Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Catch up and John Darnielle’s ‘Wolf in White Van’ Thoughts

After a long break from vomiting my thoughts over the internet, I have decided to resume these bodily expulsions and now sit dry-heaving in front of my computer ready for my latest amateur musings to come forth. I think that sentence was a little grotesque but I’m going to leave it in. It’s been all change with me lately and, as such, I haven’t managed to get myself to sit down and write anything about the books I’ve been reading. Part of the reason for this is because my reading has been quite limited recently. Since last time I wrote here I have finished Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed a fair bit, but instead of writing about just that book I wanted to do a kind of comparison between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. An idea which I’m sure is totally original. Unfortunately I decided that I had not read enough Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) compared to Dostoevsky (The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov) and so in order to make a fair comparison I needed to read at least one more Tolstoy novel. Unfortunately the next work of Tolstoy’s that landed in my lap was the formidable War and Peace, in fact a beautiful three volume set given to me by a close friend as a birthday present. I have barely managed to scratch the surface of the mammoth tome and as such a comparison piece is likely some way off. Although I have read another short collection of Tolstoyian works which included The Death of Ivan Ilyich amongst others. I found that particular work to be quite powerful and probably worth discussing on it’s own. Either way, my love affair with late nineteenth century Russian literature has not finished yet and I do still plan on writing an attempt at a comparative discussion. However it may be some time coming.

Not about wolves or vans.

Moving on then, to the actual subject of this post. John Darnielle’s excellent Wolf in White Van. This novel came highly recommended to me by a friend and so I picked it up when I could. Before this novel I can’t remember the last time I read a non-classic text for fun. Whilst at University my reading significantly fell off because when you spend hours and hours reading dry History books, reading for fun becomes not so fun after all. Since graduating I’ve been committed to Russian classics, which I have certainly enjoyed, that sometimes don’t have the same grip over readers that more modern novels tend to have. Maybe it’s to do with the length? Perhaps it’s hard to feel drawn into War and Peace when you know you’re so so far from any meaningful narrative conclusion.Wolf in White Van does not suffer from this problem, being quite a short book, it’s also very easy to get drawn in to the simple personable story contained within. Something that perhaps epitomises the whole draw of the book. Before we go any further, I will preface the rest of this discussion by saying that there will be heavy SPOILERS contained from now on. Although I think the book can be enjoyed just fine whilst in full possession of the facts, I think something may be lost if the details revealed by the slow unraveling of the narrative are already known to the reader going in.

I think the first thing I want to do in writing about this book is praise it. If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be ‘sad’. This is a short, sad story about a lot of things. If I had to guess I would say that the author put a lot of himself into the characters and events of the book, making it a personable read. We know from the offset that the main character, Sean Phillips, was involved in a life changing accident when he was a teenager and that he is threatened with legal action after some teenagers get seriously hurt after they take a ‘by-mail’ pen and paper role playing game of Sean’s devices into the real world and blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Blurring fantasy and reality is a continuing theme throughout the novel, we hear of the protagonist’s  attempts at dealing with his trauma which mostly involved escaping into worlds of his own creation to get away from a lengthy hospitalisation and horrible, long term pain suffered as a result of his ‘accident’. Traditional fantasy settings are the main target for Sean’s escapism, with continual references to Conan the Barbarian and other similar works throughout the text. In fact the time period in which the book is based and the use of popular culture throughout the novel I think hints at an author of a certain age, something I am confident saying thanks to the obvious personal touches he has included. Things like mentioning nights spent at the Arcades, listening to cassette tapes in his bedroom and with his friends as well as various ‘pulp’ magazine just aren’t around in the same way any more. I don’t think it takes many leaps to conclude that the author used to enjoy these things as well. This personal touch created by the pop culture throw backs brings a sense of stark honesty to the novel, really anchoring the story of teenager trauma into the real world.These same throw backs will likely cause readers of a certain age to identify with the characters more heavily than others, although I think a lot of people will have no trouble identifying with going through phases as a teenager that your parents don’t seem to understand. However the story may cut closer to the bone if you grew up with cassette tapes and trips to your local Arcade.

I don’t want to ramble too much and I realise the unstructured and unplanned nature of these blogs can lend themselves to a ‘word vomit’ like phenomena. A stream-of-conscious style discussion is what I aim for when I write these blogs, which means it can get unorganised. I want to emphasise that Wolf in White Van is very good. It explores sensitive topics with delicacy and a sort of starkness that comes naturally to those who suffer tragedy, a great touch in making the narration seem all the more believable. Coping mechanisms, fantastical escapism, family crises, guilt and suicide are all touched upon in 200 pages of honest, stark and gently sad literature. The slow reveal of Sean Phillip’s ‘accident’ is something I anticipated early on. As the first person narrative starts in the present, it makes sense that the book would climax with a big reveal around the disaster that changed Sean’s life forever. We find out early he is facially disfigured, we later find out that it was a shooting accident. Further comments and passages hint at a suicide attempt although nothing is stated outright. Finally the novel closes with Sean walking us through that fateful night, never quite explaining his decision to put a rifle under his chin and pull the trigger. I’ve probably missed something but my current best theory is that Sean Phillips was imitating Robert E. Howard, writer of the Conan series, who took his life in a similar way. This fact and the protagonist’s love of Conan is mentioned in the book. Either way, the journey through the psyche of Sean Phillips is one that prompts self reflection and emotion. Exactly the kinds of thing a novel should do.

If I were to criticise this book in any way, it would be that the pacing is a little off. We jump so often and so quickly between Sean’s tortured memories and the present that there is no sense of real time progression. The only progression the reader feels is further towards the mystery of Sean’s injuries. Due to the nature of the narrative, we leave Sean after he recounts the disaster at the end of his teenager years. We never flash back to the present and, all in all, very little narration takes place there. Because of this, the death/injuries of the teenagers who played Sean’s game (Trace Italian) which he invented to fuel his escapism, feel almost inconsequential by the end of the book. This is because of the lack of progression mentioned earlier. The last part of the story is building towards the reveal behind Sean’s accident/suicide attempt. The fact that this is placed as such suggests that it is Sean’s personal narrative that is the main focus of the novel, this is why I say the narrative about the two teenagers feels inconsequential by the end. To paraphrase Sean Phillips, it feels like a side quest. An engaging side narrative that relates to the main plot, whilst not progressing the story.

This having been said, this is a book I would absolutely recommend. It is a short, sad and honest story that deserves your time. It’s hard for me to judge modern fiction sometimes, since I’ve spent a lot of time reading classics recently and they sometimes require a very different viewpoint, but I feel that this book was something a bit special. I hope John Darnielle writes more books because I would like to read them. Any more feelings or thoughts about this book I will struggle to put into words, I encourage you to look up a proper review of this book if you’re considering reading it based upon this blog post. A critic will be able to quantify the quality of the book better than I. For now I leave you with an amateurs hearty recommendation.

Again I apologise for the sporadic updating of this blog. Time is out of joint etc etc. Nevertheless, a sincere thank you for reading this. If you enjoyed this ramble, feel free to suggest other novels I may enjoy or you would like, for whatever reason, me to write about.
Thanks again.

Dostoevsky – ‘The Brothers Karamazov’: Thoughts

I’m starting to think I should change the name of this blog. When I set out, I wanted somewhere to write about the video games I was playing and this was my humble outlet for that. More recently however, I feel like I haven’t had the time to play many video games. I’ve just started working full time (temporarily) and have a bunch of real life stuff going on which often prevents me from enjoying my video games. On top of all this, I simply don’t have anything current enough, all the games I could talk about would be small indie games that could run on my laptop. I haven’t had a new acquisition for my retro collection in a while and I’ve already talked about most of the stand out titles in that.
Whilst I haven’t been playing games, I have been reading books. Mostly in lunch breaks at work and on public transport etc. This has allowed me to finally finish The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s second most famous work behind Crime & Punishment. This one is a huge novel, steeped in detail and Dostoevsky’s bleak Russian evaluation of society. I thought I would quite like to gives some of my clumsy thoughts on this great book. I’m no expert and do not claim to be one, I did however enjoy this book and want to just air some thoughts about it.

I think this is Dmitri Karamazov but I am not 100%

The first thing I feel like I should mention is Dostoevsky’s style of narration. In The Possessed he was narrating as a bystander to the events of the novel, as a character who was a close friend of one of the central figures early on. This narrating character was either present at the events of the book or heard in detail about later from his connections in the town, allowing him to describe them to the reader. To me, this is very plausible and adds an element of the ‘unreliable narrator’ which often leads to interesting interpretations, although this character does usually seem to be calling things mostly straight with some exceptions, like a clear dislike for the ‘villain’ of the novel. In Karamazov however, there is quite a different approach. The narration seems to come mostly third person from one of the titular brothers but sometimes the narrator appears to move through the air and float above certain scenes and happenings. To me one particularly jarring section is at the end of the book, where there is a trial (Warning: Spoilers ahead) of one of the Karamazov brothers. During this quite lengthy section, Dostoevsky chooses to recount the action as he did in The Possessed, as an unnamed narrator character. I suspect he does this so he can talk directly to the reader as this character, this allows him to cut down the length of the section (as trials do tend to be quite long) by providing broad overviews of impressions in the court house etc. I found the sudden change in style to be quite unpleasant, although I guess it served it’s purpose. Overall it doesn’t really detract from the quality of the book although since it happens right at the end it does leave a bit of a sour taste.

Something else I would like to talk about comes from something someone mentioned to me when they saw I was reading Dostoevsky. They told me they could never follow the characters names and as such couldn’t enjoy the book. Whilst I personally didn’t struggle too much, I have to concede that they may have had a point. I feel like the perfect example of this can be found in Karamazov in the form of the titular brothers. The eldest is named Ivan, then Dmitri and finally Alexis. I understand that these are the forenames of the three most central characters. Their surname, of course, is Karamazov. I am no expert, but it seems that Russians are referred to as a derivative of their fathers’ forenames at least in this period/setting which is often used instead of their surname. The father of these three brothers is Fyodor, like Dostoevsky himself. This means Ivan is referred to as Ivan Fyodorovich continually. This isn’t all too bad but for the other siblings, their nicknames come into account. Dmitri is known as Mitya Fyodorovich and Alexis as Alyosha Fyodorovich. In my opinion this can make things a little tricky to follow. In the modern day we could call one character Alexis Karamazov but is mostly referred to in the book as Alyosha Fyodorovich, which is not really even close. Of course when you consider that these are the titular characters and there are several very important side-characters to remember, then you can see that this might become confusing. Really though, this is not too much of a problem once you get your head round it and hopefully it wouldn’t dissuade anyone from enjoying the novel.

