What I’m Reading: Endgame & A Dolls House

Hi Guys,

So I decided to break up my reading of epic, long narratives (see my Murakami reviews  1 and 2) with a couple of short plays. These works only take a day or so to read but are also capable of great depth. I chose a couple off of my bookshelf that I had been looking forward to reading and read both within this week. Though both are famous and well established in theatric tradition I found one much more compelling than the other. Both plays are explore very different concepts and though both consist of ideas I am interested in, it was in one I found my attention most held, when I expected to be captured more by the other.

It was Endgame that let me down. One of Samuel Beckett’s most prominent works, Endgame to me was a little too vague to get to grips with. Having read the text before reading interpretations afterwards, I feel now with the benefit of hindsight, little difference in my opinion. Though Endgame does possess that certain jour ne se quais that makes great writing great, it for me lacked some style in the writing and more importantly, a plot which compelled me. I don’t like speaking ill of the classics for I feel ignorant when I do – of course I do not know everything, how could I? – but on a personal level I found Endgame lacking a certain something. Perhaps its reputation preceded it, perhaps it’s too prestigious a work in the zeitgeist to ever live up to it’s name in reality, I cannot say for sure.

Ultimately though  I am left feeling indifferent. Endgame is a play which was perfectly fine, and perhaps is better on the stage than in print, but for me – approaching it as a reader – I cannot strongly recommend it.

A Dolls House however, was a delight. Henrik Ibsen’s classic play was a joy to read, it too possessed that certain something that makes great writing great, but possessed also a story and characters I cared about. I don’t want to give away the plot for people that haven’t read or seen this work but I will concede that Ibsen’s play is now rather dated. What made such an impact in the 1870’s will not get much of a reaction now. However, the strength, power and energy of this play still carry across excellently. I think the shift in attitudes and character from Act I to Act II are a little blunt but ultimately do not inhibit the overall excellence of Ibsen’s writing of family and of strong female protagonists.

A Dolls House in some ways is easier to highlight flaws in, though in this review I have only hinted at a few. I think though that with plays being read as manuscripts we must to some extent acknowledge the shift in perceptions when enjoying stories across forms. And perhaps more importantly than that, we cannot always say why it is that we like some works more than others, and perhaps that is the case here.

I just really enjoyed it.

 

What I’m Reading: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Hi there,

So I recently finished read Maruki Murakami’s novel The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. I was so captured by his inventive and surreal writing in Kafka on the Shore that I felt compelled to pick another one of his books almost right away. In many ways Chronicle differs strongly from its older brother; to me it seems more an exploration of the surrealist writing Murakami will come to perfect in Kafka (and no doubt novels published since), but for that juvenility we get instead a wildly creative piece of writing uninhibited by a self-aware duty to cohesive plot lines. That’s not to say that Chronicle is a hard book to follow, it merely is as I have just hinted to: a creative tour de force full of passion, romance, history, explorations of the mind and our perception of the world around us.

 

The book follows the adventures of Toru Okada and the chain of events that effect his life after the rather humble setback of his cat having run away. Though, after that, I struggle to find words that can succinctly, even elaborately, describe this book. Even if I had wanted to give away the plot in this review I would find it a challenge, for Murakami’s novel’s depth comes from in part it’s intricate plot and fascinating characters and in part from what the events and historical flashbacks may mean to the individual reading them. That is a skill I admire most in Murakami, that his works that seem so abstract on paper take life when read in story. There seems to be a subtext to his work that is more implicit than explicit, it does not feel like he is forcing an agenda down your throat, more like he is trying to help you realise what personal agendas are most important to you.

Chronicle is a long, epic story and worthy of the length which befits the detail Murakami goes into. His story in this is more small-scale than in Kafka but in a sense it is also vastly broad. Not meaning to use paradox for effect, it must be said that though Chronicle’s story is set mainly in and around the block in which Okada lives the novel also takes you far elsewhere. An enigmatic statement perhaps, but if you don’t believe me you better pick up the book for yourself.

 

-Matt

What I’m Reading: The Old Man and the Sea

Hi,

The other day I read The Old Man and the Sea. It’s not a long book, though it is still a testament to Hemingway‘s writing that I did not stop or take a break before finishing his beautifully told story. The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of a Cuban fisherman and his epic battle with a gigantic Marlin. Hemingway paces his story expertly and captivates us with a moving tale about the knowledge of self, loneliness and life on the sea. All told with simple, modest language that is free of pretension.

