bring myself to refer to them in any other way.      Each  produced world class treasures in the novel and the short story.    I have posted on all three of these writers already so I just want to let people know about these three stories I have recently read.    The stories are a bit "regionalized" in the same way Irish short stories often are but don't let that stop you from reading these stories!

"He" by Katherine Anne Porter.    Porter (1890 to 1980-Indian Creek Texas) is probably best known for her 1962 novel Ship of Fools.   She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for her collected short stories.   The received opinion is that, the same is true of all the writers of today,  her short stories are her best work.    (There is additional background information on her in my prior post on her.)   "He" is a heart breaking story about a mother's love for her mentally challenged son.   The family in the story is struggling to survive in the face of some of the worse times in American history.    The setting is small town Rural Texas just before the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.    This story, told in the third person, is so beautifully written it is almost painful.   As the story opens we learn that the mother cannot help but love him more than her other two children.    He is also a burden on her and her husband.   I think one of the biggest concerns of parents of mentally challenged children lies in their fears about what will happen to them when the parents are gone.     Who will take care of their mentally handicapped ten year old son when he is twenty, thirty, forty or fifty.   When he is stronger than his father?   Can or should he be prevented from reproducing?    Porter does a masterful job of making us feel the parents concerns.   We also see how having such a child can change (and sometimes wreck) a marriage.    At the end of the story we have to decide if the right thing has been done for the right reasons.   This story will make you think.

You can read "He" HERE

"A Visit of Charity" by Eudora Welty (1909 to 2001-Jackson, Mississippi-Pulitzer Prize 1973) is a favorite of book bloggers world wide.    She was a good friend of Elizabeth Bowen and spent some time at her castle in Ireland (I would loved to have listened in at tea time!)    This story is set in small town Mississippi in the 1940s in  a time when all of the negative stereo types about the American South were reality.    As it opens a young girl is making a visit to a charity home for old people.    She is going so she can earn "points" in her Girl Scout type of group. What is great about this story is the interaction of the girl, the two very old women she visits (they are roommates) with each other and the women with the girl.    It is up to us to decide what the girl gets from the visit.   (There is additional information on Welty in my prior posts on her.)

You can read "A Visit of Charity" Here.    Lakeside Musings has an excellent post on this story.

Of these three writers, I guess Flannery O'Connor's star is now shining brightest.   Kenzaburo Oe treats her work as a near holy text.    O'Connor (1924 to 1964-Savannah, Georgia) was the author of the well regarded novel Wise Blood but it is her short stories that will bring her immortality.   (There is additional background information on O'Connor in my prior posts on her.)

"The Geranium" was O'Connor's master thesis at the famous Iowa Writer's Academy.   I think is one of her very first published stories.    She was only 21 when she wrote it.    I concede it does not have the full power of some of her more mature work but it is for sure worth reading and not just to see her first short story (but to lovers of the short story, that is really a good enough reason).   The story centers on an elderly man that has been rescued from a charity home by his adult daughter.    The fun of this story is in the depiction of the relationship of the father and his daughter and his interaction with his enviornment.   The story is also about race relations and it makes use of words that may rule it out as a class room story.

You can read "The  Geranium" HERE

Mel u


Friday, June 24, 2011

Welcome to all Book Bloggers Hoppers-June 17 to June 20

Welcome to all Book  Blog Hoppers

"Hi, Please follow us so we can reach 500 followers
by our 2 year blogaverdsary-July 7-thanks
Charles-co-editor
Parajunkee's View  is once again kindly hosting the Follow Friday Book Blog Hop-Book Blog hops are a great way to meet new to you book bloggers and to keep our great community strong.  

I will happily follow back any one who follows my blog or my twitter feed-just leave a comment please


Every week Parajunkee proposes an interesting question-here is this weeks question


Q. In light of the Summer Solstice. Also known as Midsummer...let's talk about fairies. What is your favorite fairy tale or story that revolves around the fae?


This is a question I am well prepared by my reading of short stories based on Irish fairy stories during Irish Short Story Week I.

 Much of the history and pain of the common Irish country people is wonderfully shown in "The Child Who Was Stolen by Fairies" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The story is short and beautifully told and you can read it if you want in just a few minutes so I will not say much of the plot.   The story is very Gothic, very atmospheric and very scary.    A mysterious carriage, more beautiful than anyone has ever seen,  is passing through the village.   When young Billie comes out to see it, a beautiful women beckons him into the carriage with an apple.    As the children look into the carriage the shadows a horribly ugly woman with face that would scare the devil sitting next to the beautiful woman.   Billy gets in the carriage.   His mother is driven to great despair as she fears Billie is lost forever.     Once and a while he seems to appear at the door to her hut, her other children say they have seen him briefly in the village.    Then he disappears for years.   One day the mother returns and sees him in her house for sure.   He is dressed in the worst rags,  is filthy dirty, and looks starved.   As the mother rushes to him, he disappears  never to be seen again.    I think this story is in part about how parents tried to cope with the starvation of their children in the great Irish famines of the 19th century in which millions died.    



Mel u

Three Surprise Ending Short Stories-American, English and French

"Two Thanksgiving Day Gentleman" by O. Henry (1905, 6 pages)
"Cousin Theresa" by Saki (1908,  5 pages)
"The Adopted Son" by Guy de Maupassant (1881, 4 pages)

Ocean Hopping with Three Surprise
Ending Short Stories

Magazine editors have had a lot to do with the way the short story has developed.   During my reading project on short stories of the Australian Bush (Outback Tales from 1870 to 1920 or so) I found the Australian short story first began to blossom when a nationwide weekly publication, The  Bulletin,  began to  publish short works of fiction about "real life" in the Australian outback.   The stories had to be of a certain length and style to be accepted.    During Irish Short Story Week I became aware of how important The New Yorker has been for sustaining the quality of the Irish Short Story.    The standards of the magazine were high and so was the pay.

In India, The Hindu published many of the short stories of R. K. Narayan and others.    They imposed length requirements on their writers and catered to readers whose first language was not English.    Magazine editors liked surprise ending short stories or for sure they thought that is what magazine buyers wanted.   The modern short story almost began to develop in revolt against the surprise ending short story.    This morning I want to spot light three surprise ending short stories by three very famous short story writers.

"Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen" by O. Henry (1862 to 1910-USA) is a classic surprise ending short story.   (There is some background information on O. Henry in my prior posts on him.)   Almost the whole point of the story is building up to the surprise ending.   I sort of saw it coming but not totally.   The story opens on the very American holiday of Thanksgiving.    The central character of the story is a homeless man.    We never learn how he wound up homeless.    For the last nine years a man  has found him on his park bench on Thanksgiving day and taken him out to an elegant Thanksgiving Day lunch (it is a big feasting day).    O. Henry does a great job of bringing the mysterious benefactor to life.   We learn this annual gift of a lunch is the biggest thing in his life.     Maybe the surprise ending is very sentimental and half predictable but the story is worth reading for the people it creates.   O. Henry some times seems like he is just going through the motions of pleasing his editors but there are moments of real brilliance in his work.

All of O.  Henry is in the public  domain.    I read this story HERE.   You can find nearly all his stories online.

"The Adopted Son" by Guy de Maupassant (1850 to 1893-France-he  wrote about 300 short stories) is a classic surprise ending, tear the rug out from under you short story.     Maupassant is often listed as the world's second best short story writers, right behind Anton Chekhov.   (There is some background information on him in my prior posts on him.)      Maupassant supported an expensive life style through the sales of short stories and novellas.     He wrote to please the public and magazine editors.   A number of his short stories (I have read 14 of them since I began my blog  on July 7, 2009) do seem like they were written by a formula and rely on melodrama and the evoking of feelings of guilt for their power.   A lot of them are surprise ending short stories.   At his best he a great master of the genre.   As the story opens we meet two poor country families who had sons about the same time.
Both families struggle to survive.   One day a wealthy woman passes in her carriage and the lives of one of the families is changed forever while the second family endures on in resentment of their luckier neighbors.    There is sentimentality about the poor in France in Maupassant for sure.   At the ending of the story a terrible surprise is brought down on one of the families but I did not really see it coming.   This is a decent story and though not a work of genius.

You can read "The Adopted Son" HERE

"Cousin Theresa" by Saki (Henry Munro-1870 to 1916-UK)  is very much a typical Saki surprise ending short story.   (There is background information on Saki in my prior posts on him.)     Saki's stories are normally gentle social satires on the foibles of the upper and middle classes in Edwardian England.   Nobody is poor in his stories, unlike those of  O. Henry and de Maupassant.    There is no playing on guilt and little real characterization.    The pleasure of his stories, which is very genuine, is in his elegant prose and the kind of "super smart child" feel that his stories seem to have.     His stories are fun.   Some will find the prose too mannered.    Some will lollipop there way to the end of a Saki story to see what the surprise ending will be.    "Cousin Theresa" is a pretty self indulgent story.     It is about a father and his two sons.    One of the sons has just returned from a long posting at some remote place in the British Empire.  The son had some sort of big accomplishments or other.    His other son seems to be a lay about who devotes all his time to scribbling out plays.   The father tells himself, "OK one of my sons may be wasting his life but at least the other will bring the family fame through his governmental service."     The slacker son's play "Cousin Theresa" gets preformed on the stage in front of the Royal family.   I bet you can probably see the ending coming now.   "Cousin Theresa" exists pretty much just for the surprise ending.   It takes only a moment or two to read it and it will make you smile (and feel smart if you see the ending coming).

You can read "Cousin Theresa" HERE.

What are your feeling about "surprise ending" short stories?

Mel u

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Caine Prize 2011 Short List-Story Three

"Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka (2010, 12 pages)




The Short Listed Stories
Third of Five Stories


The Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded on July 11 at an award dinner in Oxford.    The Caine Prize is one of the world's top literary awards.    It is given to the author of a short story from a country in Africa.   (There is additional background information on the award in my prior post and on the Caine Prize Web Site.)    This year I am doing a series of posts on the five stories short listed for the 2011 Caine Prize.


So far I have posted on "Hitting Budapest" by NoViolet Bulawayo and "What Molly Knew" by Tim Keegan.    Over all I liked both of these stories and felt the time spent in reading them was very worthwhile.   Once I have read all five of the short listed stories I will, just for fun, hazard a guess as to the winner.

"Butterfly Dreams" by Patrice Lamwaka is bolder in the narrative techniques it makes use of than the first two stories.   Lamwaka is the General Secretary of the Ugandan Women Writers Organization.    She is an internationally published essayist and short story writer.    She is working on her first novel.

Like last years winner, "Stick Fighting Days" and "Hitting Budapest", "Butterfly Dreams" is about desperately poor children.    It focuses on a young girl, Lamuna, who was kidnapped to be a child soldier at age ten and now has been rescued and returned to her family.     The story is narrated by one of her siblings.    When ever a child is rescued and brought to the World Vision center his or her name is announced over the radio.   Lamuna's family is overjoyed to hear her name on the radio.   They have given her up for dead.   The description of their first view of Lamuna is powerful:

"You returned home. You were skinny as a cassava stem.
Bullet scars on your left arm and right leg. Your feet were
cracked and swollen as if you had walked the entire planet.
Long scars mapped your once beautiful face. Your eyes
had turned the colour of pilipili pepper. 

When you returned home, Lamunu, we were afraid. We
were afraid of you. Afraid of what you had become"

The family knows she has been through a terrible experience and she has probably killed innocent people.     She may have been brainwashed into thinking what she did was right.    Her family fears her now even though they do not want to admit it openly.   She needs to be some how cleansed.    In this passage we can see how the narrative works and some of what might be not perfect in this story.


"Afraid of what you had become. Ma
borrowed a neighbour’s layibi. Uncle Ocen bought an egg
from the market. You needed to be cleansed. The egg would
wash away whatever you did in the bush. Whatever the
rebels made you do. We know that you were abducted. You
didn’t join them and you would never be part of them. You
quickly jumped the layibi. You stepped on the egg, splashing
its egg yolk. You were clean. You didn’t ask questions. You
did what was asked of you. It’s like you knew that you had to
do this. Like you knew you would never be clean until you
were cleansed. Ma ululated. You were welcomed home. Back
home where you belonged."


Does this seem like the speech of a child from a very poor family?    My guess is "ululated" is a word beyond the predictable vocabulary of  most American or Australian college graduates.   That it  is out of place adds to the feeling that the narrator is not well realized.   Also I do not really think it is a good idea to use expressions from the language of the people depicted in the story (which I an assuming to be Acholi based on a comment)  just to throw in "local color".    It distracts from the story rather than drawing you in which is probably its purpose.   


The story does skillfully show how the family tries to  adjust to her return home.   At first she barely can or will speak.   We know as does her family that this is because of the horrors she has seen.   They family and the others in her village never really overcome their fear of her.   They long for her to be the little girl she was when she left, to hear her laugh and they hope she will still want to be a doctor like she did before.


The narrator tells the returning child they now live in a camp and are guarded by soldiers.   They live from food provided by aid workers and have given up their traditional diet.   Then it what I found to be a really odd speech by the narrator we read


"Lamunu, we don’t know how to tell you that Pa is no longer
with us. You may have noticed that he is not around. We
don’t know with which mouth to tell you that he was cut to
pieces by those who you were fighting for."


Of course this is tragic but does it not seem odd to say that she "may have noticed" the father is gone?     And further, don't you imagine Lamuna would have realized they were living in a camp?    It is like the author wants to observe the holy dictum of the modern short story-show don't tell-but she does not quite know how to do it in this case.    She uses a first person narrator, a child, to do the work of a third party narrator supplying background information and sort of loses our faith in the story in the process.





Any one who watches the BBC New Channel or CNN international will know about the abduction of children in Uganda to be used as soldiers.    


Is this story "African Poverty Porn"?    This a new to me expression I learned from others blogging on the Caine Prize stories.   Basically I think it means a story which  contributes no real new insights into the life of the poor in Africa and is meant to play on and into the sympathies of Western liberals by evoking the media cliches of African poverty.   (Of course a story could be brilliantly written and fall under this description .)      I would say that "Butterfly Dreams" will for sure be seen by many as "African Poverty Porn".   In this case it may be amplified in that we know Lamuna will have been raped many times.  


"Butterfly Dreams" is worth reading.   I think the only real flaw is in the vocabulary and persona of the narrator.   



You can read this story and the other Caine Short Listed Works HERE

This is my second year blogging on the Caine Prize short stories (my 2011 posts are HERE).   Last year I think I might have been the only blogger to post on the stories, this year there is a very politically aware group of bloggers posting on each story.


One  simple way to see the postings  is by doing a Twitter search on "Caine Prize".



I urge anyone interested in African Short Stories to consider purchasing To See The Mountain, which contains the five short listed stories plus twelve others written at the Caine Short Story work shop.    It would be a great book for school libraries.


I am really enjoying and profiting from reading the other posts on these stories.   Once I have posted on the short listed stories, I will probably post on the twelve other stories in the Too See the Mountain in groups of four.   




Mel u



Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stories by Anton Chekhov, O. Henry, and Raymond Carver-

"Misfortune" by Anton Chekhov (1885, 16 pages, translated by Constant Garnett)
"Nobody Said Anything" by Raymond Carver (1988, 12 pages)
"A Municipal Report" by O. Henry (1909, 19 pages)

Three Short Stories by Masters of the Form
O. Henry, Carver, and Chekhov

This morning I want to briefly post on three very different short stories by writers considered among the greatest of all short story writers.    

Almost everyday I check out East of the Web:Short Stories to see what has been selected as the short story of the day.   Normally they have one story from a high status author and one story that may not be real well known.   They often have new stories as well.   It was here I first discovered Katherine Mansfield.   If you have some time to read and cannot think what to read, you might check out this web page.     One of their stories of the day yesterday was "A Municipal Report" by O. Henry (1862-1910-USA-There is some background information on him in my prior posts on O. Henry.)   I saw it was 19 pages and I at first thought that I did not want to read a 19 page story just to find out what the surprise ending might be.   Then I recalled Jhumpa Lahiri had said he was one of the geniuses of the short story.   I did some quick research and saw this story is often considered O. Henry's masterpiece.   I hate to gush too much but this story is a quantum leap better than his other work.    It is a work of genius that belongs among the world's best short stories.   If all of O Henry's stories were this powerful nobody would think it was odd or patronizing to include him with Chekhov and Carver as a master of the short story.   This story is about a traveling representative for a publishing house on his way to Nashville to renegotiate a contract with one of their authors.    The characters in this story are whole people, not the semi-cartoon like characters in the other stories by O. Henry I have read.   The characters are beautifully realized.   There are some surprises in this story-maybe four of them-I loved them all.    I know a lot of people are not going to be willing to read a 19 page O. Henry story, I almost did not.    In my after read research I read that people say that if O. Henry was not a bit lazy and did not have to please magazine editors, then this is the kind of story he really was meant to write.  

