Thursday, 5 January 2017

Best Minds of My Generation, by Allen Ginsberg

Oh, I've been so bad with reviews lately... I've been very busy teaching and editing a few new books, and so any reading for pleasure has taken a bit of a backseat.

I did, however, find time to review Allen Ginsberg's Best Minds of My Generation for Beatdom literary journal. It's a much longer review than I normally write because it was such a brilliant book.

I'm going on holiday to Sri Lanka on Saturday and will bring my Kindle along to catch up on some reading for fun. I should have plenty of reviews to post here very soon.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Spy, by Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho’s latest novel could perhaps as justifiably be called a work of creative non-fiction, albeit it’s a very creative sort of non-fiction. In The Spy, he details the life of Mata Hari, a woman who was executed as a spy. Coelho bases his novel upon copious amounts of research into the woman’s life, based upon recently released information from MI5 and other agencies.

His conclusion is that Mata Hari was not, in fact, a spy. This does not mean that she is not a fascinating character with a place in history, however. Coelho paints a vivid picture of her life as she travels from her homeland – where she was born Margaretha Zelle – to Indonesia to France and Germany. It begins with her execution and moves from there, told from the perspective of her final letter.

It seems that the author wishes to portray his subject as some sort of feminist hero – a woman who was not a spy, but rather a liberated woman who was executed for daring to live a life outside of the control of men. Perhaps that was true, but what I got from this book was not a great deal of sympathy for its protagonist. Instead, I found her annoying, vain, and self-obsessed.

I like that Coelho didn’t idolize her, though. She comes across as pitiful. She is a prostitute who whores herself because she likes expensive things. She dances naked because she wants people to think she is beautiful. She name drops the famous people she encountered, yet thinks herself entirely above them. She is in many ways quite pathetic, and yet that makes her very human. She was most likely not a spy, and instead just a normal woman whose life was shattered and destroyed.

The book is very short and I finished it in just three sittings. I’m not sure I would’ve bothered if it was much longer. Coelho’s story is not hugely interesting, in spite of its fascinating subject matter. It leaves too much unanswered, and yet says so much that isn’t of any importance.  

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Currently Reading

I'm currently reading or about to read:

  • Neil Randall's Tales of Ordinary Sadness
  • Allen Ginsberg (ed. Bill Morgan)'s Best Minds of my Generation
  • Martin Torgoff's Bop Apocalypse 
  • Camilla Flojas's Zombies, Migrants, and Queers
  • Marvin Cohen's Others, Including Morstive Sternbump

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Half a World Away, by Alistair McGuinness

In Half a World Away: Jungle Tribes, African Guides, and a Donkey Called Angus, Alistair McGuinness invites his readers along for an unexpected traipse around the world with him and his wife, Fran. Following the closure of his car manufacturing plant in Luton, he is given a redundancy package, which he and Fran choose to spend travelling the world with their ultimate destination being a new life in Australia.

What follows is a trip around part of South America, a vast swath of Africa, and eventually to Australia, with a little excursion to Fiji in the middle. Alistair and Fran seem to be magnets for odd adventures, with Alistair often finding a way to get drunk or otherwise find trouble. He documents the comical characters they meet along the way, as well as the breathtaking scenery.

McGuinness is, for the most part, a very talented and engaging travel writer. His descriptions of the places he visited are wonderful. (I've been to many of them and his perceptions rather match my own.) However, I was suggest that he find a better editor. The narrative could be tightened somewhat to element weaker elements and thereby create a far stronger book. McGuinness is on his best form when describing amazing places and strange people, but the emotional background and the seemingly amusing personal exploits (somewhere between Bill Bryson and Hunter S. Thompson) are not so well-handled.

One thing that caught my attention throughout the book, and which rather depressed me, was something I've noticed as a fellow world-traveller. Everywhere Alistair and Fran go, they are surrounded by tourists, con-men, and the destructive impact of tourism. While tourism brings some measure of prosperity to far-flung parts of the globe, and brings wisdom and experience to those who travel, it also brings with it a lot of negative results. It's something I've struggled with on my own journeys, and which stuck with me while reading about Alistair and Fran's travels. They are occasionally in a position to look out over a marvelous view or otherwise revel in the glory of nature... and yet there's always a tour group nearby waiting to charge in and take a million photos. Nothing is untouched or unspoiled.

Despite that negativity, the book itself was quite enjoyable. If you want a taste of travel in South America or Africa, I recommend you check it out. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A Great Place to Have a War, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Laos is one of my favourite countries and I've been fortunate enough to have visited twice. Being a history buff, particularly American history, I was eager to read this forthcoming book from Joshua Kurlantzick, which I received as an uncorrected proof.

I was not disappointed. A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA is an excellent history of a tragic period of history. It traces the origins of the war and of the CIA very well, but adds in a personal dimension by telling the stories of four men who guided the war and the expansion of power undergone by the CIA during that period: Bill Lair, Tony Poe, Vang Pao, and William Sullivan.

I studied the Vietnam War in university and later learned bits and pieces during my extensive travels through Southeast Asia, and yet much of this book was new to me. Particularly in his descriptions of battles, his dealings with characters on a personal level, and his studies of declassified CIA documents, Kurlantzick has put forth a valuable and enthralling resource.

It is also, of course, highly disturbing. Anyone well-versed in the tragic history of the Vietnam War knows that atrocities occurred all the time, and a great deal of them by Americans. This book details some of those atrocities, including shocking facts:

US bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade.

In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II. By 1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched over 580,000 bombinb runs in Laos.
Figures like that, and relating to the unexploded bombs that continued - and still continue - to kill innocent civilians are mindblowing. Yet they are also hard to fathom because they are so terrible. Kurlantzick, however, brings the war over in more personal terms that makes it easier to appreciate the awfulness of the U.S. actions in Laos.

He talks about how random the bombing could be, saying:

In the first months of 1970, some U.S. pilots routinely released ordnance over the kingdom without really locating any military target, simply because they could not find a target to hit in North Vietnam and they did not want to land back in Thailand still carrying their bombs.
He talks of villages wiped off the map and people gunned down in the streets for target practice. The coldness of the U.S. pilots is beyond belief. And yet these were not isolated, single events:

96 percent of the Laotian civilians surveyed had witnessed a bombing attack, and most had witnessed more than one.

He goes on to say that 60% of people had personally seen someone being killed by U.S. bombs.

Towards the end of the book Kurlantzick wraps up his story by showing how the U.S. simply withdrew, leaving Southeast Asia in a terrible mess, and how the CIA had grown during its Laos war from a spy outfit to a war machine. It is a sad read, but an important one in understanding this complicated and depressing modern world.