Dan Sandman

Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

48: Rites of Passage by William Golding

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 29/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

Rites of Passage by William GoldingThere is a tradition, in English literature, of sea story writing. Perhaps this is because Britain is a relatively small island with many coastal towns dotted around its perimeter. Or maybe it is the United Kingdom’s Commonwealth empire which rose and fell on the strength of its navy. Either way, or for whatever reason, there is a great wealth of adventure stories set on the high seas; from Treasure Island to the works of Patrick O’ Brian.

So what is it that makes William Golding’s 1980 masterpiece stand out from the crowd as a subtle study of the human condition, not just another sea story? Is it the way that the form of the book plays with the reader’s expectations? Is it the bouncy prose style, perfectly replicating an early nineteenth century aristocrat? Or perhaps the various semantics of seafaring language undercut by the serious doctrine of religious belief?

Well, all of the above elements certainly make for an entertaining read, but underneath the surface lies a tragic story of Shakespearean or Greek proportions. Without giving away too much of the plot, Golding wrote a novel that starts out as sheer entertainment and ends up taking a turn into much darker territory. Like in The Merchant of Venice, it is shocking to see how quickly comedy can turn to tragedy. How, if as readers, we take the side of those who jest, then we must face the moral consequences if the jest is cruelly given.

Mr. Talbot, a member of the British aristocracy, has been given a governing position in Sydney, Australia. This adventure story of sorts, takes the form of Mr. Talbot’t journal addressed to his godfather, a lord of high influence. In bright and lively prose–exclamation marks frequently occur–the journal gives a detailed account of the voyage. The impression given is one that powerfully shows early nineteenth century British society, its rigid class system and repressed sexuality, in a highly critical light. After all, as Golding would have been well aware when he wrote this Booker Prize winning novel, the attitudes expressed by his colonialist characters would cause a dramatic decline in Australia’s indigenous population.

So, upon the ship, there is bullying, drunkenness and indifference towards suffering. What such ungentlemanly behavior leads to is a gripping and entertaining story with many subtle depths. Because there is no omniscient narrator, instead the writings of an articulate passenger, a man with his own opinions and emotions, the reader must use his or her intelligence to gather a view of what actually happened on the ship. Questions are left open to debate, answers only hinted at, and so the reader has a sense (appropriately so) of being lost at sea along with the protagonist.

I read this short novel, part one of a trilogy, in a few days and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a reward for my fast reading, I went on to watch the 2005 BBC drama series, based on the three books, To The Ends of The Earth staring Benedict Cumberbatch. Of course, I only watched the first part, saving the remaining two stories for after I have completed the trilogy in book form.

It’s always best to read the book first!

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47: The Third Policeman by Flann O’ Brien

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 22/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Third Policeman by Flann O' BrienI was handed this well worn book by a dear friend and have enjoyed it very much. As I have turned its two-hundred or so pages, I have been delighted, surprised and amused by the uncustomary imagination of Flann O’ Brien. If you are looking for something completely different to inspire your mind, something truly unique to work your intelligence, then this is the book for you.

This surreal and funny novel was originally written in 1940 but – due to a rejection by the English publisher Longman’s – not published until 1967. The Third Policeman was written by the Irish writer Brian O’ Nolan who used the non de plume Flann O’ Brien. It takes place in rural Ireland and is narrated in the first person. Its plot, its characters and its semantic choice are absurd in a satirically brilliant way.

The unnamed narrator is obsessed with the unconventional thoughts and unorthodox works of de Selby, regularly referencing de Selby in footnote form to hilarious effect. As the story unwinds, the world within which the narrator finds himself starts to become progressively more strange. Through post-modern thinking, where ideas are meshed together against form or cliche, O’ Brien is able to construct a parallel universe of strange occurrences. In this fictional landscape, the normal rules that govern us – gravity, time, rationality – do not necessarily apply. This playful approach leaves the reader with an enjoyable sense of dislocation from reality. An imaginative space between the words on the page – symbols and signs – and the images implanted upon our consciousness.

However, by creating a dreamlike world where supposed staples of truth – such as science and philosophy – are undermined, O’ Brien asks the reader to explore the unconscious and subconscious mind. In turn, encouraged by the entertainingly good humour of the novel, the reader is free to question the very nature of existence and the validity of academic thought to explain the explainable. As well as being a very funny book, this is a very philosophical book.

It is possible to pick up The Third Policeman at any page and to discover a gem of a sentence. This book is a truly original piece art and bravely defies convention across all twelve chapters. Nonetheless, it is not made of complete nonsense and this is a credit to the writer. For example, it is chronological (putting aside the irrational perceptions of time) and focuses on a central protagonist who faces a number of trials. I think that Brian O’ Nolan created Flann O’ Brien to free himself from his own learning and experience. Letting go of his identity enabled O’ Nolan to be daring and show great ingenuity. This is a strikingly original novel orchestrated by a well educated man and experienced writer.

Highly entertaining.

46: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Romance on 15/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

Brooklyn by Colm ToibinI found this well-thumbed secondhand book in a local charity shop for £1 last Friday. I wouldn’t normally have picked it up, but on the same day I had been out for lunch and it had been coincidentally mentioned. And so, believing that one should follow the unexplained rhythms of coincidence, I thought I would give this contemporary novel a punt.

In his psychologically acute style, Colm Toibin (rhymes with ‘the scene’) creates Eilis – pronounced like ‘Irish’ with an L for lollipop – Lacey, a young Irish character who emigrates to America in the 1950’s. In chronological order, in four parts without chapters, the novel describes a number of events in Eilis’s life as she moves from Enniscorthy, the second largest town in County Wessex, to Brooklyn, the most populous of New York’s five boroughs. Along the way she will become homesick, fall in love and be forced to make difficult decisions about her future.

