Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002, 612 pages, translated by Philip Gabriel)

Kafka on the Shore is the 9th work by Haruki Murakami (1949-Kyoto, Japan)  that I have read in the last year.      Obviously I greatly enjoy and appreciate his creations.    Some of his work, including Kafka on the Shore is in the tradition of magic realism.    He is a great story teller who explores the deeper themes of post WWII Japanese culture mixed in with surrealistic episodes, sexual encounters, history, reflections on literature, philosophy and popular culture that have made him a best selling author world wide.     His books are  all a lot of fun but they will make you think about broader issues and they do not shrink from the horrors that underpin  the sunlit world of consumer Japan and the world beyond it.    Many of the books, for sure including Kafka on the Shore, have symbolic themes and puzzles that those so inclined can have fun unraveling.    

As soon as I read on the back cover of Kafka on the Shore (brilliant book title) that one of the central characters was a man who could speak to cats I knew I would like it.   (There are a terrible few pages of violence against cats which I admit I skipped.)    There are two central characters in this book.   Kafka is a 15 year old runaway seeking his mother and sister.     He ends up being sheltered in a marvelous private library run by a beautiful older woman (there is a " bookish boy's fantasy" theme found throughout the work of Murakami).    Kafka begins to read the corpus of the great early 20th century writer Natsume Soseki.   It is exciting to see young Kafka try to find his place in the world while living in a library curated by a beautiful older woman.

The second major character is Nakata, an older man who cannot read but who can speak to cats.   He receives a small disability check from the government but his main income comes from his work as a tracker of lost cats.  The story about how he lost a large portion of his intellectual capacity at age 16 is a great side story taking us back to WWII.    Nakata had never been more than a few kilometers from his home until his most recent cat track assignment took him way outside the area he was comfortable in.    He is befriended by a truck driver who helps him in his quest.

There are a number of philosophical references in the work.     One of the minor characters is a beautiful prostitute who calms down  excited customers by talking about philosophical issues.   There are a lot of references to western music, from Beethoven to the Beetles.   

Kafka on the Shore is a fun read.    Murakami has a wild imagination. .    There is really a lot to enjoy in this book and little to dislike.    Parts of the book are very explicit sexually.     You can tell Murakami really enjoys the physical beauty of women.  The sex scenes are very erotic though told very much from a male point of view.  

My next Murakami will be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  

Mel u  

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Taking the Veil" by Katherine Mansfield

"Taking the Veil" by Katherine Mansfield (1922, 7 pages)

"Taking the Veil" is one of the last few stories written by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand).   Her husband, John Middleton Murry, included it in a collection of her stories he published in 1923, The Dove's Nest and Other Stories.

How could anyone dislike a story that begins its second paragraph with these lines

Perhaps even Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt. It is not easy to look tragic at eighteen, when you are extremely pretty, with the cheeks and lips and shining eyes of perfect health. Above all, when you are wearing a French blue frock and your new spring hat trimmed with cornflowers.

The night before Edna and her boyfriend Jimmy had been at the theater.   Edna took one look at an actor in the play and she was in love!   The feeling was not at all pleasant to her and in fact it cast her into despair.   Jimmy and Edna had known they would be married since age ten but now Edna has lost all interest in this idea.      I really do not want to say a lot more about this story.   To me it is just brilliant.    Mansfield takes what at first seems like an overly melodramatic typical teenage cliche and turns it into beautiful story about the true meaning of love.   

This story can be read on line at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.   

Mel  u

Friday, October 29, 2010

Welcome to all Book Blog Hoppers

Welcome to all Book Blog Hoppers

I will follow back all who follow me-

Every Friday Jennifer of Crazy For Books hosts The Book Blogger Hop-The Book Blogger Hop is a great chance to meet new to you bloggers, find some new blogs to follow and gain some great readers for your own blog.   Every week about 200 or so bloggers from all over the world participate.    I have found some excellent new blogs this way and gained some wonderful readers.    I follow about 500 book blogs  and am always happy to find more.   If you follow me I will follow you.

Here is Jennifer's question for this week:

"What is the one bookish thing you would love to have, no matter the cost?"

To buy the apartment next to ours and turn it into a reading room/ sanctuary!

   My blog for the last few months has been one third Asian literature, one third classics and one third short stories but I do read contemporary fiction also and even some YA once in a while.    I have various reading projects I am working on also.    My latest one is short stories by Australian writers of the 19th century and I also just read  five stories by African writers in competition for the Caine Prize.    I am very into Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.  

If you visit me please leave  a comment so I can return the visit-

I will follow all who follow me-


Mel u.

"A Cup of Tea" by Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield and her brother Leslie
"A Cup of Tea" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 12 pages)

"A Cup of Tea" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) is included in the 1923 collection of her work, The Dove's Nest and Other Stories edited by Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry.    There is a very moving introduction to this collection in which Murry lets us know details about the next ten stories his wife was going to write.   There is a temptation in reading Mansfield to see her work as artistically peaking in 1921 and 1922 given that we know these are her last stories.   I sense a rapid growth in her artistic depth during this period but it is a feeling of a writer just starting to find her true power not of a writer at her zenith.  

I really like "A Cup of Tea" a lot.    It, among other things, does a brilliant job of depicting matrimonial jealousy and insecurity.    Our lead character is a very wealthy young woman, Rosemary, seemingly recently married.    Her time is largely taken  up with looking for  ways to spend money.    As the story opens she has just bought a small box in an exquisite shop, the cost is about six months pay for an ordinary working man of the time.  (No doubt it is at least a year's pay for a young female servant.)    There is a world in these few lines:

One winter afternoon she had been buying something in a little antique shop in Curzon Street. It was a shop she liked. For one thing, one usually had it to oneself. And then the man who kept it was ridiculously fond of serving her. He beamed whenever she came in. He clasped his hands ; he was so gratified he could scarcely speak. Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something...
" You see, madam," he would explain in his low respectful tones, " I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare..." And, breathing deeply he unrolled a tiny square of blue velvet and pressed it on the glass counter with his pale finger-tips.
Rosemary has been reading Dostoevsky  lately and when she is approached by a very bedraggled looking young woman asking for the price of a cup of tea she is at first put off but then she decides to have a bit of an adventure.    She invites the girl to come home with her.     The girl is so hungry she overcomes her fear at talking with someone so far above her station in life and agrees to go with Rosemary.  

The story is not long and the psychological depth of the work is great so I will not tell any more of the plot action.   As I was reading this, I thought that maybe Mansfield in "A Cup of Tea" is gently (or maybe not so gently!) mocking or satirizing the world Mansfield's wealthy parents (her father was the Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand) wanted her to live in.  

I love the opening description of Rosemary and her world:

ROSEMARY FELL was not exactly beautiful. No, you couldn't have called her beautiful. Pretty ? Well, if you took her to pieces . .. But why be so cruel as to take anyone to pieces ? She was young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of the new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people and... artists—quaint creatures, discoveries of hers, some of them too terrifying for words, but others quite presentable and amusing.
Rosemary had been married two years. She had a duck of a boy. No, not Peter—Michael. And her husband absolutely adored her. They were rich, really rich, not just comfortably well off, which is odious and stuffy and sounds like one's grandparents. But if Rosemary wanted to shop she would go to Paris as you and I would go to Bond Street. If she wanted to buy flowers, the car pulled up at that perfect shop in Regent Street.

This is just a near perfect story.   Thanks to the wonderful New Zealand Electronic Text Center  you can read it online.  

Mel u

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Honeymoon" By Katherine Mansfield

"Honeymoon" by Katherine Mansfield, (1922, 10 pages)

"Honeymoon" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) appears to be the second from the last story Mansfield completed.     It included in the collection of her work, The Doves' Nest and Other Stories,  published by her husband, after her death, in 1923.   

"Honeymoon" is a wonderfully done story that in a few pages describes a few hours on the Mediterranean sea coast honeymoon of George and Fanny (it is interesting how names used in a work can sometimes date it).     In the delicate pages of this story we are projected a life time but only if we give ourselves over to the mastery of Mansfield.   I wondered as I read this how one partner's ability to see beauty where the other sees nothing will shape the future of the couple.   We sense their union is permanent.   

"Honeymoon" can be read online here

Mel u

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Lady's Maid" by Katherine Mansfield

"The Lady's Maid" by Katherine Mansfield (1920, four pages)

"The Lady's Maid"   by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was first published in 1920.    It is the final story in the 1922 collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories.    The story is told in the first person by  Ellen,  who has worked as a lady's maid for the same family for many years.  Unlike many of her contemporary writers from very comfortable family backgrounds (Mansfield grew up with servants-her father was the Chairmen of the Bank of New Zealand) Mansfield is able to convincingly speak through the consciousness of a completely uneducated servant without condescending to the character.    

