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

Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Farthest Edge of the Islands" by Shimao Toshio

"The Farthest Edge of the Islands" by Shimao Toshio (1955,  20 pages, translated from the Japanese by Kathryn Sparling)

The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project

島尾 敏雄 Shimao Toshio

Shimao Toshio (1917-1986-Japan) is very well known in Japan (according to the excellent introduction by Kathryn Sparling to The Sting of Death and Other Stories in which this story is included) and was quite influential.

There are not a lot of novels or stories written about WWII by those who fought on the Japanese side.    The reasons for this are pretty simple.    The death rate was very high, the returning soldiers were not proud of what they had done, the Americans for a long time more or less prevented the publication of such works and the Japanese public wanted to forget the war and move on.    There are a few brilliant works and I think Toshio's stories can be added to that list.

Shimao Toshio grew up on the island of Kakeroma Jima in the Amami archipelago.      In the WWII era the island was very isolated.   Many of the people were Christians (as a result of 19th century missionary work by Catholic priests) who mingled the doctrines of Christianity with traditional ways.  The island was used as a secret location to train Kamikaze (suicide) attack units.   The Allies did not see it as having a lot of military import so it was left alone for much of the war.

"The Farthest Edge of the Islands" is very much an autobiographical story.   Toshio was sent to the island in early 1944 to be trained to be a junior officer on a naval Kamikaze attack of some kind.   He was days away from being sent to his death when the war ended.

As the story opens our lead character is conversing with a woman living in a cave.   The woman seems to either be learning disabled or have mental issues of some sort.    She and others on the island have heard there is a big air raid coming.    She has seen omens and is regarded as kind of primitive shaman by others who live near her.     The lead character is trying to keep calm and trying to keep up his belief in the great glory of dying in the service of the Emperor.  The unfolding of the story is done very well and the characterizations are first rate.   I really felt I had a little bit of the feeling of what it must have been like on this remote island in 1944.    All the people on the island know or have been told is that for no reason at all, just pure evil, the Americans are going to totally firebomb them all out of existence.   Of course the central character modeled on the author does not have to go on his mission.    I do not want to give out any more plot data of this interesting story.

There are five other stories about the WWII era in The Sting of Death and Other Stories.   Kathryn Sparling has included a very interesting and informative introduction.   Toshio was a productive award winning author but this collection seems to be the only place to find his work in English.   We are very lucky as in this case the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies has chosen to make the full work available to be read online.    I hope to read the other five stories in 2011.

You can read this and five other of his stories here.

I recommend this story too anyone interested in the literature of WWII in the Pacific Theater and to anyone who would like to read a new to them Japanese author.    It is a good short story well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1931, 20 pages)

To me, the last ten or so pages of The Great Gatsby are among the very most beautiful prose I have ever read.   I last read The Great Gatsby (1925) just before I began my blog in July of 2009.   I liked last few pages of the book so much that I read them at least five times before putting the book down.    I have Tender is the Night but somehow I have  have been demotivated from reading it so far.    Today I was looking through my Twitter timeline and I saw a reference to an article in The Telegraph (U.K. newspaper) online edition saying that "Babylon Revisited" was the best of Fitzgerald's short stories,  "One of the finest short stories in the English Language".  

Fitzgerald  (1896 to 1940-USA) along with his wife Zelda are now cultural icons of the Roaring Twenties in the USA where people thought the money and the good times would never end.       (I am currently watching the 12 part series on the HBO Cable channel Broadway Empire is set in the 1920s in Atlantic City New Jersey. It depicts the Jazz age era with which the work of Fitzgerald is normally associated.   For a 21th century equivalent, imagine Charlie Sheen on a bad night!)

"Babylon Revisited" is told mostly  in dialogue.     It takes a bit to figure out exactly what has happened to our lead character as he is  very misleading in his conversations and may in fact be in bad faith himself.    As the story opens Charlie is in a  bar  in Paris once fashionable with affluent Americans.    The great crash on wall street has just occurred the previous year and many people do not have the money they once did and everyone is cutting back (hum..sound familiar to anyone?)   The roaring twenties are over.    I do not want to give away much of the plot line of this story as it was fun for me to try to think through the conversations to see the truth behind them.

The conversations are just great.    We wonder if Charlie is as blind to reality as he seems.    Here is a sample of the prose

"He woke up feeling happy. The door of the world was open again. He made plans, vistas, futures for Honoria and himself, but suddenly he grew sad, remembering all the plans he and Helen had made. She had not planned to die. The present was the thing--work to do and someone to love. But not to love too much, for he knew the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely: afterward, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life".

Take a second and reflect on what is said here about parent/child relationships-do you agree?

"Babylon Revisited" can be read online.     If you have not yet read The Great Gatsby (I am not saying this is a flawless novel as it is not but the last few pages, IMO, are just wonderful-and yes I know I already said that) it will be a good sample for you.   (If you do not like this story I would predict you will not like The Great Gatsby).  

If you are a fan of the work of Fitzgerald or are interested in American literature in the 1930s, you really will be rewarded by this story.    The Great Gatsby is for sure a canon status work and I would also include this wonderful story.  

If you have read other works of Fitzgerald or have any reading suggestions for me please leave a comment.

Mel u

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat" by Saki

"The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat" by Saki (1911, 4 pages)

Most days I check the website, East of the Web:Short Stories to discover what they have selected as their short stories of the day.    It was this way I first read Katherine Mansfield.     If I like their selection (and especially if it is not real long) there is a good chance I will read it.     Saki (Hector Munro-UK-1870-1916-killed in WWI) is often featured and so far I have posted on seven of his stories.    The more I read Saki the more I like and I hope understand his stories.    It would be easy to dismiss his stories as simple pre-modern twist ending short stories aimed at a small class of English society but if you do that you will miss out on his gentle (though he can be wicked) satire and his very relaxing prose style.   His stories have so far all made me smile and think a bit.   Plus in two of the seven I have read a cat plays a central part! 

The central character in "The Philanthropist and the Cat" is Jocantha Bessbury , the contented wife of an affluent kind man who loves her and provides her with a life of comfort and leisure.    One day in a reflective mode the wife decides that the only one she knows who might be more contented than her is her cat, Attab.

"He lies there, purring and dreaming, shifting his limbs now and then in an ecstasy of cushioned comfort. He seems the incarnation of everything soft and silky and velvety, without a sharp edge in his composition, a dreamer whose philosophy is sleep and let sleep; and then, as evening draws on, he goes out into the garden with a red glint in his eyes and slays a drowsy sparrow."

One morning Jocantha looks around her lovely house (imagine something out of the set of the movie The Age of Innocence) and decided when she is out and about today she will do something nice for a shop girl (as they were called).     She decides to buy a theater ticket (way beyond the reach of the shop girl) and give it away.    She imagines how terribly enriched the recipient's life will be by this gesture.   Of course things do not work out the way Jocantha had in mind and it turns out to be her whose life will be changed by what happens-It is just a five minute read so I will not tell more of the plot.

OK I concede Saki's stories may not be canon status works and they are kind of escapist reads but they are fun, well written if  you can accept the mannered Edwardian prose, expose the silliness of people in a kind way and have cats in them!     I will be reading and posting on more of his stories.   Teachers should take note that there is politically incorrect language in some of his stories, including this one.  

This story can be read online

Mel u

Friday, January 28, 2011

Welcome to all Book Blog Hoppers-Jan 28 to Jan 31

Welcome to all Book Blog Hoppers

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 275 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.


   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 recently 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-

Every week Jennifer poses an interesting question for us-this week we are asked to say what our most anticipated book to published in 2011 

Every week Jennifer asks participants in the Book Blogger hop to answer a question-here is this week's question-

"What book are you most looking forward to seeing published in 2011?  Why are you anticipating that book?"

    I am very much looking forward to the sequel to Sea of Poppies by Amitar Ghosh.      This is a historical novel set in Indian in the 19th century that left us at a cliffhanging close after 600 pages.    It reads just like a great Victorian novel and I think in time it will be considered a classic.    It is scheduled to be out mid-year and I might break my rule about not buying hardbound fiction for it!

I return all follows-if you decide to follow me please leave me a comment so I can return the follow-I believe the International Community of Book Bloggers is one of the best things on the internet and try to support it as I can-thanks

Mel u

"Mademoiselle Fifi" by Guy de Maupassant

"Mademoiselle Fifi" by Guy de Maupassant (1882, 13 pages)

Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations has recently done some very insightful and inspiring posts on Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893-France) in which tells us what seem to be the consensus on the best short stories of de Maupassant.    I have already posted on four works by de Maupassant, including what seems to be regarded as his greatest short story, "Boule de Suif" which is set in the period of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and has as one of its central characters a French prostitute.    "Mademoiselle Fifi" is also set during the Franco-Prussian War and has a prostitute as a central character.   (My main source of knowledge about de Maupassant comes from Frederick Brown's great book, Flaubert:  A Biography.   Maupassant was a disciple of Flaubert.    For better or worse, both men were very into prostitutes.)  

The male characters in "Mademoiselle Fifi" are all German officers occupying a conquered Paris, living in a confiscated chateau.      As you might guess, the characters are not portrayed in at all a flattering way.   Some evidently regard this story as almost a self parody and I think it may be from the very stereotypical portrayal of the German characters.    (Some of Katherine Mansfield stories in  A German Pension and Other Stories -1911-also make fun of Germans.)    All of the Germans are depicted as very uncultured, pompous and arrogant.    All have huge mustaches (I think this is a sign of hyper masculinity in the 1870s) and red or blond hair.   One of the officers is called Mademoiselle Fifi by his fellow German officers because he has an effeminate air.   He is the worst of all.   He is violent and he loves to smash up the beautiful objects of art in the chateau.   His manner is contemptuous to all.

The officers in the chateau have been stuck inside for almost three weeks due to heavy rains.  They are all very bored.     They decide to have a party and they arrange for each of the men to have his own French prostitute for the day.  The main French character is a prostitute, Racheal who is identified as Jewish, who is assigned to service the very offensive and insulting to France Mademoiselle Fifi.      Perhaps de Maupassant makes use of prostitutes here to show that the lowest elements of French society have more dignity than Prussian army officers (and one would also have to assume using prostitutes in your  works  increased sales then just as it does now!)  

I do not want to tell to much of the plot of the story as the ending is a lot of fun and I am sure it was loved by the target audience of the story.    This story is probably not real popular in Germany!

I do not know near enough about the short stories of de Maupassant to say if this story is a kind of "dumbing down for the masses" story or not.   It seems written by formula.    I do not thing it is a bad story but it does not have the finely crafted feel of "Boule de Suif" or a Katherine Mansfield short story.

If possible, please leave any suggestions you have for best de Maupassant short stories in a comment-thanks

Mel u

"Little Things" by Raymond Carver-

"Little Things" by Raymond Carver" (5 pages, 1988)

I have seen Raymond Carver's name on several best American 20th century short story writers type lists over the last few months.       A bit of quick pre-read research on Carver (1938 to 1988-Oregon, USA) seems to put him squarely in the hard drinking, scramble about life style of American writers such as Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway.    He had a variety of jobs from night janitor at a hospital to instructor at the super prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop.    Wikipedia has a good article on him.

I have been in a sampling new to me writers mode this month so I thought I would read a story by Carver, if I could find one online.   His work is still protected by American copyright law but I was able to find one story online.   (As I have  said before, there are no public libraries here in Manila and I do not wish to buy collections of new to me short story writers so my samples of new authors tend to be limited).

"Little Things"  (first published in Popular Mechanics Magazine in 1977) gives us a look at a very nasty fight at what seems to be the break up of a couple that has had a baby together.    These opening lines of the story will give you an idea of his prose style.

Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.
He was in the bedroom pushing clothes into a suitcase when she came to the door.
I'm glad you're leaving! I'm glad you're leaving! she said. Do you hear?

As the story goes on each one has one of the baby's arms and they are pulling on him in an effort to claim ownership.   Hum-what to say here....?    Is "Little Things" a marvelous example of literary minimalism or is it a "shock story" designed to take participants in college workshops on creative writing and readers of the Paris Review outside of their personal comfort zone?    Is Carver an American enfant terrible?  

I am glad I have now read one of Carver's stories.     I would read one or two more of his works to get a better feel for him.     Over all, I  would say I would not buy a collection of his stories (for sure not at full retail!).

 I could not help but imagine Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen trying to decide if this story is meant to be taken seriously or if it is an odd joke of some kind.  

Please let me know what you think of Carver-

The story can be read online.      I am glad I got to sample one of Carver's short stories.  

Mel u

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Runaway" by Alice Munro

"Runaway" by Alice Munro (2004, 45 pages)

"Runaway" is the lead story in a collection of Alice Munro's short stories, Runaway.    Alice Munro (1931, Canada) is a greatly admired writer of short stories.    (Last year I read via her story "Fiction" but did not post on it.)    She has received a great many awards for her work and is admired in Academia as well as among general readers throughout the world.    A bit of quick research indicates that most of her stories are about women and are often set in South Western Ontario, Canada.  

Most all of the short stories I have posted on can be read online.    In contrast to my normal practice of reading short stories online, I purchased the collection this story was in about a year ago.  

It took me a little while to get into it but after just a few pages I really liked the beautiful prose style of Munro. People often complain that short stories do not have enough character development to interest them.   Munro in "Runaway"  does a great job in developing the characters of the lead figures in the story.   There are at least three runaways in "Runaway".   One of the runaways is a much loved family goat.   One is an oppressed wife. One, and this was not so clear to me, is the widow of a strange poet.    One of the reasons I think people like Munro's stories is that she tells us enough about the characters to get us interested but still leaves a lot of blanks for us to fill in.   She gives us concrete details about the lives of the people in "Runaway" so we can feel we understand how they live but  still leaves some mystery.    I easily was able to believe in everyone in "Runaway".    

There are seven other stories in  Runaway.   I think now I will read them all slowly over the course of the next few months.  

Mel u

"Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes

"Thank You, M'am"  by Langston Hughes  (1958, 5 pages)

Christina of Reading Through the Night in a note on Twitter told me that the students in her seventh grade class really enjoyed the short story, "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes (1902-1967, USA).    I had heard of him but really did not know much at all about him.     I turned to my standard first reference source, Wikipedia.Com for some pre-read information.    Hughes was a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance.  

"Thank You, M'am"  would be a wonderful class room story for 12 year old and above children but it is not a children's story.   In just a few pages Hughes really does create a small world in which we can enter and walk around in and feel we understand.    I will tell a bit of the plot.    

As the story opens, a young man seemingly in his mid-teens, attempts to steal the purse of a woman out walking.   He does not succeed in getting her purse but maybe (we do not know and that is part of the power of the story) he gets something much more valuable.   The style of Hughes is straightforward story telling.   I will quote a bit so you can get the feel for it.

She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. the large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.
After that the woman said, "Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and give it here." She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, "Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?"
I really liked what happened next in this story and I do not wish to deprive others of the first time pleasure of reading this story.   I think, just as I was, if you give this story a few minutes you will be glad you did.

"Thank You, M'am" can be read online .                        

Hughes is, I think,  now a cultural icon, more read or talked about than actually read.  

Mel u

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima (1968, 389 pages, trans. from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher, 1972)

The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project  

Spring Snow (豐饒の海)  by Yukio Mishima (1925 to 1970-Japan) is the initial work in The Sea of Fertility tetrology, the crowning glory of an incredibility productive life.   The other works in the series are Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel.   One of the dominant themes of this work (and his The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea which I read last year) is the depiction of the corrupting influence of western culture on Japan in the early part of the 20th century.   

Most of the plot action of Spring Snow is from 1912 to 1914.    The main story line concerns the romance between the son of a newly rich family and the daughter of an aristocratic that is in economic decline that makes it difficult for them to observe the proper formalities.   Shigekuni Honda,  a friend of the male character, is the principal witness to the events.   He will play a role in all of the novels.   Two royal princesses from Thailand (Siam at the time) arrive to study in Japan and stay with the family of Kiyoaki (the male lead).   Watching them learn about Japanese culture is fascinating.   The plot of Spring Snow is fairly complicated though not impossibly so.    

Spring Snow is about loss.   It is about loss of trust in others, in your country and in your faith.    Mishima offers us the opportunity to go deep into classical  Japanese culture.    I really enjoyed the lectures on Buddhism that occur as part of the plot.    One can feel, and his life shows it, the very profound connection of Mishima to Japanese culture and traditions from the years before western culture became dominant.    I felt a very high intelligence and cultivation behind this work.

Mishima lead a life right out of his own works.       There seems to be enough evidence to classify him as a GLBT writer (you might look at my post on "The Tragic Tale of the Love of Two Enemies" a story from 17th century Japan to see how this relates to Samurai culture).

I think and hope that Yukio Mishima will come to be regarded as high canon status writer.    This will happen only if teachers of literature worldwide themselves become well read in the Japanese novel.     The Japanese novel is one of the literary glories of the 20th century.    I do not believe in "balancing the canon" based on the backgrounds of the authors included but a canon list without at least five Japanese authors on it needs to be rethought.

How do you feel about "Balancing the canon"?

Mel u    

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs (1902, 7 pages)

I wanted to start the day out with a story by a new to me author.    In my attempt to edify myself regarding short stories I have looked a lot of  "best short stories"  lists.    I have seen "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs on several lists.     Being completely unfamiliar with this author, I did some quick pre-read research.    William Wymark Jacobs (1863 to 1943-London) was in his day a famous writer of short stories for the popular magazine market.   He also wrote stage adoptions for a number of his short stories.    His father worked the docks in London's East Side.    Jacobs worked for a few years as a clerk in the Postal Savings Bank but was basically a professional writer.  

Jacobs subject matter was largely the people of London's East Side.   It was an area of immigrants, sailors on shore leave, brothels (Hogarth's drawings of the streets of London were inspired by the East Side), poverty, crime and danger.  To comfortable people who composed the book buying pubic in 1902 The East Side had an exotic let's go slumming kind of feel.    Imagine the scene in the movie, My Fair Lady where Professor Henry Higgins first meets Eliza Dolittle and  I think we have an idea of the East Side in popular culture.

"The Monkey's Paw" is very well written.    As the story opens Mr and Mrs White are conversing with an old friend of the family, Sergeant Morris, recently returned from long service in the British Army in London.   The Whites live with their adult son who is at work at his factory job.   The Sergeant gives them a dried monkey's paw which he says an Indian holy man has given the power to grant three wishes.   As he leaves he advises them to be very careful in using it as the last wish of the prior person to use the monkey's paw was for his own death.  (The Sergeant never used it.)

Of course the Whites cannot resist using it.    They debate what to do and the wife prevails with her suggestion that they ask for 200 Pounds (my quick research says this is about a year's pay for a factory worker in the U. K. in 1900-please correct me if I am way off on this).   Of course we think  there will be a terrible prize to be paid for the granting of the wish and we are right.   I will tell a bit more of the plot than I normally do so you can get the flavor of the story.   There is a knock on the door.   It is a man in a suit dressed  way above the standards of the East Side neighborhood the White reside in.   The man is a representative of the factory where their son works.    He has terrible news.  Their son was caught in machinery at work and killed.   The factory disavows all responsibility but gives the Whites 200 pounds to compensate them for the death of their son.    Jacobs does a great job of showing us how the death of the son, their only child who survived to adulthood, affects the Whites and their marriage.  

There are two wishes left and I do not want to tell more of the plot than I have.    "The Monkey's Paw" is a very entertaining short story and I am glad I took the time to read it.   I think it could be taught to students 12 and above.

It can be read online here

Mel u

Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez (1970-in translation by Gregory Rabassa, 458 pages)

A few years ago I read most of the translated novels of Gabriel Marquez, stopping before I read his most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude.  I recently read and posted on three of his short stories, all of which I really liked.  

  Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928, Columbia) is a very important 20th century author.    He won the Nobel Prize in 1982.     Nearly all of Latin American literature stands in his shadow, including Roberto Bolano.   Much of the literature of what some call "The Third World" is very derivative  from the work of Marquez.    For sure this is true of the writers of the Philippines.     He  brought into currency "Magical Realism" as a literary category.   Some see "Magical Realism" as also an anti-colonial literary device and I kind of see this also.      Here is how Wikipedia defines "Magic Realism":

 magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction  in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner which allows the "real" and the "fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought.
Have you ever hesitated or just not read a book that logically you should based on your reading history and interests just because you were somehow put off by the tremendous hype on the book?      I think that is the reason I did not years ago read One Hundred Years of Solitude.    On the back cover of the edition I have there is a quote from William Kennedy's New York Times Book Review article in which he says that One Hundred Years of Solitude is "the first piece of literature since the book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race".     

I really do not feel a need to say a lot about this book as all sorts of posts can be found on it.  My entry will be just a short reading note.   I think this book should be read because of  its huge influence.   It also sort of gives us a feel for the crazy history of Latin America (or really any country run by capricious leaders) and Columbia in particular.   There are lots of very imaginative characters and events in the book.    I would say the book is fun as long as one is OK with Magic Realism which I am.    Once you catch on that Marquez  is kind of recreating the history of the human race it is fun to see the work develop.    Marquez is a  very good writer.   Some of the stories and set pieces in One Hundred Years of Solitude are brilliant.     There is real wisdom in this book.     Should it be required reading for the whole human race?    No, I am sorry I do not see this in the book.

Harold Bloom has it on his list of canon  status works.     I am glad I have now read this book, partially so I can see what the hype was all about and partially for its huge cultural influence.  I can for sure see a major influence on Roberto Bolano.    It is included in the 1997 edition of Clifton Fadiman's Life Time Reading Plan and was not even yet published when the first edition came out in 1960.     

Mel u

Friday, January 21, 2011

"The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Alan Poe

"The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Alan Poe (1843, 5 pages)-Short Stories in The Life Time Reading Plan

Edgar Alan Poe (1809 to 1849-USA) would have been 202 years old on January 19.   Yesterday I was looking over the works listed in Clifton Fadiman's The Life Time Reading Plan (1960), a book that has meant a great deal to me for many years.    There are only four authors listed for their short stories, Franz Kafka, Nathaniel Hawthorne,  Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Alan Poe.   (Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scriviner" is also listed and I completely agree with that.)  ( I think James Joyce, Anton Chehkov, Guy du Mauspassant, and Katherine Mansfield and maybe Gogol should be added to the list and I would be OK with the dropping of Hemingway.)      Fadiman says Poe pretty much created the  "horror story" and the "detective story" genre.   Many of the characters in his stories are right at the border between sanity and insanity.    He is very much a Gothic writer.

I have previously posted on Poe's "The Mask of the Red Death".   "The Tell Tale Heart" is on the surface a simpler tale.   The first person narrator and central character of the story knows he (might be a she for all we are told)  is perhaps losing his mind.    The central character is somehow being driven mad by an old man that he lives with who he thinks is somehow giving him a "vulture eye". He decided to save his sanity he must murder the old man.    He then dismembers the body of the old man and hides it under the floor boards of the house.   I do not want to give away more of the plot of this story as it is very well told and quite exciting.    Poe does a great job of making us see the world through the eyes of the  narrator.   It is beautifully written.  

"The Tale of the Tell Tale Heart" can be read online (all of his stories can be read online).    It is a fun story from a canon status writer.       In five minutes you can experience a classic short story.

Mel u

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Welcome all Literary Book Blog Hoppers-Jan 20 to Jan 23

To me the Literary Book Blog Hop is a great event. I read and post on mostly classics, short stories, Asian Fiction and what I see as literary novels.     

"Greetings to All Hoppers" Charles-coeditor of The Reading Life
I will follow back all who follow me and return all visits.   Please leave a comment if you decide to follow my blog so I can return the follow.-thanks

Let me know how you like my new header collage-how many of the people in the collage can you identify?-Thanks-Charles

 Every week the Literary Book Blog asks that participants answer a question-here is the very interesting  question for this week.

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?

This is not an easy question for me to answer. It has been a very long time since I have been in school and when I was in my school years I did not do what I did not want to do.   For better or worse if I hated a book I did not read it.   I recall being bored by Pilgrim's Progress when I first read it but on a  rereading years latter I saw the power of the work, or at least some of it.   

Mel u

"Ransom of Red Chief" by O Henry-USA/UK-Short Story Shoot Out-Round 2

"Ransom of Red Chief" by O Henry (1910, 12 pages)

Round Two- Trans-Atlantic Battle of the Twist Ending Short Stories from the 1910s
O Henry representing the USA versus Saki representing the UK

O Henry-USA-1862-1910
(I am reading this story based on a suggestion of Risa of Bread Crum Reads that we read and both post in the same time frame on this story of O Henry and "Mrs Peckletide's Tiger"   by Saki.)

O Henry (his real name was William Porter-1862-1910-USA) is one of the most popular American writers of short stories.   His stories are famous for twist or surprise endings.   His stories are meant as good natured entertainment that almost anyone can appreciate.   The style is simple and straightforward and I did get the feeling O Henry had fun writing them.

O Henry's father was a doctor but in those days this did not mean what it does today.   O Henry's mother died when he was three, Saki's mother died when he was two.   O Henry died at 48, Saki at 46.    Both got their professional starts as newspaper writers. Both lived out side their home countries for a time.    O Henry left the USA to hide from the police (he came back and turned himself in when he heard his wife was dying)  and Saki went to Burma to work for the British police force!    O Henry struggled in a good part of his life to support himself and his family.   Saki came from a well off family and never suffered any financial anxieties.   O Henry spent five years in prison for embezzlement from a bank for which he worked as a teller.   He began to write seriously while in prison.    Upon release he began to publish one story a week and ending up with over 300 stories.    O Henry married twice (he was a widower). Saki never married.   O Henry had to make his own way in life and selling his short stories was a big part of how he made his living.    Saki was born in comfortable circumstances, not fabulously wealthy by any means but certainly he never had to sell his stories to pay the rent.    

 I am pretty sure ""Ransom of Red Chief" is the second most still read of O Henry's stories, with "Gift of the Magi" being number one.    As the story opens Bill and Sam, two fugitives from the law hiding out in the Deep South of the USA are trying to come up with a way to get $2,000 so they can use it to create a swindle involving fraudulent land sales.      They decide to kidnap the son of a local citizen, a man known for sharp financial dealings.  (The story is from a period when kidnapping for ransom was not seen as often a prelude to murder.   The famous kidnapping and murder of the son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh took place in 1932.)    The boy, known by his nickname of "Red Chief" does not know he has been kidnapped, he thinks he is on a camping trip and that Bill and Sam are local rubes his father hired to look after him for a few days.   Bill and Sam are not at all violent and it turns out they are in more danger from the antics of Red Chief than he is from them.  

I do not want to tell more of the plot as it is a lot of fun.    (Teachers should note that there is a use of a term that is very unacceptable today in the story.    This would perhaps make it unacceptable for class room usage in some political climates.   It does seem a bit mean spirited as it is used in the narrative of the story, not in conversation of the characters.    It is possible also some may find the use of the name "Red Chief" as politically incorrect.  These issues do not change the literary merit of the story, it is just something for teachers to consider.   In terms of content this story could be taught to 5th graders and up, I think).

Of the two writers I like Saki best.   The stories of O Henry are fun and well written in an anybody can read style.   I just prefer the prose style of Saki.   Saki's stories have more of an ironic tone and seem to involve more of a social satire. This, of course, does not make them better!   The people in the stories of Saki seem more educated and better off economically than those in the stories of O Henry.  In the stories of O Henry, fate seems to play a trick on the characters whereas in the stories of Saki one of the characters seem to provide the twist ending.  

"The Ransom of Red Chief" can be read online.

Mel U

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"The Tragic Love of Two Enemies" by Ihara Saikaku-

"The Tragic Love of Two Enemies" by Ihara Saikaku-井原 西鶴; (1680, 5 pages, translated by E. Powys Mathers)

The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project

Ihara Saikaku (1642 to 1693, Japan) is an important figure in the history and development of Japanese literature.    He is given credit for initiating a genre of Japanese literature that is still very popular, the literature of the "Floating World".   Basically this means stories about the pleasure quarters of Tokyo, about geishas, plays, tea house, restaurants, and prostitutes.    He opened up the way for Japanese writers to tell stories about real life, not  just courtly love affairs and epics about heroes.  

In the  tradition of the Samurai a young apprentice warrior was expected to serve the needs, including sexual, of his master.   There was no shame in this and just as in Sparta warriors often developed extreme bonds for each other.

"The Tragic Love of Two Enemies" is a short work that tells us a lot about the Samurai code.     As the story opens the Shogun of the province through one of his ministers has ordered a page, Senpatji Akanashi, to kill his courtier Shingokei Dizaki.    Senpatji asks why and he is told it is because the Shogun wants it done.    
Senpatji returned to his apartment depressed at having to kill Shingokei, who was one of his best friends. Nevertheless, he went to his friend's house that night, and after a short conversation, killed him, announcing afterward, "This is the command of my master." Shingokei's slaves even tried to seize the murderer, but Senpatji calmed them, saying, "I've acted upon my master's orders, and just as I must obey him, so you must obey him."
The widow of Shingokei is inconsolable.    The widow cannot obey her impulse to kill herself as she is pregnant.   In time she gives up her passions (her father was a distinguished Samurai) and moved far away and supported herself and her son with needle craft.       In time Senpatji displease the Shugun and he is exiled.      Fourteen years have gone by and by accident he meets the widow of the woman he killed.   At first the widow does not realize he is the killer of her husband.   I do not wish to tell more of this story as it is really quite touching.       There is a love story here but it is not between the killer and the widow.   It is between the killer and the teenage son of the man he killed at the orders of the shogun.    The boy feels no hatred toward the killer of his father as it was all dictated by the Samurai code of absolute obedience.

The story can be read online

Mel u

"What Do You See, Madam" by Djuna Barnes

"What Do You See, Madam" by Djuna Barnes (1932, 6 pages)

" If Helen of Troy could have been seen eating peppermints out of a paper bag, it is highly probable that her admirers would have been an entirely different class."  Djuna Barnes

I was looking at a very interesting and new to me web page this morning, Modernist Women.   It has great pictures  of Woolf, Mansfield, Rhys, Bowen  and numerous other writers, among them Djuna Barnes.

My second question to myself was (after I wondered how to pronounce her first name) what qualified her to be listed among the great women writers of the 20th century.   Of course I Googled her.

Djuna Barnes (1892 to 1982-New York City) is known now only for Nightwood (1936).    She has achieved the status of a minor cultural icon.    Barbara Harris, co-author of The Joy of Lesbian Sex (1977) said that the work of Barnes was  "practically the only available expression of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world since Sappho."    Barnes was once a very well known and highly regarded literary figure.   She was a friend of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.   She lived a very long time and had a very interesting life.   Wikipedia has a very well done article on her life and works.   Her life reminded me a bit of Jean Rhys in that she descended into isolation and alcoholism in the closing years of her life.   Like Rhys,  one would have to say she profited by her looks in her early years and felt a sense of abandonment as she became older.  

I was happy to see that the winter 2005 issue of Lodestar Quarterly had one of her short stories online.    "What Do You See, Madam"  is about the back stage life of a dancer New York City in the roaring 1920s:

The Bowery, which is no place at all for virtue or duplicity, had seen Mamie try on her first fit of sulks and her first stay laces. They knew then that her pattern was Juno, her heritage Joseph, and her ambition jade. At the age of ten she had learned to interpret Oscar Wilde.

Mamie grew up in the theaters of New York city and had no illusions as to why men came to see her dance the role of Salome.    Unfortunately the Board of Decency has been advised that her performances may cross the line!     As the story opens the board is on their way to see her do a private show just for them.    I will not tell more of the plot here.    

"What Do You See, Madam" has some good lines.

When she passed the boundaries of decency, it was a full run for your money; when she went up in smoke, those original little pasty pans of Egypt became chimney pots.
It is worth the time it takes to read it.   I am glad I was able to sample her work.    She is for sure a GLBT icon right below Collete and Wilde.   

If you have read other works by Djuna Barnes, please leave your experience in a comment.

Mel u