Dan Sandman

Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

13: Close Quarters by William Golding

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 28/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

Close Quarters by William GoldingPart two of William Golding’s Sea Trilogy is the continued journal of Edmund Talbot, a Georgian aristocrat on a British warship heading to colonise Australia. As Edmund’s ship becomes encumbered by seaweed, an encounter with a passing vessel–the Alcyone–brings news that the Napoleon Bonaparte has been imprisoned and war has ended. Soon after, both ships are tied together and a ball is held to celebrate. Following this strange twisting of Georgian dance ceremony, driven by drink and opium, frightened by the ever growing weed, everyone on board begins to slowly loose their senses. And Mr Talbot, our young aristocratic hero, madly in love with a ‘schoolgirl’, starts to write poetry.

The effect of Mr Talbot’s second journal, taking the form of an historical document, is to transport the modern reader directly into those historic times. To smell the sea salt, take in the archaic conversations, observe the rigid application of a class system, and become gripped–pulled into a claustrophobic world where time itself appears to slow. At no point does Golding’s writing appear unauthentic, its use of historically correct language is spot on. As readers, we would be completely forgiven for thinking that these where actual historic documents, not the work of an author writing in the late twentieth century. Never does Golding allow his own voice, hailing from a different century, to creep into the text. This is the world Nelson and colonisation as tolled from the horses mouth, so to speak. And its a remarkable piece of literature from a Nobel Prize winning author.

William Golding served in the British Navy during World War II and was involved in the sinking of the Bismark. He had been an actor, a teacher, a musician and a school teacher. His wide knowledge of seafaring lingo–referred to as Tarpaulin in the book–might have been accumulated during his time at sea, as might his knowledge of British sea history have been kindled. Just as Golding drew upon his experiences as a school teacher to write his debut novel Lord of The Flies, the Booker winning author expertly used his broad subject knowledge to enhance his sea stories.

As a writer, like Joseph Conrad before him, William Golding was a complete master of the storytelling craft and a knowledgeable sailor.

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12: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 21/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan DoyleThanks for finding this book review, this week I have been reading about the world’s very first consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, discovering why The Sign of Four is a brilliant book, and thinking about how it might be read by a modern reader.

Visit Baker Street on a sunny day and you are bound to see hundreds of tourists queuing up for the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Perhaps the eager visitors are looking for the real history behind the books, or maybe they are seeking to relive the cases in the actual street where the detective lived. But sadly, despite having his own museum, Sherlock Holmes and and his stories are fictitious; not written by John H. Watson, M.D., but the work of fiction writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. More’s the pity, the world needs more intelligent free-thinkers like Mr. Holmes.

The Sign of Four was first published in 1890 and is the second Sherlock Holmes mystery. It is narrated by Dr. Watson, divided into twelve chapters, and as easy to read now as it was over a hundred years ago. As my mother once said, “that’s because Arthur Conan Doyle could really write well”. And it was my mother who first introduced me to the brilliant detective when I was a nipper. An important part of my growing up was listening to these stories being read out loud.

Because the stories are exciting, because the language is wonderfully descriptive, and because the result is a feast for the imaginative senses: the Sherlock Holmes mysteries remain a steadfast source of pleasure to this day. Watch them on television, discover the old films produced during the war, or best of all, pick up a book from your local bookshop or library. Like the James Bond books, the Holmes books are reliable British classics which have been released and reproduced in a number of different forms. But, as nearly always is the case, the books remain the best way to enjoy the stories.

Now, to briefly talk about how today’s more liberal British readers might perceive the Holmes books. After all, there is a tendency towards racial stereotypes being used as criminal evidence. For example, in chapter 8, Holmes pulls down a bulky gazetteer (geographical dictionary) from the shelf to suggest that the aborigines of the Andaman Islands are all savage murderers: –

[…] They are a fierce, morose, and intractable people, though capable of forming most devoted friendships when their confidence has been gained.

Perhaps such unfounded speculation, presented as dictionary proved truth, should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, as with the Bond novels – where the central character hates woman – Holmes is pure escapism at its very finest. The average Brit would have been excited by tales of distant lands and thrilled by adventures of buried treasure in foreign countries. Partly because most people would not have traveled further than the seaside. And to some extent, this is still true today, hence the recent popularity of the excellent – much less racist – BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

Another thing that has often been diluted from Holmes adaptations, but is clearly present in the books, is Holmes’ drug habit. I shall conclude abruptly with this brilliant ending to a most entertaining reading experience. Watson has just asked his detective friend what remains now that the mystery has been solved: –

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle’. And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

11: A History of The World In 100 Objects

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 14/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

A History of The World In 100 ObjectsI live near the British Museum: 40 minutes by foot or half an hour by public transport. Established in 1753 as the first national public museum in the world, the British Museum receives around 6 million visitors a year. It is vast, stuffed full of historical objects, and contains over 90 fully stocked rooms. In fact, the museum is so full of interesting things and experts that it is possible to discover the entire history of the world within its walls. That’s exactly where A History of The World In 100 Objects steps in. It helps to make the museum more enjoyable.

Written by the museum’s director Meil MacGregor, this book was originally presented as a BBC Radio 4 programme. Over the course of 20 weeks, each weekday programme discussed 5 objects, each discussion lasted around a quarter of an hour. An audio version of the show was later released on CD lasting approximately 25 hours (that’s 20 CDs worth of historical chat). I was lucky enough to borrow both the audio version and the book version from my local library.

The text has been slightly altered from the book adaptation, but the 20 chapter categories and 100 objects  remain chronologically unchanged. For example, part one begins with a prehistory – an Egyptian mummy, a Tanzanian chopping  tool and a handaxe, a swimming reindeer from France, and a spear point from the USA. Finally, part 20 concludes with a solar-powered lamp from China alongside a credit card from the United Arab Emirates. All of these objects span the globe, telling the story of people through things.

And it is a tale of war and displacement, poetry and science, money and religion, food and sex; a history of epic proportions, spanning the entire globe, usually tolled by the victorious and portraying the leadership – the Alexander The Great’s and Jesus Christ’s of history. Ordinary people are glimpsed at, alluded to as migrating masses, often not wealthy or powerful enough to be immortalised by historical objects, but nonetheless an important part of the scene. The history of the world in 100 objects: a beautiful patched quilt representation of life; a sweepingly ambitious attempt to make sense of the world.

I highly recommend this book to readers with a broad interest in world history and to visitors of the British Museum.

10: No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

In Books, Fiction on 07/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

No Longer at Ease by Chinua AchebeThe  third book of Chinua Achebe’s African trilogy is the most easily accessible of the series. It’s a short novel set in the 1950’s that takes place in Nigeria before the country gained independence in 1960. As in the two previous novels, the story is focused on a strong male character who is torn between two opposing ideological and religious forces. Obi Okonkwo suffers a conflict between his African roots, his Christian beliefs and his British university education. The resulting drama is a thought provoking critique, firmly rooted in a strong knowledge base of the subject material, and written with an unsentimental grace.

In the first book of the trilogy Things Fall Apart, set in the 1890’s – just as the colonialists and missionaries are busy overtaking and converting the whole of West Africa – our hero’s way of life and religion were uprooted with tragic consequences. In the second book Arrow of God, set in the 1920’s, the protagonist’s position as chief priest was undermined by similar governing forces. And in this third book, the naive Obi must learn to balance three element of his identity – African, Christian and educated – or be rejected by his family, tempted by immorality, and corrupted by money. His failure to resolve internal conflict and his reaction to external pressure, portray him as a tragically flawed character and a victim of a complex society.

Whilst the African trilogy is critical of post-colonial Nigerian society, it celebrates the proverbial wisdom of Africans present before colonisation. In a similar literary fashion, Achebe references a wide variety of different sources; drawing – in No Longer At Ease – from bible quotes, African song lyrics, the poetry of T.S Eliot, and the novels of Graham Greene. This broad knowledge base provides a provocative background for the scenes and actions within the novel. Therefore, the reader feels enlightened and educated, further enhancing the power of the story.

Having completed the African trilogy, I have been given much food for thought. All three books have been purchased – because if a book’s worth reading, then a book’s worth buying – and will be permanently displayed on my alphabetically ordered bookshelf. This literary journey begun with my personal trips South Africa in April 2011 and November 2012, and arguably much before those trips, at university where I studied post-colonial literature. It has resulted in a deeper understanding of African history and the problems still faced in Africa today.

Things do fall apart, it’s funny how we rarely change who we are, but we do one thing and another thing.