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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Newberry" - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - from her debut collection, White Dancing Elephants - 2018

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician on the front lines in New York City, a Rhodes Scholar, and a highly acclaimed short story author 

"Newberry" - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - from her debut collection, White Dancing Elephants - 2018

In the nearly eleven years in which i have maintained The Reading Life i have never seen as much attention given to a debut Short story collection as that given to White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.  So far I  have posted on eight of her marvelous very creative stories, all deal with the interaction of persons of Indian background with western countries.  

I have  recently  reread The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrup Frye.  He talks extensively and very learnedly about the various ways in which myths are used to structure literary works. In today's story and others of her work  I read prior to today we can see Bhuvaneswar very profoundly use ancient Indian myths not only as part of the rhetorical structure of her stories but she shows us how people retreat into deeply rooted ancient archetypal myths to help with the otherwise unfathomable aspects of their lives.  She overlays the ancient myths with modern reality. 

As "Newberry" opens Vinita is taking a smoke break from her job at a Massachusetts beauty salon.  She has worked there for years, hating the customers.  She knows most of the patrons look down on her.  She and her boyfriend are from India.  Her boss Leo launders money for organised crime.  Vinita and her boyfriend are in the final stages of embezzling from Leo, enough to escape.

We see how the rationalizes the theft, her plans for escape.  Her life is a mess.

There is much more to this story.  Lovers of the short story will want to read the entire collection.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2,and featured on the Other Storiespodcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.She is a practicing physician.

Mel u

Monday, April 27, 2020

"An Old Woman with Young Dreams” by Yente Serdatsky was published in the Forverts on November 11, 1920, and was never reprinted. Translated from Yiddish in 2018 by Jessica Kirzane.

Old Woman with Young Dreams” by Yente Serdatsky was published in the Forverts on November 11, 1920, and was never reprinted.  Translated from Yiddish in 2018 by Jessica Kirzane.  

  You may read the story here 

It was published in 2018 in the Pakn Treger Translation Issue, a magazine of The Yiddish Book Center

Yiddish literature seems to me very appropriate for these times.  Xenophobia is growing in the USA and Europe.  All writers and most readers of Yiddish literature were fluent in at least three languages.  Many left the lands of their ancestors for new very different places.  They asked for no government help, worked very hard to educate their children and were very law abiding.  Some survived horrible prejudice.  The ancestors of Yiddish immigrants contributed greatly to their new countries.  Yiddish writers survived the Holocaust.  Chava Rosenfarb, her image is in my side bar, survived with her mother and sister four years in concentration camps.  She moved to Montreal with her family, she was pregnant upon moving.  She is one of the last surviving Yiddish writers.  The experiences of the Yiddish writers I have been featuring for eight years makes me ashamed to complain about our lockdown.

Narrated by a flâneuse who observes the city and its people, like many of Serdatsky’s stories this one offers a picture of the day-to-day lives of immigrant women in New York City, their unfulfilled longings and small pleasure.  The narrator of the story is an older woman, from Eastern Europe, she loves just strolling around NYC observing People.

The narrator is a writer.  I really was booked by the opening paragraph. You can see the friendly conversational style of the story:

"A dignified mister, who’s more interested in my writing than in me as a person, says to me:
“Don’t you ever get weary of lowering yourself into the depths of human life to fish out the most interesting parts? It must be unpleasant to uncover and search the dark shadows of the human soul to find the bright sparks.
“You look upset, like you’re in a nightmare. Wake up! Now is the most beautiful time of year in New York. Take a stroll on the city streets, drink in everything up here on the surface, all that’s lighthearted and pleasant. See how light shimmers on the colorful dresses the rich ladies wear. See how golden rays glimmer on the blue rivers around New York, how they wrap around the tall buildings and stretch across the broad, wide, though crowded streets.”
You’re right, sir. I’ll take your advice. I’ll leave my heroines alone for a while and stop writing about them so much. They deserve a rest anyway. They may blunder through their dark corridors if I’m not here to help them find the way, but so be it. The street, in these bright days of autumn, is so dear to me. The colors are movingly rich. Nothing can get me down. I’ll go out, and I’ll see what’s out on the street!"

We follow her through the city, she walks and she takes the subway.  She encounters interesting people. Some are other immigrants like her, some very different.  This is a very moving scene where she encountered two women from her old home town:

"Do you see that big table, Bessie? If my sister and her family are going to stay with me, I’ll have to have that table.”
“So they’re really coming to you?”
“What do you think? I’d make them stay with strangers? We’ll get them situated. Just let them come in good health. I can’t wait to see her.”
“I’ll never see my sister again. Those hooligans murdered her.”
Their eyes grew teary as they remembered the land they’d left behind, where their relatives still suffer. The first woman philosophized, “You know, Bessie, it’s a strange world. Here we eat the best food, we wear wool and silk, and there? It’s a miracle to get even the humblest, oldest things. They’re almost afraid of something new. Did you see what joy they wrote in their letter? They kissed the pot, the sweaters, the socks . . . those old rags. Here we’d barely even look at such things.”
They both were silent as tears fell from their eyes. They forgot that they were standing on busy Grand Street, by the windows of a well-to-do furniture store, near a picture house where they sell tickets to the nightly showings. They hardly noticed the people looking at them. I also hardly noticed. The sadness enveloped all three of us as we remembered our home.
Bessie, who seemed to be a practical woman, was the first to gather herself. She wiped her face, laughed, and said, “Let’s go home, Esther. Soon it will be time for dinner.”
But Esther couldn’t calm herself so easily. She bowed her head. Her tears flowed as her chest heaved with sobs.
The other woman became impatient as she tried to console her friend. This is the first time I noticed she was a Litvak. She said samekhs instead of shins. “Shee here, don’t be shilly, Eshter. Don’t kill yourshelf over it. It’s Thurshday, and we need to buy food for Sabes. There’ll be plenty of fish, beef, and chicken. Your little Serke is probably already at home, and she musht be hungry!” "

For sure this delightful slice of immigrant life in NYC in 1920 is more than worth your time.

YENTE SERDATSKY (née Raybman, 1877–1962) was born in Aleksotas, near Kovno (Kaunas) in what is now Lithuania. Her childhood home was a gathering place for Yiddish writers, and she was acquainted from a young age with Yiddish literature. She married, had three children, ran a grocery store, and in 1905 left her family to pursue her writing in Warsaw, where she received encouragement from I. L. Peretz. In 1906 she and her family emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in New York City, where she ran a soup kitchen. She published short stories, sketches, and one-act plays in many Yiddish periodicals and was a regular contributor and eventually a contributing editor at the Forverts. In 1922 she left the Forverts and the literary scene, not publishing again until 1949–1955, when she contributed dozens of stories to the Nyu Yorker Vokhnblat. Her only book publication was her collected early writings, published in 1913.

JESSICA KIRZANE is an incoming lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish studies from Columbia University. Kirzane is the managing/pedagogy editor of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and was a 2017 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. 

Mel u

Sunday, April 26, 2020

"What Sprouts Here These Days"- A Short Story by Jose Varghese - from Best Asian Short Stories 2019- with details on the book

"What Sprouts Here These Days"- A Short Story by Jose Varghese - from Best Asian Short Stories 2019 - With Some Remarks on the collection.

In 2012 Jose Varghese honored me by allowing me to publish two of his  original short stories on The Reading Life.

You may (and should) read these stories here.

Our story is set somewhere in India.  A father is at work. His wife has just called him saying their four year old son Khalid has left the family compound on his bike.  His boss has just returned from the USA.  The country is in a financial crisis that threatenes the future of the company.  His boss demands he come right away, a two hour trip through streets full of violence as the area spirals out of control.

Justaposing the father's distress, the son is elated to be free to ride around without supervision.  Of course he has no understanding of how much danger he is in.  We go along on his ride.  We get, along with his father, more worried every few minutes.

I don't want to say any more about the story of the dramatic closing. "What Sprouts Here These Days" is, as I knew it would be, a first rate short story.

Varghese has captured the feel of the city, driven apart by ancient divisions while letting us see how different the son's experience of the city is from his father.  

Jose Varghese is the author of ‘Silver Painted Gandhi and Other Poems’ and his short story manuscript ‘In/Sane’ was a finalist in the 2018 Beverly Prize, UK. His works have appeared or in journals/anthologies like The Best Asian Short Story Anthology 2019, Unveiled, The Salt Anthology of New Writing, Unthology 5, Reflex Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, 10 Red, Mulberry Fork Review, The River Muse, Chandrabhaga, Kavya Bharati, Postcolonial Text, I Am Not A Silent Poet, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis and Bengaluru Review. He was the winner of The River Muse Spring Poetry Contest, a runner-up in the Salt Flash Fiction Prize and two Faber QuickFic contests, and a second prize winner in the Wordweavers Flash Fiction Prize. He was a finalist in Hourglass Short Story Contest and two of the Eyewear Fortnight Poetry Prize competitions, and was commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. He is the founder and chief editor of Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts and Strands Publishers, India, and is currently teaching in Jazan University, Saudi Arabia.

There are 24 stories in Best Asian Short Stories, 2019, from 17 different countries.  The stories were selected from submitted works and it appears none have been published before.  The writers range from three published for the first time to very successful authors.

I recommend this anthology to anyone interested in expanding the range of their reading in Asian based short stories.

From the publisher

War, loss, love, compassion, nightmares, dreams, hopes and catastrophes; this is literary Asia at its best. From a wide range of geographies spanning from Palestine to Japan, from Kazakhstan to the Malaysia, mobilizing a wide array of innovative narrative styles and writing techniques, the short stories of this anthology, carefully curated by one of Asia’s prominent and daring writers, will take you on a power trip of deep exploration of local (yet global) pains and hopes, a celebration (and contemplation) of humanity and its impact, as explored by 24 writers and 6 translators, many of whom identify with many homes, giving Asia what it truly represents across (and beyond) its vast territory, expansive history, and many traditions and languages. This book is an open celebration of multi-faceted creativity and plurality.

The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 includes 
JOEL DONATO JACOB (Philippines) 
DEENA DAJANI (Palestine) 
ANGELO WONG (Hong Kong) 
SIMON ROWE (New Zealand / Japan) 
T.A. MORTON (Irealand / Hong Kong) 
HAMID ISMAILOV (Uzbekistan) 
YD CHANG (China / Malaysia) 
JOLIN KWOK (Malaysia) 
IMRAN KHAN (Bangladesh) 
YAN TI (Taiwan) 
KAISA AQUINO (Philippines) 

Mel u

Friday, April 24, 2020

“The Loathly Lady” - A Short Story by Fiona Mozley - from These Our Monsters The English Heritage Book of New Folktale,Myth and Legend - 2019 - Edited by Katherine Davey


“The Loathly Lady” - A Short Story by Fiona Mozley - from These
Our Monsters The English Heritage Book of New Folktale,Myth and Legend - 2019 - Edited by Katherine Davey 

This is the second story from this delightful collection I have read.

The first was Great Pocklands" - A Short Story by Alison Macleod, centering on Charles Darwin's relationship with his young daughter.

There are eight stories in the collection, eventually I will read them all.

"‘The Loathly Lady’ – The Arthurian Legends The story of the Loathly Lady and her marriage to King Arthur’s handsome knight Sir Gawain was a great medieval favourite. This retelling is based on a poem called ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’, written in the mid 15th century. It’s just possibly by Sir Thomas Malory, more famous as the author of the great Arthurian story-cycle Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur)" Charles Kightly 

Today's story The Loathly Lady”  by Fiona Mozle takes us back to the Arthurian years. History, legend and myth all come together in this throughly engaging creation of a legend about Sir , a riddle, and a marriage.  When we encounter Sir Gawain he is on a hunting trip with other knights.

"LYTHE AND LISTENYTHE THE LIF OF A LORD RICHE (was there ever another kind?). While he was alive, there was no one else like him in the world. Royal and courteous, of all the kings, Arthur was the flower, and his knights were chivalrous and brave. King Arthur hunts in Inglewood with the knights of his court. It is a no-place: too far north for the English (though they have given it their name); too far south for the Scots (though they have been here once or twice). Huntsmen spot a hart in a thicket of bracken. Hounds bray, horses gallop. The deer hears the clamour and stands dead still. Clothed in green in a blinking wood, leaves like eyelids, fluttering, flickering. Green like sunshine, green like night. A wood, a hart, the once and future king. They have been here before, they will come here again. He will follow a beast and it will follow him. They will evince, they will evade, they will venture, they will vanquish, they will dance, they will court, they will wrestle, they will sing. Arthur, alone, sees the hart’s mind, and tells his companions he will stalk the deer, and catch it by stealth and not by chase."

I really liked this story a lot  and I don't want to tell to much about it. Sir Gawain is challenged by a strange to him knight much bigger and stronger than himself.  The knight poses him a riddle.  On his honour he  swears to return in a year with a solution to the riddle.  If he cannot, he will submit to death by the stranger's sword.

In just a few pages I was transported way back in time.  The riddle was so fascinating.  

I see this collection as worth acquiring just for these two stories alone.  Plus the cover art is awesome.

Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, was published in 2017 by John Murray Originals. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Ondaatje Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize. It won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Polari Prize. Mozley has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Financial Times and British Vogue. She was born in East London, raised in York, and has lived in Cambridge and Buenos Aires. She now lives in Edinburgh and has completed a PhD in Medieval Studies

I have added Elmet to my Amazon Wish list and hope to read it soon.

Mel u


Thursday, April 23, 2020

“An Answer to a Letter” a Short story by Avrom Sutzkever Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger from The Yiddish Published Summer 2018 / 5778 In Pakn Treger, The Magazine of The Yiddish Book Center With a Poem

 In Observation of Yom Hashoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day - April 21, 2020.


