0552 | The Bell Jar | Sylvia Plath

0552 | The Bell Jar | Sylvia Plath post image

Context: We finally found a decent Indian restaurant in Bahrain while I was reading this: cheap, delicious and totally veggie!

From the very first classic opening line through to the end, this is a page-turner. Plath wrote this very quickly and it shows in the effervescence of the prose. However, there’s no denying that behind the prose is someone who was entirely familiar with words and how they can be handled. Some of the imagery in this is definitely that of the poet rather than the out and out novelist.

Based so heavily on her own life and contemporaries that it caused a scandal for them, Plath writes with honesty about Esther Greenwood’s young experiences as a debutante in New York and, on returning to her provincial home, her subsequent nervous breakdown and hospitalisation.

Throughout the novel, Plath uses Esther as a vehicle to explore her own issues with her role as a woman. This is, in part, why the novel has such a legacy. It clearly reveals issues surrounding society’s treatment of women as accessories for the male-dominated world [click to continue…]

0551 | Billiards at Half Past Nine | Heinrich Böll post image

Context: Read this as the first novel in a novel-per-day series of six as we celebrated what we called R-Eid in Bahrain.

This was an interesting novel to pick up a few days after finishing Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass. There are a lot of parallels in the prose of Grass and Böll. Both feature narrators who are less than reliable, there is a complex chronology in both, and both cover the period of WW2 and/or its aftermath from a Germanic perspective.

But Böll’s work is definitely the more complex in terms of its storytelling if not its imagery. Set over three generations of architects and told from the perspective of over 10 narrators, it’s the kind of novel that you have to just relax into and go with the ebb and flow backwards and forwards between the First World War and 1958.

It wasn’t the kind of book that you come away with having learned something desperately new. I found it quite complex, and, like Cat and Mouse, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d got the point of what Böll was trying to say. There are some obvious bits about regret and skeletons in the family closet, but those are pretty obviously going to be part [click to continue…]

0550 | July’s People | Nadine Gordimer post image

Context: read this as the first of 6 novels over 6 days off for Eid Al-Adha.

I’ve read a fair few books from South Africa that deal (unsurprisingly) with the issue of relationships between the black and white communities. Nadine Gordimer’s novel is, sadly, not the best I’ve read and that’s a shame because I thought, for a moment at the start, that it would really be spectacular.

Unlike Roth’s Human Stain, Gordimer here deals with race using the clarity we are used to. The whites are white and the blacks are black. Her particular twist though is that the blacks have just overthrown the white South African apartheid government and have driven the Smales family, one particular white couple with their three children, deep into the bush.

They take refuge in the village of their “house boy” July who guides their yellow pickup (known locally as a bakkie) many hundreds of kilometres to safety. The scene is thus set for all that you’d expect [click to continue…]

0549 | The Human Stain | Philip Roth post image

Context: listened to this while dealing with horrendous summer holiday traffic on the bridge between Saudi and Bahrain.

This is Philip Roth in his element, cruising along drawing on contemporary themes in public and political USAnian life and distilling them through the lens of a single individual who, in this case, is Coleman Silk.

Coleman is a university lecturer who falls foul of Theme #1: political correctness after a chance remark with the word spooks (primary meaning: ghosts) is misrepresented as a racial slur. He is forced to resign but maintains his innocence throughout and the bitterness that motivates his determination.

In the meantime, he’s started an affair with a cleaning woman so that Roth can pursue Theme #2: prejudice. This is, arguably, the flip side of Theme #1 anyway and so it’s hard to categorise which of these gives rise to a plot twist about halfway through when (spoiler alert!!!) you find out after his death that, with some irony, Silk had concealed the fact that he himself was black.

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0548 | Cat and Mouse | Günter Grass post image

Context: Read this at a local Costa while we waited for the printers to run off catalogues for my upcoming photography exhibition.

I know, I know, I should have read The Tin Drum before this as that’s the first of the trilogy and this is the second book. But, charity store book beggars can’t be choosers.

Pilenz narrates the story of his adolescent relationship with Mahlke, a student who remains aloof throughout the entire narrative.Grass sets up Mahlke as a character who always seems to live outside the confines of society and its rules. Initially, you feel he is happy there. By the end, you’re not so sure.

Clearly, against a backdrop of Nazi occupied Poland, this is a statement, and both Pilenz and Mahlke are types that Grass uses to illustrate the social conflict of the day. It is significant that, in doing this, Mahlke’s life is never told from his own point of view but only that of the conforming Pilenz.

Much of the novel centres around a half sunken Polish minesweeper on a sandbank off the coast of WW2 Gdańsk which Pilenz and his [click to continue…]