I don’t want to ramble on too long, so I’ll just finish with a few thoughts. I have probably devoted too much time to the two thoughts above but those were some things I really did want to mention. The Brothers Karamazov is overall a great read in my opinion. Dostoevsky’s incredibly detailed style of writing works wonders here. It takes some time to get into but due to the nature of his writing and his love of discussing the ‘character’ of his, well, characters, you really begin to understand them at the deepest level. I feel that one of Dostoevsky’s main strengths is the levels he goes to to explain his characters thoughts and actions. When you understand the political and social context of the period the story is set in you can appreciate this even more. Dostoevsky was very politically motivated and this shows in all his writing, Karamazov is no different. His uniqueness comes from a quality that I am struggling to put into words. It almost feels like each character is fatalistically destined to carry out certain actions in certain scenarios. The flaws of the characters seem to be what ultimately drives them. This is especially seen in Mitya, who is completely overwhelmed by his ‘nature’ and whose actions almost seem completely inevitable given his character and emotional make-up. This sort of fatalistic determinalism seems to run rife through Dostoevsky’s characters and there don’t seem to be any that can break free of their own flaws. Maybe Dostoevsky is making a point about the bleakness that surrounds the idea of destiny. The thought that no matter our wishes we are all doomed to adhere to our characteristic and emotional flaws until they ruin us. At least that is the way it seems to be in this novel. The ending of the book is appropriately bleak and is very characteristic of the author. Alyosha is chosen as the main brother to be followed by the narrator and his character arc seems very realistic. He starts the novel as a fresh faced young monk-to-be and ends the story having seen tragedy tear his family apart and ready to embark into the world. Tragedy seems to follow Dostoevsky’s characters around, although not too unrealistic proportions. Alyosha ends the book as seemingly the only survivor of the scandal that the book entails, which is interesting considering how virtuously he is portrayed. Perhaps Alyosha has managed to escape the clutches of his destiny through his selflessness and adherence to moral values? Undoubtedly there is a social commentary here but I am not the main to discern its full nature. Ultimately the book is fairly heavy going but overall worth it. It can get extremely wordy at times and personally I think some sections could do with a little pruning. Particular I think the stories of the Elder Zosima were a tad unnecessary given their length and the not exactly central nature of the character recounting them. Still they add depth to key characters so they are clearly not without purpose. The Brothers Karamazov is a great book, as I’m sure you already know. If you think you can follow through the commitment of reading it, then I would strongly encourage you to pick it up.

I hope you enjoyed this rambling, I think it does me good to tell my ideas to no-one in particular sometimes. I am deeply grateful to anyone actually reading this, as it is undoubtedly very dull. I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina which is a completely different animal. Once I’ve finished that I would quite like to write something comparing works by the two Russian greats. I guess we shall see. Apologies, yet again, for the huge gaps between updates. I do always intend to write more things here but life gets in the way. Perhaps in the future?

10 Literary Works That Have Influenced Me: Part Two

So I managed to get the first half of this list done yesterday and, as promised, I’ve decided to get the second half done as soon as possible. I’ve spent some time thinking about all these entries and I think I’ve managed to come up with the final draft. Also I think I got a few followers following my last post, if you’re reading this I’m very glad you liked it. It looks like literary content is more in demand than video game stuff, or maybe it was the easier-to-read formatting that caught eyes. Either way, I present the second half of the 10 literary works that have influenced me.

6 – Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

I tried to read I. Robot when I was quite young and I didn’t really grasp what was going on. I left the book alone for a couple of years and later came back to it. I was enthralled by the ideas contained within the novel, some of the best science fiction I have ever read. If you’ve only seen the film I endeavor to recommend the book heartily. The book is made up of multiple short stories whilst the film elongates one, although perhaps the most interesting, of these stories into a feature presentation of Will Smith jumping around and shooting at things. Perhaps the second worst use of science fiction intellectual property I have come across. Anyway, Asimov’s book deals with a fascinating ideal that has been explored by science fiction; the ideals and morals of artificial intelligence. I, Robot brings up fascinating implications of the development of AI, and the morals that surround humanity ‘playing God’. A collection of interesting stories combined with the raising of fascinating moral queries around the subject matter make this a great read in my eyes. Influential to me because it got me really interested in science fiction and its messages and the questions it raises have stayed with me for a long time. A lot of sci-fi writers owe a lot of Isaac Asimov and after reading this book I can understand why.

7 – Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials Trilogy

This is another series from my childhood and a memorable one at that. Unfortunately Pullman’s trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) tends to get somewhat drowned under the leviathan of children’s literature that is Harry Potter. Pullman’s fantasy world is fascinating and introduces many concepts over the trilogy. At it’s heart it is a coming-of-age romance tale spread over a race to save existence as we know it. It sounds simpler than it is, trust me. What most influenced me about this series (other than the detailed and unique world Pullman creates) is the interactions with religion. This is a theme that I have been continually interested in in literature and I really like the approach Pullman takes. There are a lot of themes running through the books that fit in well with spirituality and Christian religion, since then I’ve very much appreciated literature that deals with religion in a thoughtful manner, or just without straight out derision. Humour is fine, Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett) mocks Christianity and I think that book is amazing because it does it in a way that is not dismissive. On top of all this the series is well written, interesting and very unique. Definitely underrated children’s fiction.

8 – Terry Pratchett, Truckers

If you’ve been reading carefully you may have noticed I’ve mentioned Terry Pratchett twice already in this list, that may hint to you how much I enjoy Pratchett’s work. He has written an awful lot of books and I have read a lot of them. Truckers was, from what I remember, my introduction to Pratchett (it may have been The Carpet People). I think I read it for the first time at a young age because I struggled with anything in The Discworld, I’m gonna say that was because I struggled with the concept of a completely fantastical world and I needed familiar points of reference to be able to grasp the stories. Yes, I may have been that young. TruckersDiggers, and Wings are all neat little books with a basic story about some gnomes who are struggling in a world (our world) that is far too big for them. The books are fairly simplistic and, although far from without humour, is not as funny as his repeated parodies of fantasy literature found in nearly any of The Discworld books. This was influential to me because it opened a gateway into Pratchett through which I entered with aplomb. This humble little book and series got me hooked and I’ve never looked back.

9 – Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

The only play in this list and it deserves it’s play very much. I’m not the hugest fan of reading play scripts, obviously the medium is best experienced through a performance but this I loved this play before I even saw it in a theatre. This tragic story of a failed American dream is truly distressing and incredibly sad. The characters are all fantastic and the themes running through the play are well handled and interesting. Ideas of family life, father and son relationships and, most of all, the aforementioned American dream are all dealt with and explored to great effect. A frankly harrowing vision of the dangers of believing in the wealth brought by chasing the bright lights of America. Whilst the main theme is not too subtle, although I did study this play at school, the play is multifaceted thematically and is well worth a read through or, even better, seeing it performed live. There’s also a great film with Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich if you’re that way inclined.

10 – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils

This book influenced me very recently. I initially picked it up because it is a fictionalisation of what my BA in History dissertation was roughly about, Dostoyevsky was very much a commentator of the period and his outlet for his thoughts were his novels and so I thought I should read it. Whilst not terribly historically accurate, although broadly correct, the book drew me in like nothing has for a while. The detail poured into the novel is admirable and the style of story telling is something I have not come across too much. The story of a secret anarchistic society developing in Russia is very engaging, although I may have benefited from studying the context in great detail. This is influential to me because it has awoken an interest in the Russian literary classics and now I have another Dostoyevsky and some Tolstoy which require my attention. It’s a really great book but I would say to others to approach with caution because my enjoyment may have come partly through my very detailed understanding of the real historical event the story is based on.

Well, that’s all done. Thank you to anyone who read all that, it means a lot. Quickly, some honourable mentions that I loved reading but didn’t feel they influenced me in the same way the above texts did.

Honourable Mentions: Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. William Shakespeare, Macbeth. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl series.

 

10 Literary Works That Have Influenced Me: Part One

This is something I saw crop up a bit on my facebook and I decided to give it a go. I didn’t really want to clog up my facebook with a lengthy post about literature and I certainly didn’t want to just name 10 pieces without providing at least some explanation for each of them. I’m not the best read person in the world so this list won’t be very ground breaking but I’ll try and explain each one of my entries. The following then are the 10 literary works which I feel have influenced me greatly, they are listed in no particular order. Judging on the length of this after I wrote the first 5, I’ve decided to break this up into two parts, this is the first one.

1 – George Orwell, 1984

I think this novel sometimes attracts criticism for being regarded as ‘entry level’ by dedicated intellectuals and book readers. The book has perhaps moved further into the forefront of popular culture since the media began drawing increasing comparisons between  the themes and ideas of the novel and everyday modern life. The idea of the ‘Nanny State’ is something that, in a way, Orwell has prophesied in this book. Whilst ‘Orwellian’ seems to be used increasingly in the lexicon of public discourse these days, it is very important to remember that 1984 is fictional and also portrays a complete extreme. I do feel that anyone seriously claiming the coming of a ‘Big Brother’-like society is perhaps reacting a little rashly. Nevertheless, the relevance of Orwell’s work perhaps only proves its brilliance. I adore this book, it is probably one of my firm favourites. 1984 is a truly disturbing painting of a dystopian future and one that seems all too real. I’ve always found it strange that the main character seems to be one of the few people that sees through the lies of ‘Big Brother’ and yet he is so incredibly identifiable to the reader. This book is genuinely unnerving as it demonstrates how a regime can completely dominate its subjects so totally and completely. I have no doubt this one would make many lists, it has firmly secured a place on mine. (P.S. I love Animal Farm as well, but two Orwell books on this list would be too much)

2 – Brian Jacques, The Redwall Series

For a lot of people my age, I think that Harry Potter may have been the first series they were truly dedicated too. Whilst in my youth I did immensely enjoy Harry Potter my first literary love was another children’s series. The world of the Redwall series is lovingly crafted by Jacques (who, I was devastated to find out, died in 2011) about a wide variety of talking animals. The central point of the book is Redwall Abbey after which the series is named. The Abbey is inhabited by religious mice who regularly fend off all kinds of attacks and challenges with the help of a fairly regular cast of friends. Whilst the whole series spans generations and generations of fictional animals, there are numerous constants which means each book can be enjoyed independently. Now that I am much older, I can see that the stories are largely formulaic, the writing is simplistic (although the series is for children) and the morals of the characters are entirely black or white. This doesn’t stop my nostalgic memories though, the whole series encompasses 22 books (one released posthumously) and I have read 18 of them, missing only the latest 4. I don’t think any single series of books has influenced me more.

3- J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Again, I imagine this would make many lists although that by no means lessens its presence here. I was encourage to read this trilogy at a very young age by my father, I would estimate around 10 or 11 years old. I think at that time I found it too heavy going, which is not exactly surprising. I seem to remember I returned to the books at 13 and loved them. I always loved The Hobbit and that is why I was encouraged to pursue this trilogy. I think at the time Lord of the Rings felt like an adult reading project to me, so despite the challenge presented by their length and cumbersome detail I persevered and ended up being truly encapsulated by the world Tolkein had created. I don’t think any more needs to be said about this series, and indeed I think that all that could be said already has been.

4 – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series

This was perhaps my first foray into Science-Fiction, a genre I am now reasonably well acquainted with. Adams’ oddball series starts with the titular first novel about Earth being destroyed and a unassuming everyman protagonist seeing and experiencing the vast expanse of the life-filled universe for the first time, in complete and utter bewilderment. The reliable supporting casts of aliens and robots only accentuate the humour and general oddity of the books.  The series is wickedly funny and employs a certain kind of British humour that Adams’ clearly excels in. Despite the jokes, the series manages to deal with some broad concepts such as the meaning of existence and the presence of a higher power, which it does so with quips and clever sarcasm. Whilst the series does meander quite a lot towards the end, it’s worth reading all the entries to get some closure. I think that Douglas Adams, along with Terry Pratchett, introduced to me the idea that literature could be funny, well written and tell a compelling narrative. Don’t watch the film though, it’s awful.

5 – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is another book that is often held on a pedestal, but that is not why I found it influential to me. I studied the Great Gatsby for my A-Levels several years ago and I hated it. I think partly it was due to my dissatisfaction with the teacher. For a variety of reasons, my whole class had to resit the exam because of unsatisfactory results, which meant more studying Gatbsy. Over the course of the revision (with a much better teacher) I began to feel very differently. I feel like Gatsby comes alive with some critical anaylsis. The novel seems much better when considering Fitzgerald’s motivation, the historical content and some of the symbolism he uses. I think it was this instance with Gatsby that made me really understand the importance of critical literary thinking. On top of all this, Gatbsy is a book with a great plot with many layers of literary techniques. The narrative is tragic and expertly crafted. Undoubtedly a great piece of literature, given further meaning to me by my experiences with the text.

I think this list is going to have to be split into two parts, since this is already very lengthy. Expect part 2 soon!