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, April 30, 2015

"The Shrine" by Kirstin Zwang (Harper's Bazaar 2015 Prize Story)

One of the best sources of information about contemporary, especially very recent, short stories is The 
Thresholds Short Story Forum on Face Book.  To join just make application.  The only real restriction is that you not advertise your own work.  On the Threshold Forum you will get the latest news about award winning stories.  It was in the forum I became aware of the recent multiple prizes won by Kirstin Zwang.

Harper's Bazaar", probably the world's most prestigious fashion magazine (or so my daughter who just received her B.A. In fashion design and marketing tells me) was once a leading publisher of short stories.  Happily it looks like the editors have decided to honor this tradition by sponsoring  an annual short story contest.  "The Shrine" by Kirstin Zwang is the 2015 first place story.  My compliments to the Judges and Harper's Bazaar for selecting such a great short story.

"The Shrine" castes a hauntingly beautiful, deeply sad, almost hurtfully powerful spell with its treatment of the impact of World War Two on life in a small remote Japanese village.  The understated conclusion is so subtle but once I grasped, I hope, the implications of what happened I was truly mesmerized.  I have been reading on and off in Japanese literature for nearly six years.  Only in the early stories of Kenzaburo Oe do I find as powerful evocation of the devastation of Japanese culture that the war brought down on the ordinary people of the country. People in remote Japanese communities knew only what the government, under the God Emperor told them, that for no apparent reason vicious foreigners were attacking the mother land. 

I will just tell the bare outlines of the story as I do not want to deprive potential readers of their first encounter pleasure.  I read the story three times and it would repay several more readings I am sure.

The story, set on a remote small Japanese Island, centers on Norika.  When we meet her we learn her father desperately seeks a man to adopt in the family, she is his only child, to marry his daughter Norika and assume his name.  Single men, in fact any man, are hard to find.  Boys as young as five-teen are being drafted into the navy.  He finds a marriageable young man who was rejected by the military due to a problem with his eyes.  He is an honorable hardworking man.  I will not spoil the tale of the marriage.

You may have seen old World War II movies set in England or the USA where a very dreaded figure is the man, often on a bike, delivering a telegram advising the family of a member killed in the war (long ago one of my Grandmother's got such a telegraph about an uncle I never got to know) The town clerk, Norika helps in his office, delivers sometimes two or three of these, they were edged in black, telgraphs a day.  I felt terrible sadness when children talked about how their fathers and brothers would need to use the beached fishing boats when they returned.  

Zwang's prose is just exquiste.  The island should be a beautiful peaceful place of tranquility over arched with deeply spiritual traditions about the holiness of life, not what the war has made it, the waiting room in a charnel house.
I do wish to give a bit of a feel for the shimmering prose of Zwang, her feel for nature which echoes ancient Japanse traditions.  Just look at all the images in lines 

"She pulled back the wooden shutter. The light was soft, but there was no sign of rain.
In the yard stood a cherry-tree, a common Yoshino.  The last of the blooms had long wilted.  In the summer months the cicada larvae would slowly climb the trunk and begin their metamorphosis, their wings becoming transparent and their song growing more raucous by the day.  But who could deny them their song? In one short week they would be dead.   She thought of her husband, lying with his poor, strange eyes closed, in the acolyte’s arms. He made no sound as they laid him out on the matting before the shrine. The two had sat with him all through the night, for she had no other family to support her. The doctor attending a birth further up the mountain arrived as the body was already growing cold. 
Of course, the acolyte had undergone his own metamorphosis by then. He no longer wore a saffron robe, or sat beneath the spreading branches of the paulownia-tree in contemplation, instead he bent his shorn head over a ledger, writing out the names of the war dead.."

I have links to two more stories by Zwang and I hope to read and post on them both in May.  I eagerly await her collection of short stories set in Japan in the final days of World War II. 

April 2015 - A Review of The Reading Life Month and a Look Ahead

I offer my great thanks to Max u for Amazon gift cards.

I do these periodic reports mostly for myself to have something to look back at and to give readers a sense of what they might find on The Reading Life.

As of now there are 2588 posts online.  As thereadinglife I have 4009 Twitter followers.  Since inception on July 7, 2009 my blog has had 3,423,761 page views.  Blog readership normally declines  from April to late August.

Top Blog Countries.  A big change

1.  USA
2.  Russia (mostly on posts on Katherine Mansfield) first time ever this high
3.  Philippines
4.  India
5.  Germany - new to top five countries list.

Top city.  Metro Manila

Continuing a trend of years, my posts on short stories of the Philippines drew the most hits followed by those on Katherine Mansfield and R. K. Narayan.

I only read five books in April, one I did not post on.     This is way down from the normal 12 to 18.  The causes are several but mostly due to sleeping or half sleeping too much.  This is bad for me mentally and physically and hopefully I will reverse the trend.  

I continued on in Balzac's grand La Comedie Humaine,having now completed 58 of 91 works.  I pushed in reading and posting on the short stories of Clarice Lispector.  I focused a bit on Indian Subcontinent Short Stories.

