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Review: Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

sylvia plath the bell jarAn out-of-curiosity reread: Plath’s 1950s’ heroine Esther Greenwood, poor college girl trying to make good in the big city, progressively suffocates in the bell jar of her “mental health issue” (as we like to call it these days). Pretty thoroughly autobiographical, from what I understand, and a fairly comprehensive indictment of the limitations that constituted 1950s bourgeois US womanhood, it lacks the eloquent punch of Plath’s poetry – as brutal as that is – but is still informative as an insider’s view on madness. Presumably more interesting if you’re a somewhat-suicidal post-adolescent.

PS Coincidentally, I saw that the Melbourne Writers Festival had a 50th-anniversary retrospective type event on The Bell Jar, the day after I read this. I would have been curious to learn if the speakers thought this novel would really have lasted 50 years had it not been written by a mentally ill author who did, in fact, top herself in the year the book was published. I guess that’s the core reason I’m reading it — Plath’s poetry alone may not have lasted, as powerful as it is, and may not have made her famous, but a suicidal Plath’s poetry is a headliner.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading:
Bed and armchair reads
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book:
Reminds me of/that: Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well
Who I’d recommend it to:
Literary-historical readers
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

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Review: Nevil Shute’s “A Town Like Alice”

nevil shute town like aliceContemporaneous with a recent read, Shute’s novel is a world away from Hammett’s Prohibition States and yet not as far as you’d imagine. While it’s set in Malaya during WWII, post-war London, and Gulf country in Australia, it does have its fair share of crime and murder. In summary, I’d call it a post-war colonial economic romance. Jean Paget and Joe Harman meet in terrible circumstances during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in 1942; they each seek out the other post-war; their romance blossoms as does the dot on the map known as Willstown, destined to become “a town like Alice” with the help of Jean’s inheritance. Ta-da. The Malaya sequence actually read like a slightly dull travelogue, and the segue to the Australian romance + economic miracle was a bit slim, plus there was plenty of historical racism (gin, lubra, boong and Abo galore). However, it was a pretty absorbing read, quite informative, and I quite liked it all up.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading:
Beanbag and bookended bed reads
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book: “whenever they were not working they were standing in the bar of the hotel drinking hugely at the cold Australian light beer that does no harm to people sweating freely at hard manual work” (p.163)
Who I’d recommend it to:
Historically curious readers
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley

Review: Daphne du Maurier‘s “Rebecca”

daphne du maurier rebeccaThe new Mrs de Winter, nameless and sapless, young and painfully naïve, is married by romantic lead Maxim and taken to live at his splendid manor Manderley. But what is the truth of the eponymous Rebecca? And will their relationship survive?

Rebecca was quite gripping for the most part, and I enjoyed the wry little insights the gormless heroine had as she imagined others’ lives. But she, my god, was painfully inexperienced, and oh-so-willing to be moulded by those richer and more powerful than her; if one complies so eagerly, does it still count as manipulation? I’d like to say that I think it’s a novel of its time in that the (spoiler alert) murder of Rebecca by her husband because she slept around was absolutely justified, sanctioned and wilfully concealed by his new wife, the law, the upstanding agent on his property — the upper classes have their supporters, of course — but a “crime of passion” was until recently *still* a legitimate defence to murder in France and certain US states. And don’t even get me started on how empty the heroine is, bereft of name, personality and desires — urgh. Still, I was pretty embedded and I would read others by du Maurier if I thought she’d gotten some feminist spunk into her.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading:
Three days of fragmentary but mostly absorbed reads
Where it went: Farm bookshelf
Reminds me of/that: Femicide ain’t gone nowhere, kids
Who I
d recommend it to: Readers after a not-too-badly written, patriarchal classic
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley

Review: Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”

charles dickens great expectationsWe all know the story. Pip rescues a convict, Magwitch, when still a young boy. He also falls in love with the beautiful and remote (read: bitchy) Estella. He comes into astonishing fortune from un undefined source, is made a gentleman, and collapses into respectable disrepute and recovery. Whatever. Some of the characters are excellently drawn – Wemmidge, the nasty sister Mrs Joe – and clearly lend themselves to the dramatic performances Dickens was so gifted at. Also, a moderately interesting take on class and dignity, which was surely only there for commercial reasons (I’m betting much of Dickens’ readership was the poor working class, and one can’t sneer at one’s readership). I really only finished it for the sake of The Eyre Affair, due sometime on Bookclub, as I wanted to know what this Miss Havisham character was all about. Otherwise, my God, 450pp of slowness: unrecommended.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading:
Oh-so-many small pieces of reads, with barely intermittet interest
Where it went: Any other opshop
Reminds me of/that: Oh, classics can be so disappointing – but the book was published 150+ years ago, and tastes have changed somewhat.
Who I’d recommend it to:
N/A
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman; The Tale of Genji  by Lady Murasaki

Review: Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea”

jean rhys wide sargasso seaI first read this when I was an undergraduate studying 19th century women writers (two subjects at two unis!), and I seem to remember that I was disappointed because it wasn’t “about” Jane Eyre enough. Shallow me: it is, of course, yet it isn’t. Rhys has taken the madwoman out of Charlotte Brontë’s attic, Bertha Mason, and fleshed her out into this counter-novel without a word wasted or out of place. Bertha, christened Antoinette and forcibly renamed by the (interestingly unnamed) young Rochester after their wedding, is drawn in fine, passionate detail as an isolated woman fending off the venomous tendrils of colonial hatred. Her husband is painted as an inconsiderate, money-hungry thug more interested in rumours and vengeance than understanding. Together their relationship makes a bleak tale of otherness and cruelty, set in the richly detailed ambivalence of Dominica, known to Rhys from her childhood. An impressive and cogent novel, much more than the much-touted “woman writing back to Empire”. Recommended, but be ready for the darkness within…

 Where it came from: Bookshop
Time and manner of reading:
Armchair, bed, and armchair reads
Where it went:
???
Reminds me of/that: How desirable it is to reread classics when you’re actually old enough to understand them!
Who I’d recommend it to:
Readers of thought-provoking fiction written in finely honed anger
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch;The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon;Being Alive edited by Neil Astley

Review: Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”

kenneth grahame wind in the willowsThis one was yet another distraction from the particularly fat book I’m trundling on through, and I am ashamed to admit that it was the first time I’d read it. I’ve seen the classic cartoon version a few times, and had the irritating experience of trying to mould the book to match the adaptation I already knew. But I was glad I read it: our benevolent dictator Ratty takes blossoming Mole under his tweeded wing and teaches him all a gentleanimal needs to know in Edwardian England, especially by contrast with Toady’s undignified adventures. The writing is quite lovely, as are the evocations and descriptions of the vanishing countryside and riverside; there are some powerful chapters which are not Toad related (and were therefore culled from the cartoon version); and I was buoyed up by the great dignity of the British petit bourgeoisie. Recommended.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading: A few reads evening and day, bothered that it took so long to get to the ending I knew was coming
Where it went: The W-T family
Reminds me of: Edwardian queers I’ve been wandering through (Forster, etc.)
Who I’d recommend it to: It’s a lovely book – young and old alike
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Kalila and Dimna by Ramsey Woods; Old Wives´ Tales by Margaret Chamberlain

Review: Philip Pullman’s “The Amber Spyglass” (His Dark Materials III)

Third and final installment of the Pullman reviews: this one made me feel more equivocal than the earlier two books in the series. Lyra and Will head off to end death and save the world, adventures ensue, the Apocalypse is averted, ta-da. The story is still quite gripping, but the threads of the plot fray a few too many times, as if the book were written too fast and not quite pulled together in time for publication: that was all that happened to the padre-assassin? Mummy and Daddy really became so nice so fast? Christianity is that bad, the end? I got irritated also with Lyra’s new doggishness (wherefore art thou, Will?), and found the Coming of Love remarkably burdensome for ~13 year olds. However, I was very moved by the descriptions of the dead atomising with joy into the universe, and the powerful creed of “tell them (true) stories” – whichever page that was, it was the best one of the book. All in all it was pretty good, though for the sake of the series I wish it had been more tightly written.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: Bed, bath, bed, car and walking to the train station reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: None come to mind right now, although many a book has saved the world from ending
Who I’d recommend it to: Idem
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images); The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen