Category Archives: creative writing

Books I’m Reading July 2010

I’m going to begin this round-up with some books kindly lent to me by my former flat-mate and now neighbour John.

L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy

This is the book that went on to spawn the massive film and Russell Crowe machine of the same name.

I was interested in reading it, as I had read another Ellroy pulp noir, American Tabloid,  previously, and was interested in more of Ellroy’s work.  He has a unique Hard-Boiled style, often set reassuringly in a bygone era in American history, when men were men, women were fast & glamorous, and everyone smoked.

LA Confidential’s plot is similar to what emerges in the film, and it is hard to read it without picturing all the famous faces and performances in those roles now.  Basically, it is Christmas, 1951, in Los Angeles.  Bent Cops have taken 6 prisoners and beaten them senseless in their cells, and the story follows three detectives working on the case that follows.  Each has a different driving motivation, each has their own demons, and the case exposes corruption that the whole department and city was built on.

Its a great read in its own right, and the story gets propelled by a number of literary devices, some of which provide scattered glimpses into the progress of the narrative.  These include excerpts of newspaper reports on the department, juicy gossip on the various characters from Hush Hush magazine, and some short disjointed stream-of-consciousness chapters that quickly sum up a key scene or plot development.

Seeing as everyone reading this has most likely seen the film, it is worth looking at how this may have emerged as a hugely successful screenplay.  This is not immediately obvious from reading the book.  The characters are very well put together, and Ellroy has a unique gift in creating strong protagonists in morally ambiguous worlds. However, at nearly 500 pages written in sometimes inaccessible 50’s slang, and with more descriptive passages and literary devices as described above, this book must have had many redrafts to make it suitable for the silver screen.

All in all, I enjoyed American Tabloid more, and hope that this gets optioned by Hollywood and made into film by the same Producers, as it is more ambitious in scope and has even tougher characters than L.A. Confidential, which was an excellent film indeed, to be fair.

The Other Hand, by Chris Cleave

This is a very different tale from Ellroy’s hard knocks & noir chops.

In short, the story concerns two women, whose fates become intertwined during a life-threatening moment on a beach in Nigeria.  One is a Nigerian village girl, Little Bee, who is on the run from mercenaries hired by an oil company to kill everyone in her village, and the other is Sarah, the editor of a London-based fashion magazine.

Sarah first encounters Little Bee while on an expenses-paid holiday with her husband, a common enough perk for journalists and travel writers.  Little Bee is running up the beach with her sister, and they are being pursued by mercenary militia, who kill the sister in front of the tourists, and threaten to kill Little Bee until Sarah intervenes on her behalf.

From here, Little Bee flees to the UK, where she is held in a detention center while her asylum application is evaluated.  When she makes it out the door of the detention center, she begins a journey to find the only people she knows in the UK, Sarah and her husband.

The story is told from the perspective of both women, and carries a warmth to it that doesn’t judge the issues it explores, they are de facto imperfections with our world.

Well worth a read.

Brooklyn, by Colm Toíbín

This was a very interesting read, for reasons I’ll come to.

The story begins in Enniscorthy in Ireland in the 1950’s.  Eilis Lacey is a young local girl, for whom opportunities are rare.  Her older sister arranges to help her emigrate to Brooklyn, with the help of an Irish priest visiting from New York , where a new life will unfold for her.

I’m not going to get too into the plot, because I feel that that is of less interest than examining this book in the context of being an Irish novel.

There was a radio show on recently which was a live short story competition, and panelists on the programme were discussing the form of the short story in general, and opining that we Irish are masters of it, however we struggle with writing the novel.  In case it is unclear what bearing this has on a book review, the gist of the debate was that what separated the novel from the short story is as much a question of style as duration.  The short story is fundamentally about evoking a mood, or describing a moment or interaction that shines a light on the character’s whole world when examined in prose.  The novel normally employs a different set of tools to propel the plot, and normally is written from a bird’s eye view of different story arcs.

In my humble opinion, what Toíbín’s book is defined by this characteristic of Irish literature.  It reads like a series of interlinked short stories, rather than a novel.  There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, but it has a bearing on how it feels to read.  In short, there are a lot of meandering descriptive passages that are never going to make a screenplay, however there is a definite atmosphere to the book, and it is very evocative.

What was most interesting was how it captured a feeling of what it is to be Irish, mostly through the contrast Eilis finds with her Irish upbringing and how Americans live in Brooklyn.  Toíbín gives us a frightening insight into the sensibilities that are an Irish psychological operating system.  Eilis has an inner parent almost paralysing her every decision.  Every minor event is taken apart and examined over and over, by her and any of her compatriots, who then go on to pass swift judgment on how this may effect their moral standing in the eyes of the community.  What is apparent is that for an Irish young woman living abroad in the 50’s, you’re fucked of you do and fucked if you don’t.

In a personal context, this rang true for me, and the passages describing her coming to terms with another country will be evocative for anyone who has lived abroad.  It also holds up a mirror to the Irish psychology, which is riddled with so much baggage that it is amazing we manage to do anything at all.

City of The Sun, by David Levien

Man, I LOVED this book.

A 12 year old kid disappears one morning on his paper route, the ensuing investigation leads nowhere, and the case goes cold.

The parents have all but given up fourteen months later, when they finally persuade a private investigator, Frank Behr, a tough ex-cop to take the case on.

The author, David Livien is one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (he’s co-written Oceans Thirteen, Runaway Jury etc.).

In this book he’s achieved the very canny trick of having written a ‘ready to shoot’ story.  It’s practically got camera angles written in.  You’ll find it as easy to visualise as I did, and it is largely dialogue driven, with a superhero central character, and the everyday joe (the missing child’s father) who goes on the hero journey with him.

I look forward to the film!

Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, by Ernesto Che Guevara

I picked this book up because I realised that I knew nothing at all about Che Guevara.  His image is so iconic and covers so many T-shirts that it has lost all meaning, except as a fashion statment.  Most people wearing his image have no idea what he stood for, or who he was.  I certainly didn’t, he was some sort of freedom fighter and that was good enough for me.

Well, I felt I wanted to come to grips a little more with his life story, to see if I could recognise why he is so iconic.  From reading this, essentially a diary account of his fight under Fidel Castro to liberate Cuba, it is still hard to know.

It is not the most gripping read, the style is more that of a series of memos and a pretty abstract log of the fighters day-by-day struggles in the campaign.  What is interesting to note is that this innocence of writing style allows us to glean something about young Castro, and how he operated.  It was noteworthy how many ‘traitors of the revolution’ and spies kept cropping up in remote villages attempting to infiltrate the movement, who were dealt with pretty harshly by the revolutionaries.

Civil war is no good thing for any country, but all the over zealous paranoia about potential counter-revolutionary peasants indicate traits of despotism from an early age for Castro.

I sort of felt that Ché was used for all his life, and continues to be after his death.

Mao, by Jonathan Clements

Yep, afraid so.

After reading about who Che Gueveara was, it seemed this needed exploring.  It was on sale, and Mao also falls into the weird category of being massively iconic, without anybody really knowing anything about him.

Turns out that he was a manipulative psycho on a massive scale, and was the mind, body and spirit of the totalitarian regime that began life as the Chinese Communist Revolution.

What he achieved is absolutely incredible, and how he went about it defies understanding.  He played an incredibly long game, that took him from birth as a peasant farmer’s son to become ruler of the world’s most populous nation.  At what cost, you’d have to ask.

Amazing stuff, and a benchmark primer for anyone who dreams of world domination.

Inside Steve’s Brain, by Leander Kahney

And now, we’ll wrap up with some light business reading, and I’m not sure if there’s a link between Chairman Mao and Steve Jobs!

This book is subtitled ‘Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the man who saved Apple’.

It paints a portrait of the man behind the Mac, told through third party tidbits and without any actual interviews with big Steve, which would suggest that he didn’t exactly endorse it.

Instead, Kahney seems to have poured over all the aggregated articles he could find, and joined the dots, to help us see if there’s any business insights we can glean from the way Apple does things.  This bio reads more like an account of how a rock star got started, in that it is hard to see how running things in such an unorthodox way is useful for any business that is not Apple.

Jobs is portrayed as a highly-driven maverick, who single-handedly holds Apple together.  This is not great news for shareholders, as the implication is that the company cannot run without him.  That would be the core business lesson, in my opinion.  Don’t buy Apple stock, unless you’re playing golf with Steve Job’s doctor.

The book is peppered with unsubstantiated claims about employees and projects being ‘Steved’, which can take the form of being interviewed in the elevator about your role at Apple, and being summarily fired or having your project and team canned.

He comes across almost as though suffering from Asperger’s, and has many obsessive personality traits.  There are many accounts of the veiled cloak & dagger secrecy that all Apple employees developing new products adhere to, and sound business reasons for why this may be a good thing, although the reasoning seems a little like post-event justification rather than a model anyone but Apple could get away with.

Everyone knows I am a Mac whore, so it interesting to read how much of a ‘dent in the universe’ Jobs has made, and the process he’s gone about to make it happen.  I’m just not sure I’d like him if we met down in my local.

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