Recent Read #2: Stoner

Stoner650Stoner – John Williams

One of my first reads of 2014 was Stoner by John Williams, and having heard and read so many great things about the book I was excited to read it for myself. Fortunately, or regretfully depending on your point of the view, ‘Stoner’ is not about someone with a frequent case of the munchies but is actually the life story of man called William Stoner who was raised as a farm boy until a revelation at college sets him on his path in academia. After this life changing moment we experience with Stoner the conflicts, disappointments and relationships dynamics of an everyday life. On the back of my copy there is a New York Times review that describes the book as ‘a perfect novel, it takes your breath away’ and it’s hard to disagree.

The first thing that struck me when reading ‘Stoner’ was the clean, quiet and understated voice of the narration. There is nothing flamboyant or fancy going on here with the language, which may seem odd when you consider that Stoner’s passion and life work is literature but for me this simplicity is one of the books strengths and before you know it three or four chapters will have flown by. Stoner is crammed full of injustice, frustration and sadness and this simple prose makes it an all the more affecting and powerful reading experience.

One of the saddest and most heart-rendering of these events for me is Stoner’s relationship with his daughter Grace. For much of her young life they are the most important thing in each other lives, indeed in her first year ‘Grace Stoner knew only her father’s touch, and his voice and his love’ and some of the happiest scenes in the book involve Stoner and his daughter together in his study, with Grace sat at her specially made desk. But as a consequence of his failing marriage Grace is turned against Stoner and they become strangers to each other. This is not to say that the novel is relentless misery, there are moments of happiness and joy in Stoner’s life, but most of the important things that happen to Stoner, finding love, his relationship with his daughter, his career to an extent, end in failure.

Although Stoner’s life reads as a series of frustrating obstacles, setbacks and disappointments, I never found myself pitying him at any point in the novel. I felt frustration and sadness for how his life had turned out but Stoner never becomes, for me at least, a pity figure due to his complete dedication and passion for his work and his unwavering belief in its value and merit. And I think this is the main ‘message’ at the heart of the book. Although life may not reach the dizzying expectations of your youth, it’s important to set aside the disillusionment and setbacks and make the most of the cards that you’ve been dealt.

Stoner-HardbackEasily one of the most moving and poignant books I have read, Stoner comes highly recommended but you will, however, almost certainly find yourself keenly feeling every disappointment and frustration of Stoners life along the way. There are no great moments of dramatic despair in Stoner, it’s the quiet and ordinary sadness of everyday life that makes the novel so moving.

Due to the recent re-release and having being made Waterstones book of the year there are various editions of the book available. I was lucky enough to be given the hardback cloth special edition and it now sits snugly in what I like to call my ‘classic American Literature section’ pictured above. (I do work in a library, don’t judge me too harshly) If you are thinking of buying the book I would definitely recommend shipping out the extra couple of quid for the cloth edition!

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Top Five Coming of Age Novels

5. Zoology – Ben Dolnickimps_Zoology

Set predominantly in Central Park Zoo, Dolnick’s Zoology is about a college drop out who leaves his small hometown (and girlfriend) behind with dreams of becoming a jazz musician in New York City. However, although Henry leaves with high hopes of finding meaning, love and a career in jazz he instead finds employment in a zoo, a goat and even more confusion.

Zoology, laden with a fair amount of angst and neuroticism, may not find many fans outside of a certain adolescent demographic, but as with any good coming of age tale there are aspects here that most readers will be able to relate to. Unrequited love, hopeless optimism, a search for purpose, all the hallmarks of a growing up story are here and are covered by Dolnick in an understated way through an interesting and fleshed out array of characters and animals.

Chief among these is the goat Newman who is undoubtedly the star of the novel and the most appealing and charming aspect of the novel. Newman the goat wonder provides some of the books most memorable moments and plays a pivotal role in the neurotic Henry’s gradual self discovery – this hairy, smelly creature becomes more of a valuable friend for Henry than any of the flawed and self involved humans he encounters. Part of the reason why Newman is such a great character is because of the tender and affectionate manner in which Dolnick describes him, to the point where I found myself often rooting more for the goat than Henry.

With well written believable characters (both human and otherwise) and an interesting zoo back drop rich in meaning and metaphor, Zoology is  an entertaining, witty and highly relatable first novel of growing up in the big apple.

4. Black Swan Green – David Mitchell blackswangreen

Compared to Mitchell’s other works involving complex plots and intertwining narratives, Black Swan Green is a comparatively straightforward and deceptively simple story told in thirteen episodic chapters from the perspective of a stuttering small town British teenager, making this an easier, but no less rewarding read than his other more difficult books.

Charting a time period of just over a year in the life of Jason Taylor, themes such as bullying, friendship, schoolyard status and girls are explored through Jason’s honest and conversational observations that really help the narrative come alive.

One of the opening and most memorable passages of Black Swan Green depicts a game of British Bulldogs – a physical, often borderline violent, game of group tag that I can vividly remember playing in primary school. For someone growing up trying to fit in, be liked or accepted, group games such as this take on an almost profound level of importance and Mitchell conveys this well through Jason’s observations during the game that give a vivid sense of the social dynamics involved for a 13-year-old boy, “Unimportant kids’ coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and to defend … Runners got captured and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs. It forces you to be a traitor.” And the fact that this a game of British Bulldogs on ice cleverly adds further to the sense of social and physical peril involved.

Black Swan Green is full of scenes such as this set in an array of familiar adolescent haunts such as the local park, the family dinner table, up trees, down the woods and at the school disco which can’t fail to invoke memories of your own early teenage years. When coupled with a highly likeable hero facing experiences and challenges that are universally identifiable for anyone who has been a teenager it all makes for an extremely good read.

Plus it is the first of two books in my top five set in the 80s – clearly the best decade to grow up in.

3. Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis49373

The least relatable of my top five for me personally but easily the most disturbing and shocking, Less Than Zero, referred to as ‘The Catcher of the Rye of the MTV generation’ when it was published in 1985, documents the return of an 18 year old student Clay to LA through a series of drug-fueled parties, indifferent sexual encounters and glamorous/seedy nightclubs.

More of a collection of short punchy stories than a novel, the narrative reflects Clay’s increasing alienation from his friends as their lifestyles and choices become ever more hedonistic and questionable. Upon first reading it might leave you feeling as hollow and empty as the LA kids depicted in the book, and whereas the other novels in this list offer more uplifting portrayals of youth, Less Than Zero offers a different angle on the coming of age novel in a powerful and thought-provoking way.

I recently watched Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Bling Ring’ at the cinema and I was struck by how much the privileged, self-obsessed and morally dubious gang reminded me of the characters depicted in Less Than Zero. Besides the obvious similarities of being set in LA amidst decadent partying and excess, both feature a ‘lost generation’ in which the characters seem to have no real connection to each other, showing no concern for their ‘friends’ as they fall off, or express doubts, about their hedonistic, destructive joy ride.   Both Elis and Coppola also take the same approach of refusing to either condone or criticise their characters actions and behaviour – it is left to us to draw our own conclusions. In this way both are presented as an honest, unflinching document of a youth culture gone mad, and Less Than Zero in particular manages to captures an air of reality that is pretty powerful stuff.

Whereas Cabon’s novel (see below) is full of hope and life, Less Than Zero is on the surface entirely devoid of feeling – a coming of age cocaine novel that explores the effects of youth that has had too much too young. It is almost thirty years old but the themes explored in Less Than Zero are still as relevant as ever.

9780812983586_p0_v1_s260x4202. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

I am unashamed to admit – but perhaps I should be -that I bought this book when I was 17 after seeing it feature as the prominent competent of Seth Cohen’s (of OC fame) ‘Starter Pack’. Despite this somewhat dubious course of recommendation (Seth Cohen was something of a cultural guru when I was a teenager) I’m glad that it found its way into my lap as it is a fun, thrilling and heart-wrenching  book that I have found myself re-reading again and again.

Brought together in Brooklyn by the circumstances of late 1930s Europe, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay combine their respective talents for art and storytelling to create the Nazi-busting comic superhero ‘The Escapist’. It’s from this point that Kavalier and Clay’s adventures unfold, with both characters facing their own personal challenges whilst simultaneously battling the forces of intolerance and oppression through their comics. Whereas most novels would be happy to cover just one adventure of a lifetime this book has a multitude, all linked by the novels ever-present theme of escape.

There are big themes here, tackled by characters that are still young and finding who they really are. The amazing ‘readability’ of Kavalier & Clay, however, is largely due to the writing prowess of Michael Chabon who is seemingly able to weave passage after passage of gripping narrative at ease keeping you hopelessly hooked throughout the 630 odd pages that will go by in a breeze.

Although the novel is a fair size, it really doesn’t feel like a long read as you are involved with the story from the get go and will find yourself constantly turning the page to find out where the adventure is heading next. And for me, this is exactly what Chabon’s book is, a thrilling page turning adventure story, but also one that speaks of hope and the dizzying potential of youth. Brimming with the stuff of life – love, friendship, war and art, and two fantastically memorable characters who grow up together through some of the most significant times in the 20th century ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay’ is a colossus coming of age epic and a must read.

3219839139_40b975a7571. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

As The Catcher in the Rye arguably inspired the entire ‘coming of age’ genre in fiction, it would be just plain foolish to put any other book at the top of a list like this. Salingers story about a day in the life of a young man’s break down in New York City has become the literary icon of adolescent angst and alienation.

Over 60 years since its publication the book still manages to capture what it is like to be a teenager for generation after generation. This success is largely derived from the markedly relatable and complex protagonist Holden Caulfield, a seemingly timeless anti-hero in a red hunting hat. As he struggles with feelings of disaffection and isolation alone in New York, the reader is provided with insights into human nature that have inspired entire generations of would be writers and equally as many questionable tattoos. But I guess there is no better testament of a books iconic statue than mobs of people being moved enough to get ‘”Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”‘ or ‘”Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row”‘ inked on their skin forever. (A quick google search will demonstrate what I mean!)

Although, when I was growing up it was Houlden’s descriptions and thoughts on women and relationships that resonated with me the most. “If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late? Nobody.”

The Catcher in the Rye is also one of the few modern American classic’s not to be adapted into a film, adding further to its mystique, although Marlon Brando, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DeCaprio have apparently all tried and failed. I may be in the minority, but I think a film adaptation, if done well, would be awesome, potentially opening up this great novel to a whole new generation of readers, in a similar vein to what happened recently with the resurged interest in The Great Gatsby.

The Catcher in the Rye, with its iconic central character and endlessly quotable conversational narrative is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the defining coming of age novel.

 

Author Focus – Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson69123463.R39ZinaC.CraigThompson

I first discovered Craig Thompson during a lunch break visit to Waterstone’s. I was 18 at the time, speculatively browsing the ‘graphic novel’ section of the store. Amongst the usual super hero fare and shelves of manga, Thompson’s ‘Blanket’s’, with its light blue cover featuring a beautifully drawn winter scene, immediately stuck out amongst the overwhelmingly predominant use of the colour black on the rest of the nearby shelves.
That evening I feverishly worked through all 592 intricately drawn pages in one sitting and have been a fan ever since.

What immediately drew me to Thompson’s work was the way in which he uses his gorgeously rendered and expressive drawings to enhance his often achingly beautiful stories. In my opinion, it’s this added visual experience that makes graphic novels such an effective and unique medium for storytelling. And whilst other graphic novelists, such as Jeffery Brown and Charles Burns, use a more simplistic or cartoonish approach in their works with great results, it’s Thompson’s obvious skill as an artist, and his generally more emotive subject matter that makes him such a firm favourite with me. (And for many more besides!)

For anyone who hasn’t read graphic novels before and is interested in dipping their toes, Craig Thompson’s books are a great, accessible place to start. Personally, Thompson acted as a ‘gateway author’ to other less well-known graphic novelists, such as Chris Ware and Joe Sacco, and increased my awareness and appreciation of the medium as a whole. Hopefully the following brief synopses will give a good idea of where to start and what to expect.

chunkysurfGOOD-BYE, CHUNKY RICE (1999)

Thompson’s first published graphic novel explores the heartache and loneliness of saying goodbye through a sweet and touching story of a turtle who is leaving his hometown and best friend behind. Set in a sleepy seaside town anyone who has experienced loss or separation from a friend will be able to relate to the themes lovingly covered in this poignant book. There are, however, also lots of moments of genuine humor and joy throughout, chiefly provided by my personal favourite characters the beanie wearing seafarer Solomon and his pet bird Merle, who provide some of the most humorous scenes of the book – as well as the most heart rendering. Although now readily available through Amazon, at the time I had to wait over a month for my copy to be imported from the US, but it was thoroughly worth the wait. With a breezy pace and significantly shorter than his other works, this might be the perfect choice for Thompson first timers.

BLANKETS (2003)Blankets+3

Set in the rural Wisconsin of Thompson’s youth, Blankets is an autobiographical story of growing up, struggling with faith and falling in love for the first time. My personal favourite (probably more for sentimental reasons than anything else I admit) Blankets depicts the pain, joy and confusion of growing up in such an honest and beautiful way that you find yourself remembering your own experiences of becoming an adult. Although there are great subplots such as Thompson’s struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and his relationship with his brother that add depth and emotional appeal, it is above all else a first love story between Craig and Raina. And it is the exchanges between these two, set against wintry forests and grunge poster laden bedrooms that provide the most memorably bittersweet, heartwarming and ultimately relatable moments in the book.

HABIBI (2011) habibi_016_hi_res_1326979619_crop_550x498

Easily Thompson’s most ambitious and technically accomplished work, Habibi, based on a Middle Eastern fable, explores the developing relationship of an escaped slave and abandoned baby who live together in isolation in the desert before being separated leading them onto very different but ultimately entwined paths. The epic and complex nature of the storyline is reinforced by dazzlingly ambitious and impressive artwork throughout, featuring cityscapes, palaces, painstakingly intricate patterns and colossal scenes of human waste. In a time of well-documented racial and religious tension, Habibi skillfully reminds the reader of the deep connections between Christianity and Islam and in my opinion provides a welcome positive portrayal of Islamic culture.

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Vastly cinematic in its scope both visually and thematically, Habibi doesn’t shy away from tackling big issues such as our treatment of the environment, the relationship between the 1st and 3rd world and the shared origins of Islam and Christianity. But ultimately, like Blankets before it, at its heart it is fundamentally a love story between Dodola and Zam and it’s their compelling relationship that will keep making you want to read it again and again. I’ve enjoyed rereading Habibi many times, and there is always something new to discover in this impressively executed epic. Highly recommended.

Other works I haven’t mentioned include Thompson’s travel journal Carnet de Voyage which documents his travels through Europe and Morocco, featuring stunning sketches and drawings as well as more light-hearted and humorous subject matter of which a great review can be found here. And info on an upcoming release ‘Space Dumplings’ slated for 2014 can be found on Thompson’s personal blog.

vsco_0And finally another plus is that his works just look great on the bookcase. The special edition hardback copies of ‘Habibi’ and ‘Blankets’, which were purposely designed to fit snugly side by side, are books that I am particularity proud to own and display on my shelf, and the quality and attention to detail of these editions in particular make them a real pleasure to read.

I was lucky enough to meet Craig last year at a signing for the release of ‘Habibi’ and having lugged my collection across London I was over the moon to have them all signed. (Including a personal illustration inside my copy of Blanket’s.) Even with a long and expectant que that snaked downstairs, Craig was incredibly friendly and chatty and having answered my questions about his upcoming projects he went on to tell me about his tourist plans in London. A thoroughly top bloke all around! Who says you should never meet you idols? (See below for a cheesy photo of me looking very chuffed.)

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For fans of: Joe Sacco, Daniel Clowes, alternative comics and anyone who enjoys good ol’ coming of age stories combined with visual feasts.

More info:  Check out Craig’s regularly updated blog at: www.craigthompsonbooks.com for interesting insights into his working process and great one-off illustrations.

All featured artwork in this post by Craig Thompson.

Recent Read #1 – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

ImageThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Cats, jazz music, food preparation – a few chapters in and fans of Haruki Murakami will already feel in familiar territory, but to the first time reader you may feel yourself being drawn in by a deceptively normal world. Toru Okada seems like a just another normal guy who likes reading, music and the occasional beer. But after leaving his job, losing his cat and losing the feeling of closeness with his wife we begin to wonder whether Okada is also losing his mind.

Through a succession of stories, letters, memories and dreams from a wide cast of intriguing characters we are taken by Okada on a bizarre and surreal journey that poses more questions about than it answers.  Violent and brutal in parts, yet touching and amusing in others The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is hard to define. Historical novel, science fiction, a tale of self-discovery, all these elements are there and work together to make what is ultimately an exciting and perplexing read.

Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down, and as you can tell from the photograph below, my copy took a particularity hard beating. (An incident involving an exploding coke bottle in my bag was almost fatal; luckily paperbacks are apparently quite absorbent.) Whether I was walking back from work, on my lunch or on a bus I found myself easily delving into Murikami’s weird dense world of dreams, multiple realities and bent tailed cats.

I believe the main strength of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the characters. There is a fantastic cast of interesting and believable characters all with their own quirks, complexities and stories to tell. From mysterious and alluring women, to regret filled WW2 veterans, and from a rebellious stay at home teen to the slimy and socially inept Ushikawa, there is a mesmerizingly varied cast of characters that keep you absorbed and turning the pages. All of the characters leave you with a sense that all is not as it seems contributing further to the surreal feel of the book. With a few possible exceptions there are no real villains or heroes in the book, all have good traits and all have flickers of darkness. Which makes them all the more believable amongst all the surreal happenings and strangeness.

photo-1There are motifs, themes and ideas that Murakami continually comes back to again and again throughout his novels. Every fan seems to have their favourite, (cats more often than not) but for me, his attention to detail when describing how his characters are dressed is one that always absorbs my interest, especially in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Murakami is an author who understands the aesthetic value of clothes and often goes into great detail about the specifics of what his characters are wearing, from the ordinary (increasingly scruffy tennis shoes) to the extra-ordinary or bizarre (red vinyl hats). Descriptions of what characters are wearing are nothing new or remarkable of course, but Murakami, more than most, seems to suggest that what we choose to wear can often be an important and telling insight into our character or mindset on any given day. The impeccably dressed ‘Cinnamon’ and his fashion designer mother ‘Nutmeg’ for example, are always outwardly pristine and perfectly well put together, but together they are two of the most intriguing and mysterious characters in the novel. What this tells us about their character, and whether these appearances are deceptive or not is left to us to guess as Murikami gradually drip feeds details and information that helps unpick the mystery.

Ultimately it is these layers of mystery, reality and unreality that what make this book such an absorbing and involving read. Even as Okada performs the most normal of tasks such as cooking dinner or feeding his cat, a sense of the unreal pervades throughout the book.  A seemingly normal every day guy ends up taking us on a bizarre journey that tackles such themes as loss, death, obsession, power and war, with us never quite really knowing for sure what is reality and what isn’t. With this in mind I wouldn’t say it’s a novel that lends itself to causal reading in short spread out bursts, if you’re going to descend down Murakami’s strange well, you need to go all the way down.

For Fans of: David Mitchell, Charles Bukowski, Ryu Murikami, Cats.

Worth a hoot?: Definitely recommended.

Will you be giving The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a read? What was your favourite aspect of the book? Is there any authors I should know about that have been glaringly left out of the “For Fans of” section?