“An Answer to a Letter” a Short story by Avrom Sutzkever
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger from The Yiddish
Published Summer 2018 / 5778
In Pakn Treger, The Magazine of The Yiddish Book Center 

With a Poem

You can read today’s story here.

Avrom Sutzkever 

Born: 15 July 1913, Smarhoń, Belarus
Died: 20 January 2010, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

A detailed bio from The Yivo Encylopedia of Eastern European Jews

The Blade of Grass from Ponar
I kept a letter from my hometown in Lithuania, from one
who still holds a dominion somewhere with her youthful charm.
In it she placed her sorrow and her affection:
A blade of grass from Ponar.

This blade of grass with a flickering puff of dying cloud
ignited, letter by letter, the faces of the letters.
And over letter-faces in murmuring smolder:
The blade of grass from Ponar.

This blade of grass is now my world, my miniature home,
where children play the fiddle in a line on fire.
They play the fiddle and legendary is their conductor:
The blade of grass from Ponar.

I will not separate from my hometown’s blade of grass.
My good, longed-for earth will make room for both.
And then I will bring a gift to the Lord:
The blade of grass from Ponar.

A post in Observation of Yom Hashoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day - April 21, 2020. 

“Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorates the 6 million Jews and millions of others who were killed in the Holocaust. The date is set in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, on the 27th of Nisan, so that it varies in regard to the Gregorian calendar. The date was chosen to mark the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” - from The Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seatlle Washington.

“An Answer to a Letter”, drawing on the author’s life experiences, begins with the narrator reading a letter from a friend from long ago, from the time they were partisans hiding from the Germans in the forests of Belarus.  He and his friend were Jewish. They had saved a Roma man from freezing to death.

“In late fall 1943, when the devourer of seasons had already spread burning stained glass in the Narotsh bogs, and the wind polished and sharpened the moon-like snows on the fir branches, Kim Zelenyak (the same one who cut the cord for that woman Lucy who gave birth to a forest child) found a frozen Romani kid, barely alive, on the dog paths (that’s what the hidden partisan trails were called), wrapped in curlicues of familiar-yet-unfamiliar writing. Since Kim was a frequent guest in my earthen hut, and he understood that my ancestry had some connection with that script, he brought what he found to my dirt house.
Right away they named the little Romani “Roma.” Roma is what the Romani call themselves in the Romani language, so it’s like naming a Yid “Yudl.”
When Roma revived from his frozen state, like an ice-covered windowpane thawed by the sun, he related in sign- and blood-language how he fled naked and alone from the valley of slaughter near Kurenitz, where he was brought with a wagonload of other Gypsies. In that wagon, curled up next to his dead grandfather, were also his three sisters. Their horse died there too, standing in harness. Run-ning away from that valley of slaughter, naked in a frosty night, he wrapped him-self in those garments—sheets of parchment from a torn-up Torah scroll lying on the ground on Kurenitz alleys breathing their last.”

I can not find the date of composition of this story but it was gratifying to me to see the Jewish partisans recognizing the Roma people were also being devastated in the Holocaust and gave them the respect of not calling them “Gypsies”.

I hope you Will read this story, easily Under five minutes so i Will not tell any of The plot.

I am grateful to The Yiddish Book Center for making this valuable edition to in English Holocaust Short stories available .

Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness - Collected Stories byHeather Fowler (2014)

Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness; This 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. Please visit her

Sometimes a feel a great depth of sadness in accepting the fact that there are many wonderful writers I will one day end my reading life never having even heard about, let alone read.  I am very glad that Heather Fowler will not be among them.  There are seventeen delightfully disturbed and disturbing stories in the latest of her four collections of short stories (I hope to read them all in 2014).  All are first rate and some just amazed me.  Heather Fowler loves the short story and it shows in her work.

I find posting on collections of short stories a very daughting and challenging task.  Reviewers (which I am not, I just read stuff and post on it) seek overriding themes and concerns over different works often first written with no plan to place together in a collection.  

In the past I have used a kind of forest metaphor to describe collections of short stories.  Some forests are perfect for a weekend in a cottage, others for exploring the tropics. I see the forest of the stories of Fowler as not far from a once great civilization, now on its final stage of collapse into anarchy and chaos.  Few of the residents, and almost none of the elite classes have any sense of this.  Mental illnesses becomes the norm, plagues take hold, the poor begin to lust for vengence, the affluent seek escape in sensation. In the wake of this some begin to retreat to the forest, but for many who flee it is too late.  

