Dan Sandman

Archive for June, 2016|Monthly archive page

26: Blake by Peter Ackroyd

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 24/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

Blake by Peter AckroydEighteenth century London is the setting for this excellent biography. It traces the steps of the visionary poet and engraver William Blake. We see Blake walking across the pavements of Lambeth, sketching tombs in Westminster Abbey, and composing poetry in the notebook of his tragically departed brother. In the midst of great political change, with the French Revolution and the American Civil War looming behind him, Blake elevates his vision of London to mythological status; late in his career, giving us the lyrics for what has become a second British national anthem: And did those feet in ancient time.

But despite being famous today, Blake was relatively unknown during his own lifetime. This was partly due to his fiery temperament, which made him difficult to work with. He could also become lost in his own creative visions. As Peter Ackroyd points out, on one occasion he agreed to a September deadline for a piece of engraving work for a book front-cover, but did not hand it until April — the book having already been published by that date. He also self-published most of his poetical works by demand, making it difficult for him to sell them on any large scale; and as if to make matters worse, each beautifully drawn design, on each separate book, was separately and painstakingly created next to the printed words. Such complicated production methods were essentially bad for business.

Peter Ackroyd wrote this biography in 1995 and it has since been at the top of many reading lists (his name beginning with has helped). The writing is steeped in detail: retracing the footsteps of Blake and his circle with a secure knowledge of London history. We are given an insight into the dissenting religious beliefs of Georgian England; tutored on the precise techniques of copper engraving; and asked to rethink the poetry and artworks from a biographical perspective. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in William Blake or the inner workings of the creative mind.

Outstanding.

25: An Egyptian Journal by William Golding

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 17/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

An Egyptian Journal by William GoldingIn his later years, William Golding was asked by his publisher to write a travel book about Egypt. Setting course along the Nile with his wife Ann, Golding kept a journal of his daily experiences on board ship and on shore, which he subsequently used as material for this book. In addition to his journal, Golding took photographs for inclusion in the final publication. The final result was a highly readable piece of prolonged journalism which explored Egypt’s ancient ruins and political present.

Throughout, we are treated to rare insights into the mind of a much-loved writer. What comes across is Golding’s often self-effacing sense of humour; especially when he writes about his meeting with the Secretary for Culture (where both sides knowingly downplay their own importance). Also present is the writer’s humanism, which is rooted by the liberal tradition of the writers that preceded him. Golding has the ability to see past the ‘pharoni’ (phony tourist things), and to highlight the human experience of the Egyptian people he meets.

My mother and I found this beautifully made, secondhand book downstairs in Foyles bookshop on Charring Cross Road last January. Being an avid reader, my mother read it before I did; and for a while now, it has taken residence within her collection. However, as will inevitably happen — after being side-tracked for several months by other readily endeavors — I am finally about to finish Golding’s singular foray into travel writing.

The final pages ready themselves for turning past numbered chapters.

24: The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas Llosa

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 10/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas LlosaThese early short stories from the Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa mature as they go along. The first story, giving its title to the collection, proves — by refusing to employ quotation marks — that the basic rules for writing dialogue have evolved for a very good reason. But once the collection reaches the half-way mark; we are given several illuminating examples of well balanced, neatly presented, concise fiction of a very high standard.

Lad culture circa Peru in the 50s is at the centre of this book. The first few stories, when taken as a whole, can be seen as a sequenced study of male relationships: from childhood (The Cubs) running through to adolescence (The Leaders) and into old age (The Grandfather). Woman appear as objects of desire; whilst the family, and other focal points for a balanced education, are to be rebelled against. It can certainly be said that whilst the camaraderie of machismo culture is celebrated here, the violence that underpins a world without femininity is inevitably drawn towards tragic outcomes. This becomes particularly clear when the book’s subject matter turns towards the genre of the western (A Visitor / The Younger Brother); focuses on a swimming competition between two rival lovers (On Sunday); and brilliantly depicts a duel between two members of rival gangs (The Challenge).

The overall impression is of a writer learning the ropes, developing his craft by exploring semi-autobiographical material. By the time we reach the end of the collection, a mature voice begins to resound above the deconstructions of the earliest writings. What we begin to unveil is a Peru at the cusp of a new sort of rebellion, one inspired by American culture and led by the appearance of two new social groups, distinct yet similar: the faux-masculine teenager and the idealistic student, both looking to meet girls whilst talking about football over a few beers.

Still seen in pubs and bars around the world.

23: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 03/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Fifth Child by Doris LessingHarriet and David meet at an office party. They buy a big house together and have four children. For a while they are reasonably happy, putting on parties for their extended family during the holidays. But when the fifth child Ben is born ‘not like other children’, the family idyll begins to tear and fall apart.

This short novel, which was followed years later by a sequel, was written in 1988. It is themed around family breakdowns, the British obsession with social class and the social problems surrounding children with extreme learning difficulties. In many ways it can be seen as a reaction to the often cited Margaret Thatcher quote: ‘There are individual men and woman, and there are families.’

Whilst still in their twenties, Harriet and David aspire to be ‘happy’ in the conventional, conservative sense. The fifth child upsets their plans to become the ideal middle-class family; he is an uncontrollable force placed within a controlled environment. Class influence might be able to send Ben away to an institution — where he would be imprisoned, sedated and eventually murdered by a system which is unable to cope. Money from wealthy relatives can be given to ship the other children off to boarding school out of harm’s way. But the problem of Ben goes beyond the usual coping mechanisms of British society in the 1980s. At every point, the family and the system fail to help the fifth child integrate with the world.

He therefore gravitates towards alienation.