In large portions of the world, servants are now something only for the rather wealthy.   Literature centering on women sitting around talking about their servants seems like a throw back to Edwardian times to most, I think.    For better or worse, servants are a part of ordinary life here in the Philippines and often work for the same family for many years.    You can hear things like "Oh we treat our helpers like part of the family" while at the same time more is spent  on the family cats than the helpers are paid.     Many of the students at the private elementary school that my youngest daughter attends  at age 12 still now have their own personal servants, called a "YaYa".   Many have had personal servants all their lives.      There was even a very popular TV show and movie about YaYas in which they were treated as country bumpkins of the worst sort. 
Mansfield  depicts in this short work how the master-servant relationship can  shape the attitudes of both parties.     

"The Lady's Maid" can be read online here    

I will now move on to the stories in her collection, The Dove's House and Other Stories (1923, edited by her husband after he death) which contains some of her most highly regarded works.

Mel u

"An Ideal Family" by Katherine Mansfield

"An Ideal Family" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 11 pages)

Reading and the Weather?

"An Ideal Family" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was included in the 1922 collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories after first being published in 1921.    It is not a traditional short story with a plot and a surprise ending.    I almost wanted to call it a snapshot of a family but really it is more an x-ray.   

The father, in the mind of his adult children, is far enough on in life that he needs to turn the running of his family business over to his son.    The father fears the son does not have the ability to run the business well enough to support the comfortable life style all have come to enjoy.   With a little bit of text Mansfield lays out years of under the surface conflict.

I found this to be a beautifully written story.   The opening sentences concerning the aging of the father seemed very moving to me.

That evening for the first time in his life, as he pressed through the swing door and descended the three broad steps to the pavement, old Mr. Neave felt he was too old for the spring. Spring—warm, eager, restless— was there, waiting for him in the golden light, ready in front of everybody to run up, to blow in his white beard, to drag sweetly on his arm. 
Mansfield has issues with aging which come out over and over in her stories.   It is hard to forget   while reading her wonderful 1921  stories that  she has little time left.

Later in the day I began to wonder how readers who have never experienced a change of seasons can relate to imagery like this.   If a reader has experienced winter and spring only as images on TV, how will  prose like that I quoted move them?    Mansfield was a writer from  a world with four seasons.   The harshness of life can be seen as the harshness of winter, spring like a rebirth, fall to be enjoyed for its transient beauty and summer to be savored knowing it will soon end.     Mansfield never dreamed  of a world where many of her readers have never experienced the changes of the season and can relate only in a cognitive fashion to seasonal imagery and references.  Seasonal imagery is at the very roots of western literature.     If any one has any thoughts on that please leave a comment.

"An Ideal Family" can be read here

Mel u

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov  (1962, 315 pages)

"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it. "-Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 to 1971) is a wonderfully creative, very funny work of genius.     The prose is dazzling in its brilliance and beauty.    As I read the book I began to wonder what is Nabokov doing in this work.    Sometimes it seemed like Pale Fire was an incredible work of art that speaks deeply about a large range of topics and sometimes it seemed like an elaborate semi-private joke.  Of course maybe in the end it is both of these things.    It is also a great commentary on the reading life and a lesson in how to read.   

There are two central figures in Pale Fire, set in an imaginary small town in up state New York.   One is John Shade who has written a 999 page poem called Pale Fire.   The poem is part of the novel and we get to know Shade directly only through the poem.    The eighteen page poem is itself a mystery.   Is it supposed to be silly  or we just not able to understand the great brilliance of it all?   The bulk of the novel is taken up with a commentary on the poem written by Shade's very crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.   In the mind of Kinbote, the poem Pale Fire contains great wisdom and hidden truths that it is his sacred duty to reveal to the world. 

     Kinbote is as crazy a character as I have encountered in a long time.   He lives next door to Shade.    He is an unreliable a narrator as one could find.    Sometimes Kinbote seems like a crazed stalker.   Much of Kinbote's commentary on the poem seems totally based on his own obsessions and multifarious delusions and has little to do with the poem.    Some of the time it seems Shade and Kinbote are life time close friends and some times it seems they barely know each other.    Kinbote constantly talks of the history of the  "The Northern Kingdom of Zembla" and at times seems to think he is the king in exile.  Kinbote wants desperately to see a hidden meaning about Zembla and its politics in the poem.   .    We are left wondering whether the kingdom even exists at all or if it is just a strange fantasy.   

Pale Fire is, among other things, a satire on overly intellectualized literary commentary.   As I was reading Pale Fire I at first tried to "understand" the book then I stepped back and simply decided to enjoy it.  

