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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

September Reading and Blogging Plans and an August Look Back

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Please Join Me in Voting for The Japanese Literature 5 Challenge for best book blog event

This will be my 3rd year to participate in Book Blogger Appreciation Week .    I  have found this to be a great networking event with 1000 + book blogs from all over the world coming together for a week long virtual convention from September 12 to 16.   You need to register to fully participate and vote in the awards balloting.  I am happy and honored that my blog was long listed for "best literary blog".   I am also a judge in another category.    If it is anything like last year, there will also be lots of give-a-ways!    

Blog Notes for August

Some bloggers say they do not follow their stats and say they blog for themselves and maybe a few others.   This is great but I think most of us like to feel someone is reading our posts and we want to know something about them.    Sometimes I wish I knew more for sure.   Everyday, almost, someone visits my blog from a small town in northern Vietnam, they only stay on a few seconds (I guess they pay for time by the minute).  They have been visiting for 2 years now.  They have logged on 100s of times but I have no clue who they are.   By far the most common city for a visitor to be from is New Delhi.    The most common American state is California.      On many days now  33 percent or more of my visitors are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.   I value all my readers, including the many who I know just want to avoid having to read a book for school, but I value by far the most those who take the time and trouble to post comments.    

To the 100s of people who have attempted to post spam on my blog, please stop!!!

I want to acknowledge and give thanks for  the extensive editing suggestions I have received from my quite brilliant cousin living in Texas.   I find it very hard to proof read my own work and will miss errors that would scream out to me if someone else committed them.      

The book I am most glad I at last read in August was Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.   I totally loved it.   

Main blog event for August was Indonesian Short Story Week co-hosted by Novroz from Jakarta.    We both hope this will be an annual event for a long time. This was year II.

I added a custom Google search to my sidebar.   I really like it and use it all the time myself to find my old posts (now over 700).    It does a lot better and much faster  job than the search in the top bar of a blogspot blog.   I recommend it to others as a good  edition for your sidebar.   I periodically change my header collage.    

In looking at the blogs I judged, I think one issue is that people, I know I did, tend to overload their blog with all sorts of sidebar pics, different fonts, backgrounds etc when they first start blogging.    Some blogs I have seen have grey back grounds with small black fonts which is hard to read.    

Tentative September Plans

Top Reading Choices for September

Novels and Dramas

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann-already started
  2. Noli me Tangere by Jose Rizal-already started-The Filipino national novel
  3. The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan-one of my favorite authors
  4. Two more Chekhov plays-The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters
  5. The Moor's Last Stand by Salmon Rushdie-my 3rd of his works
  6. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe-
  7. Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said
  8. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
  9. The Longest Journey by E. M. Forester-
  10. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope-maybe
  11. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy-also a maybe-
These are what I hope to read.   I am sure I will not get to all of them.   I always seem to get side tracked somehow.   Last month I was side tracked into European Drama.    

I am grateful to the patron of my blog from New Delhi who has given me all of the above works but for the two Chekhov plays (both in public). 

Short stories

Short stories are an ever increasing part of my reading life.   Two years ago like most book bloggers I did not read short stories much at all.   I felt they were not "substantial" enough for me.   Now I know I was totally wrong and was missing out on a wonderful art form, some of the world's great literature and a lot of fun.   Maybe I will do a post on my thoughts after now having read over 500 short stories in the last two years.    

  1.  More Stories from  The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories  
  2. More South Asian Short Stories
  3. Stories by Raymond Carver-a true genius of the form
  4. More Flannery O'Connor-at least two
  5. Some  lesser known Katherine Mansfield stories not in her anthologies
  6. Somewhere in Minnesota by Orfhlaith Foyle-collection of short stories
Normally I only post on about 1/2 of the short stories I read but I list everything in my monthly lists.   If I do not post on a work, it does not mean I did not like it.

As always I appreciate all comments and suggestions

Mel u


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Onnagata" by Yukio Mishima

Onnagata" by Yukio Mishima (1957, 19 pages, translated by Donald Keene)

Behind the Kabuki Mask

A Yukio Mishima  (1925 to 1970) story translated by Donald Keene, this is as much of a guarantee of sublime quality as you are going to get anywhere.

Mishima (some times he is listed Mishima Yukio as he is in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories) is a very complicated writer and man.   If someone were to ask me which Japanese fiction writer will teach you the most about Japanese culture, I would  answer "Mishima".    He is on my read everything that has been translated list.   (There is some background information on him in my prior posts on him.)

