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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (1943)

This is the 3000th post on The Reading Life.  I think for me Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (1920 to 1970)is a perfect subject for this post.  She is one of my favorite writers, her image is on my blog sidebar. If I had never started my blog I would have, I am quite sure, died having never heard about much less read her great work.  There are hundreds of other writers of which the same can be said featured on the blog.  

As of now I am still dealing with a painful and strength sapping illness, but nothing on the level of the pain of the terminal cancer Clarice dealt with in the final days of her life.  In Clarice's family and life story much of the history of the 20th century can be encapsulated.  

Near to the Wild Heart, the title comes from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was her first novel, published at age twenty three when she was still in law school and working as a journalist.  Her prose style mesmerized Brazilian literary society.  Early critics proclaimed it the best novel ever written in Portuguese by a woman.  

It is a stream of consciousness work, not conventionally plotted, in which Joana, a recently married woman in her early twenties, recalls incidents from her life.  I was struck by her extensive quotations from Spinoza.  

There is background information on Clarice in my prior posts.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Saint-Exupéry A Biography by Stacy Schiff (1994)

My Great Thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that Allowed me to Acquire this Work

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, Comte de Saint-Exupéry

Born June 29, 1900 Lyon, France

Missing in action and presumed dead, July 31, 1944

1943, published The Little Prince, one of ten best selling books of the 20th century, translated into over 250 languages and dialects.

Antoine Saint-Exupréry and the era and milieu in which he lived is elegantly and memorably described in Saint-Exupéry A Biography by Stacey Schiff.  Last year I read her Pulitzer Price winning biography Vera Mrs Vladimir Nabokov and when I saw her name among the contemporary literary biographers admired by Richard Holmes I was happy to find on Amazon a Kindle edition of her biography of the author of The Little Prince.

Schiff initiates her work by describing the aristocratic roots of her subject.  She described him as a Nobel Man, a Count, without a great fortune.  Schiff elegantly presents a man with three great loves, his mother, piloting planes, and women.  He epitomized the image of a charming, refined ladies man often short of money until his writings relieved him of financial anxiety.  He married an odd woman, they lived apart much of the time and neither seemed to have really loved the other.

The first real commercial application of the airplane was for mail delivery.  From an early age Saint-Exupéry was obsessed with flying.  His first real job was flying the mail run between Casablanca and Daka.  His experiences were the stuff of legend, with crashes in the desert, pursuit by angry tribesmen and many a night drinking in the clubs in Casablanca (he would have been equally at home at the Elegant Rick's Cafe or the noir Blue Parrot).  Everywhere he went ladies were spell bound by his stories and captivated by his charm and good looks.

He became director of a Buenos Aires based postal airline and flew over much of South America.  His best selling book, Night Flight, published 1931, was based on these experiences.  Returning to France upon the death of his mother he began flying again all the while his concern over the build up of Germany increased.

Schiff spends a lot of time describing what it was like to fly in the mail planes of those days, many died or were badly injured.  Saint Exupéry suffered a serious back injury.  When France surrendered to Germany he and his wife made it to New York City where they lived from 1941 to 1943.  He had money from his book sales and he was working hard to bring America into the war.  We also learn a lot about the competition of De Gaule with others to be the leader of the French liberation effort. 

In 1944 he returned to Europe.  Doctors said he was not really medically fit to fly, he was also way older than most pilots.  He wanted very badly to help defeat the Germans.  He was declared missing in action on July 31, 1944 when his recognizance flight did not return.

Saint Expuréy was a heroic life loving man. He loved good food and wine, when he had money he was generous.  Sadly he never saw the huge financial rewards of the 1943 publication of The Little Prince but his widow lived like a queen on them for many years.  He had no children.  Schiff makes no ill-advised attempt to explain how he created  The Little Prince.  He probably a triffle haughty seeming to some.  There were rumors he had an affair with Anne Lindbergh, wife of Charles.  

This is a fascinating biography, rich in detail and understanding. 

Details about the authors other books and her bio data can be found at

I very highly recommend this book, as much for the aviation and social history as for the magnificent biography 

Mel u

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Savage Beauty The Life of Edna Saint Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

"My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—It gives a lovely light!"

1892 Born Rockland, Maine

1952, Died Austeritz, New York

1943 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Edna Saint Vincent Millay was the most read poet of her generation.

Recently I read a great work that may well become required reading for those into reading or writing literary biographies, This Long Pursuit Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, himself one of the true masters of the form.  In it he recommends a number of contemporary writers of literary biographies, among them Nancy Milford.  I did an Amazon check on her and acquired her biography of Edna Saint Vincent Millay.

Savage Beauty is a wonderful biography, doing the very difficult if not impossible task of showing how Millay's life experiences, her education, her relationships (she was openly bisexual) and reading and her own brilliance germinated together to produce her poetry.

Millay grew up in near poverty.  Her father left her mother and she struggled to make a living as a seamstress.  Wherever the family moved, the mother carried a trunk full of classic literature. By age ten Millay was reading Milton and Shakespeare.  She graduated from Vassar in 1917.

Her first poem was published in 1912, the very powerful "Renascence".  Her work was in demand from that point onwards.  Mitford lets us see the hardships she suffered.  Her like took an upswing when she married a man very devoted to her, accepting of her older same sex relationships.  He managed her business affairs and took care of all domestic duties freeing her to write.  In addition to her poetry, she wrote a number of plays, largely for income.

