Stoner by John Williams


Sometimes when you enter a bookshop and lose yourself to browsing, magic happens, you stumble across a book by accident, no idea why you have been drawn to it but this book will make an indelible mark upon you.  So it was for me recently when I came across Stoner by John Williams.  I’m not sure what drew me to the book but what a novel this is, a book of such quiet beauty and power, beautifully written, but also one of the saddest books I’ve ever read.

The book charts the life of William Stoner, born 1891, the son of impoverished small hold farmers who till the soil day after day knowing that it will be to the soil they will return.  His father has heard of a new course in Agriculture at the University of Missouri where Stoner goes in 1910 never to leave.  While taking a compulsory course in Literature as part of his studies he becomes entranced and confused by the subject and changes his studies to English Literature.  He remains at the university as a teacher until his death and the book charts this unremarkable life.  He marries Edith in haste and repents at leisure (a more difficult female character I’m not sure I’ve come across) and becomes estranged from his daughter, he finds love through a relationship with a young student / lecturer but he has few friends and becomes embroiled in internal faculty politics when disagreeing with Professor Lomax who then spends the next twenty years in bitter conflict with Stoner doing everything possible to make his university life difficult.  As Stoner looks back on his life he sums it up thus:

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.  He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of who had now withdrawn into the ranks of the living.

He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died.  He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality.

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one.  He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality.  He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.  And what else? he thought.  What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself

However there is another angle to all of this which perhaps we should all reflect on, Stoner had stoicism and integrity that he acted upon all his life, he had a life long friendship, found love (both physical and intellectually through his love of literature) he worked all his life at a job he loved and escaped the grinding poverty of upbringing.  How many of us can say the same ?

I think what is particularly remarkable about this book is that whilst the period of Stoner’s life covers some of the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century via the great depression and two world wars, by looking at the minutiae of Stoner’s life you realise that we all have our triumphs, tragedies and disasters and that it is these that perhaps have a greater effect on us and shape us opposed to the world events that we live through.

The writing throughout the book is hypnotically simple and beautiful, it goes along with Stone’s character but at the same time a picture is painted of the seasons changing as life goes on within the university.  The university is depicted as an asylum there to keep the real world out while providing sanctuary to those who would struggle to survive or fit in to the world outside it’s gates.

Ultimately this book is about two things for me Love and Work, Love in all it’s forms from finding a love of literature and it’s ability to accompany us through life’s journey through to finding love in another human being, the love contained within a life long friendship and a love of work.  Stoner gets up every day throughout his life and goes to work, initially on the farm and then in the lecture theatre, he never ceases to learn and never complains even when his integrity means that his working life is made intolerably difficult perhaps because he loves what he does, he loves literature and teaching and he hopes to find the spark to inspire others as he was once inspired.

Perhaps this is what Williams is aiming at with this book to emphasise the power of love in all it’s forms and the remarkable ability of literature to inspire.  This is a truly astonishing book that I cannot recommend highly enough.



A Casual Vacancy


This month’s book club choice was A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling. Coming off the back of last month’s shocker, I was looking forward to reading a proper book ie a book that has a story, characters and dialogue. Well I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s worth saying up front that I came to this book fresh to Rowling’s writing. She has made her millions of course as the creator of the Harry Potter universe and although I’ve seen most of the films, I haven’t read any of her books. I don’t think her skill as an author has ever been in doubt as the Potter franchise demonstrates a vivid and lucid imagination at work with a steady storytelling hand on the tiller. But what would her first ‘proper’ book be like?

A Casual Vacancy is a real departure for Rowling in that a) it’s a book for adults and b) it’s a book about modern life in all its tedium and tragedy in suburban Britain in 2013. She’s clearly had enough of wizards and mudbloods and is now focusing in on the minutiae of ordinary life in the home counties. Set in the fictitious town of Pagford, A Casual Vacancy uses the death of a local parish councillor and his replacement’s election to tell a number of stories, each delicately weaved around each other.

Rowling zooms right in on the themes of class, social mobility, drug issues, poverty and wealth distribution with plenty of sharp insights. At times it felt a little like she was ticking off boxes – social alienation, tick. Teenage self harm, tick. Cyber bullying, tick. Posh folks having run ins with local chavs, tick. She definitely piles it all in.

Interesting to note that the adult characters she portrays are all pretty unlikable, apart from the dead councillor who we never meet. Predictably Rowling shows more compassion when writing about the teenage characters which is perhaps where her true feelings lie.

It’s over a week since I’ve read this book and that’s always a good test – what has stayed and what has started to fade. I found this book entertaining and as the book reached it’s somewhat predictable denouement it certainly engaged me but at the same time I was left wanting more. Maybe the book spreads itself too thin, trying to cover all the key issues facing modern suburbanites or maybe Rowling is just too lightweight a writer to really go for the jugular, I’m not sure.

But it’s worth a read: the pages skip by and her style is light and engaging, quickly eating up the hefty page count. The book club discussion was, as usual, insightful and enlightening with a good range of scores making for a great evening’s discussion.

I’m glad we read it but I’m ready for a literary heavyweight to my teeth into and the next book we’re reading (at long last) is The Great Gatsby. Tune in next time to see what we made of it!

Wide Sargasso sea

This was the latest book we read in our book club.

I’m not sure that I’m the best person to write about this book, as I didn’t really appreciate or enjoy the book quite as much as the other members of our group. This book is a classic (always scary territory) that has been studied and picked over for years and whilst that isn’t usually an issue for me, I came to the book like it was any other. Written in 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the post colonial West Indies. It tells the story of a white Creole heiress who is caught in the middle of seismic changes brought about by the abolition of slavery and the subsequent social turmoil and human displacement.

