Stoner by John Williams


This novel is set at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. William Stoner is a farm boy who goes to the university, falls in love with literature, and stays there for the rest of his life as a professor. His life is pretty sad and pathetic in a lot of ways, and it seems like most of the story is meant to make readers feel sorry for him.

The plot is concerned with Stoner’s love life, and with his academic job and some crazy drama in his department. In both arenas, Stoner is a kind of righteous victim. He refuses to pass an undeserving grad student’s oral exam, and is targeted by the head of his department for the rest of his career (over twenty years). That part of the story is a caricature of the pettiness of academics. In his love life, he has a bad marriage and an affair with a younger woman, which is tragically broken up by his university enemies.

I had a problem with the character of Edith, his wife. I didn’t find her believable at all. She makes no sense as a character. Her choices, especially the choice to marry Stoner and to have a child, come from nowhere and are unexplainable by anything in the text. She’s frigid and vindictive, with no redeeming qualities at all. Their sex life I found especially incomprehensible. Due to extreme sexual repression, Edith is completely unresponsive in bed, to the extent that Stoner is probably a rapist. Since we are meant to empathize so totally with Stoner and find his adulterous affair incredibly romantic, it’s necessary to malign his wife and portray his marriage as essentially dead. But even so, Williams did a poor job creating this character.

Despite the overload of pathos, there are some lovely passages, and Stoner finds his own life worthwhile, which is kind of affirming and optimistic.


Obedience by Will Lavender


This thriller is about a college Logic class given a kind of forensic assignment that turns out to be more than just a game. They are told to solve a crime and find a missing person who is supposed to be murdered at the end of the term. The author attended my alma mater, and I could recognize it clearly as the inspiration for the setting, which was kind of cool for me. The book is a mind-fuck, as you’re constantly wondering what is real and what is only a story. I’d call it the undergraduate version of The Magus, which is much longer, more intense, and complex (but maybe more sexist).

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.


Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.


Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.


The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.


The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


This funny, voice-driven novel is a mystery buried in an imploding family wrapped in a ranting email. The main narrator is 15-year-old Bee, a precocious, sassy girl whose mom, Bernadette Fox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Bernadette is brilliant but incredibly eccentric, an architect who had won a MacArthur grant, but who stopped practicing when her daughter was born. Her unexpressed creativity turns inward, making her anxious and self-destructive. I really found the obsessive way she worked, her creative self-immolation and her journey back to the art she loved, fascinating, inspiring, and hopeful. The setting is Seattle, where the culture of software companies and progressive private schools provide plenty of fodder for jokes and ridiculous situations. There are also interesting questions about the burdens and obligations of contributing to a community and being neighbors. This book features the best, most introspective and unexpected villain about-face I can recall. I really had fun reading this one.


I read a lot of books. I’m never going to have time to review all of them fully. To be honest, I just don’t have much to say about some of them. They weren’t so great I want to tell everyone how awesome they are, and weren’t so terrible I want to spew bile all over them. They were just…meh. Maybe I just don’t get them. I’m fully prepared to own my lack of response as my own deficiency, especially because the list includes a couple “classics.” I want to cross some books off my “to review” list, so here are a few that qualify for this one-word noncommittal description:

The Fountain of St. James Place by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Poison Principle by Gail Bell

Wayward Girls, Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories by Angela Carter

Howard’s End by E.M.Forster

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Still Life by Louise Penny

I could probably add more to this list, but I guess I’m holding out hope that if I think enough about these other books, I’ll be able to come up with more than a shrug. We’ll see.

I’ve posted almost every weekday since my return to the blog, but I know I can’t keep that pace up forever. My goal for now is to post at least weekly. So if there’s nothing new here tomorrow, don’t give up on me! There should be more within a week.

The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney


This novel is about four grown siblings who have been expecting to receive and split a large trust fund, but one of them, through addiction and irresponsibility, blows through most of the money his siblings have been planning to use to keep their homes and businesses, and to send their children to college. Narration bounces between the siblings and several other characters, each one interesting and three-dimensional. It’s a large cast, composed of the four siblings, their partners, former partners, children, business associates, and victims.

The characters are all very privileged, and that’s part of the point. They feel entitled to continue lifestyles they can no longer fund independently. The story asks what happens when privileged people are on the brink of losing their advantages. How low will they go to keep what they have? Sweeney examines the corrosive potential of wealth to damage relationships. At the end, the siblings let go of the things they thought they had to cling to, from homes to marriages to their views of each other and themselves, and somehow manage to survive. The book is tragicomic and affirming, a fun read.


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh


This short novel is an intense character study of someone who’s hard to like, but easy to be fascinated by. Eileen is incredibly strange and neurotic, repressed to the point of self-harm, but also judgmental and unpleasant to everyone around her, except perhaps two people she mistakenly idolizes (for a time) and whom she also stalks. Her life is pretty bleak–she lives with her drunk father and works as a kind of secretary at a juvenile detention facility. She tells the story from the perspective of an old woman, with this time of her life far in the past. She views this story as the time when she escaped a terrible existence and became the bolder woman she was meant to be.

The two books I’ve read that are easiest to compare to this one are Tampa, a sex-reversed Lolita in which a middle-school teacher sleeps with her male students, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, with its crazy, ostracized narrator. All three of these voice-driven books feature insane, transgressive female narrators, but also show how they are products of their environments.