Monday, 7 January 2013

'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream' by Hunter S. Thompson

I was in a grubby student house somewhere around Englefield Green on the edge of the Surrey/Berkshire border when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying to my housemate something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should type. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the room was full of what looked like South London parakeets, all swooping and screeching and diving around. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Then it was silent again and I could just hear the colours. All was well. I looked around and was instantly blinded by the intense light of the computer screen in front of me. But it was okay - my sight returned shortly after. It was almost noon, and we still had a few hundred words to go. They would be tough words. Very soon, I knew, we would both be extremely twisted. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We must ride it out and write this review. The submission period for the website was already underway, and we had to get there by midnight to claim our right to be published. 
I asked my housemate if he was ready for the task ahead but he simply grinned and continued to conjure patterns from the billowing purple smoke of the stick of incense burning slowly on the desk. I knew this may well have had to be a one-man job ‘till I managed to pull this moron back from whatever dimension he was hiding in. I began to type.

I’m picking up Good Vibrations. She’s giving me excitations. No! No! You fool! That’s just the music playing! I quit thinking so loudly - or speaking? I snapped back into this grim, grey, grizzly twenty-first century reality and began to write the review. The plot of ‘Fear and Loathing’ is simply that in 1972, a journalist and his attorney travel to The Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada to report on a dirt bike race called the Mint 400. However, the pair of aging hippies stuck firmly in mid-1960s San Francisco, decide to see the trip as the perfect opportunity for a drug binge of mammoth proportions. They head across the desert in an oversized red Chevy sedan, a mechanical icon of the free-spirited, anything is possible, America of the 1960s, fired up on mescaline, marijuana, acid, ether, and tequila like the great American liberal thinkers of that decade. They soon get to Las Vegas - a physical representation of the sin, greed, and excess left over after the death of the ‘60s American dream that promised peace and love. The only aspect of those golden years they are able to hold onto is the heavy use of psychoactive drugs. However, they soon discover that using those drugs, that reminded them of their fondest years, in a place that serves as the polar opposite of the desired effect and no longer accepts them, results in terrifying consequences. Everybody is disgusted by them and scared of them. They are outcasts on hard drugs with hordes of people staring at them. Their paranoia must have been insane. They literally see businesspeople as giant lizard monsters in suits, relishing human blood and enjoying an orgy. They come across a crowd of cops at a hotel police conference on Illegal Drugs. They decide to attend the conference as ambassadors of the drug-taking community and go to see hundreds of cops nod and shout in agreement at a presentation of astoundingly inaccurate anti-marijuana propaganda. Eventually it all becomes too much: their corrupted new society rejects them, and they fall deep into the dreaded fear. When they return to grim, grey, grizzly reality, they decide to escape Vegas, the heart of the true American Dream. As the journalist is leaving he shouts at two marines - symbols of the a more oppressing society: “God’s mercy on you swine!” He finally comments that he “felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger . . . a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.” He chooses the fear and loathing over the harsh reality.

“It’s the same today,” insisted my housemate. How long had he been watching me type? Was that a parakeet on his shoulder? No, of course not. “We’ve got ridiculous world debt, poverty, religious terrorism, political corruption, propaganda, a flawed legal system... What’s the difference?”
“The difference is, my good housemate, that we were never promised anything better. All promises of a better world were forgotten before we were born. By the time we came along, this was already considered the norm. All is relative.” I explained. I then recited an Oasis lyric: “I lost my faith in the summertime, ‘cos it don’t stop raining. The sky all day is as black as night, but I’m not complaining.” 
“But I guess we still have those educated, liberal thinkers.” My housemate wondered aloud. 
“Yes,” I began, “and those intellectual thinkers are again, the ones who take the drugs, are open-minded, challenge the unjust policies of the government, and keep fighting the good fight for peace, love, and fun in a world that is closing in on itself. And one day, they too, perhaps, will face the decision to submit to reality or continue in a world of fear and loathing.”
“I love it when you can make comparison between art of another era and the present day.” My housemate bluntly informed me. He was slowly transporting himself to another state of being so I told him to compile a list of all the old works of art he could think of that could be compared to today’s society. This would keep him focused. Starting to change. Yeah. . . Can’t let anyone see us or they’ll report us at once to some kind of outback nazi law enforcement agency, and they’ll run us down like dogs.

Review by Brad St.Ledger

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Martel’s tale of Piscine Molitor Patel is like no other I have ever read. Born and raised in colourful and bright Pondicherry, it follows him through his fateful voyage to Canada with his family, where the ship descends to the sea bed and the only company remaining in the small life boat is a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan comically named Orange Juice, a half deranged hyena, and most importantly, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who suffers from extreme sea sickness. These comical names alone are explained in the most bizarre of circumstances, yet they provide light distraction from the dense knowledge of Part One. I’m sure at this point you’re questioning as to how a book such as this strange one mentioned could win a Man Booker Prize, yet to me the biggest prize was finally reading it after having heard so much furor around it. For sheer novel brilliance, literary excellence, and zoological verisimilitude Martel deserves the Booker, yet this book offers the reader so much more than one initially expects. Upon reading more into Martel and his works, I discovered that the novel had been rejected by five major publishing houses before being accepted by Knopf Canada. All I can say is, were the other five completely mad?

Perhaps I should start by saying that this novel is not for the faint hearted (or for the seasick for that matter!). Part One is densely packed with zoology knowledge and religious revelations, making a somewhat heavy start to what is arguably the best novel I have read in a long time. I implore you to not give up though. Yes, its heavy but is relevant, and I guarantee it will change the way you view an animal next time you visit a zoo. You’ll realise why the leopard enclosures have such high fences, how animal is a sheer survival machine, and most fascinatingly, the world of the animal’s inner mind. The utter depth of knowledge Martel provides is truly incredible, enough for me to even look up as to whether he has a degree in zoology or the like. Martel’s blending of religion with morality is something I personally found utterly enthralling, to the point where I read the novel in one sitting on a long-haul flight. Perhaps it is the way in which he speaks directly to the reader that allows a densely packed Part One to slip by with relative ease (for those who are accustomed to reading a dense novel, may I add) Once the reader passes Part One and all its factuality, we see Martel’s talent come to life. Having said this, the beginning has an important role in letting us see Pi’s family, thus making his later anguish all the more upsetting and emotional. Martel presents the reader with an ingenious method of keeping ones mind active, mirroring that of Pi’s struggle in the Pacific Ocean. Most predominantly, Martel’s use of listing various things, such as equipment, his daily routine etc. keeps the reader sane through what is undoubtedly a very insane journey within Pi’s mind. Yes, there are times at which you wonder whether Martel loses his way or timeline of events, yet the book captivates something that I never knew even existed within me. I don’t think I have ever really felt pity like I did when reading the tale of Pi and his Bengal tiger. There are moments of humour and parts where I genuinely laughed out loud at Pi’s sudden realisation that his final co-pilot for their mission home is a tiger. What I was so very amazed about when reading the novel was how many emotions one book could evoke within me.

The events upon the boat with the other inhabitants make for an engrossing read upon which the reader is unable to put the book down, and Pi’s triple conversion to Hinduism, Muslim and Christianity adds a sense of morality to the voyage every time Pi weeps over a life-saving meal that he has had to kill. This alone remains poignant in the book. Pi’s weeping over the death of a Mako sounds comical, yet there is something truly distressing about the scene that unfolds, and the way in which the Mako shines all number of colours before death takes it, perhaps hinting again towards a inexplicable sense of altered realism within the novel. That is another element one must consider. Realism remains as much as possible within the first three quarters of the novel, it is only when the two begin to waste away and die that we really enter a sense of the strange, with Martel almost wanting to obliterate any previous sense of calmness and survival assumptions the reader may have. Most predominantly, the Meerkat Island and its carnivorous tendencies. Martel’s use of the island toys with the reader. We are almost elated with joy when Pi sinks his teeth into the algae and finds that he loves it, yet the discovery of teeth promptly sets the two into the ocean again.

Yet I must say, what I found so absolutely amazing within the book is that of the relationship between man and beast, and their coexistence on such a small ray of hope in the middle of a vast expanse. We are carried through this journey in Pi where he battles sanity and his own conscience, first deciding to kill Richard parker, but never actually bringing himself to do it. The two become unlikely companions, and what I as the reader found most enthralling was the battle of hierarchy Martel so effortlessly describes, harking back to the informative Part One, and thus tying the confusing, somewhat bizarre elements of the novel together. From what is quite a heavy novel, Martel makes it seem like an effortless read through his different uses of breaking the written word into manageable pieces. Perhaps the most graphic example of this is the very end, when the question of morality truly arises, and the reader, as Man, is truly questioned as to which they prefer (I wont explain the end as I don’t want to ruin a spectacular plot twist). The interview style element makes a challenging subject of survival and loss for Pi into an easy flowing narrative for the reader, with a jaw dropping ideology revealed at the end.

As previously mentioned, Martel has an intriguing way of handing the reader a sense of hope, and then dashing it way before the reader truly has a clutch on it. This is again done when the two finally land on the Mexican shores after 227 days at sea with one another. Through anguish, pain, blindness and sheer survival they have triumph, yet Martel halts the reader’s want of a lifetime friendship between the two by simply stating ‘Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever in my life’. Such a poignant and well-written sentence to end a tumultuous relationship aboard a small boat. I, personally, was in utter shock. I was expecting him to jump into Pi’s arms, or to at least attempt to attack the officials who rescue him, but to no avail. But of course, how naïve of me. Martel has presented us with the battle between Man and Beast and their struggle for co-habituating harmony, why should the tiger suddenly turn into a common house cat? And there is the moment in which you truly see Martel’s previously unrecognised talent. One can almost hear Martel asking if the reader has learnt nothing in part one of the beast’s need for survival. It is then that we realise, the reader has been duped, stripped of what they thought they knew, and left, much like the lonesome boy at sea.

If I could recommend one thing, it would be to read the non-illustrated version. I have read both now, and strongly believe that Martel’s descriptive powers work so much more efficiently and vividly if left to the reader’s imagination alone. I shall say one final word on the ending. It is not what you expect. That may be cliché, however I do not know how else to say it without giving it away. Pi’s providing of a second, far more harrowing version of events directly pinpoints the reader with Man’s morality, or lack thereof, with Pi outright asking which the officials prefer. It forces the reader to answer the question unwittingly, now that all evidence is laid in front of us. I can tell you my answer, and that is that I wholeheartedly prefer the story with Richard Parker.

by Hannah Thomson

Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'

Life of Pi

      ‘After a thorough investigation I made a complete list:
·                                1 survival manual
·                                1 compass
·                                1 notebook
·                                1 boy with complete set of light clothing but for one lost shoe
·                                1 spotted hyena
·                                1 zebra (broken leg included)
·                                1 orang-utan
·                                1 450-pound Bengal tiger
·                               1 lifeboat
·                               1 ocean
·                               1 God’

This was not just the inventory of Piscine Molitor Patel’s prized possessions but it would seem also that of Booker prize winner Yann Martel’s creative writing arsenal when creating his worldwide best seller novel Life of Pi. In his novel, Martel tells us the valiant story of the brave Piscine’s struggle for survival after being shipwrecked with his family. Contrary to the expectations of a typical  shipwrecked castaway’s story, however, this is not merely the tale of a brave boy fighting hunger, loss and solitude. It is the story of an inquisitive soul who, on top of everything, both battles and nurtures his antagonising companion: an adult Royal Bengal tiger nicknamed Richard Parker.

Martel’s set up of the story is a framework with the aspirations of a writer who is desperate for a story to rekindle his career. When he hears of one that will allegedly ‘make you believe in God’ his curiosity is piqued and he enquires further. This framing of the story is an interesting technique Martel uses to avoid affronting atheists or agnostics with religion as a non-sequitur. By distancing us from this particular motif we are allowed to take it to heart or lay it down beside us. Simultaneously, the author flags that we are dealing with a meta-textual text where the process of storytelling itself is a major theme.
The structure of the novel is rather changeable which suggests that Martel was experimenting with different structures and could not decide on one to convey his story in a straightforward manner: shifts from one I to another telling their stories and then a sudden switch to a diary composition are somewhat disorienting for the reader though our author has made a poor attempt to cover up this fact by the use of clumsy punctuation rendering the layout of the book simply ridiculous.

Characterisation, both direct and indirect, are undoubtedly Martel’s forte. We connect to Pi through the establishing of a deeply rooted relationship with the reader. Pi seems to bare himself to us to a degree that is even less concealing than his lack of clothing. His thoughts and ideas, wishes and desires, grievances and suffering are cleverly portrayed through Pi’s use of a diary. Not only does this show a good insight into the character’s personality but it is worth mentioning that this is where Martel’s seemingly inept play with structures favours his work since it enhances the uneventful atmosphere and the everyday drag Pi experiences, enabling us as readers to float a mile on his raft. It is safe to say that Pi and Pi alone is characterised in this book leaving little opportunity for the reader to understand or experience the emotional gravity of Pi’s ordeal. A strong sense of identity is put forward but sadly not maintained on a consistent level.

Distinct motifs in this book are this aforementioned strong sense of identity along with strife, loss, courage, faith and one more pronounced is the juxtaposition of human conscience and animalistic behaviour. One patronising message to stand out is the descriptive lesson Pi’s wise atheistic father teaches his sons: animals have no soul and therefore no conscience. Not only is this a rather belittling and restrictive lesson to learn but Pi does not even succeed in disproving it since his tiger Richard Parker walks away without looking back even one last time. As a reader, this makes us doubt the truths that Martel puts forward to start with.

Overall, Life of Pi is a slow but very enjoyable read for those interested in internal dilemmas and dramatic monologue. The inner battle of our protagonist consists solely out of a balance shifting between fear and the will to survive, to live and even though the framed story ruins the surprise by letting on that Pi survives, the suspense remains because of the premise that is set up from the very beginning to titillate both our and the writer’s inquisitive minds. Emotional depth and the realistic descriptions ground this book on a firm, nigh unshakable base for those with a ready mind to be amazed. The unexpected plot twist in the end comes as a shock to the sensitive reader and I remain uncertain as to whether to approve or disapprove of it. To be sure, it adds a whole new layer onto the story and, moreover, the storyteller’s psyche but does it add value to our story or simply offer a nasty surprise?

Only Richard Parker can tell.

Review by Laura Robyn

The Handmaid's Tale, Shenice Coote

The Handmaid’s Tale reviewed by Shenice Coote 
‘Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who’s being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the commander fucks…which one of us is it worse for, her or me?’

Nominated for the Man’s Booker Prize for Fiction in 2000, and winner of the Inaugural Arthur Clarke award in 1987, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1986) explores the heights of gender politics, power relations, and fear and control at its peak, in a totalitarian, theocratic society. Unlike its predecessors, such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Atwood’s dystopia stands out as a feminist tale, that exposes the constraints women face living in a patriarchal society. 

The republic of Gilead has reduced women to breeding machines- ‘handmaids’. The reader learns of many stories of the handmaids, but it is predominantly Offred’s story, the main protagonist, that is told. Handmaids are forced to produce children for elite infertile couples. Offred is somewhat a ‘chosen one’ amongst the ‘chosen’, in the Aunts’ perspectives as she is sent to reproduce for well-respected Serena Joy and her husband the Commander. Regularly she must have sex with the Commander, as part of the religious ceremony, whilst Serena is present.

I read the book as a satire  of societal fears and anxieties of American society in the ‘80s. Atwood wrote the book during  the rise of right-wing conservatism and its influences are imminent in the book. She addresses other societal fears America had such as a declining fertility rates and laws causing moral friction such as de-criminalization of homosexuality. The New Christian Right, a radical fundamentalist group sought to ‘bring God back to America’ by implementing extreme, segregated gender roles through extreme conservative religious beliefs, just as  the society of Gilead does in the book.

The society really epitomises Marx’ view of religion as ‘the opium of the people….the sigh of the oppressed creature…’ as they claim to be a noble and moral society but the basic foundations of Christianity such as ‘love, peace, freedom, and equality’ are absent. Atwood makes it clear that the only purpose religion serves in Gilead, is to act as an ideological tool, and this is made very obvious to the reader through the deliberate manipulation of the Bible. The issue of rape both to the reader and the handmaids is swept under the carpet.  The Handmaid’s are oppressed by the system, and their bodies are used as tools for internal repression, as they are foced to sleep with men against their will. This society is anything but religious. Gilead legitimatise unorthodox procedures and falsifies them as ‘the will of God.

Interestingly the society which Atwood creates is an inverse of the rights feminists fought for in the sixties and seventies, such as gender equality, as women are forbidden to read and write, hold any property, or to re-marry in the book. The society is without a doubt patriarchal, right down to the very names of the Handmaids ‘Offred, Offglen, Offwarren’, meaning the handmaids are the property of ‘Fred, Glen, Warren’. Despite the inverse of women’s rights, feminist models are very much apparent in the narrative. Moira, for example constantly rebels against Gilead’s practices and actually escapes from the Red Centre. Offred’s mother also represents a revolutionary form of feminism, protesting, carrying the ‘take back the night banner.’

Memories is a vital for survival in the word of Gilead. Offred, often slips into flashbacks of life pre-Gilead, where she lived with her husband Luke and their young child. For Offred memories gives her a somewhat ‘desolate hope’, enabling her to continue living, despite the fact that Gilead is ultimately killing her. For the reader, it is important to know that Offred had a happy and free life pre-Gilead, as without this information the novel would be a product of bleak solitary confinement with no glimmers of hope, or possible chances of escape for Offred.

The inevitability of complacency is exposed to the reader, but not to the characters themselves in the book, which hightens the handmaid’s danger even more. The handmaids have become so accustomed to the new Gilead that even the strongest characters come to accept this as the norm. Offred states ‘The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here with Nick, where I can get at him.’ With Offred’s degree of complacency, however there is some power, a type of freedom-paradox. This power is rebellion, a disregard or a ‘don’t care’ attitude, if you like, for consequences of breaking the rules. It is only when Offred adopts this attitude that her rebellion is at its strongest, including her affair with Nick (the Commander’s chauffeur) her deceiving both the commander and his wife, and ultimately her transition from ‘marginalized female’ to ‘complacent and confident spy’ for the secret Mayday society, designed to overthrow Gilead. She acknowledges that there is something very wrong about this society ‘I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilised’ and therefore as a reader I am not only drawn to Offred’s strength of character, but also her strength of mind. My first impression, upon reading the novel, was that the story is horrific and purposely controversial. But with the occasional outburst of Offred’s wit in the most inappropriate scenarios, such as when she is having sex with the commander, ‘there is something hilarious about this, but I dare not laugh’ the book is enjoyable to read. Offred’s humour is balanced proportionately alongside a grim dystopian nightmare.

The dangers of ideologies is what Atwood stresses in the book, and the purpose perhaps to warn, as most dystopias do, as a caution against extremist beliefs that could potentially be influential. The novel is relevant, not only to the time which Atwood was writing, but to our society today and can still serve as a warning. The influence of historical events and popular perspectives such as feminism and religious fundamentalism presents most of the issues in the book as identifiable, if not, successful in challenging the reader’s imaginations to envision such monstrosities. A brilliant thought-provoking novel, and highly recommendable for a good read!


The Time Treveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger review


“I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.” – Henry DeTamble, Prologue.

When asked to identify the themes of her debut novel, Audrey Niffenegger stated that “mutants” was one of the more prominent ideas I her writing. Upon hearing the word mutant, one automatically thinks of some horrific deformed creature. I wouldn’t therefore, go as far as to call Henry DeTamble a mutant, but his genetic mutation is definitely at the core of her writing.

Niffenegger’s unusual concept of time travel is something which is truly fascinating about The Time Traveler’s Wife, winner of the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2005 and the British Book Award for popular fiction in 2006. Henry, a quirky librarian from Chicago, does not climb into a time machine, tap in a date and whizz off into the future, nor does he use a police phone box as a façade for his time travelling adventures. In fact there is not a flux capacitor in sight. Instead, time travel is forced upon him due to a genetic disorder, giving him no control over when he travels or where to. H.g.Wells’ was perhaps ahead of his time when he wrote his novella The Time Machine, but the concept of travelling time via machine has well past its use by date. Literature was ready for this fresh new concept, and Niffenegger has certainly delivered.

Niffenegger’s novel not only entices the reader with this original time-travel method, but her characterisation of the protagonists is something which should be thoroughly applauded. Written from the perspectives of both Henry and his wife Clare, they are illustrated with personal attributes and pop culture references, placing them in a normality which is somewhat tainted by Henry’s genetic disorder. Niffenegger manages to give these characters emotional depth and a powerful tangibility, making them unique and realistic and therefore relatable to the reader. The discourse of the novel follows the lives of Henry DeTamble, a quirky librarian from Chicago, and his wife Clare Abshire, an animated artist from a wealthy background.

One of the best things about this book is the way Niggenegger interweaves the magic/tragic outcomes of Henry’s time travelling with a grounded representation of American day-to-day life. All Henry and Clare want is to live normal, domestic lives, but the ever-changing time period of Henry’s presence makes this incredibly difficult. Once Henry’s time-travel has corrupted their wishes to live normality a few times, this is when the novel reaches its peak.

Much like Henry repeating certain times in his life through time-travel, the book unfortunately does the same thing, in a literal and an ideological sense. With a discourse addressing the determinism VS free will argument thoroughly throughout, which although is a fascinating concept, after a few hundred pages this beautifully romantic novel begins to take the form of a psychology textbook, the reader being the student with an A level Psychology exam the following week. Niffenegger perhaps overindulges in this ideology, and the book at times becomes almost tedious, and loses some personality.

Aside from the repetitive nature of Henry’s scenario, the way the book is written should be a unique selling point; however Niffenegger fails to make the most of this opportunity and instead adds to the confusing nature of the intense themes.  Written in a highly unconventional way and turning the discourse on its head as Niffenegger does, corrupts the chronological order of the story; a clever reflection of the chaos of Henry’s time travelling. However, from an audience perspective, it further perplexes the reading of this novel, and is sometimes hard to keep up with the sci-fi-fantasy elements. In fact, when considering the interwoven fantasy of this text, it is surprising that many of the domestic happenings, particular through the character of Clare throughout the novel, are fairly relatable.

On this note, the title is also something which needs to be addressed. When choosing you next novel to read, critics and reviews aside, the only thing you can really go on is the book’s cover, blurb and title. The static and relatively dry title of Niffenegger’s debut is another thing about this novel which would have benefitted with some more thought; I find it to be almost too absolute. The title is also quite grating once you have read the book, when you look back and realise it is almost irrelevant. This book does not focus around the life of a time-travellers wife, but instead the time traveller himself. Although the book delves a lot into the dynamics of their relationship, the title is somewhat misleading. If the title were relevant, the book would follow the story from just Clare’s point of view, but whenever we do switch to her viewpoint, her thoughts always revolves around Henry. Long story short, this is not a book about a time-traveller’s wife; this is a book about a time-traveller in which we are allowed to view his life through the viewpoint of his wife as well as his own. However, the content of this novel has a beautiful substance and such gripping characterisation, that no deceptive title could ever take that away.

The book, although released in 2003, came to much public attention again in 2009, when it was released by New Line Cinema as a film. As is the case with most book-to-screen adaptions, the film version of this powerful novel did the book no justice whatsoever. The magic of Niffenegger’s imagery and fantastic character development is lost through the notably average performances from Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. This is why, if you haven’t seen the film, I thoroughly recommend you read the book before you watch it. Although confusing and repetitive at times, once you’ve got your head around it and have appreciated the beautiful substance of Clare and Henry’s multi-dimensional characters and their passionate relationship, this makes a very good read. Fans of romantic novels will especially enjoy this, particularly as the time-travel twist creates a refreshing change from the romantic lovey-dovey romantic novel cliché. 

By Kathryn Allen

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

“Moments in time when the world is changing bring out the best and the worst in people.”

Well worth its Man Booker Prize consideration, The Gift of Rain is an impressive debut for Tan Twan Eng. A retrospective historical novel, the story told through the eyes of Philip Hutton, a child of British and Chinese descent, and his experience living in Malaya under Japanese occupation in the Second World War. More specifically, it explores his relationship with a Japanese sensei, Hayato Endo (affectionately “Endo-san”), and the conflict that this all combines to create.

The story begins on a much older Philip, and the tragedy becomes firmly established. The story acts as a harsh coming of age with a powerful resonance as, much like the colourful landscape we are introduced to, Philip’s character becomes less idealistic and more eroded. Japanese occupation requires Philip to push himself to the fullest in order to protect his family, and is in constant scrutiny of his own actions and the loyalties that they strengthened or compromised. Through his reflections, Philip alters his opinion of what it is to be older throughout, and questions whether at seventy five it really is the end for him, or not.
The foreshadowing of Philip in his present may seem to drag on slightly, the loss of context making his frequently ambiguous foreboding mentions of the pains of the war seem a little melodramatic. That being said, it’s worth it, as once consumed in Philip’s world, it’s ironically hard not to feel with a character so determined to distance himself from his own pained emotions.

Speaking of which, looking at the title, you will hardly be shocked to discover that there is a heavy spiritual element to the story. I rather arrogantly assumed that, having lived in Asia, I would completely understand the concepts and terminology, or quickly learn the ones I didn’t; it took a few chapters to really get the swing of things. The need to concentrate only goes deeper as Philip is introduced to new ideas, old spirits and strong bonds, picking up various names to build on his identity along the way. Tan is succinct enough that Google won’t be necessary, but if unprepared, there is a risk at the start that you will be doing more studying than engaging. But with time, this nature of Philip’s character, as well as his constant obsession with holding onto memories, this determination opens us to a wonderfully sensory piece, transporting us into his world to a poetic extent, whether capturing the finest detail of beauty or terror. And martial arts. There is a lot of martial arts.

However, what I am perhaps the most impressed with is the story’s dealing with race. Japan’s involvement in World War 2 is always something that fascinated me, but at the same time not something I wholly wanted to investigate. From many British soldiers accounts, it was one of the harshest regimes, and even peers of mine in Hong Kong told stories about Japanese culture both then and now like they were fireside stories for camp, sadly making Bridget Jones’ mother’s opinion of the Japanese being a ‘cruel race’ a far more popular opinion than I would like. Naturally then, it makes the topic a hard one to tackle and open up to a Western audience. What the Gift of Rain does is bring a sensitive perspective in showing the lives all citizens in Malaya of all races, Philip experiencing this hostility even before the war due to his mixed race- very close to what I have witnessed over recent years. Tan explores how the practical survival instinct to choose a side is near impossible when opened up to enough humanity, and how what is truly crucial is to hang onto the characteristics that you choose for yourself.

Overall, I would say that it needs a little faith and patience to get off its feet, but once in flight it becomes a story you’re unlikely to forget.

Kathleen Price

The Art Of Fielding, Chad Harbach

At first glance, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is most definitely a book for American teenage boys. Certainly, when it was recommended to me by my younger brother, who happens to be a teenage boy looking to study in America, I was hardly surprised. I was even less surprised when I found out that the book was about sport (baseball, to be more precise).

But then my brother said something that made me double take; ‘I'm enjoying it, but I've stopped reading it. I know what’s going to happen, and I don’t want it to happen.’ Now I had to investigate for myself. I began to read, meeting Henry Skrimshander, a naturally talented shortstop, who is invited to Westish College, Wisconsin, to play college baseball. The novel began to remind me of Catcher in the Rye, or perhaps The Great Gatsby - slightly lost male protagonists discovering themselves in a new-found freedom. Henry forms friendships with his baseball mentor, Mike Schwartz, and his room-mate, Owen Dunne, and I settled in expecting a novel full of boyish banter and sport references and terms that I would have to puzzle my way through - essentially, a coming-of-age story for Henry Skrimshander. And whilst that was partially what The Art of Fielding was, it became so much more than that, thanks to Harbach’s ability to effortlessly introduce new characters, building a plot that is unpredictable and beautifully human.

That is why I'm hesitant to name Henry as the main character; although the book begins and ends with him, and follows his rise, the pressure on his baseball career, and his sudden fall after an accidental bad throw, he wasn't always who I cared most about whilst reading. We’re presented with a group of five major characters: Henry, Mike and Owen, accompanied by Guert and Pella Affenlight, the president of Westish College and his daughter. Perhaps it’s the hopeless romantic in me, or perhaps it was because I already knew part of Henry’s story from talking with other readers, but I found myself waiting for chapters about Guert and Owen’s relationship, or Pella and Mike’s, and enduring the descriptions of each baseball game. The very natural way we’re introduced to each major character is both the beauty of, and the problem with, The Art of Fielding; sometimes it was difficult to know who was important and who was simply periphery. On the other hand, it made my reading very personal and very different to my brother’s, and in that lies Harbach’s success: the characters aren't caricatures, stereotypes or symbols. They are, without being too sentimental, a group of friends to the reader, real and flawed, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but never just one thing.

However, sometimes it is difficult to know whether The Art of Fielding was truly the book that Harbach set out to write. It feels as though the Affenlights’ stories took over, that their relationship with one another and with their respective partners became more important than Henry’s struggle with ‘Steve Blass disease’ (a term in baseball for when a fielder loses the ability to throw a ball). He becomes the glue holding story lines together, an initial spark for something greater than himself. Perhaps that is exactly what The Art of Fielding is about: reactions, expectations and something bigger than ourselves. A college was the perfect setting for this; the characters go in with expectations of themselves and others in the college, are forced to react when it isn’t quite what they expected, and eventually we realise that whilst they are changing the college, it is a system that existed before their arrival, and that will carry on without them.

In the same way, the novel carries on without us; there are large gaps in narrative which we have to fill in gradually, and the ending, without wanting to give too much away, has very little finality to it. This only adds to the humanity of the novel; life goes on when we’re away. Our relationships are most definitely with the characters; the narrator barely intrudes on the novel. The only real times we feel Harbach’s presence are when Henry refers to the book with the book, also called ‘The Art of Fielding’. An interview with Harbach revealed that this meta-novel was not originally a significant aspect of his plot, but early readers encouraged Harbach to add more, perhaps trying to decipher some kind of clear meaning.

So have I truly uncovered the meaning of The Art of Fielding? I'm not sure. Other reviews have claimed it is about perfection, about Owen, about ‘Great American Novels’, about Mike…perhaps genuinely about sport? For my little brother, I think it was at least partially about illness; having been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he found it difficult to read on as he saw Henry becoming ill. My own conclusions seemed to relate to my place in life now, focussing on the role of colleges and universities. Of course, this is true of any novel; each reader comes away with a slightly different impression, and that’s the beauty of reading. It is utterly personal, but also makes you part of a community. With other novels, however, there seem to be themes which stand out; To Kill a Mockingbird is about race and growing up, The Great Gatsby is about society and modernity, Mrs Dalloway is about war and time and women. The Art of Fielding seems to transcend that, and be simply about people. Honestly, openly and unpretentiously, it follows the characters saying ‘This is what they’re doing. This is what they’re thinking. No-one is really right or wrong.’

One word comes up again and again when critics talk about The Art of Fielding: charming. And this is, perhaps, why I can’t rave about it in the way I do about other novels with stronger messages, and why I'm not desperate to read it again. Harbach’s novel is supremely easy-going. It does not push its readers to their limits, or force us to think one way or the other. I never had my breath taken away by a single phrase or moment. It is certainly a charming book, full of charming characters, but I'm not sure we can call it a ‘Great American Novel’ until we know what it’s trying to say, and I'm not sure Harbach wants his novel to be put so definitely into a single category, even such a prestigious one. I'm not sure we ever will know; but I’d be happy to carry on discussing this novel for hours with anyone willing to talk with me, and I'm sure that won’t be just American teenage boys.

Roseanne Eves

The Perks of Being A Wallflower - Harpreet Scott

The Perks of being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky.
A Review by Harpreet Scott.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once referred to the beauty of literature as being that moment when ‘you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’[1] For this reason Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’[2] has earned worldwide admiration recently topping the New York Times bestselling children’s paperback list as of August 2012. Despite its popularity with a predominately teenage audience, Chbosky’s novel can be appreciated by any age as its adolescent foundation is one that many can relate to. It centers on the life of Charlie, an introverted, sensitive and at times perplexing character who struggles to ‘participate’[3] in life. Whilst the novel could easily be disregarded as a typical Bildungsroman, it is Chbosky’s astute ability at rendering a believable and accurate voice of a teenager on the threshold of adulthood; that makes ‘Perks’[4] an unmissable read. Furthermore, Chbosky successfully depicts a world full of imperfections — heartbreak, addiction and isolation—making it the perfect representation of teenage life and one where the reader can relate to and thus ‘belong’[5].
The novel comprises of a series of letters written by Charlie to an unnamed ‘friend’[6], with the anonymity of this friend chosen as a device by Chbosky as a way to connect the reader to Charlie. As Charlie’s passion for literature intensifies it seems appropriate that he is the one to tell his story through his own words. Chbosky provides a platform for Charlie to determine just how much he divulges to the reader, with his secret revealing itself by the end of the novel. If the novel had been written in a third person narrative, the relationship between Charlie and the reader would have weakened. This relationship is imperative as it allows the reader to understand the often misunderstood character, preventing them from prejudging his behavior before they are made aware of his past. The novel is laden with references to some of the great writers in literature such as Harper Lee, E.E Cummings and William Shakespeare with aptly chosen quotes used by Charlie to help express his feelings when he struggles to articulate them in words. It seems ironic that Charlie quotes from great writers and is then told by his English teacher that he too ‘would make a great writer one day’[7].  Despite the novel sometimes lacking complete originality, Chbosky more than makes up for this absence in his unforgettable and brilliantly composed quotes that unify the emotions of both Charlie and the reader. One such example is the line ‘So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.’[8] This line sets the tone of the novel and correlates to the emotions felt by the readers as ‘Perks’[9] is a joyous yet often heart wrenching read.
Although Chbosky somewhat conforms to the conventional narrative situation whereby the social outcast is befriended by the eccentric kids and then becomes popular, he ensures that Charlie retains his awkwardness and naive honesty throughout. If Chbosky had changed his character to the extent where he was a shadow of his former self then it would make Charlie less believable as a character and would go against Chbosky’s moral message—to remain true to yourself. This message is embodied by the two supporting characters of Patrick and Sam, who like Charlie go on their own journeys after struggling to fit in within the social cliques of their high school.
Charlie is seen to idolize Patrick who ostensibly appears to be a happy-go-lucky character ‘Patrick usually isn't unhappy’[10] yet it is revealed that he suffers both mental and physical abuse as a result of his homosexuality. Whilst a 21st century reader may not be unnerved by the topic of homosexuality, it was still viewed as a taboo subject in the 1990s, the decade which the novel was set and written in. As a result, Patrick is beaten up by a group of boys who go to his school and is saved only by Charlie intervening. Chbosky’s decision to include such an eccentric yet fragile character is to enlighten the reader that despite someone appearing to be confident, underneath this facade they too are vulnerable; again reinforcing the idea that the reader is ‘not lonely’[11] in experiencing the same feelings as the characters in the novel. Patrick is not the only character to fall victim to violence, as Charlie reveals that he saw his sister’s boyfriend hit her. Violence is presented to be an extension of the internal conflicts felt by the characters and whilst Chobsky does not condone such behaviour he ensures that the reader is informed as to why it is happening. The inclusion of violence within the novel enhances its realistic qualities and shows the trials and tribulations many people suffer during their adolescence and beyond; making it a story that is relatable to a reader of any age.
Like Patrick, Sam is seen to hide beneath a mask of self-assurance that disguises her insecurities ‘If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am.’[12] As Charlie’s letters progress the same movement is seen in Sam’s character, transforming her from one who is seen to be idealised by all; to one who exposes her own vulnerability— a secret which binds her and Charlie closer together. The inclusion of her character is significant, not only does she become Charlie’s love interest but also his confidant much like the reader, thus Sam’s insecurities are representative of the reader’s. Again, by forming a relationship between character and reader Chbosky makes the novel become a personal journey for both parties. ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’[13] is a novel which resonates with the reader long after they reach the final page. It is Chbosky’s superb ability at articulating a particular time or emotion, which differentiates this novel from others of its kind ‘Maybe it’s sad that these are now memories. And maybe it’s not sad.[14] Whilst the informal language and easy to read narrative may make some critics question the intelligence of the novel, it is for this reason that Charlie’s letters are seen to be genuine as the way in which he communicates must be fitting to that of a fifteen year old.
The defining feature that makes Chbosky’s novel stand out from others of its kind is that Charlie’s story focuses on a phase of life every person in the world can relate to and understand—adolescence. Chbosky renders an accurate world where violence, addiction and confusion take place and does not steer away from controversial topics which affect society and for that he should be applauded. The twist at the end of the novel is completely unexpected and makes Charlie’s character all the more engaging and endearing. Unlike other teenage novels, ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower[15] is one which impacts the reader, if only for that moment upon completion where they review their own lives and behavior and vow to live life to the fullest. The novel encompasses a wide range of topics such as sex, addiction and bullying all subjects which readers will be familiar with. Despite it’s somewhat feminine sounding name, ‘Perks’[16] is a novel which can be appreciated by both sexes as the themes covered are ones which affect both genders as ‘they are universal’[17]. Charlie goes from merely surviving and remaining on the edge of society, to actually living as ‘Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique experience, but there's a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.[18] This ‘dance floor’ is a metaphor for life and throughout Chbosky’s novel the reader is implored to take to the stage and participate, with this carpe diem message implicitly referred to within Charlie’s letters ‘Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from , we can still choose where we go from there.’
Unlike other novels of its kind, such as Ned Vizzini’s ‘Its Kind of a Funny Story’ [19]and ‘Looking for Alaska’[20] by John Green, ‘Perks’[21] is a story that compels its reader to live life to the full and does not encourage self pity but gratitude for life unlike the aforementioned texts. Both ‘Perks’[22] and ‘Looking for Alaska’[23] centre on a male protagonist, but female readers are more likely to feel excluded from Green’s novel due to the scenarios that only boys can relate too. Equally, Vizzini’s novel would not be appreciated fully by a male reader making ‘Perks’ the ideal read as its popularity and themes are gender neutral.
 Perks[24]’ is a captivating and touching story with a serious subject matter which exists in contemporary society and is an outstanding example of the effect that stylistic simplicity can have on a reader. F. Scott Fitzgerald once referred to the beauty of literature as being that moment when ‘you discover that…You belong’[25] and after reading Chbosky’s ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’[26] I defy any reader to feel anything other than just that.

- Chbosky, Stephen, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), pp. 1-224.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.
- Green, John, Looking for Alaska (United States of America: Dutton Books, 2005), pp. 1-256.
- Vizzini, Ned Its Kind of a Funny story (United States of America: Miramax Books, 2007), pp. 1-448.

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.

[2] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 28
[4] Ibid., p. 1
[5] F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.
[6] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 2.
[7] Ibid., p. 67.
[8] Ibid., p. 2.
[9] Ibid., p. 1.
[10] Ibid., p. 155.
[11] F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.
[12] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 201.
[13] Ibid., p. 1.
[14] Ibid., p. 16.
[15] Ibid., p. 1.
[16] Ibid., p. 1.
[17] F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.
[18] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 200.
[19] Ned Vizzini, Its Kind of a Funny story (United States of America: Miramax Books, 2007), p. 1.
[20] John Green, Looking for Alaska (United States of America: Dutton Books, 2005), p. 1.
[21] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 1.
[22] Ibid., p. 1.
[23] John Green, Looking for Alaska (United States of America: Dutton Books, 2005), p. 1.
[24] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 1.
[25] F. Scott Fitzgerald cited in Sarah Domet, 90 Days to your novel: A day-by-day Plan for outlining & writing your book (United States of America: Writer's Digest Books, 2010), p. 247.
[26] Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of being a Wallflower (United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 1.