Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: The Bell Jar

Book: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Prompt: Read a book set in the summer
Pages: 288

The semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar details college student Esther Greenwood's summer interning for a New York magazine, her struggle with discovering who she is and who she wants to be, and her descent into mental illness (and *SPOILER* her eventual recovery, unlike author Plath, who committed suicide in 1963).

The Bell Jar is proclaimed as a staple feminist novel, and it's easy to see why.  Esther is dissatisfied with the potential futures she sees before her: that of a housewife/mother, a stereotypically female profession such as stenography, and her current track of an English degree (which she is unable to imagine past graduation).  Indeed, Esther's search for identity drives her into her depressive episode, during which she attempts to commit suicide several times.

Finally, worrying for her safety, her mother sends her to an asylum, where she receives treatment including electroshock therapy.  For most of her time in the asylum, Esther merely exists, finding little to amuse or entertain her, save for her breakfast.  She suffers from the typical depressive symptom of finding no pleasure in her old joys.  This is despite her mother's and friends' and one-time boyfriend's attempts to get her to "snap out of it", so to speak.  The treatment of mental illness has come a long way since the 1960s in which Sylvia Plath wrote about and experienced it, and that's something that we should all be glad about.

Plath's writing style is straightforward and honest, and amusing at times.  Mostly, though, The Bell Jar is bleak and depressing.  Esther's struggle to find her identity is relatable, as most of us at one time or another have wondered what on earth we are here for.  Plath certainly conveys in a convincing fashion Esther's fears and concerns about what she is supposed to do with her life, and she gives a sympathetic and honest portrayal of Esther's struggle with mental illness.  However, I found the bad/sad to far outweigh the good/happy in this book, so I was left with a bitter impression.

Final recommendation: Read it if you want to.  I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it, simply because I found it too dark to be enjoyable.  I would warn against those who have struggled with depression or thoughts of self-harm reading it, simply because I worry that it would push them closer to suicidal thoughts and actions.  Readers of The Bell Jar should know exactly what they're getting into before they start reading, and I definitely wouldn't recommend the book to anyone under 18 or so.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Metamorphosis

Book: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Prompt: Read a book with a great first line
Pages: 59

So, since we're talking about great first lines, here's the first line of The Metamorphosis
As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Great first line, right?  It even made it onto my "First Lines of Literature" mug that I found at Goodwill (available at Amazon and from The Unemployed Philosopher's Guild).

The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa who, as the first line indicates, is transformed overnight into a giant beetle of some sort.  As the story continues, Gregor, his parents, and his sister, struggle to come to terms with his insect-ness, to varying degrees of success.  Gregor is transformed from an independent and dependable young man into a (relatively) helpless and needy insect shunned from the rest of the world.

Many of Kafka's works focus on the nature of human existence and isolationism, and The Metamorphosis is definitely one of those.  Gregor's metamorphosis exposes his status as a loner, but it also underlines the fact that, to quote the old adage, "no man is an island."  We all need each other - whether for what they can do for us and we for them, or for the companionship we find with them that we can't really replace with anything else.  As Gregor's insect-ness continues, he finds himself more and more isolated and subsequently, his grip on his human-ness begins to lessen.  In short, as Gregor becomes more and more isolated, he becomes less human.

The Metamorphosis is definitely a short story that makes you think.  Yes, it is absurdist, but it is still poignant in its portrayal of isolation and human companionship.  I'm not a huge fan of absurdist literature - I prefer more concrete and realistic literature - but I still enjoyed The Metamorphosis.  As the dust jacket on my (Barnes & Noble Classics hardcover) copy says, "Readers will find aspects of this tale that unfailingly strike home, although each will readily admit that he or she has never, exactly, been in Gregor's shoes."  And I found that to be true.  While I have never been transformed into a giant insect (who among us has, though?), I could relate to Gregor's loneliness and isolationism.

I think this is especially true of introverts.  It's easy for introverts to minimize their need for other people, especially because people are difficult for them.  But introverts like myself need to remember that we can't live our lives in isolation or we'll end up (metaphorically) like Gregor.

Final recommendation: Read it!  It's less than 100 pages, and is totally unique.  What do you have to lose?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Anne of Green Gables

Book: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery
Prompt: Read a book with a female heroine
Pages: 308

When my sister and I were little, we were OBSESSED with the 1980s movies Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (also known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) and the corresponding TV show Road to Avonlea.  I don't remember reading the book, however.  In any case, I had a beat up hand-me-down copy of the book on my bookshelf, so I added it to this list for nostalgic reasons.  That turned out to be a wise choice.

Anne tells the story of the charming eponymous orphan, who by mistake is sent to live with middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert.  As we soon learn, "mistake" might very well be Anne's middle name.  The starry-eyed dreamer finds herself in numerous scrapes and mishaps, from baking a cake without flour (due to daydreaming) to nearly drowning while acting out Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" (due to a leaky boat).  I literally laughed out loud numerous times while reading Anne, and that is something I rarely do, at least with books.

But Anne is as much a story about Anne's mishaps as it is her story of growing up.  I think lots of us can commiserate with Anne when she is mocked for her bright red hair, even if we were never mocked about our hair specifically.  Even if you didn't have bright red hair and freckles, or have to cling to the piles of a bridge to avoid drowning, or crack a slate over someone's head because they called you a name, we most - if not all - of us have experienced something similar.  And that is why Anne - both the character and the book - is such an enduring favorite.  She's not us - but she is us at the same time.  Anne is a novel about real life that is still relevant today, 100+ years later, and without feeling dated.  Montgomery writes about her characters with such warmth and energy that they feel like family.  Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I feel like I know Anne and Marilla and Gilbert and Diana and Matthew.  

I hadn't gotten halfway through Anne when I had to order the complete series.  I look forward to reading the other seven/eight books in the series. (The box set I got only has eight books, including Anne, but many people consider The Blythes Are Quoted/The Road to Yesterday as the ninth book in the series.  And then there are Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicles of Avonlea that take place in the same universe, but feature Anne and the others mostly in the background.  In case you were wondering.)  I also found the 1980s movies again (thanks, random poster on YouTube who has probably had his account suspended already!) and had to watch them again. (On that note, skip The Continuing Story, the third movie.  It's not that great, and doesn't fit the timeline).

Recommendation: Read it, read it, read it!  Read it, and read the rest of the books, and watch the 1980s movies.  I loved it, and I think you will too!  Unless you don't have a soul.  And/or a heart.  Then you might not like it.  But I think everyone who has a heart and a soul will like it.  How could they do otherwise?