2013 reading list roundup

January 15, 2014

Of the fiction and non-fiction books I read in 2013, the best were:

  • The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon.
    A memoir concerning soccer, Sarajevo, important dogs, inflatable aliens, and heartbreak. The best non-fiction I read in 2013, close to the best book of the year for me.
  • Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan.
    My introduction to Stewart O’Nan was The Night Country. It was shelved in the horror section of The World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, near the Stephen Kings, so I picked it up. I was blown away by it, having expected something much different. Last Night at the Lobster is a beautiful book. It’s intimate, spare, simple, and deeply recognizable. One of my favourite books. (Ever.)
  • Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes.
    This is Julian Barnes’ memoir of mourning, written after having lost his wife to cancer. The first half concerns ballooning in the nineteenth century and a doomed antique love. The second relates the nuances of grief, the silent outrage at thoughtless friends, the delivery to a state of mind where suicide or carrying on are both banal choices.
  • Schroder, by Amity Gaige.
    The “unreliable narrator” is drawn well in this novel based on the life of Christian Gerhartsreiter. Amity Gaige is the kind of writer that isn’t afraid to repeat a sentence of four monosyllabic words over the course of almost four full pages. That I read every instance of that sentence means something. (It could possibly mean I have OCD.) It reminded me of Zsuzsi Gartner’s book of short stories: punchy and daring and sad.
  • Stoner, by John Williams.
    I reviewed this book here.
  • The Sweet Girl, by Annabel Lyon.
    Almost as good as The Golden Mean. Still as beautiful and lightly done.
  • Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton.
    A strange and lovely book by a lifelong swimmer, including photos and art. I was deeply struck by nostalgia while I read this book, though my experience of swimming is not the same.

Other books I read in 2013 that were excellent were:

  • Born with a Tooth and The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden.
  • Cosmo, by Spencer Gordon.
    In spite of a story that seemed to be nothing more than an exercise in mining pop culture biography from Wikipedia, I thought this was an excellent collection. Especially good was “This Is Not an Ending”.
  • The Dinner, by Herman Koch.
  • Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen.
    A fantastic collection of essays. Who knew Jonathan Franzen loved birds so much? (Not me, until I read this.)
  • The Humans, by Matt Haig.
    Not without its flaws, but lovely nonetheless.
  • Oh, My Darling, by Shaena Lambert.
    The best collection of shorts I read in 2013. Some stories, such as “Crow Ride”, were astounding.
  • Ru, by Kim Thúy.
    A memoir of Vietnam and Quebec.
  • Speedboat, by Renata Adler.
    Hilarious and remote, almost stream-of-consciousness. Chilly and brilliant.
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.
    The first in the series on Thomas Cromwell, dense and rewarding when closely read.

Other non-fiction books I read were Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Diary of a Man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck; Heinrich Himmler, by Peter Longerich; Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by Otto Dov Kulka; Night, by Elie Wiesel; and Spandau: The Secret Diaries, by Albert Speer.

Other fiction books I read were Doctor Sleep and Joyland, by Stephen King; The Douglas Notebooks, by Christine Eddie; Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman; North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud; The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman; and The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín.

My least favourite book read in 2013 was The Douglas Notebooks, by Christine Eddie.

My favourite non-fiction book read in 2013 was The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon. My favourite fiction book read in 2013 was Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan.

Stoner, by John Williams

November 18, 2013

The back cover of the NYRB edition of “Stoner” quotes a reviewer who calls the book not merely a great novel, but “a perfect novel”. I’m not sure what kind of book a perfect novel is. “Stoner”, told in a narrative style of a different time in writing, is certainly a great novel, almost antithetically so. If a perfect novel is that which gives the reader perfect satisfaction, in the story and the way it’s told, and in admiration for the deftness with which the story is written, then “Stoner” is perfect.

It’s the story of the complete life of university professor William Stoner, from beginning to end, and his existential consideration of purpose. He begins life on the spent land of a poor Missouri farming family. When he is sent to university to study agriculture, he accidentally discovers his love of literature and books. He marries a psychotic shrew, battles with university politics and its petty dictators, finds brief happiness with another woman, and submits to all manner of humiliation from his wife and his adversarial colleagues. Stoner’s passion for literature and teaching is the only channel that directs his life in a true course.

Throughout his life, meaning eludes him. He seems always on the cusp of disappearing into a permanent state of apathy. He is often in a “silent struggle that seemed toward no end and no meaning.” When larger emotions overtake him, he is unable to participate in them, but instead becomes an observer of himself, curious about some sudden tide of anger, for example, but detached from its full impact. Some of his battles are impossible–the love of his wife, or reconciliation with his most implacable enemy–but some are won, as when the rigours of his schedule of teaching become too much to bear. Throughout, his cool impassivity, his experience of life as a kind of out-of-body experience, carries him from one deep disappointment to another. Even when faced with death, “Stoner felt nothing at all.” The only flicker of meaning he recognizes, the only possible hope for any kind of happiness, lies in the university itself, in its halls filled with memories, in teaching, and especially in literature and books, this even to the very last moment of his life.

There are two problems facing “Stoner”: first, this is mean material. Is it possible to write a novel, never mind a “great”, a “perfect” novel, out of this? If one had to describe the novel succinctly, it might be: “‘Stoner’ is the story of an often-frustrated career professor of literature”; or: “‘Stoner’ is an existential study of meaninglessness and unhappiness as experienced by a lover of books.” On surface, it isn’t captivating stuff.

The second problem for latter-day readers, especially if unengaged with literature not written recently, is the book’s language. A surprising amount of time is invested in describing individuals’ features, especially as their characters progress, sometimes in a way that seems earnest or even archaic: those wizened by years or enmity have “sharp cheekbones”, passionate women have eyes that “flash”; people are “gray”, “gaunt”, “bony”, “stooped”, “dry”, and “hard”. Facial flesh droops, hair is “caught in a bun”, and feet scrape perennially. Most latter-day writing seems to completely eschew personal description in favour of other kinds of character drawing, and such attention to what may seem cliched detail might carry readers out of the narrative.

“Stoner” is a narrative-heavy book. Dialogue is spare, and often artificial. Some language in the book is unlovely: a passage of time is described as happening “afternoon after afternoon”.

For all this, “Stoner” works, especially as an existential examination of a whole life and what might make one life meaningful. William Stoner is a sympathetic character, but also a real one. His placid movement through life, with its flow of disappointments and islands of happiness, seems real. His opposition to mediocrity, or to false intellectualism, or to grasping personal advancement at the expense of the honesty of others, is well drawn. There is something deeply satisfying about taking the journey along an entire life. One can inhabit the life of William Stoner, something possible only with a finely crafted narrative.

Though written in a different era of literature, perhaps one on the cusp of a shift toward the more self-aware experimentalist kind of writing as represented by Renata Adler’s “Speedboat”, “Stoner” is a worthy contender even today for the title of “perfect novel”.