Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Great Gatsby: F Scott Fitzgerald

A short novel like The Moon and Sixpence -- see below -- written at almost the same time, and also about obsessive love and the destruction it causes. More amusing than Somerset Maugham, though, and elegantly assembled, as neat and complete as a theorem.
If books were people this would be '20s flapper, fresh, quirky, flip, light-footed, beautiful. I found this book in a mission school library in the middle of Cote d'ivoire, read it by the light of a generator with the grasshoppers singing all around, finished it, went back to the beginning and read it again. A perfect dance partner of a book.

The moon and sixpence: W Somerset Maugham

A novel based loosely on the life Paul Gauguin: frustrated city type forsakes everything so that he can give expression, through art, to what is burning inside him. Ends up in squalor in Tahiti, finally painting the stuff he wants. A novel about the compulsion to create art and (when this compulsion is allowed to be Lord) how it both creates and destroys. I think the 'moon and sixpence' reference is to someone chasing the moon in the sky and missing the sixpence at his feet.

Friday, July 4, 2008

How to write a damn good novel: James N Frey

Not the least of my many paranoias and hangups is a suspicion of people who make money out of coaching writers rather than writing themselves.

I have to put that aside in this case. This is a simple book that talks about the main elements of a good novel. It is the nearest legal equivalent to gas-and-air that I have found when it comes to soothing the birth-pains. I love its complete lack of pretension. It's sympathetic and funny. I don't have any friends who are successful novelists, but this book more than any other helps fill that gap. I owe this book so much.
PS: This James N Frey is not the James Frey of recent literary scandal.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The general next to God: Richard Collier

I was given this book by a Salvationist prior to interviewing a new Salvation Army General in Singapore, as you do. It's a history of the Salvation Army and its founder, General William Booth, after whom a street in my home-town was named.

Utterly, totally captivating with its stories of this pioneering denomination that sought out the poorest 10% in the UK and around the world.

This was the gospel setting the news agenda. Who popularized safety matches? The Salvation Army. Why is the legal age of consent in the UK and in many countries around the world set at 16? Because the Salvation Army, allied with a leading journalist, campaigned for it. MPs, who used child prostitutes, were in uproar. There were riots, bricks, violence, jail sentences against the campaigners. Still they fought -- laughed at, derided, causing major civil disturbances, criticized by the great and the good as well as the indolent and the bad.

Here's the story of the Salvationist leader who always used to march carrying a dead rat: he reasoned that it was better to carry the rats that were thrown at him rather than cast them aside to be hurled at him again. What a book.