Plums & Society & Fall Reads | November 2022

“How do you live the life you do?” Virginia Woolf asks her friend Vita Sackville-West in a letter dated 30th Aug 1928.

She was referring to Vita’s unwavering focus on writing despite her active social life.

Vita had written Virginia about visiting her husband in Berlin where she invited “sixty people to dinner.” “One for three days entirely dissipates my soul, and sends it floating, like duckweed, down a dirty river,” Woolf responds in her letter, “I am very hot. I have been mowing the lawn. It looks now like a calm sea through which several large ships have passed leaving wakes behind them. Then I ate two plums which make my hands sticky. For many days I have been so disjected by society that writing has been only a dream–something another woman did once” (236).

I haven’t been mowing the lawn. Instead of plums and society, I’ve been distracted by a week-long Fall break, one-on-one meetings with my students at work, and the air that has turned too crisp too soon. But Woolf’s sentiments about the disruption of her writing resonate with me. It is this guilt without which my identity, sense of Self, suffers greatly. I’m not sure if guilt is the right emotion. Liability? Close. It is this notion of owing to myself which precisely conveys how I feel. I owe it to myself to write, I often think to myself. Irrespective of what it is that I’m writing, writing seems to be the tool that enables me to be in touch with the best version of myself. While it’s true that I have two conference papers to write, I feel that I owe it to myself to just write freely, as the street lights flicker in the distance, where the Black Sea and the misty sky merge into one. I glance at my cats, Ofelya curled up in a ball on the cozy Christmas blanket, and Venus watching the rain drops fall on the naked oak tree outside the window, serene and unhurried. To me, this ambiance early in the morning is an antidote to writer’s block and procrastination so here I go.

I do have a few posts on which I’ve been working for RUOT, but I’d like to continue to write my monthly wrap-ups, to make sure that I commit to reflecting on my reading each month. The last one I wrote and posted was a late end-of-year wrap-up in March; it has been way too long. Last week, I was telling my students about the importance of self-reflection–I suppose it only makes sense to practice what I preach. And lucky for me, this particular practice involves writing and reading, two of my favorite things.

Books & Reviews

Last month, I focused on reading and finishing up four books: Little Gods (2020) by Meng Jin, Joan is Okay (2022) by Weike Wang, Small Pleasures (2021) by Claire Chambers, and Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf (1990) edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks. 

Meng Jin’s debut Little Gods (2020) revolves around Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who studies the passage of time. The novel presents Su Lan’s complexity through the perspectives of Yongzong, her husband who ends up leaving her when pregnant, Liya, her daughter whom Su Lan raises as American in the U.S., and Zhu Wen, her neighbor in Shanghai before Su Lan immigrates to America. Each POV offers a glimpse into different aspects of Su Lan, amplifying her intricacy and paradoxically the mystery that surrounds her. The more I read about Su Lan, the more mysterious and complex she became, and this elusiveness in itself is at the heart of the novel. Su Lan’s past is complicated, and she spends her life leaving people and places behind. “I have always had a talent for leaving,” she once tells Zhu Wen, “I began to cultivate this talent when I was very young, barely old enough to dream. Most of all I wanted to leave my mother. Leaving her, I thought, I might finally leave myself” (36). Su Lan, like the concept of time with which she is fascinated, is elusive, and after she passes away, we witness Liya returning to China on a mission to unmask the mystery about her mother and father.

I loved the way in which Little Gods (2020) marries the past and the present, physics and language (in a similar way to one of my favorite novels, Folklorn (2021)), as well as science and storytelling. However, as interesting as Su Lan and her complexity were, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, which, of course, doesn’t deflate the novel’s literary value for me. I found Jin’s use of language brilliant, and her writing motivated me to keep reading, since I somehow wasn’t invested in Su Lan and the other characters.

Weike Wang’s Joan is Okay (2022), however, was the energetic narrative I needed last month.

Its narrator Joan has an idiosyncratic personality, which to me, was attractive and intriguing. Joan is a thirty-something workaholic ICU doctor in New York where she has built her “bubble.” She is fully dedicated to her work at the hospital which keeps her safe from socializing and interacting with her family. When her father passes away unexpectedly in China, her mother moves back to America. As the pandemic begins too, Joan is forced out of her comfort zone and to grow in many ways. Joan is Okay (2022) is witty, full of energy, and quite touching at times–the perfect combination for a pandemic novel.

I then began reading The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf (1990) when I found myself in, what I call, a Virginia-Woolf-state-of-mind in late November.

I often find myself wanting to read To the Lighthouse every Fall, but this year I decided to spend November with Woolf’s letters. The collection opens with letters written in 1882 and ends with the last letter Woolf wrote–to Leonard, before throwing herself into the River Ouse in 1941.

Reading her letters feels like having a sincere conversation with Woolf, and it is fascinating to see different aspects of her personality. Some of the letters demonstrate her classist and subtly racist attitude (particularly towards Jewish people, including her husband), which was disturbing and disappointing. But she is also kind, warm, and human. With her friends, like Clive Bell and Mary Hutchinson, she is often witty, literary, and sharply intelligent; with her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard, she is emotional, loving–even desperate and self-deprecating at times. Her correspondence with her “romantic” friends, Violet Dickinson and Vita Sackville-West, presents a Virginia who is flirtatious and seductive. There are few things better than delving deep into the mind of a literary genius, and Woolf’s letters have certainly inspired me and brought me closer to her. I couldn’t stop taking notes while reading the letters some of which I’m looking forward to sharing here on RUOT. As I was reading Woolf’s letters, I also picked up Small Pleasures (2021) by Claire Chambers. I have this strange pattern where I must read a novel, alongside a book of non-fiction. I don’t know what this habit reveals about me–other than the fact that literary fiction is truly my favorite genre, but I digress.

Small Pleasures (2021) has been on my radar since it was longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021 and its plot piqued my interest.

The novel follows Jean Swinney, a British journalist whose dreary life changes unexpectedly in 1957. When Jean is assigned to cover a story on parthenogenesis, she begins investigating a young woman’s claim that she conceived and gave birth to her daughter as a virgin.

This is a light, heartwarming story that explores different types of mother-daughter relationships, intricacies of love and chronic illness, and what it meant to be an unmarried woman focusing on her career in the 50s. The story, as Chambers informs us in the afterword, is inspired by the Lewisham train crash of 1957. Although I was disappointed with the ending, it was truly gratifying to be transported to the 1950s, following the lead of a strong woman character.

And I am currently reading Elif Batuman’s Either/Or (2022)– and re-reading Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines (2015) for a conference paper I’m writing and will be presenting at the Sorbonne next summer.

I have some exciting ideas for manuscripts based on four different novels published in 2022 so I’ve recently ordered some new novels from the U.S. and the U.K., and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on them!

Selected Readings

Every month, I also share some of the intriguing posts, articles, and short stories that I read. Here are some of my favorites this month:

“A Friendly Face,” by Sevgi Soysal, Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely, on Words without Borders

Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal’s novel Dawn (1975) came out in English in November, and Words without Borders published an excerpt from the novel which is about the trials and tribulations that a group of leftist characters encounter after being arrested.

“Zelda Fitzgerald: Writer, Muse, and… Painter?” by Eleanor Lanahan, on Literary Hub

Zelda Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan has some good news for Zelda’s admirers (like me). In the article, she touches on her relationship with her grandmother and discusses how she discovered the paper dolls Zelda painted in a closet in the attic. She compiled Zelda’s artistic paper dolls in a book titled The Paper Dolls of Zelda Fitzgerald (2022) that just came out in November.

“Quantum Voicemail” by Kristen Iskandrian, on Electric Literature

I ran into Kristen Iskandrian’s story while browsing Electric Literature last month. I hadn’t heard of her before, but“Quantum Voicemail”sounded interesting. It is an insightful story about the narrator’s relationship with her best friend: a friendship that they’ve continued cultivating via voice mails since college. As the narrator’s best friend decides to visit one day, the narrator analyzes her reaction, finding more about herself and the bond she has with her friend.

And this brings me to the end of my November wrap-up– I will conclude with the picture of my favorite moment in November-I feel fortunate that I was able to capture it and freeze it in time.

I hope everyone had a lovely November; feel free to post your links to your monthly wrap-ups down below. I’d love to read them.

Have you read any of the books mentioned here? What did you think? What are you reading right now? I’d love to hear about your recommendations.

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