Year of a Hundred books – #14 Dangling Man

Dangling ManDangling Man, by Saul Bellow


Set in 1942, Dangling Man is not so much a traditional story as it is a character study of a man with no direction and too much time on his hands. Joseph, is young married man who, due to his immigrant status hindering his attempts to enlist in the US Army, has been left in a Chicagoan limbo.With nothing to do, and no one to talk to, Joseph begins to unravel. In fits of ennui, he lashes out at his friends, his relations, and his wife, and while he does feel remorse, this doesn’t stop it from happening again and again.

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Year of a Hundred books – #13 Macbeth: A True Story

Macbeth: A True StoryMacbeth: A True History, by Fiona Watson


This something a little different for me. Not only is Macbeth: A True History, not fiction, but it’s also not entirely history.

Writing medieval history in a way that is accessible to a wide audience is notoriously difficult, especially in somewhere as scant in the sources as Scotland. There is all too often a tendency to clutch at straws, or to make one too many assumptions about the subject to create a coherent narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a trained historian it does make me cringe when Fiona Watson glosses over what she identifies as the key points of Macbeths’ reign with fictionalised prose.

This, and a few historiographic issues I disagree with, Macbeth: A True History is actually a good read. It gives a really clear run down of the unification of the Scottish kingdoms and explains a lot of things much more clearly than some of my lecturers did (one of whom is even cited as a source in the book). Of course, the narrative is always conscious of the Shakespearean take on Macbeth, and there are frequent references throughout the texts to Jacobean society or the sources Shakespeare used. This is only to be expected, but it does seem as though Watson has gone too far into revisionism, veering almost into hagiography for the king.

Five years of university education have conditioned me to be inherently sceptical of anything that tries to portray itself as a “True History”, and I’d hesitate to cite this in an academic context, but as a good popular history book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.

Year of a Hundred books – #12 Khirbet Khizeh

Khirbet KhizehKhirbet Khizeh, by S. Yizhar


Khirbet Khizeh somehow manages to be beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The latter is essentially down to what it depicts; the clearance of an Arab village during the Arab-Israeli War, based on the author’s own experiences. The unnamed narrator is a member of an IDF unit sent to evict the occupiers of the titular village to make way for new immigrants.

The treatment of the villagers is horrific, as one would expect of wartime, and although the story is in essence about the realisation of the narrator that what he is participating in revolts him, this realisation does not come until the end of the novel, so we are treated to vivid descriptions of the mistreatment of the villagers and their lands by the soldiers.

It is the vividness of the description however, more than the theme, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. Even when what is being described is off putting, there is s much care and attention put into depictions of the landscape and the village, that it provides a balance to the less pleasing images that pervade the novella. Obviously, I’ve read it in translation, so my enjoyment of the prose is as much a product of the translators as it is of the original author, but according to the Afterword, S. Yizhar’s Hebrew is famed for it’s unique beauty.

The afterword is another thing that makes this book reading. For one thing, it is an Afterword, rather than an Introduction, thus avoiding any spoilers in the opening pages of the book. More importantly however, the commentator David Shulman links the book forward to the clearances of Palestinian villages that are still happening today, making the point that although this book has been part of the Israeli curriculum for over half a century, the acts that it is deploring did not end with the war. There is hope however, according to Shulman, as while the narrator is isolated in his rejection of the clearances, today, hundreds of young Israelis refuse the mandatory military service for precisely this reason.

Although it is interesting to read a war story that does not focus on either of the World Wars or Vietnam, Khirbet Khizeh is still a war story at its heart. Yes, it’s Anti-War, but that doesn’t make the outright racism and othering any more enjoyable to read. It’s possible to enjoy the novel in spite of that, but it is a bit of a shock until you get used to it. That said, I think it’s fair to say that reading it to the end makes it all worth while.

Essay: Ruby Sparks and Writing

So a few weeks ago, I went to see Ruby Sparks, which as a film is basically what you’d get if you combined (500) Days of Summer, Stranger than Fiction, and Pygmalion. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but this post isn’t going to be a review so much as it is my thoughts on one of its prevailing themes.
The main character, Calvin (played wonderfully by Paul Dano), is a struggling author, who hasn’t written much since the highly celebrated novel he wrote a decade prior to the beginning of the story. The opening of the film itself sums up Calvin’s problem: He wakes up early, sits down at his typewriter, then promptly begins not writing. Sound familiar?

Now, the film offers a variety of reasons for Calvin’s writers block, some stated outright (Lack of social interaction, lack of romantic interaction), others only hinted at, (unresolved issues of parental approval, and the overwhelming pressure to produce an adequate follow up to the best-selling book he wrote as a teenager). There is no active resolution for Calvin’s problem, aside from his psychiatrist’s insistence that he writes a page worth, which he would “like to be very bad” and a subsequent sudden burst of inspiration that kickstarts the plot. And though Calvin does ultimately complete his second book, by the end of the film this is framed as closure, rather than overcoming writer’s block, and thus his ailment is reduced to a plot device.

Now, as I said, I really enjoyed this film, and while I didn’t find myself deciding that I needed to remodel my life to make me more like its characters  (Apparently I’ve matured as a person since Juno came out. Who’d have thought?), but I did feel inspired to write, both by Calvin’s character, and by the screenplay, written by Zoe Kazan, (also the female lead).

So, with this resolution in mind, I came home, ready to write. But, we went to a late showing, so I had to go to bed. Then I was at work for ten hours, but after that I could write for sure. Or, you know, I could spend an hour on eBay looking for typewriters (Okay, so maybe I’m not completely over the whole “imitating what I see in films” thing). Then, I realised I hadn’t blogged for a week, for one reason or another, which was something that I really had to do. But at least I had a topic to write about, so it could be finished quickly and then I could get on with writing other things.

I think you can probably see where I’m going with this…

It took me about a week to actually manage to sit down  and write anything coherent. Given a prompt by my girlfriend (who was sick of my moaning about not being able to write) I managed to write 700 words in about an hour. The most I’d done in what feels to me like years, and what’s more, I actually felt excited about what I was writing.  This was on the 28th of October, and for the first next two nights I continued this story, managing to keep it going rather than just running into a dead end as I do often do. At about half ten on the evening of Halloween, I decided once and for all that I definitely was going to do NaNoWriMo, so instead of continuing on with this story (which I’m still really excited about), I began writing a historical story that has been floating around my head for the better part of a year. Like Calvin therefore, I am writing again.

Now, the NaNoWriMo program has a lot of faults, first and foremost, it doesn’t encourage quality writing.  Generally a token acknowledgement is made of the idea of editing once the month is finished, but it is very much quantity over quality. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Yes, I would be the first to admit that I am perhaps not putting as much effort into my dialogue and phrasing as I ordinarily would were I trying to write, but this is a first draft, and I’ve not completely given leave of my own integrity. Even browsing various communities of people doing NaNo is driving me crazy, because people are so desperate to increase their wordcount they are shoehorning nonsense into their stories.Yes I could write 50,000 words of drivel, but what would be the point?

I’ve written more words of fiction in the past week than I have done since about 2007, the year I started my undergraduate. People may rally against the idea of arbitrary targets, but as one of my friends said when he read my declaration of intent “You are definitely a glutton for punishment / need a structured and busy life!”  It is this structure that is helping me do what I enjoy, and while the pressure is in itself not the most euphoric of sensations, it’s a hell of a sight better than sitting, miserably, in front of my laptop waiting for an idea to magically appear in my head.

NaNoWriMo 2012

Apparently I’m a glutton for setting myself seemingly impossible goals. In addition to trying to read 100 books this year (which means, at an average pace throughout the year, means at least 8 books during the month of November), I’ve also decided to embark on NaNoWriMo.

For those not in the know, NaNoWriMo, or NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth,is a community based project to write a 50,000 word novel during between 1st and 30th of November, (which, because I like averages today, means 1,666 words a day). This requires the actually-quite-difficult job of disabling your internal editor, and just sitting down and writing, not caring about the extent to which what you’re writing is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

I competed once before in 2005, and while I did ‘win’, boy did I embrace the dingo’s kidneys. My novel that year was an absurdly naive attempt at allegory for the Russian Revolution, communism and the Irish Civil War, featuring Owls. That’s right. Owls. It was truly as bad as it sounds, so in an attempt to absolve myself for unleashing that aberration on the world, I’m trying again. This time, since I don’t have school or university getting in the way, I can hopefully try and come up with something less embarrassing. Hopefully.

I’ll post some more information about my story later in the month, but in the mean time, I’ve got a word counter in the sidebar, so if you’re interested, wander along to my profile, and if you’re taking part as well, please don’t hesitate to let me know, I’d love to share the suffering hear about other people’s experiences!