Stoner (John Edward Williams, 1965)

Stoner is a novel that really allows one to revel in the delights of language. So beautifully and movingly written, its sad descent into the forgotten depositories of literature is a shame. However, recently reissued by Vintage Classics, the novel is now being (rightfully) celebrated for its grace and elegance.

Stoner follows the life of the protagonist, William Stoner, from the age of 19 up until his death from cancer as an elderly man. His life is not remarkable in a conventional sense: he enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, later switches to literature, and then stays on and remains there as a teacher for the rest of his days. What is remarkable, though, is the startling poignancy of its prose; the way it slowly, softly – but surely – breaks the reader’s heart.

Very loosely juxtaposed against the events of World War II, the historical context of the novel heightens the intensity with which Stoner’s life is depicted. Two weeks after he receives his degree, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, and war breaks out over Europe. Stoner, however, doesn’t see the future as uncertain and obscure. He is to go on and do his doctorate, while teaching a seminar at the University:

He saw it, not as a flux of change and potentiality, but as a territory ahead that awaited his exploration. He saw it as the great University library, to which new wings might be built, to which new books might be added and from which old ones might be withdrawn, while its true nature remained essentially unchanged.

‘Reclaiming the significance of the individual life’, the prose draws our attention to aspects of life and of experience which are, despite what they might appear, inevitably filled with meaning and significance. The ease with which the novel reads makes it very hard to put down. Each paragraph contains delicate insight, uninhibited truth and subtle wit, and some passages left me so moved that they would murmur in my consciousness for hours after, causing me to re-read them, and marvel again at the beauty of the prose.

It’s a sad book – you’ll surely shed a few tears. But for me, what overrode the sadness was the notion that often, the inner life, the life of the mind, compensates for the outer. Quiet thought and silent reflection can carry just as much ‘meaning’ as actions on the outside. Stoner is a graceful reminder of the soundless conflicts, defeats and triumphs of the human race.

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Lying (Sam Harris, 2011)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Harris, he’s great.

As well as being a public critic of religion and one of the major proponents of the New Atheism movement, he’s also a neuroscientist, philosopher, and blogger. He parts company with a lot of other atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) in that he’s interested in (and believes in) transformative spiritual experiences, and he writes and speaks about topics such as meditation (he spent a year in Asia studying meditation under Hindu and Buddhist teachers) and human consciousness fairly regularly. In fact, he has a new book coming out – ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion’ – in September.

Lying is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The premise is simple – lying, in most situations (even situations in which most of us would make exceptions), is bad. It’s bad for you, bad for those around you, bad for relationships, bad for the world. By way of many, many examples and anecdotes, Harris illustrates the destructive effects of lying. Some are funny, some heart-breaking, some surprising. It’s also quite a daring book – Harris doesn’t shy away from difficult cases, such as lying to a terminally ill child about dying, or lying to a murderer about his target’s whereabouts. It covers a broad range of ground, from white lies to life-changing lies, and there’s a Q&A section at the end dealing with readers’ questions.

Harris’ arguments really made me think. I thought that in such a small number of words (it’s really more of a long essay than a book), he did a fairly thorough job of convincing us that there aren’t many examples of seemingly virtuous lies that can easily escape scrutiny. Having said that, he’s not an absolutist in his stance. He is simply inviting us to think – to pay attention to what the truth is in every moment and to evaluate whether it’s really necessary or beneficial to deviate from it – rather than outright condemning all lies. The writing is also impeccably clear, and it’s not a difficult or challenging read, making it accessible to and enjoyable for most anyone who enjoys a mental workout, from time to time.

Yet, I did think that some of Harris’ arguments lacked a certain cultural awareness, if that’s what you’d call it. This is surprising, given that a lot of his work and engagements have seen him talking to people from rather orthodox, oppressive backgrounds. Having said that, the book is only around 50 (very small) pages or so, and its ambitions were probably more just to plant the seeds of thought as opposed to setting out the most detailed and comprehensive argument possible. Still, for me, the culture factor was too big not to address, simply as I thought it was just so relevant to a lot of his discussions. It made it seem like he was oblivious to the realities and situations of people less affluent, less free, with less opportunity, and less privileged generally. I don’t think Harris had to accommodate lots of space and time to this in the text, but just alluding to some of the limitations of his ideas might have made all the difference and, in my opinion, made it more of a credible read.

On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957)

Feels kind of piddling to be writing an unfavourable review of a book as popular and generation-defining/culturally important as this one (especially since I didn’t finish it). But here goes!

I never finished On the Road (I had 30 pages or so left). If I’ve started reading a novel I usually see it through, even if it kills me. But it felt like Jack Kerouac really didn’t care about me as a reader, and I felt completely excluded from the whole experience. I’ve been told this is one of those ‘marmite’ books, but I wanted to love it – I expected to love it, because I loved the idea. I recently spent some time in San Francisco just after graduating, and after seeing the Beat Museum, the Jack Kerouac alley with its lovely quotes and poems from Beat-era literature engraved into the concrete, and the brilliantly quirky City Lights bookstore, I was enchanted by the energy of it all. So, I picked up a copy and began.

The story simply doesn’t go anywhere. It goes to lots of places, sure. It goes all the way across America, several times. I can see why so many love it – the excitement, the speed, the fleeting moments of pain, pleasure and madness – it’s a visceral read. But in between all the madness, there wasn’t enough to keep me going. The characters weren’t sympathetic, not individually anyway. Collectively, there was something relatable about their situation that spoke to the human condition, but I didn’t like them (with the exception of Sal, about whom I felt neutrally).

The book is filled with Americana, and I wasn’t too familiar with a fair few of the cultural references – which is likely the reason I didn’t connect with it as much as others may have. But besides that, it felt to me that these characters didn’t really stand for anything – except their own madness! That’s what it’s about, it’s been said – the immediacy of experience, and the uninhibited, free style of prose which was new for its time. There are some really beautiful sentences, some that hit you hard.

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

But ultimately my conception of Jack Kerouac became of somebody who never really grew past adolescence, and so wasn’t able to offer anything more to this story than just a bunch of guys moving from one city to the next, getting drunk…and then doing the same thing again, over and over.

But who knows – maybe I’ll try it again someday. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong frame of mind, perhaps. I find when you pick up a book expecting great things, it’s likely to disappoint in one way or another.

Interestingly, I was speaking with a friend about On the Road, and he said that in the current age of online blogging, the book has far less appeal. I think its cultural impact, like many books’, was very much a product of its time. This isn’t to deny its importance, but just helps explain why I myself might not have found the experience of reading it as enthralling as I thought I would.

Audition (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

A compulsive, one-sitting read.

I picked this up by mistake while browsing the (Haruki) Murakami section at Waterstones. So this is who they call the ‘other Murakami’! This ‘psychosexual thriller'(?!) races at top speed through the story of Aoyama, a documentary film-maker living in Tokyo with his son Shige. After Shige suggests that Aoyama remarry (his wife died seven years ago due to cancer), and best bud Yoshikawa agrees, a series of events is set into motion, ending in a pretty gruesome and genuinely shocking climax.

The premise is this: in order to find a suitable wife for Aoyama, Yoshikawa suggests holding auditions for a bogus movie (that he has no intention to produce). This is a quick and easy way to filter through tons of women until the right one comes along. So far, so good.

The thing is, the premise turns out to be kind of pointless, because Aoyama becomes infatuated with Yamasaki right at the start of the selection process, as soon as her resume catches his eye. At the insistence of Yoshikawa, he reluctantly watches the other women’s auditions, utterly convinced that they are all petty and shallow compared with the stunning Yamasaki. Given that the title of the book is ‘Audition’, and that the audition idea is introduced early on in text and serves as the motor for all subsequent events, I thought a lot more could have been done with the idea. It really didn’t feel germane to the overall plot. I expected it to be explored more deeply and was left feeling a bit cheated when it wasn’t.

Anyway, Aoyama begins his courtship of Yamasaki, who I found to be a bit of a two-dimensional character. I didn’t share Aoyama’s infatuation, and for me she held no intrigue. I think in an attempt to make her seem compelling and captivating, Murakami actually constructs her character rather unconvincingly. We see only two sides to her – the lovely and sweet side, and then the monstrous side we experience at the end. Poorly layered? We are told she suffered awful abuse in the past, but because of the undeveloped characterisation, it all seems a bit mad at the end when she breaks out psycho. I did like the concept though, and if you enjoy blood and gore and gruesomeness as much as me then the final act is a treat.

So – a quick, fun read. That’s not to say it lacks all manner of depth. Some of the observations contained are thought-provoking. We’re given some insights into Japanese culture and society: a slightly tipsy Aoyama philosophises about sushi bars at one point – how Japan’s conformist, rigid social culture is reflected even in its cuisine. The descriptions of how Aoyama and Shige adapt after the mother’s death are also moving and delicately executed.

Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)

Written in an elegant, lyrical style (at times it really does feel like poetry), Siddhartha, by German author Herman Hesse tells the story of a handsome and intelligent Brahmin’s son who abandons the comforts of his home and sets out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. On a quest to seek enlightenment, he encounters many people and situations along the way, all leading up to his final realisation that the world must be loved in its completeness, and it is the totality of conscious experience that is the best approach to understanding reality.

The eloquent, fairy-tale-like prose of the novel lends pathos to the preoccupations of Siddhartha, with whom we empathise even at his worst. There is something very recognisable about his confusions and conflicts; they speak to the seeker in us all. Although the text is informed with tenets of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, it should not be seen as a substitute for or guide to the principles of those religions. Published in 1922, long before the Hippie movement of the ‘60s, it was the first major work dealing with Eastern thought in the Western world. For this reason, it has influenced the works of many others ahead of its time, such as well-known Beat-era author Jack Kerouac.

What I liked most about Siddhartha was its optimistic outcome. It’s a deep book, a profound book, but somehow still has a light and airy feel about it. The ending left me feeling uplifted, positive and to an extent, wiser. The final chapter was very touching, particularly with its musings on love and life and meaning, and I put the book down with a smile on my face.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, 2007)

Short, very evocative read.

Simple structure – a monologue. The protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, tells his story to a nervous American stranger in a tea shop in Lahore. His story – falling in and out of love with America – is a gripping one. He tells us of his studies at Princeton, his relationship with an American woman named Erica, his high-paying job at a valuation firm where he’s quickly recognised as one of the brightest talents, and then his gradually occurring disdain for the nation, post 9/11.

Changez’s account felt real, convincing. His disillusionment comes about slowly and progressively and as a result we can empathise with his character. The love story between him and Erica is poignant and delicately written, and takes up a large part of the novel, serving as a sort of allegory of Changez’s turbulent relationship with America (but to me it still felt like a touching – albeit heartbreaking – love story in its own right).

It was difficult to miss some of the ironies though. One in particular that struck out to me was when Changez refers to Erica’s father’s tone (he makes some rather arrogant comments about Pakistan’s political problems) as having a ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’. This felt a little hypocritical, considering his lofty manner of speech and pompous narrative throughout when addressing the American stranger who sits opposite him. But this, I think, was the point.

An intriguing novel, to say the least, and one that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951)

The Catcher in the Rye is a book that I think will always be relatable. The sense of hopelessness that persists in its pages drowns the reader in total despair and disillusionment at the adult world. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too observe our surroundings with increasing distaste and disenchantment.

I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I haven’t stopped reading it since. I don’t think I could have picked it up at a more appropriate time. When I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings, it felt somehow significant. The somewhat polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.

Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, this novel isn’t short of dialogue or action. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The pervading feelings of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:

I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye: it ‘cuts the crap’, for lack of a better expression. Written in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, it allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and sympathise with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.

Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again – this is what makes the book so special. I was thoroughly content at the ending, and was grateful for the lack of dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There’s no ‘Hollywood-like’ element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to his adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy, at a lonely time in his life.