‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

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BLURB: ‘’Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.” (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: semi auto-biographies, themes of mental illness, female version of Catcher in the Rye (?)

PAGE COUNT: Approx.200

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – Left me with a deep sense of unhappiness

I am studying Plath’s poetry at school at the moment, so I thought it would be interesting to read her only novel, The Bell Jar, for context. It focuses on Esther Greenwood who suffers from a mental illness of some sort, although it is never revealed specifically what this is. The first half of the book centres on her internship in New York which she has won through a beauty magazine, and the second half on her return to her home town, just outside Boston.

The New York half of the book is filled with descriptions of parties and dresses and fancy dinners, all expenses paid for, which as Esther explains, should make her very happy, but of course doesn’t. She feels dissatisfied in the big city, and after a string of unsuccessful romantic endeavours and drunk evenings she returns to Massachusetts. It is at this point that the reader realises how ill she is. Plath uses the flashy, posh, and free trip to New York perfectly as a way to show that with mental illness, you could be in the dream position and have everything go your way, and yet still feel as if you want your life to end. Shortly after Esther moves home, she is admitted to a mental hospital. Her illness has caused her to become selfish, lonely and as it descends on her more we feel less hopeful for her. I felt like the second half is very very sad, almost depressing, and especially in contrast to the first half, its a bit of a surprise.

Sylvia Plath herself suffered from depression, so this is an extremely auto-biographical book in some ways. You can tell, she is everywhere in the book, all the details of Esther’s life can somehow be traced back to her own. This means that everything is very genuine, there are no misunderstandings and you know Esther’s character has been written by someone who understands her mind. Although both Esther and Plath’s situation is horribly sad, the book is well written, and flows like poetry. However, If you don’t want to read a book about mental illness, or feel as if you would be triggered by descriptions of extreme depression, then I don’t advise you read this book. There are frequent scenes in which Esther expresses her wish to die, and one chapter in which she attempts suicide. I thought it was quite upsetting, but it’s meant to be, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be such a powerful book.

‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison

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BLURB: ‘The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom. Pecola’s life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.’ (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: Stories from the deep south, hard-hitting racial and social issues,’The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, black beauty, white supremacy in the 1940’s.

PAGE COUNT: Approx.204

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – Did not get the attention it deserves

I had to read this book as I am studying it for school, so I have kind of cheated, but it’s only 200 pages, so I gave the Grapes of Wrath a rest for a day or two. I would never have picked this book up, and I have never even heard of it, but it is on a subject that interests me a lot, so I quite enjoyed it!

It’s very similar to The Color Purple which I reviewed about a month ago, in that it focuses mainly on a black girl living in the southern states of America in the 40s or 50s, I’m not quite sure. The main point of the book is that 12-year old Pecola Breedlove, who is branded ugly and worthless, longs for the blue eyes of a white girl. As well as the debate of identity and beauty, it also explores rape, harassment and other controversial issues that were often prevalent for young girls at this time. It differs from The Color Purple in that it is not written from the main characters perspective, so were are only ever onlookers to Pecola’s life. This can be frustrating as it was hard (for me anyway) to connect with her as a character, or feel much empathy for her. The way we see her differs throughout the book, as it is always through different people’s eyes, for example her school friends Frieda and Claudia, and various other characters. I liked these frequent changes in the book, it kept it fresh and exciting the whole way through, and thus very readable.

Again, like The Color Purple, if issues of a harmful, sexual nature upset you, then I advise you do not read this book. It is blunt in the way it discusses these topics, although I think that when discussing things like these, you can’t really afford to just go halfway. I didn’t feel as sorry for Pecola as much as I thought I should have, but really liked how Morrison provides a lengthy backstory to each character she introduces, and this only ties together in the end, as you find out why each one is connected to Pecola. Morrison’s unique style of writing flows almost like poetry, so while some of the content can be upsetting, she manages to strike a balance and it is still a beautiful read.

‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers

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BLURB: ‘The Circle runs everything – all your internet activity in one easy, safe and visible place. No wonder it is now the world’s most powerful company. So when Mae Holland lands a job at its glittering California campus, she knows she’s made it. But the more her ideals and ambitions become aligned with those of the Circle, the closer she comes to discovering a sinister truth at the heart of an organisation seeking to remake the world in its image….’

READ IF YOU LIKE: Modern day dystopia, powerful companies ‘changing the world’ , the debate about the influence of the internet.

