The cultured teenager

the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes

Category Archives: literature

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Modern crime fiction is often cast off as being, for one reason or another, dross, it is the scummy underbelly of literature, read by lonely men on the train to work. Predictable for the first half, some ‘twists’ which aren’t as clever as they’d like to think, a moderately acceptable style of writing and usually based around around a Scottish police officer with a drinking problem, so unsurprisingly are never highly praised or generously given awards, because, well, they don’t deserve them. However, in my opinion, modern crime fiction is great, because it’s either really crap or exceptionally good, and usually all the latter takes is an ingenious, creative novelist willing to be striking and emigrate from the crime fiction mould. Yep, that’s all it takes. That shopping list of qualities is basically based on Cormac McCarthy, because, as evident from No Country For Old Men, he is one of the greatest modern American crime authors. He is, according to my incredibly irrelevant opinions, one of the best American Novelists ever in any context anyway, No Country … is now one of a number of his novels which I truly consider to be brilliant literature.

Men in great crime novels are always poor decision makers, and Llewellyn Moss is a prime example of this. I doubt I am not the only person who would avoid taking a large case of money I found in the centre of what was clearly a large drug deal gone drastically wrong, day old clots resting between the bundles of notes, burly Mexicans with holes through their foreheads laying next to it and a hell of a lot of evidence to suggest that someone who isn’t exactly Elmo would go a long way to retain his $2,000,000. This plot perfectly leads the book into becoming gritty and noir, somehow making Texas seem like even more of a dingy hellhole (apologies to all in Texas). The understated and integrated nature of the narrative, speech and imagery also further builds this brilliantly dark portrait of American rage and destruction, showing the chilling weakness and stupidity of man, and immense evil that lurks in the backdrop. If there is a character who has redeemable qualities then don’t expect them to live very long, because McCarthy makes it vigorously clear that in the society of this narrative, and a lot of societies generally, in America and elsewhere, brutality and lack of fear is what is ultimately victorious. A serious, dramatic, bloody book which is an utterly enthralling read, if not exactly a quick, lay back in your deckchair sort of book. Read it at home with plenty of time on your hands, because, for once this isn’t throw-away crime or western fiction but effortlessly deep and consuming. Please read and enjoy, regards πŸ™‚

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Set in 1997, in Swansea, Submarine tells the story of ordinary teenager Oliver Tate. Any teenage boy, myself included, will relate to his comical and over-sexual narration, brilliantly sculpted by Dunthorne who makes Oliver a likeable and realistically awkward character and a superb narrator. His over complicated and ultra-descriptive narrative is itself at many times hilarious, his dairy entries a particular highlight in the book. The story itself is is rather normal and mundane, yet is still effortlessly entertaining through Oliver’s narration and the ridiculous conclusions which he jumps to; such as his theories that his mother’s Capoeira teacher indulges in equine sexual fantasies and his judgement that the man living at number 16 is a pansexual. Dunthorne however sidesteps the possibility of this purely being a teenager and some comic sexual actions, and he instead moves through an often bleak and always witty narrative without being as crass and crude as many teenage comedy novels are. Oliver is intelligent and self-assured however at times he is still incredibly human and, well, idiotic and incredulous.

This is, when push comes to shove, a coming-of-age story, although Oliver’s underlying innocence is prevalent throughout his well-meaning narrative. He often mistakes his knowledgeable nature for being experienced, constantly using verbose language yet not thinking enough to realise that it is best to be there for your girlfriend when her mum is diagnosed with a brain tumour. The narrative is perfectly pitched by Dunthorne and Oliver Tate is likeable even if he is precocious, Dunthorne mocking the manners and mindset of 15 year old boys trying to fit in, yet trying to be better than everyone-else simultaneously. Dunthorne extracts great comedy from Oliver’s over-analytical views, such as this paragraph. Some euphemisms make you sound like Martin Clove, a boy who, for psychological reasons, doesn’t have to use the communal showers after rugby. When we ask Martin what is wrong with his wang, he gets defensive and refers to it as his little man. This implies a kind of distant seemingly friendly relationship between him and his penis.

