Saturday, August 06, 2005

"The Smallest Woman in the World" by Clarice Lispector

Deep in the forests of the Congo, a French explorer discovers--you guessed it. What this tiny woman invokes in those who learn of her varies from houseold to household and from heart to heart. Read by Scoot.

Though she was born in the Ukraine and had first intended to become a lawyer, Clarice Lispector became one of Brazil's most well-known and celebrated writers. This story is translated by another very well-known writer, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was on and off a resident of Brazil herself. You might call "The Smallest Woman," as one critic has, "an ironic study of racism and sexism." But it also reflects the inherent poetry which Bishop must have admired and which made Lispector's books such as Beside the Savage Heart and The Apple in the Dark such successes. (Those of you who have read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might see something here akin to the Oompa Loompas in that book.) Lispector, our sources note, saw snow for the first time in 1947 (she was born in 1920, died in 1977). In 1967 she was severely burned while falling asleep while smoking a cigarette (another reason not to start, kids!). And in 1975 she took part in the Witches' World Conference in Bogota, Colombia. Oh, the things you can discover on the Interweb!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

"The Porcelain Doll" by Leo Tolstoy

The writer, Tolstoy himself, is under the impression that his wife has turned into a porcelain doll. And for a time, they both rather like it. Read by Jonathan Strong.

This story is contained within a letter written by Leo Tolstoy to his sister-in-law Tanya, the model for Natasha in War and Peace. The letter was begun by Tolstoy's wife, Sonya, half a year after they were married, but finished by Leo himself. (Perhaps Sonya really had turned into a porcelain doll--for a while, at least!) The first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tolstoy was perhaps the greatest writer and thinker of nineteenth-century Russia. His epic novel War and Peace covers nearly two-thousand pages, but this tiny story is contained within only three. You of course know or have heard of Anna Karenina and Resurrection, his other two novels, and most likely know, too, that he wrote numerous novellas, war stories, an autobiography, and plays. At the end of his life he gave up fiction for religious philosophy, but not before having already been a huge influence on all Russian (and world) literature to come.

Jonathan Strong needs no introduction here, but you can check out reprints of some of his older books at

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"Crazy Robin" by Mary Wollstonecraft

If you love dogs, this frankly sentimental story, written quite a long while before Old Yellar, may elicit a tear or two from you. The rustic hermit so beloved by the early Romantics here has a heartwrenching backstory and no future whatsoever. Read by Scoot.

Though known primarily today as the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (the creator of Frankenstein, of course), Mary Wollstonecraft was a leading progressive writer of her day who sometimes illustrated her problems with society in fictional form. Two of her more important feminist treatises are Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (sadly, she died soon after the birth of her own) and A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It was thanks to brave thinkers such as herself that the Age of Enlightenment was, well--so enlightened. One wishes she could run for election today, had she not died in 1797, but one could say her spiritual daughters are changing politics as we know it even as you read this.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Conversation Piece" by Louise Bogan

Two couples share cocktails in an atmosphere of brittle comraderie. The more they drink, the looser the talk. Read by Jonathan Strong.

Although primarily known as a poet, Down Easter Louise Bogan also published fiction, some of it in the magazine for which she also was poetry editor, The New Yorker. (She held that post for 38 years.) Bogan was a very private person who disdained confessional poetry--and we assume, fiction--but who loved the poetry of Theodore Roethke. She was born in 1897 but by 1970 called it quits in this world.

Jonathan Strong has written at least a couple of poems in his life, but concentrates on fiction these days.