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 30, 2015

The Brigade - An Epic Story of Vegeance, Salvation, and World War II by Howard Blum (2001, nonfiction)

The Brigade by Howard Blum centers on a brigade in the British Army, in WWII, made up of Jews from Palestine.  The book focuses on three men and their experiences.  There was a very strong desire among Jewish men living in what was then British ruled Palestine to join the fight against Germany.  They knew of German anti-Semticism but they had no real idea of the horrors of the concentration camps.  After much politcal activity, not everyone in British command in Palestine wanted this, a brigade was formed, trained, and sent to Europe right at the end of the war.

The pride felt by the members, 5000, of the Jewish brigade was. tremendous.  They saw it as the first time Jews had fielded an army against their oppressors for 2000 years. The emotional impact of wearing the Star of David as a mark of honor,not shame, was tremendous. 

There are a lot of interesting details about the lives of those involved.  By the time they reach Germany the war is over.  They are stunned to the core of their souls by the horrors revealed when concentration camps are liberated.  Elements of the brigade begin to seek out and kill those involved in the killing of Jews.  Some appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner, hundreds of Germans are shot.  Some members of the brigade conceived a plan to poison the water supply of major German cities, vowing to kill six million Germans for revenge and as lesson for the anti-Semites of the world.

This is very well written nonacademic history.  In the epilogue of the book I was fascinated to learn returning veterans of the Jewish Brigade were very instrumental in helping the fledgling state of Isreal to win the war started when all her Arab neighbors decided to invade.

Howard Blum is the author of the New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner American Lightning, as well as Wanted!The Gold of ExodusGangland, and The Floor of Heaven. Blum is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. While at the New York Times, he was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He is the father of three children, and lives in Connecticut. (From publishers webpage.)

This is a first rate book.

Mel u

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)


I have been interested in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, short listed for the Booker Prize in 2012, for a year at least.  However, I was reluctant to spend $12.95 or so for a Kindle edition of a book by an author I have not read so I forgot the idea.  Two things changed that.  Firstly I got a free review copy of the sequel The Love Letter of Queenie Hennessly.  I read the first few paragraphs and I liked the style.  Then about a week ago in a promotional E-mail I was notified that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was on sale for $1.95.  (I guess the publisher feels,rightly, readers of the first book will want the second.)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a very enjoyable book, reading it made me feel good. It is about a just retired a few months ago from a meaningless job long time married man who for once in his life decides to do something totally unexpected.  Harold's life is not terrible but it is boring, every day until death seems like it will be the same.  His marriage has long ago become routiized, any passion long ago extinguished. The emotional life of the couple centers on their son David.  One day Harold gets a letter from an old coworker, Queenie Hennessy, telling him she is in a nursing home on the other side of England dying of cancer.  Telescoping a bit, he decides to walk across England to see her and sends her a letter saying wait for his arrival.  He begins almost totally unprepared to walk across England, without telling his wife in advance.  Of course she thinks it is crazy.  

There are lots of blog posts and online reviews of this book so I will just say what I ilke about it.  I think the portrait of the mental life of Harold is really well done, his feelings on aging and seemingly being put out to pasture.  The marriage is also very well rendered, Joyce makes us see what can happen over forty fives years.  Maybe the best part of the book is the encounters Harold has as he crosses England, the people he meets.  The prose style and the conversations are just wonderful.  We see how Harold is impacted as he walks, how he begins to throw off decades of blindness to the world outside of his very small world.  

The novel does pull your emotional chains, some of the minor characters, like those who join his walk toward the end, are not real well developed but we only see them a short time so maybe that is not a flaw.

For sure The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a very enjoyable read.  I have now begun the sequal.  Some will find it kind of schmaltzy and to this all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say OK but still a fun book and you want very much  to see what will happen next.

To readers of the book, how did you feel about the treatment of the son?  

I just checked and the book is still available as a Kindle for $1.95.  At that price for sure I endorse it but at the regular price of $12.95 I cannot in good consciousness recommend this book for purchase.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Albert Savarus by Honore de Balzac (1836, a novella, a Component of TheHuman Comedy)

Albert Savarus is better than the last few Balzac works I read, but still a work mostly for those reading through the entire Comedie Humaine.  It centers around a complicated full of duplicity plot by the part of the daughter of a prosperous Besancon family to induce Albert Savarus, attorney, aspiring politician and owner-editor of a local literary journal to marry her.   Her mother has someone else in mind for her and her father is very preoccupied with his wood working hobby.  The obsessive marriage hunts of the period literature can be tiresome. Sometimes there is overmuch love at first sight. The plot is intricate, the characters are not real well defined.  

The best part of the work is a story in the literary journal, about two young men on a trip together.  The story within the story is better than the whole.  


I have begun A Start in Life, centering on the operation of a stage coach, it starts very well.

Mel u

Monday, January 26, 2015

King Lear of the Steppes by Ivan Turgenev (1870, translated by Constance Garnett, 1899)

King Lear of the Steppes  by Ivan Turgenev has been on my To Be Read list for a long time.  Last month I read King Lear so I decided no time better than now  for it to be at last read.  The novella way exceeded my expectations.  I have previously read and posted on his by far most famous work, Fathers and Sons as well as The Diary of a Superflous Man, and a few, too few, of his short stories.  He is considered the first writer to depict the lives of ordinary Russians, serfs and peasants in a realistic fashion as full human figures.

People say this is among the most personal of Turgenev's works.  It is narrated by a wealthy young country gentleman living on his mother's estate and under her control.  She is very much the queen of her estate, her serfs are her property.  One of the central figures in the story, he is the King Lear figure, is a well of peasant with an estate of his own.  The mother is his benefactor and he is totally subservient to her, seeking her advice on major decisions.  I am not quite clear what is legal bond to is but she is his master in fact.

He is getting old so he decides to deed all of his property over to his two daughters, under the assumption he will  live out his days on the estate and be given living money.  Everyone,including the mother, try to dissuade him from this, saying he will lose everything and be turned out.  

The conclusion is very powerful, almost overwhelming.  I knew something bad was going to happen but I was left deeply saddened by the despair and darkness of the close.

There is much wonderful material on daily life, we see a bit about how serfs feel about their masters and I guess one who read the work for clues concerning the psyche of Turgenev would find grist in relationship of the mother and the narrator.

This is a very deep beautiful work of art, worthy to carry the name "King Lear" in title.

I think my next Turgenev will be another novella, First Love.

Mel u

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Auto de Fé by Elias Canetti (1935, translated by C. V. Wedgwood)

Elias Canetti is in the tradition of deeply cultured  Pan-European writers.  He was born in Bulgaria in 1904, died in Zurich 1994, received the Nobel Prize in 1981, wrote in German, he moved to England when Austria joined Germany and became a British citizen.  I enjoy visualizing him in the lobby of The Grand President Hotel.  I wonder what he might have read while there.

The alleged theme of The Reading Life is the literary treatment of people whose lives center about their reading.  Set between the world wars in Germany, the lead character Peter Kein is an internationally recognized authority and translator of Chinese literature.  His life centers around his magnificent personal library.  One day he makes a bad mistake, he marries his housekeeper. A nasty shrewish woman non-reading woman who has no respect for his vast erudition and looks upon the books just as dusty commodities.  He knows almost from the start it was a mistake but loneliness drove him to it.  His life turns into a living hell as his wife tries to steal all his money, from an inheritance that long ago allowed him to follow his passion for books and reading.  (Loving books and reading are not the same thing but in the bests cases they are.)

He enters a bizzare world outside his library, a world he knows little about.  (Side note, why so many hunchbacks in European literature of the era?  Why are they always evil or feeble minded?)

The conclusion is shocking.  I am sure there are period cultural refrences and allusions that went over my head.  I greatly enjoyed this book and could see rereading it in 2016.

Mel ü

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"The Insufferable Gaucho" by Roberto Bolano (October 7, 2007, in The New Yorker)

So far I have read four novels by Roberto Bolano and several short stories.  2666 and Savage Poets I read before I began my blog.  I have posted on his marvelous Nazi Literature in the Americas and By Night in Chile.   

"The Insufferable Goucho" shows just how tremendously talented Bolano was.  In just a few pages he transorms a distinguished very refined judge living in an elegant house in Buenas Aires into an old goucho barely recognizable to his old associates.  It also chronicles terrible post Peron fall in the Argentine economy.  

Mel u

Friday, January 23, 2015

"To the Trade" by Aiden O'Reilly (2008)

The 2008 Michael McLaverty Prize Winning Story

March will once again be Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life.

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Prize, named for one of Ulster's great writers and administrated by the Linen Hall Library, was won in 2008 by Aiden O'Reilly from Dublin, for his short story centering on a father and son doing construction work on the house of an upper class Dublin family.

As the story opens the father and his son are on a scaffold on the house.  The father is doing the skilled work, the son basically is his helper, handing him needed items.  "To the Trade" is a very subtle story.  One of the several evoked topics are Irish class markers.  We see that when the son peers into one of the rooms and is impacted by the obvious femininity of the contents, elements of softness and comfort not found in his life.  We learn, without being over instructed, that his mother is gone.  

One of the characteristics of the Irish short story is the portrayal of deep but unshown on the surface feelings.   You can feel both a love and a tension between father and son.  The work is very hard and the weather is brutal.  The lady of the house tells them to come down for lunch but the father does not want to rush down as if he is a starving tradesman being fed by the lady of the manor in the back kitchen.  I felt a lot of real emotion when the father told his son to go eat while the food is hot.

While they eat the father and the woman conversing about lamb.  The woman notices the roughness of the man's hands.  The lines below from the story shows to me how O'Reilly uses his hands for a. kind of near symphonic bringing to life of the struggles of the working class people of Ireland:

"The father reached out for another cut of bread. His thin hands were appallingly abused. The thread remains of a bandage clung to the middle finger. The skin on the sides of the knuckles was cracked in a radial pattern. Dark grey concrete stains lined the ancient cracks; one of them seeped blood, but as though welling up from a great depth. Veins and tendons interplayed on the back of his hand. The fingernails looked like worn saw teeth, or a cracked trowel. They were alive, but had the appearance of things, of abandoned tools. One nail was like a hoof — flesh and keratin intertwined to close over old wounds. Another was split in two from the quick to the fingertip, and a hard growth filled the space between. A bulbous texture like the organic growth of a tree bark over a rusty nail"

One can feel the depth of pain in these lines.  The woman offers to put a plaster on his hands but he says no need but we know it has been a very long time since anyone has shown him any tenderness.

We see in the boy a trapped young man, he hates school and his only way he sees out is to do work on the homes of the rich.  He and his father's relationship is both simple and complex.

I will leave the emotionally devasting close of this story untold.  "To the Trade", which I read three times is very much an award worthy story I commend to all lovers of the form.  I have read some of the novels and short stories of Michael McLaverty and I think he would be honored by the awarding of a prize in his name for this story about working class Irish.  It is a very Irish story but the truths it contains are universal and it counters the claims some, including me, have made about modern Irish literature centering on the weak or missing father.  There is much more that could be said about this story I just hope it gets a large readership.

You can read this story HERE

Be sure and visit Aiden's very interesting webpage

Bio From his publisher's webpage,

 Aiden O’Reilly was interested in puzzles from an early age and published papers on a QM dynamical system before abandoning a PhD in mathematics. He has worked variously as a translator, building-site worker, property magazine editor, and IT teacher. He lived in Eastern Europe for a time, but only met his wife after six years there. He is a 6-kyu go player, enjoys reading Karl Jaspers, and lives in Stoneybatter.

I will soon be posting on his highly received debut collection of short stories, Greetings, Hero.  Aiden has kindly agreed to do a question and answer session so look for that shortly.

Mel u

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin (1813)

Around 1960 or so in The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman I first was made aware I needed to read Jane Austin's Pride and Predjudice.  I remembered trying it then but I was not ready for it yet.  The most recent time I read a glowing endorsement of the book was in Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, published in 2014.  Many book bloggers say it is their favorite novel of all time.  

I am so glad I have at long last read this wonderful book.

Which Austin novel should I Read next?

Who is your favorite sister?

Best match? 

Mel u

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"The Judge" by R. K. Narayan (reprinted in Grandmother's Tale and Other Stories)

R. K. Narayan is one of my very favorite writers.  I have read all of his novels and a number of his wonderful short stories, mostly set in the imaginary south India community of Malguidi. 

A recurring Malguidi character known as "the teller of tall tales" is talking about his time working as a judge.  One of his many family members had seen a notice advising experienced journalist, as he was, to apply for a job as a judge.  We are along for the very interesting successful  job interview.  

The heart of the story is multi suspect murder case.  The judge decides guilt and punishments, there is no jury.  A man was pulled of a full passenger bus and beaten to death.  Of course the driver and the passengers claim pepper was thrown in their eyes preventing them from seeing anything.  The judge knows they are just afraid to testify.  There are seven defendents and the case is being dragged on by the defense attorney.  The judge wants give some defendents the death penalty and msybe let the younger ones go but he cannot quite make up his mind.

The ending is hilarious and very easy to visualize.

The editor of The Grandmother's Tale and other Stories did not include the orginal date and place of publication.  They should have

Mel u

The Duchess of Langeais and The Girl with Golden Eyes by Honore de Balzac (two novellas-Components of The Human Comedy)

The Duchess of Langeais 1834, translated by Ellen Marriage
The Girl with the Golden Eyes 1835, translated by Ellen Marriage

Parts Two and Three of a trilogy, Histoire Destraeize

The Duchess of Langeais is really not that great a work.  I can see Balzac writing this as fast as humanly possible following a formula he knows will sell, romantic troubles of the one percent of France in the 1830s.  It centers on a general who falls in love with a duchess and his efforts to locate her. It also brings into play an occult order of the free masons.  

The Girl with the Golden Eyes is a very odd book.  It begins with a twenty page or so diatribe explaining why the citizens of Paris are overall so ugly.  It is an interesting account of the vices and foibles of Parisian society.  One wonders what might have motivated Balzac to include this.  The rest of the novella is pretty much a Balzacian omlet of weird colonial prejuduces, Orientalism  so silly as to be almost comic and a bizzare romance.  There are sexual obsessions,  murder plots and occult elements.   


The Human Comedy consists of 25 short stories, 25 novellas, and 41 novels.  

I have now begun Albert Savarus and it starts off very well. 

Mel u 

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Ashes for Roses" by Alison Lock (2013, from Above the Parapet)

So many wonderful writers, so little time.  It is a good day when I discover a new to me writer of great refinement and subtle intelligence such as displayed in Alison Lock's short story "Ashes for Roses".
The story is from her debut collection Above the Parapet.

The story can be read through her web page so I will just talk about it briefly.  The story centers on a brother and sister, living together in their deceased parents English house, in their sixties.  They are both very into the cultivation of roses and are nearly self sufficient from the produce they grow. They quarrel a little as natural but basically they get along.  An announcement comes on the radio. A volcano has erupted not to far away and will produce dangerous fumes and huge volumes of ash.  

The brother and sister are both getting ready for the county flower show, planning to win.  Suddenly the sister realizes the ash will destroy her roses.  The story takes a very interesting and exciting turn and I will leave it for you to enjoy and ponder over.  Her prose is very carefully wrought. 

Lock lets us see with just a few sentences into the dynamics of the family and into the long ago past.  We wonder if either sibling ever married.

I relished this story so much I read it three times.  I am greatly looking forward to reading Lock's Above the Parapet.

Just click the above link to go right to the story.

Alison Lock is a poet and writer of short fiction. Her first collection, A Slither of Air, was published as a result of winning the Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition 2010. She has recently published a collection of short stories entitled, Above the Parapet. She has an MA in Literature Studies from York St John University.

Alison has kindly agreed to do a Q and A session so look for that soon.

Mel u

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Dressed for War Uniform, Civilian Clothing, and Trappings, 1914 to 1918 by Nina Edwards (2014)

Not long ago I read a very good and quite detailed biography of the great translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff    who served in World War One with great distinction.  It tells us nothing about what he wore, why he combed his hair in a certain style, what colognes he used, let alone anything about his watch, his shoes, and his undergarments.  How one dresses opens up to more options as one's wealth and creativity increase.  Dress style offers many cultural and identity signals.  Nina Edwards in Dressed for War Uniform, Civilian Clothing, and Trappings, 1914 to 1918 answers these questions and details the social climate of the period and how it both produced and was shaped by clothing styles.  

One of my favorite literary works is Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy set in WWI Parade's End, recently made into a very well done H B O series.  

Be honest, didnt you wonder what was under these beautiful garments worn so elegantly by Slyvia and Christopher Tietjens.  Read Edwards book and you will have a pretty good idea.  

One of the biggest social changes in England was brought about by the great need for women to fill the vacant spots in factories, trains, street cars, and many other once all male jobs.  Women did not want to just wear men's clothings but they needed outfits practical for work that were still a bit traditionally feminine.  Edwards shows us how these changes in dress blurred older sexual locked in stereotypes among women.  In a way, this opened the door for an acceptance of greater rights for women.  Of course clothing is a huge indicator of social standing and wealth. The affluent still had servants to help them dress and care for their clothes.   The poor have few options.  Edwards also talks about hairstyles and accessories.  

