Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Two Short Stories by Chanelle Benz,from The Man Who Shot Out my Eyes, her debut collection

The Diplomat's Daughter

James III

Website of Chanelle Benz

Based on the advance press on The Man Who Shot Out my Eyes, the debut short story collection of Chanelle Benz, my expectations were very high for the two of her short stories that I was happily able to find online. Both are included in the collection which I hope to read and post further upon in May.  I loved both stories and do not at all hesitate to endorse purchase of her collection.  It is good to see such great stories by a new writer.  Interestingly both of these very different stories comply with Frank O'Connors famous dictum that the deepest Short Stories deal with loneliness, given voice to the marginalized, speak for the mute.  In both these stories Benz dramatically  presents the consequences of loneliness and marginalization.

I will just talk a bit about each story as I do not wish to spoil anyone's first read.  I read each story twice and will hopefully reread them in May along with the full collection.

"The Diplomat's Daughter" focuses on a young woman, once kidnapped away from the home of her American diplomat father.  It is a fast moving story, beginning in a terrorist cell in the Kalahiri Desert, Beirut in the time period 2001 to 2011.  The woman is under the sway of a man who uses her for sex and to commit terrorist acts.  It is evidently the Stockholm syndrome impacting her.  Then we flash back  to Lynchburg, Virginia in 1997 where we see her as an adolescent, insecure about her weight and being a typical difficult at times teenager.  There are segments in Mexico City, back in Beirut, and in Washington, D.C.  As I read the story, told mostly in very skillfully rendered dialogue, it reads almost like a play, I tried to ponder what terrible emotional lacuna could I discover from the conversations of the young woman with her siblings and her Columbian stepmother.  In a away I'm inclined to see her as somehow suggesting the father of the terrorist own repudiation of America but maybe this is pushing things.  This is a beautiful story that will more than repay repeated readings.

"James III" is set in the rough poverty ridden inner city of Philadelphia.  It is narrated by a twelve year old boy, he has just been mugged, his shoes have been stolen and it
a very cold winter.  The boy's father is in prison, his mother has a boyfriend.  He decided to take the train to his aunt.  We subtly are shown he is not just your ordinary inner city boy when he makes a reference to Mr. Brown low, Oliver Twist's benefactor.  He goes to a Quaker school, tuition paid by his aunt.  He reads the sonnets of Petrach.

Much of the plot action is carried by dialogue.  The boy lives in a rough world where showing any weakness is a mistake.  We go along when his cousin takes him to visit his father.  We learn how he came to be James III.

"“And I’m named after my father, your granddaddy. Now that man? That man was born evil and done stayed that way. But because he was named James, I got named James, and your grandmomma said you got to be named James, that way at the end of the day you got his hard and my heart. You James the third.”

"James III" presents a very intelligent young msn, he was in the state spelling be finals, forced to be wise beyond his years.  We get a sense we are in The Philadelphia inner city.  We hope for the best for James.

These are two first rate stories.  As mentioned, I hope to read the full collection in May.

Chanelle Benz has published short stories in Guernica,, Electric Literature'sRecommended Reading, The American Reader, Fence and The Cupboard, and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. She received her MFA at Syracuse University as well as a BFA in Acting from Boston University. She is of British-Antiguan descent and currently lives in Houston.  From

Mel u

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Leonora Carrington and Katherine Mansfield -- Two Fly Centered Short Stories

A link to "Mr Gregory's Fly"

Leonora Carrington- Britain's Last Surrealist Tate Shots. A wonderful beautifully done video -  (By the author of The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Joanna Moorhead, includes a conversation with  Carrington as well as images of her art)

Leonora Carrington A Surrealist Trip from Lancashire to Mexico. From the BBC

I first began reading the short stories of Katherine Mansfield almost eight years ago, I read my first work by Leonora Carrington eight days ago.  I recently completed (post coming soon) a very illuminating and valuable work on Mansfield by Gerri Kimber, Katherine Mansfield The Early Years which has inspired me to reread her stories.  The centenary observation of the birth of Carrington has stimulated renewed interest in her stories (she is most famous for her Surrealistic art).  Two editions of her stories have just been published as well as a biography by Joanne Moorhead, The Surrealistic Life of Leonora Carrington, which I hope to post upon next month.  The NYRB has just brought back into print Carrington's memoir of her mental breakdown, Down Below with a very informative introduction by Marina Warner.  I have been able to locate eight of Carrington's stories online and will post on all of them individually just as I did with Mansfield.  My quick research indicates that several of Carrington's works are out of print but hopefully renewed interest will bring them back into print.  You can view, and I think you will be fascinated as I was, many of her paintings online.  

I don't yet know if Carrington read Mansfield's short stories or not but for sure there are significant Life similarities worth remarking upon.  Both came from wealthy families, Carrington's father was a wealthy industrialist, Mansfield's was Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand.  Both women had serious  issues dealing with dominating fathers with little sympathy for their artistic interests.

Both left their home countries at an early age, never to live there again.  Both began to seriously pursue their passions only after becoming an exile.  Both drew inspiration for their work from their adolescent angst, it shines through in the first story I posted on by Carrington, "The Debutante".  Both had an interest in the Occult, Carrington's the stronger.  Both were drawn to "Guru" type men.  

After reading  Carrington's "Mr Gregory's Fly" I decided to reread a Mansfield story I read eight years ago, "The Fly".  I was happy to see I could recall almost all the story.  The first time I read it I was doing a "read through" of Mansfield's stories, about eight core works.  I wanted to see if I would still love it after eight years of reading short stories.  I found the story deeply moving for the  portrayal of the grief of two old men, both from England, one was once the other's boss, who talk over their mutual loss of a son during WW One (Mansfield's beloved brother was killed in the war).  One of the men is now retired, he has had a stroke and his wife and daughters supervise him closely.  On Tuesdays he is allowed to go out on his own and he often goes to visit his former boss at his office.  You can see both men are normally emotionally reserved but the conversation about their lost sons causes the boss to breakdown.  When left alone he notices a fly has gotten some ink on his wings (people used fountain pins and inkwells in 1922).  He watches the fly try to dry his wings.  I don't want to impair the first time experience of new readers on this story so I will tell no more of the plot.  In the fate of the fly the man seems to see the fate of his son, on another level the man takes on the role of the cruel Gods that took his son from him, that took all meaning from his life accumulating business which he intended to pass to his son.  The close is open to numerous views and I am sure this would be a very good classroom story for advanced students. 

"Mr Gregory's Fly" is a surrealistic story, very different from "The Fly".  Gloria Orenstein in her introduction to the 1975 collection of six of Her says

"Leonora Carrington's express the system of being through occult parables whose true meaning becomes accessible to those initiated into the specific form of symbolism that a work displays. The symbols are emblems derived from a deep knowledge of alchemy, Cabala, Magic, the Tarot, witchcraft and mythology".

I have issues with the notion of short stories having "a true meaning" but this is an illuminating remark.  Long long ago I was quite into the occult, I studied various system of Magik.  I know Katherine Mansfield had some acquaintance with occult theories on the order of those expounded by The Order of the Golden Dawn but I did not recall any specific occult symbolism about flys.  I did a Google search and did not find any big revelations so I decided just to enjoy "Mr Gregory's Fly" as fun very brief surrealistic story poking fun at a pretentious business man. 

"Once there was a man with a big black moustache. His name was Mr. Gregory (the man and the moustache had the same name). Since his youth Mr. Gregory was bothered by a fly that used to enter his mouth when he spoke, and when somebody spoke to him, the fly would fly out of his ear. “This fly annoys me,” said Mr. Gregory to his wife, and she answered, “I understand, and it looks ugly. You ought to consult a doctor.” However no doctor was able to cure Mr. Gregory of his fly. Although he went to see several doctors, they always said that they had never heard of this disease. One day Mr. Gregory went to see another doctor, but he got the wrong address and by mistake went to see a midwife. She was a wise woman and she knew a lot of other things besides childbirthing."

This captures well the flavor of the prose.  The wise woman says she can get rid of the fly but the man must give her three quarters of his assets to her.  He agrees knowing he actually owns little or nothing.  He follows her suggestion, the fly is gone but there is a side effect:

"Later Mr. Gregory took the pills in the tea made of little drops of mustard in noodle water, according to the instructions of the wise woman. Next day the fly had totally disappeared, but Mr. Gregory had become navy blue with red zip fasteners over his orifices. “It’s worse than the fly,” said his wife, but Mr. Gregory didn’t say much because he knew that he had cheated the wise woman. I deserved it, he thought. If I only had that little fly again, I’d be happy. But he was still navy blue with red zip fasteners and stayed like that till the end of his days, and this was very ugly, especially when he was naked in his bath."

To me "Mr Gregory's Fly" is and was meant to be fun but I don't doubt there are deeper meanings.

Mel u

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Two Yiddish Short Stories by Joseph Opatoshu (Aka Yousef or Yosef) author of The Romance of a Horse Thief

Yousef Opatoshu, 1986, born in Miana Poland, moved to New York City, 1907, died in New York City 1954, (aka Yosef, Americanized pen  name Joseph) did not begin writing Yiddish prior to immigrating to New York City.  There are two very interesting short stories, about Eastern European Jews in America, included in the necessary anthology Jewish Literature in America.  My one small issue with this huge collection (815 works) is that no first publication dates are given for the works.  Some I can find via a Google search, some, like these two, I have guessed.

"Judaism" (1919?) is a story of a Rabbi's abuse of a young Christian woman who has come to him to be converted.  She wants to marry a rich young a Jewish man.  The Rabbi asks her how her family feels about this and she says they love her fiancé.
He subjects her to a much more lengthy and demanding course of study than normal.  He is tired of being the lackey of his rich congregation and is taking it out on her.

"The rabbi’s Sabbath had been disturbed. Why did he take such pride in following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, when in reality he was a lowly slave who did whatever the wealthy Bizhorn told him to? Abulafia took revenge. He saw to it that the lessons with Helen would be a living Hell for the girl. Right away, at the first lesson, the rabbi threw up a mountain of difficulties."

"President Smith" (1923?) is set in Chicago. Just as have other immigrant groups, people from the same area in Poland would tend to live in the same area in America, relatives and friends helping each other.  The Synagogue was the heart of the community.  This is the story a Rabbi, who when just a young man and already a Rabbi, moved to New York City where most of his congregation landed in Chicago.  Forty years has long by and he is come to visit them in Chicago.  The President of the Synagogue is Mr. Smith. He changed his name and most of his cultural trappings as he over many years has become rich.  The story is kind of about President Smith's acknowledging his cultural roots.  In just a few pages Opatoshu brings a lot of the Yiddish immigrant experience to life.

"It was the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. The New York-to-Chicago express train raced in like a demon, whistling and gasping. Passengers started tumbling out of the cars. Some moved to the exit and others just stood there. From the last car, Reb Yosl the cantor emerged. He was a tall man with a long black beard that was turning gray at the edges, and he was wearing a rabbi’s hat. He had come to pray with his fellow townsmen, the people of Mlave, on the High Holy Days. Reb Yosl put down the valise he had been holding in his hand and started looking around, looking for the delegation from the Anshey Mlave synagogue". From "President Smith"

Joseph Opatoshu

Yiddish Literature on The Reading Life

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dawn by Olivia Butler (1987, Part One of The Lilith's Blood Trilogy)

Olivia Butler 1947 to 2006, multi-awarded American Science Fiction Writer

Dawn is part one of Olivia Butler's Lilith's  Blood Trilogy.  I have previously read her Bloodchild and Kindred.  It is my hope to read all of her fiction available as Kindles.

Dawn begins on a vast space ship, itself a living being.  Around 250 years ago America and Russia had a nuclear war which left the earth virtually uninhabitable.  The aliens aboard the ship, the Oankali, removed the survivors and have placed them in deep sleep.  They are planning to return them to earth after they are trained in survival skills.  The Oankali are very strange, to the humans, multitentacled beings.  Lilith, who is African American in origin, is being kept in a room with an alien when we meet her.

The best thing, and it is very well done, about Dawn, is the conceptual ideas, the creation of the aliens, who have been on the ship so long they do not know for sure where there home world is located.  The weakest aspect of the novel, and I found this pretty wanting, was the relationships that develop between the wakened humans as the aliens prepare to return them to the earth, in a jungle environment.

I enjoyed this book.  It falls short of greatness but the overall idea behind it was super interesting.  I have begun part two, Adulthood Rituals.  I bought the trilogy on Amazon for $2.95.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"The Debutante" by Leonora Carrington (1939

You can read "The Debutante" here

Very well done video and reading by of "The Debutante"

Leonora Carrington- Britain's Last Surrealist Tate Shots. A wonderful beautifully done video -  (By the author of The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Joanna Moorhead, includes a conversation with  Carrington as well as images of her art)

Leonora Carrington A Surrealist Trip from Lancashire to Mexico. From the BBC

In observation of the 100th birth anniversary (April 6, 1917) of Leonora Carrington two collections of her short stories and a fascinating sounding biography by Joanna Moorhead, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington are being published. Carrington was very closely associated with the Surrealist movement, both personally and artistically.  (In the long ago I visited the Museum of the Museo Nationale de Anthropologia in Mexico City where I must have seen one of her works.  Her art is on display in major museums throughout the world.) There are several good articles giving an overview of the life and work of Carrington online, the one from the BBC I linked above is a very good first resource as is our old standby, Wikipedia.

I was very happy to find I could read one of her most famous short stories "The Debutante" online.  My main purpose here is to journalize my first venture into the literary world of Leonora Carrington and to let interested readers know that some small portion of her work can be read online.

