Dan Sandman

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

30: An Autobiography by M.K. Gandhi

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 25/07/2014 at 12:00 pm

An Autobiography by M.K. GandhiGandhi begun his life in India and was married at the age of thirteen. Still a teenager, Gandhi traveled to Britain where he was educated to become a lawyer. Following a short stay back home, Gandhi found employment in South Africa and begun to work towards a fairer deal for Indian immigrants. He later returned to India and united its people into a national movement. This led India to independence in 1947 through non-violent protest.

First published as a book in 1927, this classic autobiography is easy to follow and is broken into small chapters. It was originally written in serial form for Gandhi’s own newspaper under the title ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’. Gandhi was a committed self-experimenter and put his body under great pressure in search of the truth. When he travels to Britain, Gandhi becomes fascinated with the vegetarian and theosophic movements. Later, he adopts adopts a fruit only diet and believes that God is guiding him away from carnal desire. During an outbreak of the black plague in South Africa, Gandhi treats his patients with water, whilst a nurse treats her patients with whiskey. The nurse and her patients die, Gandhi and his patients survive. By choosing to tell this story in such a way, Gandhi portrays himself as a Christ-like figure, saving lives through a deep connection with God.

Alongside his work as a lawyer and politician, Gandhi worked as a spiritual leader, guiding his followers towards satyagraha (a sort of search for truth). As a student of English, I have been taught to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have authority on the word ‘truth’. The monetary figures (£3) and specific dates (1914) in this book could be backed up with evidence, but I think Gandhi has carefully crafted a story which presents himself as a saint. In clear prose, Ghandi presents himself a man willing to take any sacrifice for the good of his fellow Indians, a hero who accomplishes great things through diplomacy and spiritual courage. And although in many ways he was a saintly person, his inflated ego and apparent transparency can sometimes reveal a darker side.

After travelling back to India, Gandhi experiments by travelling third class. He is somewhat contradictory when he criticizes both the railway system and its passengers. Gandhi argues that the guards treat the citizens poorly, then attacks the public because they smell badly. Perhaps when Gandhi claims to have authority on truth, he means authority on his own opinions – some of which are based on prejudice. He was after all a flawed human being, yes a man who achieved great things, but – as can be the case when political writers come from privileged backgrounds – Gandhi is somewhat appalled when confronted by the very people he wishes to save.

Several of Ghandi’s experiments would have been deemed wacky one hundred years ago, now they are likely to be read by liberal westerners as the ideas of an eccentric man. Personally, I admire this autobiography for its plain style and its ability to spark off thoughtful reflection. Although I would not undertake most of these experiments, I very much like the concept of seeing one’s life as a series of chosen steps by which we can climb. This story is one man’s search towards meaning in a world that does not make sense.

A very important book.

29: Free Fall by William Golding

In Books, Fiction on 18/07/2014 at 12:00 pm

Free Fall by William GoldingThe narrator of William Golding’s forth novel, published in 1959, presents to the reader a series of intimate portraits and scenes. Sammy Mountjoy is an artist, a painter, and a flawed man who has lost his freedom. Sammy chooses to tell his story in non-chronological order, jumping between his childhood and his adult years. As the narrative unravels, it becomes apparent that Sammy has led a troubled life. Perhaps Sammy tells his story to deal with trauma, perhaps it is an attempt to come to terms with the past. At some point, he lost his freedom, he started to free fall.

The genius of Golding is the novelist’s mastery of style and narrative technique. Every time I read a Golding novel, I am amazed at how different it is to the last one. The Nobel prize winner has the uncanny ability to create fully formed human beings from stories. Golding’s protagonists are often male, have had some sort of army or navy experience, and are uncertain about the nature of reality. After having a successful first novel, Golding could have written more books like Lord of The Flies, but he didn’t. He kept on reworking his imagination, inputting new data and outputting a completely original work every time. In this way, he was a true artist exploring his universe through the creative process.

William Golding is one of my favourite writers because he deals with complex ideas and asks difficult questions about the world. The world created in Free Fall is one of fragility, one where all encompassing narratives are not to be trusted. A story can twist and be tolled / re-tolled in an infinite number of ways. Homo sapiens are a complicated species who evolved language as a means of dealing with their complexities. Yes, this is a book about growing up in a poor area, about being a boy at school, about sexual abuse and Nazi torture, but it is mostly a book about how language describes and explains our inner worlds and our very existence.

