And now back to reading

It’s felt like an odd summer as far as my reading goes, largely because while I like to take on a challenge or two in the summer, something long and difficult (Infinite Jest last year for example), it hasn’t happened this time around. I had hoped to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but the time never seemed right to pick it up. Instead I stuck to shorter books and then did some reading for a class in world literature I’m teaching this fall.

One book I read that could count as a challenging book, although it’s not terribly long, is Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, as part of my effort to read through her major works in order. I’ve been a little scared of Woolf’s more experimental fiction after trying to read The Waves quite a lot of years ago and not doing very well with it. I love To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, but my impression was that Jacob’s Room might defeat me just as The Waves did. Well, I ended up enjoying it greatly, and it makes me wonder how I will do with The Waves when I get there for a reread. It was definitely a challenge, with quick shifts in perspective and time and without a whole lot of explanation to help get the you get situated in each new scene. Woolf lets you make connections on your own without spelling them out. The book demands that you read slowly.

But the writing was so beautiful, and, most importantly to me, it had the insights about people and relationships and experience that I value so much in Woolf. She can capture a moment and a feeling so perfectly and describe it so accurately that I’m left thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right, there’s no need so say anything else.

The Common Reader is next, and while I’ve read it before, I loved it so much the first time around, I’m anticipating loving it again.

Another book from earlier this summer that stands out is Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz. This is my third Lehmann book; the first one I read I loved (A Note in Music), but the second one I didn’t (The Echoing Grove — it felt like a slog), so I was happy to find that I’m back to loving her writing again. Invitation to the Waltz is thoroughly charming, and it also does what I admire Woolf for doing, which is to say, it looks closely at a small group of people and digs in deep. The novel tells the story of two sisters as they prepare for and then attend a waltz. That seems really simple, and yet so much goes on — there is so much the sisters think about, experience, agonize over, and analyze, and the drama of it all, quiet as it is, is really moving. Lehmann is a writer I look forward to reading more of, perhaps someone whose work I will read in its entirety.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

9 responses to “And now back to reading

  1. For my big read this summer I’ve tackled Middlemarch (nearly done now…) I’m planning on rereading The Waves sometime before the end of the year — I remember enjoying it but don’t recall a lot of the book itself, strangely.

    Glad you are back to loving Lehmann! I really liked Invitation to the Waltz, as well as Dusty Answer. And I loved her short stories in The Gypsy’s Baby.


  2. My experience is much like yours – I love all of Woolf’s books apart from The Waves, which I have never got through from one end to the other. Also, I find Lehmann an unpredictable writer. I loved Invitation to the Waltz, but the sequel The Weather in the Streets, I couldn’t get on with at all.


  3. I’ve read neither The Waves nor Jacob’s Room but I look forward to getting to them sometime. I totally you know what you mean about Woolf’s ability to capture a moment or feeling so perfectly. She does that really well in her nonfiction too. Fun! The Lehmann book sounds good. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for it.


  4. Rosamund Lehmann is an author I’d like to read more of–I enjoyed Dusty Answer and may have to pick something else up by her soon. A few years ago I also thought of reading Virginia Woolf’s books in order and got up to Jacob’s Room, but haven’t yet tried it. I think I’ve been a little intimadated, but I should really give it a try. Isn’t the Common Reader essays? I’m sure that would be a good reread. My long book this summer is still Anna Karenina which was set aside temporarily but I am reading it again daily. It’s not hard, but the section on Russian farming did bog me down a bit!


  5. She can capture a moment and a feeling so perfectly and describe it so accurately that I’m left thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right, there’s no need so say anything else.

    My feelings about her exactly. Glad you enjoyed Jacob’s Room – I think it’s probably her novel that made the least impression on me, so I should really re-read at some point. It would probably be fun to go back and revisit it having read most of her other books. And the Common Reader! What a treat to look forward to.


  6. So glad to see your posts again. I enjoy reading about your experiences with books, and this post has encouraged me yet again to get to Woolf.


  7. I hate to admit it…I’ve never read Virginia Woolf. Another one of those literary confessions. I did, however, read and love The Common Reader and would also like to re-read it. I join Debby in welcoming you back to the blogosphere. I missed reading your posts.


  8. Melanie — I’m glad to hear you are a Lehmann fan too! I look forward to reading Dusty Answer and some of her other work. And how fun that you are reading The Waves this year. I’ll look forward to your thoughts.

    Litlove — interesting about The Weather on the Streets. I’ve got it on my shelves and will give it a try sometime, but I do worry about sequels, generally speaking. And we’ll see how The Waves goes — I suppose it’s impossible for a writer to get it absolutely right every time!

    Stefanie — you are so right about Woolf’s nonfiction. I think I might love her nonfiction just as much as her fiction, maybe even more. I suspect you would like Lehmann quite a lot.

    Danielle — I think you would do fine with Jacob’s Room, whenever you are in the mood. The Common Reader is essays, so I’m looking forward to those a lot. Woolf writing about books — what could be better?? I’m glad things are on track with Anna Karenina — it is quite a long novel!

    Emily — yes, isn’t TCR something great to anticipate? Interesting that Jacob’s Room made the least impression on you. I’m pretty sure it won’t be at the top of my list of my favorite novels of hers, although I did admire it. It just didn’t move me in quite the way some of her others do.

    Debby — it’s nice to be back! I’d love to hear what you think of Woolf when you get there. She’s such a beautiful writer. (I’d put in a plug for A Room of One’s Own as a good place to start, if you are interested).

    Grad — well, there’s always time, right? 🙂 The Common Reader is wonderful, and I’m so looking forward to getting back to it. Thanks for stopping by!


  9. Caitlin

    I accidentally stumbled across your blog while searching for ‘A Note in Music’, and I’m so very glad that I did.

    I was surprised and delighted to find two of my favourite authors extolled in the same post. Lehmann and Woolf have a similar feel, which you described so perfectly. Each ‘can capture a moment and a feeling so perfectly and describe it so accurately that I’m left thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right, there’s no need so say anything else.’ So often I read sentences that are so perfect – lyrical and emotional – that I can only pause for a moment in wonder and think, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’

    The first book by Virginia Woolf that I read was ‘Mrs Dalloway’, quickly followed by ‘To the Lighthouse’, which I adored. I then read ‘The Waves’, which was sublime, and remains my favourite book to date. I felt that I came to understand the characters, through the beautiful flow of their thoughts.

    I look forward to exploring many of the other books you have read, especially ‘The Common Reader’, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long unopened! 🙂 Thank you for a pleasant diversion from study!


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