Dan Sandman

Archive for May, 2016|Monthly archive page

22: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, History on 27/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Last Runaway by Tracy ChevalierTracy Chevalier was a reference book editor before she took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Having not worked in an office since 1993, she has written several successful historical novels. Her second novel Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999), inspired by a Vermeer painting, was adapted for a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

The Last Runaway (2013) is set in nineteenth century America before the American Civil War. It is about a young Quaker woman called Honor from England who gets involved in the illegal transportation of slaves. Beset by tragedy early in the novel, Honor is caught between family duty and moral obligation. Patchwork quilts are employed throughout the novel to represent memories and emotions.

Historical novels require much research, and Tracy Chevalier is kind enough to provide us with a list of the books she used to help recreated this difficult period in American history. The language of this lightly entertaining book is full of rich colours, often provided by the bonnets and quilts which Honor encounters. Like so many historical novels, written in essentially a crisp, clean and conservative prose style, it provides a safe window into a troubled past.

An easy book to pick up and enjoy.

21: Sculpture’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 20/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Sculpture's Daughter by Tove JanssonTove Jansson (1914 – 2001) is best known for being the creator of the Moonmin books. But, when she was in her fifties she turned her to attention to writing books for adults. Sculpture’s Daughter (1968) is the fist of these books written for adults and is a childhood memoir.

Each short story in the collection is a vignette that creates an impressionistic image on the reader. When all thirteen stories are viewed from a distance a cohesive whole begins to form. What appears is a wonderfully rich portrayal of the world as seen through the senses and thoughts of a child. At no point do we become aware of any image or feeling being imposed by an adult artist reflecting back on her childhood. The writing transports us from our world to another world within the pages of a book.

Language is carefully weighted and measured to precision. Words repeat to form musical rhythms, and simple words are preferred to complicated ones. When complex words such as ‘bourgeoisie’ do appear, it is done to humorous effect because the word is seen from the perspective of a child. Somewhere in the background lies the ugly presence of war and the adult world. But we the reader can only comprehend this world as a child might: understanding its shape, but only from its shadow.

‘Tove Jansson was a genius.’ – Phillip Pullman

20: Darkness Visible by William Golding

In Books, Fiction on 13/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Darkness Visible by William GoldingWilliam Golding (1911 – 1993) is the only writer to appear twice in my Top 5. Will this book be another contender for a place within my best reads? Only time will tell.

It deals with the disturbed psychology of several connected characters. Loner Matty has an unhealthy obsession with the book of revelations. Teacher Mr. Pedigree has a sexual craving for young boys. Troubled Sophy hates her father.

In terms of genre, Darkness Visible (1979) is mostly what might be called a Bildungsroman (German word loosely translated as ‘novel of education’). Although each character is isolated from society, we are encouraged to connect their behaivour to wider discourses of power. Writing late in his career, Golding here returns to the dark themes which often haunt his novels.

Brilliantly done.

19: Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 06/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Life and Times of Michael KMichael K is a gardener caught in the midst of a civil war. K leaves the city of Cape Town and heads to the country in search of his mother’s childhood home. On his Odyssey, our unlikely hero encounters several strangers, each effected by the war in a different way. He also encounters a police state built on the backs of concentration camp workers.

J. M Coetzee published his masterpiece in 1983, the year I was born. Between its publication and now, thirty-two years have passed. Over these three decades, apartheid South Africa has become post-apartheid South Africa; a new system with new problems of its own. But whereas critics with an historical angle would justifiably locate this work within the politics of 1983, I would like to talk very briefly about its place within the history of literature and the modern novel.

There is certainly a Greek influence here, as with any story concerning a hero whom, like Ulysses, travels away from home, comes up against a number of trials, transforms their heroic character and finally returns to where the adventure started. Then there are the references to Robinson Crusoe somewhere in the middle of the story; as K lives the life of an isolated farmer, growing pumpkins and hunting various species with his catapult. In my usual three paragraphs, written every Friday morning and published at twelve noon precisely, I have just given Life and Times of Michael K an historical context and, in the third paragraph, connected it to two examples of my wider reading.

There are many ways to talk about books, and there are as just many ways to read them.