Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In lieu of anything interesting, some recent book reviews...

Desperate to get through the next month. Lawdy lawdy. Nothing to say, but plenty of books read, and here are a few reviews, x-posted from my goodreads. Included: Plath's The Bell Jar, Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 5/5 stars

It is often terrible to revisit your favorite childhood or teenage books; I've ruined many a fond memory this way; and so throwing myself back into the stewing-air of the bell jar for my directed reading on confessional poetry seemed a not-so-wise idea. As for many, The Bell Jar was my introduction to Plath--I must have been sixteen or seventeen at the time--but fortunately, it was much more, because it was an introduction to a number of other things: to poetry (for I soon after grabbed Plath's Collected Poems), to a love of biography (I began reading every awful biography--and some good, later--on Plath possible), to an interest in the threshold between fiction and memoir, and frankly, to a good dose of sanity. I recall thinking I was the ultimate pariah, obviously on the verge of breakdown, in high school--all it took was a solid reading of this text to quickly remind me that feeling a bit down in the dumps because no boys wanted to talk to me (unless they were calling me a fag), or feeling stupid because I looked like a scrawny chicken in my gym clothes, was really not all that profound, though it certainly seemed it at the time. I hate to say it, but The Bell Jar truly did carry me through rough waters when I was younger.

And so I was terrified of re-reading it now, for fear that my high-school-salvation might be soiled by a different vantage point. As I moved through the first fifty pages, this fear firmly held its position--I think as much because of the inane marginalia I'd scribbled on my worn copy ("Tell it, girl," "I've been there," "Depression" scribbled on every other sentence, haha--I figure I may as well confess) as because the book was quite different from what I recalled. I couldn't toss from my mind that Plath was once convinced she would "go one better than Woolf" as I re-read this--but until I stopped trying to hold the novel up to Plath's evident standard (though of course, we should recall her history with a number of 'slicks'--the magazines that would publish more or less conventional stories with quick and ample payback for the author), I couldn't really enjoy it.

Then I let go of all these comparisons, stopped trying to pathologize my teenage-self or Plath, and submerged myself in the terror of this text. Plath is so wonderfully American here, that I found myself once again shocked. Her audio recordings of the poems in The Colossus sound so distinctively faux-British, and the audio of her reading from Ariel is colloquial, biting, but also incredibly performative--that it's hard sometimes to picture this all-American gal immersed in the surreal commodity culture of the 50s. The Bell Jar is often depicted as the 'stain' on Plath's canon, but as I went through again this time, I found myself thinking--very convinced, very serious--that Ariel would never have happened without this novel. You can even see images in those poems haunting the pages of the novel--the mercuric atoms of "Nick and the Candlestick" are snatched up by Esther after she breaks a thermometer; the X-ray glare of Catholicism and the martyr's eyes of Mrs. Greenwood prefigure "Medusa"; the innumerable blank faced nurses reappear in "Tulips" and "Barren Woman"; Dr. Gordon's particular "wall eyed" nurse seems to haunt the moment in "Berck-Plage" when the fisherman "wall up" against the dead neighbor. The Bell Jar, in short, may have been commandeered by a very specific Hot Topic sort of teenage-depressive culture--that allows critics and the mass media to dismiss Plath and her readers (a great essay on this in The Unraveling Archive, ed. Anita Helle)--but without this, I have serious doubt as to whether we would have arrived at the final poems Plath produced.

Not to mention, this is often a really great damn book. It's not Woolf by any means, but it shouldn't be. This is a horrific tale because the most seemingly 'normal,' driven, ambitious, *American* sort of girl falls so suddenly into the bad dream which is, for her, the world--she is "blank and stopped as a dead baby" in the bell jar, and this could happen to any of us. I dare you to read this and not find yourself in some of the stranger moments, the crueler ones. Esther is somehow so many of us, and I think it's less the morbidity that is so frequently deployed to write off this novel that attracts so many readers, but the fact that the decline of this girl's life happens so swiftly, so unexpectedly, that her travails compel each of us to step back and take account of things--knowing, all the while, that it will do nothing, just as with Esther.

The prose is hilarious--I found myself laughing aloud on the subway, in coffeeshops, in bed. "Turkey neck and turkey gizzards," anyone? People always forget Plath's humor, but my god, she's a stand-up comic on countless occasions here. The plot itself is often subordinated to flashbacks, but I don't find that to be a fault--could be irritating to others, I'm certain. Everything is economical, brisk, and it's a real joy to read, even when depressing. So suck up your reservations, cordon off a day or two, and allow the glass to descend...

The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Anita Helle, 5/5 stars

Fabulous, fabulous book. This collection of essays evades the torturous limbo so much Plath criticism falls into and offers a fresh, deeply historicized, and engagingly smart glimpse into what Plath studies can be at its best. There's not a weak piece in here (though Middlebrook's essay is essentially lifted out of Her Husband, and I'd have liked to see something new from her); in fact, I'm having trouble recalling my favorites, because each essay brought something powerful to the table. Ther...more Fabulous, fabulous book. This collection of essays evades the torturous limbo so much Plath criticism falls into and offers a fresh, deeply historicized, and engagingly smart glimpse into what Plath studies can be at its best. There's not a weak piece in here (though Middlebrook's essay is essentially lifted out of Her Husband, and I'd have liked to see something new from her); in fact, I'm having trouble recalling my favorites, because each essay brought something powerful to the table. There's little lingering on the biographical Jacob's Ladder of Plath's legacy--indeed, only one essay zeroes in on Plath's more (in)famous work, namely "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," but does so from an innovative place, locating these poems solidly within the relatively new field of trauma studies. Ann Keniston thus saves these works from decades of dismissal on the basis of their Holocaust metonyms, and rethinks them as socio-politically engaged pieces elucidating the fragmentary quality of narrating nearly unfathomable traumas.

The entire book benefits from a recent upsurge in Plath's canon--from Frieda Hughes's restored Ariel to the 'unabridged' journals, to the publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, and there is a correlative interest in the nooks and crannies of the Plath archives. Thus, there's an essay on Plath's 'political education,' based through her really early journals and academic papers (mostly high school); there's another on the variances between the published Ariel poems and their audio counterparts, where Plath frequently made significant changes ("Nick and the Candlestick" being the most interesting example, to my mind); another essay attempts to refigure Plath's publication in the Ladies' Home Journal as a mutually productive encounter that allows her to engage with what the author (Marsha Bryant) terms the 'domestic surreal.' Still yet, there's an essay on the pathologization of Plath--specifically Bell Jar--readers in mainstream film, used to question what ideologies come to bat when we speak of 'aggressively female' literature or readership; a stunning essay by Sandra Gilbert on the sorely unappreciated "Berck Plage"; and the editor, Anita Helle, writes on the power of Plath photography--something I would never even think to consider.

That's really the great power of this collection; each essay approaches a topic that has always fallen beneath the radar--or, when the topic has been broached before, here it is looked at anew. If you've got any scholarly interest in Plath, this book should prove invaluable. I'm sadly returning my copy to the library, but I'm hoping I'll find a nice copy on half.com soon to bring home with me.

Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath - A Marriage, Diane Middlebrook, 4.5/5 stars

Just finished re-reading this one; was perhaps very slightly less impressed on this go round, but I still believe Middlebrook to be an incredible biographer, and this particular text to be the shining star of the Plath/Hughes biographical warzone. If you're looking for the whole picture, you will be unfortunately let down; this is, as the title suggests, a portrait of the Plath/Hughes marriage, and so we get very little of their earlier history, and the last several chapters are concerned with Hughes after Sylvia's death--who he fucked, what he wrote, when he got sad, how Birthday Letters came about. Like me, you may be surprised to be hit with Sylvia's death so soon--I guess I have this wonderful, magical-thinking tendency to believe that perhaps if I wish hard enough, the outcome of a biography will be different as I work my way through it. But alas, the same sad occurrences transpired, and I was left heartbroken yet again (I just need to stop reading biographies of the young-dead; I was depressed after Flannery died, and then again when I re-read Middlebrook's Sexton biography a couple months ago).

My one quandary with this text is the same one I had with Middlebrook's bio on Anne Sexton; in both cases, Middlebrook relies a bit too uncritically on the poems to illuminate 'themes' she finds self-evident in the biographies. This was actually a bit less problematic with Anne, because at least then, it was *her* writing that was 'illuminative.' Middlebrook uses Birthday Letters here at times to 'reveal' the experiences of the Plath/Hughes union, which I suppose, Bday Letters in fact sets out to do--but I find that book of poetry to be almost unethical in a perhaps too personally-invested way. It truly troubles me that Hughes uses his final volume to 'correct' Plath's biographical and (more frightening) poetic legacy; the woman can't speak back to any of it, and so when, for example, he revises her poem "The Rabbit Catcher" to suggest that, instead of an invasive male violence inflicted on nature, the real problem is Plath's poetic rage--I can hardly articulate well at this point, because it enrages me. We all want forgiveness, and Hughes certainly had his share of hardships from the Plath-camp; but I still find it incredibly insidious that he's revised her narratives in an appropriative and somewhat violent way. So Middlebrook's reliance on that text at moments in this bio likewise frightens me, but only on principle.

Largely, the reason this is so great an example of biography is that Middlebrook really manages to traverse the landmines of this particularly literary iconography in a mostly fair and powerful way. Both Plath and Hughes emerge as sometimes good, sometimes horrible, but always human figures. Middlebrook is also a really great, engaging writer, so you'll find yourself speeding through this in a way that some of the drier biographies (I'm looking at you, Anne Stevenson) simply can't compel you to do.

Even if you're not all that interested in this love affair, this is, bottom line, just a really wonderful biography. Highly recommended, but particularly if you're seeking a 'good' one on Plath and Hughes. Now I just need to finally crack into Malcom's The Silent Woman and Rose's The Haunting of SP.

Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, 3/5 stars

I need to get something off my chest with this one. I'd read Birthday Letters a few years ago, I guess when I was first getting into Plath and was not particularly interested in the warzone of the Plath/Hughes legacy. I also didn't really give much thought to poetry at the time--if it was pretty or vaguely shocking, I'd nod and think, 'Well, look how smart I am, for reading this.' So I think I let Hughes off the hook last time--and I should clarify to say that I don't hate Hughes' poetry; I'm not familiar with a large body of it, but I can safely say, having given them a shot on several occasions, that I love "The Thought-Fox," "Wodwo," "Pike," and a handful of others, including a few from the Crow sequence, though I can't recall the titles at the moment. And I'm hoping to read more of his work--The Hawk in Rain and Crow are both on my list for this year.

However, getting through this book this time was a bit of an ordeal. I am genuinely troubled by the violations on display in this text. Yes, I know Hughes wrote them (originally) without the intent of publishing them; I know this was his last book; I know the critics fawned over it (Kakutani says something about it 'clearly coming from a poet's core' or some sentimental shite like that). And I know this is one subjective stance on the Plath/Hughes relationship--from the perspective of one player, in contrast to the many horror tales we've heard of Hughes over the years. I don't think Hughes is some villain--both he and Plath seem similarly awful at moments, and similarly inspired and loving at others, by all accounts. But the portrait painted in this text is one that has a somewhat disturbing undercurrent--Hughes refers to himself almost obsessively as the 'dog' that scampered alongside or behind Plath and her furies. He is, at times, wary, tail-wagging, frightened, dumb, loyal, etc. Meanwhile, the Plath of Birthday Letters is alternately vicious, appropriative, physically violent, tortured, 'fated' for death (and 'fated' as a muse-goddess, something Diane Middlebrook pays a lot of mind to in her 'biography' on their marriage, Her Husband), and a pathetic little girl snared in the trappings of MummyDaddyMummyDaddyDaddyDaddyMummy (this is almost verbatim the ending to one of the poems in this collection). Plath is envisioned as usually helpless, even when furious or taken with the poetic 'spirit.' She is the conduit for God in one of Hughes' poems, which may have been something she said--but constantly, she seems to be the conduit for just about everything, be it the Mummy/Daddy one-two-punch, the muse speaking either to her or to Hughes, the electric jolts of her madness, or for the cruelty Hughes tears down in her poetry.

Why should I care? This is, as people like Middlebrook and a number of other recent critics argue, a book that is 'in dialogue' with Plath's biography and poetic legacy. Sure. But more importantly, this is a dialogue in which Plath can never enter, being dead. So 35 years after her death (nearly 50 today), Birthday Letters leaves behind a snapshot of their marriage and their poetry that places Hughes in the supplicant position to his almost oracular, frightening, mad, brilliant (when he gives her that much), wife. I don't intend to run off and chip the 'Hughes' off SP's gravestone, but I wonder what the ethical ramifications of this portrayal are--it seems somehow implicitly violent for Hughes to 'talk back' to his wife in a way that not only enables those who blindly mythologize her, but diminishes her poetry as something neither she nor he could help or stand in the way. And I say he only hints at her 'brilliance' (which he has spoken of, with less trouble, on other occasions), because just as often, he suggests that her poetry is necessarily a nasty outlet for petty rages and gossip. Thus, in "The Rabbit Catcher" (speaking back to Plath's poem of the same name), he revises her vision of male violence--a poem that beautifully links the masculine adventurer's invasive interest in the natural world with sexual, domestic violence against women--to refigure himself as the hapless, lovelorn husband watching Plath cruelly 'snare' people in her poetry. But what Plath's poetry never did--though of course we like to pick moments that seem so transparently autobiographical--was stoop down to trivial gab sessions. If someone appeared in a violent poem--let's take "Daddy" for an easy example--that person was not *that person*; that person became myth, became conflated with a million other myths. "Daddy" may feature Otto Plath's German heritage and ill-fated stubbed-toe, but more importantly, the poem relates a more genuine concern with what Plath took to be a peculiarly feminine interest in domineering men, and in turn, located these issues of male dominance in a more global sphere--thus, the Holocaust imagery, the wonderfully Gothic conclusion. Hughes simply does not do 'confessional' in the way Plath did; Plath's goal was always (to my mind) to take the minute, the private, the domestic, and to weave larger-than-life scenarios from them. Thus, a cut thumb in "Cut" becomes a narrative of colonization and national violence; a jaded hausfrau is a disgruntled Eve, the "agonized side of a green Adam."

Hughes, instead, makes Plath--and more horribly, her poetry--a mockery. And if Plath can't speak back, what does this say about the history of women's writing being 'brought down a peg' by the final word of her male counterpart? It frightens me that there's such unabashed praise of a text that--yes, is tender and sometimes beautiful, and clearly is written with great feeling for their marriage, in good times and bad--finally leaves us with the feeling that Plath really *was* just the madwoman in the attic, and that Hughes, unwittingly loyal pup that he was, merely follows along to sand down the rough edges her audience simply 'can't handle'?

Not to mention, I don't find the poetry here all that great. There are moments where it's quite lucid, quite stunning--but mostly, it struck me as the sort of stuff you might see in an advanced undergraduate writing workshop. It leaves behind most of what makes Hughes' poetry so distinctively Hughes--with the exception of some of the descriptions of the natural world (I quite liked "The 59th Bear," for example), the collection often reeks of maudlin self-pity, repetitive imagery (which do not build to crescendo, but simmer out), and a usually frustrating speaking-I. I give it 3 stars because, well, I don't think it deserves less--but I do think it needs to be reconsidered on a more political level.

Whew. I'm babbling on. Maybe all this will only bother you if you're really into that whole generation of poetry. I get my panties in a twist over things like this--but perhaps it detracts from my enjoyment a bit too much. Any case, just ordered Hughes' Collected Poems, so I'm still willing to give the rest of the work a fair chance.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi, 4/5 stars

I feel somewhat strange reviewing this one after I'd just reviewed Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and suggested that I felt his portrayal of Sylvia Plath constituted a violence against her; a good friend was reading Nafisi's memoir with me for a class and made a similar suggestion about this text. She said that she felt Nafisi does her damnedest to box the figures from her life away into neat characters--and to some extent, I can see this. You have Nassrin and Sanaz, the rebellious ones; Azin, the sort of skanky one; Mahshid, the prude; so on and so forth. She does create character categories for the people in her life--of course, she makes clear at the beginning of the text that a memoir is still part-fiction, and also that she shuffled characteristics around to protect the people portrayed. But perhaps my friend is right; maybe this is a violation of the humanity of these people--would I feel violated if I were depicted in such a manner? I think I probably would. So I suppose it is important to question the ethics of a memoir.

Additionally, what is it that draws Americans so inexplicably towards a memoir like this? Are lured by the fact that, as Nafisi points out, it's often wonderful to revel in literary portrayals of suffering and oppression, because it provides an opportunity for the reader to disavow their own problems? This is something Nafisi's students struggle with--why does reading Madame Bovary or Lolita give us pleasure? Do we like assuming that we're somehow more progressive because we can point to Iran and say, "Look how they treat their women; look at the executions; look at the censors"--does this mean that we can lean back, hands behind our head, and feel that we've done a good job? I don't know. And I don't know that that was really my draw to this text--because I didn't hate it in the way my friend did, and we argued on several occasions about this. I'm interested to see how our professor handles it when we discuss it next week.

For me, this was a text that dug into the deeply-hidden sentimental inclinations I have--the reason, perhaps, that I decided I wanted to go into academia, to be an English PhD now, was--is--that I have some strange faith in the transformative power of literature. I believe that a good book can make you a better person, can teach you empathy, can allow you to explore serious ethical and socio-historical concerns. The imaginative life is, as it is portrayed in this memoir, often my more 'real' experience. Literature allows me to live a multitude of lives, and has often provided a space of survival, a safehaven, for me. And so there's some naive draw for me to this memoir, which idolizes these very notions--reading and teaching are paramount, and the real harbors of humanity in the face of suffering, for Nafisi.

In any case, you might love this; you might hate it. The bottom lines are these--Nafisi is a rather nice writer. I really enjoyed her prose style, which managed to be tender and engaging, and also, she's quite good at maintaining suspense. It reads as very cinematic. If you've not read the texts she discusses at length in the text--Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, and Pride and Prejudice--prepare to have them ruined. She spoils the shit out of them. My friend who hated this also hated her monopolization of literary interpretation--I didn't take this as a scholarly work, though, so I just imagined them as alternative readings of these texts to garden-bar-style-pick from. But in any case, you may want to read these beforehand if you're planning to read them in the near future. I don't know a great deal of Iranian history, and so I did find it sort of refreshing to step out of my comfort zone and learn a few things--as to whether this is an 'accurate' portrayal, I don't know, but as with anything, I suggest you take things with a grain of salt. I think that was my friend's major problem--she felt that Nafisi acted as if she had the answers to everything, and that they were unambiguous ones. I can't say I agree with this argument, but I can see where she might pull it from. But I didn't take any of this at face value--a memoir may be autobiographical, but that does not mean it's objective truth.

An enjoyable read, and a nice testament to the potential power of literature.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 4/5 stars

You know those books that you just *know* are amazing, brilliant, & co, but that for some reason or another, you just cannot bring yourself to adore? This isn't quite that book. Admittedly, I did not connect with this on some abstractly profound level; and yes, I do realize that it's rather incredible. At moments, I did find myself riveted and moved and all that jazz. But I think I have to confess to myself that I will probably never have a literary love affair with real violent white men & their disturbing American 'dreams.' "Wait, Jamie," you may say, "you're a pretty angry/bitchy white man." And I'll say, "You got that right, though I'm sway more towards bitchy and am mistaken for female so frequently that I wonder if that category has much pragmatic capital..."

[I don't know why I insist on using goodreads reviews to theatricalize myself, or to confess myself, or just to talk about myself--but perhaps because I feel so disconnected from texts these days, being in an English grad program, that there's got to be *some* sort of a safehaven for me to talk about how *I* interact with all these damnable books I'm reading. So bear with me.:]

McCarthy is clearly a wonderfully skilled writer; the prose is somehow sharp and hazy at once. All description, it seems, but it disorients you and you feel as if you need to re-read a scene just to understand the seemingly easy way he describes a saloon or a scalping or the judge's disturbingly hairless figure. It should come as no shock for me to say this is an almost absurdly violent novel--but absurd only in that it is obsessive, 'natural,' and laid out detail by detail, not in that it doesn't take itself seriously. A friend compared him to Angela Carter, and strangely, I can almost see that inclination--not that both of them handle violence in similar manners, but that both take violence to its most extreme locations in order to illuminate something that lies beneath it. I think Carter does this in a more explicitly political way, and tends not to hold it up as of an underlying 'order' in experience/life/nature; in this novel, McCarthy does not condone violence so much as he compels us to 'prove' why it might be unnecessary. And sometimes, you're hard-pressed to do that. The judge is, in fact, a terrifying figure. There's nothing that can stop him, and I remained both absolutely revolted by him and strangely drawn to him--as it seems the entire novel-world is. But as with the violence, I was never able to prove the judge 'wrong.' I had to take him as he was and hope for the best--again, as it seems the characters of the novel likewise do. You can try to avoid the judge, though you're likely to fail, or you can face him and fail outright. A truly fascinating character--one of the more interesting I've encountered in recent years--and a wonderfully done villain.

This is not a western in the traditional sense, though there are outlaws and indians and pioneers and deserts and shootouts and whiskey and whores and the rest of the requisite players. So don't be scared off, as I likely would have been, if that's all you've heard. It strikes me as one of those novels that is strangely in line with the dust-jacket quote--it's a novel of the profound violence that informs our notions of nation, of the American dream, of expansion and adventure (though I question my copy's reference to 'redemption,' because I don't recall that moment). There are moments of relief, but they don't seem quite enough, and in the end, you're left thinking not about the kid or the trek or the many many scalps drying out in the sun, but rather about the horrible dance (when you get to the end, you'll get this, but I won't spoil) and how you're damn glad you'll (hopefully) never encounter the judge.

The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 5/5 stars

This one's been sitting on my shelf for a couple of months now (which means it's one of the lucky ones-so many books have been sitting on my various bookshelves for years), and I randomly grabbed it for a long train ride over the weekend because it was slim and I'd heard it was funny. It was, for one thing, easily completed on the train with time to spare, and it was about the most plainly enjoyable thing I've read in some time. Brisk, bright prose with a large dose of hilarity and sinisterly tender moments (the comment about Mary's fate in the first several pages was somehow amusingly fitting at the same time as it was horribly tragic, for instance). Miss Brodie handpicks young girls from her class to become the 'creme de la creme,' and one of the most wonderful things about the novel is how deeply you're drawn in by Miss B even as you're completely repulsed--much as the Brodie set is. Her dabble with fascism is of course a fabulous parallel for Miss Brodie's relationships with the girls; though they're intended to become the very best, the price they would have to pay is by becoming clones of Miss Brodie. As avant-garde as she strikes us on first glance, Miss Brodie is in fact a profoundly conservative figure, as she wishes only to replicate what she already knows or has experienced upon others without thought to how they may think or feel about it.

Nonetheless, you so want to love Miss Brodie that frequently you just do. The girls, in fact, are the vaguely horrible figures of the novel, though of course they're rightfully the heroines. A fascinating way of creating what is largely a character study here. In any case, I feel that I'm only going to spoil things if I go on, so all I can say at this point is that the book is short, sweet, and should be enjoyed by all--in that way, perhaps I'd impose it like Miss Brodie might. A real pleasure, while still managing to be provocative--often without your noticing it. Highly recommended, in short.


  1. Hi Jamie, There is a pretty interesting piece in the NewYorker on Muriel Spark and her life and lit. Have you seen it? It takes its impetus from a new biography on Spark, written by one of her collaborators and one-time lovers, I guess? Anyway, like your reviews. Where is the one you promised for Have One on ME!?

    Good luck with the next month,


  2. I've read Blood Meridian, Prime of Miss Jean Brody and The Bell Jar is my favorite book. Seems we have similar tastes :o) http://johnnieg78.livejournal.com