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.

35. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

 

Buy Beloved on Amazon

What a powerful book! I really do not know how to do it justice.

Toni Morrison died a few months ago, and all the tributes made me realise that I had to read Beloved. I have found it hard work: while some sections read more easily, others required care and perseverance. At times I wondered if not having black slave ancestry was making it harder for me to relate to this book.

I won’t attempt to describe Beloved. You can look elsewhere for that. I can see why it is rated as an American classic, and why Toni Morrison won a Nobel Prize.

But I cannot quite give it 10 out of 10, not yet, anyway. I suspect that it is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time to come, so it may yet earn that extra mark in my mind. 9 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

13. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

I’m guessing we all know at least something about the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I sort of did, but I had never read the book.  And I’m glad I listened to this audiobook.

I would have struggled reading Don Quixote. One of the great things about audiobooks is that I can listen to long descriptive passages, paying attention and often appreciating the writing, whereas with a book in my hand I would have raced through to the next bit of ‘action’. Thus I came to enjoy the numerous long conversations between Don Quixote and Sancha Panza, Quixote earnest and serious, the foolish wise man, and Panza the wise fool with his endless proverbs and sayings.

Don Quixote’s ‘adventures’ become increasingly ridiculous – the famous tilting at windmills is one of the first. The proper word is picaresque, but the one that came to my mind as I was listening is pythonesque.

36 hours in all, this is a long listen. I was listening for almost 2 months on my daily drive to and from work and some longer drives. At times I felt it almost lost its way, but Cervantes always pulled the narrative back on course.

You know something about the story. If you have not already done so, read or listen to Don Quixote. You won’t regret it.

Definitely 10 out of 10.