Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I’m new to Virginia Woolf, but I wish that I had begun reading her work years ago. Like Jane Austin I assumed that her writing was shallow, all romance, and marriage, and manners. I mean, all of that was covered in this book, but there was so much more. I was wrong, so very wrong, but I’m growing and learning like everyone else.

In Orlando: A Biography Woolf tells the story of a nobleman born in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He joins the queen’s court, becomes a favorite, falls in love with a princess, get his heartbroken, and all the while works at becoming a poet, but none of that compares to the adventure of his miraculous transformation. Orlando, at the age of 30 turns from Lord Orlando to Lady Orlando and lives for over 300 years more.

“For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

Obviously one of the major themes covered is gender and the ways gender shapes the way we act and the choices we make and the choices that are available to us. Surprisingly Woolf is critical of both men and women and our assumptions about the ways the other thinks. Men do not understand women, and women do not understand men because both refuse to believe that the other has the very same feelings, qualities, wants, and needs.

Another is time and change. Orlando lives a very long time and sees the world change around him and later her. Her inner world goes through many changes too, and he/she struggles to understand who she is and what she wants to be against the backdrop of “the times” which are always changing and seem always to be at odds with people living in them.

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

A lot of time is also spent on literature and the life of a writer. In the moments when mass production and critique was the focus of Orlando’s life, I had the feeling that I was reading an inside joke between Woolf and the writers of her time. I got the jest, but I’m hoping through further reading I can gain a deeper understanding of Woolf views on the subject.

Woolf covers all this as well as wealth and privilege, society, individuality, and, of course, love.

But the real interesting bit about this book is the dedication. Orlando has been called “the longest love letter in literature.” The character of Orlando was inspired by Woolf’s close friend and lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West. At the time of its writing, their affair was waning. Vita, the more adventurous and fickle of the two was moving on to other lovers.

In fact, many of the other characters were also pulled from real life as well, and I imagine I will be reading about Woolf’s personal history for a long while to come.

The style was a shock, at first. From the very beginning, it reads like an old fairytale. The language is flowery, complicated and hard to follow, at first. After a few chapters, it becomes beautiful and poetic, interesting and lively. There is a lot of description and not much dialogue, and sudden jumps through time, which can be hard on the brain too, but I promise it is well worth the effort to stick with it. I have never read anything quite like this.

I am afraid my little review here has done the book very little justice, and you’ll just have to read it for yourself to understand how amazing this story is. As for me, I am firmly a Virginia Woolf fan from here on out and have already picked up a copy of Mrs. Dalloway to read next.

“The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

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Check out Vita Sackville-West on the necessity of writing and Virginia Woolf on space to spread the mind out in.

Featured image via Book Republic

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Short and Sweet Reviews // The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

In The The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood tells the story of a woman named Offred living in what was once America but, after the United States government is overthrown, is now called the Republic of Gilead, and governed by a system based on 17th-century Puritan roots.

Offerd—meaning, literally, “of Fred,” or belonging to Fred—is a Handmaid, a fertile woman who must act as a surrogate for the wealthy and privileged men who’s wives can no longer bear children. Offred still remembers the old world, when women had freedom and choices, and despite the danger of forced labor, or death, or both, she can’t let go.

Originally written in 1985, this book has been recently rediscovered by the public due to Trump’s election, the rise of the conservative right all over the world, and Hulu’s adaptation premiering this week.

I for one didn’t find a lot of parallels to our time and our current political climate except in the way it was allowed to happen, in the easy silence and acceptance. We are often silent and accepting, and that makes us easy to control long past when our energy and outrage flare and burn out.

“We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”

Still, some of it felt very plausible. The way women will become complicit in the oppression of other women, hoping the same won’t happen to them. The way women will participate in the oppression of other women to ensure the same won’t happen to them, only for the same to happen to us all in some way or another eventually. The way that women are given only hard choices, but still will hold all the blame for what they must do and with whom. The way men will betray and pacify you and never truly see that women are just like them with the same needs for freedom and fulfillment.

What felt relevant will be different for every reader, but I believe everyone who reads it will find something of this tale in our present times and in our deepest fears. For me, the book was terrifying because, as a queer woman of color, I’ve spent much of my life terrified of a rising up of the religious right. I do not think I would have the same privileged place in Gilead but instead, would lose my life or be sent to labor camps.

Hush, he said. … You know I’ll always take care of you. I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.

So, I wouldn’t call The Handmaid’s Tale a prediction, but more of a warning. A warning about acceptance, and complacency, and the false belief that it can never happen to you. It is also an encouragement, to tell the stories of your time. Offred reminded me a bit of Anne Frank, who didn’t give us the historical breakdown of how Hitler came into power but instead simply told her own story and made us feel what Hitler’s power did.

