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

Friday, January 31, 2014

January 2014. Month End Reading Life Review

January was a good month reading month and a decent one for The Reading Life.

I had 96,804 page views, am up to 3164 Twitter followers and 804 Google Connect Followers.
The top countries of residents for visitors are

1.  The Philippines (first time at top of list)
2.  USA
3.  India
4.  Germany
5.  UK

The top city of residence is Manila.  The most viewed this month and for all time are posts on pre-1970 short stories of the Philippines, followed by posts on R. K. Narayan, then on Katherine Mansfield.  

This month I read for the first time two towering classics of literature by Americans, books I have had on my TBR list for decades.

The Scarlett Letter was way different from what I expected and I loved it from the first sentence.  

The Ambassadors is an amazingly powerful work of art, just read it at a slower than normal for you pace.  

I am rereading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.  I see it as one of the artistic pinnacles of human achievement.  

I continued reading Yiddish literature and I see it as one of my core interests going forward.

I completed a series of twenty posts of short stories and poems by children from the Anjali House in Siem Reap Cambodia Writing Project directed by Sue Guiney.

I read and greatly enjoyed Sue's novel set in a Cambodian Orphanage. 

I also read and posted on a number of short stories, some by new to me writers and some old favorites.

I read a total of 13 books, five works of Nonfictiion, seven novels and one collection of short stories.

On free books, review requests etc.  I like free books!  I look carefully at every book I am sent.  

I am open to joint ventures and guests posts.  

Feel free to contact me with any comments, suggestions, ideas for projects etc.  


Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903)

Henry James (1843 to 1916) is the most prolific of major American novelists.  Since I began my blog I have posted on several of his novels and short stories.  James considered The Ambassadors his finest work.   

I have had The Ambassadors on my To Be Read list for several decades now, just like another American classic I read earlier this month, The Scarlett Letter.  The advance press on the book was that it was very difficult.  My reaction was simply to slow down my reading speed and it was quite manageable. Some of the sentences are long with numerous subordinate clauses but nothing one cannot follow.

The basic plot involves a fifty five year old American widower being charged by his fiancé with the task of investigating how an extensive stay in Paris has impacted her son, Chad.  The more I read on in this wonderful book, the less I could think of another book I would rather be reading.  James can create great excitement and suspense out of seemingly ordinary events.  The descriptions of Paris are just flat out wonderful.  

There are multifarious ways one could approach this novel.  I see it as a study in contrasts.  America versus Europe, a dominant theme in several of his works, men versus women, youth and age, etc.  The central character, Lambert Strether, is a cipher.  He holds nothing back but remains a mystery.  

If there is a message in this master work, it is seize life, live as fully as you can.  

I would personally suggest starting on James with Washington Square and then The Aspern Papers.

James is not at all an impossible to read author, just slow down a bit.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"White Challah" by Lamed Shapiro (1919, translated by Norbert Guterman)

The short stories of Lamed Shapiro (see my prior posts on his work for background information) are among the most powerful I have ever read.  They provide a vivid, at times horrifying look at the hatred and mindless cruelty with which Jewish people were treated in the Ukraine in the first decades of the 20th century.  Horrible vicious pathological anti-Jewish tendencies in the European psyche hardly originated with the Nazis.  Shapiro's stories about the pogroms of Russia are terribly violent, deeply felt works.   If I taught a course on the short story I would assign his most famous story "The Cross" as part of the required readings.  I urge all those who dismiss the short story as "trivial" to read his stories.  

"The White Challah", named for a traditional served on religious holidays bread of Eastern European Jews, is told from the point of a young man drafted to fight in an army in Russia.  Maybe it was the army of the Czar, maybe the communists.  He does not seem to really know.  To him all of the troubles of Russia, the only world he knows, are caused by the Jews.  He repeats over and over that the Jews deserve any cruelty done to them because they sold Christ.   He repeats this over and over.

Conditions in the army are terrible.  He endures trench warfare, sadistic officers, dehumanizing violence, near starvation and through it out he and almost all his fellow soldiers blame the Jews.

Shapiro does as good a job of showing the horrors of war from the point of view of the foot soldier as any author I have read.  Anyone who sees glory in wars needs to read this story.  There is so much in this story.  In one incredible scene, the starving soldier breaks into the house of a Yiddish family.  He demands food, but he cannot speak their language.  He sees a loaf of white challah and he marvels at its wonderful taste.  The encounter ends in an act of unspeakable cruelty in which we see how the war had transformed a young country boy into a vicious animal.  Under the surface, we see how the rulers of the culture use Jews as a way to hide their own greed and failures and focus the hatred of their citizens away from them. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"The Man and His Servant" by Lamed Shapiro (1910, ten pages, translated by Heather Valencia)

Lamed Shapiro (there is background information on him in my prior posts) is one of the great short story writers of the early 20th century.  He is a superb chronicler of Yiddish culture, both in the Ukraine 
and in New York City.  He was born in the Ukraine and died in Los Angeles, California.  There is great pain in his stories, a hatred of senseless ignorant violence.  "The Cross", about a pogrom in the Ukraine, is his most famous story.  His "The Kiss" is a terrible, harsh story, stark in its violence and hatred.  You won't easily forget these stories.

"The Man and his Servant" is set, I believe based on details, in the Central Park area of New York City. It is more of a "modern" story than the two I mentioned.  No one speaks, there is little plotting, and we are left with a difficult question when we try to understand the ending.  A man is being rolled through the park by his servant, the man is very old, his servant is a young blond man.  They almost never talk, the man just gives a barely perceptible nod in the direction he wants to go.  The park is full of lovers, cavorting in the bushes in various combinations (Lamed was pretty explicit about sex for 1910).  A young woman sees him and says he a disgusting old wreck of a man.  They approach a canon, from it seems The American Revolution.  The old man begins to think, maybe of a different canon in another place.

Please share your favorite Yiddish works with us.

Mel u

Monday, January 27, 2014

"The Bust of the Emperor" by Joseph Roth 1935 (translated by John Hoare)


Joseph Roth (Austria, 1894 to 1939) is universally considered one of the greatest European novelists of the 20th century.  He also wrote 1000s of newspaper observational articles and numerous short stories and novellas.  I have made it a life time goal to read all of his translated work, some sixteen novels, two collections of articles from newspapers in Berlin and Paris, a collection of short stories and a collection of his letters.  Much has been written about Roth.  I will just say for now I recently saw for yet another time the movie Casablanca and I can see Roth perfectly comfortable both in the upscale Rick's Cafe American or in the more noir Blue Parrot.  My favorite of his short fictions so far is "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" and of his books The Radetzky March and Savoy Hotel.  

One of the dominant recurring themes of Roth, and other Jewish Austro Hungarian writers like his good friend and sometimes patron, Stefan Zweig, was a nostalgia for the halcyon days of Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph.  The emperor was personally highly venerated.  The decline of the Austro Hungarian Empire along with the rise of Nazism destroyed incredible cultures like that of the Yiddish and Viennese society in which Jews were largely safe from prosecution.  

I read this story in Three Novellas by Joseph Roth (if you google it you can find older translations online and the German original.)   Basically it is a tribute to Franz Joseph and the era of tolerance, culture, and peace he represented to his citizens.  The story is very moving and shows the speakers love for the Emperor.  You can feel his pain at what society has evolved into without him as the titular head of society.    

Joseph and Mrs. Roth.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Sale" by Anita Desai (1978, 12 pages)

Anita Desai (1933) has been short listed for the Booker Prize three times.  "Sale" is my first happy exposure to,her work and I certainly hope it will not be my last. 

"Sale" is set in the home and functioning studio of an artist, a painter of amazing works.   He lives with his wife.  The paintings are scattered all over the house.  The house is in chaos, near to filthy, with cigarette butts on top of paintings.  One day a couple comes to look at his work. They are impressed by his paintings but do not see what they want or maybe they are just feigning interest to be polite.  They tell him they were looking for a large landscape.   You can sense the desperation of the artist to make a sale.  He offers to paint them at once any kind of work they want.  You can feel the sadness when his wife asked him if he thinks they will come back another time to make a purchase.  

I read this very well done story in this first rate anthology

Mel u

Desert Place by Robyn Davidson (1997, 288 pages, author of Tracks -Open Road Publishing)


Last year I read and posted on Robyn Davidson's international best seller about her trek across the Australian outback.  I greatly enjoyed this book, as did everyone else, for its vivid account of life in the Outback and the amazing very individualized people who make it there home.  She made the trek with camels and I learned a lot about camels from her book.  

Desert Places is fascinating travel book set in India that will take you way out of your cultural comfort zone.  In 1992 Davidson got an assignment from The National Geographic to do an article on the nomadic Rabari people of the Punjab and Harayan regions of North West 
India.  Upon arrival in India, Davidson contacted a friend from a wealthy once royal Indian family to seek advice on the trip.  The Rabari culture and migration depends to a great extent on their camels.  Much of their income comes from selling camel milk.  Davidson wanted to accompany them on the migration with only her photographer.  Her friend would not permit this, insisting she be accompanied by a small entourage to protect and serve her and the photographer.  

There were two big interconnected issues the prince had with her proposed trip.  A woman traveling 
 alone without male protection would be a cultural anomaly to the Rabari so she had to have bodyguards.   Of course the issue in the back of our and her minds was will she be safe from the protectors.  Also, and this is really central, to me at least, to the themes of the book, a Western cacausian person is for better or worse perceived as wealthy and needs servants.  If she has no servants ths would reflect badly on her, on the magazine, and even her friend the prince.  She would not so much be seen  as not rich but as unfairly not providing employment to a crew of helpers.  It was a lot of fun following her struggles to accept an entourage while sticking to her wish to travel with the Rubarji as if she were as close to one of them as possible. 

There were many potential cultural conflicts.  Rabari, devout Hindus, culture dictates women dress very modestly.  A woman who violates this by something as simple as wearing knee length shorts could be seen as soliciting male attention in a scandalous fashion.  Of course the Rabari are part of the modern world but they seek to keep their tribal ways intact and to prevent cultural pollution of the young.  

As the journey begins Davidson does her best to live life just as the Rubari do.  She eats to her very unappealing food and drinks unclean water.  Davidson is tough but she endures very real hardships, terrible loneliness, sleeps among thousands of sheep, learns more about camels, and ponders some of her own received truths.  She comes to know and have great respect for Rubari women.  We see the Rubari also learning about and becoming accepting of a woman from a culture very alien to theirs.

Davidson does not sugar coat her observations.  She shows us up close the desperate poverty of rural  India, the pervasive poverty and the sense of the end of a very old way of life.  

There is an India beyond the call centers, the super universities and the high rises.  Davidson lets us see the beauty and horror of India. 

Desert Places is a perfect "arm chair travel" book and much more.  For one thing, you will come away with a whole new respect for camels.  Anyone interested in Asian tribal cultures needs to read this book.

From the web page of Open Road Publishers

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle property in Queensland, Australia. She went to Sydney in the late sixties, then spent time studying in Brisbane before moving to Alice Springs, where the events of this book begin. Since then, she has traveled extensively, living in London, New York, and India. In the early 1990s, she migrated with and wrote about nomads in northwestern India. She is now based in Melbourne, but spends several months a year in the Indian Himalayas.

If you are looking for very high quality E Books at fair prices, you should check out the diverse well selected catalogue of Open Road Publishers

Friday, January 24, 2014

"He of the Assembly" by Paul Bowles (1960).


You don't have to be into hashish to appreciate "He of the Assembly" by Paul Bowles (1910 to 1999) but as you work your way through it at some point you will wish you were.  It should be must reading for anyone at one of the new marijuana resorts opening in Colorado, which recently legalized marijuana.  Robert Stone in his introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Paul Bowles says the story is among the very best literary representations of consciousness under the influence of opiates.   It makes large use of transliterated Arabic terms for various types of opiates and drug paraphanila which I did find a bit interesting but if i did not have Google to instantly explain them I might have been annoyed.  It really is an amazing story which also deals with the paranoia of thinking you are under police scrutiny while stoned.   The hashing cafes of old Tangiers were probably enough to scare most non-locals anyway and high I am sure they were near psychosis inducing.  This is a kind of "go with the flow story".  You get what you get from it.  I greatly enjoyed reading it.  It is quite beautiful.  

There is a superb web page on Bowles here

Mel u

A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney (2010, 256 pages, Ward Wood Publishing).


A Clash of innocents
is a beautifully written, heart warming very insightful story centering on the lives of a sixty year old woman from Ohio running an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a volunteer, Amanda, with a mysterious past, an Australian mine sweeper, and a wonderfully realized cast of children plus a few other fascinating persons.

I have learned from reading and life that there are deep seated reasons that drive people from their western homeland to third or second world countries.  The working out of this was one of several things that fascinated me about Clash of Innocents.  Oscar Wilde famously said he never really felt Irish until he moved to London.  Citizens of colonial countries know that those who leave their home to move to a third world country, for the best or the worst of reasons, are often escaping from a trauma or a hatred of their home land.  No perfectly adjusted happy westerner gives up her or his comforts without a very powerful personal reason, often one they do not fully understand.  Many seek an answer to their differences from "normal" people at home in a place where people don't judge them by the old standards.  We see this for sure in the very troubled Amanda who shows up one day to volunteer.  Deborah knows lots of westerns, often Americans, show up to volunteer for a few days to score Karmic points or assuage feelings of guilt knowing the terrible suffering that America helped bring down on the people of Cambodia.  She has learned to just let the volunteers do simple things, let them donate, but not to count on them.  Amanda is different and soon becomes very much a part of life in the center.  

There is a lot of perfectly done dialogue in Clash of Innocents.  We learn a lot about life in Cambodia.  We get to know and care about the children in the home.  When Deborah's adopted daughter ponders whether or not she should go to Kent State University in Ohio, on a full scholarship, 
where Deborah graduated at the time of the Kent State Killing of students by the National Guard (1970) I was captivated waiting to see what will happen.  We also see Deborah's division when her daughter passes from adolescent to attractive young woman and feels any mother's worry and happiness. 

Guiney paints a marvelous portrait of the Cambodian countryside on a beach trip.  Her descriptions of food made me hungry.  This passage motivated me to look at my Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia:

From this passage you can see for your self the marvelous prose style of the author. 

There is romance, tragedy, lots of good times and festivals in this work as well as fascinating minor characters.  

I was very glad to have read Clash of Innocents and I think most readers would feel the same way.


I first got to know Sue when we talked about posting on The Reading Life  a series of twenty poems and short stories by children being helped by The Anjali House in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  This turned out to be one of the things I am most proud of in my 4.5 years of blogging.  

Sue Guiney's Introductory Post  -Project Director - contains important links 

My Q and A with Dana Hui Lim author of Mother and the Tiger- A Memoir of the Killing Fields. - essential background information -also contains a link to my review of her superb book.

I am really looking forward to reading Sue's next book, also set in Cambodia, Out of the Ruins.

You can learn a lot more about Sue and her work on her blog

shauna Gilligan has just done a very interesting interview with Sue

Mel u

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Hush" by Manohar Malgonkar -मनोहर माळगांवकर 1957, 12 pages, first published in The Hindu Times

Manohar Malgonkar, मनोहर माळगांवकर (1913 to 2010, Mumbai, India) was a very prolific and successful writer, probably best known for his non-fiction work The Men Who Killed Gandhi. He first began to write after Indian achieved independence and much of his work concerns the pervasive corruption in Indian society.  R. K. Narayan said he was his favorite English language writer from India.  

"Hush" is a very entertaining story set in Goa.  There are three principle characters, a smuggler, the policeman who he has been paying protection money to for many years and the headline seeking new supervisor of police who wants spectacular results.  In some cultures paying bribes for getting things done is more or less normal.  In one of exams for my then in the sixth grade daughter, the students were asked to define "grease money".   

As the story opens the policeman and the smuggler are renegotiating the "hush money" terms.  The policeman tells him he has to be allowed to catch some smuggled loads or his boss, who wants his picture in the newspaper next to a big seized shipment,  may sack him.  They agree the smuggler will feed him some arrests, they agree 75% of all shipments will go through (the story just calls the items, "loads" but Goa was at one time a center for narcotic indulgence so I assume it is drugs.).  The policeman's daughter is getting married so he is suggesting the smuggler give her a Mercedes as a wedding present.   We see hush money is not just paid at the top, every body has their hand out looking for a present to look the other way.  We see the police supervisor offering bribes of promotions to his men, knowing pictures of him in the newspapers with a big load of captured goods will advance his own career.  

The story line is advanced mostly through dialogue.  I found this story a lot of fun to read and I think many will see the reality behind this story.  I have access to more of his stories and hope to read them soon.

From The Hindu Times

As a contemporary of writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh and Kamala Markandya, it is a fact that Manohar Malgonkar’s contribution to the genre we refer to today as Indian Writing in English (IWE) remains largely unacknowledged. Yet, this prolific writer of novels, short stories and essays, who passed his last days in a bucolic village near the Goa-Karnataka border, was one of the last of a generation that has living memories of events that changed our nation’s history and society in the most profound ways.

As the author of the novels A Bend in the Ganges, which traces the lives of three characters in the violent aftermath of Partition, or Distant Drum (his first novel, published in 1960), an eye-opening account of life in the Indian Army during the days of the Raj, Malgonkar’s contribution to the IWE canon is seminal and salutary. As someone who also wrote unselfconsciously thrilling novels such as Open Season, a film script later converted into a novel, A Spy in Amber, later made into the Hindi film Shalimar, and Bandicoot Run, a detective story, Malgonkar perhaps deserved to have been read more widely.

History obsessed Malgonkar. Author Ravi Belagare, who was one of the last people to have interviewed him and who has translated his books The Devil’s Wind and The Men Who Killed Gandhi into Kannada, says “Malgonkar was one of the Indian authors who based their novels on the British rule in India. His best books, according to me, are The Princes about an Indian royal family and A Bend in the Ganges.” Malgonkar often drew from his own experiences, using his stint in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, for instance, as a base for the book Distant Drum.

Apart from the historical novels that he made his forte, Malgonkar also wrote books of historical non-fiction such as Kanhoji Angrey (1959), Puars of Dewas Senior (1962) and Chhatrapatis of Kolhapur (1971). Related to a royal family from Maharashtra, Malgonkar retained an abiding fascination for Indian royals. A keen shikari in his day, Malgonkar later became an environmentalist, extending his support to environmental groups striving for the conservation of the Western Ghats in the Karwar and Belgaum regions since the 1990s.

The writer, whom RK Narayan once referred to as his “favourite Indian novelist in English”, was also translated into several European languages. A Padmanabhan, author of the book The Fictional World Of Manohar Malgonkar, refers to him as “a writer who has not yet received full critical attention as a significant Indo-English novelist. His major novels and short stories taken together reveal him as a writer keenly interested in Indian social life.”

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"The Agnostic" by KHUSHWANT SINGH (1963, seven pages)

KHUSHWANT SINGH (1915, India) might be the world's oldest active writer.  Known for his acerbic wit and for an obsession with the female posterior, you could do a lot worse than start a day with one of his stories.  I have previously posted on two of his works, "Portrait of a Lady" and "The Bottom Pincher", both of which many would see as adults only works and tremendously fun stories.  They would not win the approval of ardent feminists.  "The Agnostic" is a family friendly funny story most anyone would enjoy reading.

As the story opens, a family friend is visiting.  He asserts his agnostic views, in front of the family children which really upsets the mother of the family.  She says you will destroy the faith we try to give our children by hiring Koran teachers for them.   The man tells her you are brain washing them with fairy tales, he says "Your God is like a gas bag".  The ten year old, knowing it will annoy his patents begins saying this.  The father changes the topic.   The friend stays the night.  The next day the family and he go for a walk.  The ten year old throws his ball into a tree.  He tries to dislodge it but it is too far up.  The agnostic says, I will believe in God if he will bring the ball down right now.  Of course a string breeze comes up at once and the ball falls in the agnostic's face.

Ok, simple story but fun to read and made me smile.

Mel u

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The Fall of Edward Bernard" from Rain and other Stories by W. Somerset Maugham (1921)

This collection from which this story comes was originally called, The Trembling of Leaf:  Little Tales of the South Sea Islands but was renamed Rain and other Stories in 1932 when a movie was made, staring Joan Crawford, based on a story from the collection.

W. Somerset Maughham (1878 to 1965) was born and died in France but he was throughout English. His father handled the legal affairs of the British Embassy in Paris and in fact arranged for his son to be born inside the embassy, considered British territory.  He was a very successful and prolific author, his best known work is On Human Bondage.  I believe his work is now in the public domain in many countries.   I have read now four of his short stories and previously posted on another story from this collection, "MacIntosh".  In my Q and A sessions with some seventy Irish writers, several listed Maugham as one of the best short story writers of the 20th century.   

All of the stories in this collection are set at least partially in the South Pacific.  There are three main on stage characters in this story about two best friends in love with the same young woman from a very wealthy family living in Chicago.  Her fiancé has gone to work in Tahiti to learn to run a coconut plantation, working under the idea he will come back to Chicago within two years once he learns the business, owned by a Chicago businessman.  He will then marry the woman and be set up in a lucrative job in Chicago.  He sends his fiancé a letter every two weeks, when the mail boat goes out.  Overtime he stops mentioning coming back and his fiancé fears he might have "gone of the deep end" so Edward's best friend and her close friend, who also loves her, agrees to go to Tahiti to investigate. When he gets there he find Edward has fallen in love not just with life in Tahiti but with the daughter of a crooked business man married to a Tahitian princess.  Edward wants to stay there forever, living a simple life. (There are elements of Orientalizing in this story).  Edward goes back to Chicago and tells the woman the truth and he offers to marry her.  Here us his Edward now sees Chicago. 

"I think of Chicago now and I see a dark, grey city, all stone–it is like a prison–and a ceaseless turmoil. And what does all that activity amount to? Does one get there the best out of life? Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre? Is that how I must spend my youth? Youth lasts so short a time, Bateman. And when I am old, what have I to look forward to? To hurry from my home in the morning to my office and work hour after hour till night, and then hurry home again, and dine and go to a theatre? That may be worth while if you make a fortune; I don’t know, it depends on your nature; but if you don’t, is it worth while then? I want to make more out of my life than that, Bateman.”

This is a very well done story.  Maybe the plot seems a little cliched but that is OK.  Much is made of the contrast of the business world of Chicago versus what is depicted as the laid back idyllic South Seas life.  This story is considered a precursor to his novel The Razor's Edge.

You can easily find this story online.  

I hope to read more of his short stories and might try one of his novels one day.

Please share your experience with Maugham with us.

Mel u

"The Kiss" by Lamed Shapiro (1907)

Lamed Shapiro (born 1878 in the Ukraine, died 1948 in Los Angeles, California) is best now know for his short stories dealing with the violence and cruelty of anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine.  I have previously posted on the most famous of Shapiro's pogrom stories, "The Cross" and on two other of his short stories, "At Sea" and "New Yorkish".  This morning I read another of his pogrom stories, "The Kiss" (translated by Jeremy Dauber).

As this story opens Reb Shakhne has just left his store, not even locking it up, to run home to check on his family as a pogrom had just begun.  His wife and children are not there, he prays they have found a safe place to hide. 

A group of young toughs charges into his house and begin to smash up everything they don't want to steal.  Among them is the son of one of his old employees.  Shakhne pleads for mercy but the son initiates terrible violence on him.  The thug tells him if he will remove his shoes and kiss his feet he will call off the attack.  Shakhne instead savagely bites the man's foot.  The resulting violence is horrific and graphically described.

They depart smashing every thing in the house they don't want to take with them.

"The Kiss" is a harsh, vivid account of the terrible cruelty toward Jewish people in the Ukraine in the first decade of the 20th century.  

I offer my thanks to Yale University Press for a very generous gift of books.  Yiddish literature is a world class literary treasure of the highest level.  

There is some background information on Shapiro and Yiddish literature in my prior posts on his work.

Please share your experience with Yiddish literature with us.

Mel u


Monday, January 20, 2014

"A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles (1947, 12 pages)

I subscribe to several e mail services that notify me of bargain E Books.  About six months ago The Collected Short Stories of Paul Bowles (680 pages with over sixty stories) was on sale for 24 hours only for $1.95 and I could not resist.  (I have gotten the full Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty collections for the same prize.). There is an excellent introduction and the stories are arranged in order of publication, from 1946 to 1993.  Bowles was born in New York City in 1910 and died in Tangiers in 1999.  I think his most famous book of his many is The Sheltering Sky.  He was a figure of the "counter culture" of the 1960s because many of his writings did deal with drug usage.  I think hashish was his drug of choice.  He had many famous friends from Gertrude Stein, William Burroughs to Alan Ginsburg and was married to the superb writer, Jane Bowles.  I have previously posted on Bowles intriguing story from 1946, "By the Water'.  He kind of epitomizes the American expat from a now lost era.

"A Distant Episode" (1947, first published in The Parisian Review) centers on the terrible misfortunes of a European professor of linguistics living in probably Tangiers.  The professor decides he will take a bit if a trip to see if he can learn more about the dialects of nomadic North African tribes.  The professor stops in at a cafe ran by an old friend.  It turns out the friend is dead.  The professor has a bit of a superior bearing and he offends the new cafe manager.  Then he tells him he collects camel udder boxes and offers the man money to help him buy some.  The professor is taken to a sinister seeming place where camel udder boxes can be bought.  The professor begins to fear he has been led  into sinister trap and he is terribly right.  I hope you can one day read this story so I will say only that the professor was sold into slavery which last over a year to a nomadic tribe.  

"A Distant Episode" was a lot of fun to read.  It is perfectly constructed and could if you wanted to be read as a story about colonialism.  The atmosphere is perfect.

Mel u

Friday, January 17, 2014

Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War by Mary McAuliffe 2014 forthcoming

Mary McAuliffe is the author of five highly regarded books on French history.   Twilight of the Belle Epoch focuses on Paris from 1901 to 1918.  These years were ones of great art, literature, as well as scientific and automotive development.  Among the great figures of the era most focused upon are Picasso, Marie Curie, Rodin, the car manufacturers and designers of the era, the sculpture Rodin, and writers Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, and Gertrude Stein.  

I found this a very interesting and at times fascinating work.  It is a bit rambling and maybe could be better organized but it is crammed full of things about French culture of the era I was delighted to learn.  For example, there is a very valuable account of the automotive creations of Renault and Citroen.  Both men were passionate about creating an artistically beautiful, powerful and faster and faster car.  Both were personally into auto racing and McAuliffe helped me understand how this relates to the social environment of the time. A lot of space is devoted to the visual arts, focusing mostly on the lives of Debussy, Toulouse Lautrec, and Picasso.  McAuliffe lays out the economics behind their art.  She also spends a lot of time on the sex life of the Rodin.  I am currently reading Proust and have read a bit of Zola so I really enjoyed the sections on them.  I did wish, and this is not a criticism, she had covered more writers.  McAuliffe also details the career of the Curries.  

This book will interest readers interested in the period.  I am glad I read it.

In the interest of full disclosure I received a free copy of this book.

Mel u

Thursday, January 16, 2014

There Is no Future In History" By Michael Alenyikov An Original Story

In November 2011 I read and posted on a superb collection of short stories,

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

One of the biggest side benefits of editing the Reading Life for 4.5 years is the wonderfully creative artists I have become acquainted with.   Among them is Michael Alenyikov.  We have never met and probably never will but the wonders of social media and e mail has allowed us to exchange thoughts regularly.  I am proud to be able to present to my readers a wonderful short story by Michael.  

Below is an extract from my post on his marvelous collection of interrelated short stories, Ivan and Misha.

 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. The characters are brilliantly realized.    I give my highest endorsement to any lovers of exquisite prose and the short story.  

"There Is no Future In History"


Michael Alenyikov




Buffalo’s outskirts came with an icy edge to the air. Samuel fumbled for the handle to raise the Subaru’s window. Damnation, he thought, forgetting, remembering there was a button to press not a handle to turn. The sky's gray darkened and lowered. Flecks of white fell-- ash or snow? One was never sure passing the steel mills that guarded the southwestern approach to the city. Memories here. Someone had died. Murder? No, assassination. McKinley or Harrison?  Surely an easy one to hit out of the park for the likes of Sam, Professor Emeritus of History, on the road to settle his brother’s affairs, to bury his body in Boston, from which Charlestown Sammy had fled a half century ago.

Too damn easy a question to fumble. 

In search, he traveled down the mineshaft of memory and caught sight of . . . Who? . . .Himself? No, the hair was too dark. And where's he leading me, kicking about the neuronal pathways, trapped in a maze of past and present and the what do you call the only-moments-ago? The figure stopped, turned; a coy smile appeared, more of a smirk, but just as quick the stranger brought a handkerchief to his face, coughed, covering all but his eyes. It's mine! Samuel thought, the smile was mine; but as if in reply, the well bred-voice he could not quite place said: “Oh, Sam, how easily you forget. I taught you how to woo them with a glance and a grin, and it didyou well with the boys back when. And wasn't it I who said to drop those specs, so badly patched, for the owlish ones the visiting boys from Oxford wore?”  

Overhead a sign and arrows demanded: Niagara Falls, Downtown, or Thruway East. Samuel studied it through lenses, thrice-lined, which still confused him to no end. Settled on the eastern path, then Wham! The well-bred voice, kicking at a weak spot in the mine shaft, demanded: “What’s the difference between a murder and an assassination?” There's an interesting article here, Samuel thought, although a minor one. “Quick, Samuel, an answer, an answer,” insisted the well-bred voice . . . “My name will be the reward. In time, of course,” the homunculus teased.

And you've lots of that.”

Sarcastic bastard.

Fame has something to do with it. A fatal blow to my head by a frightened mugger would be a murder, the killing of a President, an assassination. Samuel’s stomach growled and gurgled -- hunger or gas? They were becoming harder to tell apart until a spot of nausea announced itself; my mind is stiff, he thought, my stomach loose; there’s no point in resisting change, he'd learned over fifty years and those many yoga classes during his San Francisco life. But he’d never stopped taking notes and the objectivity that he’d practiced all his life -- as rigorous as any meditating monk could claim  gradually calmed his agitation.

Who did die in Buffalo? The spreading nausea needled his vanity; what am I without my facts, names, and dates to anchor the past? He was in truth a catalogue of pain: head, stomach, back, knuckles. But pain, at least, was a presence, demanding attention, providing direction, if only the selection of doctors. But loss, losing, was sadder, the shock of absence.

Yes! He’d had a fling with a boy from Buffalo -- a memory sprung loose, a tender spot, an artery not yet hardened. (There was more than death in Buffalo!) He was a fellow student inhistory at Harvard, that castle overlooking the wrong side of the tracks where home lay hidden, modest in its shame. He’d crossed the moat, scaled the walls, but not his brother, Petey, and the talk between them had turned small: sports and weather; the melancholy Red Sox, the triumphant Celtics; Ted Williams, Bob Cousy; the hated Yankees -- the theft of Ruth still raw years later --The weather in New England and oh how if you wait an hour it will change . . . the conversational fallback when there was nothing more to be said to the person who’d become a stranger.

“Them Sox,” he’d say, tossing a ball into the space between two beds.

“Yeah, them Sox,” from Petey, the ball sent back as it had a thousand times and more.

“They always fold in August,” says Samuel. “I told you that,” said now with Ivy League authority.

"That Williams, better than before the war."

"He's not the same."

"No way," from Petey.

"Best years he gave up."

Petey, standing, and then limping towards the kitchen, "There'll be better ones."

"You bet," Samuel'd say, not pushing his advantage.

Samuel’s fingers searched for a knob to twirl away the ear-jamming rap rap rap of the angry man on the radio. But it was buttons again to push, too small for his no longer nimble fingers to find as he fiddled through sounds: past country twang; you get what you need from the Stones; and a praised-be-god lucky landing on an island of Mozart, the tinkle of piano keys, though tinkle was hardly the word for Mozart.

Nimble fingers the boy from Buffalo said Samuel possessed. Samuel of the nimble fingers. He called him my Adonis once while making love, just once, but the words rang in his mind with the clarity of a bell as Samuel pressed foot to brake to slow the car for traffic; and those words carried more historical weight than anything Samuel'd studied since, towering over the details of Reconstruction, the overlooked strengths of the Grant administration, the catalogue of foolishness following Lincoln’s death: now that was an assassination to reduce whoever died in Buffalo -- Ah! McKinley it was! -- to a mere sordid murder.  My Adonis, the boy moaned, body shuddering in his Buffalo home, boyhood bedroom, muffling sounds so as not to alert the parents. They’d shuffled off to Buffalo to see the family for Christmas. But what was the boy’s name? The soft skin could be recalled, the coarse hair on his legs, the stubborn red spots of acne on his chin. “Fuck me,” he’d whispered (no one had ever dared to say that word; what a shock to learn sex need not be as silent as Communion), which Samuel tried but fumbled, and -- what did they call it then? Yes, friction had to do, and did quite well.

“Shuffle off to Buffalo,” the boy had said once too often on the train ride from Boston, passing the bare limbs of trees in the Berkshire hills -- dabs of painterly white clinging to the evergreens -- and after, as they fitfully slept, Samuel's head resting on the other boy's shoulder while snow fell on farms between Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, cities strung along the tracks like a necklace of costume jewelry. Yes, too often said, enough to poke a hole in Samuel’s infatuation, allowing what had been love to seep out. “Your modus operandi,” a friend had named it many years later; “Proof your real self can love women,” a psychiatrist counseled after that embarrassment with the security guard in the men’s room. (He'd been bailed out of jail by an older friend who tutored him in the ways when he was fresh to San Francisco). "Who hasn't been cuffed in the toilets," Albert had insouciantly added later. An eye for detail was anasset to a scholar, but as a lover it proved his undoing. How many were there? How many conquests?

“You’re the historian,” the well-bred voice scolded, coughing into his handkerchief. “Peter was the accountant. Seeing the meaning is your vocation,” he said -- taking on a kindness that Samuel did not trust --  “Not the body count.”

The boy from Buffalo took a master’s degree and decided there was no future in history.  “Come with me to Buffalo?” in his eyes their last night, walking brazenly, hand-in-hand along the Charles, safety in a moonless night on the Esplanade, the sound of unseen others padding along the damp grass, grazing the bushes with elbows and knees, an occasional bat caught in the lamplight, and on the wind the fishy smell from the harbor.

From the Subaru’s radio a piano struck a chord, different from those preceding, Mozart subtle as ever prodding him to move along, changing the mood. Something else had changed that year. The homunculus grew edgy, angry, bouncing himself off the hard tunneling walls of the mineshaft. Trying to hurt himself? Or Samuel? Samuel’s grip on the wheel wavered and a horn’s toot-toot returned him to his senses. He slowed to think, impeding the flow, creating a blockage, a traffic jaman interesting phrase, whose roots he pondered until the horns transformed into one harsh wail that he thought was likely the same that Dante heard as he explored the nether regions of hell. He took a deep breath: cold winter air, the tingly smell of snow. Yes, it was the English Professor’s suicide that year. (The year? The year? Had the Korean War started? Yes? No?) It had cast a pall on love. Why bother, we all thought, rebuking desire. Why bother when he is our fate. And the Professor's name? Samuel struggled to recall, inching the car along to the cries surrounding him, abandoning the struggle with memory, which brought relief and a sigh: I've acoffin to select, after all! Now sucking in air so hungrily his lungs filled past where the cigarette habit had once erected a barrier.

How sensual memory is when one struggles for it. Is this perhaps what’s to be looked forward to? But the boy’s name, his look, the color of his hair, all these eluded him, and the urgency to remember was upon him again. The friend who’d tagged his modus operandi in love had added stubbornness, too; or was that what the boy cried when Samuel (a boy, himself) said he could not join him in Buffalo? “I’ll stay here, with you, then,” the boy had said, but yes that was the year of the Professor’s suicide and Samuel was rapidly learning -- as were they all, except perhaps for the lovesick boy -- to watch his back.

The white flakes were definitely snow. Samuel reached for the thingamajig, turned and swish, swish went the wiper blades. He felt relief beyond compare; the damn thingamajig was where it had been for year upon year. He stared intently ahead as snow covered the windshield and was nimbly brushed away. He had had nimble hands. He’d been told that by the boy fromBuffalo -- Yes! Frederick was his name, his hair was dark and tightly curled, and this memory released the muscles of his jaw and his hands clenched the wheel tightly in the effort to steer the Subaru through the sleet; but the rest of him now softened and he could feel again Freddie’s hands, and how he’d admired Sammy’s own firm touch. Modestly (not false!), he'd said, it came from throwing baseballs all through high school and his three years at Harvard. It had been fall, and leaves, red, rust, orange, jaundiced yellow, swirled outside his room, the window rattling in the wind. Samuel dug through his closet, retrieving a scuffed and tattered baseball. “You’re joshing,” Freddie said, incredulous on his face until Samuel showed where fingers were placed to achieve a sweeping curve, give the ball speed, or slow its pace; and he remembered nowFreddie's own deft fingers probing him in turn, until he found where Charlestown Sammy had let no one touch before.                                                        

The memory of that touch pleased him for tens of miles, perhaps a dozen highway exits, until the nausea demanded attention so swiftly that he pulled to the side of the road. Heedless of cars rushing past, he opened the door, and leaning on the car for support, stumbled to the safety of the passenger side, where he vomited whatever ate at him. He retched until there was nothing but bile, as the rapidly falling snow covered the greasy bile and the brown, red, and green (touched with yellow) colors of the bacon, eggs and jelly donuts that had offended his body.

He stood and turned. Across the highway the gray-blue waters of a minor lake (plans to see the Great ones forgotten in this race of his to cross the continent) lay flat like a mirror. Was a suicide a murder or an assassination? The thought returned and did not let go. He saw the English Professor's body lying still on his sitting-room floor. It was a memory of an event he hadn’t seen, yet it was more real to him now than the dry heaves, the hard ache in his belly, more real than the cars hurtling by, dangerously close. The news had spread across campus and the image was born, in that year, 1951. It had horrified him. So real the body was, skin pale, blueish with death. The gray, bluish corpse now rose in Samuel's mind and beckoned. “So standoffish are we? Nothing to be afraid of. Really. As to your question,” he continued, with that note of ironic detachment, the code by which Samuel had learned to spot others of his kind, “It depends on the fame of the victim. Surely that’s obvious, Samuel.”  The English Professor had been anything but ghoulish that time Samuel'd taken cocktails with the others in his home on Beacon Hill. Then he was short, round and bald, a shy manner of speech, his face puffy with middle age, cheeks stained red by rosacea he'd tried to cover with talcum, but very much alive in the reflected light of the young men who surrounded, adored him, protected him from the most recent urgentwhisperings that he was a communist, a sympathizerIn memory, Samuel conjured the unnamed sorrow in his eyes, but not then; then his eyes had raced to capture the Emersons, the Melvilles, the Hawthorns,  Jameses,  Poes and Whartons (“original editions” a reverent sophomore informed Samuel) that lined his bookshelves; the Renoirs and Manets (“Copies, of course,” said the same sophomore, “But, superb, don’t you think?”); and the oriental vases and silk screens that adorned the flat.

“I’d like to think my death was an assassination of sorts, but you’re the historian, after all, dear Samuel, spoke the animated corpse, as soft-spoken (to hear him, one had had to lean in back then so close as to feel his breath) as he’d been in life.

A police car slowed, pulled over behind the Subaru, red lights swirling. The policeman, deliberate in pace, bowlegged in walk, approached Samuel. “You okay, old fella?” he said, a wide-faced, barrel-chested cop, with a nose that looked to have been broken more than once.

“Yes, yes,” Samuel said. “Just needed some fresh air.”

“Well, best to take your fresh-air off the highway. We’ve some nice parks back in Buffalo, you know.” Samuel waved him off. His mouth tasted vile. He scooped a clump of fresh snow with an ungloved hand to wipe his face, but could not contain a smile. Assassination, indeed. Wit from beyond the grave.

Samuel tugged gloves onto fingers red and stiff with cold. He had been on the road for five days. The muscles in his leg and groin ached. In such a hurry to pick out a coffin, he had to laugh.

Samuel lost his way in a cluster of signs leaving Buffalo, the nausea a dry ache. He seemed to be -- no, he most certainly was -- driving in circles. Surely, he’d seen the exit to Tonawanda -- or was it Lackawanna? Cheektowaga? -- a half hour earlier?

Swish, swish, the wiper blades, the wet snow heavy now. To the right, a sign proclaiming Rochester ahead and Samuel swerved quickly, imprudently, feeling the car wheels slip, lose traction: which way to turn the steering wheel? There was an answer to this question, but it was not a professor’s rhetorical; it was his father’s voice saying, “Which way, Sammy? Think, for chrissakes,” Da shouting as the Rambler had slid along an unexpectedly icy Cambridge street, Samuel’s heart pounding, his mind failing him. ("That head on your shoulders is your best asset," lisped bow-tied Mr. O’Connell, who'd advised him at Boston Latin. "Forget the baseball, I would, if I were you," he'd said, and Samuel flushed even now with anger -- an old Auntie, he'd joined the boys in calling him.) And Da going on, “Steer, you idiot, steer.” But which way? Into the spin or against it? And Petey in the back, taught by their father to drive the year before, laughing, “We’re going to die. Sammy’s going to get us killed.” Choking on his laughter, doubled-up -- Samuel knew without needing to see, relishing the tables turned. Petey would easily have died a happy death, to see his college-bound brother look the fool in Da’s eyes.

“Turn against the spin, Sam, against,” a tremble in Da's voice, a squeak, an embarrassing high note, a startling departure from his baritone, which made Samuel ashamed for his father even as he struggled with the wheel, managing to guide the spinning car to a stop, hitting no cars, no people, despite a full 360 in Porter Square. 'You old Auntie' lay unspoken, then relief in Da's  manly "I'll take over now, Sammy."

Turn against the spin! which he did, feeling as pure a joy as he could ever recall in the return of reflex.  But a sharp stab in his upper back like a sliver of ice between his shoulder blades dumped Samuel fully into the present. He cut into the right lane and slowed to under forty. Too high in the back for stones brought relief, calmed his mind, before other options death offered could be explored.


Swish, swish, the scrapped the wiper blades. The English Professor, they’d called him a swish, the worst said it with disdain, but even the adoring ones . . .

Hard to watch oneself for a lifetime.

Samuel took the cigarette he'd placed snugly behind his ear in Ohio --  medicine for rawnerves -- putting it between cracked lips. He continued to crawl along in the old man's lane, glancing down, courting death, to find the dashboard lighter. There'd been laughs long ago when Samuel'd aped James Dean's way of tucking a cigarette behind his ear. (Had he really once said, "I'd die for a night with him in my arms"? Had he really lost days, no, months of his young life, prowling San Francisco’s bars and streets for anyone with the movie star's looks, his slouch, his come-hither eyes?) Though he'd thought himself an anguished soul, he remembered it now as a magical time, and the memory carried him to Rochester, collapsing the time into one long moment of unexpected sweetness.

Passing Rochester he wondered: Any assassinations here?  Was there any history to this town? None he knew, beyond a layering of Eastman and Kodak. He’d be passing near the Erie Canal soon, somewhere east (or was it west?) of Syracuse. History in that, but not his: he'd defined his interests to what came after Lincoln: the follies of Reconstruction; the what-might-have-beens; Grant’s potential for greatness squandered by his trusting nature. Too late, colleagues had said, you defined yourself too narrowly. You’d have gone further with a wider vision, a broader reach.

Rochester behind him, the drive to Syracuse passed slowly, time enough to brood about the shoulder pain, and then, damn it to hell, his demanding bladder. He pulled over at a rest stop outside of Syracuse for gas, and to pee. Business done he walked around the empty picnicbenches to stir the blood, but felt disturbingly weak, unsteady at the whims of a brisk wind. He feared a stroke and searched his limbs for the telltale paralysis and numbness he'd learned of on TV. None found, it registered that the sliver of ice in his back was gone. A fair exchange? One dread for another. Inside he bought coffee and a candy bar. “Yes, please, thank you, have a nice day" exchanged between him and the girl behind the counter who wore too much lipstick, a purple close to black, but had pretty blue eyes; and his own green eyes discerned the glitter of an engagement ring: still in high school he presumed, too young, he judged, pregnant? he questioned.

Behind the wheel again. Caffeine, sugar and a return to lucidity. Relief in a problem solved. Blood sugar, not the buildup of  plaque in the arteries, imagining it to be much the same as tooth plaque but in the brain, wondering why a simple brush and floss were not the cure.

Platitudes. Thank you. Have a nice day. The weather in New England. His mother’s hands through his hair, distracted, reassuring . . . nothing to say, saying so much: “I’m here. I’m here.”

When had he and Peter slipped into the smallest of talk? It brought to mind that movie he’d seen when he first moved west -- what was the name? Yes! The Incredible Shrinking Manor was it Woman? He wrestled the question until a horn woke him to his wavering again across the highway’s broken line. When did small talk shrink to nothing, to a bond so small as to be lost?

The urge to pin a date to the moment was as strong as his bladder’s urging before the rest stop. Silliness, he judged. Like pinning down the moment Lincoln found his full courage to renounce slavery; silly even to make such a comparison between his life and the life of a nation. Such airs you put on, old man. Peter was no more, a corpse awaiting a coffin; their parents were no more, a family gone to dust.

The candy bar and soda were a mistake. Samuel felt the falling of blood sugar, a familiar cause of wasteful melancholia, which set him adrift into the years after James Dean's death when he'd prowled streets and bars in search of his own Tab Hunter. How much more real they were, those movie stars, than the flesh and blood men who shared a bed with him for a night, discarding each other in the morning as lacking that certain je ne sais quois.

Swish, swish. The wiper blades squealed their way across the windshield. Samuel of the nimble fingers brought them a halt. The snow had stopped. He glanced away from the road at the mile-after-mile sameness of the terrain, so unchanged from the past. Farmland brown, crops harvested, the land a naked supplicant awaiting winter, monotony broken only by patches of fresh snow, and a scattering of  houses, barns, and black, white-spotted cows indifferent to the fences surrounding them. It wasn’t that Petey hadn’t seen how Charlestown and its ways hadcontained them both when young . . . and that Samuel was the one with gifts a world values. Butmight it have been that Petey lacked the drive to leave? Or might it have also been that Petey had a deeper affection for home, a depth of love missing in Samuel? A kind of love, a passion -- that search as he did Samuel had never found?

Samuel opened the window a crack expecting the smell of manure, but the cold had squeezed the air clean.

A sign: Utica, 30 miles.

In the distance, to his left, gray smoke curled from the horizon's edge. He followed it with his eye as the highway curved to reveal the small figure of a man stoking -- what? -- debris or hay or something of no more use to him. It occurs to him now that Nurse Grayson, who’d summoned him to Boston, who knew Petey in the nursing home during his final illness, had not mentioned cremation. Why? Samuel thought of smoke rising from. . . where would the smoke rise from? No image came to mind. But ashes. There would be ashes, spoonfuls of ashes. Or would Petey be measured by the cup? or the quart?  How much of Peter would there be? Less, if he had shrunk with age, and Samuel felt an impulse to giggle -- labeled inappropriate as quickly as it transformed itself into a lump in his chest, a small convulsion. For a moment the fear of stroke returned . . .  or could it be a seizure? A newly considered pathway for his body's demise.  But it came in even pulses and the wetness of  tears brought to mind the name of the thing, itself:  a sob. I am sobbing, he thought, as his vision blurred, his mouth tasting of salt. He grippedthe steering wheel, afraid to lift a hand to wipe his eyes; and through the tears he read the sign promising Albany some number of miles ahead, thinking the number should be noted when it was much too late, regretting he had not bought cigarettes with the coffee and candy bar,recalling his first cigarette, a Lucky, and the coughing, laughing with Petey and Cousin Mickie on the smokes swiped from Ma's purse.

Mozart had long faded to static, and the blood-sugared sadness Samuel felt distracts. His fears: the punishing scrape of kidney stones carving their way through narrow inner passages; a stroke or seizure (they seem as one to him just now). Thloss of memory, of lucidity, is easier to bear than images of Peter reduced to ash. He veered abruptly from the far lane -- the wrong lane,he'd name it moments later -- to the right, towards a beckoning Howard Johnson's, failing to twist his head to see into the blind spot he'd dutifully checked for fifty-some years. A horn bleeps. Catastrophe averted by what? an inch? a foot?  You'll kill yourself, old man, before your body does you in, he thought, and judged the irony fit but uninspired.

He eyed the dozen cars and trucks gathered in front of the brightly lit entrance as if it were a hearth; the restaurant was something generic, a fraud, a goddamned fraud, Howard Johnson’s being a phantom memory. Samuel picked a spot a good distance away. He shaded his eyes from the sun, which had wrested free from a blanket of clouds to break the gloom, reminding one and all it was still day.  He did not want to be seen, even by strangers. He'd thought old age to be a time of  clear-seeing through the muddle of emotion. A wiser, larger Samuel, he’d be. Not this. When had he become so brittle, fearful? He searched for a time and date, but he might as well reach for the stars in an expanding universe. Or was the universe contracting, collapsing like Samuel, himself? In the posing of the question he felt on solider ground. The image seized him, and he saw the stars as not simply receding, but fleeing.  Yes, fleeing is the truer word: fleeing from the moment of conception, the Big Bang, the thought of which brings a chuckle, audible to an audience of one, Samuel, alone in this car, which has become a kind of home to him, and who now found strength to wipe away his tears.

In the silence, he finds comfort. I am pulling myself together, he thought, enjoying the phrase, imagining his emotions -- the tears, the heart-pounding fright over the near accident -- as a force, scattering his bones and limbs and sundry organs. Now fully collected, he steered back onto the highway. Found his place in the even flow of cars. For a few miles he endured the radio’s hiss and crackle, afraid to take dim eyes off the road to finger fumble buttons and knobs. Then, from the static, a melody, some words, but a mile or so goes by before the ache in Billie Holiday’s voice emerged; the hiss and crackle were in her voice now and not behind it, her defiant sorrow came in hesitations, then full-throated, seemingly birthed from the flatness of theland, and within Samuel a feeling grew and grew until he felt near to bursting with it, and there he was, hurling a baseball an inch under the chin of another boy, Charlestown Sammy’s knockdown pitch, and he felt again the bravado, the standing tall, erect, on the pitcher’s mound, the corner of his eye catching Petey and Da watching on the sidelines, aglow.


End of guest post

This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published in any format without the permission of Michael Alenyikov, who retains all ownership rights.  

I thank Michael for allowing me to share this wonderful story with my readers.

Mel u