Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

#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.

#17 Pages from a Scullion’s Diary

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 21/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#17 Pages from a Scullion's Diary.JPGThis great little book, taken from the more expansive Down and Out in London and Paris, sees George Orwell in autobiographical mode. As his journalism and essays prove, Orwell likes to seek out stories; rather than wait for stories to come to him. The experiences he writes about here are presented in clear and concise English. In many ways, Orwell is the antidote to those lacking clarity and to those lacking meaning in their writing. Although Orwell is more famous for his dystopian fiction, his factual writing sets the bar for anyone interested in non-fiction and travel writing with a political edge.

#13 Sapiens

In Books, History, Non-Fiction, Science on 24/03/2017 at 12:00 pm

#13 SapiensWilliam Golding said that courteous historians will generally concede that written history is a branch of fiction. If one believes this to be the case, than one is freed to enjoy history books as pastimes, or judge them by the quality of the writing. Most history books fail to tap into the best seller market because they are stuffy and academic texts written by stuffy and academic historians. Sapiens, on the other hand, is bubbly, antagonistic and–to use that most twenty-first century of words–cool. As fiction, it attempts the impossible and arrogant task of pigeonholing the whole history of humankind into five hundred pages. This is all achieved with clean prose, alongside pictures and diagrams, organized into twenty chapters. As a set of essays, it forms an intertwined series of convincing arguments, questioning the pillars of civilization: money, science, religion, culture and history itself. Yuval Noah Harari is perhaps the Montaigne of our day, condensing a great deal of reading into popular arguments aimed at the layman. His final chapters on the scientific revolution, like the book of Revelations, argue that humanity is heading towards its own destruction. This idea is pure science fiction, and hardly anymore visionary than an episode of Star Trek, but entertaining nonetheless.

#1 Elements of Style

In Books, Non-Fiction on 30/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

1-elements-of-styleWriting is a skill and good writing takes time. Like reading, listening, speaking, playing and all things that result in learning, writing needs to be practiced.Good writers know the rules and practice them; great writers know when to break them. Elements of Style is a textbook for anyone who wants to learn the rules and write well. Referred to as the “little book”, it was initially self-published by William Strunk Jr. for a course called English 8, which run at the close of the First World War. In 1957, one of his students, the writer W. B. White, reexamined his English professor’s work and got it published. More recently, Roger Angell updated the book, modestly changing one or two of White’s references.

I purchased my copy, published by Pearson Education Limited in 2014, from Waterstones on Camden High Street. Controversially, Waterstones have changed their company name by removing the apostrophe; thus breaking Strunk’s elementary rule of usage no. 1: ‘Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.’ Waterstones’s CEO, James Daunt, is responsible for this awful decision.

45: Youth by J.M. Coetzee

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 04/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

youth-by-j-m-coetzeeHe is an undergraduate at Cape Town University studying mathematics and sleeping with an older woman. This will be the first in a series of unhappy sexual relationships. His wish is to be a poet and he studies the work of Ezra Pound. Unhappy with the state of South Africa, he emigrates to London and finds a computer programming job with IBM. For pleasure, he goes to the Everyman to watch foreign films. He hopes that living in a big European city will make him a better poet.

The voice of this fictional memoir is the he voice used above and preferred by J.M. Coetzee in much of his best work. By not using the more convention voice, Coetzee allows himself to be distanced from his memories. This makes it easier for him to comment negatively on his own life; the he voice being unattached from the autobiographical content. It is a novel way to write and should be recommended to writers as an experiment.

I enjoyed this book and would purchase it for a friend. It is about a young person’s search for love and fulfilling work. This is something which most people can relate to. This hardback was borrowed from Keats’ Community Library, near where much of the novel is set. Youth is preceded by Boyhood, and is followed by Summertime.

All worth reading.

41: The War Poems by Wilfred Owen

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 07/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

war-poems-by-wilfred-owenIn late December 1912, following his matriculation, Wilfred Owen was offered a post as lay assistant to a clergyman, which he turned down. Owen had decided to move away from his evangelical roots, swapping his religious studies for deep readings of Keats manuscripts at the British Museum. Drawing on his knowledge of the biblical and classical genres, he begun to compose poetry with a heavy Keats influence; travelling to France where he held a position at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux. On the year of his twenty-first birthday, war was declared and Owen carried on teaching privately for a while. On November the 15th 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and became a British Army officer.

The story of what happened to Owen during the war has been made familiar by Pat Barker’s excellent novel Regeneration, which deals with the conversations Owen had with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Both poets were treated for shell shock — having faced the dirt, stink and horror of the trenches — and soon became friends through their shared love of poetry. Sassoon was already a well connected writer, and introduced Owen to Robert Graves, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. With his friend’s help and encouragement, Owen received critical acclaim as a Georgian war poet. On June the 4th 1918, he was graded fit for general service. He was killed early in the morning on November the 4th. The armistice was signed on the 11th.

This book is the best way to enjoy and study the poetry of Wilfred Owen that I have come across. Jon Stallworthy has done a consummate job, selecting the very best of the poet’s work and providing an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by scholarly notes for budding and experienced essayists alike; and Owen’s famous preface — ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’ (pp.98) — is included as a coda.

Highly recommended.

39: The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 23/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-making-of-modern-britain-by-andrew-marrThe start of the twentieth century marks a dramatic turning point in British history. Queen Victoria was reaching the end of her long life, having ruled for sixty-four years over the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In an era before radio and television, music halls entertained the masses in huge urban auditoriums. Gathering in the passageways of overcrowded slum housing, the urban working classes drank from shared water pumps and uncomfortably breathed beneath a thick, polluted fog. Beyond the charity of wealthy philanthropists, there was no support for anyone unlucky enough to fall ill or loose their job. Britain may have been the wealthiest country in the world, but it functioned without the publicly funded hospitals and benefits systems we have in place today. Woman were classed as second class citizens, unable to vote or own property. Beyond the kind of violent revolutions seen elsewhere, something had to be done to address the gulfs between the classes and the sexes. There would be many complaints from the more conservative quarters of the old establishment, but Britain was progressively becoming more liberal and more democratic, with socialism also beginning to play an important role within British politics. Meanwhile, as his aunt lay on her deathbed, the queen’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II was beginning to strut up and down the deck of his newly built navy’s flagship.

This book grabs readers by the scruff of the neck, dragging them from Victoria’s death to the end of the Second World War. The pace is fast, with each of the four parts of history covered (e.g. 1919-1939) being given a title and around one hundred pages of text. Writing for the BBC viewing British public, Andrew Marr does not write overly academic essays; instead Marr adopts an anecdotal style but is nonetheless authoritative, listing many of his sources in the notes section at the back of the book. His approach to history is to focus on a particular event or character, bridging out to broader issues from there. This makes the whole work very readable, and is one reason why the book version of the television series has been a bestseller. In a way, Marr is following a long line of journalists who have worked prolifically to feed the British public’s need for news, views and opinion. In order to achieve such a mammoth task, he appears regularly on television as a presenter and political commentator, writes for the national newspapers as often as he can, and composes books of both non-fiction and fiction — when he not busy filling in his journal with the day’s events.

I should imagine that such a prominent journalist has a pretty tight schedule — as well as access to the contact details of every important person in the country and beyond. It is therefore admirable that Mr. Marr still has time to support the community he lives in here in Primrose Hill. Whereas most of us average folk go about our daily business making little impact on the thoughts of NHS workers in Birmingham or Scottish nationalists in Dumfries and Galloway, such esteemed journalists — some of which I happen to occasionally see walking along Chalcot Road on a Friday afternoon — are in the business of forming public opinion on a grand scale. The whole thing must be incredibly tiring and stressful, but some people thrive in such environments.

Personally, I prefer the less significant work of publishing here every Friday afternoon at 12 o’ clock precisely.

38: Byron by Elizabeth Longford

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 16/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

byron-by-elizabeth-longfordIn his own lifetime, Lord Byron was almost as famous as Napoleon, after bursting into the literary limelight in 1812 with an epic poem about a self-outcast romantic hero. The poem in question Childe Harold would cement Byron’s reputation for creating dark, dangerous and devilishly exciting central characters — the original Byronic heroes of the literary world. Byron traveled the world in style, forged many promiscuous relationships with both sexes along the way, and fostered a controversial public image within the newspapers. Poet’s were the pop stars of their day, and Byron was to become one of the first international celebrities of the modern era. It would be right to compare his popularity to Micheal Jackson’s, another controversial figure living within a celebrity bubble. But the fact that Byron’s poetry is still appreciated by English Literature scholars has nothing to do with this fame. The poems themselves are brightly lit with clever rhyming and encompass an expansive range of subjects, precariously balancing between the biographically personal and the satirically political.

Published in 1976, this highly readable biography is well known amongst Byron scholars. Elizabeth Longford does a very good job of gathering together the various letters, corespondents and previous biographies surrounding the Byron myth. In chronological order, Longford occasionally dips into the poetry itself to add to her biography of the famous romantic poet — which will please English students. Over the years, however, Longford has been criticized for inaccuracies concerning the number of books Byron’s publishers actually sold during his lifetime; many unlicensed editions were created and circulated illegally, through pirated copies which breached the relatively recent laws concerning copyright. As this illegal copying highlights, the question of author ownership was being challenged long before the internet came along.

I like Byron’s poetry: it has grown on me over the years. Reading up on Byron for my essay is helping me to place Don Juan within the cultural milieu of late Georgian society. Yes, Byron is bitterly against almost all factions of the establishment, but at least he is consistent with his animosity. It is suggested by Longford that this might have had something to do with his clubbed foot, a disability which perhaps led to an overstatement of his masculinity; the need for sporting magnificence and his desire for many passionate but essentially unfulfilling sexual conquests. This is one argument which seeks to give meaning to the complex identity of this good looking and brilliantly witty poet: combined with an absent aristocratic father who died whilst Byron was still a boy, leaving the young future poet much land, a title, but not much money; an overbearing mother, with many uncomplimentary nicknames, who arguably allowed an incestuous relationship to develop between Byron and his sister; and any number of sexual adventures in foreign lands. The whole tale creates a saucy biographical picture which perhaps augments our reading of the poetry. Whether the more sensational stories surrounding Byron (of which I have not the space to cover) are strictly true or not is debatable, particularly seeing as the poet’s memoirs were burnt soon after he died.

Does it really matter? — if the poetry is good and worth reading.

37: Oxford by Martin Garrett

In Books, History, Literature, Music, Non-Fiction, Travel on 09/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

oxford-by-martin-garrettThis excellent guidebook is presented as a series of essays on the historic city of Oxford. Each chapter focuses on a different cultural aspect of the city: from its long history to its place in literature; and everything in between. Be prepared for a fair amount of literary quotes and humorous anecdotes, as you dip into this fascinating and insightful book. For example, did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien once drove a whole bunch of undergraduates through town in a stolen bus? Well, now you will.

In a style which is equal parts authoritative and amusing, Martin Garrett guides you with erudition and a perfectly light tone. Rather than presenting a series of facts (i.e. punting in oxford lasts until October) or giving you tips on restaurants and sights of interest, Garrett presents a cultural and an historic guide to Oxford in the manner of the good old-fashioned essay. The result is a relatively recent book (published 2014) which is less likely to date as changes are made to bus timetables and hotels readdress their website URLs. A trusted companion for someone new to city, or a welcome reminder for those who wish to reminisce.

And I am certainly in the second category, having lived in Oxford as a Brookes undergraduate, and shortly after as a bookseller. Oh Oxford! Oh poetry! Oh! Well you get the idea. Anyway, this Tuesday I return to my second home; from the metropolis which was named London many moons ago (and what Tolkien might have had in mind when he created Mordor). It also happens to be my birthday, and a beautiful time of the year for falling leaves and pleasantly mild climes.

Can’t wait to revisit places of old.

31: A Moment of War by Laurie Lee

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 29/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

A Moment of War by Laurie LeeIn order to fight the rise of fascism in Europe, many foreigners signed up to partake in the Spanish Civil War, including Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Laurie Lee. This third installment of Laurie Lee’s autobiography is about his war experiences in Spain. It took many years for him to publish and was probably composed with some difficulty.

The language is sharper than in Lee’s previous memoirs, which are a vivid and full celebration of the beauty and humanity that surrounded him during his childhood and on his original travels to Spain. We hear now of battles being fought, shells exploding and wrongful imprisonment. As Lee gets caught up somewhere in the chaotic disarray of the war, the action stumbles in logical sequence from post to post. In place of sentiment or heightened emotion, we have a cool style where what is left unsaid can be as intriguing as the words left on the page. Unlike any history book, Lee shows the failings of his own side without the need for any essays on Spanish politics or German troop movements. The work is done by simply telling his own story as honestly and plainly as he can, and without completely loosing the impressionistic aesthetic which has made his work so popular over the years.

For the general reader there is much here to be appreciated. Personally, there is one paragraph at the end of chapter eight that will always stick in my mind for the way it deals with death as a result of war. I think readers are right to wonder why travelers should volunteer for foreign wars in distant lands, especially when they are likely to be faced with the horrific consequences of military action directly. War is terrible and leads to the destruction of love and life. Literary books about war remind us that whenever and wherever we see horror and terror in the world, there are a series of infinitely complex stories behind the simple images we consume each day.

This is but one.