Book review: A Separate Peace / John Knowles (1959)

No spoilers. This was a good coming-of-age novel, and short at only 200 pages. The first 50 pages is some of the best fiction I’ve read all year! The beginning contains that special summertime atmosphere I loved in the movie Box of moonlight. And the final page still gives me chills thinking about it. The middle part of the book didn’t impress me as much and could have been better. The last 50 pages or so were an improvement, and better than the middle section.

The setting is an American boarding school for teenage boys during the 1940s. Events are narrated by Gene Forrester, the insecure, conscientious, nerdy and bookish main character with a fragile identity. Gene’s best friend is Phineas/Finny, athletic, out-going, confident and popular, a natural leader, loves sports, but is academically inferior to Gene. The story is mostly about Gene and Phineas’s differences and how their friendship evolves during a memorable summer and year they will never forget.

On the surface they appear a mismatch, but they each offer something to the other which they themselves lack and maybe are jealous of. Is Gene an unreliable narrator? You could argue Phineas was never the superhero Gene imagined him to be. Some claim Gene cannot express his jealousy, because Phineas has always been kind to him, and gives Gene the friendly push, which Gene needs. This jealously and frustration is portrayed as something internal. Gene also suspects that Phineas games and rebellious attitude are an attempt to derail Gene’s studies? Gene feels torn between academic expectations, and loyalty to his friend. For much of the novel Gene seems to regard Phineas personality as full of contradictions: “who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations”. Some have indicated in other reviews that Gene was weak and secretly loathed Phineas, but I’m not sure I agree with this. This ambiguity is part of the appeal. The friendship to me is mutual. I would even go so far as to say Gene at times secretly wants to be Phineas. The book questions what friendship is. Something everyone can relate to.

Perhaps Knowles didn’t need to include so many descriptions of nature. Another weakness I found was the lack of interest in girls among the teenage boys, which is a little odd given their age. Some reviewers claim there may be a homosexual subtext in Gene and Phineas’s relationship, I seriously doubt this. It’s more about an inner- and outer- war and peace. World War II has just begun, but the Devon students are removed from its hard realities, and can therefore accept or reject it as they choose. The possibility of being drafted looms in the air. I thought the war elements are comparable to young US soldier’s dealing with feelings towards the recent Iraq/Afghanistan conflict. I think it’s an anti-war novel. At the same time, Gene is fighting a war within himself, he appears to leave behind his old and innocent ways, and create a new and more mature self. To me, the book seems to question if Gene would in fact prefer to go back to his old self.

This is a deceptively straightforward book. The actual storyline is simple, Gene looking back on his schooling 15 years earlier, but to me the atmosphere and confused adolescent emotions are the strengths of the book.

I’ve read in a critical essay that Gene the boy is too close to his own experiences to understand them properly, and Gene the man is too removed to express effectively the vitality that characterizes adolescence, but between them they succeed in dissolving the limitations of conventional first-person narration. According to the author John Knowles, man can only know himself through action; he learns about life by acting on it, not by thinking about it:

Page 1:
“school looked like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left”

The name Phineas is linked to Greek mythology. I’ve read that the Greek view of Phineas sports is a competition against oneself, a healthy struggle in which you measure your capacities without ego, fear, or hubris. This is particularly evident in the swimming scene. Phineas is also the name of an angel in the bible, and Phineas acts as a guardian angel towards Gene.

A thirty-something male narrator looking back on school life and the main theme of guilt is a little similar to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”, which I reviewed in 2010. I probably should have read “A separate peace” when I was younger. Having said that, this is the sort of novel you can easily re-read looking for clues, as the main character’s behaviour can be tough even for adults to understand.

Selling over nine million copies, it was one of the most widely read American novels after World War II. Like several other book recommendations on my blog, it’s based on John Knowles’ own experiences growing up, and comes across as a very personal debut novel. A little-known and judging from reviews inferior sequel was released in 1981 called "Peace Breaks Out".

The title “A Separate Peace” is very interesting, and open to interpretation. Is it about moulding your own separate personality within a group? Do the two main characters achieve some kind of peace? Or should we read the title as a reflection of the safe haven boarding school cut off from the violent war abroad. The title is derived from a quotation in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in which Lt. Henry states, "I had made a separate peace," with his adversaries in World War I.

If you like old-fashioned American coming-of-age tales with a memorable and introspective narrator like boyish girl Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers' warm-hearted war time novel "The Member of the Wedding" (1946), or confused Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the rye” (1951), “A Separate Peace” is for you. All three of these books in my opinion are stronger for internal monologues rather than the actual storytelling; they all explore bored adolescents trying to figure out who they are. Another classic coming-of-age novel you might want to check out is Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which is one I haven’t read.

If you enjoy reading about teenage angst and male friendship, “A Separate Peace” is a recommended read. The book gets extra points for the characters ability to stay with me afterwards. One of those books, which reveals itself in hindsight.


Further reading

Songs for your iPod

Real Life - Joan As Policewoman

(From soundtrack for movie The Cry of the Owl (2009). On youtube: “feels like an invisible hug from a spirit that you've never realised was always beside you”)


Christobel - Joan As Policewoman


Everything you want - Vertical Horizon

Documentary review: A Decade Under the Influence (2003)

A documentary which also works as an advertisement or appetizer for everything 70s. I loved the way they had many of the talented directors and actors of the time talking nostalgically and energetically in interviews clips about what the 70s movies meant to them, and how they perceived society, and so on.

An insightful feature length documentary. You can tell it was produced by the independent film channel, a bunch of lesser known indie films are mentioned or discussed. So many in fact I felt I needed to stop and write them down every 10 minutes! An example was Scorsese's Alice doesn't live here anymore (1974), which I subsequently watched, and liked.

The only thing missing for me maybe is for a distinction between what were the best and worst 70s films, here they seem to praise everything, which was different and shocking. They have directors talking about their most acclaimed work, and highlighting some key scenes from some of the movies, which is interesting.

An unusual perspective I thought was how stars from the 70s era were often not so good-looking, anybody could become a movie star. The story became the focus, looks were less important, as opposed to the contract based stars of the past. It was a time of rebellion, of questioning every accepted idea. Moviegoers were turning their backs on tired studio formulas, and wanted to watch stories they could relate to in their own lives.

I’ve watched the other 70s documentary, Easy riders Raging bulls (2003), but thought ‘A Decade Under the Influence’ had the most to offer. Although people seem to disagree, which of the two is best. I wouldn't suggest watching both, unless you are using it for educational reasons, as they cover a lot of the same ground.

If you are expecting to hear interviews of Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Steven Spielberg you will be disappointed, but a lot of other famous directors and actors are on board.

I got the feeling the piece was a little biased and trying to say there are not nearly as many talented, groundbreaking directors making their mark in the 2000s, and this I agree with to a certain extent. Although not all the stuff the 70s directors touched turned to gold, and likewise can be said about any generation. There is always good and bad, in all eras of film.

This documentary is very relatable today, I think studio executives could learn a thing or two here about giving filmmakers more creative freedom and not just thinking profit. Who knows, maybe the next audience rebellion has already started? It's hard to know if history will repeat itself and we will ever see another decade like the 70s. It would be great, if it did happen ( :

Anyway, well worth your time and enjoyable whether you are already an admirer of 70s films or a newcomer to the scene.

Readers, what are your favourite movies of the 70s ?



Songs for your iPod

(To mix it up, here are 3 songs from Scandinavia I like. Dream pop, folk, and lastly electronic. Readers, any other music from this region you can recommend?)

Masselinjen - Kliche


The Balcony - The Rumour Said Fire


Aldrig Ensam - Jonathan Johansson

Film review: Dinner with friends (2001)

This is an interesting and insightful film, but you wouldn’t have guessed it was made-for-TV judging from the cast. Looks like a project like this attracted some fairly big names. Directed by Norman Jewison, who also directed “The Hurricane” with Denzil Washington and “Moonstruck” (which I liked) from the 80s.

“Dinner with friends” is a contemporary character study of two married couples, and their struggles. The drama is set in Connecticut and New York. It’s about friendship, the two husband’s are best friends, and so are their wives. So it’s about both female and male friendship. Due to events in the plot both couples must re-evaluate their seemingly perfect relationships. The focus is less on the kids and more about the adult issues. I think it’s partly about how messy relationship problems can sometimes be. Blame is a fickle thing, nobody is perfect.

I think “Dinner with friends” was probably written with married couples in mind as the key audience, but I’m sure single people could enjoy this too. The flashbacks made the story more about the psychology of the characters, and less about guessing what’s going to happen next.

I read the 86 page Pulitzer Prize winning play by Donald Marguiles, and it’s so short most of the dialogue is retained in the film adaptation. Basically like reading a script. As the back cover of the book explains, it’s a deceptively straight-forward suburban drama.

But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a comedy, for me there were only a couple of laughs here and there. A small objection from my side would be some of the scenes were a little cliché for American families. The strength of the piece is clearly the dialogue.

Another reviewer points out author Marguiles poses several interesting questions about marriage and friendship: How do you handle growing old together? Could your marriage all fall apart? And if you knew everything about your closest friends, would you still want them around? Who has it right: those, who stick to marriage or those who break out of the rut? And how do we react when our closest friends doubt us?

According to the sleeve of the book, Donald Marguiles’s plays have been performed at major theatres across the United States and around the world. I have to say even though the book/play won the award for drama, I preferred the film. I tried reading plays before and I think at least in this case, it works best being performed and spoken by actors. Just gives it more realism and emotion.

But the book is slightly more sophisticated and quotable. The movie was "dumbed down" a bit. I recommend both film and book version. I can’t say which you should go for, they each are their own thing. I liked both!

Here are some of my favourite verbal fireworks from the book (no spoilers) :

“I met X – she made me feel good from the first time I talked to her on the phone”

“Have I ever been so wrong about someone? God, what does this say about my judgment?"

“He’s essentially a good guy waiting to happen. He just needs to find the right woman”

“When you’re single, you expend so much energy. I know. You’re always looking, always feeling scrutinized. It’s exhausting”

“I don’t know, I think she likes you. Yeah? Then I like her. Uh, you’re so deep”

“I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family....Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is just as fucked-up and fallible as the one you were born into”

“Settling down, having kids. It was just one more thing I did because it was expected of me, not because I had any real passion for it”

“How come the minute the conversation turns to us you’re struck mute?”



Readers, any thoughts? Any other plays made into films you like?

Songs for your iPod

Everybody's got to learn sometime - The Korgis

(All this talk about "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind" has got me in the mood for the soundtrack)


Come On Let's Go - Broadcast

(This was some girl's favourite song on the internet, thanks whoever you are)


Wave - Antonio Carlos Jobim

I must have heard "Wave" over a 100 times, and still love it! Jobim also contributed a song, INSENSATEZ, to one of my favourite soundtracks of the 90s: Lost Highway (1997)

You loved a scene, but the the rest of the movie sucked? Shoot!

My 7 clips are below. I hope we can start a comment thread here. Over to you bloggers in blogosphere...

The only scene I thought was funny in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) :

Watchmen (2009)

(Loved the intro scene! This movie might grow on me, but I disliked it the first time. Perhaps I need to read the graphic novel it's based on. The violence in the jail sequence in the middle of the film I found unnecessary and turned me off)

Watchmen Intro from Hanz Meier on Vimeo.

I don't see what all the hoppla was about Annie Hall (1977), only scene I found interesting and amusing was waiting in line to go to the pictures:

Mystery Men (1999)
This Tom Waits clip didn't even make the movie, a deleted scene I thought was hilarious:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The first 15 minutes (pre-credits) I think are amazing: beginning scene, train scene

The Opposite of Sex (1998)
(Loved first 10 min with sarcastic voice-over, the rest of the movie to me mediocre)

Blue Valentine (2010)
(That's a weird name clip. A few cute scenes, overall didn't like entire film)

Sorry if you love the entire movies above, they are my choices, no offense intended!

Share a particular scene you love, where you disliked the rest of the movie, in the comments! ( :

Film review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

This was one of my favourite films as a kid. So colourful and imaginative. And such a universal appeal to young and old. I recently rewatched it. You get the feeling anything could happen in this universe. This film is so different to anything else I’ve seen, and I mean that in the best of ways.

It all starts in Kansas, the memorable brown/grey colour (sepia) is like an old photograph from the past, where Dorothy grows up on a farm with her dog Toto. It’s sometimes forgotten that this was a children’s book series. L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is one of those novels which has been eclipsed in fame by the movie based on it. Perhaps because the book doesn’t include the memorable songs, and ruby slippers, for example. The book includes creatures that are left out of the movie, so book and movie are each there own thing.

I remember looking forward to watching this film once a year at Christmas on TV as a kid, and being really freaked out by the scary wicked witch with green makeup. I think I might even have believed she was a genuine real life witch! The most frightening bit to me is when the witch looks directly at the camera during a scene at her castle. That really is creepy, even today.

The effects are amazing, the tornado especially in the opening shot, how did they do that? Other effects I was impressed by were the spinning farm house in the storm, the flying witch and monkeys, the yellow brick road sets, emerald city from a distance, I could go on and on. It wasn’t easy to achieve. The spray paint gave the actor playing the tin man a lung scare, and they didn’t even tell the replacement tin man it was dangerous according to the making of.

I think the filmmakers did a great job creating an illusion of depth, endless landscapes, yellow brick road, and poppies as far as the eye can see. The opening shot of a road in Kansas reaching into the distance reminds me of scenes in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home (1999). Director Zhang Yimou may also have borrowed for his film the excellent idea of a non-colour intro, followed by colourful scenes. The winter scene below is comparable to the image above of Emerald city in the distance. Even the title "The Road home" smells of a homage to the 1939 movie.

I never really perceived The Wizard of Oz as a musical, but it actually is. According to the dvd, Shirley Temple was considered for the role of Dorothy, but Judy Garland got the part, because she was the better singer. IMDB in their FAQ strangely enough disagree with this, and say Judy Garland was always first choice.

It seems hard to believe now, but the song “over the rainbow” was originally cut by executives, as they thought it slowed down the film. They reckoned it was undignified to have a star sing in a farm yard. Luckily they reconsidered.

The director Victor Fleming said he made the film because he wanted his two little girls to see a picture “that searched for beauty, decency, sweetness and love in the world”.

No wonder David Lynch paid homage to the movie in "Wild of heart" (1990). Lynch's films are full of dreams, he has mentioned "The Wizard Of Oz" is one of his favourites.

It’s interesting the scare crow, the tin man and the lion each have a flaw, they wish to redeem. The only thing Dorothy wants is to go home, but does this imply she is perfect without flaws? Perhaps it is wrong of me to read anything too deep into this children’s adventure. Some have also questioned Dorothy’s desire to go home, why would she want to leave such a magical place, where she has made new friends? The timeless message of the film is probably captured in the song “over the rainbow”.

This is more than a movie, it’s part of pop culture. Why don’t they make films like this anymore? I don’t think I’m far off, if I call this one of the greatest achievements in film history. A must-watch.

Any thoughts, readers?



Songs for your iPod

Wickerman - Pulp

(Jarvis Cocker from Pulp sure knows how to write lyrics. I especially like his talk-singing, like in this track. He'd probably make a great storyteller for audio books?)


Babies - Pulp


David's Last Summer - Pulp


Slush - Jarvis Cocker

(I thought I better recommend a song from his solo career)

Readers, which albums or songs would you recommend by Pulp?

Film review: Alive (1993)

No spoilers in this review. This is my third lifetime viewing of this film. I love survival in the wild stories, and to me this is one of the best. I think it demands to be seen on a big screen, or at least a large TV.

Based on an event in 1972, a south American rugby team crosses the Andies to play a game in Chile. But unexpected things occur. It's also a book by Piers Paul Read.

It strikes me as very realistic, the situation is desperate, the atmosphere is so cold that I found myself trembling and shivering along with the characters.

Some scenes are a little difficult to watch, not exactly what you’d call family entertainment, but borderline horror movie stuff. This is one of the reasons some people dislike this film or label it unpleasant based on a few scenes in the middle of the film.

The special effects at the beginning are very well-done for 1993, they didn’t have the advanced CGI technology that you use today. I noticed a number of these kind of films are B-films, but this is an A-film with a budget of $32 million.

It helps they are a group, they can keep each other active by giving moral support. Group mentality resembles the rugby team with a leader taking charge. Desperate situations like these really separate the strong from the weak, the men from the boys, the rational from irrational, and so on.

It stars one of my favourite actors Ethan Hawke, but none of the actors really dominate, it’s a group story with an ensemble cast.

You should really avoid reading lots of reviews before watching this film, most of them contain spoilers unfortunately. Once you’ve seen this movie, I doubt you will ever forget it, powerful and moving. The kind of story that stays with you. It gives you that first person experience, as if you are there with them in the snow trying to survive. As another reviewer writes: “the movie does a good job of raising the "What would you do?" issues”.

Readers, any thoughts ?




Book review: A Confederacy of Dunces / John Kennedy Toole (1980)

Probably the funniest and most unusual novel I’ve ever come across. A light and entertaining read, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. People seem to either love or hate this book. To me it’s a modern classic. I guess anytime you have humour as a key ingredient, then the story will divide audiences.

Our hero is neurotic, anti-social, obese outsider Ignatius Reilly, he still at the age of 30 lives with his widowed mother. Ignatius is a well-educated wannabe writer, but unable to find a job due to his rudeness and attitude. The story is about his adventures in job hunting and holding on to employment, and the story is also about events that happen at a bar called Night of Joy, which the locals visit.

Ignatius is revolting, but pitiful enough that I cared about him. The author makes you hope that he will succeed in life in spite of his outrageous, but somewhat idealistic behaviour. Some may even identify with his mother's plight, as he really is a handful for her, with no idea how to get along with people. One of the jobs Ignatius attempts is as a file clerk at Levy Pants. Another job he tries is as a hot dog salesman. In both cases creating funny and awkward moments.

The humour is the best thing about this book, and I found myself looking forward to the next amusing situations. For example, one of the funnier moments is when a cop discovers the cream inside the doughnuts has already been sucked out by the greedy main character!

The real life story of John Kennedy Toole is a sad one. He was an English teacher who was never recognized or appreciated for his writing during his lifetime. Toole took his own life. But his mother fought for years trying to get his book published, and finally 11 years after his suicide did his book hit the stores.

The Pulitzer prize winning novel is considered an important work of modern Southern literature, the events take place mostly in New Orleans, so its also a description of the atmosphere in the South during the early 1960s. The black oppressed community are unhappy with the way they are treated, Ignatius is content with his rebellious outsider position, while the coloured character we get to know is looking for change. Having said this, you might think the novel is dated being written in the 60s, but I think it holds up surprisingly well and comes across as very fresh. This I think is mainly due to Toole's memorable use of language.

The author appears to make fun of the police force in a similar way that Alfred Hitchcock used to expose them as incompetent. But then again everyone seems to be given the full treatment and made a satirical joke of, which is part of the book’s charm.

I think eccentric people with a university degree who have had difficulty finding work might relate to the main character’s troubles. Especially in this time of financial crisis where there are cutbacks and fewer jobs to be had. Overweight people will probably also be able to identify with Ignatius’s compulsive eating, which he does to sooth his anxiety.

If you like this, I recommend the comics by Harvey Pekar, he also worked as a file clerk in the US, the humour and atmosphere is a little similar, I think. Ignatius’s bizarre behaviour can in my opinion also be compared to “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas” from the 70s. The hat Ignatius wears could be a reference to Holden Caufield’s in “The Catcher in the Rye”, and probably is also a symbol of rebellious behaviour, which Ignatius refuses to take off during a job interview. Other reviewers point out Ignatius is like a fat and intelligent version of Mr. Bean. He is like a cartoon character, but walking around in the real world.

The novel is 400 pages. I would highly recommend the first 200 pages. The remainder of the book had a few golden moments of humour, but I found it to be a little unnecessary. I felt like I had heard what he had to say in the first half of the book. I think the book deserves an unorthodox rating, I give it 9/10 for the first half, 5/10 for the last half. I guess if you add these up it makes a 7/10.

Probably not a book I would suggest reading in one or two sittings, instead the kind of novel you might pick up now and again and read a chapter from.

I like this book for the humour and bizarre characters, Ignatius, Ignatius’s pen friend Myrna Minkoff from college, and old-timer Mrs Trixie to me are highlights.

One of the great comedies in fiction. Like nothing I’ve ever read before, highly original. Is Ignatius Reilly a genius or a madman? ( :

The title refers to a quote from Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Songs for your iPod

Superstition - Steve Wonder


Possession - Sarah McLachlan


Hands Around My Throat - Death In Vegas


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