Most of the works I have blogged on in the last year can be readily  compared to other works.   I cannot think of any easy comparisons  for Pale Fire.   It would well repay numerous readings.     Even if it is an elaborate joke it is still a stunning work of art.       When you read this book, just give yourself over to the wonder of the language and the strangeness of the narration and do not over stress on understanding it.   Nabokov said that the best of  literature was what he called  "ecstatic fairy tales"  and to me Pale Fire is in this category for sure.   

A lot of people in their or reviews of Pale Fire stress that it was a difficult to understand but quite profound work.   This is no doubt  true but it also accepts the joke as straight and misses the great fun of this work.   I read his only really famous work, Lolita,  a long time ago.   I recently acquired a copy of it in a book trade and will be rereading it soon.   

Mel u

I have since I posted this read and posted on Lolita

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Bank Holiday" by Katherine Mansfield

"Bank Holiday" by Katherine Mansfield (1922, six pages)

"Bank Holiday" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) is not at all a traditional short story.    Instead it is more of a verbal painting of a moment in time in what seems to be a small New Zealand town on a bank holiday.   There is a festival to celebrate the occasion.    Mansfield uses the present tense in this story, which is unusual for her.   I think she did this to make us feel we are at the festival looking at all the people.  

Mansfield seems to have some quirks or tics in her thinking that pop up in her stories.    Mansfield's weight seems to have fluctuated up and down quite a bit (until she got tuberculous) and she does frequently refer to people as fat.   She also seems to have a thing against older women, especially those who may have lost their looks, using the term "hag" quite a bit. Of course we cannot assume that everything said in the narrative voice is the thought of Mansfield.   I would say in reading Mansfield if you take something she has written as shallow or silly you need to rethink your reading of it.   

"Bank Holiday" can be read in just two or three minutes.   Like most of her stories, it can be read online at the wonderful New Zealand Electronic Text Center.

Mel u

"The Stranger" by Katherine Mansfield

"The Stranger" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 22 pages)

"Spoilt their evening! Spoilt their being alone together! They would never be alone together again."

"The Stranger" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923, New Zealand) was first published in 1921 then republished in a 1922 collection of her stories, The Garden Party and other Stories.    As the story begins Mr. Hammond is waiting on the dock in Auckland for his wife who is returning after a ten month trip to visit her older daughter.     Mr. Hammond can barely contain his excitement as the ship approaches the dock.   I really do not want to relay any of the plot of this story.    The intelligence behind it is so subtle it is almost hidden.    The language is beautiful.   The characters are brought to life in just a few sentences.    In a way, it is a truly heart breaking story.   Life seems to go on as it is expected to but below the surface everything is forever changed.     

Many of Mansfield's stories center around travel.    There is an autobiographical element to the story as her own mother made the very long steam ship voyage from New Zealand to visit Mansfield in Europe.    

"The Voyage" can be read online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.     

Mel u

Friday, October 22, 2010

"The Singing Lesson" by Katherine Mansfield

"The Singing Lesson" by Katherine Mansfield (1922, 10 pages)

"The Singing Lesson" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923) appears in the 1922 collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories.    No location is given for this story but we can assume it is meant to be Wellington.      I really like this story.   It is  a lot of fun.   I hope I have been able to convey in part that  one of the main reasons I am reading Katherine Mansfield's stories is just that doing so is a lot of fun.    

The lead character in "The Singing Lesson" is Miss Meadows.   She is the singing teacher in an elementary school for girls.    The natural beauty of her native New Zealand was never far back in  Mansfield's consciousness and the use of the name "Meadows" is no accident in this story full of images of simple natural beauty.    The "theme" of the story (or one of them) is how one's mood affects what one perceives.    Miss Meadows's  mood goes up and down in the story based on how her boyfriend seems to feel about her.  The narrative intelligence behind the story is both sympathetic with Miss Meadows and mocking of her at the same time.     There is one line in the story that I really liked:    "Everything about her was sweet, pale, like honey. You would not have been surprised to see a bee caught in the tangles of that yellow hair".

This story can be read online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.

Mel u

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Her First Ball" By Katherine Mansfield

"Her First Ball" By Katherine Mansfield (12 pages, 1921)

"Her First Ball" after being first published in 1921 was included in Katherine Mansfield's (1883 to 1923-New Zealand) collection The Garden Party and other Stories in 1922.      It is set in rural New Zealand.   In it we meet three characters from her story "The Doll House", the Sheridan sisters and Leila.   "Sheridan" is kind of a code word for "upper class" where Leila is a bit country as the nearest neighbor to her family is 15 miles away.

Leila is on the way with the Sheridan sisters in their carriage to what will be her first ball.     Given the scarcity of social contact this was a very big event for Leila.    The conversations among the girls are great and seemed very real.

At the dance a man in his 50s invites Leila to dance with him (this was not a teen only event, every body in the area could go).    He tells her he has been coming to these dances for 30 years.   He started 12 years before Leila was born.   As the dances are kind of matchmaking events this is a bit sad in itself.   The power in this story is in what he tells her and her reaction to it.   Here is what he says:

“Kind little lady,” said the fat man, and he pressed her a little closer, and hummed a bar of the waltz. “Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache”—the fat man squeezed her closer still, as if he really was sorry for that poor heart—“because no one wants to kiss you now. And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.
Mansfield's depiction of Leila's reaction to this revelation is just marvelous.  

The story can be read online.

Mel u

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"The Voyage" by Katherine Mansfield

"The Voyage" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 16 pages)

"The Voyage" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was first published in 1921 then republished in a collection of her work The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922.       The story begins on a dock on the coast of New Zealand where young Fenella is waiting with her father and her grandmother for the boat that will take them to Picton, New Zealand.  Picton is only an overnight trip away.   Fenella is being taken to stay at the house of her grandmother and grandfather for a while.  The father is there to see them off.  Transportation on the ship  reminded me of a long airplane trip.   The grandmother is shocked by the high price of food sold on the boat (like the food in airports and on planes), some of the boat employees are rude and you get treated with more respect if you have a first class cabin instead of just a chair on the deck.   The boat even has a stewardess.   Like many of her stories, "The Voyage" is set on a trip.     ( One of the central events in Mansfield;s  life had to have been the six weeks or so trip from New Zealand to England.)

Some of Mansfield's stories depict families in conflict.     It is easier to write about families in turmoil than those in harmony.    Everybody from Tolstoy and Flaubert down to writers of TV shows knows this.   In "The Voyage"  Mansfield shows us a a family whose members have a deep love for each other.   She does a very good job of depicting the way in which the relationship of a grandparent to a grandchild differs from that of parent and child.    I was very moved when I found out that when the grandmother makes this trip alone she stays on the deck but when she takes her granddaughter for her first trip she books a cabin.   

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Marriage a la Mode" by Katherine Mansfield

"Marriage a la Mode" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 20 pages)

The Reading Life Katherine Mansfield Project

KM, brother in law, and
"Marriage a la Mode" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was first published in 1921 and then republished in 1922 in her collection of short stories, A Garden Party and Other Stories.    (As we read through Mansfield there is a temptation to somehow see her work as peaking in 1921 but  I think this may be simply because that we know she will soon pass away.)     The title for this story no doubt comes from the 1673 comedy by John Dryden.      Some suggest the plot of this story comes  from Anton Chekhov's "The Grasshopper", which I will read very soon.   Chekhov was a huge influence on Mansfield and there was an ugly controversy after her death about her borrowing  the plot line of one of her stories from an at that time untranslated story of Chekhov's.      

"Marriage a la Mode" is a brilliant snapshot of a  time of transformation  in the marriage of William and Isabel. As the story opens, William is on the way home from a business trip and he is wondering what type of gifts he should get his children.   William and Isabel have recently moved from a small house in London to a larger place in an affluent suburb.      The story is really about how the  marriage changes as the husband and wife change and develop.     The wife has come under the influence of new friends she has met in their new neighborhood  that seem to be making her unhappy with her material circumstances and are causing her to lose respect for her husbamd.    William is distressed by  what is going on and he tries not to become upset with his wife.   His children are also changing in similar ways.     In some ways the wife in this story reminded me of Emma Bovary as she becomes dissatisfied with her lot in life under the influence of richer new acquaintances.     The conversations in the family are really well done, funny, smart and  skillfully developed.    

"Marriage a la Mode" is not a traditional story in that there are no plots lines, no conflict is resolved and there is no surprise or trick ending.    The narrative jumps around quite a bit to different incidents and new characters are brought into the story without introduction.     

As I read the story I wondered why one of the children is named "Paddy" which was at the time a common derogatory English nickname for an Irish person.    I was also caused to wonder what, if anything, should be made of the name of one of Isabel's new rich friends, "Moira".    In ancient Greek mythology Moira was the personification of fate.     In New Zealand, the Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people.    Mansfield is well known to have had a romantic relationship with a Maori princess.

This story can be read online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.

Mel u

Monday, October 18, 2010

" Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield

"Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield (1921, 12 pages)

"Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was included in the collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories published in 1922, after first being published in 1921.

"Ma Parker" is a very dark work,   the darkest of Mansfield's stories I have yet read (out of about 40 so far).   Ma Parker seems a very ancient (no doubt very  much old before her time) woman.   She has given birth to twelve children half of whom are already dead.    Her eldest daughter is a widow in early 20s with one child.   

Every Tuesday Ma Parker cleans the house of a man described simply as a "literary gentleman".    He knows that her only grandchild has been sick so he inquires after his health and is told he has passed away since her last cleaning day.    He feels he must say something to condole her before going back to his morning paper.

“Oh, dear me! I’m sorry to hear that,” said the literary gentleman in a shocked tone. He was in the middle of his breakfast. He wore a very shabby dressing-gown and carried a crumpled newspaper in one hand. But he felt awkward. He could hardly go back to the warm sitting-room without saying something—something more. Then because these people set such store by funerals he said kindly, “I hope the funeral went off all right.”
We can see how little the "literary gentleman" knows about people and his inability to see Ma Parker as a full person in this fatuous remark.     The literary gentleman lives alone and makes no efforts to keep his place clean during the week.   When his friends asks him about his housekeeping methods here is his response:
 "“You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done."

As Ma Parker leaves the man's house after completing her work she wants to cry for her last grandson.    Here we see Mansfield's supreme artistry in  painting for us the world of Ma Parker:

She couldn’t go home; Ethel was there. It would frighten Ethel out of her life. She couldn’t sit on a bench anywhere; people would come asking her questions. She couldn’t possibly go back to the gentleman’s flat; she had no right to cry in strangers’ houses. If she sat on some steps a policeman would speak to her. wasn't  there anywhere where she could hide and keep herself to herself and not be  not disturbing anybody, and nobody worrying her? Wasn’t there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out— at last?     Ma Parker stood, looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere.
"Life of Ma Parker" is a powerful disturbing work.

This story can be read online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.    

Mel u

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"The Model Millionaire" by Oscar Wilde- Happy 156th Birthday

"The Model Millionaire" by Oscar Wilde (6 pages, 1881)

"What was a butterfly to do among bulls and bears?"

Greetings to the many readers from Chisinau-your comments on the story and general reading suggestions are very welcome-Mel u-Editor of the Reading Life

Yesterday was the 156th birthday of Oscar Wilde (1854 to 1990-Ireland)  .    Google brought this to the attention of the world by placing on its search page a doodle image inspired by his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.    A few months ago I read and posted on two of his fairy tales, "The Selfish Giant" and "The Happy Prince    This morning as I was reading through the new posts in my Google Reader I found a very interesting post on Zee's Worldly Obessions entitled "Ten Things You Should Know About Oscar Wilde".    Long ago I read The Picture of Dorian Gray  and loved it.     I wanted to post something in honor of his birthday.    Lately I have been reading a lot of short stories so I decided I would read one of Wilde's traditional (non-fairy tale) short stories.

"The Model Millionaire" reminded me of Picture of Dorian Gray in its tone and setting.   ( It is not as wicked a work but then what would be?)    The central character in this story is  Hughie, a young man who lives from the 200 pounds a year his aunt left him:   "He had tried everything. He had gone on the Stock Exchange for six months; but what was a butterfly to do among bulls and bears?"   Hughie has a young lady he wants to marry but her father will not allow it until Hughie can show him he has at least 10,000 pounds.    Who but Wilde could describe a character like that and make us love him.   One day Hughie goes to visit the studio of an older friend of his who is a very successful and prosperous because of it society portrait painter.

The painter is doing a portrait of what seems a tramp dressed in ragged unwashed for a long time clothes.  Hughie asks the painter how much an artist model gets paid and is shocked by the small amount.     He then asks the artist how much he will sell the painting for and  learns it will be sold for an amount  ten times greater than Hughie's annual income.     When the artist steps out for a moment Hughie gives the portrait sitter all of the coins he has in his pocket.   This means Hughie will not be able to go anywhere by cab for a month so it is a real gesture.    When the seeming tramp leaves the painter tells Hughie that the model is very taken by him.   The painter reveals that he has told the man all about Hughie including where he lives and that he needs 10,000 pounds to marry.   Hughie is concerned the tramp may show up at his door.    The painter reveals to Hughie the identity of the model.

