The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath: A Review

I chose to read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath for a book about mental health, #16 on the 2018 Reading Challenge. I came across Sylvia Plath when I began researching notable women authors. I’d heard her name before, but never read any of her work. I found this book on a list of novels about mental health. The premise intrigued me, so it joined my list.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young college student on scholarship in an honors English program. As the novel opens, she’s participating in an internship program with eleven other young ladies. The story follows Esther’s descent into depression and madness.

Written from the first person perspective, this novel takes the reader along on a deeply personal journey. Esther struggles to define herself and her place in the world. When things begin to fall apart at the end of her internship and she isn’t accepted into the summer writing program she was counting on, Esther falls into a spiral of depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately attempts to take her own life.

In this book, Plath not only took on the debilitating aspects of depression and mental illness, she also tackled issues facing many young women who struggle with their identity as a person and as a woman. There is a certain social weight that comes along with womanhood – the looming responsibility of parenthood that cannot be fully separated from the act of sex. Esther wrestles with this issue as she deals with the question of dating and marriage, a near rape and the idea of what sex should mean to her. Though this isn’t the central issue of the story, it contributes to Esther’s decline.

This is a well-written, compelling story. Written in 1962, this novel wasn’t published in the US until 1971, several years after Plath’s death by suicide. This novel has an autobiographical feel to it, especially in light of what transpired in Plath’s life and death.

While this book didn’t completely wow me, I did enjoy it. It made me think about how we all experience life from the limited perspective of our own minds. We’re locked up in our own heads, and nothing makes sense except within the framework of our flawed understanding.

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Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler: A Review

When I set out to choose the books I would read for the 2018 Reading Challenge, I struggled to find just one book for some of the categories. I wanted to focus first on what I already had on my shelves but I also wanted to expand my reading experience. One category I particularly struggled with to choose just one book is a book by an author of a different ethnicity than myself.

So, although I’ve already filled this prompt with another book, there was no way I could not read Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler this year. I already had the book on my shelves, after all. Butler is on all the must read sci-fi author lists. This was my opportunity to finally make that happen.

Written in a sort of journal entry fashion, Lauren Olamina tells her story of survival in a future America ravaged by the effects of global warming, severe drought and government corruption. The world teeters on the edge of anarchy. More and more people are unemployed and uneducated. Clean drinking water is expensive and hard to come by. Police and firefighters only come when they’ll get paid for their services.

As unrest grows, it presses more and more into Lauren’s world, ultimately forcing her out of her home – one of the last, semi-safe walled communities outside Los Angeles. She flees north along with a handful of others seeking a better, safer way to live.

Butler’s writing is intelligent and powerful. This book is so deep and intense, so full of radical ideas, a single read through might not be enough. The story itself is so terrifyingly real, it’s easy to get caught up in the motion and miss some of the important ideas Butler is trying to convey. I know I found myself caught up in this book.

There are probably many quotable passages in this book, but one that stuck out for me was this one where Lauren is having a conversation with her friend and neighbor, Jo about what she would do if she found herself outside the walls of their neighborhood.

I realize I don’t know very much. None of us knows very much. But we can all learn more. Then we can teach one another. We can stop denying reality or hoping it will go away by magic.

Despite the difficult subject matter, I enjoyed this book immensely. I look forward to reading more by Octavia Butler, and quite likely re-reading this book at some point. I highly recommend this book.

Unlock the Muse – August 29, 2018

It’s the last official week of summer. The loosely scheduled, free-wheeling days are coming to an end, and it’s time to get back to a solid routine. This is easier for some than for others. Maybe for you summer is no different than the rest of the year. For myself, my children will go back to school. We’ve started a new round of sports activities. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Inspire
Your writing prompt for this week:

Buy a copy of your favorite magazine and write a letter to the editor about something you read in the issue.

Whether you send it or not is up to you. But it’s a nice opportunity to practice with a short piece of writing. Write, rewrite, edit, polish. Now go do it again!

Encourage
Now that you’ve perfected a short piece of writing, let’s take a look at that sometimes troublesome monster, perfectionism. There is a time and a place for that perfectionist inner editor, but writing the first draft is certainly not one of them. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has this to say about perfectionism:

The bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism. You set out to tell a story of some sort, to tell the truth as you feel it, because something is calling you to do so. It calls you like the beckoning finger of smoke in cartoons that rises off the pie cooling on the windowsill, slides under doors and into mouse holes or into the nostrils of the sleeping man or woman in the easy chair. Then the aromatic smoke crooks its finger, and the mouse or the man or woman rises and follows, nose in the air. But some days the smoke is faint and you just have to follow it as best you can, sniffing away. Still, even on those days, you might notice how great perseverance feels. And the next day the scent may seem stronger—or it may just be that you are developing a quiet doggedness. This is priceless. Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad.

Equip
It’s the fifth Wednesday of August, and that means it’s bonus week! I’ve decided to make a small change in my usual monthly line-up. After today, this bonus week “play time” will be a regularly scheduled feature on the fourth week each month. Bonus week will now be reserved for inspiring quotes about writing related things.

That said, here’s new game from Rory’s Story Cubes. Let’s play!

StoryCubes3

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

Unlock the Muse – August 22, 2018

I’ve been doing a lot of back to school shopping. If you’re not a parent, or you’re beyond the school age season, all those stacks of crayons and spiral notebooks might be just another center aisle display to maneuver around. But, parenting aside, if you’re a writer like me who loves office supplies, back to school sales can be exciting. I did, in fact, find myself a little treasure along the way – a spiral notebook with a pink cover and the words “create your own magic” scrawled across it in silver letters. I can’t wait to fill it with magical words!

Inspire
To help inspire some magical words of your own, here is your writing prompt for this week:

Start with: ‘On the edge of the bridge…’

There is the potential for a lot of symbolism in that opening phrase. Bridges connect things – places, people, thoughts, worlds. Edges denote boundaries. What waits on the other side? Whether your bridge is literal or symbolic, go find the magic that lingers at the edge of it.

Encourage
Sitting down in front of a blank page to write is often overwhelming. This is true whether you’ve just begun a project, or you’ve been working on it for months. That act of beginning each day is hard. You find yourself thinking about how terrible the draft is so far. Or you remember you needed to make a dentist appointment. Or you suddenly fear that the word well has run dry and you have nothing left to say. In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott mentions her use of a one-inch picture frame, meant to narrow her focus. She says:

It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the fifties, when the trains were still running. … Or all I am going to do is describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the door and onto the porch.

So, narrow your focus, keep it small and give yourself short assignments. Bit by bit, the words will pile up. And before you know it, an entire draft will be written.

Equip
I’ll leave you with this thought from one of my favorite writers:

MagicQuote_R.Dahl

Happy magical writing!

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts: A Review

Prompt #32 of the 2018 Reading Challenge directed me to choose a book from a celebrity book club. My first thought was Oprah’s book list. I think I would have looked to see what other options existed except for one thing: Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts was already on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

This is the story of Novalee Nation, a seventeen-year old girl, seven months pregnant who is plagued by unlucky sevens. The story begins when Novalee is abandoned by her boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens, while on their way from Tennesee to California. She ends up living in the WalMart in Sequoyah, OK. Letts takes the reader along on Novalee’s journey to “where the heart is.” It’s a sweet and emotional story, and along the way we get to meet the various people that help Novalee on this journey.

The book is primarily written from Novalee’s point of view, but occasionally, Letts drops in on some of the other characters. I have to admit, I didn’t really want to follow along with Willy Jack’s story. After the first bit from his perspective following his abandonment of Novalee, I felt like he’d gotten what was coming to him, and I really didn’t care about him any more. I just wanted to know what happened to Novalee.

In the end, Letts brings the story back together in a very satisfying conclusion. I felt like this book was well written. Letts does a fantastic job of showing the characters’ emotions through tiny details. To get the most out of this book, you’ll need to read between the lines. Because that’s where Letts has written the heart of the story – in the things she’s left unsaid.

I have no idea how this book ended up on my bookshelves. It’s not at all the kind of book I would have picked up for myself. I’m glad I read it, however. It’s the kind of story that restores your faith in humanity.

Unlock the Muse – August 15, 2018

I baked a blackberry pie tonight with my son. It was the perfect end of summer activity – turning a summer bounty into a delicious treat. And now the season is coming rapidly to a close. As we head into fall, and send the kiddos back to school, it’s time to rein in the wild abandon of summer and once more adopt a more disciplined approach to writing.

Inspire
Here is your writing prompt for this week:

Your character has been kidnapped and is being held in a small room. Describe how he gets out using any of the following items found in the room: a black plastic comb, a stone, a rusty nail or a beer bottle cap.

Where will you go with this scene? This is your chance to be truly diabolical with your favorite character. Or will it be a humorous episode? Be clever, be creative and have fun!

Encourage
I’ve finally picked up a new writing craft book. I chose Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott as I’ve been wanting to read this for some time. I am assured by the Seattle Times on the back cover of this book that it is “a gift to all of us mortals who write or ever wanted to write…sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise and alternately cranky and kind—a reveille to get off our duffs and start writing now, while we still can.”

Lamott opens her book with these words:

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

So there it is. Tell the truth. Your truth. The truth you lived as a child. The truth you witness every day, at the coffee shop, at work, at home. The the truth of the world around you – about you, your neighbor, the boy behind the mini-mart counter. The truth as only you can see it.

Equip
This week’s vocabulary word is:

cre·ate
v.
To bring (something) into existence.

According to etymoline.com, the origin of the word create is:

to bring into being,” early 15c, from Latin creatus, past participle of creare “to make, bring forth, produce, procreate, beget, cause,” related to Ceres and to crescere “arise, be born, increase, grow. De Vaan writes that the original meaning of creare “was ‘to make grow’, which can still be found in older texts.”

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

Summer Reading Hiatus – Veering Off Course With Amazing Book Discoveries

I have been working my way through my 2018 Reading Challenge, and was doing well enough to be a few books ahead of schedule. Since summer began, however, I have slipped into reading anything but what’s on my list.

There are a number of reasons for this. One, it’s summer, I should be able to read whatever I want and not be locked into a rigid list. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited about the remaining books on my list, but I chose these books months ago. Summer is the time for adventure and discovery, and reading should be a part of that. I’ve found some great books I may have missed out on by sticking to my list.

A second reason is that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted with a few book series. It started when I read The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh, from my challenge list. I wanted to pick up the next book of the series immediately, but couldn’t get my hands on a copy right away. This led me to pick up a book at the library that I’ve wanted to read for some time – Something Strange and Deadly, by Susan Dennard. When that wasn’t immediately available, I picked up something else – The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. So now I find myself embroiled in three different series that were not on my reading challenge list.

One other reason I’ve veered off course is that I’ve joined a group on Goodreads that selects one fantasy book and one science fiction book each month to read and discuss together. They also occasionally have a series read. They’ve recently started Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series and I decided to join in. I’ve wanted to read Robin Hobb’s books for a long time, so I couldn’t resist jumping on board with this. I’ve only read the first one so far, and I’m not sorry I picked this up.

I can’t be unhappy about my reading distractions. They have all been really fun discoveries. But as we wind back down into Fall, it is time to return to the challenge list and complete what I’ve already set out to complete. Besides, a list full of names like Ursula LeGuin, Tanya Huff, Sylvia Plath, Octavia Butler, Amy Tan, Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Atwood, I think I’ve got some great adventures still ahead of me.