Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

#32 The Full Cupboard of Life

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Crime, Fiction on 04/08/2017 at 12:00 pm

#32 The Full Cupboard of LifeBotswana is a moral playground in this novel from the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency series. With his infectiously sunny outlook, Alexander McCall Smith cries in favour of the traditional Botswana values that stand for honesty and hard work. In this fifth installment, such principles are under threat from cowboy mechanics and gold-digger boyfriends. As ever, with her perfect blend of feminine intuition and common-sense, private detective Mma Ramotswe sets out to fight for the old Botswana ways her father believed in. As with the other books within the series, McCall Smith promotes an optimistic view of Botswana and Southern Africa in general; highlighting the generosity, compassion and courage of its people with his deceptively simple prose. On the surface, he provides his many fans with hours of comic fun; but underneath lies a moral philosophy which reveals his academic background and life experience. These popular books can be enjoyed entertainment or read as guides on how to live a moral and happy life in an ever-changing world. I think we would all benefit from a cup of bush tea with Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi and Mr J.L.B Matekoni.

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#31 Nutshell

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 28/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#30 NutshellThis novel is an interesting take on the Hamlet story. Inside his pregnant mother’s stomach, a foetus observes a conspiracy to murder. Using poison, with her brother-in-law Claude, the murderous Trudy plans to kill her husband. Like Shakespeare, Ian McEwan has us peer into the mind of his hero. As Shakespeare uses the confiding address of the soliloquy, McEwan employs the instancy of the first person. In both cases, we are privy to the philosophical outbursts of an immature man (foetus).

I am tempted to think of Stewie from hit television comedy Family Guy. In similarity to the talking baby in that show, Hamlet and the foetus have an ironic sense of humour that veers close to the darker side of humanity. Now all we need is a version where Hamlet discusses such things as philosophy with a talking dog. I’m sure somebody is thinking up the idea right now as I type.

#30 The Time Machine

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 21/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#30 The Time MachineAn intrepid Time Traveler calls a dinner party of distinguished fellows to discuss his time machine. The guests leave skeptical, despite the Time Traveler’s convincing scientific arguments. Later, the Time Traveler returns from a week-long adventure far into the distant future. His story is of two separate species evolved from the British class system: the first group are benign, live in the upperworld, and great the Time Traveler with garlands of flowers; the second group are hostile, live in the underworld, and steal the time machine from our hero. As he attempts to understand the future of planet earth, the Time Traveler must rescue his machine and return to his guests in time for dinner. On his way back home, he accidentally shoots far, far, far ahead in time to witness the destruction of all life as we know it. In one final twist, after telling his story, both he himself and the time machine disappear in front of our eyes. The whole fantastic tale is around one hundred pages long and has remained in print for over a century. It is a thought-provoking adventure story and the work of a great prophetic imagination.

Thanks must go to the good folks at Primrose Hill Community Library who got this latest edition in for me by request (excellent introduction). They also got in The Island of Doctor Moreau. Great little library!

#29 Dr Zhivago

In Books, Fiction on 14/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#29 Doctor ZhivagoDr Zhivago (1957) is said to be one of the novels against which all others are judged. It is one of those epic books that cover whole lifetimes, periods of history and different sections of society. Set in Russia, before, during and after the Second World War, it successfully marries the universality of a heartbreaking love story with the horrifying realities of war. Part of its success is due to the way in which Dr Zhivago lives his creative life as a poet whilst working as a doctor and falling in love. Prose is used to describe the world, dialogue is used to depict character and express ideas, but poetry gets to the core of the love story which is the heart of the tale.

Like Paul in All Quite on the Western Front (1929), Yuri is an educated man with a poetic sensibility whose life is up-heaved when war breaks out. In the case of both characters, their romantic sensibility struggles to comprehend the horror of modern warfare. Other characters point to religion as a passage back to a simpler life, but the wheels of mechanized power continue to enslave the masses towards the bloody battlefield. In war, as in love, the tragic condition of humanity can only be captured in poetic language. Novels merely reflect on history and make art out its complexities. In the middle of this sprawling maze we call life, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) suggests that art is the one thing that we have to fight against death.

#28 The First Men in the Moon

In Autobiography, Books, Comedy, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Science Fiction on 07/07/2017 at 12:00 pm

#28 The First Men in the MoonI was in Keats Library, working on a particularly difficult passage of my journal, when the lights went out again. I asked the elderly lady to put the lights back on and she did. My mistake, the trap I set for myself, was to say I wear glasses and then proceed to read without them on.

“Look. He’s not even wearing glasses.”

I stood up, waving my H. G. Wells novel at her.

“I’m short-sighted, that’s why I’m not wearing my glasses. When you keep turning the light off I have to adjust where to look. See. You can’t just keep turning the light on and off all the time. If you want the light off, you need to ask the staff or the volunteers. Or we should ask the people of the library what they want. Get them to take a vote. Most of them would probably want the light on. Especially if they’re trying to read.”

I looked around for support.

“What do you want? Do you want the light on?”

Sitting between us was another Tuesday regular. The guy who looks at graphs on his laptop and goes outside to answer his mobile every now and then.

“I just want what makes her happy. She’s an old lady. We’re contemporaries.”

“We’re not contemporaries.”

“We’re from the same generation. She’s my grandmother’s age. I want whatever will make her happy. We should do what we can to help her.”

“But I do usually help her. And age has nothing to with it. A moment ago, an old man was reading the paper and he wanted the light on because he was reading. It’s about whether people want the light on or off. Either we have it completely on or completely off.”

I looked around at the other people on their laptops. The lights gleamed down upon my forehead. Sensing my retreat, my opponent attacked.

“Well, I would like the lights off.” She said.

“Okay. Actually, I don’t mind whether they’re on or off. As long as its always on or always off.”

“I’ve had cataracts.”

“Eyesight has nothing to do with it.”

“The light makes the computer glare. I want the lights off.”

“It’s the changing of the light that bothers people. Makes them them loose concentration.”

“It’s better without the glare.”

And there it was, the comedy of the situation. Like the clicking of the light-switch itself, a verbal jostle between positive and negative polarities. Faces remained buried in laptops and I walked back to my seat. All the nice old lady wanted was attention and this was her way of getting it. I could see why I had lost control. It was the snide comment about the glasses that had set me off, in this war of the library lights. We either make her happy or we don’t make her happy. Either way, no work gets done when the peace is broken.

#27 The Pyramid

In Books, Fiction, Romance on 30/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#28 The Pyramid

With the deadline for the first chapter of my Golding dissertation coming up, I have been rereading the 1967 classic The Pyramid. For those of you not familiar with the book, it’s a love story about a young man called Oliver and a young woman called Evie. If you’re looking for an easy way into Golding’s less famous novels, this is an ideal starter.

The plot makes sense, the characters are realistically portrayed and the story is told by Oliver in the first-person.

In a minor essay, part of an MA course I’m taking, I say lots of clever things about Golding’s exploration of class in To the Ends of the Earth; A Sea Trilogy, none of which will be of any interest to the general public. Basically, Golding wrote about class; I have spent all of my life living in Britain: a country I love, but one where people from all classes still, still struggle to face the age old anxieties and prejudices of the British class system.

This historic problem, which effects us all, will always rear its head when voting occurs.

Examples:

  1. The vote to leave Europe (a direct split between one class of Britain and another)
  2. The vote to keep Scotland inside the United Kingdom (another barbed-wire fence)
  3. The brick wall between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party

 

Throughout his work, Golding argued that class was a universal problem for the British. Our recent history continues to reinforce the power of this inescapable fog, a dark force, continuing to cloud the judgement of every British person today.

#26 Boyhood

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 23/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#26 BoyhoodAs its title suggests, Boyhood (1997) is about a South African boy’s childhood and schooldays. Each chapter is an essay on one particular aspect of boyhood: summers spent on his uncle’s farm in the Karroo desert; days spent avoiding the cane in a provincial school in Worcester; intimate moments with his mother in the kitchen. By writing about his younger self, Coetzee offers a critique of his own family and on post-WWII South Africa in general. This is successfully achieved through the use of several artistic tools.

Firstly, there is the choice of the present tense, which focuses attention away from the past and onto the moment of imaginative creativity itself. Secondly, Coetzee refers to himself as he, in the same detached way that he refers to characters in books not about himself. Thirdly, he wastes no time on description and spends much time on action. These three factor, when combined, produce a voice which is imaginative, detached and active. Events flash past at the speed of creation, as fast as pen being put to paper.

My main criticism is that Coetzee uses this voice to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Obviously, every memoir ever written has a problematic relationship to the truth of actual lived experience. As intelligent readers, we are aware that the writer has selected and discarded certain material in order to create an artwork. History does the same; but a history written in the present tense, as if it did not actually happen, would be pretty pointless. On the one hand, this memoir can be read as an arrogant attempt to discredit those critics who cling to historical truth; on the other hand, it can be seen as a triumphant cry to break up the novel form and make it new again. Either way, it can be quite annoying to read a memoir which refuses to include the word I.

#25 Emma

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 16/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#25 EmmaEmma Woodhouse, an heiress of £30,000 and two-and-twenty years old, plays match-maker with her less fortunate and younger friend Harriet Smith. But when her social schemes backfire, she is terribly upset.

As the writer Sebastian Faulks has said, Emma is a snob and her snobbery has emotional consequences, both for herself and for those within her society. Emma’s self-satisfaction, her selfish pretenses and her manipulative social behaivour make her a figure of fun because she takes herself too seriously. To Emma, the false manners and codified language of her class exist for her pleasure and delight. Admittedly, as a young woman living in a man’s world, Emma’s approach to her own courtiers needs to be cautious and considerate; but this does not, should not, excuse her hobby of interfering with the love life of her naive friend Harriet. Faulks is right to argue that Emma is a snob; and I would go further to argue that she is one of the worst snobs seen in English literature: interfering and selfish to extremes.

I have mixed feelings about Jane Austen, whose novels are often imitated but never surpassed. Clearly, Austen is a writer of some genius—she almost single-handedly resurected the sentimental novel from the dustbin of literary history and transformed into the modern romantic comedy. However, Austen often attracts harsh criticism because her novels appear completely detached from history, ignorant of the servant-class and devoid of any serious political intrigue. And much to the dissatisfaction of the male species, Austen portrays men as binary opposites to woman. For Austen, war is a man’s business; marriage: a woman’s affair. In Austen view, the struggles of the lower-orders are ignored in favour of the struggles of chivalric love—-i.e. whether X will marry Y for a good fortune or X will marry Z for love. In Austen’s defense, I might add–at least when it comes to the under representation of ordinary people–minus the occasional gravedigger or porter—Shakespeare has been accused of the exact same narrow-mindedness.

#24 Augustus

In Books, Fiction, History on 09/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#24 Augustus.JPGJohn Williams’ final novel is set in ancient Rome and is built upon a series of fictional letters between historical figures: the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil, the tragic leader Mark Anthony, etc. It also deals with Caesar’s rise to power and his estranged relationship with Julia, his daughter.

Although I know very little about Roman history, if I do not include the BBC television series I Claudius, I am assured that the novel is impeccably researched. Shakespeare fans will recognize the Anthony and Cleopatra story, but will be less familiar with the Octavius and Julia story which threads here into the later half of the novel. And Williams, skillfully using the personal address of the epistolary form, is the ideal guide to light up this dark corner of ancient history.

My one criticism would be that the letters, memoranda and dispatches come from too many sides, making an at times too heady mix of character portrayals. However, apart from the confusion caused by the many viewpoints, I think that Williams last work of fiction shines a bright light onto this fascinating period of ancient history.

#23 The War of the Worlds

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction on 02/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#23 The War of the Worlds.jpgObserved by astronomers, in the quiet and peaceful English countryside, a star-like object falls from the sky, blasting open a huge pit in the ground. Later, hostile Martians start to emerge with one mission: to destroy mankind. With only late-Victorian weaponry to fight with (Maxim guns and artillery men), Earth must defend itself against alien invasion. But the Martians have developed a destructive heat-ray and a devastating unit of giant metallic tripod-like machines. The army, and humanity in general, stand no chance against the superior technology of the brutally advanced invaders. There is no negotiation and no prisoners are taken. Civilization is set to be destroyed and our planet is set to be colonized without hope of reprisal. Will we survive the War of the Worlds? The first clue to answering this question is apparent from the novel’s earliest chapters. Clearly, the story is that of a survivor, writing in the first-person.

As Adam Roberts points out in his introduction, at the time of publication, the invasion novel already existed as a popular genre.  But whereas the invasion fiction of the late nineteenth century dwelt on fears surrounding the Germans, the Chinese or whoever, Wells pits his plucky English townspeople against aliens from Mars. This stroke of genius, drawing on Wells’s knowledge of the science and the fears of his day, would go on to both create and define a new branch of popular fiction: science fiction. It is fair to say, from Blade Runner to the X-Men, that this book is the central modern influence on all subsequent science fiction. And to add to its power, it remains a good read and a good page-turner.