The Settling Earth

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Image by paul bica

My new, no-pressure/goals/rules to reading for 2015 is *touch wood* on a bit of a roll. With a deluge of long-neglected classics (David Copperfield), some brand new spankeroons (Our Endless Numbered Days) and some little quirks, I smugly feel like I’m on a bit of a reading adventure at the moment and, with a little effort, still managing to expand my bookish horizons.

I’m no stranger to a nineteenth century tale however, for some reason stories set in what I always think of as the ‘New World’ (i.e. Australia, New Zealand, the U.S – like the wine) don’t interest me as much as tales from Europe and Asia. Why? I couldn’t honestly tell you. Perhaps it’s due to my own life experiences. What I can tell you however is that Rebecca Burns’ new collection of short stories; The Settling Earth, centering around the settler experience in colonial New Zealand, is so enjoyable it might just have shocked me into submission.

Starting with the portrait of a strained middle-class marriage on the homestead and ending with a reflective chapter by a Māori observer (courtesy of guest author Shelly Davies), Burns delicately links her stark snapshots from person to person, gradually developing a richer picture of the landscape and lives of the settlers; from prostitute to widow to writer.


 

23725275To my huge delight my punt with an untested author paid off. The Settling Earth is a wide, sweeping, multi-faceted little jewel of a collection, breathing life into a cast of touchingly realistic characters; overwhelmingly focused on the female experience.

Although the female point of view is (logically) one I’m particularly interested in and one that, arguably, faces more hurdles than their male counterparts, Burns’ male made me feel slightly uncomfortable. The rapists, racists and just general let-downs left a little question mark hovering over my head; is the balance a little off here? Regardless, the inclusion of these male ‘baddies’ assists in setting a strong scene for tales of female woe.

Burns’ stark realism however is far from bleak. With the Southern Alps dominating the far horizons, the washed colours and glorious endless skies reflect the introspective, reflective mood that pervades. Writing obliquely and sensitively about some incredibly difficult subjects, Burns subtleties bring her writing from the average to the truly accomplished.

It’s in remembrance of the thousands of indigenous people whose daily existence (and life expectancies) were drastically altered by the arrival of European settlers that we also greet teacher and writer Shelly Davies’ final chapter. A crucial point of view of which I would have, if anything, liked to learn a little more about.

This was a wonderful little volume to refresh myself between books and, for a girl who doesn’t usually have the attention span to dip in and out of short stories, the perfect collection for a novel-reading soul. Due to the satisfying ripple effect on the characters upon one another from beginning to end, this book is best enjoyed in one big greedy gulp. *Gulp*.

My copy of The Settling Earth was downloaded to my filthy eReader with the help if the folk at NetGalley on the kind invitation of the lovely author herself. The pain of reading off the screen much-lessened by the fact that this was really rather good.

The Girl on the Train

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After a very classic start to the year with a bit of James Baldwin, the book club were feeling really rather current in February, with the latest member in the hot seat bringing a score of ‘highly recommended’, slightly more modern reads. Despite the likelihood that this was not going to be available from the local library any time soon (true) and the lack of a paperback copy, the majority couldn’t help but pick out Paula Hawkins’ much-hyped début novel.

Rachel Watson is our girl on the train. On the way to and from London each day she gazes into the back of the numerous Victorian terraces, dreaming up her imagined life for an attractive young couple who she sees relaxing on their balcony from time to time.  Jess and Jason, as she calls them, are, in reality, Megan and Simon and when Megan goes missing a day after Rachel witnesses something a little odd from her private viewing platform, our girl on the train turns from surreptitious spectator to major game player quicker than you can say ‘whodunnit’.


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The slight disappointment I had with this book is that, even for a numpty like me who can never figure things out, this particular whodunnit felt a bit obvious (no spoilers I promise!). That said, this book put me in mind of S J Watson’s brilliantly creepy; Before I Go To Sleep. The triple narrative between Rachel, Megan and Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife, Anna, creates a jigsaw puzzle effect that helps to maintain a steady pace and the slow reveal that has put this thriller out on the top of the bestseller charts. Rachel is an unreliable narrator in the extreme; a depressed alcoholic coming to terms with a messy divorce who, due to her drink problem, suffers huge memory lapses. A bit of an easy device to make this ‘mystery’ even more of a mystery but there we have it…

Although Rachel’s drinking and the behaviour that ensues makes her a rather frustrating character, I did manage to find a little sympathy in my heart for her; a hugely important feat when wanting to appreciate a book in full. No, I may not be an alcoholic but I am a girl on a train, with my little daydreams, nicknames for people and whatnot. I am also a woman who can appreciate the devastating effect the breakdown of a relationship can have on someone. Rachel’s interest (bordering on obsession) with ‘Jess and James’ has a huge amount to do with nostalgia for her own past happy relationship. A sad sentiment I could really get on board with.

I don’t read many thrillery-type novels. The books I choose to read myself tend (quite unintentionally) to be slow-burners; focusing more on atmosphere than pace. My first sitting with The Girl on the Train was therefore, for want of a better word, thrilling, as I devoured 100 pages in swift succession without even looking up from the page. Exciting? A promising start? Well, yes, certainly. The only trouble is that once I got used to the pace, it all felt pretty safe and steady, certain chapters almost feeling like a filler for the real action at the end. A bit like the new Star Wars movies.

Thankfully the lull did not last. The finally cluster of chapters were so utterly jaw dropping that I actually dribbled on myself…. Not attractive but certainly a sign of a decent ending, however predictable. So… what I want to know is; when is the movie coming out?

Read any new releases lately? What do you think to those comparing Hawkins’ novel with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl?

My hard copy (yikes) of The Girl on the Train was purchased from Waterstones Deansgate for March’s edition of the Manchester Book Club. I never buy brand new hardbacks. I hope they’re happy.

Untouchable

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India is without a doubt one of the most exciting, life-affirming places I have ever visited; a country whose food, fabrics and music has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. From my teenage years spent in bindis, elephant print culottes (yes, this was the 90s) and listening to bhangra, when the opportunity came to pick somewhere a bit different for our hols back in 2011, India was right at the top of the list.

Although we’ve been back since, an experience that came a lot easier second time around, I will never forget that first blast of complete shock and awe. Staying in Shahjahanabad or ‘Old Delhi’ as it’s more commonly known, we experienced the full hit of monkeys, dogs, bikes, cows, sewage, wiring, spices, incense and EVERYTHING in the whole world jammed into one tiny space. This tiny space also included some of the millions of folk right at the bottom of the Indian caste system; the ‘Untouchables‘; a term that is still, disgustingly, widely used today (as we learnt from one flippant taxi driver).

Mulk Raj Anand is a bit of a hero. Dubbed the ‘Indian Charles Dickens’, Anand was a man particularly preoccupied with the condition of the bottom rungs of Indian society. His first novel follows the day in the life of Bakha; a ‘sweeper’ living in an outcasts’ colony on the edges of an Indian city. Living in a mud hut with his family and idealising the western ‘Tommies’ who live in the barracks nearby, Bakha spends his days picking up other people’s filth. After accidentally bumping into an outraged Brahmin (‘high-caste’) man and being subsequently harangued and humiliated by the entire street, Bakha’s day unravels in a series of mishaps, all starkly demonstrating, in one way or another, the plight of the downtrodden classes of Indian society.


Be it on television or in real life, we have all witnessed the face of poverty to some162 degree. Whether I appreciated this novella and social commentary from Anand all the more for having visited the country previously and having had a fraction of that poverty thrust before my eyes I don’t know. An important point, albeit a laboured one, is being made here and is one that many would do well to listen to nowadays, with the problem of caste discrimination still rife.

Although both the characters and setting of Bakha’s day is at times so vivid you can smell the dung steaming off the streets, linguistically speaking this classic of Indo-Anglian literature felt a little clunky at times (though the odd turn of phrase arguably makes the story feel all the more authentic – as if Bakha were telling it himself.)

As a naive symbol of hope Bakha is, however, perfect, and as a writer Anand balances an instinct to philosophise with a very necessary anger and fervour. Definitely an imperfect book (e.g. the bizarre final paragraphs where some rather camp students debate the benefits of flushing toilets….) yet doubtlessly terribly important.

Ever read any ‘Indo-Anglian’ fiction?

My copy of ‘Untouchable’ was bought from Foyles, devoured and wrinkled by my other half before I got a look in. God damn him .

London Baby!

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There was a time, before we moved to the countryside and began living the ‘Good Life’ that I fancied myself an out and out city girl, despite my appreciation for the great outdoors. Following years living in Manchester city centre and a heady year in the City of Light, the thought of not needing cafés, bars, art galleries and supermarkets right on my doorstep was at one point unthinkable. How crazy I was. Led astray by an outdoorsy boyfriend and a need to get away from it all, I now can’t imagine life without the hills, sheep and glorious skies of my little moorland village.

