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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

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When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Hiromi Kawakami – The Nakano Thrift Shop

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Neither something old, nor something new.

Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-27600-2
First Published: 1st April 2005; 4th August 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 31st August 2018
Rating: 3/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudogu Nakano Shoten – Nakano Antique Shop)
Translated by: Allison Markin Powell

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop; named after its somewhat peculiar owner, the shop sells second-hand items, but not, as the owner would want to point out, antiques. Every day brings new customers, new items, and stilted conversations; the owner often starts a conversation with the end of a sentence – ‘you know what I mean?’ As the months go by, Hitomi finds herself interested in her very quiet co-worker, Takeo, and becomes interested in the life of Mr Nakano’s artistic sister, Masayo.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel formed of short stories about the day to day workings of a shop in the context of the workers’ lives. Referred to by many as a ‘slice of life’ novel, the storytelling is done via a first person narrative.

There isn’t all that much storytelling – in the normal sense – here. The narrative is most often very simple, sometimes verging on boring, although there are a handful of poignant moments wherein the theme of a chapter/short story melds into an aspect of a character’s life. (Each chapter concerns an item from the shop or a food, so, for example, in the chapter ‘Apple’, two characters converse vaguely – dialogue is used sparingly, with a lot of detail left to the reader to fill in – discussing a type of apple, the way it is too tart for the shop owner. Later, after this has been related, one of the speakers finds it too tart herself.)

It’s in these emotional moments that the book is very good, the emotions adding more substance. The pity is it’s only for seconds at a time; it becomes the primary method of character development which means development is sparse and the narrative doesn’t go anywhere significant.

The translation is very western, with ideas and idioms changed to ones that work in English; Markin Powell’s method is more about the feeling behind the words than a literal translation. There are times when the western elements become too much – very modern western-centric grammar, for example – but it’s generally well done. Markin Powell has used italics and description as sparingly as Kawakami uses words so anyone who knows a bit about Japanese popular culture or those happy to research as they go along (this book won’t work as well without it) will find this enjoyable. The times when the description is too long or the occasional repetitions are down to Kawakami.

The reason to read this book (in translation) is to get a sense of Kawakami and modern popular Japanese literature in general. There’s very little to take away beyond that and for a short book it can be a slog to get through, the character development as sparse as the text and taking too long to begin.

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Laura Pearson – Missing Pieces

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When everyone feels they are to blame.

Publisher: Agora Books (previously Ipso Books)
Pages: 273
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-19475-9
First Published: 21st June 2018
Date Reviewed: 29th June 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Southampton, 1985: Phoebe has died at three years of age, and Linda, Tom, and their eldest daughter Esme all feel the blame lies with them. As the days pass and Linda’s pregnancy advances, the loss will prove to have as much of a consequence on their futures as Phoebe’s passing.

Missing Pieces is a novel told in two time periods – the months after Phoebe’s death and several years in the future – that looks at the differing effects of grief and the ways people cope with loss.

I’m going to have to start with the setting because I know it too well and as such as much as I read the book as I do any other, it was naturally quite a particular experience due to the location choices. The use of location and the world-building is fantastic – the family clearly live somewhere in the Burgess Road/Swaythling/Bassett Green area and it reads well. When it comes to the bookshop Tom owns, the location isn’t as real; understandably there is some fiction here to create the travel bookshop: for the section set in 1985 it works, but for the section of the book set in 2011, reality needs to be suspended – a genre bookshop, particularly on the High Street at that time, would have been barely treading water and heading for closure – in reality the various independents and small chains all were. (Sadly we have only two bookshops left now, in 2018 – one Waterstones, and an independent in a nearby suburb that has a particular ethos, a good following, and other items for sale that help it stay afloat. Until a few months ago we had an additional two more – an Oxfam which has obviously closed, and a second, longer-standing, Waterstones that was gutted by fire.) In sum, the use of location is excellent and fiction has been applied thoughtfully. And quite frankly, a travel bookshop on the High Street is a wonderful dream to have.

Back to my usual mode of reviewing, then, and to follow on from the bookshop it must be said that, yes, this is a book about books. There are few specifics – more references to books on beaches and people ending their day with a coffee and a book on the sofa – but it means that the book always has a cosy, welcoming feel to it whilst you get through the story.

This said, the story is not difficult, per se. The subject is sad but Pearson’s writing of it is wonderful and all about showing. Of particular note is the way the author depicts Linda’s continued depression; Linda gets to that point where people expect her to perk up a bit and get back to family life, give birth to the baby that was growing when Phoebe died and be a mother to the child, but she can’t. The death affects her to the extent that she shuts everyone out most of the time and Pearson stays with this situation, letting it unravel where it will to show plainly how grief and the depression it can cause should never be on a timeline. In her grief, Linda makes poor choices and Pearson goes right into the thought process. The conclusion here succeeds in showing the need for tailored support and just more thought from others in general.

Related to this is Pearson’s depiction of how parental favoritism towards one child can have long-term consequences for the child who isn’t the one most loved. Part of Esme’s struggle is in her mother’s utter – in her depression – neglect of her, her eldest daughter, and the way that Phoebe’s death means that Linda shuts everyone else out, which is added to the situation before the situation wherein Esme felt that there was a lot more interest, from Linda, in Phoebe, than Linda had ever had for her. (This is in turn backed up by Linda’s thoughts.)

Tom’s grief gets looked at in terms of his decision to be elsewhere for much of the time, in his feeling that Linda is pushing him away. The new baby, Bea, is the subject of the second part of the book, wherein Pearson looks at however things that affect a person indirectly can still have a big impact.

Due to the ‘showing’ Pearson does, the ‘reveal’ as to how Phoebe died is drawn out until the last few pages of the book; you know that Linda feels Esme is partly to blame, that Linda feels that she herself should have been there, and that Tom should have been at home. The lack of knowledge can be frustrating on occasion but only when the subject is brought up – the lack of talk on the events that led to the death mean that you can concentrate on the rest of what Pearson is trying to show.

Missing Pieces has a commendable aim and it reaches it with flying colours. The reading experience is good, the attention to detail excellent. You may not remember the characters themselves as much – some detailing there has understandably been left out in favour of the story – but the essence will remain with you.

I received this book for review.

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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse effect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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