Book Review: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

January 9, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

stoner

It could very well be that the first book I read in 2014 might be the best book I’ll read all year.

Stoner is an unusual book. It has a fairly “meh” title. It’s written by an American academic and poet by the name of John Williams, who only published four books during his career and died in 1994. It was first published in 1965 and enjoyed little, if any success. But now, after being reissued in 2006 by the New York Review Classics, it has become a bestseller, primarily through word of mouth (apparently after a French translation gained traction). It recently won the Waterstones’ book of the year for 2013, with celebrity endorsements coming from all directions, and it has been called by the New Yorker as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”

So what is it about this 50-year-old book that has everyone so excited? On its face, Stoner is simply a biography of the eponymous protagonist, William Stoner, focusing predominantly on the time he enters the University of Missouri as a student in 1910 and stretching until his death as a teacher there in 1956 (none of these are spoilers).

It’s difficult to find a less spectacular premise for a novel, and yet it is one of the most emotionally affecting books I have read in a long time. It’s also one of the most melancholic novels I’ve ever read. The tone is doused in melancholy. Drenched in melancholy. Steeped in it. But it’s not exactly depressing. There is a poignancy that is buried beneath the words and the pages that is beautiful, moving and painful.

Stoner is essentially the tragedy of William Stoner’s life, or rather, his failures from going through life without a sense of its meaning or purpose. It’s not a tragic life in that horrific things keep happening to Stoner — far from it. On paper, Stoner’s life is better than most people from that era, but there is an understated sadness about his forgotten existence. From the cold relationship with his farmer parents and his hastily entered marriage, to the touching but fractured relationship with his daughter and the doomed affair with his one true love, Stoner goes through life taking things as they come, never expecting things and seemingly accepting the hand dealt to him with stoicism and a quiet dignity. Teaching literature is his profession, and while he occasionally exhibits passion for it there is little enthusiasm or love. And yet, without it, Stoner wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

He is an odd but wonderfully constructed character — distant, almost removed from himself — but you understand who he is. He feels real; you feel like you know him. He accepts life for what it is, and yet he has a stubborn streak inside him that makes him difficult to grasp. I found myself rooting for Stoner, feeling the pain that he feels but doesn’t express, and longing for the happiness that eludes him.

The two main arcs in the novel that stood out for me were his relationships with wife Edith and his crippled university nemesis Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s relationship with Edith is so incredibly sad but masterfully depicted. She’s just a young and naive girl who married a stranger because she understood from her upbringing that it was her duty, and yet throughout the novel we watch her deteriorate into someone who silently and wrist-slittingly (though not literally) loathed her husband — who never mistreated her outwardly — in ways she could never explain in words. It breaks your heart; it broke mine many times.

The Lomax arc is a fascinating and exciting one about a bitter disagreement between two academics over a brilliant but arrogant and manipulative student. Both are biased in their own way, but neither see it; for Lomax, it becomes deeply personal, whereas for Stoner, it’s simply about principle. It’s an excellent insight into university politics and how a petty quarrel can develop into a lifelong feud.

I never thought I would be so mesmerized by a 1960s novel about the life of a bland university professor, and yet I could not stop turning the pages to see what would happen to Stoner next. I didn’t have the opportunity to read it in a single sitting, but it’s the kind of book that could pull you in and immerse you in its world. It’s a testament to William’s writing, which utilises clean, unpretentious prose that is deliberately lacking in exaggerated adjectives and manufactured melodrama. After reading a lot of modern novels where everything is stuffed down the reader’s throat, everything in Stoner comes across as subtle and nuanced, and it’s a delight.

I will conclude this review with what John Williams said about his own novel in a latter to his agent in 1963. When he was told by his agent not to get his hopes up over Stoner, Williams replied: ”I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that; but if it is handled right (there’s always that out) – that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher, as Butcher’s Crossing [his second novel] was treated as a ‘western’, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.”

He couldn’t have been more right about that.

5/5

Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

the_perks_of_being_a_wallflower_book_cover_drawing_by_pigwigeon-d5j78el

I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) – earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet – which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.

5/5

Book Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

gone girl

(Note: See below for a chat with Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya about the book!)

I was looking for a ripper of a read to ease myself back into reading fiction and everywhere I looked on the bestseller lists was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a page-turning psychological thriller about a husband who suddenly finds himself pinned as the prime suspect of his missing wife.

The premise is seemingly typical, stereotypical even, but the execution is anything but.

It’s the kind of novel I can’t really describe in any detail or provide a summary of the background because there are so many delicious twists and turns that should be left to the reader to discover and savour. It’s not a thriller that coasts along in one direction until an “explosive” twist ending – Gone Girl is one unexpected detour after another that repeatedly attempts to derail everything you thought you knew about the story and the characters. I don’t want to say much more except that it’s messed up, in a wickedly good kind of way.

Part of the intrigue comes from the novel’s structure. Part One is told through the point of view of Nick Dunne, the husband who, like many of us, feels detached from the reality he is living in but is pressured into acting the way society expects of him. Nick’s first-person narrative is interspersed with timely diary entries from his beautiful wife, Amy Dunne, who recaps their love story from the beginning to present day. Part Two features the contrasting first-person narratives of Nick and Amy, which become increasingly intense as they go back and forth until the chilling finale.

The implausible but engrossing plot is driven by the strength of the characters Flynn has created, all of whom feel painfully real. Nick and Amy are deeply flawed but believable characters with complex personalities, which we gradually find out, layer by layer, like a peeling onion. A master storyteller, Flynn knows exactly how much of them to give to us and how much to withhold from us until the timing is perfect.

The character of Nick, in particular, really resonated with me. Many of the emotions and thoughts he expresses throughout the novel ring true — quite a remarkable feat considering Flynn is, apparently, a woman in a happy marriage.

Even the supporting characters — from Nick’s twin sister Margo, possible the most sympathetic character in the story, his slick lawyer Tanner Bolt and his ailing father, to even minor characters such as the investigating officers and trampy local groupies — are memorable despite limited screen (page) time.

Thanks in large part to the characters and the twists, Gone Girl is a compulsive page turner pretty much all the way through. The story does somewhat spiral out of control towards the end, stretching the boundaries of believability — which is not surprising because something had to give with all those twists and turns. The narrative loses a bit of steam as a result, but it may have been intentional as it leads to a very interesting — and divisive — conclusion. Personally, I loved it because it shies away from conventional methods, though there are those who say the ending ruined the book for them.

The final word on Gone Girl: a cracking read that took me on a dark and unexpected journey into a world of murder, revenge, betrayal, madness and sexual politics. Written in a confident, honest voice from a skillful writer who treads the line between commercial genre and literary fiction and knows exactly how to manipulate her readers into thinking one way then pulling the rug out from under them.

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike / Nick and Amy Dunne

PS: Flynn is currently adapting her novel for the film version, which is shaping up to be one of the highly anticipated films of 2014, given it will be produced by Reese Witherspoon, directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in the lead roles. Neil Patrick Harris is reportedly in talks to play a supporting character, and I have a fairly good idea which one.

Conversation with Hubert Widjaya

PJM: So, first impressions of Gone Girl?

HW: Highly entertaining, a great plot if very extreme. But what makes it so engaging is the first person shifts from Amy to Nick, etc. By writing in this way Flynn keeps you guessing as to who will get away with what and who is completely good and evil.

PJM: Were you shocked by some of the twists and turns?

HW: As to the main twist…slightly underwhelmed. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

PJM: Who were your favourite characters and why?

HW: Trying to think…who were yours and why?

PJM: I really connected with Nick, which is strange, considering what a douchebag he is. And of course you can’t hate Margo, the most level headed person in all of this. Plus Tanner was a good show and a great laugh with his typical lawyer antics.

HW: The cops were cool especially Boney she added a light touch which you need in books like this. But I agree with you re Nick. There’s something very believable about him. Big dreams as a real journo who loses his job, then decides to just do something less careery i.e. bar

PJM: I want to talk about the ending too, which divided a lot of readers. Without giving anything away, what did you think of it? A lot of people were looking for a conventional ending where people get their come uppance, but I think the ending Flynn chose works well.

HW: A conventional ending for a non conventional book wouldn’t have worked.

PJM: It’s bleak and filled with dread, and in some ways it works than your well-rounded conclusion or shock tactics.

HW: Was going to say that, the sense of dread, which made me think of Rosemary’s Baby.

PJM: I read an interview with Flynn in which she referred to Rosemary’s Baby as an inspiration. And last but not least, the film. We’ve got to talk about the film!

HW: I’ll say it again: I can so picture Affleck playing the role well…Oscar noms galore, as both leads have to pretend so many conflicting emotions. Who would have thought he’d be up there as one of the best directors currently?

PJM: Yeah, Affleck is perfect for the role. When I read the book I kept picturing his douchey face, haha. He is one of my favourite directors, but least favourite actors…well, maybe that is a bit harsh, but I don’t think he is a great actor, though this could be the role he’s been waiting for.

HW: True. Good Will Hunting…they’ve come along way from them apples.

PJM: What about Pike?

HW: Haven’t seen much of her work, but going on looks, she looks icy hot, ie, good casting.

PJM: I agree. And Neil Patrick Harris could be either great or too distracting. What do you think of Fincher directing?

HW: Good question. While reading I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style book despite no plot similarities. The dynamics between men and women are shared, so perfect for Fincher. The twist of Seven meets the red herrings of The Game.

PJM: Final word on Gone Girl? And rating out of five?

HW: Fun, fast paced and good psychological insight on romance/marriage from male and female perspective. 4 bloodsoaked and tied up stars.

PJM: Haha. I like it a little more than that. 4.5 out of 5 for me.

Freelancing is lancing my free time

February 19, 2013 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Parenting

Anyone recognise where this is from?

Anyone recognise where this is from?

You may have noticed that things have been a little slow on this blog lately. It wasn’t supposed to be. In fact, I was supposed to be posting up a storm over this recent nine-day Lunar New Year break in Taiwan. Instead, I took up a freelancing gig, and it’s been killing me. Killing me, I tell ya. As the great Tommy Wiseau would say:

Freelancing jobs are always a dilemma when you also have a full-time job. On the one hand, it’s nice to get a bit of extra cash, but on the other, you are voluntarily adding all this pressure on yourself and destroying whatever free time you might have. When you have a one-year-old baby to look after like I do, free time is more precious than diamonds, and if you’re not desperate for money it’s always tempting just to say, “No thanks, I’d rather sleep, or read, or watch The Walking Dead or a movie, or exercise, or play video games, or do whatever the hell it is that I’d rather be doing.”

This is why I’d actually been turning down quite a few freelancing opportunities as of late, though this new one that I took on was from a regular client that paid relatively well and was a good opportunity to establish more crucial contacts. Freelancing, as I learned from that ultra-successful, US$600K-a-year  freelance writer Robert W Bly (I reviewed his freelance guide here), is all about connections and getting repeat business. You can be the best freaking writer in the world, but you’re not making any money if people don’t know who you are. That’s why there are all these horrible, horrible writers and editors earning great money doing freelancing full-time, while decent or even very good writers and editors prefer to work in steady jobs and not worry about where their next paycheck will come from.

As usual, I have underestimated how difficult this current freelance gig would be. When I first saw it I estimated roughly four days — mostly during my “spare” time at work. Instead, it has killed almost all my free time from the Lunar New Year break and I’m still not finished. Part of the problem is me being slow and too meticulous and distracted with other things, but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless. This one gig has essentially derailed the longest holiday I’m probably going to have this year. It’s also set back my plans to start exercising regularly again by at least another week (I really need it too, after eating like a pig over the break). And don’t even get me started on the PS3 games I’m supposed to be playing. I have literally not switched on my PS3 since finishing Sleeping Dogs in late November. Meanwhile, my food and movie blog posts continue to pile up. At this rate, I’ll never get back to working on what I really want to take another stab at — my novels.

It has me wondering whether I’ll ever take on another freelance case. Well, I’m sure I will, and I’m sure I’ll be bitching about it like I am now once I do.

New Year’s resolution 3: read more (classics and fantasy)

January 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Misc, On Writing

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in Library

I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to last year, but I blame that on the life-draining force that is parenthood, which makes sleep a priority over anything not baby-related. I blame that as well awesome TV series such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Most of all, I blame the turd that is the Fifty Shades Trilogy, which wasted a good part of my year and just about turned me off reading altogether.

This year, I am glad to say, I have already read two books (though I started one of them last year) and am halfway through a third. Reading really does help your writing in so many ways, including expanding your imagination and ability to visualize scenes, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I feel like I am already way behind because I didn’t read all that much once I hit high school, which I blame entirely on Sony (Playstation) and basketball.

Anyway, this year one of my resolutions is to read more. A lot more. I have already started executing my ‘no smartphone and read instead before bed’ plan, which is kind of working. I’m also trying to read whenever I can on public transport and even during lunch breaks at work.

A subset of that plan is to read more classics. I always find them daunting and often put them off in favour of trash like Fifty Shades or whatever commercial fiction is in fashion, but it’s time for me to discover why classics are classics. The last modern classic I read was probably Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (which I loved) and the last classic of any era I read was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (which, despite being told repeatedly that it was probably the most technically perfect book ever written, bored me to death).

The good thing is that many older classics are now out of copyright and free to download. My guess is I will attempt to tackle the easier ones first, like say Frankenstein or Dracula, or perhaps some Dickens. War and Peace and James Joyce will probably have to wait a few more decades.

The other of part of the goal is to read more fantasy to prepare myself to get back on the fantasy writing wagon. I have A Game of Thrones ready to go, and if that isn’t enough I might finally (re)try the original Sword of Shannara trilogy or Feist’s Magician.

I doubt I’m going to get through anywhere near what I’ve planned for myself but I sure am going to try.

Happy reading!

 
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