thoughts on books: the bell jar

I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and really loved the book – though in a sad way. I have read novels that dealt with mental illness, as well as (auto)biographical accounts, and even non-fiction. This book really touched me. The initial impact of this book in 1963 must have been something to see! It is easy to forget or minimize how influential some books (or movies or art or TV shows) were – the “first” is groundbreaking but after a while what was new becomes part of life. It seems now that just about everything is discussed in the public arena, so the impact of mental health discussions being taboo seems a bit strange.

This book was and is a brave effort to describe that which is most difficult to expose – vulnerabilities, fears, weaknesses – and not in a “manufactured” or heavily plotted way. There is an honesty about this book that is rare. Although Esther’s breakdown is front and center, the other theme of young women spreading their wings is another provocative and interesting element of this book. In some ways, this component is still fresh – as young (and not so young) women are still trying to figure out what they want from life and how to achieve their goals. The restrictions placed on women are less now than in the 1950s but there is still misogynistic behavior out there that we meet personally and professionally. Social mores may have changed, but the feelings and the process of becoming an adult are still relevant – to both young women and young men. I think the honesty and (I hate to use this word) authenticity expressed in this book and in the experiences described keep its messages relevant.

Trying to make it through life and making all the decisions one has to make is difficult. Esther struggles to maintain her balance and her sanity. Sometimes she succeeds and sometimes not. She crashes and wants to die. She tries to commit suicide more than once. This is the bell jar – the madness that descends and takes over her thoughts and her life. Even when she is feeling good, she knows the bell jar can descend again. The fear that she will always have this over her head and that it may trap her is a threat that most of us don’t have to face. The fact that Esther is able to keep getting back up is inspiring but throughout the book. I was afraid for her. In some ways, it might have been easier if she wanted a more traditional life, but she wanted life on her terms … and that is to be respected. In the end, we all have to live with our decisions and if we do not fit in that traditional mold, it can be difficult and lonely and frustrating. I’ve never been suicidal, but I have felt the loneliness and frustration of trying to be true to yourself.

The book also reminds us that what we see on the surface may not reflect what is going on inside. Several characters appear to be in control of things and stepping up to their new experiences. Yet, we see that appearances can be deceiving. When alone, characters experience anxiety and fear about work, friendships, relationships, and their own ability to cope. On the spectrum of emotions, we all experience some of this but some of the characters here are living at the end of the spectrum and need help to work through these emotions and cope with daily life. Even today, seeking help can be daunting – there are issues related to access to care, expense, privacy, confidentiality, and stigma.

In some ways, The Bell Jar reminded me of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which will be coming up). For me, these two books both go beyond a good story line and well-drawn characters, they describe aspects of the human condition in ways that transcend the book – they will stay with me. It’s like they apply Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” to the individual and help us all to understand and process loneliness, depression and all of those other feelings of inadequacy, anger, fear, etc. with which we as complex human beings grapple. Many things have changed in the 50+ years since this book was published, but unfortunately some things remain the same. I give this book a 5/5.

thoughts on books: of mice and men

I have read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men twice and both times thought it was an amazing story. In many ways, it seems to be a nearly perfect story in terms of construction and balance – the major themes of the story can be viewed through multiple characters and circumstances, and the beginning-middle-end all form a cohesive snapshot of people at a particular time, in this case during the Depression. Everything is so beautifully and clearly described that it’s easy to picture it all unfolding. It is a quiet and often lonely story about men whose voices were often not heard.

George and Lennie are terrific together. They are migrant workers, with George being the smarter and more practical and Lennie, a very strong guy with an intellectual disability. I love the fact that George is, on one hand, caring and responsive, while on the other hand he says some fairly mean (or at least cranky) things. I’m not proud to admit this, but I’m not sure I would have the patience to deal with Lennie day in and day out, so I love the fact that George has this ongoing dialogue of frustration while he does what he knows he has to do … take care of Lennie. As my mother’s caregiver, I have come to embrace the private dialogue of frustration, though I try not to let it seep into my interactions with mom.

Lennie also provides what George needs: a sounding board who will listen to him and, to some extent, an excuse for not achieving his dream of having his own farm. For his part, Lennie is such an innocent and would be fine if they could just get him to realize his own strength. He loves small, soft animals (like mice) but often kills them while petting them. His childlike behavior and sweetness compensate for his lack of intelligence and he is always honest and open. This friendship has such wonderful dimension – part classic friendship, part caregiver/receiver relationship and part something else that’s hard to define but is mutually beneficial. Without Lennie, George would be a meaner man; without George, Lennie would be ill-treated.

The theme of self-control is interesting. Those who have self control – Crooks, Slim and George (at least to some extent) – are shown to be stronger for it. Lennie of course needs to control his physical strength because once he releases his anger, he can’t control it. The rancher’s son Curley needs to learn self-control because his temper and need to show both his physical strength (despite his short stature) and his power (that comes from being the boss’s son) can get him into trouble. He is such a vile person that he will probably end up coming to a bad end if he doesn’t find some gentleness or positive approach to life.

Curley’s wife, though presented as a flirt with a sharp tongue, is a very lonely young woman whose life cannot be easy. She has no one to talk to, confide in, or spend time with. She and Curley are not a good fit. But, she also needs to learn to self-control. In her case, she needs control the desire to flirt – not only because she could put herself in some danger but also because she doesn’t seem to realize that the more she does it, the more she pushes others away. The very company she seeks is thwarted because the men see her as a threat to their jobs and to the bunkhouse routine. The treatment of women is always interesting in older stories. In this case, she has no name of her own, which services two purposes: to show her as Curley’s property and to show her from the men’s perspective as someone they don’t want to know better.

Loneliness is a key theme as well. The men are surprised that Lennie and George travel together because it is unusual for men to form these bonds. Everyone is alone, even when surrounded by people. This isolation and temporary nature of everything – jobs, friendships, etc. – result in feelings of mistrust and fear. Poor old handyman Candy is seeing the consequences of this lifestyle – he is reaching the end of his usefulness. What will happen to him when he can no longer pull his own weight – when he is like an old dog that no one wants to have around? Crooks is isolated because he is black and separated from the other ranch hands. For Lennie, having an animal to care for is one way of dealing with the loneliness. But this gets him into trouble. Like the mice, he is too rough with a puppy … and with a person.

The last scene is just so sad. And, yet, how else could it play out – at that time and place? Perhaps today, Lennie would have gotten the help he needed or at least a fair trial. The parallel with shooting the old dog to end his suffering was striking. In my mind, George, Lennie, Slim, Crooks and Candy do go off and buy the farm. They are able to find some peace and a place to call their own and have a life with greater dignity and respect. Of course, reality probably would have played out differently but I don’t want to think about that. Such a beautiful, sad story.

thoughts on books: to kill a mockingbird

From the first time I read it at about age 10, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been one of my favorite books and I have given it a 5/5. What makes this book special to me is getting to know Scout and the relationship between Scout and Atticus. It’s like visiting an old friend. Yet, this book has come under criticism now because of how it deals with racism. I’m of mixed feelings about some of the criticism. It would be interesting to reread it now after the recent focus on systemic racism and view it from a different perspective.

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thoughts on books: the master and margarita

Great book! I’m not sure how I first heard about this book, but I seem to be drawn to the Faustian story of selling one’s soul to the devil – not sure what that implies about me. I also enjoy Russian literature – there is something very rich in best of Russian novels. When I read Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in 2014, it was the second story about Stalinist Russia I had read within a couple of months (Animal Farm was the first), so I was primed. While The Master and Margarita is a novel, it is based on the experiences of the author and represents a commentary on the oppression experienced by creative people in 1930s Moscow.

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thoughts on books: war & peace

Yep, I went there. What can one say about War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy? The scope and length of the book was enormous – my version was spread across three books! I have to give this one a 5/5.

The characters were interesting and multidimensional … and numerous … and had two or three names of the following flavors: full formal name, shorter formal name, traditional nickname or individualized nickname. As with Russian novels, making sure you can follow the character names is important! In addition to the epic story about Russia in the early 1800s and their dealings with the French, each of the main characters also undertook a journey – many of which were as gripping as that broad international struggle.

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thoughts on books: slaughterhouse-five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those books that I put off reading – maybe the title scared me off. When I finally read it in 2014, I ended up rating it 5/5.

I really loved this book – it’s fascinating to see Billy Pilgrim’s life story unfold as a series of vignettes at several points in time. The time-travel element contributes to the sense of both coping with the reality of everyday life and processing the horrifying memories of war – in this case the destruction of Dresden in WWII. It took Vonnegut years to get this book together and the only way that he could tell his story was through this character and this method of storytelling. It’s a book that is, on one hand, an absurd and fantastic journey, and on the other hand, is painfully poetic memoir.

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thoughts on books: the grapes of wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was another reread for me – I read it as a teenager and then again at age 49. I enjoyed it as much this time as when I read it 30+ years ago and was just as indignant at the policies, practices and behaviors of those who held the money. And I ached for the families who had to pack up and leave their homes and who met cruelty and heartbreak as they tried to resettle. It’s such a beautiful book with a fundamental message of decency, published in 1939.

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thoughts on books: 1984

The first time I read 1984, I was in high school. It stayed with me. The idea that people would follow someone like Big Brother – too much to process. The notion that facts and memories could be “replaced” with alternate versions. The audacity of erasing the past. The use of doublethink and Newspeak to make the opposite seem correct and to diminish language and thought. Relentless surveillance. Turning family, friends, neighbors and coworkers against each other. Of course, when George Orwell published the book in 1949, these points may not have been so hard to imagine. I didn’t experienced World War II and rise of fascist or authoritarian governments during that period. Yet, the presence of dictators in countries around the world and the rise of similar disturbing political movements and conspiracy theories in recent years have made me think of this book so many times. For anyone who believes that a book published more than 70 years ago cannot speak to us today, read this book. When I reread it in 2013, I rated the book 5/5 stars.

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thoughts on books series

I love to read and about seven years ago, I took on the challenge of reading rereading some “classic” books. I made it through quite a few before my mother came to live with me. Once she arrived, I had less time for reading and little bandwidth to think about the high-concept reading. Rather than reading serious books, I either focused on light-weight books or on puzzles and games. I thought I was starting pivot back to books a couple of years ago but didn’t make the transition. So, I’m trying again.

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