So, I am back home after a fabulous few days in New York, and thankfully I did manage to read the two books I took with me, so am happy to report my findings.
Today, we’ll look at The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath…
Along with countless others I think this was a fabulous novel, and it wasn’t as depressing as I thought it might have been. In fact, there was a wry humor I hadn’t been expecting.
The novel is semi-autobiographical, giving us the story of college student Esther Greenwood as she takes up a month-long guest editorship of a women’s magazine in New York, and detailing her failing mental health after her return home. While I knew the book mirrored Plath’s own life, I hadn’t realised quite how much so. This article and this describe some of the many facets of the novel which match Plath’s own experience.
I loved some of her analogies and observations, such as “My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg-beater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors.” (p38) and “the tropical, stale heat the sidewalks had been sucking up all day hit me in the face like a last insult” (p16), and while some people appear to be uncomfortable with discussing humor in a novel about mental health, I found myself loving the dark comedy Plath gives us.
“Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started making my life miserable I could make his miserable as well” (p77) and “Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.” (p41) are two great examples.
BUT – much as I enjoyed this book, I don’t understand why it is on several lists as a quintessential New York novel. Only half of the book is set there and while we certainly do see bits and pieces of the city, it is not as large a character as I would expect of a novel appearing in lists such as these.
Having said that, I certainly enjoyed the bits I did see, and could even relate to some of Esther’s dilemmas about the city.
“I could have called down and asked for a breakfast tray in my room, I guess, but then I would have to tip the person who brought it up, and I never know how much to tip. I’d had some very unsettling experiences trying to tip people in New York.” (p49)
Let’s not forget I am Australian, the child of a country in which tipping is highly unusual and I too find myself a little paralysed by New York’s tipping culture. I am always wary of tipping too much or too little – a problem my sister solved on this most recent trip, by just asking people if she was supposed to tip them and how much! Simple!
If you do want to use The Bell Jar to help you explore New York, there are a couple of places you could visit.
The Amazon Hotel
“It wasn’t a proper hotel – I mean a hotel where there are both men and women mixed about here and there on the same floor. This hotel – the Amazon – was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them.” (p4)
While the Amazon Hotel has never existed, the Barbizon at 140 E. 63rd St certainly did, and it is where Plath lived during her month in New York in 1953. Just as she describes, it was a female-only hotel until 1981 and had strict rules on how the women dressed and behaved. There is a long list of famous women who stayed there over the years, including Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli and Grace Kelly. The hotel was renovated in 2002, becoming The Melrose Hotel, and then just three years later, it was turned into apartments. Such a shame – it would have been great to have been able to stay there today. The video below is actually a promotional film by the company involved in the window restoration of the building, but it does gives us a bit of a look around.
The United Nations Building
“Constantin drove me to the UN in his old green convertible with cracked, comfortable brown leather seats and the top down… And while Constantin and I sat in one of those hushed, plush auditoriums in the UN, next to a stern, muscular Russian girl with no make-up who was a simultaneous interpreter, like Constantin I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.” (p70)
You may not be given your own private viewing of the headquarters of the United Nations with a good-looking simultaneous translator, but there are guided tours available. It’s an opportunity for a behind the scenes look at the place where delegates from around the world tackle some of the trickiest political problems on the planet.
The UN complex would have been very new when Esther visited with Constantin, the buildings designed by an international team of architects including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer were only completed in 1952. The complex is on the banks of the East River, on 1st Avenue, between 42nd and 48th street. It is actually built on international territory, and you can get a stamp in your passport when you visit. Don’t just turn up though, or you will be disappointed. You will need to book tickets in advance.
Plath’s New York
If you’d like to discover a few other places related to Plath’s (and Esther’s) time in New York then you can use this map as a guide.
It was put together by Teri Tynes from Walking Off the Big Apple, a blog dedicated to strolling around New York. She has several other theme-inspired walks on there as well and the site is a fabulous resource for visitors and residents of the city alike.
As much as I don’t feel this novel really belongs on a list of the top ten books set in New York, I’m not sorry to have read it on this trip. I do however wish I’d had a chance to go and have a look at the Barbizon and wander past 575 Madison Avenue, the address of Mademoiselle magazine where Plath did her own placement. It will have to go on the list for next time.
Luckily though – I did manage to accidentally run into the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square – one of the many on my bookshop bucket list!
Next time we’ll have a look at the other novel I read on this trip – The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
See you then,
I’m very exciting to me writing this post at Heathrow Airport, about to board a flight to fabulous New York.
As we all know the most vital part of trip planning is choosing which books to take with you, so I thought I’d update you on my selections for this trip. I’ll only have a few days, which will mainly be filled with catching up with people and drinking cocktails, so I don’t imagine I’m going to have a great amount of time to read. But hey, that’s what seven hour flights are for!
Given the trip’s brevity, I chose just two books for this adventure, one physical book (so you are not stuck during that most valuable of reading time before take-off and landing) and one on the kindle.
The trouble with books set in New York is that there are thousands of them, so where do you start? It’s overwhelming. How can you make sure you choose something which really sums up the New York experience?
In the past I have taken Edward Rutherford’s New York as a perfect choice for a grand overview of the city, and Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi, which gives us a series of intertwining stories set around a Battery Park apartment building. Both provided lasting memories and still spring to mind as I pass various Manhattan landmarks.
But what to choose this time?
Not yet having a definitive and expansive list to peruse up on Packabook (must get on with that!!), I had to resort to other ‘books to read in New York’ type lists online, which I often find frustrating. It’s usually only a selection of about 10 on each list, and I find they are heavily weighted towards very worthy books you SHOULD read, but not necessarily the most entertaining and/or contemporary reads available.
Some I’d read many years before (The Catcher in the Rye, Edith Wharton’s novels, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and while I’m sure they deserve a re-read, I wanted something new for this trip. I’d also read Bonfire of the Vanities some time in the dim, dark past and really didn’t like it, so that was definitely off the list, though perhaps I’d enjoy it more if I tried it now. Others were focussed on locations outside of Manhattan, and while I’m very tempted, they are just going to make me want to go to places I am probably not going to have time to explore (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tóibín’s Brooklyn and Dreamland are some examples).
So what did I end up with? Well, two not very uplighting choices I admit, but sometimes these things are a little random!
Not being a huge lover of poetry I have never read any Sylvia Plath, so I have decided to take this opportunity read her novel The Bell Jar, the story of a woman’s descent into mental illness after taking up a work placement at a fashion magazine in New York.I know, it’s a pretty heavy choice, but hey, it DOES appear on lots of those lists , and if you are going to read something so confronting, perhaps it’s best to do it in the place you are visiting.
I had never heard of The Easter Parade by Richard Yates, but it popped up on one of my searches and I was intrigued. This novel published in 1976 is the story of the “unhappy lives’ of two New-York based sisters over forty years as they struggle to overcome their family past. It gets extremely good reviews and hey, I always like a story about sisters.
I am actually going to be spending my time in New York with MY sister, but I assure you we will be drinking cocktails and shopping at Macy’s rather than dwelling on any unhappiness in our past – with only a few days in the Big Apple, there’s no time for dwelling!!
I’m really not sure if my choices are the right ones… but I’ll let you know when I get back.
Here’s some other ones I was tempted by – but I’m going to have to wait for the next trip to indulge in these…
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – The story of a mysterious tightrope walker running and leaping between the Twin Towers in 1974, while below a cross-section of people affected by what is happening live their lives. Based on a true event, it’s considered an homage to the city in the 1970s.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud – Three friends heading into their 30s attempt to make their way in New York City. They are spoiled, pretentious and unlikeable; examples of a certain kind of “entitlement” which exists in the city. The novel gets very mixed reviews, but probably worth a try.
Open City by Teju Cole – A young Nigerian immigrant doctor walks the streets of Manhattan, providing us with a fresh view of the city as he loses himself in his thoughts.
What about you? I’d love to hear your New York favourites – especially if they are just great, enjoyable reads filled with the life of the city. Don’t feel they have to be on the ‘worthy’ list! Let me know in the comments, and I’ll update you on these ones when I get back,
After a bit of hunting and foraging, I have found more than 50 novels set in Arizona for your sojourn to this south-west American state and put them up on the main Packabook site (just click on ‘Arizona’ over to the right of the page).
Arizona has a bit of everything — well ok, no beaches, but I guess the Grand Canyon kind of makes up for that — there are deserts, forests and mountain ranges to explore, as well as a border with Mexico that provides plenty of action and intellectual fodder for readers and writers alike.
So, the only question now, is where to head to first on your Arizona journey
You could make your way along the Colorado River…
Get your adrenaline flowing (well, as much as you want your adrenaline to flow sitting in your armchair!) with Elizabeth Hyde’s In the Heart of the Canyon. Fifteen people and a dog make a 13-day journey along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Forced together, there’s plenty of physical and emotional challenges for this disparate group as they navigate the rapids and their own dramas.
Here’s some of the glowing reviews from Amazon readers…
“How much did I love this book? I couldn’t resist gulping it down in two sittings, oblivious to my own real life (yeah, sorry about that frozen pizza dinner, honey…but I was busy rafting down the Colorado River). A huge, enthusiastic thumbs-up for this riveting page-turner.”
“Hyde is a stunningly vivid writer who reveals the natural world of river, canyon, and sky with color and accuracy. A consummate storyteller, she surprised and entertained me with In the Heart of the Canyon.”
“I was enthralled by her imagery, captivated by how well nuanced she captured the inevitable transformation that happens to anyone who opens their heart to the navel of the West that is the Grand Canyon.”
You could also travel back to 1928 with Lisa Michaels’s Grand Ambition where honeymooners Glen and Bessie Hyde, inspired by other adventurous couples of the time, decide to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon; Bessie hoping to be the first woman to negotiate such a treacherous stretch of the Colorado River. Based on a true story, the novel weaves the story of the young couple’s journey with the search to find them when they fail to arrive at their destination.
Amazon reviewers had this to say…
“A rare poetic adventure novel. This is a tremendous book, the story is captivating and the writing is lean and beautiful.”
“Lisa Michaels not only succeeds in resurrecting and imagining Glen and Bessie Hyde, two obscure historical figures, she also blesses them with beautifully felt inner lives and engaging dialogue.”
“This book could be called a real page turner except one wants to linger over the gorgeous sentences describing the Grand Canyon and the wild rapids. The novel richly paints an intimate portrait of two young people striving for a charmed life.”
Or head down to the borderlands…
Arizona shares a border with Mexico which (according to the Wikipedia gods) is the most frequently crossed international border in the world; 350 million people crossing legally each year. Add that to the inevitable illegal crossings, and you’ve got a whole lot of border action going on, creating an environment ripe for dramatic and challenging fiction.
In Philip Caputo’s Crossers, a wall street financial analyst tries to overcome his grief after the death of his wife by moving to his cousin’s cattle ranch on the border. Soon he finds himself caught up in illegal border crossings, drug cartels and a family history he can’t run away from. The novel tackles the divisive issues of illegal immigration and people smuggling, in a manner many readers found illuminating.
“Crossers is an amazing read– layer upon layer we are introduced to the complexities of border life from all the different angles.”
“The book is grand in scope, historically vivid and magnetic in its attraction.”
“The action is brisk and well plotted, the characters interesting, the story compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and so will you.”
Similar themes are tackled in Bella Pollen’s Midnight Cactus in which Englishwoman Alice Coleman attempts to escape her loveless marriage by taking her two small children to the wilds of the border area. Alice is forced onto the horns of an ethical dilemma when she inadvertently hires a gang of illegal workers. There is plenty of praise in the Amazon reviews
“I never wanted to turn the last pages, of this book. The more exciting the climax became the more I dreaded coming to the end. Midnight Cactus is romantic,exciting, scary,tender, and above all passionate. I loved this book.”
“This book and its stunning resolution stayed with me long after I had finished reading it. Highly recommended.”
But if you are actually from Southern Arizona, you may join a few of the reviewers who were appalled at apparent geographical and factual errors about the region, as well as some bad Spanish translations. While they conceded the story had great value – the “lack of editing” completely put them off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
You could even meet with some feisty women of the past…
If the following novels are anything to go by, Arizona has definitely raised some spirited women, so if you in the need for a bit of ‘girl power’ these might inspire you.
Four generations of Sarah Prine’s family. Prine is third from left. Image courtesy of Nancy Turner.
These is my Words is the first of three diary-format novels by Nancy Turner which chronicle the daily struggles of Sarah Prine as she and her family set up home in the Arizona Territory of the 1880s. It sounds like Sarah is one tough cookie and mighty handy with a rifle as she deals with all the trials of pioneer life and love. The books are based on the author’s family memoirs, and sound like a terrific read….
“Like many other reviewers, I read this book in a few sittings, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, and neglecting my husband and kids (except for reading parts to my 7-yr. old daughter), because I was so involved in Sarah’s life. I read it on the treadmill, in the car, making dinner, at work…just couldn’t put it down.”
“Nancy Turner’s characters are vivid, believable, real. They grow through the course of the novel to become your friends, family and loved ones. I have never cried, laughed and sighed with relief so many times through one book.”
“I really loved this woman, and this book. It rang so true. I read it in one day, as I couldn’t put it down.”
“This book was so fascinating that I didn’t want to finish reading it because I loved the characters so much.”
And there’s more…
Also worth mentioning are a couple of big name authors who have set books in Arizona – Barbara Kingsolver gives us The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, while in S John Updike writes of an upper-class New England matron escaping her marriage (Arizona appears to attract such women if these books are anything to go by) to live in an Arizona commune.
And if you are after a bit of crime action, then the J.A. Jance novels featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady come highly recommended by Packabook reader, blogger and Arizona local Vera Marie Badertscher from A Traveler’s Library…
These are just a taste of the novels set in Arizona you can explore over at Packabook – enjoy, and let us know of any others you can recommend in the comments….
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Thank goodness for Colin Cotterill…
I mean it, we are very lucky that writer Colin Cotterill exists and that he is so prolific, otherwise we’d be drawing an almost blank for the fiction section of our Laos category. Laos is not a destination of choice for most novelists who write in English, or indeed who do English translations!
Let me introduce Cotterill’s creation – Dr. Siri Paiboun, the protagonist of a series of crime novels, eight of which have been published so far. The series begins in 1976 — Laos has recently become a communist state and 72-year old Siri Paiboun is appointed state coroner. It sounds like through much of this series, Dr. Siri is desperate to retire, but instead he must do the government’s bidding and handle the variety of cases which come his way, with the help of some outdated medical texts, inadequate supplies and a bit of witchcraft. Known for his wry humor and witty observations, Dr. Siri does his best to get to the truth while keeping the regime happy – not always an easy task.
According to expat-advisory.com Cotterill’s novels are “the best guide books to (the capital) Vientiane”, so we can be assured of lots of detail to help bring the city alive. And as Dr. Siri often branches out into the countryside, we should expect to see quite a lot of the areas surrounding the capital as well.
If you are off to Laos anytime soon, then it looks like the Dr. Siri Paiboun novels are a must read! And I love this article and video from Britain’s Channel 4 in which Cotterill talks about the dearth of literature in Laos, and how he hopes Dr. Siri can help.
But there is one other novel I have discovered that will take you to Vientiane…. The second book in John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy. If you enjoyed the first novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – then why not follow up with this one, which features Laos among other locations.
The Oregon Pacific Coast – Image courtesy of Klaus with K via Wikimedia Commons
Our second destination for this month, and our first US state to be highlighted on Packabook, is Oregon. Chosen in our public vote – Oregon is rich with novels, which like Laos, tend towards the criminal! Of the almost 50 novels discovered so far, well over half of them are crime novels – is there something about Oregon which brings this out in writers? I’ll leave that for the locals to let us know!
This time we have two very prolific writers who have set much of their work in Oregon. Phillip Margolin and Kate Wilhelm. I am fascinated by Wilhelm; aged in her 80s, she is not only a mistress of mystery, but also a well-known science fiction writer. Up to now, she has written nearly 50 novels. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Oregon is obviously a good place to live – no sign of retirement happening there!
One of the other gems to emerge in our discovery of Oregon is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey, who also wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (thanks for the tip Kirsten and Martha!) Set in the 50s and 60s, the novel is described on Amazon as having the “mythic impact of a Greek tragedy” and is the story of a family of Oregon loggers who defy a bitter strike which rages through a small lumber town. Amazon reviewers describe it as a “classic of American literature” and possibly the “Great American Novel”. Sounds like a must read.
I’m also tempted by Winterkill by Craig Lesley — the story of a contemporary Native American family and the relationship between fathers and sons, as well as Molly Gloss’s Wild Life. Set on the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s it tells of the adventures of a cigar-smoking, free-thinking woman who writes adventure novels.
With so much to explore, and what sounds like an amazing landscape reflected in these novels, I can’t wait to get myself off to Oregon!
Find novels for Oregon by going to Packabook’s USA page and clicking on ‘Oregon’ under the fiction category on the right hand side.
To the shipyards of England’s north-east…
And finally to our English county of choice – Tyne and Wear in the north-east of the country. This one is particularly close to home for me, as it is where my mother’s family is from. The county’s main city is Newcastle-upon-Tyne, known for its port, shipyards and history of coal-mining. But from the 1930s onwards, Newcastle experienced serious decline, with the closing of its last coal pit in the 1950s, and the demise of the shipyards in the 80s and 90s causing extensive unemployment and tough times for those who lived there. In more recent years, Newcastle has re-invented itself as a centre of business and culture, with a lively nightclub scene and some fabulous galleries.
As is to be expected, many of my book discoveries for Tyne and Wear focus on the lives of the working classes, with The Day of the Sardine and The Watchers and the Watched by Sid Chaplin being two fine examples. The books are recognised as classics of regional working class fiction. And once again, we have chosen a location which attracts the crime novelists – Newcastle’s quayside being a terrific location for all manner of dastardly deeds. Check out the crime novels of Howard Linskey and Martyn Waites to get your fix of north-eastern crime.
Find novels for Tyne and Wear by going to Packabook’s England page and clicking on ‘Tyne and Wear’ under the fiction category on the right hand side.
Thanks everyone for voting for your choices for these new additions to Packabook – and I look forward to announcing the winners for the January voting next week. In the meantime, how about exploring one of these new fiction locations. And if you have any other suggestions for novels which should be added – please let me know in the comments. As always – these selections are just the beginning and will constantly be updated.
P.S. Please note that at the moment I have a policy to mainly stick to traditionally published novels here on Packabook. It’s all part of my decision to carefully curate the books that I select. Down the track I will look at adding self-published novels, but for now, I want to be sure that the books I highlight have passed through the eyes of professional editors and publishers.