Monday, April 30, 2012

Difficulties of being English

Over the past few months I've been reading a lot of UK born writers and I've noticed an odd trend. This may be common sense or a regular on going joke of sorts that I hadn't previously been made aware. Apparently there was a time, not too long ago, where middle class Englsh men were thought to be fake, humorless puppets.

Off the top of my head I only came up with three writers that offered examples but there are certainly more whose work didn't stick with me as strongly as those I'm about to mention. I wouldn't say these three writers were of the same generation, nor do they possess similar styles (indeed it is the variety of their backgrounds that gave credence to the above assertion; which really isn't my assertion...) but however mockingly they all make fun of themselves, and the culture surrounding middle aged English men around the time of the 1940's through 1970's

In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis, in a very heavy tongue-in-cheek way as the voice of a demon wrote "The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promishing among the English who take their 'sense of humour' so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame." 

John Fowles wrote many passages on the oddities of the English behavior in Daniel Martin: "I did want to be angry with her then, I'd very much have liked to be an American Jewish or a working-class father, anything other than feeling I caught that dreadful English middle-class trap of never showing or saying what you really feel."

The most recently published book that continues this trend of showing humorless expression impaired English men was The sense of the Ending by Julian Barnes. “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious, I really hate it,” Adrian declared.

Does this trend still persist? Is being an English man really so bad?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

"Images are inherently fascistic because they overstamp the truth, however dim and blurred, of the real past experience; as if, faced with ruins, we must turn architects, not archaeologist.  The word is the most imprecise of signs.  Only a science-obsessed age could fail to comprehend that this is its great virtue, not its defect.  What I was trying to tell Jenny in Hollywood was that I would murder my past if I tried to evoke it on camera; and it is precisely because I can't really evoke it in words, can only hope to awaken some analogous experience in other memories and sensitivities, that it must be written."
Page 87  
All things considered I'm not sure this novel should work.  The ending result is far greater than the sum of the parts I can breakdown.  It's the lack of sense of direction that gives the novel both a leisurely feel and difficulty in expressing exactly what the book is about.  Daniel Martin is about identity, one man's place in the world, how he has come to be the person he is and, primarily, about the people and relationships he has shared that shaped his life.  
The title character is a very successful screenwriter who always feels he sold out when he stopped writing theatre and bought into the Hollywood way of life.  The impending death of a friend from cancer shatters the reality that Daniel has built for himself when he is called home to Oxford.  
It is upon Daniel's arrival in his native England that he begins to questions many things in his life.  Fowles never seeks to judge his characters; merely examines the multiple facets that govern how their lives have turned out the way they have.  Daniel reunites and reconciles with his terminal best friend Anthony and his wife Jane, whom he hasn't visited, nor had communication with for years.  The ugly past is recalled; the dirty laundry is cleaned and dried.  Anthony's death and a few recollections of the past show a unique intimacy shared by many of the main characters.  Jane, her sister Nell, Anthony, Nell's husband, and Daniel show how a group of friends, who all develop strong relationships with each other during their years at Oxford can come and go; in and out of each other's lives with varying degrees of significance: sometimes offering comfort and support, sometimes encouragement and laughter, other times marriage.  Fowles--in a very liberal definition of the word that I haven't seen used before--often times describes the intimacy of this group of friends as a type of incest: whatever happens between any of them is okay, excused and forgiven due to the fact that they all genuinely love each other, and yet it is because of the genuine feeling that they all share that certain things should be forbidden without having to say so.  
In coming home Daniel is quickly placed into a situation of forced intimacy with Caroline, his daughter who he has played a very small part in her life, and also with Nell, Caroline's mother, Daniel's ex-wife.  It is in getting to know Caroline better that Daniel gains some distance and objectivity in what he has left behind in Hollywood: Jenny McNeil, a young up-and-coming Scottish film star Caroline's age.  Daniel knows this relationship will never work and tries his best to break it off but he see how stubborn a young woman can be as he learns of Caroline's relationship with a B-list TV personality who is twice her age and her reluctance to give up on what she feels is right.
There is a simplicity to the story as much of what is told is nothing more than seeing Daniel go about day-to-day life, or as he says more than once, perhaps the life he should have been living.  While never disjunct the story does bounce around a lot between Daniel's past: near, recent and distant.  There are those who would say any deviation from chronological order is a bad, but the flashbacks are usually employed to highlight or further expound on some personality quark that one of the stubbornly intelligent characters clings to and refuses to relinquish; thus impeding all progress in their life. The vignettes that make up Daniel's past, some up to a hundred pages, often make up some of the most memorable reading of the book: such as Daniel growing up in the vicarage parish in the Church of England, or his relationship with 'two other sisters,' and in particular his first love.  Those are but a few of the lengthy passages that I could single out for re-reading on a lonely afternoon for a lovely way to pass time.  Another point of interest and source of constant reader involvement is figuring out who the narrater is.  Daniel's voice is a bit obvious, but I know Jenny wrote a few passages, Jane some others, the all-knowing third person narrater more still.  If someone definitively told me Anthony wrote any part of the book considering his heavy Christian convictions and highly academic, philosophical mind I'd have to re-access everything I thought I knew about Daniel Martin and read it again.  (And considering I've lived with this book for more than two months, I'm in no hurry to do that right now, though I can think of much worse fates in life than reading Fowles with regularity.)  
The book is a study on life, living, the world around us, the people who are important in our lives, and what we can do with the time given to us on Earth.  There is a lot of philosophy though it is dealt with enough of a light hand as to not need a reference guide to read the novel.  Daniel Martin perhaps builds to a vacation in Egypt with Daniel and Jane, it is proposed most innocently, and ends with the most dramatic of results--and not what you're thinking either.  The holiday shows a contrast and acceptance of the book's two most impossible characters and perhaps, if not acceptance the coming to terms with Daniel's most vicious philosophy: "To hell with cultural fashion; to hell with elitist guilt; to hell with existentialist nausea; and above all, to hell with the imagined that does not say, not only in, but behind the images, the real."  Which begs the questions when you've gone to hell with all the preceding, what exactly are you left with?
It's an extremely "English" novel, and Daniel has a bit of a funny crisis of conscious upon learning that he is in fact the most English of all Englishmen.  (More on the horrors of being English in a few days.)  In a nutshell, it could be said the book is about the differences in being American and English during the time of Daniel Martin's life.  I also feel that such a terse distillation of the book would undermine some of the more powerful, subtle and intimate aspects of the novel.  There is nothing difficult about reading Daniel Martin, but it is extremely complex.  At best guess this novel encompasses thirty years and the cast of characters involved is massive.  It's longer than War and Peace... and much like the latter wholly engrossing and worth your reading time.  As I said before, this is a book you live with for a while.  You won't always know where you're going, or for that matter where you currently are, but by the time you reach the final destination you'll be extremely happy you signed up for the ride.    

Monday, April 23, 2012

Adding to the list

I'm currently reading an anthology called Warriors edited by Gardner Dozios and George Martin.  There are some rather liberal takes on the theme but thus far the writing has been fairly consist in this mammoth collection with only one story leaving me questioning it's inclusion.  I've got five-hundred more pages of fiction left before I have any final thoughts on this collection, but in reading last night I reminded myself of a boring task that I always say I'm going to do every time I read a multi-author collection: I need to flag the authors whose works I really like so I can track down more of their stuff.

I kinda do this mentally, and while my current wish list for books is comically large I need to sit down and add to it further by going through the collections and I have and putting some authors names down for further investigation.

For instance, in reading Warriors I came across the name Joe Haldeman.  I've never heard of him but he has apparently been being awesome without my knowledge for a very long time, hence the need for me to chronicle my favorite writers from the collections I've read in the past.  When a collection such as Warriors crest the seven-hundred page mark even the stand-out stories and writers get a bit lost by the time the end is reached.  This is particularly true for me as I rarely read anthologies straight through to the end.  

It sounds like a boring exercise and in my case a bit of an unneeded one considering how much I have to read and how long my wish list already is but I'm gonna go through with doing it in hopes of remembering to check out some of those 'new to me authors' and not just relying on the old familiars.   

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Killed some time today at two local mega chain bookstores.  I escaped with only one purchase: Acacia by David Anthony Durham.

I noticed that Barnes and Noble has been cutting back on their inventory.  I know its horrible to say but I actually like this particular Barnes and Noble.  The store certainly feels more open and roomier which is nice but isn't a bookstore supposed to be crammed full of books?

Finally, I saw for the first time the US cover of Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers.  I heard a lot about this book last year when it was winning every award under the sun, but I wasn't won over enough to give it a shot.  That cover has pushed me over the edge.  I see a lot of talk on genre sites about cover art, layout and design, but it's a topic that hardly ever comes up in 'literary' conversations.  I don't think the people that put work into cover design get enough credit, regardless of genre.  In DeWitt's case, the picture is cool but the font which kinda makes a border is was really grabs me.  Of course, I'll have to find a copy without that "Man Booker Prize" notice, but these things can be worked around.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Make Room for Equality and Reality in your Imagination

Okay, where to start?  An apology would probably make the most sense, but that's not really my style.  This line of thought started when I read some excellent posts on Terry Weyna's blog.  I was reading about the controversy brought about by Saladin Ahmed and Ari Marmell when they pose the thought that Games of Thrones is too white.  Game of Thrones, the book--a series, which I haven't read--was first published in 1996 which makes asking if the book is too white a bit like wondering if the sky is too blue.  Assuming it is too white; how exactly do you plan to fix it?

Ahmed and Marmell make some excellent points that I fully agree with considering my limited knowledge of the works discussed: the bad guys seemed to be universally a bit brown; conversely the closer one comes to lilly white the more we come to see the good guys; thus it was more of an issue with the title that bothered me concerning Ahmed's article.  (Even then it stands to reason that Ahmed used an sensationalist title to draw attention, because you know, the media does that.)  But again, the book was written sixteen years ago, that, and if the preceding comment about skin tone and good and bad is indeed how Martin feels I'm still not sure there is anything wrong with that.  

I didn't make my thoughts very clear in the comments on Terry's blog; I was planning on going back to do so but felt I sounded too argumentative so I figured if I'm gonna start some shit I'll do it in my own space; mere decency as I like Terry...  I'm not arguing the absurdity of the black, white / bad, good idea or the apparent ignorance and surprising anger that many, I'm guessing non-whites, have when someone like Ahmed shines a light on the matter.  My contention is in the modern idea that I feel was the undercurrent of Ahmed's article: that all things need to be equal, tolerant, and representative of today's world even in secondary world fiction, to appease all people.  Well, since that is how the real world works I guess such an idea makes perfect sense... (Said with absolutely no sarcasm at all.)

This is a discussion on the New York Time review of books that I found interesting concerning young adult fiction and it's growing popularity among not just young adults, but readers of all ages.  Some of the opinions stated make me roll my eyes, others still make me nauseated.  If you can honestly read Mr Stein's thoughts and not find them pretentious, elitist, high and mighty, or at the least divisive then you probably shouldn't waste your time with my blog anymore as we don't have much in common.  While there is nothing wrong with Proust and Beckett there is equally nothing wrong with a host of writers that aren't white men that history has condemned to only be remembered by their last names.  Which brings me to the thoughts of Ms Flake.

The title, "There Need to Be More Nonwhite Protagonist" is all well and good, but after reading what was written I felt, "There Need to Be More Nonwhite Writers" would have better served Ms Flake's argument.  She talks of the importance of youth being able to identify with characters in books and need for them to be able to walk into a book store and look at a cover and a blurb and think 'that kid's story kinda echoes my life.'  I couldn't agree more and would gladly second all of her thoughts, except that title still bothers me.  I felt Flake had the same underlying feeling as expressed by Ahmed that nearly suggest that it is the duty of writers, or publishing to fill this need of there being more non white writers.

I can't believe that it is the responsibility of Janet Evanovich or Steven King to lead the charge in the proliferation of books that focus more heavily on people of color.  I think most of the advice out other on writing is rather silly, but 'write what you know' seems to hold up well.  No one faults Toni Morrison for not writing about caucasian Australians nor does anyone hit up Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his continued use of Central and South American characters, and it needs to be explicitly said that Morrison and Marquez (more or less, for both) compose fiction that is written in our world and historical times or reality, as opposed to George Martin who primarily writes in a secondary world of his own device where he apparently comes under fire for supposedly reinforcing real world stereotypes--knowingly or not--in a world he has made up.  
Just today, I came across this fun bit on CNN concerning racism and public reception of The Hunger Games movie.  Honestly I don't even know where to start.  Peterman says all the right things and I agree.  I admit that agreeing with her flies in the face of much of what I've previously said, but at least I'm up front and give full disclosure concerning my possibly hypocrisies.  Just because of the reaction of a few people to the black characters in The Hunger Games movie was wholly negative doesn't mean I don't hope that movie studio continue the trend in casting blacks.  I only hope than studios are never forced to do so.  Just as I hope writers are not trying to shoe-horn characters that don't belong in a given story just to make their book's world resemble the most recent census in the country they live.  Also of interest and related to The Hunger Games uproar dealing with black actors is EA's--the world's largest video game publisher--recent flak about allowing, simply giving players the choice, players to state their sexual preference in certain games where players create their own character.  Considering some of the heat EA has taken you'd think EA introduced the world, or at least the video game world, to homosexuality.  I've linked to one article but if you want an eye-rolling good time google "EA gay characters." 

I'll admit that I haven't hit the nail on the head yet (if I had, this post would have been much shorter with substantially less reliance on outside references).  The factual, moral separation of some writer's characters solely by skin tone is just as wrong as forcing gender equality, fair representation of homosexuals, or a positive showing of people of color upon the same writer.  Writing fiction is a creative endeavor: in short, one is allowed to create a racist, bigoted world if they choose.  This may surprise many, but you--the reader--don't have to read these books...  When writing becomes dictated by an outside force i.e. Cuba's government or even something as relatively tame as rabid fan, reader expectation it ceases to be as creative as it could be and begins to rely on work-arounds and inorganic material.  If a writer chooses to censure themself for any reason, that's fine, but don't force it on them. 
Post like this make me happy that I have absolutely no standing in book publishing world as I think I'll forgo the shitstorm of vitriol and negativity that a more high-profile person might incur.  That said: am I crazy?  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

"Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." Pg 40

Here's a book that's hard to classify: Christian theology, comedy, satire, fantasy, philosophy, a poor effort of a novel, a collection of comedic essays; The Screwtape Letters will fit under just about any heading a new bookstore has to offer.  How to read and interpret the book is perhaps just as varied.  If you are looking for a story in the typical narrative sense you maybe let down, or at the least could find room for improvement.  No matter what your intentions in reading the book--and those intentions will probably change the further along one goes--I think it best to take things in small chucks, a letter at a time, in a effort to give yourself a moment to appreciate all that the author has given and to digest the absurdities that will come to mind after reading has planted certain seeds of thought.   
Screwtape is an Undersecratary in the Lowerarchy of the service to "Our Father Below."  He is also mentor to his nephew, a tempter to a young English man near the time of world war II.  The "Letters" are all one-sided and we have to infer much of what Wormwood, Screwtape's nephew, relates as we never see his letters.  What we do learn is that devils, or perhaps, the nature of temptation is never satisfied.  Screwtape is never happy with Wormwood, not when things go his way, or when he wants to share some small success, there is always more to be done.  While temptation from the Christian path may be the theme of the book, what Lewis writes could just as easily be applied to near anything that threatens to steer people away from what they want in life from alcoholism to laziness.
There is a little narrative in the book following the young man around as he finds a woman of interest, lives in fear of the war and it's bombings, finds the Church and owns up to his doubts, but more interesting than this is the duplicity that Lewis expresses when writing about these various topics.  Screwtape writes (a bit too competently for a devil in my mind, but who is to say demons can't be well educated--perhaps, even English professors?) from a perspective that readers will not be accustomed to hearing from.  "The Enemy" is not who we are conditioned to believe it is and the point of view is so startling unique and the intelligence and insight revealed for all Screwtape's points and arguments make it extremely difficult to objectively see some of the absurdities that are otherwise so transparent in discussions of faith.  
Another interesting point of duality is that in which Screwtape is trying to corrupt and Lewis trying to teach: by way of Lewis being the author, both happen at the same time.  The result isn't so much tongue-in-cheek humor, but more often than not laugh out loud funny.  "When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.  Work on that."  Surely that describes no long standing marriage I've ever heard of.  His thoughts on education and temptation are not only comically insulting but mark the point in which many people refuse personal responsibility and turn to--and sometimes blame--faith or other 'worldly' forces.  "It is funny how mortals always picture us (devils) as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out."  
Screwtape, acting as Lewis, is very tough on the church: clergy and members and the complacency of each, multiple denominations and the ignorance among their followers, and he is most hard on the Church of England.  Screwtape is difficult to get a solid fix on (as Lewis tells us in the opening forward).  There are times he encourages extremism, in all areas except faith, of course, yet he continually ask that Wormwood employ subtlety and misdirection as his primary weapons in securing his 'patient's' soul.  "Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signpost,."  The difficulty in discerning the sermon from the satire is not the only fun part.       
I usually never spend this much time writing about a book that already has such great exposure but whether or not you're a believer Lewis succeeds on multiple levels with this novel in making the reader not only think but posing interesting insight into a host of ideas and questions that will always give the human mind cause for concern: marriage, love, death, morality, and many more.  It's not Narnia and there certainly is no obvious heavy-handed Christian pandering (subtly and misdirection remember).  The Screwtape Letters is perhaps as easy or difficult of a read as you wish it to be.  If only church were as entertaining or half as thought provoking…    

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

I went to a beer festival yesterday; which was fun, but I drew the short straw which meant I had the honor of being the DD, which is less fun, though necessary.  In the end I was kinda happy about it as the beer festival tours don't really have much to offer me.  Sure there was a bunch of stuff that I wanted to try, but nothing that I can't get my hands on elsewhere.  Three hundred beers in one place is awesome and if you are trying to refine your palette or get a handle on your preferences it's well worth the money, but all-in-all I think my friends and I have put together better quality tastings with substantially less beers but a much higher quality.  The DD ticket was $10 so I saved $25; I'm okay with that.

I read Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins this month.  I'm also still plugging away at Daniel Martin by John Fowles.  I love the latter but it is slow slow slow.  I don't say that as a bad thing, just a thing.  

My reading output thus far this year has been pitiful, but I'm telling myself I'll come on strong later.

Surprisingly little to say for March.  I feel sure there is more to share but nothing else comes to mind.  I'll try to be more interesting in April.