Dan Sandman

Archive for August, 2014|Monthly archive page

35: Night by Elie Wiesel

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 29/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

Night by Elie WieselIt’s 1941 in Hungary, a country who have joined the Axis and imposed a number of anti-Jewish laws. Elie is a deeply observant Jew, committed to religious study. As the story swiftly moves to 1944, with the inevitable German occupation of Hungary, Elie is sent with his family to Auschwitz as a child. After being crammed into a hermetically sealed train, he sees a tall chimney and smells burning flesh. With all illusions destroyed, Elie is separated from his mother and sister, and then imprisoned with his father. Upon arriving at the Birkenau zone of the concentration camp, he witnesses babies and small children being thrown into huge flames. From this moment on, he knows that his life will never be the same again.

Through the art of storytelling, Elie Wiesel achieves what many history books struggle to achieve: empathy. As he writes about his painful past, with sensitivity and clarity, we are shown the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective. By writing his personal history, Wiesel gives us a deeply emotional and poignantly intellectual insight into these horrifying events. His powerful story encourages us to imagine history as seen through the eyes, ears and nose of a survivor. Like a piece of barbed-wire encased in snow, this book is painful and nearly perfect.

Recently, my family visited the new-look Imperial War Museum, where I picked up Night. We all would recommend a visit to the fourth floor, which is dedicated to the Holocaust. My family would also recommend the Jewish Museum in Camden Town, whose collection includes oral testimony from an Auschwitz survivor. I am grateful to such museums for reminding me of what humanity is capable of. May, one day, maybe in my lifetime, but probably not, all such things be merely curated by museums and found between the pages of books such as this.

Elie Wiesel is worthy of the Nobel Peace Price he won in 1986.

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34: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 22/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

Cider with Rosie by Laurie LeeOne hundred years ago, at the start of World War One, Laurie Lee (1914 – 1997) was born. His life is cataloged in a series of three well-loved autobiographies, of which this is first. Cider with Rosie (1959) is a skillful evocation of childhood and youth, at times poetic and at times witty. Although it certainly is not a history book, any interested reader will be transported to the start of the twentieth century, and will catch a glimpse of what life may have been like in those times.

The story is set in a remote Cotswold village called Slad. The village is full of strange characters and sometimes terrible things happen to the people of Slad. Laurie is growing up in a large family, his heroic mother looking after many siblings and half-siblings, whilst his absent father is never seen. It is not the easiest of starts for the creative child, but it is a wonderful life bursting with smells and the beauty of the Gloucestershire countryside; a sensuous and undiscovered place full of mystery and wonder. Whereas critics might say that any autobiography, especially one set in an obscure part of England, is a self-indulgent idea, it can be argued that society needs books that deal deeply with all aspects of human life, we need personal stories to be tolled. Besides, the strength of this work is clearly in the prose itself which is bursting with imagery.

I like this book. Laurie Lee has an artists’ eye for detail and a musician’s ear for word sounds. I think this is the English language at its finest, each sentence richly working its way toward each paragraph, towards each chapter. If you take any chapter in this book and read it in isolation, it will stand alone as a unique short story – the writing is that good.

Highly recommended to those who like words.

33: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 15/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel KeyesDaniel Keyes died this year in June, aged 86, and will be mostly remembered as the writer of Flowers for Algernon, now a classic science fiction novel. According to his obituary, he delivered bagels for a bakery and worked in factories whilst still a young man. He went on to have a long career as a novelist, editor and university lecturer. Following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946), who started life in a draper’s shop, Daniel Keyes educated himself and gained popularity as a science fiction writer. In some ways, the rise of both writers from humble roots to literary heights was the result of hard study and a focused mind.

Flowers for Algernon was first published as a short story in 1959 and expanded to full size in 1966. It is about Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, who has his intelligence increased by taking part in a scientific experiment which turns him into a genius. As he records his progress in diary form, his language gradually becomes more sophisticated as his intelligence increases. Charlie’s writing starts out with many miss spellings, using simple words and only full stops. First he learns to look words up in the dictionary in order to spell them correctly, then he discovers punctuation, and soon he is describing the complex developments of a lucid and troubled mind. This is when the novel really starts to get interesting, suddenly Charlie is experiencing emotions for the first time and going through a late adolescence of sorts. In a struggle for identity, he is split between past memory and present experience.

As Charlie outgrows his colleagues in terms of intellect, learning new languages and musical instruments within weeks of study, his newly discovered emotional intelligence is dumbfounded by love. He is not ready to handle his true feelings towards the sensible scientist Alice, seeing his former self as an obstacle, and so he turns to the wild artist Fay for answers. In addition, he begins to develop a superior attitude when dealing with the academics who begun the experiments on both himself and a mouse called Algernon. Charlie becomes anti-social, drinking too much and discrediting his peers. As the story evolves, Charlie deduces that Algernon’s increased intelligence is fading and rushes to write a scientific paper before it’s too late. Sensing that he might suffer the same fate, Charlie attempts to reconcile familial relationships that have come to light since the experiment. The novel’s climax is both touching and thought provoking.

The literary weight of this masterful story is further proof that science fiction deserves the respect of scholars.

32: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 08/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeThe eighteenth century saw the first important developments in the English novel. Several significant writers of this time wrote popular fiction that would be enjoyed for centuries to come, Daniel Defoe was one such writer. He wrote stories for a mass audience, delivering exciting adventures with a moral tone. Defoe was a journalist with a clean and factual writing style. Rather than creating a fantastical or magical deserted island adventure, such as Shakespeare had in The Tempest, Defoe created a relatively realistic setting with a practical and moral character who works hard to better himself. Neither did Defoe use his island story as an obvious vehicle for satire as his contemporary Jonathan Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, this is a book that is celebrated for its non-psychological portrayal of isolation and loneliness.

Robinson Crusoe would have been considered a modern man, travelling against his father’s wishes to seek his fortune. Instead of taking up service with a great lord, he attempts to gain wealth through trade. After he becomes stranded, he resourcefully makes the most of his environment by building, farming and salvaging from the wrecked ship. The time he spends alone on his island gives Robinson Crusoe much scope for moral and religious reflection. His thoughts and meditations offer a refreshing perspective to balance against the exciting adventures and swashbuckling. The overall effect is both descriptively entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

I think this book is underestimated as a mere adventure story for children and young adults. Reading it from an eighteenth century perspective has allowed me to highlight its place within history. It is an early novel of ideas, ideas such as the noble savage and religion as redemption. These concepts are not necessarily as relevant in the twenty-first century, but when they are seen from the perspective of Defoe’s Britain – an island nation forging the largest empire in history, a religious society looking to non-biblical stories for answers – things begin to fall into place. From a child’s point of view Robinson Crusoe is a cartoon character going on adventures and fighting savages. However, once the story is seen in context, it becomes a helpful device for opening up a wide range of discursive discussions.

A true classic.

31: A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In Books, Fiction on 01/08/2014 at 12:00 pm

A Sense of an Ending by Julian BarnesTony is an intelligent and articulate divorcee looking back at his past. At school he was part of a quartet of intellectual boys, bound to compete against each other and to question their teachers. One of the quartet, a philosophical boy called Adrian, was more serious than the rest. As Tony delves into his memory, the tale twists and turns, unraveling a few surprises along the way.

The central theme of this short novel is memory and how time effects memory. Second to this, there is a concern with suicide and its consequences. As the quartet discuss after class, great works of literature sometimes contain suicide. For example, Romeo & Juliet kill themselves because they can no longer bear to live without one another, or perhaps because love has been keeping them alive in a cruel world where rival families fight on the streets. Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers commit an heroic act of suicide that brings the Capulet and the Montague families together. In contrast to this Elizabethan portrayal of heroic suicide, Julian Barnes presents the act in naturalistic terms. Whereas Shakespeare’s tragic couple are leading figures in exotic Verona, Barnes creates a middle class and well educated protagonist from contemporary London. Romeo & Juliet represent two warring and dignified houses, Tony’s problems are ordinary and his relationships less intense. Therefore, a very British restraint is applied to the tragedy which makes light of the serious subject material.

I think this is both a tragic and a comic book. Tony is an engaging and witty narrator, a funny man who makes astute observations. His narrative encouraged me to laugh and so I felt sympathetic towards him. Therefore, when the comedy turned to tragedy, I was convinced by his side of the story. It would be interesting to rewrite the story from another characters’ perspective. It is the structure of A Sense of an Ending – its use of memory and emails, for example – that encouraged me to imagine different narratives.

A fine book that warranted a second reading from this reviewer.