Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Bell Jar

I read Syliva Plath's "The Bell Jar" this week. I picked it up because I had been watching back-episodes of the First Tuesday Book Club (or more specifically, their episode on Cult Reads), and two of the five panelists had said that they considered "The Bell Jar" to be a cult novel.
   It's not a book that I will keep in my bookshelf and cherish forever. I'm not even sure that it affected me in the way that a cult novel should. So, I can't agree that it's a cult novel, for me.
   The ‘bell jar’ is how nineteen-year-old Esther describes her insanity. She describes the feeling of being stuck in her bell jar, breathing her own stale air. Then, as she recovers, she considers the bell jar to be hovering above her, ready to descend at any time.

   It was surprisingly easy to read, although I admit I skimmed over a lot of the paragraphs about her crazy thoughts. It is also very honest, especially now that I am aware that the story is based on Sylvia Plath’s own life. She apparently originally published it under an alias, but it has been published under her own name since she killed herself. The bell jar must have descended again.
   This would be an ideal novel to have studied in school. There are lots of relevant themes: growing up and coming of age, mental illness, gender issues, sexuality, societal expectations, etc.
   I don’t think anything ‘triggered’ Esther’s slow slide into madness, as many other websites suggest. Depression is a mental illness - it wasn’t circumstantial, and there probably wasn’t anything Esther could have done differently to stay sane. Her weeks not sleeping, eating or showering were a clear sign of depression - she wasn’t motivated to do anything, when she had previously been a very motivated girl.
   She is a highly intelligent young woman who is extremely tough on herself. She feels slightly on the outer with everyone, and leans towards more edgy individuals. She has set high standards for herself - they are not placed on her by her single working-class mother. Her expectations of herself are high, and she never seems to live up to herself.
   It would be interesting for someone to write a book about a girl going through a similar situation now, 50 years after Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar. The mental health system is very different now, and I feel that she would have fallen through the cracks of society, if she were modern. There is no acceptance for asylums any more - it’s all about community treatment. Without the care she got, Esther could have ended up a dual-diagnosis patient, with a drug addiction.
   To be honest, some of the thoughts that Esther has, are not all that dissimilar from my own. Does that make me depressed or crazy or suicidal? No.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Queen's Fool

I have been reading a few books at once, as I mentioned in my last post. This weekend, I knuckled down to finish one. Philippa Gregory's books are always so easy to read. She gives historical females modern feelings and views, and makes them very memorable.
   The start of the novel sets up Elizabeth’s character as somewhat different from what she has been portrayed as in other modern accounts, particularly the movies directed by Shekhar Kapur. In those movies, she is not portrayed as calculating, or particularly interested in the politics or court life of England. In those movies, she seems like she is thrown in the deep end by her supporters, when in fact, as the third heir of Henry VIII, she never expected to take the thrown. In this novel, she is set up as a manipulator from the start. She is portrayed as a girl and woman who knows how to use her beauty and sex to manipulate men and have people love her, whilst she does the most despicable things. It will be interesting to see whether Philippa Gregory maintains this interpretation of Elizabeth in her next Tudor novel, where Elizabeth is queen.

   Hannah is the fool that is begged to the dying King Edward, and later passed over to Queen Mary. For Mary, she has found someone innocent, devote, and honest. Hannah also had the advantage of being employed to say exactly what was on her mind, rather than behave as a normal courtier and watch everything she says. In Mary, Hannah has found a mother figure, and a woman she admires for her courage and capacity for love and forgiveness. Early on, Hannah aspires to be like Mary, because she does not know how to be a woman - she has been hiding as a boy for so long. Later, however, Hannah realises that she pities Mary and wants to ensure that she doesn’t have the same fate in love that Mary had.
   Haunted by the burning of her mother by the Spanish Inquisition, Hannah describes her Judaism as “some sickness that we pass on”, claiming that Jews are condemned to “a lifetime of fear, not Chosen so much as cursed”. Her view of her religion changes depending on the political and religious view in England. When Mary is fairly tolerant and forgiving, Hannah hides her Judaism in her heart, but doesn’t condemn her faith. As Mary becomes more extreme, and Hannah is arrested her heresy (though she is released), she comes to fear her religion more and more. She is born into a religion that she didn’t choose, that she is not proud of, and that puts her in mortal danger. However, as she grows to adulthood, and princess Elizabeth is only months away from the thrown, Hannah again embraces her religion and realises that tradition is important and she will be proudly Jewish, in her heart, knowing that she will be safe from a heresy charge. I think her view of her religion depended very much on the danger she perceived herself to be in.
   Hannah idolised Lord Dudley, and lusted after him. She realised her feelings for what they were once she finally fell in love with Daniel, her betrothed. Lord Dudley was not a true friend to Hannah. He used her. He put her in danger and took advantage of her loyalty. He did save her in Calais, but that was out of his sense of duty, as he would save his soldiers. He did not care for Hannah, but he also lusted after her once she was grown into a woman. I’m surprised that he didn’t rape her when she refused him, because he would have thought she was his property and he had a right to take what he wanted.
   Daniel and Hannah’s romance followed a lovely little Mills and Boon plot - they initially butted heads but were forced into a relationship, they came to desire each other after writing to each other, then Hannah left him once they were married because he had slept with another woman some months ago and had an illegitimate child. I was frustrated that she left Daniel, but there were more factors at play than just deceit. Ultimately, however, they both grew up and learned more over their years apart and ended up loving each other still and resuming their marriage. As I often wonder with ‘happily ever after’ endings, I’d like to know how their relationship was travelling even a month later.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Blogger Hop!

This is a special entry, so that I can get linked in with other book bloggers. The whole concept has been set up by Crazy For Books, another book-blogger blog! Find it here:

Book Blogger Hop

The question that I need to answer is: what is the longest book I've ever read?

It's a hard question, because I've read many books over 1000 pages long. I'm currently reading Les Miserables, which is about 1000 pages. I've obviously read Lord of the Rings, which is over three volumes but well over 1000 pages. I've read Gone with the Wind. I've read Shogun by James Clavell, which is over 1100 pages. I've read most of Wilbur Smith's sagas. I've read a few of Stephan King's long novels in my teens.

I've recently slipped back into an old habit of reading numerous things at once, and not finishing anything! I will post another book review soon ...

I'm also writing pretty solidly, so I should write a writing exercise post soon as well ...

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Roving Party

It hasn't taken me this long since reading Catch-22 to read my next novel ... I've been really busy studying and working, and taking a quick trip to Brisbane, and then another quick trip to Wangaratta. So, please forgive me for not absorbing books at my usual rate.
   This year's winner of the Vogel Literary Award was 'The Roving Party' by Rohan Wilson. It was a worthy recipient.
   The language is quite simple, the dialogue is limited, and so is the character development. The punctuation is also not what I usually like - I like to know when someone is talking, not have to reread a sentence half-way through when I realise that what I'm reading is someone's voice. The description is not what most modern novels use, yet the images were vivid in my mind.

   The story itself is quite a gruesome theme, though the roving party didn't kill as many aboriginals as I anticipated. The attitude of that error is also quite starkly portrayed on a number of occasions, as it should be to make it shockingly realistic, with statements such as 'you can't murder a black any more than you can murder a cat'.
   I began by wondering why Black Bill was hunting his own kind. There were mentions of justice, but it's not clear what the aboriginal witch/headman did to Bill. Towards the end of the novel, Bill clearly blames his newborn son's malformation and death on a curse of the headman. Although it's not apparent what started Bill's hatred for his kinsman.
   Bill was brought up in a white household, with white ways, but was never fully accepted as a whiteman because of his colour. He seems to have had to work that much harder, and be that much more tough and ruthless to prove himself. By the time we come across him, as a member of the roving party, he has formed himself a formidable reputation. But he is an outcast of both races.
   When I gave up trying to figure Bill out, I took a step back and realised that the story is more about what lengths men will go to. It's about the good and bad in men, and how ugly men can be to each other. Ultimately, Bill and the headman respected each other and understood each. They could have killed each other, but they didn't. Bill could have shot the headman, but he fought him. The headman could have killed Bill, but he saw Bill for the grieving father that he was.
   The end of the novel moved away from the roving party, and Bill took up his own vendetta. We never return to the roving party, and Bill seems to have isolated himself even more from both races by the end of the story. He is further away from the white man, yet he has killed so many aboriginals that they won't accept him.
   He can hopefully find some kind of peace.