Friday, 18 October 2013

Recent reading roundup

I recently finished Stoner by John Williams, which had been recommended by Ian McEwan on Radio 4's Open Book and what a lovely read it proved to be. Elegantly written, with absolute clarity of meaning, the story of John Stoner's life unfolds as the pages turn.
 John Stoner is born to a poor farming couple, works on the family fields, and as a bright boy at school, is given the opportunity to go to college to study agriculture. Yet during a lecture on English literature, his imagination is awakened as by no other subject. He changes his course of study to literature, graduates and also achieves his masters degree, all while working on a relatives farm for his board. Stoner becomes a lecturer in English literature, marries a banker's daughter who is the wrong woman for him, and who manages to take over their daughter, while also pushing Stoner out of his own study at his home.He has an affair with a lovely post-graduate student, and has difficulties with the university internal politics. Although the story could be seen as that of a sad and disappointing life,  it did not seem that way to me. Stoner had his weaknesses, faults and disappointments, but he also had good things in his life , including self-knowledge. He seemed to me to be a complete human being in this story.

Clair King's The Night Rainbow is a child’s eye view of life. Peony  or Pea as she is known, is a young girl, living with her mother on a farm in the south of France. The story tells of Pea's relationship with her sad, grief stricken and pregnant mother after the loss of her baby and the  death of her partner, as well as the grief of a neighbour. Pea’s “younger sister” Margot is her constant companion and although ostensibly younger in age, yet seems more worldly-wise than Peony herself at times. The relationship between Peony and her mother is tenderly described. Pea befriends Claude, a neighbour, who has also had a great loss in his life. There are beautiful descriptions of a heatwave during a French summer, as well as how relationships develop and change between adults and children, and how both cope with loss and unhappiness.

To The Lighthouse is one of Virginia Woolf's best known novels, a story in which not much seems to happen, yet is totally engrossing.The Ramsay family and their guests are holidaying in their house in Scotland, young James wants to sail out to the lighthouse, but bad weather prevents the trip. Time passes  and in the latter part of the story, set ten years later, the sailing trip to the lighthouse is achieved. The writing is wonderful, conveying how people think, feel and act on different levels but at the same moment in time. "All that in idea seemed simple became in practise immediately complex" (page 172, Penguin Modern Classics edition) This idea is also expressed in Virginia Woolf's diary, which I had read just before starting this novel. I am slowly reading as many of Virginia Woolf's writings as I can, but only one at a time, as I feel they are books to be savoured and reflected on, rather than rushed through all at once.

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