Dan Sandman

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

22: 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 30/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

12 Years a Slave by Solomon NorthupLike most sane people, I think that slavery is wrong. When a man or woman is chained, whipped and sold like cattle, this is a bad thing. And yet bad things happen to good people in this world everyday. But if we read books about bad things and try to understand history, we can learn from the mistakes of the past. That’s where true stories such as 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup step in.

This book is an accurate account of slavery as told from the perspective of a kidnapped slave. Northup begins life as a free man and is duped into a life of forced labour under horrific conditions. He then describes in detail the oppressive behaivour of his masters, the grueling work on the cotton plantations, and the violence committed towards the slaves. What results is an upsetting story with a strong moral message about man’s inhumanity to man. Since its publication in 1853, this autobiography has had a significant influence on American history.

From a reader’s perspective, I did not find the book particularly interesting. The story was written in a matter of fact way, the prose style was dull, and I never felt close to the characters. Having read Beloved by Toni Morrison, this book pales in comparison. Like many boring nineteenth century novels, it is over descriptive and can drag a bit. Therefore, it works well as a history and less well as a enjoyable reading experience.

Watch the film instead, it’s shorter.

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21: A Nietzche Reader by R. J. Hollingdale

In Books, Non-Fiction, Psychology / Philosophy on 23/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

A Nietzche Reader by R. J. HollingdaleFriedrich Nietzche (rhymes with teacher) was a German philologist, philosopher, cultural critic, poet and composer. From reading this book by R. J. Hollingdale (1930 – 2001), I been given an introduction to Nietzche’s writing. Hollingdale’s skill was to divide Nietzche’s many published works into twelve subheading – for example, Morality, Nihilism, Religion, and so on – and to number each excerpt from one to one hundred and forty. This method works well and presents the reader with a broad overview of the opinionated writer’s work.

And in my opinion, if Nietzche had a favourite colour it would be black, if Nietzche was a film character he’d be Blowfeld, and if he was a politician he’d be Joseph Goebbels. The man clearly doesn’t like ‘weak’ people and thinks that man is only driven by his ‘will to power’. In Nietzche World, love is merely the will to attain sexual power, morality is a Christian conspiracy, happiness is a sign of weakness, and for some reason (or no reason – this is philosophy after all) the French composer Bizet is much better than his German contemporary Wagner (at least we agree on something). All in all, to this twenty first century reader, the sheer negativity and extreme cynicism of Nietzche was at times unintentionally comical. But at the same time, I felt a sense of pity towards the writer: ironically pity was something which Nietzche particularly despised.

Some passages from the almost nonsensical Thus Spoke Zarathustra were reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Poor Tom from King Lear; an elegant breed of rambling, accompanied by a quasi-religious attempt to create a character whose main objective is to convince the reader of his theory ‘will to power’ so that man – and yes ‘unmanly’ things are very bad in Nietzche World – can achieve some sort of crazy transcendence, thus becoming the Ubermensch: the ‘superman’. Oh! How even my sentences are becoming longer and longer until all meaning has vanished. Complete nonsense, but thought provoking all the same.

So I think it’s best to read dark philosophers with a heavy crate of salt and enjoy the superb writing. Nietzche – partly because you’d need to study this stuff at university for twenty years just to understand what he’s on about – is only enjoyable if you see him as a comic character. An egotistical clown, heavily aware of the sentence’s innate power, but displaying it solely to upset the status quo. Thought provoking yes, brilliant yes, but also a buffoon with a massive anger problem.

A truly original historical character.

20: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 16/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardThis military science-fiction book is a gripping story set during an interstellar war. Ender Wiggin is a gifted child who is destined to fight against an alien race called the ‘buggers’. From an early age, Ender’s brain activity is monitored and his actions observed by Colonel Graff. Following a violent altercation with a bully, Ender is taken to Battle School to be trained. Through the manipulation of his adult teachers, Ender is trained to become a ruthless military commander.

Orson Scott Card originally had the idea for the Battle Room – a kind of zero gravity gun game – when he was sixteen years old. Card then went on to study literature up to masters level and wrote some plays. Inspired to tell story-led science fiction by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, the American writer learnt to study history for ideas. To make his work widely accessible, Card would aim to keep the language as simple as possible, or as he put it: –

I learned to separate the story from the writing, probably the most important thing that any story-teller has to learn – that there are a thousand right ways to tell a story, and ten million wrong ones, and you’re a lot more likely to find one of the latter than the former your first time through the tale. (Introduction xii)

As the story effortlessly glides along, each chapter begins with some dialogue between two overseeing adults; a storytelling device that enhances the books central themes. The book is themed around the idea of lost innocence and the moral implications of fighting an alien race. It has been suggested, that in sparking these kind of philosophical debates, Orson Scott Card was drawing on his own religious background as a Mormon. Here is a quote from a character called Dink, he is talking to Ender: –

“I know you’ve been here a year, you think these people are normal. Well, they’re not. We’ re not. I look in the library, I call up books on my desk. Old ones, because they won’t let us have anything new, but I’ve got a pretty good idea what children are, and we’re not children. Children can loose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren’t in armies, they aren’t commanders, they don’t rule over forty other kids, it’s more than anybody can take and not go crazy.” (Chapter 8, pg. 109)

Dreams – or rather unreal landscapes – are another prominent feature of the story. Not only does Ender spend his waking day practicing a sort of fantasy war game, furthermore Ender’s downtime is spent exploring a fairy tale based computer game involving a giant, a playground, some snakes and a disturbing mirror. It is no wonder that Ender begins to experience nightmares when he sleeps. Maybe these dreams are an unconscious cry for help and understanding.

