This is a transcription of Peek Inside Virginia Woolf’s Diaries & Two New Books — 24 February 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a WWII story with an unexpected hero.
David: A real-life literary thriller.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: This week, I’m very eager to read a book called My Father’s House by Irish author Joseph O’Connor. He’s written several novels based on real Irish people, including Shadowplay. That came out in 2019 and told the story of Bram Stoker and how he found the inspiration for Dracula in his friendships at the Lyceum Theater in Victorian London.
Melissa: The action in this book takes place during WWII in Rome. It was inspired by a real-life hero — a priest named Hugh O’Flaherty. In 1943, Rome was under the boot of the Nazis. The people were starving. Rumors kept everyone terrified.
Melissa: But the Nazis were forbidden to enter Vatican City. So a small group of friends led by Monsignor O’Flaherty smuggled Jewish people and escaped Allied prisoners to safety. This book tells the story of the brave smugglers and their cat-and-mouse game with the Nazis who are trying to find them.
Melissa: To hide what they’re doing, the group of rescuers pretend to be a choir that meets one a week for rehearsal. While they discuss escape routes and fake identities, they have to speak in code. They refer to their escapees as ‘The Library’ and the individual fugitives as ‘Books.’ The Safe houses are called ‘Shelves.’
Melissa: Even though you know some of the outcome, this story is a white-knuckle ride. And it’s firmly grounded in place and time. I found a video of the author reading a passage that beautifully describes Rome, and I was hooked. I’ll link the video in show notes.
Melissa: The book is My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor, and it’s out now.
David: Mark Dawidziak is an author, but his biography sounds like I might have made him up. He’s been the TV critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for the last 20-plus years. He’s written many books, including one on Columbo and another on Kolchak the Night Stalker. He’s written a few horror stories.
David: He’s also an adjunct professor. He teaches at Kent State. One of his classes is ‘Vampires in Film and Television.’ And he’s an actor. Together with his wife, Sara Showman, they have a theater company. That was the detail that made me wonder if he was a figment of my imagination. His actress wife, Sara Showman. It sounds like my imagination just gave up. The theater company is called The Largely Literary Theater Company. They promote literacy and literature. In that company, he frequently plays Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
David: He’s got a new book out. It’s about another American author. It’s called ‘A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe.’ This book flips chapters between being a biography and a bit of a thriller. What happened to Poe, that he would die on the streets of Baltimore in ill-fitting clothes that didn’t appear to be his own?
David: Dawidziak presents the case that we might be able to figure out his death through the details of his life. Maybe Poe wasn’t what we’ve come to think – all dour and gloomy and goth. The early reviews have been good. It just came out. It’s A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: The New York Public Library is currently exhibiting Virginia Woolf: A Modern Mind. It’s the first major exhibition of her writings at the library in 30 years.
Melissa: Some highlights about Virginia Woolf to set the scene. She was born in London in 1882, which means she was a young woman during a time when the primary goal of well-bred young ladies was to keep her opinions to herself and snag a wealthy husband to take care of her. Think of Lucy Honeychurch in the novel A Room with a View or the early years of Downton Abbey.
Melissa: But she had strong ideas of her own — which you might have guessed from her most famous essay A Room of One’s Own. That’s where she wrote, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
Melissa: She was very interested in the inner lives of women — her book Mrs. Dalloway takes you inside the mind of the title character with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Virginia Woolf also saw sexuality as fluid. Her 1928 book Orlando is the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for 300 years, meeting important figures of English literature along the way.
Melissa: The New York Public Library holds one of the most important collections of Woolf’s writings, including manuscripts of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and her experimental novel The Waves.
Melissa: She wrote her books longhand in notebooks that she bound and covered herself. I’ll put a link in the show notes for a video that shows them in detail. And you can actually buy reproductions of those notebooks.
Melissa: The exhibition at the Library showcases her personal notebooks, diaries, family photographs, and unpublished letters. One of the letters in the exhibit is one she wrote to her friend Vita Sackville-West, who was the inspiration for Orlando. There are also dust jacket designs for her books that were made by her sister. And diary entries that date from 1897 until 1941. That’s the year she died by suicide.
Melissa: The exhibit’s curator said Virginia Woolf’s ‘candid diary entries about her desire to be a great writer, alongside those in which she reflects on a lifetime marked by illness, speak to a very relatable desire to be the best you can be, despite inner turmoil.’
Melissa: The exhibit is free and runs at the Library until March 5. But here’s the awesome part. As we’ve seen with the New York Public Library before… the pieces for the exhibit are all online, along with an excellent audio guide that explains the significance of each piece. So, for example, you get to hear experts discussing the book On Being Ill and its cover, designed by Virginia’s sister. And all of the diary pages are accompanied by a really lovely narration, so you can listen as you look at Virginia Woolf’s cramped, cursive, very human handwriting.
Melissa: I was particularly excited to see the draft of an essay she wrote in November 1904, when she visited the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, England.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for links to everything I mentioned about the Virginia Woolf exhibit and for more on the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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