Last year Dunthorne’s book was turned into a film by Richard Ayoade, which is a great interpretation, although, as is often the case I prefer the book. This an excellent, incredibly easy read and a great one for this summer. Regards πŸ™‚

Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson

It is rare that I would read a travelogue. For an 18 year old they are, for the most part, not that interesting. They are list of observations and facts rather than some elaborate, intense story which has the sole purpose in gaining and then keeping your attention for the entirety of the novel. Equally, when I read non-fiction it is far more likely to be with a specific purpose in mind rather than merely for a few hours entertainment; I am interested in History and enjoy History books but those books are read as much through educational purposes as through interest. It would also be rare for me read about a topic which I know well. The topic in question is the United Kingdom, the nation in which I live. I know it as well as most, well, at least that is what I like to think, but although I know lots of generalised information about the country, a country is not an entity in itself, but is instead a collection of places and people within specific boundaries. This is clearly Bryson’s point; a travelogue shouldn’t be a list or a simple account of what you can see where and lists of nice restaurants, but should be an experienced account of an ordinary person who could be doing whatever they want and chooses to explore.

Bryson, an already very successful writer and journalist, decided to explore this glorious and cynical nation before leaving it to voyage back to his American homeland. This anecdotal narrative highlights what is brilliant and what is dreadful about Britain, constantly entertaining the reader, making the story less of a travelogue and more of a journey of discovery, the British reader constantly empathising with his descriptions of the nations failings, and laughing at his witty, descriptive narrative. He summarises British culture and the British mindset easier than any biased Brit could possibly do, mocking our enjoyment in the dull, our witty humour and love of ridiculously named places, such as Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. “Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities – asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks in Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only really needed one – as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer.” It is clear throughout the book that he is often taking the piss out Britain, but simultaneously is taking the piss out of himself and us Brits, but I don’t care because all of his observations and mockeries are completely true and justified. It makes me glad I’m not French. I am British and we have character and a sense of humour. The book, however, is not just an analysis of British convention but just as much of Bryson and his life in Britain and his connection with the country. This is a great, easy read, particularly as non-fiction goes, and is a particularly useful read for any wannabe writers. Bryson’s writing style is second-to-none, and since reading the book is something I have only idolised. Its a great book, an easy summer read, and is particularly witty when you are looking at it from the same British viewpoint as myself. I hope you enjoy it, regards πŸ™‚

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

Tom lives in a society which is virtually the same to our own, except for the significant population of superheroes within society. Tom isn’t a superhero, but, as you can guess from the title, all of his friends are superheroes. Apart from the notion of superheroes themselves, this isn’t a book about sci-fi or about newspaper journalists who jump into a phone-box and gain superhuman strength, but is about humanity and life in general. These superheroes are not hiding what makes them special; rather, they treat themselves and are often treated as though they are not special at all. Tom describes how in Toronto there are 249 superheroes, “none of whom have secret identities”, and it is through this manner that Kaufman tells a story about the human condition.

Not only is Tom friends with superheroes, but is in a relationship with one: The Perfectionist. She has the ability to put things into order with the power of the mind, which isn’t a stereotypical superpower, as are many of the powers within the novel, as they mostly seem to be extensions of human personality. The Perfectionist however is unaware of the existence of Tom, because on their wedding day, her ex-boyfriend, Hypno, used his power in order make Tom invisible to The Perfectionist. As you can tell, its slightly odd and complex, but the story involves Tom flying to Vancouver in order to make her see him before she finally moves on, 6 months after she was hypnotized.

Kaufman also brings up the question of whether or not superhuman powers are a gift or not. The Sloth, The Projectionist, The Battery and The Amphibian are some of the range of superheroes who are thrown in to add more quirk and laughs into the novel. The ‘heroes’ are shown as metaphors for ourselves and the human condition cleverly by Kaufman, with numerous of my friends mirroring The Sloth. Tom however is the real hero, and unsurprisingly triumphs in a world of superhuman talents, using the qualities many of us take for granted. Its an enjoyable book, and just an hours read, so there is no excuse not to read it. Regards πŸ™‚

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I can safely say, this is probably one of my favourite books. It’s cleverly written, has a lucid narrative, but also contrasts an embedded bleakness with many aspects of a thriller. It was through ‘Brighton Rock’ that Graham Greene found major commercial success, written in 1938, and by 1947 had been moved to the silver screen for John Boulting’s adaptation, which was itself brilliant, namely for Richard Attenborough’s ferocity as Pinkie Brown.

Pinkie Brown is the ultimate literary anti-hero, such that his malevolence and anguish still resonates with modern audiences and creates an utter fascination through the entirety of the novel. I am 17. Pinkie Brown is also 17. There is a slight contrast between us, lifestyle, time period, oh and I’m not a sinister power-hungry gangster, desperate to make not only cash, but a name for himself and a menacing reputation. One sentence in and Greene has already instilled the tone of the whole novel; “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”. The novel is structured around Pinkie’s attempts to cover up Hale’s murder, but these are somewhat thwarted by Ida Arnold, whom had met Fred hale in his last hours. Through Pinkie’s efforts to close the case on his gang’s and his own personal connection to the death, his story becomes intertwined with that of a young waitress, Rose. It is Ida’s purpose to stop Rose fulfilling her terrible, ominous fate; Greene shows Ida in complete contrast to Pinkie and Rose as a loud, secularist femme-fatale, allergic to the religious overtones and the images of redemption running parallel to Pinkie and Rose’s tainted relationship. Relationship isn’t the right word, it is more like a prison, or maybe purgatory. The only thing bleaker than Brighton and the gangster culture that inhabits it, is Pinkie and his aggressive, twisted attitude which devours all emotion he bears witness to.

Few people reach the disturbing evil that is enmeshed within Pinkie Brown and gang culture, but it is a story which still resonates, particular with youth culture, with this cultural boom of the 30’s foreshadowing those in the later 20th century, whether it be Mod, Punk or Urban culture. There will always be a dark undercurrent within society, but that makes it all the more interesting to me and, I expect, to those who read this bleak, brilliant novel. A consuming, outstanding read which I would highly recommend. Regards πŸ™‚

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This is going to be a relatively short post, because, well, I don’t want to start ranting about my dislike of this book. Its feminist, and no, of course I support sexual equality, but feminists often, particularly in this case, feel that explicit images and references are appropriate, even when they are obviously there for shock effect. This is clever in parts and repulsive in others making it a difficult book to read, I liked some of the stories and truly hated others which thought it apt describe necrophilia. If a man wrote about that it would be wrong, but this is fine because its feminist. Seriously, it doesn’t add up. Anyway, its rather thought provoking, so its worth a read, even if you, similarly to me, decide that you would rather read something slightly less vulgar. Regards πŸ™‚

‘Great’ is the right word

I am embarking upon reading more novels in the way of classics, as teachers often bark at you to do. I am doing this by my own choice, though it is, more or less, preparation for what I will be engulfed by as I enter a new school year. I have therefore read ‘The Great Gatsby’, an American Classic which I think me and my fellow students will be studying, and much to my relief, I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Ernest Hemingway, a writer of American Classics himself, once said, ‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know’. Very true. This novel completely confounds this truth, the intellectuals never appearing happy, though they live in an utterly hedonistic lifestyle, however this is only enjoyed by the rather less intelligent guests. Although Gatsby is aΒ  likeable character, as shown through Nick Carraway’s narration, his life and the lives of those around him are corrupted with greed and incredibly sad and unfulfilled. Carraway is obviously sympathetic to Gatsby, who he befriends, and is cleverly used to narrate by Fitzgerald, constantly moving between his own traditional society and the indulgent extravagance of Gatsby; Fitzgerald here showing the difference between western and eastern values in America at this period of time. Gatsby lives in what many would see as a perfect world, nothing but hedonism, however he is dissatisfied by this, as it was all an attempt to get closer to Daisy Buchanan, whom he had desperately loved for numerous years. Nick is then used to connect the pair, and arrange a meeting between, submerging Carraway into their affairs, which soon becomes a rekindled affair. Not only is Gatsby dissatisfied by his life but as is Daisy, in a loveless relationship with Tom, whom is also having a secret affair. Unsurprisingly this does not lead to a happy ending, not that I will spoil it for you if you are going to read the novel. Gatsby is not the hedonistic, millionaire playboy we expect, merely in love, however his emotions are based on rotten values, and the ending could be therefore seen as retribution against these values.

I really enjoyed this book, and am more than happy to be studying, however it doesn’t leave me begging for more. Its definitely worth reading and definitely worth appreciating so read if it sounds your cup of earl grey. Regards πŸ™‚

10 years later

Unfortunately for you lot, tonight I will be embarking on the arduous journey to France for my summer hols, so therefore I’m going to cram quite a lot of different stuff into this post. As the name suggests, this will be a cultural leap back 10 years, giving an example of may favourite forms of culture which were born in the year of 2001.

Film- Monsters Inc. : This choice brings me back to my child at heart; in 2001 I was seven and of what I remember of the time, I remember fondly, particularly my love of Pixar films. When I was smaller my favourite, unsurprisingly, was Toy Story, however as an elder of the children, my film favourites have undergone numerous transformations, with ‘Monsters Inc.’ now most-loved animated film. You will have watched it and know what it’s about so rather than telling the narrative I will focus on why I still love to watch it, being the cool teenager I am. If films are designed to entertain then there can be no better animated film; it’s fast-paced, witty and has numerous loveable and slightly bizarre characters, which is expected considering the strange scenario in which the film is set. Not only do I find it quite witty how the writers satirize modern working life, particularly through Mike and Sulley, but also find the industrial nature of scaring children an unusual setting for a children’s film, causing humanity to ooze from the adventure which ensues through Sulley’s attachment to Boo. My favourite character though is Randall, as one weird recurring theme in Pixar films is that they have excellent and evil villains, who many would assume quite scary for small children, examples being, Hopper in ‘A Bug’s Life’, Sid in ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Syndrome’ in ‘The Incredibles’ to name a few. This film is adorable, witty and modest, but one of my favourite parts is the excellent casting, particularly Billy Crystal’s Mike who I would argue as being one of best animated characters ever.

Training Day: This film is intense. It is what earlier police drama/action films such as ‘The French Connection’ ought to have been. Not an incredibly clever film at first look but it must be somewhat clever in order to give a film this level of panache and verve, keeping it fresh and effortlessly stylish. It is this therefore which makes it surprisingly watchable and timeless, not that it is a film that will be ever-remembered but keeps to the traditional good cop/bad cop format and could be therefore be watched in many years to come. This format is only as tense and lucid as it is though because of star turns from Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in the lead roles, Hawke perfectly cast to effortlessly show the transformation from rabbit-in-the-headlights to a hardened individual, making it compelling and realistic. Washington compliments this with his gritty, morally confused performance, asking both the audience and Hawke whether his techniques are ones of selfish gain or in order to get results. Yes, the ending is cliched and the bizarre coincidence that could only happen in a film, but this takes nothing from the tense script, the terrific performances and what overall is an intelligent and intense film.

Literature- The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre: As I mentioned I am leaving for holiday later today, and am therefore packing, but in my eyes clothes packing isn’t the most important thing, rather the ‘summer read’ I’ll take for when I’m sat in a deck chair somewhere in central France. One the books I will be taking this year will be ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ if I can find it, Le Carre giving his take on the cold war; however for this novel he moves his focus to Northern Kenya and Sudan, bringing up the dangers of humanitarian aid. Many in damaged countries deserve it but the savages who caused the initial problems have a way of disruption to humanitarian efforts, not surprising really considering how little humanity these people have. I am saying this because the novel is from the view of First Secretary at the High Commission, Justin who in the opening pages has to identify the severed head of his wife, who had been butchered in Northern Kenya. This a harsh and slow novel, dragging along the story of Justin’s journey for answers taking him back to Britain but also, Le Carre paints an image of Africa and the bleeding of society that walks parallel to it. Realistic, sharp, but also beautifully harrowing literature.

Music- White Blood Cells by The White Stripes: Ten years old yet hasn’t aged. It sounds like it should be a debut album, fresh vibrant and with the a buzzing naivety that culminates in their own, slightly cheery version of garage rock. It was this album that started to establish the White Stripes name, proving themselves to be an excellent proto-rocker duo, a superb mix of Meg White’s simple and thudding drumming, and the intense blues style guitar from Jack White. However, blues guitar is far more simple than the superb riffs that help to sculpt the album. On some levels, there is a superb economy to the music, giving no more than is needed giving it a simplicity and striking sound, that is the musical meat-and-two-veg meal. One of the best examples of this is the punchy ‘Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground’, and although at times it is no more than a riff, it still gives thrills, as does my favourite track, ‘Fell in love with a girl’, which reminds me of early Beatles, keeping up the momentum and infectious riff. You will like this album; well, you ought to like this album. This is ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’, enjoy the also brilliant video.Β 

I could write more but I will just leave it that. I will spend my holiday working at what to write about next and hopefully will write something enjoyable for you. I hope you check out what you’ve read about, assuming you read it, because if you do, you will definitely enjoy it. Please comment about anything, regards πŸ™‚Β  Β  Β 

Man and boy

One of my favourite films of all time is ‘No Country For Old Men’, but not only is it is great watch but also a terrific book. This led to me explore other books by the author, Cormac McCarthy, which caused me to read ‘The Road’; I had already known of its pedigree, as a book constantly mentioned on all literary websites, given multiple awards and therefore made it seem obvious that it would be a good book. However now I have read it, it would seem almost offensive to call it ‘good’. It is a beautifully harrowing story, showing the transformation of civilization and emotions when plunged into this frighteningly realistic, post-apocalyptic future. McCarthy paints a stunning image of the barren landscape and America’s future; however, drained of all colour and vibrancy, leaving only vivid memories of any natural life and humanity. The few humans that do exist are still drained of all life and vitality, an “ashen effigy” of their former selves walking through the dense of soot and snow in search of warmth.

Almost everyone is dead, ironically giving a certain humanity to the novel, and particularly to the man and his attempts to shelter his son. The whole way through the book, The Man and The Boy are unnamed, highlighting how nothing is important, not even names, in this hopeless, uncivilized world except for survival. Survival is therefore paramount to the emotions and actions by The Man, particularly where he shoots a barbaric figure trying to murder his son; it is harrowing and disturbing how such vulgar and grotesque actions become commonplace, especially cannibalism. McCarthy plods through the tense yet slow narrative, constantly increasing the fear and desperation running through the Man’s veins, not just his fear of starvation, rape and cannibalism, but he is also terrified for his son, which was further increased by being left by his wife, due to her immense fear of being attacked and preyed upon. The child is used by McCarthy to draw parallels with the reader, as the unaware and naive boy asks constant questions, the reader is intrigued by the same questions as we have the same level of ambiguity towards the apocalypse.

This makes me appreciate the humility and humanity built into modern society, rather than the barbaric nature of the characters here; parallels can be drawn with the recent London riots, as this novel highlights the break-down of society and the actions that come with it. Destructive actions come from anger and frustration, but also from fear, where the rioting is making a statement it shows the barbaric nature within people, however McCarthy shows the opposite being that the Man has every reason to be monstrousΒ  and destructive yet the humanity of his relationship with his son stops him from doing that. Please read this brutally astonishing masterpiece. Regards πŸ™‚