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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 A Review of my nonfiction reading Part II June to January

1.  Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. A useful,entertaining and interesting book

2.  Dressed for War  by Nina Edwards. Good fashion history, for fans of the Edwardian era. 

3.   My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.  First rate in every way

4.  Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores.  The Philippines during W W Two

5.  A Passion for Paris Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light by David Downie, very strong on literary history 

6.   The Liberation of the Camps The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone

7.  Iron Kingdom The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600 to 1947 by Christopher Clark, the second book by this author I read this year.

8.   Wilkie Collins A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd.  Informative 

9.  Sicily by Julius Norwich  strictly a political history

10.  The Last Leopard A life of Giuseppe Tomán Lampedusa by David Gilmore. A first rate literary biography

11.  Proust's Way A Field Guide in Search of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck. I found it very helpful and a pleasure to read 

12.  The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Work Book by Linda Lappin   Full,of fascinating ideas and reading suggestions, highly recommended 

Mel u

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 A Review of my Nonfiction Reading. Part I, December to July


I normally read four to seven books at a time and I try to always have a nonfiction book in the works.

1.  The Story of the Jews Finding the Words 1000 BC to 1492 AD by Simon  Schama

2.  The Life of Wallace Stevens The Whole Harmonium by Paul Mariani - a book for those into the subject matter

3.  The First Nazi Ever Erich Ludendorff by Will Browneell.  For sure worth reading

5.  Return to Zion The History of Modern Israel  by Erich Gartmano.  An excellent introduction 

6.  Tennessee Williams Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr

7. The Hotel Years Wandering in Europe Essays by Joseph Roth translated and introduced by Michael Hoffman.  They come no smarter than Joseph Roth

8.  Ostend, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and the Summer Before the Darkness by Voltar awardee an.  An ex dent book for those with an interest in the subject.

9.  Shocking Paris Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders who are of Montparnasse by Stanley Messler. Very well done work

10.  Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick.  A fascinating book.  

11.   Why this World a Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser

12.   Former People The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith.  Must reading for Russian history buffs

13.  Paris at War 1939 to 1944 David Drake.  Good history

14.  Coco Chanel A life by Justine Picarde. Inferior to book number 10

15.  A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead.  Important addiction  to French Holocaust Literature

16.  The Hidden Children The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust by Jane Marks.  An important addition to Holocaust literature

17.   Secrets of the Flesh A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman.  A brilliant biography and much more 

18.  Helen Rubenstein The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michelle Fitoussi- a very interesting story about a woman who went from a poor girl in Ukraine to a billionaire 

19.  The Sleepwalkers How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark.  First rate history

20.  The Life of Irend Nemirovsky by Oliver Philipponnot. If you love the work of Iréne Nemirosky as I do,you will love this book 

Mel u

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The Front Yard" - A Short Story by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1895)

I began 2015 having never heard of Constance Fenimore Woolson.  I end the year with her securely in my list of favorite writers.  I have so far read about fifteen of her wonderful short stories  and her highest regarded novel, Anne.  (There is background information on her in my prior posts.)  

"The Front Yard" is a terribly sad near heartbreaking story set in the hills of Tuscany about a woman from New England who marries an Italian man eighteen years  her junior.  She felt sorry for the man because he lead her to believe he as all alone in the world.  When for the first time she goes to live in his house she discovers he has eight children from a wife who died a year ago, a nasty as can be mother and a reprobate uncle living with him.  She is expected to be the care giver for them.  Soon her husband dies and instead of moving on she is driven by a sense of duty to stay on, using her little money to feed the totally ungrateful near abusuve mother and her step children.  Her money gives out and she takes a menial job working sometimes fourteen hours a day.  The years go by, the woman ages and her mother in law gets crueler, the children more demanding.  Her dream is to remove a shed from her front yard, allowing a nice view.  

To me the cruelest moment in the story was when one of the step daughters tells her she needs money for a wedding gown.  She has found a rich husband. The woman gives her moneyfrom her very small savings and then says she will need herself a dress to go to the wedding.  The daughter tells her she is not invited because the step daughter feels she will not be comfortable among higher class people.  In fact she is embarrassed by her step mother.

This is a story many step parents will appreciate.  It is full of pain and rings of the truth.

In January or early February I hope to do a Q and A session with Anne Boyd Rioux.  Her magnificent biography of Woolson and her anthology of Woolson stories will be out in February, 2016.

At some point next year  I am hoping to do a joint post on Woolson, Clarice Lispector, and Iréne Nemirovsky. 

Mel u

Friday, December 25, 2015

"In the Dead Town" by Lamed Shapiro (1910, translated by David G. Rosties)

Lamed Shaprio (born 1878 in the Ukraine, died 1948 in Los Angeles) is one of the highest regarded writers of Yoddish language short stories. His most famous stories are about the terrible pograms which took place in the Ukraine (Clarice Lispector's family left the Ukraine for Brazil after her mother was repeatedly raped in a program) and about Yiddish life in New York City.  I have previously posted on several of his wonderful stories.

"In the Land of the Dead" is set in a Jewish cemetery.  I'm could not tell where one might geolocate it but it is on the bank of a large River which  freezes over in the winter.  It is a strange, to me, difficult to fully follow on a first reading story centering on an elderly widower and a young girl for whom he draws on Eastern European Jewish traditions about death.  The story beautifully evokes the feel of the cemetery.  The wife of the old man is buried under a pear tree,  as he ages he visits her more often.  There is a terrible memory evoked in a dream like sequence toward the close of the story in which we feel the terror and violence of a pogram.  

The Cross and Other Jewish Stories is a wonderful treasure, helping us preserve a great culture.  The introduction is very well done. 

Mel u

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte. (1949). A Second Reading

When I read The Skin,in September of 2013,  Curzio Malaparte I finished it completely stunned and drained.  I knew I had encountered a great work of art that certainly transcended my ability to begin to deal with on first encounter.  I just finished my second reading and have of scheduled for a third next year.

Below the cover images is my post from Seotember 2013. 

New thoughts

 I was much more impressed and amazed by the book on second reading.  I think readers of the novel will be divided between those who abandon it after twenty pages or so, those who get off on the squalor and whorishness of Naples in World War Two right after the Americans arrive and those are stunned by the power of the work.  It is for sure high art, cruelly so.  It wonderfully describes the total degradation of Naples by the war but beyond this it is a story of Europe versus America, Cartesian Logic versus the irrationality and barbarity of life in Europe.  Malaparte is in touch with old chaotic forces, he loves  death, decay, corruption.  As I read on in The Skin I feel like I am being assaulted by a force I can barely understand.  

Some say it is one of the greatest of World War Two novels and I accept this.  I think when you first begin to read it you will say ok this is a powerful city ruined by war book, and you will be right.  As and if you go on and give yourself over to tne book, you may have one of the greatest reading experiences of your life.  

One reading for sure is not enough.

The Skin is a very complex, dark, strange work of art.  It is set in Naples in 1943, the American Army has just taken Sicily from the Nazis.   The Skin combines the cultural depth of Ford Madox Ford, the seen it all veneer of decayed aristocracy of Gregor Von Rezzori, with depth of Joseph Roth.  I have thought and thought about what I might say about The Skin.  I can come up with nothing more than to say I hope to read this work once a year for the rest of my reading life.  

Curzio Malaparte (pseudonym of Kurt Eric Suckert, 1898–1957) was born in Prato, Italy, and served in World War I. An early supporter of the Italian Fascist movement and a prolific journalist, Malaparte soon established himself as an outspoken public figure. In 1931 he incurred Mussolini’s displeasure by publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup-d’Etat, which led to his arrest and a brief term in prison. During World War II Malaparte worked as a correspondent, for much of the time on the eastern front, and this experience provided the basis for his two most famous books, Kaputt (1944; available as an NYRB classic) and The Skin (1949). His political sympathies veered to the left after the war. He continued to write, while also involving himself in the theater and the cinema. New York Review of Books.  

This work was translated by David Moore in 2012.  Prior translations were heavily bowdlerized.  There is an insightful introduction by Rachel Kushner, the author of Flamethowers. 

Here is the publisher's description:

This is the first unexpurgated English edition of Curzio Malaparte’s legendary work The Skin. The book begins in 1943, with Allied forces cementing their grip on the devastated city of Naples. The sometime Fascist and ever-resourceful Curzio Malaparte is working with the Americans as a liaison officer. He looks after Colonel Jack Hamilton, “a Christian gentleman … an American in the noblest sense of the word,” who speaks French and cites the classics and holds his nose as the two men tour the squalid streets of a city in ruins where liberation is only another word for desperation. Veterans of the disbanded Italian army beg for work. A rare specimen from the city’s famous aquarium is served up at a ceremonial dinner for high-ranking Allied officers. Prostitution is rampant. The smell of death is everywhere.

