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The Bell Jar

 

My apologies for having been away from my blog for a little while, but it was my 21st birthday on the 20th, and since then we have had a guest staying as well so everything has been a little hectic.
I haven’t been able to do as much reading as I would have liked since The Somnambulist, but I assure you I have been reading.

Today I shall talk about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This novel was published just months before Plath’s suicide in 1963, and the content thus intrigued me when I heard this.
I found that The Bell Jar and Plath herself were names I was familiar with throughout my studies, yet I had never had any interest in reading Plath (due to there always being a big book next on the list)! I bought the book on a whim one day during one of my Waterstone’s blow-outs, and when I read the blurb I knew I was in for something supremely interesting.
For those of you unfamiliar with Plath, she was rather a dark poet, and The Bell Jar was her first exploration with the novel form before her suicide. Plath was severely depressed, and many believe that the subject of her novel is semi-autobiographical.

The Bell Jar is based around a young woman, Esther, who gets the opportunity to study in New York City. Whilst there however, she finds that this magical city is not to her what it appears to be for everybody else. She finds little enjoyment in the work she is doing, and is disenchanted by the lifestyle she is living, in a girls-only apartment block. Her alcohol-consuming and man-chasing best friend Doreen appears to be the only thing that breaks the monotony for her.
Throughout the novel, the reader is never completely sure of a generic plot, other than her life in New York, the life she could have had, and her life when she gets home. There are slight insights into the protagonist’s different way of thinking, but it is not until she moves home and discovers she was not accepted into the course she wanted to study on that we become aware of her mental instability.

Esther is unaware how to proceed with her life now she has had to abandon her further academic dreams, and disregards all other options open to her, such as becoming a wife and mother. With this in mind, she decides to attempt her own novel, but lacks experience to be able to write well. This is when we become aware of the decline of Esther’s mental health. It begins with her being unable to sleep, then unable to read, and ultimately unable to write. Because these academic forms are what she has spent her life working towards, Esther sees this as the end, and makes several attempts at suicide.

Esther’c closest attempt to end her life comes when she writes a note stating she is going “for a long walk”, then climbs into a wall cavity in the cellar, blocks herself in and takes a number of sleeping pills prescribed for her insomnia. After being missing for an indeterminate amount of time, Esther is discovered and sent to a mental hospital where she is treated with electro-shock therapy. Esther remains in this hospital for quite some time, and the novel ends with her entering the room of the board who will decide whether she is able to leave the hospital.

 

I know that many people will be familiar with this novel already, but the reason why I wanted to share this so badly is due to how it spoke to me personally. I have suffered with mental illness and depression, and the way in which Plath is able to accurately execute Esther’s actions and describe how she is feeling is eerily accurate (especially with the knowledge that this is how Plath must have felt herself). The meaning behind the title, The Bell Jar, comes from the way that Esther describes her illness as like “being under a bell jar, struggling to breathe”, and only at certain moments does she feel “the bell jar has been lifted slightly” and she can reach the air.

All in all, The Bell Jar is eerily accurate, disturbingly upsetting, and a genuine account of severe depression for those who have experienced it. Even for those who have not, this book is definitely one you should read in your lifetime, even just to gain an understanding of depression, because I can’t tell you just how upsetting it is to have somebody tell you suicide is “selfish” when you can’t see any other way out. Evidently, how Plath felt.

 

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist is the debut novel of author Essie Fox, which tells the story of 17 year-old Phoebe in her search of identity within her family.

Phoebe is brought up in late 19th Century London in an unconventional family unit consisting of her very pious mother Maud and her Aunt Cissy. It is her Aunt Cissy that Phoebe is particularly close to, and enjoys accompanying her to the theatre (where Cissy performs) which her mother is against.
When Cissy dies, Phoebe’s world is shattered, and with little income to support the household, Maud decides to send Phoebe to Herefordshire to be the companion of Mrs Samuels, the wife of her greatest enemy.

Now living in Herefordshire, Phoebe becomes very attached to Mrs Samuels, but finds herself strangely attracted to both Nathaniel Samuels and his son Joseph. Despite her fondness of the house and the company she is in however, Phoebe is haunted by the memory of the Samuels’ daughter Esther, in which she dissevers a striking resemblance to herself.

Throughout this novel there are scenes of dark sexual tension, graphic depictions of sex and hints of incest (due to Fox’s lingering suggestion that Nathaniel may in fact be Phoebe’s father). Altogether this leads for a very unbalanced novel. It is evident that Fox wishes us to notice the startling change between city and country which Phoebe must adapt to, but it is hard for the reader to decipher the tone of this novel when the changes are so very sudden. At one point, for example, Phoebe has left the country (where she is now suffering the cruelty of Joseph and missing the presence of Nathaniel) to return to London, but when she does she is promptly rejected by her mother and long-lost father. In this particular scene Fox has attempted to show how upset our protagonist is, but when she seeks solace in the only place she can think of- the house of her late Aunt’s best friend- her devastation is overshadowed by the theatrical presence of the house, and the cheery attitude of her friend.

