Book Review: Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy

There really is something about Marge Piercy and her writing. She literally TALKS to me. I've already talked about how much her novel Gone To Soldiers has affected me in my life (as well as the sheer amount of times I go back to it), but she has written other novels that have the same effect on me. Her prose tends to tear me apart, touches me intensely and then leaves me to think about it over and over again for days afterwards. A lot of it comes from the fact that she is able to to create story lines around (political) ideas that I completely agree with; strong characters that you relate to, love, dislike, want to be; and her powerful writing that always seems to become timeless. The ability to blend beauty and ugliness together in prose is what Piercy is insanely good at, as well as the ability to make you imagine that you are living the exact story that you are in the middle of reading.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep is Marge Piercy's first novel, originally published in 1970 and recently reissued, with a new foreword by Piercy herself. The novel is centered around four students, each from different backgrounds (Shawn the rockstar trying to avoid doing military service, Joanna the runaway, Corey the revolutionary and Billy the scientist). The story starts with the student revolt at Franklin High and continues with the development and country-wide growth of a dissident youth movement named the "Indians". Young people who are tired of being told how to live their lives, what they need to become to be a "proper adult"and what box they need to fit into. People with ideas that defy the norm and who want to live, be free and create a new type of world where there is no war and plastic pre-fab lives and boredom.
Through-out the novel the movement grows inside and outside of the cities; communes are created and the inevitable governmental crackdowns start happening. The Indians become self-sufficient and live as one large family, with natural leaders and different groups inside the family. Discussions are held every day where all members can voice thoughts and opinions and drugs are seen as a way to enlightenment as opposed to addiction, in the same way as hallucinogenics were used in certain Native American tribes. The Indians look for peace in the alternate way of living but prepare for the eventual clashes with the police and the the government. Police brutality is expected, but once the violence of the crackdowns becomes more akin to war, the family divides into those who want to go underground and those who want to fight to the bitter end.

Although an invented world, this novel is never far from the truth, and is based on the student protests in the 60's, and can easily be transplanted into the world of today, with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement around the world. Hope, change, revolution, repression. A story of despair, of hope, of uprising and of defiance. Full of powerful images and metaphors that leave you imagining the may bes and the could have beens.

Marge Piercy's Website

Book Review: Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I just finished this one on the subway home from work, after starting it yesterday. I have to write about it now, even though I have a million things to do to prepare for my trip to England on Tuesday morning (working 8 days in a row and then picking up an extra shift tomorrow night isn't giving me much time to do laundry, pack, clean the apartment, go to the bank, print the eulogy and my tickets etc etc). I just have to write about this one now because I want to do it while it is still fresh in my mind.

No wonder this novel won the National Book Award. It's AMAZING. The story is about several lives that are intertwined in NYC in the 70's: Corrigan and his brother Ciaran, Irish immigrants living in the Bronx, Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn, two prostitutes in the Bronx that Corrigan looks after, Clare and her husband Solomon, parents who are mourning the untimely death of their son in Vietnam, Lara and her husband, artists who are still looking for themselves through art and drugs, as well as quite a few others, lesser characters, but just as important and interesting.

Colum McCann starts the story with Philippe Petit's incredible feat of walking between the Twin Towers on a cable, and proceeds to use this as a back story for all the entire book. On the day that Petit walks across the wire different events happen that will change the lives of all characters for the rest of their lives. Although the narrative goes back in time and into the future to give background on some of the characters and events, the main storyline is based in this week in August 1974.

Rich, full of emotion and feelings that everyone can empathise with, this book is literally magical. Not only that, it creates a real vision of NYC, one that really exists, a city of everything, paradoxical and alive, one that anyone who has lived in NYC will immediately recognise. It's going to take me a while to get this book out of my mind, I think I am still a little overwhelmed.

At the end of the edition I read there is an interview with McCann by Nathan Englander. One of the questions was "Let The Great World Spin paints a broad picture of New York. Do you want to talk about the various worlds you walk us through?". McCann's answer really does explain it all, and I have to say that he succeeded in what he set out to do: "I wanted it to be a Whitmanesque song of the city, with everything in there - high and low, rich and poor, black, white, and Hispanic. Hungry, exhausted, filthy, vivacious, everything this lovely city is. I wanted to catch some of that music and slap it down on the page so that even those who have never been to New York can be temporarily transported there."

Read it - you won't be sorry.

Colum McCann
Man On Wire - Philippe Petit documentary

Literature: Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar

WARNING: this post contains spoilers from the novel. If you have never read the novel and are planning on reading it, I would advise you not to read further.

Back in 2001 - 2002 I finished my MA thesis, based on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, her letters home and her complete journals. It was a bit of a step out of my comfort zone at the time, as I was mainly immersed in the 19th century Romantics, but I was so intrigued by Plath and her legacy that I decided to take the chance and study her writing in depth. It took so much out of me that year that I have only recently been able to read her work again without feeling like that inevitable bell jar was closing in on me again. I was rereading parts of my thesis again this morning and realized how much it had affected me, my own writing and the way I made some changes in my life once it was all over. I only have a hard copy, I think there must be a soft copy on a floppy disc somewhere, but here is part of the introduction to the thesis, with novel synopsis. Maybe one day I will take the time to type it all up again and will post it as a link. In my opinion The Bell Jar is a must-read, even just in terms of literary value. Not only a dark coming of age novel, it also brings up poignant literary themes such as doubles and mirrors, entrapment, escape and questions existence and destiny. I’ve posted some links to other novels in the same vein below.

Sylvia Plath & Esther Greenwood: The Intolerable Struggle to Exist (Introduction)

The myths and the incomprehension that surround Sylvia Plath’s memory were probably brought on by her suicide in 1963. At the time, although her poems and short stories had been published in magazines since her teenage years, her writing career was only beginning to take off in terms of public recognition. When her later poems were published two years after her death, the myths became even greater, and even cloudier. Her later work was at times so bitter and dark, and her suicide tainted the public with so much incomprehension, that her popularity shot up, with people wanting to know who she actually was, and why she killed herself.

This thesis is based on Sylvia Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar, a story about a young girl’s mental disintegration, the questions it brings up about possible links between the narrator in the novel and the author herself. This novel is probably Plath’s most famous piece of work, and brings up the subdued taboo of mental disorder in a semi-casual style, and in a love/hate way that makes it so interesting.

Summary of the novel:

The Bell Jar takes place in the 1950’s, in the year which the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, and starts off in New York, where the narrator – Esther Greenwood – is an intern in a fashion magazine after winning a prize. Esther befriends another fellow intern called Doreen, who is cynical, bemused and a lot more experienced than Esther. Doreen takes Esther out and they meet men, notably a certain Lenny Shephard. During one experience at Lenny’s apartment Esther witnesses Lenny and Doreen become intimate and ultimately violent with each other. Esther leaves the scene and decides to forget the experience. Although she takes care of a drunk Doreen later on in the night she convinces herself that she will have no more to do with her.

Later, Esther goes to a banquet with other prizewinners. Her mind flashes back to an earlier conversation with her editor Jay Cee. Jay Cee had reprimanded Esther for not knowing what she wanted from life, but had also tried to reassure her at the same time. All of the girls at the banquet fall ill from food poisoning.

Mrs Willard, the mother of Esther’s on-and-off Yale student boyfriend Buddy Willard, arranges for Esther to meet an interpreter called Constantin. Esther muses over her relationship with Buddy, who is in a sanitorium recovering from TB. She describes him as a hypocrite. During her outing with Constantin Esther worries about her future. She decides to let Constantin seduce, but then goes back on her decision at the last minute.

At the end of her month in New York, Esther attends a photography session, but bursts into tears when she realizes she cannot decide what to do with her future. During her last evening there she goes to a party where a Peruvian man called Marco tries to rape her, but she ultimately fights him off.

