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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Elizabeth Bishop A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (2017)

"When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”  Elizabeth Bishop in correspondence with Robert Lowell

The Last Love Affair of Elizabeth Bishop by Megan Marshall (in The New Yorker, October 27, 2016)

1911 to 1979 (Massachusetts)

1956 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1970 National Book Award

Elizabeth Bishop published only 100 poems in her life.  From these she has become one of the most admired and loved American poets of the 20th century.   Megan Marshall in Elizabeth Bishop A Miracle for Breakfast presents a vivid brilliant account of her life, a narrative relayed with the intensity of a highly skilled story teller that left me feeling very sad, loving Bishop for her art and courage to live as her heart dictated  while so much hating her terrible alcoholism, her need to drink herself into oblivion.  Marshall helps us understand why Bishop was driven to this. The problem endured her entire adult life, complicated her numerous friendships and romances.

Tragedy soon found Bishop, her father died when she was eight months old, shortly afterwards her mother was committed to a mental asylum which she never left.  Bishop did not again see her mother. She was sent to her maternal grandparents in Novia Scotia. After a few years she moved to the home of her wealthy paternal grandparents.  Bishop was not happy with them so she was transferred to the home of her mother's sister. Her aunt, paid by the grandparents for her care, instilled in her a love of poetry, this came to provide her direction in life.  Her father's estate set up a trust for Bishop which sustained her for life.  Having numerous health issues Bishop struggled with her schooling but did graduate from the very prestigious Vassar in 1934.

Megan lets us see the profound influence the poet Marianne Moore, Bishop met her while at Vassar.  Moore encouraged and guided her in developing her poems.  Megan talks about the influence of the poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, she met them in 1947, on Bishop.  Lowell became a life long friend and a poetic influence.  Lowell helped Bishop get a job teaching creative writing at Harvard toward the end of her life and Bishop,through an extensive correspondence tried to help Lowell with his issues.

Bishop did not have to work, she was not rich but comfortable, she began shortly after college to travel extensively.  She lived, in a romantic relationship with a wealthy fellow Vassar graduate in Paris for a few years. In 1938 they bought together a house in Key West, Florida where Bishop lived for a while. All the time Bishop is writing poems, Megan lets us see what a meticulous artist she was, often working on a poem for years.

In 1949, after working as poetry consultant for The Library of Congress for a year, she received a $2500.00 grant for travel from Byrn Mawr college for travel expenses. She planned on staying two weeks in Brazil but ended up staying 15 years.  Bishop fell in love with Brazilian culture and a Brazilian woman from a wealthy family, her longest lasting relationship. Bishop had only same sex relationships.  She loved living in rural Brazil, the contrast to New England and Canada must have been overwhelmingly.  Upon the suicide of her lover, Bishop began to spend more time in America, teaching for seven years at Harvard.

Megan Marshall was a student of Bishop and she includes as kind of interludes several chapters about her relationship with Bishop.

I think one of the many things I admired about Marshall's wonderful biography was her treatment of Bishop's sexuality. A less secure biographer might have felt the need to explain this, to offer conjectures as to the psychological reasons behind this.  Marshall just accepts it as not something requiring an explanation.

There is much more in this book than I have touched upon. I will, I think, reread her poetry with more understanding.

Marshall's webpage explains the genesis of this book.

I highly recommend this literary biography.

Mel u

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"The Other Paris" by Mavis Gallant (First published April 11, 1953 in The New Yorker)

Buried in Print's Mavis Gallant Reading Schedule

Mavis Gallant on The Reading Life

"In her preface to the present collection, Gallant advises her readers: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Such advice may be superfluous. When you finish each of Gallant’s stories, it’s instinctive to stop and regroup. As much as you might wish to resume and prolong the pleasure of reading, you feel that your brain and heart cannot, at least for the moment, process or absorb one word, one detail more." Francine Prose in her introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant (born Montreal 1922, died Paris, 2014) since 2013.  I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a weekly basis.   I have on my E Reader The Collected Short Short Stories of Mavis Gallant (contains per Gallant about half of her stories) so I decided to try to read along with Buried in Print's weekly schedule as much as I might.

