Thursday, January 19, 2023

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

In 1952, Sylvia Plath wrote the short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” while she was an undergraduate student at Smith College. Plath had recently won Mademoiselle’s writing prize, and she decided to submit “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” to the magazine for publication. The magazine rejected the story. For years, the short story was in Sylvia Plath’s archives at the Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington until it was published in 2019.

Plath described her story as “a vague symbolic tale.” It begins at a train station. A young woman named Mary Ventura is there with her parents who are encouraging her to take a train ride north to an unknown location. When Mary says, “I’m not ready to take the trip yet,” Mary’s father cuts her off, saying, “You’re just getting jittery. The trip north won’t be an ordeal. You just get on the train and don’t worry about another thing until you get to the end of the line. The conductor will tell you where to go then.” Mary’s mother tells her, “It will be an easy trip. Everyone has to leave home sometime. Everyone has to go away sooner or later.”

The story is colored in many shades, but the predominant shade is red. Mary’s parents find her a red plush seat. Her mother touches her handkerchief to “her painted red mouth,” starts to say something, but then stops. She leaves Mary with a “vague, preoccupied kiss.” Mary then takes off her red coat and settles in for the ride.

Soon after, a kind, red-faced woman with blue eyes asks to take the empty seat next to Mary. Mary smiles back at her warmth. The woman is knitting a dress of leaf-green wool. She says it’s for a girl just about Mary’s size.

As the train rolls on, Mary views the “somber grey afternoon,” and the “bleak autumn fields” stretching “beyond the cinder beds.” The sun is a flat orange disc and the air is thick with smoke. The woman explains that it’s because of the forest fires and that the smoke will get worse.

The woman takes Mary to the dining cart, where she orders a glass ginger ale. It arrives in a tall glass with a red cherry at the bottom. Mary finds the dining car luxurious. The woman later treats Mary to a chocolate bar.

The railroad staff recognize the woman and speak with her confidentially. She’s made the trip several times. When Mary speaks of all the nice things in the train, the woman tells her ominously, “Yes, my dear…but remember you pay for it. You pay for it all in the end.”

Mary asks the woman what it will be like when she gets off the train. Her ticket is for the last station at the end of the line, which is named “the ninth kingdom.” The woman asks Mary if she notices anything unusual about her fellow passengers. While Mary doesn’t notice anything, as I reader, I noticed some religious symbols. The lady in the blue jacket who was carrying a child and who paused at the empty seat next to Mary symbolized Mary, the mother of God. The two squabbling brothers seemed to represent Cain and Abel.

Shortly after, a blond woman with a crimson wool skirt and red painted mouth tries to stay on the train. The conductor forces her to leave by gripping her arm. The woman says his grip “hurts” and “burns” her arm.

Mary’s curiosity about the train and the ninth kingdom grows. She listens as the woman talks with the conductor saying, “they generally don’t protest at all. They just accept it when the time comes.” Mary begins to question her destination, asking, “Accept what?” The woman explains that the passengers are apathetic and “don’t even care about where they are going.” Mary says she’ll get the next train home, but the woman explains that there are no return trips once reaching the ninth kingdom, and that “It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will.”

Mary begins to cry, learning that there are no more stops before the train reaches the ninth kingdom. She blames her parents, but the woman tells her, “You let them put you on the train, didn’t you? You accepted and did not rebel.”

With a spark of insight, Mary decides to pull the emergency cord on the train. The woman realizes that Mary is “a spunky one” and tells her that there is still time to assert her will. The woman gives Mary advice on how to escape. When Mary asks, “How do you know? How can I believe you?” the woman calls her a “faithless child.” The woman tells Mary that she has been on her side all along, but that Mary had to make a positive decision and make the break herself.

Mary pulls the alarm, and runs from the train and up a dark staircase where a snake winds around her ankle. Eventually she reaches sunlight, and the snake falls away like a link of metal. Mary finds herself in a city park where the woman from the train is selling white roses and daffodils. The woman meets Mary with a “blue gaze of triumphant love” saying, “I have been waiting for you, dear.”

The short story can be interpreted in many ways. It is a story about taking your own initiative and asserting willpower to choose your own way in life. It’s about leaving home and growing up. It’s about choosing growth over stagnation and choosing thoughtfulness over indifference. It’s about having trust and having faith in the right people.

I’m glad the story was published after so many years. It was a refreshing read.

Related Reviews:
Arial by Sylvia Plath

External Link:
The Genesis of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” by Karen V. Kukil (an essay on the short story)

Purchase and read books by Sylvia Plath:

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath Ariel by Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

I re-read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1964) this winter, revisiting it after first reading the volume back in 2002. Plath’s book of poems is brilliant and intrepid. Her poems gut you with their rawness and honestly.

I still don’t understand many of the poems fully, but they each made me think. I’ve also been reading literary analyses of many of her poems. I find it curious to see the wildly different interpretations people have of them.

It’s hard to read this work without also contemplating the tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s death. She was hugely talented, driven, and hard-working. I was glad to read this book again because Plath inspires me to write and be truthful and open like her.

I especially loved her poems "Medusa," "Poppies in October," "Kindness," and "Poppies in July."

"Medusa" in Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Purchase and read books by Sylvia Plath:

Ariel by Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sunday, January 8, 2023

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a tiny, pocket-sized book by historian Timothy Snyder. It contains 20 lessons to counter tyranny. Most of the lessons are followed by a few pages that briefly describe historical moments in the 20th century.

The book is a short read, full of declarative statements. It’s not a history book. There are no footnotes or citations, and the same few authors are repeatedly quoted throughout.

The book started out well, and I thought some lessons were really useful reminders. By the end, though, I thought the author was running out of lessons and struggling to come up with a round twenty. One of the latter lessons was to use autopay to contribute to charities. This lesson fell shortly after Snyder derided the internet and suggested establishing a private life. Coupled, the two lessons felt quite contradictory.

The final lesson was to “Be as Courageous as You Can.” Throughout the book, Snyder makes remarks about Trump without naming him, as though he is Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. I wondered why Snyder failed to have the courage to name him directly. It felt like such an odd choice.

The book’s lessons all center on European history and neglect the rest of the world. I thought about this major omission when Snyder criticized Americans for not having passports. Most often, Americans who lack passports lack the means to travel. Most do not, as Snyder put it, say “they do not need travel documents, because they prefer to die defending freedom in America.” He was definitely speaking from a place of privilege, and the statement felt out of touch.

The book contains the following 20 lessons:

Chapter 1: Do Not Obey in Advance.
Chapter 2: Defend Institutions.
Chapter 3: Beware the One-Party State.
Chapter 4: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World.
Chapter 5: Remember Professional Ethics.
Chapter 6: Be Wary of Paramilitaries.
Chapter 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed.
Chapter 8: Stand Out.
Chapter 9: Be Kind to Our Language.
Chapter 10: Believe in Truth.
Chapter 11: Investigate.
Chapter 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk.
Chapter 13: Practice Corporeal Politics.
Chapter 14: Establish a Private Life.
Chapter 15: Contribute to Good Causes.
Chapter 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries.
Chapter 17: Listen for Dangerous Words.
Chapter 18: Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives.
Chapter 19: Be a Patriot.
Chapter 20: Be as Courageous as You Can.

I’m glad I checked this book out from the library as an ebook. Though it was a good read, I think I’d learn more from a more expansive historical work on the subject.

Purchase and read books by Timothy Snyder:

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

Friday, December 30, 2022


a photo of clouds and a poem called Orbit by Ingrid Lobo

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Hello Gardenia


Hello Gardenia,

It’s been a while, I know.
Did you miss me?
I missed you.

Have you been staying hydrated?
Eating well?
I know you got some sun.
You can’t even try to avoid it here.

You don’t look quite the same
As the last time we talked.
I’m sorry to say,
We both look a little worse
For the wear.

I’ve been away too long.
It’s been a hard time,
Maybe more for some
than for others.

Some of your friends disappeared.
Did they outgrow you and leave you behind?
Have you been lonely?

You only have one main branch left.
And you keep growing in that one direction.
I know what that’s like.

I’m going to prune you back.
I hope it won’t be too painful.
You need to try to grow
In some new directions.
I’ll help you.

We’ve been friends a long time.
Since I was a teenager.
I drew a picture of you
While I was gone.
Because I missed you.

I know it’s been a while
But I’m here now
To tend to you.

Don’t tell the others,
But you’re my favorite.

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Scarlet Imperial (1946) is an engrossing, fast-paced crime novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes. Born in 1904, Hughes was a journalist, author, poet, historian, and literary critic. She wrote many detective, mystery, thriller, and crime novels in the noir style. Hughes also penned a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Perry Mason stories. Previously this year, I read her novel In a Lonely Place, which was a fascinating book.

During her career, Hughes received four Edgar Allan Poe awards from Mystery Writers of America. In 1951, she was given an Edgar Award for Outstanding Mystery Criticism. In 1964, she received an Edgar Award for Best Novel for The Expendable Man. In 1978, she received The Grand Master award from the organization. Lastly, in 1979, she received the award for Best Critical/Biographical Work for Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason.

The Scarlet Imperial (also published as Kiss for a Killer) is the story of Eliza Williams. We meet Eliza on a grey and rainy spring day that feels like autumn. Eliza is posing as a perfect secretary in Manhattan under a false name. She’s an agent, working for a man named Towner Clay, and she’s awaiting word on how to proceed with her unknown assignment.

Eliza is a mystery at first, but eventually, we learn her story. She has struggled through life, and she doesn’t even know her real name. Eliza believes she was born in Manchukuo and that her family were Americans. As a six-year-old girl, she witnessed the brutal murders of her parents and brother because they were white foreigners. Eliza pretended she was dead to survive. Then she wandered with other refugees, passing as Chinese with her dark hair and eyes. Eliza made her way as a roadside beggar until she eventually reached Shanghai at age twelve. There, Eliza began working as a kitchen maid, and later, she got jobs in cafes and in the best hotels.

In Shanghai, Eliza fell in love with an American flyer named Thaddeus Skowa of The Flying Tigers. The pair planned to marry, but he never returned from the war. Thad died in prison, after being accused of stealing the Scarlet Imperial, a magnificent, jeweled egg that was given as a gift by Peter the Great to the Persian Shah.

When Eliza learned that Thad was dead, she tried to kill herself in her grief. She credits a man named Towner Clay with saving her. Towner, who had been in the diplomatic service, took care of Eliza for months when she was sick and brought her out of the East. After she recovered, she began to help him in return. Towner sought artifacts and treasures stolen by thieves and looters during the war and returned them to their owners. After working for him, Eliza shared the story of the Scarlet Imperial with Towner, and he promised to help her find it and return it to the Iranians. Eliza believes that in doing so, she will bring the true thief to justice and clear her beloved Thad’s name.

In the opening chapter, Eliza is handed a mysterious package. She takes possession of it, and learns the box contains the Scarlet Imperial. Can Eliza keep the Imp safe long enough to carry out her plan?

The story has many complex characters who double cross one another. There’s a handsome, sapphire-eyed, Irish man named Gavin Keane who hands Eliza the Scarlet Imperial and makes her promise to return it only to him. Gavin is shot in Eliza’s building, and she nurses and cares for him. Eliza and Gavin are attracted to each other, but neither fully trusts the other. Eliza’s boss is an attractive importer and exporter of rare objects named Bryan Brewer. Is Bry being above board in his quest to obtain the Imperial for a client, and what does he know about the history of the precious object? A glamorous woman named Feather Prentiss flits in and out of the story. Feather has the attention of all the men, much to Eliza’s jealously and dismay. There’s also an FBI agent Jones who interviews Eliza repeatedly after murders occur at her building. Finally, there’s the Iranian envoy Feroun Dekertian.

If Eliza can get the Scarlet Imperial into Dekertian’s hands safely, then will he really clear her dead fiancĂ©’s name? The reader is left guessing about who is deceiving who and what motivates each character. The Scarlet Imperial a suspenseful and engaging story, and I think it would be fun to see it adapted as a film.

Related Reviews:
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Purchase and read books by Dorothy B. Hughes:

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes