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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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‘Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted’ by Andrew Wilson ***

I shall begin this review by saying that I am an enormous admirer of Sylvia Plath’s work.  I was utterly spellbound by The Bell Jar and her poetry as a teenager, and never wanted her diaries and Letters Home to end.  I have read a fair amount of biographical criticism relating to Plath, but interestingly, Mad Girl’s Love Song is the only one which I have come across that deals solely with her early life; as Plath deemed it, ‘the complex mosaic of my childhood’.  A wealth of information has been contained here about her childhood, some from ‘previously unavailable archives’.  Wilson has chosen to draw on primary materials rather than other biographies; thus, any conclusions which he draws are essentially his own.

Wilson has linked almost every single one of Plath’s childhood memories to one or more of her poems; here, he writes particularly intelligently.  Throughout, his prose style is enjoyable.  A strength in Mad Girl’s Love Song lies in the psychological standpoint, which is both strong and fascinating.  I loved reading about the effects which certain books had upon Plath, and the criticism of The Bell Jar, much of which I hadn’t come across before.  As always, I very much enjoyed the accounts of Plath’s life in Cambridge, my home city.9780857205896

I have a slight issue with the way in which Wilson categorically states that he will take no other Plath biographies into account.  Surely to create a full picture of the author in his mind, he must have read at least a handful of her biographies in the past, and one surely cannot part with the conclusions of other experts so easily as he claims to do.  In terms of Plath scholarship, I do not feel as though the book adds a great deal of new or previously unknown information.  There are many anecdotes included within the pages of Mad Girl’s Love Song which I have read before, which takes a certain freshness away from his endeavour.

Still, one cannot argue with the fact that the scope here is vast, and that Wilson has been respectful in his handling of the material.  Ultimately, Plath was a fascinating woman, and no account of her could really be dull.  I cannot help but compare it to my favourite Plath biography to date, Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, which I feel is incredibly thorough and invigorating, and also takes the whole of Plath’s life into account.  Whilst Wilson’s approach is interesting, I do not feel as though the sheer depth of Plath has been reached.  I must take issue with the afterword though; at only two pages long, I honestly feel as though the book would have been far better had Wilson not skipped over so many important details and ‘neatly’ summed up her suicide.

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Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

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‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

Purchase from the Book Depository