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

Saturday, May 29, 2021

White Guard by Mikhail Bulgahov - 1925. - translated from the Russian by Marion Schwartz- 2008 - published by Yale University Press - with an introduction by Evgeny Dobrenko

White Guard by Mikhail Bulgahov - 1925. - translated from the Russian by Marion Schwartz- 2008 - published by Yale University Press - with an introduction by Evgeny Dobrenko

Mikhail Bulgahov

May 15, 1891 Kyiv, Ukraine

March 10, 1940 - Moscow 

Earlier this month I read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgahov

(In the translation by Richard Pevear and Lariosa Volohonsky).  I was just mesmerized by this work.  I knew I wanted to read more of his fiction.  I decided to start my read through of his work  with his first novel White Guard.

Bulgahov and first wife

White Guard begins in Kiev in December of 1918.  The city was very damaged by World War One only to now be engulfed in the violence and chaos of the Russian Civil War.  The Germans have largely left the city but left their delegate to rule. His authority is Under attack from Ukrainian Nationalist and Socialist forces..The City is also a battle ground for The anti-Bolsevick White Russians and Pro-communist forces.  Plus French and English forces are in the City.

The chaos is depicted through the lives of the Turbin Family, 

siblings Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka—and their friends Myshlaevsky and Carp. 

Bulgahov marvelously reproduced the mind numbing anarchy and danger of the City in his prose.  His lists of things are perfect. The only real solution for ordinary people is to stay home, admit no strangers into your house, believe in nothing you have not 

seen.  Over this Bulgahov creates a vision out of the book of revelations.

There are lots of exciting combat scenes, some pretty frank sexual episodes as people look for distraction, a lot on food issues and some cocaine.

The very informative introduction by Evgeny Dobrenko provides political background to Help sort out all the different fighting groups.

My next of his works will be Black Snow, a satire of Soviet theater, where Bulgahov spent much of his working life, in the 1920s.


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Penance by Kanae Minato - 2012 - translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel - 2017

Penance by Kanae Minato - 2012- translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel - 2017

Earlier this month I read Confessions, the Award winning crime novel by Kanae Minato.   Both novels center on the murder of a very young girl, age four in Confessions and 13 or so in Penance.  Each is told from multiple points of view. Both go deeply into how the murder impacts others.

Five girls, about 12, are very close.  They are all from protective families that warn them about strangers.  One day they are shopping. A man says he is having trouble unlocking a dressing room door and, with a promise of ice cream for all, induces one of the girls to go with him to the dressing room.  He murders and rapes her. The description of her body are very graphic to let us feel how disturbed the girls were when they found her body.  We see the reactions of the girls, trying to find adults.  The police quiz them but they can offer no descriptions of the man. We follow the girls for 15 years, see how the trauma impacted them. One murders her husband.  One does not get first period until she was 25.

The mother of the murdered girl is from a wealthy family.  She tells the girls shortly after the murder she will take revenge on them unless they do penance for her death.

Murders are relative to other places uncommon in Japan.  We get a look at parenting styles.  We go to a police station. 

Penance was a fast read, always a shocking event coming.  

Kanae MINATO ( かなえ, born 1973) is a Japanese writer of crime fiction and thrillers.

She started writing in her thirties. Her first novel Confessions (告白, Kokuhaku) became a bestseller and won the Japanese Booksellers Award. The movie Confession directed by Tetsuya Nakashima was nominated to 2011 Academy Award. 

She has been described in Japan as "the queen of iyamisu"(eww mystery), a subgenre of mystery fiction which deals with grisly episodes and the dark side of human nature. From Goodreads 


Monday, May 24, 2021

The Road to Litchfield by Penelope Lively - 1977 - Short Listed for The Man Booker Prize 

In September of 2017 I read The Photograph by Penelope Lively.  

I am glad to have been induced by a flash sale to acquire the Kindle Edition of her novel The Road to Litchfield.  I wish now on a long ago literary trip to London I had made a side trip to the Samuel Johnson Museum in Litchfield.  The title gave me a clue that history will Play a big part in the novel.

The central characters is Anne Linton, forty married with children, a history teacher at a ptivate school.  Her mother is deceased and her fsther is now confined to a Nursing Home with a very bad case of alzheimer with severe memory loss.  When she goes to visit, most of time he does not know her.  As she begins to sort through his finances she is lead to discover her father had a mistress for years.  In his bank records there is a monthly check to her.  She also does not know her husband had been having a long term affair.  Her brother, a TV producer is a bit of a playboy.  They talk about their childhood.

Anne is involved with a project aimed at saving a 15th century House from being torn down by a develolper.  In the mean time Anne is terminated from her job as a history teacher.  She is told that students now cannot understand traditional cronologically taught history.

Her brother is putting on a historical drama designed to entertain more than inform.

All this is a very elegantly tied together.  The characters are well developed.  


Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short-story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger.

Her other books include Going Back; Judgement Day; Next to Nature, Art; Perfect Happiness; Passing On; City of the Mind; Cleopatra’s Sister; Heat Wave; Beyond the Blue Mountains, a collection of short stories; Oleander, Jacaranda, a memoir of her childhood days in Egypt; Spiderweb; her autobiographical work, A House Unlocked; The Photograph; Making It Up; Consequences; Family Album, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Novel Award, and How It All Began.

She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award. She was appointed CBE in the 2001 New Year’s Honours List, and DBE in 2012.

Penelope Lively lives in London. She was married to Jack Lively, who died in 1998.


Sunday, May 23, 2021

Red Famine - Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum - 2017

Red Famine -Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum - 2017

During the Holodimar, or the Great Famine (1932 to 1933) millions of Ukrainians died of starvation (estimates range from as high as 12 million to at least four million) not from crop failure or climate disasters but because of the policies of Joseph Stalin (ruler of Russia from 1927 to 1953).

Several of the most featured writers on my blog left the Ukraine to

find a better life. Among them are Clarice Lispector, Irene Némirovsky, Gregor Von Rezzori and Joseph Roth.  Many Yiddish writers fled the Ukraine, an area of deeply rooted virulent anti-Semetic feelings going back centuries.  Arguments about the Ukraine have been a big factor in American politics.  Of course those speaking know next to nothing about the history of the region.  

Basically starting with Lenin, Soviet leaders felt that they had a choice, save the Revolution in Russia by taking the massive grain production from the Ukraine to feed Russians or letting millions of Russians starve which would turn the Russians against the Bolsheviks.  Lenin made a decision to sacrifice the Ukrainian people to save Communism in Russia. He made no effort to hide this as Applebaum very throughly documents in quotes from his speeches.  Stalin continued this policy to horrible consequences.  Stalin seems to have gone from the pure pragmatic views of Lenin to a personal hatred for everything and everyone Ukrainian.

Prior to the Russian Revolution grain was produced on farms run by their owners,  called “Kulaks”.  The more they produced the more they made.  Stalin saw the Kulaks as the enemy of communism.  He began a process know as collectivism in which many farms were combined  into one unit run by officials, often with no agricultural experience, who were ordered to deliver all their products to other Russian officials (or Stalinist Ukrainians) to be sent to Russia.  The peasants no longer had any incentive to work hard, to produce as much as they could.  Instead they focused on finding a way to feed their families.  Stealing was no longer a vice to them as their land had been stolen.

Applebaum goes into lots of detail on how this was carried about.  Failure to achieve your goals could send an official to a Gulag or even a death sentence.  Quotas were continually raised.  Only a fool would protest.  This resulted in Ukrainian peasants having any food they had, any seed grain, any farm animals confiscated.  Peasant families were often thrown from their houses with nothing but their clothes.  Workers began to leave the farms to try to find work in city factories.  Many simply roamed the highways until the collapsed from starvation.  In the mean time an attack on Ukrainian culture began.  School instruction was to be in Russian only.  Churches were closed.  Intellectuals were arrested on the slightest failure to praise the policies of Stalin. Any sense the Ukraine was an independent entity was wiped out.  

Things got even worse for the Ukrainians when the Nazis attacked.  At first the Ukrainians welcomed the Germans hoping they would make things better.  They of course did not.  Anti-Semitic feelings were widely held by Ukrainians.  Many saw Communism as initiated by Jews and welcomed their slaughter. They may have not understood that the Nazis saw Slavic people as only one step above Jews.  If successful all Ukrainians would have been replaced by Germans.  

After the war, the official Soviet policy was the Great Famine never happened. 

Applebaum details the efforts to keep the true historical facts of the Great Ukrainian Famine from being lost.

I highly recommend Red Famine- Stalin’s War on the Ukraine to all interested in a country far more talked about than understood.

The Politically inclined as well as those interested in 20th century literature, art and Jewish history will savor this book.


Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute, where she co-directs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda.

A Washington Post columnist for fifteen years and a former member of the editorial board, she has also worked as the Foreign and Deputy Editor of the Spectator magazine in London, as the Political Editor of the Evening Standard, and as a columnist at Slate as well as the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. From 1988-1991 she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent of the Economist magazine and the Independent newspaper.. there is more detail on her website. 

I look forward to reading her new book (from her website)

“Twilight of Democracy explains the lure of nationalism and autocracy. In this captivating essay, she contends that political systems with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else.

Despotic leaders do not rule alone; they rely on political allies, bureaucrats, and media figures to pave their way and support their rule. The authoritarian and nationalist parties that have arisen within modern democracies offer new paths to wealth or power for their adherents. Applebaum describes many of the new advocates of illiberalism in countries around the world, showing how they use conspiracy theory, political polarization, social media, and even nostalgia to change their societies.”

Mel u


Saturday, May 22, 2021

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain -In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class in Writing, Reading and Life - by George Saunders - 2021 - 416 pages


A Swim in the Pond in the Rain -In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class in Writing, Reading and Life - by George Saunders - 2021 - 416 pages 

This is a truly wonderful book.  Anyone who wants to become a better reader, short story writer or maybe even a better person will profit from A

Swim in the Pond in the Rain.

Saunders has taught a course in the Russian short story in translation for twenty years as part of the University of Syracuse’s creative writing program.  Every year about six hundred apply to join the program but only six are admitted.  The students are all very eager to learn, very talented and not afraid of speaking up.  

Seven stories by the great Russian masters are analyzed, taken apart (searching for right terms).

The stories in order (with the full text so we have no excuse not to read along) are

  1. In the Cart by Anton Chekov - 1897
  2. The Singers by Ivan Turgenev - 1852
  3. The Darling by Anton Chekhov - 1899
  4. Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy - 1895 longest work
  5. The Nose by Nikolai Gogol - 1836
  6. Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov - 1898
  7. Alyosha the Pot by Leo Tolstoy - 1905 - briefest story

I suggest you read this one chapter, including the story and Saunders comments per day leaving a day for the conclusion and exercises and the at the end.  Adding in a day for the marvelous opening chapter you are in for a very illuminating nine days plus you might end up reading the best short stories you have ever encountered.  Many serious readers reject short stories as lacking the substance they need.  People say they want something that can deeply draw them into the world evoked.  To such persons, of whom I was one long ago, read these stories and the book and you will see how wrong yau are.  

Saunders loves the reading life and talks profoundly about it.  He explores how fiction works, why reading can be of tremendous life enhancing value.

Saunders starts each chapter as if he were trying to get his students to say why the story works or does not work.  I good story makes us want to keep reading.  He shows us how these stories work.  The big question is why are these stories great.

“The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable.”

He makes a lot of in passing remarks on other writers, Russian culture, his own efforts as a writer and much more.

“And let’s be even more honest: those of us who read and write do it because we love it and because doing it makes us feel more alive and we would likely keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was zero”

“Over the last ten years I’ve had a chance to give readings and talks all over the world and meet thousands of dedicated readers. Their passion for literature (evident in their questions from the floor, our talks at the signing table, the conversations I’ve had with book clubs) has convinced me that there’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world—a web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting. As I wrote this book, I had those people in mind. Their generosity with my work and their curiosity about literature, and their faith in it, made me feel I could swing for the fences a little here—be as technical, nerdy, and frank as needed, as we try to explore the way the creative process really works.”

Long ago in a post on The Lonely Crowd- A study in the Short Story by Frank O’Connor I said it was the only book worth reading on the short story.  Now there are two such books and for me Saunders book is superior.


George Saunders is the author of eleven books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English, and was a finalist for the Golden Man Booker, in which one Booker winner was selected to represent each decade, from the fifty years since the Prize’s inception. The audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo, which featured a cast of 166 actors, was the 2018 Audie Award for best audiobook. ­ 

His stories have appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 1992. The short story collection Tenth of Decemberwas a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013 (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection). 

He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. In support of his work, he has appeared on The Colbert ReportLate Night with David LettermanAll Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show

He was born in Amarillo, Texas and raised in Oak Forest, Illinois. He has a degree in Geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines and has worked as a geophysical prospector in Indonesia, a roofer in Chicago, a doorman in Beverly Hills, and a technical writer in Rochester, New York. He has taught, since 1997, in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University

Mel u


Friday, May 21, 2021

All the Beautiful Liars- The Fictional Memoirs of Katrina Klain by Sylvia Petter- 2020


All the Beautiful Liars- The Fictional Memoirs of Katrina Klain by Sylvia Petter- 2020

Website of Sylvia Petter

My post on “Grow Up” - A Short Story by Sylvia Petter - 2017 - included in her collection Back Burning  

A very detailed insightful review from the Yorkshire Times 

All the Beautiful Liars is a simply marvelous account of a woman’s attempt to discover her real past.  Her German father and Austrian mother immigrated to Australia right after the end of World War Two, she was just a young girl. Her school mates made fun of her, calling her a “Nazi” even though she did not know what that actually meant, just that it was something very bad.

As soon as she could Katrina moved to Vienna.  We meet her on a long flight back to Sydney for the funeral of her mother. In Austria she has already met one of her uncles who embezzled a fortune from the Austrian government.  She knows her family, including her parents, were involved with the Nazis and later the German Secret Police.  But there are darker secrets waiting for her, secrets that will undermine her sense of her identity.

