Jun 14, 2009

The Sunday Salon - Stuff I've Been Reading

The Sunday Salon.com

Hello everyone. Because the next two weeks are going to be busy ones, you probably won’t see me posting as much as I usually do. I did manage to write my thoughts on two fantastic books, What I was by Meg Rosoff and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, but that’s all I have lined up.

So I thought I’d use today’s Sunday Salon to tell you briefly about a few great books I've read recently. I worried that when I finally found the time to write about them properly, I would have forgotten much of what I wanted to say. And plus I have to return some of them to the library.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

I'll start with The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle. I wasn’t going to tell you about these two because I have to write a final essay on them, and when that’s the case it makes sense for me to save my must-write-about-awesome-books energy for that. But I really want to share my newfound love for Roddy Doyle. I enjoyed these so much more than paddy clarke ha ha ha —and I liked paddy clarke ha ha ha a lot.

Paula Spencer is the protagonist of both of these novels. The first is told in the first person, and it’s the story of her marriage to Charles Spencer. The second takes place ten years later, when she is forty-eight, and finally recovering from her drinking problem. While I’m not sure if I would exactly call Paula an unreliable narrator, it’s obvious from the very start of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors that she’s editing her memories, both about her marriage and about her childhood. But as the story progresses, the excuses she's makin begin to sound hollow even to herself, and the truth begins to surface in a process that is just so powerful, and so moving.

And what’s the truth, you ask? The truth is a story of alcoholism, poverty and absolutely horrifying domestic violence. Paula’s story broke my heart over and over again, but by the end of the book—of both books—I didn’t pity her, I respected her. You know when you feel that an author has a deep respect for his characters? That’s what I felt when reading these books. Her story is told with concern, tenderness and unwavering honesty. I can see Roddy Doyle becoming one of my favourite authors yet.

frumiousb asked: I had some doubts about The Woman Who Walked Into Walls, but I'm told by many friends that Paula Spencer completes the first in a really good way. Was that also your experience?

I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, it was. I enjoyed (probably not the right word, but you know what I mean) The Woman Who Walked Into Walls more, but Paula Spencer really added to my appreciation of it. It made Paula seem more real. We get to see her in different contexts, being other things, playing other roles, and that allowed me to look back on the first book and not see her as a woman who is defined by the violent acts that are done to her.

A quote:
Where I grew up—and probably everywhere else—you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl—and usually before you were thirteen. You didn’t have to do anything to be a slut. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair; if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara. I had to go back up to the bathroom and take it off. My tears had ruined it anyway.
Suffer and be Still: Women in the Victorian AgeSuffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, edited by Martha Vicinus, is a collection of essays about—you guessed it—women in the Victorian age. I blame Sarah Waters for my recent need to read more and more books on this topic. This one was published in 1972, and judging from the introduction, which mentions a lack of research in this area, it was one of the very first. Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and there are now several other books on Victorian women I plan on seeking out.

These essays cover topics such as Victorian governesses, prostitution and venereal diseases, the lives of working class women, stereotypes of femininity, Victorian women and menstruation, John Ruskin and John Stuart Mill’s debates over The Question of Womanhood, portrayals of women in Victorian paintings, and transvestism in the theatre (which I thought was particularly fascinating, possibly because I knew nothing about the subject before).

The essays are scholarly but still very accessible, detailed but never dense. Some of them covered topics I was already familiar with, either by reading about them directly or by picking things up while reading fiction from or about this period. But they were fun to read all the same.

Dreamybee asked: In Suffer and Be Still did you see mention of anything that made you think, "Hmph...afraid that hasn't changed much!" or anything to that effect?

I did, yes. The sexual double-standard, for example. Also, many of the Victorian stereotypes of femininity (women as supposedly milder, gentler, purer, sweeter) are will alive and well today. And the way female sexuality is still demonized by some. Of course, if women transgress against these rules, the consequences are now different – we aren’t sent off to lunatic asylums quite so easily these days. Today disapproval is expressed more subtly, in most of the Western world at least, but that doesn’t mean it’s not done harmfully still.

A quote from the introduction:
…the told ideal of the Victorian lady has been replaced by new and equally potent models condemning women to a less than equal position in society. These chapters document the feminine stereotypes women struggled against a hundred years ago, but only partially defeated. They should serve as a reminder not only of the distance women have travelled, but of the miles yet to go.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadAnd finally, I'll tell you about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This one is Lu’s fault, for saying “you must read this play.” I have to confess that this whole reading plays for fun thing is a bit new to me, but then again, a few years ago I didn’t read non-fiction for fun either, and before that, I didn’t really read short stories. I’m all for introducing a bit of novelty into my reading habits, so I'm pleased with this new development.

Anyway, as you can tell from the title, this is a story that takes place around the plot of Hamlet. It takes Hamlet’s two treacherous childhood friends, who are secondary characters in the original play, and gives them the spotlight. You can see the plot of Hamlet happening in the background, but on the whole, not much is actually going on. The focus of the play is mostly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s musings and conversations. The result is really really good, and also really funny.

Funny, of course, is not the opposite of serious, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is both. The language is playful, and they have hilarious conversations about nothing much, which they follow by saying some very serious things about, well, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Ros: (…) Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
Guil: No.
Res: Nor do I, really… it’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead... which should make a difference... shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air—you'd wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That's the bit I don't like, frankly. That's why I don't think of it....
Guil: No, no, no...you've got it all wrong... you can't act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen—it's not gasps and blood and falling about—that isn't what makes it death. It's just a man failing to reappear, that's all—now you see him, now you don't, that's the only thing that's real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back—an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.
I really loved this last bit. But these might make the play sound bleaker than it is. It’s funny, I promise, though I guess a lot of it is black humour. Which is a good thing, right? I’ve heard that the movie version is also very good. Has anyone watched it?

Also, in this spirit of this week’s Weekly Geeks, if you’d like to know more about any of these books, feel free to ask me questions. I’ll update the post to include the answers.

One last thing: Fairy tale lovers who enjoy writing might be interested in this writing contest at the fabulous Diamonds & Toads blog. The goal is to retell "Sleeping Beauty" in 1000 words or less, and the deadline is July 31st. The winner will get a one of a kind fairy tale themed box by an Etsy artist. It's open to US residents only, I'm afraid. Please click the link for more details.


  1. I had some doubts about The Woman Who Walked Into Walls, but I'm told by many friends that Paula Spencer completes the first in a really good way. Was that also your experience?

    (I read Suffer and Be Still in college, by the way. Good stuff.)

  2. Stoppard is definitely must-read material! LOL
    My first was Arcadia (for a class - I'm still so grateful for that pick!) and I absolutely love it.

  3. Oh yes, the Stoppard is an excellent play. It's a good one for reading and if staged well it is just awesome. I recall quite liking the movie version, but I'd love to see it again, since I can't remember much of it (that's not anything against its goodness -- just the length of time since I've seen it).

  4. Four books to add to my wish list in one post...now is that nice, Nymeth?!! ;)

    Good luck with your finals and presentations and all! I'll be thinking about you!

  5. Oh, I loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. I read it in high school and one of our university theater groups put it on. I'm not really one for reading plays either, I prefer to watch them, but it was awesome to do both.

  6. Infact I have a completely different Sleeping beauty poem posted on my other blog some months back. And I have also written a story around it. However, I am an Indian living in India. So can't enter. Their loss!


    TSS: Lets talk about books and related suff

  7. You have been reading some really good stuff and right now I want to read just about everything you have mentioned. Maybe not the play. I knew that the names in the title sounded familiar, but I probably never would have connected it to Shakespeare.

  8. Now you need to read the Barrytown trilogy!It's absolutely hilarious! and really grounded into Dublin's most working class area. I liked "the Commitments" and "The Van" but probably "The Snapper" is my favourite of the three.
    Now I need to read about Paula Spencer, don't I?:P

  9. I would like to know if you can recommend some easily read non.fiction books on Victorian Women?

  10. I'm looking forward to reading your review about The Knife of Never Letting Go.

  11. I am so glad you wrote about The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Paula Spencer. I am hooked by your review. I have not heard about this author, and if it weren't for your post I would not know about these two books.
    They sound awesome. I definitely will be putting them in my shopping cart. I just might head to the bookstore today.
    Also, since I am a historian, women roles in America throughout our history fascinate me. Thanks for the recommendation for the book of essays. Another shopping cart add.
    Have a great week.

  12. I remember loving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; read it in college, I believe. It's still on my shelf, I'll re-read it someday. I remember laughing a bunch while reading it.

    I actually enjoy reading plays. I think of them not really as different from fiction generally. (Maybe that's my brief background with the stage coming through?)

  13. I'm so pleased you read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern - I love Tom Stoppard. I did see the movie a good long while ago, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. They were both very good, but I felt the movie was lacking something essential. Watch it though; I'd like to have someone else's opinion on it.

    And, er, not to be bossy, but read Arcadia next! It's very wonderful! It's about people in the past trying to understand the future, and people in the present day trying to understand the past.

  14. I have read a couple Roddy Doyle books before but not these. A Star Named Henry and Oh, Play That Thing are both really good.

    The two you have sound good as well.

  15. I haven't ever read any Roddy Doyle books. I have only ever seen Paddy Clark Ha Ha around. I shall definitely look out for these,even though they sound quite harrowing.
    Hope you get some time to chill out over the next couple of weeks.

  16. i have to get my paws on RaGAD...i read hamlet each year with my seniors and maybe this could be an additional facet to add to my arsenal of outside reading material! thanks for the tip. :)

  17. Spencer sounds like something for our women's group. I talk a lot about the girls at AFG, but we have outreach for adult women and recently they asked about regularly using the library. Thanks for the heads up.

  18. I haven't read any of these and now I really want to put Doyle and Stoppard on my list.Good luck with school.

  19. I haven't read any of Roddy Doyle's books and from your initial description I wasn't sure I wanted to but you say you ended up liking them so on to the TBR list they go.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern", Stoppard is brilliant. See the movie if you get the chance...

  20. Roddy Doyle - another author I must get around to. I've been wanting to read the Commitments trilogy forever it seems.

  21. Stoppard is amazing, and ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is one of my very favourite plays. I actually did the first bit you quoted as a monologue for an exhibition performance during my last year of high school. I don't think many people got it, but one guy did seek me out afterwards for an interesting conversation about the play's themes.

  22. I wish I could read plays for fun! :) Maybe I'll try out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

  23. My husband absolutely adores Roddy Doyle. Now you're making me want to explore his work, too. That must be a good sign. I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at some point, but I remember absolutely nothing about it. I need to re-read that one for sure.

  24. I haven't heard of Roddy Doyle, so awesome...I'll have to check these out! Thanks for sharing!

  25. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern! I actually saw the film before I read the play- and it's pretty funny, very well done.

  26. I've seen the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but havent' read the play yet. And I haven't read much Roddy Doyle, although this review is making me think I should! Really good review of his books, Nymeth.

  27. I've read The Woman Who Walked Into Doors a couple of times, and I'll definitely grab up Paula Spencer when I see it.

  28. You always find the most interesting books, Nymeth! I'll have to check them out!

    Hope everything goes well with you! :)

  29. I'll third the recommendation of Arcadia. I haven't read it but I did see a production of it in London about 15 years ago, and I loooooved it. Part of what I loved was the atmosphere that the production brought to it, but I really enjoyed the ideas that were presented in it as well.

    In Suffer and Be Still did you see mention of anything that made you think, "Hmph...afraid that hasn't changed much!" or anything to that effect?

  30. I have The Knife of Never Letting Go, but haven't read it yet, so I'll be interested to see what you think of it :)

  31. Roddy Doyle book sounds cool. I loved the passage you quoted.

  32. I liked the movie. My husband, who's also read, says the book is better. I guess the movie is trying to be all funny at the expense of those serious parts ;)

  33. I love R&G are Dead, and I must admit, you are one of the first people I've read that has mentioned this play.

  34. What an interesting collection of books in this post! I must add Roddy Doyle and Stoppard to my list. I read a play for fun for the first time earlier this year (A Doll's House by Ibsen) and wouldn't mind reading more.

  35. the Roddy Doyle books sound very good. And Suffer and Be Still sounds really interesting.
    Have a great week :O)


  36. frumiousb: That's a great question! Will update the post with an answer in a minute.

    Kathrin: I'll have to read that one next, then!

    Kiirstin: I wish I could see a performance! It must be so fun.

    Debi: Thank you! So far I've survived :P

    Meghan: I wish I could go see a play! But unfortunately there's never anything I want to see in my small town. Next time I visit the UK I must make sure I go see one.

    Guatami: I think it's due to difficulties in shipping the prize abroad. But it means I can't enter either, so I'm sad!

    Nicole: I read Manga Hamlet and then the real Hamlet recently, so it was fresh in my mind :P

    Valentina: I will! It really sounds like I'll love it. And plus my library has it, so no reason not to pick it up soon :D And yep...you do :P

    Louise: This one was actually an easy read! A few years ago I enjoyed Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question by Nicola Diane Thompson, but it's actually more academic than this one. It's also more focused on literature, though it involves social history too. One I haven't read yet is Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus, but I've heard very good things about it.

