Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 198 pages.
Read from August 31, 2021 to September 12, 2021.

If you’re not aware of the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath saga please read a quick rundown before embarking on this book as it’s extremely important in understanding this selection of poetry.

Birthday Letters was published 35 years after Plath’s suicide and was written over a 25 year period. It was published in March 1998 which was only a few months before Hughes would pass away. Hughes had previously published nothing about their relationship. Hughes and Plath’s marriage was a difficult one with Hughes being unfaithful and eventually moving in with his mistress. While Plath’s works were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, Hughes was vilified for his part in Plath’s suicide as she spiralled further into a depression after he left. Hughes also destroyed some of Plath’s works after she died, presumably because it cast him in a bad light since Plath’s poetry often referred to her relationships, including Hughes and her father. This furthered public resentment from Plath fans. This collection was Hughes’ response to Plath’s poetry and possible redemption from her untimely death. Ted Hughes was the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate from December 1984 until his death.

The world is still very much fascinated with these two poetic geniuses and their lives. It’s part of the reason why they’re still read today. Birthday Letters is Hughes intimate and autobiographical account of his relationship with Plath, his side of their story and his reaction to her passing. Almost every poem in this collection references one of Plath’s poems, like a direct reply to her work, with his own words, impressions and feelings. Birthday Letters is one of the most intimate collections of poetry I’ve ever read as it reveals a haunted and hurt man, a side not seen by Hughes previously. While the poems in this collection are phenomenally written if you’re not familiar with Plath’s poetry it can make them hard to decipher. I think my biggest regret with this book is that I should have read it slower and taken the time to read Plath in tandem with it. The prose in this book is not meant to be taken in too quickly as the words themselves took Hughes many years to write. While I didn’t always connect with the poems in this collection its prose is very clearly one of the best pieces of poetry to come out of the 20th century.

If you have read this book, please read the previously unpublished poem “Last Letter“. This poem is Hughes most vulnerable poem on Plath’s death but why it wasn’t included in this collection is a mystery. Last Letters provides a sense of closure on Hughes feelings on their relationship and tragic outcome that clearly haunted him his whole life.

This books is a must-read for any poetry lover or if you’re at all interested in the dynamic and tragic relationship of Hughes and Plath.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 229 pages.
Read from July 8, 2021 to July 13, 2021.

It’s not very often that a book can marry literature, science, and philosophy together and it’s even rarer when it’s a memoir. Then again, the author of this book also seemed to be a rare human being. One that was taken from this world far too soon.

Losing someone you love to cancer is an exclusive club that nobody wants to be a part of, in that only those who have known the pain of it can truly relate to it. At the same time, it becomes such a defining and all-consuming part of your life that you can’t help but also be drawn to anything relating to it. This is how this book found my reading list.

The opening foreword by Abraham Verghese gives you your first powerful impression of what Paul was like and draws you in from the first page. Paul Kalanithi was an accomplished neurosurgeon whose first love was writing and reading, a venture that almost had him become a professor instead of a surgeon. He found himself in the medical field due to his own questions of life and death, often brought on by the literature that he read. Initially thinking he’d do psychiatry, Paul fell in love with neurosurgery and became one of the best. When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, his deep intrigue with life and death took a whole new meaning.

Despite his illness, Paul decided to continue doing what he does best, being a neurosurgeon. Paul gives the details of how he came to medicine and how he grew as a physician, not hiding his faults as he progressed in the field. His diagnosis changed him from a practitioner to a patient and it gave him a wholly different perspective on his patients and the type of care he and the system provided. Paul and his wife decided to try for a child despite his dire situation, a child he was able to see and spend time with for a few brief and magical months. He started with the hope of leaving his daughter something of him in writing this book.

Paul melds his talent and passion for writing with his ideas on science, death, and dying creating this moving and masterful work. I am so thankful he shared his ideas and vulnerabilities with the world as this book has left a lasting impression on me, as it has, no doubt for many others. Paul faced death with an immense appreciation for life and what he had and made the most out of every second, a lesson that he shared through his writing. Actively living and actively dying are two sides of the same coin and the side that you want is one of your choosing.

This book feels incomplete because it is. Paul had so much more to share with the world and with his family but cancer cut his life short. Isn’t that always the way of things, though? Never enough time. While poets have been writing on this topic for more than a century, Paul’s story is a modern telling of the beauty and fleetingness of life.

This book is suitable and recommended for any human but I think especially those going through times of struggle or transition. Paul’s words are raw, comforting, and a gentle reminder of what we have to be grateful for while exploring death and life’s meaning.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

“I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there’s this burden. I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you’ll carry around this victim mentality forever.”

3/5 stars
Paperback, 309 pages.
Read from June 23, 2021 to July 7, 2021.

Ah yes, back to my favourite author though not in the way I expected. I’m nearing the end of my Murakami journey as I close in on reading everything this Japanese author currently has to offer.

Underground is a piece of non-fiction which Murakami isn’t generally known for, however, he felt compelled to write this book after Toyko was the centre of a terrorist attack in March 1995.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Tokyo subway was subject to a sarin gas attack. Sarin is a clear lethal chemical weapon gas that was invented by the Nazis. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 5000 people. An attack of this kind had never happened in Japan during peacetime and it shook the nation with the maliciousness of its attack. The government quickly went to work to determine the perpetrators of this terrible attack. The culprits were a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo, which means ‘supreme truth’. The cult itself started as a mere yoga and meditation course that wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, however, it had amassed thousands of followers who believed in the doomsday prophecies of the group’s leader Shoko Asahara. Ashara was a blind man with long hair and beard who sat on the personal assets of his followers, raking in millions. He claimed that he was the second coming of Christ and that he could travel through time.

Shoko Asahara, Japan Times, 2018

Aum believed that Armaggedon would come as a result of a war between the United States and Japan and that only members of Aum would survive. Non-members were doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members. In five coordinated attacks, members of Aum released the sarin gas on three different subway lines the morning of March 20, 1995. This was not the first time Aum had done gas attacks but it wasn’t until after this attack that Aum was associated with the other incidences.

Murakami, like many Japanese, was struck and affected by the enormity and tragedy of the incident and felt inclined to write about the matter. However, he knew it wasn’t his story to tell so he decided to interview the survivors of the attack. He initially did not want to include any details on the Aum cult or anyone that was involved with them due to the massive amount of media attention that they received, instead of wanting to focus solely on the survivors, however, Murakami felt the scope of the story was incomplete and eventually interviewed a few former Aum members in an updated version of his book.

Murakami gracefully puts together the events of the day with the survivor’s stories. From train station workers to commuters, and medical staff, you piece the horrors of this event together. What is prevalent in the interviews themselves is the long-lasting damage that occurred. Some survivors are left with debilitating physical grievances while others have deep emotional scars and for some a lifetime of disability, suffering, and loss. Murakami also shows the unique mannerisms and behaviours exhibited by Japanese people and how they cope with emotions and turmoils as a society. The addition of the Aum member interviews completed this book as it was provided with a much-needed perspective about the turn of events and the reasons behind why everyday, smart, and seemingly normal people turned to this cult, as well as additional insights into Japanese mentality and society.

If you are new to Murakami, I would not recommend this book to start with just because it is such a stark contrast to the fiction that he normally writes. While this book is excellent and definitely contains Murakami’s tone and style, it would not be the most appropriate introduction to Murakami’s work. It is, however, an important piece of literature to read if you’re interested in learning about Aum and the events of that day.

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