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Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)
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253 of 258 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
On the first page of this fine novel the author tells us that the protagonist is a man of no particular esteem, a university professor who, after 38 years of teaching at the University of Missouri rose no higher than the lowly rank of Assistant Professor.

William Stoner came to the University of Missouri from a poor farm, became entranced by medieval and renaissance English literature and went on to get a PhD in that field. He was a shy man, and throughout his life had but two real friends. His wife was not one of those two. Within a couple of months of marriage Stoner realized his marriage was doomed to failure. Early on, a situation arose at the university in which Stoner, adhering to principle, earned the lifelong enmity of his department head. Another situation arose that offered Stoner a chance at happiness, and that failed.

One reviewer of this book wrote that he didn't see why anyone would want to read this book about a loser. But was he a loser? In an interview the author, John Williams, stated that he felt that Professor Stoner was a "hero." Surely this is a story of a man who really never got anywhere in life, his marriage was a failure, his parenting poor, and he never was really a vibrant member of the university faculty. Yet in some ways Stoner never gave up. Lacking innate teaching skills he worked hard at it, and became a popular teacher. He was never bitter, and, though struggling as a parent and father, he held on.

So there are two ways of looking at our "hero" or "loser." I found the book to be a wonderfully different view of a man's life. Certainly we can identify with him in some of our own failures, with our own wishes that maybe somethings in our lives might have been different. Then again, I don't read a book necessarily to find someone that I can identify with. I am intrigued by interesting lives that may be totally different from my life, or my fantasy life.

One final comment. I found the last 20 pages of this book to be heartbreaking. Being an older person myself, I am especially touched by the difficulties that age brings on. This is an excellent literary novel abounding with elegant writing. For me it was one of those books that I thought about for days after I finished it.
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272 of 283 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2003
Format: Paperback
I'd never heard of this author or this book until I read an essay about him in an old back issue of Ploughshares by the novelist Dan Wakefield. I was suspect, too, because I'm not one for academic novels, unless they're farcical, because the only thing there seems to be at stake in academic novels is tenure, which in my opinion, doesn't make for such great reading. Well, not so in Stoner. Stoner is a quiet look at a man's largely unheroic and drab life, "an adventureless tale" as Joyce wrote (and in many respects William Stoner, the protagonist, comes right out of Dubliners). The feat of this book is that Williams makes the diurnal and fairly dull activities of an academic utterly riveting. How does he do it? By not being precious or pretentious about it, which is how so many other writers would have handled the material. Instead, Williams believes in the integrity of his hero, for whom nothing is easily achieved, or for that matter, very attractive. Even Stoner's honeymoon is a fairly squalid affair, and somehow, as bad as the story gets -- and it doesn't get bad in a dramatic or gimmicky way, just bad in the sense that Stoner never really experiences any joy in his life -- we keep reading. The book is grim, yes, and yet it will leave you feeling oddly enthralled. Read it.
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99 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
In this remarkable, overlooked work, John Williams chooses as his central character an undistinguished English professor (Stoner), who lives a largely uneventful life teaching at a drab Midwestern university. Neither Stoner's wife, nor his colleagues, nor his students think much of him. Yet the degree to which Williams succeeds in bringing the reader to identify with -- and care for -- his most unlikely protagonist is nothing short of a triumph. The final pages, in particular, are sad, transcendent, and unforgettable.
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81 of 86 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 5, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Every once in a while, a worthy but largely unknown novel registers on the literary radar screen and receives deserved attention. Dow Mossman's verbally hyperactive but extraordinary THE STONES OF SUMMER is one such example, rediscovered a few years ago by Mark Moskowitz's STONE READER documentary. John Williams's STONER is another, revitalized by Morris Dickstein's June 2007 paean in the New York Sunday Times Book Review. A thousand thanks, Mr. Dickstein - STONER is indeed a marvelous tale of American life and academia in the first half of the 20th Century.

