Dan Sandman

Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

17: The Porcupine by Julian Barnes

In Books, Fiction on 25/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

OThe Porcupine by Julian Barnesne of my favourite things about being a Londoner is the wide variety of charity shops. Every High Street seems to have at least one, often several, of these voluntarily staffed wonders full of clothes, cups, toys and trinkets. The best bit is that charity shops always sell second-hand books, occasional charity shops might even become well stocked specialist book-charity-shops. One such example is the Oxfam Books where I found this Julian Barnes novella whilst passing through Ealing (West London). I had just seen Barnes being interviewed by Mark Lawson for the BBC and wanted to try one of his books for the first time. This intelligent and entertaining satire would work as a good introduction.

The story is set in a fictional Soviet satellite state during the democratisation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall has collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev has been pushing for political change, and the recently deposed president of thirty years Stoyo Petkanov is about to be put on trial. The televised courtroom proceedings will be an opportunity for the country’s people to purge themselves of the past, but also a chance for the appalling Petkanov to defend it. What ensues is a thrilling, at times shocking, drama full of excitement and swear words.

The Porcupine is an intelligently conceived attack on the failings of Soviet ruled communistic states before what Barnes calls ‘the changes’. Based on the longest running Bulgarian president in history Todor Zhivkov, Barnes’ horrific creation Petkanov is a highly aggressive and egotistical character; an extremely powerful individual and a corrupt villain. He must be handled with porcupine gloves, like the rodent with the sharp spines ready to defend itself from predators.

My first encounter with Barnes’ writing has been enjoyable. I think his style has the clarity of George Orwell coupled with Orwell’s political punch. And although Orwell would have perhaps been against Barnes’ use of rude words, the expletives only add to the work’s humour. The Porcupine is a sharply funny book, morally concerned with what allows us to function as human individuals and as part of a wider society.

A good charity shop find and very worth reading.

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16: Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 18/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous HuxleyWritten in 1925, in the same year as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and between two world wars, Those Barren Leaves is a brilliantly cynical and satirically comic novel. Aldous Huxley was on top intellectual form; quoting French and Latin, referencing everything from Tolstoy to Michelangelo, and playing with language to the highest degree. Wielding his pen as a sword, Huxley sends up the artistic elite – of which he was a member – with incredible verve and technical skill. At its core are the compassionate ideas that would later lead to his most famous work Brave New World; humanistic and pacifist values coupled with a prophetic concern for the future of humankind.

In sunny Italy, several characters gather for an evening at Mrs. Aldwinkle’s held within her palace. The guests are an insecure novelist, a preaching politician, an accomplished womaniser, two naive and charming lovers, and later a skeptical poet. As the plots of several love affairs intertwine, the result is an excellent social comedy and a poignant critique of privileged society. Each character is satirically treated in the novel, often simply when they are giving a speech, and for today’s reader, the result is a humorous look back to the jazz age.

So called the Roaring Twenties, this was a boom time before the bust of the great depression in the 1930’s. Wealthy members of society – and in Britain this often meant those of an aristocratic elite – performed rigid roles within a relatively immobile social hierarchy. Exorbitant mansions, such as that owned by Mrs Aldwinkle or indeed by Jay Gatsby, have often been portrayed in literature as hives of decadence and hypocrisy. What is particularly prophetic about both Huxley’s and Fitzgerald’s works, is the unsettling feeling that the jazz band are about to end with a terrifying crash.

That final discordant clash before war.

15: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

In Books, Fiction on 11/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Pearl by John SteinbeckThe Pearl by John Steinbeck is an elegantly crafted, concisely written parable about the corruptive powers of civilised society. Set in Mexico, in a poor part of town, the story focusses on the fate of Kino, an innocent and illiterate pearl diver. During the opening chapter, Kino’s baby boy Coyotito is taken ill by a scorpion bite. When Kino’s wife Juana seeks the help of an unsympathetic colonialist doctor, the doctor rejects the patient with the following words.

“Have I nothing better to do than cure insect bites for ‘little Indians’? I am a doctor, not a veterinary.”

As a poor and uneducated member of early twentieth century Mexican society, Kino is powerless and suffers from colonial prejudice. The cruel and dehumanising words of the doctor illustrate Kino’s debilitating position outside of civilised society. Kino’s dream is to become rich and to pay for his son’s education, therefore releasing Coyotito from poverty. And so, when at the end of chapter 2, Kino skilfully dives from his boat and finds a pearl “as large as a sea-gull’s egg. […] The greatest pearl in the world”, he is optimistic. However, as the novella progresses, Kino’s optimism is shattered by corrupt merchants and stalking thieves.

I enjoyed reading this short book and was moved by Steinbeck’s storytelling skills and descriptive powers. There is a musical sadness at the core of the work, but also a sincerely held moral to the story with biblical reference to the Pearl of Great Price. Persecuted by the American state during the Cold War and attacked for being unpatriotic, I think Steinbeck is questioning the moral values of the American dream. The Pearl beautifully illustrates the potentially dangerous influence of capitalist ideals upon a town and upon a people.

Essential and accessible.

14: I’m The King of The Castle by Susan Hill

In Books, Fiction, Horror on 04/04/2014 at 11:00 am

I'm The King of The Castle by Susan HillHorror films, such as The Omen, Child’d Play and The Shining, often involve evil children. It is frightening when young people – traditionally portrayed as innocents – take on psychopathic traits in stories.  I’m The King of The Castle by Susan Hill, first published in 1970, is one such horror story. However, unlike the Hollywood movies, or the novels of Stephen King, the supernatural does not contribute to the horror. Instead, Hill draws upon psychological fear, the crazed traits of a bully, and the anxieties and tensions between characters, to create a dark and evocative novel.

The story begins – as many Gothic ghost story do – with an old house located near a wood. Single father Mr. Hooper asks single mother Mrs. Kingshaw to move into the ugly Victorian building, following the death of his father. The action is focused on their two boys, referred to by surname as Hooper and Kingshaw throughout. Hooper is a malicious bully, able to orchestrate the adult’s opinions and conduct a campaign of intimidation upon Kingshaw.

As the story progresses, Kingshaw tries to run away, but Hooper follows him into Hang Wood. Whenever Kingshaw escapes, he is followed by Hooper; whenever Kingshaw wins, his victories are short lived. The result is a terrifying portrayal of life as seen from a bullied child’s perspective.

A dark fiction, worthy of discussion.