Katina’s discovery take us deeply into areas she wished she had left alone.  Her family history illuminates the impact of the war on survivors, people who did what they thought they must.  The novel is structured in a very creative fashion.  We have Katrina’s thoughts on the long flight intertwined with that of an all knowing alter-ego trying to force her to see the truth. Maybe this is a paranormal entity, maybe something from her drifting into sleep on the very long flight.

Most of the narration is by Katrina but there are segments from her father, her mother and an uncle.  No one can quite be believed.  Her father had Nazi sympathies she never knew about.

The ending is very powerful .

“I am  an Australian, now based in Vienna, Austria.  I’m all over the place, a blob of mercury on a lab   floor, as my old writing boot camp sergeant, Alex Keegan, used to say. Born in Vienna, I grew up in Australia and after more than 25 years in the Geneva area, am now living in Vienna, Austria. I started writing fiction in 1993, and my poems, articles and stories have appeared in print and on the web.

I’ve attended workshops and writing conferences in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the US, and have done   correspondence courses through Humber College, Toronto. In 2009 I completed a PhD in Creative Writing at UNSW and am working on my second novel.

I was Co-Director Vienna of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, Vienna, 2014.  A founding member of the Geneva Writers’ Group, I   am currently a member of IG Autorinnen Autoren and GAV, Vienna, Austria, and the Australian Society of Authors.”


I found this a deeply moving work 

very skillfully and beautifully told.

Mel u

The Reading Life 



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa - 2001- translated from French by Adrian Hunter - 2004

 The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa - 2001- translated from French by Adrian Hunter - 2004

The Girl Who Played Go is set in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation (Sep 18, 1931 – Feb 27, 1932). i found it a very well done addition to my list of historical fiction set in Asia during The World War Two.  The invasion can be seen as a prelude.

There are two central characters, a sixteen year old Chinese girl from a Westernized Family.   Of course horrible things are going on all around her but she is caught up in her Life and with her sister.  She loves to Play Go in a square devoted to games where strangers Play each other.  Both girls are of marriagible age and are potentially valuable. The second character is a lieutunant in the Japanese Army.  Somestimes we see things from her point of view, some his.  He is very dedicated to the Japanese Emperor. His units job is to find and kill anti-Japanese terrorists.  He is brutal to his men and cruel to the Chinese. One day he is ordered  to dress as a Chinese and Go to The Square to Play Go. The idea is to listen in on conversations, to find those who might be terrorists.

In mean time the girl is caught up in a romance.  She becomes pregnant.  She and The Japanese begin a series of games, he develops an obsession with her. He frequents a prostitute, writes his mother and is a good soldier.

The ending is shocking.

I enjoyed this book.  

Her website has a detailed bio.

Shan Sa is the pseudonym of Yan Ni, a French author and painter. The Girl Who Played Go was the first of her novels to be published outside France, and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Her second novel to appear in English translation was Empress. 

Born: October 26, 1972 (age 48 years), Beijing, China

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Confessions by Kanae Minato - 2008 - translated from Japanese by Stephen Synder - 2014



Confessions by Kanae Minato - 2008 - translated from Japanese by Stephen Synder - 2014

Winner of the ALA's 2015 Alex Award for the Best Adult Books That Appeal to Teen Audiences

- Nominated for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel

- One of Booklist's Best Crime Novels of the Year

I have not read much in way of Japanese crime novels.  Confessions by Kanae Minato sounded interesting in the Amazon descriptions and has won numerous awards so I decided to give it a try.

The story is told from several perspectives.  The central question is who murdered the four year old daughter of a teacher and what was the motivation for the murder.  The opening chapted centers on the mother giving a speech to her high School students in which she resigns, telling them she knows which of her students murdered her daughter.  Her reasons for not turning them in are simple.  The laws in Japan are very lax on juveniles, even killers get out of Youth confinement with no record by 21.  She has devised a diabolical Revenge. One which puts all The students in danger,

There are also chapters from the point of view of the killer in which he explains his reasons, as well as another student tricked into helping him who thought it was a prank.

I found The characters well developed, i learned 

a bit about School in Japan.  The cruelty of one of the boys is chilling.  We learn enough about the famlies of the boys to try to figure out why they thought it would be fun to kill a four year old girl.

Kanae MINATO ( かなえ, born 1973) is a Japanese writer of crime fiction and thriller.

She started writing in her thirties. Her first novel Confessions (告白, Kokuhaku) became a bestseller and won the Japanese Booksellers Award. The movie Confession directed by Tetsuya Nakashima was nominated to 2011 Academy Award.

She has been described in Japan as "the queen of iyamisu"(eww mystery), a subgenre of mystery fiction which deals with grisly episodes and the dark side of human nature. From Goodreads