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

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

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Reading Life Review February 2017

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There were lots more visits from Russian bots but I don't count them.

3003- total posts on The Reading Life


Books I Read in February which I did not post upon

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kami

Autumn by Ali Smith. Part one of s forthcoming tetralogy

The Inferno by Dante in a new translation by Peter Thornton

The poetry of Edna Saint Vincent Millay

Loving Robert Lowell by Sandra Hochman

Robert Lowell Setting the River on Fire by Kay Jamison

Literary Biographies for February

Edna Saint Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Antoine Saint-Exupréy by Stacy Schiff

All three of these biographies were first rate.


Novels posted on

I read two debut novels in February

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector and

Beautiful Ape Girl Baby by Heather Fowler

Plus The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge (set in London during WW Two)


Short Stories

"The Kidnapping of Pearl Button" by Katherine Mansfield (1909)

"Babette's Feast" by Karen Blixen



Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann- for sure worth reading

Grigory Rasputin The Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith-must Reading for those into late Romanov history.


As always my great thanks to those who leave a comment

Mel u