Sunday, March 29, 2009

In the Time of the Butterflies (revised post)

By Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies, was printed in 1995. This is a well-written and heart-wrenching work of fiction, and apparently is based on the history of the Dominican Republic from 1938 to 1960. Ms. Alvarez points out that in this novel "what you find here are the Mirabals of my creation, made up, but, I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabals." And she adds, "A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel throught the human heart."

Page 114
Trujillo puts his dice back on the empty try. It's then I notice the sides don't balance. Of course, my good-for-nothing uncle would give his buddy loaded dice.

Page 115
Quickly I reach for the heavier set of dice and begin shaking them in my fist. Trujillo studies the wobbling scales. But without my set there, he can't tell which are his loaded pair. "Go ahead," he says, eyeing me closely. "Highest number wins."

Page 57
Later, lying in the bed we were sharing, I joined Mama in her goodnight rosary to the Virgencita. Her voice in the dark was full of need. At the first Sorrowful Mystery, she said Papa's full name, as if she were calling him to account, not praying for him.
"What's wrong, Mama?" I whispered to her when we were finished.

Friday, March 27, 2009

First Confession

A Penguin Books volume of short stories by Frank O'Connor entitled My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories contains one called First Confession. I love this timeless story and hope you will too.

Only eight-and-a-half pages long, it describes in great honesty and simplicity the trials of a young Irish boy who has to put up with frequent torment by his sister, the rough manners of his granny, and overcome his great fear of having to confess his sins for the first time.

It did not help that his mother was unable to take him to make his first confession and sent his sister instead. She taunts him all the way to the chapel.
'Isn't it a terrible pity you weren't a good boy? Oh, Jackie, my heart bleeds for you!'
Another excerpt:
'There you are!' she said with a yelp of triumph, hurling me through the church door.' And I hope he'll give you the penitential psalms, you dirty little caffler.'

Penguin Books first published these stories in 1963, but they had been previously printed in 1953 and 1957 by Hamish Hamilton. Frank O'Connor is the pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan (1903-1966).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

John Boyle O'Reilly (Poem)

A White Rose by John Boyle O'Reilly, an Irish poet who lived from 1844 to 1890. I found this poem in a terrific collection of poetry entitled Irish Love Poems which was edited by A. Norman Jeffares. It was first printed in 1997 by The O'Brien Press, Dublin. Remember to read it out loud.

A White Rose

The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Literature Business Directory - BTS Local

Support your local bookstores!

Please support your local bookstores!

Years ago, we frequented an independent bookshop in New York City on First Avenue, in the low 50s. It was run by a wonderful man, who was friendly and helpful to all his customers. We received terrific information and recommendations from him, and our selections of books were usually available, or quickly obtained. We enjoyed chatting with him about various topics, as well as about books and writers.

While we have long forgotten specific conversations and recommendations, here is one story I'd like to share. I was looking for a good Italian cookbook and didn't know what to choose. He recommended one to me, telling me it was his wife's favorite: The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan. I bought it and am still very grateful for this terrific recommendation. I have cooked many, many wonderful dinners using recipes from this book.

Unfortunately, this man was forced to close his shop a few years later. He told us it was because he simply could not compete with the bigger booksellers.

I have just read this article in today's New York Times:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spartanburg River Otter

Seamus Heaney reads his own poem, Spartanburg River Otter, in this post on YouTube. Please click on the link below to open it. Enjoy not only his poetry, but also his wonderful voice.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Sive, a tragic play by John B. Keane, was published in 1959, and was first performed by the Listowel Drama Group in the same year. It was also performed by other groups soon thereafter and the play received great praise around Ireland and England. (Sive's name is pronounced like sigh-ve (it rhymes with hive, as in beehive).

Act One, Scene I
On stage are Sive and her grandmother Nanna. Sive is the illegitimate child of Nanna's dead daughter. Mena (married to Nanna's son) enters and addresses Sive.

Mena: Your uncle and I work ourselves to the marrow of the bones to give you schooling and the minute I turn my back you're cohackling with that oul' boody woman in the corner. (To Nanna.) Some day the pipe will take fire where you have it hidden and you'll go off in a big black ball of smoke and ashes.

Nanna: (Slowly.) If I do, 'tis my prayer that the wind will blow me in your direction and I'll have the satisfaction of taking you with me. Aha, you'd burn well, for you're as dry as the hobs of hell inside of you. Every woman of your age in the parish has a child of her own and nothing to show by you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

William Butler Yeats (3rd Poem)

This is one of my favorites. You must read it aloud!

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (written between 1899-1904)

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Blackwater Lightship

Happy St. Patrick's Day! To honor St. Patrick, I will blog about talented Irish authors all this week.

The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Toibin (with accents on the 'o' and second 'i' of Toibin, so that it is pronounced Tow-been), was published in 1999.
This is a deceptive novel. It is very simply and beautifully written, but the topics are complex and also really sad. A young man, who will soon die of AIDS, wants to spend time at his grandmother's house by the sea. In recent years, his friends had more or less replaced his immediate family. Now, at his grandmother's house, he is nursed by some of those close friends, plus his mother, sister and grandmother. Old family memories and tensions naturally surface, and Toibin skilfully draws us into the intricacies and difficulties of relationships within this family.

Page 106
She did not know how her grandmother would respond to their arrival. She realised that for the first time in years - ten years, maybe - she was back as a member of this family she had so determinedly tried to leave. For the first time in years they would all be under the same roof, as though nothing had happened. She realised, too, that the unspoken emotions between them in the car, and the sense that they were once more a unit, seemed utterly natural now that there was a crisis, a catalyst. She was back home, where she had hoped she would never be again, and she felt, despite herself, almost relieved.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Long Long Way

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, was published in 2005. This outstanding novel interweaves Irish history along with telling us about the experiences of Irish men who signed on as soldiers in the British Army during World War I. Young Willie Dunne, an 18-year old Dubliner, is the central character, and we follow his path from youth and innocence, into the horrors of battle. It is a powerful novel and a terrific testament to the futility and destruction of war. Barry's beautiful writing and descriptive ability is absolutely tremendous.

Page 56
Now Willie's lot were shunted back almost to the edge of the true world where there were quite peaceful-looking farms all frosted and beautiful under the moon, crisp and familiar as some stretch of Irish midlands under the struggling light of day. Even woods were impressively standing. The roads were all cobbled with mere fieldstones as you might find in a Wicklow yard, and they were rough ways to walk upon, in your hobnailed boots. But they marched the roads in three stages, and although they were weary from the stretch in the trenches, nevertheless they took some pride in their marching. Exhausted boys were carried by their pals, so as not to hinder the rate of progress. It was good to get the blood going round and it was better than sitting in trenches with the frost threatening fingers, toes and noses without cease. There was a timetable for everything and it pleased the men to make the distances on time.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Atonement by Ian McEwan, was published in 2001. This is a beautifully written novel, set in upper-class England, and centers around a huge injustice meted out to a lower-class young man in the summer of 1935. The characters and their lives are well drawn, and when coupled with class expectations, everything fits perfectly to allow this horrible unfairness to go undetected. I loved this book so much when I read it that I really did not wish to see the movie when it came out years later (2008). I relented. While the movie does a good job and is quite faithful to the novel, nothing can compare with the joy of actually reading this finely portrayed story.

page 157
"What did he say?"

"Nothing. I mean, it was the sound of his voice, breathing, noises. But I couldn't see. I couldn't say for sure."

"Well I can. And I will."

And so their respective positions, which were to find public expression in the weeks and months to come, and then be pursued as demons in private for many years afterward, were established in these moments by the lake, with Briony's certainty rising whenever her cousin appeared to doubt herself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I am Charlotte Simmons

I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe, was published in 2004. I wonder how many parents did not allow their daughters to go away to college after reading this version of the campus scene? This is good, gripping, and is a fast read, because you won't be able to put it down for long!

On pages 150/1, we read a letter to her parents that is being written by Charlotte at college. We see what she would really like to write to her parents. She settles for several sentences similar to the following:

"So everything is going along pretty much the way I hoped it would. I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn't just a dream and I really am a student at one of the best universities in the country."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, was first published in 1943. This heartbreaking and beautiful novel is set in the Williamsburg slums, starting in 1912.

Excerpt from Chapter 3
"My father was like me - never held the one job long." He smoked in silence for a while.

Francie ironed quietly. She knew that he was just thinking out loud. He did not expect her to understand. He just wanted someone to listen to him. He said practically the same things every Saturday. The rest of the week when he was drinking, he would come and go and say little. But today was Saturday. It was his day to talk.