Another point which I wish to make is how hard it is to connect with the protagonist. This may be a personal qualm, but when I am reading a novel I like to feel like I am in the main character’s shoes (as it were), in order to understand their thought process and the emotions they are likely to feel. This is very hard to do with Phoebe. When we are introduced to her character, she appears to be a teenager who follows her mother rules- such as only dressing in black- but has a secret love for the theatre. It is not prevalent that she resents her mother (as the novel later suggests), but we do see that she is very close to her Aunt. All in all her character is portrayed as a relatively innocent 17 year-old girl of the 19th Century. Therefore, when the reader discovers her sexual desires for Nathaniel and his son, it seems misplaced. In a later sex scene Phoebe’s physical condition after the act is described very graphically (down to the fluid running down her leg), and this vision of a wanton girl does not appear to fit the image of the girl who is shown to believe in mortal sin.

The ending for me was also disappointing. There are lots of loose ends never fully tied up, and Fox’s use of letters sent back and forth between the protagonist and another character makes the author seem inexperienced at ending her novel.

To be frank, I did not enjoy Fox’s debut at all. I was instantly drawn to the book due to its fantastical cover, and the blurb on the back did not seem to accurately represent what the novel was about at all. We are never sure where Phoebe’s true love and loyalty lies- to the theatre? To her Aunt? To Nathaniel? To Mrs Samuels? As aforementioned, I also feel that the way her personality is portrayed was confusing, and I could only identify with one minor character in the novel. At times, due to the age of the protagonist and the [plain] writing, I felt I was reading a ‘teen’ fiction. These feelings only diminished when the graphic sexual scenes and Phoebe’s desires are described.

In my opinion, not a promising start for Fox.

 

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I have just finished watching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which I said I would seek out after reading the book.

As far as a movie goes, it was pretty good. The director has cast wonderful actors for this film, and the way in which Bruno’s relationship with his father is played on is particularly good. This is something we don’t see very much in the book, so it pleased me that Bruno’s lack of faith in his father’s position of power was noted. It also showed some bits which Boyne does not discuss in the novel, such as the relationship between Bruno’s mother and father (making it apparent his mother does not know the extent of the atrocious happenings at Auschwitz).

The musical score was rather good, but Bruno’s attitude sometimes came off as ignorance rather than innocence (which is how I read it in the book). One could find it hard to believe for example that Bruno would lack even an ounce of anti-semiticism growing up in Nazi Germany. All in all however, the story of friendship in light of these atrocities shines through.

Another aspect of the film which was interesting, was the way in which it highlighted how the Nazis manipulated others to believe something different was happening in the work camp: Bruno’s mother Elsa does not know that it is in fact a death camp until later in the movie; and there is a scene where a film about Auschwitz has been manipulated by the media to make it look like a wonderful place to live and work.

Thewlis plays his thoroughly disturbing role as Bruno's father excellently

One reason why this movie touched me so greatly is due to my particular interest in the First and Second World Wars, and having visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on two separate occasions. One cannot truly appreciate the horror those held there must have faced until visited personally, and this is what is portrayed by Bruno once he enters the camp himself.

Not altogether historically accurate, and seemingly ignorant at times; however, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a poignant, touching movie which has done the author of the novel proud.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Am I Well Read?

I have often wondered, probably due to the nature of some of the classes I took at University, what it is to be ‘well-read’, and whether I am.
I suppose this comes under the eternal question of what makes a ‘good book’, and whether the works of literary canons are any better than personal favourites.
It is for this reason I have decided to compile a list of all the books in my library. See what you think, and let me know any thoughts on my taste, good or bad…

  • Little Women: Alcott, L.M.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale: Atwood, M.
  • Emma: Austen, J.
  • Persuasion: Austen, J.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Austen, J.
  • Sense and Sensibility: Austen, J.
  • The Rite: Baglio, M.
  • Waiting for Godot: Beckett, S.
  • Noughts & Crosses: Blackman, M.
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homemaking: Bradley, A.
  • Jane Eyre: Bronte, C.
  • Wuthering Heights: Bronte, E.
  • The Da Vinci Code: Brown, D.
  • Angels and Demons: Brown, D.
  • Doing It: Burgess, M.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Carroll, L.
  • Through the Looking Glass: Carroll, L.
  • The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer, G.
  • Disgrace: Coetzee, J.M.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Doyle, A.C.
  • Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories: Doyle, A.C.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles: Doyle, A.C.
  • Blow Up and Other Stories: Cortazar, J.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Dahl, R.
  • A Christmas Carol: Dickens, C.
  • Great Expectations: Dickens, C.
  • Oliver Twist: Dickens, C.
  • Crime and Punishments: Dostoyevsky, F.
  • Rebecca: Du Maurier, D.
  • The Name of The Rose: Eco, U.
  • Middlemarch: Eliot, G.
  • Birdsong: Faulks, S.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl: Frank, A.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha: Golden, A.
  • Lord of the Flies: Golding, W.
  • The Wind in the Willows: Grahame, K.
  • Water for Elephants: Gruen, S.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Haddon, M.
  • Red Harvest: Hammett, D.
  • Jude the Obscure: Hardy, T.
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Hardy, T.
  • Catch-22: Heller, J.
  • The Remains of the Day: Ishiguro, K.
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Joyce, J.
  • Metamorphosis and Other Stories: Kafka, F.
  • Angels in America: Kushner, T.
  • To Die For: Lee, C.
  • Put Out the Fires: Lee, M.
  • Goodnight Mister Tom: Margorian, M.
  • I am Legend: Matheson, R.
  • The Twilight Saga: Meyer, S.
  • Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger, A.
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife: Niffenegger, A.
  • Dreams from My Father: Obama, B.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell, G.
  • The Bell Jar: Plath, S.
  • Northern Lights: Pullman, P.
  • 127 Hours: Ralston, A.
  • Bruges-La-Morte: Rodenbach, G.
  • The Catcher in the Rye: Salinger, J.D.
  • The Goddess Experience: Scanlon, G.
  • The Lovely Bones: Sebold, A.
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
  • Stargirl: Spinelli, J.
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Stevenson, R.L.
  • Treasure Island: Stevenson, R.L.
  • Dracula: Stroker, B.
  • War and Peace: Tolstoy, L.
  • Slaughterhouse 5: Vonnegut, K.
  • Selected Poems of William Wordsworth
  • The Penguin Book of First World-War Poetry
Now I’m thinking that considering I’m only 20 years old, that’s quite the collection, no?
 
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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

 

 

Set in the near-future Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a young woman used as a concubine in order to reproduce for the head of her house. Offred lives in a highly chauvinistic religious theocracy, whereby men are the most important members of society, and different women are characterised by rank. Offred is a ‘handmaid’, characterised by her red robes, and takes part in ‘The ceremony’ once a month whereby she mates with her ‘Commander’ under the supervision of his wife, in order to get pregnant.
If Offred becomes pregnant and bears a healthy child to the family she works for, she will gain autonomy and will never be able to be outcast. If she does not fulfil her purpose she will become an ‘Un-woman’, the lowest members of their society.

Offred’s stay in the house is plagued with reminders of the previous occupant of her room, who committed suicide, and how she is ostracised from the other women, not being able to communicate about her ‘past’ life, or the daughter and husband she has lost.
The Commander is only seen by Offred during the ceremony, but one day she is asked to meet with him in his office, which is usually strictly forbidden. From that moment on, she and the Commander secretly meet whenever he pleases, where she is offered contraband products such as magazines and hand lotion. The Commander tells her this is because he feels he cannot talk to his wife, and he just wants someone to play Scrabble with (also forbidden).

Shortly after this time, Offred (under the persuasion of the Commander’s wife) begins a relationship with a servant called Nick, where she sleeps with him: initially to become pregnant and claim it is the commander’s, but after just because she has become emotionally attached to the way she is able to be her old self around him, even allowing him to know her old name. The story ends with Offred’s future uncertain, as her relationship with Nick is discovered.

The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting novel in the way in which Atwood has envisioned a future consequent of our current actions in this world. A society where birth is the most celebratory occasion, whereby religious autonomy is the only way, and women are controlled. Offred is told by her teacher Aunt Lydia that the suffering of few is worth it for the greater good, and this poses an interesting question for the reader to debate in their own minds.
This is not the sort of novel I am used to reading, and some of the subject matter went a little over my head. However, Atwood has raised a very serious question over the future of great nations such as the US in her novel: a question which poses a moral dilemma to the future of women and feminism as well.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I move on to another short novel, which I read in the same day as The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Due to the film’s highly publicised release, I’m sure we are all aware of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This novel is one which deals with the horror of the Holocaust, through the eyes of a nine year-old boy named Bruno.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to read this book, as I was broadly aware of the subject matter it dealt with and how it was written from the viewpoint of a child. What I was not expecting however, was the child to be the son of a Nazi working at Auschwitz, giving the novel a whole new level of innocence.

9 year-old Bruno is the son of a wealthy family living in Berlin, Germany, and consisting of him, his sister, his mother, father and 3 maids. When Bruno’s family are forced from his grand 3-story (5 if you include basement and attic quarters, according to Bruno) home due to his father’s job, Bruno’s main concern is how much he will miss his ‘three best friends for life’.
He does not want to move to “Out-With”, especially as there is nobody to play with except for his older sister, who is a ‘Hopeless Case’. It is when Bruno discovers out his window that there appears to be a whole city of people on the other side of the fence that his life changes, and they’re all wearing striped pyjamas.

Bored of sitting at home alone, Bruno goes ‘exploring’ and ends up walking for an hour down the fence, where he encounters a boy called Shmuel, who was born on the same day as him. The boys develop a secret friendship, with them even declaring to be twins when Bruno’s head is shaved after his mother discovers head lice. The one thing Bruno never manages to grasp is why his family and the people on the other side of the fence are segregated, believing he is the one being punished as he is not allowed to go and play with the other children. The only thing Shmuel is able to tell him is that they are ‘different’, and that Jews like him at ‘Out-With’ cannot be around Bruno’s family who are associated with ‘The Fury’. It is then that Bruno makes the decision that this is not right and attempts to have just one day where he can play with Shmuel, on one side of the fence….

Boyne’s novel is particularly striking due to the naive innocence of nine year-old Bruno, shown through his mispronunciation of certain words, and the inability to grasp the situation of the Holocaust (not even knowing what his father’s job is).
What the author has succeeded in doing here is telling a story through the eyes of ‘the opposition’ as it were, allowing the innocence of children to highlight the fact that humanity are united even in their differences.

I will admit that I expected this novel to be a lot longer and emotionally touching than I found it to be, but all in all it was an excellent read which shows how the simple concepts of children can be the most profound. I am now going to be searching out the film, as I’ve yet to see it.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

 

I figured it would be best to start this blog with the most recent book I’ve read, which would be the supremely interesting The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

This New York Times bestseller tells the story of Eddie, a maintenance man for a theme park on ‘Ruby Pier’. After being killed in an accident at the age of 83 (and still working!), Eddie is taken to heaven, where he meets a series of people attempting to explain the meaning of [his] life. The five people he meets there seem incidental to him at first, but he soon discovers that he has influenced all of these lives in some way or other, and they begin to explain the importance of existence despite his being an embittered war veteran and widower.

This novel was one which grasped me from the very beginning, even from the very first chapter, which is entitled ‘The End’. It piques one’s interest when you are at the beginning of a novel and there is already talk of an ending, but the speaker addresses this directly, talking of how this chapter is a documentation of the last few hours of our protagonist’s life.
Eddie’s life ends trying to save the life of a little girl; one who is about to be crushed by the path of a fallen roller coaster cart: the same one which ends Eddie’s own life. The last thing Eddie feels are two hands grasping his own before he is taken to the first ‘stage’ he must encounter in heaven.

Much like the concept of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, heaven in this novel is different to every person in existence there, though people are able to enter other people’s heavens, particularly on their first visitation, where everybody must undergo the encounters with five different people linking to their life.
The first place Eddie finds himself is Ruby Pier- the place where he has worked all his life- looking as it did when he was a boy. This confuses him, as he claims he would never consider his workplace to be his ‘heaven’, being the place he spent his entire life attempting to escape from, only to end up back there. Eddie meets somebody here he is only vaguely familiar with- a blue-skinned man from the ‘freak show’ running in his childhood. It is he who tells Eddie that this is not Eddie’s heaven, but his own, and explains why Eddie is there.

The novel continues on in this manner, with Eddie meeting five different people his life has affected: some previously inconspicuous people such as the blue-skinned man he encounters; other integral role models to becoming the man he was when he died. Each one of them exhibits a highly calm and peaceful attitude toward death- and forgiveness- and explain the way in which all lives on this planet are connected, even inconspicuously.
The novel experiments with a thought-provoking alternate to ‘conventional’ heaven, disregarding religion. However, it is not this which is its main interesting characteristic, but the way in which it makes the reader think about the connections and choices made in their life. It presents a view that everything is consequential, even the slightest movement, yet we cannot allow ourselves to become over-ridden with guilt even over the big mistakes we make. We must only seek to forgive ourselves, and others.

Albom has presented the reader with a brilliant protagonist in The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Eddie’s emotional range through what we see in his life span goes from romantic teen, to brave soldier, caring brother and to a bitter old man. Eddie’s conscience plays on that which is identifiable to the reader: mistakes made; love lost; the urge for escape. It is this that in such an ethereal novel, keeps it ‘real’ and exhibits how emotionally ‘in-touch’ an author can be with his readers.

All in all, the novel is an emotionally-stirring, thought-provoking read. It took me only a couple of hours to read it as I couldn’t put it down, and I suggest others invest some time in it too!

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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