What is to come on The Reading Life

Much will be more of the same, more short stories, classics, modern fiction, and a continuation of my projects.  I am always delighted to find a great new to me writer and I know there are just so many out there.  If I have a priority for new writers, it is the Irish.  I will still try to do more Q and A sessions.

Revíew Policy 

I have no refined policy.  If I accept an offer of a review book it means I will look at it.  If I have told you I will post on your book then I will.  

If you have any reading suggestions for me, ideas to improve my blog, or wish to do a guest post or be featured on The Reading Life, let me know.

Hopefully Ambrosia Bousweau will become a bit more active in her role as European editor.

Mel u

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Law and Order" by Sushma Joshi (2008) A Short Story by an Award Winning Author from Nepal

Three years ago I read five short stories by a leading writer from Nepal, Sushma Joshi and posted on a very good short story set in Nepal, "The End of the World".  Being very saddened by the terrible earthquake centered in Katmandu I decided to read another story by Joshi and share it with my readers.  Incidentally this morning I tried to tune in digital broadcasts of several major Katmandu radio stations to get local news and for background music and none were currently streaming.

"Law and Order" is set in a small regional capital in Nepal.  Bisho has just gone through the terribly physically straining application to become a Gurka in The British Army.  If you join at twenty you can retire at forty and be a very big man in your home village, the prestige is immense.  There are thousands of applications and only three hundred positions.  Bushi is doing well until he has to ride a horse, something he has never done.  He ends up being dragged by the horse for several hundred meters and loses some teeth.  Of course he is rejected.   Back home he does get a pretty decent job, a police recruit.  The catch with this is the recruits are housed in a jail and not given enough food so they must struggle just to survive.  Of course young men like to indulge in braggadocio about women and there is a very funny well done scene where the recruits compare a young girl to vegetables they love to eat.

"Law and Order" is a very good short story.  It can be read in New Nepal, New Voices edited by Sushma Joshi and Ajit Baral, 2008.

Official Bio


Sushma Joshi (born May 26, 1973) is a Nepali writer and filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

The End of the World, her book of short stories, was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2009. Art Matters, a book of essays about contemporary art, was supported by the Alliance Francaise De Katmandou. 

Joshi contributed a widely read Sunday column The Global and the Local to Nepal's leading English daily newspaper The Kathmandu Post from 2008-2011. Inspired by Nepali history and contemporary politics, her non-fiction and reportage deal with issues of social change, environment and gender.

Sound of Silence (1997) her first documentary, was screened at the New Asian Currents at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. Water (2000) was screened on the Q and A with Riz Khan on CNN International, and the UN World Water Forum in Kyoto. The Escape (2006), a short about a teacher targeted by rebels, was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. Her films have also screened at Flickerfest Film Festival, Sydney; Vancouver Nepali Film Festival; Himalayan Film Festival in London and others.

Education and Influences 
Joshi was born and grew up in Kathmandu. From age 8 to 12, she studied in Dowhill School, Kurseong, in the district of Darjeeling. These formative years in a school started by British missionaries instilled a passion for literature and writing. She finished her education at Mahendra Bhawan and Siddhartha Vanasthali High School in Kathmandu.

Joshi graduated from Brown University in 1996 with a BA in international relations. At Brown, she studied liberal arts and took workshops in fiction, autobiography, and poetry. She also took classes in documentary production with artist Tony Cokes. 

From 1999-2002, she was in graduate school at the New School of Social Research in New York, where she received an MA in anthropology. During the summers, she attended The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury College, Vermont, and received another MA in English Literature in 2005. At Bread Loaf, she studied playwriting with Obie prize winning playwright Dare Clubb, as well as theatre directing and acting with Alan and Carol MacVey.

Joshi received a waiter fellowship to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in 2000. In 2005, she received a research and writing fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. She was awarded a residency at the Bellagio Center, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, in Bellagio, Italy, in 2006. Joshi was a featured writer at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2009. In 2011, she was an Asia fellow and traveled to Thailand and Burma to do research on a book about Nepali migrants, with support from the Asian Scholarship Foundation. 

Joshi was a jury member of the Indigenous Film Festival in Nepal in 2009. She was also a member of a three-judge panel for the film competition on global warming sponsored by British Council/DFID in Kathmandu in 2010. 

In 2004, Joshi had a solo exhibit of her paintings at Gallery Nine. The exhibit featured 26 paintings depicting figurative paintings about the state of Nepal during the civil conflict. 

Joshi's multimedia installation titled "Jumla: A cyberphoto installation" was accepted to the Eighth International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.

Mel u

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Millie and Bird" by Avril Joy - The 2012 Costa Award Winning Story

Note Added April 29, 2015.  The Long List for The Frank O'Connon Prize was announced yesterday.  Avril Joy's collection, Millie and Birds - Tales of Paradise was on the list. In May I hipe to do a major post on her full collection.  Also please look for a Q and A session with Avril Joy coming soon.  

Sometimes a long path leads us from one writer to another, the reading life can take us down many an unexpected road.  About five and a half years ago I was just starting to overcome a very misguided life long disinterest in the short story.  I used to check almost daily to see what the short story of the day would be on the webpage, East of the Moon Short Stories.  One morning the story was "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield.  I liked this story so much I ended up reading and posting on all of her short stories in her four collections.  I was just getting into short stories and I realized she was not just a great writer but a figure of significant cultural importance.  I very happily was given the opportunity to read a just published biography Katherine Mansfield - The StoryTeller by Kathleen Jones.   Ever since then I have looked to the webpage of Kathleen Jones for other new to me reading ideas.  Recently after reading of her great admiration for the work of Avril Joy I felt a strong need to read Joy's 2013 Costa Award Winning Story, "Mille and Bird".  Once I knew the central characters were two sisters 16 and 13 I thought being the father of three daughters, two still teenagers, I really felt this was a story I really should read right soon.

Having now read "Millie and Bird" three times I can give it my highest endorsement.  The girls are from a at least partially dysfunctional family, their mother is a heavy drinker and their father is, in this  story at least, missing.  The narrator is the sixteen year old.  As any parent can tell you, the gap between a 13 year old and a 16 year old is huge.  Joy does a great job of showing us the many subtle nuances in the relationships between the girls and their mother. The conversations are small gems. The sixteen year old is growing up a little to fast, for me as a father at least, but with an often passed out drunk mother she does not have a lot of options.  I don't want to tell very much of the marvelous plot of the story but the starting event is when a neighbor   gives 13 year old Millie a bird, which she calls just "Bird".  There are interesting minor characters in the story and all is not bleak with the mother either.  Something terrible and a bit mysterious happens that really intrigued me.  I very much enjoyed this great story. 

 Official Bio from Author Webpage

I was born and brought up on the Somerset Levels, the setting for my first novel, The Sweet Track, published in 2007 by Flambard Press. I left Somerset for  U.E.A, and a degree in the History of Art, then lived in London where I taught in Greenwich and Deptford and did a year at Goldsmith’s before moving north.

I travelled in India, Kashmir and Nepal for a while and when I came back I started work as a temporary teacher in a women’s prison HMP Low Newton, on the outskirts of Durham city.  I met Writer-in-Residence Wendy Robertson here and that’s when I started writing. Until then I had no thoughts about being a writer.

In 2003 I won a Northern Promise Award, from New Writing North and in 2008 I left my job, I was by this time a prison Governor with responsibity for learning and skills development, in order to write. I hadn’t meant to stay at Low Newton for so long but almost from the start I became deeply involved with the women and their lives – read more here and in many ways that never leaves me.

I for sure hope to read a lot more by Avril Joy. In just a few pages her story took me into a world different from mine and in so doing made me see connections in lives very diverse from each other, on the surface at least.  Daughters can be a mystery, especially teenagers, to a father and this story made me think about my relationship to my girls.

Mel u

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Chicken" by Clarice Lispector (1952?)

The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector, to be published August, 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser)

"Alone in the world, without father or mother, she ran, panting, mute, focused. At times, mid-escape, she’d flutter breathlessly on the eave of a roof and while the young man was stumbling over other roofs she’d have time to gather herself for a moment. And then she seemed so free. Stupid, timid and free. Not victorious as an escaping rooster would have been. What was it in her guts that made her a being? The chicken is a being."

"The Chicken", a brief work one can read in under five minutes, is as close to a comic tale as I have yet come upon in my reading of the short stories of Clarice Lispector, if a story about a chicken that ends in a meaningless death can be considered comic.  I enjoyed the story and I think it might be a good class room discussion work.  If I were inclined to I could write a post on how it reflects existential philosophies of the 1950s views on the absurdity of life but I am not inclined for now. 

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was Brazilian journalist, translator and author of fiction. Born in Western Ukraine into a Jewish family who suffered greatly during the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, she was still an infant when her family fled the disastrous post-World War I situation for Rio de Janiero. At twenty-three, she became famous for her novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and married a Brazilian diplomat. She spent much of the forties and fifties in Europe and the United States, helping soldiers in a military hospital in Naples during World War II and writing, before leaving her husband and returning to Rio in 1959. Back home, she completed several novels including The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star before her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer.  - from New Directions Publishing web

Ambrosia Boussweau 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1923)

My Prior Posts on F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Prior to this reading, my last encounter with The Great Gatsby was in February 2009, shortly before I began The Reading Life.  I also read it maybe forty years ago.  I remember in 2009 being completely enthralled by the sheer magnifice of the last ten pages.  Everyone who writes about the experience of reading The Great Gatsby says something along these same lines.  On this reading somehow I felt this from the very start. I was much more impacted on this reading than on my last.   The Great Gatsby is a supreme work of art.

The Great Gatsby is on most short lists for tne  "Great American Novel".  It is very widely taught in American schools.  

It seems like a simple story about a semi-shady character who got rich by mysterious means but it is so much more.  Most of the male characters served in World War I and  this is very important.  I really feel right now inadequate to convey the wonder that is The Great Gatsby in a blog post. You really have to ponder it line by line, savory it as you can.   I have it In my read in 2016 collection on my E Reader.  


Mel u

Friday, April 24, 2015

"The Corpse Rider" by Lafcadio Hearn (1900, a retelling of a 12 Century Japanese Folk Tale)

I recently was kindly given an interesting anthology of in the public domain horror stories, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe edited by Leslie Klinger.  Upon looking it over I was delighted to discover it included a story by Lafcadio Hearn (1850 to 1904).  I do not recall exactly how this came about, but I read a good bit of Hearn over fifty years ago.  I think I was fascinated by his tales based on medieval Japanese folk culture and the seemingly depth of his erudition in areas then way beyond the depth of anyone with whom I had ever had contact. Hearn lived in Japan many years and married the daughter of a Samurai.  (His wife and children are in the picture above.)I wondered just now what the lives of the children were like.  You can probably find his work online, he was a very prolific writer.  He did a great deal to make Japanese culture more accessible to the Anglophone world.

"The Corpse Rider" is a very good story that will scare you if you can enter into the spirit of Lafcadio.
Based on a 12th century story, a woman has just died from heart break because her husband divorced her.  The husband is in great terror that she will curse him.  She cannot be buried as long as she is a danger to the living as the explosive force of her anger can cause the earth around her grave to explode with great force.  The man goes to see an Inyôshi, which in a footnote Hearn explains was a priest adapt in 12th century religious believes based on the opposing forces of female and male nature in the physical universe.   Here is the advise the Inyôshi gives the man.

"The dead woman was lying on her face. “Now you must get astride upon her,” said the inyôshi, “and sit firmly on her back, as if you were riding a horse. . . . Come!—you must do it!” The man shivered so that the inyôshi had to support him—shivered horribly; but he obeyed. “Now take her hair in your hands,” commanded the inyôshi—“half in the right hand, half in the left. . . . So! . . . You must grip it like a bridle. Twist your hands in it—both hands—tightly."

Hearn takes us through a horrible night.  "The Corpse Rider" is a very well done story.  It first appeared in 1900 in Hearn's collection of Japanese folk tales, Shadowings.  

Lafcadio Hearn, it has been a long time since I first read you. It felt good to revisit an old friend.   You deserve a place of honor on The Reading Life.   

Mel u

"Love" by Clarice Lispector (1952)

"All her vaguely artistic desire had long since been directed toward making the days fulfilled and beautiful; over time, her taste for the decorative had developed and supplanted her inner disorder. She seemed to have discovered that everything could be perfected, to each thing she could lend a harmonious appearance; life could be wrought by the hand of man."

The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector, to be published August, 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser)

"Love" is a fascinating story about hiding from the darker aspects of life, creating meaning, hiding things from yourself.  "Love" is told in the person of a married woman whose life centers on her husband and her children.  I read the story three times and feel I have just begun to appreciate the depth of this work.  The woman senses an emptiness in her life, one she cannot quite understand or articulate.   The core event in the story occurs when she goes for a walk in a Botanical Garden.  The story does not say but there is a giant botanical garden in Rio de Janeiro.  She sees a blind man and from this her consciousness goes away from her safe secure carefully constructed view of life where blind strangers don't intrude.  There is so much in this story.  

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was Brazilian journalist, translator and author of fiction. Born in Western Ukraine into a Jewish family who suffered greatly during the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, she was still an infant when her family fled the disastrous post-World War I situation for Rio de Janiero. At twenty-three, she became famous for her novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and married a Brazilian diplomat. She spent much of the forties and fifties in Europe and the United States, helping soldiers in a military hospital in Naples during World War II and writing, before leaving her husband and returning to Rio in 1959. Back home, she completed several novels including The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star before her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer.  - from New Directions Publishing web

Mel u

"Farewell" by Honore de Balzac (1830, A Short Story Component of TheHuman Comedy)

Our internet service, Sky Cable, just came back up after 12 hours of downtime.  This has put me behind on my blogging so I will just post briefly on "Farewell", sometimes called "Adieu", a really interesting story that combines Gothic elements of a ruined old mansion and a glimpse of a mysterious woman with a very well done account of a devastating attack on a French regiment in Rusśian on Napolean's expedition.  

Two old friends are out for a walk and they come on and old run down mansion.  They see a woman running through the woods back to the mansion.  They knock on the door and a thus begins a long story about a terrible day in Russia.  This ties in with the strange woman. driven  mad when her lover was killed by the Russians.  Balzac was never in the military but he had good friends who were, per Stefan Zweig's biography, and he does a great job describing the horror experienced by French foot soldiers in Russia.

"Farewell" is an odd story but for sure worth reading for the Gothic elements and the wonderfully done battle scenes.

