Saturday, December 2, 2017

Best Letter and essay collections and other non-fiction, 2017

Letters and Essay collections

Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil: It covers 1940-56 and is long, but fascinating for its social history (for a food historian, the book is a gold mine, as Sylvia faithfully records for her mother everything she ate in summer camp) and for Sylvia's early time with Ted Hughes. Hughes was not good for Sylvia: after she hooked up with him, she became both abject and calculatingly ambitious. She had been ambitious before, but in a naive way: a young woman asking "can I get a story published in Seventeen or a poem in New Yorker?" After Ted, her ambitions, no doubt spurred by him, start to become larger and more exultant: can we become a rich, toasted literary couple, can we triumph over other people? It's clear too that he's physically violent towards her, seeing other women, and intensely pressuring her by demanding she live on a financial edge she's not accustomed to, which included not getting enough to eat during their time in Spain.

The Good Bohemian: Letters of Ida John edited by Rebecca John and Michael Holroyd: Ida Nettleship, a bright young painter from a wealthy home, made the mistake of marrying fellow painter Augustus John. Born in 1877, Ida was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, who was born in 1882. Ida, however, despite brushes with the Bloomsbury people, spent most of her time unhappily living in the London suburbs, giving up her painting career to have four children in five years. Meanwhile, Augustus pursued his painting and other women, finally bringing one, with Ida's permission, to live with them in a menage-a-trois. Ida died at 30, never having fulfilled her potential.
    As I read different biographies of people from the same era and social class (roughly speaking--I doubt the Stephens, Woolf's family, would have considered the Nettleships social equals), a sense of the commonalities of a period pile up. One that I notice is the tendency in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century, at least in England, for people to give each other pet names: Virginia Woolf's mother and sister call her "goat," a less-than-kind tag that originated with the mother, Rebecca West and H.G Wells had pet names for each other, Woolf herself was always inventing animal names for her favorites, and Ida had the tendency to give her friends endearing names from Kipling's Just-So Stories. To us, it seems silly, but I wonder if at the time it represented a daring informality and intimacy?

Light the Dark, Essays on Creativity edited by Joe Fassler: Fassler asks writers to "choose a favorite passage from literature, the lines that have hit them hardest over a lifetime's reading." Each writer does a close reading of his or her passage, discusses its personal impact, and explains why it matters. The book includes a wide range of authors, from Jane Smiley to Jonathan Franzen to Azar Nafisi and many more. The essays are uneven, of course, but some soar, and from those I learned and was moved. Mary Gaitskill has a thought-provoking essay on Anna Karenina. I enjoyed Edwidge Danticat's essay "All Immigrants are Artists," which was about Patricia Engel's It's Not Love, It's Just Paris. She quotes Engels that "all immigrants are artists because they create a life, a future, from nothing but a dream." I'm not an immigrant, but felt the truth of that. I also enjoyed Tom Perrota on Our Town, arguing that Wilder's play provides no catharsis, just an "unflinching acknowledgement" of the gulf between the town and the cemetery. I also loved Jonathan Franzen's essay on Karl Kraus.

Other non-fiction

A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari:  It took me some doing to penetrate this book but once I did, I was glad. My take-aways: this work, published in 1980, moves away from some of the anarchic embrace of madness as the antidote to capitalism in Anti-Oedipus. The authors don't want us fragmenting into the schizoid, but taking off on "flights" from a secure base. They also challenge the hierarchical models we use to understand societies and history, especially rejecting the "tree of life:" what is it with these trees, family trees, roots and branches, higher and lower, they ask? Instead, they think of social relations in terms of rhizomes or roots that spread out horizontally, interact, and create new forms. Rhizomes are not just roots, either, but can be any two entities engaging  in a non-hierarchical interaction that brings change, such as a bee landing on a flower. Deleuze reads literature to understand society, and quotes a touching passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Crackup" where Fitizgeral defends both Zelda and himself from blame for each other's failures, saying that they were good for each other. Finally, the authors don't want their ideas to be come a rigid theoretical framework, but a starting point to be built out of and traveled from and enhanced: like a rhizome. They contend you can start reading A Thousand Plateaus in any chapter. I appreciated the book's deep humanity.

Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel: Havel wrote this in 1978, when what he called Soviet "post-totalitarianism" was stifling creativity and the growth of genuine community in communist bloc countries. Havel, a playwright, spent ten years in prison before becoming president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Soviet system. He argues that in times of severe repression, when people are forced to live a lie, they need to form "second cultures" that are creative and humane, operating below the radar: from these, a new and better world will be formed. He can be faulted for having too much faith in innate human goodness, but without faith in some sort of deep spring of humanity, what hope is there? There will be people who create second cultures that are more brutal than the dominant culture, but the people Havel leans into are those pursuing greater human decency and freedom.

Among the Ruins by Paul Williams: No matter how corrupt you might have thought the upper levels of the Roman Catholic Church have been in the last 100 years, its worse than you think. Williams compiles reputable sources to pull together all the ways the church has been corrupted and infiltrated: if even a quarter of Williams information is correct, it's a wonder the institution is still standing. And I say this as a person with much sympathy for the Catholic church.

 Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal: Not too long ago (2014?) the publication of the manuscript, Pioneer Girl that was the basis on the seven Little House books became a surprise bestseller. This year, a follow-up volume came out, essays about Pioneer Girl. These essays, on the whole, are strong and insightful. When I read Ghost in the Little House, the book that contends that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter, wrote the Little House books, I found that argument ridiculous, ageist and sexist,  even though the purported "ghost writer" was another woman. It's a sexist claim, because we don't say about male writers, like Thomas Wolfe, who were heavily edited, that they didn't write their own books. Why is heavy editing perfectly reasonable for a male writer, but evidence of incompetence or deception in a female? I was pleased, therefore, to read an essay that dismissed the idea of Rose writing the Little House books. The author made the point that none of Rose's novels are read today: none of them have lasted, even though often based on material from Laura Ingalls Wilder's life. Whatever makes the Little House books compelling or "classic" comes from Laura. Other essays are very strong, evenhandedly discussing such issues as racism, erasures in the stories, and the slippage between Laura's insistence that the books were fact and the historical rearrangements she did.

I hope next year's reading is as rich as this. Two other blogs cover best re-reads, best fiction, and best biography in 2017.


  1. Interesting list, Diane. I also read Ghost in the Little House - I can see your contention, though I took it that Lane had simply heavily edited for her mother, and you're right about Wolfe being heavily edited (he needed a lot more editing too as far as I'm concerned), but it does show that even today sexism toward female writers exists. At the same time, I do think Rose Wilder Lane was a very good writer and have read her novels and short story collections. I hadn't been aware that Pioneer Girl was published - I'll have to check that out.

  2. I found Pioneer Girl an interesting read though I found the level of editorial commenting intrusive--and usually I like that! I'm surprised it took so long to publish.

  3. I note the first two books are about women whose lives were destroyed -- if Plath managed to write as much as she did and so greatly she still died at 30 -- by their marriage to over-domineering male artists; and you bring out the unacknowledged sexism of the approach to these Wilder Lane books (I've never read any). I loved Havel's Letters from Prison, but one could see from these why he couldn't hold onto power. The Deleuze and Guattari represent hard work for new insights.

  4. Ellen,
    Yes, I hadn't thought how dark some of my favorites are. And Among the Ruins, about the demise of the Catholic Church in the 20th century, was dark too. Don't know what this means ...

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