I would urge anyone and everyone to read this book. It is a simple story told by a master. However I have been put off reading Hemingway in the past because of his stories have not particularly interested me. Though when I found out about The Old Man and the Sea I became excited to read not only a book by a modern legend, but also to read a book that ticks a lot of boxes for fiction stories I enjoy. I liked the idea that Hemingway wanted to focus almost exclusively on one central protagonist and explore his psyche, the details of his ailments and how he reacts to the engagement of an immense and powerful foe. What a fascinating pitch.

For me, Hemingway writes this story almost without fault. I found the intermittent baseball references a little distracting, personally they seemed to undermine the scale of the story and appeared a little out of place. However, they are not a huge element of the story and can be easily overlooked for the sake of this title’s other wise staggering achievement in storytelling. It is hard to describe just what it is that makes this book so good for me, if anything I might say that it is subtle power of Hemingway’s words. The way in which we feel like we too are on a boat being piloted by a force greater than ourselves. Like the fisherman tells us, we are only clever, the opponent is stronger, faster and more honourable than us. It is a parable in a parable then, for me, I am the fisherman reading a classic example of writing done well, but no doubt Hemingway see’s himself as the sailor too. The Old Man and the Sea was his last published work and perhaps he was trying to communicate to us his perception of the changing times, of the battle he was facing against an evolving audience, a fight that may not be worth fighting.

My write up seems to be lacking some focus and I feel that may be because I am re-kindling the emotions I felt when reading this book, rather than writing with an objective, clear mind. But maybe that’s better anyway, to try and assure you, whoever is reading this, that this book has the power to move something inside of you with it’s personal yet epic story. It’s beautiful writing will long stay in my mind and I can only hope that it will do the same for you.

-

What I’m Reading: Amsterdam

Hey,

So I just finished read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.It’s a neat, powerful little read and helps give McEwan, in my mind, a more vivid definition as a writer. Of his work I have read On Chesil Beach before; it was a sombre account of sexual discovery and personal influence. In comparison to Amsterdam the work held more of an emotional relevance, I found it easier to relate to the understated and melancholy tone of the story. However, in many other ways Amsterdam achieves much also as a story tinted too by sadness. McEwan’s interesting characters unravel, and rival, and are interesting to read about.

In short, Amsterdam is the tale of two men: Clive and Vernon. The latter is an editor for a politically focussed magazine whereas the other is highly regarded composer. Both are connected in the story from the death of a mutual friend and lover. From her funeral, onwards, events begin to unravel and as we learn more about each man we ultimately see both make poor moral choices. This narrative is focussed and tidy, it focuses on a relatively small time scale in both Clive and Vernon’s lives. But the events which happen are on a drastic and important scale and it is to McEwan’s credit that we too, as readers, care for the events he writes about.

I will not describe the moral decisions, nor the plot in any more detail for fear of giving too much away. Though I will say this, for a book so strengthened by its long explorations of the protagonist’s psyches it is also marred by the bluntness of some its drama. I felt that Clives moral face-off, and also the ending both did not compliment McEwan’s otherwise brooding and accelerating writing style. To have these events built up, or alluded to for so long then to just have a crude and obvious introduction to them, to me seemed a little pointless. On the other hand, whether this may or may not have been an aware and deliberate decision  they do not ruin for me what is an otherwise strong piece of fiction.

I have read that no other Book Prize winner has received such split favour with it’s readership (if only they had read my damning Life of Pi article), and I think I can see why. Personally I found McEwan’s writing style rather elegant and (in a good way) dramatic; certainly more so than it was in On Chesil Beach. However there is something about the story that also lacks that five star touch, maybe even, four stars. I’m not sure if hindsight is dulling the effect the book had on me when I was reading it, or whether that is just the virtue of an OK book. But I think now, to look back on Amsterdam, I see a well written and enjoyable book and nothing more. Not a classic, not a waste of time. Just a 3 out of 5 star title.

What I’m Reading: Life of Pi

Hey Guys,

So I was urged by a couple of friends recently to read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Now, this is actually my second attempt to read the book because when I started it last year I did not enjoy it and I figured life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. However, the outcry of my friend recently on hearing I gave up on the book and then a second friend doing the same only a few days later, I thought maybe I should persevere.

What a mistake.

Life of Pi must be one of the most accoladed books I have read only to find almost unbearable to read. It won the booker prize in 2002, there is a Hollywood film adaptation being released this year and perhaps more importantly to some circles, it has a great word of mouth reputation with almost universal praise from it’s readers. And after having endured page 1 to page 319 of Martel’s title, I can only wonder why.

I found Life of Pi to be pretentious, preachy, contrived and boring. The story, whilst a colourful parable, doesn’t really do anything for me. It is the meticulous recital of a live at sea with a few notable events and the religious musings of the young, and quite frankly, boring protagonist. And yet, I feel I could open my mind to this story, I could have given it a chance, attempted to learn something about faith and about extreme circumstance if only it wasn’t so badly written.

This is what confuses me the most about the praise surrounding this title. It is a badly written book. His pacing is awful, his one off lines: pretentious, his structure is fragmented and he chooses the most inopportune moments for verbosity and vice versa. In a way I am impressed, as I would be of a smuggler of olden days, that a title like this has been able to find it’s way to print. It is clunky, boring and badly written, something I cannot get over when publishers in this day and age has a wide range of raw talent available to them and editors accomplished enough to tighten that work up further.

My final thought is this: What frustrates me most about this book is that wasted opportunity is represents. I enjoy stories with a surrealist element and that have something else to convey, be it parable, metaphor etc. Martel’s novel could have opened my eyes to the beauty of a world discovered in the absence of land-mass, of people and of self-confidence. Instead Martel’s story blossoms into a large nothing, taking it’s time to do so over a relatively short count of pages. I wish this tale could of been handled by another author because I feel there is something here to enjoy. In fact, perhaps I should read Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats, a novella that Martel has seemed to entirely rip off whilst given almost no credit to Scliar apart from an enigmatic dedication.

Life of Pi disappointed me. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but these things are always best to find out yourself. However if you do start and find you aren’t enjoying the story don’t make my mistake. Just stop there.

What I’m Reading: Kafka On the Shore

Hi Guys,

I’ve just finished reading Haruki Murakami‘s Kafka On the Shore. It’s a beautiful surrealist tale from the veteran Japanese author that has left me wanting to read more of his expansive and accomplished work. Kafka’ is the story of two people connected in several ways and whose interactions connect across this world and more… To say to much would be unravel much of Murakami’s beautiful and mystical world but know this: With an open mind this book will transport you through several beautiful worlds.

Personally I am usually a lover of more grounded, real literature. By which I mean stories about the real world and the personal, subtle stories that can be told of the people that inhabit this world. This is what really helped define the impact that Kafla’ had for me; recommended to me by a friend and described with loose, engmatic words I felt it worth investing in this curious sounding tale.

What I found was an incredibly well paced story that juggles the story of it’s two protagonists (Kafka: a young runaway and Nakata: the old, simple cat finder) but one that also lets its story world blossom over the 500 or so pages it takes to finish. Murakami does an excellent job of filtering through Japanese ideology and surrealist ideas through a narrative that starts grounded and reality and finishes far from it.

If I had to criticise the book I would have to say that I found the ending wound down into a whimper than the climax I felt was sure to come. And also, that the two plots that were becoming more and more connected through the narrative finished in a way I found a little unsatisfying.

However, this book is definitely one I would recommend to others. It’s unlike much I have read before and in a way, feels like it’s own mythic creation: the book being something that could be passed on with a whisper to others in the future, a spiritual vessel for readers exploring their own subconscious.

Because ultimately that is what Kafka’ does best. It opens up the minds of it’s characters and shows us that maybe, our own minds are not so different.

 

What I’m Reading: Short Stories That Make You Sad

Hi Guys,

So I love short stories, I have always appreciated the way that the form allows for not only more delicate tales to be told but also more avant guard, interesting ones too. Some concepts don’t always work as novels because they want to treat a small element of detail with a great deal of care and attention and that is most certainly a theme with the last two collections I have been looking at.

I recently finished 11 Kind of Loneliness by Richard Yates, and it’s fantastic. It focuses on the detachment and isolation of those living in subrban, post-war america and how behind the façade things may not be so great. It may not be a wholly unique idea today, but Yates wrote these stories after observing the decade first hand and this collection is well over 30 years old now. Yates really cares for his characters and I think the way the way he can provoke so much empathy from the reader is by highlighting the tragedy of their situations and how he also pities them.

The stories even though focussed on the same subject, vary because of the deeply personal accounts of the stories told by the characters or the narrator who looks down upon them.

I’m now reading a collection by Raymond Carver who wrote the fantastic Will You Please Be Quiet Please (one of my favourite collections) called Cathedral. In the blurb Carver is quote as saying is was possible ‘to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and endow these things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power’. So far, to me, he seems to be exercising this idea well, using minimalist writing to convey great importance in the details. This can give the stories a little bit of a stilted feel in my opinion but overall Carver’s storytelling here is just as good as it was in ‘Will You Please’.

I’ll post a retrospective review when I’m done.

- Matt

What I’m Reading: On Chesil Beach

Hi Guys,

I just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and I thought it was great, you probably will too.

However I also have some thought on the book that I think may serve as a warning to those on the fence: The book is well written, so don’t worry about that, it has the benefit of an omniscient narrator who’s language has the benefit of avoiding conversational tone, something that would otherwise spoil this story. The flip-side is that the method of delivery for this story is one that meanders through the history of the characters, taking its time over the short page count, perhaps stretching out the story in the mind of some readers.

In a way though this is great, the story certainly couldn’t have been told the other way but I was left a little unsatisfied by how little relevance each of the character’s history had to the current, main timeline. The story is all about sexual frustration, liberation and how a couple in the 60’s cope with these thoughts on sex on the night of their wedding. This is why the flashbacks work in a way, because we get respite from some of the more intense bedroom moments in the current timeline and also find more out about the protagonists. However, though usually I love stories all about personal psychology and the subtlety of that field, I felt McEwans pacing was a little off, telling moments of lethargy too quickly and vice versa.

I have heard people really rave about this book and it’s so short that it’s not worth listening to anyone who says to avoid it. But be aware that though McEwan is a good writer as proved by his popularity, his style in this seems to conjure up similarities with some of his other works I have looked at: a habit to stroll leisurely through the narrative with a sense of importance and pride in his writing. It is good, but I don’t know if it’s that good.

- Matt

 

 

What I’m Reading: Scarlet and Black

Hi Guys,

So recently I just finished reading Scarlet and Black by Stendhal. The book is a French classic following the adventures in the life of Julien Sorel. The reason I picked this book up is because I was really interested in the conflict of interests in the main character, which provides most of the meat (at least morally) in the story.

Sorel is a gifted young farmhand living an anonymous existence in rural France, happy enough to learn the bible verbatim in Latin but not much else. However, after a turn of events Julien gets an opportunity to work for a privileged family through which he is catapulted on an exciting and varied adventure in which he falls in love, breaks hearts makes powerful friends and enemies but all the while wrestling with himself between his alliance with the Church, or whether to pursue a career (if possible) in the military.

Stendhal illustrates the imbalance of Sorel’s mind expertly mainly through visualising the grandeur of either lifestyle whilst portraying his subtler, more subjective thoughts through his vivacious love life.

Scarlet and Black was a fairly challenging to read and it works in a huge amount of detail whilst telling an epic, important story. I loved the opportunity to read about 19th century France and learn something of the people in that era, especially the cultural elite.

I would recommend Scarlet  and Black to anyone up for reading a classic that may not be on everyone’s list. If you’ve read the book or have any questions about it, please leave a comment below.

- Matt

NEVER Write About Yourself

So my tutor told me today that you shouldn’t write about yourself too often. Which is fine, but don’t forget that no-one but you can feel the details and subtleties of your emotions like you can. I think you should use these experiences to provide context, gravity and passion into whatever you’re writing. 

Hey Guys,

So in one of my writing lectures today my tutor made the point that we as writers often think that we are also interesting to read about. I think that actually, he is very right to say this because I have fallen into this trap many times. But I think he missed a trick when presenting today; he said nothing about how your own experiences can shape the work you make and how (in my opinion) by transplanting your own emotions into your creative writing, you can create a more emotionally strong and convincing piece than you could of otherwise.

Imagination is a virtue of creative writers. Without this creativity we would not be able to sail to the dark recesses of space, fight dragons with a sword or even, find out what happened to Harry potter in year 9. However, one thing imagination cannot convey convincingly is emotion; to write about a feeling you have not felt would not only be truly challenging but perhaps, also insulting to those who have felt it. There are two easy way to combat this then:Do your research. Like I touched on before, people think that they are the most interesting people ever. This means that if you can get them to open up about something they really care about, they will talk well, and touch upon the details you may missed from a distance. And secondly: Transcript how you have felt about any strong emotion, ever. Most of us have been lucky to avoid the drama of fiction and literature; sure, maybe bad things have happened to us but perhaps we have never been so thoroughly cheated as the protagonist in your favourite novel. I think what we should do in these instances, is to relate our own feelings into the situation and transplant the unique subtitles and features that you may have felt at some point into your writing work. You may even have to ham it up a bit, and that’s fine. But your work is going to be all the more credible if you write honestly and from the heart. That may sound cheesy, but there’s a reason some things are cliché, because often, they are the best way to capture a well made point.

I’m no master writer, I’m a wannabe and I admit that. But what I’m trying to say is don’t omit your own feelings in writing because you want to create a world away from your own. It’s the same idea I touched upon in Writing and it’s Relationship with Music; there are so many sources we can take emotional influence from and for me music is one of the richest resources of all. Personally, I’d love to capture the emotion I hear in music and recreate it on the page. So try and find a source from which you take the most influence, be it music, people or yourself.

Take it easy,

Matt :)

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