Gallant may have been born in Montreal but Paris was her spiritual home. In "The Other Paris", the first scheduled story, Gallant focuses on an American woman working in a government office, post World War II.  She came to Paris expecting to find the city of Proust, Flaubert, expecting the women to be elegant and and the men handsome.  Instead of living a life straight out of movies like Singing in the Rain or Gigi she was trapped in fifty shades of shabbiness.  These elegant lines sum Carol's disappointment

"It was a busy life, yet Carol could not help feeling that something had been missed. The weather continued unimproved. She shared an apartment in Passy with two American girls, a temporary ménage that might have existed anywhere. When she rode the Métro, people pushed and were just as rude as in New York. Restaurant food was dull, and the cafés were full of Coca-Cola signs. No wonder she was not in love, she would think. Where was the Paris she had read about? Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped."

Carol has met an American man at work, Howard, he is looking for a wife and Carol meets his conditions.  When he proposed she accepted, fearing no other suitable man might ask. She did not love him but novels had taught her that could come in time.  She wanted to be in love and for sure wanted to return home married.  She works with an unmarried French woman, thirty, who has a relationship with a twenty two year old man, a displaced person without the paperwork required to work whose family were all killed during the war.  He seems vaguely criminal and sinister. You can feel the unexpressed fear of Carol that this is the fate of aging unmarried women in Paris.

I don't want to tell much of the story line of "The Other Paris", after you have read the story, hopefully at least twice, I urge you to read the post by Buried in Print.

Gallant lets us see into the future of Carol and others in the story. We feel the impact of disappointment in their hopes for love on the women, we see how they are motivated to settle out of fear.  The closing scene with the friend (that is what she calls him) of the French woman and Carol is devastating in bleakness, so far from the Paris of movie goers dreams, no madeleines, no visits to the opera, only a very unsentimental education, no cruises down the Seine  on his house boat with a count far more lovely than Colette could imagine, no fashions shows at Chanel's, even Nana has seemingly a more interesting life.

Mel u

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2016


Angela Carter 1940 to 1992, England, died of lung cancer

I have read only a few of Angela Carter's dark and wonderful short stories, mostly from her now most read work, The Bloody Chamber (1979).

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon is a first rate literary biography. As I read on I came to like both the book and Carter so much that I was sad upon completion, maybe my feelings were amplified by her way to early death at fifty two.

Gordon shows us at least three processes of invention.  We see Angela inventing her persona.  Gordon does a very good job detailing the people in Carter's life, starting with her parents and then her first husband, Paul Carter.  Carter was a musician, the marriage failed not due to any villainy on either side, he simply did not fulfill her needs and I think he came to bore her.

Angela won the Somerset Maugham award, a grant for travel expenses.  Angela decided  to go to Japan and this opened up her creativity and lead to two important romances, one with a Japanese man, one a Korean.  Carter had a very strong, by her own acknowledgement, sex drive and her relationships were strained at best. Carter struggled to make a living in Japan and eventually got homesick and accepted a secure job offer in England.  By age 32 she had written five novels.  She also wrote reviews and such for income.  As she became more famous she worked as a visiting professor in New York City, Adelaide Australia (which she loved) and several English schools.

Gordon spends a lot of time detailing Carter's life style at the time of writing of her more famous works, The Bloody Chamber (1979), Night at the Circus (1984), Wise Children (1991).  He shows how she employed her life experience and her extensive reading in her works.

A few years after divorcing Paul Carter, Angela fell in love with a man younger than her by a good bit who was doing some repair work on her house.  They married after few years, had a son, and he seems to have made her happy.  She was the primary earner in the family.

Gordon brings to life the many friends in Angela's life, from famous writers, publishers and intellectuals to ordinary people.

Gordon talks about how feminist and folk scholars approached her work.

