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

Monday, February 29, 2016

La Place de Létoile by Patrick Modiano (1968, part one of The Occupation Trilogy, translated by Frank Wynne)

Patrick Modiano's (born 1945, France, Nobel Prize 2014) fiction on the Nazi occupation of Paris moved the Nobel Prize Committee to award him the the Nobel Prize in 2014.  The Occupation Trilogy is not a three part work, it is simply three novellas set in Paris during World War Two published in one book.  (I have read and posted on Iréne Némirovsky's fiction set in France  during the early part of this period.)  My first venture into the oevere of Modiano was in his After the Circus, a very interesting work.  La Place de Létoile is much better.  

An appreciation of La Place de Létoile  would be enhanced if one had a good working knowledge of the history of French literature.  The narrator presents and views himself as a man of great culture.  After reading the work I read a few online reviews.  I found the review in The Telegraph for sure far exceeded my ability to give a brief account of the very great depth of this work so I shall share it

As I read this I as brought to mind Coco Chanel living in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, fawning over Gestapo Officers.  The work also brought up the themes in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori

Behind both of these wonderful works of art is the exposure of the war on the Jews as a war on the reading life.  Much of the great literature that defined the mental world of the narrator of Le Place de Létoile was written by Jews.  Exaggerated sexuality plays out in these works as a compensation for the deep partially hidden from the narrators lack of self determination brought about by their anti-Semetism and their capitulation to the barbaric ideology of the Nazis.   Anti-Semitism was very much embedded in French society long before the occupation.  Many French citizens welcomed the removal of French Jews.  

I will reread this book for sure.  I hope soon to read the other two works in The Occupation Trilogy.

          1969 versus 2014.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Reading Life Review February 2016 with a Look Ahead

February 2016 was a decent reading life month.  I read eleven novels and four biographical works.  I am coming to really enjoy literary biographies.  

Blogging wise, I at times am feeling a need for an extended break.  If I ever seem to stop posting I will hopefully be back and will respond to Reading Life related E Mails.  

For the last five years I have devoted March to Irish Short Stories.  In order to maintain continuity I will treat March as Irish Short Story Month but will not focus just on Irish Short Stories as I have done in the past.  My heart is still with the Irish but my energy level is to low to do the kind of event I have done in the past.  

Since inception I have had 3,910,010 page views.  There are 2834 posts on the blog.  The top home countries for visitors last month were, the USA, the Philippines, India, Germany and Canada.  The most viewed posts are on short stories by Filipino authors.

I added a new tracking widget, Flag Counter, on September 10. So far I have collected 112 flags.  

This month I continued reading short stories though I only posted on "Domestic Peace" by Honore de Balzac.  Here are the other stories I read in February, 2016.

1.  "An Island" by David Constantine.  - A Frank O'Connor Prize Winning author

2.  "Strong Enough" by David Constantine.  My third reading of this great story about a man very into the reading life.

3.  "Private Life of a Famous Chinese Film Director" by Simon Van Booy.  

4.  "Fat" by Krys Lee. - author of Drifting House

5.  "Two Colonials" by Hortense Calisher. 

6.   "The Delicate Prey" by Paul Bowles.  Considerd one of his very best set in Morocco works 

7.   "My Own People" by Anzia Yezierska 1921

8.   "How I Found America" by Anzia Yezierska 1920

9.    "Sabine  Women" by Marcel Ayme

10.  "Domestic Peace" by Honore de Balzac 1828

11.  "The Thing in the Forest" by A. S. Byatt.  A very good story about two girls evacuated from London during the Blitz 

12.  "In Dark New England Days" by Sarah Orne Jewett - 1899 

Biographical Works I read in February 

1.  Grouch Marx. The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel

2.  The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. Very rate work

3.  Rosamond Lehmann A Life by Selina Hastings  also a first rate biography

4.  Our Crowd The Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham. 

Novels I read in February 

1.  Human Acts by Han Kang. My first venture into Korean Modernism

2.  The Vegetarian by Han Kang.  A very powerful work

3.   Journey by Moonlight by Artal Szerb. His master work, a classic of Hungarian literature

4.  Dusty Answers by Rosamond Lehmann  her first novel

5.  An Invitation to the Waltz. By Rosamond Lehmann a pure delight

6.  My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  not bad

7.  Kathleen's Wish by Linda Lappin. Great work on the final years of Katherine Mansfield

8.  The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Jewett. A regional class, set in Maine. For sure worth reading

9.  The Memories of Barry Lyndon by William Thackarey  first read his Vanity Fair

10.  Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori. Reread 

11.  La Place de Létoile by Patrick Modiano - part of The Occupation Trilogy 

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori (1981) second reading

I first read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori in November of 2013.  I just finished rereading it yesterday.  I will reread it at least once more.  I do not have a great urge to add what I said in my first post on it.

I would add now that we can see the narrator age, see his culture increase, his worldly knowledge.  

There is a great depth in this work.  Far to much to talk about in a blog post. 

Mel u

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel (2016, 176 pages)

“I  would never join a club that would have a man like me as a member". Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel is part of the Yale University Press Jewish Biographies series. It is not a standard biography but an attempt to place the humour in the movies of the Marx Brothers in the context of Jewish history, humour and culture.,A lot of time is spent on the New York City upbringing of Groucho and his brothers.  

This is book is very much an in depth cultural examination of great films like A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, A Day at the Races, and Coconuts.  Siegel treats Groucho, the central figure in all the movies, as flouting convention and respectability, maybe attacking the Goy society that he knew looked down on Jewish actors and comedians.  

A lot of space is devoted to Groucho's attitude toward women.  You can see some of this in a scene where the brothers are getting treatments  at a fancy salon.  Notice the very handsome very blond totally Goy man in the center.  He and Groucho were sort of partners, the blond  representing conventional society and Groucho, Harpo, and Gummo the outsiders.  The boys are for sure hoping to cop a few free feels!

Siegel talks a good bit about Jewish homour and its self deprecating nature.  This humor was often partially misogyistic, with a wife  seen as the millstone around your neck.  In my reading of Yiddish literature this seems a cogent analysis.  

Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence increased my understanding and appreciation of their movies.  I hope they are shown on cable here soon.  Siegel helps us understand their role in Jewish culture. I loved the description of the relationship of Groucho and T. S. Eliot.

The book is repetious.  It seems like it might have been based on a college class where each lecture repeated the main points.  At times I wondered how the brothers would react to a heavy intellectual collegiate treatment of their films.  I visualized Harpo eyeballing the crowd for nubile coeds, Groucho dragging the professor into nonsensical arguments.  Siegel also assumes Groucho controlled fully tne content of the movies, discounting directors and producers. 

I was given a review copy of this book.  I recommend it to those very into the Marx brothers who want to do more than just enjoy their crazy movies.  It increased my understanding of the nature of New York City theater and Jewish preforming arts. 

Lee Siegel, author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award, writes about culture and politics for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many other publications.

Mel u

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Domestic Peace" a short story by Honore de Balzac (1839, a component of The Human Comedy)

My Comedie Humaine read through project is nearing close and has slown down.  I have read all of most famous works.  Balzac wrote very fast at a speed powered by fifty cups of coffee a day, legend has it.  A good bit of his shorter works are kind of formula stories about the sexual and romantic antics of the wealthy.  "Domestic Peace" is set in 1809, at a fancy dress ball at which Napolean and Josephine are expected.  It is a place where everyone wants to be at their most glamourus.  In one very interesting segment we learn how the high death rates of the young aristocrats in the French army has stimulated the sexual appetites of women.  Interesting to me, this was the precise thing Elizabeth Bowen said about the Blitz.

There is a mysterious woman at the ball who has refused offers to dance.  One man bets his friend he can get her to dance with him.   Carried through the story is the idea of live at first sight and immediate commitment to marriage we find in other works of Balzac and the period generally.  A quarrel between the mysterious woman and her husband and a deception revealed close out the story.

There are the usual long descriptions  of people and clothing.   The atmosphere of the party is well done.  

"Domestic Peace" is a decent story.  

Mel u

Umberto Eco. 1932 to 2016

Mel u

Harper Lee. 1927 to 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Human Acts by Han Kang. (2014, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, 2015)

"At that moment I realised what all this was for. The words that this torture and starvation were intended to elicit. We will make you realise how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag... We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies..."   From Human Acts by Han Kang

Immediately after finishing The Vegetarian by Han Kang I knew I wanted to read all of her translated works. The Vegetarian is a very powerful, at times viscerally disturbing, account of what happens when, contrary to all social norms, a Korean housewife follows the dictates of a dream and becomes a vegetarian.  To me seeking out more works by an author one had not even heard about until just prior to your initial reading is one of the sincerest affirmations of their work a reader can offer.  I was very glad to find on the webpage of Portobello Books  that the very elegant translator of The Vegetarian, Deborah Smith, now has translated  a second work by Kang, Human Acts. ( I think anyone interested in the process of translation will find the article I linked to just below the cover image very interesting. Translating between languages with no common roots presents more of a challenge than languages rooted in Latin structures.) 

As Deborah Smith tells us in her very informative introduction in 1980 South Korea citizens in Gwangju began large scale protests when the dictatorial ruler of the country shut down the universities and curtailed public meetings and what little free speech there was.  As demonstrations expanded the government took violent means to restore order.  Police squads fired into crowds, there are even reports of flame throwers being used on crowds of students.  It is estimated that about 2000 citizens were killed. There were also many arrbritrary arrests and torture was common place. (The article I linked to above on the riots is very useful)

Human Acts is structured so that the reading experience mirrors the chaos, depth of pain and attempt to cope with incredible cruelty by authorities that took place in the lives and soul of the victims of government reprisal on the rioters.  It is not a linear account of the history of the riots but gives us a deeper contact with modern  Korean  history than a traditional non-modernistic novel would.  

I find it not easy to relay the power of this work.  I will briefly talk about some of the episodic narrative segments of Human Acts and how I see them in the context of her other novel I have read, The Vegetarian, post World War Two South East Asian history.  

The opening segment deals with a fifteen year old boy who has been assigned the duty of watching over the bodies in a temporary morgue set up in a school gymnasium.  In a culture with very old traditions of revering the dead through ancient rituals, the bodies of the riot victims are treated like garbage by the soldiers and police.  In one blood chilling sequence two Korean Army men talk as if it were nothing about how they could follow the example of the Khmer Rouge leaders in nearby Cambodia who killed two million of their own people.  We are forced to wonder what turns people from the same culture as produced the protestors into such monsters.  Human Acts is set in Korea in the 1980s but it reverberated through all of human history for me.  The boy is looking for the body of a friend.  From here the novel goes on to focus on the lifetime impsct the riots had on a diverse group of participants, including the author who was there.  

In a fascinsting segment we enter the consciousness of the soul of a man killed in the riots as he looks at tne brutalized remains of others killed in the riots.  

We see the impact the riots have had on the psyche, in a very interesting case, of an editor, we have flashed forward thirty five years, who is working on a book on the riots.  We see how the government censors even then would not allow the truth to be told about the riots.  I was very impacted when the long term impact of torture was compared to the lingering impact of the atomic bomb on innocent victims in World War Two.  I do not want to tell to much about the narrative so first time readers can experience the book on their own. 

I have only just touched on the themes and power of this work. Kang has masterfully employed the techniques of literary modernism and magic realism to tell this terrible tale.  I think, and this ties in with my remarks on The Vegetarian that we are being forced to look at and reflect on things we push way back in our consciousness which society and those in power and their enforcers remove from our primary field of vision.  

Human Acts is about the attempt by modern power structures to destroy very old almost atavistic belief structures.  It is about how the common people are ruled through division, how how an uneducated young boy is given a rifle and a uniform and a flag to wave and comes to think it is his duty to kill other young people.  It is about hiding from and in the deep dark. It is also about the long term deformative  impact of colonialism. 

I would suggest you first read The Vegetarian then the more challengingly rendered Human Acts. Both are fascinating compulsively reads.  For Anglophone readers, these works should be your introduction to modern Korean literature.  

Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea, and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her writing has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. The Vegetarian, her first novel to be translated into English, was published by Portobello Books in 2015, and her second novel to be translated into English, Human Acts, will be published by Portobello in 2016. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.  - from the publisher's webpage.

Portobello Books is one of the leading publishers of works in translation, important nonfiction, debut works by promising writers as well as  books by leading contemporary authors, including Nobel and Booker Prize Winners.   In just a few minutes on their very well done webpage I added numerous works to my "to be read" list.  

Deborah Smith is a literary translator from the Korean. Her translations include two novels by Han Kang, The Vegetarian and Human Acts (both Portobello, UK; Crown, US), and two by Bae Suah, A Greater Music (Open Letter, 2016) and Recitation (Deep Vellum, 2016). She recently founded Tilted Axis Press, a not-for-profit press focusing on contemporary literary fiction. Tilted Axis's first titles will include a darkly erotic Bengali novella, an obliquely allegorical take on South Korea's social minorities, and a feminist, environmentalist narrative poem from Indonesia, published as a 'sight-impaired-accessible' art book. These will be followed by translations from Thai, Uzbek, and Japanese. She tweets as @londonkoreanist.

I hope more translations of the work of Han Kang are in the works, hopefully in the elegant prose of Deborah Smith.

Mel u

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas (2016)

 Bald New World and United States of Japan both strongly have the potential to be the basis for great movies.


One of the great rewards of book blogging for seven years is that it has afforded me the opportunity to follow the careers of writers.  Three years ago I had the pleasure of reading a great collection of short stories, Watering Heaven, the first book by Peter Tieryas.  Here were my closing words in my post on Watering Heaven:

I really liked the stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas. They contain strong elements of surrealism, I think Alfred Jarry would like them, and magic realism.  The stories are very mega-city urban and area very tuned into how social media and its permeation of the world connects us no less or more  than it isolates us.  There is a preoccupation with death and suicide in these stories. .  There are a lot of hookers and no happy old fashioned relationships or marriages accept maybe of a character's grandparents and even that may have been a sham.  The use of language is marvelous, the details are perfect.  I know of no other writer as attuned to how social media is taking over the world as Tieryas.

Tieryas's  novel Bald New World gets my award for most intriguing title for a 21th century debut novel.  The story begins on the day everyone in the world goes bald.  I read this book twice before I felt prepared to talk about it.  I will share my thoughts a bit as I think United States of Japan appears to be greatly expanding interest in the work of Tieryas and because there are thematic and rhetorical overlaps between his three works that will, I think, help to deepen our understanding of his new book, United States of Japan.

There is just so much in Bald New World to like it is hard for me to feel I can adequately react to the book.  The narrative covers some twenty years and is kind of centered on two experimental film makers trying to produce movies about this new world.  The richest people are now the wig manufacturers.  Much time is spent in this world trying to understand why everyone lost their hair, the blame is placed on everything from the extreme environmental pollution of the world to seeing it as some kind of divine punishment. There is a plot about hair restoration.  Poverty is extreme, corruption is rampant and life is very cheap. 

The novel also deals with how social media and gadgets are totally changing how we live, in all ways.  A leading sport is cricket fighting where people somehow lock up mentally with crickets.  One of the lead characters was once a famous cricket fighter (think Avatar) and when he gets in trouble he agrees to fight again.  The scenes where he enters into the consciousness of a cricket are really brilliant.  The scenes of the fights and the mating with crickets were enough to make one feel the revulsion of this brave new world.

The hysteria now being created by The Fox Network about Ebola some how reminds me of the parts of Bald New World in which we learn of the many overt and covert ways the very rich and their minions try to control the masses by distracting them from their real problems.   The role of the army in wars against African "enemies" as a last chance employer and feeder of vendor wealth for sure is see-able as a commentary on the foreign and domestic priorities of the United States.

Blad New World would make a great movie.  It is very visually oriented, fast moving, has some nasty sex scenes (not just the ones where you feel you are having sex with crickets!) with beautiful women, lots of diverse locations, interesting villains, strong women and I would love to see scenes of all the ways people cope with being bald. A brilliant filming of the first day of baldness could be an immortal classic segment in the right hands. There are prison escapes and plot twists abound.  This is a very dark, brilliant and at times very funny book.  I can almost guarantee you will never be bored reading Bald New World.

My expectations and hope for United States of Japan were very high.  The work exceeded my expectations.   The book begins in California, in 1948, now part of The United States of Japan.  In this alternate history plot, the United States does not enter the war in 1941 but waits several years.  In this time Germany and Japan become more and more powerful. The Japanese have the time to attack the west coast of the United States with nuclear weapons.  After the United States surrenders tne Eastern part is ruled by the Germans and everything west of the Rocky Mountains is part of The United States of Japan. 

The novel covers about forty years, from 1948 to 1988.  In California we see the extreme cruelty of the Japanese rulers of California and the brutality of their soldiers.  History is rewritten to suggest the Japanese were completely blameless in their actions during the war and American school children are taught to revere the Emperor. Any expression of doubt about the divinity of the actions of Japan, seen as directed by their divine emperor, by a Japanese is seen as treason.  The culture among Japanese in California is one full of informants dominated by fear of secret police units.

The opening segments, set in San Jose, California are just brilliantly chilling and ring completely true to me. It was so much easy to visualize troops of young Japanese soldiers striking terror in Americans. I was brought to reflect on how the Americans saved millions of Japanese from starvation after they surrendered in World War Two and how they help  restore the Japanexe economy and in fact brought a level of freedom to Japan never known or even conceived of under Japanese military rule.  One of the deepest cultural questions brought to mind by United States of Japan is how a country where beauty has been cultivated for many centuries could at the same time produce leaders and followers of incredible brutality.   Of course this is not unique to Japan.

As time goes by in California and elsewhere, American culture and history begin to be forgotten, replaced with ideas created to control the Americans.  Few Americans born since 1948 have any true memory of American history.  However are underground groups of Americans who wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanse.  Much of the recreational time of people is taken up by video games and someone has created a subversive video game that is very popular that depicts what things would be like had the Americans won the war.   The lead chzracter and tne driver of the plot is Captain Ishimaru who is in charge of finding out who is distributing these service video games.  An alternative smart phone device plays a big part in the life of the Japanese in California.  

I don't want to give away the intriguing plots, surprising twists of events, interesting characters and abounding social satire found in United States of Japan.  I found the ending deeply moving.  I did not see it coming but it was a wonderful close. 

Besides being a lot of fun to read, there are some good sex scenes, characters to hate and some to feel sympathy with, I think we can read this novel as a commentary about how the surface culture and seductive power of social  media can play into the hands of forces seeking to control societies to put in place malignant private agendas.  

I totally enjoyed United States of Japan, it is exciting with lots of interesting developments, well done characters and presents a very credible alternative historical narrative. I won't tell you what has happened to Catalina Island but you will be shocked.  

Official Author Bio


Peter Tieryas Liu is the author of United States of Japan (Angry Robot Books, 2016), Bald New World (Perfect Edge Books, June 2014),  Watering Heaven (Signal 8 Press, 2012), and Dr. 2. His debut novel, Bald New World, was nominated for the prestigious Folio Prize, listed as one of Buzzfeed’s 15 Highly Anticipated Books of 2014, and named one of the Best Books of Summer 2014 from Publisher Weekly in a star review. Watering Heaven was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Int’l Short Story Award. He has a variety of work published in places like Electric Literature, Evergreen Review, Gargoyle, Hobart, Indiana Review, Kotaku, Kyoto Journal, New Letters, New Orleans Review, Toad Suck Review, Tor.comand ZYZZYVA. He is also a VFX artist who has worked on films like Men in Black 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Alice in Wonderland, and Hotel Transylvania and he has worked as a technical writer for LucasArts, the gaming division of LucasFilm.

OK, that was my third person bio. =)

As for information about this blog, The Whimsy of Creation gets its name from one of my favorite stories that I published at the Evergreen Review. I’ve worked in films, games, and writing, so this blog will focus on all three areas. That means you’ll see book reviews, movie reviews, musings on games, quotes from books I’m reading, links to stories, and photographs Angela (my wife) and I take as we travel to various places in the world. I try to post at least once or twice a day and look forward to interacting with everyone out there. If you need to reach out to me about any business related issues, just ping me somewhere =)

And if you want to connect via social media, you can either follow this wordpress, follow on @TieryasXu Twitter:, or Goodreads me.

I have great faith in the future of Peter Tieryas.  I am sure one day I will be standing in line to go see a movie made from one of his works.  

Mel u

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann (1927)

Earlier this month I read a novel by a writer, Rosamond  Lehmann,  quite famous in her day but perhaps faded a bit away now, An Invitation to the Waltz.  I loved this elegant, insightful book, especially for the long middle section devoted to a waltz in a country town in England.  I enjoy reading biographies of writers and very much like and do highly recommend Rosamond Lehmann A Life by Selina Hastings.  I was kindly given a review copy of her first novel, Dusty Answers just as I was An Invitation to the Waltz, her second work, by Open Media Publishing, a very dynamic company.

          Rosamond Lehmann (1901 to 1990, England)

Dusty Answers is the story the changing over the years relationships of Judith Earle and her cousins.  We first meet Judith, living with her affluent parents in a big house on the Thames River, when she discovers her six cousins are moving into the house next door, vacant for a long time.  We see the development of adolescent romances, Lehmann is a very acute depictor of the emotions and analytic processes of young women.  ( I guess as the father of daughters 17, 20, and 22 I am preinclined to notice such matters.)   She presents brilliantly the intense sometimes minutely  observed nuances in their thought processes. 