Mel u

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Doll by Boleslaw Prus (1890, translated by David Welsh)

I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read The Doll

The Doll by Boleslaw Prus is considered by many the greatest achievement of Polish literature in the 19th century.  I previously read and posted on his shorter novel, The Outpost, set among country peasants in Czarist Poland being forced from their land by Germans. I also read his very good long short story "The Recurring Wave"  centering on a factory owner, his spoiled son, and the factory workers.  I would first suggest those new to Prus start with "The Recurring Wave" and then read The Outpost.  A practical advantage of this is both of these works can be found online, for free.  The Doll is a much grander work, encompassing much of Warsaw society in the period. 

It sort of centers, with lots of excursions, on the life of a shop worker who becomes rich  and his progress up and down the social scale.  He starts as waiter, comes into an inheritance and then makes huge money as a war profiteer in partnership with a Russian. Like most all novels of the sort and period, a great deal of time is devoted to the marriage lottery.  He wants to enter upper class society through marriage to a baroness.  There is a second narrative thread around a journal kept by an older store clerk, set back in time twenty years.  We meet people of all social levels as we walk the streets of Warsaw.  

As I read the story I was struck by the many references to Jews in the narrative, by my count 249. Almost all portray Jews in a very negative way as grasping venal money grubbers taking advantage of the trusting Poles with sharp business practices, forcing people into poverty.  In one disturbing scene that I still am not sure how to take a character says the centuries of prosecution of Jews has made them worse and worse as they do what they must to survive.  The continual comments on Jews, from people of all parts of society, are presented without irony as if they are just commonplace truths.  I do not know if we should see this as an anti-Semetic work or a portrayal of the pervasive hate for Jews in Late Czarist Poland or as an expose of ignorance and pernicious evil. Much of the hatred seems based on jealousy and envy.  Of course for us now we read these references with the knowledge of the coming Holocaust and of the horrible pograms against Jews in Czarist Poland. 

Bolesław Prus (1847–1912) was born Aleksander Głowacki in the provincial town of Hrubieszów, Poland. His mother died in 1850; his father, an estate steward of noble birth (the author’s pen name is a reference to the family’s origin near the Prussian border), died six years later, leaving him in the care of relatives in Puławy and Lublin. In 1862, he moved to Kielce with his older brother Leon, a Polish patriot. The next year, the teenaged Aleksander joined in the January 1863 uprising against Russian rule. Wounded in battle, he was imprisoned in Lublin Castle, but released when he was discovered to be underage. He then finished high school and enrolled in university, but lacked the funds to graduate. Instead, he worked several odd jobs, including a stint in a metallurgical factory, before taking up journalism. Prus eventually made a name for himself as a writer of feuilletons, publishing his much-admired Kroniki in the Kurier Warszawski between 1875 and 1887, and also achieved some success with his short stories. The Outpost, published in 1885, was the first of four novels that secured his literary reputation. It was followed by The Doll (1890), Emancipated Women (1894), and The Pharaoh(1897). A respected but no longer fashionable writer, Prus dedicated his last years to social reform and philanthropic work.  From the NYRB webpage.

I am very glad I read The Doll. It is structured in a very interesting fashion, there are lots of wonderful small vignettes, and well done characters.    Before you buy it, read the two works I mentioned first.  

Mel u

Monday, April 20, 2015

"People with Holes" by Heather Fowler (2012)

Heather Fowler on The Reading Life. (This link includes a very wide ranging Q and A session, a post by Heather Fowler on short stories and two of her  stories, which she kindly allowed me to publish)

"People With Holes" is the title and lead story in Heather Fowler's 2012 collection of short stories by that name.   Getting down to the basics, my first thought was along the lines of "well doesn't that include everybody?"  In the tradition of magic realism, lots of people are showing up with unexpected holes in their bodies, not wounds just clean holes that suddenly appear.  In this story, centering on a couple, the woman develops a hole in the elbow region.

It turns out there are support groups for people with holes, just like there are for alcoholics.  In a very well developed and fun scene, the man accompanies the woman to her first support group meeting.  The first step is to admit you have a hole, to learn you are not alone in this.  There are several ways to take "People With Holes".  It might be seen as kind of a satirical commentary on help groups, on a society where physical  imperfections are not openly acknowledged, or just take it as in part good natured fun at all the different holes people develop.  Maybe if we wanted to we could say the story is lightly telling us don't mock the holes in others until you fully see your own.  

There are a lot of short stories in the four collections Heather Fowler has so far published.  (I believe another one is coming soon.) In time I hope to read and post on them all, assuming I can keep up with this marvelously prolific author.  I am also reading through the 85 short stories of the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector and when I finish these  projects, or get further on, I will as a kind of personal test case talk about Fowler and Lispector in parallel.  A big difference is Lispector's literary race has been run where I think and hope  Fowler's is just starting.  

Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental IllnessThis Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in:PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South,Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Her is very well done and has all the latest information on her work.

Mel u

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Alkahest by Honore de Balzac (1834)

The Alkahest is set in Flanders, in Dovai in the Department of Dunord.  In the world of Balzac to be Flemish means you are sensible, not overly emotional, in control of your passions.  Imagine the dark paintings of Flemish families in the Louvre.  Balzac does a very good job of painting this world with his detail replete descriptions. He draws us into visualize Rembrandt images of prosperous merchants, all as proper as could be.  No man has a mistress, no wife a lover, no bachelor a gambling problem or a fondness for bordellos, no child is rebellious, no businessman schemes to cheat his peers.

The husband  in this story is obsessed with the idea of turning ordinary low cost chemicals into diamonds.  Balzac goes into great detail in describing the lab and the procedures.  The man is completely taken up in this project, when not in the lab he is reading texts.  He ignores his wife. 

Alchemy  was the start of many chemical discoveries and we see this in the plot line. The wife becomes jealous of his love for his project and sees it as a rival.  She thinks if it were a flesh and blood woman she would know how to fight back.  Contrary to social norms, she begins to study the same texts as her husband and soon joins him in his work.

There are of course sub plots and twists and turns.  I would say this is mostly a novel for those reading through the full Comedie Humaine.

Mel u

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Day Dreams and the Drunkenness of a Young Lady" by Clarice Lispector(1955?)

The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector, to be published August, 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser)

"Day Dreams and the Drunkenness of a Young Lady" is replete with levels of irony and perceptivity.  In time I think perhaps once her full set of short stories is published and digested those into what I guess is called "women studies" will find them a very rich fascinating resource.  In this story, narrated by a somewhat intoxicated woman I see, as I have in her prior stories, a woman looking at herself looking at her self looking at herself.  She also fixates on how she thinks others look at her.  She is competive in comparing her looks to other women, denigrating a woman for wearing a hat.  She is comfortably upper middle class, married with children and servants. She, during a business dinner with her husband and a wealthy male client, during which she is a bit drunk, she imagines the man is checking out her body.  Somehow it is, in her mind, acceptable for a married woman out with her husband to be a bit drunk, but she sees single upper class women out alone as obviously on the make.  Lispector makes us feel Braźil in the rhythm of her style.

There is a lot to ponder in thus story on narrative method.  I think it would make for good class room discussion.

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was Brazilian journalist, translator and author of fiction. Born in Western Ukraine into a Jewish family who suffered greatly during the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, she was still an infant when her family fled the disastrous post-World War I situation for Rio de Janiero. At twenty-three, she became famous for her novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and married a Brazilian diplomat. She spent much of the forties and fifties in Europe and the United States, helping soldiers in a military hospital in Naples during World War II and writing, before leaving her husband and returning to Rio in 1959. Back home, she completed several novels including The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star before her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer.  - from New Directions Publishing web

Mel u

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Culture of Indifference" - A Short Story by Varun Gwalani

Lately there has been much in the international news media concerning the wide spread abuse of women in Mumbai India, even gang rapes seem to be treated lightly by the police.  Harrsssement of women on public buses and trains is a commonplace experience.  Such behavior is sometimes excused with a "boys will be boys" shrug.  Today I am very honored to share with my readers a very moving short story by Varun Gwalani set on a public bus in Mumbai.  Gwalani is a rising star in the bustling Mumbai literary scene and I expect him to make his mark on the world stage.

Author Bio

Varun Gwalani is a 20-year old resident of Mumbai. His first novel, Believe, was released in November 2013 by Shyam Benegal, who praised it extensively. Varun was also featured at Mumbai’s Literature Festival, Tata Literature Live! Believe is set in alternate world which serves as allegory for our world, and explores complex social issues such as sexual violence and religion. He plans to continue placing several novels in that world, hopefully trying to innovate and experiment as he does so.

Varun Gwalani

A Short Story

"Culture of Indifference"

The woman in the pink churidar stood alone at the bus stop, looking down the street with her brown eyes, anxiously waiting for the bus to arrive. She had just retied her black hair so it wouldn’t fall over her face which was simple, yet pretty. The bus was late, as was not unusual in any part of the city of Mumbai. She wanted to catch a taxi home, but she didn’t have enough money and there weren’t any in sight. So she waited for the bus.

The bus pulled up after five minutes, and she grabbed the railing and pulled herself up, a little labouredly. Almost immediately a man appeared behind her and quickly tried to push past her, in the process rubbing against her breast. She was startled because she hadn’t seen the man anywhere. Had he been waiting till she climbed up so he could brush up against her…? It wouldn’t be the first time. She didn’t have any proof, though, so she just glared at him and told him in Hindi to watch where he was going. The young man just cracked a grin and went and took his seat near the window in the middle right row.

Laxmi surveyed the rest of the bus. The driver and conductor seemed unconcerned by this outburst. There were a few other women scattered around the bus, of different ages. None of them had looked for long once they had ascertained that it was not going to be a prolonged fight. Laxmi bought her ticket and took a window seat in the left row, towards the back.

She was staring out the window when the man sidled up next to her. She started and then gave him a hard look. “What are you doing here?” she snapped in Hindi. “There are so many seats, why must you come and sit beside me? Go sit somewhere else!”
Unperturbed, he smiled that disgusting smile and said, “I like the view from here.”
She flared up and signalled the conductor. He came near her and asked what the problem was. She told him that man was harassing her. The conductor looked at the man who said, “Women, like this only no?” and they shared a laugh. Laxmi, outraged, said, “You’re not going to do anything?”

