Dan Sandman

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

05: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

In Books, Fiction on 31/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

After The Quake by Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami, without a doubt, is on of my favourite contemporary writers. In this collection of short stories, six in total, the Japanese writer is on top form. His characters are given just enough detail to make them feel real, yet they are often placed in situations that bring out a sense of unreality. It is this combination of realistic people and strange scenarios, coupled with a love for referencing music and literature, that makes Murakami’s world so uniquely enticing.

As a form of creative writing, the short story suits Murakami’s style well. Under the theme of events connected to the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, each story is given creative space to wander into new imaginative territory. There are six twenty paged gems, subtle in their approach, shown through the eyes of the individual, allowing those eyes to wander freely. The stories encourage second helpings and maybe more, maturing in the mind upon further reading and understanding.

Like memories or dreams do, good creative writing stretches the imagination. It opens new pathways for thought, and imprints a lasting impression on the senses. It is hard to define what makes good writing, but we can judge whether or not it is present by looking for the symptoms. When a story is good, it is to be shared with friends and talked about with enthusiasm; as though it were a fulfilling social encounter. A good story sits opposite the reader over a cup of tea and tells of its deepest secrets in the most brilliant, carefully constructed way. In a good story, every word contains a point and a purpose, each sentence bounces, as good music does, with rhythm and artistry. The stories in this book, short in length, are all excellent examples of good stories.

Very highly recommended.


04: Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction on 24/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen MahA good autobiography – such as this one I found during a bookshelf reshuffle – will seek to teach and enlighten its readers. It has been in my thoughts for some time, that every person in history has lived in interesting historical times and that we must all have compelling personal stories to tell. However, what makes one person’s story more readable than another’s is the quality of the writing. Skilled biographical writers draw you in with their storytelling skills and knowledge of  history. But in a way, autobiographies present a novel version of the truth, based upon actual events, where real life becomes fictionalized.

The historical context of this life story is twentieth century China, the effects of Westernisation during the first half, the changes that occurred during the Moa era, and its position in today’s world. For the uneducated reader, Adeline Yen Mah elegantly refers to outside events as her own story unfolds. Indeed, this book works as a comprehensive introduction to the period in which the author has lived. Therefore, Yen Mah’s personal story is given extra political significance.

To summarize, the personal side of this story is about difficult family relationships and upsetting financial entanglements. It is told from the perspective of a wealthy family and involves an evil stepmother who would fit comfortably inside any Grimm tale. Throughout her life, the writer is seeking her father’s love, but her father appears more interested in the acquisition of wealth. Although she eventually moves to America, becoming a successful and wealthy doctor, Adeline is unable to reconcile her family relationships. Perhaps the process of writing, of turning her unwanted feelings into a story, has helped her come to terms with her checkered past.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in China. Like a good Jane Austen novel, it gives insight into the private lives of the wealthy classes. And yes, money can’t buy me love and money it’s a game (to quote a couple of songs). I enjoyed this memoir, all bound by immaculate prose with the words ‘true’ and ‘story’ sitting uncomfortably juxtaposed.


03: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

In Books, Fiction on 17/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

Cannery Row by John SteinbeckI own book reviews on a website, the address is rented from WordPress. Every Friday I publish a new book review, and every day I read a selected book. Because the world is chaotic, I attempt to bring order by numbering books. The numbers produced are rational and fixed to the calender system. In contrast, the books represent the infinite dexterity of words: governed by grammar and punctuation, ordered into chapters and page numbers, but nonetheless – sweet and unpredictable – words.


Cannery Row is a waterfront street in Monterey, California. The street’s name was changed, from Ocean View Avenue, sometime after American writer John Steinbeck first published this book in 1945. Set during the Great Depression, the book is a microscopic examination of the street; its joie de vivre characters, its fishy locations, and its place within nature.

The main plot (and there are many subplots) revolves around putting on a party for Doc, a marine biologist who collects sea creatures and studies them. In this recent Penguin Modern Classics edition, borrowed from my local library, there is an informative introduction published by Susan Shillinglaw in 1994. One argument the leading Steinbeck scholar suggests, is that the reader is encouraged to study Cannery Row – a tiny ecosystem – as Doc studies science. Evidence for this argument is found in Steinbeck’s descriptive language, how the author allows details of the natural world to coexist alongside, and interweave with, anecdotal human stories.

However, although Steinbeck’s close sociological study has a loosely scientific approach, at its core are romantic sensibilities and a desire to elevate his beloved home state through language. As the novel’s first sentence suggests: –

“Cannery Row in Monterey is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

And in a way, I feel that this short book, blurring between the lines of fiction and non-fiction, is a unique sort of extended poem: unique in subject matter, style and approach; poetic in sentiment, tone and compassion.

The excellent work of a truly great writer.

02: Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 10/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall SmithPrimrose Hill Community Library, located directly below my house, is now my favorite place to read. It is quiet enough for study, small enough for regulars, and run by volunteers. There are daily newspapers, neatly laid on a circular table with several green-cushioned chairs. All kinds of books, stacked into categories and regularly updated. Public computers and Wi-Fi access; free of charge and much appreciated. And best of all, there is the soft comfort of red leather armchairs to sink into with a good book. That’s where you’ll find me, I have become part of the library scene.

If you had, by chance, come into the library this week, you’d have seen me gently smiling. That’s because I had happily decided to continue following the ongoing adventures of Precious Ramotswe, the best female private detective in Botswana. And although Mma Ramotswe’s job is to solve crime, she is not drawn towards melancholy when dealing with African politics. This would be in contrast to her Swedish police counterpart Kurt Wallender, the creation of crime fiction writer Henning Mankell.

Whereas Mankell places his troubled characters in psychologically naturalistic environments to polemically open debate, on the contrary, Alexander McCall Smith’s equitable central characters are situated in heroic circumstances, left to balance intrinsic problems of moral philosophy. On the one hand, we have the detective novel as a vehicle for controversial political debate. On the other hand, the crime genre is driven towards a more buoyant worldview. These contrasts, between cynicism and optimism, show us how wonderfully varied crime fiction can be.

My personal journey begun, at around the age of  ten, when my mother would read me Holmes stories and we’d watch Poirot on ITV. Nowadays, my mother loans me Wallander books and we watch Sherlock on DVD. Speaking of which, I must order a copy of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for the small screen.

Meanwhile, somebody has kindly put the entire series on the internet.

01: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 03/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Midwich Cuckoos by John WyndhamThis science fiction novel, written in 1957, takes place in a small and quiet village called Midwich. Nothing much happens in Midwich, it is the quintessential conservative outpost of Little Britain. However, once a group of golden-eyed babies are miraculously conceived, unsettling events start to unfold.

Written during the Cold War, John Wyndham’s story skillfully dealt with government conspiracies and cover ups within the sci-fi genre. Throughout the book, the spectre of military intelligence looms over proceedings. Characters are controlled by the state, in addition they are controlled by stranger forces. As the book progresses, at a good pace, the mysterious plot is slowly and carefully unraveled, creating a strong sense of tension. Dialogue is frequently used to spark philosophical debate, to represent the intellectual views of the time, and perhaps reflect those of the author.

In 1971 Penguin Books sold slim paperbacks for 30p – such as this one I found secondhand in a library book sale. They are a great size for putting in your pocket and for enjoying on train journeys. Nowadays, books are pricey, rising far above inflation, and e-books aren’t much cheaper. I think these perfectly formed little editions represent a rose-tinted and nostalgic Great British past. A time before the internet when the library was still king and quiet villages slept in peace amongst green meadows.

A simpler time, unreal and never-lasting.