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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading Goals for 2012

Setting goals for my reading kind of gives me a sense of direction and purpose.   


Here are some of the Novels I most want to read in 2012.   They are in pretty much random order.   This list leaves out my Japanese TBR items.  

  1. The Guide by R. K. Narayan-considered by all to be his masterwork-really looking forward to this
  2. The Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand-considered his best work-
  3. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James-read in February for the Feb. in Venice Event
  4. Bleak House by Charles Dickens-in honor of Dickens 200th Birthday-try to read by Feb 7
  5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens-as above
  6. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  7. Cousin Bette-Need to read some of the best regarded Balzac novels
  8. More Zola
  9. Vanity Fair –been on my TBR list for decades
  10. Anna Karenina in the P and E translation
  11. something by George Elliot, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott-Probably Little Women
  12. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
  13. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
  14. more  Turgenev at least Father and Sons
  15. reread A Sentimental Education and read Salammbo
  16. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes in the Grossman translation
  17. more novels by Elizabeth Bowen, finish up Virginia Woolf, and Henry Greene.
  18. maybe reread the big FMF novels.
  19. Savage Detectives by Roberto Balano-a reread-for a read along
  20. maybe a read along of Clarrisa-this is set as a year long real time event-will ponder it-read it ten years ago
  21. A Shakespeare work a month

Short Stories List for 2012

I expect short stories to be an ever increasing part of my reading and blogging life.  Here are some of my reading hopes for 2012.  

  1. The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant-sounds like a lot at first but under 2000 pages-
  2. Finish the stories of Flannery O’Connor-1/2 way done now
  3. read the collected stories of Issac Babel
  4. Read a lot more Irish short stories-at least 70 by Frank O’Connor-most stories not very long
  5. Read a lot more Chekhov-maybe will try for all but at least the P and E collection
  6. read a lot more Turgenev
  7. try more Raymond Carver-try to over come my prejudice against stories about drinkers-he is for sure brilliant
  8. more Hemingway-maybe all the short stories if I can
  9. more Eudora Welty and Katherine Porter
  10. discover lots of new to me  writers
Short stories are just a wonderful way to discover new to you writers.  

These goals are just sort of list to motivate myself.   I am sure and I hope I will be taken down new lanes and reading highways in 2012 just like I have been since I began my blog in July 2009.  

Mel u


My Big Reads in 2011

My Top Novels for 2011

This list does not include Japanese literature
  1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo-no contest,  number one book of the year.-maybe of several years.
  2. Gone With the Wind"  by Margaret Mitchell-so glad I finally read this book. It was way better than I thought it would be.   I loved it.
  3. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann-been on my to read list for decades-not by any means a light read but very worth the time.
  4. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol--a strange wonderful book-foodies will love it-I don't care what Nabokov said, this is a comic novel.
  5. Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo-both Hugo books should be on all literary autodidacts life time lists.  
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude-Gabriel Marquez-OK maybe a bit over hyped but still a must read.
  7. A Passage to India by E. M. Forester-a near overwhelming work. Amazing
  8. Man Eater of Malguidi-by R. K. Narayan-just such a wonderful fun book. Trust me on this one!    
  9. Waiting for Godot-big time must read play-Samuel Beckett
  10. Ubo Roi by Alfred Jarry-I learned of his great import this year
  11. Tristram Shandy-by Lawrence Sterne-very odd book!
  12. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens-for a read along-not the best of his work but still it is Dickens.
  13. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James-readable!
  14. The Value of Rain by Brandon Shire-Powerful new writer
  15. The Plague by Albert Camus-culturally really important work
  16. Silk by Grace Dane Mazur-beautiful collection of short stories
  17. Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov-amazing collection of short stories
  18. Access: Thirteen Tales by Xi Xu -marvelous collection of short stories 
  19. Nude by  Nuala Ní Chonchúi-another great collection of short stories
  20. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories-edited by William Trevor-classic 
  21. The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen-a legacy for the ages-stories for real adults
  22. Somewhere in Minnesota by Orfhlaith Foyle - great short story collection

    Once you get past book number three, the order listed does not mean anything.   I read 86 novels in 2011 and five dramas.   I also read 6 works of nonfiction.   

    I also read about 700 short stories in 2011.   I was going to try to do a best ten or twenty post on them but it is just sort of not something I want to do just yet.   

What were your big reads of the year?   

Mel u

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 A Look Back at the Blogging Year on The Reading Life

2011 was a good blogging year for me.    My readership showed a decent growth for the year.   A lot of the visitors to my blog are what I call “homework help seekers”.   They are welcome but it is the people who read and comment on your posts that really matter.
Mr C is Very Excited Over The Blog Plans for 2012!

I hosted two reading events in 2011.  In March 2011 I hosted for the first time Irish Short Stories Week.   I was very happy with the results of it. 53 stories  were posted on by great readers from all over the world.   This event will repeat in March 2012, in conjunction with St Patrick’s Day.   In August I cohosted the second Indonesian Short Stories Week.    My co-host for this event was Novroz from Jakarta.  This is a much lesser known literary area so there were fewer participants but there were a lot of great posts and I still have readers from Indonesia and elsewhere coming to my blog to read posts on Indonesian short stories.   I plan to co-host this again in August around the time of Indonesian Independence Day.

I participated in events focusing on literature from Germany, Brazil, Ghana and Nigeria.  I also participated in a very interesting event on Transcendentalism.    I like to see these kind of horizon expanding events.   The only reading challenge I actively participated in was The Japanese Literature Five Challenge.   I passively participated in five or six others.    I joined in a read along on Oliver Twist.   I also posted on all five of the short stories for the Caine Prize For African Literature at the request of the publisher for the event. My guess is I will do this again in 2012 toward mid-year.  I ended up being part of a group of bloggers posting and dialoguing on the stories.   The stories were not the very best but it was a  good learning process.  

In 2011 I have seen a big increase in offers of free books  for potential review.   Some of these free books have been totally wonderful, some I did not get past the first page or two and some were probably great I just did not have time to read a book by a new to me author.   I will always be happy to get free books. Any book I accept I will take a genuine look at.   I basically will only accept E books from now on as I prefer E-Reading.   My wife has  also said something about too many books taking over the place!   

To the wonderful so supportive people who comment on my posts all I can say is

Thank you.

My blog is very important to me.    I really hope to keep blogging the rest of my life.   

There will be another post on my blogging and reading plans for 2012.

My quite brilliant cousin S has been a huge help with editing suggestions.

Mel u

Japanese Literature for 2011

Japanese Literature/2011
This year I read 14 novels by writers from Japan.     This year I will continue my practice of placing my Japanese novels on their own list.   This is a non-literary decision.

In order read, here are the Japanese novels I read in 2011.

Banana Yoshimoto
  1. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima-a wonderful work-part two of a Tetrology
  2. J by Kenzaburo Oe-a strange work 
  3. A Cat, a Man, and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki-great cat book from a cat lover and one of my favorite authors.
  4. 17 by Kenzaburo Oe-not what most would expect but a fun read
  5. Tatto Chan-The Little Girl in the Window by Tetsuko Kuro-a light weight book-easy read but don't buy it-school days in Tokyo in WWII
  6. The Pinch Runner Memorandum by Kenzaburo Oe-yes I like Oe
  7. Koroko by Natsume Soseki-a class must read work 
  8. An Echo of Heaven by Kenzaburo Oe-really interesting book
  9. Villain by Shuichi Yoshida-OK crime novel but you can do better-don't buy
  10. Botchan by Natsume Soseki-must reading-school life and teaching
  11. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami-my most disappointing read of at least this year-opinions differ on this-if you are seriously into the Japanese novel I guess you will at some point one to read this work.   If you plan to buy it wait a few months for the remainder sales.  
  12. Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto -I like her a lot
  13. The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto-her latest-an enjoyable read
  14. School Girl by Osamu Dazai-worth reading
  15. Kenzaburo Oe
  16. Ark Sukura-another strange book by Kobe Abe-real neat book

I also read about 40 short stories by Japanese writers.   I highly recommend The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories to anyone who wants to learn more about this area while reading some wonderful stories.

I will continue reading Japanese literature the rest of my life.   

Mel u

Thursday, December 29, 2011

“The Boy Who Drew Cats” by Lafacdio Hearn (1898, four pages, Podcast 14 minutes)

1850 to 1904
with Wife and Son
I have a very long history with Lafcadio Hearn.    In my very early teens I developed a great interest in his work and read all I could find at the time.   Numerous decades have gone by since I last read anything by Hearn and I was glad a twitt from @EstherHawden motivated me to read him again.

  Of course I wondered if I would still enjoy his work or if would it seem somehow juvenile to me.  I decided to read his “The Boy Who Drew Cats” because it is available online and also as a podcast on Miette’ Bedtime Podcasts, the premier source of podcasts of literary short stories.    I loved the story and am happy to endorse it to any and all.  

Hearn had a very interesting life.   His life is so international it is not even easy to classify him as to nationality but I think in his heart he was Japanese.   He was born in Greece to a Greek mother.   His father was from county Cork Ireland and he was serving in the British Army.   At 19 Hearn immigrated to the United States, settling first in   Ohio area where he got his start in writing as a journalist.   From there he moved to New Orleans where he lived and wrote a lot of journalism aimed at promoting the city as a tourist destination.     In 1890 he got an assignment to go to Japan as a journalist and report on the country to American newspaper readers.  He ended up spending the rest of his life in Japan.   He became fluent in the language.   He married a Japanese woman and supported himself and his wife through payment for his articles and teaching at Japanese universities.   He began to write a lot of short stories loosely based on Japanese folk tales as well as serious works on Japan.

I am posting on Hearn because I want to have an old friend on my blog and maybe other readers will enjoy his stores (a lot of his work can easily be found online.)   He also wrote articles and longer works describing Japan in the 1890s to Americans.   I know it is not accurate but if you recall the American journalist in the movie The Last Samurai  you will see how I picture Hearn.   The dates are off but I wondered if the director of the movie based that character on Lafcadio Hearn.  

In these opening lines you can get a representative sample of the prose style of Hearn:

A long time ago, in a little Japanese village, there lived a poor farmer, with his wife and family. The oldest son was strong and healthy and helped the farmer in the fields every day, planting and harvesting the rice. The two daughters worked with their mother in the house and the garden. They they had been able to work hard from the time they were very little . But the youngest son, although he was extremely clever, was also quite small and frail. He could not work in the rice fields with his father and brother.
One day the boy's parents began to discuss his future, since he was not suited to being a farmer. His mother said, "our younger son is very clever. Perhaps we should apprentice him to the priest in the village temple. The priest is getting old and it may be that our son will make a good priest and will make a suitable helper for the old one." The father agreed that their son's cleverness might make him a suitable candidate for the temple. So the boy's parents went to the village temple to ask the priest to take their son as an acolyte.
The boy begins to develop an obsession with drawing cats.    He is  so into this that he neglects his work and is asked to leave.   He has heard of another monastery 12 miles away so he walks there hoping they will take him in.   When he gets there he sees a fire inside but there are no people.   He needs a place to stay and he gets very excited when he sees there a lot of blank white canvases set up that are perfect for drawing cats on.     The boy does not know that goblins use lights to lure in travellers.    He ends up drawing giant pictures of cats on the canvases.   The next morning he finds a dead goblin in the form a a rat as big as a water buffalo.   Who could have saved him from death at the hands of the goblin.   He then notices the cat pictures have changed.   The mouth of each cat is blood stained.
  This not great art but it is a fun read and a look at a very lost way of life.  
  You can read it Here
  Miette’s beautiful reading of the story can be found here.
I read the story then listened to it and I found this seemed to deepen my experience of the story.
You can read in just two or three minutes tops.   

Mel u

A December Reading and Blogging Look Back and a Look Ahead at January.

 My December reading was very much dominated by short stories.    I  read  the massively to me disappointing  1Q84 by Harukui Murakami.     I had  highly anticipated the book and maybe that added to the real sadness I felt over posting on it.   I still will eagerly read another Marakami work and would like to see him win the Nobel Prize one day.    I also read Joseph Conrad’s short novel, The Secret Agent.  This was a very good book and it relates to today’s headlines.   I did a virtual tour stop with an interview on Juno Charm by Nuala Ní Chonchúir.    This is a very good book I commend to all lovers of poetry.   Additionally, I read a first rate debut novel, The Value of the Rain by Brandon Shire, about the GLBT experience in America in the 1970s.  

I have begun reading through the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor (31).   Her stories are beautiful and as deep as they come.   I also read for the first time,  the very controversial Russian writer, Maxim Gorky.   Condemn him personally all you like, and he deserves much of it, his early stories about the poorest people in late Czarist Russia can stand next to the best of the world’s short stories.   (Yes I know he was an apologist for Stalin in his latter years.)   I also was happy to have access to twenty or so new to me short stories by R. K. Narayan.   I just love his stories so much. 

I also have been reading  through some of the short stories of the American master of minimalism Raymond Carver.   I can see his technical brilliance but the content of many of his stories do not appeal to me.   Bottom line, to much drinking in his stories for me!   Maybe it was the back to back reading of his stories that was the mistake, maybe one a week or so I could deal with the subject matter and savor his real brilliance.    This is a personal issue with me on Carver, not a literary judgment.   I also read a short story I hope a lot of people will read, “I Stand Ironing” by Tillie Olsen.   

I also have begun to make use of Windows Live Writer as a blog editor.   I owe this suggestion to Parrish Lantern.

 As always I thank so much my very brilliant Cousin S for her editorial advice.

 I acknowledge I have a hard time proofreading my own works.   Errors that would jump out in the work of others go past me in my own writing.   I have some odd errors I make over and over such as I will put “think” in the place of “thing” and vice versa.   I try as I can to catch everything but for what remains, oh well. 
 I will do a year end report also.   My monthly reports are mostly for me to have something to look back on.

 Any suggestions for changes or improvements will be appreciated and respected.  

I ended the month with 625 GFC followers and 1515 on Twitter.   My page views and visits are up about 150 percent year to date.   Some bloggers say they never look at their stats and even scoff at those who do.   I enjoy tracking my stats, seeing what cities visitors are from etc.     The top cities of residence for RL visitors in December were London, Delhi, Mumbai, New York City,  Brisbane, Bangalore, Manila, Dhaka, and Los Angeles.   The top countries are the USA, India, the Philippines, UK and Australia.  

 In January, I hope to post on at least two works by Charles Dickens in honor of Dickens 200th birthday coming on Feb. 7th.   I also will post on a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling.   I also hope to read a lot more short stories in January.   I am  starting to read through the complete collections of Guy de Maupassant and the collected stories of Isaac Babel, for example.   I will finish up the stories of Flannery O’Connor.   I am also hoping to read the acknowledged masterwork of R. K. Narayan, The Guide in January.    I am also excited to have a copy of the classic novel by Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable set to read very soon.   Additionally I have a few review books to post on soon that look really good.   

Mel u

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Ghosts" by Lord Dunsany

The Ghosts" by Lord Dunsany  (1910, 9 pages)
1878 to 1957

I hope over the remaining four days of 2011 to post on short stories by four new to me writers.  (I will resume posting on longer works in January, starting with The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.)   One of the great things about short stories   is they let you try out a new to your writer without a big investment of your time.

I have begun also to look for  writers to feature during Irish Short Stories Week- II (March 12 to March 22).   Edward Plunket (Ireland) was the 18th Baron of Dunsany.   He wrote under the pen name of Lord Dunsany.    Plunket was born into a very wealthy and famous family.  At 21 on the death of his father he became a baron.   His family owned great estates throughout Ireland.   Plunket served in the trenches in WWI even though he had options to allow him to avoid combat.   At one time he was the Irish Chess Champion and also the Irish Pistol Shooting Champion.   He was an avid hunter,  a high society figure as well as a patron of the Irish Theater.  He was friends with W. B. Yeats and other literary luminaries.  

Plunket was also a very prolific writer.   He is best remembered  now for his many dark fantasy stories.   He influenced writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Borges.   Plunket had access to a huge private library while growing up and was literate in the classics and a very wide reader.   He was married and had one child.  

As "The Ghosts" opens the narrator of this first person story is telling us about an argument he had with his brother about ghosts.   The brother does not believe they exist and he knows they do.   He decides to stay up late, they are in an old castle, to see if he will experience any ghosts.   In the middle of the night beautifully described very horrible and scary creatures begin to surround him.  At first he thinks they are ghosts but then he realizes these are the ghosts of the sins of the departed.   He begins to think that his argument with his brother justifies him in murder.   Then he begins to realize he is being driven to this evil by the ghosts of the sins.   In a really clever move, he begins to contemplate mathematical formulas and this allows him to return to rationality.

I will probably read more Lord Dunsany during Irish Short Story Week.  He even has a series of fantastic stories in which he created his own mythology.   

