Dan Sandman

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

26: The childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction on 27/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. CoetzeeA man and a boy are lost in an imaginary city called Novilla, where the citizens speak Spanish and have lost their memory. The man is taking care of the boy, but the man is not the boy’s father. The boy David is an imaginative child with a creative way of seeing the world, the man Simon is a rational man with a pragmatic world view. Eventually they meet a character called Ines, a privileged woman with two unsettling brothers and a dog. Simon decides, on a hunch, that Ines is David’s real mother and gives over parental responsibility. What ensues is a touching story about bringing up a child, written from a broadly humanistic perspective.

All the novel’s characters are in Novilla to start a new life, and mostly they are content with how things are. Alvero, Simon’s colleague who works as a foreman, represents the values of hard work and is against technological progress. Elena, a music teacher, whose son befriends David, does not value physical relationships or financial rewards. A young man called Eugino attends a college where he is fed on a diet of woolly philosophy. David’s teacher Leon supports an education system where creativity is deemed a defective trait, much to the dislike of Ines.  Each in their own way, Simon, David and Ines do not fit in and so are drawn towards starting a new new life.

Although J.M. Coetzee is renowned for his concise writing, he is equally strong when using literary form. Characters are carefully positioned, the plot is paced well, and intertextuality – putting in another story – is used effectively. Sentences are as long as they need to be, the human reaction being favoured over the scenically descriptive. Characters are formed through action and dialogue, with an occasional assist from an adjective. The plot moves from idea to idea smoothly, comfortably taking advantage of the imaginary land concept. Don Quixote  is referred to almost as a metaphor for the importance of the human imagination. Everything comes together in a thoughtful and satisfying way. Any unanswered questions are left to the reader’s imagination.

In conclusion, if you like your novels to be wrapped up as neatly as an Agatha Christie, this might not be the book for you. Things will not be explained and given a satisfying ending, you will be given the clues and asked to work with them. I would argue that part of the story’s beauty, and why it warrants repeat reading, is that it treats us intelligently. We are not given a detailed description of Novilla, instead the information is subtlety revealed as the story is allowed to evolve.

Very highly recommended.

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25: Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 20/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben CrystalReading or watching Shakespeare’s plays can be boring and difficult, but reading Shakespeare on Toast, or hearing Ben Crystal give a talk will inspire you to think again. What Mr. crystal does, so well, is open up Shakespeare’s language, giving us a set of tools to work with whilst watching or reading the plays. In an informal, yet expertly informed way, the actor and writer uses witty references, scholarly knowledge, and close textual analysis to make the plays more easy to digest. This book is full of interesting facts, written in a down to earth style, and will be enjoyed by bard beginners and seasoned fans alike. Crystal’s writing is full of warmth, displaying the infectious enthusiasm of a great teacher whilst making his specialised chosen subject fun.

For many, early modern English – the language spoken in England during the Tudor and Stuart dynasties – is wrongly deemed irrelevant, and incorrectly thought to be a nightmare to understand. But, however, by reading this book, you’ll find out that it’s not necessarily the words themselves which encourage such derision – the vast majority remain unchanged since Elizabethan times – but that we lack the help of a clever friend to teach us a few things about them. For example, in Tudor times thou was what one might say to friend whereas you was what one might say to someone of higher rank. As Crystal demonstrates (pg. 106-7), knowing this little nugget of information will help immensely when it comes to enjoying the evolving spousal relationship in the play Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth stops calling her husband thou and starts calling him you, you know things have taken a turn for the worse.

Then there’s the way with which Crystal uses modern reference points, such as Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Big Brother Live. The first reference is used to illustrate a point about how Shakespeare has been remade in many ways, including a funny scene where Arnie plays Hamlet, and the second reference demonstrates how boring an undramatic version of life would be on stage. All of the quirky comparisons in the book, always backed up by scholarly research, help breathe life into the plays, pushing them forward 400 years or so. Shakespeare becomes Miles Davies, riffing around a ten syllable iambic pentameter.

My reason for reviewing this book is that I saw Ben Crystal give an inspiring talk in Primrose Hill on June the 11th 2014. My mother and I had walked over the road beside the hill, entered the liberal St. Mary’s Church, grabbed some peanuts and poured two glasses of water. Having been welcomed with churchly hospitality, we then sat down ready for Mr. Crystal to be introduced.

The priest who gave the introduction, keen to convert new followers, was very groovy and even wore denim trousers with a silver buckled belt. Afterwards, Ben was kind enough to give me a book signing – he has artistic handwriting – and came across as a very nice bloke. Shortly later, the priest came over to meet my mother and I, seeing that mum had picked up a couple of church based flyers, and I was fingering a bookmark advertising the TV mini-series The Bible. The approachable clergyman did his charming best to welcome us – as good priests and rabbis usually do – and chatted briefly about the talk.

The talk itself was outstanding, perfectly paced and echoed resoundingly around the church hall. The congregation (not necessarily of the religious kind) were treated to an acted out snippet of Romeo and Juliet spoken using original pronunciation. Original pronunciation (OP) – sounding like an exciting mix of all kinds of funky dialects – is a very close approximation of the way Shakespeare’s company would have talked 400 years ago. In contrast, received pronunciation (RP) is the posh way that the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were taught to enunciate the language. Personally, I think both ways of acting Shakespeare are great in different ways. OP gives the poetry an authentically old feel and helps with the occasional rhyme, whereas RP heightens the drama and increases the emotional intensity. Other highlights from the talk included amusing anecdotes connected with Ben’s father David Crystal, the renowned linguist, whose books many students of English will know, and a segment from the book about how the puritans banned Shakespeare – and Christmas. All in all, for a  host of interesting bard based facts passionately given with verve, read and buy Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal.

Signed copies available from my local bookshop Primrose Hill Books.

24: Alone in Berlin by Hans Falada

In Books, Fiction on 13/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

Alone in Berlin by Hans FalladaFirst published in 1947 by a German writer, shortly after Hitler was found dead in his secret Berlin bunker, this brave fiction is about Nazi atrocities and the grim plights of ordinary people who resisted the Fuehrer. Men and woman like Otto Quangel and his wife Anna, the couple who drop postcards around the city with clear messages against the powers that be. One the hard working furniture factory foreman, the other the grieving mother of a war fallen son. With the cool expertise of a Dickens or a Dostoevsky, somehow Hans Fallada managed to create characters and situations that bring into question the society within which he lived.

But the basis for Alone in Berlin is factual evidence, in particular the original Gustapo files of Elise and Otto Hampel. As it states in this edition, Fallada was given the idea for the story by a poet friend, who handed him those original wartime documents. Independently, the case file, which includes the real couples’ often slogan driven postcards –  ‘Hitler’s war is the worker’s death!’ – makes for interesting reading from an historical perspective. However, the skill of the novelist is often to cleverly twist the facts into fiction, using them as a platform for original ideas. This is certainly something which Fallada was able to do whilst he was forming his fantastically thrilling story.

I think Fallada also brought his own experiences to his work. He lived in Berlin during the war, he spent much of his time suffering from various addictions – drinking, morphine, sleeping pills – and he spent several spells in prison during his lifetime, one of which the Nazis had enforced just before he wrote this book. Although I think some of the plot driven elements of this book are entirely imaginative, the central characters were probably based on real people; each plot has been purposefully orchestrated, each character has been specifically chosen. The total effect is to form an interconnected view of a city and its people during turbulent times.

It is amazing to think that – according to the notes in this edition – Fallada completed such an ambitious project in only twenty-four days. It is the sort of book that would be great to talk about with friends, perhaps over a glass of schnapps and a bratwurst. The war is always a hot topic and reading fiction is a brilliant way to find out more about it. History books can often be monotonous, sometimes all history needs is a creative spark to make it exciting. Having been introduced to wartime Berlin in such an exciting way, next time my dad is watching Nazi Hunters, broadcast by TV channel Yesterday, I am now ten times more likely to join in.

Reading brings people together in understanding.

23: Pincher Martin by William Golding

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 06/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

Pincher Martin by William GoldingWilliam Golding’s third novel Pincher Martin is about a man stranded on a a rocky islet (very small island). It is arguably an existential novel, meaning a fiction which highlights the importance of individual choice within humanity. Whereas Lord of the Flies by William Golding deals with the behaivour of a relatively small group of public school boys, Pincher Martin focuses on the choices of one man. In my opinion, this approach when combined with Golding’s mastery of the English language, produces a powerful statement about human consciousness, memory and ingenuity. As Francis Wyhndham in the London Magazine put it: –

“[…] the classic predicament of man pitched against the elements is treated with the distinction of style, the off-beat poetry and unsentimental humanism that have established Mr Golding’s contribution to the novel as the most original in recent years.” (inside cover blurb of my nicely worn Faber edition)

In other words, Golding turns the story of a man stuck with nothing to do – potentially boring – into an exciting adventure exploring the inner workings of a lost mind, analyzing the deterioration of a shattered body, and detailing the crumbling of a helpless soul. And as the man battles for survival, shifting existentially between past and present, the reader is swamped along with awesome force. Here is a flawed character, clinging on to existence, clawing to find identity by talking out loud and giving names to rocks; a wanderer bombarded by the weather, eating muscles and anemones, trying to keep his sanity by finding intelligent things to say and to do.

By thinking carefully about the books ending and by taking note of its full title Pincher Martin: The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin, it is possible to deduce that an outer body experience has occurred following Christopher’s death. There is a sense of this being a depiction of purgatory – as in the gateway between heaven and hell where souls are either cleansed or sent to suffer – and there being a judgement to be undertaken. Indeed, by discovering an extract from Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alistair Fowler, I was able to discover that the nickname “Pincher” comes from the name of the strict naval judge and British admiral William Fanshawe Martin (1801 – 1895). This overwhelming evidence has made me rethink the entire novel.

It certainly will warrant several readings and further discussion.