If you like imaginative fiction, why not read a book by William Golding next?

28: Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 11/07/2014 at 12:00 pm

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest HemingwayDespite it often being said that Ernest Hemingway wrote short sentences, this was not always the case. For example, there is at least one sentence in this book that lasts for an entire page. I think what people mean is that Hemingway used short sentences as one potential writing tool.  This certainly is true with his dialogue, and his short sentences do bring a realistic quality to his speech. Think about it, we don’t often speak in essay form. Perhaps the trick to writing well is variation. Music is probably the same.

This book, listed under Travel/Autobiography, is about men shooting and killing wild animals. Published in 1935, it is unconcerned with conservation or extinction. To the people in the book, shooting and killing is a competitive sport, men must be men and take their rightful place at the top of the food chain. The men in Green Hills of Africa compete against their peers, compete against the elements, and compete against wild animals. With their guns, their glasses, their whiskey, and their books, these men are out for the hunt. A dead rhino is to be skinned and its head collected as a trophy. This is not a place for womanly sentiment, nor is it a place for racial equality. Hemingway’s depiction of a game hunt is predictable yet actually – I must confess – quite exciting. It’s a violent, somewhat alcoholic, man’s world. All that matters is the strength of the wind, the feel of the gun, and the moment when a man looks death straight in the eye. Hemingway really was adept at maintaining a macho and heroic image. I can picture the khaki, elephant gun and the facial hair.

I had fun reading this book. Mostly I read it whilst walking around Primrose Hill, finding a bench when I needed to. At the height of a good English summer it is possible to do such things, although there’s always a chance it will rain. Unlike Hemingway, I have never killed a kudu or tried to learn Swahili. This is good, as I have no intention of hunting game in Tanzania. However, with a flick of the imagination, I have been guided there by a story.

And a good story goes a long way.

27: Strong Shadows by Abigail Zuger

In Books, Non-Fiction on 04/07/2014 at 12:00 pm

Strong Shadows by Abigail ZugerAbigail Zuger, M.D. works in a New York AIDS clinic during the early 1990’s and treats the terminally ill. She writes about eight of her patients, each patient is unable to afford private healthcare. Unlike, for example, the United Kingdom, the United States is a wealthy nation resistant to public health care. Whereas the National Health Service was founded in 1948 to offer free healthcare for all UK citizens, at the time this book was written, American people on low incomes were reliant on a bureaucratic system called Medicaid. This is the context for Dr. Zuger’s book, which gives voice to those on low incomes, living with the HIV virus during an epidemic.

There is Deborah Sweet, shouting at her doctor and demanding more drugs. Shannon Gallagher, fraudulently seeking help from the medical care system to fill an emotional void. The stoic Eddie Rios, looking after his wife whilst keeping his kids out of foster homes. A whole family by the name of Wilson, all dying from HIV related illnesses. And another four tragically upsetting cases of people being attacked by the virus. All the action takes place over a three year period, in an underfunded infectious disease clinic, on Wednesday afternoons.

These eight Scenes from an Inner City AIDS Clinic – as the book is subtitled – are elegantly crafted case studies written from a doctor’s point of view. They show that many heterosexual people from poor communities were dying of AIDS related illnesses in the early 1990’s. Today there has been a steep decline of such cases in New York, but the HIV virus remains prevalent throughout the world. At the end of 2012, 35.3 million people were living with HIV, this figure is significantly higher than in 1991 when an estimated 9 to 11 million people were infected. Although important medical advances have helped, clearly we still have a long way to go.

Often, Dr. Zuger treats her patients with a drug called AZT which became available in 1987. From 1992, combination drug therapies for HIV were introduced, which lead – when combined with early diagnosis and later a drug called saquinavir (1995) – to a steep decline in AIDS, at least in the developed world. These positive developments have improved our ability to treat HIV patients. During the epidemic, the treatments were still in the experimental stage. This book is as much a testament to these early trials as it is to the bravery of those who first suffered from the virus. It is written with the eye of a good short story writer and the medical insight of a doctor.

An interesting book, listed under non-fiction / health.