Although I appreciate the super-charged energy and immense history of our glorious capital, since I only usually nip down there for meetings I usually just get one huge London-style kick in the gills for a couple of hours before scurrying back to my home town, relieved to be out of the mêlée and able to breathe.

It was therefore a real treat for the boyfriend and I to take advantage of a couple of sneaky days off to go around old London Town in a more leisurely manner and take in a few of the sites like proper tourists. Impossible to see everything we would like to in less than 48 hours but we had a good go all the same. Main stop was Islington and the London Art Fair:

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Early last year I was asked by a Manchester-based artist if I would be interested in taking part in a new project she had in mind to explore the act of reading and writing. After reading aloud passages of Jean Paul Sartre’s Words in the basement of a Salford town house last summer, the performance reached the lofty heights of the London Art Fair last week, a feat that was simply a pleasure to take part in and will surely reach the top 10 ‘strange but wonderful’ bookish projects of 2015. A brief description of the artist and her work can be found here.

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Arty business aside the first stop on our rapid tour was the British Library (well, the foyer at least) where my other half promptly, hands behind his back in an exceedingly British fashion, attempted to poke his nose in a couple of the reading rooms. Nosy tourism aside, it did strike us just how many people were lolling around with their Macbooks on show rather than a good old book (see above) ……………….or am I just old-fashioned?

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Along with a couple of necessary gallery stops and an amble around Greys Inn, the most important stop of our tour by far, and a bit of a pilgrimage for me in particular, was the Dickens museum on Doughty Street; a glorious, huge Georgian terrace where the writer lived out the frenzied beginnings of his successful literary career. ‘My house in town‘ as he was purported to call it.

I was in the throes of the last chapter of David Copperfield when down in the capital, actually finishing the book on the train on the way back, so visiting Dickens’ old family home came at a rather poignant time for me. As well as poking around his personal bits and bobs (including THE desk where he penned Great Expectations…that’s right) I discovered a great deal about the great man; the fact that he was rather a dandy back in the day, his turbulent childhood period in a shoe blacking factory….the circumstances surrounding his divorce to Catherine Hogarth, the whole shebang. I’m a lucky lucky girl and now I will most definitely be reading Claire Tomalin’s celebrated biography.

Have you visited our fair capital lately or done any general bookish tourism? Where should we go next time?

Go Tell It on the Mountain

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Although the way we run the book club has always worked a treat when it comes to introducing ourselves to new genres, authors and just generally fabulous bookish folk, what everyone always seems to miss out on is a good old classic. With that in mind the Manchester Book Club made an informal decision over Christmas to start a bit of a classics club every January to get us all off on the right foot.

With some excellent inspiration from the lucky lady tasked with choosing such an important selection of books for the month, we finally plumped for the least known of the offerings; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Having only ever heard of (and not yet read) Baldwin’s seminal classic of gay literature; Giovanni’s Room, the prospect of introducing myself to the author through his first novel instead was hugely attractive, particularly understanding that this snapshot of evangelical life in 1930s Harlem is effectively a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Baldwin’s own difficult upbringing under the cosh of his preacher father;

In the moment that these words filled the room, and hung in the room like the infinitesimal moment of hanging, jagged light that precedes an explosion, John and his father were staring into each other’s eyes…his eyes were so wild and depthlessly malevolent, and his mouth was twisted into such a snarl of pain.

In one short, intense thunderclap of a novel, we follow a day in the life of the Grimes family; namely the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes; a clear reflection of Baldwin’s younger self. In five, well-defined chapters we experience the hardships and hang ups of present day life for the Harlemites, three ‘prayers’ that explore the repressed background of the adults and their former lives living in the Southern states, and a finally bewildering chapter spent writhing on the ‘threshing floor’.


17143I was very lucky to have a couple of days off and a particularly relaxing weekend to take full advantage of this powerful book and let the ebb and flow of the language simply wash over me. Whereas other members of the book group found the unrelenting preaching and ‘god-speak’ exhausting and somewhat impenetrable, I dived in with enthusiasm, riding the waves of devotion and becoming morbidly fixated on the tragic scenes of these characters’ disadvantaged pasts.

Gabriel, the spectator of Baldwin’s paternal past, is a dreadful character; repressive, hypocritical and totally unredeemable. Ordinarily this would spell the nail in the coffin for me with any book however it is testament to Baldwin’s sheer skill that I could stomach him, his behaviour becoming the necessary vehicle for the tragedy (usually female) and religious fervour that makes this story so poignant.

Novels dealing with slavery in the United States are popular and I’ve had the opportunity to read a few. Novels, however, dealing with the next generation down; the sons and daughters of slaves, their lives and the legacy of their parents’ bondage, is something I haven’t had the chance to explore quite as much. Whatever tragic ends they may eventually meet, following these folk to the North and witnessing the fierce expression of the faith that was born down in the Southern plantations is thought-provoking wherever you come from. Although John’s muddled, fanatical final performance in the Church stopped this classic scoring top points with me (knocked to a modest 4/5 on Goodreads) and put some book groupers off all together, this slightly forced end-sequence did not spoil what is, for me, the perfect, impassioned introduction to James Baldwin. Why go for the obvious choice after all?

Have you read any James Baldwin? How do you feel about the way African American experience is portrayed in literature?

My copy of Go Tell It on the Mountain was purloined from the beautifully renovated Manchester Central Library. I kind of wish I’d bought it though.

David Copperfield

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A couple of years ago, starting with A Christmas Carol, I created a bit of a mini-tradition for myself and started to read one Dickens novel per year, usually just in time for winter. For me Dickens’ vastly detailed, evocative, often epic storytelling, along with its often very grim Victorian setting is the epitome of fireside reading… Enter Copperfield.

I must admit I’m still feeling rather abashed at the fact that it has taken over two months for me to read this doorstopper, though glad in many ways since, despite the mini breaks I was reluctantly forced to take to read other things, there is simply no other way of immersing yourself in a world and attaching yourself to its characters than spending weeks of your life alongside them.

So, is this bucket list novel worth the time and effort? Yes, it undoubtedly is. So clearly echoing many aspects of Dickens’ own life story, Copperfield’s world is complex, heart-rending and, most importantly of all, hugely entertaining.

To even attempt to set out the narrative here in any detail would be to fail but, happily, given its success and consequent saturation through the literary world from its publication in 1850, I think we all already have a vague idea. From a lonely and orphaned childhood, browbeaten by those around him, we witness Copperfield’s rise (tribulations alongside) to success as a novelist. The colourful cast of friend and foe who accompany him along the way and their various personal dramas make for a novel of epic proportions that I was, despite some struggles along the way, so sad to leave behind.


 

All I can really say at this point is that, if you haven’t already read any Charles 2391340Dickens, please please do so now before the weather warms up again and the ‘vibe’ just isn’t quite right for it. Here are just two common misconceptions I’ve overheard about the author that, when all is said and done, simply aren’t true and only serve to put people off:

a) that his books are difficult to read – obviously I’m going to tell you that this is a bit of a myth. Many of Dickens’ literature, including David Copperfield, was originally published in serialised snippets on a monthly basis. I’ve often found that there are, as a result, countless cliffhangers and plenty of drama, which keeps the story rolling. This was the popular fiction of its day. The characters may not speak like you and I do nowadays but it is by no means inaccessible. It just takes a little more time….

b) that you won’t relate to any of the characters - Dickens’ characters and their circumstances are truly timeless. The author’s focus on the grim elements of London life in the nineteenth century not only make his novels sing with atmosphere but reflect his personal concerns for the most vulnerable members of society, people that still suffer today as they did 150 years ago. They may just be wearing a beanie instead of a bonnet…

David Copperfield himself is the perfect star of the story; endearing enough for us to feel sympathetic but bland enough not to take over. Characters such as the creeping, cringing Uriah Heep and the loquacious Wilkins Micawber are some of the most inspired Dickens characters I have ever come across. Betsey Trotwood is one of the most spunky, feminist characters I’ve enjoyed in a long time, steering her own carriage with her bonnet askew:

My aunt, who was perfectly indifferent to public opinion, drove the grey pony through Dover in a masterly manner; sitting high and stiff like a state coachman

Like all books from this period I seem to have read recently I did fall foul of my 2015 values with Dora, Copperfield’s wife. Gah she is so irritating. Weak-willed, stupid and entirely (I’m so sorry Dickens) unbelievable as his wife. Although this flakiness does help draw the plot together later on in the book.

For all its excitement; landmark characters, powerful scenery and masterfully drawn plotting, this took a long time to read and, although this has its clear advantages, there were times (particularly after having read something more modern) that I had to rub my bleary eyes and readjust to the dialogue. This, however, I think is pretty much inevitable for the modern reader. Although I found myself rolling my eyes of the countless incidents of melodrama and the ten or so chapters it actually takes to wrap things up, by the end it was all very deserved and appropriate indeed. I loved it.

Allow yourself a few weeks and delve on in. For the sheer enjoyment factor but also to say ‘Guess what?! I’VE READ DAVID COPPERFIELD!’ Hurrah.

It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.

Have you read any Dickens before? Fancy giving it a go?

My thick (now battered) copy of David Copperfield came from the Relish Dickens haul of  2012, courtesy of  a bargain from The Book People

Our Little Northern Heroine

MAtildaAlthough, as I think I’ve mentioned recently, I haven’t set myself any hardcore reading resolutions or goals for 2015, there are certain little ‘mini-rules’ I have in mind to make the this year’s reading, well, a lot more enjoyable. These ideas generally encompass:

a) not reading books from my own personal library because I feel like I have to (e.g. ‘must-read’ classics) and reading purely on whim and inkling alone. I find this is almost always a sure-fire way of a decent read.

b) being very careful about what books I accept for review. Unless the blurb/hype, etc absolutely blows me away my sanity simply cannot take any more substandard books that are, worst of all, being rushed through towards a deadline.

c) taking a pause between each book and the next if possible. Most avid readers will have the same problem, i.e; that it is far too tempting to rush onto the next literary world immediately after finishing the last. In the past doing this has meant I simply haven’t appreciated the books I have read, particularly the fantastic ones, in the way that I should and that has to change.

d) although I won’t be joining in any readalongs unless I feel completely compelled to (however I will be reading Kakuzō Okakura’s The Book of Tea just in time for the next edition of the Happy Reader!) I have set a cheeky reading goal for myself on Goodreads this year just to see how I get along. This obviously won’t be prescriptive but I read a woefully small number of books last year (not helped by my two month stint on David Copperfield)  and it would be nice to get a few more in there.

With that in mind, my other half decided to support me by sending me a link to this article from the Manchester Evening News the other week, with a cheeky note saying that I needed to get a wriggle on…

Ten year old Faith Jackson read 942 books last year. According to her parents that’s 464 pages on average every single day.  2.5 books a day, between 77 and 80 books per month. Readers, hang your heads in shame.

The most wonderful part of this tale is that a few years ago the ten-year old was identified as having dyslexic tendencies. With relaxed, supportive parents taking the right approach however Faith has gone from being read to, to being the reader du jour.

This year Faith would like to read over 1000 books in total. My humble aim is just 60. No pressure. What will be your magic number for 2015?

A Tale for the Time Being

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Along Japan’s rugged coastline stone markers carry ominous warnings: Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point’  –  As most of us will remember, in March 2011, an earthquake reaching 9.0 on the Richter scale wracked the island, causing a huge tsunami that swept away entire towns and villages , killing thousands of poor people, these ancient warnings largely left unheeded.

Ruth, one of two intriguing narrators in Ruth Ozeki’s Booker-prize shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being reminds us of the facts and figures surrounding the catastrophe, bringing the human element back into sharp focus. Walking on the beach one day she stumbles across some ominous debris; a barnacle covered bag concealing a Hello Kitty lunch box, filled with a diary, letters and memories of a Japanese teenager.

Enter Nao. As well as having to deal with the ordinary troubles of a teenage schoolgirl, Nao’s daily strife has escalated to an unimaginable level. After losing his job in America and moving his family back home, her father is suicidal, her mother despondent and her classmates torturous. Her salvation lies in her 104 year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and the legacy of her great-uncle Haruki; philosopher and kamikaze pilot. Sheltering within her rickety wooden house on a remote Canadian island, Ruth unravels Nao’s mystery in her own real-time, the mystery of her fate looming ever larger as she reads on.


 

17733621I’ve heard many a bookish internetter proclaim that this poignant novel should have been the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize over Eleanor Catton’s doorstop slice of historical fiction The Lumineries. Having not yet read the latter I don’t particularly feel qualified to judge, yet I always find the entire Man Booker process rather dull.  Although it is doubtlessly an absolute coup for a writer to win such a prestigious award, as an avid reader I always feel a little shaky on the criteria used by the ever-changing panel of judges and, frankly, fatigued by the hoo hah that surrounds it (e.g. Goldfinch-gate). Personally I’d much rather side step the entire thing and come to the novels (if I ever come to them at all) with a fresh set of eyes.

With fresh eyes attached, I delved into this wonderful book with enthusiasm. With most dual-narrative novels I often find myself entirely attached to one thread and completely nonplussed by the other. Not so with Ozeki. Although Ruth’s daily grind of power cuts and Google searches could so easily become tiresome, I found refuge in her small world, just as she does with Nao’s diary, falling rather in love with her (much more charismatic) other half Oliver and their adorable cat ‘Pest’. With her (rather stereotypical) profession as a writer and her isolated position helping make sense of her obsession with the teenager, her limited experiences help to focus the book on the ‘real’ drama across the water.

Nao’s convincingly immature narrative on the other hand can become quite brutal at times. With the bullying at school becoming so severe it extends even to the teachers, Ruth’s anxiety over her reflects our own as we read on in horror. The Tokyo landscape is dark, bleak and grey lending her world an oppression and sense of impending doom that we simply cannot shake.

In contrast, the peaceful beauty of Jiko’s temple, to which Nao retires to recuperate, is the perfect antidote and complete literary indulgence to a Japanophile such as myself. Hot baths, tea, cats and Buddhist mantras sounds like my idea of heaven and it is in this calm environment that the teenager begins to realise the significance of her family’s past. Although the added historical element and narrative of a WWII kamikaze pilot may simply sound like a plot too far, Ozeki’s deft skill as a writer grounds this element of the story, enriching the lives of those who encounter it and making the unknown fates of the women we have grown to know so well all the more meaningful.

Perhaps not a prize winner but beautiful all the same.

My copy of A Tale for the Time Being was purchased from Waterstones Deansgate  and was read for the Manchester Book Club (who are having a good run of books at the moment!) 

Stoner

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Every so often the book group will strike upon an absolute gem, the book of the year you simply knew was going to be great and that duly delivered on all fronts. Stoner by John Williams; the understated life story of a Missouri professor, was largely overlooked from its publication in 1965 until it was reissued by Vintage Books in 2012, it’s brilliance immediately pushed into the limelight.

Stoner is not, as I first reasonably thought from the title, a hazy tale of vice and drug addiction, but the life story of a fairly ordinary man; William Stoner; following him through his teenage years on the farm in Missouri right through college and eventually inexplicably into a life of academia. Stoner’s parents are simple, loving people, keen to better both their son’s and their own prospects in the future by sending him to the new agricultural college at the University of Columbia. One day, in the English Literature module he must take as part of his course, this young, unassuming young man has an epiphany:

Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr Stoner; do you hear him?

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath…Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness…                             

From that moment on Stoner’s life ceases to be one of simplicity as the beauty of art and thought reveals itself to him until all he wishes is to devote his life to study and the transmission of his passion to other people. Declaring his intention to his resigned parents, he embarks on a career in academia and a dutiful yet strained marriage to a disturbed young local woman who stifles their life together with paranoia and pettiness.


I fully expected, given all the reviews and raving from bookish people I know with impeccable taste, to love this book. I thank my lucky stars I did as there is nothing worse than dashed expectations. The subtlety and beauty of prose from an author I’d never even heard of struck me to my core, turning an often deeply mundane, ordinary life into a series of incredibly poignant, memorable moments:

Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.

The despair and fatalism present in these out-of-body experiences accurately express Stoner’s attitude to the destructive elements in his life; a wife with mental health problems, a colleague destroying his career, a war raging on the other side of the Atlantic…all are met with the same resolute attitude, to the point where the r15790264eader is simply desperate to reach on in there and shake in some self-preservation.

Is this all a little too realistic?! I hear you cry. Perhaps so. But it is executed with an aplomb reminiscent of the very best in American literature. Stoner is a meek, forgettable anti-hero of sorts; a man lay hidden for far too long. Frustrations aside it is this very stoic, ever so slightly tragic passivity that makes this book so special.

Feel a little invisible and ordinary at times? That’s because, somewhere, deep down, a Stoner lurks with us all.

My copy of Stoner was published in 2012 by that most eye-pleasing of publishers Vintage Books. I read it for the  November edition of the Manchester Book Club