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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov

Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov  (2010, 210 pages)

 Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov is an interrelated set of short stories about two fraternal twins, one bi-sexual and one gay, and their father, Lyov. The first story is set in Kiev (the largest city in the Ukraine) in Russia, where they were born.    In the brief prologue (set in the 1980s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union) we learn that the wife of Lyov and mother of the boys died before they were six.   The father is a doctor.   We learn he only received one year of medical training and was sent out into the horrors of WWII in the Ukraine to remove limbs from soldiers,  without anesthetics.   They live in a large apartment complex in the style of the times.   The father keeps promising his sons a better life, a new mother, a new apartment, but nothing really happens until he moves the family to New York City and the stories start in the late 1990s.    Alenyikov gives us a wonderful feel for the immigrant experience.    

I do not want to say too much about the plots of the stories as I want people to be able to discover them on their own, so I will just talk a bit about why I like this work so much.

I think the character of the father is brilliantly done.    He is handsome, he likes women, but he can it seems never really love anyone but his lost wife, Sonya.    Of course he cannot practice medicine in New York City so he makes do with a series of jobs, always supporting his boys.   The father loves the great Russian writers- Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and above all Chekhov.    The father should have been a scholar and a poet and he knows this but he accepts the hand fate has dealt him.   We know he has suffered deeply but he shrugs it off.   In one very moving scene, he is looking through the drawers of one of his now grown sons and he finds a magazine with nude pictures of men.   He is shocked and asks his son what this means even though he already knows.   The son tells him either accept him as he is or never see him again.   The father knows he must keep his son in his life and accepts it though not without regret.   One of the best stories is told from the father's point of view.   He never gives up who he is but he does not hide behind old ways either.     In Lyov I see a man who has learned it is best sometimes to hide his intelligence and culture from those who will not understand it.   He has chosen to appear less than he is.   Lyov lives his life knowing he will never really have contact again with someone who can understand the depth of his thoughts and his culture.   Then again maybe he also does not see what those around him may be hiding.       

It was very interesting to see his relationship to an American man his own age.   The man has nowhere near the cultural depth of Lyov (his American name is Louie) but Lyov relates to him on terms of complete equality.    This is a very subtly done relationship.    

One of the brothers, Ivan, is a cab driver, he is a foot or so shorter than Misha.   Ivan always has a crazy money making plan he is working on, none of which ever work and most of which cost Misha money.   Ivan is a marvelous seducer.   Any man that gets in his cab is fair game, even a woman or two!   

Misha is the "sensible brother".   He tries to create a sense of family with his lovers.

Alenyikov does a great job of creating a sense of physical place, not something a lot of writers do well.   This ranges from the small apartment of Ivan to New York City.   We also get a very clear sense of how everyone lives.    I confess when I read a story about a person I like to know what they eat and we do in Ivan and Misha.   

Alenyikov's  treatment of the sexuality of the brothers is simply brilliant.     I liked that there was no discussion at all about how the two brothers "got that way", no suggestion that there was something wrong with them.       It is just who they are and everyone in their lives accepts it including them.   There is one very shocking scene that took a lot of real daring to write.   

There are some really wonderful minor characters in the novel. There is the handsome as all outdoors young Mormon missionary in the big city for the first time who does not know he is gay until Ivan seduces him and there are madmen right out of Howl.   There is an elderly lady with a very mysterious past who goes from Ivan's cab customer to one of his closest friends.     I liked her a lot and I think you will also as you try to figure her out.

There are tragic elements in the stories.   There is death, serious mental illness and Aids in these stories.    There is also a sheer love of life that comes strongly through.   Readers of Russian literature will love all of the references and will have fun deciding if they agree with what  the characters say about the various writers.   

The prose is beautiful.   There are many exquisitely done images.   I will restrain myself from comparing his work to the great Russian masters but this  could be done without condescension or pandering.   

Here Alenyikov's biography taken from his web page:

Michael Alenyikov’s short stories have appeared in Canada’s Descant (nominated for a 2007 Pushcart); The Georgia Review; New York Stories; Modern Words, The James White Review, and have been anthologized in Best Gay Stories, 2008 and Tartts Four: Incisive Fiction From Emerging Writers. His essays have appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review. He was a MacDowell Fellow. Raised in New York City, Alenyikov has worked as a bookstore clerk, clinical psychologist, cab driver, and interactive media writer. He lives in San Francisco.

He recently won the very prestigious Northern California Fiction Prize for 2011.    

I am very honored to have been provided a complementary copy of this wonderful book.   This is in  way a book about what it means to be gay but it is really more a book about people who happen to be gay.   There is a big difference.    

I totally endorse this book.

Mel u

Monday, November 28, 2011

Botchan by Natsume Soseki 夏目 漱石

Botchan by Natsume Soseki (1906, translated by Yasotaro Morri)

Botchan by Natsume Soseki (1867 to 1916-Tokyo) is one of the most read of all Japanese novels.    It is pretty much required reading in the later years of elementary school in Japan.   Soseki is one of the first "modern" Japanese novelists.   He is most famous for his I Am a Cat, Kokoro and Botchan.    I have previously posted on Kokoro and a beautiful work about the nature of art set just after the Russian Japanese War,   Kusamakura.

Botchan is considered to be based on the author's experience as an elementary school teacher.     The title character has just obtained his college degree, in physics, and has secured a good job teaching at a private elementary school.   The novel is kind of a combination of a coming of age story and a morality play with different characters representing different outlooks on the rapid changes overtaking Japan in the early years of the 20th century.

Botchan himself stands for conservative traditional values of old school Japan.   One of his fellow teachers represents the Bushido tradition of total loyalty to the Emperor and one at another extreme is meant to be an intellectual very influenced by the current thinking in Europe.   Another teacher is seen just as a follower of any popular trend.   One of the teachers is a very brooding deeply thoughtful person.   

The story also uses the bad behavior of the students to symbolize the falling away of young people from traditional Confucian values of extreme respect for teachers.   

There was one really interesting and very funny scene where the teachers went to a party with Geisha girls.   In this scene we see the teachers are really just young men without a lot of knowledge of the ways of the world.

There is a lot in this short novel.    It gives us a good look at the life of an elementary school teacher and lets us see how people from small towns felt about Tokyo.

You can down load it  for free in Kindle or other formats from Manybooks.

In their preface to the translation Yasotaro Morri says that there is a lot of slang used in Botchan.  Morri in this 1919 translation uses a lot of American slang from this era and it kind of seems out of place now but it is not a big matter, just a minor feature.   

Most into Japanese literature probably read Botchan a long time ago.   If you went to school in Japan you probably read this book in elementary school.   

I hope to read more of his work in 2012.   I admit to loving the title of I Am a Cat.

Mel u

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The Story of Hyacinth and Roseblossom" by Novalis

"The Story of Hyacinth and Roseblossom" by Novalis  (1798, 6 pages)

I have enjoyed participating in German Literature Month hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleep Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.    So far I have posted on a  "Germelshausen" by Friedrich Gerstacker (from which the plot of the movie Brigadoon was lifted and reset in Scotland) and short stories by two Nobel Laureates, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.    I posted yesterday on a "The Jew's Beech Tree" by Annette von Droste-Hulshaff,  an interesting short story from 1842 reflective of some of the prevailing prejudices of the time.

Novalis (the pen name of George Friederr von Hardenberg (1772 to 1801) was born into a very affluent aristocratic family from the Saxony region of what is now Germany.   He was related to Karl August von Hardenberg, Chancelor of Prussia in the early part of the 19th century.   Raised in great affluence surrounded by servants he was at first educated by private tutors learning the classics.   He was sent to study law where he met many of the great thinkers and writers of his time.   He was very influenced by German Idealism which in his case meant the ideas of George Fichte and Kantian  Transcendentalism  (There is a very interesting fictionalized account of the life of Novalis The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald.)    His family traced their ancestry back to 12th century Saxon nobility.  (There is a good article on him here.)

In his short life Novalis married and became a widower twice (the ages of the women he was involved with in his life would be considered way to young now but people also died much younger then so I will not judge this).

Novalis is the very epitome of a Romantic era writer.  He was a tremendous seeker of wisdom and knowledge.   It is hard to imagine him as a manager of the family salt mines!.   He died way too young of Tuberculous,  like many others.   

"The Story of Hyacinth and Roseblossom" reads very much as a Romantic Era fairy tale of lovers separated and reunited after the male character finishes a mysterious quest .   I will tell a bit of the story but leave the basic plot unspoiled so others can enjoy it afresh.   Like many a romantic writer, Novalis celebrates nature and luxuriates in melancholy and brooding states of mind.   The opening paragraph gives a good feel for the story.

"Once ages ago there lived in the far west a guileless youth. He was very good, but at the same time peculiar beyond measure. He constantly grieved over nothing at all, always went about alone and silent, sat down by himself whenever the others played and were happy, and was always thinking about strange things. Woods and caves were his favorite haunts, and there he talked constantly with birds and animals, with rocks and trees--naturally not a word of sense, nothing but stuff silly enough to make one die a-laughing. Yet he continued to remain morose and grave in spite of the fact that the squirrel, the long-tailed monkey, the parrot, and the bullfinch took great pains to distract him and lead him into the right path."

This is a world where nature comes alive.   In times Hyacinth finds a sweetheart, the beautiful Rosebloom.   At first all is wonderful between them until a strange older man begins to charm Rosebloom.   As I read this I began to wonder how to take the figure of the man especially with the reference to strange alphabetic characters.   Please look at this and tell me what you think.   

"Alas, how soon did all this bliss pass away! There came along a man from foreign lands; he had traveled everywhere, had a long beard, deep-set eyes, terrible eyebrows, a strange cloak with many folds and queer figures woven in it. He seated himself in front of the house that belonged to Hyacinth's parents. Now Hyacinth was very curious and sat down beside him and fetched him bread and wine. Then the man parted his white beard and told stories until late at night and Hyacinth did not stir nor did he tire of listening. As far as one could learn afterward the man had related much about foreign lands, unknown regions, astonishingly wondrous things, staying there three days and creeping down into deep pits with Hyacinth."

Hyacinth begins to weep and he decides he to must depart for foreign lands so he can return with wonderful stories to tell.   He leaves without tell Rosebloom he is going and everywhere he travels he asks where he can find the Goddess Isis.   He encounters a group of traveling flowers and speaks with them and obtains the wisdom he needs to succeed in his quest and the story comes to a marvelously happy ending.   

This is pretty close to a fair tale.   I found it very interesting reading.   It is Romanticism near its high point.

It was translated by Lillian Winter

You can read it HERE.

Mel u

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"The Jew's Beech Tree" by Annette von Droste-Hulshaff

"The Jew's Beech Tree" by Annette von Droste-Hulshaff (1842, 20 pages)

I have enjoyed participating in German Literature Month hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleep Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.    So far I have posted on a  "Germelshausen" by Friedrich Gerstacker (from which the plot of the movie Brigadoon was lifted and reset in Scotland) and short stories by two Nobel Laureates, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.    

This morning I found a great resource for those interested in reading German short stories from the 19th century and I want to share it anyone who might be interested.   (I know it is a bit late in November but there is always next year!)

The web page 19th Century German Short Stories looks like a great resource.   It has about forty 19th century short stories by German writers with both the original text and a translation into English.   It also has a number of other interesting and potential pedagogically valuable resources.   

I also want to post briefly on a story by a well regarded poet , Annette von Droste-Hulshoff (1797 to 1848 as there seems a shortage of female writers represented so far this month.  

She was born into an aristocratic Catholic family and was educated by private tutors.   Her primary focus as a writer was on her poetry but she also wrote well regarded shorter fiction.

The title "The Jew's Beech Tree" and in fact elements of the story may appear to be evidence of anti-Semitism.   I think this is really not accurate or entirely fair as I think the story is an attack on such attitudes.   Nevertheless lines like these make one wonder what was in the mind of the author.

""If he took the money from Aaron, you may be sure the accursed Jew had swindled him of it before. Hülsmeyer is a decent, proper man, and the Jews are all rogues."

"The place shook with laughter; many had followed into the yard. "seize the Jew! weigh him against a pig!" shouted some; others had become serious. "Frederick looked as white as a sheet," said one old woman, and the crowd parted as the gentry's carriage drove out of the yard."

"the dog of a Jew hung himself with one of his own garters. What do you say to that? Aaron is certainly a common Jewish name, etc."

The story is an interesting look at life in a small village.   It also deals with conflicts of settled peasants with forest rangers (unsettled men who live from killing the animals in the forest).   

The central plot action turns on whether or not a young man of eighteen killed a Jew or not.   The story ends with a quotation of a Jewish curse.

It is hard to see in this story what is in the author's mind.   At the least the story is worth reading to get a feel for how important a role Jews played in the mind set of the villagers who blamed them for everything and to see the attitudes of people in the era of the story.

Mel u

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse Short Stories by Two German Nobel Prize Winners

"Infant Prodigy" by Thomas Mann (1903, 5 pages)
"Within and Without" by Herman Hesse (1920, 9 pages)

When I saw that  Lizzy's Literary Life was having a November event  devoted to reading and posting on German literature I knew I wanted to participate.  Today I am posting on short stories by two of the Greatest German writers of the 20th century, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.       

On November 5, I read "Germelshausen" by Friedrich Gerstacker (1816 to 1872-Hamburg, Germany).  It is  a very interesting fun to read short story from which the plot  of Brigadoon was lifted.

Gerstacker is a minor writer, pretty much forgotten but for this one story.   Thomas Mann (1875 to 1955) and Hermann Hesse (1877 to 1962), both Nobel Prize winners, are towering cultural icons best known for novels but both wrote a number of well regarded short stories.  

I will just post briefly on the two stories so readers can get an idea of them.

Thomas Mann (there is additional information on my post on his most famous work, The Magic Mountain) won the Nobel Prize  in 1929.   Mann fled Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power.   He moved to the United States in 1939.   

"An Infant Prodigy" (1903) is one of Mann's earliest published works.    Told in the third person it is the story of a piano concert by an eight year old boy who is considered a musical prodigy of great talent.    It is very interesting in that we see how various members of the audience view him and relate to their experience of his music and we see how the boy feels about his own playing and the people that come to see him.  It is a good story and worth reading.

You can read the story here (I have no translator information for the story.)

Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize in 1946.   (I wonder what political message might have been intended by the giving this prize to a German right after the war).   He is most famous now for two of his novels, Steppenwolf (1927) and Siddharta (1922).   I have seen a number of book blog posts on Siddhartha.   During the 1960s Hesse's work was very in vogue with the "counter-culture" of the time for its seeming repudiation of the shallow values of the west.   I read at one time pretty much all of his translated novels.  During WWII Hesse remained silent.    His work was eventually banned from publication by the Nazis.

One of the dominant themes of Hesse's work is the divide between science and rationality versus magic and spirituality.  

"Within and Without" very much captures a lot of the main themes of Hesse.   The story is about a man whose whole is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.   By that he means knowledge based only on science and logic.   He was aware that there are other kinds of knowledge.   He tolerate religion as it is the accepted thing to do among scientists in his society.   He hates what he calls superstition and any belief in anything that science and logic do not support.   Of course as the story proceeds events will radically undercut his world view.   He hates the then fashionable idea that science was just one of many ways of organizing and explaining our experience with no more validity than any of the others.   He hates all forms of mystical cults.  

One day he goes to visit a friend of his who he always felt was a total believer in science and logic.   He is horrified to see his friend has a saying on his wall that epitomizes all that the man does not believe in.   "Nothing is without, nothing is within, for what is without is within".   To him this is the worst kind of mystical thinking inspired by "decadent" eastern forces trying to undermine the culture of his country by attacking it at the very basis for thought.    As we can guess, he undergoes some heavy changes.   

I have no translator information for this story.   It does feel very much like one of his novels and captures a lot of his themes.   I guess I would recommend Hesse neophytes start with Siddhartha  (It is quite short and easy to read and there is even a movie based on it.   It is an example of Orientalizing India thought).   From there if you like it I would read Steppenwolf then maybe The Glass Bead game.    Hesse was once a super trendy writer but maybe less so now.   

Mel u

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Viceroy's Daughter: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy

The Viceroy's Daughter:   The Lives of the Curzon Sisters by Anne de Courcy  (2000, 422 pages)

George Curzon, Earl Curzon of Kedleston, was the Viceroy of India 1898 to 1905.    He inherited a small fortune and married a much bigger one,  the  daughter of the American founder of what became Marshall Fields.    His marriage to Mary Leiter (1895 to 1906-born 1870-died 1906) was the great joy of his life and his greatest tragedy when she died in his arms.   From this marriage three daughters were born.   Each of the daughters received a large yearly legacy from their mothers, equivalent of millions of dollars today.   There father was left in control of their money until they turned twenty one.   

Once their mother was gone, their father did very much love them but he was rarely there in person.   He married a second time and had his own tumultuous life.   The girls had a lot of mother figures in their lives but all in all this is kind of a 1920s version of "Rich girls gone wild book".    One of the daughters, Irene (1896 to 1966) never married but had affairs with numerous married men (including one of her brother in laws) and with alcohol.    Another daughter Alexander, called throughout her life, Baba, married a really handsome pretty stupid man twenty years older than her who was a then close friend of the Prince of Wales.  (He also figures in the book and comes across as not bright at all!)   His first name was "Fruity" and I could not help but see this as a bad omen!.   Baba was also a serial adulterous, all of her affairs  were with minors nobles and such.   Another sister, Cynthia (1898 to 1937) married a man who became the leader prior to WWII of the Bristish Fascists and was a great admirer of Adolph Hitler. He aspired to be the Mussolini of England.  His wife and his sister in laws nearly worshipped him.    He loved to dress up in black uniforms and speak at giant Rallies. At its heights, his group had about 35,000 members.  The sisters all pretty much admired Hitler (in  the early years this was a bit common among British aristocracy.)     When his wife died he began a romance with his sister in law Irene and also her step mother.

There are enough entagelments for a dozen soap operas.   Up until WWII begins and London is attacked the two surviving sisters pretty much have no redeeming qualities.   The war brings out the best in them and sort of forces them into a bit of maturity and responsibility.   They worked throughout the war as volunteers as nurses and air raid wardens, often working 12 hours a day and coming home filthy.   But don't worry too much they still partied on!.   

This is an interesting book for its social history and for the many people we learn about in the book.   It is easy to see the sisters as rich spoiled brats (no body in this book from the girls to their men on down seems to have ever read a book!) lead around by their libidos and trying to show Daddy he was "not the boss of them" any more.   I think I paid about $2.00 for this book but for reasons that I cannot fathom it is now on sale at Amazon for $43.95 to $8.95.   I cannot really endorse the purchase of this book for much more than $2.00.   It is interesting most of the times but it is hard to really care about the sisters.   They almost seem like idiots at times.   

Mel u

Sunday, November 20, 2011

An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula

An Uncommon Woman:  The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula (1996, 790 pages)

A Marvelous Biography of Princess Vicky-
Daughter of Queen Victoria and Mother to Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia

I used to read a lot of biographies of  European royalty.   I have gotten away from it the last couple of years.   An Uncommon Woman:  The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula has restarted my interest.   Victoria, called Vicky (1840 to 1901), was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.   She was for many years the wife of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (1831 to 1888) who was emperor for only 99 days when his father Emperor William I (1797 to 1888) died.   She was called Empress Frederick when her husband ascended the throne and was for the rest of her life known by this title.   She was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm (1859 to 1941-he abdicated in 1918).   

An Uncommon Woman:  The Empress Frederick is a great biography.   It is not just a biography of its subject but also of her husband and her son, her mother and father, her in laws, Russian Royalty and the very powerful and dominating Otto Von Bismark (1815 to 1898-Prime Minister of Prussia 1860 to 1890).   

The book lets us see how Princess Vicky lived her life on a day to day basis as well as her role in German and pan-European politics.    This book makes it very clear that the rulers of Europe were really all related.    Marriages were political tools and meant to build alliances.   The book is also a political history of all of Europe and a social history as well.   We get an in depth look at the medical procedures of the time and German theories of child raising.

One of  the dominant things I came away from this book with was  a clear  sense that Bismark was to blame for much of the evils caused by Germany in the first half of the 20th century.    

From the standpoint of a reader of 19th century literature Pakula helps us understand the difference in attitudes toward women in marriages in England versus the German states.    I understand a bit better Katherine Mansfield's contempt for German housefraus.  

There is just a huge amount to be learned from this biography.   The level of writing is very high and there are no unsupported speculative claims.   

An Uncommon Woman:  The Empress Frederick is a top notch biography that anyone interested in the period will really love.   

The life of Princess Victoria is as interesting as any heroine of a 19th century novel.   

Hannah Pakula (USA) has also written a biography of Queen Marie of Romania and Madame Chaing Kai-Shek.   I hope to read these books one day.   

There is additional information on Pakula on her webpage.

I have other biographies of European royalty on my shelves (some of them have been there for years) and I will be reading more soon.  

Mel u

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Never Bet the Devil Your Head" by Edgar Allan Poe

"Never Bet the Devil Your Head" by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

Poe takes a shot at the Transcendentalists

When I saw that  Jill of A Room of One's Own was hosting an event (Nov 15 to Dec 15) dedicated to exploring the work of Transcendentalists I was intrigued and knew I wanted to participate.   Transcendentalism refers to an intellectual movement began in the New England area of the United States in the 1830s.    Its most famous practitioners are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.   It was a reactive set of doctrines in protest of the prevailing notions of the time.   It believed in the inherent goodness of man and in many cases was inspired by translations of  ancient India religious texts.  (Of course their understanding of the thoughts of the ancient texts is very much a clear case of Orientalizing.)  I have read and dearly loved the essays of Emerson but I would never try to "blog on" one of them.   They are just too densely written.  Reading Walden Pond was a powerful experience for me also.    Philosophically they have their underpinnings in German idealism as embodied in the work of Kant.  Walt Whitman was very influenced by the Transcendentalists.  I adore and have read Leaves of Grass numerous times but I do not see myself posting on it anytime soon and I think it is muddleheaded to treat him as a transcendentalist.   

 There is a kind of unworldly head in the clouds quality to some of the writings which offended and amused some of their contemporaries liked Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Jill suggested we could also post on their work relating to the Transcendentalists and "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" by Edgar Allan Poe is close to a direct attack on the Transcendentalists.    

"Never Bet the Devil Your Head" (eight pages, 1841) is an unusual Poe short story.   It is not a detective story or a paranormal or horror story.   The story is told in the first person by a narrator who sounds like he could be the author talking.   He says his critics have accused him of not writing stories with proper "morals".   He mocks literary critics who seek a profound hidden meaning behind works of fiction.   (There is a Brahmic quality to many of the Transcendentalists as if they were in possession of elite knowledge that probably came across as vain to many.)  I have to quote a bit from the wonderful prose of Poe:

"These fellows demonstrate a hidden meaning in “The Antediluvians,” a parable in Powhatan,” new views in “Cock Robin,” and transcendentalism in “Hop O' My Thumb.” In short, it has been shown that no man can sit down to write without a very profound design. Thus to authors in general much trouble is spared. A novelist, for example, need have no care of his moral. It is there—that is to say, it is somewhere—and the moral and the critics can take care of themselves. When the proper time arrives, all that the gentleman intended, and all that he did not intend, will be brought to light, in the“Dial,” or the “Down-Easter,” together with all that he ought to have intended, and the rest that he clearly meant to intend:—so that it will all come very straight in the end."

The narrator begins to tell a story about his friend, Toby Dammit.   Toby likes to make hypothetical bets of the form of "I'll bet the Devil by Head" that it will rain today.   The narrator tries hard to break Toby of this habit but he cannot.   (The devil was very real in this time and place and not to be treated lightly).    They are out for a walk one day and they come to a covered bridge with a turnstile.   Toby says "I bet the devil by head I can jump over that turnstile."    Before the narrator can discourage him a mysterious old man comes out of the shadows and more or less goads Toby into the jump.  (spoiler alert).   Toby seems to easily jump over the turnstile but he is knocked backwards when he hits his head on something.     The narrator sees the old man running off with something in his hands.   It is Toby's head.   He had set up a sharp blade just at the point where Toby's neck would be as he jumped over the turnstile!   The narrator pays for his funeral and sends the bill to the Transcendentalists who he believes caused Toby to think he could transcend all obstacles with the power of his mind and taught him that there was no real evil in the world.   When the   Transcendentalists will not pay it, he has Toby dug up and sold for dog food.   (OK this is still Poe!)   

The narrator feels that Dammit may have been infected by the disease (Poe's word here) of Transcendentalism and because of this has lost his grip on reality.  

" Not so upon those of the unhappy Dammit, who offered to bet the Devil his head that I was hipped. He seemed to be in an unusual good humor. He was excessively lively—so much so that I entertained I know not what of uneasy suspicion. It is not impossible that he was affected with the transcendentals. I am not well enough versed, however, in the diagnosis of this disease to speak with decision upon the point; and unhappily there were none of my friends of the “Dial” present."

("The Dial" was a journal in which a number of the leading Transcendentalism published their works. )

You can read the story HERE .   "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" is a different not often anthologized Poe story.   For sure it is worth reading and it is a good example of "anti-transcendental" literature.

I really commend Jill for hosting this event and hope a lot of people will join in.   She has lots of good reading suggestions and background information on her great blog, A Room of One's Own.

Mel u

Friday, November 18, 2011

Junichiro Tanizaki: Three Stories of Erotic Obsessions

"The Tattooer" (1910, 5 pages)
"The Bridge of Dreams"  (1931, 25 pages)
"A Portrait of Shunkin (1959, 35 pages)

Sado-Masochism in the work of Junichiro Tanizaki

I really like Junichiro Tanizaki an awfully lot.   Prior to today I have posted on 12 of his novels and two longer short stories.    He is on all lists of best Japanese novelists and the venerable Harold Bloom includes his 
The Makioka Sisters  in his list of canon status works.   Juninchiro Tanizaki  (1886 to 1965-Tokyo, Japan-there is some background information on him in my prior posts) is also a lot of fun to read.    I think I have now read all of his translated novels and novellas and I am now happy to be starting on his short stories.

The three stories I will post on today are all reprinted in translations by Howard Hibbert in Seven Japanese Tales (1963).   The stories were written between 1910 and 1959.   Tanizaki had nothing to do with picking the stories for the collection.   

All three of the stories I will post on today are about erotic obsession, acts that many would condemn as immoral, and focus as do a number of Tanizaki's works on the erotic enslavement of men by women (in one case he does in Qucksand treat a lesbian relationship in similar terms.)   His descriptions of sado-masochistic relationships brings out the sheer power of eroticism in a truly artistic fashion.   He is a master at describing the beauty of the faces, bodies and feet of women.   The women in his stories are young by current standards.   Some have been sold by their families to be used however wanted by their owners.   The women have only one source of power.   Marriages were mostly arranged so they often lacked any real passion or emotion.   Their is a fascination with prostitutes and their sisters the Geishas throughout Japanese literature.     There are deep issues here but I will move on to the stories.

All three of the stories I have read so far are very good, totally brilliant works, each powerful and disturbing.   I will start with one of the most famous of all Japanese short stories, "The Tattooer".

"The Tattooer"   (1910, five pages) is set around 1850.   The central character is a very famous Tattoo artist.   Tattoo artistry was highly valued.   Men sought out courtesans and geishas with beautiful tattoos.    Women of the pleasure quarters fell in love with men based on the beauty of their tattoos.   The famous tattoo artist tries to inflict as much pain as he possibly can on the men that he tattoos.   He loves it when a Samurai warrior breaks and sobs under the pain and clearly loves the pain he inflicts. To him a woman is a canvas.    What loves most is inflicting pain on beautiful young (14 and up) women while he produces masterworks on them.   He begins to tattoo a spider in a marvelous web on a woman of transcendent beauty.   As he progresses he realizes he is in complete thrall to the woman.   We know this is but an ephemeral relationship and we do not learn what happens next.   This is a very powerful tale and I think those heavily into tattoos will find it of especial interest.   

"The Bridge of Dreams"  (1931, 25 pages)  is a very daring story.   It might be about incest or near incest between a man (who we first meet at age 8 or so and part company with in his mid-twenties) and his step-mother.   I do not want to tell to much of the plot of this really brilliant shocking story other than to say those who have a fetish for drinking breast milk will be in love by the time this story is over.    Flaubert and de Muappasant have nothing on Tanizaki!

"A Portrait of Shunkin" (1959, 35 pages-the most recent and longest story in the collection) is another story of erotic enslavement and sadism.   It also introduced another common element in the Japanese novel, blindness.   In this story we learn a lot about Japanese music.

In all of these stories there is a lot to be learned about Japanese culture.   His short stories can be compared on equal terms to any others I have read.   The sexual themes in the story are meant to make us uncomfortable and they do.    Women are treated as objects to be bought and sold and valued for their feel and looks.    People are fetish objects.     

There are four more short stories in the collection and I hope to read them soon.

Mel u

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897, 

Irish Short Story Week II-March 12 to March 19,  2012

The cultural impact of Bram Stoker's Dracula  (1897) is just huge!    Vampires are one of the dominant images of world culture.   Stoker (1847 to 1912-Dublin) did not originate the myth of the vampire but it is to him we owe its power and shape.   

I have no idea when I first heard of the myth of Dracula.   I am sure it was many years before I knew there was a book by that name written by a man named Bram Stoker from Dublin.   I first read his work in association with Irish Short Story Week Year One when I  posted  on one of his excellent short stories "The Gypsey Prophecy".

I am so glad I have at last read Dracula.   I liked it much more than I thought I would.    I especially liked how Stoker tells the story through a fascinating mix of letters, diary entries, ship logs and occasional newspaper clippings.   Of course I have seen several version of the Dracula story on old movies on TV.    The book has a lot of Gothic Horror cliches but that is just because the book created the cliches in the first place.

Once I began to read the book it was as though I was meeting old friends.   There is the good Professor Abraham Van Helsing learned in vampire lore who is at first reluctant to voice his thoughts for fear he will seem deranged.   There is the beautiful young virginal Lucy with the mysterious bites who has fallen into a mysterious coma like state.   We meet the disgusting insect eating Renfield who I for sure recall from the movies.   We meet the required attorney who travels to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula at his sinister castle deep in the Carpathian mountains.   At first the attorney is intimidated by the seemingly great wealth and culture of the Count, but he quickly realizes something is badly wrong.   Why does the wealthy Count Dracula have no servants?    Who are the three very evil looking women he encounters in the castle?   Where does Dracula disappear to during the day time and in a great scene he wonders how he can seemingly climb the interior walls of the castle.  I cannot see Dracula as any body but Bella Lugosi.

Even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen Stoker does such a great job with the narration that I was kept very interested throughout.   Stoker does a wonderful job in creating the atmosphere.   The sea voyages to and from England to continental Europe are really wonderful.   You can feel the pervasive miasma of terror on the ships.

I read this book via in 176 episodes.     You can download it (along with a number of his short stories) in a Kindle, Pdf or other format from Manybooks, a great source of free books.   

If you want to participate in Irish Short Story Week Year II coming up in March 2012 you might enjoy reading one of Stoker's many short stories.   

Dracula may be an over one hundred year old book but it not dull, stuffy, or boring at all.    

Mel u

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Mallam Sile" by Mohammed Naseehu Ali -Ghanaian Literature Week

"Mallam Sile" by Mohammed Naseehu Ali (2009, 5 pages)

I was happy to see Kinna Reads was hosting the second annual  Ghanaian Literature Week (Nov 14 to Nov 20, 2011).    To me this is just the kind of community building event that makes the world wide book blog community so great.    Kinna has number of excellent reading suggestions on her blog.   All you have to do really is just post on any work of Literature by an author from Ghana and link back to her blog.   

For the last two years I have posted on the short stories short listed for the Caine Prize for best short story by an author from Africa.   In 2010 I think I was the only book blogger to post on all of the five short listed stories.   In 2011 the Caine people asked me to post on the final five stories.   I was joined in this endeavor by several other book bloggers, some located in Africa. In 2010 I found one really good story, the prize winner, "Stick Fighting Days" by Olafemi Terry from Sierra Leon.   In 2011 I sadly did not find any first rate stories.   Most of the stories dwelt heavily on the poverty of the people in the stories and treated the people as near cartoon characters.   

"Mallam Sile" by Mohammed Naseehu Ali was short listed in 2009 for the Caine Prize.   Of the eleven Caine stories I have read it is clearly in second place.   This is not an insult at all as "Stick Fighting Days" is a brilliant story.   "Mallam Sile" is a much better story than any on the stories short listed in 2011, including the prize winning story.   

Mohammed Naseehu Ali is from Ghana.   He he has so far published one book, The Prophet of Zongo, a 2006 collection of short stories.   He has also published in The New Yorker and Essence as well as numerous publications in Ghana.   "Mallam Sile"  was published in The New Yorker as well as in his book (I will post a link to the story at the end of my post.)

Mallam Sile is a tea seller with a stand on a market street.   He also sells food.   His place is very humble with just a few seats. Most of his business is take out.   He had opened the shop with money he saved from his job.   He has no family, no wife, no close friends.   The tea shop is his life.   He was a small man, some even suggested he might be partially of Pygmy ancestry.  At forty six he was still a virgin.   He liked women but his short stature kept any women from wanting him for a husband.   Mallam keeps working hard and one day he totally remodels his tea shop to the nicest one in town with lots more places for people to sit down and a concrete floor in place of the old dirt one.   Sile leaves town one weekend and everybody is shocked when he returns.   I will quote a bit from the story so you can get a feel for the prose of Ali.

Sile finally returned one Friday evening, some six weeks after he’d begun work on the shop, flanked by a stern woman who looked to be in her late thirties and was three times larger than the tea seller. The woman, whose name was Abeeba, turned out to be Mallam Sile’s wife. She was tall and massive, with a face as gloomy as that of someone mourning a dead relative. Like her husband, Abeeba said very little to people in or out of the shop. She, too, grinned and waved her huge arms whenever she greeted people, though, unlike the tea seller, she seemed to have something harder lurking behind her cheerful smile. Abeeba carried herself with the grace and confidence of a lioness, and covered her head and part of her face with an Islamic veil, a practice that had been dropped by most of the married women on Zongo Street.

I want to leave the rest of this story unspoiled as I hope others will have the pleasure of reading this story for the first time.  Here is a link to the story

My thanks to Kinna for hosting this event.   I hope a lot of people join in.  

Mel u