Unconditional Love and Family | The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea,
by T.J. Klune,
Published by Tor (2020)
Rating: *****

Introduction

I’m a sucker for books that contain the fantastic and magical, especially when they’re heartwarming reads. The blurb to this book, on Goodreads, was pretty reflective of something similar so I dived right in. I was rewarded with a journey filled with positivity and love, everything I needed at the time put into words.

Plot

The book takes us through Linus Baker’s life. A quiet man, he is a Case Worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to oversee the well-being of magical children who spend their time growing up at Government-sanctioned orphanages. It’s a job he’s worked for a long time, no promotion, no demotion, and he follows rules to the tee. Out of the blue, he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management at DICOMY and given a super-classified assignment: to travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage.

He is not told much else prior to his departure, but once he arrives on the island, he learns that six dangerous children reside there: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist – all under the care of Arthur Parnassus, who is charming and will go to any length to keep these children safe. Over time however, it becomes clear that not everything about the orphanage, or the island are as they seem, and Linus is faced with decisions to make that go against everything he believes in.

Riding on Characters

Good books, for me, center either around well-constructed worlds, or well-constructed character arcs. Naturally books that combine the two elements are therefore appreciated by me even more. This had a reasonably well-created world, you’re introduced to it early, and through Linus Baker’s view, it becomes quickly apparent what the distinctions from the world we live in today are. That allows focus to shift immediately on to the characters. Having nine protagonists on which the story rides requires meaningful relationships to be forged between each character, something Klune develops naturally. Additionally, each character arc is extremely well thought-out and the book concludes without any unanswered questions, which is a delight. The dialogue is a delight to read, leaving little thinking or effort on the part of the reader to understand each characters’ motives. This by no means undermines the complexity of the characters, but it’s just a pleasure to read something that feels effortlessly written and enjoyed.

Asking the difficult questions

All of that – the characters and the dialogue does not take away from the tough questions the book tries to ask of us. There’s a lot of internal conflict presented within the book about prejudices and differences, and the way we actually respond to these as against the manner in which we ought to be responding to these. It asks of us why we categorize people and experiences into extreme ends on a spectrum, or into pigeonholes, rather than looking at them as they are – complex, and not necessarily classifiable. A lot of the decisions Linus Baker makes through the book are a result of his own reflections on these topics, and they’re an excellent reminder of the need to reflect about these things on our own.

Conclusions

There’s so much joy in this book. I went into it knowing it was a standalone, but I long to understand and read more about the kind of joy Linus Baker is able to spread to the kids he learns to love. I hope there’s some fanfiction to keep me occupied while I wait for a sequel (should it ever arrive).

Open Your Heart | The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love,
by Elif Shafak,
Published by Viking (2010)
Rating: *****

Introduction

This is the first audiobook I ever consumed. It was recommended to me the minute I opened up my Audible app for the first time. I saw it, was intrigued, checked out the plot, and knew I had to read it immediately. Of course, I didn’t audiobook it completely. I ended up reading more than half of it because I felt a strong desire to push forth – the narrative had me so hooked. This is also what has sparked a renewed interest in reading Rumi’s poetry, or beginning to read Rumi’s poetry.

Plot

This is a book with a plot-within-a-plot, a book-within-a-book. The narrator/protagonist, Ella Rubenstein is a housewife, who takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment becomes reading a manuscript titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. The book tells the tale of Shams-i-Tabrizi and Rumi, their respective journeys and how they find each other, and Shams’ role in transforming Rumi’s life. Ella is smitten, and takes to communicating with Zahara, finding that Rumi’s story apparently mirrors her own life, and sorrows, with Zahara being the person tasked with helping her find love, and joy again.

