Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens (1865)

12 Mar

Crime thriller, love story, comedy, social analysis; Charles Dickens’s final completed novel crosses all these different genres. A colourful, multi-character-ed story in which various story-lines inter-weave and the characters’ paths cross in a variety of situations that induce a variety of emotions in the reader.  In a way, the structure is like that of a soap opera.  I realise that some Dickens aficionados may baulk at making such a comparison, but hear me out.  Soap operas often endure for years, captivating the viewers’ interest with their inter-woven plots and characters’ lives.  A particular plot can resurface after lying dormant for a while, with the viewer excited to know how it’s going to turn out.  Dickens’s style is similar in this respect, and indeed the book was published in serial form initially, released over the course of 19 months.

(SPOILER ALERT: this post contains some details of the story, though there are still many more details left unsaid.)
(And on the subject of spoiler alerts, some editions have a list of characters at the beginning, before the text of the story. This can give away some details of a significant part of the plot so I would recommend not reading the character list until you’re about half-way through the book.)
(OK, that’s sorted; now on with the post.)

The central event, to which nearly all the other story-lines are in some way related, is news of the untimely death of John Harmon. This event is the basis for the crime thriller genre: the mystery of who murdered him. This event also brings together various characters, creating the love stories of John Rokesmith and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie.  In turn, the examination of how this universal human emotional need – the reciprocated love for another – plays out in the paradigm of a society in which money and social class are highly visible and important, creates a fascinating social analysis.  A social analysis made more memorable by Charles Dickens’s biting satirical wit.

In general, fiction is often about conflict and quest, anything that leads the reader to wonder “Will they or won’t they?”; or “How will it be resolved?”  In “Our Mutual Friend”, a central form of conflict and quest is this analysis of relationships within and against the social constraints of 1860s England.  Dickens uses vivid scenes, emotive characters and satire to draw the reader’s attention to the shallow superficiality of a society in which retaining full membership of a particular social class is perceived as more important than loving someone for whom they really are.
Bella’s brave rejection of the wealth and potential social status of the newly rich, social-climbing Boffins in favour of the (relatively) poor John Rokesmith; Eugene’s marriage to the poor and working class Lizzie, ignoring the criticism by society of such a marriage.  Dickens shows these to be sincere, worthy relationships, based on real love and sacrifice (particularly in the case of Bella).  Bella is delighted by her own ability to overcome her former mercenary nature. Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage is praised by Mr Twemlow as a marriage of “the greater gentleman” and “the greater lady” on account of the marriage being based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection.  Similarly, many of the less rich characters are shown to be wholesome and decent people in general, e.g. proud Betty Higden, Jenny Wren, Lizzie and the Boffins when they forgo their newly-found fortune.

By contrast, the Veneerings and their dinner party guests (except Mortimer and Mr Twemlow) are shown to be callous and superficial, a feature further highlighted by the very name of Veneering.  This is particularly the case in the final dinner party at which Twemlow makes his above remark in praise of Eugene and Lizzie.  In some ways, it feels as though the story was building up to this: the veneer of respectability (in the form of ‘excellent dinners’ in the opulent home) now fully stripped away, to reveal the callous, pompous attitudes beneath.

It is true that some of the poorer characters are portrayed negatively too, e.g. Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg; but the unpleasantness of the rich characters is hidden under a veneer which Dickens removes to expose them.  Yes, we know Rogue Riderhood is a scheming villain and so would anyone; but the Veneerings and their dinner party guests hide their callousness under a veneer of respectability.  Dickens’s biting satire strips this away and Twemlow is shown to be the better person.
In reality, the need for belonging to a group is an important need for anyone; but Dickens shows that the belonging to such a shallow society as that of the Veneerings is rather vacuous.  However, that sense of fully belonging may be difficult to forgo, in a time when social class played such a greater part in people’s lives and in society, however vacuous that may be.  Also the need for financial security is entirely understandable, particularly in the times of far less (if any) social security.  Therefore, it is perhaps excessively romantic to consider someone choosing their love over financial security.
But then this was perhaps Dickens’s aspiration: a change in society to one in which relationships based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection COULD thrive above those based on desire for money and/or class.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon (2003)

19 Feb

“Show, don’t tell”; this is one of the pieces of fiction writing advice I’ve read or heard (probably more than once).  And this wonderful novel ignores it – to great effect!

The novel is written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Christopher Boone, a 15-year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.  And his narrative is very much “Tell; just tell them what happened; don’t bother with those rules”.  The result is starkly different to many novels as the narrative is a staccato ‘I said-he said-I said-he said-I did-he did’ rather than the more fluid prose that you may be used to.  But the benefit is that this gives a clear insight into Christopher’s logical mind.  A mind that is led by precise, ‘digital’ (rather than ‘analogue’) thinking, without shades of meaning or vagaries.  The mind of someone fascinated by mathematics and by the way the world and universe work.

I should stress that I’m not criticising ‘analogue’ thinking and vagaries at all; I’m merely saying that the author uses the aforementioned narrative style as a very effective indicator of the main character’s mindset and personality. There is a place for each type of thinking in this world.

Spoiler Alert: this post contains some details of the story; however, there is still plenty of the story left unrevealed.

Christopher clearly has an acute case of Asperger’s Syndrome and while the reader is shown the positives of this, such as his brilliant intellect, the story does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of his condition, but it does so in a manner that is sympathetic without being patronising.  The reader is shown Christopher’s immense difficulties in navigating situations that are everyday situations to most of us, as well as his difficulties in physical navigation, e.g. the streets of his town.  Also, there are the difficulties his parents face in trying to protect and take care of him.  The result of all these difficulties is a sometimes heart-breaking story (but one that ends well).  It is also quite endearing and could very well help society understand Asperger’s Syndrome much better.

This story takes a fairly simple plot – investigation into who killed the neighbour’s dog – and turns it into a fascinating and engaging story.  The real story is Christopher’s mind; the events that occur seem almost ancillary.

Oh, and the numbering of chapters with prime numbers is a nice touch!

“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn (2009)

20 Oct

I remember a letter to a satirical magazine I read once; the gist of it was basically this:

Why is it that whenever someone is a victim of a tragic accident or crime, they’re described as having been the ‘life and soul of the party’ with loads of friends?  As a dull and boring person with no friends, I feel remarkably safe!

The letter writer clearly intended it as humour, but I think it also raises a couple of important points:

  1. Is it really true?  Is it really only the popular, wonderful people who become victims of accidents or crime? Seriously?!
  2. More importantly, does the value of a person’s life really depend on their sociability and gregariousness?

The letter writer highlighted the media’s habit of applying a rose tint to anyone who happens to be a victim of tragedy.  This apparently indiscriminately applied rose tint is not only unrealistic but also suggests that if a person is a quiet loner, their untimely death would be somehow less important.
In reality, everybody is a mix of good and bad, nice and nasty.  So why should we need to have a person’s negative aspects hidden from view in order to recognise the importance of their life?

So how does this relate to Gillian Flynn’s second novel “Dark Places”?

Well, this novel opens with the narrator Libby Day saying:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ…. It’s the Day blood.”

24 years prior, the then 7 year old Libby escaped an attack on her family that left her mother and two sisters dead: one shot, one strangled and one chopped with an axe.

Spoiler Alert: this post contains some details of the story; however, there is still plenty of the story left unrevealed.

Libby’s brother Ben, aged 15 at the time of the murders, is convicted and jailed, yet he is innocent. And much of the story is focussed on the search for the truth and the eventual success of that search.  So how is Ben Day portrayed?  A gentle, nice guy, poor victim of a horrific injustice? Not entirely, no. OK, there are some elements of that in his character, but he is far from perfect either.

Conversely, some positive sides of one of the actual killers are shown too.

And of course, Libby is deserving of sympathy for her ordeal, however much of a ‘meanness’ she may have inside her – as we all have some degree of meanness within us, don’t we?

This is one of the strengths of this story.  It shows people as they are really are: nobody is entirely good or entirely evil. An obvious point perhaps, but one that often seems suppressed in media accounts.

