Dan Sandman

Archive for May, 2015|Monthly archive page

22: The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 29/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall SmithAh, time for another visit to the wonderful world of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s a magical place where Africa’s problems can all be wiped away by a nice cup of red bush tea and a friendly consultation with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency; where readers are encouraged to feel that a little human kindness can go a very long way; and where life’s moral problems can be handled with ladies intuition and common sense. Of course, the real world is not quite so simple, but who said that fiction should be a facsimile of reality anyway?

So, in this perfectly paced book (210 pp), the forth in the series, Mma Ramotswe and her trusty sidekick Mma Makutsi are back: turning a patriarchal society on its head whilst still fighting for the old Botswana ways. Just as things were getting comfortable, and Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni was getting over his depression illness, Mma Ramotswe’s business is threatened, when she discovers that she has a competitor. The Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency is run by a man with a Zulu sounding name (Zulu people are always too loud), who promotes his experience in Johannesburg and New York. Will Mma Ramotswe loose business, as clients are attracted by such exotic sounding city names, in such exciting sounding countries as South Africa and America? And will people go to the new face in town because he’s a man, and you can trust a man, especially a man who has worked in the CID? All will be revealed.

Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi sets up her own typing school business, and, seeing a gap in the market, she decides the classes will be run solely for male students. This clever idea is a great success, meaning that Mma Makutsi now has three jobs. And when she meets an older man with unusually shiny shoes, everything seems to be on the up. But is the diamond company man all that he’s cracked up to be? Only Mma Ramotswe can find the answer.

This series always makes me smile with pleasure.

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21: Foe by J.M. Coetzee

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 22/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

Foe by J.M. CoetzeeFoe (1986) retells the story of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of a woman called Mary Barton. Having sailed to Brazil in search of her missing daughter, Mary Barton takes passage on a mutinous ship. Offstage, the ship has been wrecked near Crusoe’s island, where the Englishman lives with the tongueless African slave Friday. Life on the island becomes tedious and maddening, as Crusoe suffers a series of fevers and Friday sings monotonously. Eventually, the three castaways are rescued, but only Mary Barton and Friday survive the trip to London. The rest of the story is about how the narrator seeks to have her tale written by writer Daniel (De) Foe, and how she ends up writing a completely different story about herself and Friday.

The full title of Defoe’s novel is The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Written by himself, a name which points to the (fictional) autobiographic form of the work. There is a picture hanging in the Greenwich Maritime Museum — of which I have had the pleasure of visiting — that portrays the man (can’t remember his name, you can google it) who Defoe used as his source for Crusoe — the writer himself never having stayed on a deserted island. Just as Defoe used this man’s story to construct a believable fiction, Coetzee used an eighteenth century text to create something new. There is something rather complex going on here, Coetzee is not just mimicking Defoe’s style in order to create a new Crusoe adventure; the South African-born novelist is forming an entirely new character in order to disrupt the entire history of the modern English novel. His attempt is made convincing by his uncanny ability to write like a woman living in the seventeenth century (when Robinson Crusoe was set).

When I reviewed Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys a few weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed because it was too depressing for my taste; but I hugely enjoyed this classic novel spin-off because it was written with a strong plot in mind, one that added some much needed emotional depth to the work it was based upon. It felt contemporary because of its ambiguity (particularly at the end), but never did the writer loose site of the story-line (unless on purpose) or loose control of the appropriate diction.

A small book to put in your pocket / take to a deserted island.

20: The Storyteller by Mario Vargos Llosa

In Books, Fiction on 15/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas LlosaThe Storyteller (1987) is essentially a book about how important stories are to people, across all cultures and historical points. It’s an intellectual novel, that shifts between two contrasting points of view. The first viewpoint is written in Spanish by a university academic; the second is spoken aurally in the language of an Amazonian tribe. As both stories intrigue our curiosity, we are compelled to think about the important role that storytelling has always played in human history and prehistory.

I heard on the radio the other day that baboons sing songs to communicate ideas, such as ‘warning! there’s a snake in the grass.’ But among all species, modern humans are the only creatures who tell stories. To do so, over many thousands of years, we have evolved a set of complex sounds (speaking), symbols (writing) and images (visual art). In the past, when an Amazonian tribesman wanted to know why the moon rises in the sky every night, a religious story was created to fulfill this need to understand; or when Daniel Defoe wanted to sell books to a growing middle class, he wrote Robinson Crusoe and had it printed. Over the last century, technology advanced new forms of storytelling to go alongside these more traditional methods, from silent movies to internet blogs.

So now, with a vast number of ways to tell a story, and so many millions of internet users sharing their personal stories each day through social networking sites, storytelling has never been so widespread. But not all of our online friends have the gift for storytelling that Mario Vargos Llosa does, nor do they wish to work hard at making their stories intriguing in an intellectual way. Mostly, our online friends tend to post pictures of their cats and comment on them ‘oh, that’s such a cute cat! (smiley face)’. Speaking of cat pictures, I was recently sent an article from The Daily Mash: –

“Kitten imagery is like antibiotics, we’ve built up a tolerance through over-use.” (Professor Henry Brubaker)

19: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Spy on 08/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Man Who Was ThursdayI came across this by chance in a charity shop in Belsize Park, near where I live in London. The first page was enticing, so I finished a chapter on the walk home. And I must say, that reading whilst you’re walking really is an incredible pastime – at least when the weather is nice. But I digress, back to the serious literary review.

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is somewhat of a mix, partly being a novel about spies and partly being a novel about anarchists. One thing however remains consistent, it is brilliantly written and makes fun out of some pretty serious topics. You see, as Joseph Conrad made clear in his spy / anarchist novel The Secret Agent (1907), anarchistic dynamiters were a serious threat to stability just before the First World War. Knowing this puts a brave satiric slant on the work, a bit like writers who take the piss out of Islamic terrorism in today’s terms, sometimes at their peril. Even without the relevant historic context, the book is still an hilarious fantasy constructed by a magical storyteller.

And the style is accessible in a way that contemporary novelists never quite seem to master, perhaps barring the excellent Alexander McCall Smith. It seems that, in the days before television, writers could actually grab your imagination and bring it closer to their own way of seeing things. I guess Conrad in a way, was the one who broke that mould and successfully got inside our heads, which led to less accessible literature for English academics to dissect. This book would have been exciting in its day for the way it uses the precision of an H. G. Welles to tell a fantastic story; today it is refreshing because it feels completely original and can be easily read several times.

Read this book.

18: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

In Books, Fiction on 01/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean RhysOn the 16th of October 1847, Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855) published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, a long established classic work of fiction. Bronte’s book was mostly about the romantic relationship between the characters Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, and focused on Jane’s struggle through life and her search for spiritual meaning. Part of the story involves a woman, who has been locked up because she is mad. Bronte created this frightening character as a wave to the Gothic tradition within English literature, and as a plot device to keep the romantic tension at a height.

Late in her career, Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a short novel written as a prequel to Jane Eyre. In this haunting portrayal of mental illness, the mad woman in the attic Antoinette Cosway is given a detailed back-story. The first part of the book deals with her difficult childhood, the second part examines her troubled marriage, and the brief third part is set during her imprisonment. Using the first person (I did this, I did that), Rhys jerkily flicks perspective (no chapters or headings) from Antoinette to Rochester (who is not named). This difficult technique, at times badly handled by Rhys, can be confusing but becomes easier to spot during the second half of the book. Thematically, it has been argued, the novel explores the aftermath of the Emancipation Act (which stopped slavery), the unequal relationships between men and woman during this time, and the mysteriously destructive power of rumor combined with black magic.

I have often seen Wide Sargasso Sea taught alongside Jane Eyre on literature courses, where students are encouraged to relate both novels to different historical and theoretical perspectives. As I consider what to do with my writing, I am wondering whether an expensive masters course would be worth the investment. Personally, I think that these highly academic courses place too much emphasis on theory, often using it as a means to open up topics which are not relevant to the work itself. For example, it is not possible that Charlotte Bronte was writing from a feminist or post-colonial perspective, seeing as both of these critical viewpoints are twentieth century conceptions. Studying literature has helped me to write my first novel, but I don’t know where to go next with my work.

There are courses for that too, but my trick is to keep reading a book every week for another year.