I'd love to hear from you!
Category - Book Reviews
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has long sat on my reading list waiting for me–a well-matched reader given my feminist and literary leanings–to pull it from the shelf and crack it open–so to speak, given that I read it on my Kindle. I found it both fascinating and not at all what I expected after reading its boastful feminist reviews. It is a book about mental illness. The fact that the author happens to also be a feminist in a deeply unequal world is simply a fact of the narrative, or window dressing for feminist scholars.
I don’t mean, by declaring that The Bell Jar is not about feminism, to say that there is no feministic elements in it. To me, the novel can clearly be divided into three acts: the New York act, the Bell Jar act, and the Lifting act (in which the Bell Jar elevates and lets her go free). The New York act certainly has many feminist elements, and they are enjoyably waspish and acute. As a feminist reader I delighted in despising Marco and Buddy Willard. I enjoyed Esther’s imaginings of her future in Europe as an unmarried bohemian poet. I, along with Esther, admired Doreen’s wildness in the face of 1950s feminine propriety.
Never Let Me Go, another novel from the 50 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books that Everyone Should Read, is much acclaimed. It is on Time’s 100 best English-language novels since 1923 and has won or was nominated for numerous other awards. This comes as a surprise to me, as I found it to be somewhat thin as a novel.
Its genre is a matter of some discussion. Many call it science fiction, others (thinking that genre both pejorative and ill fitting) would rather refer to it as speculative fiction. Regardless, it is a novel set in England sometime in a dystopian near future. The novel is narrated by Kathy, who tells the reader she is writing the text to discover more about her rather mysterious upbringing at a private quasi-school (Hailsham) and what is happening in her adult life. Most of the novel is devoted to Kathy unearthing the disquieting secret behind her and all of her friends’ lives. For the interest of discussion, I will divulge the spoiler: she and her friends are all clones raised for organ donation. Their school is the brain-child of several eccentric and liberal members of the society in which they live, intended to provide organ clones with a better life. Most organ clones are raised in appalling conditions, considered by the general population to be adequate for them as a lower echelon of human life. Upon reaching adulthood, they are required to begin “donations.” Kathy discovers this as she grows up. The novel is spent dissecting her relationships with them and how they feel as they discover the meaning behind their lives.
It sounds like an interesting concept, yet the vast majority of the novel is spent ignoring the dystopia and instead focuses on the petty squabbles between children at school. As the children grow up this turns into focusing on romantic relationships and general teenage drama. It all feels rather thin and boring. This is not helped by the general Hemingway-inspired simplicity of the writing itself. There is little poetry to the language. In many ways the novel feels like the diary of a very straightforward, unimaginative person. The only moment that truly transported me in the novel is the final scene in which Kathy stands near a fence watching trash and debris get stuck against it by the wind. But even that, while written beautifully, is so obvious a metaphor for her and her friends’ lives that it feels cheapened.
The lack of exploration around the concept of them being organ donors bothered me increasingly as I read the novel. Never once did any of the characters seem to wonder if they could run away or best the system. While it is certainly imaginable that some, even many of them would submit themselves sheepishly to the donations it is hard to imagine that no one would work to find a way out or that those submitting wouldn’t spend vast amounts of time imagining ways of escape. The fact that they are more or less fully immersed in normal society upon reaching adulthood and becoming carers makes it even harder to believe that non of them would attempt to or dream of plans to break free.
Reading this book after having poked through its rave reviews I am reminded of the discussion of Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri that I was part of in one of the courses I took during my Masters program. The professor had us read the book and then asked us to explain to him why it had received such high praise from literary critics, including winning the Pulitzer Prize. We were all at a loss, as it was so similar to what I’ve described above: thin, obvious, daring only in the nature of the stories’ plots (it’s a collection of short stories). We concluded then, with the professor’s agreement, that a kind of vapid, mildly controversial literature has taken the spotlight in recent years.
I don’t mean to critique too harshly–after all, the novel does have a certain level of quiet brilliance–but I certainly do not think it’s worth the praise it has garnered. It is simply too easy, to simple, and too thin to be commended for anything other than pulling on the most easy of heartstrings to pluck.
I discovered Among Others when browsing this list of 50 Fantasy/Sci-Fi novels that everyone should read and the description plus the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula award had me quickly adding it to my reading list. It is a contemporary fairytale written as the diary of a mid-teens Welsch girl during 1979-80. She is haunted by a tragic accident that killed her twin sister in the past–a good part of the novel is devoted to dropping hints and slowly revealing to the reader what happened–hunted by her witch of a mother, forced by her twin aunts to attend boarding school in England, and besotted with Science Fiction novels.
Oh, also, she can perform magic and see fairies.
I think it is the description of the fairies–some knobbly and squat as old tree trunks, others beautiful and erotic as swimsuit models–and their habits and habitation that I enjoyed the most in this book. I also found the narrators voice quite engaging, and though she is a social pariah I found her personality and development from girl into womanhood quite endearing. Perhaps the only thing I found lack luster in this book was the main character’s tendency to write at length about the Sci-Fi novels she reads and her thoughts on them. Like most readers, I haven’t read most of what she references, and so I found myself skimming over those passages as they did nothing to the further the plot and had no real meaning to me.
Still, the passages describing her current book selections are fleeting and are easy to overlook when compared to the quiet brilliance that the rest of the novel presents. As I read I found that I could taste the honey-buns used as social currency at her school, I could feel the pain in her crippled leg, and I could really sense the growth and maturation she undergoes in the final battle against her mother. The novel manages to be sweet without becoming saccharine and evoke real feeling in the reader for a young woman finding her way in a world where magic, fairies, and evil (non)step-mothers exist.
Fantasy has long been one of my favorite genres of literature. Years ago, when I was bored in class, I would turn to fantasy novels as my escape. I went (ecstatically) to every midnight showing of Lord of the Rings and even took courses on fantasy and science fiction literature in college. So when Game of Thrones popped up as the latest work of fantasy literature to garner obscene levels of popularity, you can imagine my excitement.
Given its renown, I hardly need to describe what the series is about, so I will be brief: it is a sweeping fantasy epic that takes place in a large empire during what is essentially the high middle ages. The story is largely about the upper crust of this feudal society, focusing mainly on one particular ruling family–that of the northernmost region in the empire–and their brush with royalty and subsequent fracturing apart. There are dragons; medieval battles; intrigues including incest, rape and love; zombies; and magic.
Bill Bryson’s One Summer – America, 1927 fits in perfectly with the rest of his collected works. That is to say, if you’re already a fan of this popular author’s inquisitive, dry wit you’ll find this examination of one summer in America’s history–a very monumental summer, it turns out–to be an enjoyable read.
Simply put, One Summer investigates the summer of 1927 with a curious, modern eye. Bryson does an admirable job looking into the different happenings of that summer, though he does certainly spend more time on the flashier events. At times I felt like I was mostly reading a history of Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight with other historical events peppered in. That said, Lindbergh’s historical flight probably merits that level of focus, while the intense flooding of the Mississippi or Coolidge’s school-boy flights of fancy were more easily examined and quickly laid aside. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, the invention of television, and the sheer racism of the era–something we often like to forget. Bryson’s review of this summer left me feeling that I had a better grasp of what America was going through during this historic summer that is often overlooked by being swept quietly under the rug of the Roaring Twenties.
As is often true with Bryson, it is not the subject matter of the book so much as his writing style that makes it a particularly enjoyable read. He brings his usual blend of British dry humor and endearing Midwestern innocence to the subject matter, which is fitting as he is a native of Iowa who currently resides in England. He stacks adjectives and adverbs in front of nouns and statements in a way that few authors can accomplish without sounding obnoxious (“very probably” comes to mind). I had the pleasure of seeing him speak at the Chicago Public Library several years ago when he was promoting his book At Home and can report that he has the same demeanor in person that he does on the page. He is genuinely likable and funny, though I will maintain–as I always have–that his writing style suits narratives even better than it does historical accounts or investigative nonfiction. In my opinion, A Walk in the Woods remains his best work.
Speaking of At Home, I think One Summer escapes the flaw that plagued At Home throughout its expansive and meandering pages. That flaw was this: lack of focus. At Home was a similar book to One Summer, but instead of focusing on one summer in American history it focused on the house Bryson recently purchased in England. It was still an enjoyable read–don’t get me wrong–but as Bryson wandered from room to room talking about the history of table salt or fireplaces, detouring to examine the the various trysts and folies of historical figures, and rerouting again to talk about the history of something else discovered in these affairs I began feeling a bit unsure, as a reader, of where I was going or how any of it really related to his house. One Summer has much better focus, though I imagine that many Bryson fans might not call his capricious style a flaw anyway. Perhaps you should read both and decide for yourself.
The picture above is from our library.