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The Tatty Cover

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Tangled Web of Bloomsbury

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One thought comes to mind with Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister,” and that is Sir Walter Scott’s all too fitting quote “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.” Parmar’s novel is an unflinching look at sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, their involvement and entanglements within the Bloomsbury Group and the shattering consequences that ensued. For anyone interested in Woolf, or the group as a whole, Parmar’s is an absorbing read.

I became interested in the Bloomsbury Set due to my fixation with George Mallory, who danced around the edges of their lives while at Cambridge. But, the more I learned about the key members of the group, the more appealing they became in and of themselves.

They were a collection of young artists, writers and philosophers who met weekly beginning in 1906 to discuss modern ideas on politics, society, art and philosophy. The Stephen siblings (Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia and Adrian) were at the group’s core, and the Stephen home in Bloomsbury quickly became the group’s nucleus. Notable original members included E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes—Virginia and Vanessa held court as the only two women.

by Unknown photographer, vintage snapshot print, July 1915
Strachey, Grant and Bell

Parmar’s book follows the set mostly through Vanessa’s eyes. It is her journal and letters that chronicle the group’s entanglements as they unfold. “Entanglements,” here, being the operative word. The Bloomsbury Group makes Peyton Place look like child’s play. The only difference being there were no sordid secrets among the Bloomsbury members. The group valued pleasure from their personal relationships first and foremost, and they took a sophisticated view of monogamy. But they also held truthful self-exploration and honesty with one another as guiding principles.

Though Virginia Woolf once said that they had worked out a view of life that kept them grounded as friends, one has to think that some of the exit wounds didn’t fully heal. Parmar’s book examines the consequences of their spurred and spurned love affairs and the hard-hitting brutality of their honesty. The book also gives us a look into Virginia Woolf’s mental illness and its toll on those who loved and cared for her.

While Parmar’s book paints Woolf in a less than favorable light (she comes across as extremely self-centered and greedy), it remains a good read and a fascinating look into the inner workings of this infamous group. Defying convention, they became accomplished and influencial individuals in their own right, with the support of one another, and they did it on their own terms.

When Books Went to War

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If you get the chance to read this extraordinary book, “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win WWII” does not disappoint. Through in-depth research and entertaining storytelling, Author Molly Guptill Manning weaves together a gem about the men who fought for the freedom of ideas and speech and the librarians, publishers and authors who armed them with their arsenal of weapons: books.

From the publisher:

“When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned over 100 million books and caused fearful citizens to hide or destroy many more. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks, for troops to carry in their pockets and their rucksacks, in every theater of war.
 
“Comprising 1,200 different titles of every imaginable type, these paperbacks were beloved by the troops and are still fondly remembered today. Soldiers read them while waiting to land at Normandy; in hellish trenches in the midst of battles in the Pacific; in field hospitals; and on long bombing flights. They wrote to the authors, many of whom responded to every letter. They helped rescue The Great Gatsby from obscurity. They made Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, into a national icon…”

In all there were 123 million Armed Services Editions’ books sent to soldiers during WWII. The book program served a two-pronged approach: to arm soldiers with ideas of freedom that Adolf Hitler was intent on destroying, while at the same time giving them the comfort of a book from home. Later, the men recounted how they relied on the books to “escape” the war if only for a few minutes at a time.

By the end of the war, America had the most well-read military in history that knew the likes of Plato, Shakespeare and Dickens. Further, because of their broad reading education, those who went on to college on the GI Bill tended to outscore their traditional student counterparts. Importantly, through the program, more books were given to American soldiers than all of the books destroyed by Hitler in Europe.

Not only is “When Books Went to War” a great read about WWII history, it’s a good reminder of the true value of books for a flourishing democracy built on the ideals of knowledge, expression and ideas.

No One Says It Like Hardy

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It’s no secret that I love Thomas Hardy. My favorite poem remains his Neutral Tones, which I memorized in high school and have never forgotten. But, Hardy’s verse doesn’t end in his poems. Readers of his other works would be hard pressed not to find beautiful, lyrical passages there as well. For example, this, taken from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, on a woman’s past being brought to light:

“The figure near at hand suffers on such occasion, because it shows up its sorriness without shade; while vague figures afar off are honoured, in that their distance makes artistic virtues of their stains.”

So simple, yet so elegant. Hardy was always on point in observing everyday life. Perhaps that, coupled with his beautiful use of language, is why his work has endured for so long.

Back in the Saddle

I am getting back into the swing of things. After more than a year’s hiatus from my beloved Tatty Cover, I am back. I didn’t stop reading during that time. In fact far from it. I finished all of Shakespeare’s work, which I set out to do at the beginning of last year; finished the WV Reads 150 (again), in honor of the state’s birthday; and am now taking park in a new book club being offered by the Kanawha County Library called the 12×12. The goal is to chose a book based on a prescribed topic every month. My personal goal to to read what I already own–books that have been sitting on my shelves for years–and in doing so kill two birds with one stone. Here’s a look so far at my selections:

January (A book by an author that’s new to you); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

February (A book someone else loves); White Dog Fell From the Sky, E. Morse

March (A book with a title or name that shares your first or last name); The Gravity of Birds, Tracy Guzeman

April (A book with a one-word title); #GIRLBOSS, S. Amoruso —-LOVED THIS!

May (A book set in a different country); In a Strange Room, D. Galmut

June (A book about an artist or musician); A Rockwell Portrait, D. Walton

July (A book about a hero); Our Daily Bread about Norman Borlaug, N. Vietmayer

August (A book that’s the first in a series new to you); Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, C. Keene

Here’s the rest if you would like to join along:

September (A book on a subject you know very little)

October (A book with a title or author’s name that begins with O)

November (A book about an animal)

December (A book set at least 25 years in the past)

Keach as Falstaff=Brilliant

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I just saw Stacy Keach as Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, at the Shakespeare Theater. Needless to say, he was brilliant. I’m excited to see Part II this coming weekend. The other actors, staging and scenery was impeccable. If you are near D.C., definitely try to check out a performance.

Yeats’ Castle

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I, the poet William Yeats,

With old mill boards and sea-green slates,

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George.

And may these characters remain

When all is ruin once again.

I got the chance to visit Yeats’ castle, Thor Ballylee, in County Galway several years ago. I love the tower house, which is set in such a peaceful, serene location on the Streamstown River . I especially love the dedication to his wife that is set into the castle stone. Only a poet….

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All Things Irish

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“I dreamt I reach’d the Irish shore and felt my heart rebound. From wall to wall within my breast, as I trod that holy ground.”

-Thomas D’Arcy McGee

It’ s no secret that I love Ireland. For as long as I remember, I’ve heavily identified with the land, the people and the culture.  And while I visit as often as I can, it’s not the same as living there (as I one day plan to do–just waiting for the hubby to agree). In the meantime, I do what every other Irish-wannabe American does…read Irish lit and poetry.  Ireland has a rich and robust literary heritage.  Just think, without Irish writers we’d never have Dorian Gray, Leopold Bloom or even Dracula.

Hands down, William Trevor is my favorite Irish writer. His books and short stories are heartbreakingly beautiful.  Other contemporary writers I like include Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry, Frank Delaney and Colm Toibin.

In honor of Paddy’s Day, I encourage you to try an Irish author or poet you’ve not read before. I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

Did the Printing Press Kill Beautiful Architecture?

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Victor Hugo believed that the printing press killed beautiful architecture, that when people started writing their stories in books they stopped carving them in buildings.  I am reminiscing about my Paris trip taken several years ago, particularly the afternoon we spent just sitting outside of the magnificent Notre Dame taking it all in: the hand-carved statues and gargoyle rain spouts, the magnificent flying buttresses, the intricately detailed ornamentation… As much as I love books, I do believe Hugo was onto something.

February Shakespeare Wrap-Up

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“A star danced, and under that I was born.”

One of my favorite of Shakespeare’s lines is Beatrice’s “…a start danced, and under that I was born.” And so began the second month in my Year of the Bard challenge, with ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ Appropriately for Valentine’s month I chose plays about love: Much Ado and Romeo and Juliet. But, to not entirely wear out Cupid’s bow, I also added Henry XIII to my reading list. Here’s my impressions:

Much Ado About Nothing – Did women not have spines during Shakespeare’s time? I’m not taking about the average, poorer woman–most of whom were dependent on marriage to have a roof over their head and food in their stomach. I mean the more well-off women that Shakespeare wrote about. Case in point: Hero, the governor’s daughter in “Much Ado.” She is falsely slandered (actually called a whore) by her beloved, Claudio, at her wedding. She’s not only left at the alter, but through deception on her father’s part to make Claudio feel some sympathy (which he  doesn’t), she’s left for dead. Yet, she gladly marries him in the end of the play after he realizes he was set up to believe those things of her. On the other hand, the story of Beatrice and Benedick unwillingly falling in love–with their sharp wit and tongues–stole the show. Much Ado is a really fun play and perfect for Valentine’s. It shows that love isn’t always perfect and takes many forms.

Romeo & Juliet – What’s there to say about R&J, except there is a reason it has endured for so long and is Shakespeare’s most well-known play. I picture it as the John Hughes or Cameron Crowe hit of its time. Teenage angst, young love, parental  misunderstanding… It screams “Say Anything, ” but instead of Lloyd Dobler declaring his love for Diane by holding up a boom box outside her window, it’s Romeo declaring himself with sonnet under Juliet’s balcony. It makes you remember what it was like to be a teenager, jumping from one crush to the next as Romeo does, romping around with with friends like Mercutio and Benvolio, thinking no one in the world understands you. Shakespeare could easily have been writing about any teenager in the past 450 years. It’s no wonder R&J has stood the test of time.

Henry XIII – I love reading about King Henry XIII, his many wives and his mischief. But, I have to say, I just didn’t enjoy this play. I was really looking forward to reading it, thinking the subject matter would resonate since I’ve read about this part of English history a lot (as well as seen numerous film productions depicting the king). But, the play seemed allover the place, with too many characters and too much going on. I wonder if this is because the play was written by one or more people, aside from Shakespeare, as historians speculate. The story of how Anne Boleyn came to power and her quick demise was never told. Now, I would have enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s tale of that woe.

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