Book review: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate

Author: Charles Webb

Genre: Fiction, Romance

First published: 1963

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Synopsis

Benjamin Braddock returns back to his family home from college with a brilliant degree, a teaching prize and a bright future ahead of him. However, for the next year, he lazes around in his parents’ middle class suburban, American household, dwindling away the hours floating around the pool and drinking into the early hours.

He is plagued by the feeling one gets after graduation. Where shall I go from here, what shall I do with the rest of my life? The age old question which has tramped many from generations gone by. He returns from college, not revived by the prospect of education – but drowned by it.

Things soon take a turn, as Ben is seduced by the wife of one of his fathers business partners on the evening of his graduation party. This soon turns into a shady affair, led by Mrs Robinson. In the middle of this, Ben is then encouraged by his fathers business partner, Mr Robinson to take their daughter, Elaine out on a date.

After this date, Ben is suddenly in love with Elaine – the daughter of the woman he was having an affair with. Ben soon fleas to Berkeley to pursue the apparent love of his life.

Review

I had been looking forward to reading this for ages. The promised feel of the book appealed to me, having only graduated at the beginning of this year. However, almost everything in this book disappointed me. This is the lowest rating I’ve given to a book this year but I just can’t justify it being any higher.

Lets start with the protagonist – Benjamin Braddock. He comes from a wealthy family and has just finished his college degree with securing a possible teaching placement at Harvard university. On returning home, he begins to find the prospect of further education draining and a waste of time, but he has no idea what else to do. Faced with endless pressure from his snobbish parents – he feels he ought to do something noble and good. I can relate to him on this level – but that’s where it ends. If there is one word to describe Ben – it’s flippant. And not flippant in a good, Gatsby-esque way, but in an annoying and incomprehensible way, that never leads to anything.

Ben thinks the whole world revolves around him and thinks he is too good for the world – and that really gets to me. He is male, white, college educated and has prospects. Why does he constantly fail to acknowledge his own privilege and the potential power this could bring? I guess this is in the dating of the novel.

The novel is mostly told through repetitive, argumentative dialogue between Ben and his parents, Ben and Mrs Robinson (the woman he was having an affair with) and Ben and Elaine. It’s tiresome to read and sheds little light on the protagonist himself. It is almost impossible to understand him and to connect with him in any way. He jumps from hoop to hoop and seems to fall in love with Elaine overnight, despite only ever going on a date with her to please Mr Robinson. He’s winy, but not in an endearing way, and seems hell bent on wasting away his future with an endeavor that lacks true authenticity.

There was no way I could be invested in Ben and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the book. I found him to be tiresome and irritating, and wanted to give him a good shake. The premise of his situation could have been a poignant way in which Charles Webb explored the restlessness of coming out of university and the trials that post-graduate life brings. However, the dialogue driven prose lacked depth, authenticity, and intrigue, and does not allow for connections to be formed between the reader and the protagonist.

It took me less than a day to read, as reading through dialogue is a fairly fast process. Especially when the dialogues between different characters just repeat themselves. The prose offers nothing remarkable, no eye catching sentiments or images, but mere conversations and arguments between characters who never actually seem to like each other.

The story goes round and round and at times I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness. I find it hard to believe it has achieved the status of a “modern classic” but I suspect the 1968 adaptation into a film, staring Dustin Hoffman had a large role to play in it.

All in all, Ben was not an authentic character I could get behind and neither were his relationships. The story jumped about from start to finish and lacked any depth and coherency that could enable meaning. The themes were at first, plausible and interesting and were what drew me to the book. However, the protagonist, Ben, and the limited prose, made it impossible to render the promise of an American masterpiece possible.

Disappointing and probably not worth your time reading – although it only took me a day to finish from cover to cover. If you have read this and enjoyed it, do let me know. I may be missing something!

My top 3 Classics to get you through isolation

As our lives suddenly become filled with more empty hours it is the perfect time to read! Reading the classics can seem long and arduous compared to a quick page turner, however, now is the time. These are my top three classics I think are well worth reading! Let me know if you end up trying them.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane was never plain! Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a determined young woman who has had all the odds thrust against her. Published in 1847, the book immediately portrayed a new type of heroine. One that rose beyond her ranks and respectability, to try and pursue the man she loved..

