Tag Archives: feminist literature

“The Books That Mattered” . . . Q & A

Several folks have asked some really good questions about my blog:

What books do you plan on covering in your blog?

At the bottom of this post I’ve included 3 lists:

  • Books I’ve already covered
  • The next 10 books I’ll be discussing
  • Books I plan on covering in the future

slaughterhouse-five

Can you provide a schedule of the books that you’ll be covering and when?

I don’t have a rigid schedule — so far I’ve been playing this by ear. I do try to publish a post every week or so.

But I do know my next 10 books, which I’ve detailed below. These are my next 2:

  • Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice
  • Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

How did you/do you choose the books that mattered?

When I started exploring this project several years back, I spoke with and emailed 50 or so people in my network who are Baby Boomers (family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, acquaintances of acquaintances, etc.). I asked them what books had mattered to them when they were in their formative years (high school, college, grad school, young adulthood).

I compiled their responses and spoke directly to many of them about their choices. I mixed in some books that no one else had mentioned, but that had mattered to me, personally. Threw in a few books that no one mentioned but which had been culturally significant (Love Story, for instance) . . . and, voila, came up with the list you see below.

Is your list of Books That Mattered set in stone? Are you  willing to take suggestions?

No, my list is not set in stone. I absolutely would love to hear suggestions from readers regarding other books you’d like to see discussed.

Also, any memories, observations, or stories regarding the books that mattered to you would be much appreciated.

Is this blog only of interest to Baby Boomers? What about younger readers?

Great question!

(OK, I admit it, this question I made up.)  But I wanted to make sure that readers understand that while my blog is about the books that influenced and shaped the Baby Boom generation — I hope its interest and appeal is much broader than that.

Many of the books I’m covering are fantastic books which are well worth reading in their own right. Even though most were written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, many have universal and timeless appeal — no matter what your age.

And even those books that had a short shelf life and are now curiosities and cultural artifacts are well worth looking at again. For one thing, like the fashions back then, books like Love Story or Jonathan Livingstone Seagull can be pretty funny and embarrassing.

And reading about these books may give you a better handle on your Baby Boomer parents, relatives, friends, and co-workers. In any case, they’ll be impressed and amazed that you’ve even heard of Soul on Ice or The Greening of  America.

OTR

Books Already Covered

  • The James Bond Books — Ian Fleming
  • The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath
  • On the Road — Jack Kerouac
  • The Catcher in the Rye — J. D. Salinger
  • Love Story — Erich Segal
  • Goodbye, Columbus — Philip Roth
  • One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey

Next 10 Books I’ll Be Covering (in order)

  • Soul on Ice — Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Fountainhead — Ayn Rand
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — Tom Wolfe
  • Slaughterhouse Five — Kurt Vonnegut
  • To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
  • Catch-22 –Joseph Heller
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Hunter S. Thompson
  • Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig
  • A Clockwork Orange — Anthony Burgess

Other Books I Plan on Covering (in no particular order)

  • The World According to Garp — John Irving
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem — Joan Didion
  • The White Album — Joan Didion
  • Lord of the Flies — William Golding
  • East of Eden — John Steinbeck
  • The Golden Notebook — Doris Lessing
  • Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter — Carson McCullers
  • Siddartha — Herman Hesse
  • Steppenwolf — Herman Hesse
  • Black Boy — Richard Wright
  • The Chosen — Chaim Potok
  • The Greening of America — Charles A. Reich
  • In Cold Blood — Truman Capote
  • The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe
  • Hell’s Angels — Hunter S. Thompson
  • Dune — Frank Herbert
  • Portnoy’s Complaint — Philip Roth
  • A Separate Peace — John Knowles
  • The Foundation Trilogy — Isaac Asimov
  • The Autobiography of Malcom X — Malcolm X
  • Flowers for Algernon — Daniel Keyes
  • Stranger in a Strange Land — Robert Heinlein
  • Jonathan Livingstone Seagull — Richard Bach
  • Sometimes a Great Notion — Ken Kesey
  • Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy — J. R. R. Tolkien
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On First Looking into “The Bell Jar”

I’ve just finished reading, for the first time, Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel.

To those of us who have been familiar with Plath’s work primarily through her poetry, The Bell Jar (1963, U.K.; 1971, U.S.) comes as something of a revelation.

I was expecting the kind of searing, too-hot-to-touch intensity that is the hallmark of  Plath’s poetry. Her posthumous collection, Ariel (1965)–with such poems as “Daddy” and “Death & Co.”–is still almost too painful to bear: raw, seemingly unfiltered cries of anguish from a young woman and mother who would soon be dead by her own hand.

the bell jar

But The Bell Jar is something else again. Yes, there is the pain and anger and intensity that you would expect from Plath. But there is also humor and pathos and a sense of innocence and even (if I may use this word) a girlishness that is rarely evident in the poetry.

It’s as if the poems had been processed through a blast furnace, so that all of Plath’s agony and fury have been distilled to their essence. In the novel, Plath seems to be allowing herself to cool down a bit. The heat and intensity are still there, but a blast furnace it is not.

I think it’s no mystery why Plath decided to publish the novel only in the U.K. and under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. Apart from not wanting to offend her friends and family (the novel is very thinly disguised autobiography), it represents a stark departure from her poetry. Off-handedly dismissing it as a “potboiler,” Plath seemed unsure of the novel’s ultimate literary value.

While Plath’s ambivalence about the novel is understandable, she may have short-changed herself. As someone coming to The Bell Jar totally fresh, the book strikes me as sure-footed, powerful, a genuine achievement. Yes, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic coming-of-age first novel: written in the first person by a young writer about an even younger person; heavily autobiographical; not a showcase of formal elegance or innovative narrative technique.

But (and it’s a big “but”) the novel transcends these apparent limitations. It manages to convey in a wonderfully wry, straightforward style the experiences and challenges of being a smart, ambitious young woman coming of age in early 1950s America. (McCarthyism and conformity are in the air: the novels’ first sentence references the controversial Rosenbergs execution.).

sylvia

The book is full of surprises.

The first surprise is the normality and charming naiveté of the young protagonist, Esther Greenwood. We meet nineteen-year old Esther in the summer between her junior and senior year of college. Esther has won a prestigious guest editorship at Ladies Day magazine (in Plath’s case, Mademoiselle) and is spending an all-expenses paid month in New York City.

“I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” says Esther, who is feeling like an outsider among the other contest winners. Esther (like Plath) comes from a poor family and is enrolled in a brand name college (in real life, Smith) only because she has managed to win a scholarship. Like Plath, Esther is a fierce over-achiever: because of her straightened financial circumstances, she feels compelled to keep getting straight A’s, keep winning awards, keep fighting for glittering prizes.

The other eleven girls who have won the guest editorship apparently feel no such pressure:

These girls looked awfully bored to me. I saw them on the sunroof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans, and they seemed bored as hell. I talked with one of them, and she was bored with yachts and bored with flying around in airplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland at Christmas and bored with the men in Brazil.

Girls like that make me sick. I’m so jealous I can’t speak. Nineteen years, and I haven’t been out of New England except for this trip to New York. It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water.

Because of her modest upbringing, Esther charmingly reveals her insecurities about navigating the sophisticated, adult world: what drink to order, how much to tip the bellhop, how to deal with cab drivers.

One of the book’s funniest moments occurs when Esther recalls having a dinner with Mrs. Guinea, her wealthy benefactress:

Mrs. Guinea answered my letter and invited me to lunch at her home. That was where I saw my first fingerbowl.

The water had a few cherry  blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs. Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done.

Esther is wonderfully unguarded about her lack of experience and her various social faux pas. These are embarrassing moments, but not so embarrassing that she is unwilling to tell us about them. And this attitude of straightforwardness, honesty, and lack of guile are evident throughout the novel, even when it comes to larger, more significant issues.

Sex, for one.

Indeed, one of the other major surprises for me is how honest, almost reportorial Esther is about her sexual experiences and her attitudes toward sex in general. One of the creepy/funny/sad moments in the novel occurs with her boyfriend Buddy:

Suddenly, after I finished a poem, he said, “Esther, have you ever seen a man?”

The way he said it I knew he didn’t mean a regular man or a man in general, I knew he meant a man naked.

“No,” I said. “Only statues.”

“Well, don’t you think you would like to see me?”

Esther (who remains a virgin until near the end of the novel) struggles with this a bit, but considering Buddy’s “fine, clean” reputation answers, “Well, all right, I guess so.” Her reaction when Buddy, after some fiddling with his clothes, finally exposes himself is priceless: “Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” Buddy would very much like to see Esther naked too, but she’s had enough, “‘Oh, some other time,’ I said.”

Unfortunately, not all of Esther’s sexual encounters are so benign. Almost exactly halfway through the novel she goes on a blind date with a Peruvian man named Marco. The date ends with her near rape. The attack is unexpected, brutal, nasty. She just manages to punch Marco in the nose after he has knocked her to the ground and is forcing himself on her; nursing his bloody nose, he finally backs off.

Today we would call this “date rape” and a woman would have some resources to turn to.  But back then, the thought of reporting Marco to the authorities never seems to cross Esther’s (or Plath’s) mind. The realities of that era were that “date rape” (we are several decades before that term would even be coined) was more or less the status quo, and this incident would have undoubtedly been placed in the “boys will be boys” file.

(The attempted rape marks the end of Esther’s stay in New York and divides the novel neatly in half. The second half finds her back in Massachusetts and records her downward slide into depression, mental illness, and a suicide attempt.)

Plath’s treatment of Esther’s budding sexuality and her decision to lose her virginity is astonishingly unsentimental and dispassionate.

. . . my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it.

After Esther decides to lose her virginity, she does so with almost clinical calculation. She picks up Irwin, a young Harvard professor, outside of the Widener Library and allows him to seduce her:

I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin was a full professor at twenty-six and had the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I also needed someone quite experienced to make up for my lack of it . . . Then, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know and wouldn’t go on knowing–a kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.

There is something admirable and incredibly brave and also, of course, incredibly sad about Esther’s campaign to lose her virginity. (After sleeping with Irwin, she begins to badly hemorrhage and nearly dies on her way to the hospital.)

bell jar victoria

The major surprise of reading this novel written a half-century ago (and which is set even longer ago than that–60 years) is how astonishingly contemporary it feels. Unlike, say The Catcher in the Rye, which to my ears sounds very dated and of its time, there is little in The Bell Jar that would not ring true for today’s reader.

Perhaps it is Esther’s fierce honesty. Perhaps it is her determination to fight the prevailing notions about women and their proper place in the world. Perhaps it is Esther, herself, who so yearns to discover her true self, to find her proper place in the world, to lead an authentic life . . . This is all timeless stuff.

The novel is chock-full of what would become standard feminist themes and issues. For instance, Esther’s mother continually urges her to learn shorthand, a career she can “fall back on” when her chosen career aspirations are inevitably crushed. Here is Esther’s response:

My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.

And Esther’s reservations about marriage decidedly anticipate what many millions of women would be thinking and feeling in the decades to come. She imagines what life would be like as a wife:

It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.

This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a  girl with fifteen years of straight A’s . . .

And later on, Esther recalls what her boyfriend had said to her about marriage and children:

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

I flash to an image of Sylvia’s final desperate moments, alone in her freezing kitchen as she knelt down in front of the oven, having sealed shut the door to her small children’s room and left their window wide open, so that the deadly gas would do its deadly business only on her.

I highly recommend The Bell Jar to those who haven’t yet read it. To those who have, do yourself a favor, go read it again.

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“The Bell Jar” . . . An Apology to Sylvia

I’m terribly sorry, Sylvia Plath. Somehow in my rush to devour as much literature as I could in my years of early adulthood, I never got around to reading your first and, sadly, only novel. I somewhat sheepishly admit that I’ve just finished reading–for the first time–The Bell Jar.

(The Bell Jar was published in the U.K. in January 1963–shortly before Plath’s suicide on February 11 of that year. For several reasons, primarily due to resistance by her mother and estranged husband, Ted Hughes, the novel wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971.)

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When I started planning my “Books that Mattered” blog, I’d been assuming that I would primarily be revisiting books that I had read back in my high school and college and grad school years. Seeing how On the Road or Catch-22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest looked to me (and other members of my generation) thirty or forty years down the road. It would be a reunion of sorts.

But as happened in my actual high school reunion a few years back, I found that some of my most rewarding moments were spent with people whom I hadn’t really gotten to know back in high school. We had run in different circles, had different sets of friends, and somehow had just never connected. But when I finally got a chance to spend some time with them, I discovered that they were cool, interesting people. And I regretted that I hadn’t gotten to know them back then; that we had never given each other a chance.

This is kind of what happened with The Bell Jar. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. Not that I actively avoided it. I just never had made the time or effort to seek it out. I guess back then it seemed like it might be too depressing, too geared to coming-of-age girls, too slight for the seriously “literary” person I fancied myself.  I just hadn’t regarded The Bell Jar as a “must read.”

In my defense, many of its contemporary reviewers had stressed the novel’s weaknesses: suggesting that while it had its merits, all in all it was an immature, apprentice-like, unpolished roman-a-clef. Even Sylvia, herself, hadn’t helped matters, dismissing the novel as a “pot boiler” and downplaying its potential importance (although I suspect this was something of a defensive mechanism to head off future criticism. She felt much more sure-footed regarding her poetry than she was about her first foray into fiction).

So, Sylvia, I am going to write more extensively about your fantastic book in my next blog.

But before I do that, I just wanted to apologize for having taken over forty years to finally make your novel’s acquaintance. For my money, The Bell Jar captures the pathos and drama and, yes, humor of young adulthood with far more intensity and honesty than that other much more popular coming-of-age novel to which it has often been compared (usually not to its advantage), The Catcher in the Rye.

The Bell Jar remains fresh, vibrant, and (to use that horribly overused term) relevant even to those of us who may have missed it the first time around. Definitely worth a first (or second or third) look.

[The Bell Jar will be given a more in-depth treatment in my next post. If you have any thoughts or memories of the book that you’d like to share, please post them in the “comments” section.]

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