Published in 1965, STONER was the second of Williams's three novels. Despite the date and serendipitous title, this is far from a beat or hippie generation story. To the contrary, hero William Stoner is a salt of the earth middle American, born and raised on a modest family farm in Missouri at the beginning of the 20th Century. Through intelligence, hard work, and good fortune, Stoner enters the University of Missouri to study modern agriculture. Williams presents his hero as a classically naïve farm boy, utterly awed by the buildings, the books, the other students, and the general aura of academe. All goes well until Stoner the freshman literature class of Archer Sloane. Despite being publicly embarrassed by Sloane for his inability to explain a Shakespearean sonnet about lost love (which also foreshadows his own later life), Stoner nevertheless discovers his true calling in literature. He changes majors, obtains his degree, and ultimately accepts a teaching position at his alma mater. One of his few good friends from the university, Dave Masters, subsequently describes the young Stoner with dead-on precision as "our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho" - prophetic words, indeed. Most of Stoner's subsequent troubles in his professorial life arise from his quixotic insistence on intellectual purity and refusal to play academic politics. Although it takes him far too many years to learn how to fight back, he eventually proves to have some modest skills at windmill-tilting.

STONER the book traces the surprisingly tempestuous arc of Stoner the man's outwardly mundane life: friendships made and lost to wartime death, the ups and downs in a marriage of sexually naïve co-equals, the birth of a daughter, the triumphs and despairs of professional life, and the petty jealousies and irrational retaliatory behaviors engendered by academic politics. Williams presents the story of an intellectual idealist, but ultimately it is a story of failure. Failure in the real world to prevent young men from wasteful deaths in two world wars and Korea, failure of a marriage, failure in holding on to a true love, failure to establish a stable family life (Stoner's is classically dysfunctional), and failure as an intellectual in his chosen field. Williams offers Stoner a sole mitigating success as a teacher where, despite difficult departmental odds, he finds a moderate degree of satisfaction and life purpose.

Williams writes in a noticeably direct, matter-of-fact, third-person style. He minces no words in describing his characters, creating an environment that is at once realistic yet inescapably sad. The reader can only feel empathy bordering on pity for Stoner, his wife Edith, and their unfortunate daughter Grace (about whom one can only remark the misfortune that we cannot choose our parents). At age 42, Stoner "...could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember." What a despairing statement about one's own life. Yet, in the end, Stoner achieves a modicum of satisfaction and self-realization even as he surveys the unrealized expectations and potentialities of a life not so badly lived. He is a tragic hero, but a hero still and all. And a surprisingly likable one at that.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
Stoner is a truly moving work. Its brilliance lies partly in its rectitude, partly in its discomfort and mostly in its artistry. As reviewers have accurately summed, the novel's ultimately about a man's stoicism (which sounds truly boring) and honor, but is really a meditation on individuality.

As an English teacher I'm encouraged to teach Ethan Frome to the students, and would much rather teach this novel for its depth, complexity and beauty

Please buy, read and pass this book on! (I am a Northerner, not a relative, yet simply a reader!)
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a classic novel that I only recently discovered, oddly enough in my local public library's "new" section. Well, it was new to me even though it was written in 1965 and takes place in the early part of the 20th Century.

I find Stoner a difficult book to review, because I can't truly say I enjoyed most of it - yet I can't deny that it has admirable qualities. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that John Williams gives one of the purest description of the stoic philosophy ever conceived in a novel. The protagonist, William Stoner, has a life that starts out difficult and mostly proceeds from one disappointment to the next.

He has an unhappy marriage and encounters constant obstacles at his job as a professor. Yet through it all, he maintains a quiet dignity that could be considered heroic. Yet I have very mixed feelings about this. Stoner's passivity and stoicism can just as easily be considered weakness. Why, for example, does he remain married to a woman who only makes his life miserable?

Speaking of his wife, Edith, I found her character to be less than fully developed. She is close to being a caricature of a female character from a Victorian novel with her moodiness, constant minor illnesses and a complete inability to communicate in a normal manner. Her motives are unclear, starting with why she marries Stoner in the first place. It's obviously not for his status or wealth as she comes from a banking family and he is a newly hired instructor at a rural college.

The other strange related to Edith is that the point of view switches to her character briefly a couple of times for no apparent reason. This, however, does little to make the reader understand what makes her tick. As I read some of these scenes, i wondered if Williams didn't create Edith as a composite of several women who caused him grief. William at least develops a happier relationship with his daughter Grace, but even this ends up causing him heartache as Edith plots to keep the two apart. I found the latter to be one of the book's most inexplicable points. First we see that Edith has no interest at all in her daughter. Then, apparently out of pure spite, she starts spending more time with her just to prevent William from enjoying her company. Edith seems to exist only to make William unhappy.

When it comes to William Stoner's love affair, this is presented as a hopeless romance (again, typical in Victorian and turn-of-the-century English novels) where the couple is thwarted by society's conventions. As we see both Stoner and his lover accept their fate we can either sympathize with their fatalism or wish they had more spirit. At the same time, Williams describes this affair in lyrical and (for once) uplifting prose and convinces us that it is the highlight of Stoner's life.

Of course, we have to read Stoner with an understanding that it was written almost 50 years ago and takes place almost a century ago. Most people in that age didn't have the sense of personal freedom than many people have today. Still, some of the characters in the novel seem like little more than stereotypes. William Stoner's parents, for example, are so taciturn and non-expressive that they barely speak.

What I liked best about Stoner was the way it portrayed university life, including the petty politics and personal conflicts that are an inevitable part of such institutions. Whereas I found Edith's hostility towards William a little baffling, I found his conflict with his academic rival Lomax interesting and believable. Fragile egos and jealousy are common features of universities, as the author no doubt knew from personal experience.

Even Stoner's more mundane teaching experiences are described in an interesting manner. We get a sense of the challenge it must be for even the most dedicated teacher to convey his knowledge and enthusiasm to often disinterested students.

All in all, I had mixed feelings about Stoner. It's certainly a well written and often compelling novel. I found some of the characters and situations a little cliched, but that may partly be due to a modern bias. The largely depressing mood of the book also made it a little hard to enjoy, but it wasn't meant to be a lighthearted novel. Ultimately, I think your reaction to Stoner will depend on how much you admire the quality of stoicism.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2008
Format: Paperback
Ever wonder why the most eccentric teachers were precisely the ones who inspired you the most?

I have to admit that when a friend first recommended this "novel from the sixties about a teacher in a university English department," with the title "Stoner," I had an image of Elliot Gould in sideburns and army camo jacket lighting up a joint with dazed, anti-war students and/or hippies.

Originally published in 1965, this novel was a sleeper classic. Not as well publicized as books by contemporary writers (Salinger, Mailer, Heller, Roth, Bellow, et. al.), Williams' novel is rather a calm, but emotionally powerful, finely detailed portrait of a gentle academic soul from an earlier generation.

Writing in the clean, spare, down-to-earth voice of the Midwest, Williams gives us what he calls "an escape into reality," that reality being the teaching career and complete adult life of Professor William Stoner: his overarching love of literature and teaching, a loveless marriage, and his struggles in not-so-benign Academia. Portraits of the novel's minor characters are also sharply drawn, like Stoner's emotionally frigid wife, Edith, or his nemesis, Hollis Lomax, the hunchback head of the English department with matinee idol face.

Besides Stoner and scholarly writings on Renaissance poetry, John Williams published two volumes of his own poetry and three other novels, each in a totally different setting and genre: the 1973 National Book Award-winning Augustus, Nothing But the Night, and even a western called Butcher's Crossing.

Personally, after reading Stoner, I am eager to "discover" his other novels. Williams' use of language is superb in its clarity and not to be missed.

Warning: Skip the novel's "Introduction" by John McGahern until after reading the novel. It's a plot-spoiler, totally misplaced and near-superfluous.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
Ever browse a bookstore and come across a book being marketed as a classic -- except that you've never heard of it? That, for me, is Stoner, by John Williams. Stoner is the last name of the main character, whose life we follow from the time he leaves his small farm household as a youth to attend college.

This is a beautifully written story, following Stoner's life as he discovers a love of language and literature, and a love of place at the University of Missouri, where he begins his career.

Along the way, Stoner marries and finds love (in that order), enters into friendships and prickly professional rivalries, and seems at times to move through his life with a frustrating lack of insight. This frustrated me to no end as I read: I found myself urging Stoner on to more decisiveness, more backbone, more grabbing of happiness when it was within reach. Yet, I am left with the nagging suspicion that the Stoner we see in this book is more realistic than the Stoner I wanted to see. After all, we all do the best we can without the benefit of hindsight. We aren't guided by an omniscient narrator who can help us think through our next steps. If and when we find happiness, we have to savor it among our various missteps and regrets. Not that we can't be happy or lead happy lives -- it's just that our happiness always has a context.

And so it was that, finishing Stoner, I initially felt pretty low, sad for Stoner and his life full of missed opportunities and damaged relationships. That is, until I read an excerpt from an interview with the author, who himself asserted that Stoner "had a very good life."

"You never know the results of what you do," continued Williams. "You've got to keep the faith." And this is just what our protagonist Stoner does. Looking back at this book in light of the author's statements, there is indeed a faint glimmer of salvation for all of us as we take our tentative steps, and missteps, through our lives.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
I read this book because of previously having read the author's "Augustus" (also reviewed on Amazon). "Augustus" is so impressive, that I expected an equally outstanding performance in this book. If anything, this novel exceeded even my lofty expecatations. The interesting thing is how different this novel is in form and substance from the author's historical novel on the first true Roman emperor. "Augustus" is told through documents; "Stoner" develops through a straight narrative, with prose so lean, "plain" and effective it is truly remarkable. The focus here is not ancient Rome, but the University of Missouri in the first half of the 20th century. Augustus as an emperor is exceedingly successful; Stone at the end of his life is not sure it was worthwhile. Yet, "Stoner" works at least as well as a novel as does "Augustus." On top of that, it has one important ingredient not found in the other novel--this book will touch you someplace along the line, believe me. Stoner, the central chracter, is somebody you will think about and judge throughout the novel, and even thereafter. Was he a pathetic wimp, or did he have his priorities in line, or did he just take the course of least resistance at critical junctures in his life? Superbly written, carefully constructed, authentic in detail (since the author had spent time at the U. of Mo. himself (Ph.D. 1954)), this is just an amazingly effective novel. It also raises some interesting questions about the role of University teaching and those who practice it.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
As John McGahern writes in his Introduction to STONER, "If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms love takes and all the forces that oppose it."

In this deeply affecting novel, John Williams depicts Dr. William Stoner's life with simple, beautiful prose. Stoner dies in 1956, having taught in the English department of the University of Missouri his entire career. He makes no particular mark on his colleagues or students, and he leaves behind a wife and daughter with whom he was not close. His seemingly undistinguished life doesn't readily call to mind the adjective "heroic." Yet, this withdrawn man perseveres, and that counts as a triumph.

The only son of a poor rural couple, he seizes his chance to append to academia rather than inherit the farm. His marriage disappoints both him and Edith from their wedding night on, and their daughter becomes his wife's weapon against him, but Stoner doesn't seek divorce. In middle age, he falls in love with a younger woman, but he and she relinquish their relationship when they realize running away together would force them to, as Stoner tells her, " 'become something else, something other than ourselves. We would be -- nothing.' "

Stoner's most abiding love, however, is for literature. One of his professors awakens this passion that then burns on undimmed, although sometimes "hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous." It takes about ten years in the classroom, but "he [feels] himself at last beginning to be a teacher... simply a man to whom the book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man." This newfound professional maturity won't be allowed to attain full power though due to differences between Stoner and a fellow professor, Hollis Lomax, who rises to department chair: Stoner's integrity won't permit him to pass an unprepared student whom Lomax is coaching, and this impasse results in Lomax vindictively reducing senior professor Stoner to teaching freshman composition classes again instead of graduate seminars.

In his last days, "dispassionately, reasonably, [Stoner] contemplate[s] the failure that his life must appear to be." At this point, he asks himself, "What did you expect?" He reviews his life and "a sense of his own identity [comes] upon him with a sudden force." Stoner sees beyond the disappointments. He recognizes that a life lived with courage and love is a life well lived -- even if it remains hidden from others.

Occasionally, one wishes for greater depth regarding character's motivations -- especially concerning Edith's cold rejection of her husband. But this novel explores lives lived during the early and middle twentieth century, when many personal matters just were not discussed. The silent suffering of that generation is poignantly embodied in the repressed William Stoner. One may mutter irritatedly at Stoner for passivity, but STONER is a riveting portrait of a good, committed man who confronts life to the very best of his ability. Stoner is no superhero who dramatically overcomes all adversity, but he is an American hero all the same -- one representing millions of unsung real folk.

4.5 stars.
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