Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What I Look for in a Book

Choosing which books to read, of the thousands if not millions of choices is an overwhelming decision. For each book I read, there are thousands that don’t make the cut. Time is precious. Until this year, I read lots of great books, but I didn’t have a plan or a method to guide my choices.

I decided to get more intentional with my selections and that begged the question, what am I looking for in a book? I ran across this post from 2006 at litblogger Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading. Scott’s focus is on modern and postmodern fiction and he reads quite a bit of work in translation (and in Spanish, for that matter). I’ve included two litblogger’s lists in their entirety (although each of the original posts has more content) because I think their criteria is interesting. Scott has some specific criteria to identify what he likes and he’s listed them in order of importance.

Ongoing Dialectics. I like to feel that the book I'm reading is a debate, not a lecture. I like to feel that I can't judge what the author's intent is until the last page, and sometimes not even then. If I think the book is becoming too obvious in what it's trying to tell me, then it becomes just a dull demonstration. I get bored. I probably won't finish it. The ideas that animate a book should be like a tightrope walker, now teetering a bit one way, now teetering a bit the other way, always forging forward on an invisible thread. Note that this debate can take many forms--debates over philosophical ideas are the most obvious, but a book could also debate any of the following: different interpretations of a character, different value systems, different interpretations of events, different approaches to constructing a narrative or conducting a life, different styles. Note also--there's no rule that there can only be one dialectic per novel.

Challenging prose. Challenging prose is interesting prose. I love feeling that an author has abandoned me to a room full of hostile words. See, for instance, the beautifully complex sentences of James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, or William Gaddis. I like feeling like I'm constantly under pressure to interpret what the wuthor is telling me. I'm also interested in challenging prose on the level of a story: see, for instance, the narratives of Kazuo Ishiguro or Manuel Puig--I love how they continually make me feel like I'm just a step away from cresting a hill, after which I can look down upon the story and finally see how it works. (Note also: this moment is inevitable, but it is also inevitably a letdown; I like it when authors delayed it as long as possible.)

Stylistic creativity/skill. I almost put these into two separate categories, but then decided I couldn't separate one from the other. Some authors tinker with form, some perfect forms that have already been invented, but either way I think it requires a good deal of creativity and skill. Regardless of whether they're tinkerers or perfecters, however, I think authors should be showing me something I haven't seen before. Imperfections in style, while unavoidable, should be rare and forgivable. Also under style comes voice, which should be strong, original, and suit the aims of the novel. However, if I feel like a book has nothing to say, or that the prose isn't interesting, then very rarely will I keep reading, despite how much stylistic creativity or skill is present.

Depth of metaphors. I love metaphors with multiple meanings, and I love it when authors can orchestrate their books so that these metaphors interact in interesting ways. I would reference the works of Haruki Murakami here, most notably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I especially love book-spanning central metaphors that become a pivot point. A caveat: this is not an invitation for limitless complexity. Obviously there's a limit to how much meaning can be loaded into a metaphor before it becomes contrived, not to mention confusing.

The book makes an attempt to embody the workings of some organism. While not a deal-breaker, this is something I look for and am interesting in. Call it a pet interest of mine. Most often, the organism observed is the human mind, but I chose the word "organism" because I didn't want to limit things a book can embody to only the human mind. For instance, Don DeLillo's narratives don't embody the workings of the human mind so much as the systems that societies are organized upon (see also Orwell, David Mitchell, Pynchon). There have also been authors who have attempted to build alien consciousnesses.

Fidelity. Authors are free to tell their stories in whatever world they choose (our own simply being the one most commonly chosen). But once they have decided on their world and the rules that govern it, authors should never break those rules for frivolous reasons. Deus ex machinas suck (unless they're being explicitly used to point out something interesting about how they suck).

Characterization. Although I recognize that authors can use flat characters to good effect, I'm far more interested in well-characterized characters. Simply put, I think people are interesting and I like learning about them. I like seeing the creative ways an author can draw a character and how well the subtle nuances are brought out.

Economy. I don't have terribly strong feelings about sparse prose vs luxurious with prose, but if I have to choose one, I'll easily choose too sparse. Did I mention I love minimalists?

Humor. I think many good authors are playful authors, but I don't think being playful is the same thing as being humorous. Many authors are playful, but few are humorous. I like it when they are. See, for instance, DFW, who makes me laugh out loud.

Big Books. This is somewhat whimsical, so I'm putting it pretty far down the list, but I do have a soft spot for big books. I'll forgive more in an epic simply because I often admire its scale.

Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits followed Scott’s example and came up with this list:

A sense of playfulness. I will confess that a novel with a playful prose style is likely to tickle my fancy more than a straightforward tale written in that humorless realist mode that James Wood is so smitten with. This is not to suggest that I am adverse to realism or serious fiction. Richard Yates remains a firm favorite and I’ll go into the whys of this a tad later. The playfulness, however, should adhere to some reasonable human construct. It should be justified, motivated not by an author flexing his chops (see Dave Eggers and, to some degree, Saul Bellow, early Martin Amis, and Benjamin Kunkel), but because the nature of the fiction requires it. But here’s the strange loophole: If an author presents a unique and distinct way of seeing the world (such as Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers or David Foster Wallace), I’m more willing to forgive him his narrative digressions.

A concern for details. I have a soft spot for books that dare to present the world’s quotidian details in ways we haven’t seen before. Nicholson Baker comes to mind. Carol Shields too. Colson Whitehead, definitely. I suspect this is why I also like Updike so much and am willing to forgive Terrorist (and even the dreadful Gertrude and Claudius) for its flaws. When Updike writes about old buildings being split up like a cardboard box, there is something in his phrasing and imagery that makes me quite giddy. I feel as if I am seeing the world in ways that I haven’t observed it before. Sometimes, it could be through a miniscule detail in the phrasing. Sometimes, it’s just outright daffy foci. When Baker describes a paperclip and dares to chart precisely how it was manufactured, I feel indebted to him for overlooking some pivotal aspect of the world that I should be paying attention to.

Keeping it real. I’m not a big fan of magical realism. My bullshit detector flies off the charts when people inexplicably begin flying in the middle of a novel because the author can’t determine a way to progress his narrative forward. There are certainly exceptions (Murakami, Calvino, Borges) with authors who dabble in the surreal, but, for the most part, such exercises escape a writer’s first and foremost duty: to convey the human experience in a way in which we can believe it. I can believe, for example, the extraordinary world of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon because there is an underlying structure to its gaslights, its curious criminal justice system with the Remades, and its underground scientists toiling away at experiments in dingy apartments. Likewise, I can look at a book like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and ferret out the precise details which reveal the Wheelers’ discontentment. The environs or the genre or the highbrow/lowbrow status matters little to me. It’s the verisimiltude that keeps my motor purring.

A fresh perspective. For the next LBC round, I nominated a book that had one of the most unique perspectives I had encountered in some time. It was not simply the book’s unusual and quite idiosynchratic perspective that rocked my world, but, tied into my last point, the realization that this author had weaved a tale of unexpected poignancy that felt as real as any other tale. This harkens back to my earlier point of recontextualization. I think Scott and I differ a bit on this point. We once got into a heated conversation about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which he felt that what Mitchell was portraying was typical and I defended the book’s ability to recontextualize both narrative and the world around us, while agreeing that its platitude-stacked ending was a bit of a letdown.

A sense of ambition. One of literature’s great challenges is to push the envelope further in a way that we haven’t seen it before. I can forgive a flawed book like Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which I wrote about here, because it’s attempting an earnestness that is well at odds with the irony-soaked novels and literary realism so fashionable today. Likewise, if Robert Coover sometimes leaves me cold or a John Barth volume flounders, the ambition still sticks to the craw.

Giddy experimentalism. To me, Gilbert Sorrentino and David Markson are extraordinary writers because they experiment in a manner which invites. Sorrentino’s elaborate lies (such as the giddy notion of a character playing “roles” in various novels offered in Mulligan Stew) and Markson’s sentence-by-sentence approach to narrative remind us that experimentalism doesn’t have to be a cold and off-putting affair. Theirs is the purest and most difficult form of experimentalism to pull off.

Difficulty. I like books that challenge me. Books that I have to deconstruct, books in which I constantly have to look up things, books that compel me to reread them later, books I savor. I like books in which I don’t really have a sense of what’s going on until Page 75. I like books, like Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, that, with its index, suggest an interconnectedness that a grad student might spend weeks dwelling upon. I like Gaddis’s approach to dialogue in J.R., where we have to work to figure out who is speaking (which implies that we really aren’t paying nearly as much attention as we should).

Balls. I like writers who make me feel uncomfortable. I like writers who tell the truth. I like writers who want to take me to places I would never visit in a million years. I like writers who throw me into a horrific place and refuse to take the easy way out.

My goals as a reader aren't nearly as sophisticated. These are two litbloggers, among a number of them that I find interesting and I learn a lot from them. They eat and breathe literature and a great deal of the time I frankly don’t understand what they’re talking about. But I love what they’ve done with these lists. Creating a list like this really helps to focus on the books most likely to meet my own criteria, but more importantly, it helps me to think about why I’m reading in the first place.

