Review – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

tumblr_phs5fe09di1vlgwfz_540.jpg
The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

Genre: Fiction, Classics

Length: 244 Pages

Originally published: January 1963

Synopsis: 

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

rating

five

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” 

Reviewing classics is weird. I’m not the only one who feels super weird about that, right? But I’ve been making an effort to read more classics lately and I wanted to talk about The Bell Jar. This was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and it’s impossible to read it without looking at it through the lens of her untimely death by suicide. The story is semi-autobiographical (Plath originally published it under a pseudonym in order to spare the feelings of those caricatured within its pages) and an air of hopelessness seems to hover over it with every line. (Seriously, this book is well written, but it’s infamous for being depressing for a reason.)

Esther Greenwood is a college student suffering from a profound sense of ennui. She is working a summer internship at a women’s magazine and is finding herself oddly detached compared to the other girls. Most people over the age of 15 or so will find her highly relatable and sympathetic; she has reached that point in her life where she is meant to be making decisions that will impact the course of her life. And she’s not ready.

She doesn’t know what to choose in life, but more than that, part of her is resentful at the very notion that she should have to make a choice at all. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days,” she says. I’m sure there are a select few among us who were practically born with a single-minded mission in life and a clear path ahead of them. The rest of us? Yes, we’ve felt like Esther Greenwood.

Plath’s background as a poet shines through in the evocative prose throughout the novel. While the tone is relatively casual in one sense, something that meshes well with the age and background of the protagonist, Plath breaks it up with images and metaphors that hit like a punch to the gut.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction–every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.

This is a relatively quick book to read, but it is not easy. I do think that it’s one we all owe it to ourselves to read. Esther’s descent into debilitating depression will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book. Readers who loved Girl, Interrupted but have not yet read The Bell Jar are depriving themselves.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! If you’ve read The Bell Jar, please share your thoughts in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

Review – Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, by Roxane Gay

35068524.jpg
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
by Roxane Gay (Editor)

Genre: Nonfiction, Essays

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: May 1, 2018

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Synopsis: 

Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, the New York Times bestselling and deeply beloved author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.

In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are “routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied” for speaking out. Contributions include essays from established and up-and-coming writers, performers, and critics, including actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union and writers Amy Jo Burns, Lyz Lenz, Claire Schwartz, and Bob Shacochis. Covering a wide range of topics and experiences, from an exploration of the rape epidemic embedded in the refugee crisis to first-person accounts of child molestation, this collection is often deeply personal and is always unflinchingly honest. Like Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to MeNot That Bad will resonate with every reader, saying “something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

Searing and heartbreakingly candid, this provocative collection both reflects the world we live in and offers a call to arms insisting that “not that bad” must no longer be good enough.

rating

five

Anger is the privilege of the truly broken, and yet, I’ve never met a woman who was broken enough that she allowed herself to be angry.
― Lyz Lenz

I don’t think I can overstate how important this collection of essays is. What’s important for people, and particularly men, to understand is that the stories shared in these essays are often not particularly exceptional. While there are some examples of women who suffered extreme abuse (one woman shares the story of how she was raped by her father as a child, and trusted adults asked her to forgive him instead of protecting her) many of these stories are of struggles that are uncomfortably familiar for most women.

The title, Not That Bad feels painfully apt. Too many of us suffer harassment, abuse, even assault, and downplay the significance. The damage. The simmering anger it inspires. We tell ourselves that we have no right to be angry or broken because we survived and there are always other women who have had it worse. Maybe he said something inappropriate but he didn’t touch you. Maybe he grabbed you but he didn’t hurt you. Maybe he hurt you, but hey, you lived! The right to be angry is reserved for hypothetical women who suffered the worse case scenario, women who are no longer around to exercise that right.

An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.

Roxane Gay has done a phenomenal job of bringing together a variety of voices for this collection; intersectional feminism was clearly a driving motivation here. Gender identity, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation are all addressed. I appreciated hearing the perspectives of people who I could relate to as well as those that were totally foreign to me. This book is an important exercise in empathy.

Obviously, Not That Bad comes with a huge trigger warning for a variety of issues, such as rape, sexual harassment, violence against women, homophobia, and pedophilia. (I truly apologize if I’ve missed anything here.) This is not a book to pick up when you’re feeling delicate, and it will almost certainly leave you feeling emotionally raw. Nonetheless, I think it’s an incredibly important book for everyone to read.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading. If you have read Not That Bad, please share your thoughts in the comments. If you have other recommendations to feminist reading, I’d love to hear from you in the comments as well!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

On The Handmaid’s Tale & Continuing Adaptations Beyond the Source Material

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale (both the book and the TV show) are ahead, friends. Continue at your own risk.

The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

974154

Full disclosure: one of my favorite things about the novel The Handmaid’s Tale is the ending. Perhaps this impacts my perception of the television adaptation negatively. I love the ambiguity of book Offred’s fate, followed by the jarring shift to the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” where we are treated to a transcript of Professor Pieixoto’s speech. We have spent around 300 pages immersed in Offred’s story, feeling her pain and simmering resentment, hoping against all hope that she will escape. We are denied the closure of knowing what became of her.

The sudden shift to Pieixoto’s speech, where he discusses “the manuscript,” i.e., The Handmaid’s Tale, as a historical document, is unsettling. Offred’s story is personal to the reader by this time. Pieixoto discusses her in a detached manner, even cracking jokes at times. Then comes this:

If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.

(Applause.)

This endorsement of moral relativism is, in context, quite absurd. It makes the assumption that the people of Gilead made the decisions they did because they had no better options, or simply didn’t know any better. Offred’s words painted a very different picture over the course of the book, however. Gilead was an anomaly on a worldwide scale. Other countries, we are forced to assume, found a better way, without resorting to the horrors that befell Offred. Pieixoto’s own speech makes reference to another country banning birth control (a human rights issue, to be sure, but not on the scale of Gilead’s crimes) and providing financial incentives for giving birth. This bears the question: What is Gilead’s excuse?

More generally, both in The Handmaid’s Tale and in real life, historical instances of one group standing with their boot on another’s group’s neck are often met with empty platitudes about how “people didn’t know any better back then.” I think it is quite obvious that the group with someone’s boot on their neck was always quite aware of the moral injustice; they always knew better. It is disingenuous to assume that the dominant group was incapable of the same.

So, how does all of this tie into the Hulu adaptation?

By continuing past the first season, the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale has removed some of the ambiguity. While the existence of the journal entry recording those final moments with Offred means it is safe to assume that Offred wasn’t immediately killed by Gilead agents, even if she spent time rotting in prison before being executed, one cannot rule out the possibility that she managed to pass on her final entry to a sympathetic person in the hopes that her story would survive.

So the reader can never learn whether or not Offred was betrayed by Nick. The viewer, on the other hand, follows Offred’s story past this point, and learns that she lives at least a while longer. Nick did not betray her. He no longer brings into focus the ambivalent feelings that necessarily come with romantic attachment for women in extremely male-dominated societies. This continuation also means that the show cuts out the historical symposium bit at the end of the novel. (Perhaps something analogous will be added at the very end of the TV series, but thus far it appears to have been cut.)

Offred, despite the academic dissection of her words, was ultimately lost to history. The lack of knowledge of her fate was thematically important to the story, in part because Offred could represent so much more than herself. She was treated as a cog in the machine by Gilead, interchangeable with any and every other Handmaid. Offred’s story is personal to us because we have been allowed access to her individual experience. There was nothing inherently more special or tragic about her compared to any of the other Handmaids.

Ultimately, the ambiguity in Offred’s fate makes a point: it doesn’t matter whether Offred lived or died, when countless Handmaids died in silence, their stories forever snuffed out by the brutality of Gilead. Offred may well have made it out of Gilead alive, but we know that many Handmaids did not. Each of them would have had a history and inner life as vivid as Offred’s. Atwood’s Gilead is, of course, fiction, but as she has stressed over and over in interviews, she didn’t truly make any of it up. All of the things which happen to women in Gilead are based on things that have been done to women throughout history. Offred is, in a way, a voice for all of them, whether they survived or not.

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.

Endings tend to be one of the most thematically rich moments of a story. Where the author chooses to end things can speak volumes about everything that came before. When an adaptation chooses to continue a story past the moment the author originally said it was done, something is inevitably lost.

However, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale is less guilty than other adaptations; after all, Atwood works as a consulting producer for the show. She is, of course, the ultimate master of Offred’s fate. And as much as I loved the ending of the novel, now more than ever, we need to see stories about women surviving… and fighting back. And I’m grateful to Offred June for that.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments! Let’s discuss!
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Review – VOX, by Christina Dalcher

tumblr_pet3mdYYfN1xuuvabo1_1280.jpg

VOX
by Christina Dalcher

Genre: Dystopian

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2018

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis:

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice

rating

five

I wonder what the other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit?

VOX is a dystopian novel in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale which expertly blends the personal and the political. Set in an America which has been taken over by hyper-conservative extremists, women are no longer allowed to work, and they are forced to wear word counters which administer painful electric shocks if they go over their allotted 100 daily words.

One of the highlights of the novel is Jean’s strained relationship with her husband. Prior to the political shift which left Jean as a second class citizen, she viewed her husband as gentle; now, she views him as meek and cowardly. He privately disagrees with the direction the country has taken, but feels unable to push for change in his professional life, where he works closely with the president. The slow, simmering resentment is palpable.

Jean makes a really intriguing protagonist for a novel like this, as she was a highly respected scientist before losing her rights. She was a neuroscientist specializing in Wernicke’s Aphasia and working to develop a cure. Wernicke’s Aphasia leaves sufferers unable to produce meaningful speech; words come to them freely and perhaps even in a grammatically correct sequence, but their sentences are gibberish, utterly lacking in meaning. (An example from the book: “Cookie for your thoughts and when the Red Sox gossiping and galloping, I don’t know. There’s going to be hyper-tension!”) Jean’s life’s work was to help give people back the ability to communicate, and she has now been robbed of that herself.

If I have any criticism of VOX, it’s this: I would have liked to see more of the novel devoted to exploring how American society ended up in that state. For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes a big point of emphasizing how far-right groups pounced on the panic induced by plummeting birth rates. In VOX, it doesn’t feel like quite enough time is devoted to exploring how social mores shifted enough to allow such a drastic change. The America portrayed in VOX is essentially identical to our own… until it isn’t anymore. In retrospect, perhaps this is more ominous than The Handmaid’s Tale.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! Have you read VOX? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
What’s your favorite novel with feminist themes? Let’s discuss!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads