Dan Sandman

Archive for October, 2014|Monthly archive page

44: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 31/10/2014 at 12:00 pm

Foundation by Isaac AsimovAt some point in the distant future, human civilization has found a way to travel through hyperspace, as a means of inter-planetary colonization. The Empire maintains order over the galaxy, partly because it controls the means to produce nuclear arms, but it is prophesied that soon its reign will come to an end. In an attempt to reduce the time it will take to rebuild an advanced society from The Empire’s ashes, two groups of scientists are exiled to opposite ends of the galaxy. This story follows the group who is sent to write an encyclopedia, thus safeguarding advanced scientific knowledge for future generations. However, as the plot develops, an interesting political game is set in play.

Written at the start of the Cold War, Foundation (1951) draws on two topical issues: space travel and nuclear weapons. The Space Race (1955-1972) between Russia and America was just around the corner, and there was already great worldwide anxiety in regards to nuclear weapons. Fortunately, since America used the atom bomb to conclude World War Two, such terrifying weapons have historically acted as a deterrent to prevent total annihilation. Whilst Isaac Asimov wrote popular entertainment, and became the eighth most translated author in the world, he also used a broad scientific and historical knowledge to explore ethical issues. In this way, Asimov’s worldwide popularity as an SF writer is a forerunner to the entertainment franchise Star Trek (1966 -).

I remember reading in the Oxford Companion to English Literature that Mary Shelley became the grandmother of science fiction when when she published Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). In Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, a terrifying monster is created by an obsessed scientist, tapping into early nineteenth century fears that science could be used for evil. Frankenstein’s monster raised the religious question, should man really be dabbling with the work of God? In contrast to Mary Shelley, Asimov writes about how science can be used as a positive force in the galaxy; and in regards to religion, he refers to how it has been used historically by politicians to control ‘the mob’.

After all, as Orson Scott Card pointed out, Foundation was influenced by Asimov’s reading of Roman history.

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43: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

In Books, Fiction on 24/10/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami has sold millions of books and has had his work translated into over forty languages. Ever since Norwegian Wood (1987) became a worldwide hit, Murakami has built up a loyal fan base across the globe. In a recent interview by The Guardian newspaper, the Japanese writer agreed with the interviewer that his fiction can be divided into two categories: magical-realistic romances and works on a smaller canvas. Of these two types of fiction, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) fits into the first type.

The narrator and protagonist Toru Okada lives with his wife and has recently quit his job at a law firm. Okada spends his time listening to music, cooking and searching for his missing cat. As Toru becomes more and more detached from his mundane suburban existence, he meets several strange characters with intriguing stories to tell. Before too long, the lines between reality and fantasy become blurred, as Toru’s world takes on a dreamlike and magical quality.

What I love about Murakami’s fiction – and why I am able to read six hundred pages in a week with little fuss – is that it never becomes boring.  Perhaps this is because it continually introduces new and exciting characters, or because its secretive quality keeps me guessing until the very end. Whatever the reasons, Murakami continues to write books that are equally deep and fun, mastering the balance between philosophy and entertainment. This balance, most evident in this magical-realistic romance, has given me many new ways to view the world.

An epic and multifaceted masterpiece.

42: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

In Books, Fiction on 17/10/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver GoldsmithAs the story goes, Samuel Johnson sold The Vicar of Wakefield for sixty pounds because Oliver Goldsmith was broke. This helped the gambling writer to pay his land lady and secured Goldsmith’s place in literary history. Born the son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman, Oliver Goldsmith was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. After travelling around Europe for some time, Goldsmith settled in London to scrape a living as a professional writer. During this time, he wrote mostly history books and travel books, but he is most famous for his sole novel, a story narrated by a helpful and pious vicar.

Dr. Charles Primrose is the head of a large family and a leading member of the community. In the first half of the novel, the Reverend tries to secure happy futures for his sons and daughters, expecting the sons to find good jobs and the daughters to marry well. As the novel progresses into its second half, the family are mistreated by society and fall under hard times. Finally, just as everything seems to be going wrong for the Primrose family, things take a turn for the better.

I enjoyed this much beloved work of eighteenth-century fiction and would recommend it to a friend. The fairy tale like plot and memorable scenes appealed to my love of imaginative writing. Perhaps the old-fashioned language took a little bit of getting used to, but once I got over the two-hundred and fifty year time drag, the story was a delight to read. Most pleasing of all, was the happy ending, which had an almost Shakespearean like quality to it. The character of Dr. Primrose stands for all that is integral to the British character and I wanted him to do well, despite his tendency towards being deceived by those less honest than himself.

I can see why it was championed by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Byron and Goethe – fine stuff.

 

41: The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar by Victor Anand Cohelo

In Books, Music, Non-Fiction on 10/10/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar by Victor Anand CoheloFist published in 2003, and part of the respected Cambridge companion series, this book presents twelve essays about the guitar. Spread across a wide range of topics, from blues to baroque guitar, the essays celebrate the breadth and variety of the instrument. With great care, Victor Anand Cohelo has compiled a rewarding textbook, to be commended for its diversity.

The work is inclusive, both in its content and its general tone, treating rock guitar and classical guitar with equal esteem. This commendable approach, to an instrument that has often been derided in academic circles, validates guitar history as a subject worthy of study. The book begins with world traditions (flamenco / Celtic / African), moves onto the twentieth century (jazz / roots / rock), and concludes with a part about baroque and classical guitar today. Each essay, appropriately explores the players and instruments behind the music, gives relevant musical examples, and draws on the similarities and differences between the areas covered.

As a guitar teacher and professional musician with a wide interest in music, I appreciate the array of styles and traditions discussed within this indispensable resource. For anyone with a serious interest in the guitar, this excellent companion is bound to provide something new and exciting. Broad yet specific, academic yet accessible, The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar is a must read for any serious guitar student.

I will be referring to it within my teaching.

40: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

In Books, Fiction, Horror on 03/10/2014 at 12:00 pm

Fight Club by Chuck PalahniukPublished in 1996, this somewhat disturbing novel is narrated by an unnamed office worker suffering from insomnia. Depressed by his predictable life and utilitarian furniture, he fakes various medical conditions in order to attend support groups because he longs for human sympathy. At one such meeting, the narrator meets fellow fake Marla, who unravels the narrator’s secret world. Following this turning point, the narrator meets Tyler Durden, a charismatic leader with anarchistic tendencies who sets off a confused love triangle. And so, to replace the psychological crutch offered by the support groups (ruined by Marla) fight club is invented in the basement of a bar.

The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.

This edition of the novel contains an afterword written by Chuck Palahniuk in 2005, following the book’s hugely popular screen adaptation. In the afterword, Palahniuk humorously comments on the influence his story has had on society since the film was released, and offers a background to the story. In a similarly wry tone to the narrator, he juxtaposes Tyler Durden quotes on t-shirts with Fight Club as ‘just an experiment to kill a slow afternoon at work.’ Apparently, Palahniuk’s initial aim was to create a story that would cut quickly, like the film Citizen Kane, without losing the reader’s interest. This is where the rules (see above) come into play and help to make certain phrases within the novel so quotable.

My first reaction to this book was one of shock, with its vivid depictions of violence and chemical burns making me feel a little uneasy. Having said this, there was always a black humour to the horror, which served to emphasise the themes of the novel. This novel is highly critical of late twentieth century society; particularly, its hollow emphasis on consumerism and celebrity. The narrator has no name, appears to have no family, and has no helpful friends to fall back on. Therefore, he tries everything, from pretending to be a bowl cancer patient to writing haiku poems, until voluntary communal self-harm (i.e. fight club) offers a solution. However, later, when fight club becomes Project Mayhem, and things start to get out of control, the dark jokes begin to choke the reader into wanting out of this Gotham City type version of humanity.

Today, in our post-social internet culture, the planned graphic novel sequel will be most welcome.