PAGE COUNT: Approx.491

STAR RATING: (★★) – disappointing to say the least

This book was pinned as 2013’s absolute ‘must read’ for the year, and there was a huge amount of hype surrounding it. I felt that it, sadly, did not live up to this. Sure, the premise of the book as a dystopia centred around the Internet is an extremely relevant and interesting issue. But the suspense that would warrant it as a ‘thriller’ just wasn’t there for me. 

The storyline is that bright-eyed and quite two dimensional Mae Holland has just secured herself a job at The Circle, the most prestigious company of the moment, that is ever-growing and aims to connect people via one platform on the internet. These ‘aims’ develop and escalate throughout the book into something quite dangerous, and that’s where the dystopian theme shines through, which I did enjoy. Mae quickly rises through the ranks at the Circle, and with this her ego also rises. The Circle always reminded me of Apple or Google, with its pioneering ideas and innovations, high glass ceilings and infinite amounts of expensive technology, and what a huge company like that is capable of. New ideas and new ways to improve the world is a huge part of the book, and I found myself frequently reading about new inventions from the Circle, with silly names like ‘SoulSearch’ and ‘TruYou’ and ‘PastPerfect’. This was all well and good up to a point, but I didn’t really want 300 unnecessary pages about life at the Circle, new and great ideas from ‘newbies’ and the ‘Three Wise Men’, and most of all, the ins and outs of Mae’s desk job.

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‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, translation by E.V Rieu

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BLURB: ‘The book, adapted from a poem, mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach his homeland Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres, who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage.’

READ IF YOU LIKE: Greek mythology and fantasy, classical civilisation, epic journeys of homecoming, war, love, and books that are eternally classic. 

PAGE COUNT: Approx.320

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – only dropped a star because the language and form is quite a challenge

I thought it was a bit ambitious purchasing this book, and that it would be too much of a challenge to read, or I would just never get round to it. If you haven’t, PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. There’s a reason that its basically the cornerstone of Western literature. If you are going to read it though, you should buy the Penguin Classics version (pictured), edited by E.V Rieu, and then his son. It has helpful footnotes to help with some of the tougher language, and is translated with ‘the ordinary reader’ in mind. 

If you don’t know the basic plot, it is about Odysseus’ long journey home after the battle at Troy. When he left his home town of Ithaca, he also left his baby son Telemachus (who is a man when the story is told) and his wife Penelope. Most people think he is dead, as they had not heard from him for 20 years. His palace is being inhabited by about one hundred ‘Suitors’, men of Ithaca and the surrounding areas of Greece, who want to marry Penelope and take his estate. The majority of the book, however is taken up by Odysseus’ struggles to reach his homeland, which is being prevented by the gods, namely Poseidon, with the help of some others e.g Athene and Zeus.

Admittedly, it took me a while to read, because although there are helpful pointers all the way through, there’s no getting past the fact that the language dates back to about 700 B.C. There were many times when I found myself having read three pages without even taking any of it in and finding myself completely lost, and I’m sure that happened to most people who read it. 

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‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

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BLURB: ‘Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self’ (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: Stories from the deep south, hard-hitting racial and social issues, civil rights in America, ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

PAGE COUNT: Approx.295

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – Endearing, scary, sad and poignant

Its pretty obvious why this book is considered high up on the classics and must-reads right from the beginning. It’s written in an epistolary style i.e it is all written in the form of letters. Celie is only half educated, which also means all the letters are written in this way, large grammatical errors and childish language which make the reader feel like they know Celie more because of the way the book is formatted.

It takes place in the area of Georgia in the deep south of America between the two wars, and is narrated by Celie, a young black woman. From a young age, she has to endure discrimination, rape, pregnancy and abuse, all of which are sometimes quite graphically described. She is forced into a loveless marriage, separated from her beloved sister and forced to look after children who are not her own. These hard-hitting issues are addressed throughout the book, and the book itself has often been deemed controversial because of this.

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‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

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BLURB: ‘Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.’ (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: ‘1984’ by George Orwell, ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley, dystopian novels, fire, technology, haunting prophetic tales. 

PAGE COUNT: Approx.227

STAR RATING: (★★★★★) – Sets the bar for most dystopian novels of its time. 

This book is the kind of book where you never really know whats going on at any given time, but just keep reading in the hope that you are following it. You must must must pay attention to every word you read, or nothing will make sense. The language is very vague at points, and leaves A LOT up to the imagination, so much so that it felt kind of like I was reading someones recollection of a dream they had.

