Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

14280654_158324501284860_5945813228339593216_n

Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

FullSizeRender (3)

Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano

 

I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.

Book Review: N0S4A2 by Joe Hill

n0s4a2 - hill

 

Title: N0S4A2

Author: Joe Hill

First Published: 2013

Genre: Fiction – Horror, Suspense, Supernatural

What are the elements of a truly good horror story? Well, in this writer’s humble opinion, what separates a great horror novel from a cheesy ripoff is the author’s ability to transform the ‘ordinary’ into the ‘terrifying.’ Granted, a good idea isn’t the only requirement here—execution plays a big factor. The novel has to be well-written, descriptive, and well thought out. And I’m happy to say that Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 meets all these requirements, and more.

N0S4A2 is the complex story of Charlie Manx and Victoria “Vic” McQueen. At the start of the story, we see the former as a near-comatose serial killer, who was known to be most active in the 1980s to the early 1990s. Manx kidnapped and presumably killed children, abducting them using his untrackable 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, which curiously enough, bore the vanity plate N0S4A2. According to Manx, he was bringing the kids to Christmasland, where pain could never touch them, where the pockmarked moon winked at passersby, where clouds weren’t really clouds but cotton candy.

Vic, on the other hand, was Manx’s downfall—as Manx was hers. She’s not quite his final victim, but he does break something in her. When Vic traveled the Shorter Way Bridge as a teen, she discovered the truth about the ageless Manx and Christmasland. She found out that she and Manx shared a similar talent—the ability to tap into the mind’s inscape and use the alternate realities created by their distinct identities to further their means. For the young Victoria McQueen, traveling through the long-sunk covered bridge was a way to locate anything or anyone. In Manx’s case, it was the ability to use his Wraith to bring his kid of choice to Christmasland, where he sucked the youth and the good out the child.

Their first encounter had Vic scarred for life, and Manx in what seemed like a permanent vegetative state. But as is the case with most horror stories, the monster doesn’t stay down for long. Manx recovers and exacts his revenge on Vic, by taking her son. Ultimately, N0S4A2 is the story of a mother’s unconditional and saving love—though it is, by no means, a sap account.

In N0S4A2, Joe Hill doesn’t skimp on the shock factor and the horror. By juxtaposing the ‘warm’ familiars, (things we associate with love like mothers, children, and Christmas), with the stuff of nightmares (mommy rapists, zombie children with rows and rows of needle-like teeth), Hill creates a fascinatingly frightening world that keeps you guessing on whether or not good will prevail.

Now, I don’t scare easily—at least, not when it comes to horror stories. But N0S4A2 has all the essentials of a truly scary read. Though I highly recommend this to most everyone, this is not for the easily queasy or the faint-hearted.

Rating: A+


Kristel Marie Pujanes

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad-Jennifer Egan

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Genre: Fiction

First Published: 2010

Uncategorizable, experimental, but like most of its characters, unsinkable—A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the usual mold of Fiction, then comes out victorious in its ultra-realistic portrayal of life. This Pulitzer-winning (2011) offering from Jennifer Egan is told in a non-linear (time-wise) and non-traditional format.

Is it a novel or a pastiche of short stories? Whatever it is, it’s one complex and gripping piece of literature that engages the reader and commands the reader to sit still and pay attention. Blink and you might lose the thread that links all the stories together. What Egan does in A Visit from the Goon Squad is she gives you glimpses of the lives of a number of highly different, and yet, interconnected characters. Okay, that’s oversimplifying it. She doesn’t give you a glimpse of their lives as if you’d know each character at a single glance. She lets you in on specific moments of the characters lives, and encourages you to put two and two together.

Mind you, this isn’t a piece of fiction that you can breeze through without going back a page or two to digest what’s going on. And yet, that’s what keeps the reader (this one, at least) hooked. You’ll end up trying to guess who’s next. Which minor figure in the current chapter will become the next chapter’s main protagonist? How does this character figure into the whole story, if ever, there was a ‘whole story’?

Now, normally, I would attempt to give you a brief summary of the book—and give me a second or two, and I will try—but it might be an ambitious attempt on my part when it comes to this one. You might just have to trust me when I tell you that this is a book worth reading. Either way, here goes nothing: [SPOILERS AHEAD]

A Visit from the Goon Squad starts off with a 20-something woman named Sasha, and her attempt to curb her kleptomania. We learn in the next chapter, that she works as Bennie’s personal assistant. Bennie is a recording executive whose mentor, Lou, discovered him when he was a bassist in his high school band, Flaming Dildos. Lou had a bit of a fling with Jocelyn, Bennie’s bandmate, who was also the sort-of girlfriend of Scotty (their guitarist). Of course, this was all before Bennie married Stephanie, a PR agent who tried to bring back the flagging career of the aging has-been rockstar, Bosco. Bosco, seeing something special in Stephanie’s brother, Jules, decides to give him the exclusive story to his ‘suicide tour.’ We learn that Jules actually has the writing chops for this story, after all, he was a former journalist whose career ended when he tried to rape a Hollywood starlet named Kitty Jackson. Kitty, will eventually work with La Doll, Stephanie’s former boss, as La Doll tries to soften the image of a foreign genocidal general. La Doll, who was once the toast of Hollywood, saw the collapse of her fascinating career during a huge PR spectacle that was simply too hot to handle. Of course, during the time of the PR fiasco, Sasha would’ve been a young prostitute in Naples—right before she went back to college where she met her future husband, Drew. The two will eventually move to the desert to raise their two kids. As for Bennie, at the end of the book, he would’ve found a way to bring back Scottie’s career through working with Alex, an old fling of Sasha’s.

So, Complex? Oh, YES. Confusing? Yup, a bit. Compelling? Definitely. All in all, this is a book that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a good read.

Grade: A+

Featured Poem: Pursuit by Sylvia Plath

black panther

Pursuit  is probably the most erotic poem from Sylvia Plath. It was written almost immediately after the great poetess met her handsome husband-to-be, the poet, Ted Hughes. The poem presents the image of the persona (Plath) as being the prey of this powerful, irresistible, and ultimately destructive panther (Hughes).

To see herself as a type of prey to the biggest seducer of Cambridge (1), and to acknowledge the possibility of destruction under the hands (paws?) of this powerful predator is very telling of the gut-pull, the incredible attraction between two of the world’s greatest Literary minds. Plath knows the danger of this attraction, which is why the persona in this piece attempts to run, to bolt each door behind her—all the while knowing that running is futile.

There is also that fear of becoming one of the ‘charred and ravened women,’ which she describes in the poem. But despite this knowledge, this fear, she too is drawn to the panther. Her blood ‘quickens, gonging in (her) ears.’ That, perhaps, shows how the magnetic pull between them is beyond the persona’s control.

And of course, there is that telling second line: “One day I’ll have my death of him.” Self-fulfilling prophecy? That is still debatable. The way I read it, it is Plath’s acknowledgement of the depths of her emotions for Hughes.

 

Pursuit

By Sylvia Plath

 Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.

RACINE

There is a panther stalks me down:

One day I’ll have my death of him;

His greed has set the woods aflame,

He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,

Advancing always at my back;

From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:

The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,

Haggard through the hot white noon.

Along red network of his veins

What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land

Condemned by our ancestral fault,

Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;

Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet

The singeing fury of his fur;

His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,

Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,

Kindled like torches for his joy,

Charred and ravened women lie,

Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;

Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;

The black marauder, hauled by love

On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes

Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush

Bright those claws that mar the flesh

And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,

And I run flaring in my skin;

What lull, what cool can lap me in

When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,

To quench his thirst I squander blood;

He eats, and still his need seeks food,

Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,

The gutted forest falls to ash;

Appalled by secret want, I rush

From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,

I shut my doors on that dark guilt,

I bolt the door, each door I bolt.

Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,

Coming up and up the stairs.

Note: ‘Biggest seducer in Cambridge’ came from the book, ‘Her Husband’ by Diane Middlebrook.

 Image: wallpapers.free-review.net

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+

February 11, 2013: Remembering Sylvia Plath

U1889231

 

Fifty years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning, Sylvia Plath brought bread and milk to her sleeping children. She opened their window and closed the door, carefully stuffing towels into the cracks—separating her children from her final, decisive act. She did the same with the kitchen door, carefully, methodically carrying out the operation with the same precision she used in choosing the words to flesh out her worn soul. The oven’s gas taps were turned on, a cloth was placed inside the oven. She laid her head onto the cloth and waited for death to claim her.

THAT is the image of Plath in pop culture. The brilliant poetess who died too soon, head in the oven and children bawling in the next room. THAT image continues to cast its massive shadow on Sylvia Plath’s (and consequently, Ted Hughes’s) exceptional works. It has become almost impossible to separate this tragedy from her poetry, and yet, it is this same tragedy that one must transcend to completely understand her genius. Sylvia Plath is often regarded as one of the most well-known Confessional Poets in the last century. And yet for many, she is simply the mad writer who stuck her head in the oven to die.

So while today may be Sylvia Plath’s 50th death anniversary, for me, I’ll use it to mark the start of my year of celebrating Plath. This year, I plan to go over her works and post poem analyses and reviews. I shall try to see each poem, short story, essay, or novel with a fresh and unbiased eye—hopefully, picking up a thing or two in the process. I end this post with a quote from Plath:

 

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – from The Bell Jar

Book Review: Falling Angels – Tracy Chevalier

falling angels - tracy chevalier

 

Title: Falling Angels

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Post-Victorian Age

First Published: 2002

Pages: 324

Status: Read

Told through the shifting perspectives of the members of two very different families in turn-of-the-century England, Falling Angels highlights Tracy Chevalier’s ability to create a cohesive piece of fiction out of a myriad of mindsets. The novel is set in the early 1900s, opening with the death of Queen Victoria. The Queen’s death ushers in this new age of awareness and revolution against the rigidity of what was considered the ‘norm’ during this period.

In this novel, Chevalier touches on Victorian sensibilities that flit between frivolity and inflexibility. Kitty Coleman’s boredom with her life as a married woman pushes her to deny her husband, Richard, and child, Maude, affection. Her cold nature affects sensitive and straitlaced, Maude, who is terribly lonely as an only child.

Maude eventually finds the companionship she craves with Simon Field, the son of a gravedigger, and Lavinia Waterhouse, the spoiled child of the Coleman’s graveyard plot neighbors. The Waterhouses are quite different from the Colemans. For starters, Lavinia’s mother, Gertrude, is a stickler to tradition. She sees Kitty as inappropriate, though she cannot exactly dissuade Lavinia from being friends with Kitty’s daughter. The two families eventually become neighbors, and while niceties are exchanged once in a while, Gertrude and Kitty find that their only commonality lies in Maude and Lavinia’s friendship.

The relationship between the two families become even more estranged when Kitty, after some traumatic events, immerses herself in the Suffragette movement. Take note, the book only starts to really pick up at this point. The series of tragedies in the book seems crammed in the last hundred pages.

Though Falling Angels has been lauded as being ‘engaging,’ ‘appealing,’ and ‘bewitching,’ in this reader’s humble opinion, the book mostly fails to maintain interest due to the marked similarities between the voices of some of its heroines. Kitty’s initial venture into the Suffragette movement even falls somewhat flat, for though the movement itself ought to be exciting enough, Kitty’s main mover, a certain Caroline Black, has caricature-ish elements to her personality. The movement feels cartooned somehow. (Oh Virginia Woolf, how you’ve spoiled me.)

Falling Angels’ saving grace comes in its final hundred pages. The pace picks up, the characters grow up, and essentially, the novel becomes a worthy read. Now, would one consider it Chevalier’s best work? Well, in this reader’s case, No. I’d recommend that first-time Chevalier readers go for either Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

Title: Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Romance

First Published: 2009

Pages: 406

Status: Reread

 

I am no Nick Hornby expert, but I do consider myself a fan. I also believe Juliet, Naked is one of Hornby’s best works. In it, the author showcases his unique ability to create something beautiful out of a messed-up relationship and an unhealthy obsession with a washed-out musician.

The novel, in a nutshell, tells the story of how nobody is ever completely beyond redemption—how no life is beyond salvaging. In the book, we follow the lives of our three main characters—Annie, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe. Annie and Duncan are residents of Gooleness, a small, bleak, and dull town in the East Coast of England. Nothing ever happens in Gooleness, the same way nothing ever happens in Duncan and Annie’s 15-year relationship. Like the dead-end town, theirs is a relationship that’s free of burning passion. At least, free of the kind of passion that Annie wants in her life.

Duncan is passionate enough about one particular topic—the retired and reclusive 80s musician, Tucker Crowe. Duncan’s obsession makes him the ultimate Crowologist, an expert in all things Tucker Crowe. He owns thousands of bootlegged copies of Crowe’s performances. He dissects the lyrics of Crowe’s songs to find ‘hidden meaning’ that eludes even the actual songwriter. Though almost seeming like a caricature of a ‘fan’, one can’t help but recognize how there’s a bit of Duncan in all of us. That passion Duncan feels for Crowe stems from the same brook where our own unhealthy fascination for Late Greats like Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and in my case, Sylvia Plath, springs from.

And though Annie doesn’t exactly share the obsession Duncan has for Tucker Crowe, she recognizes it, tolerates it. She tolerates it enough to join Duncan on a trip to the States to look at a toilet in a small bar in Minneapolis. Of course, the toilet isn’t just any toilet for Duncan. It is THE toilet where Crowe had an amazing epiphany that caused him to walk out of his own life forever—which isn’t to say he died, so much as disappeared from the face of the earth, its public face anyway. The fact that Tucker Crowe did this right after the release of his most critically acclaimed album, the break-up masterpiece Juliet, just adds to the mystery of his quitting.

Although Annie puts up with Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, cracks in their staid relationship begin to show when the pared down version of Juliet is released. The album becomes known as Juliet, Naked. Duncan, understandably, almost wets himself in excitement after hearing the album. In it, he sees genius. Annie, on the other hand, sees just potential. Both write their respective reviews on a Tucker tribute website, which Duncan owns. But when the real Tucker Crowe contacts Annie, the lives of our three protagonists begin to change drastically.

Now, Hornby has always had the gift of bringing his characters to life. For some odd reason, despite being deeply flawed, all the characters in Juliet, Naked are also quite lovable. Even the music nerd Duncan, with his arrogance and elitism has his great speech, his flaw-free moment.

When Duncan reveals the extent of his obsession with Tucker, the reader can’t help but feel embarrassed for the guy. After spending over 20 years trying to establish himself as a credible and serious Crowologist, he becomes no different from some deranged fan who breaks into someone else’s home. And yet, can one really hate Duncan for it, I wonder? If you had the chance to ransack the drawers of your favorite writer or musician and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t you do the same? That type of dedication is rare, creepy, flawed, and yet so telling of the extent of one’s love. To debase yourself for another—ah, but I digress.

Then, there’s Annie, who is the quintessential modern heroine. Dissatisfaction is her primary mover. At one point in the novel, she asks Tucker Crowe: “What do you do if you think you’ve wasted fifteen years of your life?” To which Tucker, the King of Time Wasted, tells Annie to reevaluate her life by using some complex formula that would account for the years ‘wasted.’ Though the advice was clever enough, I was more struck by the question. Isn’t it completely human to feel like we’ve wasted time? I thought, where does one waste 15 years? And then I realized the answer was in the everyday. We waste it on the sameness of the everyday. We look at the conflict between contentment and happiness without fully grasping how those two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Yes, compromise is necessary in living, but there has to be some sort of self-imposed limit on compromising. And I digress, even more.

Lastly, there’s Tucker Crowe. The washed-up, once-was musician. At the time of the novel, he was a recovering alcoholic who has done nothing in the last 22 years that constitutes as ‘work’. For decades, he depended on his ex-wives to keep him afloat. And though he hates this dependency, he feels powerless to work through it. In a way, Tucker feels like the most hopeless of all three characters. His, seemed like the hardest character to redeem.

And yet, there is some form of redemption for all three characters. Maybe not the kind that’s perfect, but there are lessons learned and changes made. To quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And ever the optimist, I do believe that Duncan, Tucker, and Annie have all taken the first step by the end of the book.

So obviously, one of the central themes of the novel is “Time Lost”. One of the lingering questions from the book is whether or not we can still salvage our remaining years—few as they may seem.

The book’s ending is for the affirmative. Yes, it’s never too late to find happiness. And though the book’s ending is, well, open to interpretation, Annie’s conversation with her shrink, Malcolm, is enough to give the reader some hope. Hope that maybe things will work out for Annie and Tucker, at least.

 

SPOILER ALERT: How does Juliet, Naked really end?

Well, I find that its ending really depends on what you want to believe. In true Nick Hornby fashion, our dear author gives no certainties of sad or happy endings. The story doesn’t end, it merely stops. It mimics the fluidity of real life.

Now, the first time I read Juliet, Naked, I fell upon the bleakest ending. Like Annie predicted, life slid into place after Tucker. As for Tucker, his next album was a major disappointment.

But upon rereading the book, I discovered the possibility of something good. Maybe, just maybe, Annie and Tucker found their way back to each other. That would certainly explain Tucker’s newfound contentment and new album. After combing the net for like interpretations, I found that a number of readers believe that “Uptown Girl” in the forums is actually Annie. They believe that Annie married Tucker in the end. Also a likely outcome, IMO. I think if we read between the lines hard enough, ala Duncan, maybe we can come up with even more possible endings for the book!

Either way, with its endless possibilities, its endless questions, there is no doubt in my mind that Juliet, Naked is the type of book that is truly worth reading and re-exploring. Highly recommended to all book lovers.

GRADE: A+