'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

'I was supposed to be having the time of my life.'

There’s a scene in this novel that I can’t stop thinking about. It occurs on page 155 when protagonist Esther Greenwood is at the beach cooking hot dogs with some acquaintances. She grills one to ‘perfection’ and, when no one is looking, buries it. I’ve been puzzling over that all week. What does it mean? Why did Plath include it? Please understand that I love hot dogs and cannot imagine why anyone would not eat one, let alone bury it, after going through the trouble of cooking it to ‘perfection.’ I know Esther was in a dark depression in this scene, even contemplating drowning herself in the ocean, so the act could be an expression of her mental state. It could be Freudian. It could be meaningless. What I’ve concluded is: The hot dog itself is irrelevant; perfection is what’s important. Esther saw herself as the opposite of that perfection: flawed, cold, and better off dead and buried. Frankfurter burial not only symbolizes her feelings of lack of self worth and despair, but it also foreshadows her subsequent attempts to overcome them. I love puzzling over little moments like this in a book, and trying to figure out how they subtly drive the story forward. There were plenty of them in this Sunday’s selection, ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath:

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This copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ once belonged to Justine. I don’t know who Justine is, but at one point she must have passed through Los Angeles where I found her well-worn copy in The Last Bookstore. I know it was her book because she inscribed her name on the inside cover in black ink and lowercase letters. In my mind, she was a college student who purchased this copy at the school’s book store for an English course. It has clearly been read dozens of times; the pages have the softness of broken-in jeans. I believe that Justine eventually traded it in at The Last Bookstore because she travels light and wanted to swap for something new. Maybe she chose something light and fun to contrast the emotional weight of Plath’s bleak but powerful roman à clef. Maybe she chose something similar, where another author reveals her inner life and creates something haunting and beautiful:

Maybe you read ‘The Bell Jar’ in college, too. I didn’t. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s a chronicle of a young woman grappling with deep depression. It begins with Esther, a promising writer from Boston, visiting New York on an internship for up-and-coming college women. She goes to various events tied to the internship like parties, movie screenings and company tours. She also tries to experience New York outside of the internship bubble by hanging out with Doreen, a fellow intern who enjoys fast men, and by going out to dinner with an interpreter at the United Nations. But she never seems able to connect to anyone. She worries about boys, her future and her sexual inexperience. Her downward spiral accelerates after she is assaulted at a country club party in the suburbs. She returns to her hotel and tosses most of her clothes out the window. She takes the train back to Boston where she learns she didn’t get into a writing program. She can’t get out of bed in the morning. She can’t sleep. She contemplates suicide. Then, she tries it; burying herself in a hole in the basement and taking a bunch of sleeping pills. She is sent to an institution, where she receives shock treatments and therapy. Although the whole book is elegantly written and moves quickly, I was riveted by the second half when Esther is in the institution. I flew through it like:

I didn’t know what a bell jar was until last week when I Googled it. I figured it was something like a mason jar, but it’s more like a cousin to the snow globe: a glass covering you might put over a scientific specimen for examination. We readers are observers of Esther’s life, free to examine and ponder her actions from the outside. She feels our gaze, and is suffocating inside the enclosure created by the judgements and pressures put on her by mid-century American society, her family, school, boys, men, therapists and her fellow patients. And through her depression, she becomes a spectator to her life, rather than its agent. Eventually it seems she starts to recover: Her unexpressed grief over her father’s death is acknowledged, and she takes control over her body and sexual decisions by obtaining birth control. But I worried that the darkness would always be lurking, ready to take her again like:

Late last year, I reviewed Plath’s previously unreleased 1952 novella ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.’ It was interesting to compare that work from the beginning of her writing career to ‘The Bell Jar,’ which came 11 years later. Both are concerned with the pressures and expectations society forces upon women. Both are steeped with foreboding as their female protagonists are stalked by death, and their paths to evade doom are perilous and uncertain. With ‘Mary Ventura,’ you see a writer trying to get their footing. In ‘The Bell Jar,’ Plath is a fully realized author, in command of her voice and powerful in her craft. This book is the ur text for so many modern novels. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think of how it might have influenced other books like ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation,’ or ‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish’ or ‘The Book of X.’ Even though ‘The Bell Jar’ was anxiety-inducing to read, particularly during the pandemic, I feel enriched for having gotten through it. It reminded me about my own feelings of depression, and that many people are struggling with their mental health right now. We need to be there for them, and for ourselves. (If you are feeling overwhelmed right now, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has this helpful resource page.) The book is rightly a classic. If you haven’t already, you should read it. And if you have, read it again.

How it begins:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I don’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

I kept hearing about the Rosenbergs over the radio and at the office till I couldn’t get them out of my mind. It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver’s head—or what was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.

My rating:

‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath was originally published in Great Britain under the pen name ‘Victoria Lucas’ by Heinemann in 1963. It was published in the United States in 1971 by Harper & Row Publishers. The first Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition was published in 2005. 244 pages. $14.71 at Bookshop.org.

Up next:

Review #134: ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry.

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  • THANK YOU to everyone who attended Books on GIF’s first-ever virtual event! It was lots of fun to chat with you, and to celebrate BoG’s 4th anniversary by discussing what books you’ve been reading. We’ll do it again soon. The event is open to all newsletter subscribers. Watch this space for details!

  • Books on GIF has it’s own virtual store! It’s at Bookshop.org, which allows you to shop independent bookstores online. You can browse all the books I’ve reviewed so far this year, as well as the ones suggested during the 4th anniversary event.

  • The newsletter will publish (mostly) biweekly again. I want to give myself some schedule flexibility, so look for reviews generally every other week. But sometimes they may come weekly. Sometimes they may take three weeks if a book is really long like ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace or ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’ by Rebecca West. Keep an eye on Twitter and Instagram to know which Sundays to expect newsletters.

Before you go:

  • Read this: ‘It’s Time to Take California Back from Joan Didion’ is a searing piece in Electric Lit from Myriam Gurba, whose book I’m reviewing next. Everyone who knows me knows I love Joan Didion’s writing, but this article—part take-down, part appreciation—offered a perspective about her and her relationship to California and Mexico that I hadn’t thought about before. It was eye-opening, and I loved it. Especially this lede:

    Amado Vazquez, a Mexican botanist, named an orchid after Joan Didion. While that was a chic gesture, I don’t think of her as an orchid. I think of her as an onion. She’s very white, very crisp, and she makes people cry.

  • Read this, too: This article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Will Carroll, the drummer for legendary California thrash metal band Death Angel, and his experiences recovering from Covid-19, contains perhaps the most insane paragraph ever written in the English language:

    While in the coma, Carroll said he had dreams of visiting the afterlife. He saw himself leave his body and plummet down to hell, where Satan — a woman in his case — punished him for the deadly sin of sloth, morphing him into a Jabba the Hutt-like-monster who vomited blood until he had a heart attack.

  • Also, read this: Heather and Leslie sent me this piece by author Megan Abbott: ‘What Is New York Without New York Bars?’ In it she describes all the bars she hangs out in and my first thought was, wow, Megan Abbott and I hang out at the same places. Then I thought about the prospect of losing so many great bars due to this pandemic, and it’s almost too much to take. There were so many good times at so many of the places Abbott lists. Like that time Donna and I went to the Blue & Gold on our first date. Or that time we had a DNAinfo event at the Black Rabbit. Or that time I randomly bumped into the Daily News copy desk at Jimmy’s Corner after Hurricane Sandy. Or that time I saw Meryl Streep at Keens. Or the that we took Ellen and Paul to the Ear Inn. I could fill a whole newsletter with stories of 169 Bar. We had some laughs. I look forward to laughing again.

  • Follow this: My friend Radhika is launching a monthly newsletter. Rad Dishes will feature ‘recipes, insights about food, and what pop culture I’m consuming.’ You can find more information here. I subscribed and am looking forward to the first post!

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


Review #135 used GIFs from @xavieralopez, @maremonstrum and others via Giphy.com.

'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry

Review #134

Happy Mother’s Day! This is the perfect book to read while stuck inside during a pandemic. It’s long, gripping and tells a beautiful and heartbreaking story. If I could go back in time to add to the ‘9 Novels to Help You Endure the Coronavirus Crisis’ newsletter I sent back in March, I would include near the top of the list this Sunday’s selection, ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry:

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Radhika recommended this Booker Prize finalist to me three years ago while I was traveling in Thailand and looking for something to read. She sent me an email with several options, including this novel and ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie. A small English-language used bookstore called Dāsa Book Cafe had both. I chose ‘Midnight’s Children,’ which I reviewed back then, but I should have gone with this instead. Eventually, I picked it up at Boston’s Brattle Book Shop in late 2017, along with John O’Hara’s ‘BUtterfield 8,’ and it has sat in my bedside pile ever since. What a mistake it was to overlook this gem for all that time. Thanks again, Radhika, for your recommendation. I should have listened to you sooner:

The story is set in an unnamed city in India in 1975. Two tailors from a rural village and a college student from the mountains meet on a train bound for the city. Turns out they’re all headed to the same place: Dina Dalal’s apartment. To live independently from her overbearing brother and to afford the rent, Dina, a widow, has decided to bring in a paying guest and to start an in-home dressmaking factory. The tailors, Ishvar and his teenage nephew Omprakash, are going to assemble the clothes and save money before returning to their hometown. The student, Maneck, is renting her room to avoid staying at the school’s foul and bedbug-ridden hostel. As the group comes together in Dina’s flat, the story breaks off into their backstories. We see Ishvar and Omprakash’s family struggle against the caste system, breaking from their preordained roles as leatherworkers to become tailors. We see Dina young and happily married to Rustom, who loved to bicycle through the city before he was hit by a bus and killed. We see Maneck, the apple of his parents’ eyes, who wanted nothing more than to stay with them and help run the family shop, but was sent away to school to earn a certificate in air-conditioning repair in hopes of securing his future. Back in the apartment, we see the foursome overcome their ignorance and prejudices about each other and become close. Dina is originally aloof to the tailors, but comes to empathize with them and allows them to live on her porch when they become homeless. She initially insists that Maneck refer to her as Dina Aunty, but she takes on a more motherly role as she gets to know him. Omprakash and Maneck become very close, almost like brothers. They become a makeshift family, proving that:

But danger lurks outside the apartment door. The landlord wants to evict Dina because of her tenant and her workers, even sending thugs to intimidate her and the others. Meanwhile, the prime minister (an unnamed Indira Gandhi) has declared an ‘Emergency,’ setting off a wave of political oppression, religious violence and brutality against the poor that serves as a backdrop and constant threat to the protagonists, particularly Ishvar and Omprakash. We see the shack where they stay when they first come to the city suddenly bulldozed for slum clearance. After being forced to sleep on the streets, we see them get rounded up by the police and sent to a forced-labor camp in an effort to keep the sidewalks clear of the homeless and beggars. We see them rounded up again in a government-run forced-sterilization effort. And we see a flashback where their family is burned alive in their home under orders from a powerful high-caste village leader because Omprakash’s father demanded to vote honestly in a rigged election. This story is a constant reminder that the poor are forced to bear the brunt of the callous, corrupt and unjust acts of government, and that:

‘A Fine Balance’ is populated by many memorable characters beyond the four protagonists. For me, the most interesting was Beggarmaster, who supervises the beggars in the area around Dina’s apartment and who rescues Ishvar and Omprakash from the labor camp. He is a complex character—morally indefensible and also compassionate—who in many ways symbolizes the fine balance referenced in the book’s title: between beauty and cruelty, hope and despair, order and chaos, life and death. He uses his power to save Ishvar and Omprakash, so long as they pay him a weekly fee. He attends to the needs and safety of the street beggars, but he is also responsible for many of their physical disfigurements. When he discovers one of those beggars is his own brother, he sends a barber over to give him a shave. Other characters I’ll be thinking about for a while include Rajaram the hair collector, and the gigantic worm parasite that is expelled from Omprakash’s bowels. Yes, I’ll be reliving that scene in my nightmares:

I was originally going to say that ‘A Fine Balance’ is about family and the human connections we make that support and fortify us in troubling times. But I think it’s actually about something deeper. Now, I think this is a book about the fine balance between the pain and joy of memories. Here is a passage I underlined from page 330:

How much Dina Aunty relished her memories. Mummy and Daddy were the same, talking about their yesterdays and smiling in that sad-happy way while selecting each picture, each frame from the past, examining it lovingly before it vanished again in the mist. But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be re-created—not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

I will think about the bittersweet beauty of that passage, which is just a sample of Rohinton Mistry’s wonderful and brilliant writing, for a long time. I also will think about the quilt Dina made from scraps of fabric left over from the dressmaking. Each panel was symbolic of a different memory of her time with Maneck, Ishvar and Omprakash, as was its unfinished corner. The scene near the end of the book where Maneck encounters the quilt again years later is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever read. It’s been a long while since I was nearly moved to tears by a book. When I read this yesterday morning over breakfast I literally was like:

But the book is not entirely sad. I think it’s brutally honest. Yes, there is evil and darkness in the world, which undoes some of the characters. But there is also love and hope, which keeps others going. Everything is a balance. If you took my recommendation and read Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko,’ I think you would enjoy this book. It’s intense and beautiful, and you all should read it.

How it begins:

The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limit.

Inside the compartment, Maneck Kohlah held on to the overhead railing, propped up securely within the crush. He felt someone’s elbow knock his textbooks from his hand. In the seats nearby, a thin young fellow was catapulted into the arms of the man opposite him. Maneck’s textbooks fell upon him.

“Ow!” said the young fellow, as volume one slammed into his back.

Laughing, he and his uncle untangled themselves. Ishvar Darji, who had a disfigured left cheek, helped his nephew out of his lap and back onto the seat. “Everything all right, Om?”

“Apart from the dent in my back, everything is all right,” said Omprakash Darji, picking up the two books covered in brown paper. He hefted them in his slender hands and looked around to find who had dropped them.

Maneck acknowledged ownership. The thought of his heavy textbooks thumping that frail spine made him shudder. He remembered the sparrow he had killed with a stone, years ago; afterwards it had made him sick.

His apology was frantic. “Very sorry, the books slipped and—”

“Not to worry,” said Ishvar. “Wasn’t your fault.” To his nephew he added, “Good thing it didn’t happen in reverse, hahn? If I fell in your lap, my weight would crack your bones.” They laughed again, Maneck too, to supplement his apology.

My rating:

‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry was originally published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart Inc. in 1995. It was first published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf in 1996. It was published by Vintage International in 1997. 603 pages. You can call the Brattle Book Shop to see if they have it. Otherwise you can order it from another of my favorite Massachusetts bookstores, Brookline Booksmith, for $18.

More things worth your time:

  • Read this: I have to lead off with Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s latest profile, of Val Kilmer, not just because it’s fascinating, poignant and weird, but also because she references a GIF. This one:

    Also: Don’t send the painting back, Taffy!

  • Read this, too: This week I learned about the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize, an annual award to honor a book collection conceived of and curated by a young woman. I learned about it by reading this Twitter thread about book collecting myths by rare book dealer Rebecca Romney.

  • Also, read this: The aforementioned Brattle Book Shop is offering to help you improve your background for your Zoom calls. We all have silently judged the bookshelves we see in meetings with coworkers or friends, but now the Brattle will help improve yours. The Boston Globe writes:

    Here’s how it works: A person interested in sprucing up their home or office reaches out to the bookshop with a general idea of what they want to pull off. From there, the staff compiles stacks of literature that might be a good fit. They then style the books on a display shelf in the store, and send pictures to the potential client. If the customer approves, the store either ships the books off, or holds them for curbside pickup from the shop’s downtown location.

  • Do this: In case you missed it, Books on GIF turned 4 on Friday. To celebrate, I’m hosting a Zoom event Saturday, May 16 at 3 p.m. ET. It’s going to be a show-and-tell: Bring a book you’d love to tell us about. It will also be great to e-meet you and catch up on life and the future of BoG. If you would like to attend, email me at booksongif@gmail.com to get the Zoom link and passcode.

Next week you will get a review of ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath. Also in the queue are, ‘S.P.Q.R.’ by Mary Beard, ‘The Decameron’ by Giovanni Boccaccio, and ‘Positively Fifth Street’ by James McManus, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #133 featured ‘Free Day’ by Inès Cagnati and ‘The Last Mosaic’ by Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


With GIFs from @duck_muscle via Giphy.com.

Books on GIF Turns 4 Today

Where does the time go?

Hello friends! We made it another year! I’m so excited and grateful that all of you have continued to welcome Books on GIF into your inboxes every other Sunday (more or less). All of your kind words of encouragement, book recommendations and positive energy keep me going. So I want to say, with the deepest gratitude:

To celebrate BoG’s 4th anniversary, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: Host a virtual event. If you’re free on Saturday, May 16 at 3 p.m. ET, I would love it if you could make it to our first-ever Zoom event. It’s going to be a show-and-tell: Bring a book you’d love to tell us about. It will also be great to e-meet you and catch up on life and the future of BoG. If you would like to attend, email me at booksongif@gmail.com to get the Zoom link and passcode.

I originally had wanted to throw a party at a cool bar or somewhere and maybe invite authors to read and maybe have some cheese plates and then have an 80s dance party at Pyramid. Alas, we won’t be doing this anytime soon:

Maybe next year. Until then, I hope to see you next Saturday!


With GIFs from @MoonCatRobot via Giphy.com.

'Free Day' by Inès Cagnati + 'The Last Mosaic' by Elizabeth Cooperman & Thomas Walton

Review #133

As a throwback to last year’s ‘Novella November,’ here are reviews of two short books. One is an intense novel set in the French countryside. The other is a book of poetry that made me feel like I was back in Rome, which is one of my favorite places. This Sunday’s selections are ‘Free Day’ by Inès Cagnati and ‘The Last Mosaic’ by Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton. First up is ‘Free Day’:

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This short novel opens with Galla having just arrived at her family farm in rural France after biking 20 miles from the town where she attends high school. Rather than head straight into the house where her parents and several younger sisters are, she remains outside and recalls moments from her childhood. While she’s wandering around the grounds and the surrounding area before choosing to settle in for the night with the dog in the barn, we hear about her tough life on the farm where the only bountiful crops seem to be domestic abuse, animal cruelty, human tragedy, and the stones she and her father constantly pull from the earth. We also see her struggles to fit in at the boarding school among her more well-off classmates and professors who don’t understand her. Galla says the reason she has returned to the farm—suddenly and unannounced—on her free day from school is to return a bag that she borrowed from her mother. But it becomes clear that she’s avoiding entering the house on purpose because:

Early in the story, her father comes out of the house and sees her. He yells at her to go away. Even after knowing how the story ends, which I won’t reveal here, I’m still puzzled over why he did that. Was it another form of his abuse? Or was it an act of love to protect her from what was happening inside? I think it has to do with Cagnati’s exploration of the family unit (which she explains in a bonus interview transcript at the end of the book) as something we simultaneously rebel from that also grounds us in the world. Galla has rebelled and done all she can to avoid confronting her family, yet she constantly thinks of them and yearns to be among them. It’s a fascinating and tense dynamic, and makes for an excellent story. You should read this book.

How it begins:

I leaned my bicycle against the wall of the barn and left it there. I could have kept on dragging it until it was in front of the house, as usual. It’s not more than fifty yards. But I’d had enough of my bicycle. Of pedaling. Of pushing it. Of pedaling. Of pushing it. And, in the end, carrying it. Completely enough. I’d had it. Because all of that had been going on for three or four hours, maybe more, even, and there comes a point when things have gone on long enough and you say: No.

On top of that, and as if by accident, a rain to end the world had been falling all those hours I was struggling with my bike. When I got home, it wasn’t raining anymore. Things like that happen, I’ve often noticed, always bad timing. As for the rain, so much water had fallen on the earth in those few hours that the clouds must have completely dried up. No surprise, then, that the filthy rain had stopped.

Anyway, none of that mattered to me. When I’m at home, I like to listen to the rain coming down hard. Ever since I’ve been going to the high school, I like being at home, whether it’s raining or nice out.

Of course, if I had my way. I would only like sunshine. The brightest sun. The most merciless. The kind whose weakest ray, touching the ground, opens broad cracks that cut deep into the heart of the earth. Under a sun like that, entire rivers dry up and disappear forever, drunk up by the sun. People, plants, animals, everything dies of thirst and of joy in the sun. Everything shines, rejoices, and dies. I’d like to live in a sunlit land like that. But I can’t dream about that. We’re not in a sunlit land here. Here it’s a land of marshes, mists, and fogs. There’s nothing I could do to change that, no matter how hard I dreamed. Even if I dreamed very, very hard. And I can’t dream. At our place, we need rain and sunshine. My father always says so. It’s for the crops, I understand. And also, if it didn’t rain, the well would run dry. The marshes, too. So there would be nothing to drink. We would die, along with everyone else. It would be fine with me if everyone else died—but not us.

My rating:

‘Free Day’ (‘Le Jour de Congé) was originally published by Éditions Denoël in 1973. Translated from the French by Liesl Schillinger and published by The New York Review of Books in 2019. 133 pages. I received it as part of a subscription.

Next up is ‘The Last Mosaic’:

Earlier, I described ‘The Last Mosaic’ as a book of poetry, but that only captures part of what’s offered in this smart and tiny book. Some of the bursts that fill the pages are poetic verses inspired by the Eternal City. Others offer facts and artistic statements about the locations and artwork found there. It’s the odd and interesting offspring of a Lonely Planet guide to Rome and a chapbook, where all the elements combine to form a literary mosaic of facts, history, art criticism and poetry. Reading Cooperman’s and Walton’s work evoked strong memories of walking through the streets, churches, museums and historical ruins of Rome, which might be slightly ahead of Paris as my second favorite city in the world. It made me yearn for a time when I could be like Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday,’ and just spend a day in that city like:

I read this book back in February before the coronavirus kept us indoors. Thinking back on it now, it’s a bittersweet reminder of life before the pandemic, when we were free to roam around cities and examine art and architecture in situ, rather than through a computer screen. I hope those days can return soon. Until then, you should read this book.

Passages that stuck with me:

From page 87:

When you compare Giotto to his teacher Cimabue you can believe in the progress of art. I find this transformation—towards naturalism and away from pure didacticism—proof that humans will always be able to see themselves out of dark ages.

And a few verses later on page 88:

When you compare Hellenistic sculpture to the art of the Christian era you can believe in the degeneration of art. I find this transformation—toward pure didacticism, away from naturalism and aesthetic grace—proof that humans will always be able to see themselves into dark ages.

My rating:

‘The Last Mosaic’ by Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton was published by Sagging Meniscus Press in 2018. 121 pages. It was sent to me by the publisher.

More things worth your time:

  • Read these: Here are two pieces that explore how New York’s political leadership responded to the coronavirus outbreak. One was published this morning in The New Yorker: ‘Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not.’ It’s pretty scathing, especially for Mayor Bill de Blasio. The piece offers an inside look at how City Hall and Albany were slow to respond to the crisis, and let dithering, political calculations and public squabbling muddle and delay New York’s response to the crisis, which has killed tens of thousands here. Meanwhile, Seattle, which locked things down earlier, has seen far fewer deaths. Also, there’s this piece in Slate: ‘Nothing About New York’s Outbreak Was Inevitable.’ This article picks apart ‘New York exceptionalism’ and how it’s been used to hamper containing the virus. First, politicians argued that New York was so tough and exceptional that the virus wouldn’t be too bad here. Then, they argued that because the city is so dense that we are disproportionately more vulnerable than anywhere else. Both arguments are wrong, the piece argues.

Next week you will get a review of ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry. Also in the queue are ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath, ‘The Decameron’ by Giovanni Boccaccio, and ‘S.P.Q.R.’ by Mary Beard, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #132 featured ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

Please click the heart button above if you enjoyed this newsletter. You can also share it with a friend:

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


With GIFs from Giphy.com.

'Celestial Bodies' by Jokha Alharthi

Review #132

The first novel by a woman from Oman to be translated into English, and the first Arabic novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, is this Sunday’s selection, ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi:

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I had not heard of this book before I saw it on a display table in the Union Square Barnes & Noble when I had a gift card to burn. When I read its description, I was like:

The story follows three generations of a family living in, and often trying to get out of, a small town in rural Oman. Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning with a lovelorn Mayya who pines for one man as her family betroths her to another. She marries Abdallah, the son of a wealthy merchant whose family profited from Oman’s slave trade—which I learned was abolished only in the 1970s. Abdallah becomes a narrative through-line as chapters focused on him, where he’s having some kind of fever dream about family and history during a flight from Muscat to Frankfurt, recur the most. But there are many characters to keep track of—fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, cousins, grandchildren, a random woman in the desert, former slaves, Bedouins, shaykhs—and I found myself returning often to the family tree at the front of the book to try to make sense of who’s who. With all these people coming and going in the story, I was dizzy. And midway through, I was like:

Many times I was bored, and thought about putting the book down and moving on to something else. But I felt I had to push through. Eventually it occurred to me that the title of the book was a clue toward grasping its structure. Each character is a celestial body in Oman’s solar system, and their paths through time and space are affected by the gravitational pull of the nation’s traditions and history. The reader is put into the center of this solar system, and we see the characters as their orbits bring them into view: The closer ones we see several times, others not as much. I thought that was a clever device. I also thought it was interesting how the confusion created for the reader by so many characters perhaps reflected the uncertainty and tumult they were feeling as they reckoned with their cultural traditions amid a modernizing society. Writer Fran Lebowitz apparently said, ‘A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.’ In that respect, ‘Celestial Bodies’ enriched me as a point of entry into the history of Oman and the region. But as a form of entertainment, it left me wanting more. The story doesn’t dwell on any character long enough for the reader to make an emotional connection, so it’s hard to care about them. Also, I think the story could have benefitted from a common conflict or danger for the characters to contend with, but here it’s almost metaphysical. I’m not unhappy I read this selection, it just wasn’t for me.

How it begins:

Mayya, forever immersed in her Singer sewing machine, seemed lost to the outside world. Then Mayya lost herself to love: a silent passion, but it sent tremors surging through her slight form, night after night, cresting in waves of tears and sighs. These were moments when she truly believed she would not survive the awful force of her longing to see him.

Her body prostrate, ready for the dawn prayers, she made a whispered oath. By the greatness of God—I want nothing, O Lord, just to see him. I solemnly promise you, Lord, I don’t even want him to look my way … I just want to see him. That’s all I want.

Her mother hadn’t given the matter of love any particular thought, since it never would have occurred to her that pale Mayya, so silent and still, would think about anything in this mundane world beyond her threads and the selvages of her fabrics, or that she would hear anything other than the clatter of her sewing machine. Mayya seemed to hardly shift position throughout the day, or even halfway into the night, her form perched quietly on the narrow, straight-backed wood chair in front of the black sewing machine with the image of a butterfly on its side. She barely even lifted her head, unless she needed to look as she groped for her scissors or fished another spool of thread out of the plastic sewing basket which always sat in her small wood utility chest. But Mayya heard everything in the world there was to hear. She noticed the brilliant hues life could have, however motionless her body might be. Her mother was grateful that Mayya’s appetite was so meagre (even if, now and then, she felt vestiges of guilt). She hoped fervently, though she would never have put her hope into words, that one of these days someone would come along who respected Mayya’s talents as a seamstress as much as he might appreciate her abstemious ways. The someone she envisioned would give Mayya a fine wedding procession after which he would take her home with all due ceremony and regard.

My rating:

‘Celestial Bodies’ was originally published in Oman in 2010. It was translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Catapult, in agreement with Sandstone Press, in 2019. 243 pages. $16.95 at Barnes & Noble.

More things worth your time:

  • Read this: The New York You Once Knew Is Gone. The One You Loved Remains,’ by Glynnis MacNicol (whose work I reviewed previously) in Gen is a beautiful and heartbreaking essay about how New York City has ‘slipped its axis’ because of the coronavirus. The piece asks how much of the magic of this city will survive this great shutdown. One of Donna’s and my favorite places, Lucky Strike down in SoHo, has closed for good. What will be left when we can finally safely emerge from our homes? It’s almost too sad to contemplate right now. I had a tear in my eye at the end of this piece. If you live here, you should read it.

  • Read this, too: The New York Times published a piece this week about Ottessa Moshfegh, whose new novel, ‘Death in Her Hands,’ was supposed to be published this month. The release has been pushed back to an as-yet-undetermined date due to the coronavirus. I enjoyed reading about Moshfegh’s writing process and a few weird tidbits about her such as how she knows when she’s going to die. But one line stuck with me. After finishing her collection ‘Homesick For Another World,’ she felt tremendous grief. To overcome it, she forced herself to keep writing. ‘I needed to write something to get me onto the other side of an experience,’ she said. I think many of us who write can relate to that.

Next week you will get reviews of two short books: ‘The Last Mosaic’ by Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton, and ‘Free Day’ by Inès Cagnati. The week after will come a review of ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry. Also in the queue are ‘The Decameron’ by Giovanni Boccaccio, ‘S.P.Q.R.’ by Mary Beard and ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #131 featured ‘Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations’ by Mira Jacob.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


With GIFs from Giphy.com.

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