Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of August 20th, 2007

Alison Light’s Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service (Fig Tree, £20) has yet to find a U.S. publisher—and that’s a shame. For a taste of what we’re missing—an illuminating, Upstairs, Downstairs perspective on Bloomsbury, with particular emphasis on Virginia Woolf’s fraught 18-year relationship with her cook, Nellie Boxall—see Rosemary Hill’s essay in The London Review of Books (August 16; http://www.lrb.co.uk). Woolf’s “precarious ambivalence” towards household help is recorded for posterity in her diaries, which are salted with complaints about “Nelly” (Woolf always misspelled her cook’s name). The flip side, Nellie’s opinion of her employer, is harder to gauge with the same certainty. Ms. Hill remarks that during one of their many spats, Nellie “threw Virginia out of her room, demanding to be left in privacy, an irony that seems to have been lost on the author of the recently published A Room of One’s Own.” More painful irony: According to Woolf’s best biographer, Hermione Lee, on the last morning of her life, before walking into the River Ouse, Woolf told her husband that she was “going to do some housework.” Or as Ms. Hill puts it, melodramatically, “She put the duster down and went to drown herself.”

Even as Congress considers raising the federal cigarette tax to $1 per pack, Emily Flake is putting off the day when she finally quits. “Half valentine, half Dear John letter,” her wry little comic book These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves (Bloomsbury, $12.95) is a cleverly illustrated history of her ongoing struggle with a tenacious nicotine habit. Her best argument for giving up? Vanity. “Lungs, schmungs, it’s the crow’s feet and Farrah Fawcett lines that put the fear of god into me. And then too: If I can see something happening to my face, surely dirty things are going on in the rest of me.”

David Rosen’s I Just Want My Pants Back (Broadway, $12.95), a novel about a feckless lad drifting along in the West Village, is sweet and intermittently funny but so low-key it hardly has the energy to twist a joint, pull out its iPod, earphone up and click play. Girlfriends are too much effort, but sex happens, especially if the young lady takes charge. Who said the slacker novel is dead? It was just … resting.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of August 20th, 2007