Dan Sandman

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

39: Last Orders by Graham Swift

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 27/09/2013 at 12:00 pm

Last Orders by Graham SwiftFour men are going on a road trip to scatter a dead man’s ashes into the sea. As the journey progresses, each man shares a back-story connecting them to the deceased. These stories intertwine, creating inevitable conflict between the characters. The road trip ends up being a cathartic experience that brings everyone closer together to think about the complex fragility of human life.

Graham Swift focusses attention on the Second World War, various manifestations of the British working class dream, and his characters’ attitudes towards sexual relationships. The writer does so by creating emotional stories about ordinary men and woman struggling to survive in the world. Swift’s characters are funny and warm yet prone to hiding their true feelings. This makes them ideal material for first person explorations of character: something which Swift is an expert at conducting.

The shifting narrative form of Last Orders can leave the reader with a sense of being lost. A character will be telling a story and then suddenly end half way through. It can be difficult to keep track of all the stories which some readers may find frustrating. However, some readers may appreciate the story being completed by a series orchestrated flashbacks. The effect of such non-linear storytelling is to create tension, something that can be quite satisfyingly resolved as the novel reaches its climax.

In fact, flashback is a device we’re used to seeing in film which could be why the book translated so well to the screen when it was made into the film Last Orders (2001). The film had an excellent cast of British actors and it entertained viewers with its use of a particularly London kind of vernacular. Unfortunately, I had seen the film before I read the book which slightly spoilt the reading experience for me. Seeing a film first will often lead to me having certain pictures, perhaps not those suggested by the words on the page, already placed inside my head. For example, nowhere in the book does it say ‘and in walked Amy who looked exactly like Helen Mirren playing Amy in a film version of this book.’

So to conclude, I would say as advice to a friend, always read the book first and then reward yourself with the film afterwards. And if you’ve already seen the film then choose another book because there’s loads of other good books to choose from. Books take a greater investment of time than films and therefore need to be nurtured in a way that shows love for their tunable pages. Each little sentence becomes a paragraph, becomes a chapter, becomes a story. It’s our imagination that is given the roles of producer and director; our own interior connection with language giving us the ability to mould and shape the story into something tangible inside of our very existence.

The wonder of the word.

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38: Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 20/09/2013 at 12:00 pm

Grimm Tales by Philip PullmanOnce two brothers called Grimm collected fairy tales and turned them into a famous book. For two hundred years the famous book would be read to children and adults the world over. People liked the famous book because it was about what happens next in the story. The characters in the famous book went on adventures in a world of magic. Nobody stopped to think about why they did things and nobody questioned how an enchanted prince turned a cottage into a palace. That would have been silly.

Then one day all sorts of analysers started to analyse. Psychologists scratched their head when they thought about a king who wanted to marry his daughter. Feminists wondered whether perfectly innocent storytelling was in fact an attempt to undermine womankind. A rich man gave names to the seven dwarfs and made a packet of money. And so the story went on for two hundred years.

Now in the big city lived a storytelling man who had written some big books about magical goings on. He had a good idea to study the two brothers’ famous book and lots of famous books like it and make a book of his very own. When he had made it he sent it off to the critical people who started to criticise. The critical people said it was very good and gave it lots of stars for being a very good book. The storytelling man was very happy and enjoyed a slap-up meal with his wife.

Later on, a musical-teaching man, who also lived in the big city, had an equally good idea to study the storytelling man’s book. When the musical-teaching man opened the storytelling man’s book something wonderful happened. A magic spell was cast that turned the musical-teaching man into a child again. Suddenly he had forgotten that he had lived for five half-dozen years and his head turned into a sparkly Christmas tree. On the tree were lots of nice presents that could be given whenever someone wanted to be turned into a child again.

The storytelling man and the musical-teaching man lived happily ever after in the big city.