This story  can be downloaded from Manybook.Net  along with most of his other fiction.     I also listened to this story as a Podcast through Miette's Bedtime Podcasts, the premier place on the internet for podcasts of literary short stories, for a deeper experience of the work.    

It appears to me that Lord Dunsany's work is considered in the public domain in about half the countries of the world as he has been dead more than 50 years.  He is still under copyright protection in the UK, the USA, and Indian but not in the Philippines or Bangladesh, for example.   

Mel u

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen

"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen (1961, 12 pages, 30 minutes as a Podcast)
1912 to 2007

 Tillie Olsen (Nebraska, USA) was from a family of   Russian Jewish immigrants   She is considered one of  the first generation of American feminist authors.   She dropped out of school at fifteen and  worked as a waitress, a meat trimmer and a domestic.   She became involved in politics during the depression era in the USA and was a socialist union organizer.  She joined the American Communist party in 1934 and was briefly jailed for "making loud noises" at a union meeting.   (There is a good article on Olsen on Wikipedia )

Olson tried to write novels but she could never finish one.   She is pretty much now know in the literary world for her really beautiful, sad and quite strange short story, "I Stand Here Ironing".  

"I Stand Here Ironing" is told in the first person by a woman who has had five children, in the 1930s in the USA in the midst of terrible times.   Her first husband, the father of Emily upon whom the story focuses, deserted the family because he no longer wanted to share their poverty.   The story covers almost twenty years.   In it the mother reflects on how she might have raised Emily differently if she had known then what she has now learned.   Emily is a sickly and difficult child.   The mother has to work and cannot really give her the foods she needs to thrive so a 1930s charitable organization places her in a home for a while until she can take her out.  

The mother remarries and has a second child.   The second child Susan is lovely, blond, and bubbly where Emily is dark, far from pretty and morose and withdrawn.     In a really beautiful turn of events, some how Emily becomes a well known stage performer with a great comic talent.     I do not quite understand how this happens or what she said on stage but I loved this.

It is hard for me to describe the prose of Olsen.   These lines toward the end of the story look like they might haunt me for a long time.

She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
The story also does a great job dealing with the sometimes very subtle issues involved with sibling rivalry among girls.   This is important to me as I have three daughters.   I think I know a bit more about why our oldest daughter does have issues with our younger daughter.     

You can read this beautiful story here and listen to Miette's simply wonderful reading of the story at Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast.   What I did was to first read it then listen to the podcast.   I recommend this if possible.  

This is just a beautiful deeply wise story.   I hate to say this but when I read "My wisdom came too late" I think I might know what she  means and it is not that good a feeling. 

Mel u

Monday, December 26, 2011

"The Judge" by Rabindranath Tagore

"The Judge" by  Rabindranath Tagore (1895, 12 pages)

My Prior Posts on Tagore

Until next year, I will be posting just on some selected short stories.

1861 to 1941
"The Judge" is the ninth story by Rabindranath Tagore which I have now read and posted on.    Sometimes I just feel like I need to read a story by someone whose wisdom and kindness of heart I know I can trust.   When that happens, Tagore is a very good author to turn to.   He is highly regarded for the way women are treated in his works.

Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born in Kolkata, Indian into a family whose wealth and life style can now only be seen in movies.    His father owned an estate so huge that at one point in his life Tagore travelled through it on a luxurious barge and was met on the river bank by tenants paying token rents to him.   Tagore was raised mostly by servants as his mother died young and his father was very busy administrating the vast estates he owned.   Tagore was educated in classical Indian literature and at age eight began to write poetry and ended up reshaping the Bengali Language.   Later in his life he founded a school and devoted himself entirely to his writing and teachings.   His moral authority became so great that he was able to write the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, give Gandhi the title of Mahatma (teacher),  and  had a status as a moral leader on a par with  Gandhi.   He travelled to the west and met William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and other notable literary figures.   This was in a period when western writers were fascinated by Indian thinkers and Yeats wrote the preface for one of his first translations in English.   He wrote largely in Bengali.   His body of work is a great literary treasure.   He was the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize (1914).

Women in India in 1895 were supposed to enter into arranged marriages in their early teens and stay in them for the rest of their lives, no matter what.   Sati, the burning of widows, was still practiced at this time.   Not every woman is able or willing to fit into this pattern of arranged marriages.   In reading older works of literature, you have to decide how you will react to the very young age at which women marry or can be seen as proper targets for sexual conquest.   "The Judge" is the story of an attractive 38  year old unmarried woman with a child.  (I assuming this is seen as old.)   Tagore has a beautiful set piece on how one can sort of detect if your mind has matured out of youth.

I will leave the plot unspoiled (there will be a link at the end of the post that will allow you to read the story).   Here is the beautiful thoughts of Tagore.

"In that dusk of youth, in the peace of that stage of life, he who has to start again in the false hope of new gains, new acquaintances and new relationships – for whose rest the bed has yet to be spread – for whom no light has been lit to welcome him home at day end – cursed indeed is he.

At the brink of her youth, one morning, when Khiroda woke up to find that her fiancé had run off the last night with all her ornaments and money, to leave her with not enough even to pay the rent or to get some milk to feed her three-year old child – she reminisced that in her life of thirty-eight years she could not lay claim over a single man, she had not acquired the right to live or die in the corner of any room. She realised she would again have to wipe off tears to deck up her eyes with black kajol and put on red make-up on her lips and cheeks in a curious attempt to cover up the worn-out youth and devise new schemes cheerfully and with infinite patience to capture new hearts".

Kirhoda decides it is better just to kill herself and her daughter.   She jumps with the three year old girl into a well.   The daughter drowns but Kirhoda is rescued.   She is arrested and is brought before a judge who feels women must be dealt with in the harshest fashion when they violate law and custom else they will all "go wild".   He sentences the mother to be hung.   

The judge has not always been the purest of men.   I believe it was  almost expected for men to have sexual experiences before marriage and this leads to many young men having predatory attitudes toward women while expecting only the greatest purity from their sisters, daughters, mothers, etc.   

There is a very moving a bit ambiguous ending to the story.   Maybe the judge learns something, maybe not.   Maybe there is a 24 year old connection of the judge to the 13 year old at the time Kirthoda, maybe not.   The ending will make you think, in fact the whole story will.

The story is a new translation from Bengali by  Saurav Bhattacharya.

You can read it here.      Tagore will for sure be back on The Reading Life in 2012.   

Please share with us your experience and feelings about Tagore.  

Mel u

"Bobok" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"Bobok" by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1873, 20 pages, translated by Constance Garnett)

1821 to 1881
As a blog note, from now until the first week of 2012 I will be posting only on short stories.   I am about  half way through The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and they will be next novels I post on.

Yesterday I was checking my recommendations and they listed a forthcoming paperback edition of  The Eternal Husband and other Stories by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.    I like their translations but I was not really interesting in buying it, being happy to read older translations for free but I did check to see what stories were included in the collection.   The shortest one was "Bobok".   Long ago in the distant mists I read most of the major works of Dostoevsky and I am happy now to have begun slowly reading some of his shorter fiction.   (My first post on his short fiction was on "A Christmas Tree and a Wedding".)

"Bobok" was written between the publication of Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).   It sounds almost like a bit of an autobiographical story.   The chief character is a frustrated writer.   He wants to write literary fiction but his work always gets rejected by editors.   He gets by through odds and ends of journalism, advertisements and translation of French works.  When he submits works of literary fiction, they are rejected and he is told his work lacks the quality of real life.   He is told he must seek out inspiration where ever he can.   The story is told in the first person as if it were from the writer's diary.  

One day he goes to the funeral of a friend and stays behind in the graveyard to think about his life and his writing.   Suddenly he hears voices all around him even though no one is there.   It is the recently buried conversing with each other and with him.   It seems they have enough consciousness left to speak for two or three months after they are dead.  The dead speak very openly about their lives.   It is as if there is many life times of stories being told as inspiration for the writer.   Some of the dead are bitter, some long for passion, others freely confess affairs and corruption they always denied while living.   The writer begins to despair that the dead seem to have no inspiring stories for the living.  He tells himself maybe he will have better luck in another cemetery.  

"Bobok", the title is supposed to come from a Russian slang word for nonsense, is not hard to read, not very long and is very much worth reading.    

Please share your experience with us on shorter Russian fiction.  

Mel u

Sunday, December 25, 2011

R. K. Narayan: Six More Malgudi Stories from Lawley Road

My Prior Posts on Narayan

Full Episodes of the Malgudi Days TV
shows from the 1980s (some in English, some in Tamil, read the story and you will enjoy the video in any case-a classic series from Indian TV)

In her introduction to Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan, Jhumpri Lahari said when she first was sent  the collection of short stories she saw it contained 32  stories.    She reasoned she would read one a day for a nice relaxed pace and finish it in a month.   She says she was so captivated by the wonderful plots, completely real people and beautiful simple prose of the stories that she read it nearly straight through.    I am kind of having the same experience.  I do not feel like reading anything else as long as I have some unread Narayan stories to read.

I have already posted on a number of the stories from anthology that were originally in his 1956 anthology, Lawley Road and Other Stories.   Tonight I want to post briefly on the six remaining stories from this collection included in Malgudi Days.  His stories were written in English for an audience who mostly spoke Tamil as a first language.   Narayan is considered one of the foremost chroniclers of Hindu life in the 20th century through his creation of the wonderful imaginary city of Malgudi.

"The Martyr's Grave" is a story about how quickly the fortunes of life can change as people are swept up by events beyond their control.   The lead character has a street food stall.   His customers are the poor oref Malgudi.   He does pretty well for himself and his family.   He works very hard and has a great spot for his food stall.   One day a political riot breaks out in which a political leader is killed right where the man's food stall is located.   He is forced to relocate his stall 200 meters from his old good spot.   We watch saddened as his life goes very bad.

"The Wife's Holiday" shows well what a great job Narayan does in describing the dynamics in a marriage.   There are a lot of strong women in his stories and the wife in this one for sure is.   When the husband is caught doing something he promised he no longer would when his wife returns from vacation I felt his pain for sure.

"A Shadow" is a very interesting story centered on the son and widow of a movie star.    The man died about six months ago.   He was a pretty big star and the family is prosperous.   His last movie is set to open in Malgudi in a few days.   This story is about what happens when his widow and his son go to see the movie.    It really is a unique story.

"A Willing Slave" is about a seemingly perhaps a bit retarded woman who has worked for many years as helper in an upper middle class family.   She gives nearly all of her pay to her two grown son, described as brutal drunks.   One day her husband shows up after many years in prison and drags her off to be his slave. This is a tale of unremitting sadness.

"Leela's Friend" is another story about a servant.   One day Sidda showed up at the door asking for a job.  He ended up being hired as a houseboy and became the special friend of the young daughter.  One day the girl's gold necklace shows up missing and everyone assumes Sidda stole it.   When they call the police it turns out he has been in trouble before.   The girl Leela pleads for him to stay but he is fired.   There is a very interesting morally confusing twist at the end.   Narayan is really brilliant at ending his stories.

"Mother and Son" is about a widow and her mid-teenage son.   She has found a wife for him.  (Marriages were pretty much all arranged.)   The son does not like the bride as she is too ugly.   They have a big fight.   This is a wonderful story about the love of the mother for her son and his struggles to be a good son but not have his own life ruined, as he sees it.

There are seven more stories in Malgudi days that have not been previously anthologized.    I have already posted on the most famous of them "God and the Cobbler" which is really good.   I read two of the stories today.   As a practical matter I plan to for sure read the remaining five stories very soon but I will not post on any more of them.

One reason I like Narayan's stories so much is there is such a wide variety of people in them, from the wives of movie stars to the poorest people.   All are treated with respect as whole people.

Mel u

"Papa Panov's Special Christmas" by Leo Tolstoy

"Papa Panov's Special Christmas" by Leo Tolstoy  (1890?, 16 pages)

In observation of Christmas, I want to post on  , Leo Tolstoy's retelling of a French Christmas fable, "Papa Panov's Special Christmas".   The origins of this story are a little vague to me.  I have not so far been able to find when it was first published (I am assuming about is in his latter years from the style and subject matter so I guess 1890.  If you know, please leave a comment or e mail me.)   It seems like it was either originally written by a French evangelical Christian, Ruben Saillens (1855 to 1942) or he recording a folk tale.   Tolstoy translated the story from French to Russian and reshaped it considerably.    It reads much more like "Ivan the Fool" than War and Peace.   

"Papa Panov's Special Christmas"  is the perfect "meaning of Christmas story".   It is not especially original (it is a retelling of a folk story one way or another) and the point it makes has been made many places but I think no one has made it more movingly and the fact that the world's greatest novelist wrote it simply adds to its power, like it or not.  I will supply a link where you can read it in just a few minutes if you like so I will just give the outlines of "Papa Panov's Special Christmas" .

Papa Panov is a widower.   He has grown children who live far away and he rarely sees them.   He is doing OK with his shoe business, making and repairing them for local people.   He is not miserable or suffering but somehow the spirit went out of his life when he lost his wife.   It is Christmas day.   He steps outside his house into the village street.   He hears happy children laughing and smells Christmas meals being prepared and he feels sad and lonely and wished for the old days when he had a happy family.   Papa Panov goes back inside and sits in his easy chair.   He does not read very much today he takes out the family bible.   He reads the story of Joseph and Mary when they could find no room at the Inn.   He says he wishes he could have been there to give them shelter.    He wonders what gift he could have given the new born Jesus to compete with the gifts of the three wise men.   Then he recalls he still has the best pair of shoes he ever made, baby shoes his daughter had worn.   He says he would give Jesus the shoes.  

Even in translation these lines are very moving.

"Suddenly he heard a voice in the room. He sat up startled but could not see who was there. "Papa Panov" said the voice "You wished that I should visit you and that you could give me a gift. Look out for me in the street tomorrow and I will come."  

Papa Panov rubbed his eyes, the fire had burned low and bells were ringing to say that Christmas had come. "It was him" said Papa Panov "or perhaps it was a dream, no matter, I will watch for him, but I don't know how I will recognise him."
He did not go to bed that night but made up the fire and sat waiting for the dawn so he would not miss anyone. At last he saw a figure in the distance, he was very excited, perhaps this was Jesus coming to see him. Then he stepped back disappointed, it was the road sweeper, he had better things to do than watch the road sweeper. He looked again and saw the road sweeper rubbing his hands together and stamping his feet. Papa Panov felt sorry, the road sweeper did look cold and imagine having to work on Christmas Day. Papa Panov went to his door and called him. "Come and have a cup of coffee and warm yourself by the fire", the road sweeper gratefully accepted. As he drank s his coffee Papa Panov told the road sweeper how he was waiting for Jesus to visit, the road sweeper wished him the best of luck, thanked him for the coffee and went on his way."

He goes back to waiting for Jesus to appear.   He begins to think maybe it was just a wishful dream of a lonely old man.   Then he sees two women travelling alone with a babies, looking very poor and distraught.

"He watched carefully as he saw two people approach. Then he saw they were two young ladies, each with a small baby, both babies were crying. Papa Panov remembered when his children had been babies and asked the ladies if he could help them, the mothers explained how they had to travel to see their family, but one baby was hungry and the other had lost her shoes and they still had such a long way to go. Papa Panov invited them in to rest. As he warmed some milk on his stove for the babies he told the mothers about his dream, if it was a dream. Then he had a thought, he tried to ignore it but it kept coming back, so he lifted the special pair of shoes from the box and tried them on the baby, they fitted perfectly. "I hope your dream does come true" said one of the mothers as they left "You deserve it for being so kind"

I will let you read the rest of the story.   The ending is not hard to predict but if you open yourself up I think you might be very moved by this simple story of deep wisdom and compassion.

This story is sentimental and some may say it is almost schmaltzy and that it more a fable than a short story to which I can only say yes there is truth in this.   But it seems a deeply felt very wise story to me.   If you have never any Tolstoy, read this and now you have!

You can read the story HERE.
Mel u

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"Trail of the Green Blazer" by R. K. Narayan

Pickpockets in Malgudi?

V"Trail of the Green Blazer" (1956, ten pages) by R. K. Narayan was originally published in The Hindu, where many of his other short stories were first published.   As was to be expected, the publication imposed some directives as to the length of his short stories, most come out to ten or fifteen pages.    Any shorter and subscribers might feel shortchanged, much longer and they might lose interest.   Most all of the subscribers read English as a second language.    It was latter included as the second story in his collection Lawley Road and other Stories and has now been included in an expanded collection of his short stories

Watch this and 39 other classic episodes!
The more works I read set in the fictional community of Malgudi India (said to be in South India-some may know the name from the old TV series based on the stories), the more I like it for the brilliant way Narayan makes the characters in the story so real for us and lets see how the customs and commerce of the town shapes the lives of the people who live in it.   There are lots of good, hardworking men and women in Malgudi but that is not all there is.   I admit I was shocked to learn in Man-Eater of Malgudi that the town has a lot of what were euphemistically referred to as "Public Women".

People are always warned about the pickpockets that work the big markets, blending into the crowd while they stalk their prey, carefully watching them as they try to discretely pat their wallet to make sure it is still there not knowing they have just given too much information to someone.    "Trail of the Green Blazer" is about the work and life of a professional pickpocket.   He tries to dress so as to blend into the crowd, he wants to be as bland and nondescript as possible.   We share his elation when a wallet contains enough to live on for a month and share his  annoyance when it only has a few coins.   We also learn about the market for stolen fountain pens, something he almost feels is a waste of his time.   He has been in trouble for this before so now he tells his wife the money he brings home is from his commissions.    She never stops to think what that might be or maybe she just does not want to think about it too much.    Narayan does a great job depicting with just a few lines the dynamics within a marriage.   Even a pickpocket has a wife he must answer to.  Anyway he steals the man's wallet and (this is a bit of a plot giveaway) something prompts him to return the wallet (keeping the money of course).   He gets caught trying to slip the wallet back into the green blazer.   The man grabs his arm and holds him until the police come.   A crowd gathers and everybody has a great laugh when he says he was trying to put the wallet back.   He ends up doing 18 months in jail.   He changes a bit when he gets out and the story proposes an interesting lesson in morality.
"Trail of the Green Blazer" is another really good Narayan story, I do not think there is probably a bad one!

Mel u

"The Displaced Person" by Flannery O'Connor

"The Displaced Person" by Flannery O'Connor (1955, 30 pages)

My Prior Posts on Flannery O'Connor

1925 to 1965
"The Displaced Person" is one of Flannery Connor's longest short stories.    I am currently reading through the stories in her posthumous collection The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor.   O'Connor is on many greatest of all time short story writer lists and is for sure now on mine.

O'Connor (from Savannah, Georgia, USA-the heart of the old south)is the very epitome of  a Southern Gothic writer with grotesque characters,  very dysfunctional families and deep as it gets symbolism.    That combined with her fearless depiction of the climate of pervasive racism and white supremacy of the time makes her hard to read or even take to some readers.   Most of her stories are told through conversations or the thoughts of her characters.   There is extensive use of "dialect" in the stories that will slow most readers down.  (I for sure needed to slow down for "The Displaced Person").

The white residents of the world of the south in the 1940s were not just prejudiced against blacks (there is constant use of very unacceptable language that may make these stories hard for teachers to use), but against Europeans, Catholics (O'Connor was a devout Catholic), any body that "talks funny", and anybody that just stands out at all.   This is a world where people would nod in agreement when someone said Poles and Germans were all the same (and right after WWII ended be real confused about what it was about and who fought who) and that "Italians" were white "technically speaking".

The story takes place on a farm in rural Georgia around 1947 or so.   The farm is owned by Mrs McIntyre, once a widow and twice divorced.   She runs her farm with the help of near no account white trash and shiftless blacks (of course she does not call them that!).   She has heard about the many displaced persons all over Europe and has a vague idea of concentration camps and such.   She contacts a local Catholic priest and asks him to get her a displaced man to work on her farm.   He gets her refugee from Poland.   He turns out to be an incredibly hard worker, has great intelligence and at once learns how to repair tractors and things like that.   At first Mrs McIntyre is thrilled by him then she gets worried about why he works so hard and what his private agenda might be.   Also he does not seem to understand the way relationships between blacks and white are supposed to work.    There is a lot of great plot action and conversations in the story.   Then Mrs McIntyre is completely shocked when she finds out he wants to bring his sixteen year old niece to Georgia as the bride for one of the black men on the farm.   This is just way too much.   There is much more in this story but I will leave it unspoiled.

I will not now explore the religious symbolism of this story.  As I read the remainder of her stories I may pick one of them and focus on the theological aspects of her story.

Please share your experience with O'Connor?

Mel u

Friday, December 23, 2011

"They're Not Your Husband" by Raymond Carver

"They're Not Your Husband"  by Raymond Carver (1981, 7 pages)

My Prior Posts on Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (1938 to 1988, Oregon, USA) is on a lot of top ten short story writer of all times lists.   I have read and posted on five of his stories.    I recognize he has a tremendous talent and can do wonders with a small amount of material.   I was fully convinced of his brilliance when I read his story on the last day in the life of Anton Chekhov, "Nobody Said Anything".   (By a cosmic coincidence it was Carver's last story.)   

I am put off a bit by the people in Carver's stories.   I know it is not a good reading habit to judge stories and novels on how the people in the stories relate to those in your world but I am a bit turned off by the prevalence of alcoholics, drug users, wife abusers and just seemingly brutally ignorant people in his stories.   If this shows a lack of artistic detachment on my part or a lack of sympathy for the people in most of his stories, then so be it.   It does not mean I do not appreciate his genius and I will keep reading his stories.

"They're Not Your Husband" will make a lot of people cringe at the brutal seemingly valueless lives depicted in the story.   The husband in the story has to be a nightmare figure for every married woman concerned her charms have faded.   

The wife works as a waitress in a diner.   Basically that means a restaurant with a counter, a simple place.   The husband is sitting at the counter, hoping to get a free meal.   Two men come in and scrutinize his wife from behind as she bends over.   Not knowing who the man is, they make a number of really rude remarks about her body, concluding with a suggestion that they guess she can still attract men because "some like them fat".   The husband is really upset by this.   When he and the wife are going to bed, he basically tells her she needs to lose some weight and tells her to stand naked in front of the mirror. OK it takes either an idiot or a total uncaring brute to say something like this to his wife, perhaps particularly when she is the only one working in the family.   He goads her onto a  diet and when she begins to lose weight but looks haggard and feels week her co-workers express concern over her health.   She tells her husband and he says to her "They're Not Your Husband".

After she has lost nine pounds or so, the husband is back in the diner.   He is sitting next to a man he does not know and he tries to draw the man into a conversation about the body of his wife.   This is male bonding at its worse.   

This is a very well done story.   Carver is considered a minimalist (he would have been great on Twitter!).   He does do a whole lot in this story. 

It appeared in his collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.   If you search for it, you can read it  online.   

Please share your experience with Carver with us.  

Mel u

"Lawley Road" by R. K. Narayan

"Lawley Road" by R. K. Narayan (1956, 12 pages)

My Prior Posts on R. K. Narayan

Watch 39 Episodes of the Classic Malgudi Days TV shows from the 1980s

To me R. K. Narayan is not just a very good writer, he is a very likable one as well.   Anyone who has read his novels and stories will understand what I mean.   The people in his stories are real and have real life problems.   In her introduction to the collection of Narayan's short stories, Malgudi Days, Jhumpa Lahari says that Narayan  jumps right into his stories and assumes you are interested in what is going to happen.   Most of his stories are set in the imaginary community of Malgudi in south India.  Malgudi, unlike  Winesburg Ohio or Yoknapatawpha County,  has mostly normal mentally healthy residents.

1906 to 2001
In "Lawley Road", taken from the collection Lawley Road and other Stories, Narayan lets us see how the city fathers of Malgudi reacted to the independence of India from British rule in 1947.    Narayan in a brilliant note say the city fathers of Malgudi sort of had kept quiet until they were sure the British were gone then they begun to try to win votes by deciding it was time to rename the streets of Malgudi.   Most of the roads had been named after things or people relating to England.   The streets were all renamed, many of them after members of the Congressional party of India.   As consequence of this people who used to be able to easily tell people that they lived on the corner of Alfred Street and Manchester Blvd now did not even know how to tell people where they lived.  Many streets had duplicate names, the mail did not get through, etc.  But using the old names would mark you out as a lackey of the British.

There was a statue in the center of town of one Sir Frederick Lawley.   It has been there so long no one even recalls who he is or who put the very large statue up.   They just assume he was the worst kind of British Raj governor.   The Statue is ordered taken down.   After it is removed, it was discovered he was a strong advocate of India Independence, a true scholar of India culture who spoke several languages and a total humanitarian and really just a wonderful person.    To compound it all he lost his life trying to save the victims of a flood when Indian leaders ran for high ground.   Now things get crazy when all of this is reported in the local papers.   Politicians whoever they are do not want to admit they made a mistake.   Narayan does his normal brilliant job of letting us see what happens next.

From now until the end of the year I think I will mostly post on short stories.

If you want to sample the work of Narayan, you will find links to his stories in my prior posts.

Please share your experiences with Narayan with us.   Do you have a favorite Narayan story (or have you not yet read him)?

Mel u

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Flannery O'Connor Three Stories from the middle 1950s

"A Late Encounter with the Enemy" (1953, 14 pages)
"The River" (1955, 13 pages)
"A Circle in the Fire" (1954, 16 pages)

"shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in
the circle the angel had cleared for them."

My Prior Posts on Flannery O'Connor

O'Connor around six-already reading
Flannery O'Connor (1925 to 1965-Georgia, USA) is just a flat out genius!   I do not see how anyone who reads her stories could dismiss the short story as an uninteresting genre.    (My page lengths may not be exactly the same as those in the hard copy of the book as I am working from an e-text.)    I am currently reading all of the stories in The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1971).   The stories will sustain as much analysis as one cares to give them and much more.   O'Connor was a very committed Roman Catholic deeply into very serious theological reflections.   Her stories are full of Christian symbolism but that is only one part of their interest.   I am not really trying to convince anyone of her import, just read the stories with an open mind and decide for yourself is my only suggestion.

"A Late Encounter with the Enemy" is a very funny story.   O'Connor is believe it or not laugh out loud funny at times and her stories are very cinematic.    Creative writing schools tell their students to show what happens, not tell it and this is just what O'Connor does.   There are really only two characters that matter in this story, General George Poker Sash who is 104 years old,  and his sixty three year old granddaughter Sally Poker.   The general cannot remember much of anything about his life.   He cannot recall his children or his wife or even the American Civil War in which he was supposedly a General.   He is now brought out for public occasions like parades and holidays and put on the podium as a distinguished person.   He loves this as pretty girls come up and make a fuss over him.    His granddaughter is a teacher and for the last twenty years or so she has been going to summer school to get her teaching degree.   Her goal in life is for the general to live long enough to be on the podium when she gets her degree.  The date is coming up very soon.

"The River" centers on the effects of a riverside baptism of a young man.  Travelling preachers and faith healers were a big part of the culture of the rural American south in this period and O'Connor jumps right into this.   This is a very interesting story with a lot of symbolism and religious topics to reflect on.   It is also about family ties and the roots of dysfunctional families.

"A Circle in the Fire" just screams out to be analyzed and then analyzed over and over again.   As I read Flannery's work I am trying to figure out whether or not I should take her symbolism literally or if it is tinged with layers on tops of layers of narrative and historical irony.   I do not really feel inclined to retell at all the plot of this amazing story.   It is just so densely written.   I will simply say it might be a really strange retelling of the story of the attempt by King Nebuchadnezzar to burn three men in a fiery furnace because they refused to worship his gods.   It is also a story about class in the south.

O'Connor's stories more or less set the standard for Southern Gothic stories.

I am so glad I have the opportunity to read her stories now thanks to the generosity of a patron of my blog.  

O'Connors stories are a world class cultural treasure of the first order.

Please share your experience or thoughts on O'Connor with us.  Do you love her work or is it too Southern Gothic for you.     There is constant use of politically incorrect racial terms in the stories that may give teachers pause for fear of too much controversy.

Mel u