Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
To the Lighthouse follows one family's stay at a vacation house by the sea. It begins when the children are young and the parents are fairly content, and it leaps forward to a time when the children are motherless and the house is abandoned. The servants eventually restore the house to life and the family (now minus a few members) returns to a house that is simultaneously the same and not the same. The novel offers multiple perspectives on life, love, and filial feelings of reverence and resentment, and chronicles the seen and unseen impacts of the passage of time.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I thought this book was stunning. Like some other books on my list (ahem, lookin' at you, ProustyProust), it's perhaps not recommended reading for all, in that the prose can be very wordy and its sentiment is not immediately perceptible upon first reading. As my good friend Dennis pointed out (happy birthday again, boo boo!), this book is one that requires multiple visits from a reader. The trajectory of the novel only became clear to me about halfway through, and I instantly wanted to start again. I think I'll give it a bit of time, though, before I return. Besides, I still have so many other books on my list! (So much time, so little to do. Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.)

A few reflections, in no real order (heads up, this post is a tad lengthy. Woolf is a meaty author, so she deserves it!)

- No longer "à table" (Charles, tu vas prendre ta douche?)
This description comes near the beginning of the novel, and it captures so eloquently the essence of the family and their connection to the house. 
"Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing."

- We perish, each alone
Mr. Ramsay quotes a line from "The Castaway" by William Cowper, "we perish, each alone", ostensibly in reference to his wife's death. I couldn't figure out why that line was so familiar until I looked up the rest of the poem, and heard Hugh Grant (aka Edward Farrows) reading the poem unenthusiastically and without enough romanticism to please Marianne. (i Like him. i greatly EsteEm him.)

(emPhasis added for effect)
"No voice diVine the storm allAy'd,
No light Propitious shone("shonn");
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We Perish'd, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he."

- The house by the sea
"The whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, "Oh, how beautiful!" For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men." I love the word 'hoary'. It just Feels special when you use it. 

-Lily Briscoe, on painting
"It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child." Lily Briscoe is a side character - she's a friend of the family who stays with them at the house by the sea. She paints in her leisure hours, and though she feels she will never be the best painter out there, she's devoted to painting for the rest of her life. I thought this line captured so aptly the terror of nascent creations and the uncertainty that accompanies their birth.

- If your brain is an attic, how much can it hold?
Lily always imagines a kitchen table when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay's intelligence (it's a long story) and I loved this line about her trying to balance all of her thoughts at once. It reminded me of Sherlock's claims in 'Elementary' that the brain can only hold a finite amount of material at once and that it's therefore necessary to prioritize accordingly. 
"All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net - danced up and down in Lily's mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree, where still hung in effigy the scrubbed kitchen table, symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay's mind, until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity; she felt released; a shot went off close at hand, and there came, flying from its fragments, frightened, effusive, tumultuous, a flock of starlings."

- What letter have you reached?
Mr. Ramsay, on his intelligence:
"It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q." I'm not at all sure that I've reached Q. Have you?

- All children, except one, grow up.
Something that always strikes me when I read these novels is the universality of certain sentiments. Decades after this book was written, every parent still wishes that their child wouldn't grow up. Even if the whole world looks different than when Virginia wrote this book, that feeling will never go away.

"Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss."

- Are they all gone now? Are they all gone?
Mrs. Ramsay, on her need for solitude: "And that was what now she often felt the need of - to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others."

- May I share in your disaster?
Paul, another acquaintance staying with the Ramsays, has just recently proposed to a young friend of the family, Minta. Lily, who generally feels comfortable in the solitary life, is momentarily jealous of the budding joy of new love:
"It came over her too now - the emotion, the vibration, of love. How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul's side! He, glowing, burning; she, aloof, satirical; he, bound for adventure; she, moored to the shore; he, launched, incautious; she, solitary, left out - and, ready to implore a share, if it were disaster, in his disaster..."

- Real men cry when they read a good book.
on Mr. Ramsay, as he reads a Sir Walter Scott novel:
"But now, he felt, it didn't matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it - if not he, then another. This man's strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face, he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott's hands being tied but his view perhaps as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie's drowning and Muckebackit's sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigour that it gave him."

- When reading is like dreaming
One of my favorite scenes in the whole novel is when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, whose relationship is complicated, but affectionate, simply sit together in his study and read, each attentively drawn in to their own book. As mentioned above, Mr. Ramsay is reading Sir Walter Scott, and Mrs. Ramsay has picked up a book lying nearby.
"Mrs. Ramsay raised her head and like a person in a light sleep seemed to say that if he wanted her to wake she would, she really would, but otherwise, might she go on sleeping, just a little longer, just a little longer? She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another."

- Who's afraid of the dark?
"So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, "This is he" or "This is she". Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness."

- The creeping airs
I loved this description of "the airs", it was so corporeal and anthropomorphic. (a word? not sure. it is Now!)

"Nothing stirred in the drawing room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. (Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!) Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?"

"So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear."

- Could this be life?
While perhaps less explicit than in "The Bell Jar", the question of our purpose here on Earth and what we are meant to do with it arises in this novel. While many of the classics I've read have tinkered around the edges of the question, this one explicit asks at one point, "What is the meaning of life?" Just in case you were wondering, I don't know. I Have read a Lot of books, but I don't have the secret answer. (At least not Yet.) Sowwy! #outofluck #maybetrywikipedia?

I loved this line, particularly the bit about "no learning by heart the ways of the world":
"What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"

- Lily, to Mr. Ramsay, after Mrs. Ramsay has passed away:
"They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet." This was my favorite sentence in the whole book. Lily is unable to provide Mr. Ramsay with the sympathetic condolences he so ardently desires, and instead, she looks down and comments on his boots. 

"What beautiful boots!" She exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, "ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!" deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it, in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper, complete annihilation.
        Instead, Mr. Ramsay smiled.
They had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned, and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots." This reminded me of Fitzgerald in its visceral tenderness. Sometimes all we can talk about is the blessed island of good boots.

- Filial feelings
When the family returns to the house by the sea, Mr. Ramsay drags James and Cam off to the Lighthouse. Neither one is interested, and they both resent him for making them go. This line of Lily's struck me:
"Doggedly James said yes. Cam stumbled more wretchedly. Yes, oh, yes, they'd both be ready, they said. And it struck her, this was tragedy - not palls, dust, and the shroud; but children coerced, their spirits subdued."

- Recalling the house to life
These passages about the house falling into disrepair and being returned to life were fantastic. I wanted to share the trajectory with all of you.

"The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them. Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-set one morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats (and who will help me catch the rats?), and cut the grass. Attended with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!
And now as if the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and the moving had drowned it there rose that half-heard melody, that intermittent music which the ear half catches but lets fall; a bark, a bleat; irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related; the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass, dissevered yet somehow belonging; the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel, loud, low, but mysteriously related; which the ear strains to bring together and is always on the verge of harmonising, but they are never quite heard, never fully harmonised, and at last, in the evening, one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and silence falls. With the sunset sharpness was lost, and like mist rising, quiet rose, quiet spread, the wind settled; loosely the world shook itself down to sleep, darkly here without a light to it, save what came green suffused through leaves, or pale on the white flowers in the bed by the window.
At last, after days of labour within, of cutting and digging without, dusters were flicked from the windows, the windows were shut to, keys were turned all over the house; the front door was banged; it was finished."

- What do you think is the shape of loveliness?
"So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom (doesn't that sound delightful?), and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?”— scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain."

Sentences that struck me:
  • "Many things had changed since then. Many families had lost their dearest."
  • "And again she felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life."
  • "They both felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves."
  • "Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified."
  • "In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances."
  • "Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers."
The title of this post is a reference to the potential trip to the Lighthouse that James was to make with Mrs. Ramsay when the novel opens. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. 

May you all wake up tomorrow and find the sun shining and the birds singing. Remember that, whatever the reason, whatever the purpose, we remain. And while we do, let us rejoice. 

Happy holidays, and onwards to For Whom the Timpani Gongs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Fight Club is a tale of one man's journey toward enlightenment and down a path of revolt and destruction. An unnamed protagonist takes on a second personality when he sleeps, and this new personality, Tyler Durden, launches first a series of underground fight clubs and later a plan for mischief that evolves into a full-scale war of inducing mayhem in everyday life. Our unnamed protagonist eventually gets wise to his body-sharing predicament, and tries (unsuccessfully) to tame Tyler's wily and often rather wicked ways. In the end, the best he can seem to do is put Tyler in a sort of hibernation as he exists in (what I think is) a mental ward. Determined to keep the world (and the woman he loves, Marla) safe from Tyler, his daytime self chooses to accept his medically altered state which, in turn, keeps Tyler at bay. (At least for now. dun dun Dun!!)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This was not my first time reading Fight Club. I liked it a very little bit less than the first time I read it, but I still found it to be a (mostly) enjoyable read. I do think it's a bit of a 'man's book for men' read (see below for more thoughts on this) but the sarcasm and wit are undeniable, if the violence a bit extreme for my taste. A few ponderings, in no order:

- On the battle for self-help groups:
Not-Tyler starts going to self-help groups (for diseases he does not have) after one of his doctors suggests attending an insomnia self-help group. He finds a sense of fulfillment at these groups, and proceeds to cycle through groups for various serious illnesses each day of the week. He first meets Marla, his eventual lover, at one of these groups. Here's his first thought when he sees her there (and knows she's faking it, too):

"This is the one real thing in my life, and you're wrecking it." I love this line. The 'real' thing in his life is going to self-help groups for illnesses he doesn't have. haghaghagh.

Here's the conversation they have when he tries to get Marla to leave:
Not Tyler: "Then we can split the week, I say. Marla can have bone disease, brain parasites, and tuberculosis. I'll keep testicular cancer, blood parasites, and organic brain dementia."
Marla: "What about ascending bowel cancers?"
Not Tyler: "The girl has done her homework."

ahghaghaghaghagha. what about PoinTED sticks? have we done cherries? Whole AND segmented!

- Insomnia
"Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience."

Esther's first inklings of her breakdown start with insomnia in The Bell Jar, so I thought it was interesting that Not-Tyler has a similar first symptom. I have a chronic sleep disorder, so I know what it's like to feel tired, but I can't IMAGINE going 3 weeks without sleep. Can you? 

"This is how it is with insomnia. Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy. The insomnia distance of everything, you can't touch anything and nothing can touch you."

- Lists and why we (or at least I) love them
Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of lists in books. I like the precision of them. This article gets at why we love lists - I like this line in particular: "Lists create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption - a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale." Goooo, green smoothies! Get Real, Get Raw!

Here's a list for you to enjoy: The Rules of Fight Club

1. The first rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club.
2. The second rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club.
3. Only two guys to a fight. 
4. One fight at a time.
5. Fights are without shirts or shoes.
6. Fights go on as long as they have to.
7. If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight. 

Based on these rules, I don't think I'll be seeking out a fight club anytime soon. I'd rather not watch, and I'd rather not fight. MMkay? Thanks. Oh, and I'd like to keep on my shirt. 

Marla's one of my favorite characters, though I felt she was underdeveloped compared to Tyler/Not-Tyler. She has a flare for the dramatic, as is evidenced by the conversation that Tyler accidentally has with Marla when Not-Tyler refuses to answer the phone:

Tyler: So she was staying home tonight, right?
Marla: She was doing the big death thing. I should get a move on if I wanted to watch.

Not-Tyler: They've never met so Tyler thinks it's a bad thing that Marla is about to die. haghahg. I know, suicide is no joke, but I found this line pretty funny. I also love that she calls it "the big death thing". 

- Man's book
A woman stopped me on the metro to say how much she enjoyed this book, and told me that her friends told her it was a man's book, but she disagreed. I'm not sure where I fall. I think the threat (and sometimes actualization of that threat) of cutting off men's privates is squarely in the "dude's greatest fears" category, and while it's never stated outright, the implicit 8th rule of fight club seems to be "Men only." Granted, a male female fight under most circumstances would be pretty skewed, but I couldn't help but notice the total exclusion of women from the storyline (with the exception of Marla, whose character, as I mentioned previously, felt underdeveloped compared to the men). That said, I don't think all books need to be written for both genders - likely there are only a handful of men who LOVE Jane Austen, and I would guess that far more men love Ulysses than women (these are just Guesses, people, so don't get offended if you fall in the opposite category ;0)) - but I think especially in the 21st century, a decently balanced gender representation would be nice, while not required. At the very least, a bit more development of Marla would have pleased me.

-Project Mayhem vs. terrorism
Part of why I couldn't appreciate the 'Project Mayhem' piece of Tyler's plans was that it felt so obviously akin to terrorism. This book was published in 1996, so while the threat of terrorism was present, it was nowhere near so palpable and widely disseminated as it is today. Reading this section might have felt less unpleasant and more fictional then, but it felt a bit too real for my taste in today's world. Case in point:
"They all know what to do. It's part of Project Mayhem. No one guy understands the whole plan, but each guy is trained to do one simple task perfectly." oh, OK, so basically a terrorist cell? awesome.

Another list, for your brain's pleasure - Project Mayhem Weekly Schedule:
Arson meets on Monday.
Assault on Tuesday.
Mischief meets on Wednesday.
And Misinformation meets on Thursday.
Organized Chaos. The Bureaucracy of Anarchy. You figure it out.
Support groups. Sort of.

- Project Mayhem, in a nutshell
While, as I mentioned, I had some concerns about the fictional/real-world side of Project Mayhem, I did enjoy these quotes:

"We wanted to blast the world free of history"
"It's Project Mayhem that's going to save the world."
"A prematurely induced dark age."

- I am Joe's Overwhelming Sense of Apathy
One of my favorite recurring themes is a reference Not-Tyler makes to a book of medical descriptions that captions photos with lines like, "I am Joe's Swollen Foot" and the like. Here are a few of my favorites: 

After Not-Tyler has been printing Fight Club rules at work and showing up repeatedly with his face bashed in:
They're building a case against me (at work).
I am Joe's Complete Lack of Surprise.
I've been behaving miserably. haghaghahgahg. 

After Not-Tyler is spurned by Tyler (when he doesn't realize they're the same person) in favor of Marla:
I am Joe's Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection.

- Who do we wake up to each morning?
I love the title of this blog - it reminded me of a passage from Proust:

from The Guermantes Way (Volume 3 of Remembrance of Things Past)
"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp." I know, META, right? ;) Let's see who we wake up as tomorrow!

As you know, I read this book out of order (WhOOPS!) so I'm moving on To the Darkroom. Happy snow day to those in the Northeast, and happy Tuesday to everyone else!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

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

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Bell Jar is concerned with the inner workings of the mind and the darkness that lies within. It chronicles Esther Greenwood's descent into depression during one dark summer, and begins to hint at the possibility of her recovery near the end. Esther finds herself in New York City, working as an intern for a ladies' magazine, and after a series of minor setbacks and strange occurrences, she withdraws from her life and the world around her. After Esther receives some less than stellar mental health care, she continues to struggle, and she attempts to end her life through various means. She is ultimately unsuccessful, and following her last effort, she is committed to an asylum. She receives a series of injections, as well as a second round of shock treatments, and after a few more adventures, hesitantly advocates to return to her previous life. The book closes at her exit interview from the asylum, and we are left to wonder where Esther's life (and mood) will go from here.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I was nervous to read this book. Those of you who know me well likely know that I went through a similar experience several years ago. I discovered I suffered from anxiety and depression and felt blindsided and overwhelmed by it when I was in France, studying abroad. Like Esther, I was lost, and I struggled to find my way through what was still, hands down, one of the most difficult times of my life. Luckily, I had a strong and loving family to support me through it, as well as decent resources within my study abroad program to begin to understand what was going on. Still, even in this 21st century, it took me nearly 7 years to get to a good, solid place with my symptoms, and it's a challenge I deal with each and every day. I cannot imagine what it would have been like trying to seek out mental health care in the 1960's, what with the stigma and lack of clear medical knowledge around antidepressants, antipsychotics, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc. Mental health concerns run in my family, and I know my grandmother dealt with some unpleasant medications in her time. Given all of that context, I'm impressed that the book had as cautiously optimistic an end as it did, though it was admittedly not a cheery, triumphant conclusion. My mother once told me she'd read this book a number of times, and that we all face the dark side of existence at some point in our lives, looking death in the face and realizing it is a common end for every human. I worried that with my obsessive personality, I, too, might fixate on this book, and be stuck inside it and somehow transported back to that lost self from seven years ago.

I'm happy to report that that did not happen. I can't say I loved every minute of the book (it's Quite dark, for those who've never read it and somehow hadn't guessed from the above description and comments (were you even Paying Attention? ;) ) but I enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, and I think it is an Essential book to have in our collective literature. Sylvia expresses an unbelievably difficult thing to describe, and she does it eloquently, and with tenderness and empathy. I'm sorry to say I think she writes it as well as she does because she experienced it, and her own life came to an untimely end. I wonder - if Sylvia had been around today, would she have gotten better care? Been more hopeful about her end of maintaining your personal mental health? Had more opportunities as an independent woman to stave off her depression? But life is filled with what ifs, and we can never know for sure. All I do know for sure is that if Sylvia hadn't felt some measure of what Esther felt, she would never have been able to write this book, and that would have been a true tragedy.

- On the sadness of finishing a really great poem
"I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fir tree."

-Balalaika, instrument of seduction
My sister, Diana, pointed this part out to me, but when I came to it, I was surprised to realize I was already familiar with the passage. I went through a phase in high school where I plastered my closet doors and walls with quotes from various books I was reading, and I'm sure this was one of them, which is strange considering I had never read (or heard of) this book in high school. Mysterious! At any rate, here it is :)

"When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only the one thing.
  'I am very fond of balalaika music,' I said." heh heh heh. naughty Esther! ;)

- Country vs. City
I loved this exchange between Esther and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Billy:
"'Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?'
 'And you said...'
'And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?" there's more to this conversation, but I loved this response. I spend most of my time waffling between wanting a ranch with horses and a huge garden and cats and wanting a city townhouse in walking distance from all of my favorite foods from various countries and accessible to events and museums and concerts and art. I want one. I want two. I want two!

- The most accurate depiction of depression I've ever read
What struck me most about this book was how intimate Sylvia's portrayal of Esther's suffering ended up being. I felt so connected to Esther, in large part because I'd experienced similar feelings, but also because she was really the only character we cared about for the whole course of the book. These lines below might not seem as perceptive if they were written in a book from the last decade, given that depression is a much more widely understood disease (though we still have a Ways to go, folks). But for her time, and writing as a woman, Esther's simple thoughts rang so true for me. They get at the pernicious quality of depression, and the way it seeps into and poisons every thought, even the ones that used to seem so obvious and routine. 

"I couldn't see the point of getting up.
I had nothing to look forward to."

"It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it."

- Soooo well disguised, Esther. OBviously not you, Sylvia ;)
Esther writes a novel (or starts to) at one point in the book: 
"A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing." do you know what Else has six letters? Sylvia. 

One of the first symptoms Sylvia notices is that she can't sleep. This goes on for a seemingly interminable number of days. Since I read Fight Club before this one (by Accident - Whoopsy-Daisy!) I found this particularly interesting, given that Tyler/Not-Tyler notices his insomnia before any other part of his psychotic break. Funny how little we think of the importance of sleep, and how integral a role it plays in our lives. 

- Expectations vs. Reality
One of the most poignant moments in the book for me was when Esther went to her first psychiatrist. She explains her expectations:
"I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn't, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
   Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn't sleep and why I couldn't read and why I couldn't eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
   And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.

And the reality:
"But Doctor Gordon wasn't like that at all.
"For some reason the photo [on his desk] made me furious.
 I didn't see why it should be turned half toward me unless Doctor Gordon was trying to show me right away that he was married to some glamorous woman and I'd better not get any funny ideas.
   Then I thought, how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card?"

I thought about this moment a lot, and how important that very first visit can be. Speaking to someone about your feelings, your deepest thoughts, can be absolutely terrifying, and the success or failure of the visit depends namely on the actions and climate your psychiatrist creates and your (chosen) response to that climate. It's so easy to say, "This is terrible. I hate this. This person could never understand." and shut down completely. I realized none of my therapists or psychiatrists have ever had personal or family photos in their offices, and I wonder if this isn't why. To keep things like this from happening. I was utterly heartbroken for Esther, and I knew exactly how she felt.

- Mental health is a two-way street
I often explain to people who aren't very familiar with mental health care, or therapy, or the like, how important it is to realize that it's a two-way street. Your therapist or psychiatrist (two Different things, FYI - therapists can do behavioral therapy, but can't prescribe medicine; psychiatrists can prescribe medicine but are less likely to speak to you at length about your feelings. this is one of my Major pet peeves, sorry for the interruption!) only knows what you decide to tell him/her. You are ultimately in control of how successful your care and treatment are. It's a partnership. 

Sylvia got at this quite eloquently with this scene. Esther wrote a note to a friend and realized her handwriting was all over the place and borderline unreadable, but she thought the experience was strange, so she saved it:

"I knew I couldn't send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them in my pocketbook, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see them.
   But of course Doctor Gordon didn't ask to see them, as I hadn't mentioned them, and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all the while he thought he was so smart." A good psychiatrist knows how to get at things like this so you don't feel like you have to work so hard to share your deepest thoughts, but Esther quickly sees the sneaky side of the mental health partnership dilemma.

- Wherever you go, there it is.
The other thing that makes depression such a dastardly demon is that it can follow you anywhere. 
"Wherever I sat - the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."

- Shock treatments
Esther receives shock treatments (some more "pleasant" (aka less horrifying) than others) and at the asylum, she goes through a routine each day of wondering if she'll be targeted:

"Each morning, when I heard the nurse knock with my tray, an immense relief flooded through me, because I knew I was out of danger for that day. I didn't see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she'd never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn't just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?" Shock treatments seem absolutely barbaric to me, although I know that in limited cases they are used today. They used to be used without consent (well into the later part of the 20th century) and I researched them a bit when I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At any rate, I found this morning ritual of fear to be so tangible, and so painful.

- Uncertainty of security
"How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"

Okay, I know this has been a fairly morbid post, but here's my last depressing thought on depression. Mental health is a constant fight. It doesn't go away and leave you safe and sound in the way that a bad cold might, or even a broken leg. It stays with you, and part of healing and dealing is learning to be comfortable with the idea that it ebbs and flows, and what's most important is knowing your network of support, both professional and personal, and having a plan of action for the ebb tides. "

Stimulating sentences:
  • "By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat."
  • "I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
  • "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life."
  • "I picked up my pocketbook and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light."
  • "I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth."
I'll close with what I found to be one of the more uplifting lines from the ending. Esther's friend, Joan, is not so lucky as Esther, and doesn't survive to the book's conclusion. As Esther contemplates this and struggles to deal with it, she pauses and has the following thought:

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 
I am, I am, I am."

Listen to the brag of your hearts, readers, and remember that you are, you are, you are.

Expect a post on Fight Club in the next few days, and if you're in the Northeast, enjoy the snow!