Monday, 29 August 2016

The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson

Here’s another cheat review – this book is also a paperback, rather than a Kindle title, and one that I purchased back in Chiang Mai in a very cool place called Backstreet Books.

I was a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson when I was younger and as such I have a tattoo of his Gonzo fist on my left forearm. Although I don’t read him much these days, I still consider him one of my primary literary influences. Perhaps I felt that, after several years of not reading his work, he was not as great as I remembered… perhaps his work was a tad childish, even.

How wrong I was. A few weeks ago, in Laos, I got stuck into The Great Shark Hunt – a collection of Thompson’s finest work before 1980. Indeed, this was his best period as a writer, when he wrote his masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as the brilliant Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. This was Thompson at his peak, particularly documenting the counterculture of the late sixties and its subsequent demise, as well as his constant hatred for Richard Nixon.

The Great Shark Hunt chronicles the development of Gonzo, Thompson’s signature style. Although the book doesn’t follow any chronological pattern, the stories are dated, and we see him becoming increasing politicized, as well as finding his way from off-beat reporter to Gonzo journalist. His early works were short and somewhat restrained, while later they become rambling and filled with vitriol and humour.

What I found rereading Thompson’s best works was a profound sense that this is a man who understood the rhythm of speech, and that his work was to some extent intended to be read aloud. A few weeks before buying this book I watched some videos on YouTube wherein other people read his work, and I noticed for the first time just how he laughed at certain points, and how he loved to hear his words being read aloud.

In Thompson’s writing there is something – and I know he would’ve hated the comparison – Ginsbergian in the long-breath sentences. He was famous for his overuse of certain words (like doomed, swine, and atavistic) but his brilliance lay not in overstatement or shock, but in the subtle building of feeling and emotion in his sentences. There is a famous story of him typing out The Great Gatsby to get a feel for the prose, and indeed Thompson’s own work is now similarly copied by hordes of imitation Gonzo writers because he succeeded. In places, his work is as beautiful as any great American literature.

There are no weak links in this collection, although there are sometimes a few paragraphs of pages where the quality drops slightly. Yet this vast, dense volume is one of the great writers of the late twentieth century on his very best form and it is, for anyone interested in Thompson or Gonzo, an absolute must-read book. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Island, by Aldous Huxley

Here’s a classic novel which somehow I’d managed not to read over the years. Actually, I thought I had read it… somewhere in the back of my mind I told myself that I’d already read this one, and put it aside to “reread” much later.

Island is Aldous Huxley’s vision of utopia – a mysterious, remote, tropical island nation in Southeast Asia. It is a rather clunky novel, actually, which serves, from my perspective, as an often careless vehicle for Huxley’s philosophical and political perspectives. It revolves around the arrival of a newspaper reporter, Will Farnaby, on the eponymous island, Pala. He has been sent to negotiate on behalf of his employer for the rights to drill for oil on Pala.

The entire book essentially follows Will as he recuperates from a fall whilst arriving on the island, and at absolutely every conceivable turn, he is taught in bizarrely eloquent terms, the precise history and philosophy of Pala. The island was once a Buddhist society, rather primitive in its ways, but with many valuable qualities. At some point a Scottish doctor arrived, and the perfect hybrid of Eastern and Western ideas came about.

The book is not awful by any means but it is certainly a bit ridiculous. Nothing happens in it that isn’t a means for Huxley to present his reader with his personal viewpoints on everything from sex to drugs to religion. Some ideas, like the Mutual Adoption Club (MAC), are patently fraught with problems that are never addressed, while actually many of his ideas – while impossible to ever implement anywhere – are very admirable. In particular, his keen awareness of ecology.

I was very surprised to notice a staggering amount of concepts lifted and adapted from Scientology – or, more likely, from L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I haven’t had internet access since reading the book so I haven’t been able to gauge what Huxley’s relationship was with the Church, but it shocked me that his famous utopian society – an antithesis to that presented in Brave New World – contains so much from a now maligned cult. I shall have to investigate further… 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, J.T. Leroy

I read this book knowing about the scandal behind it. J.T. Leroy, the purported author, is not a real person, and when the book was released, people thought it was autobiographical. For that reason, the book gets a lot of criticism. It is, however, a fantastic book that loses none of its value, in my mind, from the literary scandal surrounding its author.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is a novel or series of short stories that tell the story of the horrific childhood of a boy called Jeremiah. Jeremiah is taken from his adoptive familiar at the age of four and given to his birth mother – a mentally unstable, meth-addicted “lot lizard,” or prostitute.

Throughout the book, Jeremiah suffers all kinds of physical and mental abuse at the hands of his severely damaged mother and her boyfriends/husbands/clients. The story, although famously not true, is a depressingly accurate depiction of child abuse. The life of Jeremiah, who we last see at fifteen years old, is beyond tragic, yet this is the plight of too many children in this awful world.

Although it can be difficult to read due to the subject matter, and though people are put off by the scandal surrounding its authorship, this is a truly great piece of contemporary literature. 

Saturday, 6 August 2016

iGuerilla, by John Sutherland

In this mostly ridiculous book, John Sutherland details the things in this world that he hates and thinks we should all fear. That includes Muslims, Arabs, and Communists, amongst others. He tells us why these things are awful and why they’re getting worse (well, except for Communism, which is responsible for all the new bad stuff).

Sutherland's iGuerilla: Reshaping the Face of War in the 21st Century careens back and forth attempting to explain how technology is making the world a scary place, while comparing everything to the Fall of Rome or the Rise of Hitler or Pearl Harbor. Anything he doesn’t like is immediately compared to Hitler, and there is nothing bad said about that which he loves – the great countries of America and Israel.

The book is full of stupid and annoying metaphors, always completely overblown and often mixed with other imagery. His language is sneering, violent, and sensationalistic:

They are barbarous and yet tech-savvy denizens of the modern world. They resemble a schizophrenic cross between Attila the Hun and Mark Zuckerburg. (sic)

He thinks in terms of pure Good and Evil, and thinks all change is bad. In his world, the Cold War was good because at least he knew where he stood. Now everything is awful and getting worse, and it’s Russia’s fault for not being tough enough. His logic is overly simplistic, ignoring anything inconvenient.

iGuerilla is researched from Wikipedia, a number of low-brow or right-wing media outlets, and a scattering of reputable sources just for appearances. He also seems to be relying upon his fanciful memory of history class. The author seems fearful about technology and yet also largely ignorant, using ancient terminology like “cyberspace” that no self-respecting author of a book about technology would ever utter. He is vague in describing the threats that our “enemies” pose, but they involve computers.

In the end, this whole awful mess of a book is designed to instil fear in its reader. Yet, like the godawful right-wing news channels Sutherland appears to enjoy so much, his book is shallow, misleading, and woefully lacking in subtlety. Just read this abominable passage and I’m sure you’ll agree this is not a book I could in good conscience recommend:

There’s no shortage of enemies determined to strike Americans. We will face our Arminius just as Rome did...
…We no longer have the luxury of focusing on the very visible state dragon. We now face a snake pit filled with a myriad of non-state threats and their shady rogue state sponsors…

…They can attack the homeland although they aren’t an existential threat – yet. They aren’t toting nukes or superbugs – yet.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Ok. This one is a cheat review – the book I read was a paperback; not a Kindle title. But it couldn’t be helped. I generally read while I travel, and I travel with a Kindle. Last week, however, I did some shopping in Chiang Mai’s incredible little backstreet bookstores, and so I’ll be reviewing at least a half dozen paperback titles in the coming weeks.

First up is George Orwell’s Burmese Days. I was attracted to this not because of its author but rather its title. Although I am of course a fan of Orwell’s work, I’m in Southeast Asia at the moment and I’ve always had a fondness for old stories from this part of the world. The very mention of Burma, the British colony, is guaranteed to intrigue me. Not that I am an apologist for colonialism; I just find it a fascinating time in history.

Orwell lived briefly in Burma, where he developed a healthy hatred for the British colonial system. This experience inspired his novel, about a man named Flory in a town called Kyauktada. Here we see the colonial Brits in all their awfulness – racist, gin-soaked society men and women, lording it over the “natives.” The plot largely revolves around the Club where these Brits get drunk and complain about “the niggers.” They are utterly contemptible, including our hero, Flory, although his somewhat progressive views about race put him morally above the rest of the English characters.  Flory’s love interest is the utterly loathsome Elizabeth – a hateful, shallow, anti-intellectual young woman who’s in Burma to find a husband.

No one in the book except, perhaps, Dr Veraswami, is without some major flaw. Dr Veraswami is Flory’s friend, a “native” who is the target of a hate campaign throughout the novel by local magistrate. Orwell’s disdain for corruption and manipulation, which would be evident in his more famous later works, is clear in Burmese Days, whose characters seek only from self-interest, caring little for the consequences of their actions.

Burmese Days is a wonderful attack upon colonialism and a very enjoyable novel. Despite taking the perspective of a cynical man in a hateful regime, Orwell’s love for Burma comes through in his vivid description of the place and the culture, at a time when it was suffering brutally from British rule.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Unspotted, by Justin Fox

Unspotted, by Justin Fox, is a very short non-fiction book in which the author goes in search of the highly elusive Cape Leopard. It is written in a first person – perhaps even a Gonzo – style of narrative. Fox takes us along on this personal journey, investing the reader quite firmly in his own quest to see a rare animal in the wild. Yet it is not some self-involved, Gonzo rip-off. Fox deftly handles his story, providing vivid, enthralling descriptions of the South African landscape with amusing observations and dialogues along the way.

I very much enjoyed Fox’s writing style, which was always a balance of informative and comedic (“The vehicle bounced over boulders like an inebriated frog.”). I was in Southern Africa for a few months earlier this year and developed a strong fondness for the land, the people, and the wildlife. Fox’s book brought me right back into that place, and made me yearn to hike out into the wilds once again, despite the author’s own apparent disdain for physical activity.

Although I’m a slow reader, I made my way through this short text in one sitting. Apparently this is philosophy behind the book’s publisher, Annorlunda Books, which specializes in “novella length or shorter” for both fiction and non-fiction. I dig the concept and will check out more of their books in future. 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall

I’ve recently powered through this fantastic book during my rare downtime studying a CELTA course in Thailand. I’m usually quite a slow reader, but Prisoners of Geography is so engaging that I reached the end in no time and was left wishing there was more of the world to cover.

The premise of Tim Marshall’s new book is simple: our world is governed by geography more than we know. Perhaps that seems obvious; perhaps it seems an overstatement. Yet Marshall makes a good case that our present geopolitical situation is dictated by largely the same forces that ancient nations abided.

Geography has always been a prison of sorts – one that defines what a nation is or can be, and one from which our world leaders have often struggled to break free.

He goes from Russia to China to the USA, visiting India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, and even the Arctic, explaining why our world is shaped the way it is. References are made, fittingly, to Jared Diamond’s work, which I reviewed here last month. His observations on politics and history are astute, and his descriptions of planet’s geographical features are wonderful.

Often Marshall acknowledges the absurdity of the nation state, which is fundamentally a prison of its own, applied forcefully to the world by the European powers, and which chokes us and causes untold destruction today. One passage I loved from this book illuminates that point:

The notion that a man from a certain area could not travel across a region to see a relative from the same tribe unless he had a document, granted to him by a third man he didn’t know in a faraway town, made little sense. The idea that the document was issued because a foreigner had said the area was now two regions and had made up names for them made no sense at all and was contrary to the way in which life had been lived for centuries.

Marshall seems pre-occupied with the potential for cataclysmic global war and points out numerous places on the globe where it could happen, although he does end on a more hopeful note, looking off into space – where we are finally free of our geographic prison.