Previous month:
April 2022
Next month:
June 2022

Book Review: The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

I will tell them stories from the life of a master curator: the pilfered Bruegel Ten, the mishandled matchbook, the stolen Bible, the exploited final chapter of a famed novel, the busted typewriter, the poet’s lost note, and the stolen notebooks of The Bell Jar—disparate objects, each one solely possessing the power to absolve us of our unforgivable sins against them.

Last confessions of sylvia pI’ve written about how discovering Sylvia Plath changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Like many Plath lovers, I was and continue to be entranced as much by her life story as I am with her poetry. She will always be an interest of mine.

But if I’m totally honest, there are more poems by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, which are touchstone poems of mine. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” “Her Kind,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The House,” “Sylvia’s Death” and many others have given me courage, helped me feel less alone, and given me literary understanding of what feminism means.

And yet I’m not sure Anne Sexton and I could’ve ever been friends. Especially after reading her daughter’s memoir, I’m not sure she was a fantastically kind or even moral person. (This begs the question if Sylvia Plath and I could’ve been friends and I think the answer is probably not, but for different reasons.)

Can you separate the artist from her art?

Should you?

But the truth for me is that both of these writers—who both died before I could read—have had an immense impact upon me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them.

So I approached Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., with immense caution.

This is because the story of Sylvia Plath’s life is intrinsically woven with her death, and because it is easy to sensationalize or romanticize it. Easy, and done, and I won’t engage with that, even if her suicide is what drew my attention to her in the first place.

But it is also a novel about two writers whose work I love.

So I went ahead and read it.

The book isn’t really about Sylvia Plath, but about some of the people whose lives intersected with hers: her therapist and, yes: Anne Sexton. In a sense, this is much more the last confessions of Anne Sexton, who is called Boston Rhoades in the novel. And she is not painted in a flattering light. In fact, I’d say the Anne Sexton you find here is more a caricature: obsessed with fame and with beating Sylvia Plath in popularity. While I’m certain that the real-life Anne Sexton would not be a bosom friend, I am also certain she was more well-rounded than the novel presents her as.

The book also tells the story of Estee, who is an curator for an auction house; the last object she is going to curate before retiring is a handwritten copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar.

These three women rotate around Sylvia Plath’s story in interesting ways.

It was an intriguing book: a good mystery around where the handwritten notebooks came from and how they got there, an exploration of the midcentury social experiences women writers had, a study of how mental health therapies have changed.

Despite my initial hesitation, I am glad I read it. It reminded me of how it felt when I was 19 or so, delving headfirst into the worlds of poetry and feminism. I have lost some of that enthusiasm and wonder along the way, and this book nudged me to find it again.

But I continue to remain annoyed by the title. I think the author understands that a certain demographic will read anything about Sylvia Plath, but this isn’t Plath’s story.

Instead it is a story about how Plath influenced others.

And I can absolutely relate to that.

Book Review: Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Suddenly Ellen was angry. She was angry because she had not guessed that it was Otis instead of Austine who untied her sash. She was angry because she had slapped Austine. She was angry because Austine had not explained what had really happened but, most of all she was angry because she and Austine had not made up. The quarrel had lasted so long that Ellen supposed now they would never make up.

Ellen tebbitsThe other day when I was covering a desk for the children’s department, I walked past a book shelf in the junior fiction section. Then I turned around and went back, because I had just spotted something I hadn’t thought of (consciously, at least) in decades:

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

This funny little book tells the story of Ellen, who becomes friends with Austine after they discover they each share a secret: their mothers make them wear winter underwear.

I glanced at the cover and the feeling of the book flooded back to me: something about a girl hiding in a broom closet so the other ballet-class friends didn’t see her embarrassing underwear. And something about brownies. And friendship. And a beet???

I took it home and reread it. And laughed so hard.

I loved Ellen Tebbits as a kid. I still love her and can totally relate to her struggle with underwear. (Thank God we’ve both moved past that little fun bit.) I had forgotten bits of her story, but my body still remembers how reading it made me feel. As a shy, anxious kid (we didn’t call it “anxious” back then though; I was “nervous” a lot), I had a hard time maintaining friendships, and Ellen’s friendship with Austine helped me at least know that all friendships had times when the other person ignored you and talked about you behind your back. And that everyone goes to school knowing it will be a lonely day when no one really talks to you.

(I wish I could hug third-grade Amy and somehow let her know it would all be OK.)

Reading a book written in 1951 in 2022 (and that means it was already almost thirty years old when I read it as a kid!) was an interesting experience, and I couldn’t feel the same way I did as a kid. Mainly this time I noticed the mothers, and how different they are from each other. And how integrated sexism was in the story (all of the kids who get a speaking part in the play are boys, and Otis Spofford is definitely graced with the benevolence of “boys will be boys”).

But I also found a little lost piece of myself in its pages, so close I could almost hug her.

Book Review: Braver Than You Think by Maggie Downs

Beyond that, I wonder if this is even my tragedy to understand. The struggle of my own mortality feels selfish in the face of those trying to reconcile their humanity, and I have no right to stake a claim in their personal suffering. I can’t escape the fact that I am a foreigner here, and I always will be. I can grieve here, but what right do I have to feel so sad?

BraverI think to some extent, reading is about recapturing the way a certain book made you feel. You read a book and love it, and then you want a different book that makes you feel the same feeling.

This is true for the book Braver than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime by Maggie Downs. I read it because it is a book about a woman dealing with her parent’s Alzheimer’s, but mostly I read it because I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on The Pacific Crest Trail and wanted to feel something similar. Something about how travel can transform you.

They are not the same book.

When Maggie Downs was little, her mom spent many hours with her, reading National Geographic and imaging the places she would visit. But she never had the opportunity; not long after her children were grown and out of the house, she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s.

So Maggie decides to take a year-long trip like the one her mother wanted to take.

She travels to many different parts of the earth, Africa to South America to Asia. This trip coincides with the first year of her marriage and the year her mother dies, so she is torn. Is she selfish to be traveling rather than spending time with her (dying) mother and her new husband?

But she continues on.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. I learned a lot about different areas of the world (although very few of her experiences made me want to travel the way that she traveled). Since my dad died of dementia, I could relate to many of the struggles she tried to work through (although sometimes it felt like she was angry at her mom for her disease, as if she couldn’t remember her daughter anymore out of a spirit of malice). The loss of a parent is something I am still trying to come to grips with, so many of her responses helped me.

But I didn’t love it like I wanted to.

Partly because I had a hard time forgiving her for something she does on the Nile. One of her excursions is to white-water raft the headwaters of the Nile, and when she survives it, she drops her orange peel in the water, imagining it swirling all the way down to the Mediterranean, someone finding it and wondering about its origin. This kind of arrogance offends me: a river isn’t about your need to leave a mark on the world (but the orange peel probably could exist for that long, which is why you carry out what you bring in), and it illustrates that she and I don’t look at the world in the same way.

Mostly it’s because she writes like a reporter writes (which makes sense considering she is a reporter) rather than like a poet would (which is the kind of writing I respond to the most).

Even though it didn’t evoke the same response for me that Cheryl Strayed’s travel book did, I am glad I picked this one up. It sparked some new travel interests for me, and reminded me of a story in Paris that I still would like to turn into an essay, and reminded me that it is OK I am still grieving for both of my parents’ deaths. And other, newer losses in my life, honestly. “I’ve had to cultivate a certain amount of faith to continue moving through the world,” Maggie writes, and I have to nod my head. That’s a tidy summary of life as time moves forward. It takes more and more faith—not in God, necessarily. In yourself.