Tag Archives: MFA

Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)


What can I possibly add to the wealth of literature surrounding this book?  I read Mrs. Dalloway primarily because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it yet.

I’ll say this: I am currently reading Ulysses (1922) with a small book group of friends from the MFA.  Thus far, I share Woolf’s eloquent reaction: “[Reading Proust,] The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.” (More here.)  My difficulty with Ulysses thus far owes to the representation of women as breasts and bodies.  I read literature to identify with or learn about some element of the human condition; too often in Ulysses, I am pushed away at the moment of identification by the coarse representation of the body I possess.  But I digress.

Some have read Mrs. Dalloway as Woolf’s response to Ulysses.  (One example here.)  I certainly view Mrs. Dalloway as a more economical, more gender-equitable version of the same impulse that motivated Joyce: to capture the banal, existential, lyrical, beautiful, sad, joyous, manic, strange, explicable and inexplicable thoughts and emotions of the everyday.

I found the book most successful when dealing directly with Peter and Clarissa; the forays into Septimus and his mental illness did not feel, to me, wholly part of the same book.  Or, more accurately: to square Clarissa and Septimus, I felt I had to shift modes from lay reader to English major.  Then I could think about mental versus physical illness, the two ways illnesses can go (recovery, or…out the window), death in one part of London and parties in another, the biographical Woolf as both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus.

A master class in:

Precisely tracked psychological realism.  True narrative omniscience.  That amazing thing fiction can do, taking us into the inner lives of every person on the street and proving that everyone has a story–and that everyone’s story and experiences are worthy of attention.  For that reason, I think there’s something immensely humane in Woolf’s project here.

Favorite lines:

“Then, just as it happens on a terrace in the moonlight, when one person begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot, clears his throat, notices some iron scroll on a table leg, stirs a leaf, but says nothing–so Peter Walsh did now.”

“And this has been going on all the time! he thought; week after week; Clarissa’s life; while I–he thought; and at once everything seemed to radiate from him; journeys; rides; quarrels; adventures; bridge parties; love affairs; work; work, work!…”

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums.  And it was smashed to atoms–his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought–making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more.  But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share–it smashed to atoms.”

On “Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years”: “Brief, broken, often painful as their actual meetings had been what with his absences and interruptions…the effect of them on his life was immeasurable.  There was a mystery about it.  You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain–the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost.  Thus she had come to him; on board ship; in the Himalayas; suggested by the oddest things…She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.”

“For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying–what one felt.  Cleverness was silly.  One must say simply what one felt.”

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Currently Reading: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of TitanKurt Vonnegut (1959)


In his foreword to While Mortals Sleep, the latest posthumous Vonnegut story collection, Dave Eggers calls Vonnegut “a moral voice.”  That’s what most struck me in Titan, and it’s what struck me about Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle: Vonnegut is so unafraid to be moral–though that’s often a lethal authorial position in the world of writing workshops.  The back of my edition says that Titan is  “about The Meaningless[ness?] Of It All,” but it’s really about the utmost in what’s meaningful; Vonnegut seems to be saying, Be nice to each other, you tiny idiots, because life may have no greater purpose than that!

Vonnegut is one of my dad’s favorite authors, and I read this on his recommendation.  His take on the book, which I find more convincing than mine, is:  “In the beginning, and in the end, ‘somebody up there likes me.’  That is the main takeaway of the book…it may be a little robot creature made by other robot creatures, and his goals may not be understandable or include liking Unk (me,)  but who’s to say this is not the way God works?”

A master class in:

Quirky irreverence, of course!  As well as the lyricism possible therein.

…And the space that does exist for morality, even in good, nonpolemical fiction.

Favorite lines:

“Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By that same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic.”

“…and there would be only one moon, Unk thought, and the moon would be fat, stately, and slow.”

From the dedication page: “No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.”

Bonus lines:

From a writing assignment to his students at Iowa:  “As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. ”

And his letter to a friend about to teach at Iowa:  “Every so often you will go nuts.  All of a sudden the cornfields get you.”

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Currently Reading: Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013); St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006)


Apparently, Vampires went over poorly with the reading group I didn’t attend this month.  Glad I didn’t go, because I’d have had a hard time sitting through an unenthused meeting, given how thoroughly I enjoyed existing within the worlds and language of this collection.  The title story and “Reeling for Empire” were such deeply evocative otherworlds, but the final story–“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”–was it for me.  The best story in the collection.  Russell’s handling of the gay themes, completely subtextual and yet painfully present, was incredible.  The last line, “Somewhere I think I must still be standing, just like that,” rang with me for days.  Such a haunting, restrained, accomplished story.

All of which led me to St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a collection that featured the same sharp, arresting language, but in service of stories that felt to me looser.  (I am excepting here the middle stories in Vampires, which I admit I found weak, though forgivably so thanks to their bookends.)

A master class in:

WORDS.  A friend of mine in the Hopkins MFA kvells about his experience in Karen Russell’s class at Williams, and I understand why: her relationship with rich, full, textured, unexpected, pause-worthy nouns and verbs is unreal.  Nouns are verbs (piano; candle; constellate.)  Verbs have verve (spool; limn; loam.)  Nouns are sumptuous (defenestration; caul; sacrum; meridian.)

As a reader, I am willing to forgive all manner of plot holes and stalled pacing in light of such deft use of language.  This is why I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing.  And I am in awe of the facility with which Russell makes her passionate love of language evident in every line.

Favorite lines:

“This is it, this is the geographical limit of how far I’ll go for Ossie.  We are learning latitude and longitude in school, and it makes my face burn that I can graph the coordinates of my own love and courage with such damning precision.”

“On land, Ossie’s body looks like an unmade bed, all lumpy and disheveled.  But in the moonlight, my naked sister is lustrous, almost holy….All this time, my odd-waddling sister has been living in a mother’s body.”

“Olivia was a cartographer of imaginary places…nostalgic for places that [she]’d never been.”

“Our stupid, rain-diluted longing.”

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Currently reading: Americanah

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)


Beautiful, deft prose.  Tragic romance (my favorite kind; not in the classical sense), but a more thoughtful than emotional read, because Adichie so assiduously avoids melodrama, so readily moves us to the next scene.  The blog posts occasionally felt heavy-handed, though the meditations on race therein were necessary and provocative.  Set partly in Baltimore and at Yale–Adichie is a fellow JHU MFA alum!–so I was reading about the two homes of my adult life.  Fully, richly rendered, immensely accomplished.  Highly recommended.

A master class in:

Chapter 22!  Chapter 22!  Precise charting of close indirect emotional reactions; use of setting for pacing; surprising yet believable dialogue.

Favorite lines:

“In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat.”

“He thought again of the Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi woman and the shadow of grief from which she was only just emerging, and he thought of…the life he now had, lacquered as it was by work and reading, by panic and hope. He had never felt so lonely.”

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart.  I want to be the fucking love of your life.”  (See: Chapter 22! Surprising yet believable dialogue.)

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