7. Divergent 

March has brought a little sunshine and warmer weather, what a sight for sore eyes! What a relief! I’m quite tired today, I’ve had a busy few weeks. I’ve been to Aberystwyth and back for seminars and taken a look at lovely Liverpool last weekend. I’ve started feeling like I’ve been living out of a bag with all of this bolting around the country so its really nice to stop for a day particularly on a day like this.

I have been bad and I have been cheating on my Reading Challenge, but honestly why read if you don’t enjoy it. A Reading Challenge is supposed to be fun and I’m already keeping up, so I decided a little break would be a good idea so this is a little less like homework. I’m already a fan of the Divergent films and I am a little excited to see the third film.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Since finding the novel in a charity shop, I’ve honestly been waiting to get my teeth into it to see how the novel and film measure up against one another. I was afforded breaking the spine a couple of times as I read it on the train as the novel was in a relatively good state. Breaking the spine is one of those rituals I genuinely enjoy particularly with a thick volume like this. Don’t be put off though, it may be nearly 500 pages but the text is relatively spaced out on the page. It’s a speedy read and quite satisfying. I read the novel cover to cover in perhaps eight hours.

When it comes to variety I genuinely read anything I can get my hands on and I’m a big fan of young adult fiction. I really enjoy easy reads and light and imaginative novels that are executed well. I think this may actually belong to a selection of young adult novels that I am now an advocate of. I’m a fan of the Mortal Engines series, although I’ve only read two of those. I’ve read the Hunger Games series, I’m still infatuated with Harry Potter and reread those last year. But I really draw the line at Twilight. Twilight really promotes values to young women, in particular, that I do not agree with.

Anyhow. I was warned by a friend a while ago that I may not like the writing in Divergent, but it honestly didn’t bother me. The overall tone of the writing is consistent, however I can understand why it would be irritating. Some of the stream of consciousness first person writing is a little clunky and tries to convey nervous excitement in ways that I think is very true to adolescence. As the protagonist is 16, I really think it can be forgiven.

As I was reading I found myself being reminded by Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card quite often actually, particularly the training and internal politics of initiates is quite reminiscent of Ender’s struggle to fit in. Divergent, is quite a drawn out novel though, like Ender’s Game, it spends a long time developing Tris and her relationships with those around her. In reality the ending of the novel is quite abrupt, but it’s also a little bit of a cliff hanger leading into the second novel.

The differences between the film and the novel are also relatively minor. The Novel and Film stand shoulder to shoulder quite well in my opinion and neither I think has my preference. This is the perfect novel for a couple of long train rides. It’s engrossing and easy to flick through and if you’re already a fan of the films it doesn’t disappoint.

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6. A Thousand Splendid Suns

Finally! A real page turner! A honest to goodness, book-you-can’t-put-down. This novel has honestly made me think so deeply about so many things. It was really enjoyable, it has been an easy read and it’s really absorbed my thoughts. It’s been welcome relief to find a page turner in this Reading Challenge and honestly I couldn’t put it down.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I was recommended this novel by a friend and found my copy in a charity shop. I am an avid believer that homeless books are like treasure when you find the titles you’re after so honestly. I was actually enjoying this novel so much that I bought the Kite Runner when I spotted it in a charity shop. I might point out also that it may have taken me ten days to finish, but in that time I’ve actually sat down to read this book maybe four times. One of those sessions was a three hour train journey where I swallowed a mighty 150pages in one sitting. This novel is a page turner and I found it very difficult to leave it alone.

The story follows Mariam, an illegitimate child, who faces hardship and struggle through her life. Set in Afghanistan the novel offers a bleak look at womanhood and the treatment of women. But it also explores the relationships between women and the lengths they go to over come hardship.

‘Nana said, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.” – A Thousand Splendid Suns, pg 7

From the onset Mariam has a difficult life, her mother seems borderline abusive to her daughter and everyone around her. Seeking to isolate Mariam from the rest of the world and education and her father. Desperate for his approval Mariam runs away from home for a day and a night and when she is returned finds her mother dead. Her father, shamed by her illegitimacy is pressured by his wives to find Mariam a husband and a quick marriage far away.

Rasheed, Mariam’s husband, is the main perpetrator of violence is a prominent feature within the novel and a voice of extremist views and violence against women. He is not the only man within the novel, there are other male characters that provide a healthy balance to this and it was a relief. It was a difficult line to toe, but Hosseini provided extremist views beside views that are closer to western ideologies. The novel, particularly the narrative wouldn’t have been as successful, if it demonised all of the men in the Middle East and also I believe it would’ve been a gross misrepresentation.

Mariam is treated bitterly within the majority of the novel. It is only when Laila looses her family in the turbulent country that Mariam’s life seems a little easier. Laila, after a quick courtship becomes Rasheed’s second wife, most of all to protect herself and her childhood sweetheart’s unborn child. The relationship between Mariam and Laila is bitter at first, but it sweetens over time, the two women having nothing else in the face of the violence of Rasheed. Its a more complicated narrative than I’ve sketched out for you, but honestly it is very satisfying. Its easy to follow and at times twists and surprises and is worth sticking to the end. 

The novel also acts as both a fictional narrative and also a historical telling over thirty years or so. It really revealed to me just how little of the history of the Middle East I truly knew or understood. My conceptions of Afghanistan were pretty warped, but this novel has certainly inspired me to develop new understanding. If anything this novel really reminded me that humanity is both behind and the subject of the violence. Something that was a little sickening.

This novel is one that has certainly made me think. I think I may stray from my Reading Challenge for a few weeks, as I haven’t decided what to read next and I have a lot to digest.

 

5. Coming up for Air 

Coming up for Air by George Orwell 

It seems the last two books on this reading challenge have taken me a while to finish. Jules Verne’s Around the world in Eighty Days, and George Orwell’s Coming up for Air have both proved difficult reads for their own reasons. Partly I have been distracted from Coming up for Air, partly I have struggled with it. This is my third Orwell novel, previously I’ve read 1984 and Animal FarmI particularly enjoyed 1984.

But I’ve also got something else inside me, chiefly a hangover from the past.Coming up for Air, p23

Coming up for Air is about George Bowling, a middle aged, fat man with false teeth and butter coloured hair, who is suffering an existential crisis. He details his nostalgic childhood and what seems to be relative unhappiness with his mediocre life. Orwell’s writing within the novel is similar to 1984, however the tone isn’t as vibrant which seems to encourages the mediocrity of Bowling’s existence. There were some lovely images however, such as machine gun bullets being squirted out of windows, but generally the novel seems to take on a tone that it stays on.

The novel is split into three parts, the second part is mostly devoted to the detailed recollection of Bowling’s childhood, including painstaking effort to place Bowling’s personal value on the natural environment. The third part of the novel is perhaps the most interesting, in which an accidental bomb falling nearly kills the protagonist, however the third part of the novel also moves greatly emotionally.

In visiting his hometown, Bowling explores the nostalgia that he possess and in an attempt to recover from it and find some comfort from his life. Bitterly disappointed when he finds factories and industry has moved in and the landscape changed by suburban sprawl, he drinks for the majority of his holiday. Anyone he recognises does not recognise him through twenty years has changed him greatly. He assesses everything that comes into his path and generally it adds to his disapointment. He finds little relief in holidaying from his life, his attempt to ‘come up for air’ fails and he continues to suffocate. His holiday results in him getting trouble with his wife and disillusioned from his hometown. 

Bowling also questions what the future will bring, an Anti-Facism lecture shows its face briefly and there is a shadowing of Hitler’s coming. The coming war also shows it’s face in Bowling’s hometown in the form of an accidental bomb dropping, aircraft passing regularly and a factory in the town making bombs as well as stockings. Overall Bowling’s world is bleak.

No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun. But how about five years from from now? Or two years? Or one year?Coming up for Air, pg 24

How bleak the novel is may be an indicator as to why I found it quite difficult to read. There is very little optimism and the novel ends on a low note mid argument between Bowling and his wife. Which perhaps highlights how unsatisfying life can be and how little closure is actually readily available for it’s participants. Overall this novel was unsatisfying and bleak and a little difficult to persevere with. It’s doubtful that I would read this novel again, I enjoyed 1984 a great deal more.

Although I’m feeling a little disenchanted with my Reading Challenge as the material I have come across in the last two novels has been a little challenging. But I’m not giving up on it just yet. I’ve decided to start on A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini in the wake of Coming up for Air.