Dan Sandman

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

09: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 28/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

Casino Royale by Ian FlemingLike the overwhelming majority of people in the UK, I do not own a gun or have a licence to kill. Neither do I gamble millions of government money inside swish casinos, or drive fast cars in pursuit of evil enemy agents, nor do I make love to beautiful woman for queen and for country. Basically – I’m not James Bond. Am I?

But who is James Bond and what can the books tell us that the films can’t?

The real James Bond starts out Ian Fleming’s spy stories as a fallible human being. Chosen for the prestigious 007 position because he has dutifully killed two men in previous missions. Bond confides his doubts about killing to his colleague Mathis: –

“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Bond is given the Casino Royale job because he is an excellent gambler and because he is accustomed to the life of luxury. But his susceptibility to champagne and lobster, as well as his penchant for beautiful woman, can sometimes lead our hero to loose focus with devastating consequences. Essentially, the first 007 adventure is about how Bond’s character changes, from dutiful agent to vengeful killer, becoming a member of her majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS / MI6) with a personal vendetta against SMERSH. In addition, the experience he has with his female co-worker Vesper will arguably cement his already misogynistic attitude towards woman.

“And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Woman were for recreation.”

This is an example of clear writing that gives readers insight into James Bond’s thoughts. These kind of reflections are more present in the book, whereas in the film Bond’s reasoning is merely implied by the actor. Another rationale for reading the book being preferable to watching the film is that Fleming is a master of detail and suspense. Using an uncluttered prose that is both precise and punchy, this thrilling book brilliantly describes the glitz and glamour of the casino. For example, the rules of baccarat – a card game where the goal is to score a 9 – are given to help the reader understand the plot and to increase tension during the game. Every cigarette, alcoholic drink, car and gun make, piece of clothing, and muscle reaction is deemed important. Fleming’s attention to detail helps create Bond’s world, a fiction based on reality and yet far more exciting.

I think the enormous success of the Bond franchise is partly due to its strengths as an escapist story. Slightly two dimensional heroic characters like James Bond do not really exist, neither do equally transparent evil figures such as Le Chiffre. In fact, the doubts that Bond confides to Mathis, that nothing is black and white, are like the doubts that we as readers may have in regards to the unrealistic parts of the story. To enjoy this book we must be willing to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy a fast ride in a vintage Bentley.

Mine’s a Vesper cocktail – don’t fancy a vodka Martini, shaken not stirred, tonight.

08: Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 21/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

Hideous Kinky by Esther FreudHideous Kinky by Esther Freud is an imaginative combination of both fiction and non-fiction. The story is narrated from a child’s perspective and is autobiographical. Esther is a four year old girl who is far away from home. Along with her sister Bea and her Mum, Esther finds herself catapulted into a Moroccan adventure. Meanwhile, somewhere in distant England, Esther’s absent father sends Christmas presents. The resulting drama is both a moving account of childhood and a touching portrayal of motherhood.

The children in the book begin the voyage enjoying much that Morocco has to offer. Everywhere they see colourful places that open their senses and get to meet interesting characters. However, eventually the two sisters begin to miss the comforts of home and become confused by their mother’s actions.

The Mum character in the book appears to be struggling with her identity and seeking answers through travelling. It is possible to suggest, through piecing together a series of clues, that she is seeking both sexaul and religious comfort to fill an emotional void. Because everything is seen through a child’s eyes it is difficult to ascertain precisely what is going on, but anxiety surrounding money is frequently referred to, as are a number of relationships with men.

Charming from start to finish, Hideous Kinky is an easy book to get into. It is in addition a sympathetic piece about kindness between people and the bonds we share as human beings. I would recommend it as a short autobiographical novel.

Good reading.

07: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 14/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Brothers Karamazovs by Fyodor DostoevskyI must confess, that as I write this week’s review, I am merely on page 634 of this epic, engrossing novel. This is the second time I have not quite been determined enough to accomplish my aim – “to read a book every week for a year and write about it here” – the first occasion being when I attempted The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James last October. Still, as I did in the previous case, today I will write my thoughts and publish to deadline at 12 o’ clock.

This classic novel is exciting, intelligent, deep and action-packed; brim full of melodrama, mystery, debate and detection. Despite the intimidating size and potentially confusing Russian names,  Dostoevsky is actually well suited to our modern sensibilities. Minus the contemporary trend for concise sentences and precisely focused plots, this massively fleshed out murder story still feels cutting edge.

Composed of four parts and originally released in magazine installments, this 19th century book uses many devices that we would recognize from today’s soap-operas; for example, cliffhangers, reveals and who-done-its. The themes are in some respects comic book too, both in terms of colourful presentation and topic. There are drinking binges, wads of money, dual pistols, family rows, ‘domestics’, maddened lovers and a host of other delightfully entertaining props and occurrences. But Dostoevsky really scores points, raising his story to great literary heights, when he uses his psychologically astute eye – for example, to talk of the mother’s influence on a character – and his intellectual knowledge to discuss the topics of his time.

The result of all the above is a riveting good yawn, with many further depths that would warrant further reading. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky portrays human emotions and character motivation in a brilliantly versatile way. He peers at all walks of society, from master to servant; from holy man to government official. Not afraid to veer off from the central plot, he is as canny when talking about schoolyard politics as he is when discussing socialism. From reading this one book, if only up to page 634, I have certainly learnt much about the late 19th century and the human soul. Once again, my pursuit of good fiction has lead to history, psychology, philosophy, and theology lessons.

Only one hundred and forty-two pages – plus a courtroom drama – to go.

06: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

In Books, Fiction on 07/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

Amsterdam by Ian McEwanThis compact novel, a tragic comedy of sorts, is split into five acts. It begins with a funeral, moves on to explore the newspaper business and the classical music world, and builds up to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. The two central characters, old friends Clive and Vernon (a leading composer and a prominent editor) are both asked to make an important moral decision. Clive must choose whether to help a stranger in desperate need or whether to complete an unfinished symphony; Vernon’s choice is between upholding his principles of quality journalism or starting a scandal. In each case, personal ambition must be weighed up against public interest. The resulting drama is almost Shakespearean.

Careful now, I’m a about to spoil the ending.

Holland is famous for being one of the most liberal countries regarding its laws on drugs and prostitution. However, one thing that is less talked about is the country’s legalisation of euthanasia. This fact plays an important role in Act V of Amsterdam, which takes place in the dutch city. But really, the novel’s title is misleading, Amsterdam is not really about Amsterdam at all. This book is about London’s rich and powerful; it takes a comic look at them whilst asking the reader to think about morality.

In my opinion, this is a good book but not a great book. It’s written in a similar style to Saturday, my favourite Ian McEwan novel, but the time-space is less concentrated than in that work; there are two central characters instead of one. McEwan’s concise style is still there, his re-imagining of consciousness with words present, but there’s not enough of the best bits, the passages where words dig down deep inside. At times, the plot or the moral dilemma can be guilty of taking over from the characters’ inner world. Still, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of the author.

Almost great.