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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brings to light some fascinating looking tomes.

1. Going West by Maurice Gee 866199
For all the promise of his name, Jack Skeat cannot be a poet. His friend Rex Petley – eel-catcher, girl-chaser, motorbike rider – takes that prize. Is he also a murderer? And why, forty years later, does he drown out on the Gulf? Jack has to find out, and is drawn to examine their lives. Going West has long been regarded as one of the most autobiographical of Maurice Gee’s novels.

 

2. Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s only true biography, written to commemorate a devoted friend and one of the most renowned art critics of this century, who helped to bring the Postimpressionist movement from France to England and America.

 

16198633. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, “I Know My Own Heart,” met with celebration, delight, and some skepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?  Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman. Though unequipped with a lesbian vocabulary with which to describe her erotic life, her emotional conflicts are contemporary enough to speak to us all.  This book will satisfy the curiosity of the many who became acquainted with Lister through I Know My Own Heart and are eager to learn more about her revealing life and what it suggests about the history of sexuality.

 

4. Victorine by Maude Hutchins
Victorine is thirteen, and she can’t get the unwanted surprise of her newly sexual body, in all its polymorphous and perverse insistence, out of her mind: it is a trap lying in wait for her at every turn (and nowhere, for some reason, more than in church). Meanwhile, Victorine’s older brother Costello is struggling to hold his own against the overbearing, mean-spirited, utterly ghastly Hector L’Hommedieu, a paterfamilias who collects and discards mistresses with scheming abandon even as Allison, his wife, drifts through life in a narcotic daze.   And Maude Hutchins’s Victorine? It’s a sly, shocking, one-of-a-kind novel that explores sex and society with wayward and unabashedly weird inspiration, a drive-by snapshot of the great abject American family in its suburban haunts by a literary maverick whose work looks forward to—and sometimes outstrips—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin.

 

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte 3212619.jpg
This new collection of short stories about World War I features works by such famous British authors as Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes. Written during the war and after, these stories illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture, as well as the many ways in which short fiction contributed to the literature of that time period.

 

6. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century. This book tells her story.

 

208197177. The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha
Set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, The Crocodiles is narrated in numbered, prose poem-like paragraphs, set against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square, by a man looking back on the magical and explosive period of his life when he and two friends started a secret poetry club amid a time of drugs, messy love affairs, violent sex, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, and retranslations of the Beat poets. Youssef Rakha’s provocative, brutally intelligent novel of growth and change begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, forcefully capturing thirty years in the life of a living, breathing, daring, burning, and culturally incestuous Cairo.

 

8. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

9. Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe 16088815
A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.  For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.  In this extraordinary work Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, from the forests where he walked and the mountains where he worshipped to the artefacts, texts and philosophies built up round him. She traces the man, and the power he represents, through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalising Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalising the Fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.

 

10. The Giants by Jean Marie G. Le Clezio
Upon an immense stretch of flat ground at the mouth of a river bathed in sunlight rises Hyperpolis. It stands there, surrounded by its four asphalt car-parks, to condemn us – a huge enveloping supermarket. Each of us will see ourselves reflected in the characters who move mindlessly about Hyperpolis, but The Giants is a call to rebellion. This bold and inventive novel is the work of a tremendously talented writer and both an intoxicating and exhilarating read.

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‘The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time’

I have been reading far more essay collections over the last couple of years, and wondered which collections were seen as the pinnacles of an already great genre.  I found the following list on Flavorwire (see here), and thought I would type it up, along with a blurb, and see how many I have made part of my reading life to date.  Pitifully, the only one which I have read is Woolf’s The Common Reader!

1. The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
15793567Aleksandar Hemon’s lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy’s life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man’s life is about poking at the pretensions of the city’s elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city.  And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you’ve finished. For fans of Hemon’s fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time.

 

2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
‘The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem “remains, forty years after its first publication, the essential portrait of America particularly California in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.’

 

3. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan 9780374532901
‘A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape from high to low to lower than low by the award-winning young star of the literary nonfiction world.In “Pulphead, “John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own how we really (no, really) live now. In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s “Real World, “who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill. Gradually, a unifying narrative emerges, a story about this country that we’ve never heard told this way. It’s like a fun-house hall-of-mirrors tour: Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we’ve never imagined to be true. Of course we don’t know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection it’s our inevitable sob-guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan’s work’

 

4. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
‘Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment “The Fourth State of Matter,” one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of the New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman’s life – from childhood to marriage & beyond – & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.’

 

97803160133215. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
‘Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.’

 

6. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
‘Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in “Notes of a Native Son “capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in The Harlem Ghetto to a sobering Journey to Atlanta. “Notes of a Native Son”inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright s work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise. “Notes” is the book that established Baldwin s voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin s own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.’

 

7. Naked by David Sedaris 9780349119779
‘A riotous collection of memoirs which explores the absurd hilarity of modern life and creates a wickedly incisive portrait of an all-too-familiar world. It takes Sedaris from his humiliating bout with obsessive behaviour in ‘A Plague of Tics’ to the title story, where he is finally forced to face his naked self in the company of lunatics. At this soulful and moving moment, he brushes cigarette ashes from his pubic hair and wonders what it all means. This remarkable journey into his own life follows a path of self-effacement and a lifelong search for identity leaving himself both under suspicion and over dressed.’

 

8. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
‘ Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and made her name as one of the most incisive thinkers of our time. Sontag was among the first critics to write about the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, and to give them equal value as valid topics, shown here in her epoch-making pieces ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. Here too are impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis and contemporary religious thought. Originally published in 1966, this collection has never gone out of print and has been a major influence on generations of readers, and the field of cultural criticism, ever since.’

 

97801560277869. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
‘This is Virginia Woolf’s first collection of essays, published in 1925. In them, she attempts to see literature from the point of view of the ‘common reader’ – someone whom she, with Dr Johnson, distinguished from the critic and the scholar. She read, and wrote, as an outsider: a woman set to school in her father’s library, denied the educational privileges of her male siblings – and with no fixed view of what constitutes ‘English Literature’. What she produced is an eccentric and unofficial literary and social history from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, with an excursion to ancient Greece thrown in. She investigates medieval England, tsarist Russia, Elizabethan playwrights, Victorian novelists and modern essayists. When she published this book Woolf’s fame as a novelist was already established: now she was hailed as a brilliant interpretative critic. Here, she addresses her ‘common reader’ in the remarkable prose and with all the imagination and gaiety that are the stamp of her genius.’

 

10. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
‘In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard fixes her entrancing gaze and powerful sense of wonder on the natural world. Whether watching a sublime lunar eclipse or locking eyes with a wild weasel, Dillard captures the grand and miniature miracles of our universe. Annie Dillard is one of the most respected and influential figures in contemporary non-fiction and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. With Teaching a Stone to Talk, she illuminates the world around us with a new and glowing light.’

 

11. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man by Henry Louis Gates Jr 9780679776666
‘In these stunning portraits of prominent black American men, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., takes us behind closed doors and into the lives, minds, and experiences of some remarkable people to reveal, through stories of individual lives, much about American society and race today. James Baldwin, Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Albert Murray – all these men came from modest circumstances and all achieved preeminence. These men and others speak of their lives with candor and intimacy, and what emerges from this portfolio of influential men is a strikingly varied and profound set of ideas about what it means to be a black man in America today.’

 

12. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer
‘Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects music, literature, photography, and travel journalism that, in Dyer’s expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage. “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition “collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.’

 

13. Art and Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
‘Among the pieces included in this collection of wide-ranging essays are two extended essays on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and analyses of the work of contemporaries including Updike and Capote.’

 

978081668079514. No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis
‘With characteristic intelligence, wit, and feminist insight, Ellen Willis addresses democracy as she sees it: a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life. Moving between scholarly and down-to-earth activist writing styles, Willis confronts the conservative backlash that has slowly eroded democratic ideals and advances of the 1960s as well as the internal debates that have frequently splintered the left.’

 

15. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis
‘Like John Updike, Martin Amis is the pre-eminent novelist-critic of his generation. The War Against Cliche is a selection of his reviews and essays over the past quarter-century. It contains pieces on Cervantes, Milton, Donne, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Philip Larkin, Joyce, Waugh, Lowry, Nabokov, F. R. Leavis, V. S. Pritchett, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Shiva and V. S. Naipaul, Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris – and John Updike. Other subjects include chess, nuclear weapons, masculinity, screen censorship, juvenile violence, Andy Warhol, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.’

 

16. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James 9780330481755
‘Organized from A through Z, and containing over 100 essays, Cultural Amnesia is the ultimate guide to the twentieth century. ‘This is a beautiful book. James proves himself not only to be in possession of a towering intellect, but a singular ability to communicate his passions’ Observer ‘Witty, insightful and unashamedly erudite, the book is a superb miscellany of 20th-century cultural and political subjects’ The Sunday Times ‘Over the past forty years James has been scribbling notes in the margins of the books he has read …and this is the result.’

 

17. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”, “Heartburn”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, “You’ve Got Mail”) turns her sharp wit on to her own life. It includes: Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from; if the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit; when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you; anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five; the empty nest is underrated; and if only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.’

 

978085789258418. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
‘Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a matchless writer, debater and humanist. Throughout his life he shone the light of reason and truth into the eyes of charlatans and hucksters, exposing falsehood and decrying hypocrisy wherever he found it. With his passing, the world has lost a great soul, the written word one of its finest advocates and those who stand for freedom everywhere have lost one of their clearest voices. Arguably collects Hitchens’ writing on politics, literature and religion when he was at the zenith of his career; it is the indispensible companion to the finest English essayist since Orwell.’

 

19. The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
‘Writing of hermits, cowboys, changing seasons, and the wind, Ehrlich draws us into her personal relationship with this “planet of Wyoming” she has come to call home. She captures the incredible beauty and the demanding harshness of natural forces in these remote reaches of the West, and the depth, tenderness and humor of the quirky souls who live there.Ehrlich, a former filmmaker and urbanite, presents in these essays a fresh and vibrant tribute to the new life she has chosen.’

 

20. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders 9781594482564
‘The breakout book from “the funniest writer in America”–not to mention an official “Genius”–his first nonfiction collection ever. George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker. ‘

 

21. Against Joie de Vivre by Philippe Lopate
‘This rejoinder to the cult of hedonism and forced conviviality moves from a critique of the false sentimentalization of children and the elderly to a sardonic look at the social rite of the dinner party, on to a moving personal testament to the “hungry soul.” Lopate’s special gift is his ability to give us not only sophisticated cultural commentary in a dazzling collection of essays but also to bring to his subjects an engaging honesty and openness that invite us to experience the world along with him. Also included here are Lopate’s inspiring account of his production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of preadolescents, a look at the tradition of the personal essay, and a soul-searching piece on the suicide of a schoolteacher and its effect on his students and fellow teachers. By turns humorous, learned, celebratory, and elegiac, Lopate displays a keen intelligence and a flair for language that turn bits of common, everyday life into resonant narrative. This collection maintains a conversational charm while taking the contemporary personal essay to a new level of complexity and candor.’

 

978160358337422. Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
‘Called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland brings readers his ultimate collection. In Sex and the River Styx, the author’s sharp eye and intense curiosity shine through in essays that span his childhood exploring the woods in his rural Connecticut, his days as a circus worker, and his travels the world over in his later years. Here, we meet Hoagland at his best: traveling to Kampala, Uganda, to meet a family he’d been helping support only to find a divide far greater than he could have ever imagined; reflecting on aging, love, and sex in a deeply personal, often surprising way; and bringing us the wonder of wild places, alongside the disparity of losing them, and always with a twist that brings the genre of nature writing to vastly new heights. His keen dissection of social realities and the human spirit will both startle and lure readers as they meet African matriarchs, Tibetan yak herders, circus aerialists, and the strippers who entertained college boys in 1950s Boston. Says Howard Frank Mosher in his foreword, the self-described rhapsodist “could fairly be considered our last, great transcendentalist.’

 

23. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith
‘Changing My Mind is a collection of essays by Zadie Smith on literature, cinema, art – and everything in between. ‘A supremely good read. Smith writes about reading and writing with such infectious zeal and engaging accessibility that it makes you want to turn up at her house and demand tutoring’ Dazed and Confused ‘Alarmingly good’ Metro ‘Striding with open hearted zest and eloquence between fiction (from EM Forster to David Foster Wallace) and travel, movies and comedy, family and community in a self-portrait that charts the evolution of a formidable talent. In lovely elegiac pieces on her late father Harvey, D-Day veteran and Tony Hancock fan, Smith also delivers some of the most affecting autobiographical writing in any form’ – Independent, Books of the Year ‘Brilliant. She’s friendly and conspiratorial, voicing the kind of clever theories we could imagine ourselves holding if only we were as articulate as Zadie Smith’ – Vogue ‘Fascinating. Smith has the gift of showing you how she reads and thinks; watching her do it makes you feel smarter and more observant. Her account of her struggles as an author may be the most authentic, unglamorous description of novel-writing ever put on paper’ – Time’

 

24. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum 9781250067654
‘Meghan Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognised for her fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths the hidden fault lines in the American landscape. From her well-remembered New Yorker essays about the financial demands of big city ambition and the ethereal, strangely old fashioned allure of cyber relationships to her dazzlingly hilarious riff in Harper’s about musical passions that give way to middle brow paraphernalia, Daum delves into the center of things while closely examining the detritus that spills out along the way. With precision and well balanced irony, Daum implicates herself as readily as she does the targets that fascinate and horrify her.’

 

25. The White Album by Joan Didion
‘First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.’

 

How many of these collections have you read?  Which pique your interest the most?  Which are your favourite essay collections?

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‘Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf’ by Mitchell Leaska *****

Mitchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow had been on my to-read shelf for a couple of months before I picked it up in early December, in part as PhD research, and in part as an enjoyable read.  Leaska’s wise and intelligent introduction to the volume fits perfectly; it sets out what he is aiming to achieve with his biography, recognising that he is one of many who has chosen to tackle Woolf as Woman and Writer proper.

9780374166595Leaska blends details about Woolf’s life, beginning with in-depth accounts of her parents, and blends in a smattering of criticism about all of her books, as well as detailing what inspired her to write each distinct piece.  He does not take her short stories into account much of the time, and even leaves some of her essays by the wayside, but discussing everything that Woolf ever wrote would be rather a mean feat, and any omissions do not have a great impact on the work as a whole.  The elements of social and political history which Leaska has made use of are fitting, and give a wider context to Woolf’s work and decisions.

One reviewer argues that Leaska makes many unsubstantiated claims throughout Granite and Rainbow; I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Yes, he discusses ambiguities in her prose, but many biographers make claims with regard to what they believe the author was driving at in writing X, or amending Y.  Of course, in every biography there is going to be an element of bias, but Leaska has written rather impartially about his subject.  It is clear that he admires her and his work, but his approach to her as a woman is one of academic understanding.

I found Leaska’s writing really quite lovely: ‘The world that mattered to Virginia Woolf was the world of emotional and sensory experience eddying endlessly in atmosphere, of the mind, in twilit regions of memory where past and present merge and blur.  It was a world where houses and rooms are furnished not with carpets and curtains but with reminiscence and feeling.  This alone was real.  It was not concerned with what life was like, but more with what the actual experience of living felt like’.   The entirety of the book has a wonderful consistency to it too.

Granite and Rainbow did not add much to my understanding of Woolf as a person, but it certainly went into more far depth than the majority of other biographies with her extramarital relationships – with Vita Sackville-West, for instance.  If I was coming to Woolf as someone who had merely read her work and wanted to know more about her as a person in the real world, I would have found Leaska’s book endlessly fascinating.  As it is, I have been studying Woolf for quite a while up to this point and, as one might expect, biographies do tend to repeat themselves from tome to tome.

That said, Leaska’s biography is something else entirely, and deserves to be revered in the same way as Hermione Lee’s work about Woolf; it is just as thorough, and has a wonderful clarity to it.  In Granite and Rainbow, Leaska has produced a fantastic biography which is authoritative and masterfully written, and it certainly deserves more attention than it seems to have received to date.

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Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Writer’s Diary’ by Virginia Woolf *****

First published in 2012.

A Writer’s Diary was first published posthumously in 1953 and is one of Persephone’s new reprints for Spring 2012. The book is composed of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s thirty diaries, unpublished at the time of its original publication. Each extract has been carefully selected by her husband Leonard, whose idea was ‘to extract those entries that show her in the act of writing’.

9781903155882Lyndall Gordon, a biographer of Virginia Woolf, has contributed a new preface to this edition. Written in October 2011, Gordon describes how Woolf’s ‘darting inspiration and plans to transform the novel or enter into women’s buried lives are netted in A Writer’s Diary’. Gordon’s preface is thoughtful and sets the tone for the book, citing it as ‘a masterpiece in its own right’.

The original preface, written by Leonard Woolf at the start of 1953, has also been included. He states that the ‘book throws light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer’ and consequently ‘gives an unusual psychological picture of artistic production from within’. Leonard Woolf believes that A Writer’s Diary ‘shows the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she [Virginia] devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote’.

The span of the book, ranging from 1918 to the lead up to Virginia Woolf’s eventual suicide in 1941, encompasses her ups and downs, as well as her successes and failures with regard to her writing.

Woolf’s thoughts about other writers and their work have been included throughout. ‘Byron had a superb force’, the Reminiscences by Carlyle are ‘the chatter of an old toothless gravedigger’, and the work of Katherine Mansfield is both admired and belittled. On Ulysses by James Joyce, Woolf states that ‘I have read 200 pages so far – not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters – to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’.

The diary features Woolf’s meetings with many other writers, spanning from Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot to E.M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West. It is set against a backdrop of two world wars and much upheaval, both in Europe and partly in Virginia’s own life.

The effects which reviews of her work had upon her have been described throughout, sometimes in harrowing ways. ‘I don’t take praise or blame excessively to heart,’ writes Woolf, ‘but they interrupt, cast one’s eyes backwards, make one wish to explain or investigate’. Leonard Woolf has also included extracts which signpost Virginia’s struggles as a writer and her often mystified thoughts on her growing popularity. After the publication of Monday or Tuesday in 1921, she says ‘The truth is, I expect, that I shan’t get very much attention anywhere. Yet, I become rather well known’. Her work for the Times Literary Supplement is also touched upon. Woolf states that ‘when I write a review I write every sentence as if it were going to be tried before three Chief Justices’.

Throughout, Woolf’s prose style is spectacular. Some of the extracts are more spontaneous than others, but all are written with such marvellous clarity. The exacting seriousness of her work is paramount throughout. We, as readers, are given a window into her world and the precise way in which she planned every meticulous detail of her pieces before she began to write. Of her own diary writing, Woolf states that she is ‘much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles’. Despite this, each entry is richly written, vibrant, thoughtful and informative, and the piece flows incredibly well as a whole.

The book itself is very well laid out. A chronological bibliography of Woolf’s work has been included, along with a glossary of the main people who feature throughout the diaries.

A Writer’s Diary is a wonderful and an invaluable book, both for writers and for fans of Virginia Woolf and her work. As one of the most revered authors of the twentieth century, Woolf’s writing diary is certainly a worthy addition to the Persephone oeuvre, one that deserves to be read and reread.

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Novels of 1928

I have read several novels for class which were published in 1928, all of which are diverse, and the majority of which have made a great impression upon me.  I thought that I would draw your attention to the four most diverse books from this year, all of which I would recommend.

  1. Orlando by Virginia Woolf 9781853262395
    ”The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.’
  2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
    ‘With its four-letter words and its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the novel with which D.H. Lawrence is most often associated. First published privately in Florence in 1928, it only became a world-wide best-seller after Penguin Books had successfully resisted an attempt by the British Director of Public Prosecutions to prevent them offering an unexpurgated edition. The famous ‘Lady Chatterley trial’ heralded the sexual revolution of the coming decades and signalled the defeat of Establishment prudery. Yet Lawrence himself was hardly a liberationist and the conservativism of many aspects of his novel would later lay it open to attacks from the political avant-garde and from feminists. The story of how the wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley responds when her husband returns from the war paralysed from the waist down, and of the tender love which then develops between her and her husband’s gamekeeper, is a complex one open to a variety of conflicting interpretations. This edition of the novel offers an occasion for a new generation of readers to discover what all the fuss was about; to appraise Lawrence’s bitter indictment of modern industrial society, and to ask themselves what lessons there might be for the 21st century in his intense exploration of the complicated relations between love and sex.’
  3. 9780141187488Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
    ‘Sent down from Oxford in outrageous circumstances, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul.’
  4. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
    ‘A powerful novel of love between women, The Well of Loneliness brought about the most famous legal trial for obscenity in the history of British law. Banned on publication in 1928, it then went on to become a classic bestseller. Stephen Gordon (named by a father desperate for a son) is not like other girls: she hunts, she fences, she reads books, wears trousers and longs to cut her hair. As she grows up amidst the stifling grandeur of Morton Hall, the locals begin to draw away from her, aware of some indefinable thing that sets her apart. And when Stephen Gordon reaches maturity, she falls passionately in love – with another woman.’

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Illness Narratives: Getting Started

Whilst I did not enjoy my Illness Narratives as Life Writing class anywhere near as much as I thought I would, I still read some incredibly good memoirs in preparation for it.  There are a few here which I read prior to the course too.  The following books have all been selected to feature on the blog today because I feel that they are all important; they are poignant, tender, thought-provoking and, above all, life-affirming.  For each, I have copied the official blurb, as the majority of them describe the conditions written about in a far more comprehensive way than I could without doing some research.

  1. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 9781860497926
    ‘In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles. A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.’
  2. On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
    ‘The essay seeks to establish illness as a serious subject of literature along the lines of love, jealousy and battle. Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”‘
  3. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
    ‘From the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, a wry, shocking and beautiful memoir of childhood, ghosts, hauntings, illness and family. ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s uniquely unusual five-part autobiography. Opening in 1995 with ‘A Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of her childhood. In ‘Now Geoffrey Don’t Torment Her’ Mantel takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating in the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelight ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. In ‘Smile’, an account of teenage perplexity, Mantel describes a household where the keeping of secrets has become a way of life. Finally, at the memoir’s conclusion, Mantel explains how through a series of medical misunderstandings and neglect she came to be childless and how the ghosts of the unborn like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her life as a writer.’
  4. 9781783781461Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
    ‘In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight. As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent’s chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.’
  5. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
    ‘Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and finalist for every major nonfiction award in the UK, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Award, The Iceberg is artist and writer Marion Coutts’ astonishing memoir; an adventure of being and dying and a compelling, poetic meditation on family, love, and language. In 2008, Tom Lubbach, the chief art critic for The Independent was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Iceberg is his wife, Marion Coutts, fierce, exquisite account of the two years leading up to his death. In spare, breathtaking prose, Coutts conveys the intolerable and, alongside their two year old son Ev, whose language is developing as Tom’s is disappearing/  Marion and Tom lovingly weather the storm together. In short bursts of exquisitely textured prose, The Iceberg becomes a singular work of art and an uplifting and universal story of endurance in the face of loss.’
  6. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy 9780060569662
    ‘”I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.’
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    ‘The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body. A masterpiece and a bestseller in France, it is now a major motion picture directed by Julian Schnabel. On 8 December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, the only muscle left functioning was in his left eyelid although his mind remained as active and alert as it had ever been. He spent most of 1996 writing this book, letter by letter, blinking as an alphabet was repeatedly read out to him.’
  8. 9780099556091Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It’s also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’
  9. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
    ‘This is the true story of a boy who wanted to grow up with the Brady Bunch, but ended up living with the Addams Family. Augusten Burroughs’s mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients and a sinister man living in the garden shed completed the tableau. The perfect squalor of their dilapidated Victorian house, there were no rules and there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer and Valium was chomped down like sweets. And when things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.’
  10. Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie 9780805066128
    ‘By turns humorous and heart-rending, an unforgettable account of a young woman’s spiritual triumphs over breast cancer in the last year of her life Ruth Picardie was only thirty-three when she died, a month after her twins’ second birthday and just under a year after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. For Ruth, a journalist, it seemed natural to write about her illness. She published only five columns for Observer Life magazine before she became too sick to continue, but her moving, funny, and very human account drew a huge response from readers all over England. Before I Say Goodbye juxtaposes these columns with correspondence from readers, e-mails to her friends, letters to her children, and reflections by her husband and her sister. The result is a courageous and moving book, entirely devoid of self-pity, that celebrates the triumph of a brave and wonderful woman’s spirit. An international bestseller in England, Picardie’s sobering yet ultimately life-affirming book is destined to become a classic.’

 

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