Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Not Much Of A Blog/Notes About John Green

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 24/03/2013 at 20:52

Not Much Of A Blog

I’m aware that I’m not very good at updating this blog regularly, even at the best of times it can be weeks before I post something new,  so if you have been waiting I’m sorry for the wait. But I have excuses. The biggest one is, perhaps, that I haven’t felt like I’ve had much to say. I’ve been taking baby steps to get back into writing, but my development as a writer never seems to go forwards, just sideways. In an overly priced creative writing handbook I bought there was one piece of advice that struck me and that was that you shouldn’t write only about yourself and your experiences. Again, I’m aware I’m failing at this advice, but only recently has my life opened up again and I’ve been able to think about things that aren’t myself. I’m hoping not thinking about myself too much will get the writing forward.

Instead of a full blog post I thought I’d try and make it up with two short posts. This is the first one. The second is about an author I’ve gotten into. His name is John Green.

Notes About John Green

Last December I picked up John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (2012) after reading somebody likening it to The Great Gatsby (1925). I don’t take comparisons with Gatsby lightly so I decided to read it and see. The Fault In Our Stars completely knocked me out. It’s a brilliant, funny and tragic look at the relationship between two cancer survivors. The tone is a perfect blend of tragedy, love, comedy and poetry. I loved it. I loved it so much that I spent January working my way through his three other novels- Looking For Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008).

My favourite of his works, or at least, the one that affected me most personally, was Paper Towns. Quentin (referred to as Q) is in love with the girl next door, Margo. One night she breaks him out to join her for a night of pranks. The next morning she goes missing and Q is determined to find her. John Green keeps the audience on their toes about where this part-quest part-detective story is going until the sad, beautiful ending which brings together everything the novel has been subtlety pointing towards. To say anymore would risk spoilers. Q’s journey is one worth joining with as little foreknowledge as possible.

My theory of why an author can become one of somebody’s favourite authors is that they write about things you want to read about in a style that you want to read. John Green is that for me. These wonderful books moved me and made me laugh and inspired me and made me curse that he put into words so effortlessly what I have wanted to say.

The elephant in the room with John Green is that his novels are Young Adult novels. This really put me off them at first. I admit I looked down at YA because a mature young man such as myself should not been seen reading teenage books. But it is wrong to say that John Green writes about teenagers. Yes, his characters are teenagers, but what Green writes about is being human. The characters are relatable as they deal with the same things we all must- sex and love and death, and he writes about this with humour and poetry.

Much has been said about John Green so I don’t have much more to add other than I believe in 50 years people will still be reading The Fault In Our Stars. It is not just a modern classic but a straight up classic.

So take yourselves off to the YA section of your local bookstore and do not be ashamed- these books are not just for teenagers, they speak to a much wider audience that than.

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Favourite Reads of 2012

In American, Literature, Russian on 26/12/2012 at 18:23

Back in 2011 I wrote a post about my favourite books I’d read in the past year. The post turned out to be unexpectedly popular so I’m following it up with my list of favouritre reads from 2012. This year has not been great to me. It has been full of dissappointments and failed plans. But at least I got to read a lot.

Megan Abbott- Dare Me (2012); The Song Is You (2007)

Raymond Carver- Beginners (2009)

Anton Chekhov-The Fiancée and Other Stories (1986)

F. Scott Fitzgerald- The Great Gatsby (1925)

John Green- The Fault In Our Stars (2012)

Dashiell Hammett- The Glass Key (1931)

Ernest Hemingway- Men Without Women (1927)

J.D. Salinger- Franny & Zooey (1961)

Walter Tevis- The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963)

Jim Thompson- The Killer Inside Me (1952)

Leo Tolstoy- Anna Karenina (1877)

Daniel Woodrell- Winter’s Bone (2006)

‘The Cold Six Thousand’ (2001)- James Ellroy

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 30/10/2012 at 16:53

The Cold Six Thousand (2001) is the second part of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. The trilogy covers American from the 50s to the early 70s, but it’s full of Ellroy’s bias that everybody is corruptible and that the mob rules all. The Cold Six Thousand kicks off right where the first book, American Tabloid (1995), left off with the assassination of President Kennedy. The first part of the novel concerns the cover-up that follows. Then we follow the next five years – Vietnam, Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, civil rights protests – ending with two big assassinations.

The three main characters are Ward J. Little, a former FBI man now mob lawyer; Pete Bondurant, something like a mercenary; and the new character Wayne Tedrow Jr. I was glad of a new main character because he was sympathetic and reluctant to kill, which is a big contrast to the rest of the cast of characters. But, no surprise, that doesn’t last long, soon he’s off torturing and cooking heroin.

The big thing to mention with The Cold Six Thousand is that Ellroy makes his sparse style even more minimalist. The tight, short, sharp sentences work well in American Tabloid, given the title it fits that the prose feels like headlines. But in The Cold Six Thousand Ellroy cuts the prose down the absolute minimum and, at times, seems like somebody parodying his style. After a few hundred pages the repetition becomes infuriating. The ‘simple’ style does not make the novel easier to follow, in fact it makes it harder, as Ellroy has several plot-threads and subplots on the go it becomes hard to untangle them and really understand what’s going on. By the end I felt like I was only vaguely aware of the choices the characters had made that led them to where the story ended.

I read this book quite soon after finishing the first one. I really liked American Tabloid, even though the characters did some dark things, and if you know Ellroy’s work you know how far he likes to push his characters. But what worked in American Tabloid was that it followed contrasting fall of one character and the rise of another. In The Cold Six Thousand a similar thing happened but the contrast never seemed as sharp as in the first book. In pretty much every aspect I did not like the second book as much as the first.

The style, lack of character development, and overly complicated plots make The Cold Six Thousand a very tough read and not a rewarding one. Perhaps if I get round the last part of the trilogy, Blood’s A Rover (2009) it’ll make the second part worthwhile, but right now I’m truly glad to be finished with The Cold Six Thousand and I think I need to take a long break before I pick up any James Ellroy again.

‘The Wounded and the Slain’ (1955)- David Goodis

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 11/09/2012 at 15:07

David Goodis is an author I only heard about recently in the context that he is the forgotten great of noir fiction (and at the moment I can’t get enough noir). It took a while to get a copy of The Wounded and the Slain (1955) from the library, and all his other books have gone missing. But after reading the novel, do I think that Goodis is up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? In short, I’d have to read another one of his novels to truly find out. While The Wounded and the Slain is not a bad novel, there were things about it I really disliked.

Describing the plot is a difficult thing. To make it sound interesting I’d have to give away the twists that comes two-thirds in the story. But on the other hand the basic outline doesn’t really sell it. The Wounded and the Slain is about the Bevans, an American couple on holiday in Jamaica. James Bevan is an alcoholic, heavy on the self-pity; Cora Bevan is his frigid, beautiful wife. The plot kicks off a third of the way through the book, and then it slows down, then picks up, then slows down again, and repeats all the way till the end.

The first thing I have to say is that I struggle with alcoholic characters when they manage to be as witty and articulate as James Bevan. I get frustrated at how much forgiveness for drinking that David Goodis gives the character, and I can’t help wondered if Goodis is writing this through experience. It seems that we the readers are expected to forgive James Bevan because his wife is so frigid it drives him to frustration and drink. Their relationship follows the pattern of an alcoholic- pleasant in the morning, argumentative in the afternoon, abusive in the evening.

One quotes that adorns the book calls David Goodis the Kerouac of noir. I can kind of see what he means, the prose is almost free flowing. But in the old ‘Show, don’t tell’, Goodis is on the side of telling. His narration frequently goes into internal monologues that really slow the story down.

Despite all this, the novel has some great scenes. Every now and again there’s a flash of something really interesting. There’s a flashback chapter set in New York that I think really works well, suggesting, perhaps, Goodis works better on home ground.

If I had to name check Goodis against another author it’d be Fyodor Dostoyevksy. The Wounded and the Slain reminded me a little of Crime and Punishment (1866) in the way it progressed in the last third. And like Dostoyevsky, despite all his flaws, Goodis’ writing has a strange power to it. Goodis isn’t quite as powerful as the Russian, but he’s certainly got something.

I’d like to read another David Goodis, just to see if he really is a fogtotten master. Anybody who can recommend which of his to go for next, let me know in the comments.

Summer Reading Challenge 2012

In American, Canadian, Literature, Miscellaneous, Welsh on 31/08/2012 at 11:16

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries have a summer reading challenge for children. They have to read six books over the summer and get stickers, medals, etc. I blogged about this last year. As I was volunteering to help out again this year, I did the challenge myself. My six books aren’t as eclectic this year, but that’s because I’ve been on a crime/noir binge.

1)         The White People and Other Weird Stories (2012)- Arthur Machen: I spent ages trying to track down any copy of Machen’s stories. I couldn’t even find his books in his home country of Wales. I ordered this book from America. In some ways I prefer Machen to H.P. Lovecraft, but he does have a tendency to go very Victorian (one story has a paragraph that lasts about twenty pages!)

2)         Tigana (1990)- Guy Gavriel Kay: I don’t read fantasy all that often. I picked this up because I’d heard about it on Sword and Laser’s youtube show. It was a good read, some interesting characters and themes. The story is about a city with a spell on it that nobody (except those born there) can remember its name. I don’t much about the world of fantasy fiction, but I imagine Tigana is in the literary end of things.

3)         Drive (2005)- James Sallis: I’ve heard this book called an existential crime novel, but, truth be told, I didn’t quite get it. I watched the film afterward and that didn’t strike me too much either. In the novel there is a lot of non-linear narrative, while I like flashbacks, I’m not a fan of a plot too much out of order. This books gets a lot of good press and I know I’m in the minority but, as always, this comes down to personal taste.

4)         The Goodbye Look (1969) Ross MacDonald: Lew Archer is a private eye hired to recovered some missing jewellery. I’ll admit, I get a real kick out of noir and private detective fiction. I went on to read another Lew Archer novel called The Galton Case (1959) and I preferred that to this. Still, it was a lot of fun to read.

5)         When the Women Come Out To Dance (2002)- Elmore Leonard: This was a great collection of short stories. In each the dialogue, plot and characterisation were masterful. The story ‘Fire In The Hole’ was quite possibly my favourite due to the slightly unconventional protagonist of Raylan Givens.

6) The Big Nowhere (1988)- James Ellroy: This is the second in Ellroy’s LA Quartet, followed by LA Confidential (1990). This is a compelling book, but it has to be one of the most brutal, nasty stories I’ve ever read. There are a lot of good things about it- it’s well written and I like Ellroy’s prose style, dialogue and characterisation, but it’s the world of the story that troubles me. I have a strong stomach when it comes to violence and bleak worldviews, but The Big Nowhere pushed me to my limit. I read the last third of the book as quickly as I could because I didn’t want to be carrying around that world in my head for any longer than I had to. I like flawed characters, but the there was nobody in this book who really, truly, had any kind of redeeming feature. I’ve read Ellroy before and I remember it been strong stuff, but not this bleak and nihilistic.

“A Damned Soul In Moonlight”- Eugene O’Neill’s ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’

In American, Essay, Literature, Plays, Theatre, Writing on 15/03/2012 at 17:22

I’ve blogged about playwright Eugene O’Neill before, but this time I want to say something about my favourite of his plays, A Moon For the Misbegotten (1943). Most critical work on O’Neill I’ve read name his plays A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941) and The Iceman Cometh (1939) as his masterpieces and call A Moon For the Misbegotten a minor work. I like Long Day’s Journey… and The Iceman Cometh, but both plays are drama– serious, intense and a hell of an endurance test for an audience. A Moon For the Misbegotten is not a short play (brevity is not associated with O’Neill) but doesn’t have the three-hour plus running time of the others. It is a beautiful and sad work that I can revisit more than his others.

Taking place over a day and night at the Hogan farm, A Moon For the Misbegotten is about farmer Phil Hogan and his daughter Josie, a large ‘freakish’ woman with a quick wit. Their landlord is Jamie Tyrone, an alcoholic, but like Josie, a witty cynic. The joy of the play is how it evolves from a strange comedy, to the promise of a love story in Josie and Jamie’s moonlight date, but then the play evolves again into something quite different. The real heart and soul of the play only becomes apparent in its beautiful third Act. The play becomes deeper than a romance. It’s about “a damned soul…in the moonlight” with an unacknowledged need “to confess and be forgiven and find peace”.

A Moon For the Misbegotten is a sort-of-sequel to his semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey… as it features all four of the Tyrone’s (based on the real-life O’Neill’s). Jamie is the only one who appears in both plays. O’Neill felt his brother as portrayed in Long Day’s Journey… did not get a good enough deal. So, he followed it up with A Moon For the Misbegotten and gives his alcoholic, dead-beat, washed-up, loafer of a brother the requiem and forgiveness that he never received in real life. To me, this is where the play’s power stems from. O’Neill did not make peace with Jamie O’Neill (who drank himself to death at 45), but he gives peace to Jamie Tyrone through Josie Hogan.

O’Neill’s ‘masterpieces’ end cynically- with the Tyrone family lost in the fog, or the suicide and hopelessness of The Iceman Cometh. A Moon For the Misbegotten ends with a deep melancholy, but it is also very beautiful as, at least for a night, one of O’Neill’s haunted heroes finds peace.

A Few Words About Sydney Carton

In English, Essay, Literature, Writing on 07/02/2012 at 16:30

I’m not a fan of Charles Dickens. It’s mostly because I don’t like Victorian prose. I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but I find Victorian prose too knowing and self-conscious, and the characters flat and unconvincing. But, as it is Mr. Dickens’ 200th birthday, I’ll be nice and write about the one character of his that I really love.

Most of Dickens characters, to me, fall into types- the virtuous ones, the crooked ones, etc. But in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is the character of Sydney Carton.

Sydney Carton is a brilliant lawyer. But he lacks self-confidence and cannot resist a drink. He falls in love with Lucie Manette, knowing that she is in love with his doppelganger, the impossibly good aristocrat Charles Darnay. Sydney loves Lucie quietly, knowing that she would not requite his love. Carton is very self-aware. He knows that he would not be good enough for her or bring her any happiness.

This is where we get into spoiler-territory. If you don’t know the ending of A Tale of Two Cities you should go and read the book. If you do know the ending, I shall continue.

For me, Sydney is one of the few heroes in literature I believe in. Charles Darnay is meant to be the ‘good’ one, but I find his goodness to be blind, naïve and he’s not smart enough to see the trap laid for him in France. But Sydney Carton comes through, despite it been contrary his public character and not really what he wants to be. Charles Darnay is to be executed, so surely, he could let him die and then catch Lucie on the rebound? But he knows, even with Charles dead, she would not return his love.

This is how Sydney Carton becomes a hero. Hemingway said heroics is ‘grace under pressure’ and I think Sydney Carton shows that. He calmly sees the only thing left to do to save Charles- to take his doppelganger’s place in waiting for the guillotine. I’m not doing him or the novel much justice, but the end is so beautiful and sad. The famous last lines of the novel made me cry. He calms goes to his death knowing the happiness of his loved one is secured.

Maybe I’m just a romantic old fool, but I really love the character of Sydney Carton. He does the right thing not because he’s a pure ‘good’ character like Darnay or Oliver Twist, but because he wants peace for his failings and to find meaning in his life. He struggles with himself more than external forces. He’s a well rounded character. He is a hero not because he is good but because he is good in spite of himself.

‘The Stone Cutter’ (2005) Camilla Läckberg

In Book Review, Review, Swedish, Writing on 04/02/2012 at 18:19

I really wanted to like this book. I like murder-mysteries and I’d never read one of the Scandinavian crime novels that are very popular at the moment. I’d seen the Wallander shows on TV and liked them, so I thought I’d give one of Camilla Läckberg’s novels a read. I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be an entertaining thriller. Halfway though the book I was trying to focus on what I liked about it, but by the end I gave up all pretence of enjoying it.

The Stone Cutter (2005) is set in the small town of Fjällbacka. A body of a little girl is pulled out of the water and its soon discovered that her death was not an accident. The crime is investigated by the town’s small police force of five people. Patrik Hedström, the good-egg cop, heads the investigation. But meanwhile, his girlfriend, Erica, is struggling at home with their newborn baby. The book also flashes back to the 1920s with a subplot about a spoilt rich girl and her lust for a stone cutter- though why his character or his profession the deserves the title of the book I have no idea… maybe something was lost in translation because by the end of it the relation of the character of the stone cutter to the plot was, well, minimal at best.

The book is long by a crime novel standards, clocking in at about 550 pages in paperback, and the plot is so very, very slow. The trouble is all the sub-plots. Several times something starts out as looking as though it’s going to be related to the mystery of the death of the little girl, but is then revealed to be a red herring, and then becomes a sub-plot for a minor character for the rest of the book. Camilla Läckberg really goes into too much depth with minor characters. I know she’s trying to flesh them out to make it interesting, but it really bogs down the plot so much. If I had to offer her editing advice it would be not to be afraid of the red pen. She really needs to use her red pen more. I would read scenes and even whole chapters and think- this adds nothing to the plot. They don’t even develop character, they just emphasis something about the character we’ve already been told.

Speaking of characters, the majority of them are one-dimensional. I felt no empathy or sympathy to any of the characters at any point. Patrik and Erica struggle with the newborn, but you know it’s all going to work out by the end. Okay, I admit that I read this book without realising it was part of series, but it would seem to me that they won’t really develop. In this book they have a newborn at home. I imagine the previous novel would have been about them dealing with her been pregnant, and the fourth book will be (spoiler alert) about them getting married. That doesn’t seem to be real development because you know it’ll all work out for them at the end.

But to return my point about characters, a lot of minor character’s backgrounds and history got told, but by the end she still managed to leave some character threads unresolved and even made serious lapses in characters behaviour that had been previously set up. One more thing about characters- she introduces two sets of characters in exactly the same way. Two married couple are introduced by having the husband complain about something and the woman to agree in dialogue but then we see their thoughts in which they don’t agree. Then two young men with mental problems are introduced by them both sitting in their rooms looking in-depth at something… and both these introduction are presented without context to be revealed later. I like repetition, but this just seems like a complete lapse in judgement.

I’m sure the novel is well researched because the same pieces of information get repeated over and over again by different characters in exactly the same way. One of the characters has Asperger’s syndrome. I know not everybody knows about Asperger’s, but pretty much every character goes ‘Well, what’s that then?’ and another character will repeat the same facts about Asperger’s. By the third or fourth time it happened it really grated on me.

Maybe something is lost in translation because I can’t see the appeal of the book. I don’t think ‘by the numbers’ is a bad thing if it’s done well. But this isn’t done well. It just falls flat and plods on without any real focus. Some of the ‘clues’ and revelations relied far too much on coincidence and on ignoring character’s previously set-up character. At the end the murder is pretty much solved by the fact the policeman happens to watch the right TV show about poisoning (I kid you not). I really did want to like this book. I wanted an entertaining murder mystery, but the murderer turns out to be pretty the person you always thought it was.

If you hadn’t guessed, I was pretty damn unimpressed.

‘Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories’ (2006) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

In Book Review, Japanese, Literature, Review, Writing on 17/01/2012 at 19:55

This collections splits eighteen short stories into four categories: ‘A World In Decay’, historical fiction and the stories that made the writer popular; ‘Under The Sword’, again historical fiction with focus on soldiers and samurai; ‘Modern Tragicomedy’, these stories take place in Akutagawa’s day, but with Kafkaesque or post-modern twists; and finally ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’, possibly autobiographical stories, written shortly before the author’s suicide. In every story categories there is the strong voice of Akutagawa- a wryly comical cynic. The darkness and cynicism are most prevalent in the last two categories, as Akutagawa moves from cynicism with the world and people, to pessimism about himself and his own life.

My favourite stories in the collection were all within the first part of the book. Those include the ones famously turned into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). My favourite of these stories was ‘Hell Screen’, about an egotistical painter and his daughter. I really enjoyed the darkness and the hint of the supernatural with this story. It has an unreliable narrator, who spends a lot of time trying to defend a character. This technique came across as a little obvious, but in worked well the character.

It’s the last stories in the book that have been bothering me. Knowing that Akutagawa feared mental illness and eventually killed himself, these stories are hard to ‘enjoy’. Technically they’re very well written. ‘Spinning Gears’ is near perfect in putting together very short passages to build up an overall picture of distortion and nihilism. But I could never say I ‘enjoy’ these stories. I admire them.

I do really like Akutagawa’s style. His blend of darkness and humour appeals to me and I shall certainly want to read more by him. The Penguin Classic’s edition of Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006) has been an excellent starting point. The stories are all of interest and these two great introductions, one by the translator, Jay Rubin, and the other by Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s introduction looks at the influence of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa on him as both a reader and a writer. But in trying to read more of his work, I’ll try to stick to the early stories.

‘Men Without Women’ (1927) Ernest Hemingway

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 09/01/2012 at 18:30

This short story collection contains two short stories that are not just my favourite Hemingway stories but two of my favourite short stories by anybody. So, this look at Men Without Women (1927) will be less of review, more in praise of Ernest Hemingway’s style and its effect on my own writing.

If you don’t know Hemingway’s style then this, his second collection of short stories, is an excellent place to start. There is a tonne of critical work and essays about Hemingway’s style that’s much more educated than this. To me, Hemingway’s style is short sentences, simple words, repetitive dialogue, and packing a hell of a punch. For me, the pinnacle of this is the story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. I try to reread that story every couple of months just to remind me of how much I admire it.

I can remember first reading ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ some years ago for my Creative Writing class. On first reading I thought, ‘Huh?’ Then got what the story was about. I reread and it and that was it. It all fell into place. All the tension and action is under the surface and in the subtext. It’s a story about an abortion but the word ‘abortion’ is never mentioned once. That has had a great impact on me. One of the few rules I try and write by is to decide what the story is about and then try not to mention in the story. I hope that if I write well enough it should be apparent. I think I’ve achieved this twice, maybe three times. Still, I keep trying.

There are stories in the collection I think don’t quite hit the mark. I didn’t really get ‘Che Ti Dice La Patria?’ which I think realises too heavily on knowledge on the politics of Italy in the period before World War 2. That may just be me, though.

The best praise I can give the book is that as soon as I finished it I started Hemingway’s next collection of stories, Winner Take Nothing (1933). I preferred Men With Women, but Winner Take Nothing had some brilliant stories- ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘Fathers and Sons’. My copy of Hemingway’s The First Forty-Nine Stories (1938) is one of most treasured books. It was a Christmas present from a great friend and contains the majority of Hemingway’s published stories. Hemingway at his best is a great read.

Like so many others, Ernest Hemingway has been a big influence on my own writing. But the trick is to not to imitate him. Nobody can write like him. I just try to learn what I can about his techniques and apply them to my own stories. I can only hope I am successful without been derivative.

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