Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

“Sex with Exes” - A Short Story by Heather Fowler - 2017. In Gargoyle Magazine 40th Anniversary Print Edition

Heather Fowler on The Reading Life

Website of Heather Fowler

I first began to read the work of Heather Fowler in April of 

2012.  Since then I have posted on her four short story collections and her highly lauded debut novel, Beautiful Baby Ape Girl.  (Here is my summing up of Beautiful Baby Ape Girl:  

“Beautiful Ape Girl Baby by Heather Fowler is an amazing tour de force through contemporary America. It is sort of a cross between Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Jack Kerouac's On the Road with a bit of Fanny Hill and Don Quixote in the mix.  If you are a Pynchon lover, maybe you can see the lead character, Beautiful, in Southern California with Oedipus Mass.”)

Heather Fowler also contributed a guest post on the short story and kindly joined me for a very interesting Q and A session.  She is a very versatile, perceptive and talented writer.  She has an occasionally wicked sense of the humour which comes out strongly in “Sex with Exes”.

As the story opens Jessica is at the door of her childhood best friend, a recently divorced woman, Charlie.   Charlie, with a flair for the dramatic greets her wearing a strap-on:

“ She strokes her strap-on and smiles.  “Want some, baby?  I’d dyke this puppy out for you.” I think I start hyperventilating then, can’t decide on a quick retort.  Charlie could mean it. She might m—I start to think. But Charlie laughs at my horror, like she does. “Kidding! I’m not gay, Jessica,” she says. “Please. I’m experiencing being a dick by wearing a dick. It’s an experiment. You see this dick?  I’m wearing it to see how it must feel to be a guy.  Don’t worry. And the neighbor? You think he wants some of this? Nah. That pussy.”  The beeper goes off again, and she grabs a pot holder, saying, “Oh, shit!  I gotta get those buns out of the oven.  Get out the way.”

Charlie seems to be looking for a way to explore her sexual past.  Romantically she has been active.  She plans to have 

sex with all of her exes that are still single, she figures maybe twenty or so.   

Three weeks go by before they see each other again.  Jessica’s own marriage is pretty routinised, she is a soccer mom (American symbol for Middle Class woman whose life revolves around her family),sex with her husband Sloan is pretty much always the same.  Jessica cannot help but sometimes wish she had the freedom Charlie does.  Of course Jessica wants to know how Charlie’s project is coming along.  

I will leave the rest of the story untold so first time readers can relish it as I did. 

It was a lot of fun to listen in on the conversations of Charlie and Jessica.  Of course Jessica wants to know if she used the strap-on with any of her exes.

As I read this story I had a flash to a classic camp movie, 
yes I’m showing my extreme age, Myra Breckenridge, starring Raquel Welch. “Sex with Exes”has a California feel to it, just like the movie.  To men the idea of a woman with a strap on is a trifle challenging to their masculinity and a chance for a woman to enjoy a bit of role reversal.

Heather Fowler is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, librettist, and a novelist. Her debut novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby released June of 2016. She is the author of four story collections and a collaborative poetry collection written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale.  She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University.   Fowler's stories and poems have been published online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India,with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more.  From

To those who have not yet had the exquisite pleasure of reading Heather Fowler, you might start with the story links in my earlier posts.  From there you should read her four collections in publication order then her novel.

I look forward to following her work for many years.

Mel u

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

“Festival” - A Short Story by Brian Kirk - 2017


I first encountered the work of Brian Kirk in March 2013, during ISSM III.  One of the reasons I have continued on with ISSM for eight years is to provide me with the motivation to keep reading writers as supremely talented and perceptive as Brian  Kirk, watching them develop, expand and keep up the grand tradition of the Irish Short Story.  I posted on two short stories by Brian Kirk in 2013 and with the post you are now reading have posted on two of his short stories in 2018.  We also did a very wide ranging Q and A session in 2013.  (There are now four links to stories by Kirk in posts on his work on my blog, all of which I strongly recommend to lovers of the form.)  

“Festival” is a very interesting, challenging, entertaining story uniquely narrated, in just a few pages our understanding of the story changes as we listen to the interior monologue of the narrator, a Dublin man seemingly on an extended lunch break from his  hated office job.  Telling anything at all of the plot of this story will negate a first time readers pleasure in trying to figure out what is really going on so I won’t.

I will share enough of the story to give you a feel for the very elegant prose of Kirk:

“We often talk about you back at the office. We wonder how you are getting along.’ He laughed. ‘Does he miss us, we ask ourselves. Not bloody likely, eh!’
    He finally released my hand, and perhaps noticing that I had yet to speak he cocked his head and stared at me. I never liked to be stared at. I let my gaze fall to my shoes. I would’ve liked to speak, just to end the awkwardness of the moment, but I had no idea what to say. I was on the edge of remembering something important about work.
    ‘The boss will be looking for you,’ I said finally, pointing at my watch.
    ‘Yes, yes, some things never change, but I’m on legitimate business at the moment. I’ve been promoted since you left,’ he said.
    ‘I see,’ I said, and I suddenly understood that I no longer worked at the office, although it was not apparent to me what I did now to fill the days, and what the hell was I doing here today pretending to take a lunch break.”

As the story closed I began to feel something truly terrible had happened to our narrator.

I read “Festival” three times.  I highly recommend this this story.  I suggest you visit Kirk’s very well done webpage.  

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.

I hope to follow his work for many years.  

Mel u

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith - 2002

Here is my list of the five novels of Zadie Smith in the order in which I like them:

  1. Swing Time
  2. White Teeth
  3. On Beauty
  4. NW
  5. The Autograph Man

I have read, posted upon and enjoyed several of her short stores.  Additionally I have enjoyed  and learned from essays in both of her essay collections.  I have listened to a number of lectures on YouTube.  For sure I see a Nobel Prize in her future.

All of her novels are at least partially based in London.  I am very behind on posts I want to get done in April so this will be mercifully brief.

The central character makes his living buying and selling autographs.  Ethnographically he is Chinese and Jewish, from London.  He has some celebrity crushes and is in contact with other Autograph and celebrity memorabilia collectors and dealers.  As I read this book I imagined how much this business has been changed since the pre-internet days.  

Here is the publisher’s description (a bit of a hype, of course)

“When twelve-year old Alex Li-Tandem meets Joseph Klein at a wrestling match in London, he couldn’t have possibly predicted that their conversation about collecting autographs would change the course of his life. Alex grows up to be an Autograph Man, making a living buying and selling famous names, obsessively pursuing the very rare autograph of 1940s Hollywood movie star, Kitty Alexander. 

But Alex’s life is a shambles. He’s wrecked his car during an acid trip, injuring (and alienating) his girlfriend Esther; his friends are mad at him; and he’s still grieving over the death of his father, Li-Jin. His friends, Adam and Rabbi Rubenfine, want him to say the Kaddish for his father on the fifteenth anniversary of his death, but Alex sees that as nothing more than an empty gesture, a ritual he can’t believe in. His girlfriend Esther wants him to grow up and stop being so selfish. But all Alex seems to want is the autograph of Kitty Alexander. He has written her hundreds of letters over the years, all of them unanswered. Until the fateful day when his wish is miraculously granted with the arrival of a signed photo. Now he plans to find her. And thus ensues a wild trip to New York, where he is guided by the “famous whore” Honey Smith, and where he finally meets the woman behind the name he has sought for so long. 

Smart, hip, daringly imaginative, The Autograph Man gives readers a vivid glimpse of the signs (and signatures) of the times, and shows once again why Zadie Smith is one of our most admired young writers.”

Anyway, I’m suggesting those new to Smith, read her novels in the order I listed.    
Her essays are a delight.

Mel u

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Warburgs: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family by Ron Chernow - 1993, 880 Pages

I offer my great thanks to Max u for The Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read this great book.

An Autodidactic  Corner Selection.

Anyone interested in twentieth century Jewish history, international finance, German banking, the Holocaust, and much more narrated through the lives of the Warburg Family will love this book. The story begins in the mid 16th century when a Warburg was a “Court Jew” in Hamburg to the development of a fortune and a legend to rival  the Rothchilds.  One Warburg founded the Federal reserve bank in America while helping other Jews out of Nazi Germany, another used his vast fortune to build great library, preferring Reading to banking.   Chernow has a wonderful way of making us know each of the many family members.  We know much more about them than we do about most subjects of biographies.

The book really gets going toward the end of the 19th century.  The Warburgs were very patriotic Germans.  They helped the Germans Finance the Franco-Prussian War.  Warburgs were in the German Army in World War One.  After the war they did all they could to reduce the harsh demands of The Treaty of Versailles on Germany.  Chernow does a wonderful job working in details about the period.  

As we enter the 1930s Chernow lets us feel the tension among German Jews.  Most German Jews thought or hoped Hitler would “calm down”.  Some knew this was an illusion, others thought their WW One Iron Crosses would save them.  Through a combination of foresight, good luck and a willingness to pay huge penalties, almost all the Family got out before 1939.  To the great credit of the Family, they took many employees and personal servants out with them. The Family entered the private banking business in New York City and became even more wealthy.  

Warburgs tended to marry within the extended family.  (Children of first cousins are only slightly more likely to have Birth defects than orher children though if the practice continues for several generations the risk grows.) An acceptable Warburgs mate had to be Jewish and very rich so the options were limited.  As family members were born in New York City, some did marry rich Christians but they did find some family resistance. We see some of the marriages were long loving relationships, some of the men had mistresses.  The Warburgs supported numerous Jewish causes, had complex feelings about Zionism, were great patrons of the arts in addition to bring powerful business men.  Most were highly cultured and felt a banker should know more than just finance. 

This is a delightful book.  A book as richly informative as the family it teaches us about.

Ron Chernow’s bestselling books include The House of Morgan, winner of the National Book Award; The Warburgs, which won the George S. Eccles Prize; The Death of the Banker; Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Washington: A Life, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Alexander Hamilton, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and adapted into the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton.

Chernow has served as president of PEN, has received eight honorary doctoral degrees, and was awarded the 2015 National Humanities Medal. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. From

Mel u

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Thirty-Five-A-Night” - A Short Story by Shauna Gilligan, 2018

It was during Irish Short Story Month III in March of 2012 that I first read a Short Story by Shauna Gilligan.  Since then I have posted on several more of her Short Stories and her wonderful debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere.  She was kind enough to contribute three guest posts on Irish writers to The Reading Life.  She also participated in two question and answer sessions. Her website is very valuable to all interested in Irish literature and beyond.  

Knowing I wanted to once again feature her work during ISSM VIII she kindly gave me access to a very interesting  just published story “Thirty-Five-A-Night”, told from the point of view of a woman involved in a long term affair, neither party is married.  They mostly see each other on weekends.
Gilligan does an elegant and very intuitive introduction to the story in which we come to understand the relationship.

“We have our routine, John and I. Every Saturday night we follow winding roads to an old hotel or a long-standing bed-and-breakfast in the countryside where we watch, in streak-free mirrors, the scenes we create on king-sized beds. In Dingle I am Madonna; in Cork I become Marianne Faithful; in Galway I have the allure of Eva Braun. John dons one of his moustaches and heeled boots; a signet ring and a medallion; a tasselled studded jacket. For those few hours we are anywhere and anyone but civil servants who live in old houses with aging parents. But this weekend we’re not in the country; for €35 a night we can stay in Dublin and that’s what John’s decided. And so we cruise through the Phoenix Park in John’s shiny Volvo, see a couple jogging in matching tracksuits, pass pretty white benches. There are people curled up on them, already sleeping. I think of what Maeve, my work pal said to me earlier: if I could describe John in one word, then I’d know. I sorted through heaps of payroll claims before I landed on a word. Considerate. Maeve chewed on the lid of her pen. “You mean in that he considers what you like, that sort of thing?” “Yeah.” “Sounds like the marrying type.” More than being a wife, I want to feel what it is to be the woman for whom a man would give up his life. We cruise out through the ornate gates of the Park and a flutter of excitement runs through me. I feel the throb and pinch of new patent heels on my feet, think of the new lacy pants from Marks in my bag.”

From the references to Madonna, Marianne Faithful and Eva Braun we can form a guess as to their ages, and maybe we can see how John relates to her sexually and per2haps what fantasies he projects on her.  I wondered how she sees the relationship.  Tonight John is taking her to a more expensive place than normal, 35 Euros a night.  As I follow them into the hotel we gather it is mostly a place for couples looking for privacy for a romantic liaison.  

As they register the woman is made to feel that the much younger woman receptionist is almost laughing at her.  I have observed people tend to all their lives stay most interested in singers they first encountered in their late teens or twenties.  To elaborate Marianne Faithful became famous in Ireland and The UK, less so in America,in the 1960s.  Her songs were often very sexual.  Given this we can project an age of at least fifty for the couple.  Maybe John likes to imagine he is sleeping with one of these singers.  The Eva Braun reference would take more explication.  Eva's relationship hardly ended well. The narrator somehow is made to feel uncomfortable by the very muted response of the receptionist.  Maybe she is projecting her feelings that she should be settled at her age, not going for sex weekends dressing up to please a man.  I wonder why John needs this. 

The fascinating  ending of the story took me deeper into the mind of the narrator.  I loved the ending but for sure did not see it coming.  I think this would be a very good story for classroom discussion as to the methods Gilligan uses in just a few pages to go so deep.

Shauna Gilligan is a novelist and short story writer from Dublin, Ireland.  She has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, and the UK, and now lives in County Kildare with her family and a black and white cat called Lucky.
She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales, is a registered teacher with the Teaching Council of Ireland, an active member of the Arts Council of Ireland Writers-in-Prisons Panel and a Professional Mentor with Irish Writers’ Centre. Shauna facilitates creative writing workshops with people of all ages. She teaches students in universities, in the community, and in prison settings.

Shauna enjoys collaborating with visual artists and is particularly interested in exploring the crossover of art and literature in storytelling, the depiction of historical events in fiction, and creative processes.
Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere was a critical success and the Sunday Independent review declared it to be a “thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.” 

Shauna is represented by Charlotte Seymour at Andrew Nurnberg Associates International Literary Agency.  From the author’s website.

I hope to follow the work of Shauna Gilligan for a long time.  Be sure to read her two Q And A sessions and her contributed essays.  Writers like Gilligan mean Irish Short Story writers have a future as great as the past 

Mel u

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

“The Anti-Christ” - A Short Story by Riham Adly - 2017

“The Anti-Christ” is the fouth Short Story by Riham Adly I have so far read.  I hope fate will allow me to read many more.  To me this is among the highest complements one can pay a writer.

“The Anti-Christ” takes place on a cross country bus in Saudia Arabia. The story is structured through the conversation of two preadolescent girls, one is from very traditional Muslim family, one is from a Christian family.  In this very perceptive story we see how prejudices are absorbed by the young from their parents.  The bus has stopped.  The Christian girl is playing with her Barbie.  She asks the Muslim girl if she has a Barbie.  In the perfect lines below we see that perhaps one day these girls will pass along hatred to their own children.

“Where’s your Barbie, don’t you have one? I saw a Fullah doll in an Abaya just like yours.”
Nourah looked down at her long black sleeves.
“I never liked those. I want one like yours. I like the green T-shirt and the pink skirt.”
“Then why don’t you get one?” Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow.
“Father says I shouldn’t. They’re not good. Like figurines, they can bring in the Djin. Bad creatures we can’t see that could harm us. Harm our soul.”
Elizabeth didn’t say anything, forcing the silence between them.
“What’s your name?” Nourah repeated.
Elizabeth put the doll down. She looked like a student in a math class trying to figure out the square root of 576.
“I’m Elizabeth.”

The girls begin a theological disputes stirred by what the Muslim girl’s father felt about Barbie dolls.  They become agitated in their espousal of a child’s view of complex theological issues.   

“My dad says evil Djin live in the eyes of Barbies and figurines and they are the window of evil, and that we should protect our souls and hearts for when the Antichrist comes.”
“The Antichrist will come at the end of times. Dad calls it the apocalypse. We’re not at the end of times, yet. Dad says there are signs. Some of them have happened, some not yet.”
“Father says we should be prepared, it could be anytime. Says the Antichrist will come and wash our brains, make us follow his evil, but Al Mahdi and Jesus peace be upon him will save us and kill him. He’s a one-eyed monster who doesn’t want us to believe in Allah, only in the one God who has no son and no wife, do we believe. Only Islam will prevail. My  father said so.”
“You are wrong!”

As the story winds down, the girls unite in their fear of a man on the bus who they think might be planning to hold them hostage for ransom.

Riham Adly is a creative writing instructor from Gizah, Egypt with several short stories published in online lit magazines such as Page&Spine, The 10 minutes Novelist, Paragraph Planet, Visual Verse, Fictional café, and The HFC Journal. Her short story “The Darker Side of the Moon” won the Makan Award in Egypt and was published in an anthology with the same name. Her stories appeared in Centum Press 1000 voices anthology volume 2 and volume 3. Riham currently hosts her own book club “Rose’s Cairo Book Club” in the American University in Cairo for those few –but existing- bibliophiles. - from The author

Twitter: @RoseInink
FB Author page:

I greatly enjoyed this story.  In just a few pages Adly brings to young girls to life on a bus, takes us into the world views of their families through marvelous dialogue.  She also elegantly describes the countryside and made me feel I was on the bus.

I hope to follow the work of Riham Adly for many years.

I endorse her work to all lovers of the form

Mel u

Monday, April 16, 2018

“Saint Katerine’s Day’”. - A Short Story by Lili Berger - 1968. - translated from Yiddish by Frieda Forman and Ethel Raicus

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust. As the war escalated in the early Forties and Jews were sent to ghettos, and to work and death camps, parents tried every imaginable way to save their children. Many gave them away for hiding, hoping to come back for them after the war. Children were taken to convents. Some Christian families were willing to risk their own lives to save a child, others were bribed and still others turned over the children to the authorities while keeping the remuneration. The hidden children were usually raised as Christians.  Those who were given away as babies did not remember their parents after the war and often were reluctant to leave the only family they knew. If no mother or father survived, the child’s background was withheld. Today, particularly in Eastern Europe, thousands of middle-aged adults know nothing of their true parentage or religion. Writer Lili Berger tells a not uncommon story of a teenage girl who discovers an identity hidden from her for fifteen years....from Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women

Today’s story opens on Saint Katerine’s Day in 1957.  In 1942 a group of Jews were being marched through a small town somewhere in German occupied Europe.  Everyone in the village closes their windows and fears to look at them.  Once they pass a woman, her husband and child were collateral damage in the war, finds a baby has been left on her door.  Now five teen years later the girl’s class mates taunt her for “looking Jewish”.  Katerine knows something is wrong, she has little resemblance to the woman she has always believed was her mother.  In a very well rendered emotionally wringing scene the mother does tell her how she came to be adopted and tells her “Yes, you are Jewish”.  The girl wants to know her real name.   The last lines are very moving:

““I’ll ask Sister, perhaps she has it, perhaps …. But be patient, better I go myself, it’s more fitting.” “And family? Relatives? Do I have someone … ?” “How can we know that? You have … me, Uncle Karol, Auntie, aren’t we your family ? Am I not a mother to you and you a daughter to me?” “Yes, yes, you are, of course you are, but —” and Katerine broke into tears again. Shortly after Saint Katerine’s Day, mother and daughter together composed and mailed the following notice to the Red Cross, Missing Relatives Division: “Miriam Zack, daughter of Leyzer and Rivke Zack from the city of T., seeks relatives, wherever they may be, within the country or abroad. Reply.”

I have access to two more stories by Lili Berger and hope to post on them this year.

Berger, Lili.  From The Yivo Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jews.

(1916–1996), Yiddish novelist and critic; resistance fighter. Lili Berger (née List; “Lili Berger” is a pseudonym) was born in Malkin, in the Białystok region of Poland. Brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, she attended Hebrew school for three years and also received a secular education at the Polish Jewish secondary school in Warsaw. In 1933, Berger moved to Brussels and studied pedagogy. Three years later she joined the growing number of Polish Jewish refugees in Paris and soon married Louis Gronowski, a leading figure in the Jewish section of the Communist Party.

Before World War II, Berger worked for various Yiddish journals, including the daily Di naye prese, the weekly Di vokh, and the monthly Afsnay. She also taught at Yiddish supplementary schools. Her professional interest in pedagogy later inspired her to write about renowned Jewish educators; these figures appear in several short stories, a play about Janusz Korczak (Der letster tog [The Last Day]; 1978) and a novel (Nisht farendikte bletlekh [Unfinished Pages]; 1982) about Bundist leader Ester Frumkin (Khaye Malke Lifshits).

During the Nazi occupation of France, Berger and her husband, like many other Jewish Communists in France, were active in the Jewish resistance; she herself led a small autonomous cell within the Communist Party. From 1942, Berger was head of the National Movement against Racism (MNCR). In 1949, she returned to her native Poland, and in Warsaw published her first three books: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a novel. The short stories, titled Fun haynt un nekhtn (From Today and Yesterday; 1965), drew predominantly on Berger’s own experiences of the war in France and its aftermath in Eastern Europe. In Eseyen un skitsn (Essays and Sketches; 1965) she criticized works of Polish, French, Swiss, and Yiddish fiction and reflected on the role of literature.
Berger passionately believed in the dream of Jewish reconstruction in the Communist state. Her ideological conviction outlived that of many others, and she did not leave Poland until the late 1960s. “Di papirene oytsres” (Paper Treasures), written immediately upon her return to France in 1968 and published in the collection Ekhos fun a vaytn nekhtn (Echoes of a Remote Past; 1993), is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of a writer having to choose a small number of manuscripts to take with him when he is forced to leave Poland. The story, while focusing on dilemmas faced by an individual, powerfully reveals Berger’s own mixed emotions toward that historical moment when the curtain was about to fall on Jewish culture in Poland.
Berger’s literary career gained great momentum after she settled in France for the second time. Though she published two books in Polish, most of her writing was in Yiddish. There she produced three novels, several collections of short stories and essays, a play, and translations into Yiddish from French and Polish. She also contributed widely to Yiddish magazines and participated in Parisian Yiddish circles until her death.