Book Review: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

When consulting my bookshelf recently I decided that the time had come to re-read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as my initial memories of the novel having first read it more than six years ago were hazy and my main take away from watching the film as a teenager had been: ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a body like Brad Pitt?’ Having tried and failed in the latter respect in my early twenties, I re-calibrated my expectations and set myself the more realistic target of obtaining a greater understanding of the source material.

My instincts that Fight Club was worthy of being re-read proved to be correct as what I found was a book that, despite being more than twenty years old, appeared to be addressing issues still very much a part of contemporary society.

The novel’s unnamed narrator and protagonist finds himself as many people today do, in a ‘bullshit job’ which delivers comfortable pay but no fulfilment, a situation that the character has attempted to navigate through consumerism. Unsurprisingly however, the horde of commodities the character has amassed has ultimately failed to deliver the meaning that he seeks, effectively reducing him to a grown-up boy trapped in an endless cycle of meaningless work to fund the purchase of his next toy for his condominium.

The character’s rejection of his plight and attempts to reclaim his long-departed masculinity lead him on a destructive path which grows darker and darker as the story progresses. In my eyes, the book is a vicious attack on consumerism and the idea – one that many marketers take great pleasure in peddling – that if we simply have enough money to buy ourselves enough stuff, all our problems will fade away. Fight Club provides an alarming example of the ills that can befall a person who misguidedly places in their faith in the totem of material wealth.    

Book Review: The Graduate by Charles Webb

A boy who on the face of it appears to have the world at his feet after completing his final year of university, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock, in reality feels more like he is sinking into the ground beneath him in Charles Webb’s 1963 novel. After returning home from university and being paraded like a show pony before his parents’ friends, Benjamin concludes that his entire academic life has been little more than an extremely expensive waste of time. Abandoning his plans to enroll in a graduate course, Benjamin finds himself staring into an arid desert of nothingness and embarks upon an affair with the wily Mrs Robinson – a friend of his parents – to fill the void.

The affair sparks a chain of events that grow steadily more bizarre until the conclusion of the novel, with Benjamin’s behaviour growing increasingly erratic. Benjamin’s sense of utter loss as to what to do in nearly every situation delivers absurd passages of dialogue, chiefly with Mrs Robinson and her daughter Elaine, who post-affair serve as Benjamin’s crafty nemesis and his genuine love interest respectively. The dialogue captures the awkwardness and indecision of a young man who does not know either who he is or what he wants to do with his life and can be both excruciating and entertaining in equal measure.

Following Benjamin’s descent into apparent madness, one could be forgiven for thinking they are reading about a boxer getting savagely beaten, as even though the situation seems beyond hopeless for Benjamin, reading on in anticipation of the final knockout blow cannot be helped. The finale doesn’t disappoint with the only hope Benjamin has left to cling to: that Elaine will marry him, hanging delicately in the balance.

While Benjamin’s actions throughout the story are often laughably impetuous and flawed, they nonetheless succeed in transporting us all back to our own youthful days of ignorance and impulsivity, the era in which long-term planning was alien and decisions were perpetually made on a whim. They provide a reminder of the scope of opportunity that stood before us all in our early twenties and how such opportunity though grand in scale, is often a weight too heavy for many to bear.

Rating: 4.5/5 Hilarious coming-of-age tale with sublimely ridiculous dialogue that is conducive to the book being read in one sitting.

Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

From the first page of Stephen King’s Elevation it is apparent that there is something seriously wrong with protagonist Scott Carey, who despite an unchanged appearance cannot stop losing weight.

With his condition leaving doctors baffled, Scott finds himself in a predicament that would freeze many with worry, however rather than allow fear to stifle him, he chooses instead to embrace his circumstances. Taking the opportunity to eat whatever food he wants, pushing himself to the limit in the town fun run and reaching out to members of his community; Scott’s behaviour under his condition embodies a simple philosophy that all of us would do well to adopt: enjoy oneself and help others wherever possible. It is a philosophy often forgotten in contemporary life, where money and status are so often responsible for shaping people’s behaviour, not necessarily for the best. Thankfully Scott and his fellow citizens of Castle Rock – a town described in wholesome fashion by King throughout – seem charmingly removed from such influences.

Reading this book during lockdown (a feat that can easily be achieved in a day due to its shortness) the way Scott deals with his condition seemed even more poignant. At this moment in time all of us are living limited existences, but like most blows one receives throughout life, such a situation can be dealt with either positively or negatively. Either one can sit around idle and resentful and complain about all the things that cannot be done; or one can accept the limitations of this juncture we find ourselves at and embrace the opportunities it offers. The more people favour the Scott Carey-approach, the more positives will emerge from this trying point in history.

Rating: 3/5 – A light (literally), snappy story that can be easily read in a day.

Book Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, despite the rapid spread of the corona virus, the UK was not yet in lockdown. By the time I’d finished it, it was. And as I closed the final page I couldn’t help thinking that my reading it at this time was particularly poignant.

Though the story’s protagonist is Mary Lennox, a formerly spoilt and unfriendly girl who is sent to live at her uncle’s manor on the Yorkshire moors; the story by its conclusion is as much about Mary’s cousin, Colin Craven, as it is about her. And it is Colin’s story in particular that seemed to make the book all the more impactful as I read it, given the current real-world circumstances.

Every bit as secret as the garden Mary has already stumbled across, Colin is discovered by his cousin crying in his room at night time and appears doomed. Shut up inside all day every day, Colin has been told he is a hunchback and will not live to see adulthood. Mary helps to show him that this is not the case, using the beauty of nature that has already transformed her outlook on life to show Colin that there is much to be enjoyed in the world and plenty of hope to be had.

It was this way in which Mary, with the help of surely the most beautiful garden ever described in literature, manages to lift Colin out of his misery that seemed so relevant amid the challenges the world currently faces. As we remain shut up in our homes day after day, forbidden from going outside, with predictions of gloom all around us, it is easy for us all to feel as though we are modern day Colin Cravens. His unlikely transformation reminds us that however bleak things may appear, there is always hope and that nature will always have the power to put a smile back on our faces once again, when the time is right.

Though this is the most topical lesson Burnett’s undisputed classic teaches, it is by no means the only one, with the tale also providing a sage reminder that the greatest joys in life seldom involve money. This message is conveyed through the contrast between the troubled yet wealthy Mary and Colin and the penniless yet irrepressibly cheerful Dickon; who roams the moors every day to his heart’s content, accompanied by a merry procession of animals that he has befriended over the years.

The story is one that manages to fuse the purity of childhood with powerful moments of both sorrow and joy while still being virtually faultless in its delivery. From its vivid descriptions of the title garden to its authentic and individually charming set of characters, The Secret Garden is impeccably crafted, and even the dourest of critics would be hard-pressed to pick apart its claim to being one of the greatest children stories ever told.

So if over the next few days you find the lockdown gloom beginning to fester, why not pick up or download The Secret Garden? You might just find your faith in the future of the world restored.

 

Rating: 5/5 A masterpiece of a children’s story that 109 years after publication still has the power to make one laugh and cry.

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Charting the rise of a boy from the Indian slums from servant to established entrepreneur, The White Tiger raises a magnifying glass to the cold, heartless culture bred into Indian society by the advent of globalisation and rampant capitalism; describing a world in which one ultimately has to choose between getting dirty or dying dirty.

Balram Halwai, a boy from a place so bereft of hope it is referred to as ‘the darkness’, is earmarked by his family for a life that outstrips the standing of his birth and living up to his apparent destiny, he gets the chance to gatecrash the brightly-lit world of the wealthy when he becomes a driver and general servant for the absurdly rich Mr Ashok.

Leaving behind a life in which he once looked at bus conductors and believed them have every treasure a man could hope for, Balram is thrust into a world of wealth and scandal beyond his previous levels of comprehension.

He becomes a silent critic of his master’s life, proclaiming his disgust at many of Mr Ashok’s actions but also declaring his pity for a man whose existence, despite his gargantuan wealth, is far from a happy one. Balram’s commentary of his master’s antics and the tones of sympathy and sadness with which such tales are often laced, highlight the bizarre paradox of the master-servant relationship, where despite the disproportionate nature of the respective roles, the natural feelings of warmth and care towards a fellow human being are sometimes not easily suppressed.

Despite his often-empathetic outlook on his master’s plight, Balram does readily condemn the behaviour he finds unacceptable and is forthcoming when it comes to telling the reader how, he, the humble, well-rounded boy from the slums, would manage such extraordinary wealth without giving in to the vices that cloud his master’s life.

After prematurely proclaiming the moral high ground however, Balram is forced to revaluate his previously sanctimonious stance as he realises that the only means of achieving his ultimate goal does not contain a trace of morality.

Balram’s journey is gritty, shocking and unpredictable in equal measure and shines the brightest of lights on the dubious merits of India’s supposedly beneficial synchronisation with Western culture.

 

Rating: 3.5/5. Not always pretty, but perpetually fascinating.

 

 

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

One of the most common answers people give when they are asked what they did last night, over the weekend or even on their holidays is of course: “nothing;” and while recipients of such an answer usually accept it without any attempt to pry for further information, there is nonetheless an unspoken acknowledgment that the response they have received is not entirely truthful. Even people who say they do nothing do something. Unless they literally wake up in the morning and lie motionless counting the hours until they fall asleep again. William Stoner, the character whose surname gives John Williams’ 1965 novel its title, is a man who proves through drama surrounding the intricacies of his seemingly unremarkable life. He leaves home for The University of Missouri, stays there to become a teacher, marries and lives what most would describe as a quiet life.

He is not a hero, he is not villain, nor is he a genius, but a merely competent, good-natured man who goes about his life with little pretence. As biographical candidates go, he certainly doesn’t make the A-list and he probably wouldn’t make the B-list either. Yet when Williams puts Stoner’s life story down on paper, it is undeniably fascinating from the get-go. Why? Because most people are not celebrities, movie stars or musicians. Most of us, leave home, find our work, do the best we can for ourselves and our families, hit bumps in the road along the way and through it all, try and find solace in the simple pleasures life grants us free of charge.

Throughout his life, Stoner revels in these handouts of peaceful simplicity more than most, with perhaps the best example of this coming when his then-toddler of a daughter, Grace, watches him quietly as he works on a book in his study after his teaching hours. As she grows, Stoner frequently recalls this time that to the untrained eye, would have barely seemed noteworthy, with a wistfulness befitting of an event much more monumental.

But that is Stoner’s greatest strength: tapping into the sentimentality and powerful emotions that human beings connect to the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential things. Through its glorification of the small but beautiful through the eyes of a man with uncomplicated but decent intentions, Williams tells a story that is intensely relatable that proves there is beauty, triumph and tragedy in every human life. Even the ones of those who often tell us they do “nothing.”

Rating: 4.5/5 Beautiful, sad but undeniably brilliant.

Book Review: Mrs Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

Set over the course of a single day in post-First World War London, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was, and in many ways still is, regarded as a truly innovative novel and it was on these grounds that I decided to pick it up.

And I must say, at first, I was not too sure I had made the right decision. The opening pages though they are adorned with flowery, vivid descriptions that paint the London inhabited by the book’s affluent cast as a comfortable and charming world, seemed to be (in absence of a Woolf-esque description) about a whole lot of nothing. I found myself torn as although the prose was undeniably beautiful the distinct lack of story other than the fact that Mrs Dalloway would be hosting a party, left me seriously considering putting it down.

In the end, owing largely to its relative shortness at just 213 pages, I decided to see things through.

Having now read Mrs Dalloway in its entirety, I can say whole-heartedly that this proved to be the correct decision. What I took at first glance to be the purposeless, persistent charting of the characters’ meandering thoughts actually transpired to be a fascinating exploration into the complexity of the human mind and the enormous spectrum of emotions, feelings, and thoughts that trouble our consciousness every day. The cast of Mrs Dalloway, through their fluctuating emotions, prompt a re-assessment of the common propensity to downplay the relentless inner workings in every human mind as the simple mundanity of ‘normal people’. The character’s tribulations also force us to acknowledge as human beings that we are actually far more complex than we give ourselves credit for.

These inner musings of the male and female characters often focus around the notion status and the undeniable role it plays in life. Over the course of a single day, the characters seek to address the lifelong battle for self-definition that all people face; ponder how the world views them; and even in some cases, contemplate re-definition following a loss of status. The fact that these characters do this prior to and during a party in which the Prime Minister makes an appearance in an era that is more or less a century old, is as far as I’m concerned, irrelevant, as the soul-searching they undertake is just as applicable to people now in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump as it was in the time of David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson. For that reason, Mrs Dalloway, though its purpose may at first seem obsolete, is deserving of its status as a classic piece of British literature.

Rating: 3.5/5 Beautifully written and unique in concept. Worthy of its place on any readers bucket list.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never has the cliché that your school days are the best days of your life, been less tired than when applied to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a novel which charts the relationships of three friends from childhood through to adulthood.

Their paths crossing at the seemingly idyllic English boarding school Hailsham, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow close to one another, with romance sometimes muddying the waters of friendship, but as they grow older they learn that all of them are set for a dark future which will eventually drive the three of them apart for good.

To elaborate on what that future is and how the trio react to it, would be to deprive anyone unfamiliar with the novel of its unique exploration of both the beauty and the pain of human relationships, as it is one we can all relate to.

Though we probably do not stand before futures as ominous as those which face the three main characters face, there is no doubt that all of us at some time or other in our lives have looked back at a time in our past and wished we could somehow dive back there even if only for a day. Through the particularly bleak fate that awaits its main characters Never Let Me Go casts a spotlight over the moments in life where a person’s circumstances change irrevocably, uprooting old relationships once believed unbreakable for good. Seldom do these decisions come without sacrifice and the sad realisation that as wonderful as it would be to return back to a time when life was one elongated frolic, such an opportunity has long since passed.

In capturing the beauty of friendships in their infancy and the often harsh realities of growing up, Ishiguro has written a novel that (barring the sudden invention of time travel) will be relatable for generations to come.

Rating: 4/5 Cruel yet beautiful, a wonderful standalone novel.

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Winner of a scholarship that has catapulted away from her small town home and into the heart of New York City, Esther Greenwood appears to have the world at her feet in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the only trouble is, everything she has spent her young life working towards no longer seems to matter.

As Esther’s existential crisis sees her fortunes plummet to astonishing depths, one fears for her future and the fact that this suddenly bleak outlook is caused by nothing more than indecision is all the more alarming. Esther’s plight highlights the precarious situations those guilty of perhaps the most understandable of crimes: not knowing what they want to do with their life by the end of their teenage years; can find themselves in and how quickly their prospects can diminish following a simple bout of indecision.

The sudden horror Esther is plunged into when she has a change of heart about her future is perhaps more relevant today, over half a century on from publication than ever before, as with University tuition fees at an all-time high, the price of indecision among young people has never been more costly.

Esther’s story underlines the caution that should be exercised when setting expectations for young people, most of whom are still some distance off finding their way in the world. And an acknowledgment among teachers, employers and parents alike that it is far more common for young adults to be undecided about their futures than it is for them to have their entire life mapped out by nineteen, would go a long way towards ensuring that society does not become riddled with contemporary Esther Greenwoods.

Rating: 4/5 Thought-provoking, chilling and masterfully written. Thoroughly deserving of its status as a post-war classic.

Book Review: Women by Charles Bukowski

In Women, former postal clerk and previous incumbent of hundred and one dead-end jobs Henry “Hank” Chinaksi has made it… not quite big, but he has at least augmented his status above that of the general population. A professional writer whose life has become something of a continuous roadshow of poetry readings, Chinaski’s upturn in fortunes sees him no longer hobnobbing with the dregs of society but with a raft of women most of whom are young enough to be his daughter.

With the raging libido chronicled in prequels Post Office and Factotum still firmly intact, and with his list of suitors now considerably longer, Chinaski appears initially to be lapping his new lifestyle having trodden an extremely calamitous path to success. But as the relentless merry-go-round of women in his life continues to revolve, Chinaski begins to question whether he has in fact won after all.

As a reader, one is inclined to feel something similar as the novelty of the scoundrel from Post Office and Factotum’s success wears pretty thin, pretty quickly. Chinaski’s now nonchalant manner of conducting himself is a far cry the desperate, self-deprecating demeanour he exhibited in his two previous literary outings.

Chinaksi himself states on numerous occasions that he is far from a household name as writers go and it is tempting to contemplate – as he continues to go about life with a newfound assuredness that was previously alien to his followers – how insufferable he might become if he ever reached anything close to Hemingway status.

His shenanigans remain entertaining and the grim, blunt, nauseating details of some of his many less than dignified encounters endure as they did in Factotum and Post Office. But in Women, Henry Chinaski is no longer a guy trying to make it in the world, consumed by vice and trapped in a thankless system; he is instead a professional writer with nothing better to do than indulge the same vices he did prior to his success, and for that reason, he loses more than a semblance of his charm.