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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

September Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This 1927 third novel by the legendary English writer Virginia Woolf is the story of the Ramseys–Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, their eight children–and their various friends staying at the Ramseys’ summer home in the Isle of Skye, and their ongoing plans to visit a local lighthouse. Spanning the course of ten years, the book is split into three parts: the first and longest section, entitled The Window, takes place in a single day, capturing the meandering actions of a large cast of characters as they go about their business and ends in a famous dinner party in which all the characters are present; the second part, the shortest, titled Time Passes, details the decomposition of the summer house over the course of many years, as well as the inevitable fates of the Ramseys, many of whom die in the interim; and the third section, titled The Lighthouse, depicts Mr. Ramsey, his children, now grown, James and Cam, and their excursion, finally, to the lighthouse, as well as the painter Lily Briscoe who remains on the shore painting the picture for which since the beginning of the novel has struggled to “find her vision.”

I had initially read this one back in 2020, and I remember struggling through it. It was only upon a second reading, and the discussions of it in one of my classes, that I was able to fully grasp its magnificence, beauty, and importance. This is truly one of the greatest novels ever written. What Woolf accomplishes–in her masterful description, virtuosic sense of form, merging narrator and character, consciousness into other consciousnesses, while meditating and commentating on the nature and role of art, philosophy, time, family, war, love, and death–is nothing short of revolutionary. The novel is less a novel than it is a ‘verbal painting’ of sorts. Like her cubist contemporaries, Woolf employs a new style of form which strives to paint life in fragments and then tying those fragments together to capture the transience and changeability which time keeps constantly in flux. And that she manages to attain such a feat with artistic elegance, true literary brilliance, is and continues to be more than I can comprehend. This is a novel that has had an incredible impact on me, not just from a writer’s or reader’s standpoint, but as an individual, a human, trying to understand the impenetrable mechanisms of reality, of life. It is a masterpiece that stands alone, and one that I will consistently revisit time and time again.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

This 1979 third novel by American writer and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick is a short, autobiographical story of an intelligent aspiring writer and teacher living in NYC during the seventies. This short novel is a mosaic of fragmented anecdotes, spanning from romantic liaisons to cultural and political commentary, traveling from place to place, all the while interweaving detail into miraculous detail, merging fiction and fact, the external and the internal, reflection and introspection. It is a beautiful portrait of a complicated woman’s life, imbued with the realism, and surrealism, of search for meaning amid a world seemingly devoid of it.

Joan Didion called it “an extraordinary and haunting book. The result is less a ‘story about’ or ‘of’ life than a shattered meditation on it”; Susan Sontag wrote that “Sleepless Nights–a novel of mental weather–enchants by the scrupulousness and zip of the narrative voice, its lithe, semi-staccato descriptions and epigrammatic dash”; and Lauren Groff called the short book “brilliant, brittle and strange.” I add these quotes because they seem to capture the phantasmagoric, intellectual quality that pervades Hardwick’s prose much better than any metaphor I could come up with. Alas, the heart is not a metaphor, or at least not always a metaphor. This was a strange, dream-like short novel that explores the enigmatic nature of memory, time, existence, and search for meaning, across a litany of different situations. At its core, it a poetic tapestry, threaded together by the inner thoughts of a highly intelligent woman, meshed together in stream of consciousness, the colors the magnificent metaphors and description of who is doubtless one of the best and underestimated writers of the 20th century.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

This 1987 third novel by English writer (and one of my favorites) Ian McEwan is a tragically beautiful exploration of love and relationship, time and the human condition, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Stephen Lewis, an ‘accidental’ author of children’s books, lives in London with his wife Julie, a music professor, and their three-year-old daughter Kate. The novel opens with a flashback to Stephen and Kate taking a routine trip to the supermarket, but horror strikes as Kate is abducted in plain sight and is never seen again. Succumbing to unfathomable grief, Stephen and Julie separate, Julie moving into a countryside care facility for the mentally disturbed, and Stephen’s life begins to spiral out of control. He is on the Parliamentary board of childcare, one of the few aspects of his life that gives him any sense of purpose; he befriends a young publisher-turned-politician named Charles Darke who, with his wife Thelma, provide some sense of sociability for Stephen; but beyond that, the only solace he finds is in a bottle of scotch and watching the Olympics on his couch, for months and months on end. What unfolds is a fascinating, upward journey into finding acceptance, coming to terms with the circumstances which for three years have confined his life to nothing but sorrow and guilt. But imbued in such a journey is a multilayered story of corruption, madness, and death.

