Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

It’s easy to believe we get to read, to hear and to see the very best, that only the skimmed off brilliance is left as the cultural entails sink into oblivion. But you only have to look back at history and then around you at the piles of candy-floss coloured novels stacked on supermarket shelves to know that talent doesn’t always win out. Luck and circumstances have as much an impact on so many cultural success stories as talent – too often the book, the song, the painting just don’t chime with the zeitgeist.

Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965 to a reaction that hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. A tutor in literature and the craft of writing at the University of Denver, Stoner was Williams’ third novel (he also had a book of poetry published in 1949). Stoner may or may not have won the hearts of the critics in his own time, but it certainly didn’t capture the imagination  of his contemporaries or storm the New York Times book chart and the novel slipped into the great book perjury in the sky only to be resurrected by Ian McEwan who name checked it in a Radio 4 show earlier this year, describing it as a “beautiful novel… a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature”. As one of the literary world’s few superstars, McEwan’s rapturous praise got his fans and the larger publishing world very excited, and the book was republished by Vintage weeks later to ride this belated enthusiasm.

The book is about the life of a man named William Stoner, the son of a farmer who discovers Shakespeare during supplementary studies in literature taught by the enigmatic Archer Sloane while reading agriculture at the University of Columbia. Stoner’s slow understanding of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) changes his life forever, as he is finally brought to life by literature, admittedly in his own unassuming way.

Stoner’s new found thirst for literature leads him from student to teacher at the same university, where he attempts to pass on his own love and enthusiasm for the subject to non-plussed adolescents. When he doesn’t have his nose in a book, he gets married to the wrong woman, has a daughter, an affair and a career-damaging fallout with another university lecturer. And, that’s pretty much it.

Although, it’s so much more than that. This man’s quiet life is taken to new heights by the beauty of Williams’ writing and his understanding of the human condition. He’s able to fill the pages with waves of emotion and so much heart while saying very little. There’s a terrible sadness that runs through Stoner, the novel and Stoner the man, that is truly heartbreaking in its ordinariness. It’s easy to see why McEwan is a fan, there’s the same sparseness and economy of words that evoke a world more fully than many who try much harder; a coldness and detachment that creates so much heat and emotion. 

If there’s a fault with Stoner, it lies with the depiction of his wife Edith, a battle axe of the kind we’ve seen so many times before – running round the house with a metaphorical rolling pin, ruining her poor husband’s life. I was uneasy with her, and didn’t know whether I was meant to read her as a pinafored-tyrant, or, as I choose to view her, as a victim of her era, her sex and her class. She is as much a pawn in this game of life as Stoner is, more so in fact – as a man he holds enough power to stamp on Edith’s dreams, to whisk her off into matrimonial hell just as she was due to embark on a tour of Europe with her aunt. To me, Edith was clearly suffering from depression that grew worse after the birth of their daughter, the unfortunate Grace who didn’t stand a chance between her mentally ill mother and her mute, emotionally detached father. They are none of them winners. 

Stoner is a flawed man, an unexciting man, but one whose story is as thrilling as James Bond’s thanks to Williams’ perfect prose. McEwan was absolutely right to describe it as a “marvellous discovery” for people who love reading; if books make up the fabric of who you are, it’s such a treat to see that same experience recreated in novels. To be reading about the joys of reading is like some kind of meta-warm word bath. 

 by Suzanne Elliott

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Book review: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a book I hold dear. It’s a brilliantly crafted, hugely evocative and superbly plotted novel that’s taunt, thrilling, sad and thought-provoking. It’s a book I often think about and frequently recommend to people.

Despite my love of The Poisonwood Bible, I never felt the urge to read The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s Orange Prize winning novel, but my interest in her was sparked again when her latest, Flight Behaviour, was shortlisted for the same, although now differently named, prize.

Where The Poisonwood Bible was tight, gripping and powerful, Flight Behaviour is slack, rambling and, at times, frankly, dull. There are flashes of Kingsolver’s brilliance that would have shone so much brighter if the deadwood around it had been pruned; I read the novel with an imaginary red marker pen, mentally crossing out all those erroneous words, paragraphs, even chapters.

Ostensibly, Flight Behaviour is about climate change, a huge subject so far largely avoided by novelist. On the evidence of Flight Behaviour it’s not surprising. Kingsolver struggles to grapple with the subject while also balancing characterisation and a plot. The result is like holding onto a balloon during a hurricane, she can’t keep hold of the structure or characters as they repeatedly blow off course.

Kingsolver shouldn’t have been afraid of her subject. The climate change scenes, particularly those featuring sexy scientist Ovid Bryon as a mouthpiece and Kingsolver’s working class protagonist Dellarobia as translator, are by far the most fascinating. They are meticulously researched and well handled, as they are fed back to the reader in easy to understand, but never patronising ways.

But the characters, in particular Dellarobia, the teenage bride with a brain bigger than her ambitions, rather make a nuisance of themselves.

The novel opens with Dellarobia witnessing what she takes to be a ‘ball of flame’ as she attempts to escape her dreary life in pursuit of a handsome bit on the side. The phenomenon sends her back to her to drudgery – her dumb husband and two demanding children – but the ‘ball of flame’, which turns out to be thousands of lost and confused monarch butterflies, changes her life in a far more dramatic way. The butterflies presenence in Dellarobia’s back garden puts her in the media spotlight, while her own life is put under the microscope along with the countless dead insects. Dellarobia and the butterflies must both reboot their internal sat navs and find a new course.   

Dellarobia is Kingsolver’s weak spot. She’s a bright, ambitious woman (we’re told) who was born into a poor family in a deprived rural area. She was hit hard by bad luck – her parents died, she got pregnant, was forced to marry the father (sofa-bound Cub, who she’s still married to), the baby died. Now she has two children by Cub and a god-bothering mother-in-law with the emotional depth of a puddle.

Kingsolver has rightly identified that the working class are largely ignored, chastised or mocked in the climate change debate. In Kingsolver’s Tennessee rural community, God is responsible for weather patterns and strange butterfly phenomenons. Poor farmers, whose crops have been wrecked by unseasonal weather, haven’t been taught by those that have the power to educate (the media come in for a lot of blame in Flight Behaviour for their irresponsible attitude towards climate change and the poor) that selling their forests to pay their immediate bills will only exacerbate their problems as well as the world’s.

It’s a commendable approach, and Kingsolver makes some very valid points, best summed up by Dellarobia when she’s asked by one of the environmentalists that land on their doorstep about her carbon footprint. It’s tiny; she buys all her clothes second-hand, doesn’t own a computer, has never flown. But Kingsolver never feels comfortable writing about the poor rural community and she frequently trips over herself in a bid not to offend which leads to a good many contradictions and some rambling, unnecessary chapters where I felt repeatedly hit over the head with Valid Points.

Dellarobia is a confusing and muddled character. There’s a huge disparity between what we’re shown of her character and how she’s described by others, a fault that runs through the novel as a whole – there is far too much telling, and not enough showing. As a reader I hate being force-fed characters, I want them to take take shape in front of my eyes not be bossed into being told what they’re like. When Dellarobia gives up smoking, her mother-in-low, Hester, comments that she knew she would as Dellarobia always succeeds when she puts her mind to it. Does she? Because all I can see is a woman who married a man she didn’t love and has been content to keep house for him and his children for the past decade while complaining about it and getting through by having crushes on inappropriate men.

Kingsolver has real power in her writing and has proven she’s capable of true literary brilliance There felt that there was a great novel waiting to hatch from Flight Behaviour, but it was washed away by an over-elaborate plot that was rushed, confused and unfocused.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Henry VI, Part 1 Shakespeare's Globe

Graham Butler as Henry VI in Henry VI, Part 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe

Henry VI, Part 1 is according to, ahem, Wikipedia, considered by those that know, to be Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play. Of course, these things are relative. When you’re a genius, your worst tends to still be rather good. Shakespeare wrote 1, Henry VI in collaboration with Thomas Nashe (again, thanks Wiki) and despite its lack of poetry and some rather clunky rhyming couplets (exaggerated for comic effect at one point by Nigel Hastings as a hugely entertaining Duke of Burgundy when he highlights the awkwardness of the line, ‘Who craves a parley with the Burgundy’, we’ll blame Thomas for that one), it still beats an episode of EastEnders.

What it lacks in finesse, Henry VI, Part 1, the first part of an unofficial trilogy, makes up for with some kickass characters and some significant historical ground zeros. Unfortunately, the first of the big names arrives in a coffin as the play begins with the funeral of scourge of the French, Henry V. One of the many great things about Shakespeare’s Globe is its intimacy, especially for the groundlings who often find ourselves standing face-to-face with a distraught Talbot or shuffling out of the way of a soldier brandishing a plastic sword. This production opens with Henry’s funeral procession that walks slowly through the crowd as Mary Doherty as Queen Margaret, sings a haunting melody. It’s hugely affecting, you are as much a mourner as an audience member as we make way for the black coffin. The fall of the great king and the consequences of his early death are reflected in the youth and bewilderment of his son (play with a touching vulnerability by Graham Butler) who follows the coffin onto the stage and spends most of the first half reading a book, his chin wobbling in fear as his father’s legacy unravels in front of his innocent eyes.

There are more lively famous people from history stealing Harry 6’s thunder including car park internee Richard III’s father, Richard Plantagenet, who later becomes Duke of York played by Brendan O’Hea who was leek fan Fluellen in last year’s Globe’s Henry V and still retains that hint of engaging campness. Then there’s Joan of Arc, who starts off as lowly shepherd girl Joan La Pucelle and appears to be from Yorkshire played with vigour by Beatriz Romilly. Plus you get all the stuff about the beginning of the War of the Roses, which, according to Shakespeare took place around a rose bush where everyone tried to out-rose-pun each other.

Nick Bagnall’s production shares the same relaxed openness, easy charm and accessibility that have become characteristic of Globe productions. It’s a venue where despite the faux-Elizabethan architecture, minimal scenery and historically-appropriate costumes, Shakespeare feels more contemporary than many modern day versions of the Bard’s plays and one that can take his ‘worst’ play and conjure up a gripping, funny, poignant piece of theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott