Monday, February 28, 2011

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

I'd been planning for weeks to start reading Flush, and finally it was time.  It's in the Persephone catalog, so it was top on my TBR list for that reason; also, Amanda from The Zen Leaf chose it for me last year in our first-ever Reading Swap.  And it's been sitting around on my TBR shelf for a couple of years now, so my timing was perfect. 

Now that it is time to put words on the blog I find I'm at a bit of a loss.  This is a short little book about a dog written by Virginia Woolf; specifically, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog.  Ostensibly, it is a biography, but is it about a dog or a poet?  Or is it just an excuse to start reading Virginia Woolf, who scares me?

Flush is not a hard read, and I suppose it's not one of the Woolfs that is studied and discussed and analyzed extensively by the literati.  (Which I am not, believe me!)  It begins when young Flush is given as a gift by his owner to Ms. Barrett (not yet Mrs. Browning), an invalid.  He must give up his days of sniffing and running and exploring the outdoors to be the indoor companion of this bedridden poet.  He loves her and becomes extremely protective and suspicious of Mr. Browning, and he is along for the ride during their elopement and marriage and journeys to Italy and back.  The story moves back and forth in places between his point of view and that of his owner.  

I know next to nothing about Elizabeth Barrett Browning but now I am intrigued by her life as well.  I do remember Browning and Flush are included in a book called Shaggy Muses, which is a nonfiction work about the lives of several women writers and their pets.

Like the life of a dog, Flush is sadly short.  This was the first of Woolf's fiction that I really liked, and I wish I'd had more of it to read.  I am glad, however, that the ending wasn't terribly sad -- there are so many tearjerking stories about beloved pets these days, I really did not want to cry at the end of this book.

Virginia Woolf seems to be all over the blogs the past couple of weeks.  My good friend Amanda was baffled by Orlando; Carolyn at A Few of My Favorite Books brought To the Lighthouse to Florida for a beach read!  To the Lighthouse has been sitting on my shelves unread as long as Flush, but it scares me -- it's such a short little book but I've heard it's challenging.  Stream-of-consciousness is not really my thing.  

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of Flush

I did read Mrs. Dalloway and was underwhelmed, but that was a few years ago when I had just started reading classics.  Maybe I didn't know enough about her work to appreciate it.  Last year, my classics book group at the library read A Room of One's Own, which I quite liked, but that's really a long essay, so I don't know I'd like her fiction.

This probably isn't the best review I've written, but I feel like I don't know enough about Woolf or her writing to think of something clever and insightful.  I would love to hear other people's thoughts -- how does this compare to other works by Virginia Woolf?  Should I take the plunge and read To the Lighthouse or start with something a little easier?

This is my third book for Persephone Reading Weekend, hosted by Verity and Claire.  Check out their blog links for more thoughts on Persephone books!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

Invitation to the Waltz was an impulse purchase spurred by the wonderful reputation Rosamond Lehmann has around the bookosphere.
It is set in 1920 in a small village and centers on Olivia Curtis. The novel begins on her 17th birthday when she receives, as part of her birthday haul, a beautiful swath of crimson silk fabric to be used to make a dress to wear for her neighbor Marigold’s much-anticipated dance. Olivia is a bookish girl, somewhat in the shadow of her beautiful and polished older sister Kate. The majority of the novel takes place at the dance, as Lehmann neatly portrays the dizzying experience of a large and chaotic dance and the ups and downs of Olivia’s feelings and attitude during the evening.
I have to say right away that I really, really loved this novel, which was surprising to me because I hated the opening pages. The narrator is a bit annoying and the description of the village and the Curtis family was very confusing. Once the narrative got into Olivia’s head, though, I was thoroughly involved in the story.
Lehmann is gentle on her characters. She doesn’t shy away from exposing their weaknesses. There are several characters who are silly, ridiculous, pathetic, snobby, mean or just plain odd. Yet Lehmann has a fondness for them that shines through and makes them human and recognizable.
The relationship between Olivia and Kate is a lovingly true portrayal of sisters. There is lots of love and affection, yet a faint strain of rivalry that colors their approach to one another.
I thought the occasional references to the war were interesting – Olivia dances with a blind party-goer who had received his injury as a soldier. This passage revealed a lot to me about how a teen who wasn’t directly affected might experience war:
“A cousin in the flying corps killed, the cook’s nephew gone down at Jutland, rumour of the death of neighbors’ sons -(that included Marigold’s elder brother), and among the village faces, about half a dozen familiar ones that had disappeared and never come back…. and butter and sugar rations; and the lawn dug up for potatoes (the crop had failed); and knitting scratchy mittens and mufflers; and Dad being a special constable and getting bronchitis from it: that was about all that war had meant.”
Olivia is a fascinating character and Lehmann a wonderful writer and I am so happy to know that there is a sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, called The Weather in the Streets, which is in the mail for me as we speak.
Has anyone else read this or other Rosamond Lehmann novels? Which ones do you recommend?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Professor's House by Willa Cather (1925)

I'm having a hard time writing this review.  This book puzzled me. I was really looking forward to reading more Cather, since I just loved My Antonia and O, Pioneers!, two of her most famous works.  I liked this book but it's hard to explain it.

Let me back up a little.  The story begins with Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a fiftyish man who teaches at a nameless university somewhere in the Midwest.  It's in the 1920s, and he and his wife are moving from the house they've rented for many years to a lovely new house built to their specifications -- after years of hard work, the Professor's research has finally received recognition and they're financially very comfortable.  However, the Professor is having a hard time letting go of his old house, his tiny study in the attic, and his old life.

There are two grown daughters who are married, and the oldest, Rosamond, is also very financially secure.  In fact, she's very nouveau riche because she was the sole heir of her former fiancee, Tom Outland, who died in WWI before the story began. Apparently Tom invented a special kind of engine after graduating from the university, and was smart enough to patent it and make a will leaving everything to Rosamond.  Her new husband developed the engine and made them a fortune.  The Professor loves his daughter and likes his son-in-law, but he seems uncomfortable with they way they're spending all the money.  He and Tom had been very close when Tom was at the University.  A significant section of the book is told as Tom's diary, telling the story of his experiences working in New Mexico before he moved to the Midwest.

I think I'm undecided about this book because it seems almost like two different books; the change in narration and story line are so distinct.  Tom's history is hinted at during the Professor's section, but to me they seemed like two totally different books, and I'm having a hard time fitting the whole story together in my brain.  There's so much going on in this book and it's only about 250 pages -- Cather writes about the Professor's dissatisfaction, sibling rivalry, how money changes people -- I wish this book had been longer, since there was so much more I wanted to learn about the characters.

What I liked best about it was Cather's great writing.  Her characters are really well-developed, but very subtly -- it doesn't take the reader long to realize exactly how Professor St. Peter feels about his son-in-law.   Also, her descriptions are just beautiful, without being long-winded and flowery.  She can really capture the essence of a midwestern prairie or a mesa in New Mexico in just a few words.  I hadn't read any of her books set in the southwest so I'm really intrigued to read more.

My real-life classics book group is reading Death Comes for the Archbishop in June, and I don't know if I can wait that long to read it.  I'm limited by the TBR Dare to books on my shelves for the next couple of months, but I still have The Song of the Lark if I need more Cather. Ultimately, I liked this book even though I found it slightly unsatisfying.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel at Book Snob.  And many thanks to Thomas at My Porch for recommending The Professor's House, one of his favorite books of all time.