In an interview for the BBC’s World Book Club, Toibin talks about how he wanted to take an ordinary character and dislocate her from the comforts of home to explore her humanity. In addition, he suggests that there is a secret history in Ireland of young people emigrating when times have become hard. In his quick witted and talkative way, Toibin expands on these points suggesting that today Eilis would be using Skype to plan a trip to Canada because she knows two friends who are already there.

Today there are over thirty-five million people with Irish ancestry living in America. This novel presents an intimate and realistic portrait of what it would be like for a young woman to emigrate to the states in the 1950’s. However, the book is more concerned with the subtleties of Eilis’s character than with, for example, the civil rights movement. This is perhaps because we are shown the story from the perspective of a passive young woman, with a thoughtful personality, going through an emotional time in her life and yet, because of her dislocation from home and her passivity, unable to express her feelings to those closest to her. Fortunately for Eilis, there is love for her in New York and she is eventually saved by love.

I enjoyed Toibin’s way with words which is well balanced between descriptive narrative, psychological observation and dialogue with strong screenplay potential. Indeed, Nick Hornby has already adapted the book for screen and the film version is set to be released next year staring Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo).

A good book that could generate an award winning film.

45: Stoner by John Williams

In Books, Fiction on 08/11/2013 at 2:05 pm

Stoner by John WilliamsStoner is a novel about an English professor called William Stoner. The story follows the events of Stoner’s life from his birth to his death; his work, his loves, and his loses. It is a deep exploration of a character whose fictional lifetime covered two world wars. The book was originally published in 1965 and was unsuccessful in terms of sales. Recently, following its republishing by Vintage Classics, Stoner has received universal critical praise and become a best seller.

John Williams died in 1994 and worked for thirty years – between publishing four novels – teaching literature at the University of Denver. Although this is not an autobiographic work, it certainly would have drawn on biographical experience. Indeed, Williams dedicates the book to his “friends and former colleagues in the department of English at the University of Missouri” where Williams received his Ph.D. The book is incredibly well written and therefore, everything that takes place feels as if must have been based on reality. Of course, this is a credit to the writer who was able to successfully learn and develop his craft.

The prose style of Stoner is clear, each word has been placed carefully for precise effect, John Williams wrote with a controlled elegance and mastery of the English language. From chapter to chapter, the form of the novel is structured with equal clarity and precision, every paragraph comfortably shifting, from narrative to dialogue, across a lifetime. Care has been taken to give the seemingly forgettable life of William Stoner a marked poignancy and an almost heroic tone.

I would highly recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in literature. It is compelling because it places a magnifying glass and a mirror up to real life. With its deeply empathetic reach, it touches the human soul with a delicate intelligence. Although it may just simply be a story about a teacher, it never fails to entertain the imagination. I think this book is worth all the current hype and I am glad to see that it is currently leading the race to win the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist.

Five star reading.

44: The Sea by John Banville

In Books, Fiction on 01/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Sea by John BanvilleThis is a book about memory that I found in a hospital whilst waiting to have a surgical operation. How memory shifts from past, present and future; how experience is constructed in a fluid way that over spills into our daily life. Here I am, making a cup of tea, but I’m thinking about the past and dreaming of the future. There I was, eight years ago, reading a book that had just won the Booker prize by Irish writer John Banville. My granddad had recently died and I wanted to read something that would help me to come to terms with grieving. It sits in my mind, alongside something I’m playing on the piano, as the anesthetist sends me off to sleep in the room with the surgeon’s knives.

It was either this or the bible, they always have the bible in hotel rooms and hospital television rooms. I figured, rather than brush up on my rather rudimentary knowledge of religion, I’d reread a book about an art historian coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Death, an appropriate subject for a hospital library – if such an ambitious term can be applied to a couple of moldy old novels, a copy of the New Testament and a Booker prize winner from the days of my early twenties. Why do people give all their best books to charity shops when places like hospital wards would benefit hugely from an influx of good books to read. Patients, by their very nature, certainly do have the time to wait and to read.

But anyway, dear readers, there are a couple of key features, in regards to this book, that might be of interested, of which I will now share. Firstly, The Sea by John Banville is not structured in chronological order and does not contain chapters. Secondly, it does contain lots of long words and at times I was not entirely sure what was happening in the story. Because of these challenging features, the reading experience was best appreciated when I read in big chunks and allowed my mind to let go of convention. Happily, as the story unravels, all is revealed as the book reaches its symphonic climax.

Because this book, and other books written in a free flowing style, encourage me, as a reader, to be swept away with language, I feel my powers of concentration become absorbed when reading such books. In a way that poetry can do, but on a much grander scale, the rhythm and music of the English language is given license to shine as the plot becomes less important. The story may be one of extraordinary events in an ordinary life – there are no gun-slinging heroes or fairy-tale princesses here – but the story is given an exciting pace and emotional gravity by the writer’s mastery of form and language. Time becomes nonlinear as experience and memory shift from paragraph to paragraph.

So, as I lay in the hospital ward reading a book from my past, my thoughts drifted from the words on the page, the sounds of the ward and my own wandering conscious memories and future projections. The surgical operation, the removal of two benign lumps from my neck, one four centimeters in diameter, turned out to a success. The surgeon, with the aid of a computer, managed to completely miss a vulnerable nerve connected to my shoulder and skillfully cut out the offending lumps. As a bonus and aside to the main action, my stay in hospital led to the rediscovery of The Sea by John Banville; a book that resonates towards something resembling a humanly emotional landscape.

Lying in bed as a patient, this book was my joy and comfort.