37: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

In Books, Non-Fiction, Psychology / Philosophy on 13/09/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszAt the start of the week, I begun listening. Whilst playing the piano, whilst drinking a cup of tea, whilst swivelling on my blue office chair; the reassuringly deep sound of Radio 4’s Peter Marinker read to me. His voice was coming from the speakers and telling stories without printed text. The experience was going well but there was something missing. Why did I miss being in control of the words? Later in the week, my mother found a hardback and I was able to explore this question.

The thing is, reading is a conversation; an interaction between writer and reader. As we read, thoughts might pop into our head and take us away. It is possible to read sentences and not take them in. Listening is like this too. We all experience times when we are unable to listen because our mind is on other things. As readers, with physical pages to turn, we can easily skip back if we missed something; as listeners, usually without a rewind button, whole passages can be lost to our wandering minds.

When my mother gave me the book to accompany the audiobook, I was able to experience both medians simultaneously. This was strange because it made me feel self-concious about the speed of my own reading. There was Marinker, plodding through with his slowly intelligent baritone; here was my soft tenor attempting to harmonise at a slightly faster pace. His backing track ploughed on as my inner voice became crushed. The experienced and rehearsed radio presenter’s soothing tone was winning. I decided to return to compartmentalising – either read or listen.

One job of the psychoanalyst is to listen. The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz is about how the process of psychoanalysis can help patients to come to terms with mental health problems. Through his condensed reasoning of over 50,000 hours of consultation, Grosz successfully explores the concious and unconscious human psyche.

These short stories are about real people with real problems: a man diagnosed with HIV; a child suffering from violent outbursts; a woman in denial about her husband’s adultery. Each case is treated with delicacy and written about with concise elegance. Grosz expertly helps his patients to discover what truly motivates them to act in often bewildering ways. This series of true tales has a personal touch which is both sincere and stylistically succinct.

Recommended reading.

36: Schubert: His Life And Times by Peggy Woodford

In Biography, Books, Non-Fiction on 06/09/2013 at 12:00 pm

Schubert His Life And Times by Peggy WoodfordI found this book for £1 in an excellent second-hand book shop just off Chalk Farm Road called Walden Books. First published in 1978, the book is divided by topic into twelve chapters. The sprightly prose is accompanied by many pictures, letter extracts and lyrical quotations. Schubert: His Life And Times will appeal to anyone with a broad interest in the composer Franz Schubert and the Austrian classical music scene.

The Vienna born composer was 31 years old when he died. He was officially diagnosed with  typhoid fever, but may have had syphilis. A lover of song, he left over 600 hundred fine examples, Schubert made the German language sound beautiful. He also composed symphonies, chamber music, piano pieces and some opera. Prolific in his short lifetime, Franz Schubert’s beautiful compositions have remained popular for almost 200 years.

Vienna during the early 19th early would have been a lively place for a classical musician to be. Taverns and theatres were filled with the sound of music. Private concerts were held at the homes of wealthy patrons. The Austrian city, most famous for the presence of Mozart and later Beethoven, was bustling with influential music makers and music teachers.

Schubert started out by following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a schoolmaster. Eventually, he gave up his teaching to focus purely on being a composer. Bad with money and often to be found in late night taverns with his artistic friends, Schubert only reached his status as one of the great composers posthumously. However, as this enjoyable biography makes clear, it is through the tales from tavern friends that we are given glimpses of the composer’s varied temperament.

Having read this biography and wheeled away the hours listening to many recordings, I can conclude the following about Franz Schubert: Right up until his untimely death, the curly haired composer enjoyed life’s rich tapestry and weaved some wonderful fabric from its fragile embers. From jolly and tuneful songs such as Die Forelle and Fischerweise to the perfectly balanced Piano Trio No. 2 In E Flat Major, the sheer depth of feeling expressed within the music is Schubert’s lasting legacy. Biographers will write, film makers will produce, legends will be created and destroyed, but beauty through music will remain steadfast and true.

Beauty is truth / Truth beauty