My Issue With Sylvia Plath

June 11, 2015 at 3:48 pm (In So Many Words) (, , , , , , , , , )

412FYKPYEWLDisclaimer: If I was a coward or a sensible human, I’d post this as some sort of fictional work.  I am neither.  But if you know me and would rather pretend this post isn’t real, for the sake of our friendship, that’s cool.

I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write this post without sounding like a bitter, unfeeling hag.  Then, I realized, more than that, I have to find a way to say what I mean to say without sounding like a pitiable, whiny, woe-is-me turd.  Finally, I came to the conclusion that I just need to say what I’m going to say, post this “review” and let it sound however it will sound; because ultimately, though I am a writer and can be precise or flowery with my words, I cannot control how you hear/ read them.  I am not that powerful.  Maybe that just means I’m a terrible writer, but we’ll let those insecurities ride for another day…

I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  It was my dead friend’s birthday and I thought he deserved a proper wallow, what better way to have a healthy wallow than to read a classic novel written by a woman who put her head in an oven?

So I took a bath, all appropriately scalding hot, and settled down into this:

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.  Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”

This, of course, made me giggle at the wisdom of my selection.

Mostly, though, I felt a familiarity about the book, the characters, and all the feelings, that just outright angered me.  She talks about things that make her sad and tired, and then how thinking about being sad and tired makes her more sad and tired.  I found one of my own personal college friends in Doreen, the party girl from the deep south.  I found myself in the narrator’s alter ego, inspired by an outing with Doreen, the party girl.

As I read, I got deeper and deeper into the narrator’s not-so-dark and twisty brain and followed her around as she thought about killing herself and received shock therapy while being hospitalized with the other crazies.  I thought of Girl, Interrupted and Susannah Keyson and realized why, exactly, this book was familiar, and enjoyable, but ultimately a deep itch under my skin.

Everyone feels that way – the way Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical character feels.  Everyone struggles to live, and if they don’t then I’m shocked.  Reading The Bell Jar I just wanted to scream at a very dead Sylvia Plath, and every other depressed person I’ve known, and even the depressed person I’ve been and sometimes still am:

WHAT MAKES YOU SO SPECIAL? What makes you so special that you get to bask in your insanity?  Nothing.  That’s what.  You’re just taking advantage of living in a world that works harder than you to exist.

That’s probably unfair, and shows an utter lack of compassion, but it’s how I feel.

Because it is hard work.  Getting out of bed every morning is a mental exercise.  Keeping yourself from crawling back in – or worse being a drunk slob for the hours you’re awake – is a physical exercise.  Every day you have to create and maintain specific habits to keep yourself from sliding into the glorious abyss of a terrible wallow… a wallow of anxieties, simultaneously deep and restless sleep, an attitude called The Mean Reds (thanks, Holly Golightly), and a conflicting desire to both eat yourself into obesity or starve yourself to death – it could go either way.

Every day is a challenge to make the counting in your head stop.  And with all this counting, it’s a struggle to actually sit down and count the things you’re supposed to.  My drawer was ten cents off at work the other day, which naturally (and I would have said the same thing to anyone else), they teased me about not being able to count – because it wasn’t actually off, I had just documented it as off.  Want to know what that sounds like?  If your brain is anything like mine, which for the sake of this entire post I’m going to assume that for many people it is, my brain processed the comments a bit like this…

A Rising Panic Attack

Recognition that this was a joke

Panic Attack Subsides, only to start up again wondering if they think you’re stupid, or, worse…

Did they catch on to the fact that you were counting dimes over top of the counting already happening in your head – the one that finds itself ticking in time with any and every clock on the wall, the one that falls in tune to your steps as you walk across tile floors, still looking at your feet when you walk even though you are now in your thirties.  The rhythm that helps you get your work done fast when you’re methodically shelving and alphabetizing, but might trip you on the street if you encounter a crack in the sidewalk – because you’re never sure if that day is a no crack day or a step ON the crack day… not until you do one or the other and the part of you begins to panic.  Did they notice this?

While all this is happening in your head, you realize your rhythm is gone.  Your heart was racing, but now it suddenly stopped altogether and you find yourself both mentally and physically trying to catch your breath, but you play it cool when you remind yourself that even though you *feel* like your head has bubble wrap duct taped around it and that you’ve been thrown into a swimming pool – that’s not what you look like.  No one sees your bubble wrap face.  They also don’t realize, hopefully, that you can’t hear them right now.

Your left pinky finger starts to tingle and you crack the knuckle to make it stop, to regain feeling.  Only this time it hurts and you look down and see it is more bent than usual.  Long ago it was broken, right now it simultaneously feels numb and broken.  You wonder if you re-broke it sometime this week and didn’t notice.

The Heart Flutters.

Post-it notes are raining on your head, but they are in teals and oranges and easily arranged and filed into your handy-dandy mental filing cabinets – alphabetized and roughly dated.  (Yes, I have those.  If I’m too terribly distracted, the notes turn yellow and green, they’re only their orange and teal shades when I’m looking directly at them.  The filing cabinets are the old metal kind, the ones you find on the side of the road or in ancient school building, rickety and decidedly thrown away by someone more sane than me.)

During all of this, life goals and contingency plans are running in the background.  What if my husband dies? I could come back to work full time here.  We’ve accomplished x,y,z so it’s probable.  But I can’t count dimes, that might be a problem.  If he died by car crash, I go _____.  If he dies by _____, I go ______.  If I die, he does not die…. If this than that.  It takes me 30 seconds to map out a life plan from a newly presented scenario.  It takes another 30 seconds for me to make a list of resources I think I need to implement this life plan effectively.  Life Plan 3,069 logged away in filing cabinet 192, June 2015.

Your ears pop – as though you’ve ACTUALLY been under water, which briefly makes you wonder.  Wonder about what?  The Matrix, of course, are you in The Matrix?  Or God’s brain?  My husband thinks we are all synapses in a giant God-head’s brain.  I ponder the biology of that while I – or you –  think about The Matrix and how Neo didn’t realize he was stuck, naked, in a bubble of goo while his brain was plugged in to what he thought was real.

Suddenly, you’re cold all over and briefly wonder if you might be in goo too.  Then you realize that for some inexplicable reason (the smell of old books? the comfort of the books? the smell of the person who just passed you by?) you’re not in goo, you’re just horny and why haven’t you ever had sex in a library or a bookstore?  Oh, because the NSA is watching, yes, that’s why.

Less than a minute has passed since you were teased about the dimes and your inability to count.  People have been talking around you, and you’ve even piped in – whether sensibly or not, you can’t be sure – and finally a customer asks you a question.  This part is easier.  The question is a book title, or an author.  (I honestly don’t remember now.)  But when someone asks something like this, it’s easier to get around all the warehouse like noise in the mind.  The color coded post-it notes of fragmented thoughts are discarded, the flow-charts of contingency plans for life are swept momentarily aside and you consult your filing cabinets and bookshelves for the answer to their question.  Maybe they asked you about dystopian fiction and you’re walking them through a list of your favorites. Maybe they just want a book that reminds them of red fields of grass, which they have to read for sophomore English – naturally you pluck up Catcher in the Rye by Salinger and they marvel at how you knew, or (depending on the customer) take it for granted that of course you knew exactly what they were talking about because they described the book so well.

The point is, this is constant and every day.  Everyone has a thousand things happening in their heads that no one knows about.  And frankly, not everyone needs to know about.  When I’m having a hard time quieting the characters for my fiction, who like to gather around my filing cabinets and gab at me, or making the what if flow charts stop, when I can’t seem to stay out of the damn bubble wrap pool party – I chatter.  I get clammy and chatter to whoever will listen.  Because if my mouth is running, then I don’t have to listen to the chatter in my brain as much… I can ever so briefly shut them the hell up.  The point is, I’m not sticking my head in any ovens.  I make do.

It’s not fun.  It’s not easy.  It’s down right exhausting.  It’s noisy, and it’s lonely.  It is an effort to remember to feed myself and to feed others, and when I eat – not to eat too much.  I am held together by the fact that I must sweep and mop this floor every day, that the things happening in my husband’s head are far worse than mine so someone has to keep it together.  That some people out there have worse problems – like being raped and or being torn from limb to limb as they refuse to renounce Christ.

Yet, this twat, who was an amazing writer and artist, who had two kids that needed her… stuck her head in a freaking oven.  Would that be easier?  Yes.  Was she crazy?  Yes.  But no more or less than anyone else, in my self-admittedly judgmental opinion.

Despite all that, I checked out her Bed-Book and read it to my daughter – it’s a lovely children’s picture book, and am currently reading both her diaries and her letters to her mother.  Because I like her, I do.  I feel like I know her and have been her.  I feel like if I am not careful, I could be her again – but at least I’ll have the sense to keep my head out of ovens.  (Although, when I was a kid, I used to bend over in the laundry room, holding a button down, to dry my hair in the clothes dryer – very effective…)

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I Dare You (Clans of the Alphane Moon Review Part One)

May 5, 2015 at 4:46 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , )

Photo on 5-4-15 at 6.36 PM

On page 42 and I already teared up twice. should not make me so emotional.

Here I am still chronicling my emotional well being through Philip K. Dick novels.  I’m torn between telling myself to shut up and stop being a drama queen and diving into a full on crisis regarding empathy and my constant struggle to have some.  Sympathy is really my problem.  I can put myself in someone else’s shoes just fine, embrace, feel what they feel and all that – so a struggle for empathy isn’t truly my issue.  It’s sympathy I don’t have.  I won’t pity others, I won’t feel sorry for your plights.  I will consistently tell you to suck it up – I might also slap your ass and say “Go Team.”

The question is, should I pity and sympathize?  I was always taught those things were the most condescending things you could feel for another person.  But not feeling them seems to make me crass, blunt to the point of tactless, and generally unpleasant to those in my outer affiliations as well as my inner most circles.

“Tell me if I start to sound bitchy, because I don’t understand why ________ can’t get their shit together,” I told my Em over coffee.  I know how they feel, I understand the issues, the struggle, and still I’ve been there and I survived and I’m not any good with my feelings… I just don’t think anyone anywhere holds the license to struggle more than another, so stop whining and figure it out.  (Take note that I am completely aware that I am currently – and often – whining about this.)

“Ok, you’re being a bitch,” my faithful friend told me.

Fair enough.

Chuck’s wife, Mary, in Clans of the Alphane Moon is a terrible person.  I relate to her more than anyone in any of his novels so far.  So much so that when Chuck starts wanting to murder her, I started to tear up – again – because I see that she deserves his murderous thoughts, but I can’t see how she could possibly want anything different than what she wants.  She’s unfair, unforgiving, horrible for sending her daughter away, terrible in almost every way.  And I understand her.

In all this struggle for a empathetic balance, I am not sad that she might get murdered, I’m sad that she is the character I identify with. Am I a shrew? I don’t think so.  But I could be. It’s probably silly for me to take Philip K. Dick novels so personally.  Shouldn’t they be genre sci-fi candy to binge read? No. For some reason, every one is something I feel deeply about.  I run on two speeds… psychotically passionate for no reason and completely numb.

I dare you to read Philip K. Dick and feel numb.  I dare you.

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To Live And Die By Books

April 24, 2014 at 6:40 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

“She never wanted me to save her, only to love her as she was.”

– from The Archivist

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The awful truth of it all is that madness isn’t beautiful.  But it can be made to sound like it is by literary giants who suffer from it or have had someone close suffer from it.  Anyone who has read the works of Sylvia Plath or T.S. Eliot could tell you this.  Martha Cooley makes this so utterly clear in The Archivist.  Reading Cooley’s work is like coming home.

“Her anger lay just under the surface, and it governed.  I was foolish to think I could urge or lead her anywhere.”

If you’ve known or been close to a manic depressive, you know how maddening this can be.  You know how frustrating the inability to react properly to anything that goes on in their head.  You know how quickly you, too, can be sucked into their reactions and find yourself angry as well.  You also know how wonderful is the defense mechanism of diving into a good book or hiding away with your journal and pen.

“People with special powers are frightening to love.  That’s why Eliot and Vivienne were doomed by the way – why their marriage was bound to fail.  They terrified each other.”

The literary mind finds safe places where it can… inside the pages of books.

“[…]While denial is useful, it has its price.  There’s no such thing as identity without history.”

So many quotes from Cooley moved me with their simplicity and truth.  They are words that I feel in my bones.  “Authentic moral resonance,” Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe called it.  Resonance is always felt in my bones, for all their conditioning I am oddly hyper aware of them.  They are undeniably tied to my passions – my loves – my needs – my life.

The ArchivistIn 1998, Steven Moore of the Washington Post Book World, wrote: “It is rare and gratifying to read a novel about people who take literature seriously, who practically live and die by books…”

It’s not so rare anymore with the likes of Diane Setterfield, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and Kate Morton lurking about.  These days there is a whole sub-genre of fiction dedicated to it featuring titles like The Secret of Lost Things and The Little Book.  My own book is a feeble attempt to honor these authors with a dose of what suited the publishing company at the time.  The Bookshop Hotel is a bit of a romance – but one where the main character is quite in love with books and her small town more than in love with another human.

Poets, a marriage, diaries… Possession won awards and became insanely famous.  Somehow, however, Cooley’s book got buried once it ceased being a New York Times Bestseller – but it should never be forgotten.

I think I’m drawn to these kinds of books because I always find peoples’ relationships to books telling of what their relationships to people are.  Sampling someone’s library is like peering into their soul and seeing where their loyalties lie.  Or, if they have loyalties at all.

There’s a quote on page 47 that I find so familiar –

“She had become familiar to me physically as well as intellectually; I knew her dark brows and good coloring, […] the slope of her neck, the slight overbite of her upper teeth.  I was familiar with the details, yet she eluded me.  Something to do with her motives remained completely beyond my grasp.”

I find this true of many people I’ve encountered.  And many books too.  You hold them, weigh them in your hands.  You lovingly caress their spines.  You know their smell, you know what they are saying.  You know their stories, their backgrounds, their recurring themes.  But you couldn’t begin to comprehend why they are telling you and what motivated them to do so.  You’re not always certain what they want you to do with the information.  That part belongs tucked away in someone’s secret heart and one can only guess.

“I sat at my desk, staring at the note and struggling to make sense of it.  I remember feeling a peculiar detachment – as if I were someone else, trying to unravel a mystery that was captivating but in which I wasn’t personally implicated.”

The Archivist is a must have for any book lovers library, especially for those who live and die by the printed word.

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Eden’s Outcasts – A Review

March 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

January 2013 079Title: Eden’s Outcasts

Author: John Matteson

Genre: Biography/ History

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Length: 497 pages

I knew I wanted to read this book the first time I saw it at Jill’s Books in The Woodlands a few years ago.  I have loved Louisa May Alcott all my life and in the last few years I’ve really started to enjoy the art of the biography.  My best friend bought it for me on the spot because she is one of those beautiful people who doesn’t think people should be denied their bookish desires.  It wasn’t until March (a novelization of the younger years of Marmee and Mr. March) was chosen for the HPB Humble Book Club that I actually committed to sitting down with it in an attempt to understand Brooks’ portrayal of the patriarch.

*Notes about A Family in Debt*

So my review of the biography begins with Bronson Alcott’s astonishing ability to over zealously botch everything he touches.  This trait of Bronson is made overwhelmingly clear around page 181.  By this time in the biography, his utopian commune Fruitlands has failed, he has lost all his manuscripts, the house the family is living in was purchased with his wife’s inheritance, and he has completely disappointed me.  At this point in his life Bronson refused to be employed and takes up an architectural endeavor on Emerson’s land, a building that would be nicknamed “Tumbledown Hall” and “The Ruin.”  For a man portrayed as one so taken with education, he tackled projects with a whole lot of zeal and not nearly enough research.  When he did research, others’ ideas were usually disregarded in order to implement his own innovative plans.  To me, most his plans pretty much always sucked.

On the other hand, Louisa, his daughter, was exceptionally prudent.  She had an intense crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson when she was young, which I find adorable, but never shared the love letters she wrote to him.  Instead, when the crush was over, she burned them, but continued to look up to Emerson as a teacher.  Emerson would be a part of Louisa May Alcott’s life from her birth until his death.

Bronson may have failed in many things during the first half of his life, but his efforts as a father are later a solid testament to home schooling.  Matteson shares on page 182 that

“During her teen years, Louisa received essentially no formal schooling outside the home.  However, reading Dickens with her family, poring over Goethe in Emerson’s library, and scrambling through the woods with Thoreau comprised a unique education in themselves.”

Bronson Alcott, I believe, had some serious issues.  Matteson has the grace to allow you to come to this conclusion on your own before he shares the fact that mental illness did indeed run in the family and that it is likely that both Bronson and Louisa May were manic depressive or bipolar, but that there is no way to know for sure.

Bronson’s worldview was both passionate and skewed.  He established his house at Hillside (a few years before the well-known Orchard House) as an underground railroad station and fought viciously for equal political rights for African Americans.  Then in contradiction to his own actions stated that blond hair, blue eyed people were closer to God and that black men should not be allowed to reproduce.  How these beliefs reside in one human being baffles me.  It reminds me of an observation Bill Bryson made in his book The Lost Continent, where when traveling the United States he identifies a curious contradiction in American culture and race relations.  In the north, Yankees are known for their belief in equality and pretend to make no distinction between black and white in personal treatment and political issues, yet they live very segregated lives and rarely share the same neighborhood.  However, in the deep south, there is a general assumption of hatred between the two groups, but they live side by side as neighbors.

Why such dichotomy?  I find it all rather ridiculous.  In Bronson’s case, he refused to use products made by slaves and destroyed his career on the principle that even black students had a place in his school.  Kudos! But then he thinks something so crass as an idea that black men should be denied their God given right to have children.  Absurd!

I find Bronson entirely too duplicitous.  He insisted on a family commune but almost left his family to a more philosophic way of life.  He was passionate about fatherhood, but made it very difficult for his children to feel worthy of his praise.  He desired a Utopia, but in every action tore what could have been to the ground.  His ease in living off hand outs from the labor of his friends while simultaneously declining anything done honestly through the labor of animals is confusing.  It is no wonder to me that the father figure in Little Women is both absent and idolized.  The fact that Bronson went to such great lengths to have a perfect transcendental family and then refused to accept work when it was offered because he had as “yet no clear call to any work beyond [him]self,” is irritating.  The Alcotts were flooded with debt and Bronson had the means to fix it, but was too busy living in his head.

The greatest contradiction of all is that in the second half of his life he would rectify my horrible opinion of him…

*Notes about An Authoress*

The thing I love most about biographies is the same thing I love about “bookish” books – they provide lists, a more diverse reading experience.  While reading Eden’s Outcasts, the biographer periodically offered reviews and insightful critiques to Alcott’s little known works.  So while reading her biography, I was also led to read specific stories out of A Whisper in the Dark, like Love and Self-Love.  It also led me to desire to seek out a piece called Hospital Sketches.

Matteson continues to offer literary criticism on many of Alcott’s publications and goes into a lengthy discussion of An Old Fashioned Girl.  It is during this portion of the biography that Bronson has redeemed himself as a father in my eyes.  At this point he was quietly living at Orchard House in between traveling and making his money.  His ideals were far less irritating later in life than when he had a poor young family to support, because at this point Louisa’s fame had made the entire Alcott family debt free.  This success and income is also what finally made Bronson a more supportive father who spent many of Louisa’s later years doting on her and praising her success.

This age old story of the parent-child relationship reminds me of a Bill Cosby sketch where he laments his parents as grandparents.

“I’ve never seen such a turn around in all my life […] That’s not the same woman I grew up with; you’re looking at an old person who’s trying to get into heaven now.” (watch the whole sketch here)

In the story An Old Fashioned Girl, Alcott actually praises her father by inferring that,

“Shaw’s offspring would need less reforming if he had given them more of his time and less of an allowance.”

Matteson continues to say,

“Louisa goes to far as to suggest that a well-provided childhood is a hindrance to happiness and achievement.”

This is a much different sentiment than that during the aftermath of Bronson’s failed Fruitlands.  Mostly proud father, but partly opportunist, Bronson wrote, “I am introduced as the father of Little Women, and I am riding in the chariot of glory wherever I go.”  Bronson may have begun to be capable of providing for his wife and family, but only because Louisa made it possible with her fame.

As Matteson picks apart Alcott’s life and novels, he states:

“As is more than once the case with Alcott, the fiction teasingly invites speculation that the surviving facts can neither confirm nor dispel.” – pg. 382

Of her own fame, Alcott said: “I asked for bread and got a stone, – in the shape of a pedestal.”

*What it all Means to Me…*

All in all Matteson’s biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father is the most well-written and thorough biography I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  I hung on every word.

All the detailed family relationships, the well thought out literary critiques, and little factoids like the fact that Louisa was the first Concord woman to register to vote, made the whole book a joy to read.

Above all, I am pleased that Matteson has finally put into words a truth that has been part of my own beliefs since childhood when I first read most of Alcott’s work.  Without reading Matteson’s biography I may have never come to understand a piece of myself and where aspects of my own worldview were initially formed.  It seems that my ideas regarding feminism may be largely attributed to what Louisa imparted to me through her novels, as our views are nearly identical.

Louisa’s ideas call for

“each person, male and female to cultivate his or her talents without regard to sex, so that each may optimally serve the community.”

Matteson also says that

“Louisa remained true to the ideals of her mentor Emerson, who, as William James observed, believed that ‘no position is insignificant, if the life that fills it out be only genuine.’  Louisa was hostile to any limitation on women’s opportunities.  Nevertheless, she would have been mystified by any feminist credo that implicitly valued traditionally masculine pursuits above the conventionally feminine.” – pg. 419

Whether you want to be a doctor or stay home and bake pies, male or female – just do it well.

I could not agree more.

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