During the war, in Germany and England, cloth became scarce and skirts in consequence got shorter.  Everybody felt the need to economize and Edwards deals with this in some detail. 

This is a serious very well documented book all interested in the history and literture of the period will profit from.

Nina Edwards is a freelance writer and actor living in London, UK, and the author of On the Button: The Significance of an Ordinary Item.

Mel u

Friday, January 16, 2015

A House of Cards by Elizabeth MacDonald (2014, Second Edition)

A House of Cards by Elizabeth MacDonald (2014, Second Edition)

"My world revolves around art history, it has been my overriding passion for as long as I can remember.  A passion, however, that is the source of something close to pain at this stage, for it has become increasingly difficult to give myself up to immutable beauty of my favorite sculptures and paintings as I become more decrepit.   There was a time, you see, when it was easier for me to connect with Michelangelo's  David than it was with life:  its strength, beauty and heroic purpose were all that life was not.   Life was but a series of betrayals of these ideals.  And why would I want to connect with that?"-Elizabeth MacDonald in "Babele"

Elizabeth MacDonald

A House of  Cards  
(a collection of short stories) by Elizabeth MacDonald was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007.   It is an exquiste collection of short stories set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy.    I will post on a number of the stories individually and I will then attempt to make a few overall observations.   Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a strong feeling for this comes through in the stories.    It is Keatsian level reflection on the nature of beauty, with Tuscany as  a deeply pervasive backdrop.  These stories do not just talk about the beauty of Tuscany, but rather they also create a depth wisdom of their own worthy of their setting.   

The collection offers us the opportunity to ponder what it means to leave your birthland and if you go deep enough in these stories you can see a legacy of colonialism in the presence of the Irish in Tuscany, still driven from their home and making their new homes a better place.  If you read the Q and A session with MacDonald you will soon see her high culture and her ability to relate the sensibility of Ireland to that of Tuscany.  

"A  House of Cards"

The title and lead story, "The House of Cards" is narrated by a woman who left her home country Ireland at age twenty-one.    She has been living in Tuscany for twenty six years.   She is now a wife and a mother and a keeper of  a lovely home in the Tuscan hills.    Her husband, Giacomo, is a successful engineer, a man of predictable habits,  impeccable tastes, a loving if perhaps not as exciting romantically a husband as he once was.  (Who is after twenty six years?)    He gives her a kiss on the cheek as he leaves for work but you can see it is just past of his "going to work to do list".  Her son, twenty one, is enrolled in the fine arts course at college.   Her husband does not really approve of this but he does not say anything.  You can see the woman still sometimes has to translate her Tuscany experience into an Irish framework to relate fully to it.  MacDonald brings the beauty of the gardens of the house wonderfully alive for us and we know the woman loves her house, her garden and having them all to herself all day long.  

"September in Tuscany is a time of golden sunlight and mellow stillness;  of opulent bunches of grapes, opaque green and velvety purple, hanging from laden trellises throughout the countryside;  then piled up in fruit bowls on kitchen tables.   It is a time of sweet-tasting figs, of mushrooms, and of pumpkins.   This I have come to associate with September".

She thinks back to a very different September long ago in Ireland.   She thinks back to an old love, she still wanders why he left her so long ago. It was this that drove her out of Ireland to Tuscany/    She looks at herself in the mirrors and thinks about how she looked twenty six years ago.    She begins to think of an event that happened many years ago, one she had almost repressed.    I will leave this unspoiled for you.   This is a story about memory, how the past intrudes on the future, about the nature of marriage, about living in exile from your home country and about the effects of living in a place of great beauty.


I love this story for its portrayal of an older man, once a professor now living in Italy for many years from an inheritance from a wealthy aunt.   The story is set at the hottest time of the year in Tuscany.  MacDonald sets the tone of the story perfectly its her sensuously rich descriptions of colors and sounds.   The man is from Ireland, I think.  He tells us that even after twenty years he still finds sleeping in the afternoon somehow decadent.   He has been going to the same hotel for long stays for twenty years now.   The man is having some difficulty dealing with the consequences of aging.  He has to use a walking stick.   He seems very much alone but he seems to prefer it that way.  I think he has raised his level of culture so high it is hard for him to relate to most people and for sure vice-versa.   He was once a professor of art history.   A scene where he encounters some tourists at the hotel is really hilarious and completely wonderful.  My opening quotation is taken from this story.  I think if it were not for my wife I would be like the man in this story, substituting literature for art.  Like him  I have not worked in many years.  

"Falling Stars"

"Falling Stars" is about two couples, one seemingly happy and one in deep conflict.   Rosemary and her husband have located a Tuscan farmhouse for Valerie and her husband to spend a week in during a holiday. The beauty of Tuscany is never far from the surface in The House of Cards and it is very much apart of this story.   The dialogue between the couples is very well done.   They are not actually close and you can see the two women struggle to find things to talk about.  We get to see the meal being prepared and it does sound delicious.   During the dinner Valerie's husband makes a cutting remark to her when she has what he thinks is too much wine and she goes from the jugular in her response.   There is a very well done and subtle echo of Anna Karenina at the close of the story (I might be reading this into it but for me it is there.)  This is a very real story, almost painfully so.

"New Year's Resolutions"

I guess it is reasonable to assume that if you live in Tuscany and are from Ireland you will have a lot of visitors and this story, like "Falling Stars" centers around a visit, though one of a very different sort.   In this case the host is an unmarried woman  and the visitor is a man she once had a long term relationship with and now hopes to have him come and live with her.   You can feel her longing and loneliness.   In the stories of MacDonald we are often left with the feeling that things seem like they are about to happen but then we do not know if they will or not.  Life is often like that.

"In Hindsight", one of the longer stories in the collection is set in an art Gallery in Pisa.   The owner arrived in  Italy from Ireland with only his honors degree in art, his wife with her degree in English. He was there to purse advanced studies in his field in Florence.    He decides when the time and the money are right to open an art gallery in Pisa.   He struggled for a long time but is now doing fairly well.   He feels an exhibit he has arranged show casing the work of a famous local artist will greatly increase his standing in the art community.   You can see he and his wife still are very bonded but they do get on each other's nerves at times.  MacDonald does a very good job handling dialogues between couples in which one of the couple is holding back some anger and the other is kind of submitting just to get the conversation over with.   He needs an assistant for his gallery.   A beautiful woman, who reminds him of the woman in the painting The Dancer by Gustav Klimt,  applies for the job.   At first he cannot get past her looks but he sees her qualifications for the job are impeccable and soon she is indispensable  to him.   The artist he will exhibit is difficult and temperamental and she can handle him perfectly.   If you see trouble coming here, you are right.   The more I read of MacDonald's stories, the more I see Tuscany in the background.   Remember this is where the English poets and painters went to bask in the beauty.   There was a time, past now, where Italy felt almost like the tropics to the English.   You can see this in E. M. Foster's story, "The Story of a Panic".    

                    MacDonald does a better job than Forster, it pains me to say this of a writer I love, of showing us how the transcendent beauty of Tuscany effects those not used to it.  Maybe that is one reason MacDonald makes her characters mostly from Ireland, as outsiders they lack complacency and indifference.

"Fire Works"

"Fireworks" also centers on a couple.   In this case tourists who have just checked into their hotel in Pisa, it is pouring down rain.    They have just made love.   The man tells the woman he is going outside for a while to look around and he will be back in time for dinner.   He does not want to wait for her to get dressed so she can go with him.   Pisa is an exotic destination for them and she knows in the back of her mind that the man is really desiring to go out alone so he can look at the local "talent", or so she thinks.   It is poring down rain and she did not expect this.   MacDonald makes excellent use of colors to set the tome for the story.   I liked and think I understood what it means when we read of the "strange intimacy of a hotel room on a rainy afternoon", we can feel the void the man's walk has opened in her.   She decides to go for a walk herself.    Keeping in mind that she sees the Italians as somehow more passionate and "earthy" than people back home she does not quite know how to react when a man who seems Italian, he is described as dark, approaches her on the street.   There is a surprise ending to this story.    Maybe we see the limits of the woman's liberality and into a bit of perhaps ugly xenophobia.   The ending of the story was really a lot of fun and quite smart.

"Sunday Lunch"

"Sunday Lunch" is another superb story about the dynamics of power within families and marriages.   The newly married couple at the heart of this story are an Italian man and an Irish woman, they are just back from their long honeymoon in the Seychelles Islands.  In this very smart detail MacDonald sends the message that these are affluent people with very refined taste, not happy with the ordinary.   One of the things this story is about is the contrast of the Mediterranean temperament of the Italian versus the constrained perceived as icy tone of the Irish. It is about the joy of the first few months of marriage.   But above all it is about a poor woman who does not seem to stand much of a change against her extended in law family and especially against her mother-in-law who plays the strings of guilt with the mastery of a first violin at the Dublin Symphony.   If this woman thinks she is going to take her place in the affections of her son she has another think coming!    This story displays the brilliance and subtlety of MacDonald's use of dialogue and her ability to convey decades of history in just a few half spoken sentences.

There are five other equally enthralling  stories in A House of Cards.   Most of the stories are about eleven pages long.    There is a very perceptive and passionate introduction by George Szirtes, a  well known Hungarian poet and translator.

I really liked this collection and I totally endorse it to all lovers of the art of the short story. The prose is of the highest quality.    There are fragments that stunned me with their beauty.   The last time anyone, in English, wrote so deeply of the beauty of Italy it was D. H. Lawrence.

Author Bio

Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in  many journals, including Modern Poetry in TranslationPoetry Ireland ReviewThe Cork Liteary Review and SoglieA House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.  

Elizabeth MacDonald is a principal in a dynamic new  venture, Portia Communications which offers a diverse range of services to the book buying and producing community.

Mel u

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929, USA) has been on my want to read list for a long time.  Two events pushed it to the front of the list.  Francine Prose in her How to Read Like a Writer praised very highly her style and I received notice on a free service to which I subscribe that for one day only the price of a Kindle edition was reduced from $11.95 to $0.99.  

The book deals with the nature of dreams, with consciousness, with the fluidity of so called "reality". It portrays a society that paid no attention to warnings over global warming and the terrible consequences of this.  

There are lots of posts online about The Lathe of Heaven so I shall just say what I liked about it and I did not so much.  

I liked a lot the vision of an alternative post apostolic America, seeing the early warnings of global warming.  I liked the descriptions of Portland, Oregon, the setting for the novel.  I enjoyed the idea that dreams can change actual reality.  I was mixed on the various quotes that proceed each chapter.  I did not find the characters that interesting.  I think I understand the metaphysics behind The Lathe of Heaven and I am in sympathy with them and in 1971 would have been in total accord with the theory of consciousness constructing reality.  The prose is lush and I can see people heavily stoned in 1971 saying "wow this is really deep".  

I am glad I have now read this book and very glad I did not pay $11.00 for it.

Mel u

Hiromi Kawakami. - Two Short Stories by a Akutagana and Tanazki Award Winning Writer (Both Readable Online)

"Mogera Wogura", in The Parisian Review, Spring, 2005 (translated by Michael Emmerich)

"God Bless You, 2011" in Granta, March 10, 2012 (translated by Ted Goosen and Motoyuki Shibata)

Until yesterday I had never heard of Hiromi Kawkami, a multi-awarded Japanese writer.  I became aware of her through a recurring Facebook post by Billy O'Callaghan.  (I have posted on three of his wonderful short collections and he has kindly done a Q and A Session on The Reading Life which contains lots of great reading suggestions.). Having now read and been very intrigued by two of her stories I have added her to my read all I can list.

"Mogera Wogura" has a Hurakami Murkami Magic Realism meets Kafka feel but the execution is delightfully  orginal and for sure deeply mystified me.  Set in contemporary Tokyo, Mongera Woguras are fully intelligent and articulate underground dwelling entities (I am not sure it is accurate to call them animals) about a meter tall, covered with hair,they once were common place but now only one extended family seems left.  They pretty much live humans but underground, having spouses and in laws.  They have their own culture but the husband works in an office with humans.  In the strangest left very mysterious aspect of the story the husband collects a certain type of person, we don't really know what he is looking for, and somehow reduces them to very small size, takes them home where they return to full size.  The reasons behind this are left for us to ponder.

You can read this story here.

"God Bless You, 2011", like "Mogera Wagura", features a nonhuman person acting, speaking, and behaving very much like a human while still, in this story, remaining a very large bear.  This story is only three pages and has an interesting back story (which you can read at the link I will below provide.

The story is about a bear and a woman out for a walk that is the tentative first step in a possible relationship.  They are walking in the area of the 2011 Meltdown of a nuclear power plant after an earthquake. Both are concerned with tracking their amount of radiation exposure.  Goverment agents responsible for checking radiation levels are a bit jealous of the bear as bears can stand more radiation than humans.  The bear shows of his fishing skills when he dives in a river and gets a fish.  I will leave the rest of this really fascinating story untold.

You can read this story  here

Hiromi Kawakami 川上弘美. Official bio

Hiromi Kawakami  (1958–)  has on the one hand won accolades for her innovative style—notably in her novel Manazuru, which won the MEXT Award for the Arts in 2007 and has been translated into English, German, and French—while on the other producing a growing body of highly realistic, eminently readable stories about the lives and loves of women in contemporary Japan. She first began submitting stories to science-fiction magazines and taking on editorial work while majoring in biology at Ochanomizu University. Her literary coming of age arrived in 1994, when she won the Pascal Short Story Award for New Writers, an all-online competition, for Kamisama (God Bless You). In 1996, she received the Akutagawa Prize for her short story Hebi o fumu (Step on a Snake), which established her among the standard bearers of the Japanese literary world. In 2001 she won the Tanizaki Jun'ichiro Prize for her best-selling novel Sensei no kaban (The Teacher's Briefcase), which was adapted for television by the writer and director Teruhiko Kuze. After the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, she created a commotion with God Bless You, 2011 (tr. 2012, in the anthology March Was Made of Yarn), a reworking of her earlier story relocated to radiation-contaminated Fukushima.

Mel u

Friday, January 9, 2015

King Lear by William Shakespeare (1606)

Chancellor Gorkon: I offer a toast. The undiscovered country--the future.
Everyone: The undiscovered country.
SpockHamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.
Gorkon: You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.
Chang: taH pagh taHbe' [Klingons laugh] "To be or not to be?" That is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain Kirk. We need breathing room.

 I first read King Lear close to fifty years ago.   I guess I saw it as just a class room assignment.  (For younger book bloggers I hope so much society and circumstances will allow them to one day have fifty year old book blogs.)   I recalled the pedagogue presenting the drama as centering on a very old man spiraling into dementia with three daughters, two evil and selfish and one good.  In Lear's confusion he cannot see which of his daughters truly loves him and which are just waiting for him to die to divide his kingdom.  

Now as I read it I thought of my own three daughters, 16, 18, and 21, all well into adulthood and marriageable in 1606.  I thought what can I say on my blog about this play.  It is in contention  for the title of world's greatest drama along with Hamlet and a few Ancient Greek works.  The part of Lear has to be an actor's dream role.  It is a still very timely study in power politics and speaks deeply to the human aging process.  As you read it, as in much of Shakespeare, you will recognize lines as now common parts of the English language.  

I think my next Shakespeare will be The Merchant of Venice, which will be new to me.

A Tribute to Charlie Hebdo. - Our deepest sympathy and regard to the people of Paris

I wish express the deep sorrow felt throughout the reading life world over the heinous cowardly attack on Charlie Hebdo.  The reading life family knows this will only make the brilliant artists and writers of Charlie Hebdo all the more determined to tell the truth.  

I am always proud to see lots of Parisians on my blog.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for those Who Love Books and those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (2007, 275 pages)

IIf your first thought on realizing you have a three day weekend coming soon is to plan your reading, 
then you might be living The Reading Life.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a delightful book about how novels  and stories work 

their magic, about what distinguishes predestarian work from sublime art.  In addition to being full of great advise to neophyte fiction authors it is a wonderful study in close reading.  This book will for sure make most people who take it seriously better readers and it might  help even book bloggers to write in a less clumsy fashion.   Francine Prose loves literature and this come shining through. 

Prose has drawn on her extensive pedagogical experience in creative writing to deal with some of the basic challenges faced by writers.  She talks about her class room experiences in several great segments.  There are chapters devoted to word choice, to sentence structure, to narration, to dialogue among others.  Prose makes her point through close analyses of passages, some several pages long, from famous writers.  I loved her quoted selections and found her close readings very illuminating. 

Her biggest advise to writers is to read the greats and try to understand their artistry.  She devoted one chapter to "Lessons We Can Learn from Chekhov" which will get me reading him again soon, I hope.

This is not  a text book like work but more a conversation.  Prose lets us see how her love of reading, I was so happy when she cited Samuel Johnson as perhaps the greatest of close readers, has impacted her life.  Reading the short stories of Chekhov helped her get through a dark period.  

This is a very interesting highly informative book I endorse without reservation to all who fit the title description.

At the end of the work she lists several pages of books she says must be read by aspiring writers as soon as possible.  Great list.

Official Biography

Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.

I have just started her latest novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932 to see how she puts her ides into practice.  

Mel u