Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.

A Year of ‘Tea, A Tie, and A Red Pen’

In Miscellaneous on 03/09/2012 at 17:24

This blog had been going for a year. This is longest I’ve managed to keep a blog. I think the sporadic nature of the posts make it easier for me, writing posts when I want to rather than feeling I have to every week, or something. I don’t know if this is good for the reader, but it keeps me happy.

Anyway, for the first year anniversary of the blog (which, admittedly, I missed by a couple of weeks), I’d link back to the 5 most popular (by view) posts on here.

5- Summer Reading Challenge

4- Two Poems

3- Valentine’s Haiku

2- ‘The Energy of Slaves’ (1972)- Leonard Cohen

1- ‘Men Without Women’ (1927)- Ernest Hemingway

Despite the nostalgic tone, I’m not one for looking back. I’ve got to look forward. That’s the kind of person I am. I’m hoping I can keep this going for another year. Hopefully with more success in terms of writing. If I get something published between now and August 2013, I’d be pretty damn happy.

Like all creative folk, especially those in my generation, I am constantly torn between creative work, and having to act like a real person and get a job and make money and try to look happy doing it. All the worrying about important things like money, jobs, relationships really doesn’t matter to me as longing as I’m writing. And all I hope is that I never run out of stories to tell.

http://youtu.be/r2pt2-F2j2g

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.

‘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.

Favourite Reads of 2011

In American, English, Japanese, Literature, Miscellaneous, Russian on 26/12/2011 at 14:11

Presented- a list of the books I most enjoyed this past year. Circumstances gave me a chance to read more than ever this year. My selection is personal opinion and includes novels, short story collections and non-fiction.

Ray Bradbury- Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky- The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Bob Dylan- Chronicles, Volume One (2004)

Jennifer Egan- A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

F. Scott Fitzgerald- The Beautiful and Damned (1922); The Great Gatsby (1925); This Side of Paradise (1920)

Ernest Hemingway- In Our Time (1925)

Carson McCullers- The Heart is a Lonley Hunter (1940)

Yukio Mishima- Death in Midsummer and other stories (1966); Thirst For Love (1950); The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963); Spring Snow (1966)

J.D. Salinger- Franny & Zooey (1961)

John Updike- Your Lover Just Called (1980)

Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Steve Waters- The Secret Life of Plays (2010)

Richard Yates- A Special Providence (1969); The Easter Parade (1976); Young Hearts Crying (1984)

‘The Masterpiece’ (1886) Émile Zola

In Book Review, French, Literature, Review, Writing on 26/09/2011 at 20:55

This is the fourth novel by Émile Zola I’ve tried to read and only the second I’ve finished. This novel is part of the Le Rougon-Macquart series, which are twenty novels that follow various members of family, as well as exploring different aspects of French society; each can be read individually or as part of a bigger picture. The Masterpiece aka L’Œuvre (1886) is the fourteenth novel and deals with art and artists.

The painter Claude Lantier, and his friends, despise the current state of art and long to create something new and original. Claude wants to paint a masterpiece that will unify his ideas and visions. He also meets a young woman, Christine, on a dark and stormy night in Paris and their relationship blossoms before becoming compromised by Claude’s obsession.

The Masterpiece is supposedly the most autobiographical of the Le Rougon-Macquart novels because of Zola’s friendships with several famous painters. One of the characters in The Masterpiece is Pierre Sandoz, who is pretty much a 19th century Mary Sue. Sandoz is a novelist, who is described in at various points as been wise, kind, and lyrical. Not only that, but he is the only one of his friends who becomes a ‘true’ success both financially and artistically because of his familiar sounding series of novels. I couldn’t really take to him because every character liked and trusted him.

It’s only the second novel of Zola’s I’ve finished, the others I gave up on, which is not something I often do. My feeling is that I admire his work as oppose to liking it. I think his series is a brave undertaking, and I find the idea of showing inherited traits throughout a family fascinating. The main problem for me is that I don’t like his style. I can’t help my groan whenever I see a paragraph that goes on for a page or more, and there are a lot of them. In the other novel of his I finished, The Drinking Den aka L’Assommoir (1877), it followed the same structure- characters are at their happiest about a third of the way through the story, and then the rest of it follows their disintegrating lives. Also, I think he fails on the old Creative Writing motto of ‘show, don’t tell’ because he normally tells us about a character before we have a chance to see them interact.

There is much I respect about the novel. I like what it does have to say about art, be it painting, music or writing, and how’s it a thin line between passion and doomed obsession for something unobtainable. Claude is an interesting character, and his progressively erratic behaviour was well played out. But still, I just can’t fully embrace it. Like the old break-up routine- it’s not you, it’s me. I just can’t get to grips with Zola’s style no matter how much I admire what he’s trying to achieve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 18/09/2011 at 16:13

It don’t think it’d be fair to review an unfinished novel. If truth be told, I still don’t know how I feel about unfinished work been published posthumously. As a writer myself, I’d hate to think of my unfinished work been read. But if it were posthumously published then I wouldn’t be in much of a position to care. As a reader I can’t help but be interested in reading whatever else an author I like has written, especially in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald- I’ve read his four completed novels, so it only remained to read the unfinished one. I enjoy reading the fragments of the novel. There were flashes of Fitzgerald doing what he does best- quiet lyricism.

I think my opinion of The Last Tycoon (1941) was always going to be a positive one. Not only as a fan of Fitzgerald but also I really like stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was Fitzgerald who got me started on this with his short stories about the down-and-out screenwriter Pat Hobby. The Last Tycoon is not nearly as cynical about Hollywood as the Pat Hobby stories and reveals more about the process of running a studio and the making of a picture.

Reading The Last Tycoon means that I’ve now read all of Fitzgerald’s novels. I’ve loved all of them apart from Tender Is the Night (1934) which I felt was all over the place, but I was all over the place when I read it, I’ll have to come back to it in a few years. The Last Tycoon seems more of a fitting epilogue to Fitzgerald’s work than Tender Is the Night because of the central character of Monroe Stahr- a gifted producer who gained early fame, much like the author himself. Like Jay Gatsby, Stahr is a dreamer; unlike Gatsby this does not lead to his ruin but certainly plays a part in it.

This is personal conjecture, but I always see F. Scott Fitzgerald as an outsider, but an outsider on the inside. He writes about the rich so often you could believe he was a part of them, but there’s too much observation in his work to make me believe he was truly an insider. Sometimes, especially in the short stories, he wants us to see him as a F. Scott Fitzgerald character rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like thinking of him as an outsider. I like an outsiders view because I try to write with one myself. Reading The Last Tycoon made me realise that his work appeals to me so much because it’s what I’d like to write myself. In stories and plays I’ve written I’ve had writer characters who want to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of their generation. I never thought before that it might actually be me who thinks that.

The Last Tycoon is only really for completists, fans and critics. But if that’s why you’re reading it, it won’t disappoint.

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