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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Two Short Stories by Chanelle Benz,from The Man Who Shot Out my Eyes, her debut collection

The Diplomat's Daughter

James III

Website of Chanelle Benz

Based on the advance press on The Man Who Shot Out my Eyes, the debut short story collection of Chanelle Benz, my expectations were very high for the two of her short stories that I was happily able to find online. Both are included in the collection which I hope to read and post further upon in May.  I loved both stories and do not at all hesitate to endorse purchase of her collection.  It is good to see such great stories by a new writer.  Interestingly both of these very different stories comply with Frank O'Connors famous dictum that the deepest Short Stories deal with loneliness, given voice to the marginalized, speak for the mute.  In both these stories Benz dramatically  presents the consequences of loneliness and marginalization.

I will just talk a bit about each story as I do not wish to spoil anyone's first read.  I read each story twice and will hopefully reread them in May along with the full collection.

"The Diplomat's Daughter" focuses on a young woman, once kidnapped away from the home of her American diplomat father.  It is a fast moving story, beginning in a terrorist cell in the Kalahiri Desert, Beirut in the time period 2001 to 2011.  The woman is under the sway of a man who uses her for sex and to commit terrorist acts.  It is evidently the Stockholm syndrome impacting her.  Then we flash back  to Lynchburg, Virginia in 1997 where we see her as an adolescent, insecure about her weight and being a typical difficult at times teenager.  There are segments in Mexico City, back in Beirut, and in Washington, D.C.  As I read the story, told mostly in very skillfully rendered dialogue, it reads almost like a play, I tried to ponder what terrible emotional lacuna could I discover from the conversations of the young woman with her siblings and her Columbian stepmother.  In a away I'm inclined to see her as somehow suggesting the father of the terrorist own repudiation of America but maybe this is pushing things.  This is a beautiful story that will more than repay repeated readings.

"James III" is set in the rough poverty ridden inner city of Philadelphia.  It is narrated by a twelve year old boy, he has just been mugged, his shoes have been stolen and it
a very cold winter.  The boy's father is in prison, his mother has a boyfriend.  He decided to take the train to his aunt.  We subtly are shown he is not just your ordinary inner city boy when he makes a reference to Mr. Brown low, Oliver Twist's benefactor.  He goes to a Quaker school, tuition paid by his aunt.  He reads the sonnets of Petrach.

Much of the plot action is carried by dialogue.  The boy lives in a rough world where showing any weakness is a mistake.  We go along when his cousin takes him to visit his father.  We learn how he came to be James III.

"“And I’m named after my father, your granddaddy. Now that man? That man was born evil and done stayed that way. But because he was named James, I got named James, and your grandmomma said you got to be named James, that way at the end of the day you got his hard and my heart. You James the third.”

"James III" presents a very intelligent young msn, he was in the state spelling be finals, forced to be wise beyond his years.  We get a sense we are in The Philadelphia inner city.  We hope for the best for James.

These are two first rate stories.  As mentioned, I hope to read the full collection in May.

Chanelle Benz has published short stories in Guernica,, Electric Literature'sRecommended Reading, The American Reader, Fence and The Cupboard, and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. She received her MFA at Syracuse University as well as a BFA in Acting from Boston University. She is of British-Antiguan descent and currently lives in Houston.  From

Mel u

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Leonora Carrington and Katherine Mansfield -- Two Fly Centered Short Stories

A link to "Mr Gregory's Fly"

Leonora Carrington- Britain's Last Surrealist Tate Shots. A wonderful beautifully done video -  (By the author of The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Joanna Moorhead, includes a conversation with  Carrington as well as images of her art)

Leonora Carrington A Surrealist Trip from Lancashire to Mexico. From the BBC

I first began reading the short stories of Katherine Mansfield almost eight years ago, I read my first work by Leonora Carrington eight days ago.  I recently completed (post coming soon) a very illuminating and valuable work on Mansfield by Gerri Kimber, Katherine Mansfield The Early Years which has inspired me to reread her stories.  The centenary observation of the birth of Carrington has stimulated renewed interest in her stories (she is most famous for her Surrealistic art).  Two editions of her stories have just been published as well as a biography by Joanne Moorhead, The Surrealistic Life of Leonora Carrington, which I hope to post upon next month.  The NYRB has just brought back into print Carrington's memoir of her mental breakdown, Down Below with a very informative introduction by Marina Warner.  I have been able to locate eight of Carrington's stories online and will post on all of them individually just as I did with Mansfield.  My quick research indicates that several of Carrington's works are out of print but hopefully renewed interest will bring them back into print.  You can view, and I think you will be fascinated as I was, many of her paintings online.  

I don't yet know if Carrington read Mansfield's short stories or not but for sure there are significant Life similarities worth remarking upon.  Both came from wealthy families, Carrington's father was a wealthy industrialist, Mansfield's was Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand.  Both women had serious  issues dealing with dominating fathers with little sympathy for their artistic interests.

Both left their home countries at an early age, never to live there again.  Both began to seriously pursue their passions only after becoming an exile.  Both drew inspiration for their work from their adolescent angst, it shines through in the first story I posted on by Carrington, "The Debutante".  Both had an interest in the Occult, Carrington's the stronger.  Both were drawn to "Guru" type men.  

After reading  Carrington's "Mr Gregory's Fly" I decided to reread a Mansfield story I read eight years ago, "The Fly".  I was happy to see I could recall almost all the story.  The first time I read it I was doing a "read through" of Mansfield's stories, about eight core works.  I wanted to see if I would still love it after eight years of reading short stories.  I found the story deeply moving for the  portrayal of the grief of two old men, both from England, one was once the other's boss, who talk over their mutual loss of a son during WW One (Mansfield's beloved brother was killed in the war).  One of the men is now retired, he has had a stroke and his wife and daughters supervise him closely.  On Tuesdays he is allowed to go out on his own and he often goes to visit his former boss at his office.  You can see both men are normally emotionally reserved but the conversation about their lost sons causes the boss to breakdown.  When left alone he notices a fly has gotten some ink on his wings (people used fountain pins and inkwells in 1922).  He watches the fly try to dry his wings.  I don't want to impair the first time experience of new readers on this story so I will tell no more of the plot.  In the fate of the fly the man seems to see the fate of his son, on another level the man takes on the role of the cruel Gods that took his son from him, that took all meaning from his life accumulating business which he intended to pass to his son.  The close is open to numerous views and I am sure this would be a very good classroom story for advanced students. 

"Mr Gregory's Fly" is a surrealistic story, very different from "The Fly".  Gloria Orenstein in her introduction to the 1975 collection of six of Her says

"Leonora Carrington's express the system of being through occult parables whose true meaning becomes accessible to those initiated into the specific form of symbolism that a work displays. The symbols are emblems derived from a deep knowledge of alchemy, Cabala, Magic, the Tarot, witchcraft and mythology".

I have issues with the notion of short stories having "a true meaning" but this is an illuminating remark.  Long long ago I was quite into the occult, I studied various system of Magik.  I know Katherine Mansfield had some acquaintance with occult theories on the order of those expounded by The Order of the Golden Dawn but I did not recall any specific occult symbolism about flys.  I did a Google search and did not find any big revelations so I decided just to enjoy "Mr Gregory's Fly" as fun very brief surrealistic story poking fun at a pretentious business man. 

"Once there was a man with a big black moustache. His name was Mr. Gregory (the man and the moustache had the same name). Since his youth Mr. Gregory was bothered by a fly that used to enter his mouth when he spoke, and when somebody spoke to him, the fly would fly out of his ear. “This fly annoys me,” said Mr. Gregory to his wife, and she answered, “I understand, and it looks ugly. You ought to consult a doctor.” However no doctor was able to cure Mr. Gregory of his fly. Although he went to see several doctors, they always said that they had never heard of this disease. One day Mr. Gregory went to see another doctor, but he got the wrong address and by mistake went to see a midwife. She was a wise woman and she knew a lot of other things besides childbirthing."

This captures well the flavor of the prose.  The wise woman says she can get rid of the fly but the man must give her three quarters of his assets to her.  He agrees knowing he actually owns little or nothing.  He follows her suggestion, the fly is gone but there is a side effect:

"Later Mr. Gregory took the pills in the tea made of little drops of mustard in noodle water, according to the instructions of the wise woman. Next day the fly had totally disappeared, but Mr. Gregory had become navy blue with red zip fasteners over his orifices. “It’s worse than the fly,” said his wife, but Mr. Gregory didn’t say much because he knew that he had cheated the wise woman. I deserved it, he thought. If I only had that little fly again, I’d be happy. But he was still navy blue with red zip fasteners and stayed like that till the end of his days, and this was very ugly, especially when he was naked in his bath."

To me "Mr Gregory's Fly" is and was meant to be fun but I don't doubt there are deeper meanings.

Mel u

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Two Yiddish Short Stories by Joseph Opatoshu (Aka Yousef or Yosef) author of The Romance of a Horse Thief

Yousef Opatoshu, 1986, born in Miana Poland, moved to New York City, 1907, died in New York City 1954, (aka Yosef, Americanized pen  name Joseph) did not begin writing Yiddish prior to immigrating to New York City.  There are two very interesting short stories, about Eastern European Jews in America, included in the necessary anthology Jewish Literature in America.  My one small issue with this huge collection (815 works) is that no first publication dates are given for the works.  Some I can find via a Google search, some, like these two, I have guessed.

"Judaism" (1919?) is a story of a Rabbi's abuse of a young Christian woman who has come to him to be converted.  She wants to marry a rich young a Jewish man.  The Rabbi asks her how her family feels about this and she says they love her fiancé.
He subjects her to a much more lengthy and demanding course of study than normal.  He is tired of being the lackey of his rich congregation and is taking it out on her.

"The rabbi’s Sabbath had been disturbed. Why did he take such pride in following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, when in reality he was a lowly slave who did whatever the wealthy Bizhorn told him to? Abulafia took revenge. He saw to it that the lessons with Helen would be a living Hell for the girl. Right away, at the first lesson, the rabbi threw up a mountain of difficulties."

"President Smith" (1923?) is set in Chicago. Just as have other immigrant groups, people from the same area in Poland would tend to live in the same area in America, relatives and friends helping each other.  The Synagogue was the heart of the community.  This is the story a Rabbi, who when just a young man and already a Rabbi, moved to New York City where most of his congregation landed in Chicago.  Forty years has long by and he is come to visit them in Chicago.  The President of the Synagogue is Mr. Smith. He changed his name and most of his cultural trappings as he over many years has become rich.  The story is kind of about President Smith's acknowledging his cultural roots.  In just a few pages Opatoshu brings a lot of the Yiddish immigrant experience to life.

"It was the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. The New York-to-Chicago express train raced in like a demon, whistling and gasping. Passengers started tumbling out of the cars. Some moved to the exit and others just stood there. From the last car, Reb Yosl the cantor emerged. He was a tall man with a long black beard that was turning gray at the edges, and he was wearing a rabbi’s hat. He had come to pray with his fellow townsmen, the people of Mlave, on the High Holy Days. Reb Yosl put down the valise he had been holding in his hand and started looking around, looking for the delegation from the Anshey Mlave synagogue". From "President Smith"

Joseph Opatoshu

Yiddish Literature on The Reading Life

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dawn by Olivia Butler (1987, Part One of The Lilith's Blood Trilogy)

Olivia Butler 1947 to 2006, multi-awarded American Science Fiction Writer

Dawn is part one of Olivia Butler's Lilith's  Blood Trilogy.  I have previously read her Bloodchild and Kindred.  It is my hope to read all of her fiction available as Kindles.

Dawn begins on a vast space ship, itself a living being.  Around 250 years ago America and Russia had a nuclear war which left the earth virtually uninhabitable.  The aliens aboard the ship, the Oankali, removed the survivors and have placed them in deep sleep.  They are planning to return them to earth after they are trained in survival skills.  The Oankali are very strange, to the humans, multitentacled beings.  Lilith, who is African American in origin, is being kept in a room with an alien when we meet her.

The best thing, and it is very well done, about Dawn, is the conceptual ideas, the creation of the aliens, who have been on the ship so long they do not know for sure where there home world is located.  The weakest aspect of the novel, and I found this pretty wanting, was the relationships that develop between the wakened humans as the aliens prepare to return them to the earth, in a jungle environment.

I enjoyed this book.  It falls short of greatness but the overall idea behind it was super interesting.  I have begun part two, Adulthood Rituals.  I bought the trilogy on Amazon for $2.95.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"The Debutante" by Leonora Carrington (1939

You can read "The Debutante" here

Very well done video and reading by of "The Debutante"

Leonora Carrington- Britain's Last Surrealist Tate Shots. A wonderful beautifully done video -  (By the author of The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Joanna Moorhead, includes a conversation with  Carrington as well as images of her art)

Leonora Carrington A Surrealist Trip from Lancashire to Mexico. From the BBC

In observation of the 100th birth anniversary (April 6, 1917) of Leonora Carrington two collections of her short stories and a fascinating sounding biography by Joanna Moorhead, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington are being published. Carrington was very closely associated with the Surrealist movement, both personally and artistically.  (In the long ago I visited the Museum of the Museo Nationale de Anthropologia in Mexico City where I must have seen one of her works.  Her art is on display in major museums throughout the world.) There are several good articles giving an overview of the life and work of Carrington online, the one from the BBC I linked above is a very good first resource as is our old standby, Wikipedia.

I was very happy to find I could read one of her most famous short stories "The Debutante" online.  My main purpose here is to journalize my first venture into the literary world of Leonora Carrington and to let interested readers know that some small portion of her work can be read online.

"The Debutante", Reading time for most will be under five minutes but it maybe all you can digest in 24 hours.  It is told in the first person by a teenage girl who will soon be going to a debutante ball.  Her best and perhaps only friend is a highly intelligent hyena she visits almost every day at the zoo.  She has taught him to speak French and from him (or her) she has learned the communicative system of hyenas.  She tells the hyena she hates the idea of going to the ball.  When the hyena hears about all the great food that will be served, he offers to go in her place.  I don't want to tell more of the plot of this story but it lives up to the canons of surrealism.  I loved it and look forward to learning more about her.

I suggest you first read the story then in a day or so watch the video production of the story by  It has a brief interview with Carrington and includes a good bit of her art.

I will soon post on her story, "The Fly".

Please share your experiences with Leonora Carrington with us

Mel u

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Sweeping Past" by Yiyun Li (August, 2007, in The Guardian)

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Yiyun Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has served on the jury panel for Man Booker International Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Heminway Award, and other. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.  from

My Posts on Yiyun Li

"Sweeping Past" on The Guardian

Yiyun Li is one of my favorite contemporary writers.  I have posted on both of her novels and her profound memoir Dear Friend I Write From My Life to Yours as well as several of her beautifully crafted short stories.

My main purposes today are to journalize my reading of "Sweeping Past" and to let anyone interested know that the story can be read online on the webpage of The Guardian.

"Sweeping Past", set in China, is a fifty year look back on the lives of three girls who became "sworn sisters".  The practice was looked down upon as feudal in Maoist China.  The times were to turn ugly as a hatred for anything that seemed "western" or capitalistic became despised.

The women are now in their early sixties.  China has largely become a capitalist country.  A granddaughter of one of the women, her parents emigrated to Portugal long ago and own a very prosperous Chinese restaurant, is back in China for a two week vacation.  She learns much about the family history of the girls, a grandson of one raped and murdered the daughter of another, not wanting to wait for their intended marriage for sex.  He was executed.

I don't want to tell more of the story.  You can read it in ten minutes or so.  Li is a master at the depiction of the passing sweep of time.

Mel u

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

The Olivia Butler Society. Your first resource

A few days ago, inspired by an essay by Zadie Smith, I made my first venture into the fiction  of Octavia Butler (1947 to 2006, multi-awarded American Science Fiction writer), Bloodlines.  This Hugo and Nebula Prize Winning Novella about human alien relationships was so good I wanted to read more of her work.

I decided to next read her very highly regarded and commercially very successful fantasy novel, Kindred.  The plot description of a modern African American woman who involuntarily time travels back to a slave plantation in the old south in 1816 sounded very interesting
and most reviewers seem to love Kindred so I hit the "Buy Now" button and it was on my E Reader.

Kindred begins in Los Angeles, California in 1976.  Dana is an aspiring writer married to Kevin, a white man, who is a commercially successful writer.  They met working as temporary employees doing inventory at a big auto parts place.  They bonded though their love of books and their interest in pursuing a literary career.  They are maybe 27 or so.

One day Dana feels dizzy, she wakes up in Maryland, on a plantation by a river where a young boy, the son of the plantation owner, is drowning.  She rescues him and is completely shocked when he calls her a "nigger" and asks her who owns her.  The young boy says she "talks funny", she realizes somehow the boy is one of her ancestors.  Of course she is terrified to be on the plantation in these times, has no idea how she got here.  She witnesses a slave being beaten for attempting to run away, savaged by the boy's father.  She is transported back to her home in California, she is covered in mud, Kevin says she was only gone for two minutes but it seems like hours to Dana.

In all Dana time travels six times, she learns she will somehow go back when she is in mortal danger.  Dana experiences the cruelty of slave life when she is beaten with a bull whip, nearly raped by a white slave catcher who thought she was a run a way, sees children sold away from their mothers so the plantation mistress could buy some new furniture, works under backbreaking conditions in the field (house slave had in better than field workers) and witnesses her own foremother, a freed slave, forced into concubinage status to the young boy, now grown, she saved long ago.

Kindred is not just about slavery in America, it is about the marriage of Dana and Kevin, both their parents opposed the mix race marriage.  Dana loves reading and is into the reading life (as was Octavia Butler) with her husband.  When she returns beaten she fears if she goes to a doctor they will think Kevin did it and if she or Kevin tell the real story, they will be thought crazy.

There is much more in Kindred than I have touched upon.  It is so exciting and more than a bit frightening to watch Dana's life on the slave plantation.  In one episode Kevin goes with her, five years pass but when they return only a few days have passed.  Kindred is beautifully narrated.  We see the kitchen slaves eating table scraps, the slaves informing on each other to curry favor with the master, get to hate the owner's wife who has to pretend she does not notice the slave children who resemble her husband.

Kindred would be a great class room book, in the hands of a skilled pedagogue.

I have added Olivia Butler to my "read all I can list".  I will next read her futuristic Lilith Trilogy.

Please share your experiences with Olivia Butler with us.

Mel u

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"Jews Eyes" by Sholem Asch (1948, translated by Barnett Zumpoff)

A very good biographical article on Sholem Asch - from The Yivo Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jews

My Posts on Yiddish Literature

“You look, we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Said at a conference by the press secretary for the president of the USA, apparently unaware of the use of chemical weapons in the Holocaust

Normally I refrain from posting on short stories that cannot be read online.  Today I read a story by Sholem Asch (last name sometimes spelled as "Ash", 1980 to 1957, born Kunto, Poland, died London, England), "Jews Eyes" so heartbreaking, that it almost moved me to tears.  I think the supreme ignorance embodied in the remark I quote above motivated me to post on this story.  I have said numerous times that the Holocaust was, among many things, an attack on a people as dedicated as any culture has been, to the reading life, to study, to knowledge for the beauty of knowing.

I will tell a bit of the plot (reading time under 15 minutes).  A woman from the Warsaw Ghetto smuggled her child into the Buchenwald concentration camp, after hiding her for a long time in an attic.  The woman was assigned to a work group that prepared the clothes of those murdered in the camp for distribution to German citizens.  The girl was the only child packed in with eighty women, almost all of their children were dead.  The women hid her, gave her food from their very sparse rations and mothered her as much as she could.  In repairing the clothes of the dead, one of the

women found a doll and gave it to the girl.  One day the Nazi woman in charge of the group make a surprise inspection tour, she saw the doll which had been left out and  thought there must be a child hidden.  Accompanied by two SS men and German dogs, they find the girl. The woman is amazed by the eyes of the girl.  In a  scene chilling to the bone,  which hurts to read, the full inhumanity of the German ideology comes through

"Mirele’s gaze fell upon the eyes of Fräulein Gertruda, and it was as if some unknown, previously unfelt sensation animated Gertruda. Mirele’s pitch-black pupils moved down to the horizons of her large, watery eye-pools, and from beneath the thinned-out, emaciated corneas they shone out with a moist, heartbreaking, pleading look. The pupils changed color with the speed of a waterfall as she gazed: now they took on the hue of a pitch-black abyss and now their borders quickly changed and manifested an orange glow, then a violet glow, and then turned to a deep blue like two large, otherworldly, water-clear sapphires. “What eyes!” Fräulein Gertruda couldn’t restrain herself and exclaimed to the two S.S. men who were standing behind her.....Her face even changed for a second —creases appeared in her smooth, white, creamed cheeks, near the corners of her mouth. Even her cool, feline, steely-sharp blue eyes shone with light. The flash of light in Fräulein Gertruda’s eyes, together with the creases around her mouth, ignited a ray of hope in the women’s hearts. “Real sapphires! I’ve never seen anything like them,” exclaimed one of the Gestapo men. “Ach, what earrings you could make out of them,” the second one said. “What?” “Jews’ eyes, of course.” “How?” “If one can petrify animal’s eyes, it must be possible to do the same with human eyes.”  “Jews’ eyes.” “It’s a thought.” The entire conversation between Fräulein Gertruda and the S.S. men lasted only a minute. They conducted it quietly, as if the women couldn’t hear them. Suddenly Fraulein Gertruda shook herself, grabbed the girl that the dogs had dragged out by the feet, and turned the child’s head toward her. “A knife!” she called out to the S.S. men. And immediately the blade of a knife that one of the S.S. men had drawn from its sheath, on which the words “Blood and Honor” were engraved, glinted in the air like a sacrificial knife. “Cut with a lot of flesh,” one of the S.S. men, who was holding the child’s hand and turned her on her back, advised in a loud, indifferent tone.  A shriek like the roar of an animal was heard from the women. Immediately, however, they choked back their outcry. Several of the women threw Mirele’s mother onto a shelf and stopped up her mouth with their fists."

Excuse the long quote, but as it cannot be read, as far as I know, online, I wanted to share this with you.

Gertruda makes earrings from the eyes, having them preserved by a famous taxidermist, and wears them to a German Cultural Festival where all admire the earrings made from a Jew's Eyes.

Believe it or not, the story has almost a happy ending.  I think it might make a good class room story though many will find this story very intense.

This story was first published in Yiddish, in New York City, in 1948 in a collection of short stories, Tales of my People.

I read it in Volume I of Yiddish Literature in America, a great contribution to Yiddish literature, indeed to the world.

Monday, April 10, 2017

"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler (1984, Hugo and Nebula Award Winner)

"Bloodchild" can be read here

It is funny how on a Tuesday you have never even heard of a writer and by Friday you have her placed on your read all I can list along with Joseph Roth, Clarice Lispector, R. K. Narayan, Irene Nemirosky, all writers I would never have read but for my participation in the  international book blog community, the world's best readers.

After reading Science Fiction classic
The Way Station by Clifford Simak (in the long ago I was a big reader of Sci Fi but I stopped nearly three decades ago so I know very little about writers who have come (and in some cases gone) in the last three decades.  My research indicated Olivia Butler (1947 to 2006, born in the Los Angeles, California area in 1947 and died in 2006 in Lake Forest Park, Washington after a bad fall), winner of every award in the genre including the Hugo and Nebula Awards was a writer I wanted to check out.  As I researched her (primarily on the links above) I read she was an extreme devotee of the reading life.  Like many of us, Butler came to love reading as an escape from a world in which she did not feel comfortable, a very shy child, books were her friends.  Not only did Butler have serious commercial success she is now avidly studied by academics.  (Just take a quick look at the web page for the Olivia Butler society to see the various ways in which her work is now being mined.)

I looked for a work by Butler I could read online, I located only one, Bloodchild".  I found it was

given the Hugo, Nebula, Chronicles of Science Fiction, and Locus award for best Science Fiction Novelette of 1984.

I was captivated and gripped  by "Bloodchild" in the first paragraph in which a human girl, maybe in her early teens is laying in the arms of a human size very intelligent insect like creature, on a planet far from her ancestors home on earth and far in the future.  It is not a sexual embrace but more a maternal protective embrace.  The girl is quite comfortable with this.

Long ago the ancestors of the girl had left Earth, where they were mistreated, settling on planet compatible to their life support needs.  The planet was home to Tics.  In order to reproduce Tics must implant their eggs in a host animal.  Once the humans arrived they were found to be ideal hosts for the eggs.  The Tic created a protected preserve for the humans, took care of them.  Many Tics bonded with particular humans and became sort of family members.  Tics fed and watched over their human families.  There was a very big negative to being implanted with Tic eggs.  Once the eggs hatched they would eventually begin to eat through their host as they made their way out.  In one vivid scene, the hatchlings have to be cut out of the man in which they are implanted.  The story is narrated by the girl's brother.

I really don't want to give out much more of the plot of "Bloodchild".  (Reading time easily under thirty minutes.). I think it would be a great classroom read, stimulating lots of discussion.

Butler is now firmly on my read all I can list.

I thank Buried in Print and Fred for remarks on Octavia Butler (in the comments on my recent post on Way Station).

Wikipedia has a decent article on Butler and one on "Bloodchild".  In 1995 she became the first

Science Fiction writer to receive The MacArthur Award (commonly called "The Genius Award")a

Have you read Butler?  Please share your experience with us.

Do you have a favorite Science Fiction writer.?

Many academics call Butler an "Afro Futurist Writer".  Are you comfortable with labels like that?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016)

Dance Lessons for Writers from Dancers by Zadie Smith - A Most Interesting Essay

Taiye Selasi's Review of Swing Time (author of Ghana Must Go)

Swing Time is the first novel by Zadie Smith I have read, I have posted on four of her short stories.  Swing Time has received well deserved rave reviews all over the book blog world and in the press.  I was very happy to be given a review copy.  (I am keeping my post brief partially because the review by Taiye Elasi, author of Ghana Must go and whose debut short story, "African Girls Sex Life Begins With Uncle" I posted upon several years ago, I link to above is far better than one I could do and also I am feeling a bit lazy.)

My bottom line is Swing Time is a wonderful work of art, if you worry about the future of the novel, this will end your worries.  It is above all a tremendously fun book.  On a personal note as the father of three girls 18, 21, and 23, growing up in a mega city bigger than London where Swing Time begins, it gave me a bit more insight into their world in which social media, pop stars I have never heard about and the all important peer group play a huge factor.

Swing Time is the story of two girls born in the poor side of London.  They meet at a neighborhood dance and initially bond over their admiration of great dancers from the past.  One girl is studious and focused on bettering herself, she narrates the story.  The other girl is rebellious, hard for her mother to control, her dad is in prison, sexually an early starter.  The narrator becomes a personal assistant for a super pop star from Australia. We follow the girls for many years, flashing back and forth in time.  One travels the world first class, helps build a school in Ghana, the other never gets out of the neighborhood and has kids by multiple men.

Swing Time very intelligently focuses on issues of racial identity, class and gender.  It is a pure delight

Zadie Smith has four earlier novels and I hope to read them all.

Mel u

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons (1934)

Corvo top 

Baron Curso - A K A Frederick Rolfe (1860 to 1913, born England, died in Italy) published Hadrian the Seventh in 1904

Alphonse James Albert Symons (1900 to 1941, England, the son of Russian Jewish Immigrants, remembered primarily for this book
Not long ago I read and posted upon a book that will doubtless become required reading for those interested in the art of literary biography, The Long Pursuit:  The Romantic Biography by Richard Holmes.  Holmes taught a Masters class in writing biographies for years at the University of East Angelia.  For that he prepared a list of what he considered "canon status" biographical works that he wanted his students, all aspiring biographers, to read.  Among the seven from the 20th century was The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons.  I fell in love with this book five pages in!

The Quest for Corvo is widely regarded as one of the best of literary biographies.  Symons has given the world a biography of the author of Hadrian the Seventh written in exquisite prose.  His every sentence is a polished gem.  We also see how he came to write the biography and his methods of research.

Hadrian the Seventh is the story of how a sexually depraved poverty stricken Englishmen became pope and ended up dying in abject poverty in Venice.

Symons was given lots of papers and a copy of Hadrian the Seventh by a friend.  On reading the novel he was determined to find out all he could about the author.  He discovered both a con man and a genius, living from borrowing money and art projects and some money from writing.  He was Gay and the book is considered an early GLBT classic.  We follow along as Symons contacts through letters initially friends and family of Corso.  He had assumed the title Baron, claiming with no substantiation he had been awarded the honor, and tried to live like royalty.  He died in the gutters of the bad side of Venice.

This book is worth reading just for the prose style, the many people we meet and for an appreciation of how hard serious biographical research in pre-internet days.  I guess no more books like this will probably be written, more the pity.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Dream by Ivan Turgenev (1877, translated by Constance Garnett, 1897)

The Dream (some would classify this work as a short story, others as novella, the reading time will be for most all under thirty minutes) is the first work by Turgenev I have so far read with a supernatural overcast.  Turgenev had serious mother issues (she ruled over 5000 serfs with a very cruel hand to the point of severe whippings  for petty offenses), his biographers said she treated Turgenev very harshly after the death of his father.  This sort of a cold indifferent mother abused and abandoned is very much like the mother of the first person narrator of The Dream.  

Garnett's prose beautifully sets the story in motion

"I was living at that time with my mother in a little seaside town. I was in my seventeenth year, while my mother was not quite five -and -thirty; she had married very young. When my father died, I was only seven years old, but I remember him well. My mother was a fair -haired woman, not very tall, with a charming, but always sad -looking face, a soft, tired voice and timid gestures. In her youth she had been reputed a beauty, and to the end she remained attractive and pretty. I have never seen deeper, tenderer, and sadder eyes, finer and softer hair; I never saw hands so exquisite. I adored her, and she loved me…. But our life was not a bright one; a secret, hopeless, undeserved sorrow seemed for ever gnawing at the very root of her being.....
No! something more lay hidden in it, which I did not understand, but of which I was aware, dimly and yet intensely aware, whenever I looked into those soft and unchanging eyes, at those lips, unchanging too, not compressed in bitterness, but, as it were, for ever set in one expression. I have said that my mother loved me; but there were moments when she repulsed me, when my presence was oppressive to her, unendurable. At such times she felt a sort of involuntary aversion for me, and was horrified afterwards, blamed herself with tears, pressed me to her heart. I used to ascribe these momentary outbreaks of dislike to the derangement of her health, to her unhappiness…."

The story unravels in a very suspenseful way the mystery behind the sadness of the mother.

My Posts on Ivan Turgenev

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Way Station by Clifford Simak (1963, Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel, 1964)

Open Road Media - Publisher of 1000s of high quality value priced E Books

Open Road is the publisher in E Book fashion of Clifford Simak and lots of other top name science fiction writers

In the long ago I used to enjoy reading a lot of science fiction.   My favorite science fiction novel was Dune by Frank Herbert.

I decided to read Way Station by Clifford Simak (1904 to 1988, Wisconsin, USA) for three reasons, it was a Hugo Award Winning novel, the description intrigued me and the Kindle edition was on sale for $0.99.

The central character in Way Station is Enoch, he is over 100 years old but looks thirty.  Ever since the civil war (the story seems set in the 1920s, in rural America.  Enoch was always a loner, made more so by his war experiences.  One day a stranger wandered up to his house.  He turned out to be an alien and he set up on Enoch's property a Way Station for intergalactic travelers.  Beyond earth there exists a huge universe of much more advanced beings who have a way of traveling through space involving transmission to Way stations throughout the universe.  Enoch becomes fascinated with the aliens who visit him.  He begins to attract attention from neighbors and the government.  Simak does a great job making this all very believable and super interesting.

There are very suspenseful events involving a deaf mute girl and her brutal father, the CIA and a sinister alien.

Way Station was a lot of fun, easy quick reading that will make you think.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The House of Names by Colm Toibin (forthcoming May, 2017)

My Posts on Colm Toibin

"Cassandra lifted her beautiful head and haughtily caught my eye, as if I had been placed on earth to serve her; then she looked at Electra, who stared at her in wonder. Many other chariots had come by now, some bearing treasure and others filled with slaves, their hands bound behind them. Cassandra stood apart from this, glancing with disdain at the slaves who were being led away. I moved towards her, and invited her to enter the palace, signaling to Electra that she should follow." Spoken by Clytemnestra upon the return of Agamemnon, her husband, from Troy

Colm Toibin (Ireland) is a tremendously successful author.  I have posted on several of his novels, short stories and his illuminating literary essays.  His fiction ranges from contemporary Ireland to recreations of ancient stories

I was very happy to receive a review copy of his latest novel, The House of Names.  Toibin focuses on Ancient Greece, circa 500 BCE at the court of King Agamemnon upon his return from Troy, nine year ago.  It centers on Clytemnestra's revenge for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia.  Her father had promised she would marry Achilles but at what she and her mother thought was to be her wedding day, she was sacrificed to the Gods to assure smooth sailing to Troy.

The story, full of violence and suspense, is told from four points of view.  Clytemnestra is consumed by her hatred for her husband and her contempt for the Gods.  Her murder of her husband is very vividly rendered.  We enter the consciousness of Electra, younger sister of Iphigenia.  Agamemnon brought with him as one of the spoils of war a beautiful young woman who he intends to be his wife, with Clytemnestra being reduced to a servant.  In the character of Orestes, younger brother of the girls, we see his divided loyalties.

House of Names is an exciting and thought provoking work.  I enjoyed very much Toibin's imaginative recreation of these ancient Homeric myths.

Mel u

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Two Short Stories by S. Ansky- Author of The Dybbuk

Excellent Bio on S. Ansky- from Jewish Heritage Online

"In the Tavern", 1884, translated by Robert Szulkin

"The Sins of Youth", translated by Lucy Danidowicz, 1910

I know for sure if I had not entered the international book blog community years ago I would have never dreamed of reading Yiddish literature.  Sometime back Yale University Press gave me the wonderful gift of all the books, eleven, in The Yale Yiddish Library.   Among them were a collection of works by the famous dramatist, S. Ansky, best now recalled for his play, The Dybbuk, first produced in 1914 and still widely preformed.

Yiddish literature, a great deal of which was written in America, is a world class cultural treasure.   (I recently acquired a fabulous 1500 page anthology, Yiddish Literature in America, 1870 to 2000, edited by Emmanuel Goldsmith and translated by Barnett Zumolf which will, I hope, greatly expand my erudition in Yiddish literature.).

Ansky grew up in what is now Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire.  The stories I am featuring today are set in the now lost culture of the shtel. They are not happy feel good stories, they depict the lives of the impoverished.

"In the Tavern" lets us see what goes on in a shtel tavern.  The tavern is the social center of the Shtel.  Sansky lets us see the business side of the tavern and the escape of the patrons into drunken oblivion.  It is a very harsh look which has the complete feel of the truth.

"The Sins of Youth" centers on a young teacher.  He has set up shop in a shtel he just moved to, tutoring a number of boys.  He gets in trouble when he begins to teach literature besides religious studies.  When there are rumors of a possible coming pogram, the shtel Rabbi says it is warning of God that this teacher must leave the community.  In a chilling scene, the community members burn a mass of forbidden books.

The two short stories I am featuring today are both set in

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Reading Life Review - March, 2017

There are now 3014 posts online

The Reading Life has had 4,534,646 hits

The top countries of origin for March were

USA, The Philippines, Russia, India and Belgium

The Russian hits were from bots, once or twice a month they inundate the blog, why I am not yet clear.

Normally in March I have focused on Irish Short Stories, this year I did not.  I still love this reading area and will return to it.

Works I read but did not post upon

"The Lady of the House of Love" by Angela Carter. From The Bloody Chamber

"Glory" by Lesley Nneka Arimah. A 2017 O Henry Prize Story.  I will post on her work soon

The Shadow in the Garden A Biographer's Tale by James Atlas.

Literary Biographies

I read two first rate just published literary biographies, one on Angela Carter and another on Elizabeth Bishop.  I will be reading more.


Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, a reread after fifty years

Coco Chanel by C. W. Gortner-a very well done literary treatment of her life

Buried in Print is conducting a read through of the short stories of Mavis Gallant.  I read for this a great story "The Other Paris".

I give my humble thanks to those who have left comments.  It means a great deal to me.

Mel u

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Elizabeth Bishop A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (2017)

"When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”  Elizabeth Bishop in correspondence with Robert Lowell

The Last Love Affair of Elizabeth Bishop by Megan Marshall (in The New Yorker, October 27, 2016)

1911 to 1979 (Massachusetts)

1956 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1970 National Book Award

Elizabeth Bishop published only 100 poems in her life.  From these she has become one of the most admired and loved American poets of the 20th century.   Megan Marshall in Elizabeth Bishop A Miracle for Breakfast presents a vivid brilliant account of her life, a narrative relayed with the intensity of a highly skilled story teller that left me feeling very sad, loving Bishop for her art and courage to live as her heart dictated  while so much hating her terrible alcoholism, her need to drink herself into oblivion.  Marshall helps us understand why Bishop was driven to this. The problem endured her entire adult life, complicated her numerous friendships and romances.

Tragedy soon found Bishop, her father died when she was eight months old, shortly afterwards her mother was committed to a mental asylum which she never left.  Bishop did not again see her mother. She was sent to her maternal grandparents in Novia Scotia. After a few years she moved to the home of her wealthy paternal grandparents.  Bishop was not happy with them so she was transferred to the home of her mother's sister. Her aunt, paid by the grandparents for her care, instilled in her a love of poetry, this came to provide her direction in life.  Her father's estate set up a trust for Bishop which sustained her for life.  Having numerous health issues Bishop struggled with her schooling but did graduate from the very prestigious Vassar in 1934.

Megan lets us see the profound influence the poet Marianne Moore, Bishop met her while at Vassar.  Moore encouraged and guided her in developing her poems.  Megan talks about the influence of the poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, she met them in 1947, on Bishop.  Lowell became a life long friend and a poetic influence.  Lowell helped Bishop get a job teaching creative writing at Harvard toward the end of her life and Bishop,through an extensive correspondence tried to help Lowell with his issues.

Bishop did not have to work, she was not rich but comfortable, she began shortly after college to travel extensively.  She lived, in a romantic relationship with a wealthy fellow Vassar graduate in Paris for a few years. In 1938 they bought together a house in Key West, Florida where Bishop lived for a while. All the time Bishop is writing poems, Megan lets us see what a meticulous artist she was, often working on a poem for years.

In 1949, after working as poetry consultant for The Library of Congress for a year, she received a $2500.00 grant for travel from Byrn Mawr college for travel expenses. She planned on staying two weeks in Brazil but ended up staying 15 years.  Bishop fell in love with Brazilian culture and a Brazilian woman from a wealthy family, her longest lasting relationship. Bishop had only same sex relationships.  She loved living in rural Brazil, the contrast to New England and Canada must have been overwhelmingly.  Upon the suicide of her lover, Bishop began to spend more time in America, teaching for seven years at Harvard.

Megan Marshall was a student of Bishop and she includes as kind of interludes several chapters about her relationship with Bishop.

I think one of the many things I admired about Marshall's wonderful biography was her treatment of Bishop's sexuality. A less secure biographer might have felt the need to explain this, to offer conjectures as to the psychological reasons behind this.  Marshall just accepts it as not something requiring an explanation.

There is much more in this book than I have touched upon. I will, I think, reread her poetry with more understanding.

Marshall's webpage explains the genesis of this book.

I highly recommend this literary biography.

Mel u

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"The Other Paris" by Mavis Gallant (First published April 11, 1953 in The New Yorker)

Buried in Print's Mavis Gallant Reading Schedule

Mavis Gallant on The Reading Life

"In her preface to the present collection, Gallant advises her readers: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Such advice may be superfluous. When you finish each of Gallant’s stories, it’s instinctive to stop and regroup. As much as you might wish to resume and prolong the pleasure of reading, you feel that your brain and heart cannot, at least for the moment, process or absorb one word, one detail more." Francine Prose in her introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant (born Montreal 1922, died Paris, 2014) since 2013.  I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a weekly basis.   I have on my E Reader The Collected Short Short Stories of Mavis Gallant (contains per Gallant about half of her stories) so I decided to try to read along with Buried in Print's weekly schedule as much as I might.

Gallant may have been born in Montreal but Paris was her spiritual home. In "The Other Paris", the first scheduled story, Gallant focuses on an American woman working in a government office, post World War II.  She came to Paris expecting to find the city of Proust, Flaubert, expecting the women to be elegant and and the men handsome.  Instead of living a life straight out of movies like Singing in the Rain or Gigi she was trapped in fifty shades of shabbiness.  These elegant lines sum Carol's disappointment

"It was a busy life, yet Carol could not help feeling that something had been missed. The weather continued unimproved. She shared an apartment in Passy with two American girls, a temporary ménage that might have existed anywhere. When she rode the Métro, people pushed and were just as rude as in New York. Restaurant food was dull, and the cafés were full of Coca-Cola signs. No wonder she was not in love, she would think. Where was the Paris she had read about? Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped."

Carol has met an American man at work, Howard, he is looking for a wife and Carol meets his conditions.  When he proposed she accepted, fearing no other suitable man might ask. She did not love him but novels had taught her that could come in time.  She wanted to be in love and for sure wanted to return home married.  She works with an unmarried French woman, thirty, who has a relationship with a twenty two year old man, a displaced person without the paperwork required to work whose family were all killed during the war.  He seems vaguely criminal and sinister. You can feel the unexpressed fear of Carol that this is the fate of aging unmarried women in Paris.

I don't want to tell much of the story line of "The Other Paris", after you have read the story, hopefully at least twice, I urge you to read the post by Buried in Print.

Gallant lets us see into the future of Carol and others in the story. We feel the impact of disappointment in their hopes for love on the women, we see how they are motivated to settle out of fear.  The closing scene with the friend (that is what she calls him) of the French woman and Carol is devastating in bleakness, so far from the Paris of movie goers dreams, no madeleines, no visits to the opera, only a very unsentimental education, no cruises down the Seine  on his house boat with a count far more lovely than Colette could imagine, no fashions shows at Chanel's, even Nana has seemingly a more interesting life.

Mel u

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2016

Angela Carter 1940 to 1992, England, died of lung cancer

I have read only a few of Angela Carter's dark and wonderful short stories, mostly from her now most read work, The Bloody Chamber (1979).

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon is a first rate literary biography. As I read on I came to like both the book and Carter so much that I was sad upon completion, maybe my feelings were amplified by her way to early death at fifty two.

Gordon shows us at least three processes of invention.  We see Angela inventing her persona.  Gordon does a very good job detailing the people in Carter's life, starting with her parents and then her first husband, Paul Carter.  Carter was a musician, the marriage failed not due to any villainy on either side, he simply did not fulfill her needs and I think he came to bore her.

Angela won the Somerset Maugham award, a grant for travel expenses.  Angela decided  to go to Japan and this opened up her creativity and lead to two important romances, one with a Japanese man, one a Korean.  Carter had a very strong, by her own acknowledgement, sex drive and her relationships were strained at best. Carter struggled to make a living in Japan and eventually got homesick and accepted a secure job offer in England.  By age 32 she had written five novels.  She also wrote reviews and such for income.  As she became more famous she worked as a visiting professor in New York City, Adelaide Australia (which she loved) and several English schools.

Gordon spends a lot of time detailing Carter's life style at the time of writing of her more famous works, The Bloody Chamber (1979), Night at the Circus (1984), Wise Children (1991).  He shows how she employed her life experience and her extensive reading in her works.

A few years after divorcing Paul Carter, Angela fell in love with a man younger than her by a good bit who was doing some repair work on her house.  They married after few years, had a son, and he seems to have made her happy.  She was the primary earner in the family.

Gordon brings to life the many friends in Angela's life, from famous writers, publishers and intellectuals to ordinary people.

Gordon talks about how feminist and folk scholars approached her work.

We learn a lot about the business side of her publishing career.

There is a lot more in The Invention of Angela Carter than I have mentioned.  It for sure made me want to expand my reading of her work.  I greatly enjoyed this elegant insightful erudite biography.

Edmund Gordon studied philosophy at Trinity College Dublin and English literature at University College London, and since 2011 has been a lecturer in English at King's College London. A regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, he has also written for a variety of other publications in Britain and the US, including Bookforum and The Guardian.  The Invention of Angela Carter is his first book.

Mel u

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1933, 97 pages)

This is my second reading of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (born 1894 in Godalming, England, died 1963 in Los Angeles).  In 1967 when I first read it Ferdinand Marcos was President of the Philippines, Lyndon Johnson of the United States, there was no internet, no cell phones, no E books.  I don't recall what lead me to first read Brave New World.  I admit I decided to read it now partially because the Kindle edition was on sale for $0.99, plus I wanted to see if this dystopian classic was still timely.  I was curious what I would recall as I reread.

All I remembered clearly about the plot was the biological engineering of humans into different categories from "moronic epsilons" doing totally mindless work to Alphas who ran things.  Huxley did a brilliant job describing the processes that produce different sorts of humans.  I also remembered the abundant guilt free sex that was the norm (this was the 60s).  The society was engineered to produce maximum harmony while keeping every one happy.  Soma, a feel good drug, is dispersed as a reward and a way to keep people docile.

Huxley makes us of a character called, "The Savage" to present an alternate view of society. One of my favorite parts of the novel was in the conversations of The Savage and the controller of Western Europe.  He is exempt from conditioning and Huxley uses him to explain how the society evolved.

Brave New World is a tremendously influential book.  Parts of it do drag a bit but at only 100 pages or so I rank it as a near must read.  There is a lot to think about in Huxley's masterwork.

Mel u

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Poetry Will Save Your Life - A Memoir by Jill Bialosky (2017)

"Enduring a childhood of loneliness and dislocation, he retreated into the “wonderful world of books.”  Jill Bialosky on Langston Hughes

"I’m grateful for my books, my deep infatuation with literature, and my poems, however nascent. I’ve come to see that the only thing now worth holding on to is the collection of verse accumulating on my desk and in my drawer. They don’t often amount to much, but when they do I sense it something alive and crackling, like the sound of stepping on twigs in the woods. In the absence of love, I cling to my work. Literature is the only thing that I can count on; it won’t desert me." - Jill Bialosky

Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky is a deeply felt memoir  told through the poems that helped the author cope with and understand the seminal events and rites of passage of her life, from adolescence to motherhood and beyond.  She talks very openly about events that caused her great pain and shows how poetry literarily saved her life.

When I first began The Reading Life nearly eight years ago I planned to focus on literary works focusing on people who lead Reading centered lives.  I have gotten happily very side tracked but I always like to return to this theme.  I wonder what forces, influences, factors lead a person to prefer reading above all activities.  I have seen in the posts of lots of book bloggers (the world's greatest readers) references to lonely isolated childhoods in which they retreated from an environment they did not like, from feeling odd and out of place, to books.   Many of these children grew away from reading as they worked, had families, etc but some of us did not.  We resented our jobs as wasting our Reading time and some of us did become near Life time isolates, wanting to be left alone to read.

Jill Bialosky talks about being lonely and feeling out of place as a child.  She found a salvation in poetry.  There are forty three poems featured, most published in full.  Bialosky talks about events in her life and how they helped her relate to the poem and conversely how the poems helped her cope with the suicide of a beloved sister, marriage, becoming a mother, the death of her father, and the attack on the World trade centered.  Among the more famous poets featured are Robert Frost (I found her comments on his perhaps most famous work, "The Road Not Taken" helped me overcome the view I formed of Frost decades ago), Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.  She also talks about English language poets I have not read and  works in translation by writers who I think will be new to most readers of her book.

Poetry Will Save Your Life can be read slowly savoring the poems and relating your own life experiences to those of Bialosky or devoured in a very pleasant evening.  Either way I think you will enjoy this book.

Jill Bialosky is the author of four acclaimed collections of poetry. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, and The Atlantic, among others. She is the author of three novels, most recently, The Prize, and a New York Times bestselling memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. Jill was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to the field of poetry in 2015. She is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company and lives in New York City.

"Enduring a childhood of loneliness and dislocation, he retreated into the “wonderful world of books.”  Jill Bialosky on Langston Hughes

"I’m grateful for my books, my deep infatuation with literature, and my poems, however nascent. I’ve come to see that the only thing now worth holding on to is the collection of verse accumulating on my desk and in my drawer. They don’t often amount to much, but when they do I sense it something alive and crackling, like the sound of stepping on twigs in the woods. In the absence of love, I cling to my work. Literature is the only thing that I can count on; it won’t desert me." - Jill Bialosky

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Coco Chanel by C. W. Gortner (2015, a novel)

My Prior Posts on Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel (1883 to 1971, France) is almost certainly the most influential fashion designer of the 20th century and in my not totally informed on the subject opinion, of all times.  I have images of three female writers on my sidebar, Irene Nemirovsky, Clarice Lispector and Nancy Mitford.  Each   of them, whether intentionally or not, dressed and strived to look like a Coco Chanel model.

I first became interested in Coco Chanel in July of 2015 when I read a brilliantly biography, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Gareliot.  In addition to being an excellent account of her journey from an orphan raised by nuns to one of the wealthiest people in the world it explains why her designd both reflected and shapes the times. This is for sure the first book one should read about Chanel.  You may not close the book fully liking her but you will admire her determination.

C. W. Gortner in his novel Mademoiselle Chanel starts with the death of her mother.  Their father was not up to or interested in taking care of his three daughters and two sons.  Chanel ends up in an orphanage where she learns to sew.  When she was 18 she began to work a bit as a milliner and a night club singer.  Her beautiful looks attracted men and soon she was the mistress of a very wealthy man, living in his chateau.  The man is single but Coco is not a socially acceptable wife.  He does set her up in her first shop.  We see her develop her business, market her fashion line.  Her greatest business success was the developing of her perfume, Chanel Number Five.

The most controversial period of her life was during World War Two during the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. She continued to live in the ultra luxurious Hotel Ritz, even though it was the living quarters of the Nazi elite. Coco began a romance with a German officer, a count.  The widely held view is that the Germans thought Coco, friends with Winston Churchill, might have valuable information.  Coco felt she was being cheated by Jewish business partners and she was open to using Nazi policies to her advantage.  At the end of the war Coco feared being labeled a collaborator and fled
 to Switzerland for seven years.

I saw no errors or serious omissions in Gortner's novel.  Some of the secondary characters could have been better developed.  I enjoyed this book.  Gortner made me feel I knew Coco. I would be happy to read more of his work.

C.W. GORTNER holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California, as well as an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.
After an eleven year-long career in fashion, during which he worked as a vintage retail buyer, freelance publicist, and fashion show coordinator, C.W. devoted the next twelve years to the public health sector. In 2012, he became a full-time writer following the international success of his novels.
In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard at Hampton Court, learned about organic gardening at Chenoceaux, and spent a chilly night in a ruined Spanish castle. His books have garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into twenty-one languages to date, with over 400,000 copies sold. A sought-after public speaker. C.W. has given keynote addresses at writer conferences in the US and abroad. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights, in particular companion animal rescue to reduce shelter overcrowding.
C.W. recently completed his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about Lucrezia Borgia; the third novel in his Tudor Spymaster series for St Martin's Press; and a new novel about the dramatic, glamorous life of Coco Chanel, scheduled for lead title publication by William Morrow, Harper Collins, in the spring of 2015. 

Half-Spanish by birth and raised in southern Spain, C.W. now lives in Northern California with his partner and two very spoiled rescue cats.

Mel u

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov (1847, translated 2015 by Stephen Pearl)

Ivan Goncharov (born Simbirsk, Russia 1812, died Saint Petersburg, 1881.  His best known work is his second novel, Oblomov (1859) about a minor Russian Nobel man who cannot find a reason to get out bed.  Tolstoy said Goncharov was his favorite novelist, Chekhov said his talent first exceeeded his own.

Goncharov was born into a wealthy family.  After graduation from the Moscow State University he moved to Saint Petersburg where he worked as a government translator and censor and did private tutoring.  He also wrote poetry and his novels. 

I was very happy to be given a review copy of Stephen Pearl's new translation of Goncharov first novel, The Same Old Story.  Goncharov refused  to allow translations of his work during his lifetime and this seems to be the first translation of this work.  

Goncharov tells a wonderful very well structured account of the life of Alexander Fyodoryah, from a country gentry land owning family (which also meant serf owning).  He is the only child of a widow who totally dotes on him.  Aleksander, maybe twenty when we meet him, is bored with country life (masterfully brought to life in the opening chapter) and is determined to move to Saint Petersburg to realize his dream of becoming a famous poet.   His uncle Ivan, his mother's brother, lives in Saint Petersburg and with his mother heart broken, she had a lovely affluent bride selected for him  he leaves to live initially with his uncle and his wife.  

The comic center of the novel is in the conversation and developing relationship of the romantic Aleksander and his cynical very pragmatic uncle.  Aleksander tells his uncle of his plans to become a poet, the uncle basically tells him this is just silly and he gets him as a job writing reports for a government agency, totally boring work but it might lead in twenty years to a high ranking position.  We see the nephew struggling to be a good employee.  In one brutally comic  scene, the uncle sets one of the nephew's poems on fire and lights his cigar with it. The uncle notices he seems distracted after a while and assumes he must be in love, which is correct.  The uncle lectures him on the folly of this.  The conversations of the uncle and nephew are master pieces. 

Goncharov does a masterful job with the complicated relationship of the nephew and the young woman he loves, he meets her while out fishing on a weekend in Saint Petersburg. We meet her family and see how Aleksander reacts to a possible rival, a count.  The uncle saves his nephew from the folly of a duel.  One of the really enjoyable aspects of the novel is seeing how Aleksander and his uncle's relationship changes over the years, Aleksander becomes more like his uncle and the uncle slowly opens up a softer side.  

The uncle and the mother keep in close touch through correspondence, the son writes his mother once and a while.   He decides to go home.  Of course his mother is overjoyed.  He is now thirty five, a prime age for marriage and a great catch for a local gentry lady. 

At this juncture in the plot things take a very interesting turn, precipitated by an ironically relayed tragedy.  I will leave it untold.

The Same Old Story exceeded my expectations, of Russian 19th century writers this novel most reminded me of Turgenev.  This novel was a great pleasure to read, not just another book to check of your "required reading" list.  Pearl has done lovers of 19th century literature a big favor by translating this novel. He has also translated the much more famous Oblomov and once a Kindle edition of this translation is available I will read it.

STEPHEN PEARL was a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations for more than thirty years and was Chief of English Interpretation there for fifteen years. He is a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford University with an M.A. in Classics. His translation of Oblomovwas awarded the 2008 AATSEEL Prize for best translation from Slavic language to English.

Mel u

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"Crazy They Call Me" by Zadie Smith (February 27, 2017 in The New Yorker)

You can experience "Crazy They Call Me" here

Haunting Video of "Strange Fruit"          

"Billie Holiday, who gave voice to loneliness both personal and institutional, who lived and died inside it, a life short on love and brutalised by racism. Billie Holiday, who was called Blackie to her face and made to take the back door even in venues where she was herself the headline act, wounds that she attempted to medicate with the poisonous ameliorators of alcohol and heroin. Billie Holiday, who in the summer of 1959 collapsed in her room on West 87th Street while eating custard and oatmeal, and who was taken first to the Knickerbocker and then to the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, where she was left –as so many AIDS patients would be in the years that followed, particularly if they too had black or brown skin –on a gurney in a corridor, just another dope case."  From The Lonely City Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop."  - Strange Fruit

Frank O'Connor famously proclaimed that the short stories of the masters of the form are about outsiders, those with no one to speak for them, marginalized persons. Of course like most all sweeping literary generalizations this cannot be "proved" but it is an illuminating remark.  In January I read a book I wish I could have read fifty years ago, The Lonely City  Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.  Billie Holiday is one of the figures Lang talks about. Not all into the reading life will agree or relate but for others will see deep connections between an immersion in the reading life and being alone and loneliness.  Numerous book bloggers as well as authors have spoken about being an odd seeming child who retreated into a world of books.  The more they read, the more remote from others many became.  Some, maybe most, childhood readers slowly give it up but others keep going, building worlds for themselves, carrying less about the mundane world.  

"They Call Me Crazy" by Zadie Smith (which you can both read online and hear the author read the story for free on the webpage of The New Yorker is a wonderful story told in the person of Billie Holiday.  My main purpose in this post is to let my readers know of this story and to add it to my reading journal. To Lang Billie Holiday exemplifies loneliness in the big city.  She was African American in a time of legalized racism, a drug user, and occasional bisexual.  She never found a
world in which she could be at home.  "They Call Me Crazy" is sort of about her reaction to the people who came to hers her sing in nightclubs in New York City, mostly affluent Caucasians.  Her iconic song, about the Lynching of Black men in the American south was beyond the understanding of most of her audience.  We see her losing herself in opiate drugs, drugs of deep inwardness and retreat.  

The last lines of Smith's story transcend brilliance.  I loved it and so will you.  I read it first, then I listened to Smith's reading of it (16 minutes).  I also suggest after reading the story you listen to a recording by Holiday of "Strange Fruit" (on You Tube).

I have read and posted upon a few of Zadie Smith's short stories but have not yet ventured into her novels.  

Mel u