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, November 30, 2020

“The Most Elegant Drawing Room in Europe,” The New Yorker, September 17, 1966. Plus A Start on my Short Story Plans for 2021.

 “The Most Elegant Drawing Room in Europe,” The New Yorker, September 17, 1966.   Plus A Start on my Short Story Plans for 2021.

Plus A Start on my Short Story Plans for 2021.

 Today’s story is Included in Selected  Short Stories of Nancy Hale - with an introduction by Lauren Groff - 2019

  If you can isten to something by Vivaldi from The Venice Baroaue Orchester while you read this set in Venice story

Nancy Hale 

 Born: May 6, 1908 - Boston, Massachusetts 

Died:  Sept 24,1988 Charlottesville, Virginia 

I am starting to contemplate my Reading Life plans and hopes for 2021.  

I have set aside seven collections of Short Stories, all my women, to read in full.  Perhaps I tend to read a lot of Short Stories by women as my life revolves around my three adult daughters  and my wife.  

The writers I  picked, open to change or addition, are four American writers, Nancy Hale, Alice Adams, Lorrie Moore, and Carmen Maria Macado.  They are joined by Shirley Hazzard born in Australia, very much a citizen of the World.  I love the sheer Beauty of the work of England’s Elizabeth Taylor and have a full read through of her oevere 

planned for next year.  I have read about half of the stories in All The Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod and plan to read the rest.  Some of The stories I Will post upon, some not.

Like Shirley Hazzard and Elizabeth Taylor, Hale writers about Family relationships.  Her characters are affluent and  suffer no food anxiety.

There are 25 stories in The Selected Short Stories of Nancy Hale. I was at once so intrigued  by today’s story’s title “The Most Elegant Drawing Room in Europe” that I decided to start there. I loved this story.  I liked How Hale played with our perceptions of the American mother and daughter making their first visit to Venice and their relationship with The Italian Countesa  in whose Mansion on The Grand Canal they find what they see as the most elegant drawing room in Europe.

From opening lines we see How in awe of the Countess and Venice is

““THE CONTESSA doesn’t seem entirely real, she’s so exquisite,” wrote Emily Knapp to her friend and fellow-librarian Ruth Patterson, at home in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I wish you too might have seen her in her tiny jewel box of a palazzo yesterday, as “THE CONTESSA doesn’t seem entirely real, she’s so exquisite, we did! She’d lent us her gondola for the afternoon. (I can’t tell you how super-elegant we felt, or how much attention we attracted on the Grand Canal.) Persis Woodson, the artist I wrote you about meeting on the Cristoforo Colombo coming over, remarked that all over America next winter people will be showing home movies with us prominent in them, pointing us out as aristocratic Venetians lolling in our private gondola!”

I wondered is Emily just an American rube in Venice, who is the mysterious Contessa?  We go with Emily and her mother to a Vivaldi concert which was so much fun to read.  We wonder what the Countessa thinks of them.  In  the close Emily and I are thrown into confusion when we do see how the Contessa regards the Americans.

I look Forward to Reading on in The Selected Short Stories of Nancy Hale

Mel u


Friday, November 27, 2020

Three Short Stories by Steele Rudd-Queensland, Australia - Bush Writer


Three Short Stories by Steele Rudd-Queensland, Australia - Bush Writer

Aussie Author Challenge 2020

Steele Rudd (1868 to 1935) was the pen name for a very famous writer of Australian Bush Tales, Arthur Davis. Davis was born in the outback region of Queensland Australia to a Welsh father and an Irish mother.   He left school at age 11 and worked at various jobs on outback stations and farms.   At age 18 he got a job in the local  sheriff's office and about this time he sent in a short story to The Bulletin about some of his father's experiences working and making a life for a family of eight in the harsh bush country, the outback.   The editor

The Bulletin encouraged him to write more stories and Steele Rudd became a very popular author of simple, good natured stories about life in the outback in late 19th century Australia.   The stories poke gentle fun at the country ways people in the region but they do not show them as buffoons or fools.   The people in the three stories I enjoyed reading were super resourceful, very strong in their bodies and minds and subject to the loneliness  that other Bush Authors like Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton have shown us in their stories.   There is some slang and use of dialect in the stories but I could follow the conversations and I enjoyed learning some new slang.

"Starting the Selection" 7 pages, 1898

"Starting the Selection" is about the first few months that  the father, referred to as "Dad" spent on the farm by himself preparing the land to be farmed for the first time.  I could not but admire the tremendous hard work that this would have taken.     Everybody suffered tremendously from the isolation.

"Our First Harvest" (eight page, 1898) gave us a poignant look at the financial difficulties faced by early farmers.   Dad and his five sons worked very hard to bring in the first harvest and get it into the local store for sell.   They were elated when the store owner told them the harvest would yield 12  pounds.  I could feel the shared heart ache of Mom and Dad when the store owner told them he was going to deduct nine pounds to pay their account with him.   Rudd does not say but we get the feeling there might be some shady bookkeeping involved.   Mom and Dad just give each other strength and go on. 

"The Night We Watched for Wallabies"

In  my limited research on Rudd I did not find any stories consistently listed as his best work so I was on my own as to where to start in his work.    After completing these two stories I found one entitled, "The Night We Watched for Wallabies" and I thought OK sounds like fun and it was.   Dad tells his sons they all have to spend the night outside the house to stand guard for roving bands of Wallabies (small kangaroos) which can have devastating effects on crops like wheat and corn.   Rudd's style is straight forward while showing a keen eye for details.

There is a surprise ending that does sort of poke fun at the people in the story a bit (though not in a mean way) so I will not reveal more of  the plot.  

These stories are easy to read, straight  forward  works that the people they are written about could enjoy.   They let me see what family life was like in the Queensland Out Back in the 1890s.    You had to be tough, self reliant, and a good sense of humor was a big help also I think.   

Older Australians may recall the very long running radio program (1932 to 1952) Dave and Dad which was inspired by the stories of Rudd.   In the program the dignified intelligent people in his stories were reduced to slack jawed outback yokels.   Rudd was always very offended by this and himself had the greatest respect for the people of the outback, especially   the women.   

I liked these stories.    Maybe the are not  great art and I admit they were in part historical curiosity reads for me but I am glad I was motivated to take the time to learn about Steele Rudd.   All of these stories can be read online at Free Reading in Australia (a great resource).   My basic source of information on Rudd is the Australian National Biographical Dictionary.    

Thursday, November 26, 2020

“Cliffs of Fall” - A Short Story by Shirley Hazzard


“Cliff of Falls” - A Short Story by Shirley Hazzard - 1962

Included in her collection Cliffs of Falls and In The Collected Short Stories of Shirley Hazzard 

Previously this Month as part of my partcipation in The Aussie Author Reading Challenge I posted on “The Party” by Shirley Hazzard.

I have also read this Month Without an accompaning post from The Cliff of Falls and Other Stories

  1. A Place in The Country
  2. Vittoria
  3. In One’s Own House
  4. Villa Adriana

My Prior Posts on Shirley Hazzard

 The  2020 Australia Reads Challenge 

Shirley Hazzard

Born January 30, 1930 Sidney, Australia

1963 to 1994 - Married to Francis Steegmuller - A highly regarded Flaubert scholar (They met at a party hosted by Muriel Spark in New York City.)

The Transit of Venus - 1980 - her most famous book

The Great Fire - 2003 - Natiinal Book Award - Best Novel

Dies - December 12, 2016 - New York City

““We should remember that sorrow does produce flowers of its own. It is a misunderstanding always to look for joy.”  -Shirley Hazzard

“Much of the drama in Hazzard’s work arises from the bruising interactions between those who are responsive to beauty, and those who are not.”  Zoe Heller in her Preface to The Collected Short Stories of Shirley Hazzard .  

From The Paris Review - “She has written five novels (The Great Fire, 2003; The Transit of Venus, 1980; The Bay of Noon, 1970; People in Glass Houses, 1967; and The Evening of the Holiday, 1966), a collection of stories (Cliffs of Fall, 1963), a memoir (Greene on Capri, 2000), and two books of nonfiction (Countenance of Truth, 1990 and Defeat of an Ideal, 1973), all of them ablaze with technical perfection and moral poise.”.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Publishing (September 2020) in Publishing The Collected Short Stories of Shirley Hazzard has done a great service to lovers of very high quality Short Stories.

“Collected Stories includes both volumes of the National Book Award–winning author Shirley Hazzard’s short-story collections—Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses—alongside uncollected works and two previously unpublished stories

“Including twenty-eight works of short fiction in all, Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories is a work of staggering breadth and talent. Taken together, Hazzard’s short stories are masterworks in telescoping focus, “at once surgical and symphonic” (The New Yorker), ranging from quotidian struggles between beauty and pragmatism to satirical sendups of international bureaucracy, from the Italian countryside to suburban Connecticut. “. From The Publisher.

I have so far read one novel by Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire plus  nine  short stories.

Here is my reaction to The Great Fire

The great fire refers, among other things, to the destruction of the traditional culture of Japan in their defeat in World War Two.  Set in 1947, mostly in Japan and Australia, the people in the novel are trying to get on with their lives now that the war is over.  Some of the men were badly wounded, all suffer mental trauma, parents struggle to understand why their son had to die.  The great fire is also, mentioned several times, a symbolic representation of the bombing of Hiroshima.

“Cliffs of Fall” is set in a Villa outside of Geneva with a magnicient view of the Jura Mountain range.   Elizabeth Tchirikoff, six weeks a widow, is staying with her friends Greta and Cyril, trying to deal with feelings she never had before. Hazzard’s prose is exquisite.

In the World depicted in Hazzard’s Short stories i have so far read we see a Love for beauty, a post war venue in which people of course have servants.  Her people read serious European literature.  There is no material misery, no food anxiety.

As  the story progresses we follow Elizabeth Tchirikoff through various stages of grief..

This line of Observation at the Geneva AirPort struck me as  pure Hazzard:

“An elegant woman walked past with a poodle on a leash.”

I still have 22 stories to go in The Collected Short Stories of Shirley Hazzard I am looking forward to reading.

Mel u

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Montaigne by Stefan Zweig Original text © Atrium Press Ltd, 1976 First published in German in Europäisches Erbe, S. Fischer Verlag, 1960 Translation © Will Stone 2015 First published by Pushkin Press


Montaigne by Stefan Zweig Original text © Atrium Press Ltd, 1976 First published in German in Europäisches Erbe, S. Fischer Verlag, 1960 Translation © Will Stone 2015 First published by Pushkin Press

Completed in Petropolis, Brazil - 1942

This is part of our  participation in German Literature 10 -November 2020

This my 8th year as a participant in German Literature Month.  It seems important in these dark times to continue traditions cherishing culture, historical knowledge and literacy.

I first became aware of Stefan Zweig during GL Month in 2013.  He is now one of my favorite writers.   

 Posts on Stefan Zweig

My  favorite works by Zweig are first "Mendel the Bibliophile"then Chess, and The Post Office Girl, and “Twilight”.  

 Stefan Zweig

November 28, 1881 - Vienna, Austria - born 

1941 -  moves with his second wife to Petropolis,Brazil

 to escape what he saw as the destruction of the culture of Europe

February 22, 1942 - Petropolis Brazil  - dies 

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne 

Born: 28 February 1533, Château de Montaigne, Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, France

Died: 13 September 1592, Château de Montaigne, Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, France

In his very well done introduction William Stone tells us the background behind Zweig’s move to Petropolis Brazil (located 68 Kilometers North East of Rio de Janeiro).  Zweig was convinced everything he loved in Europe was going to be destroyed by the Germans.  Now 

Petropolis is a get away for affluent Cariocas and a winter playground for Europe’s elite.  I spent some time there twenty years ago and it was then a totally beautiful place.  I imagine the tropical lushness of the area and the beauty of the citizens after leaving war ravaged Europe in 1941 must have been near overwhelming for Zweig.  Maybe Zweig’s spirit was 

damaged beyond recovery.

In a cabinet in his house in Petropolis Zweig, fluent in French, found a copy of the Essays of Montaigne.  Of course he knew of him but he had never read any of his essays.  He saw a Kindred spirit in Montaigne who saw his own time as a period of cultural decline and never ending war. Montaigne was born into an affluent French family and came to inherit a large house and an agricultural enterprise.  He married, was mayor of his town, traveled extensively but around age forty he began to think about the meaning of hid life in a decaying era in France.  He began to retreat into a tower house, reading ever more deeply in his library.  Zweig as Stone details totally identified with Montaigne.

Zweig gives a good bit of biographical information on Montaigne.  He explains why he found him so profound.

I am very glad I read this book, reading time maybe two hours.  

Stone has also translated Zweig’s treatise on Friedrich Nietzsche and I hope to read it soon.