I’ve got to be honest, this book didn’t grab me.

I didn’t care that much about the characters and whilst I enjoyed the mood created by the author jean Rhys, it seemed like I was missing out on something. At the book club meeting I discovered that this book was written as a literary companion piece to Charlotte Bronte’s famous Jayne Eyre novel and shares characters like Mr Rochester. Some of the members in the group found this interesting and clever, having read both books but that’s the thing, you really needed to have read both and I hadn’t.

Positives in the book for me was that the book possesses a dark heart and there is something sinister and oppressive lurking beneath the surface. It has an unsettling atmosphere and the constant switching of narrator adds to this tone. It’s a very brief book too – which has many positives in our busy lives – and I always think that an author that can use brevity and still paint a very lucid picture is a very good writer.

Make no bones about it, Jean Rhys is an authoritative author who wears her literary power lightly delivering powerful imagery in her sparse prose. But the book glowed and sparked only a little for me and instead of the ominous build to an explosive climax, it fizzled out quietly. It felt also like this was her plan too: not for her the dramatic denouement but a low-key, depressive ending in keeping with the central character’s contrary nature.

So — a book I kind of enjoyed but actually felt a little short-changed by in the end. More importantly for us, it delivered a lively discussion around the table with scores ranging from two to seven. With a couple of new faces in the group, it made for a thought-provoking evening but even after all was said and done, I still felt my initial view was vindicated.

My score: 4 / 10

Next book: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Things fall apart

This month’s book in the boys book club was an interesting choice. It has first surfaced as a nomination over two years ago and as often happens it re-surfaced again to get its moment in the sun. As usual, we were drawn to it by the obscure author (at least for us) and the intriguing premise.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is actually the second African author we’ve read, so we’re not 100% strangers to this strand of literature although I suspect we’ve not even scratched the scratch on the surface.

I thought it would be interesting for readers of the blog to see an actual review from the night.

If one of us is unable to make the meeting for some reason, we ask for a written review to be submitted. And to be honest a written review can be just as powerful and insightful as a verbal review. Michael (or Monty as he is otherwise known) couldn’t make the meeting on Friday so he submitted a written review.

Here it is, in all its full glory…

Things Fall Apart

I know we have said this a lot recently but again this is a book which I believe when it comes to the reviews, could produce a mouth-watering result. (And I hope it did).

 I want to say: stark, difficult, strange, stripped back, brutal and yet at times peaceful, soothing and amazing. All of those things in just 150 pages is good going in my opinion!

First of all we have read African literature before. Camus of course – Algerian by birth. Nevertheless I feel we kicked on to another level with Achebe. A good thing I hope you all agree. Right from the off it just felt different. Not in any negative or even positive way – but just different. Maybe it was the names. Maybe it was the style of the author. Maybe it was my pre-conceived ideas of what I should or should not expect from an African writer. I didn’t struggle with it at first but I wasn’t gripped. When it became apparent we were not to meet in August the opportunity was there to put the book aside for a few weeks and return again later.

When I did return and like all good books I was drawn in. I began to enjoy and look forward to the little stories (or fables, myths etc) of why certain things were as they were – the snake who boiled seven pans of leaves (to be left with three), the moon being sullen because it will not rise until near dawn, the Ogbanje child who dies and comes back to be reborn and a whole host of others.

The whole regime of the village, the structure, the way things were as they were and had been that way since people could remember. The role of men, elders, women, sons, daughters, wives, Gods, brought almost a calmness, a relaxed manner at times to what I was reading. This was when I felt almost soothed by the text, because all the difficult things we have in our own society were just not there in Okonkwo’s. For the most part things were done in one way and one way only – thats it! No choices, decisions, myriad variations, minutiae or quite frankly the general bollocks we piss around with most of our lives.

The story of Ezinma being carried off by Chielo with Ekwefi following was one I particularly liked. I was drawn to the description of the dark where it was impossible to see, no moon to guide them. Chielos strength and strange behaviour, walking round the villages and the visit to the cave. The walk felt well described and I could almost visualise their long trek and at times the strange shapes that came out of the gloom for Ekwefi and sense the tricks her mind played on her as she continued following through to moonrise and the cave.

Okonkwo’s gun going off came like a thunderbolt – totally unexpected – and of course from there things do begin to fall apart. To me the title itself is clever. When the author entitles his work: “Things Fall Apart” is he saying it with a large sigh and resigned inevitability about life. A bit like saying “shit happens.” Or is he saying it as a warning…..this is why Things Fall Apart – “read on and learn!”

Ultimately I can’t figure out which side of the fence the author wants us to fall on – if indeed he wants us to fall at all. We know its wrong to kill twins and mutilate children. We know its wrong to deny people an education if that is what they have become aware of and choose to pursue. But what if no white man had ever ever ever set foot in Africa? What if we had just completely left the Continent untouched?  A discussion for another day.

I won’t waffle on and just recount what happens or go over particular sections that appealed. But at the end I was left with an ambivalence around the story, the author, Okonkwo and the arrival of the Missionaries. And I’m okay with that, because although it leads to a sense of unfulfillment, it also feels very real and believable. Thought-provoking and resonant. It packed a punch in 150 pages.

Michael’s score: 7 out of 10

Judging, books, covers.

I love this image – this is the cover art for all of the books we’ve read in book club.

It gives me a real sense of achievement when I look at it and each book cover reminds me of the book immediately and brings back the feelings and emotions I had for each book when I was reading it. They also serve to remind me how important the design of a book cover is and if a publisher or author gets it right it completely adds to the overall experience and if they get it wrong how it compounds the any negativity I have about it.

Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover?