Tag Archives: Stoner

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time: housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

Six Degrees of Separation – from Shopgirl to Shotgun Lovesongs #6Degrees

I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.

Cover montage

This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening  gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.

Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.

Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.

First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.

Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.

So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.

Five Days in Hamburg and a few books

SpeicherstadtGiven my ‘bah humbug’ attitude to Christmas it may seem a bit odd to fly off to the country which pretty well invented many of the UK’s most beloved festive bits and bobs: markets, fairy-lit trees and mulled wine come to mind. Hamburg might seem an even stranger choice – hardly top of most tourists’ lists – but four years ago, just before our first Berlin Christmas, Al Murray – aka The Pub Landlord – spent some time exploring the country lampooned by his xenophobic alter ego in a two-part documentary. Hamburg was one of the cities he visited, waxing lyrical about the beautifully ornamented red brick Speicherstadt – the city of warehouses. It stayed in my memory and that, together with the fact that we could fly from Bristol rather than tangling with Heathrow and all its misery, is the reason we spent this Christmas in Hamburg.

It’s an interesting city, proud of its place at the heart of the Hanseatic League which lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries and stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea. The striking Rathaus harks back to that time with its fine Gothic clock and statuary. It’s also very much a working city proud of its industry. Upscale apartments in London’s Docklands look out at the City, stuffed with bankers and brokers, while the equivalent Hamburg apartment view is a port teeming with container ships. There’s lots to see besides wandering around Speicherstadt – we went to a very fine arts and crafts museum and had Kaiserschmarrnseveral lovely walks in the many parks around the city – but probably only enough for four rather than five days although H’s horrible end-of-term cold meant that we needed the full five to do it justice. We ended the holiday with an excellent lunch at a bustling city café topped off with a plate of kaisershmarrn, no finer way to end a winter break.

As for books, I finally got around to two I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The first was Herman Koch’s The Dinner which put me in mind of The Slap with its cast of particularly nasty characters. Its premise is the extent to which the wealthy privileged will stretch the bounds of morality  to protect their children regardless of the horrendous crimes they may have committed, and it’s a good one but giving the narrator a mental illness, gradually revealed during the dinner, possibly inherited by his son seemed to me to be a cop-out. The second book was John Williams’ Stoner which was everything The Dinner wasn’t: subtle, understated and poignant – a beautiful book, fully deserving of its word-of-mouth success a year or so ago. Sadly, my holiday reading ended on a sour note. Having saved Jennifer Close’s The Smart One for the plane home I found that I’d already read it – not the ditsy middle-aged mistake that I’m perfectly capable of making these days. It turns out that the hardback edition was published under a different title – Things We Need – which I reviewed here last year. Pah! Seems like pulling a fast one to me.

I hope you all had an enjoyable break, unspoiled by coughs, colds and travel mayhem, and that your New Year’s Eve will be a good one.