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Book News: 'Stoner' Created Little Buzz In 1965, But Ignites In 2013

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

/ Courtesy The New York Review of Books
Courtesy The New York Review of Books

  • John Williams' novel Stoner sold a scant 2,000 copies when it was released almost 50 years ago. An understated novel about a Missouri academic named William Stoner, it went out of print the following year. But through a mysterious, even alchemical process, Stoner became one of the most talked-about books of 2013. Republished in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics, it was celebrated in the press. The novelist Colum McCann rhapsodized about it in The Guardian, calling it "one of the great forgotten novels of the past century ... so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic." The following year, The New York Times called it "a perfect novel." But it wasn't until Anna Gavalda translated it into French in 2011 that the book saw real commercial success, becoming a bestseller across much of Europe. That success began to seep into the English-speaking world. Last week, the U.K. bookstore Waterstones named it book of the year. Waterstones' managing editor, James Daunt, said, "It is incredible that Stoner had effectively disappeared and wonderful that a wave of recommendation and word of mouth has seen this exhilarating novel sweep all before it in 2013."
  • Literary celebrations of Nelson Mandela continue, with Maya Angelou writing and performing a poem for the late South African leader. "Yes, Mandela's day is done," she said in a video released by the U.S. State Department. "Yet we, his inheritors, will open the gates wider for reconciliation." Meanwhile, the novelist Ayana Mathis writes in a meditation on Mandela: "That word, 'heroism,' like 'leader' or 'courage,' is inadequate. It breaks like rock in confrontation with the man himself."
  • In Bookforum, Heather Havrilesky compares literary contemporaries Nora Ephron and Joan Didion: "When life gave Ephron lemons ... she made a giant vat of really good vodka-spiked lemonade and invited all of her friends and her friends' friends over to share it, and gossip, and play charades. Whereas when life gave Joan Didion lemons, she stared at them for several months, and then crafted a haunting bit of prose about the lemon and orange groves that were razed and paved over to make Hollywood, in all of its sooty wretchedness — which is precisely what this mixed-up world does to everything that's fresh and young and full of promise."

The Best Book Coming Out This Week:

  • Published by the literary magazine n+1, No Regrets: Three Discussions is billed as "a book of women talking about the processes of becoming themselves." These conversations about books and life from women, including writers Elif Batuman and Emily Gould, feel at once intimate and erudite. Editor Dayna Tortorici writes in her introduction, "Women speak to one another differently in rooms without men. Not better, not more honestly, not more or less intelligently — just differently, and in a way one doesn't see portrayed as often as one might like."

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Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.