On top of this strength is one of Gillian Flynn’s other strengths: to write an incredibly captivating (there could be a pun there) story.  The reader becomes intimately acquainted with the characters and their lives:

  • Libby Day as a traumatised, embittered young woman, struggling to maintain some form of emotional stability.
  • Ben Day as an under-confident young man, desperate to find some identity for himself, and thus prone to being manipulated and bullied.
  • Patty Day as an exhausted mother, dealing with poverty and a crisis affecting her son Ben.  The emotional intensity of Flynn’s writing is amazing!

Gillian Flynn also has an amazing ability to create a 3-dimensional moving image in the reader’s mind: as vivid as any film I’ve seen.  And the flipping between 1985 and 2009 invokes some nostalgia, which takes the edge off the dark and bleak subject of the story.

This is no happy story, but it is an engaging and captivating one.

Finally, to return to the subject of rose-tinting in the media, you may be interested in a post on my friend’s blog (external content for which I’m not responsible):

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee

11 Jan

In Harper Lee’s classic novel, she succeeds in creating an accessible story despite the harsh subject matter of visceral prejudice and its brutal impacts.  The narration through a child’s eye view, including her conversations with her gentle and loving father, is largely what gives the story its accessibility while still effectively raising awareness of the important issues it addresses.

While the particular subject matter of the novel is prejudice held by some white people against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, the details of such prejudice could be equally applicable in many other types of prejudice and discrimination.  Lee raises awareness of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond those details that may seem obvious to many.

Ultimately, Harper Lee raises awareness of the need to question everything, particularly entrenched attitudes and views.

While I’ve never intended this blog to be a particularly political forum, it can be interesting, and important, to discuss issues like prejudices and I welcome any comments on this post – even constructive disagreements with my views 🙂

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

The story begins with the disarmingly ordinary accounts of the day-to-day life of the 6-to-8-year old Jean-Louise (“Scout”) Finch, told through her narration.  The games she gets up to with her slightly older brother Jem and their friend Dill, and the interactions with their widowed father Atticus, their Aunt Alexandra and the cook Calpurnia, area narrated in the manner of a typical “What-did-you-get-up-to-at-school-today?” conversation.

But Atticus is also a lawyer and the story eventually turns to the case he has been appointed to defend: that of a young Negro man accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus is determined to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, to have his side of the case heard.  Yet in spite of considerable evidence that Mayella Ewell was in fact the victim of her abusive father who coerced her to frame Tom for rape after she merely hugged and kissed him, the jury still find Tom guilty of this capital crime.

As I say above, a quality of the novel is that it looks at some of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond the obvious; these include the power of entrenched, underlying attitudes even when a society appears to have a fair system on the surface.  By this I mean that the Alabama judiciary required that Tom Robinson be given a defence lawyer and therefore apparently a fair trial.  Young Scout Finch overhears a conversation about her father and reflects on it:

” ‘Lemme tell you somethin’ now Billy,’ a third said, ‘you know the court appointed him to defend this n****r.’

   ‘Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.’

    This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn’t said anything to us about it – we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves.” (Page 178 in Vintage Classics paperback).

Atticus wants to give Tom a fair trial, to give his side of the case; but this draws criticism from the town’s people.  And in view of this criticism, it is probable that some other lawyers would have ‘defended’ him just because they had to.  A perfunctory process, fulfilling a judicial requirement, but giving the superficial appearance of a fair trial.

Another detail that the story raises awareness of is the debilitating effect of living under ever-present discrimination and prejudice.  When Tom Robinson is convicted, despite significant evidence in his favour, he is sent to jail while Atticus prepares to appeal against the conviction. But despite the appeal, Tom tries to flee from the prison in the exercise period and is shot dead by the guards.  It is hard to believe that a prisoner would really believe he’d have a chance of escape in broad daylight in the exercise period: clearly Tom’s flight was deliberate suicide. A resignation to his fate, a total lack of hope, brought on by a lifetime under the wearying burden of negative assumptions and blame.

Finally, a harsh irony is that Tom got himself into his predicament by trying to help Mayella Ewell, his alleged ‘victim’.  He tried to help this lonely, poor woman with tasks around the house.  What a bitter irony that he would have been safer if he had ignored her in her time of need.

I hope this novel serves as a wake-up call to us all, to understand that opinions we may assume to be valid should be questioned – people are capable of shocking mistakes, sometimes with dreadful consequences.

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

17 Nov

The wonderfully festive ghost story of the miserly Scrooge scarcely needs any introduction – according to Wikipedia, there have been more than 20 film adaptations in addition to TV, radio and theatre adaptations.  So what’s the appeal?

Yes, it’s a huge load of schmaltzy images of Christmas which are not entirely realistic (and I’m referring to more than just the appearance of 4 ghosts!)  But although the images of cheerful people showing charity and goodwill to one another while wallowing in some magical festive spirit may be unrealistic to many, isn’t this actually the story’s appeal?  It’s pure escapism and an antidote to some of the more brutal Christmas stories – I’m thinking especially of the ironically named song “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl, a duet which relates a bitter argument between a separating couple.

By comparison, “A Christmas Carol” provides a warm bath of cosy Christmas images.  Even the very non-cosy images – such as the chilling and sinister Ghost of Christmas Future who silently shows Scrooge the callous reactions to his own death if he doesn’t change his ways – are an effective way of increasing the festive feel of the nicer bits by creating a stark contrast.

And these cosy images are not just sentimental ones; there’s that gluttony-inducing passage when the Ghost of Christmas Present is introduced:

“Heaped upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”

I remember once being told (if I recall this correctly) that “the classics” are books that have stood the test of time because they say something profound and important, e.g. something about human nature, some message that endures.  Well, “A Christmas Carol” has certainly stood the test of time, having been published in 1843.  But does it really say anything profound?  The message is essentially “If you’re a miserable, money-driven, mean old miser, then nobody will like you and you’ll miss out on a happier life” – well, that’s hardly a revelation!  Are we really to believe that prior to Charles Dickens releasing this story, nobody had realised this?!

Instead, I think the appeal of the story really is very simple, as I detail above: pure escapism and an antidote to more brutal Christmas stories that are available.

“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

10 Nov

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

For me, “A Sparrow Falls”, the third novel, is particularly memorable.  I read it years and years ago but often re-read sections as it left such an impression on me.  Having read through the previous two, I felt that I knew the characters personally and even became emotionally involved in the events of their lives.  I realise this may sound like sentimental claptrap but it is an indication of the ability of the stories to draw in the reader, to enter a parallel world created entirely from ink on paper (or pixels on a screen).  I have found that I felt nostalgia when Sean returns to his original home of Ladyburg (as by this time he has around three separate homes throughout South Africa); and I felt a slight sense of loss that Ada Courtney (Sean’s stepmother) was not in this book, as she was very likely dead by this time.

Overall “A Sparrow Falls” felt very bleak compared to the previous two. There are several bleak aspects to the story but in particular his relationship with his son Dirk – who by now is in his thirties – is probably the darkest story thread of all.  Dirk was born in the wilderness of the Limpopo River region during the first novel “When the Lion Feeds” to Sean’s first wife Katrina who committed suicide a few years later.  Dirk developed a very close bond to his father and felt rejected by him when he didn’t provide the degree of physical affection that he craved.  Perceiving that he was being denied the level of affection he felt he was owed, Dirk gradually changed and became more and more sinister and even cruel.

In “A Sparrow Falls”, Dirk has several crimes under his belt: arson, manslaughter and then deliberate mass murder.  He has become far wealthier than his father, his riches gained from an elaborate and murderous heist. Sean has by now genuinely rejected him, on the grounds that while most people are a combination of good and evil, Dirk – he considers – is just pure evil.  Sean feels that he has been forced to turn his back on the son he raised.

This is not to say that Sean feels nothing for his son – he is reduced to tears by the failed relationship.  But he cannot accept him. And Dirk – for all his apparent absence of compassion and feeling – strives to make amends with his father.  But having exhausted all attempts to do so, Dirk vows to kill him – and does so.  And then kisses his dead father moments after his death – right up to the end, Dirk’s longing for love and acceptance is still there.

