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A Rather Wonderful Literary Blog

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One of my favourite literary blogs in recent years has been the very wonderful A Piece of Monologue. Run by Rhys Tranter, it has a strong focus on Samuel Beckett, but also regularly comes up with some gems about my favourite writers.

One of the current pages, here, features some amazing photos of Virginia Woolf by Man Ray, including this one:

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Isn’t that glorious?

The blog also has recent features on Toni Morrison, Wassily Kandinsky, Kafka, Philip Roth and much more. I highly recommend a visit!

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The Liebster Award

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Wow! The lovely Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library has kindly nominated me for Liebster Award. According to Florence, “the word comes from the German, meaning “dearest” or “beloved” and is granted by fellow bloggers to new blogs with fewer than 200 followers and deserving of recognition and encouragement.” Apparently, you answer the questions set, and then set some of your own – what fun! So here are my answers:

What is your favourite reading spot?

To be honest, I don’t think I have one. I’m a bit of an obsessive reader, really, so as long as I have something reasonably comfy to sit on I can read anywhere (and nowadays of course my glasses are essential!) Curled up on a cosy sofa is nice, or in bed propped up with lots of pillows – winter is a particularly lovely season for reading!

What do you think of movie adaptations of famous books? Do they enhance or hinder your appreciation of the book?


I’m afraid I hate them! Reading to me is an all-encompassing thing. When I read and love a book, it paints strong images in my head which stay with me. The response I have is personal, it’s mine and I find I’m very resistant to other people’s interpretations. Also, a film can never have the depth of a book – they’re two completely different art forms and a great work of literature will be truncated and lessened by being filmed. I wouldn’t watch “Mrs. Dalloway” because it was the first Virginia Woolf book I read and I fell in love with it (and her!) Any film of this amazing book would diminish it. When I was much younger I watched the film of “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford and I did enjoy it very much. When I read the book afterwards I was initially disappointed as it was different to the glossy beauty of the movie. However, returning to it later I can see how much more depth was in the novel and how much better it is than the film. So I think movies certainly do hinder rather than enhance!

Has a book ever made you want to travel to a particular place?

I can think of a couple of books that have such a strong sense of place that they’ve drawn me to wish I could visit. Colette’s “Break of Day” brings the south of France alive in an earthy, vital way – I’ve often longed for a time machine to travel back in time to the Cote d’Azur before tourism and billionaire’s yachts ruined it. Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” is possibly my favourite of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and her portrayal of Oxford University had me longing to dash off to the sheltered cloisters of higher education and stalk around the old corridors in a gown. I can still pick up that book and get lost in it instantly. And although I never attended university, I was lucky enough to have a friend who attended Oxford and spent a weekend staying in a little room at the top of a windy old staircase in an ancient tower – magical!

I have a huge passion for Russia and its literature and it’s difficult to pick one book that really started this off as I’ve read so many. Oddly enough, it may have been the film adaptation of “Doctor Zhivago” that was the genesis of this love, but again the book is so much more than the movie!

What is your reaction when someone you know dislikes a book you are especially fond of? Have you ever quarrelled over a book?

I’m a lot more tolerant now than I was in my younger years! In my twenties I tended to be very evangelical about a book if I loved it. A case in point is the first time I read “The Plague” by Albert Camus – I was entranced, and thought it was one of the best things I’d ever read, so I fired off a series of postcards to everyone I knew (this was in pre-Internet days!) demanding that they read it. I was very disappointed if any of them didn’t think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I have had a few minor quarrels with friends and family in my time over books but nowadays I think I have a more live-and-let-live approach – I accept that a reader’s response to a work is always going to be a personal one and that we won’t all like the same thing. It’s disappointing if someone can’t see that your favourite writer’s book is a work of genius but not worth falling out about.

Do you like knowing all about an author before you start reading their work or do you think biographical details aren’t necessary to understand and appreciate a book?

That’s a tricky one! In theory, a book should stand on its own and I do try to read a new book/author without going into the biography first. But sometimes it’s hard to avoid – for example, I’ve come to writers like Michael Arlen and Beverley Nichols through reading about them in the book “Bright Young People” and so it’s inevitable that my reading of their work will be informed by the biog. And with Elizabeth Taylor, who I’ve read this year for the first time, I found that reading Nicola Beauman’s book on her halfway through the year did change the way I approached her, and in a positive way. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing as there is often an autobiographical impulse in what novelists write about! And often knowing what kind of life the author led, the kind of circles they moved in, their beliefs etc does help you to come to terms with a work. Having said that, I don’t think this carries through to something like Golden Age crime fiction (of which I’m particularly fond) as I don’t visualise Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers going out and committing murders!

In your opinion, what makes an excellent book review?

Other book bloggers mainly! I’ve come to realise over the last year or so that I really have no patience with pompous media reviewers who are more concerned with their own ego than actually giving the reader some idea of whether they want to read a book or not. I need to know a little bit about the plot, a little bit about the themes, maybe a little bit about the author and what the blogger thought. There needs to be some personal response to the book, whether positive or negative, perhaps some quotes to give you a sense of the prose you will be reading. And enthusiasm helps! There are several bloggers whose opinion I’ve really come to trust and if they say a book is good I usually like it too. A perfect example of this was Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book’s Review of “Guard Your Daughters” – sales of the book on Amazon soared and he was right about the book – it’s excellent and unjustly neglected. That’s one of the joys of reading book blogs – finding these unearthed treasures which are being rescued from oblivion.

And just for fun: Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester?

On balance Mr. Rochester – I like all that intensity!

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Thanks to Florence for the nomination! I would like to suggest Emily at The Matilda Project, a wonderful blog devoted to real bookshops; and Erica and her colleagues at Reading 1900-1950 who are reviewing lost books from the Sheffield Hallam University collection and have already pointed me at some new books/authors. My questions are:

Do you think that eBooks and mechanical devices are killing tree books?

Bestsellers – a good thing or a bad thing?

Do you have a favourite lost classic or a book you would recommend to everyone?

New or secondhand – does it matter?

Are you the kind of reader who will struggle through a book to the end no matter what?

Can you describe your ideal bookshop?

And for fun: have you every had a crush on a book character?

A Long Overdue Re-Read – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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It’s been a long time since I read any of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, but this moment in time seemed particularly auspicious for “To the Lighthouse”. Middle Child studied the book; Youngest Child is currently doing so; and I came across what’s called “The Definitive Edition” in a charity shop. So obviously the omens were good, the stars were aligned or whatever!

Virginia with her father, Sir Leslie Stephen. By George Charles Beresford (Monk’s House Photo Album, Harvard University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“To the Lighthouse”, described by many as Woolf’s best work, paints a portrait of the Ramsey family. Mr and Mrs Ramsey, their children and a motley collection of friends and hangers-on are staying at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye. The book is split into three sections and the first, “The Window” observes part of a day of the holiday. Mrs. Ramsey is reading to James, her youngest child. Mr. Ramsey paces up and down outside the window where she sits, somewhat menacingly. Lily Briscoe, artist and modern women, observes the other guests and their various activities with a cool eye. Mr. Tansley, the atheist and Mr. Carmichael, who takes opium, flit through the scene. The symbolic figure of the lighthouse, which James has a passion to visit, recurs regularly through the narrative. But the weather has deteriorated and the unintended cruelty of the very male Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Tansley, by constantly telling James that they will not be able to make the trip, is contrasted with the feminine response of Mrs. Ramsay saying that conditions may improve.

The central section “Time Passes” moves the story on from the day on Skye, through the war years and the changes brought to the family. Through a series of lyrical and beautifully written passages, Woolf evokes the passing of time and this section contains some of the most beautiful and moving prose I’ve ever read, with ¬†evocations of the changes wrought on the family house and indirectly the people themselves.

In the final section, the remaining Ramseys return to the house on Skye and finally undertake the postponed trip to the Lighthouse. Once again, Lily and Mr. Carmichael are the observers, silent in Mr. Carmichael’s case and intense in Lily’s. Although the characters may reach the Lighthouse, why are they finally undertaking the trip and what will it gain them?

Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephen. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Woolf’s portrait of Mrs. Ramsey, based on her mother, does not give a saintly person; she is a complex character who whilst well-meaning, uses her beauty and charm to get people to do what she wants and this is not always the best thing. She is woman of the old school, desperate to marry everyone off. However, Lily does not marry Mr. Bankes and their friendship instead is more valuable, allowing Lily to have her art and her own life. Woolf recognises that humans are too complex to be seen in simple black and white terms and refuses to portray her mother in simple terms.

Indeed, the representation of her father as Mr. Ramsay is masterly. His constant demands for sympathy from women, sucking the life and resources out of them, are terrifying. At the end his children James and Cam sit in the boat on their symbolic visit the Lighthouse hating him for his dominance yet both wanting his approval, in their different male and female ways (as Cam realises). The Lighthouse will always stand for James’ lost childhood and lost mother. Mrs. Ramsey knew in the first section of the novel that James would always remember that they did not go and she is prescient because he will; but more so because of the changes that are to come.

Middle Child has always commented on the character of Lily Briscoe, and after my re-read I agree that she is pivotal. She is a modern women, with all the frailties and doubts of someone trying to make her way in a man’s world; but she is detached enough to resist Mrs. Ramsay’s wishes for her and to see the scene clearly. It is relevant too that she is an artist as paint is an apt word for the way Woolf uses her words. Her use of language is as impressionistic as Briscoe’s picture and has left me with some wonderful visions in my head.

Although I’ve read some of Woolf’s non fiction in recent years, I’d forgotten just how magical her fiction prose could be. The shifting perspectives of the narrative (particularly around the dinner table) capture so brilliantly the fragmentary nature of human thought; and the juxtaposition of different (male and female) thought streams only serves to accentuate the differing priorities and viewpoints of both sexes. But all are vulnerable in one way or another – in the end we are all human beings.

No short review or summary can really do justice to this rich and complex novel. Woolf’s achievement is immense and her use of language quite unique. I’m so glad I revisited this wonderful novel and I’m sure I’ll be going back to more of Woolf’s fiction from now on.

July Reads and Re-reads – The Plan So Far…

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‘Planning’ is not a word I often use in conjunction with my reading, as up till now I’ve tended to read whatever my mood indicated or my fancy dictated. Obviously if I was reading through a series in order (complete works of Virginia Woolf/Martin Beck crime novels series etc) then my reading would be a little more defined. However, since I started dropping in on the blogging world, joining up with a variety of reading challenges, I have had to structure things a little more!

So this is the plan so far for July!

Firstly, Ali at HeavenAli and Liz at Adventures in full-time self-employment have come up with A Month of Re-reading in July, a wonderful idea to allow us to re-read much loved volumes without feeling guilty about the tottering tbr pile! There are lots of books I would love to go back to but am also a little scared about revisiting – especially if I felt strongly about them in the past but am unsure about how I’ll feel about them all these years on. However, these are the books I have chosen:

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To give a little run-down:

Josephine Tey – The Franchise Affair

I have a great love of classic, Golden Age crime novels (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Crispin etc) and read all the Josephine Teys many years ago. They got lost in various moves so I was delighted to pick up a lovely set via The Book People. The Franchise Affair is, I think, considered by many her best and I figured you can’t go wrong with a good mystery!

Albert Camus – The Outsider

Camus is another writer I first read in my twenties and needs very little introduction. I’ve read The Outsider a couple of times and each time have gained different impressions from it – so it will be interesting to find out what this reading brings.

Colette – Ripening Seed

I had a major re-read of Colette’s non-fiction earlier this year, plus read new biographies and non-fiction volumes which I hadn’t been able to get hold of in the past – but I didn’t get round to any of her fictions. This is a lovely little Penguin which has been calling to me for a while and so I think it’s time for a re-visit. I might be able to get away with fitting in with Bookbath’s Paris in July read-along too – although it’s not set in that fair city, Colette was a very Parisian writer!

Rosamond Lehmann – Dusty Answer

The lovely Miss Darcy is hosting a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week during 23rd-29th July which I’m looking forward to joining in with – particularly as several RL books have been sitting in my tbr for 20 years (yes, really!) The only one of her volumes I have actually read is Dusty Answer so I shall re-read as part of the challenge.

Italo Calvino – If On a winter’s night a traveller

Where to start with Calvino? The late, great Italian writer, feted in his own country and the rest of Europe and who was one of my major reading obsessions in the eighties. It’s a long long time since I’ve read any of his work and I’m a little scared to approach this novel, because it was the first of his I read. It’s regarded as his masterpiece and I loved it at the time, and I’m just a little worried that it won’t have the same effect on me now. But I think I will take my courage in my hands and re-read!

I think I am going to be balancing my re-reading with some new volumes as well, which will allow for the fact that I often read according to whim or mood. The planned new reads for July are:

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Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Goes without saying, really, as part of the Cententary read-along. I’m rather looking forward to this one as it’s supposed to be unlike her others.

Elizabeth Taylor – In a Summer Season

This is the August ET book but as I am guest hosting I think I need to get a handle on it in advance so that I can say something sensible in my posts!

Virginia Woolf – The Platform of Time

I started this a little while ago but have had several literary distractions so I’m determined to finish this during July. It’s a lovely Hesperus volume of memoirs by VW which should be good reading.

I’m not quite sure which of these I shall tackle first – it will rather depend on where the mood takes me!

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