We learn a lot about the business side of her publishing career.

There is a lot more in The Invention of Angela Carter than I have mentioned.  It for sure made me want to expand my reading of her work.  I greatly enjoyed this elegant insightful erudite biography.

Edmund Gordon studied philosophy at Trinity College Dublin and English literature at University College London, and since 2011 has been a lecturer in English at King's College London. A regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, he has also written for a variety of other publications in Britain and the US, including Bookforum and The Guardian.  The Invention of Angela Carter is his first book.

Mel u

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1933, 97 pages)

This is my second reading of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (born 1894 in Godalming, England, died 1963 in Los Angeles).  In 1967 when I first read it Ferdinand Marcos was President of the Philippines, Lyndon Johnson of the United States, there was no internet, no cell phones, no E books.  I don't recall what lead me to first read Brave New World.  I admit I decided to read it now partially because the Kindle edition was on sale for $0.99, plus I wanted to see if this dystopian classic was still timely.  I was curious what I would recall as I reread.

All I remembered clearly about the plot was the biological engineering of humans into different categories from "moronic epsilons" doing totally mindless work to Alphas who ran things.  Huxley did a brilliant job describing the processes that produce different sorts of humans.  I also remembered the abundant guilt free sex that was the norm (this was the 60s).  The society was engineered to produce maximum harmony while keeping every one happy.  Soma, a feel good drug, is dispersed as a reward and a way to keep people docile.

Huxley makes us of a character called, "The Savage" to present an alternate view of society. One of my favorite parts of the novel was in the conversations of The Savage and the controller of Western Europe.  He is exempt from conditioning and Huxley uses him to explain how the society evolved.

Brave New World is a tremendously influential book.  Parts of it do drag a bit but at only 100 pages or so I rank it as a near must read.  There is a lot to think about in Huxley's masterwork.

Mel u

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mademoiselle Chanel by C. W. Gortner (2015, a novel)

My Prior Posts on Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel (1883 to 1971, France) is almost certainly the most influential fashion designer of the 20th century and in my not totally informed on the subject opinion, of all times.  I have images of three female writers on my sidebar, Irene Nemirovsky, Clarice Lispector and Nancy Mitford.  Each   of them, whether intentionally or not, dressed and strived to look like a Coco Chanel model.

I first became interested in Coco Chanel in July of 2015 when I read a brilliantly biography, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Gareliot.  In addition to being an excellent account of her journey from an orphan raised by nuns to one of the wealthiest people in the world it explains why her designd both reflected and shapes the times. This is for sure the first book one should read about Chanel.  You may not close the book fully liking her but you will admire her determination.

C. W. Gortner in his novel Mademoiselle Chanel starts with the death of her mother.  Their father was not up to or interested in taking care of his three daughters and two sons.  Chanel ends up in an orphanage where she learns to sew.  When she was 18 she began to work a bit as a milliner and a night club singer.  Her beautiful looks attracted men and soon she was the mistress of a very wealthy man, living in his chateau.  The man is single but Coco is not a socially acceptable wife.  He does set her up in her first shop.  We see her develop her business, market her fashion line.  Her greatest business success was the developing of her perfume, Chanel Number Five.

The most controversial period of her life was during World War Two during the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. She continued to live in the ultra luxurious Hotel Ritz, even though it was the living quarters of the Nazi elite. Coco began a romance with a German officer, a count.  The widely held view is that the Germans thought Coco, friends with Winston Churchill, might have valuable information.  Coco felt she was being cheated by Jewish business partners and she was open to using Nazi policies to her advantage.  At the end of the war Coco feared being labeled a collaborator and fled
 to Switzerland for seven years.

I saw no errors or serious omissions in Gortner's novel.  Some of the secondary characters could have been better developed.  I enjoyed this book.  Gortner made me feel I knew Coco. I would be happy to read more of his work.

C.W. GORTNER holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California, as well as an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco.
After an eleven year-long career in fashion, during which he worked as a vintage retail buyer, freelance publicist, and fashion show coordinator, C.W. devoted the next twelve years to the public health sector. In 2012, he became a full-time writer following the international success of his novels.
In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard at Hampton Court, learned about organic gardening at Chenoceaux, and spent a chilly night in a ruined Spanish castle. His books have garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into twenty-one languages to date, with over 400,000 copies sold. A sought-after public speaker. C.W. has given keynote addresses at writer conferences in the US and abroad. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights, in particular companion animal rescue to reduce shelter overcrowding.
C.W. recently completed his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about Lucrezia Borgia; the third novel in his Tudor Spymaster series for St Martin's Press; and a new novel about the dramatic, glamorous life of Coco Chanel, scheduled for lead title publication by William Morrow, Harper Collins, in the spring of 2015. 

Half-Spanish by birth and raised in southern Spain, C.W. now lives in Northern California with his partner and two very spoiled rescue cats.

Mel u

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov (1847, translated 2015 by Stephen Pearl)

Ivan Goncharov (born Simbirsk, Russia 1812, died Saint Petersburg, 1881.  His best known work is his second novel, Oblomov (1859) about a minor Russian Nobel man who cannot find a reason to get out bed.  Tolstoy said Goncharov was his favorite novelist, Chekhov said his talent first exceeeded his own.

Goncharov was born into a wealthy family.  After graduation from the Moscow State University he moved to Saint Petersburg where he worked as a government translator and censor and did private tutoring.  He also wrote poetry and his novels. 

I was very happy to be given a review copy of Stephen Pearl's new translation of Goncharov first novel, The Same Old Story.  Goncharov refused  to allow translations of his work during his lifetime and this seems to be the first translation of this work.  

Goncharov tells a wonderful very well structured account of the life of Alexander Fyodoryah, from a country gentry land owning family (which also meant serf owning).  He is the only child of a widow who totally dotes on him.  Aleksander, maybe twenty when we meet him, is bored with country life (masterfully brought to life in the opening chapter) and is determined to move to Saint Petersburg to realize his dream of becoming a famous poet.   His uncle Ivan, his mother's brother, lives in Saint Petersburg and with his mother heart broken, she had a lovely affluent bride selected for him  he leaves to live initially with his uncle and his wife.  

The comic center of the novel is in the conversation and developing relationship of the romantic Aleksander and his cynical very pragmatic uncle.  Aleksander tells his uncle of his plans to become a poet, the uncle basically tells him this is just silly and he gets him as a job writing reports for a government agency, totally boring work but it might lead in twenty years to a high ranking position.  We see the nephew struggling to be a good employee.  In one brutally comic  scene, the uncle sets one of the nephew's poems on fire and lights his cigar with it. The uncle notices he seems distracted after a while and assumes he must be in love, which is correct.  The uncle lectures him on the folly of this.  The conversations of the uncle and nephew are master pieces. 

Goncharov does a masterful job with the complicated relationship of the nephew and the young woman he loves, he meets her while out fishing on a weekend in Saint Petersburg. We meet her family and see how Aleksander reacts to a possible rival, a count.  The uncle saves his nephew from the folly of a duel.  One of the really enjoyable aspects of the novel is seeing how Aleksander and his uncle's relationship changes over the years, Aleksander becomes more like his uncle and the uncle slowly opens up a softer side.  

The uncle and the mother keep in close touch through correspondence, the son writes his mother once and a while.   He decides to go home.  Of course his mother is overjoyed.  He is now thirty five, a prime age for marriage and a great catch for a local gentry lady. 

At this juncture in the plot things take a very interesting turn, precipitated by an ironically relayed tragedy.  I will leave it untold.

The Same Old Story exceeded my expectations, of Russian 19th century writers this novel most reminded me of Turgenev.  This novel was a great pleasure to read, not just another book to check of your "required reading" list.  Pearl has done lovers of 19th century literature a big favor by translating this novel. He has also translated the much more famous Oblomov and once a Kindle edition of this translation is available I will read it.

STEPHEN PEARL was a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations for more than thirty years and was Chief of English Interpretation there for fifteen years. He is a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford University with an M.A. in Classics. His translation of Oblomovwas awarded the 2008 AATSEEL Prize for best translation from Slavic language to English.

Mel u

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"Crazy They Call Me" by Zadie Smith (February 27, 2017 in The New Yorker)

You can experience "Crazy They Call Me" here

Haunting Video of "Strange Fruit"          

"Billie Holiday, who gave voice to loneliness both personal and institutional, who lived and died inside it, a life short on love and brutalised by racism. Billie Holiday, who was called Blackie to her face and made to take the back door even in venues where she was herself the headline act, wounds that she attempted to medicate with the poisonous ameliorators of alcohol and heroin. Billie Holiday, who in the summer of 1959 collapsed in her room on West 87th Street while eating custard and oatmeal, and who was taken first to the Knickerbocker and then to the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, where she was left –as so many AIDS patients would be in the years that followed, particularly if they too had black or brown skin –on a gurney in a corridor, just another dope case."  From The Lonely City Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop."  - Strange Fruit

Frank O'Connor famously proclaimed that the short stories of the masters of the form are about outsiders, those with no one to speak for them, marginalized persons. Of course like most all sweeping literary generalizations this cannot be "proved" but it is an illuminating remark.  In January I read a book I wish I could have read fifty years ago, The Lonely City  Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.  Billie Holiday is one of the figures Lang talks about. Not all into the reading life will agree or relate but for others will see deep connections between an immersion in the reading life and being alone and loneliness.  Numerous book bloggers as well as authors have spoken about being an odd seeming child who retreated into a world of books.  The more they read, the more remote from others many became.  Some, maybe most, childhood readers slowly give it up but others keep going, building worlds for themselves, carrying less about the mundane world.  

"They Call Me Crazy" by Zadie Smith (which you can both read online and hear the author read the story for free on the webpage of The New Yorker is a wonderful story told in the person of Billie Holiday.  My main purpose in this post is to let my readers know of this story and to add it to my reading journal. To Lang Billie Holiday exemplifies loneliness in the big city.  She was African American in a time of legalized racism, a drug user, and occasional bisexual.  She never found a
world in which she could be at home.  "They Call Me Crazy" is sort of about her reaction to the people who came to hers her sing in nightclubs in New York City, mostly affluent Caucasians.  Her iconic song, about the Lynching of Black men in the American south was beyond the understanding of most of her audience.  We see her losing herself in opiate drugs, drugs of deep inwardness and retreat.  

The last lines of Smith's story transcend brilliance.  I loved it and so will you.  I read it first, then I listened to Smith's reading of it (16 minutes).  I also suggest after reading the story you listen to a recording by Holiday of "Strange Fruit" (on You Tube).

I have read and posted upon a few of Zadie Smith's short stories but have not yet ventured into her novels.  

Mel u

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Reading Life Review February 2017

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There were lots more visits from Russian bots but I don't count them.

3003- total posts on The Reading Life


Books I Read in February which I did not post upon

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kami

Autumn by Ali Smith. Part one of s forthcoming tetralogy

The Inferno by Dante in a new translation by Peter Thornton

The poetry of Edna Saint Vincent Millay

Loving Robert Lowell by Sandra Hochman

Robert Lowell Setting the River on Fire by Kay Jamison

Literary Biographies for February

Edna Saint Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Antoine Saint-Exupréy by Stacy Schiff

All three of these biographies were first rate.


Novels posted on

I read two debut novels in February

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector and

Beautiful Ape Girl Baby by Heather Fowler

Plus The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge (set in London during WW Two)


Short Stories

"The Kidnapping of Pearl Button" by Katherine Mansfield (1909)

"Babette's Feast" by Karen Blixen



Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann- for sure worth reading

Grigory Rasputin The Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith-must Reading for those into late Romanov history.


As always my great thanks to those who leave a comment

Mel u