In his last attempt to make amends with his father, Dirk forces Sean to face the deeply uncomfortable possibility that it is he who has made Dirk the way he is – a thought that had previously crossed Sean’s mind independently of Dirk’s emotional manipulation.

And so this particular thread of story raises the question: who is actually to blame?  I doubt anyone could totally free Dirk from blame for his money-driven murders, but does Sean have some degree of blame?  Could he have known the effect he would have on his son? Should he have known?  In cases like this, the true answers (insofar as we can know the truth) would be different in each case but there is one thing that often occurs in very emotive conflicts (whether personal, political, military or whatever): and that is the portrayal of one side in as negative or evil a light as possible.  Sean stands his ground and rejects Dirk telling him that he is pure evil, rather than a mix of good and evil.  Does he say this in order to avoid facing up to his own part of the blame, his own failed parenting? Probably.

This is an extreme case: Sean could scarcely be blamed for the murders his son commits. But perhaps he could be blamed (in part only) for the more minor acts of cruelty Dirk commits when growing up.  Should he have tried to understand Dirk more, before his cruelty turned into mass murder?  And as he did not, is his total rejection – in the face of Dirk’s pleas for reconciliation – a way of avoiding his part of the blame?

We hear of soldiers describing conflicts in which they’re engaged as “the forces of good against the forces of evil”.  Opposing sides in a political / societal debate on a particularly emotive issue can resort to extremely narrow views and aggressive confrontational language, pushing aside any evidence that creates grey areas and thus hinders their claim to the moral high ground.

Would some wars be prevented if there were more understanding of what drives our supposed ‘enemies’ to armed conflict in the first place?  And this discussion could go on to other political / societal issues besides war too…….

I would just like to use this post to mention my own debut novel that is now over half-way through and should be due for release late 2014 or early 2015.  It is on the subject of mind-control and brainwashing and also deals with the issue of radical viewpoints.  Further updates to follow – WATCH THIS SPACE!

“A Voyage to Lilliput”, from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

6 Nov

This is Part One of “Gulliver’s Travels” and it works as a stand-alone novella/short story without the rest of the book. From what I can remember, I think the children’s book version of “Gulliver’s Travels” covered only this part, which is about the kingdom inhabited by people about one twelfth the size of normal, i.e. around 6 inches tall rather than 6 feet.

As I mention, there’s a children’s version of this story, but the original is very far from a childish story: it’s a satire of the government, royal family and political events of 18th Century Britain. This means some readers – like me – may need a version of the book with detailed notes at the back, to explain the historical events that are the target of Swift’s humour. Unless you’re an expert on 18th Century British history.

As one example, Swift satirises the religious discrimination of that period against Catholics (in favour of Anglicans) by likening it to a dispute over how to eat a boiled egg, thus demonstrating the pettiness of minor doctrinal differences.  This particular piece of satire also includes the War of Spanish Succession (which I therefore assume was at least partly a Protestant-Catholic war).

There are various other targets for Swift’s satire too but I won’t list them all here.

I wonder also if the story’s setting in a land of tiny people was intended to belittle even further the people who are satirised in this story.

There may have been another reason for the setting in a land of tiny people: could it have been intended to highlight how good organisation can enable people to overpower someone physically far bigger and stronger? Brute strength is no match for clever organisation – was it Swift’s intention to show this? Although Gulliver is outnumbered by the Lilliputians, it is still hard to imagine that a full-sized, able-bodied human would be unable to escape easily from large numbers of rats, for example (although he’d probably receive several bites, but like the Lilliputians’ arrows, they’d probably not be fatal). Therefore, Gulliver’s need to use elaborate means to escape – rather than simply walking away – could have been intended to show how the cerebral power of the Lilliputians is more than a match for his physical power.

Finally, another thing that really strikes me about this is the risk that Jonathan Swift took in writing such a subversive story.  He wrote it around 10 years after the events it satirises, so presumably many of the targets of his lampooning would have still been alive.  I had thought that 18th Century Britain was still the type of controlled society in which insulting the government or royals could lead to execution or at least a lengthy prison stay (in conditions no doubt worse than today’s prisons), but maybe Britain had progressed already…. Answers on a postcard please…..