The end of her life was a period of great pain from cancer which she tried to fight by resorting to alcohol.  Of course this just made things all the worse.

I am very glad I read this book. It is made me feel I knew the poet.

I have also acquired her Collected Works and am slowly reading her magnificent poems.

Mel u

Monday, February 13, 2017

Babette's Feast by Karen Blixen (1950, written under pen name Isak Dinesen,)

1885 to 1962 - Denmark

Most Famous Works 

Out of Africa -her autobiography 1937

Gothic Tales 1938

"Babette's Feast" (first published in Ladies Home Journal) is a delight fable-like work set in 19th century Denmark.  Babette, from France, is the cook for two middle aged spinsters sisters.  Their deceased father was the leader of a religious cult once very popular in Denmark.  The sisters have romantic memories of affairs that almost happened.

Babette is from Paris.  One day she wins a substantial prize in a French lottery.  She decides to use the money to stage a magnificent feast for the sisters and their friends.  We learn Babette was once one of the greatest chefs in all of Paris. I super enjoyed this story.

Right now I am impacted by a lingering weaking  health issue so some posts like this one will be more like reading journal entries.  

There is a highly rated movie based on this story, 1987, I hope to see one day

Mel u

Friday, February 10, 2017

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann (April, 2017)

My Posts on Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Through the wonderful fiction of Colum McCann I have wandered through ravaged post World War Two Eastern Europe with Roma, been a tunnel digger in New York City, made a transatlantic flight in 1917 from the USA to Ireland, met Rudolf Nureyev and Frederick Douglas, walked across a very high wire while the great world spinned on.

Letters to a Young Writer is based on the experience and wisdom McCann acquired in teaching for twenty years in the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.  The program takes two years and accepts only twelve applicants out of hundreds.  Students have

 gone on to win a Booker Prize and other top literary awards.  He tells us he begins his class by informing  his students creative writing cannot really be taught and then he tells them to open their minds and prepare to learn.

There are fifty three chapters, each one readable in just a minute or two.  McCann ranges over topics such as what to read (read difficult books, Ulysses is his candidate for greatest novel ever written), where to write, what music you might play while writing, finding and dealing with an agent, how to employ your personal life in your work, assuming your readers are at least as smart as you think you are, down to dealing with success and learning from failure.

I am not an aspiring writer of fiction but I believe very strongly that deep reading is one of the most creative arts and the greatest tribute one can pay to a writer.  Much of McCann's advise about writing could apply to reading. You just have to use your imagination and free yourself from the bonds of pedagogy.

I highly recommend this book to all aspiring  writers.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Grigory Rasputin Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith (2016, 850 pages)

Last year I read a marvelous book, Former People- The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith.  After reading it, I lost my romantic admiration for White Russians due to their vehement anti-Semitic actions and views.  They blamed the Jews for the loss of their privileged positions.

I have long been interested in the declining years of the Romanov dynasty and the role of Grigory Rasputin in the fall of the empire.  I was delighted to learn of Douglas Smith's just published book Grigory Rasputin Faith, Power, and the Decline of the Romanovs.

Much of this book is devoted to correcting the legend of Rasputin as a mad wandering monk who walked out of deepest Siberia and became a close advisor to the last royal family of Russia.  He gained an emotional hold on the Empress Alexandra through his seeming ability to stop the potentially deadly hemophiliac episodes of her son, heir to the throne.  Smith provides the first plausible explanation for this I have read in saying that the attacks are made worse through tension and by calming the mother this calmed the son and stopped the bleeding.  He first met the imperial family in November 1905.

Rasputin had large sexual appetites.  He mingled with street women as well as women of high rank.  He had large parties, often described as orgies in the press.  Rasputin knew aristocratic Russian women would be fascinated by his roughness and his wild often filthy dress and outrageous manners and Rasputin, a master psychologist, played the holy mad man role for all it was worth. False rumors spread about he and Alexandra.  Smith details all of this and separates fact from fiction while painting a vivid social portrait not just of capital Life but of the country.  Rasputin had a wife and children whom he supported.

Rasputin 1869 to 1917

Royal Family Executed July 17, 2018

Rasputin became an advisor to the Czar, who was in no way fit to rule Russia.  Rasputin was influential in his suggestions for political office.  He gave the Czar advise, which to his credit the Czar at times ignored.  It was, as Smith elegantly portrays the Czarina who was most under the influence of Rasputin.

This is a book full of fascinating interludes.  The story of the assassination of Rasputin has been told many times and Smith does a very good job of this.

He tells us about Rasputin's role in WW One.

Smith sees Rasputin as a very important figure in Russian and indeed world history.  He suggests without Rasputin there might never have been a Russian Revolution and without the Russian Revolution there may not have been a Nazi regime in Germany.  This is a lot to accept but it should be pondered.

This is a very good book.  It is long, with nearly 250 pages of notes.  It is probably going to be the definitive work on Rasputin for a long time. It is not for casual readers but for those seriously interested in Russian history.

Mel u

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge (1973)

Beryl Bainbridge on The Reading Life

For a while my posts may be quite short.  I am kind of working of a weaking illness but still want to keep track of my reading.

The Dressmaker is a very good depiction of England at home during W W Two.   It focuses on two unmarried  middle aged sisters and their brother living together along with the brother's daughter.  His wife died in child birth.

We see them coping with rationing, facing the destruction of London. I was a bit surprised how much the American troops were resented, mostly jealousy it seemed.

I highly recommend this book for the fine character depictions and descriptions of London wartime life