Jane grows up in an orphanage and is exposed to endless childhood cruelty. However, she doesn’t let this shatter her pride or spirit. As a young adult she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester’s residence. Jane spends her time looking after the children there, all the while gradually falling in love with the mysterious Mr Rochester – she knows this is a type of forbidden love, due to her social standing. However, Jane naturally has an air of independent spirit thanks to her upbringing – this soon leads her into uncharted territory.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…”

Secrets start to haunt Thornfield Hall and all the while Jane is torn between staying there to be close to Mr Rochester, or leaving to pursue her own safety. Will she get to be with the man she loves?

A remarkable novel for its times, and one I loved reading very much. It is on the one hand, your classic, Victorian Gothic novel, but on the other hand, a complete re-working of its traditions. It’s a tale of an ordinary woman’s search for love and companionship and attempt to break down those traditional barriers. Never take for granted Charlotte Bronte’s use of a strong, female protagonist, it was way ahead of its times, and her execution is breathtaking.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

This may well be the ultimate American novel. Set during the disastrous American dust bowl phenomena, this novel follows the Joad family, in their struggle to make a living and stay afloat in troubled times.

The Dust Bowl refers to a series of storms that severely damaged the ecology of the Great American plains in the 1930s. Happening during the aftermath of The Great Depression (1929), it had long-lasting disastrous economic and social affects. Most importantly, it was not just an environmental disaster, but one that impacted the lives of many Americans who lost their agricultural lands and livelihood. Many Americans had to leave their homes in the search of a better life – and this was a promise that was more often than not, never fulfilled.

Told in blisteringly beautiful prose, Steinbeck outlines the many implications of the Dust Bowl and its influence on your average American family. The Joad family are forced from their homes to travel West in search of jobs and an income to feed themselves. Taking it day by day, the Joad family struggle to find enough to eat and make ends meet. The prose unreservedly describes the obliterated landscape as the family travels West, making it a reading joy, despite the troubled circumstances.

What becomes obvious throughout, is the falsehood of the American Dream and that great promise that if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. Steinbeck critiques this very ideal and thrusts to the forefront the very real struggles experienced by many American families during the 1930s, as they made their journey West in the hope of a promised future.

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Beautiful and harrowing, this is a must read and one that will stay with me forever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

A timeless classic which I’m sure is on many people’s favourite lists. Again, this novel does not shy away from critiquing the false promises of the American dream and that importance of wealth that has been emphasized throughout American history and culture. Wealth has often been heralded as the one marker of success and ultimate happiness, but this novel exposes the human realities of pursuing this dream with a blind capacity. Endless wealth for Jay Gatsby, can never equate to a lifetime of pure happiness.

Told in myriads of beautiful prose containing metaphors, genius symbolism and expert crafting of character, this is the one novel that made me fall in love with literature. Its timeless message is one that makes it so significant and enduring, but it is in the crafting of the novel whereby it is so special.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Gatsby appears to have it all. He lives in the biggest mansion known to man, right next to Nick Carraway, who has arrived to New York in search of his own American Dream. Nick meets Gatsby and is naturally entranced by his persuasive and endearing persona. Through Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy, Nick soon gets involved within the millionaire lifestyle that thrived in the 1920s. Lavish parties, fast cars, and an abundance of alcohol soon appears to be the norm.

But Nick knows this is never sustainable. Known as the unreliable narrator to Gatsby’s pursuits, Carraway uncovers the falsehood of the American Dream to readers, in his subtle critique of this lifestyle and the events he experienced with Gatsby.

In the end, Gatsby realises it too. But too late. It is a tale of impossible dreams, love, and an unsustainable lifestyle that is more corrupting than it is fulfilling. It is a novel I unashamedly go back to again and again, each time finding something new I love and admire.

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Title: Ducks, Newburyport

Author: Lucy Ellmann

Publisher: Galley Beggar Press

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

This book follows the thoughts of an Ohioan housewife who bakes for a living. In between baking one pie after another, she worries about the state of the world and everything in between.

She worries she is not making enough money to sustain her family, she worries her children will be shot in a mass shooting and the fact that humans are destroying the planet. In between these worries, she even worries that she is worrying too much. But that’s very difficult when she lives in modern America, and in a state home to Cleveland; one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.

We never learn her name, but in some ways we don’t have to. This 1000 page book follows the stream of conscious of an average American, trying to make their way through the qualms of modern life.

Review

I will start off by saying this is unlike any book I have ever read before. It has been a long time since it has taken me nearly two months to read any book, however, I was reading other books alongside this, as I couldn’t read this for long without needing to take a break.

I was in awe of the themes and parameters of this book. Like many, I struggle to understand the ways of modern America and the direction in which it appears to be heading. This book deals with these very ideas.

Through a seemingly average American, we learn about problems within American society, Ohio, and the world. There is a persistent critique of society, the political system and sense of injustice,

“the fact that is is all so much about money and influence now, the fact that that’s not very democratic really…. the fact that they’re all in denial about Trump too, the fact that everybody around here just thinks he’s doing a fine job or something, while they get poorer and poorer, and angrier and angrier…”

This Ohioan housewife is definitely not a Trump supporter. It was interesting to read a book discussing many current American political issues in an honest, revealing, and sometimes, amusing way. There were elements which were rather poignant; especially when discussing gun crime, one of her main concerns as a parent, is that she can never do everything to keep her children safe,

“…the fact that that is really not fair, the fact that you haven’t even got a chance if somebody decides to do something like that, just start killing people out of the blue….”

Thus, this is a theme that is repeated throughout the book, which infers how much of a constant worry it is. It really hones in on after all these years and human achievements, this is what is has come down to. In the modern world, some are happy to shoot strangers and tear apart strangers and their families.

As well as these persistent worries, she also frets about the state of the environment and how humans are so happy to kill anything and everything, she worries about the prospects of imminent nuclear war and how we are so powerless as futile individuals to think we can stop it.

In spite of all her persistent concerns, there is always some light at the end of the tunnel. Frequently, she interrupts herself to remind herself that we have to be happy to be alive,

“the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize your’re simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth….”

which should serve as a reminder to us all. Above all, this stream of consciousness is a critique of humanity and our collective actions as a species. How we are causing more harm than good, and how these world problems can drain the life out of your average American who is just trying to live a happy life and make ends meet.

As a character, she is endearing and funny. I found her relatable, as like her, I worry about anything and everything. As a reader, you are constantly inside her head with very few breaks which can be tiring but very insightful. There are no other books I can compare it to, that deliver this same depth of consciousness.

Despite its stunning exploration of important aspects of modern life, I can’t help but feel that its delivery was lacking. It really was exhausting to read and because of this, I felt like it could have been written in half the number of words.

Some things are repeated so often that they lose their original poignancy. In her construction of this book, Ellmann makes her point clearly, but I can’t help but feel it was done so much more eloquently by others, such as Ali Smith. The steam of consciousness she creates is initially enlightening, different, and puts across a significant aspect of the book itself – the very fact that this character cannot escape from the depths of her own mind. However, as a reader, reading 1000 pages of the same thing does get exasperating.

I feel like Ellmann was deliberately trying to break the boundaries of a traditional novel just to appear different, when in reality, the boundaries of a novel and its distinct divisions in chapters and paragraphs, are what makes reading such a pleasure and enjoyment. In abandoning this, Ellmann manages to make this read a chore. It may have been an interesting at times, but the sheer lack of structure and repetitiveness made it a far than enjoyable read, but more what you could call a ‘slog’. Abandoning the traditional structure of a novel is bold – but only celebratory if it works.

I was fascinated by the parameters of this book and fully invested in the character, but felt like the pace of this book was slow, going over the same bumps in the road again and again, and could have been cut in half to deliver the same message. I was relieved to finish this book – and that says a lot in itself.

I would talk more about the parallel narration between her and the lion, but nonetheless that wasn’t explained clearly. What I take from it, is that Ellmann was trying to show an animal view of humanity,

“She listened out for her kittens even when all kitten sounds were blocked by dimwitted human excitements, human mirth, human arrogance, and of course the noisy, smelly cars in which they slashed and stabbed and scarred their way across the earth.”

I would say this dual narration was one of the most interesting parts of the book, if only I could fully understand it. It felt like Ellmann was using the narration from an animal perspective to shed an insight into humanity, and offer the idea that we too, are merely animals, rather than some sophisticated beings we imagine ourselves to be. We are maybe not so intelligent, when we are pulling the world apart.

Final thoughts

If you’ve got the stamina to read a 1000 page long stream of consciousness riddled with critiques of contemporary America and everything in between, then give this book a go. And let me know what you think! It would be great to discuss this book with people as I haven’t yet met/talked to anyone who has read the whole thing. It’s definitely something different – and it deserves a try just for that.

If you’re interested, here are some articles on the book:

The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-one-sentence-capture-all-of-life

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/15/ducks-newburyport-by-lucy-ellmann-review

Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.