Book Review: Essays by Virginia Woolf

A former student of mine, who graduated just this past June and is now halfway through his freshman year in college, came back to give me a gift. This was cool. It’s never happened quite this way before: he wanted to give me something to thank me for teaching him how to write. I’m not sure that I did, but I’m sure that I helped him get better at writing; I was his English teacher for three of his four years of high school at the tiny charter school where I work, so yeah, I suppose I deserve a fair amount of the credit and the blame for whatever he can do in terms of literary achievement in school. He said he did well in his English 101 class, and so he wanted to give me something. First Thank-you-for-teaching-me gift I’ve ever received. (I’ve gotten thanks, I’ve gotten several really glowing compliments, and I’ve gotten presents; never gotten one like this before.)

He got me this:

It’s a first edition of a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf. It’s awesome for a number of reasons: it’s a first edition, which is neato; it’s essays, which I love and always want to write and to read; it’s Virginia Woolf, who is one of my absolute favorite writers and strongest influences; and it’s called The Captain’s Death Bed, which has a nice pirate-y feel to it. Awesome.

So I read it, of course. It did take me two tries: not because it’s terribly complicated – Woolf is too good and too clear a writer to make her reading that hard to understand – but for two reasons: first, because this is the last of four volumes of her unpublished essays collected after her suicide in 1941, and so a number of the pieces in it are more obscure in subject; and second, because right when I started reading this book, I was finishing up my semester and grading about twenty thousand student essays, and then the day after the semester ended, I had a wisdom tooth removed, which included a half-day fast, my first 24-hour period without coffee in over 25 years, my first time under general anaesthesia, my first time taking Percocet, and of course, a whole lot of pain. So I read about a third of the way through the essays, and then stopped; and then picked it up again two days ago, when my head was a bit straighter on my neck and my brain was readier to read.

I’m glad I picked it back up. Turns out it was really the first several essays that were too obscure for me to enjoy: they are mostly responses to literature which Woolf read, and which I never have – never read Carlyle, never read Turgenev, and certainly never read the half-dozen diarists and memoirists she wrote about, mostly English pastors from the last 300 years. I also couldn’t relate at all to those kinds of books, as I am not a big reader of biography or published diaries; so the first several essays really didn’t speak to me.

But the rest of them did. Did they ever.

There’s a lot here. There’s a wonderful piece about being a good writer versus being a great writer; I don’t know that I agree with Woolf’s examples of a great writer (She includes Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, all of which I can take or leave – and Joyce I’d rather leave; she doesn’t include herself, who I would prefer over all of ’em. Though of course I understand not putting herself into the list of great writers in her own essay.), but her essential idea is this story she tells of getting into a train car and seeing the end of a conversation between two strangers. One of those strangers she calls Mrs. Brown, and describes her in some detail; it’s never clear if this is a real person or not, a real event or a created example. She says that the writers she considers good, who include H.G. Wells and a couple of Brits I’ve never read, would talk about everything in the world other than Mrs. Brown; they’d talk about the town where she lives, about the educational or economic system that created her, but not about her. The great writers would tell you about Mrs. Brown, and they’d do it poetically.

This gave me pause. I don’t know that I write about Mrs. Brown. I think I actually do. Though I am not and never will be a great writer, I like that I’m at least focused on the right subject: the characters. The people.

Then there’s a great piece about reviewing books, in which she ends with the conclusion that reviewers should shut the hell up except to give their honest, informed opinion to the author of the book they read. I don’t know what to do with that, either. This piece caused a conflict for me, because at the end of it, her husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, added a note in which he disagreed with her, and said that reviewers are necessary to give the reading public an idea of what books to buy and where to spend their time and money; I like that answer better, but I found it so incredibly distasteful that the guy would throw his two cents into the argument of HIS DEAD WIFE when she couldn’t respond back that I can’t agree with anything he said. So I’ll have to think about the way I write reviews.

Then there are the beautiful pieces: there’s one called The Sun and the Fish, one called Gas (about going under anaesthesia at the dentist; how perfect is that?), one called Reading, and my favorite, Flying over London, that are all nothing more or less than a lovely experience packed into a few pages. It’s magic, really.

