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, May 21, 2017

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh (2015, Part Three of The Ibis Trilogy, 624 pages)

Works in The Ibis Trilogy

Sea of Poppies - published 4/2008, read 4/2012

River of Smoke - Published 6/2012, read 2/2015

Flood of Fire - Published 3/2015, read 5/2017

Flood of Fire of Fire is the final installment in The Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh.  The Trilogy is set largely in the Bay of Bengal region of India and in the Canton region of China.  It is historical fiction on a grand scale, over 1600 pages in total.  It's center of focus is the impact of the opium trade on India and China, focusing on the period leading up to the first opium war, 1839 to 1842.

The ship The Ibis, was once used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  A former first mate, Zachary, his mother was an slave owned by his white father, serves as kind of a unifying character.

Book One of The Ibis Trilogy focuses on the impact of the opium trade on people living in the Bengali region of India, near the Bay of Bengal.

Book Two focuses more on the areas of China where opium entered the country, near Canton.  It shows the destruction the drug reaped on the Chinese.

Book Three details the economic aspects of the opium trade and very excitingly depicts naval and land battles between the English and the Chinese.  It goes into a lot of fascinating detail about The British East India Company, which had a very large army.  We learned what is was like to be an English officer, an Indian sepoy in the service of the army, the wife of a top British officer, a servant of an officer and much more.  I think anyone interested in 19th century India, English Colonial activity, the history of the drug trade, or the British East India company will love this book. As The Flood of Fire opens Zachary is in a bit of trouble.  The Ibis has stopped in Bengal and cannot sail for months.  The owner cannot or will not support him while the boat is being repaired.  He is trained as a ship carpenter and is offered a job restoring a Junk to be used as a pleasure craft by a high ranking East India Company officer.  In a weird, ok some will find this unintentionally funny, I think, segment the owner's wife observes him one day, through a telescope, polishing a brass handle.  She notices he often does this and becomes convinced he was engaging frequent masterbation, considered by the woman a great sin.  She approaches him, at first he has no idea what she is talking about, and offers him a brochure on dealing with this "vice".  Soon they become sexually involved, a horrible social offense for both.  During their sexual encounters they speak in pidgin English, I found this over done and silly almost.  Zachary becomes very involved in the opium trade and in naval battles.  

Sea of Fire also focuses on an Indian servant of a British officer as well as the widow of an Indian woman, her family was rich from the opium trade, who discovers her husband had a long time mistress, a Chinese woman,  and a son in Canton.  There is a lot of drama surrounding her trip to Canton to meet her husband's son, now a young man. Characters in the previous two books, like Paulette, reappear in Book Three.

To me the best thing, and I'm enthralled by this aspect, was the historical details, the many terms I learned, the inside look at the opium trade and the British East India Company, life in Bengali, and the pervasive corruption and evil of the drug trade.  We also see how the drug trade helped make Hong Kong a great city.

Some say the characters in Book Three are not as well developed as those in the first two segments and I guess I agree.

Don't consider reading Flood of Fire  without reading the first two installments.
To read it in full is a big commitment of reading time.  I was able to recall much of the first two segments by reading my posts on them.  My reading of the work was  over a five year period as I waited for parts two and three to be published.  In the interim I read the author's very good work set in mid 19th century Burma, The Glass Palace.

I strongly endorse this Trilogy to lovers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the time and place the book covers. The work has a kind of old fashioned feel to it which I relished.

Ghosh spent over ten years working on these books, you can see tremendous research behind the details.


Official Site of Amitav Ghosh

 My Prior Posts on Amitav Ghosh

Friday, May 19, 2017

Down Below by Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington (1917 to 2011) was born in England and died in a country she much preferred, Mexico. Interest in her writings and her surrealistic art is now quite high, brought on my recent publications occasioned by the 100th anniversary of her birth, including a collection of her short stories and a biography.

