Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

Title: Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
Author: Elizabeth Winder

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Poetry / 1950s / New York City / Sylvia Plath / Mademoiselle Magazine / Depression / Pop Culture / Sociology)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (4/16/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A poetic look at a month in Sylvia Plath's life, punctuated with trivia about 1953, American culture, women's lives, and New York City.
Reading Challenges: What's In a Name

Do I like the cover?: I love the cover very much -- adore those retro pics -- but my galley has no info about the image. I don't think it's Sylvia Plath on the cover, which is really too bad, as there are some wonderful pictures from this time that I would have preferred to see featured.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford

First line: Sylvia Plath committed suicide with cooking gas.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like unique biographies or are a Plath fan.

Why did I get this book?: I'm fascinated by Plath.

Review: The experience of a book is shaped by the reader: what she feels, thinks, values, believes, has experienced, wants to experience. Some books come with more baggage than others.

Sylvia Plath is a figure for whom I have intense, tangled feelings; any book I read by her or of her is seen through the many layers of experience and emotion I've tied to Plath. More than ten years ago, I wrote a sort of reflection piece on a non-book blog about The Bell Jar, trying post-college to untangle my feelings about Plath and her tragic hagiography. In college, as a young depressed teenager, the pathos of Plath's life as I understood it seemed immensely appealing -- crucial, even -- to my developing identity as an adult (and at the time, a writer) but now that I'm older, now that I'm dealing with my depression, I want to get past the flat caricature and see the complete woman.

This book is hardly a complete presentation, but the focused sliver is fascinating. In this 288-page volume, poet Elizabeth Winder narrows her sights on Plath's one month internship at Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 and the impact it had on her. (These four weeks later inspired The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a brilliant, passionate, self-possessed young woman chafing life in the 1950s.)

Winder's Plath is a sensualist, a fashionista, a gourmand, a sociologist.  She's unlikable, predatory, sharp, cruel, insecure, competitive, playful, curious.  Using Plath's diary and new interviews with the other 'guest editors' who spent that June with Plath, Winder shapes a Sylvia who is less alien and more familiar than I anticipated.  (And far less melancholy!)

The rigors of working for Mademoiselle, the pressure of being a young woman from an Ivy League college in 1953, the transition from small town life to New York City all weighed on the women who made up the guest editors, Plath included.  Each one, they shared in their interviews with Winder, thought they alone were unhappy, stressed, or feeling isolated.  Oblivious, they rocketed from one event to another, cramming copy in between fashion shows and cocktail parties, Yankee baseball games and movies.  In their opening editorial, they declared they wanted careers and marriage (and three children each); Plath, however, fought against that inevitability bitterly.  She paid for her resistance, as well as her passion, with her first suicide attempt and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

The book's unusual style reminded me of a magazine, with the sidebars, call outs, blocks of trivia, interviews mixed in with narrative. I didn't find it gimmicky; it read breezy and fast, layered, allowing Winder to tell her story without having to spell it all out.  I raced through this one, even when the last 100 pages grew weighty with the foreshadowing of Plath's coming suicide attempt.

My only real critique is that there were some glaring inconsistencies that might just be a result of my reading a galley (rather than a finished copy). Info offered on one page is contradicted on another ('she wrote in blue cursive' (p61), 'She never wrote in cursive.' (p62)); or repeated verbatim, like the tidbit of a guest editor writing to Mademoiselle in the 1970s, condemning them for ignoring Plath's vulnerabilities (p89 and p181). There was also the occasional mistake (Sylvia gifted someone Alice and Wonderland which I presume was meant to be Alice in Wonderland.)

I can't say I was exactly sad to leave Sylvia -- she's not a woman I think I would have been friends with -- but I do miss Winder's warm portrayal of that heady, busy, sad, stifling summer and the women who worked with her. (And for the most part, based on the quotes Winder shares, seemed to have liked Plath, in a way.) This is a partial, biased biography that unabashedly rings with admiration and affection for Plath, and I appreciated that. For those new to Plath, I think this a good introduction to her; those who are familiar with Plath might find nothing shockingly new other than the tidbits revealed by Winder's interviews.  Those who like gossip-y armchair escapes will love this book: New York City and some of her famous residents and notorious visitors appear, pushing for attention as much as Plath was.

*** *** ***


GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Pain, Parties, Work to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/10.


24 comments:

  1. I love the cover as well! And I agree, I don't think it's her - she never looked that happy, did she? :--)

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    1. The woman in the cover is not Sylvia Plath.
      It's a fashion picture by Norman Parkinson.
      See lovelyritablog.com/2012/02/25/norman-parkinson-portraits-of-fashion/

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    2. Oh, wow -- thanks for sharing!

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  2. This sounds terrific! I think my mother would love it. I'm going to enter the contest for her.

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    1. It's a wonderful book and an interesting biography -- I loved the unusual format.

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  3. I'm reading this now and am really enjoying it. I'm actually enjoying the aspects of magazine life in NYC as much for the other women as Sylvia. I'm eager to finish it soon!

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    1. The Mademoiselle guest editor program is fascinating! I'd love a book on that -- who came through, the drama, etc -- so delish!

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  4. I love the cover - it makes me smile! I definitely would love to win this one as I'm a huge fan of Plath's writing. Thanks for the giveaway!! And, thanks for the awesome review which makes me want to read the book even more!

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    1. It's a wonderful book -- imaginative and fun -- and showing a Plath who seems familiar, easy to relate to and understand, despite her poise, iciness, unhappiness...

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  5. I didn't respond to the offer for this one quick enough and I missed out. I signed up for the giveaway though. I feel lucky! I've only read The Bell Jar, but have been intrigued with her life ever since.

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    1. I think familiarity with only The Bell Jar is enough context as this whole book is basically the real life that inspired Plath's novel -- it is amazing how much she took from her experience and novelized it -- for good and for bad. I'm sorry you didn't get on the tour!!

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  6. I have only read briefly on Plath, and want to read more, and the armchair gossipy feel of this one really makes me want to read it. You do a wonderful thing with your reviews Audra. You make my TBR stack swell and swell! I'm off to find this one if I can!

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    1. Oh, you'll love this one, then -- it really is a look at pop culture, society, 1950s as well as one very smart woman. I'm only a tiny bit sorry to make your TBR grow!! :)

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  7. I love Plath, Audra, and your review is beautifully done. I definitely want to read this book! I like the way is telescopes in on one brief period in Plath's life -- a unique and creative approach for biography -- and it is also, I think, one of the less widely written about periods. Thanks so much for the rec! As if I needed one more book to add to the bedside stack! ;)

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    1. Angela, as a Plath fan, I think you'll appreciate this -- the narrow focus is wonderful for exploring the world Plath was immersed in -- both thriving in and chafing at -- and I really loved that Winder clearly liked Plath and could see her clearly. The woman portrayed was a complicated creature, and I just so loved that. Sorry to make that stack taller -- but so worth it! ;)

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    2. It's something, isn't it, when a writer who LIKES the person about whom she is writing can actually see that person clearly? It doesn't always happen that way. I so appreciate that, too.
      And there are worse things than adding to the stack. Hah! ;) Thanks, Audra!

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  8. I really enjoyed this biography for its biased view of Plath and her one summer in NYC. It's funny to think that one summer could change a person, though I can see how totally possible that might be. Whether that's the case for Plath, we'll never know. What I enjoyed most about this biography was how well it did to illustrate 1950s America and the tensions women felt between work and becoming wives. I think it was wonderfully easy to read and spend an afternoon with these conflicted, talented women.

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    1. YES -- exactly. I was surprised at how I gobbled this one up.

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  9. It's a beautiful cover. The format of the biography sounds very intriguing, fitting since Plath herself was so very intriguing.

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  10. I'm fascinated by Plath, too, so this one sounds good to me.

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  11. I like the magazine format you describe, especially since you say that it really worked for the story. It's a tricky thing to pull off but it sounds like it was a good choice.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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  12. I've been meaning to comment on this one for a while, but my ipad won't let me. Now I'm at a desktop! This books sounds amazing and the cover is gorgeous! Thanks for making me aware of it.

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  13. Yeah, I am a monster Plath fan, and while this biography wasn't earthshattering or even that novel in terms of information, I really liked seeing the focus on emphasizing her zest and joy for living -- especially as written by a young woman who identified with her. There have been so many pathological Plathographies that just seeing a new book on her that isn't all about how awful and/or mentally ill she was -- the recent American Isis is also like Winder's book in that respect -- is really refreshing.

    I did think the author could have engaged a bit more with the ideas of high fashion as art; and the fashion business world's cutthroat underside as opposed to its "frivolous" surface; and the condemnation of Plath often as too frivolous, American, superficial, obsessed with pretty appearances &c; and the division of Plath's work into High Art and Worthless Feminine Stuff, which often happens with high fashion itself; and even more topics -- but that was obviously too much to ask from a first-time writer and a rather short book. But I did enjoy hearing about Plath liking Revlon's Fire and Ice -- no doubt she linked it to Frost's poem and enjoyed doing so!

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  14. "This is a partial, biased biography that unabashedly rings with admiration and affection for Plath, and I appreciated that."
    I appreciated this too...I think sometimes biographers, academics and the like get caught up in the themes and analysis of the writer that have been passed on year after year. It was refreshing to read about Plath from a different perspective...to see her as she was before she was published and before she simply became another woman writer who committed suicide.

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