Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

9781101875902_p0_v2_s192x300The saddest part of reading Kent Haruf’s latest book – Our Souls At Night – is knowing it is his last. When Haruf died recently, he deprived us of more stories with his trademark blend of philosophy, soul-searching, and good common sense.  Having discovered this author through one of his later books – Benediction – I’ve been back to read his others, but they are not enough.  I will miss him.

Our Souls At Night is a short book – only 179 pages – and easily read in a sitting, but digesting it takes much longer. Seventy year old widowed Addie walks over to her neighbor’s house one day and invites him to spend the night with her.  Louis, a widower and alone, accepts her offer, and each night, he walks over with his pajamas in a paper bag to sleep with Addie.  As they talk in bed, and get to know more about each other’s past, they start a relationship of trust and comfort.

When Addie’s young grandson comes to spend the summer away from his feuding parents, Louis readily adapts to grandfather mode – teaching the boy how to throw a ball, exploring the woods, camping overnight, even adopting an old dog from the shelter.  Addie, Louis, Jamie, and Bonny, the dog, enjoy each other and reawaken the pleasure of just having fun together, despite the snide town gossips.

Gene, Addie’s son, is scandalized by his mother’s actions, and demands she stop seeing Louis.  Why would a seventy year old’s actions be dictated by her son?  How could she give up her last chance for peace and happiness?  Could she risk antagonizing the only family she has?  The ending is true Haruf – leaving the reader with the reality of  choices, while offering possibilities and hope.

So many gems of wisdom dot the short landscape of this book:

(She) feels she has to be a certain way or she’ll be abandoned…

Most people feel uncomfortable to say anything at all…I believe they are failures of character…

(Marriage) is always two people going against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and drama and mistaken understandings.  Except…that isn’t true of you and me…

As always, Kent Haruf has left me with a lot to think about, and ideas I want to discuss…

Related Review: Benediction

Freshman Reads – Required Reading

9czrjGRcEWhen a good friend, and an alumna of Mt. Holyoke, mentioned Americanah as the college’s choice for the incoming freshman class, I wondered what other books were on the agenda for freshmen.  At most colleges new students come to campus ready to debate and analyze the book.   Here’s a short list –

See your school?  Read the books?  Have one to add?

Freshman Summer Reads

  • Duke University: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
  • Tufts Univeristy: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel
  • Cornell University: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • University of Pennsylvania: The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
  • Columbia University: The Iliad by Homer
  • Johns Hopkins University: The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Pennsylvania State University: The Boom by Russell Gold
  • University of Maryland: Head Off and Split by Nikky Finney
  • University of Vermont: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  • New York University:  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

and Berkelely has a Summer Sampler – books not required but a great recommended list: http://reading.berkeley.edu/






9781590171998_p0_v1_s192x300After discovering Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, I did not expect to experience the thrill of a new author with the story of a man who resonated with me – until I found Stoner by John Williams.  Maybe it was the descriptions:  academia with its internal politics; the students – some lackluster, some promising; a professor’s unrequited love of the Canon; or the hazy acknowledgement of professorial dedication.  But more likely, it was the florid descriptions of place and time – Missouri in the early twentieth century, and the wonder of looking inside the head of a man who struggled with life and love.

The first lines of Stoner assure the reader as the story unravels: Stoner stays in his job at the university for forty years, is recognized by his peers as well as students as an outstanding teacher, yet never rises above the rank of assistant professor.  For anyone familiar with the university system, this information is tantalizing.  With so many years at one institution, something must have happened to keep him from rising in the ranks to full professor – or even jumping over to administration.  And so Williams slowly reveals Stoner’s life, from his young life on a farm to a doctorate in literature, through a strange relationship with a wife, a tentative bond with a daughter, a steamy love affair with a graduate student, and an epiphany of honor affecting his career.

The story is slow and methodical, with pithy passages requiring thoughtful attention.  I enjoyed the immersion into Stoner’s thoughts and could easily visualize his surroundings. Perhaps this book is not for everyone, but for me, it was one of the best I’ve read.

The novelist Colum McCann called it “one of the great forgotten novels of the past century … so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.” The New York Times called it “a perfect novel.”

Thanks to my good friend and fellow reader/writer for introducing me to Stoner – “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of ” (from Tim Kreider, The New Yorker).  I agree with Steve Almond of The New York Times – you should seriously read Stoner right now.

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