Book Review: The Bell Jar

Image result for the bell jar

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

This is one of those books that I don’t know why I’ve never read.

There are several of them, and there are several reasons why I haven’t read them. (For instance: never read most of the great Victorian novels, never read Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or anything by Dickens, though I read Oliver Twist a year or two ago and I have Hard Times on my TBR shelf; never read much of the work of Faulkner or Joyce; haven’t read much of the great Russians, never read War and Peace, never read Crime and Punishment; never read Madame Bovary nor Lolita, never read Moby Dick. I could go on. And the reasons? I skipped a year of high school English; I went to a non-traditional college to study literature, where I took a class in Hong Kong literature and another in the films of Howard Hawks, but didn’t read a single Shakespeare play as an undergrad; neither of my parents are readers of the classics, so with their encouragement I read lots and lots of fantasy and science fiction.) This one I didn’t really know anything about. I know Sylvia Plath, know her story, at least the bare bones of it; I have grown to enjoy her poetry since I’ve read it in the last couple of years. But I never read her novel.

Until now. Until a friend and colleague of mine, who told me she was going to be teaching it to her Pre-AP students (who will become my AP students next year), when I said I’d never read it, said, “Oh, you have to!” And I said, “Okay.” And I went to our local used book store and I got myself a copy, and I read it.

Now I need to read it again.

It’s a good book. I can see both why it is now considered a great book, and why it became such a sensational book. For those who do not know, the book is largely autobiographical, and describes a time in Sylvia Plath’s life when she, to use the cliché, descended into madness. She had a breakdown, she attempted suicide, she was given shock treatment (Hey, it was the 1950’s, after all), and then she was institutionalized. That’s as far as the book goes, and Plath’s life story doesn’t go much farther: she moved to England, met and married the poet Ted Hughes, had two children with him, wrote this novel and some extraordinary poetry, and then, at the age of 31, she killed herself. The Bell Jar hadn’t been on the shelves for more than a year, and since it tells of something so intimate, made so simultaneously chilling and vital by the death of the author, it was an immediate bestseller. And then there was controversy regarding its American publication (It was initially published in England, to mixed reviews), because her mother believed that Sylvia would not have wanted the book published in the U.S. because many of the characters are recognizable from Sylvia’s life, and the book is not a kind one. But it was eventually published here, and with its crystal-clear depiction of mental illness, and of mental health treatment, and of society in the 1950’s and particularly how society treated young women at the time, it became an enormous bestseller and a classic.

The book is about a young woman who goes on an internship in New York City during summer break, for a month. It’s a little strange to read about how college worked then, because college now is so solidified: you start when you’re 18, you finish after four years with a bachelor’s degree, or after six years with a Master’s, or never if you pursue a PhD; but Esther, the protagonist, is 19, has finished her first two years of college and is about to enter her senior year. But this is also a time when she is caught between her dreams, which vary widely over the course of the book – she wants to be a writer; she wants to be a professor; she wants to be a magazine editor – and the need to have something solid and steady, which means she should learn shorthand so she can be a secretary. It’s a time when young ladies take classes in deportment. When everyone is so obsessed with marriage and with chastity before marriage that the unavoidably human obsession with sex means that no social interaction has to do with anything else: the boy that Esther has developed a relationship with – though he’s a shmuck and their “relationship” consists of him inviting her up to Yale for proms and then treating her like an inconsequential decoration that also serves as an audience for his ego – is derided as a hypocrite because he’s had sex and yet insists that Esther remain a good girl if they are ever to marry (which her mother desperately wants her to do, of course), and every date she goes on, she considers as a potential husband, or else a potential sexual partner. I suppose that not much has changed on that front, but I’m sorry, this virginity shit is ridiculously stupid.

And beside the point, though it and the need to have an active social life and be seen as popular and dating quality people (like a Yale man! How exciting!) are important elements of the book and of Esther’s life. But then the point becomes something else. It isn’t clear what happens, as I think it wouldn’t be; there isn’t a single traumatic moment, though Esther has some bizarre experiences and some extraordinary pressures to deal with. It begins to come to a head when she goes on several dates and outings towards the end of her internship with another girl in the program, a young lady named Doreen; Doreen has been having a sexual relationship with a charming rock DJ, who appears to have no decent friends and therefore hooks Esther up with jackasses – the last of which assaults her. She finishes her internship without any definite plans for her next step, for her last year of school or for the career afterwards, or for her social or family life; she simply goes home. She leaves all of her clothes in New York, and she goes home in a borrowed outfit.

Once Esther is home, things get worse. Her mother pressures her to move on, to date, to marry, to succeed; and Esther is drawing inward, instead. She goes through a severe depression, which is when her mother takes her to a psychiatrist, a complete shithead who soon recommends electroshock therapy. Because, y’know, it makes you feel better. Except it isn’t done right, and Esther feels agonizing pain during it, and then feels no better. That’s when she begins to think about suicide. She makes several half-hearted attempts, to drown herself, to hang herself, to cut her wrists, and then finally, she finds a place to hide and she takes an entire bottle of sleeping pills which she got because she can’t sleep due to her depression. She survives, and goes to a mental hospital, where things go back and forth between getting better and getting worse. And though I won’t spoil the ending further, I’ll just say: that’s how it goes throughout the rest of the book. It is never entirely clear if it is getting better, or if it is getting worse; when things seem to be going better, Esther’s narrative voice is not any happier or more comfortable. It never gets happy or comfortable again, all the way to the end. Though really, I’m not sure how happy or comfortable it ever was: this is not a happy, comfortable book. I think Plath was not a happy or comfortable woman.

What she was, was entirely honest, with crystal-clear perception, even if the things she was perceiving were not real. Though this book clearly stretches the boundary of fiction: when an author fictionalizes her own life, and describes accurately sensations and experiences that are not real, hallucinations and disassociated thoughts and feelings – is that fiction? Did she make it up? The writing is occasionally beautiful, haunting, poetic; mostly, though, it is so clear and easy to read and understand that you feel very much what Esther feels. I do not myself have experience with depression or suicidal ideation, but I’ve been close to people who have, so I recognize the accuracy of this depiction; and I understand more now than I did before I read the book. As a writer, and a devoted lover of the works of many authors who have gone through what Plath depicted (Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace are two of my favorites, along with several others who drank or drugged themselves to death, Poe and Dylan Thomas and so on, so on.) And though I plan to re-read it and look more carefully at the writing (Because this is a book that would go very well with others that I teach, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catcher in the Rye particularly), on the strength of one reading alone, I would highly recommend it.

Book Review: Dracula

Dig the cover for two reasons: it’s Boris Vallejo, and my copy says “Basis for a major motion picture.” No shit.

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

 

Since this past week was Mr. Stoker’s birthday – and according to some people, also Vlad Tepes the Impaler’s – it seemed appropriate to finally write up his famous book, which I have at long last read to its completion.

I know, I know; I read fantasy and horror both, I have written a book about vampires – how could I have never read Dracula? I can’t really say. I tried reading it once, several years ago, and stopped because it got boring; I’ve never been very good at reading classics, having avoided most difficult work in high school and nearly all of the classic canon in college. It has only been in the last couple of years, with my discovery of Jeffrey Farnol’s magnificent pirate books and his excellent Regency romances, and then my becoming an AP English teacher, who must teach his students more of the classics of British and American literature than I have hitherto, that I have started going back and actually working my way through Bronte, and Dickens, and suchlike.

And now, Dracula.

I will say that Stoker didn’t really do himself many favors, in the eyes of the modern reader. He had this wonderful idea, and a real gift for both action scenes and wonderful atmosphere, and what is three-quarters of this book? Victorian manners and stupid people fluttering about wringing their hands. Several of the characters are great, at least in concept: the Count himself is wonderful, as are his three ladies of the night, and Renfield is one of the most interesting people in the book. The concept of eating life, of capturing flies and feeding them to spiders, and then feeding the spiders to birds, and then eating the birds – that is fantastic. It’s one of those things that a madman would think, but it makes so damn much sense that it gives we sane folk (I flatter myself, of course, and probably you, too, if you’re reading this review of mine) pause. Van Helsing is a great character in theory, though in his actual words and deeds, he is much more annoying than I wanted him to be. But everyone else is boring and stupid and obnoxious, more often than not.

And then there is the vampire. The Count is good as a character, particularly the contrast between the dignified nobleman and the lizard-crawling wolf-summoning bat-transforming blood-drinking monster; but just the idea of it is so magnificent, that even if the book was total trash – and it isn’t – the way that Stoker brought this idea to life and into the modern world (at the time), and the legacy he built, would be enough to justify his fame. The man must have known he had lightning in a jar, when he thought of this one. The creature that lives among its prey; the creature that once was one of its own prey, and became a predator; the creature that turns humanity, the most destructive and murderous of the animals, into victims, a solid step down from the top of the food chain – the dead that eats life to live – that is an amazing thing. No wonder we just keep writing about it and talking about it.

As for the book, the beginning is boring. Jonathan Harker goes to Dracula’s castle, and it’s creepy there, but nothing actually happens. When Stoker wrote it, I’m sure people were swooning over the Count and his evil magic, but now that we all know what vampires are and what Count Dracula was, it just drags on until Harker finally escapes. And then we get to the most annoying part of the book: Mina Murray fretting over the slow decline of her friend Lucy. Again, when the idea was new, it might have held more suspense; but even then it must have been difficult for a reader to sustain interest when Mina is such. An. Idiot. “Oh me, my dear friend is pale and weak, as if she has lost much blood; she has holes in her neck; and that strange man was bent over her on the bench with his face right by her throat. I WONDER WHAT EVER COULD BE THE MATTER?!?!?!?” Good grief, woman. The only saving grace in this part was Renfield. It also made it much more difficult to be on board with the gentlemen who team up to fight Dracula, as they swear their undying devotion to Mina, whom they will give their very lives and their Christian souls to save, for she is so good and pure and perfect, and I’m like, “Don’t give your life for that moron. Let Dracula have her: she might be more interesting once she’s dead. (Lucy was: I like that she went straight to eating children. Reminded me of Angel on BTVS.) Find yourself a smart girl.” It took something away from their heroism that it was dedicated to a dolt. But then, it also took something away from their heroism that they just kept swearing their dedication to their task, which they seemed to do every chapter, every conversation, and that they had so damn much trouble accomplishing it. Ask me, they were all idiots.

So for the book overall, the beginning is boring, the characters are idiots, and the Victorian writing drags sometimes – the fact that Stoker wrote it as diary entries and letters works well for the most part, but he actually included the correspondence from the guys who drove the cart that carried Dracula’s boxes of dirt, for the love of God; and the gentlemen all see this as a chance to praise Mina for her wondrous abilities, which did kind of crack me up. “My God! A Victorian woman who can type as well as swoon? What a goddess! I pledge my life to save her!” – but none of that matters. Because it’s Dracula. It’s vampires. It’s wonderful. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, but I’m glad I read it now.

The Spice . . .

Dune
by Frank Herbert

I’ve read this one before, of course (Though I have to say: this edition had a surprising number of simple typos for a “classics of modern literature.” Bette Gesserit? Seriously?). Of course I have: I’m a reader and a fan of fantasy and science fiction; who can be those two things and not read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece?

If you’re those two things and haven’t read Dune, go read it. Right now. Seriously. There are so many remarkable things about the book: the tangled intrigues and deceptions, and the way Herbert manages to keep the protagonists essentially on the up-and-up without making them seem self-righteous or superior is impressive; I’d call it the basis for Martin’s Game of Thrones books, with the Atreides filling in for the Starks, and the Harkonnens the inspiration for the Lannisters. Hell, Dune’s even got dragons, or at least an even larger subterranean version of them, in the sandworms. The book’s a wonderful ecological allegory, similar to the heart of Tolkien’s great tale, which is really about industrialism destroying the pastoral landscape; this book is about the exploitation of natural resources and the people who survive in those exploited places, who are exploited themselves — and it was only at this reading that I saw where Herbert surely got the name for his exploited desert people, the Fremen — who are Freemen if you just add an E. And those Fremen, by the way, are nothing less than the inspiration for Robert Jordan’s Aiel; and they’re just as awesome.

Really, this is a book that must be read. But now that I’ve re-read it, I’m wondering if it’s really a book that needs to be re-read. Because this time through, I noticed a few more flaws. I liked a lot of the same things, liked the overall plot very much, liked the ending quite a lot, loved the descriptions of the desert world and enjoyed a lot of the Wise Soldier characters (Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, Thufir Hawat, Liet-Kynes, Stilgar, even Paul himself), the sort of great fighters who are reluctantly taking up the blade despite wanting something else out of their lives — all just like the first time I read it. But this time, I felt like the writing fell a little short, like it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. I wonder if that’s because I really did like the ideas so very much that the voice used to describe them made less of an impression on me. And even now, I don’t think it’s bad; when an author’s voice can disappear, and leave only impressions made by the ideas themselves, that’s good work; but it isn’t brilliant work. I would call Tolkien brilliant work. Actually, the distinction is probably clearest in the Wheel of Time series: Robert Jordan was a brilliant writer. Brandon Sanderson was good enough to disappear into the story.

I didn’t like Paul quite as much. I really didn’t like the descriptions of his developing prescience (That’s a little spoiler, but not really.), or the lack of explanation as to where it really came from. Herbert tried to make it seem scientific, like Paul was just the greatest mind the universe had ever seen — but then he has Paul able to predict things he couldn’t possibly predict based on observation and extrapolation, no matter how smart. It irked me, a bit. I agreed with Paul’s wish to prevent the jihad of his visions, but I didn’t really feel like it was clear enough why he wanted to prevent that; I’m not sure, were I in his shoes at his age, I would want to prevent it. I guess the point is that a little too much rested on this idea of, “Well, he’s the messiah!” I didn’t like that as much.

Anyway, I did enjoy reading it, I will be trying to read the next book — the first time through I got as far as the fourth book before I just couldn’t take it any more, but I was told that I should give the whole series another try, so here we are. And yeah: everyone really does have to read this book at least once. The second time I will leave up to your discretion. Just remember: fear is the mind-killer.

Book Review: The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

I don’t know what I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s a prize winner, an internationally acclaimed best seller, and has been for twenty years. But I read it for the first time in 2014, when I moved to Arizona and started a new teaching position with new materials, including this book; I liked it then, liked the style of it, liked the way Roy wrote and the things she had to say, but it was one of several books that I read in an awful hurry, and with a whole lot on my mind at the time.

I read it again, this past two weeks, just finishing it this morning. And this time, because I am encouraging my AP Literature students to read books actively, that is, with a pen in hand and the margins of the book’s own pages as their paper, to comment and question and interact with the text, I did just that: I used my new purple ball point (Which may be the best thing about the gym that my wife and I joined last October: it has good equipment, but not great, and it had been fairly uncrowded until our last work out when a visiting college baseball team came in en masse and inundated us in jockery: but at least they give away ballpoint pens with purple ink!) so that the ink would stand out against the black typeface, and I underlined and I arrowed and I added everything I thought that I thought was worth thinking and adding to the text.

I read it more, this time. More carefully, more attentively, more thoughtfully. I was invested in the text, this time.

And this time, I didn’t just like the book. I loved it.

I was actually enlightened by it. Roy made me think about my own society, and particularly my own family, in a way that I never had before. She crystallized some thoughts for me that might never otherwise have come clear. She also showed me an elegance and a musical grace in words that I never would have seen: words written backwards, and words broken up in new ways — there is a Bar Nowl that lives in the warehouse and hunts mice on silent wings — and a poetry that I don’t ever see in prose. She showed a depth of perception, both in descriptions of environment and of character and of humanity as a whole that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen done better. And she wrote this book on the other side of the world. In her second language. I don’t know if that shows the grandiosity of her genius or if it reveals the power of an outsider’s perception, both hers of my mother tongue and mine of her world and how it parallels my own; I think perhaps she was writing about what she knows, and I see the same things in what I know because people are people all around the globe — but regardless, this book is magic. It is going up on my Very Top Shelf, with Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare and ee cummings.

And that’s what I have to say about this book.