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, January 31, 2012

"A Star Trap" by Bram Stoker

"A Star Trap" by Bram Stoker (1908, 5214 words, 14 pages)

Please Consider Joining Us For Irish Short Story Week Year Two March 12 to March 22

List of Bram Stoker short stories-nearly 100

When we hear Bram Stoker (1847 to 1912-Dublin, Ireland) Dracula at once comes to mind, as well it should.   However, Bram Stoker wrote in addition to Dracula over 100 short stories, all of which can be found online.    Most of his short stories are in the Gothic horror genre (I have posted on two of them as well as Dracula and there is more background information on him in these posts.)  

Professionally Stoker spent most of his life as a theatrical manager.   He was director for twenty seven years of the Lyceum Theatre, in London, started in 1765,  with a seating capacity of 2000.   It was a very high prestige venue.   I was very happy to find a short story by Stoker that was based on his experience working in the theater.

"A Star Trap" is a simple murder mystery about the killing of an actor.   It is an interesting story for the behind the scenes look it gives us of life in the theater seen not from the point of view of  the actors or playwrights but that of the stage hands who do all the behind the scenes work.   The story is narrated by a young man just starting out as a stage hand specializing in building sets, called a "theatrical carpenter".   The master carpenter is married to a very pretty much younger woman.   The life of the theatrical people are very much wrapped up with others in the same world.   There is always lots of gossip about who is cheating on who and which women are infatuated with the handsome actors.

  This is a fun story though not a big mystery.   It is for sure worth reading.

I downloaded a Kindle version of it from Manybooks, you can find a lot of Stoker's works there.

There are lots of horror and Gothic stories to pick from for Irish Short Stories Week Year Two.

Mel u

A January Reading and Blogging Look Back and a Look ahead to February

January Reading Review


January was a good reading month for me.   Here are the highlights from the eleven novels I read.

  • A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -read in honor of Dickens forthcoming 200th Birthday on Feb 7.   
  • The Untouchable by   Mulk Arand-simply a great book about one day in the life of a Dalit in India in the 1930s-
  • Things Fall Apart  by  Chinua Achebe  also a very good book-pretty much a must read for those interested in post- colonial literature
  • Back by Henry Green-quirky and strange and wonderful
    • I also read the very popular young adult Mockingjay series by Suzanne Collins.   I got all three books free.  I got bored with it once I understood the basic concept.  I would have liked to see the world of the story better developed.
  • The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe-a must for Oe readers
I have also joined a year long read along on Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.  

Short Stories

Short stories are no longer a side line in my reading life or my blog.   Of the ten most popular posts of the month for January every one was about short stories.    

In January I a Simple Clockwork and I began what we hope will be a long term project in which we post once or twice a month on short stories by authors from the Philippines.    We will start out focusing on older stories and as much as we can we will pick stories that can be read online in English.   

I also read a collection of the short stories of Issac Babel which is really a world class cultural treasure.   I read on in collections of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Flannery O'Connor.

All of the novels and short stories I read in January can be found here.

February Blogging Plans

I will be doing a number of posts related to Irish Short Story Week Year II scheduled to take place March 12 to March 22.   I will do several posts on resources for the event.   I will do a small post of some kind on Feb 7, 2012 in honor of Dickens 200 day.   I also plan to post on Mongolian short stories from the 1930s based on a great suggestion from a Mongolian book blogger.

January Blogging Look Back

I ended the month with 646 GFC followers and 1597 Twitter Followers.   My page views and visits increased over one year ago about 135percent.  

February Reading Plans

  1. Memories of a Geisha by Arthur Golden-8 percent completed
  2. Family Matters by Rohinton Mistery 75 percent completed  
  3. Cousin Betty by Honore Balzac-15 percent completed
Beyond this I have no rigid plans.

In short stories I will continue reading on in the complete short stories of Flannery O'Connor and Guy de Maupassant.   I hope to read more stories by George Moore, Ivan Turgenev, and a diverse collection of short stories from a wide range of authors.   

I as always offer my thanks to my quite brilliant cousin from Texas for editing suggestions.    I am terrible as a proof reader of my own work.

As always I thank the readers and above all the commentators on my blog.

I am very open to reading suggestions, joint projects, participating in events and suggestions for improving my blog.

Mel u

Monday, January 30, 2012

"Aisling" by Colum McCann

"Aisling" by Colum McCann (2011, six pages)

Please consider joining us for Irish Short Story Week Year Two March 12 to March 22

Colum McCann (Dublin, Ireland, 1965) is a much awarded author of fiction.   His most recent book,  Let the Great World Spin (2009) is an allegory based on the New York City events of 9/11.    It won the very prestigious American National Book Award for fiction.    He has written for numerous periodicals.   He is a professor of Fiction at CUNY Hunter's College Fine Arts program.  

I have recently been reading some of the short stories in New Irish Short Stories edited and introduced by Jim  O'Connors.    There are lots of short stories in the collection by new to me writers, including Colum McCann.

"Aisling" (it may have been published prior to its 2011 publication in the anthology) is a very interesting story.   It is narrated in kind of a tale of my day by a married woman with children.   There are no dramatic developments and no big revelations but it is a wonderful slice of life and a touching look into the consciousness of the woman narrator.    The first sentence is about 150 words or so long.   It is not complicated or difficult prose it is just how people think when they go through their day in their minds.    We get to see how she feels about her sons and her husband and her life.   The prose has a wonderful rhythm that feels completely right to me.  It was a lot of fun to read this beautifully written story.

I would like to read more of the work of Colum McCann based on reading this short story.

Please share your experience with Colum McCann with us.

Mel u

"Magnificence" by Estella Alfon A Powerful Early Short Story from Cebu

 "Magnificence" (1939, 6 pages) by Estella D. Alfon-

Note added July 14 2012-1000s of people from all over the Philippines (I am in Quezon City) are now reading this post which is great, of course.  Please let us know how this story related to your family life and tell me why you were drawn to read this post and if it is for a school assignment.  Please leave a comment of some kind so I will know a real person was here-thanks

Estella Alfon
 With a note on the development of the Literature of the Philippines

My Prior Posts on the Literature of the Philippines

Today is the second post for  what I hope will be a long term project featuring  short story writers from the Philippines.   In a joint venture with Nancy Cudis of Simple Clockwork we will be spotlighting once or twice a  month the work of a short story writer from the Philippines.   Nancy is based in Cebu City and focuses according to her profile on  PHILIPPINE LITERATURE, CLASSICS, CHILDREN'S and MIDDLE-GRADE BOOKS, CHRISTIAN FICTION, and clean ROMANCE.    Her blog is just getting started and I can already tell she has a great passion for what she does and I hope a lot of my readers will also follow her blog.    She recently did a very insightful post on O. Henry.  

Be sure and read the post on Simpleclock work for an insight into the literature of Cebu  that you will find no where else. 

Estella D. Alfon (1917 to 1983-Cebu, The Philippines) is considered to be one of the very best early short story writers of the Philippines and perhaps the first woman to have written from the point of view of the ordinary woman of the Philippines.   She was a student of Paz Marquez Benitez on whom Nancy and I have previously posted.   

When the Spanish established their rule in the Philippines (1521 to 1898) they found  that in many parts of the area (of course it was not a country then at all) women had the right to inherit property, rule over households and even territories.    Upper class (most people were slaves or near slaves) women were taught how to write.  There was however, as a practical matter, really nothing to write on.   What writing was done was on banana leaves, hardly a medium for literary composition.   The Spanish did not believe in women having basically any freedom at all and they abolished all women's rights.   For the long years of their rule, they did not start or even allow schools.   Promising and docile young men were taught Spanish by the church and they became the administrators for the Spanish.   Women were not allowed to learn to read or write and the very idea would have been considered ridiculous and reading anything not approved of by the church was very much not done..  Under these conditions it is not surprising that literature did not thrive at all.

When the USA became the ruler of the Philippines in 1898 they at once established public schools for all, including women.    The medium of instruction was English.    Ambitious students (and their parents pushed them) began to realize they must master English.    The indigenous languages began to be almost looked down upon by the elite classes.   Of course the teachers were a mixed lot, just like today, but some were totally wonderful and began to expose their students to the best of American and English literature.    From this some students began to express themselves in short stories in English.    The first authors who had been educated fully in English came into their 20s around 1920.    This why when one speaks of the early short stories of the Philippines we mean short shorties from the 1920 and 1930s.

Estella Alfon was from Cebu. Almost all of her stories are written in English.  She attended the University of the Philippines and was later given a position of fellow of the University Institute of Creative Writing.  She had five children.  Her parents were shop keepers, not highly educated people as most of the parents of other writers of this era were.    Her stories are told from the point of view of the non-elite woman during 1930s to 1950s.   Some are about the Japanese occupancy period, I really wish these were online but I could not find them.

"Magnificence" (1939) has a shocking and disturbing ending.    It also tells us of the near powerlessness of poor women in an era with no laws to protect them or their children.   I will briefly give the whole plot of this story (it is powerful enough to be read knowing the basics of the plot).    Pencils were very prized by school children and needed in school but very expensive for the poor.   To have two pencils was a wonderful thing for a child.   One day the central female character in the story is out in the park with her children, girls and boys all under 12.   She meets a bus driver who complements her on her children.   Of course she is flattered and begins to see him periodically for simple conversations in the park.   The one day he offers to give each of  her children five pencils (and amazing gift for a working man).   At first she says no she cannot accept then she says if he will come to her house and meet her husband and have dinner with them he can personally give the pencils to her children.    To compress a bit, the man calls her ten year old daughter, a big for her age girl, over to sit in his lap and give her the pencils.    Then he begins to bounce her up and down on his lap over and over until she becomes frightened and call for her mother..   When the mother realizes what he is doing she attacks the man with her fists and he strikes her back.    As the story closes we see the mother totally debased emotionally cleaning up her daughter and washing a stain out of the girl's clothing.   When she tells her husband what happened he blames the mother and tells her she is an idiot who should have seen this coming.

This is a short story about a period in time  most readers do not know a lot about (I know I do not).   Alfon deserve a wide international readership.    For a period of years some conservatives in the universities felt her stories where somehow too bold to be taught in schools but now she is rightfully celebrated as one of the very first feminist authors of the Philippines.    In  just a few pages she opens up a new world to us.   As I said, the language is a bit formal but we understand why.

Cebu where Alfon lived and where most of her stories are set is on a separate island from the main island, Luzon, where Manila is located.   In the 1920s when Alfon wrote most of her stories it was almost culturally as if it was a different country.

We plan to make this a once or twice a month feature.   Any and all are invited to join in also for this event.   You can either pick your own author or we can all work together to post on one author.  

Please share your experience concerning short story writers from the Phillippines with us.   In the next few months we will focus mostly on older short stories.

Nancy's post provides some very interesting background information on the literary history and culture of Cebu.

"Servant Girl" can be read online here (reviewed on Simpleclock Work)

"Magnificence" can be read online here

Great resource on short stories of the Philippines

Mel u

"One of a Kind" by Julian Barnes A Short Story by the 2011 Booker Prize Winner

"One of a Kind" by Julian Barnes (1982, 15 pages)

Julian Barnes (1946, UK) won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.   Three others of  his novels have been short listed for the award.   I have seen a number of very favorable posts on his work from book bloggers whose judgement I have learned to trust so I was very happy to see one of his short stories, "One of a Kind", was included in a collection of short stories I recently acquired, The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories.    (A sample of The Sense of an Ending can be downloaded from Amazon but I not like ready selections of novels.)   One use of short stories is to sample an author, especially for people who see themselves as pretty much exclusively readers of longer fiction.    Based on reading "One of a Kind" I would for sure be interested in reading one of his longer works.

"One of a Kind" sounds like it might be based on the experiences of Barnes at a literary conference in Bucharest.   The story, told in the first person by an author, begins with the narrator offering a grand theory about Romania.   His theory is that Romanian only has the cultural energy to produce one great philosopher, one novelist, one one poet, etc.   He offers this theory to a Romanian writer and intellectual living in exile because of his political views who of course takes exception to this notion.   There are a number of  interesting conversations in the story.    It was fun to see the narrator and an Italian writer visit the book stores of Bucharest.   There is a lot to enjoy in "One of a Kind". It is straightforward story telling written in a pleasant fashion and the character insights displayed are very good.

There are no great events or revelations in this story.   It is an interesting slice of life at a writer's conference.,

Please share your experience with Barnes with us.

Mel u

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Back by Henry Green

Back by Henry Green (1946, 340 KB)

I was very happy when I saw Stu of Winston's Dad was hosting a Henry Green Week from Jan 23 to Jan 31, 2012 to encourage people to read and post on the work of Henry Green.   I have read three novels of Henry Green, Loving, Living, and Party Going.    Penguin  Books has in a very generous gesture packaged all three of these books (average length about 175 pages) in one volume (also available as a Kindle edition).

 I admit I had never even heard of him until Victoria Glendinning in her biography of Elizabeth Bowen mentioned that Green and Elizabeth Bowen were friends.   Bowen is quoted as saying Green was one the very few English novelists who could reproduce the actual sensations of living people talking.    

Henry Green (the pen name for Henry Yorke-1905 to 1973, UK) was born into real wealth.   His father was a wealthy industrialist, land owner and was an intensely cultured man.    John Updike in his brilliant introduction to Green works  tells us that Green's father was an amateur connoisseur of country dialect.    I could see this spilling over in the novels in Green's wonderful handling of the speech of Birmingham factory workers.   I have said before that I do not like the use of country dialects in novels.   Green is so good at  this I loved it when he did it.   Green was descended from barons on both parental sides.     He grew up in and would always live in a great manors house.      He was educated at Eaton and Oxford.   Upon leaving Oxford (he never completed a degree) he of his own volition went to work on the floor of one of his father's factories.    He would later become a manager but always worked for the family company.     During WWII he was a volunteer fireman.   He married a second cousin and had an odd but enduring marriage.  

Back (you have to love the title's Green gave to his novels) centers on Charley Summers who spent four years in a German prisoner of war camp.   He lost his leg to a German sniper.   He was repatriated to England before the war was over in exchange for a German captive of the British who was also in need of medical care.     When he returns he finds the woman he loved with all his heart, Rose, has died.

Back in terms of plot action is about Charley's issues in getting over the death of Rose, he does not, and in fitting into the austerity of WWII England.   It is really hard for me to describe the brilliance and wonder of Back.   It is about people trying to survive a war among other things.   In one very hard breaking scene Charley goes to call on the parents of the woman he loved who had married someone else while he was gone.   The parents of Rose had lost a son in the war and this seems to have nearly unhinged the mother.   It was very real and very sad to see the father dealing with his wife when she thought Charley was perhaps their son returning from the war.   

We feel for Charley as he somehow confuses Rose's half sister for Rose and I felt bad for him as he  tried to cope with working as clerk in a government job.   We hear very little of the years he spent in the German prison camp but it must some how overshadow all his other issues and make it hard for him to relate to those who have not had these experiences.   He may be back physically but he will never really be back in spirit.   

The prose of Henry Green is a great joy to read.   I find I cannot describe or explain why I like it so much but I do.   He is a real master at conversations.   Charley cannot really express his emotions and maybe he is expressive of the muted character of the British   Green's prose is probably not for everyone, it is odd.     It needs to be read slowly and savored.   

The ending which I will leave unspoiled is simply devastating.    I admit I was shocked by it and find it hard to fully understand.

Green stopped writing novels and lived on for another twenty years.   During this time he became very absorbed in study the Ottoman Empire and did some very serious drinking.  

I suggest those new to Green start with Loving, which most consider his best work, or my personal favorite, Party Going.   If you do not have access to a library which will have one of Green's books, the practical thing to do is to buy the three book collection which actually costs about the same as just Back does.  I also have his novel based on his experiences as a volunteer fireman during WWII in London, Concluding and hope to read in in 2012 or maybe I will wait for Harry Green Week in 2013!

Please share your experience with Green with is and go to Winston's Dad for a lot more information and links to other posts on Green.   

Mel u

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens  (1861, 185,258 words)

Feb 7, 2012 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth.    He is surely one of the most loved authors of all times.   I am pretty sure I first read Great Expectations as a high school student and I also read it about 17 years ago when I did a read through in publication order of all of the novels of Dickens.   Great Expectations,  the second from last completed novel, is the only one of his novels told in the first person.   I recently also read in observation of  Dickens 200 Day A Tale of Two Cities.  The opening and closing chapters of A Tale of Two Cities are really flawless.

The plot of Great Expectations is probably well known to a lot of people who have not read it through one of the several movies that have been based on it.   I will not spend much time retelling the plot.   It is all about the life and development of Pip, an orphan and his ups and downs in life.   I will just say what I like about this novel and what picky points I might make.   Great Expectations is for sure part of the literary canon.

I like the great subtly and sheer brilliance of some of the characterizations.  As in most of his other works, the "good" people in Dickens tend not to be as well developed as those with a bit of an edge to them.    I thought the characters of the attorney Mr.  Jaggers and his clerk and man of all work John Wemmick were just perfect.   As to Pip himself, an overall well realized central character but not perfect.   I found the character of Estella really not that well done and in  small note if her mother was a Gypsy as the story line suggests, then Estella's appearance does not fit in with this.   One of the noted characteristics of a Dickens novel is the fixation on an adolescent female and I think the character of Estella could have been better done.   As to Pip's brother in law who was a father figure to him, Joe, he is your typical Dickens saintly figure along with the teacher Biddy.

While I am being difficult, how do people like the scene where Miss Havisham catches on fire?

Dickens does his usual great job describing the events in the novel.   His descriptive or scene setting sections may not have the depth as those in some of this other works but this is because the story is being told by the young Pip.

Given the large role an  escaped convict who has done well for himself and for others plays in this book, I could not help but think of another book I read last year, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.   OK hard for a Dickens lover like me to admit, Les Miserables is the more powerful work, in my opinion.     Please share your opinion on this with us.

The only advise can give in good consciousness to literary autodidacts such as myself is to read all of the novels of Dickens in publication order.  

I had hoped to also read Bleak House, his consensus best novel, by Feb 7, 2012 but I will not be able to fit this in but I will hopefully read it very soon.   I am keeping the whole year open to posting in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Mel u

Friday, January 27, 2012

"A Family Man" by V. S. Pritchett

"A Family Man" by V. S. Pritchett (1980, 22 pages)

"A Family Man" is the first work by V. S. Pritchett (Victor Swandon-1900 to 1997-Suffolk, UK) I have read. He is best known for his numerous short stories and he has also published essays on literary theory and criticism.   Like a lot of writers, Pritchett first got started in writing working for a newspaper, in his case The Christian Science Monitor which sent him to Ireland and Spain.   He also wrote five novels but he said it was his short stories that he loved writing and that was the part of his work that mattered to him.  

I was happy to see that a story by Pritchett  included in a work I recently acquired, The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories edited and introduced by Malcolm Bradbury contained a short story by V. S. Pritchett as I knew he was a highly regarded short story writer, though perhaps a bit neglected.

There are two on stage characters in "A Family Man", Bernice Foster who is having a clandestine affair with a married man, William Clark, and his wife Mrs Clark.   The affair does not seem to be a serious emotional entanglement on either end and Bernice seems to like the wicked thrill of being the other woman.   It is exciting not really knowing when her lover will show up.    Bernice asked him if his wife was beautiful and he told her yes she was very beautiful.   This only made Bernice feel all the more beautiful herself.  

One day there is a loud knock on her door.   A huge woman is at the door, so large she almost seems to fill up the complete door.   Bernice cannot tell if she is also pregnant or simply a very big woman.   The woman tells Bernice she knows what she has been doing  with her husband, she in fact paid someone to watch Bernice's apartment for her.   All of a sudden Bernice does not feel like the glamorous other woman any more and she no longer feels admiration for William as a man of sophisticated good taste.

At first Bernice does not know what to say.   It was very interesting to see how she was able to manipulate Mrs Clark into believing a lie about her relationship with her husband and distract her from the truth.

"A Family Affair" is a very intelligent story about the self deception and rationalization of things we know sre wrong .   I felt sympathy for everyone in the story except Mr. Clark.

In his introduction to the collection Malcolm Bradbury says some of the stories in the anthology  are experimental works that attempt new literary techniques and some are examples of old fashioned straightforward story telling.   "A  Family Affair" is squarely in the second of these categories.  

I would read another of his short stories, if I could find it online for free but probably would not now buy a collection of his work.  

Please share your experience with Pritchett with us.

Mel u

"Rain Horse" by Ted Hughes

"Rain Horse" by Ted Hughes (1995, 20 pages)

Please consider joining us for Irish Short Stories Week Year Two March 12 to March 22

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

Edward -Ted-Hughes (1930 to 1998-UK) was the poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1884 until his death in 1998.   He is perhaps most known now as the husband of Sylvia Plath.   He wrote mostly poems and children's books but he also wrote some short stories, among them "Rain Horse".

I recently acquired a Kindle edition of The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories edited  and with a very good introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.    I was very happy to see that a short story by Ted Hughes, a new to me writer, was included in the collection.  (My page lengths on Kindle edition books are just an estimate, they can go up and down depending on the print size you select.)

As the story opens a man, the only person in the story, is walking down a country road.   He is returning to a farm he left twelve years ago.   Suddenly a horse seems to be watching him, almost stalking him.    The horse seems to be intently looking at him.    To compress a bit, the horse begins to behave to him in a threatening fashion.

He tries to evade the horse but he follows him down the road, acting in an increasingly threatening way.  It begins to rain and he seek shelter.   The horse somehow seems personally intent on harming him.   He begins to fear the horse may be mad.   He picks up some rocks and throws them at the horse, hitting him several times but the horse only retreats a bit.   He then begins to throw even more rocks at the horse but cannot hit him.

As the story ends and he reaches the horse barn where he spent time twelve years ago he begins to wonder if any of this really happened.

"Rain Horse" was, as one would expect, a beautifully written story.   It leaves us to ponder what the symbolic meaning of the horse might be.

I am glad I read this story.

Mel u

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Beer Trip to Llandudno" by Kevin Barry

"Beer Trip to Llandudno" by Kevin Barry  (2010, 25 pages)

Irish Short Story Week Year II will begin March 12-please consider participating

Some Ideas and Resources for Irish Short Story Week

Not long ago I acquired a Kindle edition of New Irish Short Stories (2010), edited and with an introduction by Joseph O'Connor.    The introduction is very interesting and I will talk a bit more on it later but it is the very diverse collection of authors that makes this book so great.   I was glad to see that in addition to big name authors like William Trevor and Rodney Doyle it also includes a story I posted on a couple of months ago by Orfhlaith Foyle, "Somewhere in Minnesota".   The collection also includes small biographies of each author,  a practice I wish all editors of short story anthologies would adopt.

The lead story in the collection is "Beer Trip to LLandudno" by Kevin Barry from County Sligo.   He has published a highly regarded collection of short stories about life in small town Ireland There Are Little Kingdoms and a novel City of Bohane.   He has also published a in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

The public stereotype of Ireland is that it is a heavy drinking pub centered place with men having perhaps their closest bonds to their "beer buddies".    In the effort to know the truth, I did a bit of research on world wide per capita consumption of beer.   The top country is the Czech Republic, then Ireland, then Germany, France and Australia.    

"Beer Trip to Llandudno" is all about beer drinking.   It is about a group of men, drinking buddies.  One of them says they look like they could all pose for the before picture in a poster of heart attack victims.   Much of the story is devoted to their life long quest to find the absolute best beer of all which is for sure going to be an Irish  blend.   The have devised a one to ten system of rating beer that would shame the most particular of tea connoisseurs.  It looks like they are in their late thirties or so.   They do have wives and such and jobs but that is not the focus of their lives.   They live in the pubs, elsewhere they exist or work to get money for the pubs.   This is not a sad story even though it may seem that way.   The men are living the best they can through very hard times.   There are lots of great conversations in the story.   I loved a scene where the girlfriend of one of the men from twenty years ago happens to come into the pub.   His buddies comments on the  attractive woman are really great and ring totally true.   

"Beer Trip to Llandudno" gave me a real feel for the life of the men.   They are all decent people trying to make their way in the world and finding what joy in it they can.

I plan now to post on another of Barry's short stories (it can be read online at The New Yorker) during Irish Short Stories Week Year Two which will run from March 12 to March 21 or so.   

If you know of other short stories by Irish writers that are in the public area of the archives of The New Yorker, please leave a comment.   If you have a favorite lesser known short story writer whose work can be read online please leave a comment.

Mel u

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Midair" by Frank Conroy

"Midair" by Frank Conroy  (1986, 30 pages)

"Midair" by Frank Conroy (1936 to 2005 New York City, USA) was first published in the The New Yorker.   I read it in a very good collection of short stories  Wonderful Town:  New York Stories from the New Yorker (2007)   This is the first work by Conroy I have read.   

Conroy was a well regarded novelist, a respected Jazz musician (he won a Grammy for liner notes) and was the director of the renown Iowa Writer's Work Shop and the University of Iowa from 1887 to 2005.   

I will just post briefly on the story as I do not think it can be read online.   A great deal of time is covered in the thirty pages.  The story opens on a frightening note when the central character in the novel, Sean at age six, and his sister go to visit their insane father.   He end up dangling Sean outside the window of his high rise apartment until attendants from a mental hospital take the father away.   Sean seemingly forget this and leads an interesting a diverse life.   The story seems to end in a circle thirty years latter when he and a young man are trapped in a falling elevator.

I found this story interesting and the style of writing was kind of captivating though it did begin to wear on me a bit.  Based on this sample alone I would say I a glad I read this story but will not seek out longer works by Conroy.

Please share your experienced with Conroy with us.

Mel u

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Albert Nobbs" by George Moore

"Albert Nobbs" by George Moore (1895, 53 pages)

Frank O'Connors in The Lonely Voice:  A Study in the Short Story ranks George Moore's (1852 to 1933, County Mayo, Ireland) collection of short stories, The Untilled Field as one of the greatest collections of short stories of all times.   Recently I had something to do that involved going somewhere and waiting around a couple of hours so I took William Trevor's The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories with me and read Moore's "Albert Nobbs" while I was waiting.   I admit somehow I thought maybe this story would not stand the test of time but I was completely shocked by what a totally great story it was.   I got an even bigger shock when I just now Googled "Albert Nobbs" and found out a movie staring the great actress Glenn Close will be premiering world wide in less than a week.  (It has already opened in some venues.)    I wish so much George Moore could be here to see this movie and reap the rewards.

"Albert Nobbs" really goes beyond mere story telling into total brilliance.   Ford Madox Ford famously said of Moore that he would be better regarded if he had not had such an arrogant personality (of course leaving aside the question of Ford's own case!).   

Moore is, I think, considered the first great Irish novelist.   He was a hugely prolific writer, his collection of short stories comes to nearly 2000 pages and he wrote at least thirty books ranging from novels, to dramas, to art criticism and political reflections.  (There is a good article on him here)

There are all ready a number of outtakes from the movie posted on the net so you can easily get the basic idea of the story from these videos if you like but you really need to read this story first.  I do not care to spoil any of the plot of this wonderful story.

I admit I was shocked  by the secret in this story.   The character of Albert Nobbs is just so brilliant.   His life as a waiter in a hotel is perfectly done.  I know I praise a lot of the stories I read but "Albert Nobbs" is truly amazing.   As I read it I wondered if it should be seen as a GLBT story or not and I think others will have the same question.

This is a heartbreaking story.  It is perfect.   

You can down load it from under the title Celibate Lives.

George Moore will be one of the writers I will focus on during Irish Short Stories Week Year II.   I plan to post then on his perhaps most famous story, "Home Sickness".   I have also read the first story from his collection The Untilled Field and I may post on that soon  as it was also amazing.

Please share your experience with George Moore with us and please suggest other writers whose work is now in the public domain that might be good choices for Irish Short Story Week II which will be from March 12 to March 22 with St. Patrick's Day in the middle on March 17.

Everyone is invited to join in for this event-details to come but all you have to do is post on one short story by an Irish author and send me a comment with a link to your post so I can do a master post.   Last year there were posts on 57 stories by people from all over the world.   There are 100s and 100s of stories you can read online or download for free if you like.   I will do a resource page for the challenge before it begins.   

Mel u

Monday, January 23, 2012

"The Way We Live Now" by Susan Sontag

"The Way We Live Now" by Susan Sontag (1986, 24 pages)

I recently purchased a great collection of short stories all set in New York City, Wonderful Town:  New York Stories from the New Yorker.    There are stories by lots of new to be writers, some authors I have read before, and some I am familiar with but have not yet read.   Among the short stories in the collection is Susan Sontag's (1933 to 2004-USA) very well know short story about the start of the aids epidemic in the Gay community in New York City.   Sontag was born in New York City and is thought of as a New York City intellectual ready to challenge the establishment whenever it seemed like the thing to do to her.   She has written a few works of fiction, a well known book on photography, lots of diverse essays but I think she is best known and will mostly be remembered for her landmark essay "Notes on Camp" (1964).  I spoke a bit about "Notes on Camp" in my post on Alfred Jarry in which I pondered whether or not Ubo Roi should be classified as camp.   In addition too "Notes on Camp" which even though it is almost 50 years old now (yikes) still needs to be read by anyone trying to understand the artistic and literary sensibilities of the 20th and 21th century.  

"The Way We Live Now" opens with a successful New York City man finding out he has the "new disease", the word aids is never used in the story.   We do not learn what he does but we do know he goes to conferences in places like Helsinki.   There is a very elitist quality to this story.  One of the characters even says it is a shame this disease will strike down so many men would have the potential to make valuable contributions to the arts and sciences.    The lead character has lots of friends in the gay community.   Nobody really quite understands the disease yet but people keeping saying a cure has to be right around the corner.   There is debate over whether or not women can get it.    One of the characters says his biggest regret is he will no longer be able to have completely uninhibited sex.  One of the emotionally hardest aspects of the disease is that it can lay dormant for years so when it does become serious many people have no idea from whom they might have contracted it.   Sontag does a great job of letting us see the huge wave of fear that was over taking the New York City gay community.  The disease both built feelings of community through a joint fear and destroyed it as you might never know who might be a carrier.   

(Note on page lengths-my page lengths are estimates-I am reading a kindle edition so the page count may be higher than than in a print book-I do wish all kindle editions had page numbers in edition to percent completed.)

"The Way We Live Now" is a very well done story that lets us see first hand an important part of New York City history.   

Please share your experience with Susan Sontag?

Is "Notes on Camp" still important?

Was Sontag a bit of a poser and attention seeker given to theatrical remarks like "MozartPascalBoolean algebraShakespeareparliamentary governmentbaroque churchesNewton, the emancipation of women, KantBalanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history".

Mel u

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Red Cavalry and Other Stories by Issac Babel

Red Cavalry and Other Stories by Issac Babel (2006, 400 pages, translated by David McDuff)

Red Cavalry and Other Stories is a wonderful world class cultural treasure that lets us into a way of life that was destroyed by war and prejudice.     The stories are mostly set in the Jewish communities of Russia. Most were written in the 1920s and 30s with a few earlier stories included.    Babel (1894 to 1940)  was from Odessa and most of the stories in the collection either take place in Odessa or are about the author's experience in the Russian Army fighting in Poland during WWI.   Russian has produced two great 20th century short story writers and one was helped get his first work in print by the other.   Fortunately the literary reputation of Babel has nothing to do with that of his one time mentor Maxim Gorky.   I have posted before on the huge damage done to the literary future of Maxim Gorky by his status as the pet writer of Stalin.   Gorky was probably killed by the Russian secret police and Babel certainly was.  In retrospect Babel's long term affair with the wife of the head of Stalin's secret police was probably not a real bright idea.   (You can read more about Babel here and I have previously posted on one of my favorite of his short stories, "Guy de Maupassant" about a man hired to help produce a Russian edition of the complete short stories of de Maupassant.)

Frank O' Connor in The Lonely Voice:  A Study of the Short Story says that Babel in many of his stories somehow wants to  explain the conflict in the soul of the central character in the Russian Cavalry who wants badly to fit in with the brutal hyper masculine Cossack troops while at the same time being true to a culture that value learning and reading above almost everything.  In one of the stories it was somehow very moving to me to see people talking about reading Spinoza.   Babel had all of the life experiences in the stories in terms of military service.   He makes no effort to make himself out a hero.   It is the story of an intellectual and a man very into the reading life trying to cope with horrible brutalities.     One can see the real attraction this violent world had for him.  He was not a hero at all, just an ordinary man.   

There are scenes of horrible senseless cruelty in these stories.   Babel is considered the leading voice of Russian Jewish Culture and I think these stories are probably required reading for anyone interested in this area.

The stories in the Red Cavalry section of the book are connected through sharing a common lead character.   Those in the famous Odessa stories are stand along works.   

There is a lot one could say about in praise of this collection of short stories.   As I read these stories I felt very sad knowing what was coming for the Jewish community in Odessa.   

Red Cavalry and Other Stories is a great treasure.   To anyone who would say the short story is somehow an inferior literary genre I would simply say read these stories.   

These stories are not light reading.   They can be hard to take at times as they are so real and the horror in the stories is so undisguised.   

I totally endorse this collection of short stories.   There is a well done introduction and a very informative afterword by Lionel Trilling.   Babel wrote no longer works of fiction and got his start writing as a journalist.   He was a dedicated communist all of his adult life, though not blind to the flaws in Soviet society.

Please share your experience with Babel with us.    

Mel u


"The Baster" by Jeffrey Eugenides

"The Baster" by Jeffrey Eugenides (1996, 17 pages)

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960, USA) won The Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Middlesex.   His latest book, The Marriage Plot is getting a lot of mostly favorable attention from book bloggers.   He has also published a number of short stories, mostly in The New Yorker.   I read and enjoyed Middlesex   shortly after it came out in paperback.   It is an interesting story of the lives of three generations of Greek-Americans.   The main character is an hermaphrodite.  

"The Baster" is another short story from the collection of short stories first published in The New Yorker all of which are set in New York City, Wonderful Town:   New York Stories from The New Yorker.   The 2010 movie The Switch  is based on the plot of  "The Baster".  

"The Baster" is a funny, insightful development of the lament of unattached women in New York City (and else where!) that "the good ones are all taken".   As the story opens we meet a successful attractive forty year old New York City Woman, an assistant producer for a nationwide TV network news show, whose biological clock is pushing her hard to have a baby.   She says when she was younger she hoped to meet a man to share her life with but now she has concluded that if she wants to have someone to share her life she had better give birth to them.    She decides the best thing to do is to have a child via artificial insemination and picks the seeming genetically high quality husband of a friend as the donor.    She even gives an "artificial insemination" party with lots of her friends there including a man she once date and who may still love her (he narrates the story) but he is a reject as the father as he is way to short.   The party did feel a but "creepy" to me and I guess that was how it was meant to feel.

This is a good well written story that I am glad I have now read.  

Please share your experiences with Eugenides with us.

Mel u

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Failure" by Jonathan Franzen

"The Failure" by Jonathan Franzen  (1999, 18 pages)

Jonathan Franzen (1959, USA) is the author of two best selling novels.  The Corrections (2001) received the National Book Award (major American award) and was also selected by the Oprah Book Club, as was his  2010 book Freedom.   He frequently appears on American television, has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was on the cover of Time Magazine.    Say whatever you like about Oprah, I cannot think of anyone else in the world who has done more in the last ten years to stimulate reading than her.   When The Corrections was selected by Oprah for her book club, Franzen at first was concerned this would cause his book to be seen as "for women only".    This caused a controversy which helped propel his book to best selling status when he apparently declined to go on her show.  In 2010 when his second book was selected he went on her show and it was mutual gushes all round.   He seems to be a frequent guest on American talk shows and has even appeared in cartoon form on "The Simpsons".    

I recently purchased an excellent anthology of short stories, all of which are set in New York City and all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Wonderful Town:  New York Stories from the New Yorker.    There are stories by lots of new to me writers in the collection, some authors I have read before, and some I am familiar with but have not yet read.   I was glad a story by Jonathan Franzen was in the collection.   

The central character in "The Failure" is a thirty-nine year man who was recently fired from his position as a professor at a New York City College.   He  specialized in Renaissance Studies and was fired for several reasons, but mostly for improper sexual contact with a female student.   Everybody in his small family seems very successful but him.  His parents live in an expensive apartment and his sister is partners in a very popular and trendy restaurant.   He has a girl friend but she seems in the process of dumping him.

His relationship with his parents is interestingly depicted.    He seems to define himself in opposition to the values of his parents.   In one funny scene we learn of the time the man intentionally brought over his very vocal Marxist girl friend just so she could make his rock hard conservative father go crazy.

He sent a two page synopsis of a play he wrote to a well known theatrical agent.   She loved the synopsis but once she saw the actual play seemed to show a total obsession with breasts she will not return his phone calls.   

The story is really slice of the life of the characters in the story, with the focus on the male lead character.     

"The Failure" is written in a light handed easy to read fashion and I am glad I read it.   Based on this small sample, I would say if I had a free copy of one of Franzen's books I would maybe start it but I would not buy one of his works.       

Please share your experience with Franzen with us.

Mel u

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Poor Visitor" by Jamaica Kincaid

"Poor Visitor" by Jamaica Kincaid (1989, ten pages)

Jamaica Kincaid was born in 1949 in Antigua but it can safely be said The New Yorker brought her to life and world attention as a writer.  In 1965 she moved to Westchester, N. Y. to be an au pair or as we say in the Philippines, a yaya.    She then after leaving this position studied photography at The New School for Social Research and began to write short stories based loosely on her own experiences.   Through contacts she made from her writing she ultimately went to work for The New Yorker while frequently publishing short stories in the magazine.    She ended up marrying the son of the editor of The New Yorker.    She has also written some well regarded novels and works of non-fiction.   

I recently purchased a collection of short stories all set in New York City that were first published in the magazine, Wonderful Town:  New York Stories from the New Yorker.    There are stories by lots of new to be writers, some authors I have read before, and some I am familiar with but have not yet read.   I was glad a story by Jamaica Kincaid was in the collection.   

It appears little of the work of Kincaid can be read online.   All of her New Yorker stories are available only to paid subscribers.  Given that I will just post briefly on this story.

This story seems very much based on Kincaid's own experiences.   The story is a  good account of what it must have been like to move from a tropical island that New Yorkers dream of going to in the winter, to New York City to be a yaya.   The story is told in the first person.   We can feel the loneliness and isolation the yaya feels.   She does not have a lot of work to do as her charges go to school during the day so she can do her college homework during the day.   The family is quite affluent and  also has a maid, who lets the yaya know her place right away.   

The fun in this very well written story is in seeing the yaya struggle to adjust to her new environment.     She is torn away from everything she knows.

I think a lot readers in the Philippines, many of whom probably had a yaya as a child or employ one now, might find this story interesting.   I know I did.

Please share your experiences with Jamaica Kincaid with us.

Mel u

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"The Heart Fails Without Warning" by Hilary Mantel

"The Heart Fails Without Warning" by Hilary Mantel (2010, 15 pages)

One practical use for short stories is as a way of "trying out" a writer before you attempt a longer work.   There are millions of readers without access to libraries so this is an important thing to lots of people.    

I have lately been looking at the anthologies of short stories available on the Amazon Kindle store for the Ipad from which a sample can be downloaded.  (Remember you do not need a kindle or an Ipad to read kindle edition books, just the free Amazon supplied software.)  I have found in these samples you get the introduction to the anthology and one to three complete stories.    You also get the table of contents so you have all you need to make an informed buying decision.

In Best European Fiction 2011 a story by Hilary Martel, "The Heart Fails Without Warning" is included in the sample.  I was really glad to see this as I have been pondering if I wanted to invest the time it would take to read her 2009 Booker Prize Novel Wolf Hall.  Wolf Hall is set in England in the 1520s and centers on court intrigue in the reign of Henry VIII.   It was a very blogged about novel and most people liked it a lot while calling it "challenging".   

"The Heart Fails Without Warning" by Hilary Martel (1952, UK) is just a perfect short story.   It  introduces the characters, it sets up and resolves a conflict and crisis in a way that helps the characters and perhaps the reader increase their insight into the human condition.  It is also a study in loneliness and about those who have no voice for themselves.   The prose style is simple, elegant and of great beauty.

Basically the story is about a family, a husband who works very hard and long but does not speak much, his wife who on the surface runs the family, the daughter who is has a very terrible eating disorder which is causing her to waste a way to a skeleton, and their other teen age daughter who is quite the brat but I liked her anyway.   

The family life is totally centered on keeping the one daughter alive.   The other daughter greatly resents this and may see what the real problem is where here parents do not.   Anyone who has ever had their lives dominated by the illness of a loved one will understand this story more than they may care to admit.   There is really high intelligence behind this story.   

I will leave the rest of the plot unspoiled but I have added Wolf Hall to my TBR list based on this story.  

Please share your experience with other works by Mantel, including Wolf Hall, with us.

Mel u