In posting on collections of short stories i like to talk enough about the individual stories in the collection to give potential readers a feel for the book. After doing this, normally I attempt to generalize about the book as I will do that here.  My bottom line is a total endorsement of Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness to all lovers of the form, especially those with a fondness for the darker side of life.

"The Hand Licker"

"The Hand Licker" leads of the collection with a powerful tale of a mentally ill man who has not taken his meds for several days.  Evan imagines that he sees his ex-girlfriend, Sharon, in other people and even in objects.  We are there when he is lectured by his social worker and told if he acts out again he risks going back to jail.  In a really well depicted incident he he in a fast food place and he imagines Sharon is in the food of an old lady.  He approaches her and begins to seek communication with Sharon through her food.  The incident does not end well.  We see some of the roots of his issues in what we learn of his father.   His father told him you pay women like Sharon and kick them out when done.   In a scene that tells so much with so little, we learn what Evan did to a tapestry from the 16th century, for which he paid thousands of dollars.  Evan took revenge on his father for years of abuse.  I will leave the incident untold so you can marvel at it as I did.  Perhaps the story has a kind of happy ending, or at least a turn upward, and I won't spoil it for you.

"Losing Married Women"

"I am an unrepentant harvester of other people’s marriages."

"Losing Married Women" is a very intriguing and entertaining story about a predatory  lesbian. Told in the first person, it is the story of how the narrator seduced a married woman, ruined her marriage and then discarded her.  The narrator has a keen sense about when the love has gone dry in a woman's marriage and she knows how to move in for the kill.  In this case the woman was a neighbor in her forties. It started over a pitcher of  daiquiris.  "Losing Married Women" is an acutely observed slightly voyeristic story I throughly enjoyed reading.  

"Blood, Hunger, Child"

Set in Paris in 1789 at the start of the reign of Terror, it is the story of an ex-whore, her lover whose face was melted in a fire.  They have one child.  They love to see the heads of aristocrats fall, taking vicarious vengence with each execution.  As I read this story i was reminded of the old woman in A Tale of Two Cities who never missed a guillotining.  Fowler lets us see how the terrible conditions under which the narrator lived made her take joy in death.  We know this a consuming flame in which she will also be destroyed and I think she does not much care.  There is an interesting plot I will let you discover.  

"Con Yola"

"Con Yola" is a story I found personally very disturbing.  If were not my great luck to be married to a wonderful woman that sort of anchors me in sanity, I could be very like the central character in this story.  The man is a middle aged academic, never married, with a very strange toooo bonded relationship with a doll he stole from a child, though he tells us he did pay her.  The doll is ugly, he keeps it on a shelve and likes to fondle and caress the doll.  He has cleaning ladies come in to work on his place.  The latest one, a Latin heritage woman, has the same skin tone as his doll.  He begins coming home to watch her clean.  Then he pays her $700.00 a month to live in a cottage on his property, he is quite affluent.  One day he enters the cottage and the woman figures OK he pay be crazy but this is good money and he seems to want sex so she accommodates him.  He begins to regularly sleep with her and she raises her fee to $1000.00 a month.  He notices that she is repositioning his doll to reflect their sexual activities of the night before.  His world and that of the cleaning lady are very different.  There is a terribly painfull but quite hilarious close to the story which I will leave untold. I felt the man's pain and was glad that is not me but I acknowledge it might have been.

"Good Country. People"

I think maybe you do need to know Flannery O'Connors story "Good Country People" to fully relish the wonderfully macabre take on the story done by Fowler in "Good Country People.  Like O'Connor's  story it is set in the rural south of America among country people.  In O'Connor's story the central female character has a prosthetic  leg and a PhD in Philosophy.  In Fowler's she has a club like artificial  hand and has maybe been to the third grade.  In both stories the same predatory bible salesman @thereadinglife: The Reading Life: Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness - Collec... a big part.  I just can't tell more of this story which I hope you will have the pleasure of reading.  

"Mother's Angels"

Set in Florence, Italy in 1348 in the worst times of the plague that killed almost half  the people of Italy "Mother's Angels" is an account of the attempt by a woman and her daughter to escape the city.  I think historic short stories are harder to do than novels as you have less time to set out the background but in this and "Blood, Hunger, Child" Fowler pulls it off with great skill.  People did not really know what caused the plague.  It changed everything and all relations.  It reminded me of Daniel Defoe's great book A Journal of the Plague Years.  The mother has a blind pet cat she cherishes and her spirit is broken when the cat must be left.  It was just heartbreakingly sad for me when the mother imagined as they relocated that she heard the cat crying out for her.  This is a beautiful story about a terrible time.

