Posted by: Jeanie F | April 19, 2015

Stoner by John Williams

stoner-john-williams

In 2013, Tim Kreider, writing for The New Yorker, titled his review for Stoner “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” And he is probably right. He goes on to argue that “Part of Stoner‘s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair.” This book started out small, selling only 2000 copies in the original printing. However, in 2013 it topped the best seller lists in Europe and has gradually, almost stealthily, entered literary discussions about the American canon.

I know this sounds like a total buzz-kill, but trust me, this book pulls you in so tight that it’s nearly impossible to let it go, even when you’ve reached the last page.

Stoner is, first and foremost, a love story. Oh, not your conventional boy-meets-girl love story, but a deeply graceful look at the things and people we love and the way that love plays out, for better and for worse, throughout a lifetime.

Published in 1965, this is the story of William Stoner, a man born in the late 19th Century to humble origins. The son of farmers, he goes on to become a teacher at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri. It is one of the most deceptively simple plot lines you could ever imagine: he goes to college where he finds he loves learning, stays in college, upon graduation becomes a teacher at the college, marries, has a long career, and dies. To quote Tom Hanks, writing for Time Magazine, “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”

In addition to his wife, daughter, and a small handful of friends, Stoner discovers that he loves learning, teaching, and literature. None of these come easily, so many of the reviews of this novel refer to it as “sad” but, in fact, while Stoner has his share of disappointments, he possesses a strong and constant spirit that allows him to rise above them.

I will tell you that you should absolutely read this book. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what more learned reviewers have had to say about it:

* John Williams’s Stoner is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

— Morris Dickstein, The New York Times Book Review

*Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles….Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.
— Steve Almond, Tin House

*One of the great forgotten novels of the past century. I have bought at least 50 copies of it in the past few years, using it as a gift for friends….The book is so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.
—Colum McCann’s Top 10 Novels, The Guardian

*That Stoner is exciting – unexpectedly so, and incredible moving – is the true measure of Williams’s achievement . . . It will remind you of why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives.

–D.G. Myers

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 14, 2015

Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel by Aline Ohanesian

Orhan

A large body of literature has grown up around the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, but relatively little fiction has been written about the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18. Originally identified as a “diaspora,” defined as “historical mass dispersions of an involuntary nature” (Wikipedia)(Rogers Brubaker), the atrocities committed against the Armenian people during World War I are now recognized as genocide, the organized killing of a people for the express purpose of putting an end to their collective existence (Armenian National Institute). An estimated one and a half million people, out of an estimated two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire at this time, died. For most Americans, little or nothing is known about this period in history.

Aline Ohanesian has helped to fill this void with her new novel, Orhan’s Inheritance. This gripping story frames the series of events that precipitated and comprised the Armenian Genocide with a current day family drama that sends a young Turk, Orhan Türkoğlu, in search of the past.

When Orhan’s grandfather, Kemal, dies in 1990, the family is shocked to learn that Kemal has willed the family home in the Turkish village of Karod to “one Ms. Seda Melkonian.” No one in the family recognizes the name, but the attorney who reads the will provides her address, an Armenian assisted living facility in California. Determined to meet this stranger and convince her to sign away her rights to the home, Orhan flies to California.

Following Orhan and Seda’s initial meeting, the story moves back and forth between 1990, when Orhan attempts to learn the connection between Kemal and Seda, and Seda’s own experience in 1915, when her family was forcibly deported to the eastern provinces.

I don’t want to give away any of this fascinating – not to mention heart-breaking and beautiful – story. Ms. Ohanesian has woven a tapestry of both the historic and the personal price that was paid during this shameful period, peopling it with characters about whom we care and come not only to love but to respect. It isn’t always a pretty story, but it is an important one.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 3, 2015

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Chast

 

I’ll admit at the outset that I’m a long-time admirer of Roz Chast. Her mix of humor and humanity appeals to me, as to her millions of fans from The New Yorker and/or her books. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a fan of graphic novels, although I’ve read a few and admire the ability to both draw and tell a story. When this book first appeared on the scene, I have to say I resisted it, primarily because I feared it would hit too close to home. I wasn’t anxious to relive the last few years of my parents’ lives, and I feared the book would be a real downer. As they say – oh ye of little faith. I should have known that Chast would bring her reliably honest, yet compassionate, eye to this topic. When it was a finalist for The National Book Award, I began to soften. When my husband gave me a generous gift certificate for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, and I wanted to put it toward something I would never put on my Kindle, I took the chance and bought Can’t We Talk. Smart move.

Chast goes step-by-step through the process of dealing with aging parents – the initial denial that they aren’t as with-it as they used to be, the slow realization that it’s time for you, the child, to begin (reluctantly) to pay more attention. During this period, you recall all their idiosyncrasies, which are now being played out in HD. Eventually, the crisis – one or the other dies, falls, becomes ill. The equilibrium is shifted and you are now parenting the parent. The seesaw between impatience and guilt. The expense. The resentment. The fear.

I know – this all sounds like a real downer, but Chast’s humorous drawings, the frank honesty, and the intense intimacy with which she shares her experience had the final result of freeing me from some of the guilt and remorse that has stayed with me since my own parents’ deaths. It was, if you will, cathartic to read how many similarities we had in our experiences.

If, like me, you have shied away from this warm, humorous, human book I am here to tell you, fear not. You will cry, you will laugh, and you will finish Can’t We Talk knowing that there is at least one person out there who has seen what’s in your heart.

 

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | December 3, 2014

Comfort Books

Recently I’ve had some health issues that have kept me home and inactive much more than usual. At the beginning of this episode in my life I thought, “Great” I’ll finally have a chance to read the giant stack of TBR books that take up so much space in my office.” These are books like Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds – serious books that I’ve wanted to read when I could give them the attention they deserve.

There was one little flaw in my plan. My brain only craves “comfort books,” what I consider the mashed potatoes of the literary world. Tasty, easy to digest, little effort required.

A perfect example is our current book club selection, The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall. It’s a light mystery taking place in modern-day Delhi. The protagonist, detective Vish Puri, is smart, quirky, and has a good heart. The mystery is engaging enough to keep me interested, humorous enough to keep me amused, and neither dark nor violent.

I still have a few weeks of recuperation ahead of me. Does anybody have some recommendations for other “comfort books” to help me get through this tedious period of recovery?

Thanks!

PS – No vampires or zombies, please! 😧

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 30, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

BOOK1-SUB-superJumbo

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Ian McEwan for years – I either love his books or I hate them. Loved Atonement, Amsterdam, and On Chesil Beach . . . Saturday and Solar, not so much. His writing is always beautiful, even lyrical, but sometimes at the expense of the story. However, his newest book – The Children Act – is probably my all-time favorite.

At its heart, this is a story about love – between husband and wife, parents and child, and those indefinable relationships that sometimes occur in our lives.

Fiona Maye is a British High Court judge who presides over The Family Division. She is a brilliant and well-respected jurist with a reputation for thoughtful and well-supported decisions on difficult cases. Her personal life is sophisticated, well-ordered, and every bit as respectable as her professional life.

This is about to change.

The novel opens as Fiona faces two challenges – one in her personal life, one professional.

Her sixty-year old husband has announced that he wants to have an affair with a twenty-eight year old statistician, telling Fiona, “I need it. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife.”

 At the same time, she becomes involved in an emergency case concerning a seventeen-year old leukemia patient. His parents are refusing life-saving blood transfusions because, as Jehovah Witnesses, it is forbidden by their religion. The boy, Adam Henry, is within months of turning eighteen, the legal age for adulthood. His attorneys argue that he is in agreement with his parents and is prepared for whatever God intends for him. Fiona insists on visiting Adam in the hospital to judge his wishes for herself. The relationship that ensues is unexpected, creating additional turmoil in Fiona’s life.

These two events – the crisis in her marriage and the responsibility for deciding this boy’s fate – form the heart of the novel. Although there are moments when McEwan tends to digress at great length (the basis of my impatience with some of his work), I found myself caring very deeply about both Fiona and Adam.

To the extent McEwan is capable of doing so, I would say he’s written a page-turner.

Grade: A-

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 7, 2014

A New Author to Love

Larry Watson

In a response to my last post, reader Roberta Canfield said, “For Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig lovers, try Let Him Go by Larry Watson and The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.”

I’ve been very enthusiastic in my praise of both Haruf and Doig, so I couldn’t wait to follow up on two authors, unknown to me, who might be publishing work similar to theirs. I immediately downloaded Let Him Go, and was swept up in the harrowing story of a pair of grandparents set on a course to retrieve their grandson after their son’s widow left town with him. In fact, I loved it so much that as soon as I finished, I downloaded another Watson title, Montana, 1948. This one concerns a prominent family who must deal with the repercussions of one member’s illegal and perverted behavior.

I don’t want to go into more detail about the plot. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about spoilers in book reviews. But I will tell you the reasons I am such an enthusiastic convert to Larry Watson’s writing:

1. Like Haruf and Doig, these stories are grounded in the modern day West (okay, 1948 isn’t as “modern” as it used to be, but it’s close enough). In the hands of a skilled writer, there’s something nostalgic, even romantic, about the open plains, the tie to the land, the simplicity of life that is very appealing to me.

Of Dalton, North Dakota, (Let Him Go) we read:

The siren tells the town’s working citizens and students what they already know. It’s twleve o’clock, time for you to fly, too. Put down your hammer, your pencil; close your books, cover your typewriter. Go home. Your wives and mothers are opening can of soup and slicing bread and last night’s roast beef for sandwiches . . . Most drive to their homes, but a man with the width of the town to travel, from Ott’s Livestock Sales out of Highway 41 to Teton Avenue in the town’s northeast corner, walks.

Montana, 1948, places us in Bentrock, Montana, where

. . . all of northeastern Montana is hard country – the land is dry and sparse and the wind never stops blowing. The heat and thunderstorms in summer can be brutal, and the winters are legendary for the fierceness of their blizzards and the depths to which temperatures drop.

Watson knows his geographical territory, and it appears as its own character in his work.

2. Watson’s human characters are people of their time and place: direct, no nonsense, tough. They do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult or distasteful. The author seems to see his protagonists as fond friends, idiosyncratic, flawed, but with an inner strength that they (and he) can count on when needed. He writes with a clear understanding of human nature, as demonstrated in this reflection by David Hayden, the narrator of Montana, who observes:

Young people are supposed to be the impatient ones, but in most circumstances they can outwait their elders. The young are more practiced; time passes slower for them and they are constantly filling their hours, days, months, and years with waiting – for birthdays, for Christmas, for Father to return, for summer to arrive, for graduation, for the rain to stop, for the minister to stop talking, for girls to stop saying, “Not now, not yet; wait.” No, when it comes to patience, even the enforced variety, the young are the real masters.

3. Watson is a true storyteller. In both books – but especially Let Him Go – the suspense of the story, the need to know what happens next, propels the reader forward. He has the shrewd practice of closing chapters with cliffhangers, and he keeps to his story clean of unnecessary embellishment or diversion. His language is clear and crisp, his characters behave in a way that rings true and, as a reader, I found that I really cared about what happened to them. I can’t give any higher praise than that.

So, Roberta, I’m ready to move on to Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide. Thanks for a great recommendation!

Grade: A

 

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