Hawthorne: A Life

Brenda Wineapple writes biographies for readers with more literary inclinations. Her books are not just about hard facts and straight chronology; they are poetic works in and of themselves, elegant studies that contain both a compelling narrative and insightful criticism. In Hawthorne: A Life, Wineapple captures the unique character of Nathaniel Hawthorne in a way that is at once convincing, captivating, and fair. She starts with the tragedy of his early life—his childhood illnesses, the death of his father at sea—and ends by detailing the peculiar circumstances of his death at age 59. Still the book, for as much biographical information it contains on Hawthorne (and it is considerable), also reflects thoughtfully on each of the major stories, and all of the novels, that he wrote. It positions them within Hawthorne’s life: not just when he wrote them, but also how he was feeling at the time, and what preoccupations they reveal. Wineapple expertly, and movingly, portrays Hawthorne’s struggles with what it meant to be a writer, both during the age and for him personally. This all adds up to a biography that is probing and comprehensive.

Wineapple’s ability to process, and effortlessly convey, a wide range of material is truly impressive. At no point does the book feel repetitive or padded. Indeed, for a fairly long book (about 500 pages, though the notes themselves could fill a small book), it is surprisingly consistent. Wineapple does not falter in the later chapters, even when she passes the point of Hawthorne’s most productive period. She makes Hawthorne’s failures as engaging as his successes. She undoubtedly has a knack for pacing, which prevents her from concentrating the more interesting details of Hawthorne’s life in only a few places; further aiding in this are a number of well-placed photographs, which help to flesh out some of the key figures—and places—who appear. All in all, the biography is an immersive experience that reveals Hawthorne both straight on and from those who knew him well. Wineapple does not romanticize him—we are given plenty of insight into the uglier sides of his character—but she still shows why he is considered one of the most important American writers even today.

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The Lying Game

Remember when you were a teenager and your biggest thrills came from playing hilarious practical jokes on anyone and everyone you had ever met? You know, like convincing a girl that a murder had been committed in front of her locker, and reporting to the police that a baby was abandoned in a dumpster? Remember what a riot it was when you rubbed it in everyone’s stupid panic-stricken face and urine-soaked pants that you had totally fooled them? …No? Well, if you weren’t a teenage sociopath, don’t worry: you can experience all the fun vicariously in Sara Shepard’s The Lying Game, the first in a YA series inspired by those high-schoolers who thought Mean Girls was an instructional video.

I’m no longer a teenager, so I might not be as hip and with it, but it seems that if you’re not into vampires and werewolves, you’re probably all about selfish, upper middle class girls who get their jollies from inflicting pain on others. True, in The Lying Game, as well as in Shepard’s other popular series, Pretty Little Liars, the meanest mean girl always gets hers (disturbingly enough, by being murdered), and the other girls—mere followers—are, alone, never as keen on the treachery. But that doesn’t mean that they’re innocent. In fact, in this book, the evidence seems to suggest that one or all of them may have been responsible for sacrificing their queen bee. Which means…well, if you’re reading it, maybe you’re not so innocent yourself. These types of books aren’t so much cautionary tales as they are dark fantasies, a chance for readers to indulge the desire to play their own pretty little lying game. Basically, if you want to be a “good girl,” read Jane Eyre or something.

The Lying Game—and its ilk—is fashionable but disposable. The girls wear $200 jeans and listen to Katy Perry on the radio. In three years, 90% of its references will be obsolete, but for the moment it feels completely relevant. I suppose for the right audience—that is, not 24-year-old grad students who host knitting get-togethers—the situations are actually somewhat relatable. The girls shop at the mall, sneak swigs of stolen alcohol, and schedule spa days together. They’re just like their teen readers, only more glamorous…and way more secretive. The secrets and scandal are what really make the book appealing. This is no character study, but it doesn’t need to be; it succeeds for what it is: a quick, compulsively readable guilty pleasure with plenty of high school melodrama.

The plot, an overwrought absurdity that shouldn’t work, is as follows: Sutton and Emma are twins separated at birth who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. While Emma is placed in a series of foster homes in Nevada, Sutton leads a charmed life in Arizona, having been adopted as an infant by a loving and well-to-do family. Just weeks before her 18th birthday, and the arrival of her legal freedom, Emma is set up by her future sex offender foster brother, who tries to convince his mother that Emma has stolen a large sum of money from her. To prove his point, at least according to his logic, he shows both his mother and Emma a particularly gruesome, snuff film-esque YouTube video of Emma being nearly choked to death by a locket. …Only, it isn’t a confirmation of Emma’s kinky proclivities. In fact, it isn’t even Emma. This girl is Emma’s twin sister, and, what’s more, she’s dead.

We know Sutton is dead because she tells us. That’s right: Emma’s twin, who is now somehow fused to Emma’s consciousness, seeing what she sees, is narrating from beyond the grave. She is dead before the book even starts, but she has no idea when her death occurred, or how. She cannot communicate with Emma, but she desperately wishes she could when Emma emails the twin she has found through Facebook…and gets a response. This mysterious response sets off the action of the novel, in which Emma goes to Arizona to meet her sister, only to end up taking over her life. While Emma waits for Sutton to materialize, no one suspects that she is an impostor—even when she flat-out tells them this is so. Her friends, her sister—even her parents—think that Sutton has just gotten a little nicer. That, or she is up to her old “lying game” tricks, modifying her behavior as part of the prank.

The Lying Game, which is just what it sounds like, is a contrivance that further adds to the mystery of Sutton’s death. Did she die at the hands of one of her friends, due to a prank gone wrong? Did she anger the wrong person, prompting disproportionate revenge? Emma doesn’t learn the extent of Sutton’s pranks and elaborate lies, so anything is possible. Unfortunately, this is as true at the end of the book as it is at the beginning. Shepard clearly knows how to stretch out a series indefinitely, so the revelations in this first book are few. Sutton’s fleeting flashbacks all appear to add up to a single event, though of course it takes her the length of the book to recall it. Similarly, Emma’s detective work only serves to piece together this same event, making much of Shepard’s writing repetitive and unsatisfying. One of Emma’s most interesting theories, that Sutton is playing a lying game with her, is disappointingly impossible due to the narrative structure we have been given since the beginning. In short, there are a lot of possibilities with the story, but the execution is fairly lackluster.

I was impressed with this book for its ability to hold my interest, though disappointed in the way it settled for mediocrity. The mystery was compelling, and the Lying Game an interesting plot device, but the characters were too frustratingly interchangeable to make any of the action count. I was bothered by the disposable quality of the book: from it’s excessive number of contemporary references to its repetition and lack of direction, it was clearly not intended as a lasting artifact. It will be worth owning for exactly as long as it takes to release the last book in the series. No doubt, the future books will be just as entertaining as this one…but once they’re done, you won’t need to think about them ever again.

Late to the Party: A “Mad Men” Confessional

Image courtesy MadMenYourself.com.

I became hooked on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” before I ever even considered watching “Mad Men.” I watched “Pretty Little Liars” and “Desperate Housewives,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and too many “Golden Girls” reruns to count…but never “Mad Men.” Sure I had heard about how great it was, and my eyeballs were already on board—it’s hard not to notice that Jon Hamm is one of the hamm-somest men around—but it was something I never envisioned myself embracing. In fact, it was something I figured I’d need to brace myself for. I avoided it the way…well, the way that regular “Mad Men” viewers were probably avoiding the shows I vainly watched in its stead.

“Mad Men” meant one thing to me, and it was something that I didn’t think I could stomach without approaching an unproductive level of anger: misogyny. Sure, it was a knowing misogyny, something carefully crafted by modern day writers to mimic the true experience of the early 60s, all while nodding to our presumably changed attitudes. But that still meant a barrage of cutting remarks about the inferiority of women, the general boys’ club inanity, and—if “Mad Men” jokes on other television shows were to be trusted—a lot of unwarranted ass-slapping. Now, I prefer my ass-slapping in moderation, particularly if it is presented so glamorously that it almost starts to seem appealing. I was pretty sure that “Mad Men” would overstep this boundary, and that I might just be taken along for the ride. I was destined either to be constantly furious or gradually indoctrinated; by the end of the show, I might even be chain-smoking and drinking my way through breakfast. Never mind that most of the other shows I was watching were at least vaguely misogynistic in a different way, often showing women to be harpies, sluts, or oblivious virgins—main characters maybe, but rarely well-rounded people.

When I started watching “Mad Men” this summer, mostly due to its being the most appealing show Netflix offered on streaming (that I hadn’t yet seen), I discovered that I was not, technically, wrong. The ass slaps, thankfully, have been fewer than I imagined, but the bad attitude toward women (and anyone else not privileged, male, and white) is perhaps even more shocking than I was prepared for. There’s something almost giddy about the excessively un-PC dialogue; at times I find myself both cringing and laughing at the absurdity of it all. There’s no doubt that the show is well-made—it is both visually- and intellectually-appealing, with impressive acting and clever writing—but it is also quite troubling. It requires a very delicate dance between historical accuracy (and, I suppose, satire) and pernicious indulgence; it is difficult to determine whether this dance is fastidiously maintained or if there are missteps.

For me, “Mad Men” has been enjoyable but not compulsively watchable. Too many episodes in one sitting is like the majority of the foods featured on the show: impossible to digest. This difficulty stems not only from the often unpalatable attitudes but also the richness of the themes. The morally gray domain of advertising is particularly fruitful, leading to endless questions about human nature at its core. Additionally, each of the characters has a compelling backstory, which is explored with care. There is no detail too minor, nor character too small; the “Mad Men” world is complex and seemingly infinite. I find that these episodes can be savored longer, and ought to be. I feel more comfortable with the characters the more I ruminate on the paths their lives have taken. Still, this is not to say that any of these characters are quite likable; “Mad Men” is not the kind of show that needs to rely on heroes and villains.

Only five episodes into the first season, I can make no definitive judgments on how I feel about the show. Thus far, however, I am impressed by its writing and lush details. I am drawn in, in spite of myself, and eager to discover more. The characters are already real to me, and their struggles are already imperative. In short, I am learning what the rest of the world already knew: “Mad Men” is not just a treat, but a whole satisfying meal.

The Bell Jar

I’ve read The Bell Jar three times now, which is a fact I tend not to share with future employers, concerned family members, or the people installing my new oven. It’s the kind of book I enjoyed when I was 16, yes, but it’s also the kind of book that I can revisit at 24 and still appreciate, perhaps even in a more nuanced way. While it certainly appeals to the alienated teenager in all of us, The Bell Jar is much more than just a how-to guide for failed suicide attempts. Its narrator is as smart, funny, and charming as they come, and many of her struggles—perhaps barring the whole “I feel like I’m suffocating under a bell jar” one—are relatable to readers of any age.

The typical pressures of being a student, not having much money, and, of course, being a woman are observed through the wry, and often very witty, eye of Plath stand-in Esther Greenwood, a born writer who is as engaging as she is astute. The novel has a very breezy, even conversational, feel, all while tackling a very serious subject. As, no doubt, even someone only casually acquainted with the book already knows, Esther decides to kill herself. The first half of the book leads up to this event, and the latter half deals with its aftermath. The events are closely based on Plath’s real-life breakdown and suicide attempt, which means that the mind set and the emotions are authentic. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the novel is probably due to the fact that Plath captures depression so convincingly, so thoroughly, and so hauntingly.

The novel begins with Esther, listless and aloof, interning at a major magazine in New York City. Although she knows she should be thrilled with the attention lavished on her, and invigorated by the chance to live, for a month, on her own in the city, she instead feels nothing. She cares little for the events being put on for the benefit of the summer interns—she is one of many girls selected for the program—and she even tags along indifferently on the extracurricular excursions of her party girl friend, Doreen. Though inwardly thoughtful and observant, she is often outwardly passive, occasionally allowing herself to be led into dangerous situations. She is unsure of what type of woman she wants to be: the rebellious Doreen, the sweet Betsy (whom Doreen disparagingly calls “Pollyanna Cowgirl”), or the professional Jay Cee, her editor. Each of them represents a side of Esther, but none can encompass all of her hopes, her desires, her yearnings. Nor can they resolve her anxieties over how to be a woman who is not just a wife, or a mother, or a career person—that is, how to be a woman who is everything she wants to be, and nothing she doesn’t want to be.

After an unfulfilling start to the summer, Esther returns home for what she hopes will be a brief stay. Before her internship, she had applied for a summer writing class taught by a renowned author; upon her arrival back home, she learns that she was rejected from the program. Distraught over this news, as well as over having to live alone with her mother, Esther begins to unravel. She sleeps all day, and discovers she can no longer read anything more than scandal sheets, with their flashy, trashy headlines about celebrity comas and suicide rescues. She begins to entertain her own thoughts of suicide, until, eventually, she acts on them. She loads herself up with all the pills prescribed by her doctor and hides herself away in a cubbyhole under the house. A sensational search ensues, and Esther is rescued before the pills can do much damage. The remainder of the novel details Esther’s treatment, and her gradual emergence from her captivity under the bell jar.

Despite the dark subject matter, the novel has many humorous moments, some which occur even after Esther’s suicide attempt. Esther is a clever, comical person, and she can appreciate the absurdity of many of the situations she finds herself in. Of course, she also struggles with the injustices of her time, and such anxieties are often at the heart of her ostensibly amusing encounters. In particular, her keen awareness of the double standard for women troubles her throughout. She is incensed when she learns that the value of sexual purity is so one-sided, and deeply bothered by those who suggest that she will abandon her career aspirations once her first child is born. For someone whose existence so far has been defined by academic excellence, the insinuation that it might not be everything, that it could end up being meaningless, is too much to bear. Indeed, when we consider how stifling society itself is for a motivated woman like Esther, we might begin to wonder if it may have contributed to the suffocating atmosphere of the bell jar. And, with that, the novel feels less like a story of mental illness and more like a coming-of-age tale, still important to young girls and women in this time.

Thus, Esther Greenwood is the perfect narrator precisely because she is so complex: funny yet despairing, struggling yet determined. She is not defined by her depression, nor is she free to transcend it on her own. Esther is the kind of narrator who welcomes readers in with her conversational tone, yet doesn’t fail to challenge them, to make them think. And, so, with each new reading, The Bell Jar still feels fresh, interesting, and thoughtful. It is a glimpse into a world likely different from our own, yet familiar enough to consistently startle.

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