REVIEW: Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom: A Story

As much as Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom bears a whimsical title similar to that of a fantasy bildungsroman, this short story, recently recovered from the Sylvia Plath archives, is anything but. Underneath Plath’s vivid narrative lie dark ideas that foreshadow the author’s first major suicide attempt in 1953, mere months from when she finished writing the story in December of 1952. Upon its completion, during which Plath was a 20 year old student at Smith College, Plath submitted the story to the Mademoiselle magazine where it was rejected and largely forgotten until its official publication last June by Harper Perennial. The story follows a young woman named Mary Ventura and her reluctant journey by train to an indeterminate location referred to as ‘the ninth kingdom’. Shrouding the ninth kingdom is an unsettling aura of mystery – it is both Mary’s final destination and the last station of the train’s travel north – and despite Mary’s various inquiries, the reader remains equally in the dark of what is to await her.

“There are no return trips on this line,’ the woman said softly. ‘Once you get to the ninth kingdom, there is no going back. It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will. It has many names.”

Though the story makes for a one-sitting read, Mary’s allegorical tale requires more than a once-over in order to extract Plath’s views on female independence, fate, and mortality. What strikes me as most interesting is how the story not only ends but begins with a sense of finality: from the moment Mary climbs aboard her train of fate, she crosses an implied point of no return. Mary’s parents dismiss her concerns and assert that “Everyone has to go away sooner or later”, plunging Mary into a seemingly inevitable state of oblivion and compliance. Following this, a secondary character whom is referred to only as “the woman” emerges; unlike Mary, the Woman has taken the train before and is knowledgable in the ‘rules’ which passengers must abide by – one could interpret her as the classic teacher in a bildungsroman, or even Mary’s innermost thoughts, personified. This is emphasized by how Plath’s attentive prose draws a stark contrast between the Woman’s comforting presence and the bleak, sanguine train environment. Plath paints Mary’s surroundings in smoke and blood, a foreboding palette interrupted only by moments of the Woman’s “tenderness” and gentle guidance. The colors orange and red seem to flood Plath’s imagined world; from the plush seats and red ticket stubs that match Mrs. Ventura’s “painted red mouth” to the ominous sun visible from the train window, an “orange color… deepening into red”.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is, as Plath affirms, a ‘vaguely symbolic tale’ – however, as with any allegorical tale, it’s difficult to ascertain what the ninth kingdom, the train, or Mary’s escape truly represent. Taken optimistically, the train and its oblivious passengers could represent a clockwork lifestyle from which Mary springs free out of sheer will, empowered by a refusal to accept a predestined path. However, interpreted with Plath’s battle with depression and early suicide, the train ride could represent a grappling with the truth of one’s impending doom, with Mary’s escape alluding to choosing premature death instead. With Mary’s premature suicide or train departure comes the ultimate irony – though freedom blooms from the ending’s springtime imagery, Mary is forever shackled with oblivion over her journey’s defining question: “But what is the ninth kingdom?”

REVIEW: New Waves

Lucas, the main character in Kevin Nguyen’s novel that released early last month, “New Waves”, is a twenty-something, unambitious, mess. Working as the sole customer support representative at tech start-up Nimbus, Lucas and his closest friend Margo, an engineer at the firm, spend the majority of their time outside of working drinking at mediocre bars and complaining about work. When Margo is fired from the company for her lack of “team morale”, Lucas and her hatch a plan to get back at the company by stealing all of their username information.

But what happens when the friend you commit a federal crime against your previous employer with is hit by a car? Lucas is left to pick up the pieces, and as he takes on a job at a competing tech firm, Phantom, curiosity gets the better of him. But diving into Margo’s history and search history leaves Lucas with more questions than answers about the person he thought was his best friend. Nguyen navigates with dexterity Lucas’ grief and the fallout of loss while leading readers down a mysterious trail into Margo’s past.

Lucas is not exactly the kind of character a reader is used to rooting for. He is lazy, messy, and at times cruel. He has no real dreams he is pursuing. He only moved to New York City to escape working at his parents’ bed and breakfast back home in Oregon. His only real friend is Margo, and even the details and seriousness of their relationship is shrouded with a certain apathy. It’s unclear whether or not their friendship continues because of genuine connection, or pure convenience. After her passing, and a handful of discoveries, Lucas admits he was in love with Margo, “but what if I could love someone and not want to f*** them?”. This is where Nguyen falters.

The admittance comes a little over halfway through the novel. In some ways, it’s incredibly satisfying. From the beginning of my reading of the novel, I wondered if the matter would be addressed. While I was glad to get an answer, the minute I had it I realized I would’ve been better off without it. Lucas’ love for Margo is most interesting when it exists as a Schrodinger’s cat; it both exists and does not exist until this moment, and the novel is better off without Nguyen’s direct address of it. By doing so, Nguyen reveals the primary issue with his novel; it lacks any form of internal engine. Anything interesting in the novel conveniently happens to the characters, as opposed to any action happening based on the choices the characters make. And while it is engrossing initially to see Lucas flounder after the death of his beloved friend, it is apparent fairly early on that the character is aimlessly wandering through life, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While Lucas does grow somewhat of a spine through the course of the book, it misses the mark for me. My desire for Lucas to grow, to change, to try is never fully met, despite what appears to be Nguyen’s careful cultivation of this feeling in readers.

“New Waves” is far from bad. Nguyen’s writing is admirable, and his form and integration of technology hit a mark that many “modern” books fail to do.  But at the end of the day, “New Waves” is a story about a whole lot of things happening to someone who doesn’t care enough to let it alter their outlook on life.

REVIEW: The Spell Book for New Witches: Essential Spells to Change Your Life

I should preface this review with the universal acknowledgement that just like the weird side of YouTube that many quarantined individuals may find themselves stumbling into, there exists an equally bizarre side of Amazon – and this book hardly scratches its surface. While on a similar downwards trajectory across Amazon’s vast niche book collection, I came across a plethora of modern witchcraft guides, including Ambrosia Hawthorn’s The Spell Book for New Witches: Essential Spells to Change Your Life.

For someone with no prior witchcraft knowledge besides having happened across a handful of Vox witch documentaries, this book managed to clear up any confusing spellcasting terminology. A good quarter of the book is dedicated to understanding the art of spellcasting and educating the reader on spellcasting preparation, which rings true to its intended audience of ‘new witches’, or beginner practitioners. In Part I, Hawthorn clarifies commonly confused magic terminology, such as witchcraft versus Wicca, and even briefly delves into its ethical obligations, warning beginners of the Law of Threefold Return and knowing one’s place within cosmic law. Though I personally have no plans to sew poppets or charge clear quartz under the next full moon, I’m grateful for the author’s emphasis on exercising reason, caution, and stable-mindedness under all spellcasting circumstances.

Hawthorn divvies Part II of the spell book, the spells and their recipes, into seven categories of use: ‘Romantic Love’, ‘Money Matters and Prosperity’, ‘Work and Career’, ‘Friends and Family’, ‘Health and Healing’, ‘Protection and Forgiveness’, and ‘Well-being, Success, and Abundance’. Though I expected witchcraft to require a number of obscure ingredients and esoteric performing instructions, Hawthorn’s spells stress the ‘practical’ in practical magic, with most spells requiring 10 or less ingredients and tools combined. While describing the core principles of witchcraft, which include celebrating your life and sexuality, Hawthorn explains that spellwork should be fueled mainly by “a respect for nature and the mystery of the universe”. She characterizes magic as existing all around us, therefore crystals and herbs should be drawn upon as secondary sources to harnessing our personal power and energies.

Hawthorn’s book promises a wide range of spells designed to suit your every need – whether that be finding a lost item, curing heartbreak, or designing a custom healing sigil. The performance rituals range from simply harnessing crystal energies to boiling herbs; many of the spells can double as quarantine-induced-boredom cures, as Hawthorn makes a point to include cookie recipes, soap, and other self-care spells. Some spells that might be particularly useful to unmotivated students such as myself include: ‘Money Manifestation Crystal Grid’, ‘Wealth Manifestation Rice’, ‘Acceptance Talisman Spell’, and ‘Anti-Procrastination Oil’.

 

REVIEW: Anna K

Who would’ve thought New York City’s socialites’ children would have so much in common with Tolstoy’s tragedy set in Imperial Russia?

Jenny Lee, it seems. In her new book, released March 3rd, “Anna K”, TV writer Lee takes on the immense task of modernizing Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” into a fresh, clever, and yes, frivolous, new novel. Welcome to the world of our Anna: daughter of a rich Korean businessman, Anna is NYC teen royalty. It doesn’t hurt that her boyfriend, Alexander, happens to be the well-respected “Greenwich OG”. Every private school, trust-fund teenager knows her for her charm, maturity, and her “endgame goals” beaux. Her life is perfect; until Alexia “Count” Vronsky steals her heart on the train from Greenwich into the city. With all eyes on her, Anna navigates a messy and uncensored love affair with the boy she truly loves in an attempt to go after what she wants, instead of what others prescribe for her.

It doesn’t help that the people closest to Anna seem to be trying to figure out their own romantic lives; Steven, Anna’s brother, unknowingly executes Anna’s initial run-in with Vronsky when he begs her to come home to soothe his enraged girlfriend Lolly who has just discovered Steven’s infidelity. Lolly’s younger sister, Kimmie, is unfortunately also head-over-heels for Vronsky, despite Steven’s friend and tutor, Dustin’s multiple attempts to win her affection. And we can’t forget Dustin’s brother Nicholas, newly released from rehab again, and his desire to find and pursue the woman of his dreams that he met in his rehab facility. The teenagers’ lives intertwine and untangle themselves again and again, with alarming speed and dexterity on the part of Mrs. Lee’s.

When I first started reading the novel, my roommates found a lot of joy in teasing me about my choice of genre. Anna K. fulfills a deeply guilty pleasure of mine. There’s just something about rich tweens and teens of NYC that makes great entertainment; “Gossip Girl”, “The Clique”, and now, “Anna K”. But it isn’t just its frivolity that makes it such a good read; Lee has a habit of sneaking in plain, poignant nuggets about the heart of humanity and love right next to what could be taken as the superficial. Lee places mundanity and phenomena next to each other to see if the audience can spot the difference; rather, in hopes that they can, but also perhaps because the two are not as different as we might generally interpret them to be. What is so lovely about Lee’s “Anna K” is how deeply and unapologetically she lets her young characters feel. It’s worth reminding any would-be readers of the first time they fell in love; how deeply we all fall and how catastrophic it is to our lives the first time we feel it with nothing else to compare it to!

In times like these, a light read about teenagers being well, teenagers, was a much-needed break. For those of you who have read Tolstoy’s novel, (SPOILER ALERT!) you know it doesn’t end well for the parties involved. Jenny Lee diverts from the original ending and fate of Anna for an ending, that while some may argue could be too “cliche”, I found to be very moving.

“[Love] gives us purpose and strength.” Hiding underneath the glitter and maybe one too many uses of the modern teenage colloquialisms, is a novel worth reading.