Tag Archives: english major alert

Mad Girl’s Biography: Dating and Doubt with Sylvia Plath

Mad Girl's Love Song

Like any good angsty teenager with literary inclinations, I was a fan of Sylvia Plath. I actually preferred Anne Sexton’s poetry, perhaps because I found her subject matter more tangible, but I spent my fair share of time with Sylvia. When I learned about this new biography by Andrew Wilson, my inner sixteen-year-old demanded that I read it. I was drawn to the idea of a biography that focuses on her life before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

I was quite immersed in Mad Girl’s Love Song during the week I spent reading it. One of my coworkers actually walked away when he heard me starting another Sylvia anecdote. Still, it’s a testament to the book that I felt compelled to share the facts that I learned.

Mad Girl’s Love Song showed me that Sylvia had a powerful but fragile ego. Her sense of self-worth was strongly tied to winning the admiration of others, whether it be through awards, publication, or dating. She put enormous academic pressure on herself in high school and later at Smith College. Having attended a liberal arts college myself, I enjoyed comparing her experience at a 1950s women’s college to my own. She dealt with financial strain on top of academic and social stress. It’s not hard to see why her first mental breakdown occurred at age twenty.

Sylvia Plath at Smith

In focusing on Sylvia’s life before Ted, the author seems to be making two points. The first is that Sylvia began to suspect her own mental instability at a young age, long before her tumultuous marriage. The second is that she dated “literally hundreds of men,” often beginning a relationship with gusto before quickly detaching herself. The fact that her father died when she was eight is the most obvious explanation for her preoccupation with men. However, it is apparent that Sylvia formed intense but volatile bonds with many people in her life besides romantic prospects. She repeatedly wrote in her journal about feeling like an incomplete or fragmented person. Did she hope to somehow find herself through other people?

Although Sylvia’s active dating life provides insight into her character, it is also this biography’s greatest challenge. At times the text started to feel like a list of men she dated, rather than a nuanced account of a person’s life. It doesn’t help that Sylvia was often dating several men at once, plus keeping up correspondence with others. Wilson usually alerts the reader to men who will stick around for more than a few pages, but those passages could still feel tedious. I wonder if the information could have been presented in a more compelling way or even condensed.

Of course, I’m not particularly well-versed in biographies, so I may be approaching my critique from a fictional mindset. Wilson had access to unpublished letters, which must be a biographer’s dream, and creating a complete account of a writer’s early years has its own merit. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a worthy read for any Plath enthusiast.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Satisfying My Sweet Tooth

Anyone watching me might have thought I was consulting a reference book, I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes.

I knew that Read More for Four would be easy in November. There were two books coming out that I couldn’t wait to read, one of which was Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. I was quite enamored with Atonement when I read it, and his new book sounded equally intriguing.

Fresh out of Cambridge in the early 1970s, Serena Frome is recruited to work for MI5. She imagines a glamorous position within British intelligence, but instead languishes at a desk job for months. Then opportunity knocks in the form of a Cold War initiative called Sweet Tooth. MI5 wants to subtly encourage writers whose work contains pro-capitalist, anti-communist themes. Because of her voracious reading habits, Serena is assigned to recruit aspiring novelist T. H. Haley. Of course, Haley is not aware of her MI5 connections.

You can imagine the complications that follow. Sweet Tooth is a fascinating look at Cold War attitudes through a distinctly British lens. Even more fascinating, at least to me, is its examination of Serena as a reader. She describes herself as “the basest of readers” with little time for flowery language or symbolism. How ironic that her first real assignment is all about understanding the thematic undertones of a writer’s work. She reads Haley’s short stories before meeting him and searches for those fictional characters in the man himself. It’s a game that the novel’s reader can play right along with her.

Ian McEwan is a master of the flawed protagonist. As with Atonement, there are moments when the reader may question whether Serena is a reliable narrator. She certainly has her prejudices and blind spots. Although Serena herself might disagree with me, I love that McEwan demands something from his reader. On top of asking yourself which characters are trustworthy in this tale of espionage, you might be asking yourself if you can trust Serena.

Some books make me wish that I was back in college, just so that I could write an analysis paper. I want an excuse to spend more time with Sweet Tooth and develop my ideas into arguments. In particular the ending is something that I would want to discuss at length. But of course, I can’t spoil it for any potential readers out there. If you read it, drop me a line. There’s so much more to say!

3 Comments

Filed under Books

In Search of Jane Eyre

Timing is everything, right? I wish I could say that I would appreciate a quality work of art at any time in my life, but years of experience suggest otherwise. The books, movies, and music that I love the most have earned that status in part because I encountered them at the right moment.

Allow me to let my English nerd flag fly for a minute. I freakin’ love Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I read it for the first time in a Victorian Novel class with an awesome illustrated edition assigned by Susan Jaret McKinstry, and it was a revelation. Dame Darcy’s comic-style illustrations emphasized the Gothic elements and forever influenced my impression of the story. And okay, I won’t attempt to deny that I wasn’t in the happiest frame of mind when I read the book. It was one of those low moments in the life of a college student, and the subtle agony of buttoned-up Victorians had a strange appeal.

When I saw the first trailer for the 2011 film adaptation, I was thrilled that they seemed to be emphasizing the same Gothic undertones that I love so much. For a viewer unfamiliar with the plot, this Jane Eyre looked like part love story, part horror film. And that mixture just happened to perfectly match my own conception of the book.

Since the film was only in limited release, I had to make a pilgrimage to Minneapolis from Carleton just to see it. Luckily I wasn’t the only devotee on campus. Leaving the theater, I was not disappointed. Fast forward to October, and I decided to rent the movie from Netflix for a second (and third) viewing. However, there was a difference between experiencing the story when I was relatively down and when I was happy. Although I still enjoyed the movie, I didn’t feel the same visceral connection that I did two years ago when I first read the book.

At least that’s what I decided had me dragging my feet to write a blog post about it. Me feeling ambivalent about Jane Eyre? Preposterous! Still, as the English major equivalent of a squealing fangirl for this book, I can recommend the movie wholeheartedly. The most noticeable difference from the book is the way the film plays with the timeline. That is, the events remain the same, but the story unfolds in a nonlinear way. The film opens with Jane running away from Thornfield, which any nerd can tell you happens at the beginning of volume three. Then her past is revealed in a series of lengthy flashbacks. It’s a device that works well in film, so I have no problem with the change.

The best that both the novel and the movie have to offer is the character of Jane herself. I was skeptical when I heard that Mia Wasikowka was cast, knowing her only as “that girl from the new Alice in Wonderland.” Seeing her in The Kids Are All Right gave me more faith in her acting, but I still wasn’t sure that she could pull off Jane. The trailer provided some relief because at least they made her plain. Not as “Goth chick” as Dame Darcy would have me believe, but appropriately unassuming. As it turned out, I was pleased with her performance. Jane Eyre is all about pent-up emotion, and Mia Wasikowka was able to convey outward calm with turmoil just beneath the surface.

If only she had said, “Grant me at least a new servitude!” Then I may have died of happiness.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Movies

10 Years with Sarah Dessen

Last week I got a package from Amazon. This is always cause for excitement, but this particular package was special. It contained the latest Sarah Dessen novel.

As mentioned in a previous post, Sarah Dessen is my favorite young adult author and the person who inspired me to love the genre. She proves that books written for and about teenagers don’t have to be dumbed down. She fills her novels with humor and thoughtfulness and characters that I always remember. She even got a shout-out in my Comps talk — not to her knowledge, of course.

What Happened to Goodbye is her tenth novel, which honestly just makes me feel old. When I first read Keeping the Moon in sixth grade, she was only on her third. That was ten years ago! I continued to read each new book as it came out, developing an impressive collection on my bookshelves. When we’re talking about one of my favorite authors of all-time, I’m happy to pay the hardcover price.

Then in college I fell a little behind. Two more books were released between my freshman and junior year, and I never found the time to read them. I suspect there may also have been some English major guilt about still wanting to read young adult novels. Well, at some point I realized that was ridiculous. As a result, I spent a happy winter break reading both Lock and Key and Along for the Ride. When her tenth novel was released this spring, it started to feel like an embarrassment of riches in my YA world.

As always, reading Sarah’s novel feels like being with old friends. Being a long-time reader of her blog, I also notice plotlines that are drawn from her own life and interests, which makes me feel all insider-y. And you know, I miss having reading experiences like this. I read so much for my English classes that I rarely felt like doing it during my free time at school. Even during breaks, it would usually take a couple of weeks before I wanted to read for pleasure. Maybe that’s why I began to explore my interest in film:  it scratches that same storytelling itch, but in a different form.

Now I can finally read books that aren’t assigned on a syllabus. Heck, I can write my own syllabus. Actually that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would do. I shouldn’t be giving myself ideas.

5 Comments

Filed under Books

Kate Winslet, Have I Loved

As alluded to in a previous post, I love Kate Winslet. She’s hands-down my favorite actress and just an all-around cool chick. When I first got Netflix, I immediately added several of her movies to my queue. Now that I’m more caught up on her recent performances, I thought it would be fun to rank them. Honestly, it would be too difficult to make this list based only on her performance, so I’m using my opinions on the movies as a whole. For more information about each movie, click on the image!

7. Little Children

Being at the bottom of this list is still pretty good. Heck, Kate got an Oscar nomination for this role. (Then again, the same could be said for most of these movies.) And she wears a killer red bathing suit. That being said, I had trouble developing sympathy for the main characters.

6. Revolutionary Road

I just watched this last night, so I’m still decided how I feel about it. Kate’s performance is the definition of haunting, particularly in her final scene. I just felt like she has played similar characters in more interesting movies. It was also kind of weird to see her and Leonardo DiCaprio constantly yelling at each other. I miss Jack and Rose! Don’t get me wrong though — the 1950s fashion is to die for.

5. The Holiday

This is a total guilty pleasure movie, and the fact that I’m ranking it above two movies with Oscar nominations is perhaps absurd. Yes, the Cameron Diaz/Jude Law half of the movie is at times difficult to tolerate, mainly because of Cameron Diaz’s character being high-strung in the least endearing way. Just ignore them and watch Kate and Jack Black, who are delightful! Even if you don’t like Jack Black’s comedy, I think he’s charming in this role.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Since I’ve already reviewed this movie, I won’t go into much detail. I love the concept and the cast. I love seeing Kate acting like a kooky American.

3. Titanic

I recently caught part of this on TV, and — wow. Do you guys remember how great this movie is?! When she breaks his handcuffs with the axe? When she spits in the rich guy’s face? So great! Plus Kate excels at being snobby in the first act. It may have tainted Revolutionary Road for me, but it’s so worth it.

2. The Reader

Entertainment Weekly claimed that Kate should have won an Oscar for Titanic instead of The Reader. And to them I say, dream on! I love this book, and the movie absolutely does it justice. I’m pretty sure my heart actually ached while I was watching it. Kate’s role is a challenging one, and she plays it with the perfect mix of hardness and humanity.

1. Sense and Sensibility

Okay, my English major is showing again. We love our Jane Austen, and this is easily my favorite film adaptation of her novels. Granted, Kate’s character is not always likeable, but she really embodies the spirit of Marianne Dashwood. Add to that the genius of Emma Thompson, and you can’t lose. Yes, they wear silly bonnets, but I don’t care! It’s hilarious, touching, and beautifully shot by Ang Lee. For the win.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies

Slice ‘N Dice

It’s no secret that I’m crafty. Or is it?

It’s not a habit that I got to indulge at school very often. In fact, the only occasion I can think of was when I took a Victorian Novel class with the fabulous Susan Jaret McKinstry. The class focused on the book as an object, and most of the novels we read were illustrated editions. There were also several assignments that went beyond the usual paper-writing. My favorite was creating a serial edition of a chapter (or shorter excerpt) from one of the novels we studied. I gleefully bought paper at The Sketchy Artist, took photos around campus, and assembled collage-style illustrations for my edition of Jane Eyre. In fact, if you Google me, one of the only results that actually refers to me is a photo of my edition from the Gould Library website.

So when I looked forward longingly to the post-graduation era, one of my fantasies was having time for crafty projects. Fortunately for me, at home I have my mom as Craftiness Enabler. It will be a sad day when I can’t share her paper stash and tools anymore. At least there’s one tool that I won’t have to live without, and that’s the Slice. What is the Slice, you ask? The Slice is quite simply the best paper-crafting tool ever. It’s a little machine that cuts out letters and many other shapes, which is great for poor crafters like me. Scrapbooking doesn’t have to be expensive if you only buy paper. Granted, the Slice itself doesn’t come cheap, but my mom lucked into a sweet deal around Christmas time.

Yesterday I finally freed my Slice from its box and made my first scrapbook page of the summer. Oh, it was sweet. I know that my free time will shrink considerably when I start job training in August, so I plan to take full advantage of the next few weeks. There are envelopes full of photos and adorable shapes waiting to be cut.

Wow, I managed to be a nerdy English major and a nerdy scrapbooker in one post. Do I win some kind of prize? Preferably one printed in an adorable font on tastefully patterned paper?

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Real Life