Book Review: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

securedownload

Well, it has been sometime since I last sat down to write a review. It appears that I have spent the last year reading more books than writing their reviews, and for this I slap my own wrist. For a while I was very busy and I must admit that writing had been usurped of its top spot in the hierarchy of my priorities. And yet, despite this, upon uncovering the sheer beauty and brilliance of John Williams’ ‘Stoner’, I had no other choice but to explore my findings and feelings of a book that the Sunday Times has labeled “The Greatest Novel you’ve never read”. I concede that to begin with I had my reservations but Williams wasted no time in robbing me of my cynicism and presenting me instead with the refreshing universality of ‘Stoner’, minus the egotistical protagonist that usually accompanies such works.

 

William Stoner attends the University of Missouri at the age of nineteen and commits himself to the study of Agriculture. Upon the completion of his studies, Stoner stays on and moves onto his PhD whilst teaching at the university. As his closest friends David Masters and Gordon Finch sign up to fight during the war, Stoner is left to question his own reluctance to do the same. This is intensified by a wave of regret that sweeps over him upon hearing of the death of Masters by which time he is yet to marry the wrong women, Edith Bostwick. The marriage is a proverbial car crash and Edith’s manipulative control of their daughter Grace frustrates and depresses Stoner until he desperately seeks the attention of a beautiful female PhD student, Katherine with whom he begins an impassioned love affair.

 

But when a troubled relationship with a student returns to haunt Stoner, deceit, blackmail and betrayal play their part in a cruel twist that means Stoner has everything to lose. Combined with his ongoing political struggles at the university and his inability to excel in sociality, Stoner’s life takes a tragic turn that renders the reader hopeless and hopeful simultaneously.

 

Stoner, as a novel, has everything that you expect to see in literature that has been labeled as ‘a classic’. Williams writes with an integrity that captures the heart and soul of an unorthodox male protagonist and his sometimes-awkward approach and creates a compelling narrative because of this. A story about everything and nothing, Williams highlights the subtlety of human life and all of its frail idiosyncrasies; romance, tragedy, wisdom, love, philosophy, duplicity, education, compassion and truth. A truly absorbing and convincing read for anyone who loves literature.

 

Readability: (4/5) The novel can actually dawdle in sections and yet you find that your fingers are consistently itching to turn to the next page. The Chapters are perfectly placed and allow for long sittings or a quick read through a part of Stoner’s life in-between everything else your doing. As mentioned, Williams’ writing style is captivating, making the novel a pleasure to read.

 

Drawbacks: (4/5) In places you can feel as though you’re waiting for the catastrophe, the volta, the big twist or turn. But I’ll inform you now that you’ll be waiting indefinitely. Stoner isn’t about dramatic or explosive plots and story lines. It’s something I like to call a ‘real’ text. I personally prefer this, but others may find this unsatisfying.

 

Overall: (4/5) For me, Stoner offers a brilliant insight into the magnificence and misfortune of life, capturing perfectly formed humility and unpretentiousness in a form that is so pure its borders reality. A terrific novel by a sophisticated writer, which is worthy of its title as a triumph of literary endeavor.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, literature, review

Book Review: ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley

Image

Onto something completely different from my last two reviews now with a dystopia novel, which is arguably my favourite genre. ‘Brave New World’ is a book that I actually finished reading in the post university weeks whilst i struggled to adapt to a life of job searching in the absence of academia. I had previously been notified of Huxley’s genius by friends but chose to indulge myself within Orwell’s ‘1984’ back in my college years, and this was (and still is) a decision that was justified by the fact that it now sits at the peak of my all time favourite novels. But I digress, so back to the book at hand. I had searched lists of dystopian fiction to find that Huxley’s work actually succeeded in overtaking my beloved ‘1984’ in the reader rankings and so decided that, after very little deliberation, I would finally tackle this dystopian-goliath.

Yet, I must confess that goliath went down far too easily for me, and I was able to walk away slightly disappointed as opposed to triumphant. Now this should not be confused with the opinion that I didn’t enjoy or even appreciate the novel, just that after all over the attention ‘Brave New World’ has received I felt that it perhaps fell short of its glorified reputation.

The novel begins by introducing the concept of the conditioning centre, which has effectively replaced human procreation or reproduction, as humans are instead practically developed via test tube. The World State’s motto of “Community, Identity, Stability” inevitably reads ironically from the very opening chapters of the book, with the lack of identity apparent through the biological construction of each human combining with the division of the community as a result of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon groupings which determine the classification of humans. This, on the surface, creates a social stability which is actually undermined by the hypocrisy of the Director of Hatcheries and conditioning, amongst other highly powered social individuals.

The novel then predominantly follows the rise and fall of Bernard Marx as he struggles to digest and accept the ideal society constructed by the World Controllers, who have succeeded in conditioning all humans through hypnopaedia, a sleep teaching method used to establish the social rules and boundaries deemed acceptable or unacceptable by the Controllers. When Bernard discovers the darkest and deepest secret of the respectable Director he is socially elevated and enjoys the high life, albeit for the briefest of periods. Bernard’s discovery, and thus his ticket to fame, simultaneously becomes his downfall as the “Savage” fights the temptation of sexual and instinctive attraction to the one female it appears Bernard has lusted after, Lenina Crowne. The remainder of the novel appears to adjust its focus almost disregarding Bernard Marx’s story in favour of the Savage’s, which admittedly dissolves into an ending that neither satisfies or fulfils the reader’s desire for closure, leaving a trail of unanswered questions.

Undeniably the concept and originality of Huxley’s novel, which was published in 1932, was and still is remarkable. The potential future of a totalitarian state that enforced promiscuity, the consumption of a legal drug that instigates an unnaturally euphoric state and the undoubtable perfection of the human race achieved through genetic engineering provided the twentieth century with a frightfully realistic proposition, should society fall into the wrong hands. And yet despite all of this, I found myself asking the question: Why is this novel held in such high regard in comparison to other Dystopian fiction? Is it because it was an earlier, if not the earliest, example of its kind? Or is it that Huxley’s writing itself drip-feeds factors throughout the novel that I was too ignorant to receive? Perhaps this negative reception was due to the fact that I had experienced Orwell before Huxley and was expecting other reader’s opinions to justify ‘Brave New World’s position above ‘1984’? Either way, for me Orwell was able to maintain the dystopian top-spot with ‘1984’ and I find it hard to believe that other fiction will seriously challenge for its place.

Readability: (3/5) Now this for me is where the novel struggles. Perhaps I was slightly restless whilst reading the book but I just couldn’t seem to buy into the ideas and plot of Bernard Marx and soon discovered that this was not something that would develop as I read on. The change of perspective between characters for a number of chapters, I felt, were disjointed and it was only after the first few paragraphs that I actually realised I was reading somebody else’s story.

Drawbacks: (4/5) Technically, the novel has very little to hold it back from being the great novel that others have claimed it is. However, the novel is interrupted throughout by the change in perspective which I feel detracts from the protagonist’s story, as mentioned above, and this hinders any potential attachment to Marx as a character.

Overall: (3.5/5) In all honesty, something of a disappointment for me personally. I expected much more from a novel that has been labelled a “masterpiece of speculation” by Margaret Atwood, an author who has herself achieved dystopian brilliance with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Yet, despite this slightly negative review I would still recommend the novel as a good read, especially for fans of Orwell and Atwood respectively.

21 Comments

Filed under book review, review

Book Review: ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

Image

Following my first review, I have contemplated the choice of my second novel in terms of its relation to the first. Should it be connected? Maybe the same author, genre, style? Or should it be something that disconnects my first review from my own review-writing in order for readers of this blog to explore and/or understand my own writing style and opinions? Well, I’m reading a couple of different novels at the moment but found it impossible to ignore one in particular. Unsurprisingly it is the debut novel of Khaled Hosseini, a writer who, as previously mentioned, has opened my eyes to the cruel reality of Afghan culture and its controversial and predominantly horrific social patriarchy. Now, I have no intention of becoming a Hosseini fan page (although to do so would certainly be easy enough), but this second review has nothing but praise for the Afghan-American author and I whole-heartedly implore that if you have not considered a Hosseini novel before, that you should do so immediately.

Firstly however, I must confess that perhaps it seems a little backwards that I would read and review Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ after Hosseini’s second novel, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ but that is what has happened, so I’m going straight into the review in an attempt to try and mask this little hiccup.

With Hosseini emigrating from Afghanistan to the United States in 1980, it is clear to see that what he has managed to pick from his culture and press in-between the 340 pages of ‘The Kite Runner’ is nothing other than a number of Hosseini’s own memories of his native land. The novel spans the life of a young protagonist Amir and later explores the life of Amir in his late thirties, providing an insight into his memories, experiences, but perhaps more significantly into Amir’s conscience as he battles consistently with the demons in his head. Following the annual kite flying competition that bring the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan to life, Amir and his Hazara, Hassan enter the competition, unable to comprehend the thought of taking first place let alone running for the most coveted prize of the last fallen kite of a winter tournament, which is deemed a trophy of honour.Yet, when both are achieved Amir’s life is altered forever, leading to a series of events which determine that Amir’s future lies within the United States of America with Baba, his father.

Eloping due to the war raging within his own country, Hosseini constructs a novel about those who were/are suffocated by the Afghan refugee crisis, portraying how hunger, violence, anarchy and oppression had forced millions of Afghans to do the same as Baba and Amir and leave their native country. However, when an old friend contacts Amir fifteen years after his father’s death, he knows that he must return to his native Afghanistan in an attempt to redeem himself, to make things good again (This reference will become clear within the first chapter).

Hosseini is refreshingly brilliant throughout the whole of this novel as he creates a number of parallels across different generations to provoke a deep sense of attachment to a number of his characters. The portrait of Afghanistan that Hosseini paints reveals the desperation of Afghan citizens and the pain, loss and suffering that his people have endured across a substantial period of time. The metaphorical genius of the title is used constantly throughout the novel to signify movement and travel, sometimes controlled or premeditated, other times spontaneous and also appears to act as a symbolic reference to Afghanistan’s longing for freedom from the tyrannous rule of the Taliban. The tragic tale that unfolds from the opening chapters of this novel continues to engage the reader from opening to ending with tasters of hope, romantic love and the bitterness of betrayal, the latter thematically shaping Hosseini’s novel in its entirety.

Readability: (5/5) In the beginning of the novel Hosseini jumps across the late decades of the twentieth century and this has the potential to be disorientating, but all of the dates and years are provided during the opening of each chapter to avoid confusion. Hosseini is able to deliver the crucial paragraph at the end of most, if not all, of his chapters that always leaves the reader wanting to read more.

Drawbacks: (5/5) I was clearly clutching at straws with drawbacks for Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and it is safe to that I could not fault ‘The Kite Runner’ even if forced to do so. Everything from Hosseini’s writing style, to the originality of the plot, from the beautiful delicacy of each description of Amir’s childhood memories to the shocking reality and brutality of the Taliban rule read true and genuine, successfully achieving the desired effect that Hosseini strives for.

Overall: (5/5) All in all, Hosseini has presented the world with nothing short of a masterpiece with his debut novel. A must read.

6 Comments

Filed under book review, review

Book Review: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini (contains minor plot spoilers)

Image

The return to reading a book for pleasure for the first time after a number of years of compulsory analysis, in which your personal opinion is overshadowed by the gospel of academic critiques is truly a wonderful thing. In stifling your own interpretive readings, your instinctive reactions to a specific passage, or indeed the book as a whole, you begin to emulate the thought process of the scholars that you study, substituting your creative understanding for something that has already been universally acknowledged. Originality, if it exists, is frowned upon and it seems as though we are being nurtured into a society that aims to reduce this kind of independent thinking in favour of extending theories or works that are currently circulating, or have previously circulated the academic world. I feel a dystopia reference coming on, so ill do my best to avoid the cliché as a matter of principal, sorry Huxley.

Anyway, before I digress further, onto the subject at hand: The reviewing of books. The first book that will appear on this blog was recommended by a good friend of mine that I studied with whilst attending university. He explained nothing about the book; it’s context or the author himself but insisted one thing only, that the book would change me. Hosseini did not disappoint, my friend vindicated.

The book is divided between two female protagonists across a forty-four year period that spans the life of Mariam, the female who begins the journey, and Laila who is born as Mariam reaches her late teens. Hosseini portrays the living conditions of men, women and children in Afghanistan during the invasion of the soviets, the war that follows and the eventual control of the Taliban, primarily revealing the fluctuating sexism of afghan culture. As a harami, the illegitimately conceived Mariam is forced to live with her mother in the kolba, where her father visits on a weekly basis. After travelling to the nearby city of Herat, whereby Mariam is denied entry into her father’s house, she returns to her kolba to discover that her mother has taken her own life, propelling Mariam into a desperate future filled with brutality, starvation and heartbreak. She is to be married to Rasheed, her khastegar, who is at least thirty years her senior and they relocate to Kabul, six hundred kilometers away from the humble kolba that Mariam has called home for the fifteen years prior to her departure.

What follows is a story that verges on reality as opposed to fiction, showcasing the devastating impact that fractured political groups can cause, leaving despair, grief and mourning in their wake. Yet, from the coincidental intertwining of Mariam’s and Laila’s lives springs hope of friendship, love and a bond stronger than any other; the bond between mother and daughter. Hosseini successfully captivates the reader, drawing us into emotional turmoil from the position of a writer who has emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States, providing both an inside and outside perspective simultaneously of the lifestyles and traditions of Afghanistan. By discussing the oppression of females in a patriarchal society, Hosseini is able to voice his, and assumedly many others’, concerns with regards to the treatment of women in relation to their employment, social mobility and even day-to-day treatment in the home. As a female of traditional culture, Mariam encapsulates the passive woman who is forced to accept the cruelty of an ignorant and abusive husband. She is later both liberated and damned by the same action that sacrifices her own chance of freedom, in turn favouring to gift the opportunity of happiness to Laila, Tariq and the children.

Personally, before this novel I felt that I had some vague idea of how cultures differed across the globe, how treatment differed, how hierarchies were played out, but Hosseini managed to expose my ignorance. The callousness, juxtaposed against the weak and helpless really cried out to me, and a sense of frustration materializes early on, only to continue growing with an array of other emotions, anger, confusion, despair, sympathy, happiness and finally, relief. You begin to feel as though you are experiencing a life, not necessarily just reading a book, and Hosseini is able to hold your attention as every paragraph, every page and every chapter reveals an aspect of Mariam/Laila’s life that contributes to the larger picture created within the novel.

‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is an essential read for anyone, whether they are willing to discover the differing culture and ways of living during a forty year period in Afghanistan or not. With a combination of fiction and non-fiction, Hosseini achieves an impeccable balance within the novel that provides the tragic account of female life and the challenges and obstacles that both protagonists must face in the hope of obtaining a better future, not just for themselves, but for the next generation of afghan women.

Readability: (5/5) Very accessible, Hosseini writes in a style that reads easily enough, yet he manages to disguise a number of messages within his pages, which you will discover again and again with every re-read.

Drawbacks: (3/5) Although perhaps a slightly harsh mark down on an otherwise flawless novel, section three provides the reader with interchangeable chapters between Mariam and Laila. Whilst this is easy enough to follow, the opening paragraphs of a new chapter tend to repeat the ending paragraphs of the previous chapter, albeit from a different perspective. This is perhaps more a frustration than a drawback, especially when Hosseini has left you with the suspense from the chapter before.

Overall: (4/5) A solid rating for this first review of a book that is an international best seller for a reason. As his second novel (his first: The Kite Runner), Hosseini had a lot to live up to and its safe to say that ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ satisfies the cynics and critics, perhaps even exceeding all expectations for his second book when considering the success of his debut novel.

1 Comment

Filed under book review, review