Linked Together: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Whether you love it or hate it, Love Actually shows the connections between a group of ostensibly independent Londoners. Liam Neeson’s wife just died; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage is on the rocks; Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister and lusting after his assistant. Three separate, distinct stories. But Liam and Emma are old friends; Emma and Hugh are actually siblings. Each story in Love Actually connects to another.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is Love Actually’s superior predecessor. In Woolf’s post-WWI London, a unified narrative voice swoops from the interiority of one character to another. How many thoughts do you have in a day? How many revelations? In a day, in a life, what stays the same?  In a day, in a life, what can change? Slowly? Suddenly? Though Woolf’s narrative voice is consistent, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates how different people and their perspectives are. Ultimately, though, that consistent voice demonstrates an interconnectedness that transcends our differences. Continue reading

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Smirky Millennial Nihilism: Middletown by Will Eno

There are some things that are not meant to be recycled. Waxy cardboard milk cartons. Used paper plates. Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Like a well-intentioned but intoxicated fraternity brother who puts the used paper plates in the recycling been where they do not belong, Will Eno in Middletown attempts to recycle Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic for the urban millennial set.

It doesn’t work. Instead, Eno sucks the charm and generosity of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, leaving Middletown’s Middletown a soulless place. Continue reading

Beckett’s Bones in Shakespeare’s Sandbox: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

If you haven’t read Waiting for Godot, stop everything and do it now.

No, seriously.

I’ll wait.

Without Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett there is no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is indebted to Beckett for the skeleton of his play. Two men talk, wait. The occasional visitor disrupts the status quo, but only until they depart. The two men go on waiting, playing games, contemplating their existence. Continue reading

Anchors Away: Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian

The year is 1800 and Jack Aubrey is master and commander of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie. But he is neither the master of the sloop — that is Mr. Marshall — or a true post-commander in line for promotion to Admiral. Indeed, the Sophie is not actually a sloop – for she has two masts, not one – but is nevertheless called a sloop by the Royal Navy.

In the wind-powered world of the Napoleonic British Navy, seamen described their ships and surroundings in a dialect all their own. Patrick O’Brian in Master & Commander narrates in this vernacular. Though challenging to the uninitiated, the novel breathes with authenticity: to describe the sails and maneuvers of the Sophie with any other language would do a disservice the harsh beauty and nuance of the seaman’s life. Continue reading

An Espionage Oddity: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Call Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene an espionage thriller. Call it a political satire. Call it a character study. All of those are accurate but best of all it’s a Monty Python sketch stretched to novel length: absurdity and that straight-faced, dry British humor thrive from the colorful and sunny Havana streets to the underground London headquarters of the British Secret Service.

Wormold is a struggling vacuum cleaner salesman. His daughter, Milly, desires a horse and a country club membership and who is Wormold to say no? But Wormold doesn’t have the money until a bewildering encounter in a men’s restroom. He knows nothing about spying but suddenly he is MI6’s man in Havana. Continue reading

Reading with Ms. Holmes: Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

At various points throughout the last couple of weeks, Ms. Holmes said things like:

Nothing happens in this book. 

The segregationists do mean and nasty things to prevent Melba from going to school and then she does go to school and they do slightly different mean and nasty things to her.

“Melba goes to school and gets beat up” is what happens in practically every single chapter.

She goes to school, goes to a news conference, and then does the whole thing over and over and over again.

It’s like she took her diary entries and put every single thing that happened in them into the memoir.

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals has so much potential. A memoir? Meet those Common Core Non-fiction requirements! A female author? Excellent. Writing about her year as a member of the Little Rock Nine integrating Central High School? Relevant, difficult, important content about history and identity and difference! An eighth-grade accessible reading level? Amazing. Even the first two chapters, which describe her life pre-integration, making particularly clear the way segregation affected her adults’ opportunities and self-worth, suggest that this is going to be a tour de force aimed at the middle school crowd. Furthermore, Beals handles early instances of violence in the memoir with pitch perfect tone: she conveys that the danger is very very real, without exaggeration or melodramatics. Continue reading

Guns and Dope (and Elegy) in the Desert: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Reviews on this blog are relatively spoiler-free because I believe that part of the joy of reading comes from experiencing a book’s twists and turns first hand. However, a review of No Country for Old Men without addressing the novel’s final fifty pages would be like reviewing just the first half of a March Madness basketball game in which the underdog, down by 15 at the half, makes a come-from-behind win in the second. It would be like reviewing a completely different book. You have been warned.

Cormac McCarthy favors a particular form – sparing punctuation, third person limited narration, and rapid-fire dialogue unencumbered by “he said” “she said” – for telling stories about human life – and death – in the wasteland. His Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is set in a lonely, post-apocalyptic world; No Country for Old Men in the small towns and deserts of the west Texas-Mexico border. Continue reading

Add It to the Curriculum: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Two generations. Four families. Eight women. China. America. These are the ingredients of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a novel about mothers and daughters and immigrant identities.

The Joy Luck Club is not a book that carries you away on an adventure. It’s not a book that challenges the conventions of language or form. It’s not a book that makes the heart sing with joy or ache with sorrow. It’s pedestrian, normal and that’s what makes it beautiful.

There are two kinds of high school English books: the famous ones you read because they’re famous and the not-famous ones you read because they’re worth talking about. The Joy Luck Club is in the latter category. In many schools, it’s already a standard part of the curriculum (hooray!) and this is why: Continue reading

The Good Ole American Family Drama (or perhaps not?): Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Much of Williams’ work is set in the South, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (as opposed to its slightly more famous sibling, A Streetcar Named Desire) is really about being Southern. The family depicted is the largest landowners in the Mississippi Delta and, though Big Daddy earned control and ownership of the estate through diligence and hard work, his sons are looking to inherit. It’s The American Family in Conflict over the American Dream Drama writ Southern White Society.

Williams’ plays, though, are never that simple. I’ve, in fact, always struggled with Streetcar because I find Blanche and Stanley really difficult to lift from the page and depict in my mind as I read. Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy in this play are equally elusive to me. They don’t jump off the page because they’re more than archetypes and because Williams, like Chekhov before him, is a master of saying just enough and letting subtext speak louder than words. Continue reading

Love Lost: Carl Sandburg: selected poems

I used to love Carl Sandburg. After reading Carl Sandburg: selected poems (edited by Paul Berman)? Ummm.

Certainly, there is no other poet like Carl Sandburg. Sandburg, like Upton Sinclair, turns industrial horrors and realities into art. Where The Jungle depicts a reality and argues for a specific solution in plain terms, Sandburg’s poetry ranges from glorification of industry and its effects to condemnation of it. He is early 20th century Chicago. Continue reading