You can read "A Municipal Report" HERE

"Nobody Said Anything" by Raymond Carver (USA, 1938-1988-his very last short story was about the death of Anton Chekhov-it is flat out brilliant) is included in a collection of his short stories (32 in all) Where I'm Calling From" which contains many of his best stories.    In the last few years of his life Carver reread the short stories of Chekhov and many say that this experience pushed Carver into a richer vein.  (There is some background information on Carver in my prior posts).    There is one thing in this story that surprised me-no one drinks in it!    This story is about two brothers, their mother, their father (might be long time step-father) and a boy the older son meets when he goes fishing.   There is also a woman in the story who picks up the older of the boys from the road and gives him a ride while he fantasies she will give him more than that.   Carver is really good at adolescent sex fantasies.    This is a great story.   Carver shows what can be done with the short story form.    I was kindly given an e-book of  Where I'm Calling From by a very generous reader in New Delhi and will be reading and posting in at least a minimal way on the 29 stories in the collection I have not yet read.

Nearly everyone into the genre says Anton Chekhov (1860-1904-Russia) is among if not the very best short story writer in the world.     (There is some background information on him in my prior posts on him.)    "Misfortune"   is an acutely observed story about a man in love with or with a sexual obsession for the wife of a friend.    The real brilliance of the story is in the depiction of the wife and her reactions at various states in the relationship.

You can read "Misfortune" here.

All of these stories are very much worth your time.   If you are really into the short story and kind of look down on O Henry (OK I did before today) and can read only one of these three stories today, then  please read his and come back and tell me what you think please!

If you are hoping to be short listed for the 2012 Caine Prize award, read all the Carver you can.   If you confine yourself only to the greatest of  literature, then read the Chekhov story.  

Mel u

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Orientalism by Edward Said

Orientalism by Edward Said (1978,  368 pages)


The Most Important Work in
Post Colonial Studies

 Orientalism by Edward Said (1935 to 2003) has been on my TBR list for years.    Said is considered by many to be the founder of post-colonial studies and his most famous book is by far the most influential book in this field.    As far as my quick research could determine, no other work even comes close.   In the area of serious post colonial studies one is either a disciple of Said or reacting against him.    (Said had an interesting academic career and also spoke out on political issues and was a leading American advocate of the rights of the Palestinian people to have their own state.    There is a good article on him here)

The basic theme of his book is that western scholarship about Asian countries (what was then called "The Orient") was done in the services of imperialism and as such is inherently servile to the needs of the state.   He details how a "myth of the east" was created by scholars.    I found his arguments very convincing.   Basic to the idea is that the creation of the myth that  westerners are superior to the Asian in every way.   The western student of Asian, the orientalist, has helped created this myth.  The most important part of this idea is getting the colonial people to a accept that they are inferior.   In one very interesting note (the book is full of fascinating observations) Said said it was the policy of the British in India to withdraw all of their people by age 55 so no Indian would ever see a white person taken down by old age.   It was also done to make the colonial administrators feel forever young.

Asia was viewed as exotic, nearly unknowable, and a source of decadent delights.    Said quotes at length from Flaubert's writings about his tours of the brothels of Cairo.  (Said treats the middle east as his main subject-some have faulted him for this.)    There was a heavy sexual element for westerns for travel to the east.   One could do there what one could  not do at home.    (This is hardly a dead idea.)

This is a very academic book.   By that I simply mean it is half about the subject matter of  the book and half about what other professors have said in their books.  

I found this a fascinating book.   When I read Flaubert's Salammbo set in ancient Carthage I will look carefully again at what Said says about this book.   From a literary stand point, Said sees Flaubert as being very influential in propagating the myth of the exotic east.    He also spends a lot of time looking at the work of Conrad.

I have recently read and posted on some of the stories that have been short listed for the Caine Prize for best short stories by an African author.   Others posting on these stories have introduced me to a new literary concept that I do find very interesting, "African Poverty Porn".    I am still coming to terms with what this precisely means (it is up for debate) but basically it is stories written about the poor of Africa that are meant to appeal to the tastes of  well meaning educated readers who know little or nothing about the reality of life in Africa but enjoy reading about extreme poverty.   It is suggested the western readers are being made to feel superior and at the same time being made to feel somehow as if they are good people because of the pity they feel for the poor Africans.  There is real animosity toward the authors of some of the Caine stories.    I think it is because they are seen as what Said called "native informants".    A native informant is simply a person from a colonial country who passes along his knowledge to a western ruler or administrator in order to obtain a comfortable status in life for himself.   (It should be noted that Asian countries such as China and Japan have been colonial rulers of a very harsh sort.)

I recommend Orientalism to anyone seriously into post-Colonial literature with the qualifier that it is a very academic book (though not hard to understand) whose main content could probably be stated in ten pages with the other 360 as evidence for his claims.

Mel u