Bedtime Stories: April 2021

  • April 22, 2021

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what she said.

Bedtime Stories: April 2021

Jennifer Anne Moses:

I love big fat literary novels — the bigger and fatter the better — and have a particular passion for the masterworks of Yiddish: The Yeshiva by Chaim Grade; The Brothers Ashkenazi by I.J. Singer. I feel sad when I’ve run out, which I think I may have.

My elderly father, sensing my sadness, sent me a literary and linguistic explication of the rise of modern Hebrew literature, Our Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion by Hillel Halkin. Beach reading it isn’t. Brilliant it is. Given my interest in Yiddish literature and the Hebrew language (and my most recent book of short stories, with flavors of both), Dad couldn’t have done better. Just as I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about the internecine Jewish literary struggle between Yiddish and Hebrew, along came this book that radically deepened my understanding. Mazel tov.

Meantime, I picked up the two-ton Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. Though I’m not a Plath fanatic and never understood why her work and her story have inspired so much impassioned devotion, I was drawn to this new biography, perhaps because the reviews promised that it strips away the mythology, cliché, and iconography that have catapulted the poet, in her afterlife, to celebrity.

The Bell Jar? Yes, read it in college and loved it. “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”? Okay, cool, but you know…so what? Plath’s much-studied relationship with her psychiatrist? Been there, done that. But then we get to the main point: The young poet, the mother of two small children, puts her head in the oven and dies at the age of 30. Oh, that.

I’m only halfway through Clark’s contribution to Plathomania, and already it’s a lot to take in, so much that I might need to find a psychotherapist just so I can talk through my response to it and, more to the point, to Plath herself, as she is resurrected in these (many, many, many) pages.

Was she a blazingly brilliant poet? I trust others to decide. I can say this, though: She sure knew her own worth. She was also so ambitious and boy-crazy that it smacks of narcissism. She was a charming, pretty, smart, and talented show-off. She reminds me of my mother.

My late mother and Plath grew up in the same sexist brew of high academic expectations coupled with the Eisenhower-era straitjacket regarding “women’s roles.” And that’s where Red Comet is getting me in the kishkes. Plath was shoved into a pan-societal box so narrow that, at the height of her undergraduate success, she cracked wide open, coming within inches of dying by her own hand.

Luckily, my mother, neither a rebel nor a genius, made no such attempt. Instead, she ditched her own artistic passion — she was an enormously gifted modern dancer — and decided that since, according to the world, she couldn’t be both a dancer and a wife/mom, she’d become the latter and serve the cause of a brilliant husband and picture-perfect family. Suicide, thank God, was not her métier. When she died, it was from cancer. During her funeral, the synagogue was standing-room-only.

For me, the story of Plath is the story of my mother and her generation of women. But it’s also my story. Like Sylvia, I caught the brass ring and got the glamour job at Mademoiselle. Like Sylvia, I hated it. Like Sylvia, I knew from a young age that the only thing I wanted to do was write. Unlike her, I was flooded with doubt and self-disdain. Like her, I used men and romance as a balm for my wounded soul. Unlike her, I found my greatest solace in women friends.

Most of all, though, I grew up as feminism was freeing women like me to wiggle out of the straitjacket of shame and feminine duty to figure things out the best we could.

Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition, and The Art of Dumpster Diving, a coming-of-age novel.

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