The Book Nook aims to give an insight into the bookshelves of editor’s and writer’s of The Yorker. It acts as a type of online book club and reviewing platform, where editor’s and writer’s can review and reflect on recent books they have read. Please contact email@example.com if you and your book would like to be featured! Welcoming all forms of literature. July’s Book Nook features: Everywoman by Jess Philips MP, The ISIS Files and accompanying 10-part podcast series Caliphate, House of Namesby Colm Tóibín and Stoner: A Novel by John Williams.
Following a recent work experience placement with Rachael Maskell, MP for York Central, I was feeling inspired and decided to get my teeth stuck into some insightful non-fiction written by an outspoken female politician that I have become to admire. Everywoman is a book containing hope for future women who aspire to get involved in frontline politics amidst the still male dominated political elite. Jess Philips documents her struggles in parliament whilst being a full time mum with a sense of wit, as well as deep seriousness. The book is an account of her experience becoming MP for Birmingham Yardley, (she was elected in 2015) and simultaneously being a full time mum struggling with child care against the still gendered confines of parliament. She re-tells her struggles within parliament as a female MP in the twenty first century, “To put it simply: if you are a woman, especially one on the opposition benches, you could spend all day trying to speak in a debate and never get called before time runs out.” Despite the rise of Labour female politicians such as Emily Thornberry, York’s own Rachael Maskell, Dianne Abbott and Angela Rayner, Philips acknowledges that the Labour Party is still far from perfect. Despite the Conservative Party having a female leader and Prime Minister, Theresa May’s hopeless dissolving into the arms of Donald Trump in the context of recent sexual allegations- is far from an endorsement of feminism. Jess Philips’ words of encouragement and tale of a battle against the male political establishment is both a warning and a ray of hope for many young women aiming to get involved in politics.
Thought provoking, inspiring and very funny at times 4/5
Robert Brown, News Editor. The ISIS Filesand the accompanying 10-part podcast series Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times.
Since declaring its Caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State (IS) had captured a large amount of territory in Iraq and Syria. By 2017 they had lost much of this land. But, how did they manage to hold onto so much territory for so long? A territory that, according to The New York Times, was the size of the UK, and had an estimated population of 12 million people. From the outside, this group seemed to be made of nothing but radical and violent extremists hell-bent on destroying the West. And while for much of the group this is true, this description ignores the intricate inner workings of a group that, for a time, achieved its goal: to establish its own theocratic state that they considered to be a caliphate. A state that followed their strict interpretation of Islam. These intricate inner workings is what The New York Times article ‘The ISIS Files’ and the accompanying 10-part podcast series ‘Caliphate’ reveals.
The New York Times’ journalists spent over a year in Iraq and found more than 15,000 pages of internal IS documents. The biggest discoveries were made by Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times foreign correspondent who has been covering ISIS since 2014. She is also the host of the podcast ‘Caliphate’, which starts off with an interview with a former ISIS member, and then documents how she discovered the documents and their contents. In Callimachi’s own words, “The documents were pulled from the drawers of the desks behind which the militants once sat, from the shelves of their police stations, from the floors of their courts, from the lockers of their training camps and from the homes of their emirs.”
The variety of locations not only shows the breadth of evidence gathered, but also sheds light on the operation of the Islamic State. ISIS did not just rule through violence, they ruled through administration and bureaucracy. They collected taxes, collected rubbish, issued birth certificates and driving licences. Interviews of people that lived under ISIS seem to show that the group sometimes offered better services than the previous government did. ISIS also employed local government officials and administrators. This allowed them to tax everything in their territory, meaning they could be a completely self-financed state, contrary to popular belief. The documents show not only a capacity for brutality – as is often portrayed in Western media – but also a capacity to govern.
This other side to ISIS is not something that many people know of, and that is what I found most interesting about reading the article and listening to the podcast. When I think of ‘ISIS’, I think of the many instances of horrific terrorist attacks across the globe. I think of their brutality, their distorted ideas of Islam, their sophisticated online recruiting techniques. However, before learning of these documents, I would never have considered that they had an ability not just to govern, but to do it successfully. The reality is that if they hadn’t suffered such severe military and territorial losses, they probably would have continued to be a successful state.
All this made me realise just how powerful ISIS really was at the time, and how powerful they could be again. They weren’t just some renegade terrorist group, they were for all intents and purposes, a state; even if they were only self-recognised. It is that fact that surprised me the most. It’s a side of ISIS that we’re only just learning about, and that’s what makes reading the article and listening to the podcast worth your time.
Colm Tóibín’s House of Names tells the tale of a house divided by the sacrificial death of the oldest daughter, Iphigenia, by her father. This act of treachery and deceit is the catalyst for family warfare, as the remaining children, Orestes and Electra, learn to heed their mother’s, Clytemnestra, advice that ‘no one can be trusted.’
The house of Atreus is subject to our scrutiny as we delve into the dynamics of this complicated and tortured family. The characters are the protagonists of the Iliad by Homer and of several plays by ancient playwrights such as Euripides, seemingly tough acts for Tóibín to follow. Unlike the authors and dramatists of old however, Tóibín takes the myth of this once great household and humanises it. Tóibín brings a human quality to an otherwise heartless tale of familial betrayal, which ultimately render the ruling forces of Agamemnon’s family among the most vulnerable characters in the story. He shows these characters’ emotions best through his structure of the story, changing between characters and their respective tales per chapter. Whilst I found the writing style used for Clytemnestra a bit vague and philosophical towards the end of the book; it reminded me of reading Septimus’ parts in Mrs Dalloway; not a joy, I found the writing style used for Electra and Orestes very compelling.
This is especially true in the case of Orestes whose tumultuous life in the time after his sister’s murder is filled with action, murder and fraternal compassion, expressed in choppy sentences and active verbs causing continual thrill. Others have considered Orestes’ story to cause an unwelcome deviation from the story proper. Whilst I agree that Orestes’ travels to a hostage camp and his life after his escape does not make for a smooth transition back to the palace-life detailed in Clytemnestra and Electra’s narratives, I feel that the chapters focused on Orestes boost the story. At the point in the story were Orestes in taken hostage the royal household is broken, and the future is bleak. Orestes’ journey, in particular his life after escaping the hostage camp, uplifts the story through fraternal connections, loyalty to friends and unquenchable hope.
The theme of strength and resilience resonated throughout the book; whether in the comfort of the palace or grasping at life in a prisoner’s camp, each character was vulnerable. Clytemnestra and Electra show strength in their survival after the death of Agamemnon. Alliances to the royal house begin to break and Clytemnestra finds a solution in ally and lover, Aegisthus. I find Aegisthus one of the most intriguing characters in the book. He is cunning, dishonest and promiscuous; destroying all who stand in the way of his success to the throne. Maybe it is because we do not hear his story from his point of view, only through the reports of Clytemnestra, or maybe it is because he keeps detached and cool headed, but I commend Aegisthus’ murderous grappling at power more than I do Clytemnestra’s. I think this is because she is not portrayed as a woman who can handle power. She allies with Aegisthus because she cannot control her own people and loses Orestes because she cannot control Aegisthus. She is out of her depth. Unlike her daughter Electra who takes well to managing power.
Each child of the Atreus house struggles to comprehend and is victim to the actions of their parents, who act often out of selfish desire than of the love of their children. Maybe it is learning to cope with their parent’s actions that lead Orestes and Electra to grow into their parents, or maybe it is the fate of all leaders to sacrifice their morals in place of power. Although I felt that the ending lacked composition, leaving many loose strings untied, I suppose that the full circle effect of the children becoming like their parents seals the fates of the characters, so much so that we do not need a conclusive ending to tell us the futures of these characters.
This classic novel from 1965 by American author and English professor John Williams is the story of the life of William Stoner, a stoic farm boy from rural Missouri, who emerges from his sparse and colourless existence into the world of the University campus. The “campus novel” subgenre, a literary tradition dating back to the 1950s, is a niche yet rich source of storytelling, and John Williams manages to take this rarefied area and spin it into a story which at once feels both human and relatable.
The story is aided by the fact that its eponymous main character himself starts as an outsider to the quirky world of academia. With the aim of aiding the family farm, Stoner attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture. However, after taking a mandatory literature survey course in his second year, he soon discovers an obsession for literature and learning, which leads to a long career with the Department of English. Indeed, it is indicative of the nature of this story that the most real distance travelled by our protagonist is from farm to campus, where he soon decides to remain and never leaves until his death. In his long life, Stoner’s passion for his subject never fails him, even as all other aspects of his life only disappoint and punish.
While this may sound like essentially a “rags to riches” story adapted to an academic setting, the last thing you could associate with this novel is a sense of triumphant conquest. At every stage in the life of William Stoner, there is an almost overbearing sense of pathos, as our protagonist encounters defeat after defeat in a world he is unable to understand or contend with. Uncomplaining and humble to his last breath, Stoner never manages to shed the quiet stoicism of his industrious parents, whose lifeless existence on the farm is matched only by their silent resolve to carry out their duties.
Yet despite the rather mute tone of the story, and the mundane normality which Williams steeps his world in, in the characterisation of Stoner can be glimpsed the subtle arc of a real-world hero. Not the glittering world-conqueror of Greek legend, battling great monsters in the Mediterranean sun, Stoner is instead a quiet and diligent sufferer of thoroughly mortal burdens. With dutiful resolve and a quiet passion, Stoner bears the weight of the world with humility. A miserable marriage to the deeply troubled Edith, a distant relationship with his daughter Grace, and a bitter struggle with his nemesis Professor Hollis Lomax; Stoner is rarely without sources of pain, and only once does he attempt to take arms against his fate.
In response to his torment, all our protagonist ever does is put his head down and work harder. This turns out to be the most enduring source of satisfaction in his life. More than being about marriage, family, or even academia itself, this is a novel about the love of work and a passion which survives all the pressures of the world. When once asked about why Stoner had such a depressing life, author John Williams responded: “I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.”
The bleak beginning of the Missouri farm boy’s life leads to an equally bleak end. And yet, in the long years of his career, Stoner finds a purpose to pour his hard labour into which genuinely means something to him. In doing so, he surpasses the Sisyphean existence of his parents, answering a Call to Adventure he himself only partially understands. This may well be the path of the modern-day, who finds in the petty squabbles of a disenchanted world, a meaningful struggle in which to discover his identity.
Williams has created a rich, complex and deeply sad novel, which nevertheless offers a compelling portrayal of an ordinary man. Stoner may have been ignored and disregarded in his own world, but upon reading this novel you will likely be unable to forget him.