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, October 22, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by Gerorge Saunders (2017 Booker Prize Winner)

I offer my great thanks to Max u for providing me with an Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read this book.  

Winner of the 2017 Booker Prize 

“Used loosely, "bardo" is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one's previous unskillful”. From Wikipedia 

I was very excited when I began reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, his debut novel and the 2017 Booker Prize Winning novel.  I knew it was being proclaimed in the literary press as a work of great originality. Here are a few of the reactions:

“A masterpiece” –  Zadie Smith, New York Times

An incredible work of art. Deeply moral, heartfelt, hilarious, and wildly imaginative” –  Buzzfeed

“A strange and haunting novel – his highly anticipated first, after decades of short-story wizardry – about the effect the dead have on the living, and the living on the dead” –  Economist

“The story canters along ... The writing constantly surprises” –  Mail on Sunday

Lincoln in the Bardo has great matters on its mind: freedom and slavery, the spirit and the body. But it is, finally, “about” Abraham Lincoln, that great spectral presence in a whole subgenre of American fiction” –  New Yorker

The novel takes place largely in the cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son Willie was recently buried.  The novel is only peripherally about Lincoln but we can see the incredible strength and wisdom of Lincoln, leading the nation during the terrible civil war years while dealing with the death of his son and the mental illness of his wife.  “Bardo” is a concept derived from Tibetan Buddhism which refers to a kind of limbo like state in which the recently deceased linger until they are prepared for the next step.  The metaphysical aspects of this are left largely unexplained, as it should be. 

At first the souls in the cemetery do not realise they are dead.  Saunders does a simply brilliant job creating a community of highly individualistic voices in the cemetery.  Somehow Saunders has produced a wonderful picture of the state of American society through all these voices.  He also makes very creative use of sources on the era, some real, some who knows.  His depiction of the life of a slave woman, in the Bardo but not buried too  near the whites was a true master work, in just two pages he brings vividly to life the horror story that was American slavery.  Just this alone makes the book a great experience.

There are many more wonders in Lincoln on the Bardo than I can describe.  In a way, it forces the reader to ponder the conduct of Lincoln through profound grief and a horrible near  nation destroying war versus the conduct of the current president, thrown into a frenzy by the pettiest things.  

All lovers of the novel should read Lincoln in the Bardo.  It is a work that will repay, I think, numerous rereading.

I advise all interested in learning about George Saunders to visit 

Mel u

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The War on The Reading Life


All terrorist groups, all dictators, all so called populists from the start of recorded history have waged a war on those of us in the reading life.  You can see this in Ancient Greece with the execution of Socrates, the burning of extensive writings in the Philippines in the 1500s as they were written in an unfamiliar to the Spanish script thus destroying for ever who knows what wisdom and history, to the greatest war on us of all, The Holocaust.  First they burned the books, then millions of their readers.

“I love the poorly educated”.  45th USA president

“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun” - Joseph Goebbels
Mel u
Ambrosia Bousweau

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An Uncomon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith (forthcoming December, 2017)

Edward Garnett (1868 to 1837, London) was a highly regarded publisher, editor, critic who helped bring out the best in some of the highest regarded English language writers of the first half of the 20th century.  Among his clients were Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Green and T. E. Lawrence.  Garnett was much more than a literary editor to his clients, he was a friend and when needed a mentor.   He was very involved in the early career of Joseph Conrad, he well might have given up trying to write in English without the encouragement of Edward Garnett.  Smith devotes a lot of time to letting us get a strong feel for the business side of publishing.  Edward Garnett  had his own financial and personal struggles and Smith gives us a very sensitive account of his turbulent marriage to the famous translator of the Russians, Constance Garnett (1861 to 1946) and his relationship to his son David ( known in Bloomsbury Circles as “Bunny”,  the nickname derives from a childhood stuffed animal.) 

Both Edward and Constante had long term romances with others.  We get a look at how Constance began her translations, I admit I was surprised to learn of her affairs.  Her trips to Russia were fascinatingly treated.  There was a lot more drama in the lives of the Garnetts than I expected.

He helped several American writers become established in England.  Among them were Sarah Jewett, Robert Frost, and Sherwood Anderson.  He seemed to have greatly admired Stephen Crane and did his best to help him professionally and personally.  One of his most difficult clients was T. E. Lawrence, Edward Garnett  was overwhelmed with the power of his The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Smith brings  Edward Garnett, his clients, his affairs, his fatherhood, and his marriage vividly to life.  An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith will be a pleasure to read for anyone interested in 20th century English literature, as an art and as a business.  I’m very glad I Read this book.  There is a lot more in it than I have mentioned.

Helen Smith is British writer and scholar. She earned her PhD in literature from the University of East Anglia, where she is a lecturer in modern literature and the director of the master's program in biography and creative nonfiction. She has won the Biographers' Club Prize and the RSL Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, and lives in South Norfolk with her husband. The Uncommon Reader is her first book.

Mel u

Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Howl” - A Poem by Alan Ginsberg (1956)

I first read “Howl” by Alan Ginsberg (1926 to 1997) in I guess 1967. About once every decade since then I would be drawn to reread the poem.  I wish I had a fifty year old book blog so I could see what I thought of it then.  Shortly after publication in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Light Books in San Francisco it was declared obscene by US Customs officials and local police.  On October 3, 1957 it was declared by the courts not to be obscene.  The poem contains extensive graphic images of homoerotic activity, in 1957 this was illegal throughout the USA.  The poem celebrates the sex of the days before aids took the fun out of sexual cruising, blowing sailors is celebrated  as a near holy act.

The poem is an intense assault on the structures of society.  Partially I can see it as a descendent of two poems I recently posted upon “Darkness” by Lord Byron and “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot.  In “Howl” the darkness sets us of on a polymorphism of sex.  The wasteland where disposed aristocrats wax nostalgic over the glories of the best is replaced with a vision where the only glories are in glory holes.  In “Howl” there is no crying over the fate of society, only a fight against the slave masters.

I recommend strongly the YouTube video I link to above, read by a woman with a perfect voice for it, your experience will be enhanced by the images.

“Howl” after fifty years still has the power to shock, I see as something that would still offend many, and those offended need to be.

Wikipedia has a good back ground article on Ginsberg.

I love “Howl”.  It is for sure influenced heavily by Whitman, Ginsberg’s poetic icon.  

Please share your thoughts on “Howl” with us.

Mel u

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (1862)


Christina Rossetti (1830 to 1894, London) was born into a highly cultured 
family.  Her brother Dante, he painted numerous portraits of her, was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphalite movement.  She is considered now one of The premier late Victoria poets.  The Goblin Market (recitation time 26 minutes, I recommend the YouTube link in my post but I always suggest that you listen to more than one Reading) is her most famous poem.  Rossetti put this forth as a children’s poem but it is much more than that.  In my recent posts on poets, especially immortals, I’m largely just recording my impressions or reactions, there are serious lectures on YouTube and Home work Help seekers can just Go to Wikepedia.  

Goblin Markets, set in an imaginary fairy tale like World, centers on two quiet Young sisters living my themdelves.  One of the sisters buys, from Goblins, men with animal characteristics, fruit, paying with a lock of her golden hair. The fruit has a overpowring drug like impact on her, producing a state of euphoria.  The other sister advises her to stay away from The Goblin men or a disaster may result.  Of course it does not end here.  The narrative plot is very exciting.

It is easy to give a sexually charged Reading to The poem, I accept The Logic of this Reading. Sex is a trap that destroys Young women.  I was most struck by The beautiful use of rhyme, the images of the Goblin men, lushness  of language.  I listened to four readings, some have a scrolling text.  

Mel u

Friday, October 13, 2017

“Darkness” by Lord George Gordon Byron (July, 1816)

“All earth was but one thought—and that was death 
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang 
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men 
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh; 
The meagre by the meagre were devour'd”

Lord Byron (1788 to 1824) is often called the first “Rock Star” poet, renowned for his life Style, his flamboyant dress and his very public romances as much as for his poetry.  I was looking on YouTube for video productions of his work.  First I listened to a Reading of his most still read work, “She Walks in Beauty Like the Night”.  I like to listen to readings that include a scrolling text so I can read along, it also forces me to read more slowly.  I think one should listen to several video readings of a poem, if possible, so you encounter with the work is not too shaded by the interpretation given to the work by the reader.  After one of the readings of “She Walks in Beauty Like the Night” I was taken to a poem by Byron with which I was totally unfamiliar, “Darkness”.  Having a run time of about six minutes I decided to listen to it also.  I was completely shocked by the completely apocalyptic vision of a destroyed civilisation Byron presents.  In comparison, “The Wasteland” is a Disney Land video, “The Second Coming” full of optimism.  Death is everywhere in this vision of the end of the world.  A bit of post read research informed me that in much of 1816 the sky over Europe was darker by a terrible volcano eruption in Indonesia.  The darkness in Europe caused widespread panic as the cause was unknown at first.  Preachers screamed it was the end of the world.  Byron added to the panic with this poem.   That being said, I think one should forget that as you experience this amazing poem, look into your own darkness.  

If you are into video readings, I suggest you listen to at least four different readings, the poem brings out the drama in readers.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018, forthcoming)

The Holocaust on The Reading Life

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a wonderful, must read edition to Holocaust literature.   It tells the story of Lale Sokolov, in charge of tattooing serial numbers on the arms of new arrivals at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.  His official title was “tetovierer”.  

The story begins in the opening months of World War II, Sokolov’s hometown in Slovenia. He is Jewish but initially he is not greatly concerned over the Nazis as his country allowed Germany to take over without a fight.  He has a good job as a department store manager, is well educated speaking five languages including German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.  He has a comfortable life, living with his parents.  His biggest hope is to find a woman to love all his life.  The Germans issue an order for Jews to report for 

 transportation to what they are lead to believe is a labour camp.  He voluntarily reports, thinking it will safe- guard his family.  Soon he is packed into a cattle car on a train headed for Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.  Morris does a wonderful job depicting the horrible transportation and arrival at the camp.

Through luck and his ability to speak the languages of the Germans and most of their captives, he becomes assistant to the man, also a Jewish inmate, in charge of placing number tattoos on the arms of the arriving inmates.  He has been given a privileged job, working directly for the SS, with more food and better accommodations than the other inmates.  He worries he will be seen as a collaborator but above all he wants to survive.  

Soon the head Tattooist disappears, Solokov is made the tetovierer.  He is given an SS minder, and an assistant.  He tries not to hurt those the marks, being deeply ashamed of tattooing especially the women.  He begins to give some extra rations to the friends he made in the camp.  Morris reveals how he meets a woman in the camp, Gita, and falls 

in love with her.  She and her camp friends work sorting through the things Camp inmates have brought with them.  Solokov has made a kind of friendship with a Polish man who works day labour on building more facilities for the camp.  He exchanges gems and money the women find for more food for his friends.  He gets chocolate, a highly valued commodity, and gives it to the woman, an inmate, in charge of Gita’s barracks to get her more privileges.  Morris makes this all very exciting.  

Months then years go by, they find a way to consummate their love, Lela talks to her about their future outside the camp but Gita is afraid very much of getting her hopes up.  Of course tragic things happen to those Morris has made us feel deeply for.  We see how the inmates try to help each other to survive.  The encounters with the notorious Doctor Mengele were chilling.  I was so sad when I learned what happened to a good friend of Gita, forced into the role of mistress to the camp commandant.  Morris lets us feel the joy when Lale and Gita are reunited, after his search through the Waste Land of his home country.  

As I read the work I of course knew that Gita and Lale would survive, marry and have a long good life together, ultimately moving to Australia but it was super suspenseful waiting to see just what happened.  The account of the closing of the camps and Lale’s search for Gita were very thrilling.  

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Helen Morris is a very moving book, showing the survival of humanity in a brutal place.  I love this story.

Helen Morris spent four years getting to know Sokolov and learning his story.

Author autobiography from her Goodreads page

I am a Native of New Zealand now resident in Australia, working in a large public hospital in Melbourne. For several years I studied and wrote screenplays, one of which was optioned by an academy award winning Screenwriter in the U.S. In 2003, I was introduced to an elderly gentleman "who might just have a story worth telling". The day I met Lale Sokolov changed my life, as our friendship grew and he embarked on a journey of self scrutiny, entrusting the inner most details of his life during the Holocaust. I originally wrote Lale's story as a screenplay - which ranked high in international competitions - before reshaping it into my debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I strongly urge all libraries to acquire this book and anyone at all interested in the Holocaust to read this magnificent story.

Mel u

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia (Forthcoming 2018)

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia is an extremely informative fact rich book that anyone at all interested in the 18th century, The Industrial Revolution in England, the history and social implications of mass production of guns will find fascinating and may well change your entire overview of the period, as it did mine.  I have been an on and off again amateur student of 18th century world history for over fifty years.  I was amazed and humbled by this book.  

Satia structures her narrative around an 18th century Birmingham England Quaker family, The Galtons, heavily involved in all aspects of the gun trade, from manufacturing to sales.  The family came under severe criticism in the Quaker community, with an ethos of peace and nonviolence for their involvement in the Gun Trade.  The Galton’s responded by saying the English economy and the empire is founded on violence and almost anyone involved in large scale manufacturing was involved the trade supporting violence.  Birmingham England was the Center of gun manufacturing.

England needed many thousands of guns to fight her almost nonstop colonial and European wars.  In the old days, going back to about 1400, guns were made by individual gun makers, by order of elite customers, as near works of art. A single craftsman did all the work.  In order to produce guns on a grand scale The Galtons set up factories where parts were made by different workers, then assembled.  They developed supply lines for the metal and coal needed for the mass manufacturing of firearms.

Satia goes into great detail about the day to day operations of the gun business, describing the work routines of craftsman up to the finances of the business.  The gun trade was international, it was fascinating to learn that intentionally inferior guns were sold to traditional European enemies.  

We see how the mass availability of guns changed English society.  Now anyone could kill anyone.  

There is just a wealth of wonderful information in this book.  I was particularly fascinated by her interlude chapter in which she talks about the role guns played in The African Slave trade.  Guns were highly valued by tribal leaders who would trade war captives for guns.  The guns used in the slave trade were more for show than killing.  The British had no intention of arming Africans with guns they could turn on them.  The mass availability of guns in the hands of Europeans made the slave trade possible. 

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia covers an amazing amount of material, it was many years in the making.  

All teachers of history should read this wonderful book.  All libraries that can should purchase this book.  If you are at all interested in world history, you will be glad you read this book.

Priya Satia
Author; Professor of history, Stanford University
Priya Satia is Associate Professor of modern British and British empire history at Stanford University. Her first book Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008) won the 2009 AHA-Herbert Baxter Adams Book Prize, the 2009 AHA-Pacific Coast Branch Book Award, and the 2010 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Book Prize. Her work on the British empire and the way it continues to shape our present has appeared in a range of scholarly and popular media. She is currently finishing her second book, Empire of Guns: The British State, the Industrial Revolution, and the Conscience of a Quaker Gun-Manufacturer. Prof. Satia also plans a future work on the Partition of British India in 1947.

Mel u

Monday, October 9, 2017

In Observation of One Million Visits to The Reading Life from Residents of the Philippines 🇵🇭

The Philippines 🇵🇭 On The Reading Life - Literature and History

When I began The Reading Life on July 7, 2009 I would never have believed then that one day I will be the welcoming more than one million visitors from the Philippines to my blog.  At that time I would have thought it amazing if I just kept blogging until January 1, 2010, given my track record in life.  

Most of the visits are focused on a few posts on older stories by authors from the Philippines.  These stories are a great way for readers to keep their cultural memories of a way of life now largely forgotten awake in a society dominated by social media and huge malls.  These stories are  a great treasure for students of post-colonial Asian Literature.  

This means a lot to me.  

Sa Lahat Ng Aking Mambabsasa sa Pilipinas, Maraming Salamat

Mel u

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Ozymandias” by Percy Shelly and “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Poetry can help us understand history and our feelings to contemporary events.  In my recent readings of classic poems I have found two poems that seem almost a prophecy of political events in America, “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley an “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.  

“Ozymandias” (first published January 11,1818), The Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, struck me deeply in the perception the sculptor had of arrogant strutting buffonary of Ozymandias.  I wonder How long America’s fourth rate imitation will be remembered, will he 
cause great destruction before his end comes?  This is probably Shelly’s most read and taught  poem.  I hope to read more of his work and read Richard Holme’s highly regarded biography.

After the terrible results of the American Presidential election of November 2015 horrified all in the book Blog World, numerous posts quoting “The Second Coming”  (first published November 23, 1920) by William Butler Yeats were made on social media websites, suggesting, of course, the incomimg president was to be seen as The Rough Beast.  Like “The Wasteland”, this poem is partialy a vision of The post WW One world. Like that work,it makes use of ancient references.

 Of course other Ozymandias figures and other rough beasts will emerge.

Mel u


Saturday, October 7, 2017

“The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats (1889, in The Wanderings of Oisin and other Poems)

an Elegant reading, includes scrolling text

William Butler Yeats (1865 To 1939) was the first poet I read.  At age thirteen or so I was captivated by his “Sailing to Byzantium”, it took me to a world far from the mundanity of my childhood.  I have been reading in his poetry on and off for the decades that have passed.  I recently heard a YouTube lecture on Yeats in which he was described as the greatest poet of old age.  I see it now.  Yeats was highly influenced and deeply steeped in Irish history and folk beliefs.  He also as he aged became involved with what most would call occult theories.  Yeats created a mythology out of his life and from that created some of the most sublimely beautiful poetry ever written.  

“The Stolen Child”, reading time under three minutes, is one of his more popular works.  I love it.  In part this is a poem arisen from the famine days in which dead children were described as taken by Fairies.  Sheridan le Fanu has written about this.  Fairies are not pure beings, they are stealing children for their own world.  Images of water abound in the poem, the faery is presenting a powerful temptation to the child.

Is there a poet you return to over and over? 

Do you have a favourite poem by Yeats?

Mel u