Currently Reading: All My Puny Sorrows

Having been on a classics streak for quite some time, I knew that I wanted to return to the 21st century for my next read, though I had no idea who, what, or where. I spent the first Saturday of May in Golden Gate Park, and within the first hour I had ventured outside its perimeter on the hunt for coffee. After successful completion, I breezed past and then turned back around into Green Apple Books, encountered the “Staff Picks” shelf, and was startled by this note:

In case you have trouble catching every word, this is the promise: “On average, I recommend this book to someone at least once a day. It is hands-down one of my favorite books of 2014 (and maybe in my life). I am offering as close to a money-back guarantee as you can get without actually using currency…Please, do yourself a favor and read All My Puny Sorrows.”
I do not remember the last time I read such an effusive book review, and I was quickly made vulnerable to its influence, as anything that anyone considers their favorite intrigues me (especially books and songs). I think of it as a shortcut education, or at least enrichment, to expose myself to something that someone else has already studied and determined to be exceptional. You learn a lot about someone by learning their favorites, and if you accumulate enough of that information from enough individuals, you start to learn a lot about people in general.
In Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, Elfreida and Yolandi Von Reisen are sisters who mean the world to each other but also suffer the ultimate conflicting interest: Elfreida wants to kill herself and Yolandi wants her to live. I am only 50 pages into the book, but those pages have jumped back and forth between their childhood growing up in a Mennonite household and their adulthood, Elfreida as a world renowned pianist and Yolandi as a divorced mother of two. Elfrida, especially in childhood, is mesmerizing. She is the kind of talented, independent, brilliant, and miserable character that I love.
There is a scene early in the book when the elders of the Mennonite community visit the Von Reisen home to reprimand them for one thing or another. Elfreida goes into the spare bedroom next to the front door and begins to play the piano, which is not allowed in the community. She plays her obsession, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23, a piece she praises for “its total respect for the importance of the chaotic ramblings of an interior monologue” (p. 18). I immediately searched for the piece online and listened to it as I continued to read. I am very eager to dive further into this book, and to discover whether someone else’s favorite will also become mine.
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Post-Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf weaves together the minds of countless characters to portray life in post-WWI England. Though the book is often described as a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the characters and their life stories are so varied and numerous that together, a much larger story involving feminism, class, suicide, and friendship is told.
Mrs. Dalloway proves that you learn far more about someone through their random and unfiltered thoughts, no matter how brief, than you do learning details like where they were born or what their hobbies are or who they keep company with. While the story spans only one day, and relatively little information is offered of any given character, I was left with such vivid impressions of each of them simply because I heard snippets of their innermost thoughts. It is often not he said, she said, but rather he thought, she thought. The emphasis on each character’s own stream of consciousness gives vibrancy, almost legitimacy, to one’s inner life; it is as real as what goes on outside of one’s self.
There are characters whom I do want to learn more about, and their stories feel incomplete only because of the sheer interest they raise. One of these characters is Sally Seton, the woman that inspires Clarissa to quote Shakespeare: “If it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” Woolf magically pins down that feeling of infatuation when she has Clarissa exclaim to herself, “She is beneath this roof…she is beneath this roof!” It is the most appropriate expression in the fewest words, like poetry.
The most tragic of characters is Septimus Warren Smith, a young WWI veteran who is suicidal and unknowingly suffering from severe PTSD. He is going mad, hearing things, seeing things, and the way Woolf depicts his mind is brilliant. As you read through passages of his thoughts, you become convinced that writing with sense and purpose is almost easy, while conveying the unpredictable and broken, Septimus’ mind, serves the challenge. Two lines summarize the story of Septimus and perhaps many others due to the war:
“Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square” (p. 130).
Then after the war, the look in his eyes: “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (p. 20).
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St. Mary’s Square

St. Mary’s Square sounds far grander than it is, which is a patch of grass and a few trees on top of a parking structure in San Francisco. It is a self-described “petite urban haven,” a rhetorical flourish that reminds us of the deceiving power of words. Admittedly, it did offer a space to quickly enjoy a sushirrito (a sushi+burrito concoction) before resuming the day’s adventures, which suggests the entire point. I love that we plant ourselves in the city only to crave nature, so that even a hint of green satisfies.
I am amazed that April has passed and we are one week into May; does time pick up speed as the year progresses? Will I feel summer before the feeling is gone? I have this suspicion that I will wake up to September in what will feel like tomorrow and think, I missed it. Does acknowledging this prevent it from happening? I promise to report back.

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Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

The copy of Mrs. Dalloway that I own is impressively annotated by one of its previous owners. I wish that the notes were legible, because the few words that I can decipher include heavyweights like “trap of consciousness” and “death of soul.” Mrs. Dalloway surfaced in my mind on International Women’s Day (March 8) with its infamous first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” and I thought it was about time that I read the classic. While the story follows a single day in the post-WWI life of Clarissa Dalloway, readers weave in and out of the minds of several characters, abruptly dropping into each one’s stream of consciousness. Not only are there sudden shifts in person, place, and time, but there are also no chapters or paragraph breaks to delineate where it is appropriate to pause, so sharp attention is required. The book is a shining example of modernist literature, with its unconventional and lyrical flair: “Life; London; this moment of June” (p. 5).
Though the case with every book that I read, I am particularly aware that there is absolutely nothing new that I can say about Virginia Woolf or Mrs. Dalloway. Anything and everything critical, brilliant, subtle, funny, and beyond has already been said, and most likely by someone far smarter than I am. Author Anna Quindlen brings up a similar idea in her oft-quoted commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College:
“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel.”
Don’t worry, she then counters herself: “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice.”
With that in mind, I continue Mrs. Dalloway (I’m halfway through) with the hope that I will indeed have something unique to share. May has begun, the perfect month for finishing those lingering to-read books before summer inspires a brand new list. I’m happy to consider Mrs. Dalloway the first book of May, and to discover its influence on the month’s remaining book selections.
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Spring Cleaning

I’m wearing a black silk skirt, a black wool sweater, and a black cat bag from my elementary school days. My mom undertook a spring cleaning at her home in San Diego, and as a result, my phone received photos of over a dozen bags of all shapes and sizes, all belonging to me. Do you want to keep any of these? There was a bright yellow tote bag featuring a screen print of Andy Warhol’s “Giant Size” (college), three different blue Jansport backpacks (middle school), a floral purse from Nordstrom’s BP section (definitely high school), among many others. The cat bag featured above is the only thing I kept for myself, though my mom held onto a few others in the name of memories. I’m not as vulnerable to nostalgia; I have no qualms getting rid of the old and clearing things out. For instance, whenever I survey my wardrobe, I find fewer excuses to keep any given item, so I regularly drop off garbage bags full of clothes at Goodwill. I have always held onto handwritten notes, letters, and cards, but I don’t receive nearly as many as I used to, so the collection I have thus far stuffed into three shoeboxes hasn’t required any new accommodations.
My sister recently moved from Seattle to Toronto with the goal of owning as few things as possible, so though I was encouraged to take anything and everything, I walked away with just four books: Lonely Planet’s Amsterdam guide, And Then There Were None, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, and a newer edition of The Catcher in the Rye. I very much want to visit Amsterdam, And Then There Were done is a perennial favorite and Agatha Christie is my mom’s favorite author, I’m as forever curious about Sylvia Plath as everyone else, and I collect any and all Salinger. Hauling these four books onto the flight from Seattle back to the Bay Area, I was faced with the sheer inconvenience of such a thing, and though I’m an advocate of good ole’ books, I’m also practical enough to know that the transition to e-books is largely inevitable. I’m just not there yet and I’m in no rush to get there.
I haven’t gone through any kind of spring cleaning myself, but I have embraced spring with nightly walks, deli sandwiches, last summer’s sandals, trips to the beach, and bike rides instead of car rides. I have two books on the immediate to-read list, both by Virginia Woolf. All is well.

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Post-Reading: Persuasion

“You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan.”
(A letter from Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliot )
The time between finishing a book and writing about it should be as short as possible, as in I prefer when it happens immediately. My memory is strong and my feelings are fresh, the perfect foundation for reflection. Alas, I let this one linger, so I am afraid that whatever I write will be a dimmed version of my true love and enthusiasm for the book. Persuasion is thus far and by far my favorite of Jane Austen. It is a love story not of excessive romance, but of two people growing older, wiser, and finding their way back together. The pages overflow with characters, but unlike Sense and Sensibility, which required scribbling family trees in the margins, I found it easy to keep track of Persuasion’s names and relations. Every character is unique and well-developed, even the minor ones are memorable, and almost every one of them has some kind of influence on the relationship between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
During a group outing in which the friends disperse among various activities, Anne becomes flustered by a conversation she overhears between Wentworth and Henrietta. Anne is relieved when everyone in the party gathers back together, as she is able to collect herself amidst the noise of the crowd: “Her spirits wanted the solitude and silence which only numbers could give.” I immediately thought of the same idea famously expressed in The Great Gatsby: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
My only wish is that I could have been privy to the details of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. We are to assume that they are soul mates, that this is a meeting of the minds, yet because they are estranged for most of the story, we do not get to witness the connection ourselves. I suppose this is only a credit to Austen’s talent of creating characters whom we would love to observe, or to overhear in long conversation. I’m bound to come back to Austen, and the call will surely be Emma, but for now I leave her, and I think I miss her already.
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Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings

Penguin Classics sent along Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings, a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia that I previously did not know existed. Juvenilia is the work produced by an artist during his or her youth. Jane was a prolific young writer, proving to be one of those lucky people who discovers their passion early in life. Jane’s father is said to have given her the notebooks in which she wrote these stories, and inside the front cover of one of those notebooks, her father inscribed:
“Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new.”
I told myself I would move on from Austen after Persuasion, but I’m far too curious about such early work, so I’ve decided to scatter these stories over the next few months, reading a couple here and there. Some of them are a mere two pages, so it is the ideal way to keep a little Austen in my life. So far I’ve read three stories: “Sir William Mountague,” “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” and “The beautifull Cassandra.” The stories are incredibly unique, full of imagination, and hilarious. Sir William Mountague falls in love with every woman he sees, and in “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” Jane makes fun of the self-indulgent genre by running through the mundane details of a man and his travels from Bath to London. “The beautifull Cassandra” is a charming account of “a day well spent” and is dedicated to Jane’s beloved sister, her closest companion. The dedication I copy here in full because it is just beautiful:
“You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, majestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish will be gratified for.”
The book’s hardcover is wrapped in linen and there is a ribbon marker, both features gone from contemporary bookshelves. Handling the book – holding its weight, feeling its texture, and marking a page with a ribbon – reminds me of how physical and active the reading experience can be. How we read has dramatically changed, and will continue to do so, making this volume of Jane Austen’s early work nostalgic in more ways than one.

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Ninth Street

I have too many floral skirts to count, so I’m always more than prepared for spring. Then again, the lines between California’s seasons have blurred, with each season proving to be unusually warm and dry. Most experts agree this isn’t a good thing. Nevertheless, spring in Berkeley means squinting in the sun on the walk to Philz via Ninth Street and drinking a large iced coffee before dinner. The coffee was accompanied by a couple chapters of Persuasion, and I must say, I may have unknowingly saved the best for last. It is heartfelt, sophisticated, and Anne Elliot is by far my favorite Austen heroine. I love that Anne and Captain Wentworth are the couple to watch, yet they hardly interact with each other, and it is the peripheral conversations and events that push the story of their relationship forward. This makes even the most distant, civil remark between them feel electric and full of meaning.
I enjoyed an abbreviated spring break of three days in San Diego, where relaxing and indulging is easy if not natural to do. The weekend included wine tasting, Indian food, strolling through Coronado, gin and tonic at the bars in North Park, fish tacos, and playing with a chihuahua. March was a fast one, though I suppose they all are. I’m aiming for April to be a productive one, which includes figuring out what exactly that means to me. Away we go.

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Sense and Sensibility

“Though nothing could be more polite than Lady Middleton’s behavior to Elinor and Marianne, she did not really like them at all. Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.”
Sense and Sensibility, p. 67
By Jane Austen
Published 1811

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Currently Reading: Persuasion

Persuasion is the last of Jane Austen’s books that I plan to read before taking a breather, and fittingly so, as it is her last completed novel. The timing is especially perfect because having just finished her first novel, Northanger Abbey, I am very curious to compare the bookends of her life’s work.
Anne Elliot is 27-years-old, noticeably older than Austen’s previous heroines. She is the middle child of widower Sir Walter Elliot, a vain man who describes her as “haggard.” This is not the story of a giddy young girl flirting her days away, but of a sweet and elegant woman whose life demands heartache and patience. At 19, Anne falls in love with Frederick Wentworth, but rejects his marriage proposal due to her family’s insistence that he is beneath her. Frederick goes off to sea, Anne remains unmarried, and the main drama unfolds when he returns, now a captain in the Royal Navy and an embodiment of the self-made man, another new type of character for Austen.
There is something striking about Persuasion being Austen’s final novel before her death at 41, as if it is some kind of culmination of all that she has written, of all that she has experienced. Persuasion is Austen’s all too soon farewell, written even in the face of illness, and I am eager to pay my respects.