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, March 30, 2021

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald - 1980

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald- 1980 

- Introduction copyright © 2014 by Mark Damazer

Preface copyright © 2013 by Hermione Lee

Prior to this month The Beginning of Spring was the third novel by Penelope Fitzgerald which I have had the great pleasure of reading.  Prior to today I have posted on her Offshore, then her acknowledged by all masterwork, Blue Flower based on the life of Novalis, one of her numerous short stories and Penelope Fitzgerald:A Life by Hermione Lee

Human Voices is set in the studios of the BBC in London in 1940.  No one knows if England will even survive.  The focus of the BBC is to keep the voice of England alive no matter what happens.  Everyone is on a war footing.  We very much see the famous stiff upper lip of the English. The city is under intense attack from German bombers.  BBC employees shelter at night in the subway stations.

The broadcast studio is run by two very different sort of men.  Each has their own style and are supported by female staff members.  Much is made of the various relationships. We learn a good bit about the mechanics of broadcast work. 

I greatly enjoyed Human Voices.  

PENELOPE FITZGERALD (1916–2000) was one of the most elegant and distinctive voices in British fiction. She won the National Book Critics 

Circle Award in fiction for The Blue Flower, the Booker Prize for Offshore, and three of her novels—The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring—were short-listed for the Booker Prize.

I hope to read her set in Florence in the 1950s novel Innocence soon.

Please share your experience with the work of Penelope Fitzgerald with us.


Monday, March 22, 2021

The Boston Massacre : A Family History by Serena Zabin - 2020

The Boston Massacre : A Family History by Serena Zabin - 2020

A very detailed review in The Journal of the American Revolution

Your best source on books on The American

Revolution is the Journal of The American Revolution Society

Boston Massacre - March 5, 1770 - five fatalities 

Much of American Revolution Era history is taught only from the top leaders, nothing about the lives of Americans or British Soldiers involved.  This book explores what happened when a large troop of the British army was stationed in Boston just prior to the war.  We learn about their interactions   With Americans, particularly women.  We see hostility developing as troops default on pub bills and cause bar fights.

Discipline in the British Army was very harsh, flogging was commonplace.

Soldiers often deserted do to involvement with an American woman.

We are given lots of information about violence against Americans and a very good account of how the Boston Massacre happened as well as the aftermath.

I highly recommend this book to anyone into American History.

Serena Zabin a professor of history and director of the American studies program at Carleton College. Her books include Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York, and she is the codesigner of Witness to the Revolution, a video game about the Boston Massacre.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

“The Gas Station” - A Short Story by Souvankham Thammavongsa - from Best Canadian Short Stories 2020


“The Gas Station” - A Short Story by Souvankham Thammavongsa - from Best Canadian Short Stories 2020 

“The Gas Station” was first published in The Paris Review and is included in her debut collection How to Pronounce Knife


This is the third story by Souvankham Thammavongsa I have had the pleasure of reading and posting upon.  The setting is not fully revealed other than a small town in an area where it snows, like the other two stories it is centered on an unattached woman, whose past we can not do much more than guess about. It is told in the third person.  Here is our introduction to Mary:

“Mary preferred her own company.She was thirty-six years old, living, with no pets, in a small house painted white. It was one of many white houses in the neighbourhood, painted that way because of the intensity of the sun. The one she lived in had a flat roof. It wasn’t a place that needed to deal with snow. Or cold. She didn’t know they still made houses this small. She didn’t know who owned it. She wrote her cheques to a corporation that was just a bunch of numbers. Her wardrobe was two black pencil skirts, one black jacket, and two black blouses, one short-sleeved and one long-sleeved.” 

We do not know where Mary was before our story. She makes her living doing taxes for community residents.  She develops a fixation on a man working at a gas station.

“What was a pleasant sight was the man who worked at the gas station. She saw him there, but they never talked. He had a terrible reputation. Something about him taking in women and leaving them, always, wailing in the street below his window, begging. Mary wondered what he did to make them lose themselves that way. And whether it would happen to her. Mary worked from home.She was an independent accountant. During the tax season she often found work at a clinic or some pop-up arrangement, or sometimes clients came to her. She had many types of clients.”

One day at her booth in a community center, the man shows up asking about her helping him with his taxes.  She tells him make an appointment and come back.  He does, we learn something unexpected about both of them in a very interest close.