The first quandary one has upon completing Down Below, I read it the minimum needed twice, is to decide if it is a memoir of her period of mental illness and her confinement to an asylum, is it a work of the imagination perhaps stimulated by these experiences or should it be read as a fictional
account of the narrator's descent into madness?  Is it a Dantesque journey into the Under World, the Down Below, of Surrealism inspired by occult theories behind that movement?  You can read it as working out "Daddy Issues" with her very rich father who regarded her interest in the arts as itself a manifestation of mental illness

A good bit of the work is taken up with her time in the asylum.  She talks about her reaction to the arrest of her lover, a leading Surrealist. The narrator hallucinates and views workers and doctors as embodied representatives of evil spirits.  She sees her father everywhere.  We also go along when she escapes to a Mexican consulate and is given shelter, as we're many artists, from the Nazis.  She moves to Mexico.

She was initially pushed into madness when her great love, the artist Max Ernst, was sent to die in a concentration camp for producing what the Germans saw as "degenerate" art.  The narration mixes simple reporting of what happened to Carrington with out of accepted reality interpretation of events.  Down Under is considered one of the great treatments of the descent into madness.  It completely fascinated me.   In the way back I was fascinated by the occult, maybe I'm coming back to this.

The just published New York Review of Books edition of Down Below contains a very informative and generously lengthy introduction by Marina Warner, who was acquainted with Carrington.

Even the publication history of Down Below requires an explanation.  Here are the textual notes from the NYRB edition.

"NOTE ON THE TEXT First written in English in 1942 in New York (text now lost). Dictated in French to Jeanne Megnen in 1943, then published in VVV, No. 4, February 1944, in a translation from the French by Victor Llona. The original French dictation was published by Editions Fontaine, Paris, 1946. Both the French dictation and the Victor Llona translation were used as the basis for the text here, which was reviewed and revised for factual accuracy by Leonora Carrington in 1987."

My prior posts on the short fiction of Carrington contain links to nine of her short stories as well as articles and videos I found interesting.

Please share your experience with Carrington, either through her art or writings, with us.

Mel u

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (2016)

I was drawn to read Idra Novey's debut novel, Ways to Disappear, for three reasons.  Firstly, It was awarded the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize by the Jewish Book Council for best Jewish book of 2017.  (I highly recommend subscribing to their newsletter.). Secondly she translated The Passion According to G. H. by Clarice Lispector, anyone that helps make her work more accessible has my great thanks. Finally it is set in Brazil, of which I have very fond memories.

The novel is a kidnapping crime mystery work.  One of Brazil's most loved writers was last seen, in Rio, climbing up a tree.  She is now missing.  Her American translator decides to search for her.    There is romance, hey it is Brazil, the ambience of the tropics, the corruption of Brazilian law enforcement, descriptions of Kilogramma, my favorite inexpensive Rio restaurant, and ever complicating mysteries.  Kidnapping is an ever present risk for the wealthy and it looks like this is what may have happened.

The translator reflects on her craft.  The missing writer is Jewish, as was Clarice Lispector, and we see aspects of traditional Jewish family practices.  The setting is not just Rio de Janeiro but also Salvador and an off shore resort island.

Jewish migration to Brazil   goes back to the start of Portuguese rule.  In the early 20th century many Jewish families, as did that of Clarice Lispector, left Eastern Europe for Brazil, to escape vicious anti-Semitic pograms.  Recife in Salvador was the most common initial destination.

Ways to Disappear is an exciting fast read, well worth your time.  It drew extensive rave reviews in the literary press.

Idra Novey is the author of the debut novel Ways to Disappear, winner of the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize, the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Prize, and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her poetry collections include Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series, The Next Coun­try, a final­ist for the 2008 Fore­word Book of the Year Award, and Clarice: The Visitor, a collaboration with the artist Erica Baum. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into ten languages and she’s written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, NPR’s All Things Con­sid­ered, New York Magazine, and The Paris Review. She is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine, the PEN Trans­la­tion Fund, and the Poetry Foundation. She’s also translated the work of several prominent Brazilian writers, most recently Clarice Lispector’s novel The Pas­sion Accord­ing to G.H. She’s taught at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, Columbia, NYU, Fordham, the Catholic University of Chile, and in the Bard Prison Initiative. This fall she is the Visiting Distinguished Writer in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at LIU Brooklyn.  From

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Isabel Yap - Two Fascinating Works of Speculative Fiction

Isabel Yap's Webpage. Includes Links to her Stories

Very recently I read and posted on Alyssa Wong's Nebula Prize Winning short story, "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers".   In an interview on Wong's very well done webpage, she recommended several other writers of speculative fiction, among them Isabel Yap.

Isabel Yap's webpage has links to several works of speculative fiction (some use the term "fantasy").  Yap grew up in the greater Manila area, where many of my readers as well as my family and I live, and some of her fiction is set there.  I read two of her stories (there are links to all these stories on Yap's webpage) and I liked them both a lot.

Short, third-person bio: Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California, Tokyo, and London. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop. Her work has recently appeared on, Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction volume 2. She is @visyapon Twitter and her website is
Photo credit: Katie Williams
Photo credit: Katie Williams
Longer bio:
I was born in Manila, Philippines in 1990, and grew up in Quezon City. In 2013 I graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in Marketing and minors in Japanese and English. That same year, I attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego. By day I work for a San Francisco-based start-up in the mobile app industry (yes, it’s very Silicon Valley).
I once almost slid off the muddy face of Mt. Makiling and plummeted to my doom.
I like to write all kinds of things, especially short fiction and poetry. I’ve also written over a hundred fics for more than thirty fandoms. I haven’t written too many lately, but I pop up every now and then if I think a story needs telling.
Someday I hope to write longer things.
If you feed me sugar I will be rather pleased.
I like nice people, ugly dogs, observation, music, tea, hard lemonade, and ramen. From her webpage 

I will keep my comments on each story brief so as to allow those into speculative fiction to expand without having the plot of the stories overly revealed to them.

"The Orian's Song" is a very impressively written and researched work about the life of a woman being used, during World War II, as a "pleasure girl" by a troop of Japanese soldiers.  She was raised in the floating world of Tokyo in a tea shop, when such places were combinations of brothels and geisha houses.  The soldiers could not have afforded the rates of the floating world so below the surface this is a story of class distinctions.  The woman has been taught to shot and has other duties also.  We come to learn of the names of spirits of the countryside of Japan. The woman hates the soldiers, there is also a seemingly gay young man also with her.  "The Orian's" song is very interesting for the use of folk lore, the recreation of the days of World War II, and for the skill Yap shows in getting us involved with the characters.

"Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?" Is set in Manila.  It really does a wonderful job with the venue in an all girls private school and makes use of a wide range of suspicious or folk beliefs.  It is narrated via conversations among prep school girls.I admit I laughed out loud when I read these lines about one of the teachers at the school.

"Ms. Salinas was young and super skinny, which made up for her ducklike face. On the scale of teachers she was neither bad nor good. She liked to wear white pants, and a rumor had recently spread about how she liked to wear lime-green thongs and was therefore slutty. We amused ourselves during home ec. trying to look through her white pants every time she turned, crouched, or bent."

As to why wearing lime green thongs means you are a slut, who knows, but it for sure rang true as part of the conversations of the students.

The story begins with an account of the opening of the third eye of a teacher.  It quickly expands into various explanations as to how and why one of the students committed suicide.  The story does make uses of Tagalog expressions, to me they enhance the story.  Students at elite private schools all speak English, most instruction is done in English but in conversation even with each other in English they will often use Tagalog expressions.  Google translate will tell you "ate" means "older sister" but there is a deep cultural meaning to this expression and others used in the story.

The girls are all from affluent families and you can sense this in the story.  I really enjoyed this work.

I hope to follow Isabel Yap's development.

Mel u
The Reading Life

Friday, May 12, 2017

Smile by Roddy Doyle (2017)

Smile is the ninth novel by Roddy Doyle I have read and posted upon.  Obviously I greatly enjoy and admire his mostly set in Ireland novels.  I have also read a few of his short stories.

Smile focuses on a middle-aged recently divorced man, Victor Forde, on his own for the first time in years.  He has gotten in the habit of going to the same pub every night for a pint.  One evening a man his age, who he does not quite recall, comes over to speak.  It turns out they went to school together, the teachers were Christian Brothers.  The ensuing conversations bring back memories he had not wanted surfaced of sexual abuse by one of the Brothers.  The man had a sister that Victor fancied.

Flashing back to memories of childhood to those of his marriage we learn Victor was a well known radio commentator famous for his shocking remarks.  His wife is a very well known celebrity and a great beauty.

Like his other novels, Smile is very much a dialogue driven work, the conversations are sharp, funny and real.  We are given real insight into Victor.  As you read on you begin to reevaluate your assessment of Victor.

Smile was a great pleasure to read, just as I expected it would be.

I was kindly given a review copy of this book.

Mel u
The Reading Life

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" by Alyssa Wong ( 2015 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story and 2016 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Short Fiction)

Alyssa Wong's Beautiful Webpage- Includes Links to Eight of her Award Winning Fiction 

From Nightmare Magazine May 2017- A Very Open and Interesting Conversation with Alyssa Wong

A few days ago I as kindly given a review copy of a forthcoming soon anthology, The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman.  I was completely shocked by how much I liked the beautiful lead story, "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong.  Last month I first read the surrealistic short fiction of Leonora Carrington.  If April 2017 was for me the month I "discovered" Leonora Carrington, then quite possibly May will be observed as the month I first read Alyssa Wong.  I know this sounds hyperbolic but I can for sure visualize Leonora being stunned by "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, i certainly was.  I was on first reading mesmerized by the sheer elegance of Wong's prose combined with the very ugly and evil story she tells.

Told in the first person by a young woman out on a first date with a man she met online, a Harvard alumni he claims, the setting is Manhattan.  She is from Taipei.They are on their way to dinner.  We soon learn the woman can read thoughts.  The man is trying to impress her by telling her of his penthouse complete with a Jacuzzi.  Most women would be frightened to learn their date was a serial killer was eagerly looking forward to splitting her body open.  I want to share enough of Wong's style to give my readers a fair sample of her style, which I just love:

"As we cruise uptown toward his fancy-ass penthouse, I ask him to pull over near the Queensboro Bridge for a second. Annoyance flashes across his face, but he parks the Tesla in a side street. I lurch into an alley, tottering over empty cans and discarded cigarettes in my four-inch heels, and puke a trail of champagne and kale over to the dumpster shoved up against the apartment building. “Are you all right?” Harvey calls. “I’m fine,” I slur. Not a single curious window opens overhead. His steps echo down the alley. He’s gotten out of the car, and he’s walking toward me like I’m an animal that he needs to approach carefully. Maybe I should do it now. Yes! Now, now, while the bitch is occupied. But what about the method? I won’t get to see her insides all pretty everywhere—I launch myself at him, fingers digging sharp into his body, and bite down hard on his mouth. He tries to shout, but I swallow the sound and shove my tongue inside. There, just behind his teeth, is what I’m looking for: ugly thoughts, viscous as boiled tendon. I suck them howling and fighting into my throat as Harvey’s body shudders, little mewling noises escaping from his nose. I feel decadent and filthy, swollen with the cruelest dreams I’ve ever tasted. I can barely feel Harvey’s feeble struggles; in this state, with the darkest parts of himself drained from his mouth into mine, he’s no match for me. They’re never as strong as they think they are. By the time he finally goes limp, the last of the thoughts disappearing down my throat, my body’s already changing. My limbs elongate, growing thicker, and my dress feels too tight as my ribs expand."  She changes briefly into his appearance, before she leaves his body near a dumpster, not knowing or caring if he is still alive.

This is not the first man whose life she has ended.   "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" shows us the sexual love of our narrator, her roommate and a high fashion woman she meets for each other.  We also meet the narrator's mother, a hoarder whose house is shoulder high packed with junk, including jars containing the essences of men she has killed, including our narrator's father.  Her mother advised her it is best just to go for common criminals as no one will make a big effort to figure out why they disappeared.  There is a deep feeling of evil in the story, hidden by the beautiful prose and the elegance of the women.

Wong says she wants to write stories in which the chief characters are Asian American lesbians.  There is much in the story I have not touched upon, I want first time readers to not have too much advanced knowledge.

Bio Data from the collection

Alyssa Wong’s considerable reputation rests on only the handful of stories. Still in her mid-twenties, she is the youngest author to appear in this collection. Her work has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Black Static,, and Lightspeed: Queers Destroy Science Fiction. Her first published story, “The Fisher Queen,” earned immediate acclaim and was nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson awards. Wong’s fourth story, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” was published the following year to even stronger acclaim, winning the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and was nominated for the Shirley Jackson and the Bram Stoker awards, and was a finalist for the Locus Award. She was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2016. She lives in Raleigh.

She is the first author of Filipino ancestry to win a Nebula Award.

I will be reading and posting on seven more of her stories.

If just a few of the stories in The New Voices of Fantasy are close to this good, it is well worth acquiring.

Leonora Carrington, best known broadly for her paintings had a very long, seventy years or so, creative career.  I wish the same for Alyssa Wong.

Mel u

Monday, May 8, 2017

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (2013)

2017 African Reading Challenge- Hosted by Kinna Reads

I have wanted to read Ghana Must Go for years.   I read and posted on her debut work of fiction, "The Sex Lives of African Girls" which was published in The Best American Short Stories of 2012.

As the novel opens Kwaki Sai, a doctor, has returned to Ghana, from living for a long time in America.  He is now living,in a house he designed, with his second wife.  He is slowly dying of a heart attack and is recalling, in a poetically rendered cascade of images, his five children, with his first wife, all grown now and highly accomplished immigrants to America.

The children learn of the news of the death of their father while still in America and plan a reunion in Ghana.  His oldest son has followed his father to become a surgeon, he is married to a Chinese American woman. The Guardian review perfectly describes the children:

"Across the ocean in America their children learn of the news. They have their own pre-existing pockets of grief. There is Olu, the oldest, responsible, neat, also a surgeon, married in Las Vegas to Ling, a Chinese-American for whom his love knows neither beginning nor end, yet whom he finds it difficult to accept as his family. There are Taiwo and Kehinde, the beautiful hazel-eyed twins, whose relationship and self-image were skewered by a horrific episode in Lagos when they were children. Taiwo, a gifted writer, sulky and aloof, is studying to be a lawyer, but flounders into a scandalous affair with the dean of her college. Kehinde has become a successful painter, hidden away in a warehouse studio in Brooklyn with scars on his wrist. And then there is Sadie, the youngest, her mother's favourite, the most insecure of all and bulimic with it, studying her hardest at university to shine as brightly as her siblings."

We learn that Africa students are under intense pressure to excel.  The tangled web of colonialism impacts every one in the story.  I sense that people from Ghana tend to feel inferior to Nigerians, or maybe that is just the perception of Nigerians.

Selasi elegantly renders the chaos of Accra, which is still a magnet for self-exiled citizens.  We see the interactions between the educated affluent Ghanaians and other residents, servants, cab drivers and such.  We see relationships between generations.  There is a starkly rendered horrific sex scene I found disturbing.  Violence is never far from the surface in Accra.

This is a challenging book,just as the immigrant experience confuses the characters, we must concentrate to follow the narrative.

The prose is lush and poetic.  The characters are real and very interesting.

A writer and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born in London and raised in Boston, now living in Rome and Berlin, who has studied Latin and music, Taiye Selasi is herself a study in the modern meaning of identity. In 2005 she published the much-discussed (and controversial) essay "Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What Is an Afropolitan?)," offering an alternative vision of African identity for a transnational generation. Prompted by writer Toni Morrison, the following year she published the short story "The Sex Lives of African Girls" in the literary magazine Granta.
Her first novel Ghana Must Go, published in 2013, is a tale of family drama and reconciliation, following six characters and spanning generations, continents, genders and classes.

2017 is the fifth year  Kinna Reads has hosted an African Reading challenge.  This novel begins my participation in this wonderful event.  The rules and reading suggestions can be found on the link at the top of this post.

Mel u