"The Debutante", Reading time for most will be under five minutes but it maybe all you can digest in 24 hours.  It is told in the first person by a teenage girl who will soon be going to a debutante ball.  Her best and perhaps only friend is a highly intelligent hyena she visits almost every day at the zoo.  She has taught him to speak French and from him (or her) she has learned the communicative system of hyenas.  She tells the hyena she hates the idea of going to the ball.  When the hyena hears about all the great food that will be served, he offers to go in her place.  I don't want to tell more of the plot of this story but it lives up to the canons of surrealism.  I loved it and look forward to learning more about her.

I suggest you first read the story then in a day or so watch the video production of the story by  It has a brief interview with Carrington and includes a good bit of her art.

I will soon post on her story, "The Fly".

Please share your experiences with Leonora Carrington with us

Mel u

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Sweeping Past" by Yiyun Li (August, 2007, in The Guardian)

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Yiyun Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has served on the jury panel for Man Booker International Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Heminway Award, and other. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.  from

My Posts on Yiyun Li

"Sweeping Past" on The Guardian

Yiyun Li is one of my favorite contemporary writers.  I have posted on both of her novels and her profound memoir Dear Friend I Write From My Life to Yours as well as several of her beautifully crafted short stories.

My main purposes today are to journalize my reading of "Sweeping Past" and to let anyone interested know that the story can be read online on the webpage of The Guardian.

"Sweeping Past", set in China, is a fifty year look back on the lives of three girls who became "sworn sisters".  The practice was looked down upon as feudal in Maoist China.  The times were to turn ugly as a hatred for anything that seemed "western" or capitalistic became despised.

The women are now in their early sixties.  China has largely become a capitalist country.  A granddaughter of one of the women, her parents emigrated to Portugal long ago and own a very prosperous Chinese restaurant, is back in China for a two week vacation.  She learns much about the family history of the girls, a grandson of one raped and murdered the daughter of another, not wanting to wait for their intended marriage for sex.  He was executed.

I don't want to tell more of the story.  You can read it in ten minutes or so.  Li is a master at the depiction of the passing sweep of time.

Mel u

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

The Olivia Butler Society. Your first resource

A few days ago, inspired by an essay by Zadie Smith, I made my first venture into the fiction  of Octavia Butler (1947 to 2006, multi-awarded American Science Fiction writer), Bloodlines.  This Hugo and Nebula Prize Winning Novella about human alien relationships was so good I wanted to read more of her work.

I decided to next read her very highly regarded and commercially very successful fantasy novel, Kindred.  The plot description of a modern African American woman who involuntarily time travels back to a slave plantation in the old south in 1816 sounded very interesting
and most reviewers seem to love Kindred so I hit the "Buy Now" button and it was on my E Reader.

Kindred begins in Los Angeles, California in 1976.  Dana is an aspiring writer married to Kevin, a white man, who is a commercially successful writer.  They met working as temporary employees doing inventory at a big auto parts place.  They bonded though their love of books and their interest in pursuing a literary career.  They are maybe 27 or so.

One day Dana feels dizzy, she wakes up in Maryland, on a plantation by a river where a young boy, the son of the plantation owner, is drowning.  She rescues him and is completely shocked when he calls her a "nigger" and asks her who owns her.  The young boy says she "talks funny", she realizes somehow the boy is one of her ancestors.  Of course she is terrified to be on the plantation in these times, has no idea how she got here.  She witnesses a slave being beaten for attempting to run away, savaged by the boy's father.  She is transported back to her home in California, she is covered in mud, Kevin says she was only gone for two minutes but it seems like hours to Dana.

In all Dana time travels six times, she learns she will somehow go back when she is in mortal danger.  Dana experiences the cruelty of slave life when she is beaten with a bull whip, nearly raped by a white slave catcher who thought she was a run a way, sees children sold away from their mothers so the plantation mistress could buy some new furniture, works under backbreaking conditions in the field (house slave had in better than field workers) and witnesses her own foremother, a freed slave, forced into concubinage status to the young boy, now grown, she saved long ago.

Kindred is not just about slavery in America, it is about the marriage of Dana and Kevin, both their parents opposed the mix race marriage.  Dana loves reading and is into the reading life (as was Octavia Butler) with her husband.  When she returns beaten she fears if she goes to a doctor they will think Kevin did it and if she or Kevin tell the real story, they will be thought crazy.

There is much more in Kindred than I have touched upon.  It is so exciting and more than a bit frightening to watch Dana's life on the slave plantation.  In one episode Kevin goes with her, five years pass but when they return only a few days have passed.  Kindred is beautifully narrated.  We see the kitchen slaves eating table scraps, the slaves informing on each other to curry favor with the master, get to hate the owner's wife who has to pretend she does not notice the slave children who resemble her husband.

Kindred would be a great class room book, in the hands of a skilled pedagogue.

I have added Olivia Butler to my "read all I can list".  I will next read her futuristic Lilith Trilogy.

Please share your experiences with Olivia Butler with us.

Mel u