Ambrosia Bousweau

Mel u

The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara- 2018 - A Collection of Short Stories

My Q and A with Catherine  McNamara 

Website of Aussie Reads 2020

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She was an embassy secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, gallery manager, teacher, translator and shoe model. 

Praised by Hilary Mantel, her short story collection The Cartography of Others (May 2018, Unbound) was a Finalist in the People’s Book Prize 2019-20, was awarded Grand Prize in the Eyelands International Book Awards (Greece) and listed on the Literary Sofa’s Best of 2018 Reads. Her book Pelt and Other Stories (2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated and published widely in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. Her flash fiction collection Love Stories for Hectic People is out in autumn 2020. 

Catherine speaks Italian and French and lives in Veneto, Italy, where she hosts summer retreats for writers and artists in her African-art-filled farmhouse. She is an online writing mentor and coach

Earlier this month I posted about Catherine McNamara’s wonderful debut collection Pelt and other Stories.  Here is my overview of that collection:

“Pelt and Other Stories by Catherine McNamara, her debut collection, is a very powerful, thoroughly captivating collection of stories most of which center on the post colonial world of central coastal West Africa. The  subtlies and levels of irony in these stories show a very great insight into how cross cultural encounters impact all parties.  The people in the stories range from European hotel owners in Ghana, famous art photographers, mistresses of Europeans, drivers, and village people.   The stories are mostly but not all set in West Africa.  One is set in the very worldly city of Sydney, some in Italy.   .   The stories are miniature marvels in showing us the manifestation of orientalizing of the African not just by Europeans and Americans but by returned citizens.  The stories show us how hard it is to return home unchanged.   These stories are not about ignorant hateful prejudice.   McNamara is too knowing and intelligent for that.  They are about the very great difficulties of escaping from our deep conditioning, our unseen frames of reference.   The stories are also fun to read.  Lots of interesting things happen, there is some sex, women eyeballing each other, and a strong sense of humor.”  (There are brief descriptions of a number of her stories in my linked above post.) 

I highly recommend our Q and A session.  I just reread it and am very proud to have it on The Reading Life.

 I am delighted to have a copy of her second collection, The Cartography of Others.  There are twenty stories in the collection.  Posting upon, I dont see myself as a reviewer and dont like to be called one, collections of Short stories is very challenging.  One feels driven to find commonality among the works.

I intend to start my exploration of this collection by talking about three of her stories.  Every Short Story I Post upon I read at least two times.  If I dont find myself wanting to do that I dont post on it.

“Three Days in Hong Kong”

I decided to read this story as, with my wife, I have spent three days in Hong Kong, for us a fabulous place for shopping, sightseeing and scrumptious dining.  The woman at the center of this told in the second person story went to Hong Kong for a very different reason, to spend three nights with a wealthy married man, who lives there, with whom she is having an affair.  He paid her fare from London, where their affair began and has booked her into a luxury Hong Kong hotel.

As the story opens the woman is leaving  Hong Kong International to go to her hotel.  McNamara does a very good job capturing the feel of the ride in from the AirPort, kind of a surreal experience for first time visitors:

“You fly in. He says he won’t be there, there’ll be a sign with your code name.Philomena M. He likes secrets. You know he likes living between several worlds suspended in the air. He likes flight. He risks collisions. He travels way too much. There is the card with your secret name. Philomena M. The driver has pointed sideburns like Nick Cave and caramel skin pulled tight over his cheekbones. You drive onto the motorway into the night, past cheap housing blocks with scabbed facades, balconies crammed as though the life is oozing out of them. The city pulls you in, sucks you under, chucks you up, then streams around you. Chasms, rafts of lights, a Prada shop; the black numb sky and nowhere water.”

He calls the first day and says business will keep him away tonight. Disappointed, we sense the weakness of her passion for the man.  We wonder how much is her need, she is 37, childless and never married, to feel still sexually desirable mingled with a slighly buried arrousal by the idea of having sex at the ultra-chic hotel. On the second night he tells her he must be with his wife as it is their anniversary.  She begins to feel a need for sex.  On the third night he calls with another excuse.  I will leave the powerful ending untold.  In just a few pages McNamara brings a woman very much to life, does a fine job on the setting.  We see the woman does not really know her own feelings.  We know only a little about her early years, just enough to make the story even more intriguing.  She is a reader, she brought books with her and this made her more interesting.  As I read these charged lines I wondered did the man really want to see her or not:

“I cannot speak any more, my darling. Remove that dress.’ You stand naked over Hong Kong, your hands in tepees on the glass, your legs apart. Your hair falls down your back, over your breasts. It is hard to believe anyone is watching you. For him, you touch yourself. You are not very wet. The man you left used to arouse you in a moderate way that you felt was not enough. You would lie awake, your lips to his shoulder. You were so mad he never probed your body hard enough, that you made sure his efforts were in vain. You want to hug his disabled daughter. You decide that when you go back you will call him and do this. The next morning you rush to the door naked when you hear a knock. As you unlock the door you feel sweat between your hairless buttocks. Everything has been carefully waxed. Your sex is a peeled fruit. Your fingertips like to wander over the moist skin. It is a woman in a mauve uniform holding flowers. You snatch them from her. You throw them down and go to the bathroom where you look at your parts which are much more beautiful than the flowers. Then this disgusts you, the way the folds are so prominent. You love to pull a man’s cock into you.”

In just a few pages McNamara takes us deeply into two people and uses the vibrant pulsating city of Hong Kong wonderfully as background.

Return from Salt Pond 

Return from Salt Pond”, set in Ghana, opens very dramatically.  A couple, they met in London, both are from Ghana and are contemplating a move home.  On a dark road late at night someone threw a rock through the windshield of their car, striking the woman in the face, glass shreds cutting her. The man decides to take her to a friend’s  house.  Before they were attacked they were looking at a property the man wants to turn into a place for guests with a nightclub.  He needs the woman to front most of the costs.  The woman doubts their relationship will endure very long so she is resistant.  In this story McNamara shows the connection of sex and dominant behaviour, the man is a cruel predator.   Like “Three Days in Hong Kong” the male lead character cares little for the woman.  I got the feel for the scary after dark streets of Accra from this story.  McNamara is very good at setting her stories in place.  But just as I was ready to dismiss the man, we learn this and once again we are taken deep into a character and maybe a bit into our own rush to judgements:

“There had been an uninterrupted stretch of six months when his father had been dying, when every night he had come to the club from the hospital with stricken hands. Every night he had changed the old man’s soiled garments and sheets. Kenneth had a strong suspicion he would end up like him, a marooned vessel other people would have to look after and clean. He hoped he still had time to think about these things. But tonight, as he thought about the burst of shattered glass, he realised that what he wanted more than anything was a companion to see him through. He wanted a wife. And what Erica saw as a sign that they would never stay together and produce a child now made him think of orgasm, and the grappling and piercing and deliverance of sex. He wanted to explain this to her. He imagined her limber body over him and felt weak in his groin. He knew they would never make love again.”

“They Came from the East”

“They Came from the East” is a fascinating story, set in France and related to the immigrant influx changing European politics in a rightward direction.  There are five central characters, the young male living at home narrator, his parents, Peter a refugee from wars “in the east”, and Peter’s late brother Milo.  

The father took Peter in, feeling sorry for him.  His wife really did not want him in the house so the father fixed up a shed for him.  The family are professional musicians.  McNamara slowly and subtly reveals, not completely, a terrible secret I strained to understand.

“You think of young men your own age, promised safety but pushed off buses and led in single file through the woods. You think that Milo, had he been raised in Peter’s country, would have worn a uniform and slaughtered men. You are not sure how this skill is devised but you know that your brother would have given captives water, pronounced their names; absorbed duty. Shot them. You disconnect that thought, but it stays awash in you. Your father travels to Devon to see to works on your grandfather’s house. Your mother is at college teaching. Peter has long departed across the suburbs on a dawn train. You have a recital tonight outdoors; your throat is dry. You swallow honey and make herbal tea. You do not possess Milo’s exuberant organism. When Milo finally hanged himself in the park, the doctors wished to dissect his brain.”

This is a disturbing story, there is much more involved than I have mentioned.

I highly recommend this collection to all lovers of short stories.
As I proceed on I may begin to talk of the themes of the stories.

I defer to the elegant judgement of Hilary Mantel, twice winner of The Booker Prize to close this post.

““McNamara’s work has a fierce, vital beat, her stories robust yet finelyworked, her voice striking in its confidence and originality. She writes with sensuous precision and a craft that is equally precise. This is fiction that can stand up in any company.” –Hilary Mantel

Mel u