For now, this is my list:

Originality. An artful novel needs to tell a story in a way that’s never been done before or present a unique perspective. The artfulness and originality may be in the story itself, the themes, the characters, the structure or the prose, but there has to be something that is unique to each author’s style.

Challenging Prose. I’m an active reader. I like it when an author makes me stretch. Proust has stretched me a fair distance. I’ve had to look up unfamiliar words and terms and refer to endnotes to understand cultural, geographical and historical references in order to understand and enjoy the work. Saul Bellow’s work is similarly challenging at times, but I love the payoff.

Ambition/Risk Taking. This makes me think of a novel I read last year that was incredibly ambitious, highly original, had deeply drawn characters and somehow just missed the mark. I would rather read a novel where the author has gone out on a limb, even if it doesn’t quite work than a formulaic story that works, but where the author didn’t take any chances or try anything new.

Characters With Depth. A book needs multi-dimensional characters to work.

Artfulness. Fine writing leaves me with a sense of wonder and the sensation that the author has superhuman powers. The perfect metaphor, description that is unusual, but never jarring, appropriate use of rhythm and the ability to write sentence that goes on for hundreds of words without exhausting the reader are all characteristics of artful writing. I love an author who gives me sentences or paragraphs that are so beautiful that I have to stop and read them again and maybe even break out a highlighter so I return to them and savor them again.

I’ve always been drawn to modernist literature and it seemed logical to me that I should start the year out by starting Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. The modernist literary movement peaked in Europe in the early 1900s and According to Wikipedia modernist literature involved such authors as Knut Hamsun (whose novel Hunger is considered to be the first modernist novel), Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Dylan Thomas, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Andrei Bely, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luigi Pirandello, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jaroslav Hašek, Samuel Beckett, Menno ter Braak, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Frost, Boris Pasternak, Djuna Barnes, and others.

Reading In Search of Lost Time has been a great reading experience. I finished the third volume last night and will take a Proust break for several books before I start the fourth. It has made me realize how satisfying it is to me to not only read, but to study literature. The beauty of reading titles that are so canonical is that there is no shortage of information and opinion about them, so I've been spending quite a bit of time reading blogs that focus on literature and literary criticism.

Some of the blogs and websites I've been reading lately are: The Reading Experience, Chekhov's Mistress, Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes, A Commonplace Blog, Maud Newton, The Elegant Variation, The Millions, Wyatt Mason and The Believer.

Where does all this heavy reading and studying leave my writing? Where, indeed.

I haven't touched my draft novel, The Foundling Wheel in months, but I have been trying my hand at some short fiction. I have always puzzled at the idea that some writers find that they are influenced by the writers they read. Never once did that happen to me, until recently. I don't know that stylistically Proust has had much of an influence, but the views into character and his detailed observations have profoundly affected the way I think about telling a story. For the double whammy, I find myself trying to emulate Saul Bellow.

There's no way to predict what path I'll take with writing now. Maybe I'll trash everything I've ever done and start over and maybe I'll decide that studying and absorbing the great works already in print is enough.

How about you? Do you plan out your reading list, and what do you look for in a book?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Books I Read in December (Part II), January and February

For quite a while, I've been posting about the books I read every month, but in December, I only managed to post thoughts about half of them and I've been delaying subsequent posts ever since.

I needed to really think about what I want to say about these books, which led me to question what I was reading, why and what I hope to find. I've never intended my posts to be reviews. There are scads of places to find a standard synopsis of plot and general impressions about books. I don't want or need to try to replicate that. But in thinking about what I'm trying to get out of the books I read, I've been able to zero in on my choices and read much more closely. I plan to talk more about my reading objectives in my next post.

For now, I want to get this list out and provide a few thoughts about these books. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you thought.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith This book was the start of my problems in talking about books and I may do a separate post about it. I have not read White Teeth, but I have read a number of articles and essays by and about the author. My expectations were high and this was a very good book. What makes this book (and others that fall into the high expectation category) difficult to talk about is that I read them much more closely and tend to be a tougher critic. Zadie Smith is unquestionably a great talent. On Beauty is filled with richly drawn characters and is dense with plot and subplots. There is a point at about the halfway mark where I sensed fatigue on the author's part. I had the strange notion that the author was under tremendous pressure to finish the book and to live up to the early reputation she'd garnered. I also learned, once I'd finished the book that if one happens to be familiar with the works of E.M. Forster, one might have noticed some parallels. I'm disappointed to have not read any Forster and wish I had. I'm certain it would have further enhanced or even changed my experience with this book entirely.

