The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

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Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, and the 2016 London Play

 

no man's land
No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, first produced and published in 1975

I read this play for the 2016 London play starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It seemed a very good timing to read this script by Harold Pinter – a Nobel prize winner in literature in 2005, and tick him off my Nobel project. I never heard of Pinter prior to hearing about the London play, and seems the libraries also have already forgotten about him, because it took me a lot of effort to procure a copy of this play. I finally found it tucked in a compilation of plays – the only copy I found in the whole Westminster libraries.

I wondered why it was so hard to find his plays in his own country (that’s the United Kingdom), if he was the Nobel prize winner in literature. After reading, I started to think I understand why. I can’t see how this could become popular outside a very niche literary circle.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play. Plucking from Wikipedia: Absurdist fiction is a genre of fictional narrative (traditionally, literary fiction), most often in the form of a novel, play, poem, or film, that focuses on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value.”

Does that sound like a lot of nonsense? Yeah I think so too. Looking at Wiki, I have apparently read some absurdist fiction, namely Camus, Kafka, and Murakami, but probably as they were all in prose form, it didn’t feel as absurd as in the form of play. This is probably the first time I read an absurdist play, so apology if I sound amateurish. Waiting for Godot has been on my to-read list, and I’m interested to learn more about it.

As you can probably guess, there’s not much plot in No Man’s Land, as it is all about the dialogue. There are four characters. Two main characters in their sixties: Spooner and Hirst, and another two secondary male characters in their forties and thirties. Spooner is visitor to the wealthy Hirst’s mansion. Just by reading, I could already guess that Ian McKellen would be Spooner, and Patrick Stewart as Hirst. Something about Spooner not being very well dressed :)

I don’t have a lot to say about the script itself, and rated it 3/5. But the performance really made a difference. So continuing to…

The 2016 London Play

no man's land

In the stage, everything made more sense to me. There were cues from the audience on the supposedly funny bits – and it just dawned on me that it’s a comedy. I guess I had an inkling while reading, but it wasn’t just the dialogue, the physical movement of the characters and the comedic timing made it all come alive.

I loved Ian McKellen in particular. I had a lot more sympathy for the Spooner character on stage than on paper. On paper he often seemed to lose his mind as much as his “friend”, but on stage he was a kind person, humoring old Hirst who is, plainly, bonkers. The other two younger men, Foster and Briggs, are the ones who are less kind, and seem to just keep Hirst company because of his wealth and big house. Foster may be Hirst’s son or secretary, Briggs is another person working in the house, and on stage it seemed clearer that they may be lovers (which I didn’t get at all by reading).

So a lot of it for me was an exercise of interpreting one format into another, how performance, gestures, expressions change the impact of words on paper. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed the play on stage a lot more than reading the script. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were a huge bonus. I loved them! The duo reminded me of Magneto and Professor X, or Gandalf and Picard. Patrick Stewart in particular was a definite reminiscence of Professor X, as he spent most of his time sitting down on stage. Ian McKellen was more Gandalf-like, a wanderer and waved his hands a lot. So sweet to seem them play together. I like to think they’re friends in real life.

Play on stage rating: 4.5/5

pinter_postcard
Harold Pinter

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The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa

the book of chameleonsagualusa

Published by Arcadia Books. First published in Portuguese in 2004, published in English in 2006, translated by Daniel Hahn.

The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa was again nominated earlier this year, for the same prize – merged with and now called Man Booker International Prize – with his second novel published in English: A General Theory of Oblivion. My GR book club are reading both books, but I chose The Book of Chameleons because it was the shorter of the two, and it actually won the prize :) (The winner of 2016 Man Booker International is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I read and reviewed this year too.)

Just a few weeks before I started reading this book, I actually met someone from Angola, who told me lots of stories about the bad political situation in Angola. Funny how things often just come together around the same time. Prior to this, I’m not even sure whether I knew where Angola was.

A brief introduction to Angola: it’s a country in Africa – south west coast, its capital is Luanda. It used to be colonised by Portugal and only won independence in 1975. The effect of Portuguese colonisation cannot be underestimated. The two countries seem to be tightly knit. Angola’s official language is Portuguese, and both my friend and Agualusa spent considerable time in Portugal. In fact both of them also have close relationship with Brazil. Agualusa divides his time between the three countries, and my friend married a Brazilian. I’m curious how much the three countries’ cultures have in common, and would really like to read books from Portugal and Brazil soon.

So back to the book, The Book of Chameleons is narrated by a lizard, who acts as the fly (predator) on the wall. His human friend is Felix Ventura, who creates people’s past for a living. He doesn’t quite do forgery – it’s more romantic than that. People who don’t like their past can be given an entirely new past, full of better memories, lineage, photos, and little items to back up the stories. There are a few characters that come into Felix’s living room who require his service, and we get all the stories through the lizard.

Now this book apparently has been compared to Borges or Kafka. The downside of comparing a contemporary author with classic big name authors is that most often than not, it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I happen to love Borges and Kafka. So really Agualusa didn’t start fairly for me, and frankly, had no chance.

I think the premise is actually quite promising, and has a good potential, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. The book is 180 pages and has a lot of blank pages, because the chapters are so short. Almost all chapters are a few pages long, some are only half a page. Some chapters felt like fillers – there was nothing in it, like vignette of unrelated dreams. In Borges’s hand this would be a short story – dense and full of twists and turns. In fact any one story in Ficciones would be comparable to this book. And better. While Kafka is funnier and more emotional, and simply weirder.

I’m probably being a bit unfair, but how you read one book is a combined result of all the books you’ve read in the past – and in practice there’s no way to read one book in full isolation.

Having said all that, I think it’s a pretty good book. Just not brilliant. Read it if you’re interested in translated fiction, and/or would like to tick off Angola from your reading goal. If you haven’t read Borges, as a companion piece, I’d recommend Emma Zunz short story.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

tamara drewe

I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

The Dover Road (Play by A.A. Milne) – Jermyn Street Theatre

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Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book’s post I was made aware of this delightful 1922 play by A. A. Milne. Bought the ticket just 2 days in advance, and strolled along to Piccadilly Circus Friday after work. This is exactly the kind of time that makes me so grateful and happy to live in London and work in Soho.

I wonder why I didn’t know about the existence of Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is a tiny 70-seaters basement theatre in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and it seems magical that it survives. It was like entering a different world as soon as you step into the theatre. It’s so small that the seats are only 4 rows and the stage is on the same level as the first row, so you can walk around the stage set- and you most probably would, as the toilets are at the back of the stage.

I’ve never seen and read A.A. Milne’s plays – so this is the first for me (I loved Winnie the Pooh series) and I really enjoyed it. Agree with Simon that the cast was just perfect. And having seen many plays in big theatres, I realised how different, how more personal, and how much I enjoyed small theatre. You can actually see people’s faces and expressions, the voices were loud and clear, and in some scenes the actors were literally 2 metres away from me and I could see all the beautiful details of the props. I promised myself to go to small theatres more, and to go back to Jermyn Street Theatre when I see anything of interest.

The plot moved swiftly in The Dover Road – unlike some plays I’ve seen that seemed to take forever to build the first act. A couple find themselves stuck in the middle of the road to Dover (Dover is where you take ferry to France) in a place that could be a hotel, or a private house. It’s quickly revealed that the woman isn’t the man’s wife, and that the host of the house Mr Latimer isn’t going to just let them go on their way easily. He suggests that the couple, Leonard and Anne, stay for a few days to sort of test-drive their future life together, which would give them time and chance to reconsider if the need arises. Soon it’s revealed that Leonard’s wife is also in the house with her beau, experiencing the same formulae, just starting a week earlier.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about the play, the beginning almost seemed like a mystery or horror (a strange house with strange people that seem oddly prepared for the couple’s arrival), while Mr Latimer seemed slightly sinister with his hobby to detain couple in his house until they are “enlightened”. But it’s none of those things, as this is a comedy – and a thoughtful one at that, as it explores the silliness of romantic love and marriage.

The quadruple in conundrum aspect reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest I saw last year. After seeing The Dover Road, I’m thinking the abundance of wittiness in Earnest was almost too distracting. Milne doesn’t play too much with words, but it’s equally smart and funny. It did feel more modern (Earnest is almost 30 years older) and that possibly made it more digestible. I have full intention to read this play or Milne’s other plays in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Guardian’s The Dover Road review

 

The Book of Tea – Kakuzō Okakura

the book of tea Kakuzo Okakura

 

The Book of Tea was first published in 1906 – surprisingly, in English! I only realised this after trying to find the translator, or which translation was best, and a book group friend was looking for “the original”, hah! Here I thought Kazuo Ishiguro was the only Japanese writing in English (I’m sure not the only one, but certainly the most famous?). Apparently Okakura did it a long time ago.

This quote from the book seems apt then: “Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?”

The life story of Okakura himself might be even more fascinating than his little book. He was given a Western education at a missionary school by his father, and ignorant of Japanese culture until he was eleven. He mastered English as a young boy, but had troubles reading Japanese. To remedy the situation, the father then placed young Kakuzo in a Buddhist temple where he studied Confucius, koto (Japanese musical instrument), and calligraphy. A bit late apparently, but better than nothing I suppose.

The Penguin edition has introduction by Christopher Benfey that covers a bit of Okakura’s life. What I gathered was a man who was continuously torn between the East and the West. And this is apparent in The Book of Tea, in which he defends – too hard at times – the Eastern and Japanese culture, which was belittled by the West at the time (probably still is?).

The 89-page book is a collection of essays about tea, “Teaism”, taoism and zenism, art appreciation, and flowers. I liked the first 2 chapters about the history of tea, how it is originated from China, and about the three schools of tea: cake, powder, and leaves – that is in chronological order. Japan remains on the second school (i.e. matcha or powder green tea), as it was separated from the mainland, while China’s powder tea culture was wiped out by the Mongolians, and turned to leaves.

However going a bit further, it was a bit uneven for me in terms of enjoyment level. The chapters on taoism and zennism for example, I don’t have much knowledge of or keen interest in. The art appreciation and flowers chapters are quite interesting – as I love art and flowers. But I still think the book is most interesting when it talks about tea, and kept wishing it’d go back to tea.

The last chapter talks a lot about tea-room – an idea that is both idealistic and impractical to my modern mind:
“The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we must remember that all this is the result of profound artistic forethought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than that expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples. A good tea-room is more costly than an ordinary mansion, …”

That sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. I’d love it if tea-room is just really humble and minimalist. Sure quality can still be important, but to compare it with richest palaces and temples and mansion? Pushing it a bit far I’d say. I think this also makes the text feel a bit dated. Not sure how it was in early 1900s, but in this day of age the whole tea room concept seems only for the very wealthy and the elite few, a luxury that is the exact opposite of the humble cuppa that can be enjoyed by all, no matter which class of society you’re in.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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