Letters Home – by Sylvia Plath

Non-Fiction

TW: Depression, suicide.

Everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath: the successful poet who tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty, her children in the next room. You’ve probably read her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, too. Letters Home, however, offers an entirely different perspective on her life. The collection of her letters spans her time at Smith College until just a week before her death. Since most of the letters are to her mother, and the collection is highly edited by her, the tone is generally more optimistic and the content more everyday than the author’s creative work. (My edition is from 1975 and was highly edited by Plath’s mother. Later collections of her letters, including the most recent volume, published in 2018, include a wider array of letters and cover a longer time period.)

The book cover proclaims that the collection “builds with the intensity of a novel.” This is true in some sense — it’s gripping and entertaining throughout. But that’s not what makes it special. Unlike with most novels, you already know how Letters Home will end. Yet far from spoiling the shock, it supplements the reading experience with a darker under-layer: however happy she may seem, you can’t help remembering that it won’t last. As Dan Chiasson writes in The New Yorker, “The experience of reading these letters, even at their most joyous, cannot be separated from what we know is coming.” In many of her letters, she describes contentment that few enjoy. So how did things get so bad? Or were they never perfect to start with? This kind of nuanced, skeptical reading of biographical texts is rare, and makes for a more interesting and insightful experience.

The letters also strike a great balance in their content, neither excessively navel-gazing nor focusing too much on the day-to-day. Perhaps that is the advantage of being written in the present rather than in retrospect (which Plath never had the privilege to do). Regardless, the book is satisfyingly readable — I’ve near read a non-fiction book with such ease.

In a sense, the book recreates Plath’s suicide in the abrupt end to the letters. There is no final, satisfying ‘goodbye’ letter at the end of the collection; there is only a brief note by her mother. As a result, you experience the effects of her death almost in real time, and mourn the loss of Sylvia from your own life: since you receive her constant commentary in the form of letters for the entirety of the book, it feels as though she has stopped writing to you. This creates the visceral sense of a life cut short. This is amplified by all of her plans which never came to fruition, making you mourn, too, all that could have been but never was.

Letters Home prompts you to realize that mental health issues affect many different people, and often remain hidden, expressing themselves in varied ways. In the midst of marital troubles, she slips back into a depression rivaled only by the period surrounding her suicide attempt while in college. But this wasn’t necessarily inevitable, or if it was, it didn’t have to end the way it did. As a reader, you wonder whether she might have avoided her premature end if she’d had greater access to mental health support, if she hadn’t had to worry so much about money, or if Ted hadn’t been so dismissive in their last phone call. You ruminate, as her mother likely did, whether she would have survived if she’d moved back home to Massachusetts. Of course, everyone is responsible for their own mental wellness, but external factors can make that impossible. Plath’s tragic end can be a reminder to check in on the people you care about.

I would highly recommend Letters Home to anyone even remotely interested in Sylvia Plath’s life, or in the life of a writer in general. The book is certainly dated in some of its language, particularly about people of colour, Jews, and women. With that in mind, and considering its sensitive themes, it is probably not appropriate for early teens or younger. Nonetheless, this book offers a fascinating insight into the life of an author so often overshadowed by her death.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Pace: Medium

Buy at AbeBooks (UK)

Buy at AbeBooks (US)

Top Five Quick Reads

Non-Fiction, Short Fiction, Top Five books

Despite identifying as a bookworm, I often find myself intimidated by big books. Everyone knows how terrible it feels to start a book and fail to finish it (I’ve been doing that a lot lately). The next thing you know, you’ve stopped reading altogether. If you recognise any of this, know that you’re not alone, even in the book community. More importantly, I’ve got you covered. Here are my top five utterly unintimidating quick reads that will wrench you out of your reading rut in no time.

Reunion Fred Uhlman cover

Reunion – By Fred Uhlman

A friend recommended this novella to me and I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be one of the best works I’d read in a long time. The book is written from the future, as Hans Schwarz looks back on his childhood in Stuttgart, Germany in the early 1930s. At the centre of the narrative is his friendship with young aristocrat Konradin von Hohenfels. At first, it’s a great coming of age tale. As the story progresses, though, and the Nazis rise to power, the protagonist’s Jewish heritage – previously insignificant to his life and identity – edges closer to the forefront when it becomes an issue not only at school but in the boys’ friendship. Unlike in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the complexities of a friendship between a Jewish boy and the son of an antisemite are not neatly tied up with a bow. There are no grand, heroic gestures that defy their differences. This is for the better, and what makes this story so special. Make sure to stick it out until the end – I promise you won’t regret it.

Notes on Nationalism – By George OrwellNotes on Nationalism George Orwell cover

This mini essay collection’s hyper-relevant subject matter, acclaimed author, and irresistibly low price (£1!) caught my eye in a bookstore and I had to buy it. Unlike my neglect of the numerous non-fiction books on my bookshelf, I not only picked this one up but finished it too. It contains three essays: Notes on Nationalism, Antisemitism in Britain, and The Sporting Spirit, all centering on nationalism as Orwell broadly defines the word. For him, nationalism isn’t just hostile patriotism; it’s a bigoted frame of mind, and includes ideologies as wide-ranging as communism, pacifism, and political catholicism. The essays not only contain Orwell’s eye-opening theories, but also offer a window into the time they were written: 1945 Britain, when stalinism, trotskyism and especially antisemitism were epidemic. Benefit from the famous writer’s ever-relevant wisdom without having to commit to a hefty book.

The Catbird Seat James Thurber coverThe Catbird Seat – By James Thurber

I had never heard of this short story or author until a week ago, when I attended a local group reading of the story. I loved it. Long before his time, Thurber managed to create a story that is at once comedic, dark and thought-provoking. The story is a social commentary, a window into life – particularly gender relations – in 1940s New York whilst remaining pertinent and surprising. The Catbird Seat follows Erwin Martin – neurotic, weak, resentful – as he seeks revenge against the domineering Ulgine Barrows. I don’t want to give anything else away; every paragraph is new treasure. At just a few pages long, you have nothing to lose by reading this short story, so give it a try! It might just get you back into reading or even introduce you to your new favourite author.

Dark Days – By James BaldwinDark Days James Baldwin cover

Another mini essay collection from the same series as Notes on Nationalism, Dark Days includes three essays by renowned novelist, essayist and activist James Baldwin: The White Man’s Guilt (1965), Dark Days (1980) and The Price of the Ticket (1985). I bought this book for its famed author – I’d been meaning to try his work – but didn’t foresee the impact it would have on me. The essays were moving, magnetic. I read the collection in one sitting, hungrily absorbing his words. His raw anger is woven throughout his memories and reflections on race relations in America:

To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.

Dark Days taught me about black history, and inspired me to seek more. Read the collection if, like me, you want to try Baldwin’s writing and learn about the black experience in America.

The House on Mango Street Sandra Cisneros coverThe House on Mango Street – By Sandra Cisneros

Unlike the other works in this list, The House on Mango Street is neither an essay collection nor a novella, but a short bildungsroman. Structured in a series of vignettes from protagonist Esperanza Cordera’s early adolescence, this book illustrates life in a Chicano and Puerto Rican neighbourhood of Chicago. Each vignette has a theme: the first is about the houses Esperanza’s family have lived in, and the house she dreams of living in. Others centre on the family members’ different hair, friendships with neighbours,    and even the privilege of bringing a packed lunch to school. They all contribute to a greater picture of Esperanza’s life growing up and navigating the world. 

A friend gifted this book to me (the same friend who recommended Reunion) and wrote a note on the first page. Her words say it all, so I wanted to share an excerpt:

I wanted to give you this book for two reasons: 1) It’s small enough that you can take it to college without exceeding the baggage weight limit and  2) It’s the first book I really read

 

When was the last time you really read a book? Don’t waste any more time; rediscover the magic of reading with these quick reads.

The Taliban Shuffle: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – by Kim Barker

Non-Fiction, Post-9/11

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, now a major motion picture with Tina Fey at its helm, is a foreign reporter’s account of her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It includes political commentaries, lessons she learnt and incredible stories – a lively mix of personal and work-related experiences, describing interviews with important political leaders and drunken nights out in the ‘dry’ Afghan city of Kabul. Through her time with US soldiers on ’embeds’, visits to villages, Barker reports on the lives of normal people – or as she put it, “the smaller stories about what happens in a country when the west rushes in there after being kept out for so long”. Her move to Pakistan halfway through the book offers another perspective on the Taliban and the ‘forgotten war’ – and clearly displays her preference for Afghanistan over its unbelievably corrupt, damaged counterpart (although it seems Afghanistan gives Pakistan a run for its money).

After reading this book, I gained a newfound respect for journalists, especially foreign reporters, who often risk their lives to deliver news; like many professions, the majority of journalists are passionate about their jobs. But I don’t think it was this that drove Barker in her ‘quest’; it wasn’t fast, emergency information that she really wanted to provide – especially as it was this that repeatedly interrupted her much-needed holidays! Despite her commitment to ‘reporting the truth’ and the buzz that comes with it, she seemed far more interested in the bigger picture: the long-term effects of war on citizens, and the problems that hinder the country’s progression. Perhaps it’s easy to criticise others, but Barker seemed especially talented at pointing out where things were going wrong in Afghanistan, with Afghans and Westerners alike.

I also learnt a lot about the complex tribal system of Afghanistan, which is an integral part of politics and life in the country. Similarly, I had a new understanding for the corrupt, volatile political landscape in Pakistan, with its destructive military leaders and over-powerful intelligence agency; reading about a place that is so different was quite an eye-opener. Reading from an individual’s perspective enhanced my appreciation and knowledge for the subject – far more than an impersonal newspaper article ever could. With her dark humour and satirical tone, some would argue that Barker isn’t your typical woman on an ‘Eat-Pray-Love’ journey abroad – but although I agree, her optimism and resilience are also apparent, and contribute to her charming voice.

As with many  books, and especially non-fiction ones, I was a little slow to ‘get into it’ and find myself wanting to pick it up; however, once I did, I relished the escape it offered and Barker’s entertaining narrative. It was especially well-written (which is maybe to be expected from a print journalist, but nonetheless), a funny, easy-to-follow ‘travel diary’ with sophistication and wit.

Especially after the story picked up, the book didn’t seem long at all (but because I read it electronically, it’s hard to say). A book for those looking for a perspective on life in 2000s Afghanistan and Pakistan combined with a good-quality travel memoir. Basically, if you like substantive memoirs then you’ll like this.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

Buy on Amazon

Buy at Waterstones

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Thanks to Angela at Wunderkind for providing me with a digital copy of this entertaining travel-memoir of a foreign journalist.

The lives of Ugandan women: Crossroads – By Christopher Conte

Non-Fiction

I don’t usually read books like this, and when it was sent to me, I was wary about what it would be like. However, despite my reservations, I decided to read it, and I’m glad I did.

Crossroads is a collection of autobiographical essays written by Ugandan women, describing their lives and the difficulties they have encountered. The selection of topics discussed is broad, relating to both ‘Ugandan’ issues and universal ones – from sex, sexuality and gender roles to NGOs, torture and corporal punishment. The women, living in modern Uganda, insightfully describe Western influences versus traditional customs, exploring their benefits and drawbacks.

The authors of Crossroads, writing passionately yet with measure and control, explore the nuanced reality of living as modern, Ugandan women.  The book’s brevity is powerful, because none of the stories are boring or drawn-out; the purpose of the collection is to highlight impactful parts of the women’s lives, relating to a theme. This focus ensures that the reader is not overwhelmed by an excess of information, and can freely come to their own conclusion about the importance of western values in traditional societies like Uganda.

My favourite of the stories is ‘No time for pain’, which is written in the second person; it describes a woman’s isolation as she struggles to live a normal life with the memory of her war-torn childhood. Her account of grief and detachment is well-written and easy to relate to, and is complimented by her well-considered commentary on the long-term effects of war and refugee camps on the society she lives in.

I urge you to read Crossroads if you are interested in Ugandan life and stories about women’s coming-of-age. This collection of essays is readable and fairly short; it is appropriate for mid-teenagers and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Medium

Buy on Amazon

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Thanks to Christopher Conte for providing me with a digital copy of this fascinating collection of essays for review.

 

Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Changed the World – By Malala Yousafzai

Non-Fiction

This book, a fascinating and inspiring memoir written by activist Yousafzai depicts her brave actions to rescue education in Pakistan under the Taliban. Her father ran the local girls’ school, so growing up, she had always been an eager student, and aspired to be like the older girls in the classes above her. As the Taliban gained influence in the Swat Valley and Pakistan as a whole, she increasingly became an international spokeswoman for girls’ rights to learn. Unlike many men in Pakistan, her father encouraged her wholeheartedly, despite fearing her safety all the time.

I found this book completely and utterly inspiring; after reading it, things were put into perspective for me. Suddenly, instead of constantly thinking about myself, I reflected on how brave Malala is; how she showed to the world that standing up for what you believe in is essential in changing things for the better. Additionally, I found this book to be incredibly readable, despite how unbelievable her bravery is; perhaps it was because throughout the book Malala grounded her story by reminding the reader that she squabbled with her brothers all the time, or that she was desperate to get the top mark in a test. This made me love the book even more. It really is an amazing feat to be able to make such an other-worldly story so relatable.

I would highly recommend this book to people who are interested in Malala’s story and what’s happening with the Taliban in Pakistan now. I wouldn’t recommend this book to people who would like to read a book that goes into great detail about the Politics and current affairs in Pakistan right now. After all, it is the children’s version, and so I would recommend this book to people aged 10 and up.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Slow/Medium

Popular – By Maya Van Wagenen

Non-Fiction

Popular is a memoir about a girl who is given a sixty-year-old handbook about how to be popular. She decides that she is sick of always being in the background, and not being able to make friends. After a challenge from her mom, she embarks on a year-long journey with her aim being to find out the definition of ‘popularity’, and in the process become popular herself.

Given its title, Popular is surprisingly endearing and thought-provoking. Initially, I feared this book would pursue bitchy, shallow, self-obsessed popularity. However, I was pleasantly surprised in finding it predominantly about self-confidence and kindness. Van Wagenen displays  humility and humour that enhances the reader’s connection to the book.

This book is good for people that struggle with self-confidence. Even if you don’t, it’s so light-paced and funny you’ll probably enjoy it anyway. This book is not good for people who seek sophistication and multi-layered plots. Popular is for all ages: for kids who want tips, and for adults who want to reminisce.

My Ratings (out of 10 As): 

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium