Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Golden Bowl By Henry James

The Golden Bowl
is the third Henry James novel that I have read. This is a classic story of marital infidelity. Though the two other books that I have read by this author had lots of inner introspection as well as analysis of characters and relationships, this book takes the prize for that sort of thing. This novel is characterized by pages and pages of analysis of people as well as their actions and motivations. Thus, while the plot is interesting it is not fast moving. James has fashioned a brilliant and unique work of literature that lends itself to slow and deep reading. I thought that this was excellent and I got a lot out of it, but this novel is not for readers who are looking for any kind of event driven story. This was written in 1904.

This novel is mostly about four people. Adam Verver is a fabulously wealthy American who is a collector of rare and fine objects and art. Maggie is his daughter. Maggie becomes engaged to Prince Amerigo. The Prince is a member of Italian royalty but he has no money. Before he knew Maggie, the Prince has fallen in love with a young woman named Charlotte Stant. The pair broke off their romance due to the fact that they were both poor. It turns out that Maggie and Charlotte are old childhood friends. At the time of the marriage neither Maggie nor her father know of The Prince and Charlotte’s earlier affair. Shortly before the wedding, The Prince and Charlotte go in search for a wedding gift for Maggie. Though they do not buy it, they come across a crystal bowl that is finely wrought but cracked. The bowl, which the novel takes its name from, becomes very important in terms of both plot and symbolism. A few years into the first marriage, Adam Verver proposes and marries Charlotte. 

The proximately is too much for the ex – lovers and The Prince and Charlotte eventually take up an affair with each other. Eventually Maggie discovers the liaison. As is typical of James’s characters, she communicates her knowledge to her unfaithful husband in a subtle way and quietly makes it known to him that she expects the affair to end. One of her prime motivations is aimed at preventing her father from finding out about the unfaithfulness of his spouse. All this is presented very slowly and very subtly.

The most important thing to say about this book, as I mentioned above, is the way that it delves in to the minds and actions of its characters. This is a deep and meticulous dive into the motivations and psychology of people. I would estimate that about 70% of the pages of this book are dedicated to this examination. Many other books are deep psychological studies. In fact, James himself has written other novels that dug into things in a similar way. It is the degree that this bookwork does these things that makes it so distinctive. I have read The Portrait of a Lady and The Turning of the Screw previously. Both those works displayed some if these characteristics, but not to the extent that this book does. In fact, nothing else that I have ever read comes close to the detailed examinations of life that James pulls off here. This makes this book a unique and special work of art. 

Something that goes along with all this is the complexity and unexpected aspects to the characters themselves. There is a sense that both Maggie and her father found partners partially because of their great wealth. I would have been easy for James to have portrayed them as unpleasant characters in order to illustrate this. However, on the contrary, they are very appealing people. They are thoughtful, kind and show absolutely no arrogance despite their wealth. In the end, though their wealth was used as kind of a hook to find partners, they are still attractive despite the riches. To me, this is complexity. 

The characters are different and complex in other ways too. At one point Maggie is considering that fact that she does not have strong feelings of jealousy,

She might fairly, as she watched them, have missed it as a lost thing; have yearned for it, for the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment, the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion, as for something she had been cheated of not least: a range of feelings which for many women would have meant so much, but which for her husband’s wife, for her father’s daughter, figured nothing nearer to experience than a wild eastern caravan, looming into view with crude colours in the sun, fierce pipes in the air, high spears against the sky, all a thrill, a natural joy to mingle with, but turning off short before it reached her and plunging into other defiles. 

The above quotation is typical of much of the book. This analysis and introspection builds layers upon layers of complexity into James’s characters. As I mention above, the reactions and motivations of these characters are often unusual. This is exemplified by the fact that while bothered by her husband’s and friend’s affair, Maggie is really not jealous. 

The nature of the relationships are also unusual. Maggie and Charlotte are childhood friends. The fact that Charlotte marries Maggie’s father and technically becomes her step - mother is odd and the characters even mention that it disconcerts them a little. The fact that the unfaithful pair had fallen in love and wanted to marry in the past is also something that is not common in stories of infidelity. Maggie and her father also have an unconventionally close relationship and both her them neglect their respective spouses as a result.

James’s sentence structure is unusual and can be called awkward. Admittedly, I did not really know enough about writing to describe exactly why James’s sentences are so difficult, aside from the fact that they tend to be long. However, a little reading online indicates that many find him difficult because he uses subordinate clauses to excess.

The above quotation is one example. Another occurs when The Prince is contemplating his position in English society. 

He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself—though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue—which was it?—of the vernacular.

To ease oneself into a book like this, a reader might want to start with The Portrait of a Lady or another James entry first. This may help assist reader with the unconventional prose style, as well as the novel's other peculiarities. 

This is a unique book for the reasons mentioned above. The deep and intricate musings are very interesting. It lends itself to slow and patient reading. Along with the depths that James plumbs here, the the book is a fascinating look at a handful of complex characters and relationships. However, I would only recommend reading this is one were prepared first. Folks going into this should not expect a plot driven story. Instead, it is a slow read about people. One also needs to be ready for James’s prose style. For those who are prepared for this, I would strongly recommend this as an original work of art that is like no other book that I have read.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

9 Year Blogiversary!

Babbling Books is nine years old today! This anniversary brings a mini – crisis in my blogging activities but optimism for the future. The mini – crisis that I refer to will be evident to anyone who has been following this blog, that is, I have not been posting much.

The reason that I have not put up a lot of entries in the past few months in twofold. The reasons are also related. The first is that I have been working more and more hours at my job. These hours have been escalating. I have been working more in the past few weeks then I have worked since my blog started. In fact, I remember that 9 years ago, I started my blog shortly after a work project ended that was taking up a lot of time. At the time, I figured that the extra hours could be devoted to blogging. 


The second reason is something that happens from time to time. I have been stuck in a period of what I will describe as lower motivation. Much of this low motivation is part of the natural cycles of ups and downs. However, another related factor is the fact that about two months ago the keyboard on my desktop  computer died. I replaced it with something that I had lying around, but something that I thought would be a good choice. It was a Macally keyboard that was a large piece of hardware. I thought that its size and apparent sturdiness would be good for writing. However, in retrospect it it turns out that using it was an unpleasant experience.  Among other things it led to a lot of typos and missed key strokes.  I have replaced it with an Apple Magic Keyboard which is ironically much smaller but much easier and pleasant to write with. I did not realize that this poor keyboard experience was keeping me away from writing, but once I replaced it, writing blog posts became a positive experience again.    

I must admit that had my busyness at work coincided with a period of higher motivation for blogging, that I would have still managed to post more. I am naturally a very slow writer, so the combination of these two factors has really slowed down my posting.  


The really good news is that, while the long hours at work were caused by several factors, the biggest driver of time at work was a project that was just concluded on January 31st. I should be working a lot less now. I am hoping that this freeing of my time will be also help spur more motivation to write blogs.


Thus, I am optimistic that I will be posting more frequently going forward and that 2021 will be a good year for blogging. I am looking forward to the future. Have no fear, Babbling Books should still be around for a while. 


As I do every year, I want to thank all my wonderful commenters. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to comment and engage in my comments section. Interaction with other bloggers in our comments sections is one of the main reasons to blog in the first place. 

Happy reading and blogging in 2021 everybody!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s follow up The Shining. Though I recently reread The Shining, this was the first new -  for - me  King novel that I have read in decades.   I thought that this book was an excellent horror tale. It included a compelling plot, good writing and some in intelligent action and suspense elements. The book also played with some interesting themes. Some of the characters were somewhat complex, however, this book was not the deep psychological study that The Shining was. This was first published in 2013.

My post on The Shining is here. Early on in this book we learn about the future of Danny, Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann, who were major characters in the first novel, in the years that followed their escape from the horrors of The Overlook Hotel. This story chronicles how Danny, who still has psychic powers, had fallen into a life of alcoholism and violence in the 1990s. However, in the early 2000’s he settles down in a small New England town, where he quits drinking, cleans up and makes real and reliable friends. There is a lot here about Alcoholics Anonymous. King is a recovering alcoholic so I assume he knows a lot from experience. 

After his reformation, Danny gets a job as an orderly in a home for the dying. There, he is known to comfort those in their last hours so well, he gets the nickname “Doctor Sleep”. Over the years Danny also established a psychic connection with Abra Stone, a young girl who also shows strong psychic or Shining powers. The reader is also introduced to a traveling group of nomads known as The True Knot. These are nearly immortal, vampire - like characters who travel America in motorhomes as they kidnap and torture children. The children’s dying agonies release something called “steam” that The True Knot feeds upon to maintain their powers. This group is led by a charismatic woman known as Rose the Hat. Abra eventually psychically tunes in to one of the True Knot’s grisly murders. She begins to poke into more of their doings with her mind. Rose begins to also  psychically poke into Abra  and eventually decides to start hunting her. Danny is drawn into protecting Abra. Psychic and real life confrontations between Danny, Abra as well as their allies and The True Knot ensue. Eventually a final battle is fought at the site of the now destroyed Overlook Hotel. 

The book is full of observations about human nature, life death and all sorts of other things. There are themes floating around that involve responsibility, guilt, mortality, etc. All this is fairly typical of King. This is not there deep psychological dive that The Shining was but there are  some interesting things going on with the characters. Abra in particular  is somewhat complex. She is mostly an intelligent and likable teenager. However, she has a temper. At times she enjoys  using her powers against The True Knot a little too much. While this group engages in monstrous behavior and is out to kidnap and harm her, she begins to revel when using her powers to hurt its members. She also occasionally lets her temper drive her power in other situations. At one point Danny comments to her, 

No lecture and no moral. Just blood calling to blood. The stupid urges of wakeful people. And you've made it to a time of life when you're completely awake. It's hard for you. I know that. It's hard for everyone, but most teenagers don't have your abilities. Your weapons. 

Despite some issues, the reader is left with the impression that Abra will take a virtuous path and not allow the dark aspects of her personality to dominate. 

The True Knot and Rose are also interesting. When dealing with humans, the group are a bunch of monsters. They torture and murder children. Their actions are sociopathic. However, among themselves they behave morally and ethically. They also exhibit genuine, warm emotions between themselves. Rose is actually a good leader. She does not lead by using fear. Instead she leads mostly by persuasion and charisma. She feels compassion and love for the other members of the group. This connection between members is not cultish but resembles the emotional bonds between old spouses and friends. 

After a gunfight between men Danny and his allies and members of the True Knot, one of the group, named Snake, lays dying. He comments,

“ We didn’t choose to be what we are any more then you did. In our shoes, you’d do the same. …

“Your people slaughter pigs and cows and sheep. Is what we do any different?”

Perhaps King is saying it relates that otherwise good, seemingly balanced people can tolerate and participate in bad actions? This was a factor when it came to slavery and the Holocaust. Is King suggesting that current day people might be engaging in a little of this?

There are multiple references and call backs to The Shining. For, instance at one point Danny is on a job interview and wonders if his father ever did the same thing. It turns out that the earlier novel began with a job interview for Jack Torrance. Over the course of the interview there are parallels with that earlier interview. There are lots of such references to the earlier book. It all cumulates in the end when the ghost of Jack Torrance plays a decisive roll in the final battle against The True Knot. 

This novel is expertly written within the bounds of popular literature. King is very good at writing horror, intelligent action and portraying characters with enough complexity to retain interest. 

I thought that this book had a few flaws. In several points of this novel, Danny, Abra and their allies fight The True Knot both physically and psychically. The evil group seems to lose in most of these encounters and ultimately does not seem to be all that formable. A more effective group of antagonists would have strengthened the story. We also see the ghost of Dick Hallorann at one point delving out some simplistic but satisfying philosophy. The novel would have benefitted with more of him. 

There is a film version of this that was made a couple of years ago. Though King did approve of the movie, the film was a sequel to the film version of The Shining. This novel is a sequel to the novel The Shining. Thus, there are some fairly major differences between this book and the film, especially towards the end. 

While not quite up to The Shining, this was an exceptional horror book. King is a skilled writer and knows how to craft a story that works in many ways. There was some depth here as King freely shares his observations on all sorts of issues and plays with some interesting ideas. The characters were also mostly interesting and engaging, I would recommend this one to anyone who enjoyed The Shining.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a very famous French novel. I thought that this book was an excellent literary work that dug in to all sorts interesting themes in complex ways. As far as I could tell while reading a translation, the  prose seemed distinctive and brilliantly crafted. The plot was also interesting. The novel was first published in 1856. 


The is the story of the title character, Emma Bovary.  The reader is initially introduced to   Emma’s future husband Charles Bovary, before he even knows her. Charles is a reliable but uninteresting doctor in a French village.  Charles’s domineering first wife dies. Simultaneously, Charles begins to provide medical treatment to Emma’s father and starts to develop a romantic interest in her. He begins to court Emma and the pair eventually get engaged and married. Though Emma is happy at first, she soon becomes bored with her marriage and what she considers a humdrum and unromantic country life.  She wants to live a more glamorous and materialistic lifestyle with a more interesting man. Emma proceeds to spend lavishly on clothing, furniture and all sorts of frills. After she has a daughter, Emma engages in affairs with other men. First, with a local land owner and later with a handsome clerk named Leon.   All this time Charles is oblivious to what is going on, even though Emma and her lovers are often indiscrete. Eventually Emma’s excessive spending catches up with her as debt collectors begin to move to sell the Bovarys’ possessions. All this eventually leads to calamity for the Bovarys. 


There are other important characters including the village pharmacist, Monsieur Homais. This man  supposedly befriends the Boverys but his friendship is eventually shown to be false. He is pompous and pretentious and ultimately very successful. He uses people for his benefit and abandons them when he no longer needs them. He is also a rationalist who likes to have philosophical arguments.


I would describe the  prose is this book as  both soaring but also intentionally pretentious. That sounds contradictory but the language sometimes seems sublime while at other times it seems to be very exaggerated. Sometimes it seems as if Flaubert is skirting the line between the two.  The over – the -  top language seems to be a reflection of Emma and her pretentious associates’ thoughts, personalities and feelings. Emma is often overemotional, phony and also sees the world in a kind of super - romantic state. Of course, I only read a translation of this book. I chose the Lydia Davis version because it seems to be very respected and multiple reviewers have commented that it is close to the original French. Thus, I feel fairly comfortable commenting on the language used in this book.  A good example of this language occurs when Emma’s lover Leon is waiting for her in a church.


At any minute now she would appear, charming, agitated, glancing behind her at the eyes that were following her, —in her flounced dress, her gold lorgnette, her thin little boots, all kinds of elegant refinements he had never tasted before, and with all the ineffable seductiveness of virtue yielding. The church, like a vast boudoir, was arranging itself around her; the vaults were leaning down to gather up, in the shadows, the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illuminate her face; and the censers burned so that she might appear like an angel, amid clouds of perfume.


Despite the almost religious nature of the above, Leon’s hypocrisy and shallowness is illustrated when he fails to provide help or much support to Emma when she most needs it. 


The entire nature of Emma is at the heart of the book. She has the opportunity to live a comfortable life. Her husband, while not the most interesting man in the world, sincerely loves her, is hard working and is honest.  However, her actions, as well as her thoughts as reflected in the novel’s language, indicate that she has been seduced into believing that she needs to live in world of indulgence and a kind of faux depth. There are obvious connections to romanticism in her outlook. In fact, some have described this book as an attack upon romanticism. Others have described it as a scathing criticism on bourgeois values. I am skeptical of attacks by the elite on the bourgeois or middle class that have been leveled throughout history. However, I think that Flaubert is on to something with his criticism of a certain kind of over - the -  top, fake sophistication. With all that, though I did not live in the time and place that the author did, I suspect that, like today, many people lived life in a state of happy medium between materialism, over -  emotionalism and over - indulgence and more down to earth thoughts and pursuits. However, Emma has lost all sense of that balance. 


There is more complexity here however. The humdrum and unromantic life that Emma bristles over is also critiqued. Despite Charles’s virtues, he really is dull and hopelessly naive.  Monsieur Homais seems to represent much of what is bad about of the middle class “average life”. Perhaps, Flaubert is looking toward a happy medium or perhaps he is just being critical of multiples aspects of the human experience. 


There is more going on here. For instance, there is an ongoing and debate that spans several years between Homais and the village curate Bournisien. The two men engage in a classic argument between science and rationality on one side and  and spiritualism and faith on the other.  This debate concludes for the reader when both characters eventually fall asleep in the midst of their argument. Obviously, there is much to this conclusion. This also provides one of the best and most amusing passages in the book. 


The pharmacist and the curé plunged back into their occupations, not without dozing off from time to time, something for which each would reproach the other every time they woke.


 And then a little later. 


Homais did not challenge these superstitions, for he had fallen asleep again. Monsieur Bournisien, being more resistant, went on moving his lips very softly for some time; then, imperceptibly, he lowered his chin, let go of his thick black book, and began to snore. They sat opposite each other, their stomachs out, their faces swollen, both scowling, after so much dissension united, at last, in the same human weakness;


Flaubert seems to be mocking the over seriousness and repetitiveness of some of these discussions. At the same time, he seems to be illustrating how human commonality, even when it is in the form of weakness, is more important than these philosophical differences. 


I will mention that complex characters are not this novel’s strong point. Almost everyone from Emma and Charles to the villagers and Emma’s lovers are close to caricatures. I think that it is fair to describe them as symbols. Because we really get into the Emma's head, there may be hints that there is some real depth underneath, but there are only hints. With all that, the characters are enjoyable to read about. Despite her flaws, at times Emma seems sympathetic and I suspect that many readers want her to find a measure of happiness.


This has been called one of the greatest novels ever written. While I would not go that far, I thought that it was fantastic. The plot was engrossing. It bandies about all sorts of interesting ideas.  The characters, m while not all that nuanced were entertaining to read about. The language, even in translation, is grand in a kind of ironic way. For those who like Nineteenth Century literature, I highly recommend this one. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

George III by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s George III is a somewhat unusual look at the English monarch. This biography has a fairly unconventional structure and style to it. In some ways the book is a challenging read and seems to be aimed at a specific audience of people who already know something of its subject. With that, I personally found this work to be educational and interesting. Black is a Professor of History at Exeter University.This was first published in 2008. 

Though I am interested in many historical topics, my initial interest in George III stemmed from the fact that he was the British monarch who reigned during The American Revolution. The Revolution is the area of history that I am most interested in. Like any biography of this man, a number of pages here are dedicated to the Revolution. In fact, some versions of this book are subtitled America's Last King. I think that subtitle is a little misleading as this is a full biography that does not put special influence on the Revolution. I would guess that the subtitle is part of a marketing strategy as interest in the American Revolution is high in The United States. I am not complaining about this as I was looking to read a full biography. George was a generally interesting figure who is worth knowing about. 

This is the second biography of George that I have read. I had previously read George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert. My commentary on that book is here. Though I enjoyed Hibbert’s work and found it educational, I thought that, as that book is advertised, there was not enough detail about politics or national and international affairs in it. Black’s book, though very detailed in those areas, has its own quirks that I will talk about below. Thus, while I am glad that I read both books, I have not found a single, satisfying and comprehensive book on George III.

George was born in 1738 and reigned as King from 1760 until his death in 1820. Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy at the time, thus, while George wielded real power, he shared that power with Parliament and other components of government. George was King during both The American Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars.

There are many aspects of George’s life and reign worth focusing on. I cannot do any kind of comprehensive assessment within a single blog post. Instead, I will do what I am sometimes known to do and focus on a couple of things that I find interesting. One ironic point, in light of the fascination that so many people have about George’s mental illness, is how stable and balanced he was. He was also principled and ethical in comparison to most royalty of the time. In George’s time when almost all royalty had extramarital affairs, he fell in love with his wife, who he had married as the result of an arraignment, and had no affairs. At a time when so many members of royalty, including sovereigns, were known to gamble and drink to excess, he did no such thing. In a world filled with royalty and monarchs that had volatile tempers, were arrogant and petty he was known to be even tempered, not arrogant and often made an effort to put nervous visitors at ease. At the same he was almost never described as weak. Black writes,

George's personality as a mature man was already clear in some respects when he came to the throne. His sense of propriety, diligence and commitment had been honed by his upbringing. It was to be put under brutal pressure in the maelstrom of politics, and yet the personality that matured was an attractive one. King George was generally good-humoured, and a kindly, gentlemanly, often (but not always) generous, charitable, worrying person.

The above is consistent with other sources that I have read. 

I am not contending that George was perfect or saintly. This book, as well as other sources that I have read does not whitewash George. He was imperfect. For instance, he restricted his daughters’ freedom terribly, even by the standards of the time. He was known to be stubborn to the point where it caused him problems both politically and personally. He also supported some policies involving slavery and discrimination against Catholics that many objected to in his own time. However, he does stand out as a stable person who had a sense of ethics in a sea of bad characters. As for his mental issues, they occupied fairly brief periods during the prime of his reign. Unfortunately, they completely debilitated him during the last ten years of his life. These issues were probably caused by porphyria.

On policy George was something of a moderate conservative. When he took the throne the power of the British monarchy was waning in the face of Parliament and other aspects of constitutional monarchy. He endeavored, somewhat successfully, to strengthen royal powers. He also sought to eliminate waste and inefficiency in government. He made serious mistakes as Britain and America fell headlong into the American Revolution and George presided over the losing side in that conflict. However, he also presided over the Britain’s early wars and opposition to Napoleon with some success and it can be argued that he helped keep Britain stable in the face of worldwide revolution. 

As I mentioned above, this book is somewhat unusually structured. It is only partially chronological. Multiple chapters focus on a specific part of George’s life. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to George’s family and personnel life, another chapter is dedicated to his mental illness. Some of the chapters do cover specific time periods such as the American Revolution and several Napoleonic Wars, however, even these chapters tend to jump around in time. In addition, the author focuses his concentration in unusual directions. He tends to delve into great detail when it comes to British politics but then ignores the big picture. For instance, Catholic Emancipation was an issue that continued to reoccur throughout George’s rule. This controversy arose because discrimination against Catholics was codified into law during George’s time. Many wanted to reduce or remove those discriminatory laws. There were moves within both Parliament and George’s ministries to relax these restrictions. George generally opposed emancipation. In various parts of the book the text goes into minute detail on the political wrangling behind all of this. Yet the underlying issues and history involving Catholics and discrimination aimed at them is skirted and never explored in any kind of comprehensive or satisfying manor. Likewise, unlike many other biographies that I have read, this book is very sparse when it comes to the background detail of people who were connected to George. There is a paucity of information about George’s family and associates. We get a detailed look at their interactions with George, but not much background. This is not to say that the book is not detailed. The work is comprised of 452 dense pages. It is just what Black concentrates on that is different. He is most interested in the workings of government and politics. When it comes to George personal relationships, as mentioned above, the work looks deeply into George’s actions and motivations, but reveals little about others. 

All this adds up to a book that almost presupposes that the reader is already knowledgeable about George and the time and place that he lived in. Black almost seems like it is trying to fill in and discuss details about knowledge that is already known by the reader. Personally, I have read other biographies and details about George’s life. I am also somewhat familiar with other details related to Great Britain and the rest of the world of the time. Thus, I was OK with this approach. However, I would have appreciated if more of this book concentrated on these omitted things. Also, this book would not be the first choice for someone who started off knowing little about George III or his times. In addition, Black’s writing style can also be a little challenging, his sentences are packed with information and sometimes worded awkwardly. 

This was a different kind of biography. I learned a lot from it. The book was well researched, and was interesting. Black appears to be a good and unbiased historian. I am glad that I read this. However, due to its odd attributes I would not recommend this to someone new to the subjects covered. I am still on the lookout for a more conventional and mainstream biography of George III.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King’s The Shining was a reread for me. I first read this a very long time ago, probably in the late 1980s. I decided to read this book again after many years because I rewatched the film and then saw the movie version of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I decided to read Doctor Sleep for the first time but I wanted to reread this book first. I was surprised at how much that I liked this novel the second time around. I found this to be an effective combination of horror and character study. This was first published in 1977.

When I blog about a book, I do not usually like to talk about the film version as do not see much value in comparing books and movies. However, the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film is so famous and so many people have seen it that I need to share few thoughts about it here. King did not approve of that movie. While I thought that the film was brilliant, I understand King’s objections. This book, in addition to being a horror story, is also an effective character study. Much of the deep psychological insights that are present in the novel were only hinted at in the film. In particular, most of the complexity of the story’s adult main character, Jack Torrance, was lost. I think that movie version, like most Kubrick films was innovative, effective and is endowed with more positives then I could list here. It was not however, the deeply complex look into a person’s psychology that the novel was. There was a 1997 television miniseries version of the story that King was the executive producer of and that he approved of. I have not seen that version. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, the story revolves around the Torrance family. There is Jack, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny. The Torrances are troubled. Jack is a young writer and teacher who still holds promise, but he has a drinking problem and has an issue with his temper. However, he is not a monster and is a complex mix of good and bad traits. Jack is a masterful creation as he is balanced between positive and negative. His drinking and temper have gotten him into trouble and he has lost a good teaching job as a result. He has let is family down in serious ways and their well - being is in jeopardy because of him. In one incident he inadvertently injured Danny when he was drunk. King gets into his head and he is sometimes, but not always, angry and cynical. He is also intelligent and perceptive. But he is not abusive and his wife and son do not fear him. In fact, he has a strong and warm relationship with Danny and an up and down relationship with Wendy. He has also quit drinking. He is self - aware and is never in denial and recognizes and acknowledges his problems and understands that he must overcome them. He is also wracked with guilt over his past behavior. He is a well - done and interesting mix of traits. 

Danny is not only gifted with intelligence and perception, but he also manifests psychic powers. The boy is able to know things, read minds and see the future. Wendy is intelligent and capable of standing up for Danny and herself. Her character is stronger and more competent then it was in the film.

Jack takes the job of the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. The hotel is forty miles from civilization and once the snows begin the Torrances will be completely isolated from civilization. Before the family arrives at The Overlook, Danny begins to have horrendous and bloody visions about the hotel. 

On the last day that the hotel is open, as all the guests and staff are preparing to depart and the Torrances are settling in, the family encounters Dick Hallorann, who is the Overlook’s cook. Hallorann immediately recognizes Danny’s abilities which he also shares. The cook calls this these powers “Shining” based on old folk stories that Hallorann has heard from his grandmother. Hallorann also indicates that The Overlook is haunted and that there are bad forces at play there. He is headed off to Florida for the winter but indicates that if Danny gets into trouble, he may be able to psychically call out for help. 

As the winter sets in and The Overlook is cut off by snow, each of the Torrances begins to see ghosts and manifestations. These phenomena range from visions of past murders that occurred at the hotel to hedge animals that come alive. Both Danny’s psychic abilities and Jack’s character weaknesses stimulate and attract the evil spirits. The ghosts begin to play off Jack’s dark side encouraging him to drink, become angry, resentful and abusive towards his wife and son, and eventually to murder them. As things deteriorate Jack does become murderous, Danny attempts to call Hallorann for help. 

In think that the strongest aspect of this book is the nuanced and complex portrait of Jack. His drinking has been a problem for his family and himself. Jack walked into the Overlook on a knife edge between the positive and the negative, between good and evil. The evil that dwells at the hotel jumps right into Jack’s mind. Jack, who is at least self – aware, realizes, 

everything became clear to him. It was not just Danny the Overlook was working on. It was working on him, too. It wasn’t Danny who was the weak link, it was him. He was the vulnerable one, the one who could be bent and twisted until something snapped.

The dark spirits in the hotel proceed to push Jack over the edge. One wonders how Jack and his family would have made out in life had they never gone to The Overlook. 

As for the book being scary or chilling, King does write a few very effective passages. For instance, when the Torrances wake in the middle of the night, in the completely cut off and isolated hotel and they hear then elevator running,

The illuminated clock on his nightstand said it was five minutes to twelve. The humming sound again. Loud and steady, varying the slightest bit. Followed by a clank as the humming ceased. A rattling bang. A thump. Then the humming resumed. It was the elevator.

There are a lot of chilling and spooky moments in the book, but I found that them to be mostly laid back and moderate. Character takes center stage in this work. With that, the Overlook is a fantastic setting for all of this and the novel has a lot of atmosphere. 

I have always felt that King was not the most original novelist. At least for the books that I have read and films that I have seen that were based upon those books, his plots usually share a commonality with older works. Before this was written there were lots of stories about a person going to a bad place and being unduly influenced by that place. One strong influence here is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, King pays tribute to that other work as it is mentioned in the text. What I think that King does vey well, is to retell these older stories in a very effective way. 

I thought that novel was better than I remembered it. It is a superb character study that evolves into a battle between good and evil inside one person’s head. The setting of the Overlook is also a perfect place to set such a tale. Fans of this type of story who have not read this book will probably get a lot out of it. I should also mention that as the novel nears its end the plot deviates from the 1977 film so those who only know that story can at least expect a different resolution. I think that many non - horror fans might also find this worthwhile. I plan to move on to Doctor Sleep soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood. The novel looks into Esther’s life both before and after she experiences symptoms of mental illness. I found this to both an interesting character study as well as what can only be described as a realistic account of a person descending into mental illness. This is a short novel. My edition was only 189 pages long. This was first published in 1963 shortly before Plath’s death. For those who do not know, the tragic connection is that Plath committed suicide shortly after the book was published. Like Plath herself, the novel’s main character suffers from depression and makes several suicide attempts. 

The book is told from Esther’s first - person point of view. This is a semi - autobiographical if not a straight up thinly veiled autobiography. Esther is a young, intelligent and vivacious college student. The book opens with her spending time as an intern for Ladies' Day magazine. Early on, the narrative covers Esther’s social life, dating life and work life. Many of her experiences are comical. Esther wants to be a poet when she is not dreaming of other life paths. Esther is perceptive, witty and sharp and as she doles out personal and social commentary freely. Later on, she starts to descend into mental illness and depression and she undergoes therapy, including shock treatments. The “Bell Jar” refers to the confining and stifling place that Esther feels like she is trapped in due to her depression. 

Even during her mental decline, Esther is perceptive and poetical,

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 think that the above is very lyrical.  The shadows are indicative of Esther’s melancholy tinged view of the world. Here they affect everything in a way that depression does for those afflicted.

In a way this seems like two stories. Before Esther begins to experience symptoms of mental illness the narrative is a bit cynical but upbeat. The entire mood and tone of the book changes with Esther’s condition. It turns darker. 

Esther has a cynical streak in her. She is also determined to retain a sense of independence and resists getting pulled in to marriage that will be limiting to her life. The world that is presented in the book gives Esther some fairly narrow choices as to who she is expected to marry. I understand her hesitancy. There is a sophomoric streak to Esther too. However, I think that this was realistic for a young person who is both intelligent and cynical. Her observations about the world are not exactly profound, but they are intellectually lively and often amusing. 

Here she is commenting upon, what at the time was new film technology,

I hate Technicolor. Everybody in a Technicolor movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clotheshorse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.

Later in the book Esther makes several attempts at suicide, gets institutionalized in a high - class facility and undergoes shock treatment. As Plath was writing from experience here, this part of the book seems very credible. As for Esther’s mental illness there are actually folks online today who try to do psychoanalysis. However, though this may not have been recognized at the time, the kind of issues that Esther has are clearly chemical in terms of brain function and the best treatment, though imperfect, now includes medication for most people. 

The Bell Jar is very famous. Based upon word of mouth and what I read on the internet, I am going to make few generalizations about its popularity. I lot of young people read it and say they like it because they relate to it. It seems more popular with women than men, but a fair number of men love the book too. Of course, not everyone likes the book. Based upon reviews on Amazon and Goodreads it seems that people who do not like the book strongly dislike it. This is the first time that I have read it. 

I thought that this is very much worth the read. We get a peek into a young woman’s mind and opinions that are interesting, lively and funny. The descent into mental illness is worth it if only for the realistic observations. Plath’s tragic death adds poignancy to it all. Though the book might not quite live up to its near cult - like status, it is a worthy character study. Tragically, do to the author's  real life experiences, the later parts of the book gain extra credence. I cannot help to wonder what other works Plath would have created had she lived.