The conductor sneered. “Why should I, madam? He is a man; he can sit wherever he wants.”

Laxmi was so furious she was rendered speechless, which the conductor took as an opportunity to move away. Laxmi snapped at the man next to her, “Get up so I can move out.”

“Why should I move?” He sneered. “Go from there,” He indicated the narrow space in front of his legs.

Laxmi in her fury didn’t realize what the man intended and as she edged out from in front of him, he spanked her bottom hard.


An instant later, Laxmi had slapped him across the face hard. There was complete silence as everyone looked at Laxmi. The man stood up and started yelling at her and she yelled back. The women just stared on, not doing anything. The conductor came there and started yelling at Laxmi as well. The driver suddenly screamed, “EH!” and the three of them shut up and looked at him. “If y’all don’t sit down now, separately, I’ll have both kicked off the bus.”

The man glared at Laxmi at sat down. Laxmi glared back and sat down on an aisle seat a few rows ahead, opposite a young, wide-eyed girl who was staring at Laxmi but didn’t say a word. Laxmi stared back for a few minutes before she turned back to see the man who was still glaring at her. They stared at each other angrily before his eyes suddenly lighted up and he looked at the young girl. Laxmi saw his intentions and as he was rising, she got up quickly and sat down next to the girl. She glanced back and saw the anger simmering in his eyes.

The girl looked startled and a little frightened to see her. “I’m doing you a favour,” Laxmi said, “That bastard was going to come sit next to you.”

The girl looked too scared to look back but she nodded a little and said, “Thank you. My name is Sati.”

“I’m Laxmi”

Sati nodded again a little and straightened herself in her seat, looking straight ahead. After a few minutes, without changing position she asked, “Haven’t you ever travelled by bus before?”

“I have. So?” Laxmi asked, raising her eyebrow.

“’So?’” Sati seemed bewildered. “What do you mean, ‘so’? You know that men will be men. They will do these things. We are women, we must let them. Don’t all these sort of things happen to you all the time?”

“They do, but that does not mean that I must tolerate them!” Laxmi snapped. “It does not mean that you have to, either!”

“Of course we do! How are we to stop them?! They’re so strong! And besides,” her voice dropped lower, “We’ve always been the lower gender. If so many things are happening to us, don’t you think we deserve it?”

Laxmi just stared at her. “Is that what you really think? That you deserve this?” She almost whispered. She had never thought that.

Sati finally turned to face her. “What else can it be?” her voice was almost nonexistent. “All the girls I know have been abused or molested or raped by men at some point in their life and they are all powerless to stop it. Even I…” she shuddered, and Laxmi understood. She squeezed her eyes shut for a minute, took a deep breath and then opened them slowly and continued, “We’re groped every we go like we’re pieces of meat walking around for their satisfaction. Where’s the decency in that, tell me? When we’re called bitches, it is a compliment, because animals are treated better than us, they’re worshipped.

“You know what will happen in the end? We’ll just get an arranged marriage with a husband who has the same chauvinistic attitude and will never understand our suffering. Do you know why? Because according to men, it ‘happens to everyone’ and everything we face is ‘no big deal’. It is better to accept our fate than fight a war we cannot win.”

Laxmi stared at her, at a loss for words. She could see the sadness etched into Sati’s face, the evidence of sleepless nights and a lot of crying. She didn’t know what to say to this girl that would erase everything that was around her, that had happened to her. Sati seemed to sense this, gave her a sad smile, looked out the window and said quietly, “My stop’s not far. Yours?”

Laxmi was startled to see how far they had travelled, luckily, though they had not crossed her stop yet. “Not far,” she murmured. She looked around the bus and saw that more people had also come onboard. There were some women and a few men. The lecher who had been harassing her was still sitting alone, though, staring at her.

They came to a stop. One or two women got off and a man climbed on. Laxmi realized that the next stop was hers, though it was a little far. She got up, without looking at Sati and moved to the front. She glanced back warily and it was good that she had. The beefy man who had just climbed onboard was deep in conversation with the lecher and he was pointing at her. They swaggered up to the front where she stood with her back to the front, watching them. The lecher said to his minion, “This is the woman who tried to defy me.”
The minion stepped close to her and looked at her, “Thought you could humiliate him for no reason, huh? Apologize now.”
The whole bus had gone dead quiet. Laxmi could feel Sati’s eyes on her, imploring her to apologize. She knew that if she did, she would probably be able to delay them long enough to get out at the next stop; that it was better not to get into this, but it didn’t matter. She stood her ground. “He should be the one apologizing to me for harassing me, the creep.”

The force of the slap threw her against the wall. A few people stood up, but nobody stepped forward, nobody said anything. The minion snarled, “Now how do you feel? Apologize and say that my friend here is a good person and that you wrongly accused him.” When he saw her looking at the people around, he laughed, “She thinks these people are going to help her!”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Laxmi said softly. “Nobody helps. All of us here are seeing this happening to me, yet nobody is doing anything. All you women have had this happened to you at some point or the other, and yet nobody comes forward to stop this happening to somebody else! You men have mothers, sisters, daughters and yet you sit idly by, allowing the kind of men to exist who might very well do this to your women one day! That is why this happens to us! That is why women are treated like trash, because unless it is happening to you, it doesn’t matter!” Everyone was looking at her, even the lechers seemed suddenly wary.

“The absolutely best part is that at some point this has affected you and will, and you know that it will and yet you do nothing. The reason we’re losing this war, the reason there is such rampant disregard for women is because we let it be there! How can you win a war if all your troops are not fighting?!”

Nobody moved. The bus driver had stopped the bus and was also looking at Laxmi. Suddenly the lecher laughed and said, “A lot of drama this one does. But I didn’t hear an apology. So give it to her!”

The minion smiled and raised his hand. It was caught by a woman before he could bring it down. One by one, the others also got up out of their seats and grabbed them and started beating them. The conductor and driver didn’t do anything, just stood there, watching. The lechers were on the floor, screaming and getting kicked from all sides when Laxmi yelled, “Stop!”

All of them turned to her in surprise. “Violence isn’t the answer. We should take them to the police and act as witness against them,” She said. “The police will also have to take us seriously when we are united against them.” She paused.
“If we as a people inflict more violence in response to violence, the situation will only get worse. We need to need to change our minds, not stain our hands as well. When the culture of indifference ends, that’s when the culture can truly make a difference.” They all nodded and cheered. When Laxmi looked at Sati, Sati was smiling.

Every individual forms a part of a culture, every individual change is bigger.


I offer my great thanks to Varun Gwalani for allowing me to share this wonderful story with my readers.  It is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published in any format without the permission of the author.

His exciting debut novel, Believe, will soon be featured on The Reading Life.  I also hope to do a Q and A Session with him. 

His novel can be purchased on Amazon and in India on Flipkart..

Mel u

"Cats and Dogs" by Joy Williams (2015)

Yesterday I was very kindly given a large forthcoming collection of short stories by Joy Williams.  It has been about 2.5 years since I read her story "Dimmer", the story of a very dysfunctional man.  There is interest in this story world wide as almost everyday someone looks at my post on it.

If you are a cat lover, as I am, you will totally hate the central character in "Cats and Dogs", an old woman in assisted living facility, by the end of the first paragraph.  I mean total you can't believe how strong you feel hate.  Her son is visiting her, she is reminiscing on one of the happiest periods of her life, back in the days when she used to kill cats.  She would put some sardines inside a cage designed to close shut when a cat stepped inside, humane society approved.  She would then drop the cage into her pool.  

There is an equally dreadful vignette involving a dog, a homeless man and a human torch.  

The story is told in such a calm fashion that I was at first surprised by the horror of the people in the story, the casual cruelty and absurdity.  

This story will appear for the first time in the collection below, due out September, 2015.

About the Author JOY WILLIAMS is the author of four novels—the most recent, The Quick and the Dead, was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001—and three earlier collections of stories, as well as Ill Nature, a book of essays that was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among her many honors are the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.

Ambrosia Bousweau 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Obsession" by Clarice Lispector - Her First Truly Great Story plus "Gertrudes Asks for Advice" and "Another Couple of Drinks"

The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector, to be published August, 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser

"Obsession", the third story in the collection convinced me of the oft proclaimed genius of Clarice Lispector.  We have to guess the date of publication of the stories as they are not to be found in the collection.   It is about a woman's multi-layered passage of self discovery.  I will just quote a few passages as I am disinclined right now to say more.  A short blog post done for those who have not read the story would not be useful right now.  

"And the greatest harm Daniel did me was awaken within me that desire that lies latent inside us all. For some people it awakens and merely poisons them, as for me and Daniel. For others it leads to laboratories, journeys, absurd experiences, to adventure. To madness."

One of the tensions I find animating the short stories of Lispector is the bipolar desires to rise above what she sees as a world in a stupor to a quietitude from thought.

Almost all the stories I gave so far read center on a woman with problematic relationships with a man, a man perhaps or probably her intellectual inferior but who she nevertheless anchors her world upon.

"Perhaps Daniel had acted merely as an instrument, perhaps my destiny really was the one I pursued, the destiny of those set loose upon the earth, of those who don’t measure their actions according to Good and Evil, perhaps I, even without him, would have discovered myself some day, perhaps, even without him, I would have fled Jaime and his land. How can I know?"

I think this story would be very good for class discussions.

The other two stories are very interesting. 

Mel u

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was Brazilian journalist, translator and author of fiction. Born in Western Ukraine into a Jewish family who suffered greatly during the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, she was still an infant when her family fled the disastrous post-World War I situation for Rio de Janiero. At twenty-three, she became famous for her novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and married a Brazilian diplomat. She spent much of the forties and fifties in Europe and the United States, helping soldiers in a military hospital in Naples during World War II and writing, before leaving her husband and returning to Rio in 1959. Back home, she completed several novels including The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star before her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer.  - from New Directions Publishing web