Friday, January 31, 2020

Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own (#CCSpin)

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by A Room Of One's Own. Though I hadn't read it before I sort of thought I knew all about it. (To an ancient Greek, this is called hubris.) What I thought (in advance): In order for a woman (or anyone, really, but women were very much less likely to have it) to become a writer five hundred pounds a year and a room of one's own was needed.

And the essay does make that argument, it's true. But it still surprised me, stylistically I guess. I'm not that well-read in Woolf by any means. But the novels I've read--To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando--are complex, difficult in their language, and deep. Her essays--I've read the Common Reader series--on the other hand, are leaner in their language, full of sparking ideas, and deep. I don't know, I expected this to be like the Common Reader series. But it was neither one nor the other--neither fiction nor essay--exactly.

The initial occasion for the essay was a two-night talk on the subject 'Women and Fiction' Virginia Woolf gave at two women's colleges at Cambridge in October of 1928. She then rewrote the talks as a single essay which was published, in both the U.K. and the U.S. a year later, and is the text in this volume. But she refers several times in the printed essay to the occasion of the talks and starts her essay by saying what her hosts and audience likely mean by 'Women and Fiction' is not what she will address.

What surprised me was the almost fanciful, the fictional, aspect of her essay. The introduction appropriately quotes Woolf herself from The Pargiters, "I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction." And so she does here. Woolf supposes a sister of William Shakespeare named Judith, equally talented, and how her purported career as a writer would go. (Short answer: not well.) The essay more stops and starts, circles around its argument with its fictional conceit, and demonstrates more by example than by any close-reasoned progression. I'd say it was closer to Orlando, than to anything in the Common Reader volumes. In short, the truth here is important, and she is writing fiction.

My edition (shown above next to Hubert) is the Penguin, and also includes Three Guineas, which I haven't read. It contains a pretty good, though not brilliant, introduction by Michèle Barrett.

Two other things I did notice: Woolf writes at one point, apropos of the British Library catalog: "Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" I hate to argue with Virginia Woolf, and I certainly know nothing about the state of the British Library catalog in 1928, but I doubt that's really true. Her basic point, that men want to control women in that time, (we'll ignore for now whether anything's changed or not) I don't doubt: but that's (alas) not the same thing as really wanting to know anything about them. I think she's confusing two different activities here. At some point I might write about men writing about women in fiction, contrasting that with women writing about men. It's a thing I've been thinking about.

The other is that Barrett includes a footnote explaining the name Coleridge: "Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), poet and essayist." Really, I thought? A reader of Virginia Woolf will need to be told such basic information about Coleridge? There is no "Shakespeare: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), poet and playwright." But then I decided Barrett was probably right. These days I can imagine this book assigned to incoming college students--possibly high school students--students so young they don't yet even know who Coleridge is. What would Virginia Woolf herself have thought about this turn of events? I have to imagine she would be shocked Coleridge was no longer a household name, and she herself was read first. So: maybe the world has changed.

This was my book for the Classics Club spin #22. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, but between traveling to California and just generally being slothful, here I am writing this post at the last possible minute...

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Seth

All You Who Sleep Tonight

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above-- 
Know that you aren't alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
-Vikram Seth 

This is the title poem from Vikram Seth's poetry collection of 1990.

I don't know about you, but I'm eagerly awaiting his A Suitable Girl, which keeps getting promised to us and keeps not arriving. I suspect it's perfectionism on his part that is holding him back. Vik! I'm sure it's very good! Let us have it!

On the other hand is it perfectionism that's kept me from completing my post on my current spin book? (Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.) In my case, it's probably just laziness...

Jennifer (the founder of Poem for a Thursday) is featuring U. A. Fanthorpe this week. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Jim Nason's Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals (#CanBookChallenge)

Jim Nason's Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals came out from Signature Editions in 2017. It's the story of Skye Vannan and her grandson Duncan Johnson. It covers a great swath of time from 1938, when Skye is just eighteen and deciding on her path in life, to 2011, when Duncan Johnson finds love as his grandmother dies.

Skye Vannan makes for quite a fascinating character. Though not as extreme, she has a bit of the irascibility of Olive Kitteridge. She's born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh, and though she's not a beauty we're told, she could marry well. (As her mother expects her to try--we see how Skye comes by her difficult nature.) Instead she wants to be a veterinarian, still an unusual profession for a woman in Scotland. She marries a Canadian soldier at the end of World War II and moves to rural Ontario (Kincardine) where she becomes the region's vet. Her wealthy family mostly drops her.

Skye's one child, a daughter, dies in a car crash; her daughter's husband, wracked with guilt--he was driving--descends into the alcoholism he was already approaching. Skye is left to raise her two-year old grandson. Duncan shows a preternatural talent for drawing animals.

Can Skye come to terms with her own brusque nature? Can she break the cycle of difficult parents producing difficult children? Those are the questions of the book, and they're well-handled. Though she can't make it work out perfectly in the end, there's a measure of hope for the future with Duncan, though I did feel he was the less interesting character.

The other thing particularly to be said about the book is Jim Nason's astute handling of time. It covers a period of seventy-plus years, and the book moves successfully back and forth in time, revealing as it needs to to move forward, but with mysteries still hidden.

The title, though? It's suitable enough, I guess, with a veterinarian as the main character, and it has particular  reference to the veterinary school in Edinburgh she attends. But not particularly appealing, I thought.

Read because I'm poking around in contemporary Canadian literature from small presses, for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Poem for a Thursday: Dickinson


Our lives are Swiss,--
So still, so cool,
 Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
 And we look further on. 
Italy stands the other side,
 While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps
The siren Alps,
 Forever intervene!

-Emily Dickinson

In picking an Emily Dickinson, I wanted to pick one that wasn't one of the better known ones, but was still particularly a favorite of mine. So here it is!

Jennifer has a stirring Robert Service poem, and not the one you know. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Steele

Jardin des Tuileries
The boy stood weeping in dismay,
Duffle-coated against the cold,
Watching his sailboat bob away
On a pool vast and granite-bowled.
No aid was asked, but seeing him,
I rolled my trousers to my knees
And waded from the basin's rim
To where the boat had sought the breeze 
And, like a giant, lifted her
Up by the mast and centerboard.
Still sniffling, with "Merci, monsieur,"
The boy walked off, his loss restored. 
This happened thirty years ago.
The trees were pollarded and bare,
The benches empty, and light snow
Fell to the powerless parterre. 
For several weeks, I'd launched campaigns
To all the tourist sites I could.
Most I've forgotten. What remains
Is how the boy drew up his hood, 
Cradling his boat in winter light,
While I sat down and bowed to muse
Upon the gravel and draw tight
And tie the laces of my shoes.

-Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele is a contemporary American poet (born 1948) generally given to more formal verse, and associated with the New Formalist movement. This is from his book of 2006 Toward the Winter Solstice.

He is also the dedicatee of Vikram Seth's first novel (in verse) The Golden Gate.

Jennifer is featuring a poem by Willa Cather this week.

I typed this up in advance, but I'm in California currently and should have picked a California poem. However here's a picture of the Jardin des Tuileries from when we were there ten years ago or so. (No
boat-sailing pool, though.)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himalaya

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himālaya came out last year from Linda Leith Éditions. It's the story of Ben Doheny, living on the streets in the late 90s near the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

The novel starts with scenes where Ben, sleeping on campus, is violently harassed by campus police, then later at the Scott Mission, where he is further harassed by his fellow homeless. (The Scott Mission is an actual shelter near to the main University of Toronto campus.) These scenes are painful and, alas, utterly convincing: the author bio tells us that Phillip Ernest lived on the streets of Toronto himself for thirteen years from the age of fifteen.

But it's not (just) a grim and realistic novel of homelessness. Ben is sustained by his love of the Sanskrit language, which gives both him and the novel a view into a larger world. Part of the reason he's drawn to the campus area is the library and the books. He claims to be a graduate student of Sanskrit when he's not, though later he manages to gain some cover from an emeritus professor in the department. He also becomes romantically entangled with Aditi, who is legitimately earning an advanced degree in Sanskrit. Her adviser, Professor Boylan, is the only active member of the department, and he's an utter monster, an abusive drunk, but he does provide the elements of the plot.

Boylan demands Aditi translate the works of classical Sanskrit which Boylan will then publish under his own name; he's so lost to alcohol and drugs he can't manage sustained work any more. Only under these circumstances will he ever--and even then there's uncertainty--approve her thesis. Ben, with his fellow street-dweller Moksha Das, does the translations for Boylan, thus leaving Aditi the time to work on her own thesis. Aditi also has a dark secret in her past that Boylan knows of, and he can, should he wish to, ruin her academic career at any time.

Will Aditi be allowed to finish her thesis and then move on to a career? Will Ben, homeless and still troubled, be able to keep the love of Aditi? The plot moves along with considerable tension to its final resolution.

It was a fascinating novel, set where I live with landmarks I see every day, and full of a cross-section of life I know nothing about. (And, yes, that also means Sanskrit scholars.) I do feel the ending relied overmuch on a deus ex machina character not previously introduced. And, while I have to imagine being homeless implies bodily functions loom much larger than they might otherwise, a little of that goes a long way for me, and there was more than a little here. Still, a very good read.

The Far Himālaya is Ernest's second novel; his first The Vetala (an Indian vampire novel!) appeared earlier, also from Linda Leith Éditions. I'll definitely read others from both the press and the author.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Wilbur

Sunset from our house on New Year's Day


Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly
Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again. 
Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie: 
My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.

-Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur was an American poet who died in 2017. This comes from fairly late in his career.

The Other Reader refers to him as that poet who loved his wife, and it's true there are several wonderful poems he wrote for his wife. But he was also one of the lyricists for Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide and is capable of quite funny poems.

New year, new commitment to #PoemForAThursday? We'll see.

Jennifer (reliably, unlike me...) has a poem each week at Holds Upon Happiness. This week she's featuring Philip Booth. Brona also a poem this week by Dorothy Hewitt.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Cambridge Introduction to Melville

"I shall have a fine book of travels, I feel sure; and will tell you more of the South Seas than any writer has done--except Herman Melville, perhaps, who is a howling cheese."
-R. L. Stevenson, in a letter to Charles Baxter

 I came across that quote (via Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania) and it sent me down a Google rabbit hole in order to decide what the heck Stevenson really thought of Melville. (A howling cheese? If somebody called me a howling cheese, I think my first instinct would be to slug them.) But it seems Stevenson only meant good things about Stevenson by that quote.

At least that's what Kevin Hayes says in The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville. ("It means something similar to the proverbial phrase, 'to take the cake.'") Also Stevenson compares the Master of Ballantrae in that novel to Captain Ahab--The Master of Ballantrae comes out in 1889, when Melville's reputation is probably at its lowest, yet Stevenson knows his works well.

Overall I can't say I particularly found the Hayes book helpful, though; on Moby-Dick itself Hayes seemed too taken with the idea of the double or Doppelgänger. Old Ishmael telling the story of course has a relation to young Ishmael living the story, but it doesn't strike me as useful to refer to them as doubles. When Hayes calls Ahab and the whale doubles he has a better, though still not entirely convincing to me, argument. Your mileage may vary. 

Still there were a few fun things. One of the contemporary reviews said this of the chapter 'The Whiteness of the Whale':
It 'should be read at midnight, alone, with nothing heard but the sounds of the wind moaning without, and the embers falling into the grate within.'
I'm sure I didn't succeed in doing that, but it sounds good. The next time I read the book. Also 'The Whiteness of the Whale' was Sergei Eisenstein's favorite chapter in the book.

I also learned about Giorgio Federico Ghedini, an Italian composer who died in 1965. His best-known work is the Concerto dell'Albatro, which includes spoken text from Moby-Dick. For classical music fans, here it is from Youtube: (the spoken word part is in the third movement beginning around the 17th minute.)

I previously shared elsewhere in a slightly abbreviated form, this quote from Hayes:
"Moby-Dick demands readers who are unafraid to confront the strange and the unusual, those willing to use their minds, if not their palates, to face the mysteries of existence as reflected through an epic whaling quest."
Aw, shucks. You shouldn't have. You really think so?

And Hayes' final words on Moby-Dick?
"Moby-Dick is the greatest book in the history of the English language."
So now you know.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Challenge HQ

I've decided to do an omnibus post for challenges in 2020. I was originally thinking this would be a mini-omnibus, but it's gotten a bit larger as I think about it. Oh, well...

For full descriptions of each challenge, follow the link to the original post. I include brief descriptions here.

Erica has devised a new challenge to get us to read some classics. Half the fun of these is thinking of a list of classics in advance to match the prompts, so I've included tentative choices. She invites us (and I intend to!) double up with Classics Club books. Her prompts are as follows:

A Classic Over 500 Pages
 -Charles Dickens' David Copperfield
A Classic By a POC Author and/or with a POC main character
 -James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
A Classic That Takes Place in a Country Other Than Where You Live
 -Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
A Classic In Translation
 -Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt
A Classic By A New To You Author
 -John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga
A Classic Book of Poetry
 -Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
A Classic Written Between 1800 and 1860
 -Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
A Classic By An LGBT Author or With an LGBT Main Character
 -Willa Cather's One of Ours
A Classic Written By A Woman
 -Anna Seghers' Transit
A Classic Novella
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Classic Non-fiction
 -Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own
A Banned or Censored Classic
 -Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

I'm sure I'll be switching them around. In particular I've put Goethe and Bocaccio on similar lists in the past, and yet they're still here...

Erica allows us to use one book for up to two prompts, but I'm going to try to avoid that. The Virginia Woolf is my winter spin book, so it should get read first.

Well, I'd assembled a list for Erica's challenge and then I saw Karen was doing hers again, so now I'm doing them both! Though there will be some overlap in books. Here's Karen's list of prompts, together with the books I've tentatively matched against them:

Nineteenth Century Classic
Twentieth Century Classic
Classic by a Woman Author
Classic in Translation
Classic by a Person of Color
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
A Genre Classic
Classic With A Person's Name In The Title
Classic With A Place in the Title
Classic With Nature in the Title
Classic About A Family
Abandoned Classic
 -Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship
Classic With an Adaptation
 -Charles Dickens' David Copperfield

Which of these look good to you?

The goal is five different European countries, but let's think about the maximum, which is fifty! Unless the Scots get independence before the end of the year, then I can aim for fifty-one.

7.) Karel Čapek's R.U.R. Czech Republic.
12.) Anna Seghers' Transit. Germany

Bev challenges us to read books we already own. I've done this challenge a few times now, increasing the number each year until I flopped on it last year. (I believe this is called Test To Failure.) So this year I'm dialling it back, and going for Mt. Vancouver (36 books) which is what I would have successfully done this year. (Meaning it's not really a challenge, right? Oh, well...)

1.) Henry James' The American
2.) Brian Dillon's In The Dark Room
3.) Kate Briggs' This Little Art
4.) Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra
5.) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own & Three Guineas
6.) David Jones' In Parenthesis
7.) Arthur Schnitzler's Late Fame
8.) Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric
9.) Arthur Schnitzler's Fräulein Else
10.) Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
11.) James Huneker's Painted Veils
12.) James Huneker's Egoists: A Book of Supermen
13.) Karel Čapek's Four Plays
14.) John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga
15.) Isaac Bashevis Singer's In My Father's Court
16.) Josephine Tey's To Love And Be Wise
17.) Carol Shields' Coming To Canada
18.) J. F. Powers' Wheat That Springeth Green
19.) John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer
20.) Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per
21.) Patricia Moyes' Falling Star
22.) Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita
30.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
32.) Susan Sontag's At The Same Time
33.) Graham Greene's Collected Essays
35.) Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
36.) John Galsworthy's The White Monkey


37.) John Galsworthy's The Silver Spoon
38.) Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Keely at A Common Reader is hosting a Russian literature challenge for the year. No particular number of books, just a chance to share thoughts about Russian literature. I'm likely to try to read The Master and Margarita at the very least and hopefully a couple more.

1.) Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

Here's a list of the books I've read this year from my multi-year Classics Club list.

7.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

Canadian Book Challenge

The 13th Canadian Book Challenge now hosted by Shonna at Canadian Bookworm runs from Canada Day to Canada Day, but here's a list of the books I've read for this challenge in 2020:


Am I overdoing it again? Probably I am!

A link to last year's challenge omnibus post.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Reading Year In Review

You know I can never write these posts until the 1st of the new year because I'm probably reading something at eight o'clock on New Year's Eve, and it might still be great...well, hello, Tom Jones!

Best of Year

We'll start out with the books that were new to me. Two of them were relatively recent releases. That's pretty good for me! (In the order I read them.)

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (tr. David Slavitt)

I'd read Ariosto's Orlando Furioso before in a prose translation by Guido Waldman, and I'd liked it, but this was really a revelation. Rollicking and funny and done in the actual ottava rima that Ariosto used. If this is the only version you ever read, I did worry a bit about the liberties Slavitt took in his translation, plus the fact that it's only a little over half of the work, but if you want to read one of the lesser-known great classics and have a great time, this is a great choice!

(The remainder of Slavitt's translation of Ariosto was printed by a smaller press, and has been on my notional TBR since then, but I haven't read it...yet.)

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

I really liked this novel when I read it in June, and I find it's particularly stuck to me since. It's a funny, almost Kafkaesque, novel about a woman (Iris) working in an office. Maybe the company is going bankrupt, but maybe it's a bit more surreal than that. We mostly see things through Iris' eyes, and she's quirky, somehow damaged, a bit affectless, but still engaging and engaged.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

I had sort of been thinking of this as a year of Edith Wharton in any case, but the fall Classics Club spin brought this one to the fore. Undine Spragg, a girl from the provinces, claws her way up to something like success, leaving bodies metaphorical and actual along the way. Except when she gets there, she's not satisfied after all.

Oh, Undine Spragg, you are a villain.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

I didn't get a chance to blog about this one. I'd put this on my library hold list earlier in the year, but it only got to me the week she won the Nobel Prize. I knew I wasn't going to be able to renew it. It's a shorter and easier read than Flights, which I read last year & liked, but I didn't want to race through it.

It's a mystery plot, ahem, suggestive of a certain well-known Agatha Christie novel. (No spoilers!) It's also engaged with environmental and animal-rights issues, as well as contemporary Polish politics.

Still, it's the plot and the voice of the narrator that make this so much fun.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

This was the Edith Wharton book I'd been intending to read all along--I'd put it down for my Back To The Classics challenge. And I was going to start it immediately after I finished the first, but then Cleo (thanks Cleo!) decided to hold a readalong and I waited. It was better to wait; the readalong was a lot of fun.

They make a good pair. Both Lily Bart, the heroine of this, and Undine Spragg are girls born to some wealth, but who want a lot more. But in every other way, they're different.

Two others I could equally have included are:

Claudio Magris' Snapshots


Olivia Manning's School For Love

Also some really great rereads:

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels
Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (blog post *probably* coming soon)


Oh, dear. Not a good year for challenges.

Let's concentrate on the successful ones, shall we? I went well over the top again this year with Gilion's European Reading Challenge. I successfully completed Bev's Read It Again, Sam Challenge. And I did respectably with Karen's Back to the Classics and Becky's Chunkster Challenge. And were there any other challenges? I'm sure I don't remember any other challenges...

Well, except for the perennial problem that my eyes were too big for my stomach, it was a good reading year. I continue to blog around half the books I read, which seems about where I've settled in.

I've signed up for a couple of challenges for the new year, and may do one or two more, though I'm feeling ever so slightly chastened.

Coming pretty soon...a best of the decade post.

Happy New Year to all, and thanks for reading!