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 29, 2021

The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson - 2021 - 331 Pages

The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson - 2021 - 331 Pages 

I totally loved The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson.  I think anyone with a deep passion for reading will totally identify with June Jones, the lead character.  It helped me at least for a while stave of the pandemic blues  brought on by 660 days of lockdown in Metro Manila.

June Jones, thirty, has never left the small sleepy English village where she grew up.  She lives in the house in which she grew up.  Her mother, passed away eight years ago, was the town librarian.  She got June a job as library assistant and she is still doing that.  She loves books reading above all else.  She embodies the reading life. On a weekend all she thinks about is the precious reading time.  Then one day disaster looms.  Because of budget cutbacks, the library maybe closed.  She slowly begins to emerge into the larger world, banding with a lovable group of library lovers to fight the closure.  The fight to keep it open was as exciting to me as any thriller.

Now, for the first time since her mother passed, June begins to open herself up to other people and new experiences.  There are lots of twists and turns.  The Last Library has marvelous secondary characters, a perfectly  realized cat, villains out to profit from the close of the library and many many references to the books June reads and suggests to patrons.  Her literary taste is exquisite.  There are even food references.

I don’t want to give away much. There is real sadness In The Last Library but I cannot imagine anyone able to identify with June even a bit not being thrilled by the final results.

“Freya Sampson works in television as a creator and executive producer. Her credits include two documentary series for the BBC about the British royal family and a number of factual and entertainment series. She studied history at Cambridge University and in 2018 was short-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize. She lives in London with her husband, two young children, and an antisocial cat. The Last Chance Library is her debut novel.” .from the book

I hope I get the opportunity to read more of her Freya Sampson’s work and I thank her for this perfect for these ugly times book.

Mel u

The Reading Life 


Friday, November 26, 2021

The Green Man and The Fool - A Short Story by Brian Kirk - published in Fictive Dreams - October 17, 2021

 The Green Man and The Fool - A Short Story by Brian Kirk - published in Fictive Dreams - October 17, 2021

You may read today’s story here

Gateway to Brian Kirk on The Reading Life.  Included is a wide ranging Q and A session on Ireland, short stories and more.  There are links to nine short stories by Brian Kirk in my posts 

I first encountered the work of Brian Kirk in March of 2013.  Since then I have posted on nine other works by Kirk and was honored by his participation in a Q and A Session.  Obviously I would not follow a writer so closely if I did not have great respect for their talent and insight.

My main purpose today is to let my readers know he has a new story that can be read online and to continue my voyage through his work.

This story focuses on a long married couple.  The husband was a solicitor, they always lived in City but now are renting a home in the country. He has retired.   They had one child, a son, who died quite young. The wife often wonders what he would be like if still alive.  As most anyone long married knows time changes things, the passion of youth fades, if there are children they become the focus.  There has been no sex in a long time in the characters marriage.  The wife broods on the past more than the husband.

Kirk is a Master at depicting relationships.  His prose is exquiste.

Brian Kirk is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist from Dublin, Ireland. His work has appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Crannog, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs and various anthologies

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein - 2008 - 416 Pages

The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein - 2008 - 416 Pages

I offer my great thanks to Elaine Chiew, author of The Heart Sick Diaspora and other stories for recommending The Painter of Shanghai.

I suggest anyone interested in contemporary literature by Asian authors follow The Asian Book Blog

Exquisite Video Collage of works by Pan Yuliang 

Website of Jennifer Cody Epstein 

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein is historic fiction done at the highest level.  Based on the life of Pan Yuliang (June 14, 1895 Yagzhou, China - July 22, 1977 Paris) who was the first woman from China to paint in a western style.  In 1930s her work drew severe criticism in China for her nude portraits of women and for deviating from tradition.  She moved to Paris in 1937 and spent forty years there painting and teaching.  She produced over 4000 works.

Epstein begins the work with Pan Yuliang at age 14.  Her mother has passed and she lives with her uncle.  She learned embroidery from her mother.  Her uncle tells her he is taking her to Shanghai to do embroidery but he sells her to a brothel keeper to pay his debts to opium dealers. The brothel is a place of great cruelty, nothing but a commercial value is put on the girls. Pan Yuliang was innocent of the nature of sex but was indoctrinated by the “number one  girl” of the  brothel.  The girls can buy their way out but records are kept and padded. There are vivid descriptions of sex in the brothel. The workers seek methods of preserving a sense of self-worth.  Escape is virtually impossible.  A few lucky girls meet a client who buys them out to be a  personal concubine.  I do not want to go into much detail on her brothel times  but as I empasized with her so much, as others I think will, it was painful to read.

There is a new customs Inspector in Shanghai.  In an effort to corrupt him and get “dirt on him” a group of merchants whose income depends on low customs duty, sent Pan to his house, without telling him first. Pan is told not come back without “his seed inside her”.  He is not interested in this, being married to a wife in another town, but he likes Pan and asks her to show him around Shanghai.  This encounter will change her life.

It was wonderful to see Pan learn about Chinese politics but thrilling to watch her develop a passion for painting.  

There just is so much Chinese political  history in this book.  We sit in on Pan’s art lessons.  Her relationship with the customs Inspector, who bought her out, is complicated. They develop passion and perhaps love.  He has mixed feeling about her art which some conservatives call pornographic.  

We follow her on her first trip to Paris.  

There is so much detail I felt I was in Shanghai in the 1930s.

This is a great novel.  I loved it.  

From the author’s website

“I am the author of the USA Today bestseller Wunderland, now out in paperback. My prior works include The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, winner of the 2014 Asian Pacific Association of Librarians Honor award for outstanding fiction, as well as the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. I have also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Nation (Thailand), Self and Mademoiselle magazines, and the NBC and HBO networks, working in Kyoto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok as well as Washington D.C. and New York. I’ve taught at Columbia University in New York and Doshisha University in Kyoto, and have an MFA from Columbia, a Masters of International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a BA in Asian Studies/English from Amherst College.

I currently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband, filmmaker Michael Epstein, my two amazing daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.”

Epstein has published two other works of historical fiction, I have added both to my Amazon wish list.


Friday, November 19, 2021

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson- 2000 - 331 pages

 Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson- 2000 - 331 pages

This is the third book by Nalo Hopkinson I have had the great pleasure of reading.  She is one of the most influential writers of Science Fiction works in the world now.

In October I read The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson.  I was very much shocked by the depth of this work dealing deeply with the consequences of slavery through several centuries.  

From my post on The Salt Roads

“So far this year I have been stunned by the depth and Beauty of two novels by writers hithertonow unread by me.  The first was The Master and Margarita by Michail Bulgakov. The Salt Roads is my second such work. By Nalo Hopkinson is just amazing beyond my powers to describe how I feel about it.”

Start your reading of Nalo Hopkinson with The Salt Roads.

Last month I read her from 1998, Brown Girl in the Ring.  Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, lived up to my very high expectations.  Set in a dystopian future Toronto where the central city has been largely abandoned by white residents escaping to the outer fringes of the huge city.  Inner City Toronto is a place of hopelessness, extreme 

poverty and a constant threat of violence. The central characters In Brown Girl in The Ring are the descendants of African slaves of Caribbean background.

Midnight Robber is set several hundred years in the future. Descendants of enslaved persons of Afro-Carib ancestry have left earth, now nearly inhabitable, colonizing a new planet. Like Brown Girl in the Ring the first person narrative in  Midnight Robber is in a future patois derived partially from Afro-Carib heritage modified by hundreds of years on an alien planet. The language,once you accept the rhythm, is a joy.   

On planet Toussaint everyone is connected to the Grande Nanotech Sentient Interface at all times, from birth, via nanomites implanted in their ears. The narrator, Tan-Tan, who we first meet at age nine, is the daughter of Antonio, mayor of one of the towns.  In a fit of jealousy in a duel which meant to forbid killing, murders his rival through drugging him. He along with Tan-Tan is transported to New Half Way Tree, a primitive place with many dangers, as a punishment.  Hopkinson is a genius at creating fascinating fictional worlds with true depth.  I do not want to divulge what happens to much to Antonio and Tan-Tan on New Half Way Tree but it is exciting and shocking. We see Tan-Tan grow in maturity as she copes with her new home and her growth into a young woman.  There are lots of wonderfully realized characters, human and otherwise on New Half Way Tree.  It is very much an arboreal environment.  The aboriginal inhabitants are very bonded with their daddy tree.

I found this book fascinating.  I will hopefully keep reading on in Hopkinson’s work.

My prior posts have bio data on Hopkinson 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham - 2006

Curry: A Tale of Cooks  and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham - 2006

“The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.” From Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors 

My post on The Taste of Empire-How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World by Lizzie Collingham

Last month I read The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World.  I found this one of the most interesting and informative works of narrative non-fiction I have read in quite a while.  I am increasingly getting interested in food history, especially how the spread of diverse foods and spices brought about by European exploration and colonization. On a personal note I am trying to learn how to add spices to my  food to fight negative consequences of past poor diet choices.  I knew that much of the spice that entered the diet of affluent Europeans after 1500 came from the Indian Subcontinent.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors is a fascinating look at how the rule of much of India by The British East India company reshaped both Indian and British cuisine.

Before the British arrived there was really no such thing as “Indian Cuisine”.  There was instead numerous very individualized forms of cooking based on local, heritage and religion.  What the world now calls “Indian Food” was created by Indian cooks working in the kitchens of the British.

Although it lacked sophistication, Anglo-Indian cookery was the first truly pan-Indian cuisine. Mughlai cuisine never became an all-India phenomenon: the culinary styles of many Indian regions were not incorporated into the repertoire and its spread was limited. In contrast, the British adopted recipes, ingredients, techniques, and garnishes from all over the subcontinent and combined them in a coherent repertoire of dishes”.

Collingham meticulously explains how items now the main stays of Indian Cooking were introduced by the Portuguese and fostered by the British”.

“Although the Portuguese almost certainly introduced tomatoes and potatoes into India, these foods were not integrated into the Indian culinary world until the British showed their own cooks how to use them”.

The Portuguese also introduced the Chile pepper from South America into India at their colony in Goa.

The British came without women.  Many married Indian women and cherished their children.  The children grew up in a household managed by their Indian mother.

Collingham details how curry was created by combining spices.  She includes numerous recipes that are fun to read.  After ten to twenty years many from the British Raj returned home, bringing not just their wife and children but their Indian cooks and servants.  They continued to eat as much as possible in the fashion they knew.  Indian cooks began to start restaurants.

“Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Anglo-Indian cookery was its tendency to apply appealing aspects of particular regional dishes to all sorts of curry. In this way, mangoes, which were sometimes added to fish curries in parts of the southern coastal”.

From the British in India bringing home curry, it began to spread throughout their empire.  The curries of Malaysia and the Caribbean were derived from British rule of these regions.  Curry style varies based on local custom and availability of food.  West Indian curry was begun by persons working British owned plantations.  From here it spread through the Caribbean area.

Collingham goes into a lot of very interesting history.  There are chapters on several regions.  I learned how households of the British Raj were run.  The affluent might have 25 or more servants. At banquets guest would bring their own servant to stand behind them at meals.  Most Indians were vegetarians but those in places dominated by Europeans became  meat eaters,  many Muslims developed a fondness for pork.

Not everyone will readily accept Collingham’s thesis.  I found it quite convincingly relayed.  Last week we had Philippines style curried chicken.  The culinary history of the Philippines is very complex, derived from Malaysian, Indian, Chinese as well as Spanish sources and since World War Two, American influences.  Under it all we can see the British Raj.

I loved this book. I can see “food patriots” from Asia being offended by the central theme.

Lizzie Collingham is an associate fellow at the University of Warwick. The author of three books, including The Taste of War and Curry, Collingham lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Parade:A Folk Tale by Hiromi Kawakami - 2002 - translated from the Japanese by Alison Marken Powell - 2019

 My Post on Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Parade:A Folk Tale by Hiromi Kawakami - 2002- translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell 2019- 

In July of this year I read Hiromi Kawakami’s delightful novel Strange Weather in Tokyo.   Strange Weather in Tokyo centers on the very slowly developing relationship between a single woman in her late thirties,Tsukiko, and one of her former high school teachers, Sensei,at least thirty years her senior. They run into each other in a bar by accident.  They have frequent unarranged meet ups at the bar, which serves great food along with Saki and beer. She assumes he is a widower.

As time passes a shared love of food, proximity and their history brings them into a more intimate relationship.

This is a very subtly developed story line.  Each character keeps things in reserve.  Both are deeply lonely.

Parade is also about odd bonds formed to combat loneliness.  Here it is with traditional Japanese spirit entities which can only be seen by one person or perhaps also their close companion.  The entities have interesting personalities.

I found Parade a lot of fun to read.  I do have one practical qualm.  The projected Reading time is 55 minutes but 32 minutes are devoted to extracts from print reviews praising her other work.  I obtained the Kindle edition on sale for $1.95, it is now back up to $6.95.  Personally i would have felt taken advantage of  had I paid that price.

HIROMI KAWAKAMI was born in Tokyo in 1958. Her first book, God (Kamisama), was published in 1994. In 1996, she was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for Tread on a Snake (Hebi o fumu), and in 2001 she won the Tanizaki Prize for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo (Sensei no kaban), which was an international bestseller. The book was short-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque -1961- translated from The German by Ralph Manheim - 1964


A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque -1961- translated from The German by Ralph Manheim - 1964

German Literature Month XI

This is my 10th  year participating in German Literature Month.

Through this I have encountered numerous great writers.  One of themes in a Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque is how could the culture that produced great art, literature and lasting philosophical classics have also given rise  to the Holocaust.

During German Literature Month in November of 2013 I posted on All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, his masterful account of trench warfare during World War One.  On the cover of my copy of All Quiet on the Western Front it is said to be greatest war novel of all time. I have not read enough war novels to dispute or verify this claim but I think the foot soldiers in The Iliad would see little has changed in four thousand or so years.  This is a great novel and it well might be the best war novel ever written.  It is told in the first person by a twenty year old German WW I private.  I admit part of the power of the book for me was the way it forced me to see the Germans soldiers in a sympathetic way.  My ancestors fought against the Germans twice in the Twentieth Century.  My uncle, for whom I was named, died at 23 in WWII

Now eight years later I just completed his account of a refugee from concentration camps in German stuck in Lisbon while he tries to secure passage for his wife and himself on a ship bound for America.  It is a nightmarish enviorment in which no one can be trusted.  Their lives depend on securing the required paper work.

This is a powerful work, very profoundly evoking the horrors of the narrator’s situation.  I have been under lock down in Metro Manila since March 15, 2020.  I do not at all suffer materially but at times I find it oppressive.  I think A Night in Lisbon great a work of art as it is, was not a good choice for me.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym - 1958 - 256 Pages

 A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym - 1958 - 256 Pages 

The Barbara Pym Society - your first Resource 

“The Pulley”


When God at first made man, 

Having a glass of blessings standing by, 

“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 

Let the world’s riches, which dispers├Ęd lie, 

Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 

Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 

When almost all was out, God made a stay, 

Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 

Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 

“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 

He would adore my gifts instead of me, 

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 

So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 

But keep them with repining restlessness; 

Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 

May toss him to my breast.” 

Works by Barbara Pym I have so far read 

Some Tame Gazelle - 1950

Excellent Women - 1952

Jane and Prudence - 1953

Earlier in the month I acquired four more of her novels, in Kindle Editions, for $1.95 each.  Besides Jane and Prudence, t A Glass of Blessings, Less Than Angels and No Fond Return of Love.

Barbara Pym 

Born - June 13, 1913 - Oswestry, England

Died - January 11, 1980 - Oxford, England 

Barbara Pym is among the best chroniclers of a now lost, maybe lost when she was writing, world of curates, vicars and women whose lives are bound up the social world of post World War Two England, with rationing, the return of service men and endless meeting for tea. No one has children out of wedlock, of course. Many have small “private incomes”.

The more I read of the work of Barbara Pym, the deeper my appreciation becomes.  I know of no other writer who makes such brilliant usage of adverbs in describing the manner in which a characters says something, revealing much about their feelings.  The people in her novels read classic English fiction and poetry.  A Glass of Blessings is a marvelous working out of the meaning of George  Herbert’s poem, from which the title derives.  Perhaps in 1953 her readers could be expected to know the poetry of Herbert.  

How can one not love this description:

“Evidently Mr Bason had been watching for our arrival in a rather Cranfordian way.”, or maybe imaging a World where people would understand this.

The novel is narrated by a woman, married to a civil servant.  They since marriage  have lived in the house of her mother in law, a long time widow.  She and her closen friend were in The Wrens together in World War Two, serving in Italy, before they found husbands.  Now she she mostly socializes with others from her Parrish.  Having Tea is a very big part of Life.  Clerics are of course very important.

The narrator has an interest in a man, I wondered if anything Will come ftom it.  He teaches Portuguese and she and Sybil, her mother in Law, take classes, thinking about a holiday in Portugal.  The man is a serious drinker, who has not done well with his past work.  

I really liked her  treatment of older women.

A lot  happens in the plot line with numerous exciting turns.

I will next read her Less Than Angels on my read through.

Mel u

The Reading Life

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood - 2003 - 468 Pages

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood - 2003 - 468 Pages 

Margaret Atwood Month- hosted by Buried in Print. November 2021

I am happy to once again participate in Margaret Atwood Month.

Some might find this book a little much.    Some might find it a little silly.  Some people are going to stop reading this book well before midpoint.    I think you have to enjoy post apocalyptic fiction and be happy to read a book and enjoy the beauty of the language without stressing too much over whether or not you have clear cognitive understanding of the plot action.     I really enjoyed the book for the skill with which Atwood constructed an alternative future earth.     The language of the book is very creative and imaginative.    There are lots of new earth creatures running around, lots of dangers and maybe a delight or two. If  Vienna sausages  made of soy beans that have been in the can twenty years after the expiration date sound like a great treat to you then you will be at home in the world of this novel.    One advice I would give new entrants into this world is to forget about having a pet dog!.    

Oryx and Crake is part one of a planned trilogy.    The Year of the Flood (2009) is part two and part three has yet, as far as I know, to be written.   There is no sense of a cliff-hanger at the end of Oryz and Crake.     What the books have in common is that they are set in the same alternative future.   I have a copy of The Year of the Flood and hope to read it soon.    If you are looking for a first Atwood, then I would say read The Handmaid's Tale.  If you like that a lot and you like speculative fiction (meaning fiction set in a world based on Earth but altered somehow) then give Oryx  and Crake a shot.