    Amanda: Now you've read it :P

    Wisteria: Something I should have mentioned about Suffer and be Still is that it only focuses on Victorian England. I'd love to read a nook about America in the Victorian age, though! I don't think I ever have. If you have any recommendations I'd love to hear them :)

    Wordlily: I think my problem with plays was, well, not having read very many and assuming I wouldn't enjoy them for no reason at all :P

    Jenny: I think I saw Arcadia at the library, so I'll definitely look for it next time!

  37. Mari: I haven't read those yet, but as I now want to read everything he's written I'll get to them at some point :P

    Scrap Girl: Paddy Clarke is really good, but I think those were even better. Harrowing, yes, but ultimately hopeful.

    booklineandsinker: Yes! I think it'd be a great addition :)

    Susan: I think these two books could be very helpful for someone who had lived through something similar, or through any kind of gendered violence, really. Especially because Doyle writes about it with such respect.

    Vasilly: Thank you! Only a few weeks to go.

    Gavin: Roddy Doyle's treatment of Paula Spencer reminded me in some ways of Margo Lanagan's treatment of Liga, so for that alone I'd recommend them to you! And yes, I'll definitely look for the movie.

    Joanne: That one sounds so good!

    Memory: That's all kinds of awesome! Definitely a great bit to do as a monologue.

    Eva: If I can, so can you :P I hope you enjoy it if you give it a go!

    Literate Housewife: Do give Doyle a try! He's seriously amazing.

    Becky: His books deal with serious topics, but they're also filled with humour. The ones I've read so far, anyway :P That's one of the things I like about him.

    Jeane: I'll definitely have to watch it!

  38. Susan, I think you'd enjoy Roddy Doyle!

    Bybee: Though I think I preferred The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, the two books compliment each other very well.

    Melody: Thanks! The last few weeks are always hard, but I'll get through them.

    Dreamybee: It sounds like something I'll love too! And your question is great. Answer coming in a minute!

    Maree: Read it, read it! I think you'd love it.

    Violet: It's so true, isn't it?

    Rebecca: Aw, that's a shame! But it still sounds worth watching.

    Trisha: Drama always gets neglected! I'm guilty of that myself, but I'm starting to realize what a pity it is.

    JoAnn: I've yet to read Ibsen, but I keep seeing his name! I'll keep A Doll's House in mind.

    Naida: thanks, you too :)

  39. So lovely that you've been bitten by the play-reading bug! Reading plays was what I enjoyed most when I was supposed to be learning the classics at university :) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorites. And Waiting for Godot. And Franny and Alexander (although that's really a screenplay). Plays are such fun to read!

  40. YAY. I'm so excited you read it and loved it :)

    My favorite quote from R&GaD is:

    "We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered."

    I've never forgotten that quote, it's stuck with me years and years later.

  41. Well, I'm sending you hugs just because I can. Good luck with all of your end of term things--be they papers or exams or just class. Hope everything goes smoothly--and then will you have a break?

    I have paddy clarke ha ha ha, but you're going to have to convince me that it is *not* like Portrait of the Artist--because I've seen it compared to Potrait and you know how I feel about Joyce. I'll need to keep my eye open for these two--and yes, I appreciate an author who has deep respect for his characters and can also instill that respect in his readers. Mind if I ask what class you're reading these books for?

  42. Love, love, love Roddy Doyle. You've just discovered him?

  43. Belle: I had a less than positive experience with Krapp's Last Tape, but I'd like to give Beckett another try, and waiting for Godot seems to be the way to go :)

    Lu: Yes! That is a lovely quote. Thanks again for the recommendation :)

    Trish: Thank you! I'll still be working until August, but not having to do both will be a welcome enough change. Anyway, about Doyle: you know how I feel about Joyce, and I loved paddy clarke. I guess both could be considered stream of consciousness, but paddy clarke is like that because it presents the breathless, rushed, somewhat jumpy voice of a child narrator, complete with childhood logic. It's not impenetrable in the least, though. And the books are for Contemporary Irish Lit.

    Bookfool: All I'd read before was paddy clarke and a few short stories. So I knew he was good, but not that he was THIS good!

  44. I read The Woman Who Walked into Doors a few years ago and didn't know there was a sequel. I'm adding it to my list. I've only read the one Roddy Doyle but it sounds like I need to read more.


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