I will be posting on a number of her stories.  I am very high on her work.

“Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four acclaimed poetry books, and the short story collection HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE, winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller prize, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and PEN/American Open Book Award, a New York Times Editors' Choice, a TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2020, out now with McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Little, Brown (U.S.), and Bloomsbury (U.K.). Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's MagazineThe Paris ReviewThe AtlanticGranta, and NOON. Thammavongsa is a judge for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. She was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand and was raised and educated in Toronto.”  From the author’s website 

Included in Best Canadian Short Stories 2020 are works by 

Maxime Raymond Bock • Lynn Coady • Kristyn Dunnion • Omar El Akkad • Camilla Grudova • Conor Kerr • Alex Leslie • Thea Lim • Madeleine Maillet • Cassidy McFadzean • Michael Melgaard • Jeff Noh • Casey Plett • Eden Robinson • Naben Ruthnum • Pablo Strauss • Souvankham Thammavongsa

Mel u

The Reading Life

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - 2011

Last month I read and totally loved A Gentleman From Moscow by Amor Towles, set in late Tsarist Russia up until 1953.  After finishing it, I was very eager to read his debut novel Rules of Civility, set in New York City in the 1930s.  I added it to my Amazon wish list and was kindly soon given a $5.00 credit toward a purchase.  I at once availed my self of this as credit would run out in a week.

When we first encounter central character of the novel, born in Brooklyn, Katya but who goes by the more approachable sounding Katey,she is working in a secretarial pool for a big law firm Manhattan.  She has a close friend she rooms with and together they explore the nightlife of New York City. An encounter with a seemingly rich man starts a sequence of events that will shape the future of both women.

We follow their lives up to 1966,  great transformations have occured.  We see NYC begin to return to prosperity as World War Two begins.  The characters do a lot of Reading. I enjoyed that very much.

I enjoyed Rules of Civility very much.  The language has a poetic quality.  There is material to delight foodies, followers of fashion and even some sex.  The characters are very well developed.

As to which novel I suggest you read first, pick the historical period you find most interesting.  My guess once you complete one you will add the other to your list.

“Amor Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The two novels have collectively sold more than three million copies and have been translated into more than thirty languages. Having worked as an investment professional for more than twenty years, Towles now devotes himself fulltime to writing in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two children.” From Penguin Random House


Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga by Junichiro Tanizaki - 1926 Translated by Paul Warham - A Novella

The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga by Junichiro Tanizaki - 1926 Translated by Paul Warham - A Novella

I read this work  in The Penquin Book of Japanese Short Stories 

The Japanese Literature Challenge 14 - Hosted by Dolce Bellezza 

January 1 to March 31. Japanese Literature Challenge 14

My  readings  for JL14 2021 so far

  1. “Peony Lanterns” a Short Story by Aoko Matsuda - translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton -2020 - a delightful story you can read online. Linked to traditional stories of Ghosts
  2. Before The Coffee Gets Cold by TOSHIKAZU KAWAGUCHI -2020- an international bestseller
  3. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa - 1998
  4. The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa - 1968
  5. The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata - 2016 - cult favorite
  6. UNDER RECONSTRUCTION - A short story by Ōgai Mori - first published 1910 - translated from the Japanese by Ivan  Morris 1968
  7. Dream Pictures  - A Short Story by Kenzaburo Óe - 1996

I first begun reading Junichiro Tanazaki in 2009, The first year I participated in The Japanese Literature Challenge.  

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 to 1965) is now  one of my “read all I can” writers.  Were he writing now, his every new  novel would be a bestseller, made into an international movie.  Among my favourite of his novels are Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles and his most now read book, The Makioka Sisters, about four upper Class Japanese sisters in search of a husband, Austen fans love this book.  (Viking Press has  recently published his The Maids, told from the point of views of the maids of the four sisters.  As soon as this is out on Kindle I will read it!). 

The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga, as is a common theme in Tanazaki, treats Janus like attitude of Japan between wars to European and American influences.  It is part a mystery story, as well as a memoir of a Japanese man’s obsession with western prostitutes, his marked preference for them sexually to Japanese women, including his wife.

There are themes of sexual obsession in a number of his works, few depictions of happy enduring marriages.  

The story is narrated by a famous writer, much like the author.  He gets lots of letters, many from aspiring writers seeking his help and also from people seeking advise on personal issues.  One letter from a woman intrigues him.  She has seen in a news paper a picture of the author with a man identified as his friend. She says the man seems to resemble her husband.  He left home three years ago and she has not heard from him.  She says in the letter her husband of many years will disappear peridically for periods of three or four years, never communicating.  Then he returns, looking haggard, and acts the model husband.  Then in a couple of years, announcing his plans, he tells his wife he is leaving and Will be back in three years or so.  He tells her you can try to find me but you never Will.  She lives from his famlies acricultural holdings. She asks the author to tell the  man his daughter is very ill and he needs to return.  The man says the woman is crazy but he seems disturbed.

We learn man is very into brothels stocked with European women. He spends most of his nights in brothels  and seems an owner of one place.  He tells the author of a beautiful Portuguese woman just arrived he should experience.  He speaks French and English.  We along on the brothel visit. Owners of brothels contact him when they get in a new worker they feel he might like.

There is a lot of time in brothels in the story. The man denigrates the sexual interest of Japanese women, saying they  are very dull and plain.

The woman keeps up her contact, insisting new photographs of man the author sent her do look like her husband.  She tells him to see if the man has a certain ring.  When asked about the ring, the man gets very irrate.

The story takes a very interesting turn. 

To those new to Tanazaki i suggest you start with The Makioka Sisters.



Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“Advise and Sandwiches” - A Short Story by Pat O’Connor - from his collection People in My Brain - 2019


“Advise and Sandwiches” - A Short Story by Pat O’Connor - from his collection People in My Brain - 2019

“Advice from €5. Free sandwich with all advice No advice, no sandwich”

Website of Pat O’Connor

Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life has brought me first encounters with marvelous great writers, among them now is added Pat O’Connor.

During the last 12 months, here in Metro Manila, I have been pretty much under lockdown the entire time.  The government has strict regulations and my wife and three adult daughters have imposed stricter ones.  We suffer no material deprivation, while many here do have real food anxieties, I have videos, a virtual and real library, six cats and a newly added Shin Tsu for company.  I am grateful for my privileged situation but sometimes I miss going to the mall, dining out and other things.  Last week I was peeved because our grocery store did not have my preferred brand of Ketchup, Heinz of course.  Sometimes what really helps a lot is a good laugh and advise from someone you feel trust in.  Pat O’Connor’s story “Advise and Sandwiches” is perfect for such a moment.

As the story opens Julia has just left her office for lunch.  She is worried she will be fired soon, her results are good and her clients like her but things just feel wrong to her.  Her boyfriend just told her he has met someone “really exciting” and is moving on.  He seems to expect her to be happy for him.  She feels in strong need of some life directing advise.  Suddenly she sees a just opened sandwich shop sign  that intrigues her.

“A sign over the opening said Advice and Sandwiches, and a placard said Queue here - Advice from €5 - Gourmet Sandwiches free. The queue was the shape of a U, with a rope on little white poles to keep order. A burst of laughter rose from the crowd. It was a good-natured sound. Julie strode past. There was a cheer and clapping. She took a quick, grudging glance. People were saying ‘Aww’ like they were affected by something.”

As Julie waits in line she overhears some advise:

“A male voice called out: ‘I hate my job. What’ll I do?’ ‘Either make it so you like it, or else live cheaper, build up cash, then resign and look for a job you do like. €5. What you want to eat?’ ‘Aah… gimme a ham and cheese and tomato sandwich. No, a sub. A sub, please.’”

Now Julie is at the front of the line.  Somehow she is given just the advise she needs.

The advise given was funny and shrewd, kindly meant.

“‘My wife’s a bitch. What’m I goin’ to do about it?’ This was a cocky voice, his friends egging him on. ‘Go and ask her forgiveness for your own shortcomings. That’s €8. What you wanna eat?’ ‘Hey, I thought it was five euros a sandwich!’ ‘Sandwiches are free – read the signs. Advice starts at five euros and goes up from there. You got the eight euros?’

“‘What’s the best sandwich for someone who loves cats?’ ‘A shared sandwich. That’s €5. What you want?’ ‘Oh? Emm… chicken, some salt, light mayo.’ ‘On plain?’ ‘Plain.’‘Chicken, some salt, light mayo on plain, green wrapper.”

