Books discussed in this blog entry and its accompanying podcast: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, by Oliver Burkeman, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway by Robin Black.
What follows is the text of the podcast–with the omission of the short reading from Woolf. Go directly to the podcast here.
Hey there! Welcome back after the longest break in the history of this project, to the Book I Read podcast with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy—who, still, if you can believe such a thing, happens to be me—a podcast where I talk about books, mostly, reading, generally, writing, listening sometimes, teaching and learning every now and then. Oh my, for those of you paying attention, I apologize for my long absence. As you may know, my life has gone through a wonderful but frightening little transition, and here it is: I have retired from a career in Public Education in the great state of Oregon. This school year, and this decision, turned out to be, to put it mildly, taxing—My first month and a half after retirement, I read nothing and I wrote little. After the last half of my last school year in a public high school, where the pace was frantic and exhausting and I had no time for reading and writing, in my first month of what would otherwise be a normal summer break, I couldn’t just bust right into to anything that required the full attention or brainpower that reading and writing require. As much as I desired to do those things, I needed a full stop. I needed to do chores around the house. I needed to water the plants. I needed to plan a home improvement project. I needed to lazy about. I needed the time to do these things without considering anything more serious than walking the dogs and cheering from a distance at my son’s progress in a touring drum and bugle corps. August rolls around and I feel the itch, the compulsion, the inspiration, and have the TIME to joyfully “hit the books,” as they say. Oddly, everything I chose had serendipitous connection to my immediate concerns and interests: what to do with all this TIME.
So today, in an episode appropriately titled Time Is Not on Your Side, I’m going to talk about the first four books that cross my path in the summer of 2022: Four Thousand Weeks (Time Management for Mortals) by Oliver Burkeman, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway by Robin Black.
It’s a lot to tackle, I know, but I intend to speak about the first two books on this list in relatively short order—not because they weren’t brilliant and profound and beautiful and worth going on and on about, but rather, to give sufficient attention to the Virginia Woolf and Robin Black project—two books that maybe deserve more attention because neither happens to be on the New York Times Best Seller list at the moment. Not that my attention may put them there—only that it might encourage a few more readers!
In an epic pushback to all the self-help literature out there about effective time management, Oliver Burkeman has written the ultimate anti-time management self-help book in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, where he argues against optimizing productivity, against thinking about time as a “resource,” and against the neurotic push in 21st century American culture to maximize our use of time in such a way that everything gets done, all our goals are met, and time is never wasted—all bullshitty, futile endeavors, he argues, hilariously sometimes, and convincingly. He posits that human beings would be happier and much better off, rather than trying desperately to make the most of our time, if we understood and came to grips with how finite that time actually is; after all, four thousand weeks—that’s all we got—if we are lucky. Burkeman draws from history, philosophy, psychology, world religions, poetry, and his own experiences to make his case. And I hope what follows does not feel too much like spoiling the ending—but at the book’s conclusion, Burkeman gives us a series of questions to answer for ourselves in the effort to manage our time while remembering that 1., time is finite and we will die, and 2., time doesn’t really belong to us in the first place. I’m just gonna read these questions verbatim—and you can pause in between if you like to ponder over a response or to write them down for later—and to avoid a complete spoiler—I’ll just read the questions and leave off the way in which he follows up with a piece of wisdom or advice. Here they are:
- Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
- Are you holding yourself to, or judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
- In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
- How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition.
These are big questions—the philosophy or wisdom of which is really contained within the question if you just think about it for a little bit. There is an implied course that’s recommended here. As I worked my final days in a profession at which I labored for 32 years and found myself suddenly with time on my hands, so to speak, this may have been one of the most important books to have encountered at this moment in my life.
And keeping with this time motif: here’s another reality. The time that we have with our parents is limited. It is more likely than not that in our lifetime our parents will die—so the questions, the profound questions that Michelle Zauner asks in her best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart, are these: How does one deal with that grief, especially as an only child? How do we take care in the process of losing a parent? How do we deal with the shortcomings of the way we appreciated, connected to, or understood our parents throughout our lives with them? And finally, how do we honor them once they have passed?
As a young person, a teenager and young adult, Michelle Zauner’s relationship with her mother was fraught—and it took her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer to eventually teach Zauner about why her mother mothered in her particular way, what that ultimately meant to her, how it shaped her, and finally, how crucial and soul-giving it was to reestablish and enrich a relationship with her mother and her mother’s family and culture, even as she nursed her through her illness and ultimately her death.
The story of children eventually losing parents is an ancient one—almost everybody on the planet experiences it—so a memoir about the death of a parent runs the risk, perhaps, of being almost pedestrian, too common, and as horrible as it is to experience, not especially compelling to read about. I remember in my first college level writing classes, my professors talked dismissively about what they called “The Disease of the Week” story—the kind of tale that manipulates the reader’s emotions through the clichéd details about a tragic illness– In my humble opinion, Zauner seems to absolutely sidestep all of these dangers. And here’s another writing lesson I gleaned early on and cannot forget—in great specificity of detail comes universality. The more precisely and singularly you draw your characters and your narrative, the more likely you are to connect with readers. And the motif that threads its way through Crying in H Mart is Zauner’s precise attention to Korean food—shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it, ordering it, eating it—it turns out to be the key strategy Zauner employs to answer those gigantic questions—Korean food is a vehicle of discovery, healing, connection, forgiveness, and love. And its description throughout is voluminous and joyful and specific. I knew nothing about the various dishes she names and describes—but it didn’t matter; the details carry such authenticity and authority—and the way in which the food operated on, unified, and uplifted the most important aspects of this relationship and this loss—I found profound and moving.
You may know this, but Michelle Zauner is a bonafide rock star. She performs in a rock band called Japanese Breakfast and she has become deservingly successful in this arena. I have the sense that this book was being written and perhaps even on the road to publication while she was still a struggling musician. That’s a key aspect of her identity, but one of the other things that I appreciated about this memoir is the way that it never paid too much attention to that “struggling artist” aspect—this memoir has laser-like focus on its subject and resists emphasizing the rock and roll lifestyle—thankfully, because that would have wrecked it, I think.
I love this book. It’s deserving of the accolades.
And now for something completely different.
I have had a love of modernist fiction writer Virginia Woolf since the first time I laid eyes on her work. I was a junior in college after years of being only a mildly enthusiastic reader. Finally, I caught the literature bug. I was assigned Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in an undergraduate literature course. I read at the very tail end of my teens and by choice A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway. I credit without hesitation my identification as a feminist to Virginia Woolf. And then, decades later, as I am developing with a colleague the selections for the literature curriculum in a newly minted International Baccalaureate school, I felt compelled to make Woolf part of the program. So, for the last 15 years or so, I have taught the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own to group after group of high school seniors. As a way of making sure students had at least a little taste of what Woolf’s fiction is like, it was my practice to make sure that by the end of the unit we had sampled the opening passage from Mrs. Dalloway. It turns out that, in this last year, as I was teaching A Room of One’s Own perhaps for the last time in my life, I learned about a book written by Robin Black, a fellow graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers—and this book is called Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and it is published in a series of books called “Bookmarked” put out by IG Publishing, which I assumed (similarly, to the musical counterpart series called 33 1/3 RPM), are books that reveal a writer’s personal and critical take on a beloved piece of literature—a kind of hybrid between memoir and literary criticism. And so I was inspired to reread in its entirety Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and follow that up with Robin Black’s Virginal Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Let’s start with a little crash course on Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway (published in 1925) is a modernist novel with the special distinction of being one of only two novels from this era (that I am aware of), in which the entirety of its action/story/plot takes place on a single calendar day—less than a 24 hour period—in a single, specified location. There’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, set on June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland. And then there’s Mrs. Dalloway, also set in June, but on an unspecified date in 1923 in the Westminster area of London, England. This here, is a very particular way of thinking about time and whether it is or is not on one’s side: reading Mrs. Dalloway takes longer, perhaps, then the time period it encompasses—unless, and you’d be a very brave and committed soul to do this, you read it straight through in one sitting—a thing that I have never been able to do. The average unabridged audio version of this novel takes about nine hours. And in the reading of it, Big Ben serves as the marking by which the characters keep track of the time, chiming, as it does, every 15 minutes—in the novel it’s heard chiming on a pretty regular basis and serves as a persistent guest, almost a kind of character—“Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical, then the hour, irrevocable” is a sentence that appears in almost identical form on page one and on page 117.
