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AMERICAN ISIS

THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH

A mostly successful attempt at a fresh understanding through analogies, but the enduring sadness of her loss threatens, as...

The previous biographers of Plath (1932–1963) didn’t really get it, writes Rollyson (Journalism/Baruch Coll.; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, 2012, etc.).

On the first page, the author calls Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature,” and he continually returns to Monroe, whose relationship with Arthur Miller was igniting about the time as Plath’s with Ted Hughes. Rollyson also alludes repeatedly to the myth of Isis (see title) and periodically mentions other myths and some Shakespeare and Brontë—all to establish patterns and precedents for Plath’s story. Although such analogies can sometimes seem forced and extraneous, they do provide a different sort of context for this saddest of stories. Rollyson promises early that he will not write much about context or about Plath’s specific works, though he does some of each, discussing, for example, her early poem “Pursuit,” The Bell Jar, “Three Women” and numerous other works. The author pretty much just rehearses the Plath story, identifying various levels of villains (her mother, Hughes and his sister—and his lover, Assia Wevill, who also committed suicide), focusing on relevant letters but also reminding us of some small things that surprise and delight. At Smith, she once graded for Newton Arvin, and she endeavored, with Hughes’ encouragement, to memorize one poem per day. Important and poignant what-if moments also emerge. Her relationship with A. Alvarez, Hughes’ destruction of the diary of her final days—what might these have meant? What might we have learned?

A mostly successful attempt at a fresh understanding through analogies, but the enduring sadness of her loss threatens, as ever, to overwhelm.

Pub Date: Jan. 29, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-64024-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

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INTO THE WILD

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

FROM MEAN STREETS TO WALL STREET

Well-told and admonitory.

Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.

Well-told and admonitory.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-074486-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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