When Esther returns home to the suburbs of Boston she is told by her mother that she has not been accepted to the Harvard Summer School writing course she had applied to. Esther thinks about doing many different projects, but rejects them all nearly immediately. She has problems sleeping and tries using sleeping pills which do not work. She ends up taking the advice of a relative and goes to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist, Dr Gordon, does not really listen to Esther, and during her two sessions with him Esther tries to make him diagnose her. Instead he advises her to undergo electroshock treatment. At this time Esther begins to contemplate suicide.

After her shock treatment, which goes badly, Esther tells her mother she will not go back. Her mother merely says that she knew her child was not like all of the awful mad people in the asylums. Esther becomes obsessed with suicide, attempting cutting herself, drowing and hanging herself. In the end she hides in the basement of her house and overdoses on sleeping pills. When she awakes she finds herself in hospital and thinks she has gone blind. Many people visit her, but this makes her feel even more suffocated and put on show, and she behaves like a spoilt child. She is then sent to the psychiatric wing of the hospital.

Thanks to Esther’s benefactress, Philomena Guinea, she is sent to a private mental institution where she is put in the Caplan wing and is treated by Dr Nolan, a woman, who promises to tell Esther in advance if she is ever to be scheduled for shock treatment. One of Buddy’s other girlfriends, Joan Gilling, who Esther knows, also checks into the hospital. Dr Nolan refuses to let Esther have visitation rights when she realizes that the visits halt Esther’s progress, especially after she has a good reaction to insulin treatment.

Dr Nolan moves Esther to the Belsize wing where she has greater privileges, and where Joan is too. Esther goes through a series of shock treatments and has to deal with the feeling of betrayal, as Dr Nolan does not keep her promise about telling her about them in advance. Esther then rejects Joan’s friendship when she finds out that Joan is a lesbian and soon afterwards Joan is released from the institution. After obtaining birth control, Esther meets a man called Irwin and decides to let him seduce her, but after having sex she begins to bleed heavily and asks Joan to take her to the hospital. Shortly after this incident Joan returns to the institution. A few days later she goes missing and is found in the woods where she has hanged herself.

Esther prepares to leave the institution in January when her semester starts at college. She knows people will treat her differently, that her mother wants to forget the whole episode as soon as possible and that her depression might not have completely disappeared forever. She feels free again, but not new.

When studying The Bell Jar it is important to look at the narrator’s mental torment, as this is the epicenter of the narrative. This will be done in a first part, where Esther’s entrapment will be identified through her thought process, through the idea of suicide which becomes prominent and through her constant search for identity. As the novel also deals ultimately with escape this will also be studied through the images and the actions which release Esther from her bell jar.

In a second part the theme of the double in The Bell Jar will be studied. It will be identified through Esther’s constant search for a double and through Esther’s portrayals of society, men, and finally through the images of the mother figure.

The Bell Jar has often been described as autobiographical by some and semi-autobiographical by others. This will be studied in a third part where Plath’s personal life in 1953 (the year in which the novel is set) will be compared to the narrative of the novel, through the means of Plath’s personal diaries and her letters. Plath will be compared to Esther and the question of autobiography will be reviewed.

Other novels that deal with similar subjects:

Marge Piercy - Braided Lives

Susanna Kaysen - Girl, Interrupted

Erica Jong - Fear of Flying

Discussion/Ramblings - radical children's literature

A few months ago, right at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement I came across an article discussing the wrongs and rights of what was called “radical children’s literature”. I can’t find the article itself anymore, but the book that this article pointed out was called Tales For Little Rebels – A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature and contains forty or so stories, illustrations, poems and other writings for children by authors and illustrators such as Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Walt Kelly, Norma Klein, Munro Leaf, Julius Lester, Eve Merriam, Charlotte Pomerantz, Carl Sandburg and Dr. Seuss. I haven’t read the collection myself, but each article in the book supposedly contains some historical background and the author’s biography. The main theme of this publication is of course “radical” literature and its intent to make one think and question, all of these articles aimed at children. But isn’t that what the whole point of education is anyway? To learn how to think for oneself and make up one’s own mind? Are these publications considered “radical” just because they have some kind of political opinion (towards the left)? In general isn’t literature full of opinions and views and ideas? As a writer myself I know how hard it is to write something that doesn’t contain anything of yourself – actually pretty much impossible (unless you want to produce a bland string of words that are not going to interest anyone). Think I am just really intrigued on why these authors are considered radical, whereas others aren’t. All the literature I remember reading as a child was full of opinions and views, some of which I agreed with, others that I still remember questioning (and probably still do today).

I suppose I am too removed from the literature that is offered to children nowadays. I don’t have kids, I haven’t been a nanny in years and most of my friends who have children don’t live in this country. I still have the impression that it’s all about Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Tintin, Huckleberry Finn, Dr Seuss, Flicka, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Noel Streatfeild, Pippi Longstocking, Robinson Crusoe and these are the types of books that I will read to my children when I have them. I still have a lot of my old children’s books and will still read them now and again, just to try and recreate that feeling that they gave me when I was so much younger. Nothing like reading Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island and imagining how you could also run away from everything you dislike and make a secret life for yourself and your friends on an island. Or pretending you are Oliver Twist, running around the streets of London, hiding from Fagin and Bill Sykes. Or jumping on a plane with Tintin and falling into different adventures all over the world. Imagining the world governed by pigs standing up on their hind legs, wearing suits and smoking cigars (I still imagine Napoleon in Animal Farm to look like a pig version of Roosevelt and Churchill mixed together, don’t ask why). I wouldn’t really consider any of the above as “radical”, but they are definitely thought-provoking and in some way, character-forming. I don’t think I have ever read a good book, finished it, and not thought about it for days afterwards (not the use of the adjective “good” here). Many of the books I read as a child have stayed with me until this day, however outdated they may seem – yes, I am well aware of the fact that nowadays pre-teens would not be able to bike around the countryside of England by themselves for days on end, but how much fun is it to imagine that you can actually do this?

In any case, I really want to read this group of stories and illustrations, just because it sounds like a good collection of works by important writers and illustrators. Whether it really should be considered “radical” is another question that I will answer once I have had the chance to read it. That won’t happen until I have paid off my rent and overdue credit card payments, but once I have purchased and read it I will post about it. In the meantime I would love to get some examples of what is considered to be radical children’s literature of today and the past, and why it is considered radical…

To be continued...

Poetry: Lord Byron - She Walks In Beauty

She Walks In Beauty - Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that 's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all
A heart whose love is innocent!

This is still one of my favourite poems ever written. Unlike most of Byron's work it is actually short and quite simple in tone and wording, but I think this was the exact effect that was intended. It's said that Byron wrote this after meeting his cousin's wife, and being inspired by her beauty wrote this poem. Other sources say that it was written about Augusta, his half sister (like many of his poems), and yet other sources say it alludes to the beauty of Art in general. After spending so many years studying 19th and 20th century literature and pulling apart poems until you could find any meaning to them that would make sense if backed up with the right arguments, I just like to read poetry and let the words give me the meaning they want to give me.

This poem was published as part of the volume of poems called Hebrew Melodies in 1815, and each poem was set to music. When read out loud you can almost hear the melody that goes with it (or maybe that's just me). In any case, whenever I feel agitated or upset I read this poem and immediately feel calmer. Serene beauty, inspiration, music and the calm sound of the ocean (the ocean is not mentioned but serenity and the ocean go hand in hand for me, and if you want to know why you should just ask me).

Here's a lovely recording of Eric Portman reading She Walks In Beauty:

I still have a teenage crush on Byron... What girl doesn't?!

Destroying books and the message this sends

My love for music is only surpassed by my love for reading. I read all the time, always have a dozen more books to read and am always carrying at least one book around with me. How can you ever be bored anywhere when you have something to read? I also know how lucky I am to live in a country where I can read pretty much everything I want to read. That includes reading Lawrence's Sons and Lovers at the age of 13 (don't know if that was a good thing but I definitely learnt something from it), reading a revolutionary communist manifesto to reading a terrible right-wing-apocalyptic novel that some skinhead told me I should read because it contained an amazing message (of course it didn't, but I gave it a shot in order to better be able to shoot it down afterwards). My point being that books are available everywhere, you can even publish your own nowadays, and distribute it yourself. If I look hard enough I can pretty much find anything I want to read, and won't really get in trouble for reading it (although I may find myself on some watch list or another).

Literature, in it's broadest definition, has always been a way to learn and to teach others. From scriptures and drawings written on tablets and walls, to today's e-readers, the history of writing and reading goes back so far in history that we probably can't pinpoint when it even started. Literature is never innocent, even the trashiest of novels contain some type of story or a lesson (even if that lesson is just to never read anything by that author again). Words always contain meaning, and meaning can be interpreted differently, based on how you read it. Meaning can also be hidden in words, and literature then becomes a great way to pass along a hidden message, especially in times of dire censorship.

In the past (and not even that far back may I add) the public destroying of books was mainly because someone, or a group of people objected to what they contained. Or, even more frightening, books were burned because of who they were written by, and were burned to display contempt or hatred towards the authors. A lot of public book burnings were religiously oriented (a way of trying to stamp out a certain religion or scriptures), but this has not always been the case. Take the Nazis burning piles and piles on Jewish literature in the 1930's, or the burning of history books and scholars in Ancient China during the Qin Dynasty, or the large numbers of books that were destroyed during the Communist regime in the USSR (the censorship programme is actually interesting to study - but we will save that for another day). So call me dramatic, but destroying books always makes me think of how much of a message this sends across to the rest of the public. Probably because the last time I looked back into history, every time a large amount of books were destroyed it was always because of some ulterior motive that usually involved censorship, oppression and more censorship.

So, when I heard that the police/city/city government had decided to just throw over 5,000 donated books in the garbage this morning, when they were "cleaning up" Zuccotti Park of all the OWS activists my blood started to boil.

Do they know what type of message this is sending across to not only the rest of the country, but also to the rest of the world?

Hemingway - Love found

I had to read Farewell To Arms in High School and pretty much hated it. Granted, at the time I was into dark Romantic, 19th Century poetry and literature in the vein of Lord Byron, Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire etc, but I just didn't get the Hemingway thing. For some reason I also had some kind of idea that American literature just wasn't as good as European literature. You have to remember I grew up in France, on French education...
I just found Hemingway's writing style too simple for my tastes, and my mind kept wandering away from the novel. Maybe it wasn't the best one to start with, or maybe I just wasn't ready for it. Anyway, I decided to try again, 15 years later (never too late, right?).

I was browsing the bookstore last weekend, looking for something that would make my mind work. I've been guilty of reading too many thrillers recently (excellent ones at that, but I need more diversion), and after a while of looking through the shelves I stopped in front of Hemingway. "Why not?" I thought, and randomly picked up "Across the River and into the Trees".

I often judge a book by how much I want to get back to it. I have a 30 minute subway commute in the morning, so I need a good book on me at all times, and if I am actually looking forward to going to work it means that I am reading something that has grabbed my attention. Hard. And this one did...

What a beautiful story! Set in Venice at the end of WW2, the last days of a love story between an older American Colonel and a beautiful, young Venetian Contessa. Hemingway's "simple" style that i once disliked so much, just conjures up the emotions and feeling even more than a mountain of difficult words would. I'm a convert.

Now I just need to choose the next one... Try Farewell to Arms again, or another?