Subtle, cynical, evasive, manipulative, unnerving, always astonishing, Malaparte is a supreme artist of the unreliable, both the product and the prophet of a world gone rotten to the core.

The Skin is the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for November 2013.

Mel u

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Journal of Katherine Mansfield 1914 to 1922 edited by John Middleton Murry (1927)

About six years ago I read a short story by a writer I had never yet heard of, Katherine Mansfield, "Miss Brill".  I was so taken by this story and the persona of Katherine Mansfield,  it was about this time I first began to explore the short story genre, overcoming decades of a very mistaken aversion to the form, and I discovered she was considered one of the greatest short story writers of all time.  I decided to read all of her short stories and post on them.  I began to read biographies on Mansfield, by far the best being Katherine Mansfield The Story Teller by Kathleen Jones.  It was through these posts that readers from all over the world first were drawn to my blog.  

As of this moment in time I am kind of mentally drained so I will just post briefly some thoughts I have about The Journal of Katherine Mansfield. Firstly it is not exactly a journal or hardly much a journal kept by Mansfield.  It is a work put together by her husband John Middleton Murry shortly after her way to early death at thirty four.  It includes notebook entries, letters she wrote, and fragments of stories.  It covers the period 1914 to 1922.  Parts of this work are at least the equal of her published stories.  All writers will savor her accounts of the creative process.  As I read the journal as the end approaches I kept wondering does she know she will soon die, of tuberculosis, called then consumption.  She talks about her medical treatment and at times seems very optimistic and times very down.  She desperately wanted to write so much more.  One of the most poignant parts of the journals were her lists of short story titles she never was able to write.  

Mansfield had a proclivity for "guru" like men, various occult groups like The Order of the Golden Dawn have a much larger influence in the literature of the period than is regularly acknowledged, in my opinion.  The question on Middleton as to whether he was an exploiter, a user remains unanswered in the published journal.  Lee says Murry removed anything degrogatory about himself from the work as well as most mentions of D.H. and Frieda Lawrence. 

There is great wisdom and beauty in this book.  It nearly broke my heart when I learned that the very last book Iréne Némirovsky read before being put on a train to Aucshwitz was The Journal of Katherine Mansfield.  I don't know if she took it with her or not.  

I feel great pain in this work, a longing for a home she never really had, somewhere she could truly feel she belonged. She is always traveling, often on a train, a spectral mode of travel.  She finds fleeting happiness in natural beauty, in the stories of Chekhov, in cafes in Paris but she was a profoundly sad person, living through the charnel house of World War One and the loss of her beloved brother added to her pain.

Mel u

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Descent from the Rooftop" by Anita Desai. (From Best Indian Short Stories, Vol 1, edited by K. Singh)

"All her first impressions of Bombay returned and sprouted –once more it was a city of lies, filth, noise, double-dealing, in which all fantasy, all grace came to a hideous end as soon as it descended from the rooftop to the lighted street."   From "Descent from the Rooftop" by Anita Desai

"Descent from the Rooftop" is the third short story by Anita Desai I have so far read and posted upon.  I think like this one best of all.  I loved this story of a woman from a desert region of India who has recently married an affluent Bombay business man.  We don't learn the circumstances of his their marriage was arranged.  We learn she is a "country girl" when her husband teases her for her fear of riding in elevators.

The couple are on their way to a party at the home of the "friends whom her husband is most proud". He wants to show off his new wife and we sense she is worried that she might not fit in with his sophisticated friends.  Everyone at the party is beautifully attired and I so much enjoyed reading the exquisite descriptions of the clothing.  The conversation turns to a woman from their circle now living in Paris.  She has a wonderful flat there marvelously decorated.  She teaches classical Indian dance.  Her life at first sounds perfect then through gossip we learn her husband has many debts and she had to fire her cook.  Still she sounded wonderful.

As they leave the rooftop apartment she sees the guests and their magnificent clothes seem very ordinary.  The ugliness and squalor underlying the surface glamour of Bombay let her see what her life will really be like.  

"Descent from the Rooftop" is a wonderful story.  It brought out so much in just a few pages.

I hope others will share their experiences with Desai with us

Anita Desai's (1937, Mussooire, India) mother was German, her father was a Bengali business man.   German was the language of her parents household but she also grew up fluent in Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English.   Her literary language is English.   She has been short listed three times for the Booker Award and her daughter, Kiran Desai won the award.   Anita Desai has taught creative writing in numerous high prestige American colleges.   She is a fellow The Royal Society of Literature and Girton College in Cambridge.   She has also won numerous awards in India.   Much of her fiction deals with the lives of ordinary people in India and the hardships created by the 1947 Partition.    

Mel u

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Story of the Jews Finding the Words 1000BC to 1492AD by Simon Schama (2013, 512 pages)

The Story of the Jews Finding the Words 1000 BC  to 1492 AD by  Simon Schama is a first rate work of history aimed at the general reader with a serious interest in Jewish history and culture.  It is a companion text to a B B C series on the subject. (A second volume is in the works.) This is the fourth book by Schama I have read.  Previously I have read his very interesting and insightful book, Landscape and Memory, his work  on the French Revolution, Citizens:  A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and Embarrassment of Riches An Interpertation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age.  I found all of these works to be richly informative and a pleasure, though a challenging one, to read.  I received an E mail advising me that his The Story of the Jews was marked down from $14.99 to $1.99 so I purchased this also.  

Schama begins the story at roughly the time he thinks Jews came to develop a sense of cultural identity.   He ends it in 1492 A D when the Jews were expelled from Spain.  The text is a mixture of history, scholarship of the Torah, art, literature and archeological discoveries.  He also brings the story to life by talking about ordinary people as revealed in ancient texts.  The historical culture of Judasim is very much one of respect for the written word and learned interpretations and, as reflected in the subtitle, Finding the Words, Schama focuses a lot on the importance of the study of the Torah.  

Schama also, as anyone must,talks  about the rise of anti-Semiticism, the portrayal of Jews as the killers of Jesus, as Devils, as aliens with no right to exist  anywhere.  The history is one of long troubles but it is also a reflection of the triumph of the human spirit.  He talks about how Jews made a living in the big cities of Europe, with many occupations legally closed to them.  

I am looking forward to volume two which will, I believe, take us up to 1946.

I recommend this book to all with an interest in Jewish history.  It is a serious work of nonacademic history.   Perhaps those very into the subject will not find a great deal new but the weaving of the facts into a narrative made it a for me an edifying pleasure.

Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University 

Mel u

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Whole Harmonium The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani (2015, 512 pages)

A few years ago I read and posted on The Broken Tower The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani.
Hart Crane is the perfect stereotype of the Orphic poet living a wild uncontrolled life.  Wallace Stevens (1879 to 1955, born Reading, Pa, died Hartfort Ct.) lead a very mundane life.  Born into an affluent family, he went to Harvard, played around at being a journalist in New York City for a while before he got a job at the Hartford Insurance Company where he would work the rest of his life, rising to the position of executive Vice President.  He married fairly young, had one child, a daughter and his marriage became increasingly unhappy.  Mariani tries to shrug it off as the attitude of the times but I found it hard to not dislike Stevens for his prejudices against Jews and African Americans.  He commonly used the expression "niggers" in an obviously mean spirited petty way.  He enjoyed drinking and fine dining.  He loved hanging out in Key West where he got into a fist fight with Ernest Hemingway, he lost.   

Stevens was a great influence on modern American poetry.  There is a lot of his work quoted and commented on in the book.  Stevens is considered a difficult poet and Mariani is very helpful in understanding his poems.   

This is a book for those interested in Wallace Stevens and those who want to learn more about the development of Modern American poetry.  His life was not exciting, very conventional.  For me the best part of the book was the treatment of the reading life of Stevens.  

The core task of a literary biographer is to place the subject in his cultural context and try to explain how the author's experiences shaped their work.  In the case of Stevens this is very challenging as he has really no highly dramatic experiences.  Life style wise, he and Hart Crane, whose work he admired, were near polar opposites.

I recommend this book to those already predisposed to have an interest.  I am very glad I read this book.

Mel u

Mel u

Friday, December 11, 2015

"He Drank Me Up" by Clarice Lispector 1974 (from the Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lispector, August 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited by Benjamin Moser

"He Drank Me Up" starts in front of the Copocabana Palace Hotel, one of the most glamourus hotels in the world.  Two friends , a beautiful woman and her gay male companion, a make up artist have been waiting for a cab for over an hour.  A wealthy man of fourty tells the woman is chauffeur will arrive shortly and asks if he can offer them a ride.  They accept and are soon back at his elegant apartment. 

He invites them to,dinner at a fashionable restaurant, one still open in Rio. Soon the three of them are a kind of item, frequently going out.  The woman fears the man is more attracted to her friend than to her. 

At night before they go out, the make up artist works on her.  She begins to fear he is draining the life from her.

As I read this entertaining story it seemed very much like a work of Colette. 

Mel u