Brothers & Sisters | The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House,
by Ann Patchett,
Published by Harper (2019)
Rating:
 ***

Introduction

The title of this review stems from this Coldplay song. I discovered this book through the Goodreads algorithm, and later saw this lovely special edition that had been printed which looks stunning (here – look at those pages!), and was tempted to read it. I consumed this in-part through an audiobook, and in-part through the ebook. My overall rating stems from how I felt at the end of the book rather than being representative of individual components of the book itself.

Plot

The book navigates the life of the Conroy family, centering around siblings: Danny and Maeve, who struggle to confront the past and live in the present – returning to their childhood home as observers to figure out everything in their lives. The book begins at Danny’s childhood, with Maeve taking on a motherly role when their biological mother abandons them. It takes us through a tumultuous teenage time, where Danny and Maeve are booted out of the house by their stepmother once their father passes, and how they survive the world.

 The Home As A Character

Patchett does a tremendous job of making The Dutch House, the titular object a character within the book. She exposes the interiors, first allowing Danny to discover the house while growing up, and then allowing the younger stepsiblings to introduce us to more layers to the house when they are left in the care of Danny & Maeve. Maeve recounts everything about the past by using the house as a frame of reference. Not only does that set up context to the time in which events take place, but it takes you through the house’s own ageing process at the same time. The voice and tone of the book always make you remember the house’s presence – and in some sections in particular, it feels like it’s the walls of the house talking.

A Rushed Ending

This was honestly beautiful till I was about 70% in. I loved everything about it. I enjoyed the way the siblings grew up and grew older together, and the kind of challenges Danny was going through in processing his emotions. There was a complexity to both Danny and Maeve that made them feel like real people, and that these were real events happening in everyone’s lives. However, the last 30% really threw me off. The plot was rushed through and felt unbelievable. The changes to their lives felt like they were impossible in real-life, which took away from all of the set-up that Patchett had accomplished in the first half. That was disappointing. It felt, in a sense, that this book would have been more enjoyable had the ending not been as rosy as it ended up being. Especially because the book tries to hint at how we deal with the past as people. I would have genuinely preferred if Danny and Maeve struggled – in one final scene, with the idea that they would not get closure, and learned to live with that.

Conclusion

Read for characters who seem to have hearts of gold, and sibling relationships that seem to mirror what real siblings are actually like.

Survivor Guilt | Dear Edward, by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward,
by Ann Napolitano
Published by Dial Press (2020)
Rating: 
***

Introduction 

Dear Edward was one of my one-day class reads. It was a really, really quick, page-turner that took up a Monday morning and got done by the time I went for lunch. I came across the book on Goodreads and the blurb had me intrigued enough to dive right in. Survivor’s guilt is something I find intriguing because it feels like such an odd facet of human behaviour. Of course this is a sweeping, generalized statement, but in society, we’re so used to switching off and stepping away from responsibility, that sometimes we take responsibility or blame ourselves for things that we do not necessarily have control over. Hearing that a book delved into that, into the thoughts that go on in that process made me fascinated instantly. I dived in with hope, as I do with most books, but as I’ll explain in this review – I was a little confused by the way the plot developed.

Plot

Really simplistic. A plane crashes en route Los Angeles from Newark, killing everyone on board the aircraft except a 12-year old. Through narrative flashbacks and switches to the present-day, the story takes us through Edward’s life after the crash, and what he remembers and deals with as he attempts to cope with life after – without his family, adopted by his uncle and aunt, and being the most famous 12-year old in his neighbourhood.

The flashbacks deal with observations of various characters on the plane and what they were up to in their final moments, which plays into a key plot device of foreshadowing the latter half of the book where Edward discovers letters addressed to him by the relatives of all those individuals.

Something I found out after finishing the book was that this was based on a crash that took place in 2010, killing everyone except a 9-year old Dutch boy – a story that captivated Napolitano’s imagination so much that she knew it had to be told.

Struggle

Napolitano does an excellent job of portraying the struggle and unease that comes with surviving trauma. A large portion of this I felt came out of the dispassionate, disconnected, neutral narrative tone that was adopted to the entire book, insofar as it felt like there was always an arms-length distance between the reader and everything Edward was experiencing. In a lot of ways, the book’s development was almost a social, scientific observation of Edward’s actions and the actions of those around him – with fact and analysis intertwined and behaviours explained and rationalized as best as possible.

A key element that I felt added to that tone was the air of mystery that surrounded every character. There’s very little attention given to the backstory of every character, and even while describing events on the plane, or things Edward goes through at school, there’s very little diving into Edward’s past. The only time we see it happen is with Shay, another character central to Edward’s development, but this comes quite late on in the entire story as Edward breaks down walls he’s built around him to protect himself.

Clichés 

One of the things I found disappointing was the way in which Napolitano portrayed some characters, which allowed for the furtherance of clichés and tropes about professions. A key example here is the flight attendant, who is unprofessional in dealing with passenger requests on a regular basis and feels extremely out of place compared to other characters in the book. There is a classic stereotype associated with unprofessional staff in the hospitality sector, flight attendants included, and Veronica’s character allowed for the furthering of that stereotype by latching onto it and not creating any depth of character for them. Where characters are introduced in novels – especially coming-of-age novels, I find that these characters need to be central to the growth that takes place – and I didn’t really see that happen here.

The Ending

The plot arc was set up so wonderfully, especially with the dispassionate narration, because it was all so expected. Once the letters were introduced, it was a certainty that Edward would read them and learn things about people wishing things for him or wanting him to do things and fulfil the life that they believe their loved ones would have had. However, I expected that this is where Napolitano would introduce some amount of emotion into the story – to inject the feeling that would have brought Edward to life – a character that is impacted by what he reads. That would have imparted warmth to me, knowing that every event, every interaction Edward had did actually impact him.

Au contraire, reading the chapters about the letters were the portions in which I felt the storytelling was the most cold and the most distant. It was glossed through, glanced over, and felt like it was put together to help piece together the romantic conclusion the book had primed itself for once Shay was introduced.

That was unfortunate.

Concluding Thoughts

I wish we had a more fleshed out story with a little more soul. This is clearly a heart-wrenching premise, but it needed more for me, and that’s what impacted my rating the most. Read for a depiction of the kind of guilt that’s difficult to put into words.

A Life, Lived | Stoner, by John Williams

Introduction 

My weekend has been filled with reading and books, which is just the weekend I needed to recover for the week that lies ahead. On Friday, I spent a couple of hours on Goodreads, trying to figure out the stuff I wanted to explore and get through by the time Sunday night rolled around. Stoner was a fresh find, an indirect find, so to speak. I saw a book about John Williams’ life – a book that described itself as an essay about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and I was intrigued. I’ve only ever heard of the name John Williams in the context of film scores, so to hear that there was this celebrated novelist I knew nothing about who seemed to have a cult-like following for this “perfect” book, I had to read it. Thus it was that I sat on my desk last evening after a scrumptious meal and I made a new friend: William Stoner.

Also, no, the book is not about weed.

Plot Summary

John Williams navigates you through the life of William Stoner, a lifelong academic and a Professor of English at the University of Missouri. You’re introduced to Stoner posthumously in the first chapter – an introduction that lays down clear benchmarks for the kind of expectations you should have from the book. Williams tells you in no uncertain terms that Stoner was an ordinary man, who had an ordinary career – who did nothing extraordinary. Over the course of subsequent chapters you learn about Stoner’s upbringing on a farm, and you’re transported through the different phases of his life and the different decisions he takes – in finding love, in working on English Literature, in understanding the impact of war. It’s really an unremarkable plot. Quite simply put: it’s one man’s journey through life.

The writing, however, is incredible.

Characters

It’s pretty evident from everything I’ve said above that the character: Stoner, is central to the entire plot. He drives it forward, slows it down, and brings it to a close. Some books which place a singular character at their center, or a singular perspective at the forefront struggle because they don’t establish the character’s voice early on. As a result, expectations are wayward. Williams does this remarkably well.

First, he stays away from writing in the first person at any point. The entire book is told in third person, giving the author more control over the kind of observations he is able to fit in about Stoner’s life – about Stoner’s temperament, for example.

Second, Stoner is set up very, very early on in the book.

You can tell that he’s in for a life of hard work and challenge. This isn’t exclusively because of the description of his farm-upbringing. Williams also achieves this end by labouring through descriptions of Stoner’s entire thought process. When, early on, Stoner is faced with the decision of going to school or continuing to stay on the farm – Williams doesn’t cut to the chase and reach the outcome (Stoner goes to University). Instead, Williams explains everything that terrifies Stoner, what excites him – and why he ends up acceding to his fathers’ pushes. For me, as a reader, it helped me understand Stoner’s motivations, but it also laid out how much thought (sometimes fruitless) the character put into everything he did. Thinking is hard work – and setting up a character who ponders deeply about everything, who doesn’t fully comprehend or rely on intuition early on in the book sets him (and you, the reader) up for everything that you’re going to see.

Third, supporting characters are eased into the story in small batches. Williams makes it clear that the focus is never supposed to be away from Stoner. Even when the scenery changes – like when Stoner moves to University, or the times change – like when World War I breaks out, Williams doesn’t introduce more than 2 characters into Stoner’s life arc. This clarity of writing allows each individual’s character arc to develop fully (only one character is written out early – killed in action), but more crucially, it allows Williams to lay out, slowly, Stoner’s dynamic and interaction with each person. That enables them to be more organically involved in Stoner’s life. This is best illustrated not through Edith, but through Gordon Finch. Finch is introduced as a friend. Stoner and Finch get on really well – exchanging observations about University life that you’d only ever exchange with your closest peers. Finch disappears, enlisting for the war, and returns in an administrative capacity more senior to Stoner. However, their rapport doesn’t change – and lasts right through to the end. Now, Finch was introduced with another character, Masters (the character who dies young). In my view, settling on a small group reflects the reality of the life of an academic. More central to the argument I was making though, is the fact that it allows for the development of more meaningful interactions with these characters – which keeps the spotlight on Stoner. As the reader, you’re rarely caught onto picking a favourite character: you’re firmly on Stoner’s side, interested solely in the kind of relationship and impact each character will have on his life.

Conflict

After I read the book, I went on to read a few essays I mentioned earlier – about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and they all point to the way conflict is explored. Each one of them highlighted how conflict was introduced at exactly when it needed to be in Stoner’s arc.

While I agree with that, I think some nuance exists in the kind of conflicts introduced. There are the big conflicts: the one with Lomax, the affair Stoner has and the conflict with Edith, the conflict when he tells his parents about continuing on with his studies in English Literature. However, conflict remains a central theme throughout the book – one that shouldn’t be ignored. Williams’ success doesn’t lie exclusively in the fact that he is able to introduce these big conflicts at the right time.

To me, a large portion of that success is owed to the lucidity of his writing of an internal monologue and the internal conflict that Stoner faces almost on a daily basis. We’ve explored this in the above section – on how this helps set up Stoner’s character. Here, what I’d like to concentrate on is the role of this internal monologue in those bigger conflict arcs.

I shall illustrate this through the conflict with Lomax (the conflict with Edith has too many layers and will give away too much of the book). Professor Lomax is another faculty in the English department who Stoner has several scuffles with, climaxing in the big scuffle regarding whether a particular graduate/doctoral student should receive passing marks in his oral examination. Now, while this entire scuffle could have been projected through the single dimension of being an indirect power struggle in the department between Lomax and Stoner, a large amount of the conflict’s introduction takes place through the internal monologue.

Stoner first notices this student when he sits for a graduate seminar Stoner teaches – and Williams elaborates Stoner’s thoughts at the start. In fact, Williams creates a narrative of doubt through every interaction that Stoner has with the graduate student – which culminates the introduction of the conflict with Lomax. Without these deliberate portions of the narrative devoted to exploring Stoner’s internal dilemma about how the student in question has been admitted, the larger conflict loses value. More importantly, what Williams is able to achieve is the opportunity to introduce a counter-narrative and a counter-characterization that is equally powerful by allowing Lomax to replay the entire monologue from a different perspective.

It is a phenomenal lesson in storytelling.

Concluding Remarks

I recognize that a large part of my analysis may not make sense without a reading of the book. Hence, please read the book. It is short and well worth any time you may have. The Guardian wrote about how the book had a ‘sad tone’, and how Williams himself was confused at why people thought Stoner led a sad life. I have to agree. There is a sadness to Stoner, but there is also joy – in equal part. Remember, Stoner’s life is ordinary. It is relatable. Therein lies it’s power.

I loved the book. As someone contemplating a career in the academy, this was just a beautifully told tale of someone determined to teach, and to love, to the best of his capabilities – while making mistakes along the way. A life truly lived. Another great book I’ve read in 2020, earning ***** (5 stars).

Battle for Bittora | Anuja Chauhan

Battle for Bittora,
by Anuja Chauhan,
Rating: **** 

This year, I’ve sought to read books I would not ordinarily have read. Largely, this is an attempt to broaden my horizons in terms of the material that I give time to. The Indian authors I read during my teenage years always felt Chetan Bhagat inspired. After I read my first Chetan Bhagat novel, I was certain that his books were written for the big screen. This was a notion that was confirmed really quickly – with movies inspired by his novels becoming box-office blockbusters.

Reading Anuja Chauhan made me feel the same thing. That her book is destined for the big screen. To categorize her with Chetan Bhagat, however, would be misleading. Her brand of humour is unique and far more witty than Bhagat’s, and her characters do not have a comparable level of pretense.

At the book’s center is 25 year old Jinni (Sarojini) who lives and works in Mumbai is perfectly happy with her carefree and happy existence. This is till her grandmother, a veteran politician herself, informs Jinni to drop everything and contest from their hometown Bittora. As a result of this bullying, Jinni’s life turns upside down, moving from Mumbai to campaigning as the Pragati party MP Candidate in Bittora. The book takes us through her campaign trail, as she slowly understands the nuances of politics – right from how her friends become her enemies, to how her campaign is actually funded.

The book gets more fun when her main rival is introduced: a childhood friend Zain Altaf Khan. An ex-Royal of Bittora, Zain is a candidate of IJP, a largely pro-Hindu, extreme party, which by fielding a Muslim candidate is trying to signal a change of its party ideologies. As is predictable, the love story which develops between these two protagonists is what drives the book, around the political drama which transpires as well.

As a light-hearted read, the book is phenomenal. There’s a tinge of political commentary, but that’s not the main feature here. Chauhan is liberal with her use of Hinglish, making the book extremely relatable. The slang is hilarious, with words like “Saakshaat fart” to describe people, and “kitaanu animator” to describe Jinni’s job profile. The jokes are terrible and will inspire a laugh riot, with characters like “our Pappu” being developed purely through jokes. And of course, as with every Indian family, there’s an aunty who tries to get in the way of things – which just adds to the masala.

I’d recommend this book to everybody. I gave it 4-stars because I thought it got a little dry in parts, in terms of the writing. But it’s worth the read, especially if you need some laughter therapy.

The Red-Haired Woman | Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman,
by Orhan Pamuk,
Published by Knopf (2017)
Rating: ****

I had a hard time getting into this book. But when I did, I found that I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed reading other novels Pamuk has written. The book’s appeal probably also lies in the fact that it is one of his shorter works.

The story falls into three parts, each of which is quite distinct.

The first part is both the simplest and the easiest to like. The narrator Cem tells of a job he took after his father, who was involved in a left wing group, had disappeared and before his university entrance exams. This involved working as an apprentice to a traditional well-digger. The story describes the process of well-digging and Cem’s relationship with his master, a father figure who tells him stories. Cem becomes obsessed with the red-haired woman of the title, and eventually discovers that she works in a travelling theatre with her husband. This part comes to a dramatic conclusion.

In the second part ,the older narrator continues the story and describes his progression, first in marrying, then by running a company that invests in developing new suburbs of Istanbul, one of which is the town in which the first part is set. The company becomes very successful, Cem discovers that his master survived and succeeded in finding water and completing the well, and that the red-haired woman was a former lover of his father, and the son of the red-haired woman claims that Cem is his father. This story also builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Cem is led by a man claiming to be his son’s friend to see the well, eventually revealing himself as the son, leading to a fight in which Cem’s gun is fired. So if the first part paralleled Oedipus, this is closer to Rostam and Sohrab.

The third part is related by the red-haired woman, which made for an interesting change of perspective. The son is in prison accused of Cem’s murder, and she visits him and tells him her story and Cem’s. She encourages him to write his father’s story, which explains how the first two parts came to be written.

This is a book meant for an introduction into the world of Orhan Pamuk. It is reflective of everything associated with his writing: a depth of plot, complex characters, intriguing perspectives, and so much more. It’s also reflective of my biggest criticism of Pamuk – that he tries to do too much. There are parts here which feel forced, and unnecessary, as with several other works of his. As a result, it’s a perfect introduction, and good material to assess whether or not you’ll enjoy reading Orhan Pamuk.

The Museum of Innocence | Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Knopf (2009)
Rating: *** 

This is a love story about an engaged man who has an affair with a girl he meets. Over the course of the novel, he deals with detachment from the affair – since his lover flees, reconnecting with his lover, and then detachment once more, as they get separated forever. It’s a really simple plot, woven together with an intensity of prose that only Pamuk is capable of. As I set the book down, it felt like I had finished reading the diary of one of my closest friends. This is the overwhelming nature of Pamuk’s writing. He makes you feel like you’ve just understood everything about another person – his protagonist.

It’s setting is very different from his other books. Several of Pamuk’s previous attempts concentrate on understanding and depicting Turkey by providing the perspective of an outsider, or rather, an individual navigating through its various faces. Here, Pamuk sticks to representing the Turkish experience through upper-class Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s – an image that he has previously not written much about. There is no religious element, no identity conflict that Turkey experiences in this book, making this the least Pamuk-esque book (if you want to pigeon-hole authors) that he has written.

As a result, it is a phenomenal opportunity to appreciate his craft and his ability to weave a story together. Much like The White Castle, there is a power to the narrator, which continues through to the end of the novel. Additionally, the unexpected twists – and the uncertainty of all relationships built in the book, makes this an enjoyable read.

However, I thought that the book was far too long for the plot it was explaining. While the length of texts usually never bothers me, it was really startling how stretched out the book ended up becoming. Conversation got very dry in the middle, as a result of Pamuk’s deliberate choice to spend time on each individual moment his narrator experiences. As a consequence, I lost interest in the characters at various moments of time.

Additionally, the romantic plot got creepy in various parts, with an obsessiveness that wasn’t enjoyable. It’s very possible that the translation leads to this heightened creepiness, but if the book is this creepy in the original Turkish, it is a cause for concern.

In conclusion, I’d recommend reading it if you are a literature enthusiast. This isn’t a light read, even though the plot summary makes it sound like it.

My Name Is Red | Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Published by Vintage (2002)
Rating: ***** 

I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the plot of My Name Is Red. It’s difficult to put into words. In essence, it is a murder mystery. An individual, Elegant has been murdered, and his corpse lies undiscovered at the bottom of a well. Speaking from the afterlife, he hopes that his body is found soon and that the murderer is captured.

However, Elegant is not the sole narrator through the book. Each fresh chapter introduces a new character to the story, and ends up explaining their backstory, alongwith how much they know about the murder of Elegant. As we learn more about the motives for murder, so we learn about the motives behind art, and the possibilities of its interpretation.

Pamuk’s consistency with exploring the blurring of lines in the confluence between the East and the West continues here as well. Each narrator, though modernist, has an intriguing take on the value and role of art in a person’s life. So too, does each narrator have a perspective on whom the likely murderer is. Pamuk unravels the plot slowly, allowing for these philosophical discussions and beliefs to be exposed in as nuanced a manner as possible. Pamuk manages to portray the 16th century world, full of its own contradictions, and capture it in a manner that is wholesome and enjoyable.

However, if you are reading Pamuk purely for the murder mystery – this might not live up to your expectations. There’s barely any distinction drawn in the likelihood that one of the narrators may have murdered elegant, which leaves room for a lot of doubt, and a lot of tension, one that Pamuk diffuses in a manner that isn’t all that appreciable. The narratives is skewed and feels heavily-strung together.

As a result, Pamuk’s novel gets 5-stars on its value as a text and its contribution to my understanding of ideas that it presents – lucid, simplistic, and detailed. However, as a pure literary text, my jury will have to wait for a re-read. Or multiple re-reads.