Book Review · Psychology · Sylvia Plath · Uncategorized

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My friend, Loretta, and I keep talking about how we should resurrect the weekly book discussions we’d begun in Pune. It’s not quite easy though with her being in Australia, me in India, the major time difference between us, and the fact that we both have so much to do anyway. The book we’d chosen to discuss for our last meeting (which never happened, sadly) was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I managed to complete this book in one sitting on a Friday when I was feeling too blah to care about my other responsibilities. I spent most of that day lying on the couch, lost in Sylvia Plath’s shockingly hilarious book.

I don’t know why I’d waited so long to read this book. I’d known it was a semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s struggle with mental illness and clinical depression – and that had fascinated me, as a student of Clinical Psychology. I guess I kept putting it off because I expected it to be gloomy and depressing, like most other books based on psychopathology. However, The Bell Jar turned out to be a surprise. It was witty, insightful and intriguing. I hadn’t expected it to be so funny. It’s become one of those books I can’t help flipping through every so often, rereading my favourite passages.

Apart from describing the experience of being clinically depressed and schizophrenic (that’s what most researchers claim her symptoms indicate), this book is also revealing to the mind of Esther Greenwood, a 21-year old girl in the 1950s.

In brief, the story begins with Esther Greenwood as an intern in New York. The magazine Esther is interning for that summer is famous and comes with many perks. It’s striking that she isn’t taken up with the sudden glamour. In fact, on her last night in New York, Esther flings out her new stylish clothes one by one out the window and watches them float away. Her friends from the magazine, her boss, the boy who imagines himself engaged to her, and her longing to be a writer and to live an exciting life herself, are all sketched out in the most unpretentious way that it reverses the solemn subject of the story to amusement. Society’s expectations and Esther’s own conflicting views suggest a tangential independent streak that was probably quite foreign to the larger population of the time (I hesitate to use the word ‘feminist’ because it seems to have so many confusing connotations). For one, she voices her confusion of women having to remain pure and innocent, while men were allowed to follow a double standard. And when her mother tries convincing her to be a typist, she writes that she’d rather write her “own thrilling letters” instead of someone else’s.

 

Of course, somebody had seduced Buddy, Buddy hadn’t started it and it wasn’t really his fault. It was this waitress at the hotel he worked at as a busboy the last summer at Cape Cod. Buddy had noticed her staring at him queerly and shoving her breasts up against him in the confusion of the kitchen, so finally one day he asked her what the trouble was and she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I want you.”

“Served up with parsley?” Buddy had laughed innocently.

“No,” she had said. “Some night.”

And that’s how Buddy had lost his pureness and virginity. (pg. 146)

 

It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way, Buddy Willard had? I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.

Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a redblooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well. (pg. 166)

 

In some ways this is a coming of age story, as many have pointed out. However, the bell jar that closes down on Esther’s life stifles dreams and hopes so that she’s wary and content with surviving. This book is fearless and modern in that Esther’s passage to adulthood is marked by rejecting the accustomed norm of womanhood i.e., marriage and children. At 22, she’s already been through enough to have a clear assessment of mental illness and an appreciation for the strength that helped her through it. This helps strengthen her existing views of societal norms, interestingly.

It was fascinating to read Esther’s thoughts, her slide into uncertainty, the gloom about meaninglessness in life and achievement, her attempt to commit suicide, and the journey to recovery. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Esther’s courage in both overcoming her illness and in daring to question societal norms at a time when it was unthinkable. Eventually, it’s her courage and ability to form an independent opinion based on her own experiences that mark the entrance into adulthood.

 

Doctor Nolan had said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother’s face floated to mind, a pale, reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.

“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream. (pg. 448)

 

I liked The Bell Jar for so many reasons, the most important being that it was exceptionally well written. There are quite a few books and movies about clinical depression but very few manage to describe the battle against hopelessness without being either detached or uncomfortably morbid. I don’t know how to describe this book without sounding morbid myself but, this book was laugh-out-loud funny as well as thought provoking. Read it and you will see 🙂

 

Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

The Evolution of a dog into Mr. Dog

When I got back from my 2-month trip to Pune, a few weeks ago, I discovered that we had a dog, Spotty. I’d seen him before around the campus, all business like hanging out with the security guards ready to alert them of any passing snake or unknown person. He did like playing with my brother and would occasionally come home for a doggie treat. But while he wagged his tail at us from afar and let us pet him every once in a while, by and large he was not a people’s dog and lacked the general etiquette that most domesticated dogs take for granted. This, and the fact of his nondescript breed, kept me wary and unsure of how temperamental he might be. Needless to say, I did not pet him a whole lot or encourage him to spend time with me. IMG_20160613_212115

We adopted him when his previous owner left and he was bequeathed to us.  He continued his lifestyle of wandering around the campus and then he’d push the front door open with his snout and try to snuggle up on the couch (He seemed quite surprised to learn that the couch was off limits to him). He adopted our home as his home and we adapted to the idea that Spotty was our dog and to buying doggy food and feeding him every day. But there was still an ambiguity regarding the relationship we shared. He was still fairly independent and did not like being petted too much. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for hours on end because he’d be curled up in a hole he’d dug up in the mud, or outside someone else’s front door! But the ambiguity ended the day Spotty was poisoned.

Yes, Spotty accidentally stepped on some of the Phorate that had been put around our area of the campus to control the growing number of venomous snakes. It was a good thing that he came home immediately after, as soon as he  realized that something terrible was happening.  At first, when my mother and I saw him we thought he’d been cut. Only one of his legs was trembling violently and he was limping.  However, when his eyes began to lose focus and he began to foam at the mouth a few minutes later, we realized it was more serious than a cut. We supposed it might be a snake bite or scorpion bite – both options equally horrifying.  Regardless, Spotty needed a vet quickly.

The veterinary hospital seemed to be located on the other side of town. Also, Spotty had slipped away unnoticed by us. Fortunately, the security guard was able to tell us that he’d hobbled out towards the back of the house. And sure enough, when my brother went to get him he was curled up in a dark corner, shaking violently. He wouldn’t get up and seemed to realize that he didn’t have much time left. Siddharth, my brother, had to pick him up and carry him to the car. We were also grateful to find out that one of our hospital employees was married to a vet and that they lived down the road from our campus. (While we do live on a hospital campus, we don’t have proper facilities for animals).

I didn’t go to the vet (I stayed home and prayed worriedly that Spotty wouldn’t die. Also there wasn’t enough space in the car). But I was told later that the vet had immediately identified it as a case of chemical poisoning. Had it been a snake bite, Spotty would have turned blue, she informed us. We were able to identify the chemical only because my father had noticed a very strong and strange smell earlier that evening and had enquired about it. And while we wished they’d have informed us in advance about the snake repellant so that we could have kept Spotty with us, we couldn’t be terribly upset at the extreme measures taken when venomous snakes were being sited every day at residential areas.
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It took Spotty an entire week to get better and many bottles of intravenous saline and intramuscular injections. The poor thing got so weak he couldn’t eat or drink. We had to feed him water with a spoon.

One of the major outcomes of this disastrous event has been to turn Spotty into a house dog. Where once he merely tolerated people, he now basks in the least attention they give him. It’s true. Before the accident he bared his teeth at me and tried to nip me once when I petted him too much. Now he licks me and rests his face against my palm while falling off to sleep. It’s also become difficult to get him to leave the house at night. He actually pretends to sleep at night while sneaking peeks at us! (Last night after we’d sent him out and locked the door for the night, he came back – just as I was walking up the stairs to bed. He stared at me for a long time and then stood purposefully at the front door waiting to be let in).

Spotty on high alert as he watches people from the maintenance department.
Spotty on high alert as he watches people from the maintenance department.

We can also say with certainty now, that any ambiguity about how Spotty felt about us or we about his has evaporated.  He is our dog. He turns ferocious when strangers come home and investigates the creepy crawlies in our home when he hears one of us scream or gasp in shock (As an example, I accidentally picked up a tree frog that was sitting with the potatoes in the kitchen yesterday). However, we all agree with my father who says that if Spotty were a person, he’d probably be Huckleberry Finn. That’s very likely. The other day I saw him burrowed in the mud, curled around a bush, an expression of bliss on his cute doggy face.

 

Books · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Library Adventures

DSC05205This afternoon I decided to visit the high school library at the school (The Study) I’m teaching at.  Although not hugely impressive, it does have a decent collection of non-fiction and fiction.  Browsing through the shelves of YA Fiction unlocked a door of memories of when I used to have my nose in a book almost perpetually. There were times I even went to school on holidays so that I could spend them uninterrupted in the library. (Luckily for me, the school held workshops for its teachers on holidays, and I was able to make myself cozy among a stack of books).

The school I studied in was very particular about the literature it allowed in its library. And it was an excellent library. Unfortunately for me, they did not stock The Sweet Valley Twins series or The Babysitters Club series. I had to read those at the Bangalore Club when we visited our cousins.

The high school library at The Study, however, has quite a few books from both The Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club series. It made me wonder if perhaps I could enjoy them once more the way I used to. The reply to that was nearly immediate – most definitely not. I marveled at how I could turn up my nose at something I once used to find pleasure in. It’s strange that I wouldn’t consider reading those books again but that my eyes light up when I see books by Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and then some more. How have I been able to outgrow certain books, but not others?

This afternoon, the books that I decided to bring home with me were Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson and Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange. The first paragraph of Henry Reed, Inc. made me decide that I would have to complete this book first.

 

Sunday morning, June 23rd

My name is Henry Harris Reed and this is my journal. It is my private property and in case that it gets lost, please return it to me in care of my uncle, Mr. J. Alfred Harris, RD 1, Grover’s Corner, Princeton, N.J.

This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell all about their dates and what they think of their different boy friends. My mother says that men keep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always keep journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey. (pg. 7)

 

It made me shake my head and smile because it reminded me of myself at that age, and how important it was that people knew I kept a journal and not a diary. Of course I did write about boys, and even used code (precautions to be taken when one has a younger brother). But the reason I insisted it was a journal and not a diary was because

1) The words ‘journal’ sounded more official and grown up.

2) I recorded more than daily events and believed that that qualified my writings to be called journal entries.

Henry Reed’s journal is proving to be an amusing and light read, one that I am able to find time for in snippets and snatches. It’s perfect for busy times when one wants to read, but is unable to find the time to.

It was a very pleasant afternoon that brought back memories of how absorbing books can be.  And it was especially rewarding for me for what I learned of myself and of how I have changed.  I definitely plan on visiting this school library more often, and hope to read through most of its books.DSC06647

Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

An Ordinary Day in My Life

I have actually got quite a bit of reading done off my list. However, I am not yet ready to post reviews on textbooks of psychology, regardless of how absorbing I may find them. But because I cannot resist, I will say that, if you are interested in brushing up on the basics of psychology, the 6th edition of Discovering Psychology by Hockenbury & Hockenbury is an excellent choice. I especially like the style it’s been written in. It’s interactive and easy to read without watering down the facts. Like most recent edition textbooks it includes the latest research to explain the fundamentals, and this now, makes for a very intriguing read.

This year my goal in regard to blogging is to post twice a week. This is proving to be more difficult than I expected because I had not anticipated the busy-ness of other aspects of my life. It seems that I may have to begin incorporating new interests to post about, apart from my primary interest – books.

A part of my life that has begun to occupy me increasingly is my work. Even though it’s exhausting at times, at the end of the day I always feel glad and bright with all the good that has happened. It’s difficult to stay focused on the negatives while teaching adorable little pumpkins. For a few days I even entertained the idea of becoming a full time kindergarten teacher.

On Friday afternoon there was a little boy in my class who was being extremely disruptive. He was running around the class shouting and jumping on tables when I hauled him off for a talk. (Now he is one of the students in my class who does not speak English very much and with whom verbal communication is pretty difficult. My broken Tamil is as good as his English – which is not much help at all).

So anyway, I was struggling to make him understand what constituted acceptable behavior and what didn’t. He usually just stares up at me and smiles blankly. Then nods and runs off to continue with whatever I just told him not to do. Today he stared up at me with wide innocent eyes and kissed my hands. It was an effort to keep a straight face. It became even more difficult when he bent down and began massaging my calves, all the while looking up at me with those wide eyes as if to say, “I’m sorry. Can we forget about it?” I had to laugh and cuddle him. There are quite a few children in my class, like Mohana Krishna, who are a handful. But it’s impossible to stay upset for too long with any of them.

Another day when the entire class was silently absorbed in work, I heard a lone chair being dragged on the floor. I got up to investigate. There was Yoga Vaishnavi, as tall as her chair, pushing it back and forth while using her Identity card as a cellphone. When she saw me she looked sheepishly at me, sat down, and continued talking softly with her imaginary friend on the “phone”.

I never imagined that teaching kindergarten could be so hugely satisfying. The parents tell me that they hear so much about me from their children. It’s sobering. And even more so that I’ve witnessed them trying to mimic the way I speak and behave. Sure it’s flattering, but it also forces me to exercise more patience than I normally would and smile even when I’m least inclined to do so. It’s thrilling to spend the day with minds that are curious, appreciative of the ordinary, and innovative in ways we’d never imagine. Every day is a new experience in some way and is deeply fulfilling. It’s a compliment when they are in awe of my ridiculous drawings; most of all, when they ask me to teach them how to draw! It’s very endearing when they come to me with their stories and questions; put their tiny hands on my shoulder when I’m sitting; hold my leg when I’m standing. It makes me feel very much like one of the illustrations of Miss Honey by Quentin Blake 🙂

children

Book Review · Fiction · Muriel Spark · Uncategorized

The Snobs by Muriel Spark

The SnobsThe Snobs, besides being the title of the book, is also one of the stories included in this brief collection of short stories by Muriel Spark. The other four are The First Year of My Life, The Fortune-Teller, Christmas Fugue, and the Executor. At ten rupees, I considered this book a steal. Muriel Spark is well known and has won many literary awards for her stories with their twists and plots that have readers intrigued till the end.

This book was my first sample of Muriel Spark’s writing. I have to be honest and say that while the twists in her stories were certainly intriguing, I was not as enchanted as I have been by many other books. Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier, and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald come to mind as examples of books that have held me completely captive. I realize that this is probably a reflection of certain preferences that I have while reading.

I’m not sure if I should offer short descriptions of the stories since they’re tiny tales with plenty happening. It’s difficult to say where I might be spoiling the reading experience for someone else. But if I may try: The first story in this collection, The Snobs, is about an amusing couple who are such frightful snobs.  The First Year of My Life is, again, fairly self-explanatory. It’s the story about the thoughts of a baby, a few months old, who baffles everyone by refusing to smile. The Fortune Teller is a bewitching tale about a girl whose destiny is altered unexpectedly without her being aware of it.

Christmas Fugue is the most difficult to explain: Cynthia believes her life has become ‘empty’ in Australia after her cousin, Moira, leaves. It is interesting to read about the occurrences that reverse it. The fifth story, The Executor is a gripping account of Susan Kyle’s experience as her uncle’s literary executor.

The stories have been told very well. They’re imaginative, descriptive, and unlikely. Muriel Spark’s writing is intelligent and sharp, with a good dose of black humour and elements that add shock. It made me think of a friend I had in college who was disturbingly observant, appeared clairvoyant, and said the most outrageous things. We used to tiptoe around her because we never knew what to expect. And that’s how I imagine I might feel if Muriel Spark were alive and I happened to meet her. I have developed a mild distaste for a style with a caustic edge. I would much prefer to meet Penelope Fitzgerald, whose writing style is gentler and somehow friendlier.

One other thing that I am unable to appreciate anymore is extravagant absurdity.  I felt that the short stories by Muriel Spark reminded me of the short stories for adults written by Roald Dahl. Now I like Roald Dahl’s writing for children. In fact, I adore it along with Quentin Blake’s engaging illustrations. But I do not care for Henry Sugar or any of the other characters invented by Roald Dahl for his adult readers, or the stories that they’re in. I don’t think I enjoy the absurd as much as I used to.

Apart from personal preferences that draw me towards other books and other authors, I liked Muriel Spark’s lucid writing and dead pan way of saying things. There were parts that made me laugh. Her writing, without a doubt, is stylish.

The pilot walked up the aisle towards Cynthia. He sat down beside her.

‘A complete nut. They do cause anxiety on planes. But maybe he’s harmless. He’d better be. Are you feeling lonely?’

Cynthia looked at the officer. He was good-looking, fairly young, young enough. ‘Just a bit,’ she said.

‘First class is empty,’ said the officer. ‘Like to come there?’

‘I don’t want to – ‘

‘Come with me,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Cynthia. What’s yours?’

‘Tom. I’m one of the pilots. There are three of us today so far. Another’s coming on at Bangkok.’

‘That makes me feel safe.’  (pg.38)

India · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Joys Apart From Reading

The only reading that I’ve managed to get done this past week is a book of short stories by Muriel Spark. I’m disappointed to say that I only managed to read 3 of the 5 stories, although the reason I’d selected it was that it looked so beautifully slim, perfect for my busy week.

I have been teaching the kindergarten class at a nearby school for the past three weeks. It has been an exhausting affair. I love them all very much but by the end of the day all I want to do is sit down and space out. Of course, the little cuddly children make up for being such a handful with their funny stories, amusing antics, the wilted flowers, and indecipherable pictures that they bring me. It’s also cute when I call one child ‘a cute little thing’ and the others say, “Me?” “Me?” And when I repeat the same thing to them they’re so pleased their eyes light up.

The other day I tried to tell them that when I was speaking they should listen because I would ask questions later: “I am the teacher and you are the students. Who are you?” “We are the childrens!” came the exuberant reply. On Friday, one little boy corrected me, “It’s not ‘drank water’. It’s ‘drinked water’.” Working with little children who are just beginning to learn to speak in English is doing funny things to mine. Saying things like, “What for me?” and infusing Tamil words into my English has become more natural. My Tamil comprehension has also gone up incredibly. Yesterday it was pointed out to me by my brother that my accent has changed as well in the way I stress certain syllables and pronounce certain words. I think I understand now how different accents are picked up effortlessly.

My days are definitely not dull. I have children who wipe their noses on my clothes while pretending to hug me; who do cartwheels when I tell them to stand in the corner; little drama queens in the making that fight over favourite chairs and beg me not to force them to be friends with each other. But I miss having the time to read for fun. That last book by Penelope Fitzgerald has reminded me how lovely it is to get lost in a novel of beautiful words and fictional thoughts. I will have to write on Muriel Spark’s book of short stories in my next post. DSC07640

Book Review · Books · Fiction · Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

the bookshopI bought this book, The Bookshop, at the Daryaganj Book Market in Delhi because it looked like it might be an interesting read. It’s a shame I waited three years before I finally did read it. If I had read it sooner I’d probably have managed to secure copies of Fitzgerald’s other books and savoured each one by 2016.

In The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald tells the story of a middle aged woman, Florence Green, who decides to open a bookshop in the fictitious East Anglian town of Hardborough in the year 1959. The narrative meanders through the challenges Florence Green faces in starting the only bookshop in a town where the general majority does not see the sense in having a bookshop. There is, in particular, a Mrs. Gamart, who attempts to dissuade our protagonist from starting the bookshop. When Florence Green, a very insignificant person in comparison to Mrs. Gamart, politely refuses to be persuaded and stands firm in her decision, she only invites a barrage of more difficulties. It doesn’t help that the Old House, her new home and location of the bookshop, is haunted by poltergeists.

This story is not fast paced or thrilling in any way. It’s quiet with few embellishments. Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing voice is gentle and very matter of fact here. You do not see Florence Green wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in anger at the injustices hurled her way. She is pictured as a kind, unpretentious woman with an outlook on life that is balanced between reality and hope.

The writing style is clear and descriptive with characters that come alive and make your eyes widen at their behavior, or shake your head and laugh quietly. The author manages to convey courage and strength even while focusing on the ordinariness of her main character. I could picture Florence Green sighing at the unpleasantness that life dealt her, then shrugging and trying to figure out her next step.

The qualities that made this book a delight to read were its quiet discernment of human life and Penelope Fitzgerald’s exquisite brilliance in telling a story that has no seeming plot. In a way, it is reminiscent of actual human life that does not have a prominent plot either. The narrative is clear-eyed in relating instances that make one gasp in shock for the poor lady. As the jacket on the book reads, “This story is for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.” To me, The Bookshop seemed to suggest that even the most ordinary person is an interesting story of themselves and can find ways to connect with other people. It goes without saying that this is highly dependent on how well the story is told.

I found out this afternoon that this novel was one of the author’s earlier works and is based on personal experiences. While Penelope Fitzgerald had worked part time in a bookshop, the similarity that strikes us is the unexpected difficulties she faced in her middle years. It was interesting to learn that she published her books only after the age of sixty.

I thought The Bookshop was a lovely book! I liked its quiet lack of emphasis, the charming narrative, and unpretentious humanness throughout. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books.