The Speed and Slowness of Summer: Reading Virginia Woolf in July, and Other Books

The Speed and Slowness of Summer: Reading Virginia Woolf in July, and Other Books

July, amirite? It’s hot, the days are super long and yet never long enough, summer’s frenetic energy is buzzing all around… all this is to say I had lots of quantity-oriented reading goals this month, but then I started reading Virginia Woolf and that went out the window. Virginia Woolf demands that you slow down and pay attention. So even though I only got through 2 print books this month, I’m not sad about it, because I read Orlando, and it was worth every long minute I gave it.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This is my very first Virginia Woolf reading, and I am shook. Her command of language is on another level, which is both exhilarating and frustrating for a mere layperson like myself who must concentrate to absorb her lyrical, dense, extremely long sentences. But friends, the approx. 1,000 years (Orlando time) I put into reading this book were worth it.

The jacket of my (very beautiful) copy of this book describes Orlando as “playful,” and I can’t think of a better word. It’s trippy and weird and, in many ways, totally ahead of its time. I don’t know all that much about Woolf’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West, but this is a queer story through and through. It’s not even subtext. It’s text-text. Orlando is born a boy and transforms into a woman, but continues to play with gender presentation throughout their life.

All of Orlando’s loves are as gender-bendy as Orlando is: the Russian princess who skates up to him during the frost, the sea captain who wins her heart with his humor and understanding. They are described as both men and women, just as Orlando is, with the discovery of their gender fluidity portrayed as literal magic. While there isn’t any explicit discussion of nonbinary gender (which is a term I’m pretty sure didn’t exist in 1928 when this was written), in a way the embodiment of masculine and feminine in individual characters pokes deliberate fun at the binary. Certainly, gender roles are strongly in place throughout time as Orlando makes their way through it (did I mention this is also a time travel story?), and they fill the roles according to how they’re presenting in any given period. Indeed, even Orlando’s thoughts change based on their current gender.

Regardless of gender, though, Orlando is usually having some kind of existential crisis. This is in turns frustrating, funny, and poetic, as Woolf’s omniscient narrator (‘the biographer’) waxes on in tandem with Orlando’s tumultuous internal monologue until she abruptly stops, declaring whatever particular rabbit hole we’re trapped in to be useless, or unknown, or just not worth continuing down. But those rabbit holes are often breathtakingly written at the same time that they are self-deprecating and witty, like this musing on identity/humanity:

 

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous… nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that… we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again… nature, who has so much to answer for besides perhaps the unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us… but has contrived the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress.

I mean, you’re allowed to do that?! Be still my heart, Virginia.

Time, literature, identity, culture, love, nature, birth, death – this wild twisty story tackles it all. Everything happens either very fast or really slow, punctuated by major events (often weather events, which is bizarre but fitting) and a lot of reflection throughout Orlando’s different life stages (which coincide with different historical time periods).

In the end, Orlando is a solitary person, who despite having loved (and been loved) by many, and having had children, is utterly independent. The boy Orlando plays alone; the woman Orlando dies alone. This isn’t as sad as it sounds – while other people have played an important role in their life, Orlando’s true love is the oak tree, i.e. the bones of the earth. Existence itself.

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

I wrote a full review of this over on the Bonus Book Reviews page! It was also trippy but a much faster read!

Audio

Some real good ones this month! All of these short reviews are lifted from my Goodreads, where we can totally be friends so I can stalk your book rec's.

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson

This book was super interesting and ultimately concluded what all sports science concludes: that human bodies are so weird and it’s fun and sometimes useful to poke at ourselves to figure out bits of what makes us perform at a certain level, but we're so complex that no one will ever unlock any kind of amazing secret. Honestly that’s part of what makes it so interesting, at the same time that it’s frustrating not to fully understand what goes on in our minds and bodies when we endure, when we chase and push and drive ourselves toward something great or unknown. This book is like a lot of sports science books. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. And I really liked the ending; Hutchinson crafts a good last sentence ;)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Long overdue in reading this. Regardless of how much I thought I knew about Baldwin and his contribution to the national conversation about race, nationhood, and humanity, I was still blown away. Required reading for everyone. (Also, he was a truly great writer).

So Close to Being the Shit, Y’all Don’t Even Know by Retta

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

As a fan of Parks and Recreation (who isn't, let's be real), I was really excited to pick up this book. Retta's voice definitely comes through in its pages- funny, lively, and honest. I would certainly recommend it as a very fluffy read for fans of Retta, but there were quite a few things that didn't really work for me.

For one thing, she makes a few jokes/remarks about gay people and disabled people that for me fall completely flat and came off as tasteless and unnecessary. Comedy can definitely walk a fine line, and I think in a couple of instances she crosses it.

Maybe I've outgrown the Treat Yo Self phase of my life, but I don't love how heavily this book leans in the "here's a list of ways I treat myself" direction. I don't fault her for buying *so many* expensive handbags, her hockey obsession, or the million times she's not only seen Hamilton but become besties with Lin-Manuel, but the catalog of these things took much more space than anything in her pre-acting career. I would've loved to hear more about her childhood and young adulthood- the stuff about medical school, family, her job at a pharmaceutical company were all really interesting and fun to hear about, but they weren't given as much attention as the materialistic things. 

This is in no way a judgement on Retta's character or choices for her own book. Obviously she can and should write what she wants, I just wanted something a little deeper. But I still enjoyed it! Just know you're not in for any huge insights if you pick this book up.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

What a beautiful novel! I loved the way Nao and Ruth’s stories were so tightly woven together so as to leave the reader questioning whether they are one in the same. The voices start out distinct and morph into each other. The magical realism adds to the atmospheric quality of the story, and the characters are so complex and alive. I love how seamlessly and consistently the theme of time is braided into every aspect of the novel. Highly recommend this read and can’t wait to read more from Ruth Ozeki. 

That's it for this month's reads! Any comments or suggestions, please leave them in the comments! Also, I am a Book Depository affiliate, so if you decide to purchase any of the above books via the links provided, I will receive a (very small) kickback. See you next month!