Dan Sandman

Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

35: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

In Books, Fiction on 30/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Finkler Question by Howard JacobsonMy father is of Lithuanian Jewish decent and my mother is of Anglo-Saxon decent. I would therefore call myself ‘half-Jewish’ – although technically, because my mother is a gentile, I am not Jewish at all. Still, my upbringing has led me to have an interest in Judaism and particularly British Jewish culture. Indeed, last week, I visited The Jewish Museum in Camden Town with my parents for the second time. Unsurprisingly, the museum shop contained several Howard Jacobson books.

Jacobson is well known for creating witty fiction based around the problems of British Jewish characters. He lives in an historic part of London called Hampstead, where some of The Finkler Question takes place. Many famous names, such as John Keats, George Orwell and Sigmund Freud, have worked in Hampstead over the years. The hardback I am reviewing, given to me by mother, was bought in a Hampstead charity shop for £2.50. It has about 300 pages.

The story revolves around three male characters. Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler are old friends, the elderly Libor Sevcik is their former teacher. All three men, unable to come to terms with the past, adopt dramatic approaches to the future with humorous consequences. The insecure Treslove, resentful against his former employers the BBC and his own children, decides that adopting Jewish culturally practice will solve his problems. Well known intellectual Finkler leads an anti-Zionist group of Jews who are ashamed of Israel’s political action. Libor, unable to deal with the death of his much beloved wife, is spiralling down into a deep depression.

I enjoyed this book because it makes fun of people’s foibles in a laugh out loud manner. The actaul dilemmas of the characters – identity crisis, politics, mourning – are very serious but when treated with Jacobson’s wit, become trivially amusing. Life is a tragic comedy where suffering can be dealt with by making a joke about it. The past is a greatly misunderstood fabric weaved of a thousand different stitches. It is the writer, the painter, the composer whose role is examine this rich material.

Oy!

34: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

In Books, Fiction on 23/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

By Nightfall by Michael CunninghamGood fiction gives insight into new worlds: ways of thinking that hadn’t been thought of. It creates deep pools of conciousness and unconsciousness, conveyed through the storytelling craft, transported from the writer’s imagination to the reader’s imagination. And sometimes, if it’s good enough, fiction depicts a world seemingly more real than the one inhabited in the present moment.

By Nightfall is a story about an art dealer who discovers he has a crush on his wife’s younger brother. Although the novel takes place over a sort space of time, it uses memory and inner character reflection to represent a three dimensional world spanning a middle aged lifetime. It is an intelligent book, a believable insight into the world of contemporary art and a love story.

There is the love protagonist Peter has for beauty in art. His search for perfect objects and his frustration at finding himself wanting. These desires, at the forefront of Peter’s work life, are desperately pinned onto the beautifully young Mizzy who is Peter’s brother in law. Art is imitating life, and life for Peter is becoming blurred across gender lines. He is experiencing a mid-life crisis which has put his whole identity, as a straight and married man, into question.

Because of the brilliant way that Michael Cunningham writes, elegant and sympathetic, this book is fantastically readable and will keep the pages turning for hours. On the one hand, It is a simple story about the life of an art dealer. On the other hand, the book deals with the many underlying psychologically dynamic dimensions of an identity crisis. As well as being a naturalistic look into the petite problems of privileged New Yorkers, it is a panoramic screenshot of Cunningham’s home city. A poetic love story for New York that would make an artistic film.

Great reading.

33: The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 16/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Grass Is Singing by Doris LessingMy father recently purchased an internet radio which allows us to access thousands of radio stations from around the world. Searches can be made by location (e.g. Australia) and genre (e.g. Bluegrass) which makes it relatively easy to find new stations. Another feature of the radio is the ability to search for podcasts by topic. It was this feature that lead to my mother hearing a BBC World Service interview with Doris Lessing about her classic début novel The Grass Is Singing. Having heard about my interest in African books, my mother enthusiastically recommended that I listen to the author being questioned, which I did.

After hearing the elderly author talk about her work, I dashed to two libraries in search of the book. To my surprise, both libraries had several books by Lessing but not her first. And so, desperately wanting to get started, I headed to Primrose Hill Books where I found a slim and sustainably green copy. The cover has an almost plastic like quality to it, a sure sign that my choice of book is apparently making a difference.

Now, to talk about about this brilliantly written story. The novel is set in Southern Rhodesia and was published in 1950 after Lessing travelled to England. It follows the tragic story of Mary and Dick Turner: a poor married couple who nonetheless rule over a large number of black workers on a farm. Mary, who starts out working in a town office, marries Dick as a result of social pressure. Dick, a farmer who is useless at making money, is forever dreaming that next year things will be better for Mary. Dragged down by poverty, depressed by the ceiling-less house in which the couple live, Mary spirals deeper and deeper into a serious depression with tragic consequences.

Unhappy, poor and bored by farm life, Mary Turner shows great cruelty towards the black workers. She is given license to dehumanise her subordinates by white supremacist ideology: the horrifyingly racist ideas that justified attacks on human rights in Southern Africa. When the owner of the neighbouring farm Charlie Slatter intervenes in a failed attempt to support (or profit from) the Turner’s crisis, Lessing illustrates the need for successful white farmers to support failed white farmers who have ‘let the side down’.  This action is necessary because it supports the belief, underpinning 1940’s Rhodesian society, that black people are inferior to white people. Long before the servant Moses is introduced into the unhappy home, the reader is given a sense of impending doom.

The Grass Is Singing is a bleakly dark portrayal of pre-independence Zimbabwe. Its uncompromising approach delves into gloomy psychological territory which is enhanced by the theme of post-colonial racism. In the 1950’s, Lessing’s book would have raised many uncomfortable questions. She was covering important new ground, writing elegant prose and using the power of the story to make political points. Great literature – and I would call this such – is a vehicle for expansive thought, detailed discussion and enjoyment.

Essential reading.

32: Daniel by Henning Mankell

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 09/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

Daniel by Henning MankellThis eloquent novel begins in the Kalahari Desert towards the end of the 19th Century. Lonely Swedish traveller Hans Bengler has set out on a mission to find a rare insect that he can name after himself. The long journey leads Bengler to an isolated outpost where a traumatised boy is being held inside a cage. Bengler decides to bring the boy back to Sweden changing his name to Daniel. Whilst in Sweden, Daniel is thrust into a culture of fear and misunderstanding with tragic consequences.

According a BBC radio interview I came across, Henning Mankell spends half of his time in Sweden and half in Mozambique. Mankell’s duel-continent lifestyle has helped him to create ethically concious fiction based around the theme of immigration. On the surface, Daniel is an adventure story set in an often romanticised period of history. Bellow the surface, the novel intelligently explores issues surrounding child psychology, colonial attitudes, immigration and racist Darwinian misinterpretations.

The character Daniel begins life in one kind of cage, a physical prison. Later, when he is taken away from his desert homeland, he is imprisoned by the shackles of 19th Century European Christian society. Daniel is treated with perverse curiosity by the scientific community because of his dark skin colour. Bengler, the man Daniel now calls fathers, chooses to display Daniel alongside his rare insects. When Daniel is abandoned by father to live in a rural farming community, he is further dehumanised by the villagers and the village priest. As the child is thrown from pillar to post by those wishing to ‘civilise’ him, we are given fascinating psychological insights into his fragile state of mind.

Many of the themes of this book are relevant to Europe at the start of the 21st Century. Children continue to be dragged along by the whims of adults to negative effect, Africa is still suffering from the aftermath of colonisation, and immigrants continue to be feared and misunderstood. There is so much goodness to be learnt by focussing our interests outside of our own traditional cultural viewpoints. And yet societies have historically shown hatred towards people from marginal cultural backgrounds. It is important that we are interested in diversity in a positive way. In this powerful story, all Daniel needed was love and understanding.

31: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 02/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnThis book is disposable entertainment: trashy and fun. The story progresses, the pages turn and you want to know what happens at the end. There is little need for concentration, as the soap-opera characters struggle with their two-dimensional world-views. The writing is meticulously planned, constantly revealing the writer’s carefully orchestrated puppetry; the plot is completely contrived as though it has been written purely to shock; the portrayal of American society is shallow, over-simplified and forgettable. This book doesn’t teach you anything and will not change the way you think, but you’ll want to read the story through until the end. It’s addictive, like the throwaway TV chat shows it attempts to satirise or like bad pop music played in a supermarket.

As any gossip magazine journalist will tell you, resentment sells. Building on reader’s prejudices, fears and imperfections will create something readable to place in the dentist’s waiting room. As Nick and Amy tell their ‘two sides’ to the story we are thrown into a sexist world divided along gender lines. Old men suffering from Alzheimer’s are frowned upon with scorn whilst pregnant woman with families are treated with contempt. Police officers are portrayed as incompetent and susceptible to manipulation. Humanity is portrayed as immoral, corrupt and mentally ill to an extreme. The focus of this book is entirely negative: all positive feelings become dark and twisted.

But Gone Girl is amusing. Indeed, it’s antagonistic treatment of sensitive topics is enjoyable. If you don’t mind going on a thrill ride at the fairground and feeling slightly sick afterwards, this book will be just your cup of tea. And the plot is very cleverly laid out in a way that will keep you bewildered until the very end. It doesn’t have the compassionate understanding of a good contemporary novel, nor the fantastical sophistication of a good graphic novel. However, the first person narratives are bright, lively and engaging in their own disturbed ways.

I remember, when I was growing up, watching a British soap-opera called Eastenders three times per week plus two week-daily Australian soaps called Neighbours and Home and Away. In total, I must have spent approximately 5.7 hours per week / 296 hours per year watching soaps. Reading Gone Girl for seven days is the book equivalent of watching 5.7 hours of soaps for said period. Both feel like they’ve been written by a focus group and designed to sell.

Average at best.