May 2016Two very unlike books today, I’m afraid – wanted to get the Woolf reviewed as near to the end of Heaven-Ali’s #Woolfalong Phase 2: Beginnings and Endings project as I could, and then I picked a tiny one off the beginning of the shelf to read in scraps of time. They can’t all be matching pairs, can they? Anyway, I have a general project to read more saga stuff and #Woolfalong is one of my projects this year, so …

Virginia Woolf – “Between the Acts”

(March 2016 – ebook)

Woolf’s last novel and published unreviewed, this is a little uneven, and I can see where I would have edited it. But there’s a lot to like – the sense of place, mentioned by so many people, is beautifully done, and the still-feudal village, with the villagers marshalled by Miss La Trobe to put on a pageant at the Olivers’ is described so wonderfully.

The stream of consciousness technique Woolf is famous for is still there, but it’s so much easier to manage than, for example, Dorothy Richardson’s. We see the progress of the day the book covers through various people’s eyes, and the stream of consciousness itself is gently satirised when we read about Lucy Oliver’s mind wandering through huge tracts of time and place when she seems like she’s doing something quite ordinary.

We particularly inhabit the head of Isa, wife and mother but dreaming of more, with her secret poetry. She reminds me a little of a younger Mrs Ramsay from “To the Lighthouse”. The discord that is often needed for a good plot (although there’s not much of a plot here, not that it matters) is provided by the rather dreadful Mrs Manresa who turns up with young male friend in tow, and Miss La Trobe acts as a kind of observer and commentator, a little like Lily Briscoe in “Lighthouse”. The whole did remind me of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet, which starts with a pageant and has a book within a book later on – although I could have done without the chunks from Miss La Trobe’s play – it would be interesting to see if they would have withstood Woolf’s next draft. A good read.

This book would suit … people who like books about village life, quiet books where not much happens externally but a lot goes on in the heads of the characters. Perhaps not the Woolf to start with, but still a good read.

“The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue”

(Oxford Waterstones, 14 March 2015)

No. 03 in the Penguin 80 (books at 80p each published for the publisher’s 80th birthday: I managed to resist the temptation to buy the set), t his is the only Icelandic Saga represented in the collection. It’s a very good introduction to the sags, as its 52 pages have a bit of everything that the larger ones are famous for: chieftains, impetuous sons, law-givers, sea voyages, allegiances to foreign kings, poetry and insults, fights, men vying for the love of the same woman, dreams interpreted as prophecies, and then the formulaic chapter openings, poems, potted ancestries and shifting tenses common to the genre. A good story, too.

This book would suit … someone looking for a low-risk introduction to the sagas – some of the BEST LITERATURE IN THE WORLD (for example).

Currently reading, oddly enough, good old Roy Jenkins and Simon Armitage’s wonderful book about Iceland. More on them soon.