Wednesday, February 10, 2010
More book stuff.
I was going to run some errands this morning, but as the snow is falling again and accumulating far beyond what the weather people said it would, I guess I'll stay home and not risk the chaos out there.
Kim asked what I've been reading, so here's a rough list of things...
I read a mystery called The White Garden by Stephanie Barron, who writes a pretty good mystery series about Jane Austen that I used to read. This is a stand-alone novel about what may have really happened after Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with rocks and waded into the river in 1941. It was pretty good (I have found Barron to be a consistently "pretty good" writer) and it got me interested in Virginia Woolf and her friend/lover Vita-Sackville-West, and also the gardens at Sissinghurst, Vita's home, as I mentioned before.
So I had a copy of Mrs. Dalloway from the the thrift store around here, and I picked that up. I was an English major in college, and yet I never read any Virginia Woolf, not even "A Room of Her Own," which I think is supposed to be mandatory for English majors with a women's studies emphasis!
I had tried to read Mrs. Dalloway once or twice before and never gotten past the first page or two before getting distracted, but I must have just been in the perfect frame of mind, because I floated right through it and thought it was terrific.
Vita Sackville-West also intrigued me from her characterization in The White Garden, so I ordered one of her novels from Paperback Swap and read it: All Passion Spent. Sackville-West was nowhere near the kind of writer that Woolf was, but it was still an excellent story of an elderly woman whose husband dies and who astounds her children and grandchildren by taking charge of her life for the very first time. It was a quick, good read. There aren't many of Sackville-West's books in print any more, but I'd like to find a few more to sample.
Vita Sackville-West had a very long and interesting marriage to a man named Harold Nicholson, who worked for the diplomatic service in Great Britain. They fell in love and married right before the first World War, but their marriage was severely strained several years later when Vita had her first affair with another woman. This story is told in their son Nigel Nicholson's book Portrait of a Marriage. Vita and Harold spent almost forty more years together after this crisis, but never shared a bed again, she sleeping with other women and the occasional man, he sleeping with other men. And yet they were devoted to each other and to their homes and gardens. It's a pretty interesting story, to say the least.
I am a total Anglophile, and books that take place around the First World War through the Second World War are always interesting to me. Someone on the Paperback Swap forums (have I mentioned how much I love that site?!) brought up an author named E.F. Benson, who was a prolific writer, but who is most famous today for six novels he wrote about a woman named Emmeline Lucas (called "Lucia" by her friends) who rules the small town she lives in with an iron fist. The first Lucia book (Queen Lucia) was written in 1920, and you wouldn't think a 90-year-old book could be so wickedly funny, but it is. I've read the first three books and have the second three on order...I don't even know how to describe them except to say that if you find British sitcoms funny, you will probably find these books funny. Nobody is better at poking fun at people's pretensions than the British.
I finally got 84, Charing Cross Road from my Paperback Swap wish list...I had seen part of the movie on TV a month or so ago, so I knew how it ended, but I still enjoyed the book. It's a very quick read, a little story told in letters between a New York writer named Helene Hanff and the used bookstore in England where she orders books. The letters span a 20-year period. It made me very nostalgic for a time when you could stick a couple of bucks in an envelope and get antique books from London!
Somehow I got interested in reading Shirley Jackson, and I can't remember how. Many people had to read her short story "The Lottery" in junior high or high school--it's her most famous work by far. I heard somewhere about her last book We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and requested it for Christmas, and read it all on Christmas evening, which was a creepy way to end a holiday. It is one of the oddest books I have ever read, but it sticks with you--the story of two sisters who live in a big house with their deranged uncle, as told by the younger sister Merricat. Read it, it's good.
Then a couple weeks ago I picked up Jackson's other novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which was also very good. For people who are jaded by years of violent horror films, this book might not make much of an impact, but if you are an imaginative sort of person who doesn't even like to sit through scary movie previews, you'll get quite a few pleasurable spine chills from the story. It, too, has stuck with me...Jackson had a real talent for setting a scene and adding details that made it come to life and feel very real to the reader.
Shirley Jackson spent her early career writing the kind of domestic humor that a lot of women writers were stuck writing in the late 40s and through the 60s--stories about absent-minded husbands and adorable but cantankerous children. I found her best-known of this type of book, Life Among the Savages, and read it a few days ago. After reading her dark, spooky fiction, this light-hearted story of her four children and her family's move to an old house in Vermont hardly seems like it could be written by the same person at first glance, but I could see in it some of her same careful prose and even a few dark bits peeping out here and there.
I am really eager to get Jackson's biography--it's on my wish list at Paperback Swap--and find out more about her. She died in her mid-forties, from too much food, alcohol and pills--certainly the flip side of the light-hearted wife and mom she portrayed in her humor books, and more in keeping with the haunted women in her short stories and novels.
So that's a bit of what I've been reading the past few weeks. And I just keep finding more and more and more...!