The arguably devious way in which the children are controlled in Ender’s Game, justified by strong political reasoning, is reminiscent of World War One, where conscripts could be little more than teenagers. As the German writer Erich Maria Remarque wrote in the preface to All Quiet on the Western Front, “[…] a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” When there is a strong sense of nationalism, combined with carefully targeted propaganda, parents will gladly send their children to war.

From the evidence of this book, I think that Orson Scott Card is a highly skilled storyteller, able to write clearly and create memorable characters. By exploring military themes within a science fiction context, Ender’s Game pushes the moral debate into zero gravity. However, because a science fiction context is an imaginary context, an alien war can arguably be used to represent any war, from the Vietnam War to the Plantagenet Wars. It is no wonder that this book is often studies by U.S soldiers as part of their training. Once more, a science fiction book has established itself as a modern classic.

And it reads like a dream.

19: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

In Autobiography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 09/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

Homage to Catalonia by George OrwellAs a critic from the New York Review of Books once said, “anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century will have to read George Orwell”. Sixty-four years after his death (he died at the age of 46), Orwell’s fiction, autobiographical works, journalistic writings, and plain prose essays are still widely studied and quoted. A working writer, Orwell wrote a broad range of articles and books, from how to make the perfect cup of tea (I highly recommend this particular article) to arguably the most influential political satire every written Nineteen Eighty-Four. In addition to being credited for his broad range and authoritative political analysis, Orwell is often complemented for his direct and clean writing style – he did not like to use ‘flowery’ language when a simple word would do – which has made his work so accessible.

Published in 1938, on the brink of World War Two, with the spectre of Adolf Hitler looming over the story, Homage to Catalonia is an autobiographical work about the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), a terrible conflict that led to Spain being ruled by the totalitarian fascist Francisco Franco until his death in 1975 (aged 82). Orwell went to Spain with his wife as a journalist looking to write about the war, but ended up fighting against the fascists. This book, written around seven months after Orwell’s experience, is well known to be an honest and frank account of what it was like to fight in trench warfare. It offers precise insights into the daily concerns of a soldier – hunger, lack of decent weapons, cigarette shortages, freezing cold weather – and conveys the sense of camaraderie felt by the fighting men.

Another thing that comes across is the general feeling of confusion stirred up by the complicated political background of the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps one of the reasons why the fascists succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected government was because the anti-fascist forces lacked cohesion. In fact, the side that Orwell fought on was composed of many different factions, with many different acronyms – PSUC, POUM, CNT, UGT – and views were varied, there being a particularly harmful inner conflict between the Anarchists and the Communists. In addition to these troubles, Franco’s forces were given better weapons by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

From what I can gather, Orwell’s fight for social democracy in Spain was undermined by party squabbling and untruthful reporting, all of which was completely removed and far distant from the experience of the ordinary soldier, who was more concerned about his lack of sleep and where his next slice of buttered toast might be coming from. This straightforward and personal account of an awful war, and the appendix where Orwell addresses the politics, is an often humorous autobiography and a poignant history. I found it funny, serious and humane. George Orwell has left a legacy of work behind him that will still be attracting new readers in the twenty-second century, when – barring a miracle of science – my body will have likely departed this earth, leaving behind only some music and some words.

In this future world, the internet will have evolved into something new, these words will have been forgotten, and I hope there will be less need for brilliant writers to fight in bloody wars.

18: I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne

In Art, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction on 02/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

I Was Vermeer by Frank WynneBefore he became an art forger, Han van Meegeren was an excellent painter of original realistic works with a fantastic technique and a number of successful projects to his own name. He had won a prestigious award, held profitable exhibitions, and had even sketched what was to become the most reproduced image in twentieth century Holland. But whilst Han van Meegeren was still a young man, still creating naturalistic paintings, the art world had dramatically changed, turning first towards impressionism and later to cubism. By the 1920’s, Han was incensed and embittered against these changes, enraged by the movement away from the rules of academic painting. Han had harvested a great sneering contempt for art critics and several bad habits – alcohol, morphine and prostitutes. And yet, despite Han’s personal troubles, he was extremely meticulous in his approach to forgery. Han van Meegeren fooled his enemies, swindled the Nazis, and painted with a vengeful passion.

In this biography, Frank Wynne brings this exciting story to light with a cultured intelligence. Employing engaging headings and quotations, each chapter invites the reader to discover more. The story explores in some detail the hows and whys of the forger’s life. How he used Bakelite (the first commercially made plastic) to resemble antic varnish. Why he had initially become an artist as a revolt against his father.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to a friend. In particular, I admired the writer for appropriately balancing just enough attention to detail with the right amount of psychological insight. Indeed, as I appreciated this gripping life story, I had to remind myself that I was reading non-fiction. That is because the facts of the story have been crafted in a novelistic way, both to inform and to delight.

Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.