When failure means success

January 3, 2011

I spent New Year’s Eve by the fire reading the last 50 pages of John Williams’ classic novel Stoner. There’s no better way I could’ve entered 2011, not because of the idyllic scene of reading by the fire, corgis sleeping at my feet, rather because of the message that arrives at the end of William Stoner’s life.

Stoner is the fictional character whom the story follows, from his student years at the University of Missouri, beginning in 1910, through his adult life as a professor there. A farmer’s son, Stoner surprisingly falls in love with English literature and gets his PhD. He works hard but goes nowhere, both figuratively and literally; he doesn’t even own a car. The university is Stoner’s life until his death in 1956. 

It’s a riveting story about heroic humility, of the kind the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes about in Seeds of Contemplation, when he says it takes heroic humility to be oneself. Such is the very heart of this great story, especially when Stoner confronts the manipulations of his calculating wife and his vindictive department chairman. Merton acknowledges it’s difficult to keep a balance in the face of such things, “of continuing to be yourself without getting tough about it and without asserting your false self against the false selves of other people.” But that’s what Stoner does so well, and why this novel is so exquisite.

On his deathbed, Stoner recognizes the failure that others probably see in his tenured career that didn’t achieve full professorship and a marriage that dissolved into indifference. But his success gradually comes to light and a sudden force of joy comes over him: “He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” What better epiphany to read on the last night of the year when one looks backward, and forward, measuring the success of a past year and determining changes to make in the new one. Stoner is one of the most satisfying novels I’ve ever read.

The monster in my home

November 29, 2010

It’s time again to weed the stack on the reading table. Take a reality check of what I will likely read in upcoming weeks. Enough with the “I want to read these books soon” stack and the “flat stack” that grew like a snake across my dining room table so I could work my way from one end to the other.

That snake, however, proved to be delightfully satisfying as I watched it shrink. Antonya Nelson’s Bound and Patricia Engel’s Vida got picked up rather quickly followed by A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr and then Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women. But then I started adding more books, and I didn’t like the ongoing look of the snake, more boa than garden variety. I’ve been here before. I nurture a monster then have to face it. 

I won’t detail the long list of weeding, rather share the highlights that I, Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita,  Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson got moved off because it’s not a time for them. (That was painful.) But, as it goes, remove a Man Booker candidate and then add one. Rose Tremain’s Trespass, long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker, as was Skippy Dies, now appears on the RT. Considering it’s a 14-day library book, it won’t be sitting there for long.

You might ask, why not read Skippy Dies instead of Trespass?  I wish I could answer that in a way that would offer a template for successful reading table management.  I don’t have it in me.

Speaking of library books (there’s another one on the RT, too), if I end up reading a library book, I’ll then scout for a copy for my bookshelves at used book stores and/or shows. The annual Dayton, Ohio, Bookfair held in November is a great place for such finds. 

Here are five other novels — in addition to Trespass — that survived the weeding. They are among 12 books listed on My Reading Table, a TLC page reflecting the high points neatly stacked on my dining room table. Some survivors have been long-standing titles on the table, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor

Only 12 books on TLC’s My Reading Table, you may ask? Again, they are merely the highlights and/or immediate next reads. Not reflected are books stacked on two other tables outside the dining room table. You likely have your own monsters to deal with. You don’t need mine.

♦  Faithful Place by Tana French
NYT book critic Janet Maslin listed this as one of her 10 favorites of 2010. Then I saw it at the library and checked it out. Faithful Place is a story about an Irish family with a mystery to go along —  one of the family members returns to his hometown, Dublin, Ireland, to investigate the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart.

♦  Stoner by John Williams
A classic published by The New York Review of Books, this is the story of a man who encounters a succession of disappointments. From an essay in the NYT: “John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”

♦  The Visiting Suit by Xiaoda Xiao
A memoir-in-stories by an author whose first novel, The Cave Man, awakened me to human rights atrocities going on in modern China. Published by Two Dollar Radio whose branding is “books too loud to ignore,” which aptly fits the work of Xiaoda Xiao. Also on the RT from Two Dollar Radio, The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning, which looks “too good to ignore.” Scheduled for February 2011 release.

♦  Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford
This terrific book has been on and off the RT, and it’s now back on again. The stop-and-go reading has nothing to do with my interest in the book, rather being called to pick up other books and to let it go for a while. These letters are fascinating, and they read like a great story about the Beat Generation.

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