Book review: Stoner by John Edward Williams

John Edward Williams

Stoner

Title: Stoner

Author: John Edward Williams

Publisher: Vintage. Random House

Publication date: 5th July 2012 (NB: first published in the UK, 1973 by Longman)

Why did I choose to read this book? According to Julian Barnes (who I love) this was the ‘must-read’ book of 2013. So after the madness had settled I decided to go rogue and read it at the beginning of 2014.

Where to read this book? Embrace your inner bookworm at the boutique Library Hotel located in the centre of New York. Enjoy reading Stoner in the rooftop writer’s den and poetry garden which in the evening transforms into Bookmarks Lounge, a unique bar offering literary inspired cocktails coupled with inspiring views of New York City.

Refreshments: Aside from the aforementioned literary cocktails? This isn’t really a book that inspires much in the way of eating, its depressing tone makes you want to hit the bottle my bottle happened to be rum accompanied by spicy ginger beer. Feel free to join.

Review

William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.

I feel a bit like the cheese stands alone writing this review because at the risk of being castigated from the literary, publishing and Julian Barnes appreciation society I just didn’t really get it. I thought it was written well, although I did find myself skimming pages at times, and the characters provoked a reaction but it just plain depressed and irritated the hell out of me – or was that the point?

Stoner, he has one main and many fleeting loves which in large part end in failure. His relationship with a graduate student provides brief respite only to be dashed into submission. However the central love running through the story is quite obviously that of literature. His future is cemented after attending a sophomore English literature class when his teacher diagnoses: “You are in love; it’s as simple as that.” His study turns into a life-long academic career achieving ups and downs but no true success beyond one published book. His aspirations are limited and his social behaviour is lacking, he is in a nutshell a vaguely depressing average Joe, and in a way a study in self-help not to end up like him.

Edith his wife, god give me strength she needs a slap (apologies) but she really is possibly the most irritating villain in literature. There’s no explanation for her bi-polar behaviour, I feel like if it was a Jane Austen novel she would be described as ‘delicate.’ She succeeds in making ‘willy’s’ and their daughter’s life a misery whereby they’re walking on egg shells resulting in a failed and frustrated family life.

Overall I didn’t really enjoy reading this book. It wasn’t a bad book it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I suppose a story describing a life of failure and of only fleeting happiness was never going to be a wholly fun experience but even the most stressful of subjects usually manages to engage my interest. Stoner was the unexpected bestseller and must-read of 2013 and now I’ve read it, like 2013, I can relegate it to the past and move on.

Rating: 5 out of 10

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Book review: ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey

Emma Healey

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Title: Elizabeth is Missing

Author: Emma Healey

Publisher: Viking, Penguin

Publication date: 5th June 2014 (advanced copy)

Paperback: 275 pages

Why did I chose to read this book? I was sent a bumper pack of advanced proofs from Penguin and this one caught my eye due to the unassuming front cover and the mysteriously questioning title

Where to read this book? In a comfortable chair at home safe and sound

Refreshments: Cups of tea and lots of toast with lashings of proper butter – sorry to come over all Malory Towers but that’s what you need to eat and drink whilst reading

Review:

‘The thing is to be systematic, try to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. But I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered.’ Maud cannot remember a lot of things it’s only thanks to her abundance of notes that she knows one thing for sure and that’s that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answers to an unsolved mystery one everyone else has forgotten about.

This story is a beautiful and sad reflection on the aging process and society’s reaction to the elderly. Septuagenarian, Maud is suffering from dementia the progress of which we follow through the pages of her story. The story is written in the first person from Maud’s point of view and it is interesting to get an insight into her thought processes and frustrations at not being able to remember. The detailed passages are at once heartwarming, especially when confronted with Maud’s defiance to boil an egg and eat bread whenever she wants, to infuriating. I found myself being unutterably angry when reading about the behaviors Maud encounters from people in her village, in particular those of her old colleagues at the Oxfam shop and the policeman openly laughing in her face over the subject of Elizabeth. After watching my own grandmother slowly become a prisoner of dementia the intolerance and lack of understanding reflected in the ‘youth of today’ between these pages stuck a personal nerve.

The issue of dementia is reflected in the dual narrative, split between Maud’s childhood and the disappearance of her sister and her present day life. As the book progresses the passages describing her childhood become longer in comparison to the present as Maud’s mind gets more entrenched in the past. This is a well-known effect of dementia that a person can remember clearly their past but not the people in their present, or how to carry out everyday tasks. As well as being a useful tool to explain Maud’s state of mind it also creates a full and effortlessly interwoven picture of her life.

The relationship that strikes the strongest emotional chord is that with her daughter Helen. It’s upsetting to bear witness to Maud’s dissent into the illness to the extent that she starts to lashes out at Helen due to her frustration only to immediately forget and see her daughter with a bruise or crying and reach out to comfort her. The full time job of looking after Maud is brutal in it’s honesty and it’s heartwarming to read Helen’s resilience and also her resistance to putting her mother into a home.

This is at once a beautiful and disturbing story of one woman’s battle with growing old and the memories of her childhood. I recommend reading this to everyone if only to serve as a lesson to be more tolerant to those who are starting to become slightly more forgetful.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: ‘Proof of Guilt’ by Charles Todd

Proof of Guilt

Title: Proof of Guilt: An Inspector Rutledge Mystery

Author(s): Mother & Son duo, Charles and Caroline Todd.

Publisher: William Morrow, Harper Collins Imprint

Publication date: 29th January 2013

Paperback: 352 pages

Where to read this book? With Blue Monday over and done with it’s time to book holidays, so take this book off to Portugal and read it in the sunshine (with the refreshments advised below).

Refreshments: To drink thanks to the topic of Portugal specifically Madeira, fortified wines are on the table and in the glass. To eat the only accompaniement I can think of and would want is cheese, and hard cheese at that!

Review:

It’s London, Summer 1920 and an unidentified body appears on a street in Chelsea apparently run over by a motorcar. Detective Ian Rutledge is leading the investigation to uncover what happened. A pocket watch leads Rutledge to a company built by two families, famous for producing and selling the world’s best Madeira wine. Lewis French, the current head of the English enterprise, is missing. But is he the dead man? And do either his fiancée or his jilted former lover have anything to do with his disappearance – or possible death? Is Matthew Traynor, French’s cousin and partner who heads the Madeira office, somehow involved – but then he’s missing too? When Rutledge discovers a link to an incident in the French family’s past, the superintendent dismisses it, claiming the information isn’t vital. Acting alone Rutledge must tread very carefully, for someone has decided that he, too, must die so that cruel justice can take its course.

This is one of the first detective stories I’ve read in a while and the historical backdrop of post-WW1 London filled me with confidence that it would deliver. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. The story wanders erratically through multiple generations of French & Traynors, characters flash by, story lines started and are left unfinished, relationships unexplained, resulting in a detective running rampant around the south of England, presumably with his own supply of petrol on tap and the fastest car known to mankind.

One of the major irritants of this story is the Rutledge’s ghostly sidekick Hamish. A soldier he was forced to order to be shot for disobedience, he resides in Rutledge’s head and is a constant source of advice. Unfortunately Hamish is also given a dialect. Although this additional character serves to reflect post-WW1 trauma and the difficulties faced transferring from the front lines back into civilian life the theme isn’t developed enough and generally is superfluous to requirements.

Another character that is deeply flawed for no discernable reason is Rutledge’s new boss at Scotland Yard, a Yorkshire man, a comment often cited one can guess to reflect geological stereotypes. He has risen to the dizzy heights in the police force only to be written into presuming the guilty is a woman who is vaguely associated with the firm based on the evidence of handkerchief.

The ending to make matters even worse is hurried and slapdash, one of the key bodies in the whole melodrama is missing and never found, alas it isn’t even mentioned that the person is question is even dead or alive. The evidence doesn’t make sense, the story never builds any sense of urgency and the resolution in the last few pages is frustratingly vague.

Rating: 3 out of 10

One to watch: ‘The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

The Illusionists 2The Illusionists

Author: Rosie Thomas

Rosie is an author of over 20 novels, most recently including the award-winning Iris and Ruby and The Kashmir Shawl which was published in paperback in 2012 to great critical acclaim.

Title: The Illusionists

London in the 1870’s is a scary place for a young and beautiful woman of limited means. Life on the streets is relentlessly tough, where fortunes can be bought or sold and danger lurks around every corner. But Eliza is modern before her time. Not for her the stifling drudgery of conventional life, she longs for more. Through her work as an artist’s model she meets the spellbinding Devil Wix – a born showman whose dream is to run his own theater company.

Carlo Boldoni, an ill-tempered dwarf who quickly becomes Devil’s right-hand man. Carlo and Devil clash at every opportunity but it falls upon Eliza to broker an easy peace between them. And there is Jasper Button. Mild-mannered, and a family man at heart, it is his gift as an artist which makes him the unlikely final member of the motley crew.

Thrown together by a twist of fate, their lives are inextricably linked: the fortune of one depends on the fortune of the other. As Eliza gets sucked into the seductive and dangerous world her strange companions inhabit, she risks not only her heart, but also her life…

Publication Date: 27th February

Publishers: Harper Collins

Watch the beautiful exclusive video trailer to promote the upcoming publication release of ‘The Illusionists’ by Rose Thomas. Original ideas and scripts by George Theo at VirtuAD, directed by Luke Powell at Luke Powell Films. The main scenes were filmed in the stunningly atmospheric theater of Wilton’s Music Hall with close-ups filmed at Holborn Studios in Shoreditch.

Praise for Rose Thomas:

Rosie Thomas writes with beautiful, effortless prose, and shows a rare compassion and a real understanding of the nature of loveThe Times

‘A master storyteller’ Cosmopolitan

Thomas’s novels are beautifully written. This one is a treat’ Marie Claire

This book sounds slightly similar to ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern which is still one of the my favourite books of all. The Illusionists fills me with the same anticipation to read due to the exciting balance between magic and the dark and haunting beauty of Victorian London. Rosie Thomas’s latest novel is definitely on the reading list and will be reviewed here on The Friendly Shelf very soon!

Book Review: ‘All my Friends are Superheroes’ by Andrew Kaufman

All My Friends are superheroes

Title: All my friends are superheroes

Author: Andrew Kaufman

Publisher: Telegram Books

Publication Date: February2006

Paperback: 108 pages

Why did I chose to read this book? Quite simply the title and the front cover’s photo – both are genius.

Where to read this book? It’s a quick and quirky book to read (took me about 2hrs) so if you can I would certainly head down to the utterly unique ‘Magic Garden Bar’ one Sunday lunch time in Battersea and if it’s not too cold get comfy in their wonderful outdoor area.

Refreshments? If you have managed to find the Magic Garden bar indulge in one of their homemade scotch eggs. If not then purchase yourself a scotch egg selection box or go for other snack items like hummus and pitta or cheese and biscuits. To drink, cups of tea.

Which ‘Kaufman’ superhero am I? I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not but I think I’m 50% The Battery and 50% The Seeker.

Review

‘Boil down your personality and abilities into a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.’

Tom is a regular, all his friends are superheroes including his new wife The Perfectionist. Unfortunately for him, on their wedding day, her ex-boyfriend ‘Hypno’ turned Tom invisible to her. Fast forward 6 months and The Perfectionist believes that Tom has abandoned her, so she’s bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver. Using her superpower she will create the perfect new life away from all the hurt and misery. Boarding the plane she has no idea that Tom is sat right beside her, willing her to see him, he has until they land to convince her he never left or he will loose her forever.

I am not a fan of comic book superheroes they’re predictable and wear too much spandex. However, Kaufman has created the perfect troupe of superheroes ranging from ‘The Couch Surfer’, who always manages to have a packet of cigarettes, to ‘The Stress Bunny’ who absorbs everyone’s stress and is therefore invited to all the parties. The genius behind these characters is that you’ll see yourself, your friends, colleagues and family reflected in each one. I believe I am the product of a three-way between ‘The Battery,’ The Opportunist’ and ‘The Seeker.’

One of the most visual scenes is that of dealing with Tom’s heartbreak of becoming invisible to The Perfectionist. By portraying it as an actual surgical procedure to cure, ‘ Ambrose snapped a rubber glove on his right hand. He put one finger up Tom’s anus…Tom felt a pop in his chest… his chest had released, come open like the hood of a car.’ The doctor then rummages around until he has released all the shadows of girlfriends passed. Unfortunately this procedure isn’t available on the NHS, however, Kaufman has poignantly portrayed that we carry baggage around and for the majority of the time we just need to let it go.

There’s a lot of life lessons sneakily hidden within the pages which are beautifully positive and straight talking which will brighten up your day. Take for instance, ‘The Businessman,’ he can see into everyone’s bank accounts by just looking at them only to conclude, ‘there is only one amount of money – just not enough,’ therefore, just get on with it and enjoy yourself instead of being like ‘Someday.’ There’s another one concerning the future, but I’ll leave you to discover that one for yourself. Throughout the story, I found myself smiling to myself (and chuckling) on the London underground not something to be undertaken lightly.

This might not be everyone’s cup of tea but the witty and whimsical, almost childlike nature of this love story I found utterly enjoyable and something that I will pick up again and again. Roll on my purchase of ‘The Waterproof Bible,’ dropping through the letterbox.

Rating: 9 out of 10