One question that should be asked in talking about national literature is what do the writers from the country have in common besides where they live and the language they speak?    For example Irish Short Story writers all have to define themselves with reference to James Joyce.   Their literary tradition demands a very high level of learning and intellect  from their writers.   They all at some point have to deal with the consequences of British colonialism and the disputes between Catholics and Protestants.   They all work in the background of great historical suffering combined with tremendous national pride.   All of their potential readers know that Ireland produced the most important novelist, poet and playwright of the 20th century and beyond.  

In Japanese literature one of the common characteristics (this  begins to fade out as one reads works written much after 1975 or so) is that an author can assume his readers know the very ritualized conventions of Japanese theater as well as the symbolic meaning of flowers, trees and animals.   This allows him to add layers of meaning to his story.   

An onnagata is a male actor who plays a female part in a Kabuki theater.   (There is a very interesting article here on the history of the onnagata )   Homosexual relationships were often depicted in Kabuki performances.   Just as in Sparta, an apprentice samurai was expected to accede to the sexual requests of his master.   This was not seen as a sign of a lack of masculinity but as a mark of respect.  

Our story centers on the life of a onnagata.   It is expected that in order to be at his best on stage that he will live his life as if he were a woman.   As such they are considered more feminine than ordinary women because they deliberately decide to act in accord with stereotypes.   Mishima does a wonderful job with notions of the blurring of the genders.   This is a beautiful brilliant story.

The story does a great job in taking us into the life and mind of the onnagata.   There is a tradition of theatrical prostitution and it was considered a near rite of passage for a young Japanese man of noble background to have this experience.

There is a historical irony here.  It is said that when Czar Nicholas II went on a tour of Japan (prior to ascending the throne) with his good friend Prince Youssoupon they visited a Japanese brothel in which the employees were all men dressed as Kubuki characaters.   From this the Russian leaders were said to have concluded that all Japanese men were like this so they felt they could easily beat them in a war.   Thus they lost the Japanese Russian War which helped set into motion the events that lead to the downfall of the Czar.  

Mel u

Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Rifle" by Nobuo Kojima 小島 信夫

"The Rifle" by Nobuo Kojima (1952, 12 pages, translated by Lawrence Rogers)

A Unique Japanese WWII Story

"The gun had become my woman"-said by a Japanese soldier in Manchuria, 1941
Nobuo Kojima (1915 to 2006-Japan) work is said to deal mostly with the effect of the defeat in WWII on the minds of the Japanese.   For many years he was a university professor in English literature translating into Japanese writers like Dorothy Parker and Barnard Malamud.   

"The Rifle"  is a wonderful anti- war short story.   Our narrator was a soldier in the Japanese army in Manchuria during WWII.   He has no great love for the emperor, he has no real political awareness as to why the war is going on, he has no fanatical hatred for Americans or Australians, and he does not come from a samurai family.   He loves one thing about the war and that is his rifle.  He caresses it, he strokes it, he obsessively cleans "her".     He thinks of a woman he had an affair with when he touches his rifle.   He likes target practice and is a champion, as long as he can use his special rifle.    

In one really powerful scene a number of captives are brought in the area where he is stationed.   One of the captives is a woman.    His sergeant, whom he admires, ties the woman to a stake in the ground.   He tells our narrator to walk 100 meters and then shoot her.   After he shoots her he is to run at her full speed and stab her with his bayonet.    He wants to please and he figures the woman must deserve this for why else would his sergeant give him this order.   He is so proud when he gets to her body and sees he shot her right in the heart.   The sergeant  tells him (the young man has not experienced combat yet) "now you are a man" and he bloats up with pride.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, along with 34 other short stories by the very best writers.    I am reading all these stories and posting on a number of them.   

Mel u

"The Bears of Nametoko" by Kenji Miyazawa

"The Bears of Nametoko" by Kenji Miyazawa  宮沢 賢治  (1927, 8 pages, trans. by John Bester)

A Very Moving Story about the Japanese Brown Bear

 Kenji Miyazawa (sometimes the names are reversed) is a new to me writer.    Several of his novels, children's books, and a collection of fables are available in English translation.    A number of animes have been made based on his stories.

Kenji Miyazawa (1896 to 1933-Iwate Japan) was a very devout Buddhist and lifelong vegetarian.   He was born in a rural area into a wealthy family of money lenders.   From his earliest days he was disturbed by his families exploitation of the poor people in the area.   He received a degree from an agricultural college.   Differences with his father caused him to move to Tokyo where he met well known poets and short story writers who encouraged him in his ambition to write children's stories.   He published his first collection of stories at his own expense.  It was a literary but not a commercial success.   Upon the illness of a sister, he returned to the family property and did all he could to help the poor farmers of the area.   He died at 36 of the pleurisy that plagued him for many years.   

From researching his life and from just reading "The Bears of Nametoko" I think I can sense that Kenji Miyazaawa was a very good person, totally dedicated to the principals of his faith with a great sensitivity toward suffering.   

There is really only one human character in  "The Bears of Nametoko", an old hunter of brown bears.   Brown bears are valued for their livers (thought to have medicinal properties -this is still believed and may well lead to the extinction of the bear in Japan soon) and their fur.   When ever the old hunter, always accompanied by his faithful dog, kills a bear he apologizes first and explains to the bear it is his destiny to kill him just as it is the destiny of the bear to be killed by him.   The old hunter used to have a big family but they all died out from diseases.

It was very sad to read the description of the old hunter cutting out the liver and skinning the fur and throwing out the rest of the body.   It must have been very hard for Kenji to write it given his beliefs.  

The old hunter takes his skins and livers to town to be sold to a merchant who has been cheating him for years.

In one very magic and moving scene, the old hunter is about to kill a bear and the bear speaks to him.   The bear tells the old hunter if  you let me live two more years to raise my cubs two years from today you will find me dead in front of  your hut.   The bear keeps her word.   I hope one day to read more of his work.   He seems like he was a very wise, gentle spirit.

"The Bears of Nametoko"  is some where between a short story and a fable.   I see  it as a world class quality work.   It would be an excellent class room story for those 10 or so on up.  

This story is included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.  

Mel u

"Three Policemen" by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

"Three Policemen" by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki  (1991, 5 pages trans. by Hugh Clarke)

A Twisted Bar Hop in Tokyo's Night Town

The last Japanese literary work I posted on in 2010 was The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki (some times reversed).    If Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant  wanted someone to show them Tokyo's seedier side he would be the man for the job.

The very first book I reviewed in 2010 was The Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihara, a collection of short poetic works written in the late 10th century.    These poems deal largely with the ritual of courtly love in medieval Japan.     We learn of the elaborate conventions a man had to use in attempting to court a Nobel lady. A man might hope after months of courtship to be given a   flower that had been touched by the object of his affections.

Things are quite a bit different by the time we get to the post WWII world of   The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki. (1924 to 1994- Yoshiyuki was a professional writer and journalist who won several prestigious literary awards. )     In his autobiographical novel our courtly hero utters such romantic lines as"pull off your pants promptly, I only have a few minutes on my lunch break".   What courtly lady of the late 20th century could resist the  enthralling flattery inherent in "your sexual skills are on a par with a lesbian prostitute I see regularly".   There seems a near obsession with prostitutes in contemporary Japanese literature.    We see this in the work of Natsuo Kirinio and in The Rivalry by Nagai Kafu .     In some of the works ofJunichiro Tanizaki we also see relationships between the sexes treated as fetish based economic encounters.   Haruki Murakami  gives prostitutes a large part in many of his novels.    Junnosuke Yoshiyuki loved prostitutes and the world of the pleasure quarters.     The central character of The Dark Room sees his lose of traditional values as a result of the Japanese defeat in WWII.   Japanese values were based on the belief in the sacredness of the Emperor and the Samurai Code.   Neither of these faiths could be sustained after 
the Japanese lost the war and the Emperor announced he was but a man. 

"Three Policemen" is set in a bar late at night in Tokyo.   Our narrator and his old Friend Miki are out on the town looking to have some fun.   They are in a "girlie" bar of some kind, though a more respectable one, of course.   Our narrator and Miki are at the bar.  He begins to brush her long beautiful hair.   One by one he begins to undo the buttons on her blouse.   I will let the narrator tell us what happens.

"I undid them all.  The standing next to Miki I touched the collar of the dress with my hand.   The garmet immediatley slipped over Miki's bare shoulders and fell forward.   Unrestrsained by any bra, the curves of Miki's breasts were revealed for all to see.   They were quite large with beautiful pale pink nipples"

The manager comes running over and tells them "Hey we can't have ladies doing things like that in here.   What if the police walk in?   He does up her dress and a sigh could be heard from some of the bar patrons.

He buttons Miki up.   He tells the offended people in the bar, especially the other girls whose breasts do not measure up to Miki's that they would not be offended if a man had breasts like these showed them off.   Miki is indignant but the tone of her voice is that of a "typical gay-boy".

The narrator and Miki are old friends (more we do not know) and it is a ritual of theirs to do this in all the bars they go to.  In some of the bars they go to they are well know so they only do their routine for the bar customers.   

Miki and her friend hit a couple more bars.   They run into three policemen but there is no trouble.   

I found "Three Policemen" a fun vicarious night out on the town.   Is it s bit of a celebration of behavior many would regard as perverted or immoral?   Maybe some would but I had a great time visualizing Miki showing his breasts in a little bar in the Tokyo Night Town World.   I found the friendship between Miki and the narrator very well done.   

This story is another one from the great collection The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Thomas Goossen.   As far as I know it cannot be read online.   "Three Policemen" may not be great art but it was fun, but it  made be laugh and left an interesting image in my mind.    

Mel u

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Blind Chinese Soldiers" by Hirabayashi Taiko

"Blind Chinese Soldiers" by Hirabayashi Taiko 平林 たい子   (1946, 5 pages)

One of the First Post War Japanese Works
Critical of the Military

Hirabayashi Taiko (1905 to 1972, Japan) decided she wanted to be a writer at age 12.   In 1946 she won the first post WWII award for best literary achievement by a woman.   The in English biographical data on her is not real informative.   She won several high prestige literary awards and was interested in Japan yakuza.   Based on checking Amazon and Goodreads, it appears this story maybe the only one of her works that has been translated into English-the translator is Noriko Lippit.   If true this is a terrible shame as "Blind Chinese Soldiers" presents a very  powerful indictment of the horror and absurdities of war.  

I read seven Japanese short stories today from the great collection The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Thomas Goossen.   I was debating whether to post on them in groups or one by one.   In the case of "Blind Chinese Soldiers"  I decided to post on it individually because it presents a such  stunning image and because there is very little on this  author to be found in English on Google.   (I am sorry to say it cannot, as far as I can tell, be read online)

The story is set in a Tokyo railroad station.   The day is March 9, 1945, the day after a giant bombing raid on Tokyo.    The narrator describes himself as an intellectual turned farmer.   He (could be a woman also) notices that as a train pulls up to the station there are about 100 police on the train dock all carrying police batons.  Men in a orderly line in uniforms of the kind that Chinese soldiers drafted into the Japanese Army in Manchuria wore.   There are about 500 of the soldiers and all are blind.   Most are crying.   The Japanese military escorts treat them cruelly, hitting them with their sticks and telling them to hurry up.   People in Tokyo by 1945 were hardened to the horrors of war and nobody spoke up against the war but this shocks the people in the train station.   They ask the commander of the Japanese what happened to these men.  He says "Who knows" maybe they were hurt in an explosion or maybe in a gas war experiment.    Nobody wants to say to much but everyone is horrified and feels  the humanity of these men their government has used in the worse way.   After the war is over in a few months when the narrator is back in the station, he asks the station master what happened to the blind Chinese soldiers.    Nobody, of course, knows.

I guess this maybe my only experience with Hirabayashi Taiko.    I am very glad I was at least able to read this great short story.   

Mel u

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy

Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy (1912, 212 pages, with introduction)

Leo Tolstoy's Last Work

Hadji Murat was Leo Tolstoy's (1828 to 1910-Russian) last work.   It was published posthumously.   Since I began my blog in July 2009, I have posted on two of his shorter works of fiction, "How Much Land Does a Man Need" and "Ivan the Fool".   (There is some background information on Tolstoy in my prior posts on him.)

I think it is hard to read the secondary fiction of Tolstoy without having in your mind his big books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.   To those new to Tolstoy, I would say go for it and first read War and Peace and then Anna Karenina.   (I just saw a commercial for the Greta Garbo Anna Karenina movie.  It is a great movie but try to read the book before you see it as Garbo is so great as Anna you will not be able to see Anna any other way.)

As the translators of this work (Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes) say in their very well done introduction the basic story line sounds like something we might hear on CNN.   Political leaders in the Georgia area rebel against Russian overlords.    The plot is about the life and leadership of one of the Caucasian  leaders, Hadji Murat.

I found the plot really interesting and there are lot of great details that bring the story to life for us.   Murat is forced to side with the Russians when they take his family hostage.   I will leave the plot unspoiled but there is a good retelling of it here for those needing homework help .  

I was sent a complementary copy of this very well produced book by the publisher, One World Classics.   I extend to them by thanks for this.   

I think this book would be good background reading for anyone interested in the history of the region.  

The introduction does a good job of explaining the political history of the region.   There is also about a twenty page article on the life and work of Tolstoy at the end of the book.  The publisher and translators have done a good job with the extra materials.   

Mel u

The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947, 320 pages, Stuart Gilbert)

A Very Influential Post WWII Novel

"Great Fears of the Sickenesses here in the city"-- April 30, 1665, Samuel Pepys

Albert Camus (1913 to 1960-French Algeria) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 largely for this work and his prior novel The Stranger.  (There is some background information on Camus in my post on The Stranger.)    Both of these works are often assigned in university class devoted to existentialism even though Camus said over and over he was not an existentialist.   (Hmm, can you label you label your self as an existentialist without contradicting the whole idea?)   

The Plague is a photo realistic account of what happens in an Algerian town when an epidemic of the plague breaks out.  There are plenty of accounts of the plots of the novel online for those seeking help with their homework so I will just make a few observations.

The first question that comes to mind is why did Camus win the Nobel Prize based just on two novels and some essays?   I think it is because he captured the immediate post WWII mood of many people, especially French and Japanese, very troubled by the events of the war years.    

I said in my post on Ark Sukura by Kobo Abe that a very important theme in much post WWII Japanese literature concerns finding a way to live an authentic valuable life in a world in which all of the values you were taught to believe in have been exposed as hollow lies.   Maybe this is one of the questions addressed in The Plague. 

Maybe The Plague (and much of the writings of Kenzaburo Oe) could be part of a college reading assignment called "Ethics for  Atheists"?   

I found The Plague held my attention from the start.   Even though I knew what it meant when 1000s of rats started dying all over the city it was still a scary scene right out of a horror movie.   It was interesting to see how the civil authorities react to the outbreak of the plague.   

I am glad I at last have read The Plague.    It is a very important novel and it is actually pretty exciting.   Neophytes in the Japanese novel like myself need to read this book as part of their cultural background.   It is no accident writers of a destroyed culture would gravitate to the works of Camus and Sartre.  

No need to be put off this book thinking it is a crushingly heavy philosophical novel.   

I was given a copy of this book by a patron of my blog in New Delhi, for which I am very grateful.

Please share your experience with Camus with us.

I think the next "big" European novel I will read will be The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

This post is my participation in the I Love France Event which takes place every Thursday on Words and Peace.   I  hope a lot of other people will join in supporting this great event.   

Mel u

Friday, August 26, 2011

Welcome to All Book Blog Hoppers-Aug 26 to August 28

Welcome to The Reading Life

Follow Me and I will Follow you Back
Charles is very excited to be
co-editor of my blog, as you can 

I have been an on and off participant in The Book Blogger Hop hosted by Jennifer of Crazy for books for a long time.   I have found it to be a great place to discover new to me blogs and meet some great book bloggers.    

My blog and my reading focuses on an ever evolving collections of reads but for now I am very into South Asian Short Stories, Japanese fiction, classics, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf.   I also read a wide variety of short stories and review an occasional carefully selected new work.

My blog is the home of Irish Short Story Week centered around St Patrick's Day.   I am open to book blog events.  

Every week Jennifer poses an interesting question for us-here is this weeks question:

This week Jennifer asks us a non-reading question-do you have any pets?

We have three cats.   Charles, a 19 year old Siamese, is co-editor of The Reading Life.   We also have a rescue cat Tammy about a year old now and an outdoor cat that comes to us when he is hungry or wants a long nap.   

I will follow back all who follow me-just leave a comment letting me know you are now a follower

Mel u

Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw

Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw (1912)

An Aesop's Fable Brought to the Stage

George Bernard Shaw (1856 to 1950-Ireland) is most known now as the author of the play, Pygmalion, on which the movie My Fair Lady was based.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1925 and an Oscar in 1938, the only person to have done both.   He was a tremendously productive writer with more than 60 dramas and countless articles and essays.   He was also very active in social causes.    

The story line of Androcles and the Lion is considered to have been one of Aesop's fables.    I think almost everyone knows the basic plot.   There has been a movie based on it and I have seen it in cartoons.   Androcles, a Christian, comes upon a lion in the wilderness and pulls a thorn out of his foot.   Androcles is sent by the Romans to the Colosseum to be killed by a lion, etc.  

Shaw does a great job filling out details in the story.   We meet his wife and we kind of like her but she is a real person for sure.   We see the attitudes of the Romans toward the Christians.   There are some very good conversations about religion between the Roman guards and the condemned Christians.   All a Christian has to do to escape the lions is to swear he believes in the Roman gods.   A Roman officer tries to explain to Androcles and his wife that even he does not belief in the gods, it is just a formality so why not swear.   

The play is interesting and an enjoyable read.   I liked the stage descriptions a really lot.   The play is pushing Shaw's social agenda but it is entertainment first.    

I read this at   As a drama I think it could be preformed in well under two hours.   It is not a heavy read or at all abrasive.    

I think most people will enjoy this play and be glad they read it.   It is not one of Shaw's major works and did not change the history of drama or anything like that but it is very well written with some great conversations and the characters seem real to me.

The next drama I will read will be Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett probably to be followed by The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov.

Mel u

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination by Grace Dane Mazur

Hinges: Meditations on the  Portals of the Imaginations by Grace Dane Mazur (2010)
"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfiield (1922)

Orpheus, Night Town and "The Garden Party"

Night towns, Orpheus, Gilgamesh, Hinges  and Doors
Hinges: Meditations on the  Portals of the Imaginations by Grace Dane Mazur is a very illuminating look at the worlds reading can take us into.  This a very rich book that covers brilliantly much directly of great interest to those of us very into the reading life.   

Mazur  explores the myths of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides and Orpheus as  they relate to how we experience literature.  She  helps us to understand what happens to our analytic mind as well as our subconscious as we enter a fictional world.

I want to take a brief look at what she says about one of Katherine Mansfield's best known short stories, "The Garden Party" as it can sort of serve to let us see how Mazur's book can help us get more from what we read, which is to me a tremendous boon.  There really are an  awful lot of very interesting things in this book.   I normally do not do this but I think it maybe best to quote from the press release a bit:

"What is it to be at the edge of the world of the imagination? How do writers, readers, and thinkers deal with this threshold? How do painters represent it? This unusual book — a combination of personal essay, literary criticism, art history, and memoir — examines what happens when we come under the spell of writing, when we get to that place where we enter into an altered state of consciousness, either as writer or as reader. Mazur uses the idea of hinges to explore what happens at real doorways as well as at metaphysical turning points and transformations — in fiction and poetry, and also in ordinary life. As she ranges from the ancient narratives of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides, and Orpheus, to the modern fictions of Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty, she presents the hero’s exploration of the Other World as a metaphor for how we enter into the entrancement of the novel."

I am assuming here a  basic familiarity with Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party.  (There is a link to the story in my first post on it  HERE.)    As the story opens an affluent family is preparing for a garden party.   The setting is New Zealand in the 1910s.   The mother in the family is trying to let one of her daughters take control of the setting up of the party, or she is pretending to do that to give her daughter responsibility.     The workers some how seem more "earthy" and real to her. She wishes she could be friends with them.   Near where the girl and her family lives is a place where "workers" live.    Everyone in the girl's world works with their mind, not their bodies.   Word comes that a man in the worker village has been killed.   He has a wife an five children.  To compress a bit (read the story and I think you will for sure see Mazur's point of view is very illuminating) the girl ends up taking left over food from the party to the family of the man who was killed.   As she walks toward the house of the widow she feels she is entering a dark world she does not really understand.   She is both attracted to it and repelled.   As she sees the body of the man, about 35 years old, she seems to me to have her first  stirrings of passion.   She has a simultaneous  first encounter with Thanatos and Eros in the cabin in the underworld, the night town of the workers village.    As she leaves the village her brother awaits her to guide her home.  Here is the wonderful conversation between Laura and her brother:

" Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't cry," he said in his warm, loving voice. "Was it awful?"

    "No," sobbed Laura. "It was simply marvellous. But Laurie--" She stopped, she looked at her brother. "Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life--" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.

     "Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie"
As I was reading Mazur's remarks on Katherine Mansfield it seems almost as if Mansfield own life was a leaving taking from the very comfortable house hold of her Bank of New Zealand President father to the  near poverty of life among the denizens of the  night town that was literary London in the 1920s.   Mazur makes some interesting speculative points about how Mansfield made use of her fatal disease in deepening and maturing her art.   

Mazur has an  extremely interesting and impressive background.   She has a PhD in Biology from Harvard.   For ten years she was the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.   She is the author of a novel, Trespass and a collection of short stories, Silk, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

There is a lot more information on Mazur on her web page.

I strongly endorse this book to anyone interested in understanding the mythic roots and metaphysics of the reading life.    I really enjoyed her account of the story of Gilgamesh.    The book is also extremely well illustrated.   I enjoyed reading this book and gained some concepts I can use going forward with my reading.

I received a complementary copy of this work from the author.

Mel u

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Miss Julie by August Strindberg

Miss Julie by August Strindberg (1888, translated  by Edwin Bjoerkman)

An Intense Drama of Character

August Strindberg (1849 to 1912-Sweden) was a very prolific and influential playwright.     Miss Julie is  the first of his works I have read.

Miss Julie has only three characters, and one of them is only on stage for a very brief time.   It takes place on the estate of a count, though he never appears.   The entire action of the play is in a series of intense conversations between the count's daughter Julia and Jean who is her father's footman.  (A footman normally was the senior servant in a large household, second to the butler.   He often personally attends the  master of the household.)   Jean is quite well read and has seen more of the world than one would expect for his position.   Julia is the spoiled apple of her widowed father's eye.   She was raised to thing of herself as the equal of men, a daring concept at the time.

Julia is sexually attracted to Jean.   He knows this is something he should not pursue as it could cost him his job.   Strindberg is pretty open for the time in letting us know that Julia and Jean have slept together.    The real issue is that neither can forget the dynamics of power in their situation.   Each one struggles to both love the other without reservations and to achieve domination in the relationship.

Miss Julia is also very much about social classes in 19th century Sweden.   I think it would take a quite good actor and actress to preform this drama.   The finance of Jean, a cook in the household has a very brief part.   It is basically one long conversation of Jean and Miss Julia concerning their relationship.

Imagine a Jerry Seinfeld episode featuring Elaine having a very intense conversation with her on and off again mechanic boyfriend and now imagine this directed by the great Swedish movie direct Ingmar Bergman in a setting where the mechanic cannot escape Elaine and you get the idea.

I read this via   You can easily find it online.   I am glad I read this work and will in time read, I hope, more of his plays.  

The next drama I post on will be George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion.
After that I will read and post on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot,  then The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov and I will try my luck with Gogol's The Inspector General.   I am really enjoying reading these late 19th century-early 20th century European dramas and am open to suggestions as to what to read next.
Mel u

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry

Of Gentle Wolves:   An Anthology of Romanian Poetry edited and translated by Martin Woodside (2011, 60 pages-with joint English/Romanian texts)

A Wonderful Collection 
of Romanian Poems

On this day in 1944 King Michael of Romania signed an armistice agreement with the allied powers in an effort to drive the Nazis out of Romania.   This agreement resulted in the control of Romanian by the Russians and a Communist rule of the country until the revolution of 1989.    Romanian poets for forty five years operated under strict state control.   Since the eviction of the communist government, there has been a tremendous sense of liberation and an outburst of creativity.   Of course things are not all good or bad, with the fall of the Soviet style state went the pensions and support for approved writers and publishers.   The 1989 revolution may have set Romania's poets free but it also left them on their own.

This is the third book by Calypso Editions I have had the privilege of reading and posting on.  (I do not say "reviewing" as I do not really consider myself as writing book reviews, just my reactions to what I read.)

My first post was on their edition of Leo Tolstoy's How Much Land Does a Man Need      Next I was thrilled to be able to read the wonderful poems in Building the Barricade and Other Poems by Anita Swir.  Swir, a new to me author,  wrote poems based on her experience working as a Nurse in Warsaw during WWII.

Of Gentle Wolves:   An Anthology of Romanian Poetry presents us with the English translation and the Romanian original text on the same page, much in the style of a Loeb Classic edition.   This would make it, I think, a marvelous tool for students of either language to increase their mastery of the other.

There are selections from fourteen different poets in the anthology.  I will just focus briefly on three that I found particularly interesting.   I will try a bit to bring these poets to life and to place them in the context of Romanian history, for I think without that the works in this collection will not have the meaning they should for most readers.

Gellu Naum (1915 to 2001) was a dramatist, poet, translator (primarily French to Romanian), children's book author and novelist.   He studied philosophy at The University of Paris, obtaining a PhD with a focus on scholastic philosophy.   While in Paris he became friends with the French surrealist Andre Breton.
He was drafted into the Romanian Army and served on the Eastern Front during WWII.   He helped create a loosely knit group of writers know as the Bucharest Surrealists.   After the Soviet take over he was only able to write children's books.   He taught philosophy for a while and translated writers like Victor Hugo and Samuel Beckett into Romanian.   He began to write seriously in 1968 when regulations were some what liberalized under Nicolae Ceausescu.

Gelda Naum
I want to quote a bit from his poem "The Fourteenth" and look at how it works.  (As I do not read Romanian, I will treat the translation as it if were the work of Naum.)

"Our people forgot buried us in the corn stalks
on the waters a pelican passed by nearly red what a pleasure
we admired the city gates bought provisions
then entered a hall walking like hunchbacks we grew a bit bored
what else singing and music it was super cool
around here swore the tour guide comrade Alexander the Great
once passed
this canal was built by his own hand by his people
he passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making
small comments"
If you read this a bit slowly you will see the lines can be broken down into different meaning carrying segments by starting them in different places.   In this fragment "around here swore the tour guide comrade Alexander the Great
once passed" one can reread it a bit creatively and see Alexander the great as your comrade tour guide" thus achieving a meaning that way transcends the straightforward interpretation and imparts a great historical depth to the work.   Of course no one schooled in the kind of literature Naum was can refer to hunchbacks without echoing Hugo.   Most of the lines in the quotation above can be given multiple meanings, multiple meaning, some quite absurd and offensive to common sense, being the heart of surrealistic poetry.

Chris Tanasescu
Chris Tanasescu is an academic, a translator, and a poet.   His poetry-rock-action painting band won the 2008 Romanian Gold Disc Award.   He, like Naum, has a PhD.  Tanasescu's degree is in philology.   He teaches  poetry and creative writing at the University of Bucharest.    He has published several collections of his poetry and in 2010 was a Fulbright scholar at the University of California at San Diego.  

Tanasescu's "How was Ion Iliescu not assassinated?"  is bitterly political work directed at Ion Iliescu, president of Romania from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2004.   It is the kind of work that would have gotten one in very serious trouble twenty five years ago.   I will quote all of the short work.  I do not think it requires a lot of explanation.   It was translated by the author.

"There once was a gifted girl, but a bit homely
a bit of a sucker, a bit of a stutterer, called
Romania, and one day she woke up to find something
growing on her forehead, and it kept growing today
and tomorrow when the pimple became
a boil, and began to move, taking on life,
becoming a little man stuck there
a beauty mark named Ilici (Iliescu), and then the old
cancer relapses, infecting
the brain. Today, tomorrow, she endured
pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!
But finally she finds the courage and goes
one day to see the surgeon. There,
Ilici (Iliescu): good doctor, look what’s grown out of my ass!"
Funny and makes its point 

Ana Blandiana
Ana Blandiana (pen name for Otilia Valeria Coman-1942)  is a well known poet and essayist.   Since the 1989 Revolution she has been very active in Romanian politics working to achieve an open society.    Her father spent years in prison due to his vocal opposition to the rule of the communists.   She is a very widely published highly respected poet and a sought after political speaker.    Her contribution to this volume is a very personal poem that could have been written 2000 years ago.

"Do you remember the beach?" will speak to many directly.   It seems simple and straightforward until we come to the oceanic depths of the last line.
"Littered with bitter pieces of glass
That beach
Where we couldn’t walk barefoot?
The way you would stare at the sea
And say you were listening to me?
Do you remember
Hysterical seagulls
Roiled in the ringing
Of unseen church bells
Behind us somewhere,
Churches that keep fish
As patron saints,
And how you moved quickly
Towards the surf, yelling
Back that you needed
Distance to be able to see me?
The snow
Blown out
Tangled with birds
In the water,
I would look on
With a kind of joyful despair
As your feet marked the sea
And the sea,
Where I waited,
Would close like an eyelid."
All of the poems in this collections are very much worth the time it takes to read them.    I think anyone who enjoyed good new to them poets would enjoy this work.   I feel a place should be found for it in the budget of university libraries.

The webpage of Calypso Editions has more information.     I commend them for having the courage to produce high quality ground breaking books in these difficult  economics times and in the face of the increasing market share of the E-book.

Of Gentle Wolves:  An Anthology of Romanian Poetry is a work anyone who loves good poetry will cherish.

Mel u