Dan Sandman

Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

26: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 28/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

Inspired by an anarchist bomb attack of 1894, The Secret Agent explores the dark nooks and crannies of late nineteenth Century London: shifty characters slinking by the Thames; revolutionary groups plotting in the backs of dodgy shops; upper class embassy gentlemen manipulating their subordinates – a brilliant and thrilling fiction based on a real-life story. The infamous Greenwich bomb of 1894 had its origins in Europe where anarchists had been carrying out bomb attacks since the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881. After the explosion, near the Greenwich observatory, a man was found with his left hand entirely blown off and a gaping hole in his stomach. Following the man’s death, police identified him as Frenchman Martial Bourdin whose brother-in-law was believed to be a police informer.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), a Polish born writer writing in English, who is often spoken of as the founder of modernist literature, embarked upon his story twelve years later in 1906. Conrad states, in his Author’s Note (1920), that the idea for the story was given to him by a friend. The trusted friend had mentioned to Conrad that he’d heard some interesting revelations about the Greenwich bomb. These revelations were to inspire the writer to create a fiction, based around the incident, but with imaginary characters.

Today, Conrad’s use of faulty science to explain his character’s inert criminality feels sightly antiquated. However, the writer’s choice to focus deep attention on physiology, morality and psychology was unquestionably innovative during the time of writing. Tragic characters, such as the unquestioning Mrs Verloc and the ‘poor boy’ Stevie, are treated with great sympathy. The reader is given time, through the writer’s intensely engaging prose, to explore the inner workings of characters whose life is balanced precociously on the precipice of death. As a result, the story both thrills the reader’s senses and explores the reader’s own morality.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I found this Penguin English Library edition of the classic book in Daunt Books. These editions are smaller than their counterparts and come in a series. Before I decided to buy it, I deliberately studied the sides of every single book categorised as fiction. From A to Z, I found myself in awe of books; their inviting spines creating a true sense of wonder within my soul. I’m not sure how long I stood there, engrossed in thoughts about books, but it was long enough for several customers to have come and gone. In the end, when I got home, I was instantly gripped by the brilliant storytelling of a remarkable writer.

Very highly recommended.

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25: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

In Books, Fiction on 21/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip PullmanAs the old story goes, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem about two thousand years ago. Following his immaculate conception, Jesus went on to perform miracles and preach his religious teachings to increasing numbers of followers. Eventually, Jesus’ popularity begun to spark controversy amongst fellow religious leaders who decided to take action against him. This disapproval lead to Jesus being crucified by the Roman government. Following Jesus’ death, a religion called Christianity was founded based around the idea that Jesus Christ was the son of god. Christianity remains popular today, and so does the Jesus story.

Speaking of popular stories, Philip Pullman is an award winning storyteller famous for his acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials. As part of the The Myths series, where several well known authors were asked to rewrite several legendary stories, Pullman undertook the project of re-writing the Jesus story. In the new version, it is revealed that Jesus had a twin brother called Christ. The two brothers develop a number of contrary approaches regarding how to the teach people their religious beliefs. Jesus decides to abandon his family and engage in a life of miracle working and teaching; whereas, Christ is asked to chronicle his brother’s actions by a mysterious figure who wants to form an organised church.

This book, which skilfully changes the New Testament story, could come across as blasphemous to those who regard the Jesus story as sacred territory not to be played with. As seen in an interview at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford March 2010, Philip Pullman admitted that the title of his book was shocking, but that “no one has the right not to be shocked.” Pullman then went on to give a rousing speech, answering his critics to thunderous applause. Furthermore, it has been argued by a journalist writing for The Telegraph newspaper that although the book is not Christian, the book is pro-Jesus.

Personally, I think that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ should be viewed as work of fiction based around an old mythical story. I understand why it might offend people’s religious beliefs to call the New Testament a mythical story, but I don’t see how else to interpret such a text that has always been re-tolled – think of how many different versions of The Bible there are – ever since its conception. All the elements are there for a good story – a tragic hero, an exciting plot, an emotional learning curve – and the story will go on being tolled and re-tolled. Like the legendary story of Beowulf, the myths of the Ancient Greeks, and the works of Shakespeare; the Jesus story will continue to be changed, turned into films and presented in new ways. These new stories should not have to strictly hold true to the original, and especially should not have to cater to the needs of those who might take offence. What matters, above all else, is that it is a good story, well tolled, that says something about us as human beings.

And I’d say amen to that.

24: The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 14/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

I should go to the theatre more often. Seeing a play live is like seeing a football game live: the action is close and intense. Regrettably, although I live in London, I rarely get a chance to see live theatre or live football. This is due, in part, to a lack friendly invitations, but mostly to a shortage of enthusiasm; the later coming from regularly discovering over-priced tickets for the best events. It seems that getting a cheap seat requires planning and organisation – the cinema is easier.

That being said, whenever I do get the chance, I love t see a good play being performed. I remember, when I was studying Drama and Theatre Studies at school, going out to The Globe and The National Theatre. And later, when I could find someone to go out with, revisiting these splendid venues; leaving with my mind having been transported to an imagined world and full of wonder.

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, is a play about putting on a play. Fitz, Henry, Donald, and Tim are rehearsing, at The National Theatre, for a production, written about a fictional meeting between the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. Before, during and after this rendezvous themed around ‘the habit of art’ – a metaphor for an artist’s creative persistence – the two artists are observed by their future biographer Humphrey Carpenter and interrupted by a hired rent boy named Stuart. In turn, the action of the play within a play is interrupted by the various comments and complaints of Fitz and Henry; often directed at Author (Neil), negotiated by stage manager Kay, and compounded by the irritable actor Donald.

Fitz (to Author) People will know, author, this is 1972?

Author If they have any intelligence.

Fitz Because you couldn’t be arrested for having a partner in 1972.

Author Auden is being ironic. He means it and he doesn’t mean it.

Fitz Yes. I know what irony means.

Henry (on the upper stage) Actually, you could be arrested for having a partner in 1954, which is why the police interviewed Britten.

Fitz Yes. All right.

Henry And 1972 wasn’t such a paradise either. ‘How old were you? How old was he?’ They don’t let up that easily.

Kay On we go.

Donald Thank you!

Henry Because they’re still human beings?

Through humour, drama and extensive research; Bennett has written a funny play that explores ethical and philosophical questions. Should Britten’s art be viewed in terms of the questionable relationship he had with the young boys who sang for him? Does Auden’s ‘habit of art’ bear any relationship to his habit of purchasing rent boys before six o’ clock? What are Stuart’s reasons for doing the work he does? What are the challenges faced by a biographer, a play-write, a poet, a musician, an actor, or a male prostitute when approaching a subject? Ultimately, what is the habit of art?

As I was reading, I found myself sympathising with the difficulties of creating or performing any artistic work – whether it be poetry, music or drama. In the world of acting, problems can occur between people as ego relationships become strained. Poets can be in a constant grapple to describe the indescribable variety of life – probably best described by watching a nature show on television. Musicians, with or without an audience, can be found grappling for that perfect sound that will deeply express how we feel about things – from the simple words of a loveable pop song to the hiring of quire-boys for an opera.

It’s fun being on the side-lines, but being on the pitch is fun too.

23: The Penguin Atlas of African History by Colin McEvedy

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 07/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

This concise history book, presented in atlas format, provides a brief account of African society. Inside are sixty clear maps, categorised chronologically into different historical periods, with additional drawings and text. The drawings illustrate various movements of peoples, territories and explorers. Alongside, the text offers a succinct overview of African history beginning with the splitting of, the huge super-continent, Pangea and finishing with the end of the colonial era in 1994.

The Penguin Atlas of African History by Colin McEvedy

This well ordered history, drawing on archaeological findings for its pre-history and established historical narratives later, works as an effective introduction to the continent. Inside, we discover that Africa’s story is the story of humankind: its early evolution, the rise and fall of great kingdoms and empires, and the massive population growth that continues to effect societies today. It’s the story of where humanity begun to evolve and where we have ended up today.

In summery, The Penguin Atlas of African History is an excellent book for someone (like me) who is looking for an interesting introduction to African history. I found it in my local library and chose it because I wanted to improve my general knowledge without going into too much detail. It is a short, well presented book containing many general insights into a fascinating area of history. Now that this book has given me a good general overview of a subject that appeals to my interests, I feel encouraged to carry out more further reading.

One book always leads to another – if only there were time to read them all.