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‘Negroland: A Memoir’ by Margo Jefferson ***

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography following its publication in 2015.  In this, her second book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson has set out to explore the idea of “Negroland”, which she defines as ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The book’s blurb calls Negroland ‘at once incendiary and icy, celebratory and elegiac – here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, class and American culture old through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education.’

9781783783021Jefferson sees herself as a ‘chronicler’ of “Negroland”, ‘a participant – observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.’  Of her choice to invent the term “Negroland”, she writes: ‘I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.  A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts.  A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates.’  She later comments: ‘”Negro” is the magic word, the spell.  The small grow large, the mundane turns exceptional, and the individual becomes cosmic.’

In his review, Hilton Als writes: ‘Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.’  Aminatta Forna comments: ‘It would be too easy to call Negroland a groundbreaking work and yet this is exactly what it is.  In her descriptions of a life lived on the nexus of race and class Margo Jefferson tells a tale of how people create, defy and survive systems of exclusion and inclusion, of the human toll that must be exacted.’  Eula Biss believes that Negroland provides ‘… the record of a powerful mind grappling with all the trouble of being awake.’

Jefferson herself grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, to a doctor father and well-educated, ‘fashionable socialite’ mother, who opted to stay at home and look after her two daughters.  She is concerned throughout about the way in which others perceived her upbringing and her family’s societal position.  She comments: ‘Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it.  Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.’

Negroland was a real step away for me from the usual non-fiction which I consume.  I have read rather a few memoirs of late which have been set in the United States, but these have dealt almost exclusively with the stark realities of poverty and racism, and the disadvantages which the lower classes often have.  I found it fascinating, therefore, to be given a completely different view of American society, of the upper-class black community who lived in wealthy parts of Chicago.

Jefferson begins her memoir by discussing the perils and contradictions which one must face when writing about oneself: ‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself.  You bask in your own innocence.  You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles…  So let me turn back, subdue my individual self, and enter history.’  She goes on to address elements of black history specific to the United States, and moves on to write about racial stereotyping, general ignorance, media portrayals, and beauty regimens, amongst other themes.

Negroland is a memoir both personal and universal to those of the author’s class and race.  Jefferson sets her own memories, largely of childhood and her years as a young adult, against the wider political and social landscape of America at its ‘crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America’.  When she writes about historical occurrences, she does so using the present-tense.  This is something which I had not seen in a memoir before; there is usually such a distinction between past and present.

When Jefferson grew up, during a highly tumultuous period for black people in the United States, she reflects that children in “Negroland” ‘were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.’  She justifies the choices which she makes in this memoir not to reflect too much upon the present day, and instead focus upon the past, by writing: ‘… I belong to an earlier generation, that of the fifties and sixties: it’s us and our predecessors I want to write of.  Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know…  We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us – that we were better than most whites, period.  But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement.  Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows.  This is your birthright, says history.’

What I found fascinating, and incredibly sad, was the discussion about other black people Jefferson’s family knew, who felt more comfortable hiding themselves within society by posing as white people: ‘So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind.  Avocational passing was lighthearted.  Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants.  You came home snickering…’.  Also chilling is the space which Jefferson gives to discussing the prevalence of suicide attempts amongst black youths of her generation, and her revelation of her own contemplations of suicide.

Jefferson’s writing is elegant, and certainly has a journalistic flair to it.  She puts across such interesting perspectives, some of which I had never considered before.  Jefferson’s authorial voice is strong, and after I got used to the fragmented style which some of her sentences hold, I found myself pulled in.  At first, Negroland does not take the form of a linear narrative – rather, it is more playful – but the later sections which deal with elements of the author’s schooling have been presented chronologically.  The oft-broken structure has connecting themes within it, and the whole does come together relatively well.  Regardless that there is so much of importance within the book, I did not quite connect with it in the way that I’d hoped.  I felt as though there was a level of detachment within the book, due largely to the creativity which Jefferson employs.

So much has been considered in Negroland, and there is a lot for the reader to mull over long after the final page has been read.  I shall end this review with a most poignant question in Jefferson’s book: ‘What manner of man and woman are we?  Wherever we go we disrupt order.’

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‘The Early Stories of Truman Capote’ ****

I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up.  As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives.  It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’  They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’.  Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.

718oijyWWSLThe edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine.  He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood.  Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive.  Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation.  In both places there was his intractable queerness.  And the queerness of being a writer.’  He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’  Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.

The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included.  Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories.  Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’    For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.

The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair.  And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’  There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others.  Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.

The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be.  As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details.  In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’  Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones.  His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.

In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way.  He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters.  In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance.  He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’

The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading.  The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin.  It was a hot August day.  The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’  I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story.  Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof.  She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness.  With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’  Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home.  Dark came quickly on these winter days.  It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first.  There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’  There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it.  It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’

I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts.  Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this.  I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake.  The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over.  For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished.  There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors.  Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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Two Reviews

2017 might not have been my most productive reading year (in terms of pleasure reading at least), but I did manage to read some wonderful books that will remain with me for a good while. I will talk to you about two of them today, a Japanese “classic” crime novel and an American collection of short stories, both of which I immensely enjoyed and made my 2017 a bit more tolerable.

The Master Key by Togawa Masako **** 36396709

A very well-crafted and quirky mystery novel which hooked me from the very beginning. I really enjoyed how the different stories of each character all came together in the end and the mystery kept being unveiled until the very last page. All the characters were so unique and well-rounded and the story of each individual was also compelling on its own. It was definitely refreshing, a mystery very unlike the usual ones and definitely one which deserves everyone’s attention.

Although there was not a main detective in charge of solving the case and the structure of the novel is vastly different from similar Western crime novels of the time (this one was published in 1962 in Japanese), there is something about this mystery that strongly reminds me of Agatha Christie. I can’t say if Togawa is Christie’s Japanese equivalent, or even if such an assumption is fair, but I enjoyed reading The Master Key tremendously and I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks ****

35011288I usually am very cautious and shy away from books written by celebrities – no matter how much I like or admire the celebrity, more often than not the books they publish are yet another publicity stunt to make the number in their bank account even bigger. Needless to say I was taken aback when I heard Tom Hanks, one of my most respected actors, was releasing a short story collection.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit I truly enjoyed this collection. While not all stories were my cup of tea, and some felt rather dull or without a specific point (as it happens with most short story collections), the vast majority were stories that made me smile, brought tears to my eyes and offered me a wonderful experience. Tom Hanks is a truly gifted writer and I didn’t expect his prose to feel so natural and adeptly crafted.

The tone and voice of the stories were inherently American and the characters and plots felt like they jumped out of Tom Hanks’s most successful ’90s films. Although I’m not American, they managed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era well gone and for a certain innocence and naivete of people which is scarcely found today. I also enjoyed the fact that some characters were recurring in later stories, which made them feel even more realistic to the reader, as a different aspect of their lives or perspective was offered in each story they appeared. Overall, a wonderful collection of stories which made me wish there will be more to come.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? 🙂

Both books were provided to me by their respective publishers via NetGalley.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote

The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013.  (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.)  I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it.  I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.

The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed.  Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.

The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm.  Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD.  He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’.  The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value.  Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.

Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.

The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern.  Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last.  I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot.  McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero.  A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life.  I think he had a very good life.  He had a better life than most people do, certainly.  He was doing what he wanted to do…  His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…  It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.  And if you love something, you’re going to understand it.  And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.

Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known.  Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’.  He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.

I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters.  The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound.  The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.

Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it.  I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be.  I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.

Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  It is a decision which you will not regret.  Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.

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‘Rooms’ by Lauren Oliver ****

‘Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide – with cataclysmic results.’

 9781444760767
I adore books about old houses and secrets, as well as good ghost stories, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms was therefore quite an obvious choice for me to pick up. I’m so pleased that Oliver has made the transition, if a temporary one, to adult literature; the only other book of hers which I have read to date is Before I Fall, which I enjoyed, despite young adult literature not really being my thing.

I very much liked the structure within Rooms, revolving as it did around a series of different rooms in a grand old American house. Each character was followed in turn, and the way in which only the ‘ghosts’ of the house used first person perspectives gave a really interesting overview, which had quite a lot of depth to it. I would not personally term this a fantasy or paranormal novel; it is really rather human, and makes one think about the strength of history and family. Yes, there are ghosts, but there is an overriding sense of realism to the whole. The prose is both effective and poetic, and everything about it works.

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