The cousins only stay at the house during vacations so we see emotional and physical changes impacting their relationships.  

I enjoyed this book very much.  My favorite section was devoted to Judith's early days at Cambridge, at a time when women were just starting to be allowed to attend.  We feel Judith's initial awkwardness in the opening days of school, where she is for the first time on her own, where everyone seems to already have a circle of friends but her. Even in the women's housing their are economic class distinctions, some students have beautifully furnished rooms, others Spartan.  It is lots of fun to see Judith get used to college life.   There are a lot of engaging gossiping conversations I enjoyed sitting in on.

In a very daring for 1927 treatment, we see Judith fall in love with a beautiful fellow student, Jennifer.  Relationships between women in this age bracket can be very intense without being sexual but clearly they love each other.  

Lehmann, I think, published nine books.  Open Media Press has all the books listed on their webpage with links to Amazon but none of the books as of now seem available for sale.  I hope this means that they will soon be available as Kindles.  

Rosamond Lehmann (1901–1990) was born on the day of Queen Victoria's funeral, in Buckinghamshire, England, the second of four children. In 1927, a few years after graduating from the University of Cambridge, she published her first novel, Dusty Answer, to critical acclaim and instantaneous celebrity. Lehmann continued to write and publish between 1930 and 1976, penning works including The Weather in the StreetsThe Ballad and the Source, and the short memoir The Swan in the Evening. Lehmann was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1982 and remains one of the most distinguished novelists of the twentieth century. - from Open Media

This novel along with other works by Lehmann are being  published by Open Road Media.  The next time you are looking for something to read, especially if you prefer E reading as I do, take a look at their very well done webpage.  They have on offer books by over 2000 authors, all very well described and fairly priced.

Mel u

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings (2009)

My great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that enabled my reading of this book.

Having recently completed  Rosamond Lehmann A Life by Selina Hastings, I was eagerly looking forward to reading her biography of the author of On Human Bondage, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.  Maugham (1874 to 1965) was the first superstar author, making himself very wealthy from his writings.  More movies have been made from his novels, many plays and short stories than from works by any other writer.  Three movies have been made from his most famous short story, "Rain".    Maugham described himself as not a writer of tne first rank but very high in the second rank.  This is the judgement of literary history.    

I don't wish to give a micro recap of Maugham's fascinating life in this post.  I will say say at once that this is a fabulous book, providing much more than in depth look at the life of Maugham, including a very detailed account of his sex life, but a literary history of much of the period. Maugham would have been, if we can speculated, happier had he lived in an era when homosexual acts were not a crime.  The greatest misery of his life  after a difficult growing  he had up until he entered into dementia toward the end a life most would envy, was a marriage he was bullied into and which I think he acquised to inorder that he might cover up his  homosexual activities.   Hastings tells us a great deal about the love life of Maugham.  He liked younger than he slender handsome men and had several long term relationships.  He also liked having sex with rent boys.  While at his villa in the French Rivera, he cruised the bars for sailors. Maugham was very generous to his lovers, he was  predatory at times but he was also exploited.  

I loved this book.  I was so happy for Maugham, who graduated from medical school, as his literary career began to have one triumph after another.  His first significant wealth came from  from London and Broadway plays.  He also made a lot from book sales and movies.  Just from one short story, "Rain", he made, from sales and the three movies based on it, over three million dollars.  Maugham traveled the world, especially in South East and South India, where he got the inspiration for many of his stories. Maugham traveled in style, normally with his long term companion Gerald Haxton.  

For forty years Maugham's primary residence was in a property , The Villa Mauresque, he owned on the French Rivera.  He entertained many writers, including Rosamond Lehmann, and lots of celebrities.  He  had a staff of twelve.  Dinners were always formal.  Maugham loved elegant meals, fine wines, collected art, (his collection of paintings would be worth billions now if intact), he was very well read.  He always traveled with a  suitcase full of books so he could have variety in reading while traveling.  He mostly traveled transoceanic by boat.  

         Villa Mauresque

Hastings just has put so much great stuff in her biography, everything from details on homosexual orgies in Hollywood, the ways of literary agents and publishers, an account of  how Maugham's experience working for a short time as a doctor in the poorest part of London impacted his sensibility, and so much more. Maugham was very lucky  in that he had a totally honest very astute financial genius managing his money for him.  Maugham spent much of World War Two in the United States, sometimes in New York City where at one time four of his plays were on Broadway simultaneously, some in Hollywood working on scripts.  We learn a lot about the business side of being a playwright, dealing with temperamental stars and wondering how long a play would run.  