One of the distinctions of the modernist novel is what one might call a “loose” focus on plot. The modernist writer was less interested in the artifice of storytelling than they were in attempting to capture the reality of what it feels like and what it means to be alive and human. So, it’s cheeky, yeah, but the plot of Ulysses might be described as people waking up and doing things until they go to bed, about 800 pages of that. Less cheekily, but almost as condensed, the plot of Mrs. Dalloway might be described this way: On a day in June in the year 1923, Clarrissa Dalloway is preparing for and then hosting a party.
Virginia Woolf’s third person omniscient narrator operates like a kind of mind-reading drone—in that, she seems to fly—and, while she flies, she tells us in exceedingly brief little shots what people are doing—walking, shopping, looking out windows, putting on or pulling off boots, riding busses, eating a meal in a restaurant, having conversations with other characters, having a party; she makes in greater detail observations about particular collective scenes—the look and reaction of a neighborhood, for example, in response first to a backfiring car followed by the sighting of a famous individual who may or may not have been in said car; but she (our 3rd person omniscient) spends most of her time, again, like a mind-reading drone, cataloguing the thoughts, moment by moment, of a number of characters living in Westminster—some connected to Clarrissa Dalloway (acquaintances, her husband, her daughter, her daughter’s tutor, a former lover, folks who might attend her party), and some connected perhaps only in so far as their paths cross at some point during this day, either physically and/or through some kind of other connective thread—most notably, a doctor who attends Clarissa’s party has been treating a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (or shell shock), a man, Septimus Smith, that Clarissa has never met, who, nevertheless, is a significant part of this novel’s arch, it’s conclusion, and its core thematic thrust, as news of his suicide reaches Clarissa’s party.
The lack of a conventional plot line, coupled with the way in which the reader is allowed deep into the thoughts of characters, sometimes one right after another with only subtle transitional cues, not to mention the density of the text (the sentences are long, and there are no chapter breaks and only a handful of double spaces between paragraphs): these things make Mrs. Dalloway a difficult, challenging read—and yet, when readers allow themselves to be fully immersed, to savor the incredible fireworks in the language, to fully engage in the psychological reality of these characters, the experience is rich and rewarding and moving.
(A reading of the opening passage of Mrs. Dalloway can be heard in the podcast)
I have only read this novel in full a couple of times—three times tops over decades. But Robin Black, for her entry into the “Bookmarked” series, has apparently read it a boat-load of times, the first time when she was a graduate student at Warren Wilson some 20 plus years ago, and then perhaps again and again over the year or so in which she was working on this book, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The result is, again, a kind of hybrid between literary criticism, in particular a study of the novel’s craft, and straight up memoir—the narrative of Black’s first excursion in the novel, her initial response, her repeated readings, but most poignantly, her various and visceral personal connections to the text. It is unlike any book about a book I have ever read.
It’s focus, clocking in a number of pages just slightly below Woolf’s relatively short novel, tightly zeros in on several distinct ideas: her early adoration and developing appreciation of Woolf, coupled with an emerging understanding of the parallels between Black’s life, her family life, her struggles with ADD, and Virginia Woolf and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. She does a brilliant and exceedingly close reading of a single paragraph, in which Clarissa Dalloway’s concerns about the appropriateness of her hat is used as a springboard for a deep discussion of character, and in this moment, for Robin Black, how Clarissa Dalloway comes to life for the first time, as she “jumps off the page,” as they say. Next, a brilliant discussion of the possible interpretation that Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway are literary “doubles” and a full exploration of those implications. There is an eye-opening and revelatory discussion of the strategy Virginia Woolf and some other modernist writers are perhaps most famous for, the point of view choice known as “stream of consciousness.” And there is a revealing, very personal, and at times hilarious exploration of the “juggernaut” of MOTHERHOOD, in all caps, in her own work and in the novel Mrs. Dalloway. The book ends unexpectedly, joyfully, and quite playfully with a letter from Robin Black to the character of Clarrissa Dalloway.
There are many things to love about this book. Let me just provide a little list.
- I love the author’s absolute humility in the face of this difficult novel: “One of the beauties of this novel,” she writes, “is that no matter how much one studies it, it is impossible to master. In fact, the more I immerse myself in it, the less I believe it subject to complete understanding at all.” Robin Black has deliberately stayed clear of the volumes of scholarly criticism that already exists for this novel, and chooses to write, she says, as a fiction reader who is also a fiction writer, about her experience with the book, understanding full well that other readers may have completely different experiences and interpretations. She does not for a moment pretend to be an authority.
- I love this description of the relationship involved in the writing/reading endeavor: “The relationship between author, book, and reader is a peculiar one, a creative collaboration between strangers. . . . My imagination, that of any writer, cannot be transferred intact to the imagination of the reader. . . Being an author requires that one let go of the controls.” So many times I think my students have wished that an author could be in the room to clarify their intentions, to clarify their imagination. The author has let go of the controls. All we have is our minds, our experiences, the help of other readers, and the text.
- I love how deftly and economically she delivers perhaps the best explication I have seen about what Mrs. Dalloway is “about.” Beyond the obscenely condensed and minimal description of the book’s plot that I’ve provided, Black writes: “At a slightly deeper level, Mrs. Dalloway is about British society, and the devastating impact of the War, both on the nation as a whole and on individuals. It is about the convention, benefits, and limitations of marriage. It is also about the failures of the medical profession to treat mental illness effectively or humanely. It is about the roles into which women are pressed by societal expectations. And it is about the degree to which romantic and erotic feelings toward members of one’s own gender are forcibly, even violently, written out of society’s narrative.”
- I love her expansive look at the stream of consciousness concept, her nuanced appreciation of how Woolf takes us inside a character’s mind, but how she “passes the baton of consciousness” from one character to another, a “triangulation of consciousness,” but also creates in several scenes what appears to be a kind of shared consciousness or collective consciousness—which is a thing, you know—and Woolf may have been on to it before anyone else writing fiction during her time or before. Robin Black’s studies reveals afresh the extent of Woolf’s genius.
- But Woolf is not beyond reproach—I love her confession about how bored she is by the passages that feature Elizabeth Dalloway, Clarissa’s daughter. But even then—Black is able to transcend her own initial reaction to discovering what Woolf is up to—why she does what she does. Which illustrates beautifully something that I tried over and over to convey to my students about how to approach with humility the things in a literary work that they don’t like or understand. Yeah—I don’t like it, but it is my job to see if I can figure out why it’s here—why the author made that choice.
- I love how vulnerable and honest the author is about her own life—and how deeply and thoughtfully those experiences illuminate further aspects of the subject and themes of Woolf’s novel—in particular, how her struggles with ADD, her experiences as a mother, her experiences as a late blooming writer after years of being somewhat trapped by unresolved, misunderstood, and crippling issues with her father—all these things helped her understand Mrs. Dalloway more deeply—and conversely, Mrs. Dalloway facilitated a deeper understand for her of her own inner life.
- I love the letter at the end from Robin Black to Clarissa Dalloway–
- I love the humor here and the joy even while discussing some of the most difficult of subjects. When was the last time you laughed out loud reading literary criticism? See? I laughed out loud on a number of occasions.
- Finally, I love the fact that her experience in the MFA program at Warren Wilson germinated and continued to nurture the development of this book and her life’s work as an artist—the program has done similar things for me—Robin Black’s book is a testament to the power of this most profound learning opportunity and privilege.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my 9th episode, the first episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I read. Hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned for episode 10 where—I think—I’m gonna take a dive into the spooky—we’re gonna talk about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—and more specifically, novels written inspired by Frankenstein—one of which, is MY OWN—the other of which, Unwieldy Creatures, by Addie Tsai, was just released into the world! It’s going to be fun.
Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I made, please visit michaeljarmer.com or herecomeseverybody.com to read, listen, subscribe and support. I’d also appreciate your monthly support at anchor.fm for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor. You can find my novel Monster Talk at Powells.com, amazon.com, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books on line, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of any of the books I’ve mentioned here in my podcast today, please, and maybe check out this new website that works to support local book stores called bookshop.org. It’s a groovy idea and an excellent store.
Thank you so much for tuning in (or reading). So long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers.