Review: Mad Girl’s Love Song

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Personal copy. One of my “vacation reads” — books for the grown ups, reviewed around holidays, when you may want to take time off from reading young adult books.

It’s About: Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes in 1956. Which means, a close examination of Plath’s childhood, college years, and first months in England.

The Good: I’m working my way through the 2013 books on Sylvia Plath; this past August I reviewed Pain, Parties, Work, about Plath’s New York City summer in 1953, before her suicide attempt. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a slightly broader look at Plath — the years before 1956 — and next I’ll be reading American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. While I’m approaching these three books in a particular way — start small and focused and moving to books covering larger time periods — for those new to Plath’s biography and works, I’d recommend the opposite reading order.

So, Mad Girl’s Love Song! By focusing on the pre 1956 years, Wilson gets the chance to really dive into the details of Plath’s adolescence and college years — into what made Plath. It also creates a focus on certain aspects of Plath’s life that, I think, get lost in books that cover her entire life.

On the one hand, Plath had a privileged upbringing. She went to a terrific high school, and then a top college. She had opportunities and encouragement. From the start, she looked to publish her work and did publish.

On the other hand, the Plath family financial background was such that those things did not come easily. After Plath’s father died, her mother selected a town to move to based on both the school system and possible college opportunities. The family valued education, yes, but did not have money or any real connections. Part of her mother’s sacrifice in selecting the right, the perfect, town for her children was sharing a home with her own parents. The house they lived in was so small, that Plath and her mother shared a bedroom.

People can read things different ways — but being that family, the family where you share a room with a parent, with the working mother and grandfather — of course, Plath felt the pressure of expectation to make all these sacrifices worthwhile. As Mad Girl’s Love Song explores, Plath was aware of what was being done for herself, as well as her brother. She worried about money and finances. Yes, she had scholarships, but there was no margin of error in her college studies — scholarships could be lost. And, of course, being on scholarship at a prestigious school meant she was surrounded by those who were much more well off than she was. Plath was grateful and thankful and resentful.

Mad Girl’s Love Song also provides a look at the 1953 suicide attempt, and what lead up to it, and what happened after. The problem with looking at this time in Plath’s life is that, well, who knows what Plath’s current diagnosis would be? What does what we know now influence how we look at Plath’s life and actions? What are things she did or didn’t do because of her mental state, as opposed to the result of being a driven woman in a time that didn’t allow many avenues for female ambition?

As I said in my review of Pain, Parties, Work, I watch and read things set in the 1950s and think of Plath. Did you know that the fictional Betty Draper was born the same year as Plath? And like Plath, attended a Seven Sisters college?

I think of Betty (and think of Plath when I watch Mad Men) when I see and read about Plath’s romances. Her number of boyfriends and relationships, often overlapping, and what it meant within the context of the 1950s — it shows another side of her character that can be lost when the biography centers more on her life with her husband. How did Plath define herself and her world around her? And what does that have to do with the suicide attempt and her treatment? What about the push-pull of her world and her own desires, a world where the Betty Drapers were the success stories? And it’s all the more tricky because Plath documented so much, so well — but also presented different “selves” to different people, and no “one” presentation was the “real” one.

Which brings us to something else about Mad Girl’s Love Song. Sometimes, the biographies written just after a person dies are the most honest and raw because the memory is fresh. But, sometimes, there are still people who are being protected; there are people who are too close to the event and the person to even talk, let alone talk honestly. Time passes; Plath has now been dead for 50 years. Wilson includes much more detailed insight into Plath, from the people in her life, which I hadn’t read before.

Other reviews: The New York Times; The Telegraph; P. H. Davies.


Review: Pain, Parties, Work

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. HarperCollins. 2013. Personal Copy. Vacation reads — when I review not-teen books that people may be interested in reading!

It’s About: In June, 1953, Sylvia Plath was a guest editor for the fashion magazine, Mademoiselle. 

The guest editor program was prestigious. The month long stay in Manhattan, editing the annual college edition of the magazine, was supposed to be both about fun and about work.

Plath returned home, to Massachusetts, after the program. In August of 1953, Plath attempted suicide.

Plath would go on to use these experiences in her work of fiction, The Bell Jar, shortly before her death in 1963.

But what about the real program, not Plath’s fictional account?

What was it like? What happened? What did it mean to be one of the best and brightest young women in 1953, in Manhattan?

It meant — pain, and parties, and work.

The Good: Why, yes, I was one of those teenage girls. One of those girls who read and adored Plath.

I won’t bore you with all the details of why and what, exactly, it was about Plath and her work that captivated me.

I will say this: part of it was, and continues to be, the documentation of a time in history (the 1950s and early 1960s) from the point of a view of a talented, articulate, woman who wanted both what her society said (home, husband, children) and more (success, on her terms, using her name). I watch shows like The Hour, Mad Men, and Call the Midwife, and think of Plath.

Pain, Parties, Work concentrates on one specific time in Plath’s life. For readers advisory purposes, I’ll be brief: interested in Plath? Yes, you’ll like this. Do I recommend this as the “first” nonfiction book to read about Plath? No; I think a broader biography is a better place to start, but once started, you will crave the details that Pain, Parties, Work provide. Pain, Parties, Work is also a good look at a side of Plath, the one who loved food and fashion and fun, that is sometimes forgotten, when Plath is thought of the author of Lady Lazarus and Daddy, as the woman who killed herself as her children slept.

So, is this just for Plath readers? No. Pain, Parties, Work is not just about Plath; it is also about 1953, and being a woman in 1953, and the types of other young women who came to New York for the summer to do what Plath did. It is also about Mademoiselle, and what it was (an “intellectual fashion magazine”) and the women who worked there, such as Betsy Talbot Blackwell and Cyrilly Abels.

It’s about a world where wearing white gloves, in the summer, mattered.

A world where girdles were required.

Those details — the clothes, the food, the clubs, the taxis, the lipsticks, how to survive New York City in a heatwave with no air conditioning —  I adored them. To me, this is what makes history interesting and makes it come alive.

Back to Pain, Parties, Work: for Plath, that was New York and Mademoiselle. The pain both real (food poisoning) and emotional, as she pushed herself to both succeed and to make this chance matter. Plath was well aware of the opportunity she had, and she wanted. The parties; much like any internship or program, while Mademoiselle was about the work the young women did during that month, it was also about being in New York and attending the various parties and events the magazine organized. And finally it was about the work, and Winder argues that Plath’s role as guest managing editor was perhaps not the best fit for her talents, even though it was most prestigious. It also was one of the more demanding guest editor jobs, with perhaps less time for some of the parties and fun.

Now that I’ve read Pain, Parties, Work, I want to go back and read The Bell Jar. I know, I know — The Bell Jar is fiction. But, it is about a specific time and place, and I think having read Pain, Parties, Work will give me a better understanding of that setting.

Because Pain, Parties, Work, is about such a short time in Plath’s life, it doesn’t give answers to the “why” of Plath’s life or the “who” she really was. Most, now, would diagnose Plath with depression, or bipolar. Yes, she attempted suicide later that summer; and Pain, Parties, Work can be read to look for clues of that happening.  However, those things are few and far between, and it wasn’t the whole Plath. Or, at least, the self Plath was presenting to others — the successful, confident, talented woman. Winder doesn’t write looking to provide answers, but the reader can, if they choose, make their own decisions about Plath.

Other reviews: Slate; BookSlut; A Bookish Affair;  Seeing Sylvia Plath With New Eyes.


Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award.

It’s About: A biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, Inc.

The Good: Reading books like Bomb, Titanic or We’ve Got a Job are easy for me, because they are about topics I enjoy. With Moonbird, I noted how I could better judge the book because I’m not an animal person so was neutral about the topic. With Steve Jobs, I had a different dilemma: the more I read, the more I disliked the person this biography was about.

My role is not to like Steve Jobs; it’s rather to talk about the books, what makes it work for me, why I think it’s on the list. As with Moonbird, it is easier to see that when I’m  not connected to the subject. I know I’m not being swept away by personal interest; so my role is to make sure that my dislike doesn’t factor into it. Part of the reason I’m sharing this with you is I get tired of posts that say a book isn’t good because the reader doesn’t like a character or topic or genre. It is entirely possible to evaluate a book based on the book.

So! Steve Jobs is a fascinating look at a complex man. Yes, he was, at times, self centered and not the greatest manager. But what really is a “great manager”? Is it someone who is liked, or is it someone who gets things done? Jobs got things done — and part of the value of a biography like this, that is not all puppies and daffodils and rainbows, is showing the reader this. Since this is a book for teens, I think it’s almost more valuable for them, who are still figuring things out, to know that someone who isn’t “nice” can accomplish great things; and that just because someone accomplishes terrific things, it doesn’t mean they are “nice.” Life is not that simplistic. I don’t say this as an excuse for how someone conducts their own life, but, rather, as something that people  need to be aware of as they get jobs, start businesses, and work with others.

While telling the story of Jobs, Steve Jobs is also a look at technology that the intended reader has always known, and is a great (and easy for the non-geek to understand) look at the start and growth of computers, as they became the desk top and lap top devices that are everywhere. It is also, more specifically, insight into specific devices that the readers probably either use or want to own: iPhones and iPads.

Business, economics, stock shares — not the type of thing generally taught to teens. Steve Jobs, using Apple, Inc., as well as other companies, does a terrific job of explaining and showing how business works. It’s not enough to invent something: where does the money come? Who takes care of the business? What is the role of advertising?

Other reviews: The Nonfiction Detectives; The Non-Traditional Librarian; Interview with author at SLJ’s Curriculum Connections.


Review: Listening for Madeleine

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle In Time (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1962).

The Good: How to write a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, especially when so many people think they know her from her memoirs and what is believed to be autobiographical elements of her fiction? Making it that much more complicated is the controversial 2004 The New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zarin, The Storyteller.

I’ll be honest: I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan. I’ve read almost all her books — her fiction for all ages, except for a couple earlier hard to find books; her memoirs; but not the overly religious works.

A Wrinkle in Time was the first book of L’Engle’s I read; next was Meet the Austins. I tracked down books, waited for new ones. Enjoyed “discovering” books and chatting about them with friends. I read the Crosswick Journals and believed in the life she presented. So when I read that those stories were, well, not accurate, that, at best, L’Engle omitted some things or painted other things in the best possible light, I felt — relieved. And liked her all the more for it. Knowing that the idealistic version of things was just that, not real, was reassuring in that there was nothing wrong with me or mine for not living in such a golden place. And more than that, L’Engle was as human as the rest of us, doing what she could with what she had, making mistakes and moving forward.

So, that’s the mindset I had going into Listening for Madeleine: a fan who wanted to know more about an author I admire and wasn’t expecting perfection. I read this as a book for similar readers: oh, the works we like may be different, but this is for people who know L’Engle through the books they’ve read.

Listening for Madeleine begins with a short biographical introduction, to give the reader a background for the essays to come. Instead of putting together a biography, Marcus puts together a history of L’Engle from a series of essays by people who knew L’Engle at different times in her life. The essays are divided into sections reflecting L’Engle’s life: Madeleine in the Making; Writer; Matriarch; Mentor; Friend; and Icon. Some are by people who were very close; others reflect fleeting meetings. I enjoyed reading about the essays; seeing when things matched from person to person, when they didn’t (because perspective influences memory and experience).

Another part of Listening for Madeleine I found fascinating was the look at publishing. I recognized some of the essay writers. And some of the details — like the signings at conferences — were so familiar!

Just as the essays sometimes said as much about the teller as L’Engle, I’m sure my takeaways tell something about me. I enjoyed most those that said L’Engle made her writing a priority and talked about how she handled that role. I was also fascinated with the “facts” versus “fiction”, and the reactions to the Zarin article. Given L’Engle’s age, I understand the desire to ignore, hide, or pretend that certain things weren’t true (specifically, her son’s alcoholism) and the belief that some that revealing this was someone a betrayal or hurt or just plain wrong. I understand because I’ve seen that same attitude in older members of my family. And, as with family members, I understand and disagree. I don’t think pretending some things don’t exist help anyone. And even as I write this, here is part of the complexity of what is going on, in that I don’t “know” anything about L’Engle and the things she preferred not to share publicly beyond my interpretation of what is said in these essays.

Other reviews: io9; Bookforum; The New Republic.

Review: Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel. Amulet Books, 2010. Copy borrowed from a friend.

About: Janis Joplin, rock ‘n’ roll singer, perhaps best known for Me and Bobby McGee. This details Joplin’s life, from her teen years in Port Arthur, Texas up to her 1970 death at age 27 from a heroin overdose.

The Good: One of the five shortlist titles for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

If you were me, “biography of Janis Joplin” would be all you need to know to pick up this book. Angel tells about Joplin’s life, from her childhood and teenage years in the 1950s in Port Arthur, Texas, to the early 1960s as she began singing, leaving Texas for California and New York, becoming the singer for Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1967. Three short years later, Joplin was dead from an overdose, leaving behind such a huge body of songs that I was surprised at just how short her professional singing career was.

In this biography aimed at high schoolers, Angel provides a matter of fact look at Joplin’s life, balancing both aspects of Joplin’s personality: the “wild, uninhibited performer and the sweet, solicitous daughter and sister.” Dick Cavett, television host who interviewed Joplin on more than one occasion, said “I think there were two Janises. There was the high school girl who desperately wanted acceptance and that character she created which was the tough-talking, tough-drugging, drinking rock and roll star.” Along the way, Angel shows both sides of Joplin’s character as well as her world and times, putting her life and music into historical perspective. Angel never condemns Joplin nor does she make excuses for her.

Angel manages to convey in print (with some amazing photographs) the sound of Joplin’s voice, the depth of her live performances. Angel’s webpage links to Janis Joplin. Net, which contains videos of Joplin’s performances.

I was overwhelmed with just how much Joplin accomplished professionally in three years, and left thinking how unfair her death was, and impressed with just how much Angel told in only 106 pages. It’s the perfect amount of pages, but in case anyone wants more, Angel provides a bibliography.

The design of this book is stunning. There are the photographs and the album art, and then there are the colorful borders inspired by the 1960s art shown in those albums. What I also liked – – since I work in a library that has Braille and audiobooks — is that this book, while full of terrific images, has text that stands alone for those non-visual readers.

Oh, I just have to say it one more time. What a shame that Joplin died so young; how unfair, because many others who did what she did were lucky enough to survive the rock and roll lifestyle.