Dan Sandman

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

22: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 31/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I found this, well-thumbed book, at my local library’s book-sale for 50p. It was previously owned by, well known play-write and storyteller, Alan Bennett. It was a first, 1978 edition and inside, carefully placed, were included several clippings: an obituary, from The Daily Telegraph, published on August the 4th; several pages of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver from The New Yorker, where it would have been first published, dated March 15, 1982; and an advert, taken from the same magazine, selling an “Audi Coupe $12,370 suggested retail price “[…] clearly, the quintessential Gran Turismo Sports Coupe.” Clearly.

The obituary opens with the sentence, “RAYMOND CARVER, who has died aged 50, was the master craftsman of the modern American short story.” It then goes on to give a detailed biography of Carver’s life: his marginal upbringing; his battles with alcoholism; and, eventually, his successful literary career. Today, Raymond Carver’s concise storytelling is appreciated by readers from around the world. Through his precisely written prose, Carver gave literary voice to the struggles of ordinary people. Nothing is glamorised, not much happens; what is left unsaid between people and implied by action is important: the meaning between the lines.

It had been two days since Evan Hamilton had stopped smoking, and it seemed to him everything he’d said and thought for the two days somehow suggested cigarets. He looked at his hands under the kitchen light. He sniffed his knuckles and his fingers.

The above extract, the opening lines of Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets, is a good example of direct story-writing. Instantly, the reader is introduced to the character and his current relationship with addiction. The scene is placed in “the kitchen light”, drawing the reader into an intimate, ordinarily domestic space with the character Evan Hamilton. The inclusion of “sniffed” implies an investigative action. The superfluous is edited: only what is needed remains.

I think that Raymond Carver is best read out loud. His forceful stories are enhanced, by sound and interpretation, when spoken between people. Reading these short stories out loud, preferably with good company, is also a good way of concentrating the mind; and, because every line written is important, these compact works of art require concentration to follow. Through reading this outstanding collection of short stories, spanning ten years of publication, I have been rewarded with many hours of reading pleasure.

I will always treasure this book.

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21: Chocky by John Wyndam

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 24/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

As far as I can remember, I’ve never had an imaginary friend. More’s the pity: I feel like I’ve missed out on hours imaginary conversation. I can remember having imaginary battles with toy soldiers, but these battles were all with my real friends or elder brothers – my imaginary friends must have been shy.

Now, I wonder what my parents would have done if I’d have had an imaginary friend like Chocky; a friend, neither male nor female, who’d been encouraging me to ask difficult questions in Physics lessons. If this friend then started to take control of my body and teach me how to paint, at which point would my parents start questioning my sanity? At which point would they start believing in my imagination?

Chocky by John Wyndham

Matthew is the adopted child of a sensible accountant and lives in comfortable suburbia. Matthew’s mother seems to spend most of her time knitting and Matthew’s sister likes stories about ponies. Everything is very normal apart from one thing; Matthew has an imaginary friend called Chocky who is asking some strange questions. To begin with, his parents play along so he doesn’t get upset. However, bit by bit, as the story goes on, stranger and stranger things start to happen.

Without giving too much away, what I like about this science fiction book is how it slowly builds tension. It keeps you guessing, waiting to reveal all in an intriguing way, and is a great example of perfectly concise writing. Short in length, Chocky can comfortably be read in a couple of days. I enjoyed this book and thought that it makes some very good, and still relevant, points about our planet. I was actually quite emotional when I got to the end.

Recommended reading.

20: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

In Books, Fiction, Romance, Short Stories on 17/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I’m a musician who loves to read books. So when I came across, in Swiss Cottage Market, a used book themed around music, by an author I liked, I was happy. Nocturnes is a collection of five short stories, written in 2009, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh book. It’s a romantically tinged portrayal of life, a plotted-out and nostalgic comment on music, and a thoughtfully presented work of art.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

However, I’d have liked Ishiguro to focus more on the interior world of the musician: the revealing close-up portrait; the mundane, daily, unexciting humdrum of struggling to make a living or harking back to glory days. Instead, partly due to limitations of form, Nocturnes presents the reader with, to draw an analogy, five landscape photographs, which, when taken as whole, merely represent an outsider’s perspective. So, although it was a good collection of short stories, I thought it could have been less picturesque and more cogent with its theme.

At times, the book is mostly concentrated on orchestrating character’s actions and ignoring their emotional interiors. And yet, perhaps, I was, as a reader, sometimes prejudiced towards impartiality. I may have became overly concious of the artist’s craft because I write, perform and produce musical art myself. It just goes to show, when you know about a fictional work’s subject, it’s easy to pick up on its flaws.

Part of the beauty of fiction is that it is just that, fiction.

19: A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction on 10/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce (hands)

It was a fine Bank Holiday Monday at the start of May. Children were playing in Chalcot Square; one toddler was pushing his shrunken toy monster truck along, flattening the grass that shone brightly in the afternoon sunlight. Dr. Sandman requested that we move into the shade because his neck was burning. Mrs. Sandman tolled me that, before the 1960s, the square was privately owned by its residents until it was made public by the council. The three of us were having a picnic, surrounded by millionaire houses and local famous people, ordinarily eating sandwiches and crisps. Along the road, Primrose Hill was predictably full of tourists out for a glimpse of sun. The square was much nicer.

Sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by picnic remains, a couple of things occurred to me. One hundred odd years ago, James Joyce wrote a brilliant story called A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man and here I am reading it. One hundred odd years ago, before the start of World War One (that British compass of time), somebody cleverly turned his life into art and got it bounded in a book. Here I am, with two of my loved ones on a sunny day, thinking about childhood, the Catholic religion, Ireland, and searching for meaning. Because of a book, written when my grandfathers were young men, I am thinking.

A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

Thoughts are fleeting things, less predictable than tourists on Primrose Hill when it’s sunny: books focus thoughts. Thinking about passing a driving test, read a book; thinking about playing guitar, read a book; thinking about how the internet works, read a book. Read a book, near a child pushing a shrunken toy monster truck, flattening the grass that shines brightly in the afternoon sunlight, read a book. Through reading, learn more about the world. Maybe, at some point, write about what is learnt. Put in bits of experience; add a dose of artistic licence; chuck in some entertainment; structure and edit it so its nice to read: become an artist.

I think this is more or less what Joyce was doing. You know. Creating fiction using real experience to, as Ezra Pound put it, make it new.

18: Spies by Michael Frayn

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 03/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I live in a wealthy, very nice, part of North London called Primrose Hill with my mother and father. We’ve never been rich, our house is in a row of isolated council housing, but we live in a posh area. Near my parent’s house, on a road called Regents Park Road near the railway bridge – where, if you peer over, you can see the railway line to London Euston – there sits an upmarket charity shop called Mary’s Living and Giving Shop. It’s well stocked with second-hand books and that’s were I found Spies by Michael Frayn.

Spies by Michael Frayn

Born in 1933, Michael Frayn writes critically acclaimed and commercially successful plays and novels. He started writing published work, as a newspaper journalist, at about the age of thirty and went on to release his début novel The Tin Men in 1965. His second most recent book Spies, written in 2003, was my first encounter with Frayn’s work. It’s currently being studied by A-Level English students in the UK.

Spies is a nostalgic book, set in wartime Britain, about childhood. The book explores the power and fragility of remembered experience; it uses memory as a looking glass to peer into a man’s childhood; it creates a multi-layered narrative experienced through the eyes of nostalgia. As the novel progresses, the reader begins to see the world from a child’s perspective as well as – or rather – from the perspective of an adult looking back on childhood. In this book, place is important because place can evoke memory and help to solve the unsolved mysteries of the past. By skilfully showing sensitivity towards memory, Frayn encourages the reader to play the detective attempting to solve what might have happened in the protagonist’s past.

I’d highly recommend this book to friends who like books and I’d highly recommend visiting charity shops in posh areas where wealthy people are busily giving away nice things like books. My top suggestions in London are Oxfam Books on Marylebone High Street, the British Heart Foundation in Hampstead, and my local Mary’s Living and Giving Shop on Regents Park Road. For me, charity-shop-book-hunting is fun, rewarding and often leads to an exciting discovery.