But unlike The Diary of a Young Girl or even 1984 as I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale often compared too, Offred’s story doesn’t read so timeless. With references to specific movements and changing views of porn, gender roles, sex, and sexual orientation it made it hard to bring the danger into our time.

The style of writing makes it a hard read at first. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to stay engaged and interested in. Things either progress slowly and we are left frustrated for more information, or we are thrust forward and back with little or no understanding of how we got where we are. Stick with it through the first third, it gets better, and there will be answers to many of your questions, but not all.

I do consider it a must read, because it is different, and interesting, sure, but also because it is a warning, and because it is about women and the ways people can suffer and let other people suffer, which is something we all too easily forget.

“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”

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Short and Sweet Reviews // My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I had never heard of Willa Cather before or any her books set in the harsh and fertile American plains of the 19th century, but I am glad I have now. I came across this one after winning a selection of vintage paperbacks from macrolit’s monthly Tumblr giveaways a few months ago and the journey, both through the book and in learning about who Willa Cather was, has been fascinating.

The cover and synopsis didn’t interest me much, and so I set it aside to read only when I had nothing else. I wish I had given it a better chance from the beginning because it proved to not only be well-written but relevant to our current political and culture climate surrounding immigration.

In My Antonia, considered to be Cather’s masterpiece, we follow Jim Burden through loosely told stories he has pieced together from his past. From a recently orphaned boy shipped from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents, pioneers in Nebraska. In looking back over his life in the country, he realizes everything he loved about that time and land have one thing in common: Antonia, the eldest daughter in a family of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new land and culture.  Jim and Antonia grow up always near one another, but their lives follow very different paths, separating and converging in often surprising ways.

I didn’t realize until after I had read the book that is was the third installment in the Great Plains Trilogy. I didn’t read the others, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything having skipped them.

Cather has a strong command of descriptive prose, and I really felt pulled into the time period and the place. I felt the harsh winters. I felt the warm summers. I felt the uncertainties for the future and the devotion to a way of life so different from my own. The story is a good one but the description, the way she pulls you in physically and emotionally, was genius.

The book did make me think a little about how the burden of immigration and of “differentness” has often fallen harder on the shoulders of women. In hard times women are expected to be women and to also be men. I would love to have heard the story from Antonia’s perspective, but I suppose this would have been a story with a very different message and focus.

As a woman, and as a person living in a time when there is so much ignorance surrounding immigrants and their lives, I think My Antonia has value today. Americans can never understand how hard it is to become an American, in heart and in culture, not just on paper. We can’t see the rocks and the hard places we put these people between with our judgment and ridicule.

I recommend My Antonia because it will make you think and because it is simply a lovely story. It is inspiring, and heart-wrenching, like all the best stories, are. If nothing else, I recommend it because it is a quick read and a piece of American history.

Short and Sweet Reviews // East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”

— Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16

I don’t believe in God, nor do I think that the Bible is an accurate account of history, but I have always found the myths and stories fascinating. They offer glimpses into the human condition, and I that is what has made them timeless and compelling.

Steinbeck taps into this timelessness with what he considered to be his magnum opus, East of Eden. In it, we follow the stories of two families who, with each generation, reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the deadly rivalry of Cain and Abel in the farmlands and small towns of California’s Salinas Valley in the early 1900s.

In reading Steinbeck’s take on humanity’s origin story and I took away a meaning I had never considered before, a lesson on love. Instead of getting hung up on why one brother is favored over the other—or why God rejected one offering over the other—Steinbeck focuses on what matters, the way it makes the brothers feel. The way it makes them feel is shitty, and the way it makes them act is crazy.

“..it’s awful not to be loved. It’s the worst thing in the world…It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel.”

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I did have some issues with the book. There were some ridiculous characters, if you read the book, you will know exactly who I am talking about, and there were parts that felt unnecessary and lectures that felt too long. The book was a long one, though, and most of it was well written and powerful.

Overall I enjoyed East of Eden, and I do recommend that everyone read it. It does have something interesting to say about how each of us is shaped by love and lack of love and how we can perpetuate a cruel cycle simply because we cannot believe there is another way to love than the way we have been taught.

I highly recommend the book to aspiring writers like myself for Steinbeck’s amazing ability to write descriptive text that is beautiful and efficient. Through his words, I could damn near feel that California heat and smell the rich California air. He wrote just enough about the period to transport me there without boring me. He puts you into the setting in a way that doesn’t give too much away but lets you know you are reading about a very real and very magical place.

