Monday, 30 January 2012

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

My first thought when I hear The Bell Jar is of teenagers wanting to seem deep and claiming it as their favorite book. For years, I only knew Sylvia Plath's most famous work as that depressing novel that was written by the woman that killed herself. Looking back, that is a horrible thing to think and I'm a little embarrassed by the thought but honestly, that's what was in my head.

I bought my own copy during the strange grave-robbing-esque experience that was going to Borders during its last two weeks. I got my hands on a lot of nice copies of classic books and The Bell Jar was no exception. I'd always kind of wanted to read it and here was my chance.

I didn't actually sit down to read it until this Christmas Break, when I decided to read a bunch of "classic novels" I had on my bookshelf but had never actually taken the time to get through. After tackling 1984 (which I'm sure I'll write on at some point), I picked up The Bell Jar.

The Bell Jar was nothing that I expected. Instead of sad poetry about some girl cutting herself (I really had no idea what I was getting into), here was a well-written and surprisingly funny tale of a girl in the big city for the first time, trying to find her way through an internship and some pretty bizarre friends. Despite the obvious sixties setting, she was very relatable and the kind of girl that I thought I might have been friends with.

The novel tells the tale of Esther Greenwood, a young girl who earns a summer internship in New York. We meet her in the middle of it, going to parties, hanging out with girls she both likes and doesn't like and trying to come to terms with her own future. After she makes it back home and discovers some unhappy news, she finds herself spiraling out of control into a depression she can't see a way out of. 

Perhaps one of the reasons this book is so good is that it's semi-autobiographical. Almost all of the events happened to Plath in much the same way, with perhaps only small details changed. Although it's sad to think of all of this happening in truth, it also creates a relationship between reader and author/character that is stronger than most. 

Plath's writing style is amazing, as well. I'm not one to go on and on about that kind of thing but I just couldn't get over it while reading.  There is one section where most of the young girls get food poisoning from a lunch outing. Not to sound impolite but the way Plath describes the feeling of having food poisoning made me read the section out loud to my mother in the car, the whole time exclaiming "Isn't this just brilliant?" As someone who has had severe food poisoning, I was so impressed by how exactly she got everything down to the last detail. It was wonderful (and a bit gross). 

The Bell Jar is a great book and, while not the most light-hearted thing in existence, not a manual for emo children, either. There is great wit, great style and just an overall sense of what being a young girl with a passion for writing was like in the fifties and sixties. I enjoyed it and recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Dark Matter: A Ghost Story - Michelle Paver

I picked up Dark Matter pretty much because I had seen ads for it all about town and was intrigued by its subtitle: A Ghost Story. As has been well documented in this blog, I am always up for a good ghost story and treated myself to the book for my birthday a few months past. 

It took me a bit to get to it, mainly because essays interrupted my life for a while there but I ended up reading it on the plane home for the holidays. I had a vested interest in liking this book, as well; one of my good friends works at Hatchards and had recommended this book to a customer on the basis that '[her] friend just read it and really enjoyed it!' I, of course, was said friend who had yet to pick the book up off the shelf. Thus, I really hoped I liked it so that she hadn't just made me out as a liar to that little old lady.

To my delight, Dark Matter was nothing that I had expected, not that I had much of an idea of what to expect. Set in the 1930s, it follows an expedition to the Arctic, full of optimistic and rich young men set on adventure. Our hero, however, is a lonely boy recruited for his skill in physics and technology, an intellectual that has a rather large chip on his shoulder due to his low social and economic status. He can't stand most of the other men, with the exception of golden boy Gary, who he feels a great admiration for. 

There are many things up in the Arctic that are new to the men and it doesn't help that the captain of the ship taking them up seems unwilling to share some dark tales that he has been hinting at the whole voyage. There's an overwhelming sense that something is going on up there but most everyone is too level-minded to think much of it.

It's not until things start going wrong and one by one, members of the team have to be taken back to civilization that things start to show their true colors. Because our hero, Jack, is now left alone in a small hut in the middle of nowhere. But then again, he just might not be as alone as he thinks.

I fell in love with this book while I was reading it and could not put it down. The publishers made a strange choice on format: huge print and pictures randomly placed throughout the book. It took some getting used to but the pictures really helped set the scene and even the big typeface was easily acquiesced to. 

What I really enjoyed was the writing style. It was easy to pick up and kept a consistant eerie tone throughout the novel. It's told in diary-form, something I'm always a big fan of, and that helps the novel create mood and form character, watching Jack struggle with the things he sees and hears, while trying to convince himself that he's not going mad. 

The ending, which I will not spoil but must comment on, was honestly my favorite part. Although the actual events were not a complete surprise, the way they handled the character development of Jack in those last few pages was very engaging and Paver made a few choices with him I was not expecting but loved. She took an issue that normal writers from the thirties tend to pussyfoot around and decided to state it in a no-nonsense manner that was very fitting. It was very well done.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and, immediately upon return home, lent it to my father to read. I'm not sure if he has or not (things tend to sit around the family home for months before attention is paid to them) but the fact that I lent something out so soon after reading it is testament to how much I loved it. If you have any interest in the Arctic and polar expeditions, camaraderie and class division in England in the thirties, or just ghosts (like me!), I would recommend it. It's a quick read and very much worth an afternoon.