Tag Archives: Fiction

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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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?