Currently, I am experiencing a feeling of sheer exuberance, admittedly coupled with (and yet not diminished by) an undeniable fatigue. I am tired, so very tired; every fibre in my body needs rest, and I can think of no better way to express my present desire than to say that right now, all I want to do is some major chilling! And yet despite this, I simply cannot rid myself of that excitement which is only to be felt at this particular time of year by everyone between the ages of 4 and 18: for indeed, after barely recovering from an arduous examination period before being plunged head first into five weeks of studying for my A2 courses, I have finally finished for the summer holidays. Although I admit that the level of anticipation is somewhat tainted by the near hysteria-inducing prospect of personal statement writing and making my final preparations for university applications, I can nevertheless see seven and a half weeks of blissful relaxation, socialising, and of course reading, stretching out before me. I cannot wait to while away whole days by idly sprawling under the sultry sun and devouring novel after novel. I cannot wait to get my teeth stuck into essays, articles and books of literary criticism to challenge myself and explore more deeply those areas of fiction which are of particular fascination to me. I cannot wait to re-read my set English texts (Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and consider potential comparative titles in preparation for next year’s coursework. Bearing in mind the amount of reading I will therefore be doing, I decided that now is the perfect time to move forward in reviewing some of the books I have read recently by compiling a few of those about which I have less to say into a single post. As usual, SPOILERS may be included.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (read 28/4/14 – 5/5/14):
The description which most immediately springs to mind in reference to this book is that it is a wannabe The Bell Jar, for indeed just like Sylvia Plath’s now iconic semi-autobiographical novel, this book charts one woman’s infernal mental decline into depression, her slow recovery process after institutionalisation, and her struggle to carve her own identity and seek fulfilment in a male-dominated world. In this case, this woman is of course the eponymous Zelda Fitzgerald, the real-life wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of America’s most influential writers to date and the author of perhaps the ultimate modern classic, The Great Gatsby (a novella which is so heart-breakingly beautiful both in plot and writing style as to afford it an unmoveable place in my affections); although I knew little about the life of the ‘first flapper’, as Zelda is so often cited to be, before I chose to buy this book, the infamy of her tumultuous, soap-opera-worthy relationship with Scott was not lost to me and so was without doubt the aspect which most attracted me to the biographical novel. However, unlike The Bell Jar, I would have to say that Fowler’s writing style seemed to me to lack that intangible duality of subtlety and poignancy which, when achieved by truly great writers such as Plath, renders works of literature so enthralling and memorable, the much more simplistic and, dare I say, one-dimensional nature of this text making it fair to determine that reading Z is certainly an experience of light relief rather than one of intellectual contemplation. Having said this, perhaps I am being slightly too harsh in my assessment of the book’s ‘wannabe’ status, since in fact it is highly conceivable that had I not subconsciously formed such pre-conceived comparisons to Plath’s novel, I would actually have appreciated more greatly what was admittedly not a displeasing read in its own right.
A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (read 21/5/14 – 25/5/14):
Although I have never read the work for which John le Carré (not, as I was so disappointed to learn, a true Frenchman but in reality a Brit named David John Moore Cornwell) is perhaps most famed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, purely by coincidence I actually watched the film adaptation of this same novel not long before I embarked upon A Delicate Truth and so had some pre-warning of the disconcertingly confusing nature of the author’s espionage plots. The most recent of le Carré’s publications, this novel is set only a few years before our current date and follows the efforts of two civil servants in British Intelligence, Toby Bell and Christopher Probyn, to reveal the hidden truth of the organisation’s involvement in and cover-up of a scandalous failed operation on the Rock of Gibraltar some years before. While I cannot even begin to go into the complex ins and outs of what exactly this entails – I could feign modesty and pretend that the reason for this is lest I confuse all you readers through my inability to do justice to the intelligent intricacy of le Carré’s plot, but to tell the truth I am not so sure I can even entirely remember all of the minute details – what I can say is that one of the things I most liked about reading this novel was the masterful way that le Carré creates just the right amount of suspense for the reader by not revealing too much too soon, hence making for a real sense of intrigue perfectly mirroring that of the book’s content while also providing a read which promises to be undeniably riveting from start to finish.
Stoner by John Williams (read 30/5/14 – 1/6/14):
Despite being written in 1965, Stoner is a novel which I believe has only really come to public attention rather recently, to such an extent that it was even reportedly Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2013; maybe I am being rather cynical, but I do find that there is something rather odd about the novel’s heretofore lack of success considering that it is supposedly “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” (according to The New Yorker), for I can’t help but feel that if it truly were deserving of such high praise as this it would have been deemed a ‘classic’ long before now, and can thus conclude that perhaps it is, unfortunately, more a matter of the public latching onto the latest literary phenomenon and following the crowd that is behind the novel’s sudden rise to bestseller status. As for my own reaction to this book, while I certainly enjoyed Williams’s telling of the simple tale that is the life William Stoner – the narrative beginning not long before the First World War and charting the eponymous protagonist from his entrance as a student into the University of Missouri, right through his career as a Professor of English Literature at that same establishment until his eventual death – I would not necessarily say it was a novel I would choose to return to time and time again as many reviews seem to suggest.
What I did particularly like about it however was the presentation of Stoner’s romantic relationships, for indeed I am always interested to see how love and sex are presented in literature, and how something that is meant to be such a fundamental human emotion can appear to change over the course of different time periods based on the social attitudes of a writer’s day. In Stoner the concept of love is manifested through the character’s emotional conflict between his sense of duty to the wife he married too soon and doesn’t truly love, Edith, and his romantic passion for his much younger yet much more like-minded lover, Katherine Driscoll. Regarding the former woman, I was bemused to see how a character who had initially appeared to be such an embodiment of female meekness and subservience – to such a degree that she can’t even bring herself to sleep with her husband without trembling with fear – can later turn into a woman who is so vindictive that she empties out Stoner’s study in order to turn it into a painting studio, and that she does her utmost to prevent him spending too much time with their daughter, Grace. As I continued to uncover Edith’s manipulative, often spiteful behaviour, it occurred to me that the turning point in the nature of her character appeared to stem from the death of her controlling father; could this event, I wondered, be some form of liberation for a girl who had had to live all her life abiding by her father’s rules, the irony being that when she is finally allowed to express herself all that remains is bitterness and cold-heartedness after years of repression?
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (read 6/6/14 – 17/6/14):
What with the previously mentioned Z and Stoner, it appears that of late I have been reading quite a number of works of fiction that are biographical in style, a trend which, as can no doubt be inferred from its title, Memoirs of a Geisha clearly adheres to. This novel however was very different from the former two and arguably even from any other book I have encountered before in that it explores a whole different culture from that I am accustomed to reading about, moving the action away from the familiarities of the Western world and plunging us into the exotic sights, customs and traditions of 1930s Japan. It was unquestionably the novelty of such a reading experience which I really relished, and which succeeded in enticing me both before I had even begun the book and also as I continued to immerse myself into the heart-wrenching tribulations of a little fishing-village girl, Chiyo, and her astounding transformation into the woman known as Sayuri, becoming the most celebrated geisha in the district of Kyoto (in particular I marvelled at the manner in which the male author had so perfectly been able to capture the voice of this girl through the novel’s first person narrative voice, thus rendering her a character whom I feel as a reader I came to really know, sympathise for, and even love). Although I fully acknowledge that Golden’s account of life for that most mysterious of traditionally Japanese emblems, the geisha, is purely a fictionalised one and has in fact been criticised since the novel’s publication in 1997 for its lack of authenticity, I nevertheless would say that from a purely aesthetic and “art for art’s sake” standing I was completely swept away by the sheer level of detail and wonder created surrounding the geishas’ world via the author’s employment of such rich, beautiful imagery and descriptions; to me this only went to provide for a delightful period of purely pleasurable reading and ensured that Memoirs of a Geisha is a book which I shall not be forgetting in a hurry.