Tag Archives: American

Stoner – John Williams: a review

stoner - john williamsA couple of months ago, I opened a tote from our supplier and, mixed in with all of the familiar titles, was a Vintage classic I’d never seen before. Reading the title, my first assumption was that it was a biography of some feckless marijuana addict. After a quick glance at the blurb, I realised that it was an old American novel about the life of a college professor in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Oh.” I thought and promptly shelved it.

I forgot about it, categorising it in my head as a stuffy relic of little interest to anyone who isn’t a college professor.

Weeks passed until suddenly it exploded onto my Twitter feed. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and, for a good couple of weeks, I couldn’t check Twitter without seeing the hash-tag #weareallstonersnow accompanied by some evangelical recommendation. It seemed there was more to Stoner than I’d originally thought.

First published in 1965, John Williams’ Stoner charts the exploits and disappointments of William Stoner, farmer’s son and born-again literary enthusiast. When the opportunity arises to attend agricultural college, he reluctantly takes leave of his work on the land to learn better techniques for tending the soil turned and turned again by his forefathers.

It’s in the university that this green country-boy discovers literature and a new calling in life. At first, this world is elusive and almost impenetrable but he works hard, harder than his fellow students, to make up for a childhood without any literary influence outside of the Bible.

Soon, he meets Edith and unwittingly makes the biggest mistake of his life by falling in love and quickly marrying her.  Too late, he realises his folly but, ever the stoic, he accepts his lot and tries to make the most of a bad situation.

As the years wear on and wars come and go, William Stoner rises through the hierarchy of the college as a teacher eventually meeting adversity in the form of Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s colleague and nemesis.

Though his life is unremarkable, William Stoner can be included among the great literary heroes. He doesn’t fight in any war or solve any mysteries or rescue any damsels in distress but his triumph comes from his dogged forbearance of a less-than-kind life. He believes in the university as a sanctuary and continues to protect his principles even when his stubbornness proves detrimental to his career.

Though his life is riddled with failures, it’s Stoner’s minor victories that give us cause for celebration, not least because these are the successes we come to expect in our own mundane lives. After all, most of us will never be soldiers on a battlefield or historical figures of note. William Stoner is just a guy trying to do his job as best he can without inviting undue hassle. He isn’t a bust in a museum or the subject of a documentary – he’s one of us. With this fact in mind, it isn’t too bold to say that William Stoner may just be one of the most human protagonists you’re ever likely to encounter.

In conclusion, I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong in my prior assumptions about the book. It’s no stuffy relic but a forgotten treasure which deserves to be read by everyone and I look forward to the day when we can agree that we are all, indeed, Stoners now.

My favourite underground shelter

Wool - Hugh HoweyI’ve just finished Hugh Howey’s Wool, which is excellent, by the way. The story revolves around the inhabitants of the Silo, an underground bunker comprising over a hundred floors of cramped accommodation and dystopian paranoia. It sounds a bit claustrophobic and uncomfortable but certainly a lot better than asphyxiating in the toxic winds outside.

It’s a really good read but it isn’t very realistic. I mean, come on – an underground complex designed to house a population of thousands in the event of a global catastrophe.

“Don’t be silly!” I thought.

I suppose any loon can bury a corrugated iron pipe in the ground, stick a sofa and a bucket inside, and then call it a survival shelter. That’s hardly the same thing as a sprawling underground network containing all of the amenities necessary for outliving the rapture.

On the other hand, there are a number of contractors who will build you a home ten feet underground complete with air filtration systems to get rid of that musty last-man-on-earth smell. But I doubt these projects are anything more special than an episode of Grand Designs.

As much as one might like to believe otherwise, enormous subterranean complexes just don’t exist outside of science fiction books.

Then I discovered Vivos.

Vivos LogoVivos was founded in California (where else?!) by Robert Vicino, a man who is certainly more interested in making a lot of money before the apocalypse than preserving the human race afterwards. The Vivos website is peppered with doom-laden phrases and promises of incoming horsemen designed to scare you into parting with your cash. They have a risk-assessment page which contains an exhaustive shopping list of potential catastrophes ranging from meteorites to terrorist attacks.

“Which side of the door do you want to be on?”

You see, certain people – certain Americans, in particular – are very serious when it comes to survival. You may be able to think of a galaxy of terms to describe them, but they prefer to be called ‘preppers’. At one end of the scale, you have the mountain-dwelling firearms enthusiast with enough tins of beans to last him until Judgement Day and beyond. At the other end, you have a whole different breed of prepper.

These people are not short of a few dollars and they think nothing of forking them over for place in one of Vivos’ underground cities.

And these cities are impressive indeed.

The Kansas site consists of a massive underground trailer-park 150 feet under a mountain. The rates are calculated depending on the size of your vehicle which can be anything from a modest caravan ($16000) to an eight-person coach ($45000). On top of this, residents are expected to pay $1500 per person for a year’s food ration. The website isn’t very clear about what happens once that year is up but we can only assume that dollars would be obsolete at that stage.

So what do you get for your money, besides the obvious luxury of surviving the end of the world? All of their sites are equipped with hydroponic farms, emergency services, and entertainment facilities. Needless to say they also have a rifle range and I’ll leave it to your own imagination to conjure up all the things that might go wrong there.

Gladly, you don’t even have to wait for the inevitable to benefit from the inclusion fee. In the meantime, the Kansas facility serves as a members-only resort. At least you no longer need to think about that survival-themed family vacation.

God knows there’s enough to worry about.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn: A Review

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn“Because you can’t be as in love as we were and not have it invade your bone marrow. Out kind of love can go into remission, but it’s always waiting to return. Like the world’s sweetest cancer.” 

Gillian Flynn hates people. That’s the over-riding feeling you have walking away from her latest success, Gone Girl.

Nick’s wife, Amy has gone missing. There are some signs of a struggle and although the police don’t have anything to go on, it’s only natural to assume that Nick was involved in the disappearance.

The book is divided into chapters, each one opening a window into the minds of the central characters. From this, we’re pretty sure Nick didn’t have anything to do with his wife’s disappearance, but he’s definitely hiding something.

As the plot opens up, more evidence is uncovered – evidence which further incriminates our clueless hero (if you can call him that). It becomes clear that someone is trying to set him up.

But Who?

And Why?

“There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.”

Around the half-way point, just as things are really starting to go wrong for Nick, something changes. We, the jaded readers, catch a glimpse of the other side of a dark and tarnished coin, something that sheds a whole new light on the case.

That’s as much as I’ll say on that, but it’s a big twist and it sets the pace a little higher for the rest of the novel.

Now, I won’t say it’s the best book I’ve ever read. The characters are despicable to such a degree that it becomes impossible to identify with them. I will concede, however, that it deserves its success. It’s not a literary landmark but if you’re looking for a clever, psychological page-turner, it’s among the best in its genre.

“Friends see most of each other’s flaws. Spouses see every awful last bit.” 

Gone Girl is a very cynical story which poses a lot of questions about relationships.  The main lesson to be learned is that you can never truly know someone as much as you think you do and in Gillian Flynn’s world, that blind spot will be your inevitable undoing.

So don’t get married and if you can manage it, avoid all contact with the opposite sex. While you’re at it, you might as well shun your own gender because they can’t be trusted either. Keep your head down and mind your own business because you never know what you might unleash upon yourself.

For those who have read Gone Girl, Flynn’s other two novels (Sharp Objects, Dark Places) come recommended and, you’ll be pleased to hear, are both littered with dysfunction and darkness.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt: a review

 

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick DeWitt

“…The Sisters Brothers is the book the Coen Brothers might have written had they not become film-makers instead.”

In The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Charlie and Eli Sisters are guns-for-hire, sent on a mission by the Commodore. With a name like the Commodore, you have to be involved in some shady dealings that require the help of hit men. He sends the assassins to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, again, a fine name to embody a mysterious character waiting at the end of an epic journey.

We follow these outlaws on their odyssey across the dust-strewn plains of an America still in the grip of the manic hunt for gold. The Sisters Brothers are synonymous with death and destruction and everyone knows to give them a wide berth. As the story progresses, Charlie and Eli find their reputation waiting for them wherever they go in the form of the fear and mistrust of the layman. They meet an ensemble of losers, victims of circumstance, and once-normal men tipped over the edge of sanity by the harsh realisation that their American dream was just that.

-“…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”  

Despite its grim setting, DeWitt’s Gold-Rush America has an air of the fantastical about it. The descriptions of the landscape are minimal enough to have been captured from a dream and every character seems to represent their own misfortune.

It’s a funny book, mainly because it is peopled by a collection of sharp-tongued, cuss-slinging smartasses. The one-liners and imaginative put-downs are so regular as to provide an honest-to-god pulse for the story.

The book isn’t without its harsh and gruesome scenes (There’s a particular incident with an ailing horse that I won’t go into here), but our characters can find their own joy in the strangest places. Towards the beginning of the book, Eli, the narrator, is introduced to a new-fangled doo-hickey called a toothbrush and he is so awed that he spends the rest of the story extolling its virtues to everyone he meets.

-“I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led.  I thought:  I want to lead only myself.”  

All in all, this is a tale of redemption.

The brothers come to a head when Eli begins to question the life they’ve chosen. He dreams of a simpler life without any killing, but his brother doesn’t share his sentimental bullshit. Death is paying work after all.

This book made the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker prize and has received great critical acclaim since its publication. It’s still one of my go-to books whenever a customer is looking for something good, something different and I’ve yet to hear any complaints.

If you’ve already had the pleasure, be sure to pick up a copy of Ablutions, DeWitt’s first novel. This is a contemporary tale of alcoholism and inertia set in a seedy Hollywood bar peopled by a wealth of human detritus.

As for the future, there hasn’t yet been a peep from DeWitt regarding any upcoming projects. It’s a shame to have to wait, but in the meantime, you can always read the Sisters Brothers again.

Buy The Sisters Brothers at Waterstones.com

Try a Little Kurt

You know, I’m still surprised at the number of customers who, on hearing the name ‘Kurt Vonnegut’, look blankly at me as though I’ve just sneezed.

Without going into nauseating detail, reading a book by Vonnegut is like hearing an anecdote from an American door-to-door vacuum salesman who just missed his calling as a stand-up comedian.

His patter is so authentic that even his less-impressive stories are brought to life by his descriptions, his characters and his voice.

In the words of a stand up comedian who missed his calling as a door-to-door vacuum salesman, “It’s the way he tells ’em”.

For a limited time, we’ll be stocking the entire Vonnegut backlist in store and we’ll even knock 25% off.

And it’s not even Christmas!