Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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.

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 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.

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.

Online Publishing?

In Miscellaneous on 30/01/2012 at 17:00

I have a new batch of short stories and, naturally, I’d like to see them published. I looked at submitting some off to magazines. Most magazines say they don’t print stories that have been previously published online. I can understand that. My thinking is- do the stories I choose to publish online have to be ones I consider not my best? I’d like to put some new stories this blog. People follow it and I’d like you to read my latest work. Surely the biggest chance of readership is publishing something on the internet?

I’m musing on this because, despite how fun writing itself is, I need readers. I don’t mind admitting I crave approval for my work. Otherwise I have to rely on myself and I’m my own worst critic. But that’s another matter. With online publishing there is a huge amount of potential readers. This is an extremely appealing prospect.

I’ve been thinking about publishing e-books on Amazon. This is a bit hypocritical of me, because I have been quite disparaging of the Kindle (or Kobo). E-readers have never really appealed to me. I like books. Not just what’s in them but the book itself. I like that there’s a books all over the house I live in. But of course, I was willing to throw this all aside when I read about the 70% royalties you can get via Kindle publishing.

In no way do imagine I’d become a major success publishing e-books. I imagine I could make a very small profit out of it. I think I know a few friends with Kindles who would buy an e-book by me. I don’t see myself making a major success, but just knowing I’ve got work waiting to be sold would make me feel pretty good. All the ‘publicity’ would be down to me, but even if I only sell ten copies, that would still feel pretty damn good.

So, watch this space. E-book publishing may be the next thing for me.

‘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.

‘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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