        Just a few of Maugham's works

Toward the end of his life Maugham became dependent on one of his nephews for care.  It was so sad to read of his falling out with his daughter and his terrible decline into dementia.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is a great literary biography.  Even if you have never read any Maugham, you should read at least On Human Bondage and "Rain", I think anyone with an interest In Twentieth century literary culture will enjoy this book.  

I will, I hope, read her biography of Nancy Mitford one of these days.

Mel u


Monday, February 8, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016)

Elizabeth Strout is a very well known highly regarded American writer.  Born in Maine in 1956, she completed law school to have back up work if her writing career failed to support her, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her collection of related short stories set in Maine, Olive Kittridge.  Among her other we'll know works are The Burgess Boys and Amy and Isabelle.  Any time she publishes a new work it is sure a lot of interest will be found.  For sure this is proving true on her just published work My Name is Lucy Barton.

Narrated in the first person, My Name is Lucy Barton begin with Lucy in a hospital, with an illness whose nature we never really learn.  Lying in bed she has lots of time to think about her past, how she got to where she is now, a sucessful writer living in New York City with children and affluent husband from her dysfunctional in poverty childhood.  Her childhood was very harsh, she, her brother, and parents lived in an unheated garage at her uncle's house.  She had no books, no TV, her clothes marked her out as poor, but it was a while until she realized this.  One of the lucky moments of her life was when a teacher saw her intelligence and love of books and helped,  I thought another lost and lonely soul saved by the reading life.

"My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself—secretly, secretly—very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.) Because of the hours I stayed in the warm classroom, because of the reading I did, and because I saw that if you didn’t miss a piece of the work the homework made sense—because of these things, my grades became perfect. My senior year, the guidance counselor called me to her office and said that a college just outside of Chicago was inviting me to attend with all expenses paid."

From this she enters a new world.

Her mother comes to visit her for a few days in the hotel and they talk.  Lucy tries to understand her past, we learn more about her family history, her brother's struggles and her father's issues.  We see Lucy has issues connecting closely to others.  There are deep mysteries in her past.  We struggle along with her in efforts to understand them.  

I am glad I was given a review copy of this book. I do not feel I can generally recommend the book to those I do not know.  My first thought is this short work with a reading time well under three hours is unfairly priced at $12.95 for the Kindle edition.  At that price I cannot recommend the purchase of this work unless you are a huge fan already of the author.

Mel u

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Katherine's Wish by Linda Lappin. 2008 A second reading of a wonderful evocation of the last years of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is one of the greatest short story writers of all time.  I was recently deeply impacted by learning the last book Iréne Nemirovsky read before being put on the train to Auschwitz was the Journal of Katherine Mansfield.  I first read Mansfield by a happy accident, her "Miss Brill" was the work of the day on a short story webpage I sometimes look at.  I knew nothing about Mansfield then but I knew I wanted to read more of her work.  I went ion to post on all of the short stories in her four collections. I read Linda Lappin's marvelous novelistic treatment of tne last year's of Mansfield's life and the definitive biography Katherine Mansfield The Story Teller by Kathleen Jones.  I was very proud when the editor of tne bulletin of The Katherine Mansfield Society asked me to contribute an article expanding some tweets on word counts in the stories of Mansfield.  One thing that jumped out was how often the word "home" appeared in her stories, way more than in my comparison works.  

Prompted by the publication of the Kindle edition I decided to reread after a five and a half year hiatus Katherine's Wish, Linda Lappin's novel on tne last year's of the life of Mansfield.  In the interim I have  read two additional novels by Lappin and her workbook on creative writing.
I also had the honor of doing a Q and A session with her.  

I wondered how would I react to a second reading of Katherine's Wish.  I ended up planning to read it again next year I liked it so much.  Lappin has been reading Mansfield for decades and has clearly a great empathy for her and understanding of her pain, loneliness and of the well springs of her creativity.  Mansfield came from a very wealthy New Zealand family, her  father was chairman of The Bank of New Zealand.  She moved to London ostensibly to study the cello.  This soon fell by the wayside and, supported by a small allowance from her father, Mansfield began to pursue the dream of a literary career.  In the novel Lappin shows how Mansfield searching for the love she never got from her emotionally withdrawn mother and aloof father found numerous sexual partners, men and women.  Her mother even sent her to a spa to be "cured" of lesbian interests through a course of treatment that included being sprayed with cold water by high pressure hoses.  The two primary persons in her life, brought totally to life by Lappin are Mansfield's husband John Middleton Murray and Ida Baker, a friend from childhood.  Ida was totally in love with Mansfield, they had a sexual relationship in high school,so it is hinted.  When we encounter Mansfield Ida  was, Mansfield called her Jones,,was pretty much enthralled by Mansfield, working as an unpaid servant and devoting her self to finding a way for Mansfield, who struggled to live on her allowance from her parsimonious father, remittances from her husband for her work as a book reviewer and small earning from the publications of her stories.

        Mansfield and her husband

As Katherine's Wish begins Mansfield is in Italy, deeply impacted by the World War One death of her beloved brother Leslie.  She noticed and tries to hide from Ida, a spot of blood on her handkerchief, a sign of consumption.  We see in the novel that Murray is not the kind of husband a writer needs.  We learn she sometimes wishes her husband treated her the way Leonard Wolfe treated Virginia.  I saw how Mansfield wavered between deep anger toward Murray, who had other relationships, including with friends of her and blaming the other women.  Mansfield had an attraction for guru like men which extended beyond her husband.  The devastation and massive death tolls of tne war created in many a spiritual vacuum that traditional religion could not cure.  Mansfield also knew that she might not have much time left.  One of the few happiest moments in the novels was when Mansfield learned her collection of stories, Bliss was to be published. 

      Ida Baker and to her right Katherine Mansfield

We see Mansfield, emotionally and physically dependent on Ida, who she treated at times in a near abusuve fashion, struggle to have secure housing and food.  She is asked to leave a hotel in Italy because her coughing disturbs the other guests.  Her parents come to visit but her father offers her no financial help.  He very much disliked her husband and wished Katherine had never left New Zealand.  The attitude in Italy is very anti-English so at the suggestion of her parents Mansfield and Ida make a perilous journey to a health pension ran by relatives in France.  Throughout Katherine is emotionally buffeted by D. H. Lawrence with whom her and her husband had a complex relationship. 

As time goes on and the disease impacts Katherine more, she begins to undergo a very expensive, probably useless and certainly painful course of treatment.  

There is just so much to savior in Kathernine Wish, the prose is as exquisite as that of Rosamond  Lehmann at her most elegant, there is lot to be work and  life of Mansfield in this book but there is much more.  Mansfield was an artist of supreme quality who struggled with the wonder and pain of her genius.  

Linda Lappin, award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, travel writer, literary translator was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. She received her B.A. from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. and her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop where she studied poetry with Donald Justice, fiction with Ian McEwan, and translation with Daniel Weissbort and worked as a translation assistant to Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh at the International Writing Program.

A former Fulbright fellow to Italy, she currently divides her time between the US and Italy, where she has taught English in Italian universities for over twenty years. Her essays , reviews, and short fiction appear regularly in US periodicals. Her short fiction has been broadcast by the BBC World Service Radio.

Her first novel,  
The Etruscan 
originally published by Wynkin DeWorde in Galway, Ireland, was runner up in the fiction category for the 2010  New York Book Festival and short listed for the 2011 Next Generation Indie Award in fiction.
Her second novel, Katherine's Wish ( published by  Wordcraft of Oregon , 2008) based on the life of New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield received the gold medal in historical fiction from the  IPPY awards, and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year in fiction. Her third novel, a mystery,  Signatures in Stone set in the sculpture garden of Bomarzo the Monster Park published by Pleasure Boat Studio won the 2014 Daphne Du Maurier Award from Romance Writers of America for mystery and and suspense writing
Active as literary translator, she has translated Carmelo Samona' and Federigo
Tozzi. She has received two NEA grants in translation and the Renato 
Poggioli Award in Translation from PEN.

Through the  Centro Pokkoli , she has organized writing workshops in Italy for  the Kenyon Review, the Converse College Continuing Education Program, and other institutions 

She has worked as a radio speaker and interpreter for RAI 1 and is currently associate international editor for  Del Sol Journal . Her forthcoming books include Genius Loci: A Writer's Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place and Postcards from a Tuscan Interior 
She is a member of the AWP, the EACWP, the Authors Guild, and the Katherine Mansfield Society

More information can be found on her webpage

I strongly endorse Katherine's Wish to all lovers of the novel.  It is must reading for those interested in Mansfield and early twentieth century literary history.

Mel u