6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to ‘You Belong Here’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoë Heller (2003)

This is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog. I read it in one sitting and described it as a “cracking read”. Essentially it’s two intertwined stories about two very different relationships: the secret and scandalous love affair between a teacher, Sheba, and her 15-year-old pupil; and the developing friendship between Sheba and her confidante, Barbara, a history teacher at the same school.

The Best Kind of People

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall (2016)

Another novel about sexual misconduct at a school, this one was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2016. The book explores the outfall on three members of a family, whose patriarch, George Woodbury, a popular science teacher, is accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip.

‘Vladímír’ by ulia May Jonas (2022)

This is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier. But the narrator has her own sexual picaddilloes and develops an obsession with  a new male colleague, Vladímír, which highlights timely issues about power and consent.

‘Stoner’ by John Williams (1965)

Another campus novel, Stoner charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later, covering his career, which becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor as time goes on, and a loveless marriage that falls apart.

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin (2008)

Marriage between a young academic couple forms the major focus of this compelling novel which covers a 15-year-period, from the pair’s college courtship to the onset of middle-age. It’s essentially a novel about domesticity, and how easily we fall into it, but it’s also a story about friendship and how  life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad (2012)

Another portrait of a marriage, Everybody has Everything is about what happens when a happily married couple — a high-flying corporate lawyer and an out-of-work documentary filmmaker — have parenthood unexpectedly thrust upon them when a friend’s toddler is left in their care. The tensions come to the fore because one is ambivalent about parenthood while the other embraces it with enthusiaism.

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed (2018)

The long-lasting impact that parents can have on their children forms the hub of this brilliantly written novel, which spans more than 40 years. It tells the story of Jen and Steven who meet as teenagers, marry young and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the impact the divorce has on their three children who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student to a novel that explores the long-lasting impact of a divorce on three children well into adulthood, via stories about sex scandals on campus, academic life and marriages under stress. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, Fiction, John Williams, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, USA, Vintage

‘Stoner: A Novel’ by John Williams

Vintage Classics edition, published 2003

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 278 pages; 2003.

In the introduction to my copy of  John Williams’ Stoner, Irish writer John McGahern says the one central idea of this novel is love: “The many forms love takes and all the forms that oppose it.”

But the message I took from it is to not be afraid to follow your passions, to stay true to yourself, to steer your own course and not fall under the influence of toxic people. This applies in all facets of life, whether love, work or play.

William Stoner, the protagonist in this novel, steers his own course when it concerns his career but lets others get the better of him in his personal life. It makes for a sometimes frustrating read, not least because you want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him NOT TO BE SO PASSIVE! Yet this is a wise and wonderful book about life and love on — and off — campus in the early part of the 20th century.

Vintage Classics edition, published 2012

A rediscovered classic

First published in 1965, Stoner was “rediscovered” in the early 2000s and became THE must-read book for bloggers circa 2005, which is when I acquired my copy. It has since gone through another mini revival, in 2012, when Vintage reissued it again. By my reckoning it’s about time for another comeback, as it were.

The story charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later.

It largely focuses on Stoner’s career, which starts off full of promise and vigour but as the years wear on becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor, Hollis Lomax, and contrasts this with his married home life, which also starts off promising but becomes toxic even before the honeymoon is over.

It’s written in a coolly detached manner but is rich in human insights and universal truths. There’s an intensity to everything that Stoner does, whether that be marriage or study or having an affair or hanging out with his beloved daughter. And always — always! — there’s a commitment to honesty.

A love of literature

When the book begins, Stoner is heading to the University of Missouri to study agriculture so that he can run the family farm when he graduates. However, in second year, that plan goes awry when he switches to literature, where a whole new world opens up to him. Later, his mentor, English instructor Archie Sloane, pulls him aside and suggests he stay on to do his Master of Arts:

“[…] after which you would probably be able to teach while you worked towards your doctorate. If that sort of thing would interest you at all?”
Stoner drew back. “What do you mean?” he asked and heard something like fear in his voice.
Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stoner saw the lines on the long, thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Which is exactly what happens. Previously a rather lonely, introverted person, as a tutor in the English Department he finds a kind of solace and develops friendships with other educated men who are his equals. Sadly, his best friend David Masters is killed on the battlefields of France during the Great War (Stoner refuses to sign up), a relationship he mourns long into the future.

And this, essentially, becomes the pattern of Stoner’s life: he finds something he loves, then it is either lost or becomes damaged or lessened in some way.

Case in point: his marriage to the beautiful and privileged Edith Bostwick, the daughter of a banker, who grew up in a big house with servants, turns sour very quickly. Edith, he discovers on the night of their wedding, is not interested in sex, and when they’re installed in a home of their own reveals herself to be a demanding and manipulative wife, encouraging him to buy property beyond his means, moving his study (without asking) into a poky glassed-in sun porch because she wants to use his room for her twin hobbies of painting and sculpture. Later, she uses their young daughter, Grace, as a way to hurt her husband even further.

Second case in point: his affair with Katherine Driscoll, a student in her late 20s, who asks him for feedback on her dissertation. The pair fall in love but the relationship comes to an abrupt end when its discovery is used against him as a form of blackmail by his rival in the English department. He never quite gets over this loss.

Anyway, you get the idea… Stoner’s personal life is pockmarked with these losses and tragedies, and these occasionally impinge on his career, which is, itself, plagued by political infighting and office dramas. Even when he nears retirement age, his desire to work beyond that has to be relinquished through events not of his own making.

Life of a lonely man

It’s easy to come away from Stoner thinking what a sad and tragic — and ultimately lonely — life he lead. Yet I never felt sorry for him; I simply wanted him to stand up for himself, to stop being so nice to his wife, to help his daughter when she needs it most, to push back against all the forces trying to keep him down.

Do we make rods for our own backs? In Stoner’s case, yes, that’s probably true.

But despite all that, Stoner is also an admirable person, not least the love he has for his daughter (although his inaction to help her out as an adult is questionable). Equally, his passion for literature and language, his dedication to his work and his desire to uphold academic standards against the face of interpersonal corruption is commendable.

As a whole, Stoner is psychologically compelling, tender, passionate and wise. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it.

The 1965 Club logoThis is my 16th book for #TBR40. For some reason I have two copies of this book — the Vintage Classics edition published in 2003 (purchased in the wake of “blogger buzz” circa 2005) and the reprinted edition from 2012. Mr Reading Matters also has a Kindle edition, which is the version I read.

This review also forms my contribution to the #1965Club run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings. I wrote a little bit about the club here.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.