Not reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

Mrs Dalloway coverOh Virginia Woolf, I want to like you so much! This past week, at the suggestion of a friend in my long-distance book club, I attempted to read Mrs. Dalloway. It was a short-lived, but exhausting, attempt and one which left me quite despondent about my inability to get through, let alone appreciate, a Virginia Woolf book.

I have never been one for stream-of-consciousness anything, so I guess it isn’t surprising that Mrs. Dalloway wasn’t my cup of tea. With its winding sentences and paragraphs that last for pages, Mrs. Dalloway is a book that demands mental sharpness and perhaps a couple cups of coffee to keep up. A leisurely weekend read it is not. I started the book on a rainy, lazy weekend afternoon and was just barely able to keep my head above water. In fact, I was very nearly lulled to sleep by the false security of Woolf’s winding prose.

After nearly napping nose-first into the book’s spine, I shook myself and read a synopsis of the book online to try and focus my mind on the plot at hand. This didn’t help. In fact, it just made me wish anyone else in the Bloomsbury Group (here’s looking at you E.M. Forster) had written the book as I became fascinated by the rich plot and characters allegedly found in that frustratingly dense little tome. Why couldn’t I get into it? (more…)

July 28, 2014 at 1:56 am Leave a comment

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson

pettigrewEver since I discovered Persephone Books back in 2010 during my London days, I have been wanting to read their break-out republication hit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Their catalogue is often overwhelming in its breadth and diversity, but Miss Pettigrew seemed like a good fit for me: a long-forgotten and charming transformation tale with mistaken identity, romantic intrigue, mid-century “bright young things” glamour, and a healthy dash of humor. It may have then taken me four years to actually get my hands on a copy, but I’m very happy to report that Miss Pettigrew did not disappoint.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is probably the most plain old fun book I’ve read in a long time. Indeed, it most reminded me of Wodehouse as its two main characters—the flighty, but sweet Delysia LaFosse and the stern, but loving Guinevere Pettigrew—have distinct echoes of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. There’s a generation between the two authors, but Watson absolutely nails the light-hearted fun of any Jeeves and Wooster story.

But Pettigrew is also more substantive than Wodehouse and manages to keep up its bubbly exterior while also touching upon much more serious topics, namely the “Great Slump” in pre-war England and its attending unemployment. With its female protagonists, Miss Pettigrew is also able to comment more naturally on “women’s issues” of the period. For all her silliness, Delysia is a career woman and Miss Pettigrew is also trying to make her own way as a single woman. Their poorly defined place in society is a constant source of concern throughout the book and one which they discuss repeatedly. (more…)

July 23, 2014 at 1:52 am Leave a comment

“Every reader finds himself.”

Map of Bookholm, (c) Walter Moers

Map of Bookholm, (c) Walter Moers

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
– Marcel Proust

July 21, 2014 at 1:50 am Leave a comment

‘Under the Harrow’ by Mark Dunn

Mark Dunn is a remarkably creative writer. He is one of those rare authors where you are equally intrigued by the spark of inspiration that created his novels as by the books themselves. Each of Dunn’s books has some such spark—with Ibid, it was the notion of a novel told entirely in footnotes and in Under the Harrow, his most recent book, it is the creation of a society inspired by Dickens’ novels fostered and preserved in secret in the middle of Pennsylvania. Sound strange? It is. But it’s also inspired.

harrowTold in a rollicking Dickensian syntax described as uniquely “Dinglian,” Under the Harrow tells the story of a community named Dingley Dell that exists in near-total isolation. After some misadventures with rudimentary navigational equipment, the residents of Dingley Dell think they are somewhere in Pennsylvania, or perhaps Japan or maybe Spain. The first turns out to be correct as a large plot to keep Dingley Dell secret (and then remove Dingley Dell from the picture entirely) is revealed through various Dinglians’ contact with “terra incognita,” i.e. our boring old 21st-century world.

While a little tough to get into, Under the Harrow benefits greatly from long, uninterrupted reads that allow you to immerse yourself in Dunn’s created world. The consuming details that make up Dingley Dell, from vocabulary to industry to geography to grammar, are stunning and Dunn’s thoughtful inventiveness is almost as entertaining as the plot itself. Marathon reading is also encouraged by Harrow‘s sheer size—at nearly 600 pages, the book’s heft helps foster a sense that it should be read at home in a comfy armchair for hours at a time with a pot of tea by your side. (more…)

July 15, 2014 at 1:56 am Leave a comment

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I was recently bopping around Iris on Books and discovered her post on the “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” I’ve seen lists like this before (everywhere!), but hadn’t paid them much attention since they seemed needlessly prescriptive. Pippi Longstocking, but not Anne of Green Gables? He Knew He Was Right, but not The Eustace Diamonds? Oscar and Lucinda, but not Arthur and George? Harrumph, I thought to myself. I’ll read whatever I like, thank you very much!

However, Iris’ take on the list changed the way I thought about it. She wrote,

I have no definite plan to read all of these book, but I would like to read a more substantial amount [of them]. My aim is to read most of the 1800′s classics, and to look through the list from 1900 onwards for inspiration, since I know far too little about literature from that period.

For whatever reason, it had never occurred to me to use such lists as a starting point, rather than a mandatory reading list. (Perhaps because of the name: “you must read before you die”! Read them now or be judged!) During my quest for contemporary classics, surely such a list would have come in handy. Whenever I’ve craving a classic, this list could helpfully guide my choices. And if I’ve read and liked something by an author, the chronological clustering of the list could point me in the right direction for something similar.

Since I’m newly seeing the light when it comes to these lists, I thought I’d turn to our readers and ask if you have similar lists that you use to guide you reading. Or, if not, why you don’t!

July 10, 2014 at 1:15 am 1 comment

‘The Movement of Stars’ by Amy Brill

Upon moving to Nantucket, I quickly became aware of the rich history of remarkable women on the island. Perhaps more so than most places, Nantucket’s history is women’s history. With most of the male population gone for years on end whaling in the Pacific Ocean throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nantucket was left a veritable Herland. Given this unusual freedom for the women of the island, it isn’t surprising that some extraordinary characters emerged.

One of the most notable by any measure was Maria Mitchell, lady-astronomer extraordinaire who famously won a metal from the King of Denmark after discovering a comet one night in 1847. She discovered her comet from the roof of the Pacific National Bank in the town of Nantucket and ever since pretty much everyone on the island has been justifiably proud of her.

brillIt was not an islander, however, who decided to take up her story and inject it with a bit of modern fictional flair. Instead, New Yorker Amy Brill was inspired by Maria Mitchell’s story after a short trip to the island back in the 1990s and began writing the novel which would become The Movement of Stars.

In Movement, Brill borrows liberally from Mitchell’s life, but infuses the basic story with all the fixings of a great beach read. There’s our heroine’s feeling of differentness from the rest of her community, the requisite illicit romance, and even the bittersweet, but overall happy, ending. It’s all there, plus more historic details than you can shake a stick at. (more…)

July 7, 2014 at 1:42 am Leave a comment

Book Check and Teaser Tuesday/Wednesday

It seems like it’s been a while since we took a collective moment to check-in and see what we’re all reading! The beginning of a new month seems as good a time as any, so what’s on deck for you, dear readers?

Here’s a little Teaser Tuesday (I know, I know, it’s Wednesday, but tradition demands the name “Teaser Tuesday”) from my end to preview what’s coming up on this blog from me in the next few weeks. In each case, I’ve opened the book to a random page and included the sentence or two to give you a little taste.

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
“Within minutes the deck had been cleared of passengers. She moved into the shadow of the wheelhouse, and tried to think. She had no possessions save the coat she’d been given; its dark wool was growing warm in the sunlight. She felt inside the pocket and found the little leather satchel. There was that, at least.”

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick
“Pollard had known better, but instead of pulling rank and insisting that his officers carry out his proposal to sail for the Society Islands, he embraced a more democratic style of command. Modern survival psychologists have determined that this ‘social’–as opposed to ‘authoritarian’–form of leadership is ill suited to the early stages of a disaster, when decisions must be made quickly and firmly.”

The Movement of Stars
by Amy Brill
“A wavy, indistinct blur rose from the little city of tents in the meadow north of Miacomet Pond, where the animals had been washed the day before. The encampment buzzed with women in muslin summer skirts and eyelet bonnets, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows.”

Under the Harrow
by Mark Dunn
“And with that, my investigative friend Antonia Bocker rose to her feet and brushed her hands together to put an abrupt cap upon our exchange. ‘That is all for now, Trimmers. Go inside and solicit prayers for your nephew. I personally find prayers to be a waste of time, but then I am a lost, heathen soul, so you would be advised to follow your own conscience in the matter.'”

July 2, 2014 at 1:51 am Leave a comment

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