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Posts Tagged ‘Alice Lowe’

Several months ago I responded to a call for submissions on “Books that changed myawritersdiary_woolf-1 life” at an eclectic site called The Drunken Odyssey – a podcast about the writing life. I asked the editor, John King, if he’d be interested in my story about A Writer’s Diary.  He responded with enthusiasm—turns out he’d studied with Woolf scholar Anne Fernald.

The segment was published this week in Episode 189 of The Drunken Odyssey. It starts with a lengthy discussion about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. If you want to skip ahead, I’m at the end, starting at about 51:50. My husband is a musician with a home studio, so he recorded my piece and added the accompaniment.

It’s not an overstatement that A Writer’s Diary changed my life, and I enjoyed having this opportunity to tell my tale outside of the usual Woolfian circles—to preach beyond the choir.

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Mendocino FireElizabeth Tallent’s new story collection, Mendocino Fire, deserves the praise it’s received in reviews. The stories, all set along the northern California coast where she lives, are imaginative, innovative and compelling explorations into the human condition.

As it’s her first book of fiction in more than twenty years, I dove into her stories with glee and found a happy surprise in “Eros 101.” Opening with a faculty dinner, we learn that:

“The evening’s covert (and mistaken: you’ll see) premise is that the newly hired Woolf scholar will, from her angelic professional height and as homage to VW, scheme to advance all female futures….”

Written in an essay question format, the responses disclose the encounter of said Woolf scholar, Clio Mirsak, with tenure-seeking junior faculty member Nadia, whom she refers to as “the Beloved.” The attraction is immediate and consuming but not reciprocated. The story, with its challenging construction, is clever, funny and touching. Woolf pops in and out of the narrative both directly and covertly.

A phrase from Woolf: “’Reality’ … beside which nothing matters.” (Help—can someone tell me the source of this quote?)

Unwelcome thoughts of her mother interject themselves into Clio’s fantasy: “The memory stamps out several little wildfires of desire … Just try thinking back through this woman.”

In a recent interview Tallent cites Woolf as one of her influences and among the novelists she teaches in her fiction writing classes at Stanford, so it’s no surprise that she would evoke Woolf for her feminist scholar protagonist. It was a great addition (number 86) to my ongoing list of Woolf sightings in fiction and a marvelous story collection from start to finish.

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VW in ManhattanI’m skeptical of so-called biofiction, novels that fictionalize real people, put words into their mouths, recreate scenes from their lives, sometimes inaccurately—its fiction, so literary license runs rampant. They leave readers, at least this reader, wondering what’s true and what’s been exaggerated or made up.

With novels about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsberries, there’s also that tendency among Woolfians to be protective of “our” Virginia. We read them because we have to know what’s out there in case we’re called upon to defend her.

When Virginia Woolf in Manhattan came out last year, my interest was tweaked. Clearly it wasn’t going to be the same old rehashed and reimagined life and times. I put it on my list but hadn’t gotten to it in June when I went to the Woolf conference in Pennsylvania.

Maggie Gee reads a passage from "Virginia Woolf in Manhattan" at the 25th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf and Her Female Contemporaries at Bloomsburg University.

Maggie Gee reads a passage from “Virginia Woolf in Manhattan” at the 25th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf and Her Female Contemporaries, held in June at Bloomsburg University.

Maggie Gee, the author, was there and read a key scene from early in the novel. I was fascinated by her protagonist, Angela Lamb, a novelist and sometimes scholar who goes to New York to do research in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection for a paper she will be presenting at a Woolf conference in Turkey. She’s in the throes of the place’s aura when she senses a presence behind her. It’s Virginia Woolf, in the flesh, and just as shocked and confused to be there as Angela is to see her.

In 1990, when I was discovering Woolf and traipsing the streets of Bloomsbury for the first time, I had a story idea. I’m in a tea shop in Gordon Square, standing in line at the counter. I hear a cultured female voice behind me. It’s Virginia Woolf, and she’s talking as if she knows me. We have tea together and … that’s as far as I got. I never wrote the story, never will, but I’ve recalled it from time to time. I suppose many of us have imagined a similar scene, but Maggie Gee has acted on it with glee.

I bought and read the book as soon as I got home. It took me a while to relax my inhibitions and drop into it. You have to suspend disbelief—this is pure fun, lively and loony. “What a lark,” Virginia might say were she to read it. There’s no halo around this Virginia—we see her as a flesh and blood person, back from the dead and dropped into a strange time and place. Gee relates Woolf’s disorientation believably. Angela takes charge of her, and their relationship is a prickly one. Woolf is at times demanding, difficult and bitchy. And funny and charming. So is Angela. They do Manhattan and then they go to Istanbul where adventures abound, some pretty far-fetched.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has been out for more than a year (and in paperback since this summer), and it’s received its share of press. The Telegraph called it “A writer’s sparkling fictional love letter to her literary heroine,” and The Independent ran an interesting interview with Maggie Gee. The Guardian raked it over the coals, and the U.S. press pretty much ignored it.

So this isn’t a review, just a reminder that there are a lot of laughs (and a few smirks, groans and eyerolls) to be had from Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. Summer’s over, but a good “beach read” is always in order.

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When new fiction disappoints me, as it often does, I go back to old favorites. My summer reading has consisted of rereading a few books I’ve threatened to give a second or third go. A couple of them surprised me with mentions of Virginia Woolf that I’d forgotten.

I started with Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I wrote about here with great Rules of Civilityenthusiasm a few years ago. It’s still one of my all-time favorite contemporary novels, and I appreciated, once again, his references to Woolf as a contemporary icon for his 1930s characters.

Mary Wesley is one of those late-blooming authors I return to for “it’s never too late” inspiration. Her first novel was published in 1983 when she was 70, and she followed with nine more over the next 14 years; two were adapted for BBC television movies. They’re witty and wise, sometimes just plain silly—perfect summer reading.

I started with her first novel, my favorite, Jumping the Queue, in which Matilda, tired of life, and Hugh, a hunted “Matricide,” are planning separate suicides in Devon waters when they accidentally meet. If you thought Gone Girl was special with its Woolf jumping the queuesuicide reference, Mary Wesley was there first.

Hugh: “I was going to fill my pockets with stones and go into the river like Virginia Woolf.”

Matilda: “I’d forgotten about Virginia Woolf and the stones. I must remember.”

I saw the film “Learning to Drive,” thrilled to see a personal essay adapted to film, even if it bore only slight resemblance to its source. I decided to reread Katha Pollitt’s real story, the title piece in her excellent 2007 collection, and the rest of the essays in it too. In “Memoir of a Shy Pornographer” (the lengths writers will go to in order to make a living from words!) she’s just out of college and takes a job as a freelance copy editor and proofreader of porn novels. She talks about the tedium of reading drawn-out sex scenes:

The Beeline writers had hit upon the very techniques pioneered by the giants of high modernism: stream of consciousness, internal monologue, indirect discourse, dream sequences, disruptions of time, and far too many adjectives. Sometimes, when I saw a single sentence throbbing and thrusting down a whole page and maybe the next one too, I would cheat a bit and just kind of sweep over it with my eyes. I did the same thing with The Sound and the Fury and The Waves.

 And so it goes….

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Alice Lowe, a freelance writer and an independent Woolf scholar, will present a two-week Woolf workshop at San Diego State University titled “Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Lowe, a contributor to Blogging Woolf, has had two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London: Virginia Woolf as Memoirist: ‘I am made and remade continually’ in 2015 and Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction in 2010. She has also published papers and reviews in Woolf Society publications and selected papers from Woolf conferences.

In addition, more than 40 of her personal essays have appeared in print and online literary journals over the past five years. She is an SDSU alumna.

For more information, call 619-594-5152 or visit neverstoplearning.net/osher

lowe flyer

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On a long travel day home from the Woolf conference in Pennsylvania and a side-trip to Maine, I was fortunate to be able to passgornick the time with Vivian Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, a gift from my friend in Maine.

I was taken by surprise when, about halfway through the book, Gornick diverts from her mostly personal musing with a lengthy passage that starts: “She was born Mary Britton Miller in New London, Connecticut, in 1883….” She goes on to state that Mary Miller lived in New York and wrote stories and poetry that went unnoticed. Then in 1946, at the age of 63, she published a novel, Do I Wake or Sleep, under the pen name Isabel Bolton. It was followed in 1949 and 1952 by The Christmas Tree and Many Mansions.

Her work was lauded by Diana Trilling in The Nation and Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, who likened her modernist prose to Virginia Woolf’s. She nevertheless slipped into obscurity until the nineties, when the three novels were re-published as a trilogy, New York Mosaic. Yet she remains unknown today. She published two volumes of poetry, a memoir, and another novel before she died in 1975.

Gornick focuses on her own theme, the self and the city. In Do I Wake or Sleep, Millicent in New York — much like Clarissa Dalloway in London — observes: “What a strange, what a fantastic city … there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth.”

I was fascinated even before I learned about the comparison to Woolf. I found New York Mosaic at the public library and launched into it. Do I Wake or Sleep is Millicent’s interior voice over a 24-hour period — sound familiar?  The prose is stunning. Here’s a sentence from the first page:

There was, she thought, a magic, an enchantment — these myriad rainbow lights, now soft and low, now deeper, stronger — all the stops and chords and colors played like organ voluntaries, over the moon, the clouds, the grass.

I’m still reading, completely hooked. I’ve ordered the trilogy — I have to have it, a library copy just won’t do — along with her memoir. I’m off and running on what looks to be a fairly extensive research project and have had interest expressed in a profile I plan to write. Too bad I didn’t find her before the conference on Woolf’s Female Contemporaries!

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Alice Lowe, contributor to Blogging Woolf, on her latest monograph in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, “Virginia Woolf as Memoirist: ‘I am made and remade continually’”

Alice Lowe blogs ... about writing & reading & Virginia Woolf

It’s a monograph: “a specialist work of writing on a single subject or an aspect of a subject, usually by a single author.” But indulge me–it has an ISBN, an International Standard Book Number, so let’s call it a book–a small book, but a book (we won’t trivialize it with “booklet” or “bookette”). Thank you!

That said, I’m happy to announce that Virginia Woolf as Memoirist: ‘I am made and remade continually’ has just been released by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. This is my second inclusion in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, which includes more than 70 publications about the lives and work of Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury group.

Cecil Woolf is the nephew of Leonard Woolf and the last living link to Virginia Woolf; he proudly points to Virginia’s mentions of him in her diary as “the boy with the sloping nose.” Cecil’s wife, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, is the general editor of the series…

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