Sunday 26 June 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - surprisingly me

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (Random House: 1971). A tour through Las Vegas fuelled by a car load of an impressive variety of drugs. Seen through the eyes of a journalist and his unstable Samoan lawyer.

I'm back after a week long hiatus. I'm sure you missed me. I certainly missed you. And this week's post comes from a hotel room in Lincoln in the middle of a wedding/christening double header of a weekend. Fast times.

And to ease me back in, the story of an altogether different weekend.

I don't mind admitting that this one scared me a little. I've had it in the back of my mind for a while as one that I wanted to read. But I was worried I wouldn't get it. This is, after all, the granddaddy of Gonzo journalism. I worried it would be just a little too off the wall for me. I worried that, frankly, it would be way too psychedelic for me. I'm not exactly (let's face it) cool. And this book is. So, odd as it sounds, I was a little concerned that it would sit there in my hands, staring back up at me screaming "come on now, who are you kidding, square?"

But, turns out, I'm more hip than I thought. (That's right, isn't it? The kids still say "hip"?)

Some of my expectations were, of course, met. There were a lot of drugs going on. The story took more than a handful of violent left turns. There were sections where I wasn't quite sure what was real and what was in the imagination of the narrator. The book and the trip it details takes you right to the edge of comprehension in places, but it never entirely leaves you behind. It's mad, and it's crazy, and it's disjointed, but it's also readable and entertaining and (in places) incredibly enlightening.

That was one of the pleasant surprises in fact. This book had some genuine "hmm, really makes you think" moments. It wasn't all just furious, fast paced drug trip. There was some thought folded in with the insanity. Quite a lot of it in fact.

All of which actually left me a little disappointed. Like finding out that the big bad wolf is a ninny. This incredibly cool book that I always thought would simply be on another plane to me was, in fact, not quite the mind bending odyssey I thought it would be. It was, instead, a bloomin good read.

And that's the conflict I'm dealing with here. The whole thing has been demystified for me a little now. I've joined the club and suddenly found out that it's not quite as exclusive as I thought it was.

Can I mark down a book for being enjoyable? Can I give it a low score just because it actually succeeded in connecting with me?


No, of course I can't. This book surprised me. I enjoyed it. I think it's a great book. Just not quite as cool as I used to think. But still, go read it.

I, however, may very well be way cooler than I gave myself credit for.

No, I don't think so either.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Dropped the ball

It finally happened. Six months of a book review every week, and I've missed one. No Sunday morning review from GBR this week.

All my fault.

I'll be back this Sunday though. I'm sure you're relieved.

Sunday 12 June 2011

History of a Pleasure Seeker - just no fun

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2011). The first in what promises to be a series of books chronicling the rise and rise of a cadish character in early 1900s Amsterdam.
I’m not sure about you, but me, I like my early twentieth century sex scenes with a bit of tongue in cheek (so to speak). I’ve written before about how I love Lucifer Box, Mark Gatiss’ rakish gigolo creation. I thought History of a Pleasure Seeker may give me a similar mix of knowing puns and far-fetched exploits. Something light and frivolous.
Instead, it seemed to take itself very seriously indeed.
Which was fine, for large sections of the book. The plot was such that it kept me hooked in parts; kept me wanting to know what was going to happen next to a number of the characters.
But it was all let down a little (a lot, if I'm honest) by the time spent on the sex scenes, and the seriousness with which they were presented. Which sounds quite prudish of me, I know. But this book was sold to me as a fun tour of early twentieth century excess, so naturally I assumed a little bit of adventure and a large spoonful of nods and winks. What I got was less Evelyn Waugh and more Mills and Boon. I’ve never actually read Mills and Boone, and I don’t intend too. You go ahead if you want to, but we may not be able to look each other in the eye afterwards. Which would be a shame.
I feel a little aggrieved that I was tricked into reading this, to be honest.
I guess it’s my own fault. I was seduced by the marketing. The book itself is one of those artsy looking, compact hard-back sorts - the kind that feel good to hold. I also read an interview with the author where he came across as an interesting guy. The kind of guy who would write a good book. Apparently, he wrote out the whole of this one long hand in a large leather notebook. That’s the kind of detail I like, makes me feel that by reading the book I’m entering some sort of modern literary set.
But none of that counts if the book isn’t fun to read. And that seemed to be the key ingredient missing here – fun. I mean, if you’re going to create a character that floats around the gregarious, highly sexed settings that Mason chooses for his protagonist, surely you have to give him a bit of wit and innuendo. Surely he needs to be ever so slightly aloof, a little other-worldy. But instead, Mason gives us far too much of his “motivation”, makes Piet (the main character) a bit too real, takes all the light heartedness out of his capers. He’s just too complex and dull to live up to the “pleasure seeker” promise of the book’s title.
Mason, for me, has simply missed the point of this sort of book. Or perhaps it’s his publisher’s fault for presenting the book the wrong way. Or perhaps it’s my fault for expecting this to be something it wasn’t. Whoever’s fault it is, this just didn’t work.
For the first time in a little while, I can hand on heart say that I did not enjoy reading this.
Largely because I can't bring myself to give a 1 GBR score.
There’s a week’s worth of reading I’ll never get back. Silver lining? At least you can go watch a Columbo instead of picking this one up. Sometimes, I wish I was you (sometimes).

Sunday 5 June 2011

The God of Small things - a (forgotten) modern classic

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Flamingo: 1997). The story of an Indian family that has grown up and apart, but comes together again to relive its past. As the pages fly by, we learn more of the landmarks and the secrets that have moulded the family, and begin to understand the whole truth of the problems they face today.
This book’s been sat on our bookshelf, quietly screaming at me for a while.
Not in a “my books speak to me” sort of a way (I’m not mental). More in an “I wish more people knew about this” sort of a way. Which is strange, because this is a Booker Prize winner. In ’97 when it won the big gong, I’m sure it was talked about a lot, and anyone with any interest in books had heard about it. I bet it graced the London commuter trains with regularity.
But ’97 is a while ago, and Booker Prize or no Booker Prize, the world moves on quickly to the next thing. I barely hear anyone talk about this book any more. But for me, this is not a book to be forgotten. For me, this book is a modern classic.
It’s pretty vague, the way books become classics. Some land on the radar and never leave. Others make a big splash and are then forgotten for a while until they slowly take on a more eternal reputation. Some stay in the undergrowth until they suddenly become appreciated years later.
However it happens, I think it should happen to this book. For me, it’s one of the few books written in the last 15 years that I think deserves to still be read in another 50, another 100, forever.
I could go on about why I think this. Really, I could go on and on. Ask me about it when you see me next and (if I’ve had a couple) I probably will. You’ll have a job shutting me up about this one when I get started.
But this is a blog, so let’s try to keep it to 600 words or less, eh?
Most importantly, The God of Small Things balances huge themes and stages with a highly personal and intimate feel. The questions it asks are vast, but the way it answers them are so personal and so charged that the connection it builds with us (you and me) is absolutely concrete. I’m not Indian. I have absolutely no experience of the situations and the people this book creates. But the way it’s written makes me sympathise with them and live the story in a manner that made me ache more than a few times.
But this book has more than one pace. Yes, it brings a tear to the eye when it wants to. But it’s also funny. It’s got wit. Even a little bit of action. It has tension, big characters, slow burning story arcs and quick win anecdotes. Its characters are complex, flawed, brilliant and human. It’s beautiful and ugly, uncomfortable and refreshing.
Yeah, I like this one quite a lot.
Books can be pretty powerful. They have the capacity to knock your socks off. Finding one that actually does is a nice reminder of why we read in the first place.
Downsides? Well, if I was to pick nits, I could. But they’d be pretty small ones. And I don’t want to give you any reason not to go out and buy this. So I won’t.
Well, nine and a half if I allowed myself to give halves. The few nits (that were left unpicked) keeping it short of a Wodehouse score.
563 words in the end. I kept it brief for you. You’re welcome.