If you’ve read East of Eden, please drop a note in the comments and let me—and the other readers—know what you thought.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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Short and Sweet Reviews // Saga, Volume Six by Brian K. Vaughan

But don’t worry, nothing makes a kid grow up faster than wartime…

— Hazel, Saga, Volume Six

The sixth installment of the very popular graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan continues the space opera starring star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko as the fight to escape the war between their planets and save their daughter (and narrator), Hazel. In it we catch up with old characters, meet some new ones, and continue to mourn the loss of others.

So, I’ll come right out and say it, this volume was not as good as the five before it. Some of the new characters were a little boring, some of the old ones are too, and I didn’t get nearly enough Alana and Marko action. I was glad to get to know Hazel a little better. She is growing fast and quickly become an interesting character all on her own.

…but anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.

— Noreen, Saga, Volume 6

One thing I do like, and have liked from the beginning, is the diversity in this comic. Yeah, its a fantasy and these characters are not humans, but even in our fantasy and sci-fi stories, we tend toward the default, white, male and straight. Her we have many different skin tones, genders, and sexual orientations. I particularly love the focus on badass women doing badass shit. There are no damsels in distress here.

So yeah, I recommend it. Even if this installment is a little slower—and same might say sloppier—than the others, the overall story is a good one.

Plus, the ending is really good. Vaughan dropped one hell of a cliffhanger that shocked the hell out of me and left me excited and very interested—and a little worried—about what’s coming next.

Oh, fart.

— Hazel, Saga, Volume Six

 

Short and Sweet Reviews // Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Catch-22, first published in 1953, is a satirical novel set during World War II. In it, we meet Yossarian a U.S. Army bombardier desperately trying to finish his required number of missions so he can get back home. We see the war from his viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the other men in his squadron as they try to survive and makes sense of the war.

I’ll be honest; I had a hard time with this book.

Every character is insane. The timeline is nearly impossible to follow. I couldn’t keep the characters or rank straight. The dialog was often circular and frustrating. There was a ton of death and violence and more prostitutes than are ever necessary for any story. Through most of it, I couldn’t even figure out what the damn point was.

Then, somewhere in the middle, I realized that was the point!

After that I loved it. It was an awful story written in the most brilliant way.  It’s not just about how horrible war is. It is about the mental hoops we have to jump through to justify and survive a war. How we can keep waging it when we know the value of human life. It makes the connection between war and our collective insanity.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Reading this book wasn’t easy, but sometimes when something isn’t easy, it makes it all the more satisfying when you do accomplish it. Catch-22 made me think about war in a different way. It made me think about the pressure we place on soldiers to deny their most basic instinct, self-preservation. Is it right to do that? Who has the right to do that? And for how long do we ask people to live in a state of fear and forced courage before it starts to be a cruelty?

I highly recommend everyone at least attempt to read it. Only, when you do, don’t read it the way you do other books. You may have to fight with this one but just take your time and don’t give up. Don’t let the book defeat you. This book has some very important things to say, but it is the way they are said that is what sets this one apart. I’m glad I read it.

I think this one may have changed me.

I want to add that I think all writers should read this book. In my mind storytelling is something that is done neatly. A story must unfold in a straightforward and clear manner to be good. Catch-22 taught me that there was a different way to write. A story can be told in a sort of twisty-turny, jumpy, loopy, way and still be good if you do it right.

And Catch-22 definitely gets it right.

“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”

― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Short and Sweet Reviews // The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dear God,

I am fouteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.

― Alice Walker, The Color Purple

In the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker, we meet Celie, a poor and uneducated black woman who is abused by her father and later her husband but manages to keep hope alive and find the love and family she longed for her whole life. Celie writes letters to God, and we learn about her life, her family, and the world around her through these letters.

The Color Purple touches on the oppression of black women in the way that no other book I have ever read does. It also showcases the strength of black women and their ability to support one another in a world that would rather forget they exist.

Walker brings front and center clear but often unaddressed issues of incest, rape, and domestic violence, as well as issues of poverty, religion, homosexuality, love and marriage, and family, all from the perspective of black women. I also think there were subtle hints to issues between white women and black women,  education, language, and intelligence, the relationship between Africans and the descendants of the slaves, and the ways patriarchy hurts men too.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

― Alice Walker, The Color Purple

It’s graphic, much more than the movie, and it made me cringe more than once, but I wouldn’t call it vulgar. A lot of the sexual language is either in reference to a woman’s knowledge or ignorance of her body and the way she feels in the act of sex and whether it is consensual or not. It was honest.

I recommend The Color Purple for everyone because I think it’s one of the most important books ever written. I recommend it because each character felt real and I felt for each character. I recommend it because it’s powerful and it got deep down inside of me and by the end, I was so full of emotion I wanted to cry.

I recommend it because it will make you think about what it must have been like, what it still might be like, to live as a black woman in America.

“I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.”

― Alice Walker, The Color Purple

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