It was the second McEwan novel I’ve read this year, and blitzing through it, unable to pull myself away, it likely will not be the last. This novel is nothing short of incredible. McEwan, in his brilliant prose, effortlessly seizes the reader and pulls them through every stage of grief, from unthinkable sorrow to surprising acceptance, all the while painting the complications of marriage, mental health, work, and childhood, and time. Each chapter is a wave of emotion, swelling from the experiences of childhood, the innocence, the ease, the beauty in the moments that form memory, to the horrors of grief, the interminably incapacitation and leveling inflicted by loss and the irreparable consequences which seep into the everyday, pushing loved ones farther and farther apart. And yet, the story grows, characters grow, tensions rise, and just when things seem about to fall again, hope and inspiration crest in powerfully-crafted moments of triumph, stamping the guilt and despair that threaten to overwhelm, overpower, conquer. The novel is a searing exploration of the intricate spectrum of emotion, and with a cast of strange and complicated characters, it was a truly entertaining read. McEwan is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

This 1929 third play by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett is a wildly bizarre, tragically comical, experimental story of two men, Vladimir and Estragon, stuck in barren wasteland, awaiting the arrival of a mysterious man named Godot. The two men talk and talk and argue and talk, leaping from religious anecdotes, jokes and jovial chattering, to arguments and debates, fights, to existential questioning, and constant contemplations of suicide. When suddenly, a large, boisterous gentleman by the name of Pozzo wanders onto the scene, a hunched-over, waddling slave named Lucky carrying his luggage in tow, the four men engage in what is arguably one of the strangest and befuddling interactions in the history of the modern stage. And after they leave, the two men are left to ponder their existence yet again, to question the futility of their waiting yet again, and again and again, for the mysterious Godot never comes.

It has been hailed as one of the most significant English language plays of the 20th century as well as one of the greatest works of literary modernism. The play’s experimental form–its setting stagnant and bare and purgatorial, the characters few, the dialogue ranging from one- or two-word lines to pages of undecipherable stream of consciousness, and imbued with complex, esoteric allusions–inspires a litany of interpretations which span from religious, philosophical, existential, to psychoanalytical, biographical, sociological, and martial. And yet, despite the overwhelming confusion the play tends to invoke, it is still incredibly entertaining; in its overt absurdity, there is something universal, something which reveals the invisible, nonsensical machinations of the human condition. Indeed, the term nonsensical seems an apt term to describe not just the questions and themes the play inspires, but even the play itself.

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

This 1953 book is a collection of diary entries written by Virginia Woolf from 1918 to 1941, the last entry dated three weeks before Woolf’s death. Collected and compiled by her husband Leonard Woolf, the entries capture everything from details of her bedroom, the view from her window, small conversations with her friends at breakfast, excursions to the countryside, the struggle and turmoil of crafting a novel, a short story, a critical essay, a book review, even a diary entry itself, to descriptions of her family, her close correspondence with her sister Vanessa Bell, to her houses, to her growing success as a burgeoning literary celebrity, to the innumerable novels she read and her critical thoughts about them, and to the emotional introspection of a woman teeming with incomparable intelligence and debilitating mental illness. Written in a prose which differs from her works of fiction, but which retains Woolf’s signature craftsmanship, a meticulous eye for detail and astoundingly beautiful metaphors, it is an astonishing glimpse into the mind of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

I had initially picked up the book as supplementary reading for To the Lighthouse, expecting to gain a bit of insight into Woolf’s process writing the novel, how she found inspiration, how she molded the Ramseys off her own family, what the reception was like after its publication, etc. Safe to say I found a little more than just some mere contextual information – I found a side of a novelist, an intimate and personal side, which captured the quotidian details of her life and imbued them with intelligence, emotion, and empathy, transforming the mundane into the entrancing. I found her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences and perspectives, the world through her eyes. And it was beautiful and exciting. Woolf was a prolific writer, not just in the art, but in the act; she kept diaries for the majority of her life, wrote and sold countless book reviews and critical essays, and penned something like four thousand letters throughout the course of her life–to her family, her friends, and her lover Vita Sackville-West. Unfolding in her entries are the moments that defined her life, her private world filled with anguish, triumph, and vision, and the memories of an incredible writer which will long endure through the years to come.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This 2013 third novel by Nigerian-American novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is at once a brilliant story of migration, love, and education as well as a searing exploration of the intersection of race, gender, class, and culture. The story follows two characters: Ifemelu, a young, intelligent and ambitious woman who, in the pursuit of education and opportunity, emigrates from her native Nigeria to the United States; and Obinze, Ifemelu’s sweetheart from college, who, also in the pursuit of experience and opportunity, emigrates to England. America, despite Ifemelu’s academic success, proves to be a world difficult to navigate–she falls into poverty, faces unspeakable trauma in her attempt to make ends meet, and falls into a depression; and amid such battles, Ifemelu, too, must grapple with what it means to be black in a culture defined by whiteness. Obinze faces similar challenges in England, having to brave the perilous waters of being an undocumented immigrant, fearing every day that he might be deported. As their parallel journeys unfold, the inextricable forces which bind them together–memory, culture, family, and love–pull them closer and closer, until their separate trajectories merge again, culminating in a beautiful, moving reunion, this time in their beloved home country of Nigeria. It is a sweeping epic of race, identity, loss and love, a remarkable novel that paints in exquisite, powerful detail the voices and stories which society and the systems that govern have so long striven to suppress and silence.

The novel won the 2013 US National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the 2014 UK Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction. About the novel, author Dave Eggers wrote, “A very funny, very warm and moving intergenerational epic that confirms Adichie’s virtuosity.” Adichie’s novel is a powerful, moving, masterful work of realism which paints in meticulous detail the black experience amid white-dominated culture. Adichie, drawing upon her own life and experiences and writing with unwavering conviction, intelligence, emotion, and power, explores the intricacies centered in the intersection of race, class, gender, and the American Dream, painting at once the heart-wrenching struggles and heart-lifting triumphs which define her personal experience. And these she captures in her elegant prose, drifting from searing description to insight and introspection, leaping across a large cast of characters to encapsulate their individual perspectives and painting the complex relations therein. Also, she imbues blog posts throughout the narrative–Ifemelu run a blog wherein she writes about race relations in the American experience–which elevate the novel into a light of contemporary social commentary. Adichie’s novel is a powerful, significant work, a must-read for everyone, as it depicts and excavates some of the most important issues that pervade social, political, and cultural affairs today. And it is also a truly wonderful novel about love, family, success, and friendship, the forces that endure, an entertaining and beautiful work by one of the most important contemporary writers today. After this one, I cannot wait to dive into more of Adichie’s work; she is truly a magnificent writer.

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht

This 1939 thirty-fourth play by German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht is dramatic commentary and exploration of the horrors of war. Set during the early 17th century, as The Thirty Years’ War ravages across Europe, the play follows Anna Fierling, “Mother Courage,” who with her children–two boys, Eilif and Swiss, and a deaf/mute daughter named Kattrin–pushes along a wagon and selling various wares and goods to soldiers and peasants across the land. The wagon is Mother Courage’s sole source of income, and because the majority of her customers come from the military, the war helps keep her business afloat; the war helps her survive. However, as the war rages on, Eilif and Swiss are recruited into the army, and Mother Courage, with the help of a chaplain, a cook, and Kattrin, must fend for her own. Faced with unspeakable hardship, the death of her sons, and ever-present, impending threats of war and peace, Mother Courage, with incredible determination, endures and persists, living each day more to push along her wagon onward to the next battle.

The play, like Waiting for Godot (and interestingly, Beckett was heavily influenced by Brecht), is considered by many to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century and one of the greatest anti-war plays of all time. It is a play which inspires a number of interpretations; Marxism, religion, motherhood, silence, virtue, capitulation–all have their place in Brecht’s work. And Brecht broaches each topic with an unwavering critique of character which thwarts sympathy and compassion. At the heart of his play is the ambiguously complex intersection of survival and complacency–how should a person act against the imposing forces of war and a broken economic system that strips away all morality, agency, and virtue? Brecht was influenced by the German expressionists, and his play, too, parodies the tradition of the “morality play,” subverting the inherent virtues and painting them in the context of war, a part of the burgeoning movement of the “epic theater” which emerged as a response to the current political upheaval of the early 20th century. The play is deeply instructional, often classified as a work of Lehrstücke, containing certain moral lessons and social critiques which, in turn, work to elevate the play’s status as an important piece of modernism. It was certainly an interesting read, simultaneously fascinating and shocking, and doubtless one I’ll read again.

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