"The Gray Fairy"

Several of Fowler's stories are about those with serious mental illnesses.  I have long been interested in fairies, spirit creatures and such.  I think part of my interest in Irish literature arises from the affinity of the Irish for such figures.  The story "Con Yola" is in a way about a dark fairy in the form of a fetishized doll.  Of course talking about seeing fairies is not a good idea at job interviews and such but is this a seeing into worlds beyond the mundane or is it a manifestation of personal issues.  Belief  in occult entities often shows up in defeated cultures and marginalized people, maybe it is the refuge of the half lost.  In this story, as you can see in the marvelous sample of Fowler's exquisite prose, the fairy is either an actual malevolent entity or it is how the girl refuse her trauma.  I found this a very exciting work and will leave it unspoiled. 

There are ten more very diverse stories in the collection.  Most deal with people pushed by pain, by needs hard to understand, by strange compulsions.  

From the publisher's webpage

"Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of fiction Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental  speaks the language of need. Desperate, obsessive, even demented need—both emotional and erotic—is voiced by characters ill or ill-advised. From cyber to stalker, illicit, explicit, tender and tedious, the relationships in Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness translate love and lust into disorder. How we hear our own need and the way it sounds to others proves in these enthralling stories an imperfect but utterly captivating conversation, a destructive yet dynamic discourse between well-being and disease, images and words."

I strongly endorse without reservations of any sort, this collection to all lovers of the short story.

Mel u

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Room in the South - A Short Story by Janet H Swinney, Feb 13, 2020 from the JOAO Rogue Literary Journal

A Room in the South - A Short Story by Janet  H Swinney, Feb 13, 2020 from the JOAO Rogue Literary Journal

You may read today’s store here

Website of Janet H Swinney

The opening paragraph of “A Room in the South” would make Khushwant Singh blush.  From the initial  sentence “Navneen loved everything there was to love about women” we are given a very adult account of just how far his love for women goes. 

Nanveen arrived from India and took a simple starter job in London. When we meet him he has become rich enough 
To stay with his girlfriends in chic London hotels and take them to top end resorts in Europe. 

“He was naturally good-looking. Newly-arrived from India, he had cultivated a pencil-thin moustache in the manner of Raj Kapoor with an eye to Errol Flynn, and had combed his hair back in a quiff. He had also changed his name to Eddy. The girls in the production department had fallen for the rebrand hook, line and sinker. 
Now, he was less of a showman, relying more on expensive woody aftershaves, bespoke suits from a Kowloon tailor and the ministrations of a barber in Covent Garden.  But he was no snob. His rise from rock bottom had given him no reason to be so. He was a keen observer of social niceties and a pretty shrewd judge of character. He had learned how to approach women of every class. And this was remarkably easy. Most women would respond to an open-ended question about themselves – some, it seemed, never had enough opportunity to talk in this way – and before they knew it, whatever their station in life, he’d be leaning in, doing those things that made them feel they were worthy of attention.”

Much of the story is taken up with his relationship with

“And where had he met Milena? Ah yes, at a function at the exhibition centre in Milton Keynes on the future of plastic foam in the robotics industry. There were lectures, demonstrations and displays, but mainly, as far as he was concerned, it was an opportunity to hand his card around to the movers and shakers in the business. Because that was his line. He’d started off as a lowly foam-cutter in the early days, risen to become a star salesman for someone else and now he had a company worth millions with investments overseas.  
Apart from the exhibition stands and demonstration areas, there was food, a huge buffet arranged by the sponsors, and Milena was supervising the staff on the line. What struck him was how much in control she was, both of herself and of the situation. She had a trim figure and wore a snug, figure-flattering uniform. Her hair was immaculately rolled, her complexion flawless and her cosmetics painstakingly applied. Even though she was supervising a team of ten, it was clear that she was under-employed. She rejected his opening gambit, but agreed to talk to him at the end of her shift.”

The relationship takes an interesting turn.  I came 
 to see he was very aware that women were attracted by his ability to take them to  posh places.  He begins to give Milena money, he does it in such way that she does not feel like a mistress or expensive prostitute. Both do understand the economics behind their relationship.  We see Naveen cares about women for their bodies and their value as status symbols.

Like all Swinney’s stories, she develops the characters as arising from their life history.

I highly endorse her first collection The Map of Bihar and other stories and look Forward to reading her work for many years.

Janet H. Swinney’s writing straddles Britain and India. Widely anthologised, her story The Map of Bihar was first published in the UK (Earlyworks Press) and in the USA (Hopewell Publications), where it appeared in Best New Writing 2013 and was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012. She has been placed in numerous national and international competitions, and in 2014, was runner-up in the London Short Story Competition. Her debut collection of short stories titled, Map of Bihar and Other Stories was published in 2019 by Circaidy Gregory Press, UK. She is currently working on her second collection, and has recently returned from the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai, where she presented her work. You can purchase Map of Bihar here.

Her comprehensive website has further biographical information and a list of her works.

Mel u

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

"All the Beloved Ghosts" - A Short Story by Alison MacLeod - from her collection of that name, 2018

"All the Beloved Ghosts" - A Short Story by Alison MacLeod - from her collection of that name, 2018

Website of Alison MacLeod (includes a ddetailed bio and list of her works)

 this story is for  "Angelica Garnett 1918–2012". From Alison MacLeod

In her obituary in the Guardian Angelica Garnett  is called the last of the Bloomsbury group.  Her mother was Vannesa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf.  As was her mother, her legal father Clive Bell, was a famous painter.  Possibly her biological father was another Bloomsbury painter, Duncan Grant.  She grew up in the middle of all the drama, creativity, and unconventional sexuality the group was famous for.  She was herself a highly regarded painter.  When we meet her in this wonderful story, she is 92.  Her famous family members are long deceased, even her now elderly children think she may be suffering from dementia when she seems to interact with her mother, her aunt Virginia, and other famous persons long gone. MacLeod does a wonderful job of showing the disparity between how people see and treat the very elderly virus how they see themselves.

She hears foot steps in the room above her, no one else does:

"THUMP-THUMP-thump. There it is again. Upstairs, above the bulging ceiling, footsteps beat out their metre, a sound she knows in the depths of herself, like something rolling at the bottom of an old trunk.  The feet are too quick in their step for middle age, too heavy for a child’s. Julian. She is sure of it. The girl assistant at her side wouldn’t understand, of course she wouldn’t, but never mind the girl. Oh, Julian, we were never ourselves again without you. ‘Mrs Garnett, may I get you anything before we make our way to the marquee?’ My brother. My brother who died in a stalemate of a battle in a place whose name I can’t remember."

Julian  Bell

She is being escorted to an interview where audience members may ask her questions about her life experiences.  As she waits to go Grace, a long time now passed is now young again, serving plums cakes for her and Duncan Grant, probably her real father.

I find these lines so beautiful, so restorative I must quote a bit more.

"But the quiet, the composure of Grace’s routine in the kitchen has the restoring effect of a Vermeer. Grace arranges wedges of lemon on a plate and adds a pair of tongs. She lays oatcakes for Duncan and stacks of freshly buttered toast for the children. She selects ripe plums from the willow basket on the floor and piles them high in a bowl for Vanessa’s pleasure. The plums are the colour of a Sussex sky before a downpour, and in this moment as Angelica gazes, she falls into their colour, into a dark pool of plumminess. When she surfaces, she finds that Grace’s ghost is also standing utterly still, her eyes closed, her face as contented as a Sufi at prayer. But Grace is not similarly moved by the plums; she is warming her backside in front of the coal range. It is a private moment of course, and she, Angelica, is trespassing."
Duncan Grant

Look at the colours in this, from the mind of a painter.

There is a great section toward the end of the story where we see the audience asking her questions.  A man who seemed to worship the great economist, Maynard Keynes is Flubbered by her response to his question. I laughed so much.

I read this story three times, I think you need too.

The reading life is in a way a  mingling of the dead and the living.  Ghosts are every where in my blog. 

"Nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. Ghosts love Yid­dish — they all speak it".

There are ghosts all through the stories of Alison MacLeod.
I think they are proud to be there.

Alison and Aunt Virginia

So far I have read and posted on four of the fourteen stories in the collection.  I look forward to the rest.

Mel u

Sunday, April 19, 2020

"Crunchy, Crunchy Special" - A Short Story by Ivy Ngeow from her collection The Power Ballads and Other Stories, 2020

"Crunchy, Crunchy Special" - A Short Story by Ivy Ngeow from her collection The  Power Ballads and Other Stories, 2020

Ivy Ngeow's Website (from which you can obtain The Power Ballads and Other Stories)

"Crunchy, Cruncy Special" is one of three short stories by Ivy Ngeow in her collection The Power Ballads and other stories.  The story is set in Bangkok, starting in 1974.  Rodney, from North London, teaches chemistry at an elite private school.  He is an amateur entomologist as well as a closeted gay, (One did not come out in 1974.). He took the job to experience insect based cuisine and explore another culture.  When we first meet him he is on his moped in part of town without other foreigners, farangs as they are called, looking for vendors serving insects.

"Rodney ate insects in secret. It was almost a sin. It would have been less embarrassing to brag about beery sexual adventures with Bangkok butterflies of the night as his colleagues did, than to admit to entomophagy."

Rodney gets more and more into insect cuisine.  He even makes a special spice from ground up cockroaches.  In the mean time three of his teaching colleguages get more and more drawn into the sexual smorgasbord of  Bangkok, obsessed with bragging about their exploits.

I don't want to reveal to much of the very interesting close of the story.  His three friends have bought a small Indonesia island.  A disaster occurs when they bully Rodney into going there with them. In a dark way, I found what happened there quite funny.

We then flash forty one years into Rodney's future.  I loved the final paragraph. I was very happy for Rodney.

The story in just ten pages shows us how Rodney's three associates degraded an ancient culture.  Part of the draw of white men to Asian countries in the days of colonial rule was access to a large supply of women.  Top officers of The East India Company married daughters of Maharajas or took exquisite to them exotic women as mistress, soldiers frequented brothels and took common law wives.  We see this still playing out in the story.  The people they encounter in Indonesia are degraded by the expectations of the three teachers.

Ngeow does a very good job with the character of Rodney.  His eating of insects can be seen as a repudiation of the culture in which he was raised.

"Insects. They were eaten almost everywhere in the third world but had been excluded by biblical tradition from the Judeo-Christian civilised world."

There are two other equally delightful stories in the collection.

From the author's website 

"Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. A graduate of the Middlesex University Writing MA programme, Ivy won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Prize out of almost 1500 entrants worldwide. Her debut Cry of the Flying Rhino won the 2016 International Proverse Prize. She has written non-fiction for Marie Claire, The Star, The New Straits Times, South London Society of Architects’ Newsletter and Wimbledon magazine. Her short stories have appeared in Silverfish New Writing anthologies twice, The New Writer and on the BBC World Service,  Fixi Novo’s ‘Hungry in Ipoh’ anthology and most recently the Fixi 2020 Anthology. Ivy won first prize in the Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition 1994, first prize in the Barnes and Noble Career Essay Writing competition 1998 and was shortlisted for the David T K Wong Fellowship 1998 and the Ian St James Award 1999.
A highly-accomplished multi-instrumental musician since childhood, Ivy won fifth prize (out of 850 entrants) in the 2006 1-MIC (Music Industry Charts) UK Award for her original song – Celebrity, when she formed her own band, Satsuma (2005-07). Her songs are funky, modern and eclectic, with strong urban grooves and lyrics. Satsuma has played headlining gigs at top London venues such as: The Marquee Club, The Troubadour Club, The Water Rats, The Betsey Trotwood, Plan B and Clockwork. She lives in London."

I am very much looking forward to reading Ngeow's recent novel, Overboard, next month.

Her very well done website has links to more of her short stories as well as her insightful nonfiction.

I hope to read all of her past work and follow her for a long time.

Mel u

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Observations on Passing the Six Million Page Views Mark during the pandemic

When I started The Reading Life on July 19, 2009 I told my wife I was going to set up a website in which I would write short notes about the things I read.

She asked me who would read your work.  I told her I did not know.  She then said "what will you do if no one reads your articles."
I thought then if I keep this going three months it will be a miracle.

Slowly my blog became very important to me.  I am blessed to still have loyal readers from the first month.  Some of these first readers I have gotten to know through social media.  Others I just see their visits.  For over ten years someone living in Hanoi has read every post.  

Starting in March 2013 with my great reading life friends the Irish, I began to establish contacts with writers.  From this I came to do 102 Q and A sessions with writers, mostly authors creating short stories.  I learned a lot from these interviews.  I thank all  those who participated.  I see these as of lasting value, a hope somehow they will endure.  I no longer do these sessions but I wish I did.  I am continuously impressed by the kindness, intelligence, cultural depth and creativity of my literary contacts.  

I attribute some of my readership to the posts I have done on short stories from pre-WW Two Philippines writers and short stories from the Indian Subcontinent.  The five most viewed posts of the 3717 on line  for all time are on short stories from the Philippines.  

Top Home Countries of Visitors

1. USA - 2.02 Million
2. The Philippines - 1.2 Million
3. India - 520 K
4. Russia - 263 K
5. UK -126 K
6. Germany - 120 K
7. France - 119 K
8. Canada - 105 K
9. Ukraine - 27 K

Pandemic Impact

Since March One I have been trying to spotlight the works of writers  who I follow who I know are under lockdown, as we are here.

April One I began a project I call "Lockdown Reads".  In April I am going to post only on short stories.  I am reading two quite  long novels, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.  For escapist reading I have set aside some science fiction and fantasy classics.

Right now blog traffic is down but I expect it to rebound once Universities world wide open. 
Books are selling well from reports in the media.

I hope everyone is safe and being careful.

Best wishes to all

Mel u