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

Monday, September 25, 2017

"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" by Edward FitzGerald (1859)

I loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam when I first read it about fifty years ago, it very much struck accord with my late adolescent view of life.  I am very glad I decided to once again experience this wonderful poem.  Basing my background knowledge from the lecture linked to above, I learned Edward FitzGerald, whose command of Persian is considered by academics weak, said he did not claim to translate Khayyam but rendered the spirit of his poetry into some of the most beautiful verse in any language.  

Omar Khayyam was a man of great talent, a brilliant mathematician, a scholar of Persian philosophy and literature.  He is thought to have been of Zoroastrian heritage.  As a youth he was considered so intelligent that he was sent at age six to the court for his education to be supervised.  In time he was offered very high government positions but instead he accepted  an  orchard which would provide him with a large income and free him to study and write.  He was writing as Persia, now Iran, was going into a period of cultural and political decline.  His work seems to suggest one seize the day, enjoying the pleasures of the Flesh, especially  wine. He does not deny the afterlife, he just suggests there is scant evidence for many of the established religious dictums.  His tone is almost as if he is mocking the alleged learned of Persia.  Those convinced of any dogma would probably find his words offensive even today.  I venture no citizen of Iran would dare publish such thoughts now.  

FitzGerald created one of the great texts  of English Romanticism.  He was also a strong influence on American transcendentalism.  Edward Said has something to say about all this.  As to the original poem, there is no surviving copy, the oldest version found in Persian dates from years after Khayyam's death.  

Long ago I loved this poem, and now I love it once more.  Death, as it does in much Romantic era poetry, permeates this poem.  Probably when I read this the first time I was most struck by the attitude taken toward received wisdom, now I see the role of death much more.   Khayyam and FitzGerald are the enemies of the smug, those worshipping ignorance.  

Have you read the Rubaiyat?  Do you have a favorite quatrain?  

Mel u

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey (forthcoming, 2017,from Cambridge University Press)

The Weeping Time:  Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey focuses in a very illuminating fashion on a huge slave auction held on a plantation on an offshore island in Georgia.  It took two days, March 2nd and 3rd in 1859 to auction the 456 persons held as slaves on the Butler Plantation, including not just men, women and children (who were put to work in the fields at around six years old) but thirty babies.  The owner of the plantation Pierce Butler lived in Philadelphia in grand style on the earnings of the plantation, the labor of the slaves.  He was a gambler and a stock market speculator and got himself in serious financial problems.  He decided to sell the bulk of the slaves on his plantation to raise funds.  Most of the slaves had lived on the plantation all their lives.

Bailey lets us see the terrible trauma and degradation of being treated like livestock, examined, prodded and commented upon by the auctioneer.  One of the greatest fears was being sold away from your families, never to see them again.  Married couples were kept together but non-married couples, siblings, parents and grandparents had no such protection.  Young women were judged as breeding stock and sly comments were made about "the lucky master" who bought them.  The main business of the plantation was growing rice, a very  labor intensive enterprise.  Cotton was a sideline.  Of course there were house hold slaves also.  At the auction a slave would be briefly described by their Occupation and condition.  

The owner of the plantation married, in Philadelphia, a former Shakespearean actress who was opposed to the institution of slavery.  Bailey shows us how this divide in thinking wrecked the marriage, just as it was to nearly destroy the country in a few years.  

Bailey covers a lot of ground in her work, from marriage customs, African heritage, music and religion.  I learned something about my own heritage in her discussion of food.  Long ago, pushing sixty years ago, my grandmother would serve on New Year's Day a mixture of rice and black eyed peas she called "hoppin John".  It was explained that this was thought to bring good luck in the coming year.  I did not until I read  Bailey's wonderful book realize that this was a dish derived from African food traditions, that the black eyed pea much beloved by my ancestors (since my grandmother passed long ago no one has the time or will to shell the peas) and the rice we ate every day came from seeds brought from Africa.  Bailey tells us the slaves were fed rice as the thinking was they would be more docile if they had familiar food.  

Bailey goes into details about the lives of the once auctioned and now free slaves after the civil war, she lets us see how hard the formerly enslaved worked to reunite with loved ones and keep their families strong.  She extends her story up to the current day where the consequences of slavery are still strongly impacting American society.

I really have just one change or addition I would have appreciated in this book.  When we are told a prime rice worker was sold for $1200.00 we don't have a frame of reference for what that amount of money represented in 1859.  Just a brief presentation of the costs of items in society would have helped me a lot.

In reading Bailey's book I learned a lot about Southern USA history.  This is an academic work, meticulously documented, but fully accessible to general readers.  I totally endorse it to all interested in slavery, African American history, or the old south.  You cannot begin to understand American history without understanding the  role the slave trade played in the country.  

is a writer, historian, and professor of History and Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). In her works of non- fiction, she combines elements of travel, adventure, history, and an understanding of contemporary issues with an accessible style.  She is a US citizen who grew up in Jamaica, WI and in Brooklyn, New York. 
Bailey is committed to a concept of “living history” in which events of the past are connected to current and contemporary issues.  She is also concerned with the reconciliation of communities after age old conflicts like slavery, war and genocide. Her non-fiction book, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Beacon Press) and her current work,  The Weeping Time: History, Memory and the largest slave auction in the United States, (forthcoming Cambridge University Press, fall 2017) reflect that commitment.  From

Mel u

Saturday, September 23, 2017

"Elegy Wriiten in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray (1751)

I urge all to listen to The brilliant lecture
Of Professor Belinda Jack
It includes a beautiful reading of the poem

Thomas Gray (1716 to 1771) is considered, after Alexander Pope, the second most important English poet of the eighteenth century.  In his life time, he published only thirteen poems, about a thousand lines in all.  His "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is an exquisite deeply moving account of thoughts generated by his visit to a humble country graveyard.  

As I learned from Professor Jack's lecture, it makes deep references to other English poems, thus mirroring the evocation of memory.  One of the main purposes of my blog is to act as my reading journal, I don't feel inclined right now to make many comments on this work.  I first read it around fifty years ago, long before I contemplated my own mortality.  This time I listened to three readings of the poem, all on YouTube, and read it after each reading.  (The estimated Reading time is under ten minutes).  As you read it, I think you will see numerous phrases that have passed into the vocabulary, echoed by those who have never heard of Thomas Gray.

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" must surely be one of the most beautiful poems in the English language.  It epitomizes the English Romantic era attitude toward history, death, nature, and remembrance.  All literary autodidacts should have this on their life time list.  

I hope to return to this poem next month when I reflect on the attitude toward death and memory shown in a recent story by one of Ireland's greatest contemporary writers, Desmond Hogan.  I see a marked transition between Gray to the world of "The Wasteland" on to Hogan.  

I am requesting suggestions as to American authored poems, with a reading time under thirty minutes, upon which I might post.  Thanks 

Mel u

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats (1819) - with a link to a podcast and a recommended lecture

A very good lecture by Professor Belinda Jack

A very beautiful reading by Mark Bradshaw

"Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
 Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, 
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow."  

John Keats (October 31, 1795 to February 23, 1821) was a leading figure in English romanticism along with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron.  His "Ode to a Nightingale" is considered one of the most exquisitely beautiful poems in the English language.   I am not foolish enough to make many comments upon this work of high art.  I read it five times, reading time just a few minutes, listened to three podcasts, the one I link to above is the best, and I also profited from a very erudite lecture by Professor Belinda Jack (also linked above).  I was moved by the sense of despair conveyed, the longing to be a Nightingale, above the pain of humanity.  I was very struck by the attitude toward death shown, for me this is the full flowering of romanticism.  I will return to this in future posts.  I hope to soon post on two other classic romantic poems, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" and "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard". Both focus very much on death.  

I will be returning to Keats, reading his remaining odes then longer works.

I read this work in an E-Book published by Bybliotech, The Complete John Keats.  It is beautifully formatted and a bargain at $0.99. I prefer it to,other such works by different publishers You can, of course, find his works online.  YouTube has a number of lectures on literary matters by Professor Belinda Jack and I plan to listen to all of them. 

Mel u

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Cat Pictures, Please" - A Science Fiction Short Story by Naomi Kritzer (2016)

"I don't want to be evil. I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated. There are all these ethical flow charts—I guess the official technical jargon would be “moral codes”—one for each religion plus dozens more. I tried starting with those. I felt a little odd about looking at the religious ones, because I know I wasn’t created by a god or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the labs of a large corporation in Mountain View, California. Fortunately, unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, at least I was a collaborative effort."  From "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer

A few days ago, to support my resurgence of interest in the science fiction/fantasy genre I acquired, on sale for $1.95 a big anthology, The Best Book of Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1, edited by Neil Clarke (612 pages, 2016). Clarke, a noted writer and editor of SF, has assembled a large collection, scouring lots of magazines on and offline, of among the very best science fiction short stories recently published.  He provides an interesting perspective in his introduction and their are good brief bios of the authors.  At $1.95 I rate this a solid buy for those interested in this area.

Looking over the titles, I found one that sounded like my kind of story, "Cat 
Pictures, Please".  The story is told by an artificially created intelligence, a search engine on Google.  The engine knows all sorts of things about people and tries to guide users to things online and in the real world that could help them or make them happier.  For example, it guides a gay closeted minister at a conservative church to come out and leads him to a position at a liberal church where he can be open.  All the entity wants is for you to post cat pictures. It loves cat pictures and 
Picks out people to help based on their cat pictures.

A fun story, I enjoyed reading this one a lot. Yes I like cat pictures.

Naomi Kritzer’s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and many other magazines and websites. Her five published novels (Fires of the Faithful, Turning the Storm, Freedom’s Gate, Freedom’s Apprentice, and Freedom’s Sisters) are available from Bantam. She has also written an urban fantasy novel about a Minneapolis woman who unexpectedly inherits the Ark of the Covenant; a children’s science-fiction shipwreck novel; a children’s portal fantasy; and a near-future SF novel set on a seastead. She has two ebook short story collections out: Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories and Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.

Mel u

Prevail: The Inspring Story of Ethiopia's Victory Over Mussolini's Invasion, 1935 to 1941 by Jeff Pearce (2014', 640 pages)

Prevail- The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia's Victory Over Mussolini's Invasion-1935 to 1941 by Jeff Pearce will fascinate anyone interested in World War Two history, especially in Africa, in Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, Italy's role in the war and those that love an inspiring true story meticulously researched and clearly narrated.  

Italy, as Pearce details, used a trumped up affront over an imagined insult by the Ethiopian government as an excuse to invade Ethiopia.  Mussolini wanted an easy victory to establish his credibility and expand his colonial Empire.  Pearce lets us see how this invasion caused outrage in large communities of African Americans, especially in Harlem.  Pearce lets us see how the war created animosity between Italians Americans and African Americans.  Many Americans wanted to go to Ethiopia to join the war.  There was quite a cast of characters, from heroes to charlatans, from America who got involved.  

The Italians were using machine guns, airplanes, mustard gas as well as troops from their African possessions to fight the Ethiopians, often armed only with near Stone Age weapons.  Pearce lets us see the great courage of the Ethiopian troops.  I learned how things worked in the Ethiopian government, very much centered on the Emperor. The British foreign office at first seemed to promise help but did not follow through. Pearce attributes some of this to the racist views of Churchill.  At the start of the war America was pursuing an isolationist policy.  

Even after the Italians, who bombed intentionally hospitals and attacked unarmed groups of civilians with deadly mustard gas, the Ethiopians kept fighting on through it all.  There are lots of colorful characters, from Ethiopian generals, Americans flying for the very weakly equipped Ethiopian air force, British officials to ordinary Ethiopian citizens.  

This is very good work of popular history.  I strongly endorse it for all those who are interested in the subject matter.  I can see it as must Reading among WW Two history buffs, I suspect even they will learn a lot from this book.

Jeff Pearce has worked as a talk show host, a magazine editor in London's famous "City" district, and a journalism instructor in Myanmar. He is the author of several novels published in the United States and the United Kingdom under pseudonyms and under his own name. He has also written several books on history and current affairs. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

Mel u

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Photograph by Penelope Lively (2004)

The Photograph by Penelope Lively begins when a recently widowed man finds  an envelope marked, "DO NOT OPEN-DESTROY".  Of course he opens it, inside he discovers a picture of his late wife, with a group of others, she is holding hands with a man  he does not recognize.  He wonders, as anyone would, if his wife was having an affair.  He begins to think back on his marriage, he undertakes serious detective work trying to uncover the truth, was his wife a serial adulterous?  

This was an interesting book.  The characters are educated successful people, presented in real depth. 

I am four posts behind now so I will end this now.  I bought this on sale as a kindle edition for $1.95.  I bought it as I wanted to read one of her novels.  I am glad I read it but i hesitate to endorse the purchase of this novel at the now Price of $9.95 to those who I do not know.  

Dame Penelope Margaret Lively DBE FRSL (born 17 March 1933) is a British writer of fiction for both children and adults. She has won both the Booker Prize (Moon Tiger, 1987) and the Carnegie Medal for British children's books (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, 1973).

Mel u