Nested Stories

Shafak does a beautiful job of switching between the manuscript and the real-life of Ella Rubenstein. The transitions between the two feel timely, never abrupt, and the chapters are never too long, so you never lose track of where you are in each story line. They seem to weave into each other purposefully, especially since they are meant to mirror each other – the pacing is well done, and Shafak introduces elements of conflict, or of communication and resolution in away that never seems to take your attention away from either plot. I appreciated deeply how Rubenstein’s letters to Zahara mimicked communications and the building relationship between Shams and Rumi. The conversations Shafak writes are deep and meaningful, opening up the minds of each of the characters in the book.

The Little Things

Shafak embeds the Forty Rules of Love into the book, exposing them by imagining that Shams revealed them throughout his life when the time was right for the person being spoken to, to receive them. You can see this across his interaction with common-people, with Rumi, and through Zahara’s quoting of the rules of love in his conversations with Rubenstein. I loved that each chapter began with the second arabic sound “ba”, and that each section of the book referenced an element. The story, in its entirety, with Shafak’s lyrical writing, made me more mindful and aware and appreciative of the beauty I have surrounding me, and for a while, all I felt like doing was sitting down and taking all of it in.
It opened me up to a new kind of love, and I cannot wait to read more Rumi soon.

Conclusion

Easily one of the best finds I’ve made this year. Worth reading for how well she brings Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi to life.

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.

You Go, Gurl | Equal Rites (Discworld #3), by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld #3)
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Harper Perennial (2005)
Rating: ****

Introduction

Like I mentioned in the earlier Discworld review, reading Discworld is a project that has been underway for a while now, and is likely to take a while still. As always, this remains a series I come back to when I’m in a slump because I know the books are short, the story arcs simple and easy to follow, and the world explicitly explained.

Plot 

Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

Given the premise this sets up, as evident above, and the title, the story is very predictable. Esk faces several challenges as she seeks to become a wizard, ultimately succeeding. What I enjoyed about this is that as the third book in Discworld, you can see Pratchett seeking to examine this magical world from as many lenses as he is capable. In earlier books, he’s looked at the philosophy and mechanics of Magic, and now, he looks and introduces a series of books focusing on the gender implications of a magical world (or of any world, really).

Characters and Sass

Really well-written introductions to Esk and Granny W, who legitimately stole the show for large parts of the book. As compared to the other two books, there is humour led by the protagonists themselves; as opposed to coming out of supporting characters with whom they interact. Pratchett’s inclusion of Simon, a young boy struggling with his magic – to contrast with Esk’s own journey, helps to bring forth the challenges she faces within a setup that recognizes traditional gender roles and restricting women’s use of magic to the limitations that witches are confined to. Granny W has a lot of sass – something that made me chuckle more times than I would like to count.

Discworld Itself

While I fully recognize that this is the first book in the Witches subseries on Discworld, I felt that there was still scope to introduce elements about Discworld to the reader by having Esk or Granny W interact with fresh parts of the world that we hadn’t heard of. What I enjoyed about the previous two books is that they added layers to the physical space that is Discworld. I wished that had happened a little more here.

Conclusion

A solid read that’ll guarantee laughter. Short and predictable, perfect for a reading slump.

Intriguing Shadow Realms | Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1), by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)
by Roger Zelazny
Published by Avon (1986)
Rating: ****

Introduction

The thing about finding genres of books that you prefer reading is that you’re able to locate books in the genre a lot quicker. Since I properly began reading science-fiction and fantasy books (in that I took my reading of the genre a little more seriously), I’ve been trying to tick off the classics – the books people recommend as foundational texts that have introduced new dimensions of storytelling, or pushed the boundaries of the genre. Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles series was one of these, recommended to me because I enjoy worlds that have complex, but complete and intricate magic systems. It was also recommended because I enjoyed reading Brandon Sanderson.

Plot 

Carl Corey wakes in a medical clinic, with little to no knowledge of who he is or how he got there. He finds the manager of the clinic, and learns that he was recovering from a car accident in a private clinic, paid for by his sister, Evelyn Flaumel. Fleeing from the clinic, he heads to her house. That is where he discovers his identity, as Corwin. He hides his lack of memory from her – and everyone he comes into contact with, discovering his family and his relationships which each of them.

As one of his brothers, Random, makes contact with him, he decides to try to seize the throne of Amber, which is currently held by his brother Eric. Thus begin his adventure across the shadow realms, mixing reality and fantasy.

Amnesia as a plot device

Personally, one of the best creative decisions I’ve come across in recent times is Zelazny’s decision to give his character amnesia. Amnesia is a curious, painful thing: with the loss of memory is the loss of identity, and the desire to build oneself up is evident right from the start of the book when Corwin chooses to flee from the hospital because he feels unsafe over there. Additionally, amnesia adds layers of complexity to the plot. Aside from Corwin’s concealment of his condition throughout the book – which has a huge impact on the way he behaves with others (compared to what he actually wishes to ask), it allows for the reader to be introduced to Amber and the Machiavellian family that seems to rule it along with the protagonist. Corwin is learning these things almost for the first time, and so are we. This allows for a natural introduction of detail, a natural world-building, where no amount of description feels too dreary since Corwin needs to know all the information to help him make better decisions.

Pacing

Zelazny uses few words to communicate intricate plot depths. The pacing in this book is incredible, and I found myself exhausted after reading it because so much happened in just over 150 pages. I speak, and write, in very long sentences, with a lot of commas. Zelazny uses short sentences – crisp, and to the point, achieving his ends with what feels like minimal effort.

Conclusions

Quite honestly, Amber’s construction is extremely complicated – and for a while, I was not sure whether Corwin was in the real Amber or not. The discussion of shadow realms makes it even more complex. However, that’s what has me intrigued, and I’m also eager to see what happens next in this family. It’s why I hope to be reading the whole series.

A Love Story | Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People,
by Sally Rooney,
Published by Hogarth Press (2019)
Rating: 
***

Introduction

This book was recommended to me by a friend who told me she stayed up past her bedtime to finish the book once she started. To me, that’s always a good sign: a story that keeps you gripped to make you ward off sleep is one I’m going to be curious about more often than not. Thus began my adventure with Sally Rooney. I didn’t take a break while reading the book, and my reading of the book was on one of my more productive reading days. However, what kept me going was the hope that it would get better (and better). Unfortunately, while the book was good, I felt the story and the characters – particularly supporting character arcs remained unexplored, making this a lukewarm 3.5-star book for me.

Plot

Quite straightforward. The story follows two teenagers, Marianne and Connell through their final years in adolescence and into early adulthood. They study at the same school in County Sligo and move together to Trinity College Dublin. Connell is popular at high school, and begins a relationship with unpopular Marianne, whose mother employs his mother as a cleaner. He keeps his relationship with her a secret. At Trinity College Dublin, however, the roles are reversed, as Marianne blossoms at University, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book revolves around their everchanging dynamic over the years, examining what bonds them together and what pulls them apart.

The Relationship

Fiction books that rely on characters rather than worlds, or dialogue, need to be able to have firm character arcs: motives, flaws, strengths, that help them blossom through the book. However, a critical aspect of this is their relatability, which, for me, stems out of their interactions with other characters. Where media pieces set themselves up in the context/focus of a singular relationship (think, Titanic), I enjoy them only when I find myself caring about both characters equally. It’s what upset me at the climax of Titanic. Caring about both characters equally means giving them equal footing throughout the book, and allowing them both to play out without remaining in each others’ shadow. More crucially, their interactions need to be real – and not pretense. Rooney accomplishes this by giving both Marianne and Connell strong introductions, and right off the bat, you begin to care about the fate of both characters. As they get to know one another, you begin wondering where their relationship will go. For a book like this, that is particularly helpful, and I enjoyed the fact that I cared about them so much.

However, simultaneously, I was disturbed by the manner in which they romanticized their difficulties. As things progress, there seem to be explanations for some bizarre ways both characters respond to circumstances – but no real discussion of those explanations (which are traumas).

The Writing

Sally Rooney writes beautifully. Her sentences and descriptions are vivid, and in several places, lyrical, like poetry. It’s part of why I kept reading the book. It suited the ending she had set up – which was cheesy and wonderful for the kind of writing she executes. However, it didn’t “move” me in the way that several similar pieces have previously. I wish there was more exploration of secondary characters – their mothers included, which I feel would have added depth to the book.

Conclusion

I completed the book and was left wondering at all the things that could have been. This was, for me, a good, quick, not-so-immersive read.

Preserve Joy | No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

No Longer Human,
by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene
Published by New Directions (1958)
Rating: 
****

Introduction

Goodreads recommended me this book once I had added a few books on Asian and Oriental history generally. Reading the blurb, I felt a newfound appreciation for the algorithm that suggested gems such as this based on my past reading history. Prior to starting the book, I read a little bit about Dazai. Just getting through his Wikipedia page, I recognized that this was going to be a book that would make me feel extreme emotion, or induce extremities in emotional response. This is honestly a heartbreaking story, from start to finish, but a heartbreaking story that deserves the read for the perspective it offers.

Plot

No Longer Human tells us the story of Oba Yozo, a confused child who became a troubled man, someone unable to show his true nature to most people, and feels disqualified as a human being. The story is told in three parts – three distinct memoranda from different parts of Yozo’s life, that attempt to channel his sense of isolation and loneliness he experiences. You can tell, while reading, that this isn’t a fictional character. Oba Yozo, the name, the person, may be fictional, but his emotional responses, his characteristics, speak of a very real struggle. Dazai’s writing has always been classified as being semi-autobiographical. I can’t attest to this, but Oba Yozo’s thoughts lift off the page and speak to you in a manner unlike much else I’ve read.

Guards and Masks

Across all three memoranda, you can recognize that while Yozo struggles with identifying exactly what his emotions represent and point to, he has a self-destructive streak that makes him consistently behave in a cruel manner to anybody who cares about him. His childhood notebook is easy to read, and you can sort of understand the trials and tribulations of a confused child who increasingly feels alienated from everyone else. However, beyond a point, Yozo seems to do things that cause hurt knowingly, which is at the point that I began to develop a distaste for the character. It was odd to realize at the end of the book that there was such a brutality to his honesty about his misdeeds.

Preserving Joy

At the end of the book, all I could think about was the kind of nurturing, joyous environment we need to create on Earth for individuals who struggle with aspects of their identity. While Dazai’s writing makes it almost inevitable at Yozo would have rejected any further nurturing, it pointed to me that perhaps nobody tried to help him let his guard down. Nobody peered through as clearly as he expected. That miscommunication is fatal, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Yozo.

Conclusion

I’d recommend reading this, but the depth of the translation I read felt lacking in parts. Guess it’s time to take all the manga and anime I’ve been exposed to in the past two-three years and learn Japanese to read the original.

Rinsing Rincewind | Interesting Times (Discworld #17), by Terry Pratchett

Interesting Times,
by Terry Pratchett,
Published by HarperTorch (1998)
Rating:
***** 

Introduction

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett in my second year of Law School, by a junior who had just come in and shared a love of reading, but was also willing to talk about his books and share them with me. By then I had read Good Omens, but had never ventured into Discworld. This friend of mine shared with me the Discworld Reading Guide 3.0. Although I remain aware that every book in the Discworld empire (if I can call it that) can be enjoyed independently, it felt nice to have some direction in the manner I approached all the books. And so, in 2017, it was, that I finally began this task. I return to finish and tick books off my list whenever I feel like I’m going through a reading slump or I need more dry wit and humour in the material I’m consuming, and Sir Terry never disappoints me. A quick addendum before I begin the actual review: I’ve not written any reviews for other Discworld novels, but will be writing them henceforth.

Plot

Rincewind is returned to Unseen University and makes a deal with Ridcully to go to Discworld’s oldest Empire to help them with their current revolution in exchange for being allowed to come back for good to be called a wizard. Due to the fact that the old Emperor is about to die, the struggle to determine his successor was about to begin, but there were also workers uniting after reading What I did on My Holidays. We get a History lesson, Sir Terry style, what with an Asian empire, diplomacy, slavery, and oppression, Barbarians, and pretty much everything else all wrapped up into one.

Dialogue

I’ve always enjoyed Pratchett’s work because of the rapid exchanges and dialogue weaved into the book. While large portions of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far are written in the third-person descriptive, there are several bits of dialogue to help further the characterization and contextualize plot development. However, given that this is a world of it’s own, it is easy to slip to large bits of dialogue – swathes and pages of exchange between characters. Tolkien is often accused of doing this – although, that is something that is worth getting into in another piece altogethr. Pratchett keeps his exchanges short and sweet and filled to the brim with bone-tickling humour. A prime example of this is the exchange amongst the faculty at Unseen University.

Setting Up Ankh-Morpork

Ankh-Morpork features prominently in Discworld, and this is the first Discworld novel I’m reading that takes place for the most part away from Ankh-Morpork. One of the things I admire about this series is how it’s both stand-alone and a series. Books therefore need to establish some level of context, and also need to further larger plot narratives within Discworld. I’ve been super interested in the art of world-building, and what creative decisions authors take while building up worlds and conjuring up stories. What I found most unique to Interesting Times was Pratchett’s use of the historical empire to reflect various aspects of Ankh-Morpork from the previous books, while using Rincewind’s own ruminations to introduce someone reading this book exclusively to the mad world that is Discworld.

Conclusion

An extremely fast-paced, humorous read. Classic Sir Terry.

Instability | Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun,
by Elias Khoury
Published by Picador (2007)
Rating: 
*****

Introduction 

This book has been on my to-read shelf since 2016, and I was intimidated about picking it up because I feared that I would not like it. When I first heard about this book, I heard only good things – from the plot, to the characters, to Khoury’s writing – people praised the decisions he made throughout. I was told it was impossible for me to not enjoy it, and that I would leave the book with several questions.

The history of the Middle East is a history I have read obsessively about because of my own connections to that part of the world and my desire to understand how so much conflict has been allowed to persist in such a localized area for so long, with and without intervention.

At the start of this year, I decided that aside from reading a large volume of books, and reading widely, I wanted to remove books from my to-read shelf. My Goodreads is filled with all sorts of things I’ve shelved, and I figured that discarding those, or reading those would lead to better predictions from the algorithm, and fresh finds – things I’d genuinely like to read. After all, there’s too little time to do all the reading I want to be doing.

Thus began my adventure with Khoury. I completed the book in class, and recommended it instantly to the person seated next to me – certain that I had found another reader. So it was to be, and long may this book continue to travel.

Plot

The book is structured as a stream-of-consciousness narration by Khaleel, an almost-son-like figure to Yunes, a Palestinian freedom fighter, who is in a coma. Although others have given Yunes up for dead, Khalil sits vigil by his hospital bedside and recounts stories, in an effort to make sense of their lives, and to make some contact with Yunes.

Detail

There is incredible detail in Khoury’s writing. He spent years listening to stories at refugee camps, and those stories fed into the novel – and that experience shines through in a manner irreplaceable by any other experience. He weaves to life the Palestine cause, and in doing so, he is able to showcase the true sense of displacement that refugees live with and the burden that places on them. There are portions of this book that it hurt to read because I felt helpless – it felt unfair, and left me with deep despair that humans had to go through the harrowing experience of seeing their home, being able to identify it, but not being sure what the world identifies it as.

There is naturally, a grandioseness to Khoury’s writing that leaves you remembering the words he writes. One that stood out for me was:

“in the faces of those people being driven to slaughter, didn’t you see something resembling your own?”

These lines asking the Palestinians to understand the Holocaust.

This is an Odyssey.

Conclusion

If you cannot tell, I am enamored by this book – for it takes ordinary stories and everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and raises them to myth. If there is a book you read this year, please let this be it.

Rogues, Raju and Redemption | The Guide, by R.K. Narayan

The Guide,
by R.K. Narayan
Published by Penguin Classics (2006)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

R.K. Narayan has been an ever-present name in my life. My mother first introduced to me to Malgudi, but it was my father who took me to Gangarams Bookstore and helped me find and buy my first (and only copy) of R.K. Narayan’s work, Malgudi Schooldays. Aside from finding and watching the adaptation on YouTube, my next interaction with Narayan was in Grade 10, where I read his short story A Horse and Two Goats. Then I discovered that R.K. Laxman (of The Common Man) fame was his brother. I remember thinking then, as I do now, that sitting with them for a meal served on a banana-leaf would have been an absolute joy.

On a whim, I discovered an academic article titled How To Read an Indian Novel, which left me flabbergasted because of its claims, but also because I had never come across a reading guide for an entire country, especially none as diverse as India. It baffled me. I took the advice to heart though, and Narayan was recommended, his work The Guide gaining particular prominence in that critics literary imagination. Thus begun this journey, which I took to instantly thanks to it’s setting in Malgudi – a place I want to call home.

Plot

Raju, a storekeeper at the Malgudi Railway Station discovers that he can use his gift of the gab to make more money as a tour guide to visitors. He leaves his store to the station porter’s son, finding a friend and a taxi to become a guide who is known throughout India. Unexpectedly though, Raju’s life takes a turn when he falls in love with Rosie, the wife of a scholarly tourist client, Marco. Raju confesses his love to her, and Rosie separates from Marco, who had treated her terribly.

Being with Rosie leads to estrangement from his family, and Raju loses his house and store to debt. Raju encourages Rosie to take up her passion of dancing, and together, they make Rosie one of India’s top dancers. Raju then commits an act of dishonesty that changes his life once more, and he ends up in jail for forgery.

Raju returns to Malgudi after two years. Narayan pans the scene to an abandoned temple by a river, when local villagers take him to be a Sadhu and approach him for advice. As Raju’s words turn true, he is proclaimed and considered a saint, and he begins a second life at the goodwill of people. However, amidst a severe drought, one of Raju’s proclamations is interpreted to mean he will be fasting to bring rain – leading to the book’s ambiguous ending.

Characters that are Human

Very often I find myself struggling to identify with characters across fiction books owing to their clear polarizing character traits. This is truer of books that were published in the 1900’s (ones I have read) as compared to newer books, which have developed nuance into their writing. However, as is appropriate of Narayan’s writing style (in the little literature of his that I have inhaled and consumed), characters here are grey. They are human, with flaws and quirks, and mistakes committed, and their own perspective on morality.

That drives this book. I believe that having characters that are human makes books with dacoity or forgery, or even acts of dishonesty – plain, white lies even, more bearable, because they allow you to understand the perspective of the character committing those acts. For moments, they are relatable – they live and breathe, and so, they make mistakes, when they see ends they wish to have. Raju, Rosie, and everyone else in the book is wonderfully human, and I am grateful for it.

Simplicity 

Another defining trait of Narayan’s writing, I would think, is his simplicity of prose. There are short, crisp sentences. There is dry wit. There’s an ease to reading his books, which, in particular, help make this book easy to navigate – particularly since he takes you back and forth in time repeatedly. There’s no complex narrative structure at play, and no plot within a plot. This is a page-turner that is a delight to read.

Conclusions

I want to visit Malgudi, and would urge all of you to read this – for you will want to meet the characters there too.

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).