'What I say,' said Trevor. 'The old man you saw to-day in the studio was Baron Hausberg. He is a great friend of mine, buys all my pictures and that sort of thing, and gave me a commission a month ago to paint him as a beggar. Que voulez-vous? La fantaisie d'un millionnaire! And I must say he made a magnificent figure in his rags, or perhaps I should say in my rags; they are an old suit I got in Spain.'
     'Baron Hausberg!' cried Hughie. 'Good heavens! I gave him a sovereign!' and he sank into an armchair the picture of dismay.

"The Model Millionaire" is a surprise ending short story (not a real shocking surprise) so I will not tell any more of the plot than I have.   The fun in this story is in the tone and the turns of phrase.  It is easy to read and follow.   It is a traditional story.      You can read it in just a few minutes online here .  

Mel u

Saturday, October 16, 2010

84. Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff  (1970, 94 pages)

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1916 to 1997-USA) is a charming epistolary novel.    The correspondents are Ms Hanff herself and various members of the staff of a London Book Store Marks and Co. located at 84 Charing Cross Road.    The letters begin when Ms Hanff sees an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature indicating the store specializes in out of print and antiquarian books.   Ms Hanff sends them her "want list" and says she is willing to spend up to $5.00 for the books on the list.   The first letter was sent in October of 1949 when London is still under  rationing as a result of the war time austerity programs.     Three weeks later the book store sends her an answer saying they had found one of the volumes on the list and if she agrees to the asked price they will send it to her.   From this modest start a 20 year correspondence begins in which Ms Hanff  becomes  friends with the employees at the small store.   As they supply her with the books she wants she sends them small gifts.    The staff of this store actually know and love books.    It is the shared love of books that allows the friendship to develop.    Ms Hanff often speaks in her letters of  accepting the invitation to visit London but sadly she never does.   We share the excitement as she becomes a successful writer for American television.    I  enjoyed seeing the friendship develops over the years of letters.

As I read this book I thought that this is about a part of the reading life that will be pretty much unknown to future generations of book lovers.    It is great to be able to go online and download all sorts of old works but there is a special excitement searching for months or even years for a special title and at last reading it.   Maybe the love of books as physical objects may one day be something only felt by specialized collectors but the reading life will be the poorer for it.    

84, Charing Cross Road is a charming heart warming book.    There is a movie based on it.    Maybe it is about a bygone world but in this book we can at least imagine it.    I am really glad I read this book.   Imagine a book store where the employees can talk about Elizabeth Bowen or Ford Madox Ford instead of Twilight!

Mel u

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett ( 2006, 121 pages)

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (1934, UK) has been on  my TBR list ever since I first heard of it last year.     When I started my blog I intended to focus on books that  deal with the lives of reading centered people.   I had a list of 50 or so books I wanted to read and post on that dealt directly with that topic.   The Uncommon Reader was on this list and I am very glad I have now read this insightful, witty and above all else fun novel about the reading life of Queen Elizabeth II of England.    

As the novel opens Queen Elizabeth has discovered that a mobile library comes periodically to a spot behind the palace.    The Queen has never been much of a reader.   Her "handlers" have always provided her all the information she needs to perform her Royal duties.    She goes into the mobile van and as she feels it would be good to encourage reading among the public and to be polite to the page that takes her to the mobile library she checks out a book.    We see the Queen get more and more interested in reading and reading more serious books.     Anybody into the reading life will be able to relate when the Queen begins to find her duties a burden as they cut into her reading time.    Things that were once of great importance to the Queen such perfection in her appearance no longer matter so much to her.    She begins to ask those she meets what they read.    As a long standing weekly ritual (Elizabeth has been Queen for over 50 years) she has a weekly meeting with whoever is currently Prime Minister.  In the past these conversations have been more or less formalities designed to be sure the Queen saw events as the government of the time wanted her too.   Then the Queen began to ask the Prime Minister and other handlers what they were reading.   The government officials become alarmed when they see  that her reading is giving the Queen a mind of her own and try to find ways to stop her reading.   The Queen begins to think about how reading affects peoples'  lives.   We see her reading powers develop from being unable to read a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett to reading and talking about Proust.   (I will be posting on her Manservant and Maidservant for  NYRB Reading Week from November 7 to 13.     I urge my readers to consider joining in this project hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons.   There will be international giveaways. )

The tone of The Uncommon Reader is like a young adult work.  The title is meant to make us think of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson.    The page who helps Elizabeth with her reading is gay and we see how this effects his life.    There is also a really purely gratuitous use of x rated language that seems out of place in this near fairy tale like work.    Without this line I would say the book could be read by middle school children.   

I liked this book.    The short length of the book fits its fairy tale like feeling.    The book has a lot of really nice observations on books and the reading life.    The development of the Queen into a reader in her later years is very well done and quite believable.   

The Literary Stew has an excellent review of this book.     I endorse this book fully with the caveat to parents about the x-rated language.

Mystica also has an excellent post on The Uncommon Reader

Mel u

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1962, 232 pages)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1918 to 2007-New York City) won the very prestigious Newberry Award for best children's literature in 1962.    You will also find it mentioned by many book bloggers as among their very favorite books of their youth.    I have been wanting to read it for some time now and I was very happy to find it in National Book Store in Trinoma Mall.    It is very much a "feel good book".    

A Wrinkle in Time is a cross between science fiction and a Christian fable.    It plays with the conventional notions of time and space and solid objects.    It takes us to strange planets (places besides earth at least) and  introduces us to aliens with names like "Aunt Beast", "Mrs Who",  "Mrs Whatsit" and "Mrs Which".   They may look strange but in the end they are kind of like alien Mary Poppins.   

There is an excellent post at Things Mean a Lot  that goes into detail about the plot and the themes of the book.    There are links on that post to other reviews.    

A Wrinkle in Time is a book for children but it also has the power to make adults think.    It is well written and easy to read.    With the qualification that this is almost a child's book rather than a Young Adult book, I would recommend it for adults who like an occasional Young Adult book.    I would be happy to see my 12 year old daughter reading this and I think she would like it a lot.    A Wrinkle in Time supports the kind of values a parent of almost any creed or religion would like to see their children learn.  

Mel u

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"The Young Girl" by Katherine Mansfield

"The Young Girl" by Katherine Mansfield (1920, 8 pages)

The Reading Life Katherine Mansfield Project

"The Young Girl" by Katherine Mansfield  (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was first published in 1920 and was included in a the 1922 collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories.   

I  found "The Young Girl" entrancing for the  juxtaposing of characterless beauty of a young girl 

In her blue dress, with her cheeks lightly flushed, her blue, blue eyes, and her gold curls pinned up as though for the first time—pinned up to be out of the way for her flight—Mrs. Raddick’s daughter might have just dropped from this radiant heaven 
with the mystery and apparent ugliness of an older woman as she enters a casino
The ancient, withered creature, wearing a green satin dress, a black velvet cloak and a white hat with purple feathers, jerked slowly, slowly up the steps as though she were being drawn up on wires. She stared in front of her, she was laughing and cackling  to herself; her claws clutched round what looked like a dirty boot-bag.
The only plot action of the story involves one of the central characters leaving the young girl, her daughter, with a friend so she can go inside the casino as they do not allow children inside.    There is no resolved ending to the story and in fact we are left kind of wondering exactly why the young girl is really being left in non-parental care.   The conversations are well done and the characters quite credible.   I see in this story as in others a certain prejudice against older persons or perhaps this is meant to be a projection of the thoughts of the characters in the story.

Mel u

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Mr and Mrs Dove" by Katherine Mansfield

"Mr and Mrs Dove" by Katherine Mansfield  (1921, 12 pages)

"Mr and Mrs Dove" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was first published in 1921 then republished in 1922 in a collection of her short stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories.

As the story begins Reginald (who seems in his mid-twenties) is getting ready to go back to his post as a colonial administrator in Rhodesia.  (As I read that I was brought to mind that Ida Baker had Rhodesian roots.)   Today is his last day in England.   He goes to the home of a family friend, Colonel Proctor,  to take his leave.    What he really wants to do is to ask to Anne Proctor, daughter of the Colonel, to marry him and go to Rhodesia with him.    The idea of a young man having to go to or return to a colonial post is a frequent entity in English literature between the wars.    It was often the lot of second sons.    It could if one was lucky smart and opportunistic be quite lucrative but it might also damaging to your health.    

As Reginald arrives at the house he finds Anne is home alone.    He makes a very weak attempt to get Anne to commit to him.   He spends most of his time telling her what a bad idea it would be for her to accept him.
The actions of the doves kept by the Proctors is a kind of metaphor for all of this.   Anne tries to tell Reginald something very important through talking about the doves but Reginald appears too thick to pick it up.

"Mr and Mrs Dove" is a very well told and written story.   I am glad I took the time to read it.

Mel u