"My folks never knew how to read or write. I only got to the sixth grade myself - had to leave school when the old man died. You kids are lucky. I'm going to see to it that you get through school."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Facing out to Sea

Facing out to Sea, a novel by Peter Adamson, was published in 1997.
A young hotel waiter in Sri Lanka moves effortlessly between the elegant surroundings at work and the urban slum where he lives. Adamson contrasts the two worlds very well and develops interesting, credible characters. His descriptions of life in urban slums are vivid, and are so true to life that he even provides solutions for improving the lot of slum residents. Because of Peter Adamson's long career spent travelling in developing countries, plus filming and writing about development matters, he has much credibility. While this is a great novel about human relationships and hardships, it doubles as an extremely interesting lesson in development economics and slum improvement.

It is difficult to choose any one excerpt from an entire novel as a sample of what is in store for a reader. I choose this one because I'd like you to read it aloud, while you imagine the scene.

Page 4
On the verandah of No. 29, Vijay Jayasinghe is slowly smoking a cigarette. It is a little after seven in the evening. Light swarms of midges are gathering over the drain and the strip of sky between the roofs has turned to indigo, smudged with the smoke of fires. On the latrine wall a neon light fizzes. A few of the older children of the garden are sitting beneath it, doing their homework under an inspectorate of insects. Somewhere a voice is raised and a dog begins to bark. As is usual for the hour, the women are embedded in the recesses of their homes, scouring pans with ashes from the dying fires, stacking the blackened pots, pouring the cooking oil back into its bottles, lowering the bed-boards, smoothing the worn covers, spacing out the garments that have bunched together in the middle of coir ropes slung diagonally across dark rooms. Outside, the men are relaxing on the verandahs, talking in tones which fall imperceptibly with the light, their glowing cigarette ends tracing their eloquence in the evening air.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was published in 1890.
This book is horrifying, but really well written and intriguing.

These excerpts are from the first Chapter.
"It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done," said Lord Henry, languidly. "You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. "
"I know you will laugh at me," he replied, "but I really can't exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it."
"Harry," said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul."

Friday, March 6, 2009

William Butler Yeats (2nd Poem)

The Song of Wandering Aengus
(written between 1899-1904)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. I first read, and loved, this novel when I was a teenager. I re-read it last year and was again awed by it. You simply must read this book - it is excellent.

Excerpts from Chapter 3
"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - "


"- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."


"If I didn't go to school tomorrow, you'd force me to."

"Let us leave it at this," said Atticus dryly. "You, Miss Scout Finch, are of the common folk. You must obey the law."


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, was published in 1891 as one complete novel. Parts of it had been printed in different publications in the two years prior to appearing in book form.

Page 33 - Tess speaks to Alec.
"Our names are worn away to Durbeyfield; but we have several proofs that we are d'Urbervilles. Antiquarians hold we are - and - and we have an old seal, marked with a ramping lion on a shield, and a castle over him. And we have a very old silver spoon, round in the bowl like a little ladle, and marked with the same castle. But it is so worn that Mother uses it to stir the pea-soup."

"A castle argent is certainly my crest," said he blandly. "And my arms a lion rampant."

"And so Mother said we ought to make ourselves beknown to you - as we've lost our horse by a bad accident, and are the oldest branch o' the family."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men, a short novel written by John Steinbeck, was first published in 1937.
It is a beautiful novel about friendship and protecting the innocent, even when that it is a losing battle.

Page 28
"Jus' wanted to feel that girl's dress - jus' wanted to pet it like it was a mouse - Well, how the hell did she know you jus' wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin' for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the country. All the time somethin' like that - all the time. I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million mice an' let you have fun." His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie's anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
First published in French, in 2000, it is about two young Chinese men who are forced to be re-educated and sent to live under harsh conditions on a mountain.  In real life, the author was sent for "re-education" at around the same age as the two main characters of this novel.  He left China in 1984 for France where he still lives. 

Page 6
A few words about re-education: towards the end of 1968, the Great Helmsman of China's Revolution, Chairman Mao, launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered.  The universities were closed and all the "young intellectuals," meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the poor peasants."
The real reason behind Mao Zedong's decision was unclear.
Page 23
The princess of Phoenix mountain wore pale pink canvas shoes, which were both sturdy and supple and through which you could see her flexing her toes as she worked the treadle of her sewing machine. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the cheap, homemade shoes, and yet, in a place where nearly everyone went barefoot, they caught the eye, seeming delicate and sophisticated. The fine shape of her feet and ankles was set off by white nylon socks.

A long pigtail three or four centimetres wide fell from the nape of her neck down to the small of her back, where the end was tied with a brand-new red silk ribbon.

When she leaned over her sewing machine, the shiny metal base mirrored the collar of her white blouse, her oval face and the sparkle in her eyes - without doubt the loveliest pair of eyes in the district of Yong Jing, if not the entire region.