Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Five Books That Just Might Change Your Life - No. 3

LEGEND by David Gemmell

Legend is a fantasy story focusing on a hero far past his prime. Druss lives on a lonely mountain, a retired warrior who once walked the land for seven years killing armies of men all for the sake of finding his stolen love. When the story begins, we find Druss waiting for death, resolved to while away his days slowly going senile alone. His plans are destroyed when hes formally asked by an old general to make an appearance at Dros Delnoch, the fortress preventing an army of savages from sweeping across Druss' homeland to bring murder, death and rape. Druss being who he is decides that death is better confronted on the front lines with axe in hand taking as many souls into the afterlife with him.

Legend truely creates a story which lives up to the old saying "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". Gemmell spins a legend filled with testosterone, blood, sweat and the most kick ass, awesome quotes to ever be penned by a human. He creates a defiant, unrestricted, uncompromising hero whos very presence causes demons to tremble. Uncapable of evil or cruelty, Druss manages to whip a demoralised military made up mainly conscripts into a hard-hitting, hard-spitting, hard-fighting army of men.

my favourite moment of the novel is when Druss sits to eat with the enemy king in the presence of both armies. Druss is unshaken by the king's calm promises of quick defeat. Instead, Druss promises that if he is to die on the walls of the Dros he will be sure to take more than a few souls to accompany him on the journey to the next life. To this the king's only response is, "they will be proud to walk alongside you, Druss".

Why did I decide to put Legend up here? Well, since I read it about ten years ago, its been something I've read yearly. Druss has been a constant symbol to me, represtenting exactly how a man should be morally. The book is filled with manly clichés, but Gemmell really created something unlike any other fantasy novel. Pick it up, and you will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Five Books That Just Might Change Your Life - No.4

Fight Club - (my single-serving, throw away review)

Almost everyone has been exposed to Fight Club through the watered down Hollywood Blockbuster version of the book. Amazing as the film may be, it is nothing compared to the novel. Why? Well, films rarely live up to their written counterparts. It is one of those strange laws which just exist, and vary rarely is there an exception.

Tyler Durden, an imaginary personality our estranged narrator creates, is the answer to a question. Or, at least, Tyler is a schizophrenic’s answer to a life filled with Swedish furniture, condiments, duvets, self-improvement and other “shit we don’t need”. The real question this novel puts forth is, “how do you define yourself?” When we examine this question a multitude of others arise, all related to one another. It is all a bit philosophical, but then Tyler is a somewhat like an antithesis of Socrates for the modern age. Coming back to the question, our narrator seeks to know what he is. How do we understand this? Usually, we define ourselves by our jobs, belongings, emotional connections and a multitude of other things. It’s natural after all. We quantify our lives through our achievements.

By now you are probably rolling your eyes thinking, “I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise”. It is common knowledge, yet most of us are guilty of this way of thinking.  Tyler teaches our narrator that he is not how much money he has in the bank, not the car he drives, or his problems. In fact, none of us are the beautiful and unique snowflakes we thought we were. Recognising this is, for Tyler, the first step towards redemption. Here is where we lose cabin pressure.
“What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us. This is not the worst thing that can happen.” Tyler Durden’s words form the basis of his weird theology.  Getting God’s attention by being bad is better than getting no attention at all. God’s hate is better than his indifference. Our world view, all our possessions and material goods have made us “God’s middle children”, as Tyler puts it. Essentially, our mediocrity makes us unavailable to a relationship with God (be that a relationship of hate or love). If we fail to get God’s attention then we have no hope of redemption or salvation, “which is worse, hell or nothing?”

Is it true? Are we simply mediocre beings, unworthy of even damnation? Here is where I underwent a radical change in thought. I hear Christians, Jews and Muslims saying “God will do X” and “God wants X” But how does anyone know what God is thinking? Truth be told, we don’t. It is all meaningless assertions based on circular logic. If we are to be totally honest, we have to consider the possibility God hates us. Tyler does not see this as something bad. In order for us to be saved, we must first be caught and punished. When we hit bottom we open ourselves to salvation. Realising this, I began to wonder whether that is the point of religious non-attachment.

While contemplating the above, it was another Tyler-ism which struck home hard. “If the prodigal son had never left home the fattened calf would still be alive.” This really made me think. How does it relate to Tyler’s idea of hitting bottom? The prodigal son really knew what it was to anger God. He threw himself into all kinds of sinful acts with a zest to rival that of George Michael’s. Yet, his sinfulness brought him to his father’s attention. I consider the “fatted calf” to be Tyler’s idea of society. Our reward will be freedom from material existence, which is ultimately meaningless. It is the fatted calf awaiting the slaughter. All we have to do is cut its throat, and we cut all our ties to an empty, mediocre existence. This will be our redemption. And without redemption we are all just, as Tyler puts it, polishing the brass on the titanic... it’s all going down.

Fight Club provided me with a new way of thinking. It helped me realign my priorities. It gave a new meaning to why I practice martial arts and meditation. There are so many ways of interpreting this book, which is a large part to why I have listed it here. You take away from it what you want. I have to say though, Palahniuk created a character which answers all of humanities questions. Many of the questions we do not have the ability to ask. All I hope is that you try to see things from Tyler’s perspective; imagine stalking elk past department store windows. Imagine wearing leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. Imagine climbing up through the dripping forest canopy and breathing clean air in the middle of a city.

[This review has many imperfections, which are all proof that it was written by the honest, hard working, indigenous people of...wherever.]

Monday, 13 September 2010

Five Books That Just Might Change Your Life - No.5

I decided, for all you hardcore literary maniacs out there, to compile a list of books that just might change your life. Naturally, this is all taken from my personal experience and some of my suggestions might seem a little cliché. Even so, I will do my best to surprise you with some of my selections. As this is quite a subjective exercise I will always provide reasons for why I believe the books hold the potential to actually change the fundamental perspective of its reader.
I apologise in advance for any vagueness or ambiguity while writing this. Sometimes a personal revelation or a “tiny enlightenment” (what I like to call it) can be hard to capture in words, at least for me it can.  Just try and stay with me and somehow we’ll get through this together. As always feel free to comment, ask questions and even recommend titles!
I will go from my least favourite of the five to my favourite (number 1 in the list). This is just in order of my personal preference and how much I enjoyed reading the book.

Number 5 – 1984 by George Orwell
The most striking thing about 1984 is how Orwell immediately transports the reader into another world – a world which has a frighteningly real possibility of existence.
We are first introduced to Winston Smith in a hallway filled with the distinctive aroma of “boiled cabbage” and “old rag mats”, while the cold wind outside blows grit and dust into the eyes of pedestrians. This bleak, gray Britain is the home of Winston. From the outset, this colourless existence is what absorbs the reader. We begin to see life through Winston’s eyes. Existence is thoroughly scrubbed clean of humour, happiness and beauty with the hard bristles of The English Socialist Party, or INGSOC in “NEWSPEAK” (a created language devised by the government to limit thought through the boundaries of speech). Instead, we are left with a cruel totalitarian brutality.

Orwell succeeds in creating this vividly empty, ugly and lifeless society. His manufactured world invades your senses as you make your way through the book. In the beginning you’re overcome with the total lack of hope apparent in everything. Winston himself seems to reflect all that is wrong with his environment. He is thirty nine and already physically ill, unable to walk flights of stairs without stopping for a rest. His sickly complexion is the manifestation of a diet lacking much in the form of nutrition.

Winston, when we enter his life, is on the verge of committing a serious crime. He is about to begin a handwritten diary. Our protagonist is certain that this crime, punishable by death, will be eventually detected by the Thought Police. This determination to be disobedient indicates Winston is a man with nothing left to live for. His last act is for his soul, to cultivate something beautiful within himself and allow it to have a physical expression. He lusts after creativity and, ultimately, he sees it as something worth dying for.

I found this thrilling, because, for a good portion of the novel, I believed this was all about the indomitable will of the human spirit. No matter how we are stifled, humanity will always seek freedom. A comforting thought considering how Britain is rapidly transforming into a centralised totalitarian state.

What truly caused a profound revelation for me was realising, at the end of the novel, 1984 is not about the unconquerable human spirit, or humanities capacity to overcome suppression. Rather, it’s about the exact opposite. Orwell opened my eyes to exactly how important it is for society never to allow the kind of totalitarianism described in 1984. He did this by showing how easily people can be fooled into submission. In the end Winston is completely destroyed. His mind, body and soul are consumed by Big Brother in room 101. He comes to love his oppressive government like a child loves her parents. Not because he sees the light, but because he is crushed and pushed so far even the freedom of his thoughts are taken from him.

This changed me on so many levels. This book delves into the nature and psychology of humanity. It taught me that we all have a duty towards society. It makes me wonder if Mikhail Bakunin was right in saying “freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”.