Dan Sandman

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

26: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

In Books, Fiction on 26/06/2015 at 12:00 pm

A Wild Sheep Chase by Huruki MurakamiThe imaginative stories of Huruki Murakami play with reader expectations, taking the novel form into strange worlds. Murakami’s world is a place were historical truth co-exists alongside magical realism; where references from pop culture are scattered next to animals behaving extremely oddly. In short, Murakami is a master-mind novelist with a philosopher’s heart.

In his first novel A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami sends the narrator on a journey to find a sheep. On the way, he meets a girl with magic ears, finds out a wealth of information regarding Japanese sheep farming, and gets involved in some sort of ring-wing conspiracy. Although much of the novel has an unworldly feel to it, the characterization and dialogue of the narrator are rooted in reality – it’s just the people he meets who are strange.

This juxtaposition of magic and realism gives the reader a sense of the uncanny, as subconscious elements are driven up from below the surface. The overall effect of Murakami’s technique is to question the very meaning of reality, and in particular how writers guide our minds to explore unworldly and uncanny versions of the real world. It is a strange universe, and most of the important questions – why are we here? what are we doing here? where do we go when we die? – remain unanswered.

Read this book to discover that we still don’t have the answers.

25: Burmese Days by George Orwell

In Books, Fiction on 19/06/2015 at 12:00 pm

Burmese Days by George OrwellFirst published in America over eighty years ago, George Orwell’s first novel stands up as vital attack on British colonial rule, condemning his former employers to the harsh scrutiny of literary critics. Had Orwell just stuck to journalism, or written only documentaries, he may have been forgotten by now; but as it stands, much because of his his later novels, Orwell, for many, has become the go-to writer for readers interested in the twentieth century. His voice remains pessimistic and crystal clear, attacking the problems of the world with nothing but his pen.

This book presents colonial Burma as a corrupt and unfair country, where a gin swigging white minority rule in the name of Empire. Each character is either racist, bigoted, corrupt, tired of life, or all of the above. Even the main character Flory is an incredibly flawed human being, susceptible to living his life in a drunken haze, never able to express how he truly feels. And, like the character Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty Four, Flory’s failed attempt to find love only worsens his situation. Nothing in Orwell’s Burma is right; everything is wrong.

I think that the one thing that saves Burmese Days from being too depressing is Orwell’s dry sense of humour. There is something very British about laughing in the face of life’s troubles, and Orwell was able to do this in his early novels. It was only later, as the twentieth century got worse, following the rise of totalitarianism, that Orwell would loose his British sense of humour, writing his most famous novel whilst choking to death in the north of Scotland. So in some ways, this first novel of Orwell’s, with its Kipling-esque (although Orwell appears to hate Kipling) descriptions of an alien culture, is about as cheerful as he gets. Indeed, having read Orwell since my school days, I have come to the conclusion that Orwell chose to experience the misery of the world, and paid the price of an early death.

A tragic story.

24: Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 12/06/2015 at 12:00 pm

Butcher's Crossing by John WilliamsAll the ingredients are here for a western: a lone hero who walks into town looking for an adventure; a fellowship is formed; and a vast American landscape is explored. But this is not a western in the John Wayne or the Clint Eastwood sense; there are no gunfights with Indians or standoffs with the deputy sheriff. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams is the sort of American novel one would expect from the author of Stoner.

In search of buffalo, four men venture out to the rocky mountains of Colorado from a small town called Butcher’s Crossing. Will Andrews puts up the money, Miller hunts and kills, Charlie Hodge cooks and drives oxen, and Fred Schneider skins what Miller kills using specialist knives. Working against the dry terrain and the extreme weather conditions, the men hunt together, seeking to profit from the sale of buffalo hides to a businessman called Mc Donald, who promises to pay the men when they return. But as the expedition progresses, and the four men face many trials, will the team get back safely to Butcher’s Crossing and get paid? And will Andrews get back to the explain his feelings to the rejected Francine?

What I like about Butcher’s Crossing, is that it never plays up to the Hollywood version of the wild west. What is depicted feels far more true to history, and the number of characters properly introduced is a total of six: Andrews, Mc Donald, Miller, Hodge, Francine and Schneider. John Williams is a descriptive writer of great power; one who is able to strongly impress the feel of a place. Williams does this by paying close attention to detail, in particular when he is describing the effect light has on places and people. One moment that stands out in my mind is when a strong white light dazzles Andrews and forces him back to camp. With reference to previous American novels, like Hemingway before him, Williams pits man against the elements and beasts of the natural world. The underlying result of such a conflict often comes across as overly macho, but the gender inequalities presented in the classic American western or hunting story are an important part of the past.

And, like this book, or like any adventure, the past can be both serious and beautiful.

23: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 05/06/2015 at 12:00 pm

Kim by Rudyard KiplingPerhaps all heroes need a spiritual guide, whose role it is to help the hero along the way. Luke Skywalker has Yoda (Star Wars), Neo has Morpheus (The Matrix) and Kim has the lama. Characters such as these take the hero away from the material world; towards the spiritual realm. Without knowledge and wisdom, the hero is likely to take the wrong path. If Yoda didn’t teach Luke to control his anger, he may have been corrupted by the ‘dark side’; if Morpheus didn’t believe in ‘the one’, then Neo would have been stuck in the matrix; and if the lama did not have faith in his ‘chela’, then Kim might have joined ‘the Great Game’.

But unlike Star Wars (1977) or The Matrix (1999), Kim (1901) is set in the real world, and the lama uses meditation to reach enlightenment, as opposed to ‘the force’ or ‘the way’. For those readers who aren’t familiar with Kim, it is a novel about an orphaned boy who joins a holy man on his quest for the River (a place where all sins will be washed away). On his travels, Kim is educated to become a sahib (gentlemen), encouraged to join the secret service (Great Game), meets a diverse range of people, and explores India in all its varied glory.

I guess Kim is a classic bildungsroman, or novel of education. Come to think of it, Kim  is picturesque too, which ties in with that German tradition. Personally, putting aside literary terms, I enjoyed my first reading of a Kipling novel; in particular, the vivid characters and beautifully described landscapes. It felt like a novel about choices: between the spiritual and the material; between East and West; between faith and reason. I think Kipling wants the reader to see that the world is a difficult place to navigate, so all we can do is find a spiritual guide and make our way towards the next choice, in an endless search for meaning.

Books can help.