Of course I thought what question could I ask:  then I said ok be timely-

“What is my best strategy for coping with the start of a second year of lockdown”. -response “realize millions in Metro Manila would jump to changes places with you and Oh Yes, six cats are enough.”

“Advise and Sandwiches”, the lead story in People in My Brain, was a lot of fun to read, the conversations were very well done and I felt I was there.

There are 14 other stories in collection.  It is my hooe to read and post on three more of them this Month.

From The author’s website

Pat O’Connor lives in Limerick in the southwest of Ireland. He was a joint winner of the 2009 Best Start Short Story Competition in Glimmertrain, and in 2010  he was shortlisted for the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize. In 2011, he was shortlisted for the RTE Francis MacManus Award for radio stories, and won the Sean O’Faolain Prize. In 2012 he was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Short Story prize.  In 2013 he was longlisted for Over the Edge New Writer of the Year.

His stories have been published in Southword, Revival, Crannóg, The Penny Dreadful, the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, anthologized by the Munster Literary Centre, and broadcast on RTE.

His radio play This Time it’s Different, was broadcast on 95fm as part of the Limerick City of Culture program in 2014.

In autumn 2014, he was one of eight International Writers in Residence in Tianjin, China.

His story Advice and Sandwiches was included in the Hennessy Anthology of New Irish Writing 2005-2015, published by New Island.

Mel u

The Reading Life 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

“Good-Looking” - A Short Story By Souvankham Thammavongsa - from The New Yorker February 22, 2021


“Good-Looking” - A Short Story 

By Souvankham Thammavongsa - from The New Yorker February 22, 2021

Today’s story is on the website of The New Yorker 

Last week I read my first short story,”Edge of the World” by Souvankham Thammavongsa, author of the debut collection, How to Pronounce Knife, focusing on Laotian immigrants to the United States.  I was delighted to see on the website of The New Yorker.  “Good Looking” is a new story, not included in How to Pronounce Knife.

There are strong similarities between this story and “Edge of the World”.  Both are told by a woman in her forties recalling  her early childhood memories of her parents relationship.  They are filtered through memory band knowledge and insight gained by the woman from her life experiences.  As in “Edge of the World” it is not revealed until the close of the story that this is not a contemporaneous narrative by a young girl as few young girls would characterize their mother as using her large bosom to show case herself but it can be seen.  Of course one has to wonder are the memories entirely accurate.

As the story opens the narrator tells us her father works as an instructor at a membership funded gym.  Even though he is married he leaves off his ring to make women members think he might be available.  She says he is considerd good looking.  The management encourages flirtations with the mostly single women members so they will buy longer memberships.  Her father, we do not know much of his background, loves reading though he has no one to talk about this with.  One day a female professor asks him out for coffee.  He enjoys talking literature with her. To her great surprise he brings his daughter on what she no doubt thought was a prelude to a romantic encounter.

My main purpose today is to record my reading and let interested people know a story by Souvankham Thammavongsa can be read online.  

I will be reading more of the stories of Souvankham Thammavongsa this year.

“Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four acclaimed poetry books, and the short story collection HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE, winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller prize, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and PEN/American Open Book Award, a New York Times Editors' Choice, a TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2020, out now with McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Little, Brown (U.S.), and Bloomsbury (U.K.). Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's MagazineThe Paris ReviewThe AtlanticGranta, and NOON. Thammavongsa is a judge for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. She was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand and was raised and educated in Toronto.”  From the author’s website 

Monday, March 8, 2021

“In Fields of Butterfly Flames” - A Short Story by Steve Wade - from his debut collection,In Fields of Butterfly Flames and other Stories - 2020

“In Fields of Butterfly Flames” - A Short Story by Steve Wade - from his debut collection,In Fields of Butterfly Flames and other Stories - 2020

For 11 years now March has been Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life.  Tradition is very important to the Irish, and is badly needed in our troubled times.  

I have been following the work of Steve Wade since March of 2013

His debut collection can stand with the masters of the Irish Short Story.

  Gateway To Steve Wade on The Reading Life 

Website of Steve Wade 

A Wide Ranging Q and A Session With Steve Wade 

This is the seventh short story by Steve Wade that has been featured on The Reading Life.  I first read his work during Irish Short Story Month Year Three in March of 2013.  I found his short story “The Land of the Ever Young” fully qualified to stand with the great occult fairy tales of Sheridan Le Fanu or Andrew Lang.

“The Land of the Ever Young" recreates and helps us understand the stories of fairies stealing human children and substituting changelings for them.  Part of the root of these stories comes from the famine years where people had to find ways to deal with the starvation of their children.  On another darker side, this story also  treats of the fact that one more hungry child could be the tipping point in a family on the edge of starvation that can  send everyone else into the grave.  

First and foremost 'The Land of the Ever Young" is a tremendous lot of fun to read.  Joseph Sheridan le Fanu or Andrew L)ang have no better stories than this.  I will tell enough of the plot to give you a feel for it but I want you to read this story without knowing too much about it.  

The other  stories covered show the extent and depth of Wade’s range. (Some of the stories can be read online at links found in my posts)

Today’s story way more than justifies my belief in the immense talent of Steve Wade.

I am slowly working my way through his debut collection, In Fields of Butterfly Flames.  The stories are just so powerful I think you must space them out.

“In Fields of Butterfly Flames” begins with a scene of disturbing evil.  A man a few days ago just brought home a St Bernard puppy.  He loves the puppy so much, getting much needed affection.  He comes home to find his dead body, Shona his life partner with whom he has had two children, has killed the puppy.  Having just recently added a wonderful Shin Tsu puppy to our family I cannot fathom him coming home to find a puppy murdered by the mother of his two sons.  From here the sheer madness of the whole family begins to emerge.

The man decides to adapt, almost as one would a puppy, a child to replace his lost son.  At first he fears leaving the boy, he calls him “Dale” after his lost son.  We see the madness in Sonia and we wonder why he stays with her.  

I do not want to tell more of this plot.  Much of Irish literature focuses on dysfunctional families, on marginalized people.  “In Field of Butterfly Flames” is a very disturbingly impactful version of this.

  About the Author - Steve Wade’s award-winning short fiction has been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies. His work has been broadcast on national and regional radio. He has had stories short-listed for the Francis McManus Short Story Competitionand for the Hennessy Award. His stories have appeared in over fifty print publications, including Crannog, New Fables, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual. His unpublished novel, On Hikers’ Hill was awarded First Prize in the competition, with Sir Tim Rice as the top judge. He has won First Prize in the Delvin Garradrimna Short Story Competition on a number of occasions. Winner of the Short Story category in the Write by the Sea writing competition 2019. His

short stories have been nominated for the PEN/O’Henry Award, and for the Pushcart Prize.

From the Author’s  introduction 

“The stories in this collection first appeared in anthologies and periodicals. Some of them have won prizes or have been placed in writing competitions. Ostracised by betrayal, isolated through indifference, gutted with guilt, or suffering from loss, the characters in these twenty-two stories are fractured and broken, some irreparably. In their struggle for acceptance, and their desperate search for meaning, they deny the past”

A very worthy edition to the reading list of all lovers of the short story.

Mel u


Sunday, March 7, 2021

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick - forthcoming April 2021- 192 Pages

Antiquities  by Cynthia Ozick - forthcoming April 2021 - 192 Pages

Antiquities is the fifth work by Cynthia Ozick upon which I have had The distinct pleasure of reading and posting upon. I have read one novel, Heir to The Glimmering World, three novellas, and one Short Story.  All of her works can be characterized as related to Jewish themes.  I have also read some of her literary Essays.

Antiquities, forthcoming from Knopf Publishing, will delight all lovers of her work.  The setting is around 1949, a rather elderly man, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, is preparing to write a memoir of his days at The Temple Academy for Boys.  He is now one of seven surviving trustees, all of which are being asked to write memoirs.  

The narration, filtered through his faltering at times memory is entrrlaced with curtent events in his Life.  Much detail is devoted to his memories of his, a collector and merchant of real and fake Egyptian antiquities.  We also learn about a cousin who was a famous archaeologist.  The narrator goes into detail about his parents marriage.  

The atmosphere at the School was subtly anti-semetic.  Lloyd was fascinated by a Jewish student, Ben-Zion Elefantin, a mystifying older pupil who claims descent from Egypt’s Elephantine Island.

From here Ozick spins out a fascinsting tale in which we have to find reality through the ancient narrator’s story line.

Like all her work, Antiquities,  manifests a very high intelligence and deep culture.  

Mel u

The Reading Life