God Knows, by Blayney Colmore I can never resist reading books written by people I know. By sheer chance I found this book, written by the Episcopal priest (now retired) I best remember from the church I attended through adolescence. I was delighted to find that he's also a blogger and I am very happy to be back in touch with him. I nearly finished this book in one sitting. It captures beautifully many of his thoughts and ideas about life and the nature of the world and what it's all about

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee When I saw the blurb from Annie Dillard on the cover (I never see Annie Dillard blurbs, so this one I paid attention to), I knew I was in for something special. You can find a short plot synopsis here. Reader reactions about the story itself are conflicted, but I believe the tough subject matter has been a factor. There is no debate about the beauty of Chee's prose. I recently heard that he was a poet before he attempted long form fiction, which would explain the lyric, almost hypnotic effect the book had on me.

"Fifteen. I lose my voice. My new voice sounds like a burned string rubbing. Singing is touching, you bang the air and the air moves something inside you and the thing moved registers, says, That is a sound. When we sing to each other we are touching each other through this sleeve of air between us. When my voice changes I know this new creature is capable of no significant touch, no transformations. This voice cannot erase me, take me over and set me aside. This new voice has no light. It can barely push enough air aside to tell people, Hello, Good Morning, Good Night. I stop talking as much."

Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan This book is about the disappearance of an eighteen year old girl in Ohio and the impact the disappearance has on her family, friends and community over the course of a year. The NYTBR said this. I am sure it's a matter of taste that this book didn't satisfy me, because the reviews have all been very positive. I have no criticisms about the way the book is crafted, I just felt something was missing. Stewart O'Nan is immensely popular and I believe this is his eleventh novel.

Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard This book changed my life and was the impetus for a complete change in perspective about reading and writing. I wrote about it briefly here. In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard talks about the art of literature. She has inspired me to seek out the works of many of the modernists and post-modernists and to study how the best examples work. She has caused me to slow down and study novels, rather than tear through them. Dillard's approach to fiction is scholarly, yet she never takes herself too seriously and in fact, is quite funny at times. Exploring the question of whether or not fiction interprets the world:

"Complexity, subtlety, and breadth are the virtues here. If a writer is going to engage in the intellectual business of assigning meanings and showing relationships, he had better think very well. The novel of ideas had better be good...On the other hand, a novel is not a very long-playing but lightweight television set. We are no longer children, and we no longer enjoy fiction with our eyes only. We seek, as I say, a complex, subtle, and broad set of ideas...And-- importantly -- writers who have only an ear for prose and a taste for subtle surfaces may be credited with having a good deal more. We may actually assume such writers have something on their minds."

I will never see fiction again in the same way, and for that I'm grateful.

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust I was excited enough about this book while reading it to dedicate a post to it before I was even finished. Committing to reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past is to the reader what running the New York Marathon is to the casual jogger. Swann's Way is the first of seven volumes that make up the whole novel and it initially took some time to learn how to read Proust. I read with a highlighter and dictionary at hand and was constantly checking the end notes. Over time, Proust taught me how to read him and to truly love his work. The book was originally self-published and one publisher's rejection was something to the effect of "I don't see why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep." If you've read Proust, you're probably laughing. In contrast to the modern novel's get to the point within fifty words or less approach, this languid style takes some getting used to and I imagine, most people don't have the patience for it. But if you can weather the initial shock of bumping up against Proust's style, there is something wonderful here.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust Although I intended to spread the seven volumes of Proust's novel out over a long period of time, I was engrossed enough after Swann's Way to move on to Volume 2.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell This pop-culture exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" could not have been a more radical departure from Proust! Sarah Vowell was best known to me as that quirky voice often heard on NPR's This American Life. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (may it rest in peace) called her "a Madonna of Americana". Despite the unusual style and the humorous insights, The Wordy Shipmates draws an excellent historical picture of early American figures like Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, Rhode Island's Roger Williams and activist Anne Hutchinson that is informative and surprising. At times, the analogies to pop culture were intrusive -- but that's me. I think this book and this approach have made legitimate history more accessible and palatable to younger readers who might not otherwise be interested in the subject.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus I'd read Camus and Sartre in early adolescence and despite my cigarette-sneaking, black turtle-necked, angsty, brooding nature, I'm afraid the philosophical implications were lost on me at the time. I picked it up again after having watched a series of lectures on DVD about Existentialism and it made much more sense the second time around. For more The Stranger, look here.

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee After reading Disgrace, I became a fan of the South African born Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegorical tale about oppressors and the oppressed, set in a fictional country in an indeterminate time period. One can't help but wonder about Coetzee's roots in South Africa when reading this story, but it's not long before one's musings about the story become broader even than that.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov I'd read Lolita (more than once, actually) and although I'd heard of Pale Fire, I knew nothing about it when I began to read. The novel is structured around a 999 line unpublished poem, written by a recently deceased fictional poet and narrated by his fictional friend and neighbor. This is an amazing example of successful metafiction. I am not a huge fan of metafictional novels because so many are (in my opinion) more style than substance. Not so with Pale Fire. This novel is one of those few where I was dazzled by the concept, the prose and the elegance of it the entire way through. I would imagine there are scholars who've spent entire careers studying and interpreting this work.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow Reading novels written decades ago is sort of like getting off a freeway, driving into a rural village and getting out to stroll. I have an almost visceral change in posture when I pick up one of these older, bigger books and I feel like I have all the time in the world to give to them -- and they generally do need more time and patience.

English-born writers and literary critics Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis have both noted that The Adventures of Augie March is certainly on the short list of Great American Novels if you consider the definition to encompass a story that focuses on life in America within a given time period.

"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus,, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

Wikipedia describes the novel this way: "The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a novel by Saul Bellow. It centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression. This picaresque novel is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood."

Bellow, like Proust is a writer who demands patience. I read this novel with highlighter in hand, as I do Proust as the author frequently makes references to historical figures and events that aren't necessarily well known (at least not to me). I recently read a quote from Norman Mailer about Saul Bellow where he accused him of reading a million books, but not really having any ideas. I thought was an interesting comment as Bellow's familiarity with a huge body of literature comes through quite clearly in his work, but I don't know that I agree with the second part of his comment.

I kept the highlighter handy for a second reason. Bellow was an incredible writer. I often like to highlight especially fine passages in books I read to refer back to them later, but in the case of this book, I found myself tempted to highlight nearly everything! His descriptions of people, in particular, captivated me.

"He was a beer saufer; droopy, small, a humorist, wry, drawn, weak, his tone nosy and quinchy, his pants in creases under his paunch; his nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils, and he had round, disingenuous eyes in which he showed he was strongly defended. He was a tio listo, a carnival type, a whorehouse visitor. His style was that of a hoofer in the lowest circuit, doing a little cane-swinging and heel-and-toe routine, singing, "I went to school with Maggie Murphy," and telling smokehouse stories while the goofy audience waited for the naked star to come out and begin the grinds. He had a repertory of harmless little jokes, dog yipes, mock farts; his best prank was to come up behind and seize you by the leg with a Pekinese snarl."

Throughout Augie March's journey, he encounters and often returns to dozens of characters. The dialog and discussions between them are full of ideas.

"Boredom starts with useless effort. You have shortcomings and aren't what you should be? Boredom is the conviction that you can't change. You begin to worry about loss of variety in your character and the uncomplimentary comparison with others in your secret mind, and this makes you feel your own tiresomeness. On your social side boredom is a manifestation of the power of society. The stronger society is, the more it expects you to hold yourself in readiness to perform your social duties, the greater your availability, the smaller your significance. On Monday you are justifying yourself by your work. But on Sunday, how are you justified? Hideous Sunday, enemy of humanity. Sunday you're on your own -- free. Free for what? Free to discover what's in your heart, what you feel toward your wife, children, friends, and pastimes. The spirit of man, enslaved, sobs in the silence of boredom, the bitter antagonist. Boredom therefore can arise from the cessation of habitual functions, even though these may be boring too. It is also the shriek of unused capacities, the doom of serving no great end or design, or contributing to no master force. The obedience that is not willingly given because nobody knows how to request it. The harmony that is not accomplished. This lies behind boredom. But you see the endless vistas."

I loved this book and will be reading much more Saul Bellow.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates I'm an enormous Woody Allen fan and bought this book some time ago because his characters in "Hannah and Her Sisters" mention it. With all the talk about Revolutionary Road recently, I decided it was time to read Richard Yates.

The Easter Parade is the story of two sisters, who live different, but individually tragic lives and is told over the course of four decades, beginning in the 1930's. The book has one of the best first sentences I've read in a long time:

"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

The book is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Emily and I was quite taken with the intimacy and accuracy the author brought to a female character. The writing is spare and beautiful and the story was poignant and painful.

On a separate note, this book is the type of story that I believe people are talking about when they claim that literary fiction is depressing.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf