Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage. By Diane Middlebrook

Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook

 

Title: Her Husband

Author: Diane Middlebrook

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

First Published: 2003

Pages: 350 (with the bibliography but sans the index)

I feel somewhat obliged to inform the reader that this isn’t so much a book review as it is a raw reaction to work, which I consider greatly illuminating. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s for years. I have such few passions, but the brightest flame that’s got me alit from the very marrow of my bones is Poetry.

And since that life-changing day in high school when my Creative Writing professor read Mirror in class, since I caught a glimpse of the White Goddess in the echoes of the person and works of Plath, I have looked up to the infamous poetess as a child looks up to its idealized mother. In her works, I’ve found the impossible benchmark to my writing.

What I love about “Her Husband” by Diane Middlebrook is that it shatters this extreme idolatry by, in a way, demythologizing Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. What Middlebrook does is she does away with the blame game, refusing to paint Hughes in any other light than what one can discern from both his and Plath’s memories and writings. Through extracting the very essence of the poets’ works and revealing memories from close friends and relatives, the author explains the nature of Plath’s and Hughes’s relationship. One learns that beyond the obvious erotic and magickal pull between these poets, you have this mutually beneficial writing relationship where one calls and the other answers through poetry and prose.

The book also reveals intimate details about Plath, Hughes, and their relationship. We learn about their quirks, personal interests, fears, insecurities, and even their pet names for each other. I guess those details were the most jarring of all. We always seek to unveil our champions, to get under their skin. Find out what makes them tick. I wonder, is it human nature to cringe at the sight of their humanity too? Perhaps cringe is a strong word, but the intimate baring of Plath and Hughes in this book had me feeling a bit ‘uncomfortable’ for a while. It felt as if I’ve waded in the sea of their memories, an unwelcome visitor scared to be treading such private waters. But what can one expect from a good biography? And this one is one of the best biographies I’ve read, after all.

One of the most surprising ‘reveals’ in the book was how Plath actually liked Wevill the first time they met. Wevill had even gone out of her way to get Plath a small gift after they met. Of course, this only served to make the entire thing even more tragic for Plath. It was particularly heartwrenching to read about the humiliation Plath must’ve felt immediately after the split. On the day Hughes packed up to leave their home, she interrogated him about his relationship with Wevill:

“Where had he been? Why had he tricked her? Did he mean to abandon his children? How much money had he spent? How good was sex with Assia? Unfortunately, he answered her questions—‘fed me the truth with leer after leer,’ she [Plath] told her mother. (p.183)

There were certain points in the book where one wondered how Hughes could stand to hurt Plath that way. Obviously, the attraction between Assia and Ted must have been immense for both to act so recklessly as to ruin their marriages. At times, it was easy to paint Hughes as the ‘bad guy.’ But Middlebrook handles this dilemma (this tendency for immediate bias) deftly. She does this by presenting Hughes’s side by quoting a letter Ted had written for his brother:

“The one factor that nobody but close friends can comprehend is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” Hughes wrote to Gerald. “In many of the most important ways she’s the most gifted and capable and admirable woman I’ve ever met—but, finally, impossible for me to live married to.” (p.180)

Hughes had grown restless, the way he was restless before he met Plath. The man and the woman pulled away from each other as the writers in them continued to draw from their wellspring of shared experiences. Eventually they had to call it quits, though Hughes claims that weeks before Plath’s death, a reconciliation may have been in the works.

We all know about Plath’s final creative burst and her tragic death. But this book also talks about Hughes and how he dealt with both Plath’s and Wevill’s suicides. How, after being forced into the role of the ‘relic husband,’ Hughes finally came to terms with being Plath’s collaborator and conduit even after her death. I think it was this point when he began creating his most ‘honest’ and vulnerable works. I’ve always admired Hughes’s writings, but I’ve felt that his latter works were less cerebral, less swathed in obscurity, but more meaningful—more relatable. And that’s a big thing for me.

All in all, I think this is one of the most skillfully written, revealing, and unflinching biographies about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s a great read if you love Plath, Hughes, or poetry (and its processes) in general.

Rating: A+

Featured Poem: Wanting to Die by Anne Sexton

poisoned apple

Note: In my opinion, this is one of Anne Sexton’s best works. Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s death, this poem resonates with perception. It rationalizes suicide as a form of addiction—an idea agreed upon by Plath and Sexton. Sexton refers to suicide as an ‘unnameable lust.’ She likens suicides to carpenters who never ask ‘why build.’

In the poem, there is an effort to resist death’s calling. But ultimately, the desire for death (as something equated by the persona to happiness) appears strong and relentless. At the end of the poem, Sexton touches upon the most blatant promise of suicide—unfinished business.

Wanting to Die

by Anne Sexton

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.

Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention,

The furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,

Have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,

Have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

Warmer than oil or water,

I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle-point.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don’t always die,

But dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet

That even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue!—

That, all by itself, becomes a passion.

Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,

And yet she waits for me, year after year,

To so delicately undo an old wound,

To empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,

Raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,

Leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

Leaving the page of the book carelessly open,

Something unsaid, the phone off the hook

And the love, whatever it was, an infection.

 

Image from: LitStack.com

Coping with Quarter-Life Crisis: The Importance of “ME time”.

Coffee Break

All too often, we get caught up in the stress of the everyday. Your to-do list keeps getting longer, as the hours for leisure become shorter. You’re spread too thin, and understandably, you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. At this point, every task feels insurmountable.

Here’s the thing—most people would probably tell you to keep your head down and soldier on. That usually works, until you’ve reached your breaking point. When you’re on the verge of a meltdown, soldiering on won’t do the trick. Trust me, you simply won’t have the focus to continue the task at hand. It’ll take you a while to claw your way out of an anxiety attack—and that ‘while’ may just be time that you don’t have.

If you’re like me and most other people, you don’t have the luxury of taking the next few days off to ‘recuperate’—in the spiritual sense, at least. Sick Leaves don’t cover soul maladies—they should, in my humble opinion, but preserving your mental health is hardly your company’s main priority. So instead of ‘nurturing’ or at least tolerating the presence of an impending meltdown, I’d say just prevent its onset.

One practice that has significantly lowered my stress levels in the last few months is this: I always set aside at least 15 minutes of “ME time” everyday. A little peace and quiet may not seem like much, but it’s actually a great way for you to ‘regroup’ in times of immense stress. It also feels incredibly nice to not have to think of anyone else. You know, to put yourself and your needs first, at least once a day.

It doesn’t matter what you do during your “ME time”, as long as you spend it quietly. Whether it’s having a quick cup of joe in the pantry or enjoying a hot bath, the objective is to find time to relax your mind and your body. Look at your “ME time” as a type of sanity break. You know, something that will keep the office meltdowns at bay.

As a general rule, I don’t like bringing work stress into my home life. So back when I still had an office job, I used to spend a lot of time in my car—not driving, just sitting in the dark, ignition turned off, and breathing. I’d close my eyes, and in my mind I was releasing whatever pent-up stress or ill feelings I’d accumulated at work.

I also see my bath time as ‘sacred.’ I love hot baths and long showers—simply because I get to be alone with my thoughts. Most of my ideas for poetry and prose come to me while I’m shampooing my hair or brushing my teeth. If you have more time in your hands, try meditating, praying, grounding, or chanting.

So, there you have it. “ME time” works wonders for me, hopefully, it’ll work for you too.

image: wikipedia.org

Book Review: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie – Pamela Des Barres

I'm with the Band - Pamela Des Barres

Title: I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie

Author: Pamela Des Barres

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Music

First Published: 1987

Pages: 320

Status: Read

Here’s a small confession: I have been lusting after this particular book for almost ten years. After reading about her affair with the incomparable Jimmy Page, Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela) reached Rockstar status in my book. I scoured the World Wide Web for snippets of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The odd few pages I found in forums and blogs had me oooh-ooh-ooh-ing over Des Barres’ relationships with music legends like Mr. Page, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Gram Parsons.

So, when my sister handed me my own copy of I’m With the Band, I flipped through the first hundred pages in search of her love affair with Jimmy Page. Reading about her passionate encounters with the Rock God had me aching with envy. It was a sensory overload. I was seduced, and at the same time, set straight by Des Barres’ stories of the infamous 1960s-1970s rock scene.

In I’m With the Band, we follow the transformation of Pamela Ann Miller from small-town girl to the golden muse of some of Rock’s most formidable personalities. We read about how Miss Pamela, and her group—the GTOs, helped pave the way for girl groups and the new breed of baby groupies. The group, which was officially formed by Frank Zappa, went on to record an album called Permanent Damage in 1969. Though the album’s commercial success was limited, it was an admirable effort, which brought the spotlight to the fantastic women behind the rock movement. To me, these women showed the world what it means to really love music–to feel passion, awe, and reverence for those who produce stellar riffs and melodies.

In this book, we also learn more about the LA scene. We are made privy to the backstage secrets of some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Interspersing memories and personal anecdotes with journal entries, Miss Pamela takes us by the hand and guides us through the blossoming sense of awareness of the 1960s and the decadence and excess of the 1970s. Her delightfully candid and well-written memoir details the goings-on and the who’s who of one of the most important modern musical and spiritual revolutions in history.

To be honest, I don’t think I can rave enough about this book. Loved every Page—pun, v. much intended. The only bad thing about I’m With the Band is that it had to end.

Verdict: Highly recommended to ALL music lovers and closet groupies (like yours truly).

RATING: A+

Free Verse: I Have Rebuilt A Mind.

 

I have rebuilt a mind.

I built it overnight.

I have torn off its foundation by hand,

One concrete slab at a time.

(To reveal the fertile soil of the unlearned mind.)

I have worked away at its pillars:

Outdated notions, antiquated philosophies

I have granted it new memories.

Knee-deep in rubble,

I have rediscovered its purity.

In the course of this renovation,

I have sunk lofty ceilings, ripped apart awnings;

I have stripped the walls bare

Of all thoughts and feelings. Until naked,

The house folds neat in a pile by my feet.

And when all that’s left is but empty land,

I plant in it the seed of faith

And introduce a weed called doubt.

I watch the two grow and intertwine,

To produce the purest, brightest mind.

By: Kristel Marie Pujanes (7/30/2012)

Image: A Cottage in a Cornfield. John Constable (1817)

Featured Author: Philip Yancey

 

In the last few years, I’ve learned that when you talk ‘religion’ with friends or colleagues, 90 percent of the time, you run the risk of offending someone. Yes, faith is a very prickly subject. It’s also highly personal and private. To be perfectly honest, my own faith tends to be ambiguous and ambivalent in turns. So why recommend a Christian author’s works to friends and family members?

Well, for the simple reason that Philip Yancey’s writings aren’t just religious, they’re philosophical. They’re there to get you thinking. In his books, Yancey doesn’t tell you what or how to think; he offers you ideas and leaves the thinking (and believing) up to you. He treats the subject with ample delicacy but maintains integrity when tackling it. His books also offer a fresh perspective to what you already know, or think you know.

About the Author:

Philip Yancey (born 1949) is an award-winning evangelical Christian author. With over 14 million books sold worldwide, he’s one of the most read Christian authors today. He’s won a number of book awards including the Gold Medallion Book Award and the ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) Christian Book of the Year award.

When Yancey was just about a year old, his father succumbed to polio after members of their strict, fundamentalist church convinced his dad to go off life support. They believed that his faith in God would heal him. His father’s death combined with his experience of witnessing contradictions between what the church taught and what it practiced, contributed to Yancey’s loss of faith. It would a take a miraculous moment in Bible College for him to experience a form of metanoia (spiritual conversion).

Since then, Yancey has been tackling some of the most basic and hardest questions and issues on Christianity. He’s penned thought-provoking Christian books like What’s So Amazing about Grace (1997), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Disappointment with God (1988), and Reaching for an Invisible God (2000). Yancey has also contributed works to publications like Reader’s Digest, National Wildlife, Publishers Weekly, Eternity, Moody Monthly, Chicago Tribune Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Website: www.philipyancey.com

 Favorite Work: Disappointment with God (1988)

Other Recommended Books from this Author: Where is God When it Hurts? (1977), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), What’s So Amazing About Grace (1997)

Image: Christianpost.com

Book #6: The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

THE LAST LECTURE

Author: Randy Pausch, former professor of Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction in Carnegie Mellon; The book was written with the help of author and journalist, Jeffrey Zaslow.

Genre: Non-Fiction

First Published: 2008

Status: Read

Pages: 224

Rating: A

“Enlightening and heartbreaking, The Last Lecture is Randy Pausch’s final attempt to leave a lasting legacy—46-years’ worth of life lessons squeezed into one lecture. In this book, Pausch inspires his readers to realize their dreams through living a life of integrity, hard work, gratitude, and fortitude.”

RANDY PAUSCH has made no secret of it—The Last Lecture wasn’t written for commercial purposes or for public consumption, it was written for his kids. The book was based on a 2007 lecture Pausch gave for Carnegie Mellon University. The lecture was called “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. It was a part of a series of lectures where top academics were asked to give ‘hypothetical last lectures’ and to share what was really important to them.

In Pausch’s case, there was nothing hypothetical about this final lecture. It was the last one he’d make in front of his students and colleagues—it was also the finest legacy he could ever leave to his family. The book starts off with Pausch ‘introducing the elephant in the room.’ In his words:

“I have an engineering problem. While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live.”

Although pressed for time—time which his wife, Jai, believed he could spend with his family—Pausch insisted on doing the lecture. He believed that this was the best thing he could leave his children, a glimpse of who their father was. According to Pausch: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.”

These straightforward, unflinching admissions set the tone for the rest of the book. Pausch doesn’t ask the reader to feel sorry for him; instead, he does the opposite. He tries to impart optimism to his readers by talking about the joy of living. Through his personal anecdotes, he encourages the reader to set achievable goals and to take pride in these achievements.

As a child, Pausch was a dreamer. There were a lot of things he wanted to do with his life. But what set him apart from other kids was how specific his life goals were. These dreams included: (1) being in zero gravity; (2) playing in the NFL; (3) writing an article for the World Book Encyclopedia; (4) becoming Captain Kirk; (5) winning a number of stuffed animals; and (6) becoming a Disney Imagineer. Out of all these dreams, the only one Pausch didn’t accomplish was to play for the NFL—everything else he got by working hard, working smart, and most importantly, having the right attitude.

Of course, he had a bit of help from his friends and family too. In the book, Pausch talks about winning the “parent lottery”. His parents helped shape his personality by encouraging him to dream but keeping his feet on the ground by teaching him the importance of humility. Throughout the book, he speaks of his parents with admiration and respect, but is also quick to point out the importance of compromise between the parents and the child.

Another important figure in Pausch’s life was his kiddie football coach, Jim Graham. Coach Graham could be hard on the kids, but to Pausch, that was the coach’s way of teaching the children the importance of perseverance and learning the fundamentals. Through the coach, Pausch learned more about giving and taking ‘head fakes’ or indirect learning.

Then there’s Pausch’s immediate family. Now, his children may have been the reason for the lecture, but it was his wife, Jai, who made the lecture possible. Falling in love with Jai changed Pausch. In a way, she softened him by balancing out his strong-willed nature with her own quiet strength and fortitude. Her strength also served as a comfort to Pausch, especially after learning about his terminal illness. In the lecture, Pausch speaks about being confident that his kids will grow up right because they have a strong and loving mother to guide them. The love Pausch felt for Jai is so palpable in this book. Just the way he speaks about her–the undertones of reverence and gratitude–it makes it impossible for anyone not to feel touched, hopeful, and a little heartbroken after reading about their story.

While reading this book, you can also tell right away that Pausch–though not perfect–was actually a really great man. Beyond working to achieve his dreams, he also strived to help others attain theirs. As a professor, Pausch didn’t just teach his students the subject matter, he inspired them to set goals, aim high, work hard, and most importantly, to help each other in achieving their dreams. Now, four years after his death, Pausch continues to inspire millions through this beautiful book.

All in all, I give this book an A. It’s the type of book that will motivate you to do something with your life. It’s honest, heartfelt, and touching.  The only thing that would make this book better is if Pausch and Zaslow expounded on some of the ideas more. Other than that, this book is the perfect read for anyone looking for a bit of guidance.

Favorite Quotes:

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.””

“No job is beneath you.”

Reading List: The Next 10 Books

In no particular order, except for the Jane Austen Marathon, my reading list for the next month or two.

Randy Pausch – The Last Lecture (2008)

Virginia Woolf – Three Guineas (1938) – reread

Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides (1993)

Helen Fielding – Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999)

THE JANE AUSTEN MARATHON

Sense and Sensibility (1811) – reread

Pride and Prejudice (1813) – reread

Mansfield Park (1814) – reread

Emma (1815)

Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous)

Persuasion (1818, posthumous) – reread

Wild Card/s:

Woody Allen – Without Feathers (1975) reread

Woody Allen – The Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose (2007)

Book in Wish List: “I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie” – Miss Pamela Des Barres (love her!)

Next For Review: Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding (1996)

I promised myself I’d reread a book for every new book I buy, hence the number of items marked as rereads. Will now be scouring the net for other books to buy.

Book #4: A Room of One’s Own

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Author: Virginia Woolf
Genre: Non-Fiction; Essay
Rating: A+
First Published: 1929
Status: Reread
Pages: 98

Like revolutionary poetry, Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” ignites the passion to write, to be heard, and to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

In this extended essay on “Women and Fiction”, Woolf posits that ‘…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ She speaks of this room as a figurative space where a woman can think and exist away from the constraints of a patriarchal society and unaffected by the misogynistic views prevalent in early studies of her sex.

According to Woolf, for centuries, society has kept women from writing by limiting their financial resources and forcing them into the roles of mother, daughter, wife, mistress, and homemaker. These roles enable women to serve as ‘looking-glasses possessing magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’, (p.29). Yet even at their most docile, women seem to pose as a threat to even the greatest of men. Men ‘insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they [women] were not inferior, they [men] would cease to enlarge.’

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Book #1: Disappointment with God

DISAPPOINTMENT WITH GOD

Author: Philip Yancey
Genre: Non-Fiction; Religion
First Published: 1998
Status: Read
Pages: 290
Price: PHP 225.00/$5.18

I found this book in a hospital bookshop earlier this month. I don’t normally read religious books or anything that has potential to become self-righteous, but there was something intriguing about Disappointment with God. The book promised to address some of the most faith-fracturing questions known to the religious—Why is God Unfair?, Is He Hidden?, and Is He Silent?. As the author, Philip Yancey, puts it—this was to be “a book of faith” as seen “through the eyes of those who doubt”.

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