Guy Montag works as a fireman, and the notion of being a fireman is very different from what it is now. The idea is to burn and destroy things, illegal things, which are books. They have scary sounding black uniforms and carry around pipes filled with kerosene, as they receive information about possible law-breakers and go and burn their houses down. Guy then discovers his need to read books, although this is obviously extremely risky. He then has to embark on a series of plans, despite his difficult and failing marriage to an extremely annoying woman, in order to save himself and his last remaining books.

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‘The Dinner’ By Herman Koch

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BLURB: ‘A summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food, the conversation remains a gentle hum. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said’ (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn, suspense novels with a mystery twist, books about families, Holland.

PAGE COUNT: Approx.320

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – This book won’t change your life, but definitely deserved a good review

I was recommended to read this book by my friend, and although I don’t usually take people up on book recommendations, I decided to read this, purely because it’s summer and my brain seems to read 20x faster when I’m sitting by the pool in the sun!

I was also drawn to this book because it was set completely around the time span of about 4-5 hours, although that’s never made completely clear. Any indication of the passing of time we are given is through the use of cleverly named sections, for example Aperitif, Starter, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. Hense the name of the book ‘The Dinner’.

Set in Amsterdam, it is narrated by Paul Lohman, a middle-aged retired teacher, who goes to dinner one evening with his wife Claire and his brother, up-and coming politician Serge Lohman, and his wife Babette. The reader is immediately irritated by pompous Serge and his wife Babette, who always seems to be crying about something or other. The already amusing nature of Serge and his wife is added to by the ridiculous restaurant they have chosen, and Koch perfectly sums up the air of the high class diners and exactly what’s on their menus. It is an extremely cleverly written book, with the language providing twists and turns, while also being clear and extremely readable.

The main attraction of the storyline though for me was that alongside the absurdity of this restaurant, the dramatic Babette and the caricaturization of Serge, lies another storyline regarding the two 15-year old sons of Serge and Paul, something darker that they have done together. Whilst we uncover what the two have done, Paul, who seemed at first to be relatively harmless, also is shown to have a dark, violent side. I personally loved it and it added a sharper edge to the book.

The discussion of this horrific event, while seeming to be the motive behind the fancy evening, is avoided further and further along the meal. The theme of family values, and the idea of what a ‘happy family’ really is, is a running theme through the book. The event seems to bring Claire, Paul and Michel together, while it breaks Serge and Babette apart. Paul and Claire’s family of three is a lot more likeable, they obviously love and understand eachother, something which is heartwarming. They also seem genuinely real, unlike the family of Serge and Babette, with their adopted African child, which seemed to be more and more fake as the book progresses. The different natures of the two families ensures that petty arguments are abundant and while amusing at first, get worse and worse as Paul and Claire bid to save their ‘happy family’. This theme of family values ultimately trumps the theme of ‘kids doing bad things’ at the end. This meant, that while the book doesn’t end with a bang, like I expected (having being subjected to many of these cliffhangers in previous pages) it will surely make you smile.

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

 

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BLURB: ‘Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…’ (Goodreads.com)

MADE ME FEEL: Interested, intrigued, and then quite bored and then shocked.

READ IF YOU LIKE: Murder novels, books about university, lots of rich kids who drink a lot.

PAGE COUNT: Approx.629 (Penguin version)

STAR RATING: (★★★☆☆) – I had such high expectations of this book, but it didn’t live up to them. 

I read this book extremely quickly, partly because I think books as long as this become duller and duller the longer you spend on them. That was not what happened. Although Donna Tartt writes beautifully, the book was pretty dull from the first pages.

The basic storyline is Richard Papen, from California, who doesn’t have much money, (comparably) moves to Vermont to a university called Hampden. He decides that he wants to take a Classics degree and meets an eccentric group of 5 other students along with their Classics teacher, Julian, who at one point is described as a ‘deity’. He was not.
These people in my opinion put Richard through hell, even though it appears he enjoys their pretentious, pompous, selfish, rude, rich-kid ways and goes to lengths to fit in with them, and doesn’t realise how much they have changed him.

As well as the theme of college and university life, all the alcohol (they drink A LOT of alcohol, almost in every scene, made me feel ill just reading about it), there is also the theme of murder. This is not particularly a spoiler, because it is a central part of the novel, and Tartt, even before either murder has happened, just slips it in there as if we already knew, without further acknowledgement. These two murders, one of which is a bit more serious than the other, are treated in such an off-hand nature by the group, and their circumstances for killing are just so ridiculous and unjustifiable that I thought they were all a bit psycho, really. There is no suspense surrounding them, so its like a murder novel, but if you take away the good bits.

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‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote

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BLURB: ‘On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.’ (Goodreads.com)

MADE ME FEEL: Empathetic, angry, sad.

READ IF YOU LIKE: Hard-hitting, non-fiction accounts of murder. Lots of law jargon. Questions of morality and justice. Mesmerising suspense and a look into American violence and justice. 

PAGE COUNT: Approx.336 (Penguin Modern Classics version)

STAR RATING: (★★★★★) – one of my all time favourites. 

 

After discovering my recent love for American Literature, ‘In Cold Blood’ seemed like a perfect way to explore this genre, and if you haven’t read this modern classic, I urge you strongly. This is a non-fiction account, reconstructing the murder of the four members of the Clutter family in 1959 Kansas, murdered by the strange duo of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The fact that this true crime novel has set the bar for the genre, and that many true crime books still following the same template set by Capote, is a true credit and reflection of this book’s mastery.
Capote’s unique style of writing comprises both imagination and rich description, along with a journalistic quirk that reminds us that this is a true story. The journalistic nature of the book is probably its selling point, one of my favourite aspects of this book are the embedded quotes of people, newspaper headlines, snapshots of radio broadcasts, little snippets that allow you to better know the small area of Holcomb, Kansas. This book allows the reader to see both true horror and violence, but also deeply get to know individuals that are expertly portrayed by Capote.

The book begins with the descriptions of the lives of each member of the Clutter family, their habits, their daily routines, their relationships with others. Even though the premise of the book is their murder, and the reader knows this from the beginning, Capote conveys their likeability so well in the first 60 pages that it genuinely is heartbreaking when they die. Even after the tragic event, Holcomb’s wide range of personalities all seem to be affected in different ways, and you keep on getting to know the Clutter family through their acquaintances. The fact that this is true crime also sheds light onto how this small town will still be affected by the Clutter murders today.738203

The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t do the work for you…

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‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks

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MADE ME FEEL: Intruiged, mildly horrified.

READ IF: You like gothic horror or strange 16 year old boys doing weird boyish stuff. Books with twists at the end. Short, easy reads.

PAGE COUNT: approx 244

OVERALL RATING: (★★★★½)

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is definitely one of the strangest and imaginative novels I have read in my short life. Written in the 1980s, it documents the strange and twisted world of Frank Cauldhame, who is portrayed perfectly on his secluded Scottish island, his extraordinary habits and ways of living described with minute attention to detail by Banks. I had a crystal clear view of the entire setting, and Banks describes everything with such precision, especially descriptions of people and their various mannerisms. Its an extremely satisfying and consequentially very easy read.

This is the kind of book that takes and takes and leaves you on edge for nearly all of the book and then all is given back to you in a sudden whirl of events at the end. Some people hate it, but I love being kept in the unknown and I found myself constantly trying to decipher what everything meant through the whole book. If you do not like being told everything at the very last minute, this book is definitely not for you. There are definitely disadvantages to Banks’ way of writing in this way. The last two chapters were SO intense I had to read them over and over again, and it almost felt slightly rushed and haphazard. However, this was saved by the storyline, I was so busy dropping my jaw, I hardly noticed it.

Speaking of jaw-dropping, I almost screamed and threw up at the same time upon reading why Eric went crazy, and the image of the smiling child in the hospital will stay with me for a very long time. Any book that makes you physically drop it is definitely worth merit. The vivid imagery was certainly disgusting and made me writhe, but I think that just makes it all the more better. I did have some issues with the plot line however. I thought that most of the book had been building up to Eric’s return home, and when he did eventually in the last pages, the dialogue I had been anticipating between the two brothers wasn’t really there, and that was disappointing, as I had built up high hopes for what would happen upon his return. The scene that did occur between them should have been huge and intense and it could have been, but was brushed off after a few pages and unnaturally mixed in with Frank’s altercations with his father. Also, and I have a feeling this isn’t just my stupidity, WHAT IS THE WASP FACTORY??? I could never quite grasp what it actually was, or the meanings behind it or how it gained such a stronghold over Frank’s mind. I nearly understand the clock business, but racking my brains even now after I’ve just finished reading the book, can’t seem to understand how this had a relevance in his life.

Overall, this book definitely lived up to its hype, with flowing passages, witty dialogue and crude humour with underlying gothic horror tones, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.