Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Common Reader

As part of my very slow read-though of Virginia Woolf’s major works, I’m am now reading The Common Reader, her collection of literary essays. And oh my goodness, have I made it clear how much I love Virginia Woolf? Because these essays are wonderful. This is my second time through the book, and I’m loving it. I just read her essay on Montaigne, and I marveled at the way she moves back and forth between writing about him in the usual way one writes about someone else and actually embodying him, taking on his persona. She will write something like “It is life that emerges more and more clearly as these essays reach not their end, but their suspension in full career” that is clearly evaluating Montaigne from an exterior perspective, but then in the same paragraph she will start describing his ideas as though she were Montaigne herself:

In short, the soul is all laced about with nerves and sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in 1580, no one has any clear knowledge — such cowards we are, such lovers of the smooth conventional ways — how she works or what she is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one’s self the greatest monster and miracle in the world …

By slipping into his voice, she creates a strong sense of who Montaigne was; she brings him to life, and her affection for him shines through.

But then her own voice is incredibly convincing. Woolf writes with such assurance and poise — without coming across as arrogant — that I’m ready to believe whatever she says. I love this passage from the essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play,” which compares plays and novels:

The play is poetry, we say, and the novel prose. Let us attempt to obliterate detail, and place the two before us side by side, feeling, so far as we can, the angles and edges of each, recalling each, so far as we are able, as a whole. Then, at once, the prime differences emerge; the long leisurely accumulated novel; the little contracted play; the emotion all split up, dissipated and then woven together, slowly and gradually massed into a whole in the novel; the emotions concentrated, generalised, heightened in the play. What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing beauty the play shot at us!

She makes everything clear — of course that’s how plays and novels work!

She also can conjure up the feeling of a place and time beautifully. Consider this passage about medieval England from her essay “The Pastons and Chaucer”:

For let us imagine, in the most desolate part of England known to us at the present moment, a raw, new-built house without telephone, bathroom or drains, arms-chairs or newspapers, and one shelf perhaps of books, unwieldy to hold, expensive to come by. The windows look out upon a few cultivated fields and a dozen hovels, and beyond them there is the sea on one side, on the other a vast fen. A single road crosses the fen, but there is a hole in it, which, one of the farm hands reports, is big enough to swallow a carriage. And, the man adds, Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him. That is what they talk about at dinner in the desolate house, while the chimney smokes horribly, and the draught lifts the carpets on the floor. Orders are given to lock all gates at sunset, and, when the long dismal evening has worn itself away, simply and solemnly, girt about with dangers as they are, these isolated men and women fall upon their knees in prayer.

The essay is about Chaucer and how his writing springs from his time and place, but she takes a while to get to him, lingering instead on the landscape and the people who lived in his time and read his work. I finished the essay feeling as though I had  not just learned something about Chaucer but saw and heard and felt something about him too.


Filed under Books, Essays


First an update on cycling, with both good and bad news. The good news is that I’ve been riding a ton and have now passed 6,000 miles since January 1st. That’s a record that smashes last year’s total of just over 5,000 miles, and it’s not even December yet. It’s getting colder here, but that just means adding more layers before I head out.

The bad news is that my thyroid has become hyperactive again, so I probably shouldn’t be riding at all, although my doctor didn’t say to back off (and I didn’t ask). The back story here is that my thyroid went bad a little over three years ago; I had a hard month or two, and since then have felt pretty much normal. About a month ago, I started feeling badly again, although nothing as extreme as when I first became sick. But it’s discouraging to be feeling badly at all, when all I want to do is to ride a lot and ride fast. So I ride, but I take it easy and go slowly. Eventually medication will get everything back in line, and then I’ll ride fast again.

As for books, well, I bought a few more the other day. I wasn’t planning on it, but I found myself in two bookstores, and what else could I do? Hobgoblin and I drove to Winchester, Virginia, to visit family for Thanksgiving, and on Friday, to entertain ourselves, we all explored the city, including the Winchester Book Gallery, where I found a copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion. The store was small, but had a great selection for its size. After that, we found Blue Plate Books, a nice used bookstore, where I bought Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories), Lauren Slater’s Lying (a memoir), and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I wasn’t planning on buying, but I found it for $11 and thought why not?

I’ve been buying books like crazy lately, but have had time to read too; right now I’m immersed in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, a novel about a boarding school in Dublin. It’s absorbing, and I’ve been glad to have a little more time than usual to focus on it. I’ve also begun reading Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, or rather, re-reading it. It’s fabulous, just as I remembered. I’m about 150 pages from the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve decided is not so fabulous. Or rather, it’s genius, brilliant, amazing, etc., but I don’t like the experience of reading it. I’m sticking with it, though, because I’m not going to let that thing beat me!


Filed under Books, Cycling

Very Short Reviews

I would love to write something longer, but I don’t have it in me these days. So here are brief thoughts on some of the books I’ve read lately.

  • Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show. I wanted to love this one, but I didn’t. It started off strong with a main character who thought very unconventional thoughts, but as I read along, I felt more and more detached from the story. I wasn’t quite believing it and got bored. It deals with some very interesting subjects — revolution in 1848 Paris, artists and rebels, unconventional love and wild adventures — but the experience of reading it wasn’t fun. I like the idea of the book more than the book itself.
  • David Markson’s Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat. I loved these books, which I read for my mystery book group. Why aren’t these more widely known? They take place in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and tell the story of detective Harry Fannin, one of those detectives who keeps getting beaten up and who is amazingly able to keep going. The books are funny and very literary — Fannin is surely one of the best-read detectives out there. Some in my book group thought the plots were a bit weak, and this may well be true, but the writing made these books memorable for me.
  • Muriel Spark’s The Public Image. Spark won’t be a favorite novelist of mine because I prefer an interior, psychological style, which hers really isn’t, but I did enjoy this novel, my third by Spark. The plot moves quickly and the characters are painted in broad strokes, but the style and wit with which Spark writes is immensely fun. This novel tells the story of a married couple, both of whom are actors and both of whom are worried about the relationship of their public image and the private reality. Their attempts to maintain their public image (or fail to maintain it) take them in some unexpected directions.
  • L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Another one I wanted to love, but I only liked it okay. I enjoyed the story, but ultimately I felt the narrator didn’t quite work for me. He was just a bit too self-important, too serious, too preoccupied with his own world, too … mildly irritating. It feels strange to call a first-person narrator too self-absorbed, because if he’s telling his own story, why shouldn’t he be? But I felt like he assumed his story was worth reading in detail rather than proving it for us. The first sentence is sort of famous, I guess: “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” That’s true, I suppose, but to me it hints at the pretentiousness to come. On the other hand, the novel captures class uncertainty very well and also what it’s like to be a young person trying to figure out the adult world and generally failing. And I seem to be in the mood only for funny, witty things these days, so maybe I didn’t do it justice.


Filed under Books

Brattleboro Book Crawl

Today Hobgoblin and I joined two our wonderful friends and fellow-bloggers Suitcase of Courage and She Knits by the Seashore to explore bookstores in Brattleboro, Vermont. Living in Connecticut, I tend to think that Vermont is way far away, the kind of place I would drive to only if I were going to stay for a while. But it turns out that Brattleboro is only about 2 1/2 hours from where I live, which isn’t far at all, definitely drivable in a day. So when Suitcase and She Knits invited us to join them, we agreed. Brattleboro is a cute small city, really a large town, snuggled right up next to mountains. It has lots of interesting shops, but we focused mostly on the bookstores, of which there are at least five, all within easy walking distance. First was a used bookstore that I think is Baskets Paperback Palace Book Store, although I’m not entirely sure. Then we went to the Book Cellar, then Mystery on Main Street, then Everyone’s Books (“For Social Justice and the Earth,” as their website says), and finally Brattleboro Books, a used bookstore.

I came home with five books, which seems like not very many at all, considering how great the stores were and how long we spent in them. Hobgoblin came home with eleven, which seems about right. Here’s what I found:

  • Sarah Caudwell’s The Shortest Way to Hades, the follow-up to Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed tremendously.
  • Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, a book I’ve considered getting many times now and finally felt that the time was right.
  • Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, a collection of essays I’ve been waiting to come out in paper.
  • May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield. I’m glad to have something else by Sarton on my shelves as I enjoyed her novel A Small Room so much.
  • David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I’m collecting all of Wallace’s work, because he is awesome.

I love taking road trips in search of cute towns and interesting bookstores, and I’m already look forward to the next one!


Filed under Books