Wednesday, February 29, 2012

book review: Gonzo Republic Hunter S. Thompson's America by William Stephenson

"Thompson was very well read and extremely articulate in print, but he was not a philosopher or even an intellectual. He was, first and foremost a journalist, who preferred to seek the Dream and report on the quest rather than to theorize about it. He never sat down to formulate his ideas systematically in the abstract; instead, he composed everything in response to some experience."

In a way it's easy to label Hunter S. Thompson's life's work as a quest to pin down the reality of the American Dream. From the moment he received the assignment to write a book about it he was struggling but that struggle to define something that almost defies explanation became something that shaped his writing.

Add to that some of the other things he became famous for - developing Gonzo journalism where he was to a large extent the story and living the events rather than observing them impartially - along with his legendary drug use and you end up with someone who becomes a persona and even ends up merchandising that image.

But this bvook shows there was more to Thompson than just an image. Indeed he seems to have struggled to come to terms with it himself moaning about the way it pigeon-holed his ability to be seen in a different light.

His politics and beliefs were shaped by a particular view of America and what it should stand for. There was no place in his American dream for those who murdered presidents and no place for presidents who disgraced their office. His hatred of Nixon stayed with him until the end.

But he was not just interested in politics and the sub-groups that existed in their own bubbles, like the Hells Angels he first wrote about or the hippies he briefly lived alongside. He was also drawn to gambling and sports and his knowledge of those provided employment and an income at points in the second half of his career.

For those that have read any Thompson there are helpful insights here into the way he was making points with exagerrated scenes of violence or drug use. You end up appreciating more episodes that at first glance could be dismissed as fanciful.

But where perhaps this book could have gone further is to try and explain the cult of Thompson that seems to have grown even more after his death. The flame is carried high by Johnny Depp but there are others who also see his work as a beacon in the darkness of an America that has lost its way.

Perhaps more on those developments would have explained even more not just the way that Thompson saw and was shaped by America but the way he had also left his dent on the nations consciousness.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of Gonzo Republic

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those writers that likes to blur reality. Reading his books is fun but because he places himself in the story it might be entertaining but not always totally convincing.

This book aims to look at why Thompson developed the Gonzo style, what he hoped to achieve by it and helps a reader through the motivation behind the author's work.

It also makes it fairly clear from that start that the mistake is not just to take Thompson too literally but to assume that as a result everything he is saying can be dismissed as a fiction.

Insights into a troubled childhood and a writing style that emerged more by luck than judgement sets up the book for what should be an interesting second half. With Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas written and Thompson well established you know how the story ends but what happened in the intervening years should make a good read.

A review will follow on completion...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thompson anniversary

Sometimes when you are reading there can be odd coincidences that happen. I remember reading Hemingway's Spanish Civil War classic For Whom the Bell Tolls only to put the book down open a weekend paper to find an article about the war and its ongoing impact in Spanish life and politics.

The same thing happened again with the decision to read William Stephenson's book looking at Hunter S. Thompson and his life and times. The seventh anniversary of Thompson's death has fallen today and it seems like a good time to be reading all about his influences and work.

There is a great blog that still comes from Owl Farm where HST lived and wrote and you can read more about the anniversary there.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A giver again

It's with great happiness I am to be a World Book Night giver again. Last year was great fun giving out 48 copies of All Quiet on the Western Front.

I will be doing the same again this year handing out copies of A Tale of Two Cities to those that smile and ask for it.

Will update my progress and giving plans.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

book review: To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

There is a tension in this book from start to finish. A sense of expectation and dread that Steinbeck manages to heighten and lessen but always keep there to come centre stage when the moment requires.

Joseph Wayne starts the story telling his father he wants to head West and stake his land while he still can in the land rush that is spreading across California. He leaves behind three brothers who he believes will present too much competition for the land.

So already there is tension about land ownership and although this disappears when Joseph sets up his own farm there is the threat, casually dropped by the natives to the area, that the area is prone to drought. That tension grips the farmer and returns again and again to haunt him. But as long as he has the tree, which he believes is the home of the spirit of his dead father, life seems to be okay.

He invites his brothers out to stay on the land and the homestead grows to become a real family plot. Joseph even marries and fathers a child but that sense of impending doom always hovers over the land. Joseph is not the only one who reverts to home made religions to try and master the elements and even the priest comes across as a figure that walks the line between established religion and a knowledge and even partial sympathy for pagan ways.

But you always sense that the darkest fear Joseph is struggling with will come to pass and at that point this mixture of homemade religion and the influence of desperation and even madness combine to bring the book to a powerful conclusion.

What Steinbeck underlines is the relationship between man and the land and the elements. Just as a sailor can try to understand the sea but cannot tame it the farmers struggle with the lack of rain and the heat. They can prepare for the worst but they cannot stop it.

That strain puts a great deal of pressure onto the characters and they respond differently. The three brothers all have their coping mechanisms but it is the decision of Joseph, as the head of the family, that you focus on. You never feel easy reading this book because that sense of tension is always there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The gift of reading

My eldest son, who has dyslexia had his birthday and one of his presents was a book from the publishers Barrington Stoke.

I picked the book after asking people on Twitter for recommendations about reading choices for reluctant readers and the name Barrington Stoke came back from several people. I chose First Ninja by Chris Bradford as a good place to start and we sat down and my son read us all the first chapter before he went to bed last night.

I was then woken by the alarm this morning and headed downstairs to find my son on the sofa with the book just finishing the last chapter. Okay so it's a short book but it's the first he has read at that speed for a long time and he was bouncing around the place afterwards. He was full of the joy that reading and enjoying a book can give you.

He has promised to come on to the blog and share a review of the book with you later this week.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of To A God Unknown

Half way into this book and life seems to be going reasonably well for the Wayne clan headed by Joseph. He has set up the farm of his dreams, invited his brothers to join him and found love.

The threat of drought seems a long way off and life on the farm is about birth and growth. The slight blot on the horizon is the pine glade around a large moss covered rock and a stream which is a reminder of the quirks of nature, and is a cold strange place the had a place in the history of the Indians who preceded the farmers.

That sense of darkness, unknown mysteries and perhaps just an inability to control nature is always on the edge of the picture even if what is happening in the foreground seems to be happy and enjoyable.

You sense that the tension that glade and rock seem to stand for will come to a head in the second half. We shall see...

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Celebrating a Dickens anniversary

There are always anniversaries of famous authors that litter the calendar but today's, the 200th anniversary of  the birth of Charles Dickens, is one of those that has captured the imagination.

It is perhaps because his books are not only still in print and read but also because they are the staple source, along with Jane Austen, for those television executives looking for something to turn into a costume drama. Only a few weeks ago the latest incarnation of Great Expectations finished on the BBC and there are bound to me more Dickens in the future.

We had a set of his books in the house when I was growing up all in uniform dark brown covers with gold capital letters across the spine indicating the title of the book. The set put me off reading him for a long time because it was oppressive and rather intimidating. The way the books were bound in that dark uniform set seemed to squash any ideas in my mind that they would be full of wonderful characters and transport me to a different world.

Not different in the sense of overseas as much as time traveling back to a dirty, squalid and often unfair London where Dickens managed to cast a light into a world of hardship, cruelty but often love. He did it with great characters and as I discovered them, and there are still more to come as I never finished that set, I began to understand just why he was such a good writer.

So happy anniversary to Dickens and may his wonderful characters be enjoyed by many generations to come.

Monday, February 06, 2012

First Impressions of To a God Unknown

I don't know why this has just struck me because I have read Steinbeck before and particularly East of Eden when family is the main theme. But starting out on To a God Unknown my first thoughts were about Tolstoy and Tolkien.

The reason is that that sense of setting a family in historical context has a 19th century feel to it, something Tolstoy also does well, and the decision to put an emphasis on that combination of family, heritage and geographical location is the signature style of how Tolkien starts his stories.

That is where the comparisons end though because having established that Joseph Wayne is heading away from the family farm to stake his own land in California the story quickly becomes about his adventure.

He picks his land, becomes spiritually attached and following his father's death calls out the rest of his brothers to join him.

Fore Joseph the great oak tree that branches out above his newly built home is his father. The spirit of his deceased parent is something he associates with the tree and as a result you already feel the tension over the future.

More to come as I get into it but wanted to share some first impressions.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

National Libraries Day

One of my first memories is going through some doors, down a slope in my pushchair and looking through a large internal round window that was in the children's section of Blackburn library.

My mother has always loved libraries and instilled that into myself and my brother getting us library cards from a very young age and introducing us to a magical world of books.

That love has never left me and until this government was elected I always took it for granted that not only would libraries always be there but the same experiences I had would be ones I could pass onto my children.

Although I'm lucky that my local library has not been closed down when unfortunately so many others have the shadow cast by the closures and the general attitude to libraries hangs over everything. The neighbouring borough of Lewisham has closed libraries, and we have even marveled in despair at the empty shelves and abandoned books as we have peered through the windows into some of them. Although Greenwich has held relatively firm the new book acquisitions seem to have slowed and the general morale of the staff seems to be low.

Taking libraries away is one of the most ill thought out cuts that has been introduced. It deprives people of the riches of the written word, prevents children from learning and takes some of the heart out of the community.

This national libraries day perhaps more than most the horn needs to be blown to praise and save our libraries.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Book review: Ragtime by E.L Doctorow

Think of ragtime and you conjure up images of Scott Joplin and a very distinctive piano based sound that tends to stay in your head for a while.

What makes a rag so memorable is the rhythm and the pace and that bursts through on the pages here as the story ebbs and flows across the critical years of a family between the turn of the century and the first world war.

The main focus of the story is the mother, father, son and the grandfather and mother's brother who live in the house together. Father and his brother-in-law work in a bunting and fireworks factory which seems to be doing pretty well. The son is introduced mooching around in a sailor suit and so you sit back and wait for a story charting his growth to a man to emerge.

In some ways it does but this story is not about him. It is about some pretty big things ranging from the state of American race relations, the position of the oppressed working classes and the prospect of secret societies founded by the richest men determined to find the answers to conquering death.

It starts with a child being abandoned in the garden. The determination of the mother to help the child and the poor mother sets the family on a course that involves it with some weighty issues. A ragtime playing pianist courts the child's mother and life seems to be going well until he is raciallty abused by firemen. They vandalise his T-Ford and as a result he becomes determined to get retribution.

That determination leads to a terror campaign bombing firehouses and intertwines with the emerging civil rights movement, which is depicted as wanting a compliant rather than confrontational relationship with the authorities.

That story would be gripping enough but add to the mix some of the most well know figures of the time and what you get is a heady mixture of history and fictional emotion.

Houdini the great magician emerges as a tragic figure in love with his mother and desperate to find a thrill that will satisfy his longing for adventure. Freud pops over on a boat and leaves fairly sharply after finding America distasteful. But it is the obsession with mastering the afterlife that drives J.P Morgan. Henry Ford comes across as a grumpy factory boss with the riches but not the grace or brains that usually come with them.

Put it all together and you end up with a wonderful tale of a country at the start of a new century trying to come to terms with itself and dealing with the demands and desires of the people who make up the population of that great continent. Sound familiar? That's exactly why it translates as such a good read for today as well as tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Month review: January

Got to admit it's been a pretty pleasing start to the year reading wise. Haven't cycled much but the reading has been on track as a result. Not always going to be able to do that but good to kick off in January with some positive reading.

The theme was American and the authors were a mix of new and old. Good experiences all round and I'm sticking with US writers for a bit longer.

Anyway here are the books read last month:

Bagombo Snuff Box uncollected short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Falconer by John Cheever
A Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson
You & I by Padgett Powell