The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

I had had this book in my Audible library for a long time. I knew of Sylvia Plath, of course, but had never read any of her work. It became time that I did.

And I had no preconceptions, no idea what The Bell Jar is about.

Well, it is said to be semi-autobiographical. I think the ‘semi’ may be an understatement. As a student, Plath had a serious breakdown, and attempted to take her own life. This is a book about the events leading up to that episode, and the way she was treated. I found parts of it deeply disturbing, I came close to giving up when it came to the description of suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

I was struck by how much attitudes have changed in the last 60 or 70 years to so much: race, sex and sexuality, mental health.

The Audible version, read so very well by Maggie Gyllenhall, ended with a biographical note about Sylvia Plath. That was an excellent addition, for which I was grateful.

7 out of 10.

30. Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac

More than 40 years ago I read Le Pere Goriot, studying it when taking French at A Level. That book introduced me to the Comedie Humaine, and I read a few of the novels at that time.

Now I have come to Cousin Bette. An interesting story which picks up on the themes that I remember of corrupt Parisian life, and how it affects all it touches ranging from the virtuous to the incorrigible old lechers.

Cousin Bette is the poor relation who lives with apparently wealthy and successful relatives. But she is jealous, spiteful and vindictive, and plots her vengeance on the family. Aspects of the plot did not really add up for me, and I remembered having previously wondered how well Balzac understood women. Some of his sermonising was of his time, not ours.

It was good to meet some ‘old friends’ from Pere Goriot, Bianchon, Rastignac and a few others, now older and more advanced in their careers.

One gripe about this audiobook. The narrator is clearly an American, reading in an English accent. Too often the mask slipped as she mispronounce a word, e.g. saying “Pareezhun” and not Parisian.

7 out of 10

14. The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

laughing policeman.jpg

This is the fourth in the series of police procedural novels by Sjowall and Wahloo, set in Stockholm in the 1960s and 1970s.

Read elsewhere about the social commentary of these novels. To me these books are obviously of a different time. Stockholm was a very different place 50 years ago.  I don’t suppose that women are called nymphomaniacs any more.

These books describe the methodical nature of police work. A lot of hard slogging, following dead ends, making mistakes, until it all comes together.  Here, an unsolved murder more than 10 years ago holds the key to a mass killing, a bus driver and 9 passengers shot on a bus, one of the victims being a young detective who in spare time had been looking into what we would now call a cold case.

Unlike some, I am not sure how to view these books individually, as opposed to as part of the overall series.  I think I’ll give it 7 out of 10.

8. Snowblind, by Ragnar Jonásson

This crime novel fits perfectly into the ‘Trapped’ style of Icelandic noir. Take a remote community, that is cut off in winter, and that is where the murder is committed (in fact Snowblind is set in the northern Icelandic fjord town of Siglúfjordur, as was the second series of Trapped). Take a rookie cop, on his first posting after Police College In Reykjavik. Find a couple of generations-old mysteries. Throw in herrings, some salted, some red.

That is this book.

7 out of 10.

1. Agrippina, by Emma Southon

A tough woman in a world run by men

(my 4 star Amazon review)

Being a member of the Roman Imperial family in the first century AD must have been tough. You were liable to be murdered just so the Emperor of the day could eliminate rival claimants.

And being the granddaughter, niece/wife (yes, both) and mother of different Emperors did not make Agrippina immune from danger. In the midst of all the family carnage around her, she survived, and for a while actually ran the Empire. Until her son, the lovely, charming Nero decided that she had to be killed.

Emma Southon brings together the often patchy historical sources to tell the story of this tough woman. The record is far from complete – there are often gaps of a few years simply because Agrippina’s name does not come up in Tacitus or others.

And Emma Southon brings us Agrippina from the perspective of a 21st century feminist. She works really hard to counterbalance the misogyny of the Roman historians, who did not approve of women doing more than being wives and mothers.

So, all in all, an interesting book, about an amazing woman.

Why only 7 out of 10? Some of the conversational asides and comments to the reader are very much of here and now, and may require explanatory notes in 15-20 years time. Hopefully by then David Cameron will have been deservedly forgotten, as well as what he may have got up to with dead pigs.

***DISCLOSURE*** I have not met the author, but she gave me a digital copy by way of thanks for an introduction I made via social media.

7 out of 10.