I recommend reading Virginia Woolf. I haven’t read a lot of her fiction, but I’ve read a fair amount of her non-fiction, and it’s all fantastic. Especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of essayists – David Sedaris, George Orwell, Diane Ackerman, and especially David Foster Wallace, who wrote like Woolf (and died like her, too), then you should read her essays. I have no doubt there are dozens of collections of her work in various editions, and probably one that collects the good ones out of this book without the obscure ones; but it doesn’t matter, because any collection of her writing is going to be beautiful.

Book Review: Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban wrote one of the fondest memories of my childhood: Bread and Jam for Frances. He wrote a number of books about an adorable young badger named Frances, actually, but Bread and Jam was the one I had, the one I remembered, the one that, as a picky eater, I related to.

So when I found out as an adult that Russell Hoban also wrote several acclaimed science fiction novels, well. There wasn’t really any question. Imagine if Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein wrote full-length novels. Wouldn’t you be curious?

So I looked them up, found out that the most famous one – the one that won the John W. Campbell award for best sc-fi novel in 1982 – was this one, and then I went out and bought a copy.

And then I tried to read it. And this is what I found.

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs anyhow ther hadnt ben none for a long tyme befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.”

That’s right: the book is written in gibberish.

And it’s absolutely brilliant gibberish.

The story is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age novel. Very post-apocalyptic, as it turns out. Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old young man in the ruined aftermath of what used to be England, but is now a feudal society called Inland, people living in small walled communities, hemmed in by packs of wild dogs that hunt and eat any humans who stray too far from their fences. The language they speak and write is in fact English, but it’s an English that has changed as much from our language as our language did from Chaucer’s time. Their myths and legends are of us: the primary one seems to be about the discovery of atomic power with the splitting of the atom; though there is much more to it than that, as there always is in myths and legends. Their world cherishes these legends, but it is a largely oral society; the government, what is left of it, is primarily responsible for spreading the stories that are the basis of their mythology and morality, the Eusa story, which they share ritualistically through traveling puppet shows. The basic canon of the Eusa story is written down and therefore unchangeable, but with each puppet performance, the Eusa men find new aspects to focus on, new morals to be drawn from it, just like preachers with the Bible. The towns where they perform have their own interpreters of these hidden messages and allegories, called “connection men;” when the story begins, Riddley has just become one such, replacing his recently deceased father.

But Riddley only makes one connection: soon he feels an irresistible urge to travel outside the walls, where he seems to befriend a dog pack; this dog pack takes him to Cambry, where he discovers a secret: the Ardship of Cambry, one of the Eusa people. Born without eyes, isolated from all of society, the Ardship has a secret buried deep inside: the secret that brought down the old world, the world that had boats flying in the sky. And the current head of the loose government in Inland, the Pry Mincer Abel Goodparley, plans to tear that secret out of the Ardship, unless Riddley can help.

But maybe Riddley thinks that Goodparley is right. Maybe they have lost much that once existed, and maybe they should try to bring that back. But maybe those secrets are best kept hidden.

I realize now that the book is extremely well known, and that my discovery is not this forgotten novel but rather my own ignorance of it – the thing has over 5000 Amazon reviews, for cripes’ sake – but for me, this book was something of a revelation. It was also a real challenge. That language is freaking hard to read. It makes references to the society that preceded it, but that society, the society of the 1970’s, is in some ways lost even to us: it took me the whole book to realize that one of the phrases, used to describe thinking something through and coming to a conclusion, was “pull data and print out,” as in, “We discussed the matter, pulled data and printed out a plan.” We don’t even print out any more, so it was tough getting the meaning of that and a thousand other words.

But it’s beautifully done, nonetheless. Because the Ardship of Cambry is the Archbishop of Canterbury – but he’s also a man facing hardship, which point Riddley makes in the novel. And the Pry Mincer (Prime Minister) is a man who pries, but also one who minces words. Hoban didn’t just mess with the English language: he remade it. He created something new, and difficult as new things are, but also brilliant.

It’s a hell of a book. I need to keep it and read it again, and I want to do so. Maybe when I do, it will make more sense; on this first reading I felt like there were some pretty serious holes in the story, but there were parts that I just couldn’t understand. But hey: I couldn’t read Shakespeare and understand it all the first time, and the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath or Huck Finn or The God of Small Things, I didn’t fully appreciate them; great literature requires effort. I would call this book an example of that.