Book Review: Stoner by John Williams


Stoner by John Williams – Available Here

When I was a kid I use to walk through graveyards. I’d search for the oldest headstones and longest lived lying beneath them. I remember running charcoal across crumbled paper in order to decipher those too weathered and beaten to be read by eye alone. I remember carrying them with me, or at least trying to. For a minute, for an hour, some maybe for a day, but I tried to keep them with me, whole lives relegated to names, births and deaths linked together by a simple dash.

And in that way Stoner begins, not with a dash per-se, but something only a step above:

‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”’

And then proceeds to immediately rub salt in an already gaping existential wound :

‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’

There it is. The tombstone. A life, sad and unassuming, condensed like a novel into a limerick.

But if the first page is a tombstone then the rest of the book is the body that lies beneath, spent and wasting potential captured in cloth and coarse-cut wood. And what a heartbreakingly perfect thing it is. A piece of history so small as to be almost entirely forgotten.

And what a sad irony this book seemed destined to follow the same path to obscurity.

No one told me John Williams existed. The fact that I had to stumble upon him entirely by accident as opposed to having it resting among Hemingway and Faulkner is one of the greatest travesties in literary history. But I found it. I found it and I’m not letting go.

This book is beautiful. Fleeting in its happiness and crushing in its heartbreak, it is human experience compressed into just under 300 pages. The only proper response to this book is to love it. To hate it is to deny your own humanity, to admit a misalignment of soul to the rest of the world.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” ― John Williams, Stoner

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Book Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving


The Legend of Sleep Hollow by Washington Irving – Available here

I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow back in high school. It was Halloween and as all teachers strive to tie literature to something relevant in their students’ lives, mine did the same. I didn’t remember it. I remember being lightly disappointed, being bored, and feeling slightly misled from the cartoon version I was fed as a child.

Alas; time has tempered me. Now I can take it on its own, appreciate that there is something hidden in the language, a deliberate slowness and meticulousness of language that (perhaps this is simply a projection of my expectations, but I can hardly be a judge) exemplifies how language can be used to put us out of ease. The not-quite-rightness of the world subtly hidden in description is something I feel has been lost in much contemporary horror.

It’s not the horror in a visceral, physical sense. It’s different, deeper, the thrill of the wrongness building and escalating until that final wretched moment when the world is turned aside and the humdrum is supplanted by something that scorches our sense of equilibrium and leaves us with a true, layered ‘horror’.

Having Ichabod Crane get brained with a pumpkin was a simply wonderful touch.
It won’t change your life, but it’s a fun, lavishly written little ghost story.

“All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many spectres in his time, and been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes, in his lonely pre-ambulations, yet daylight put an end to all these evils; and he would have passed a pleasent life of it, in despite of the devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was – a woman.” – Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild



King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild – Available Here

I don’t demand much from my nonfiction. If you’re teaching me something and can convey it even in a lightly poetic prose then I’m going to love you. Maybe I’m just cheap, maybe I’m just easily impressed by people who know things that aren’t in my wheelhouse.

Regardless, Hochschild hits most of these notes rather well, it still feels like it’s missing something. He constructs a biting, visceral portrait of the Congo. It is offensive, vulgar, all the things colonialism must be it just lacks a foil. It needs a few more fleshed out human characters. There are some, but too few to truly humanize the accounts beyond the general inhumanity of the history on display.

The character in most desperate need of exploration is King Leopold himself. He is just sort of glossed over, built as the mystical man-behind-the-curtain who is so preoccupied with keeping the illusion of decency that he feels rather more like a dime-store psychopath pulling strings from a distance rather than an actual layered human being. Hochschild seemed to have no interest in exploring him. We are given no history of his youth, no rise to power, nothing beyond a smattering of pulled examples of a callous egomaniac. Maybe Leopold was just that boring, but I doubt it. History is rarely that simple.

Hochschild does an admirable job uncovering a piece of history deliberately forgotten, but he never manages to delve beneath the surface of the horror.

“As the years passed, new myths arose to explain the mysterious objects the strangers brought from the land of the dead. A nineteenth-century missionary recorded, for example, an African explanation of what happened when captains descended into the holds of their ships to fetch trading goods like cloth. The Africans believed that these goods came not from the ship itself but from a hole that led into the ocean. Sea sprites weave this cloth in an “oceanic factory, and, whenever we need cloth, the captain … goes to this hole and rings a bell.” The sea sprites hand him up their cloth, and the captain “then throws in, as payment, a few dead bodies of black people he has bought from those bad native traders who have bewitched their people and sold them to the white men.” The myth was not so far from reality. For what was slavery in the American South, after all, but a system for transforming the labor of black bodies, via cotton plantations, into cloth?” – Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost

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Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl


Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankel – Available Here

Half Holocaust chronicle, half psychoanalytical pimping, this book straddles a strange place stuck between delving into the human condition and feeling good like some sort of literary infomercial. Fortunately, what it’s selling isn’t vulgar and is ultimately as ethereal and undefinable as the meaning of life.

While the book trips over itself in a few places, it is a book to be read by everyone. Not for the quality of its prose, but for its message, it’s insistence on the imperative that on the face of everything is the fact that we are in this together and that that understanding is our greatest chance for a life, a history worth creating.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankel

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Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie


The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – Available Here

As a cis-gendered, white male there are certain things it is dangerous to have opinions about. I have privilege and by fielding an opinion I am perceived in some circles to be wielding it like some sort of patriarchal cudgel. That is unless it fits into the same dusting of reality of the group of people I am talking to. This reaction may not be unfair but to my mind it is entirely unhelpful in facilitating the discourse that we as humans are required to have in order to grow the understanding between us as individuals.

I say all this because Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House is about identity, both political and personal. More importantly it is about the cost of attempting to hammer something so rich and necessarily fluid into solid shape. It does this by following the limitlessly wealthy Golden Family from 2008 to 2016 with the inauguration of Barack Obama and the election of…whatever you call this thing that is happening to us now.

It is narrated by a man who asks us to call him René (in the same way we are asked to call the narrator of Moby Dick Ishmael), an aspiring filmmaker who, upon, meeting the Golden family, views them as interesting enough to be his meal ticket to creating the great and mighty screenplay he’s been working on since college.

The Golden House rolls with the crack and rumbling of something fated. Which would be a compliment if René wasn’t among the single most heavy-handed and needless foreshadowers in the history of post-modern literature. And maybe that is a Rushdie thing, he did it some in Midnight’s Children but it was different, more subtle, and with this being only my second Rushdie book I’m just going to go ahead and blame René. For the first, oh, let’s say 10% of the book, no single character can be introduced or interacted with without some obnoxiously bleak variation of “How little I knew…”. And then it suddenly stops and the book becomes, well, a book, and not the weird, tedious thing it seemed so hell bent on becoming the page before. And it’s good, like, really good.

It manages to be lightly surreal, discursive, and avant-garde in its narrative style, but never to the point of being confusing.

Rushdie makes some beautifully articulated concerns and criticisms against certain sects of the outrage culture that seems to exist in the current, I hate this word, millennial safe spaces. Writes some sad but wonderful segments allegorically placing the rise of the 45th president into the world of DC comics. (I think it is somewhere in the back end chapter 24, find a copy at a book store and just read it, it is wonderful).

There is so much in this story I want to write down, whole sections I want to quote and share with you just so you can read it and love it and experience that moment I did when my eyes first ran across the page. Trying to pin down any one thing in this book feels something near overwhelming because the thoughts that it carries with it are so heavy that to dissect them would birth a novel in its own right and that is not a review, but an intellectual mania.

And if that doesn’t convince you to read it, then I’m not sure there is anything I could say that ever would.

P.S. I was given this book by the publisher Random House. It sits primly on my bookshelf and is quite lovely and I am grateful for not having to pay for it personally (kids are expensive).

“How does one live amongst one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don’t know which of them is numbered amongst the sixty-million-plus who brought the horror to power, when you can’t tell who should be counted among the ninety-million-plus who shrugged and stayed home, or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense, but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed…” ― Salman Rushdie, The Golden House

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Book Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood – Available Here

It’s a weird world and I’m weird man, in a weird place, not unlike the world Atwood writes about here. The way it’s written though, it’s different, strange, lyricless when compared to her other work. There is this self-aware lack of subtlety here that rings like Orwell and Tolstoy but grates with each act of blunt force.

The main characters are less characters and more stand-ins for bystanders? Deer stuck in headlights? They’re certainly not people. Obviously, this is intentional, but when paired with a world as narrowly focused and white in its backgrounds the entire thing falters. Pair that with a plot that is similarly shallow unconvincing in its horror, humor, or humanity…I’m left unsure what the focus of this book is.

It’s cheap and completely devoid of the grace what made the Maddworld Trilogy such a joy to read. Stan and Charmaine’s very existence is defined by their usefulness to others (both Atwood and the secondary characters). Their thoughts are repetitive, their world possesses nothing new, nothing unique from the more brilliant dystopia she’s played with before.

There are some places where I found myself smiling. The Elvis bit, the woman sexually obsessed with a teddy bear are pretty entertaining. And then it’s right back to the simple, grating (there is that word again) sex complete with women melting into men’s arms with an almost misogynistic constancy.

This book feels like a castoff, something done out of obligation rather than anything near genuine affection. It’s shame, but Atwood is nothing if not prolific, so I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the more thoughtful and poetic Atwood to come back to the reading table.

“That way nobody feels exploited.”
“Wait a minute,” says Stan. “Nobody’s exploited?”
“I said nobody feels exploited,” says Budge. “Different thing.” ― Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

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Book Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein


Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein – Available Here 

Heinlein has always struck me as the weakest of The Big Three. His writing isn’t as good, his stories often lacking in any truly big or interesting ideas. He always felt more like a holdover from the adventure magazine days only with a wider sandbox in which to play. So I suppose it goes without saying that I wasn’t expecting anything from Double Star. And as is always the case, it was in this exact apathy that he delivered an oddly prescient and fun little novella.

You’ve got an out-of-work actor turned reluctant politician decades before Reagan and nearly half a century before Schwarzenegger. It predicts the pomp and pageantry of modern politics before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. Combine that with a bit of alien strangeness that would feel right at home among the works of Philip K. Dick and you’ve got an enjoyable if not slightly watered down beer.

Asimov said that Double Star is Heinlein’s best novel. This far into his not inconsiderable bibliography I am prone to agree with him. It shuns the easy appeal of violence in the name of an imperfect contemplation on just how insincere and overbearing political power actually is.

“Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong – but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong.” ― Robert A. Heinlein, Double Star

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Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray


The Diviners by Libba Bray – Available Here

At its heart The Diviner’s is an average adventure story with a touch of horror thrown in to keep the reader from feeling too comfortable. It’s got some decent ideas and a few good turns of phrase that keep it from becoming unpleasant, but by the end it felt so ordinary and safe I couldn’t even bring myself to feel disappointed.

It’s not bad. As I’ve said it’s an adequate enough story. An attempt at a period piece that tries too hard with too little to be legitimately transporting. Sure there are speakeasies, burlesque shows, wise-cracking thieves, and the eugenics movement even makes a rather heavy-handed appearance, but when the blank’s blank (most often the tried and true ‘cat’s meow’) is 40% of your dialogue’s 1920 repertoire, I’m going to start flinching in lieu of smiling.

Then there is my issue with the ending, the sudden and arbitrary use of the word ‘holy’ in order to properly discard the antagonist. It feels convenient, a hurried means of tying together this particular threat so that the remaining space can be dedicated to building up the inevitable sequel: a bigger more eviler evil to fight as our titular Diviners form some folksy form of the Justice League.

God, I always have this problem with YA. This book was given to me by a coworker who insisted that I would like it (I work with teens and I suppose by necessity should be more aware of what they are reading), but I’ve come to the conclusion I’m too old, read too many books to forgive things that teenagers would never notice. Were I fourteen I am certain I would have loved this book. I would think it clever, atmospheric, and relish the ending as opposed to being rendered ill-tempered by it.

“There is nothing more terrifying than the absoluteness of one who believes he’s right.” ― Libba Bray, The Diviners

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Book Review: The Dark Tower by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #7)


The Dark Tower by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #7) – Available Here

This book is strange. It brings the dark tower series to an end but it does so with an awareness that seems to call to King to take and try every possible narrative strangeness he can muster. It was visible in the Song of Susannah as well, but here it seems to poke at the edges more, trying things on, discarding them regardless of effectiveness and moving on to whatever whim strikes him next. It’s a great deal of fun to read because even when things seem to dawdle a bit, there is this paragraph or string of words that strikes out like a light, a sometimes nearly invisible exercise. King could see something coming to an end and here he seems to be trying to figure out where he is going next by using narrator-as-character as an excuse. By the end of it, I was convinced that it was a place I would likely enjoy very much.

The story ends and it is flawed, but lovely. It is not some great majestic piece of literature, but it is a curious and at times wonderful read that was worth exploring just to see something come together over 30 years and develop a consciousness unique to any other book I have ever read.

I started off disregarding King’s work. After this, he is still something of an enigma, but one I can definitely see the appeal in if the rest of his books garner this level of transparency with the author’s psyche. It’s like being told a story on the very rails of a human mind. There is no time for correction, the fear of losing threads is too strong. So you race, sprawling out words like literary exhaust, hoping that eventually your be able to tackle the damn thing that compels you to write and maybe find a moments peace.

Maybe I’m projecting. It doesn’t matter. Writers all share a common madness and after spending the last 60 days drenched in this world I can see it beautifully displayed in King.

“And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not, for no one ever does. But there was happiness. And they did live.” ― Stephen King, The Dark Tower

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Book Review: Song of Susannah by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #6)


Song of Susannah by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #6) – Available Here

Finally, we are back to proper pace. No longer strangling back in the rooms of the past or the empty pathways of a dusty, broken town, we are dragged back into a rhythm closer to that of The Drawing of the Three with a tripling down of the time spent in the present. The fuse is lit and everything moves with the fierce determined moral ambivalence of Ka.

The actions scenes pop the way they must, The Gunslinger vs The Mafia. Enter King and the creative bloom of a man who knows where things must land before the powder keg finally goes off.

The battle’s now begun!
And all the foes of men and rose
Rise with the setting sun.”

“The gunslinger said, “I used to think the most terrible thing would be to reach the Dark Tower and find the top room empty. The God of all universes either dead or nonexistent in the first place. But now…suppose there is someone there, Eddie? Someone in charge who turns out to be…” He couldn’t finish.

Eddie could. “Someone who turns out to be just another bumhug? Is that it? God not dead but feeble-minded and malicious?” ― Stephen King, Song of Susannah

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