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Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
by Hunter S. Thompson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant commentary on US politics in action, 31 Dec. 2005
‘FALOTCT72’ is a series of articles originally written by Hunter Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine, in which he follows the race to elect a Democrat challenger to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential elections. It is a classic example of Gonzo journalism, the style that Thompson made his own, in which the journalist’s views and opinions are allowed to colour the reports, and in which the journalist plays an active part in the unfolding events, and is not just an observer. Thompson clearly favours the ‘no-hope’ left wing candidate George McGovern from the outset, both as an alternative to what he saw as malignant right wing influences within the Democrat party, and also to Nixon, who had begun, to Thompson, to represent everything that had gone wrong with the ideals America was founded with.
‘FALOTCT72’ is, to me, a savage account of the death of the ‘American Dream’ (as Thompson understood it), every bit as devastating as his classic novel ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. As a journalist who is close to the election (especially to the McGovern campaign), but not actually within the approved cadre of accepted hacks, Thompson is in an excellent position to give a brutally honest account of the electoral process. Although we may accept that behind the scenes shenanigans are standard in elections, the book shows how far from the ideal of democracy modern politics has fallen, with dirty tricks abounding even within the Democrat party against its own candidates. A note of hope is provided as the idealistic, non-politico McGovern comes from nowhere to defeat the old party guard, threatening to usher in a new honesty in politics. Thompson sees hope for America in its support for McGovern until it is brutally swept away by the intrusion of old-style politics into the presidential campaign, heralding a crushing defeat to Nixon, a president almost universally recognised as untrustworthy.
This is a surprisingly touching book. Thompson still has hope for his country in ’72. Indeed that may have been the last year that he did. His feelings about an election that represented so much more than simply a win for Nixon are tragic. It is all told with his trademark savage humour, drug consumption and outrageous behaviour. It perhaps requires some knowledge of American politics to be fully appreciated, perhaps explaining its lower profile when compared to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. It is nevertheless very much in the same vein: funny and tragic and beautiful. An observation of American life that says so much more than the text simply describes. This is Hunter Thompson at his most poignant and, for me, the best book of his that I have read to date.

The Turn of the Screw (Penguin Popular Classics)
The Turn of the Screw (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Henry James
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An all-time great spooky story, 31 Dec. 2005
‘TTOTS’ is a classic chilling tale from Henry James. It would not be fair to describe it as horror, because there is no gore, or as a ghost story, because it is far subtler than that. The story concerns a nanny looking after the children of a rich widower with whom she has fallen in love. Her desire to protect the children is tested when she begins to see two nefarious (and long-dead) former employees of the house, apparently threatening her charges. As the nanny’s sanity is called into question, we begin to wonder who represents the real danger in the house.
‘TTOTS’ is an excellent example of ambiguous writing. Even at the shocking conclusion, it is not clear if we have just read a ghost story or an example of psychological fiction. It is difficult to say too much without giving too much away about the story, but every event, or encounter with the ghostly figures, has two interpretations. It is very cleverly written, and all the more spooky because of it.
Having said all that, I am not a fan of James’ writing style. The only other book of his that I have read (‘The Ambassadors’) has tortuously constructed sentences that are painful to read. This is also true of ‘TTOTS’. Fortunately, the story of the title is easily gripping enough for this not to be a problem, but the rest of this collection is instantly forgettable because of it. Nevertheless, it is well-worth a read as one of the greatest spooky stories ever told.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2010 5:58 PM BST

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
by Dan Brown
Edition: Paperback

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very poor, 31 Dec. 2005
With all the hype and massive sales, I had to find out for myself what all the fuss is about. I am not a fan of thrillers in general, so didn’t expect to love this book, but I expected that ‘TDVC’ would at least be a top of the range thriller I could get stuck into. I was, instead, surprised by how bad a book this was.
The story has been described elsewhere. In brief, it involves the murder of a prominent Parisian that sparks a hunt for the most sacred relic of Christianity: the holy grail. The hunt soon becomes a deadly race between the unwilling heroes (Sophie and Robert), grail hunters, shady religious figures and questionable policemen. Trails of clues involving religious symbolism and medieval art must be followed to find the grail’s hiding place.
Even a short way into the book, I was astounded by the poor quality of Brown’s writing. He simply reproduces hackneyed clichés borrowed from the Big Book of thriller writing. Rooms span, people went cold whilst feeling icy fear, they burned with pain and fixed each other with steely glares. I can’t remember coming across a single original phrase or interesting use of language in the whole book. However, the cliché wasn’t simply confined to language. Robert is an Indiana Jones-type scientist, Sophie is a beautiful cryptographer working for the Paris police. Their behaviour (and that of everyone else) is ridiculous, designed only to create an artificial sense of tension and an increasingly silly storyline. Like any bog standard thriller, Brown constantly twists characters so that we sometimes think that they are good, then bad, then good again. Again, horribly clichéd and unoriginal. The one thing I expected to enjoy was the religious imagery of the mystery, being something of a sucker for Umberto Eco and the likes. However, despite dealing with such weighty themes as the nature of Jesus, the great Christian conspiracy and millennium-old religious organisations, Brown is such a terrible writer that he failed to lend any feelings of gravitas or spookiness to any of it. This meant that the story could have been about pretty much anything and it would still have the same pedestrian unveiling of clues and solutions.
‘TDVC’ is badly written, cliché-ridden, unoriginal and unrewarding. How it has sold so many copies I’ll never understand. I also don’t understand how a debate has sprung up about ‘the truth’ behind it all. It is all so poor that it really didn’t make me care. It is obviously just a bit of pulp fiction, not the key to human history as some would paint it. It gets two stars because I did occasionally wonder how a particular clue would be solved, which I suppose is the point, but I really didn’t enjoy it, and don’t understand the fuss about it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2009 9:55 PM BST

The Overcoat and Other Short Stories (Dover Thrift Editions)
The Overcoat and Other Short Stories (Dover Thrift Editions)
by Nikolai Gogol
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.50

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The genesis of Russian literature, 31 Dec. 2005
Gogol’s short stories are often, along with Lermontov, quoted as being the genesis of modern Russian writing. Later writers, such as Dostoevsky and Turgenev cited Gogol, and the essay ‘The Overcoat’ in particular, as major influences on their writing.
This collection includes four short stories written between 1835 and 1842. The first (‘Old-Fashioned Farmers’) is a beautiful and touching portrait of an elderly pair of landowners sharing their old age and approaching death. Their understated love and mutual reliance after years of partnership are heartrendingly captured. The second story concerns a quarrel between two firm friends, which is matched in its intensity only by its pettiness. This is a comic story, but is simultaneously a swipe at human nature. The pointlessness and absurdity of the loss of friendship is well conveyed, as is Gogol’s contempt for the dullness of lives blighted by petty thoughts and actions. The third story (‘The Nose’) has, I have to confess, got me completely bewildered. I have read it twice, but still don’t have a clue what it is all about. Suffice to say that the story involve a man’s nose becoming detached, starts attaining social status and attending society functions before being arrested and returned to its rightful owner. The final story (‘The Overcoat’) is widely considered the classic of this collection. It is about a lowly clerk whose purchase of a new overcoat leads to his elevation in life, and the theft of which returns him to his previous status of being ignored and overlooked. It is a funny yet sad attack on the superficiality of Russian life, where an overcoat attains more importance than its wearer. It is beautifully written, combining black humour with savage social commentary.
Gogol’s short stories were all very easy to read. They deal with serious and saddening issues, but are shot through with humour and wry observation. Like many nineteenth century Russian authors he was chronicalling the effects of massive social upheaval that had created new and bewildering class distinctions that were deep running but built on superficialities of dress and manner. His stories are very human, focussing on well-realised and recognisable characters. I enjoyed this collection a lot, and think that a lot of other readers will as well.

Nation of Fools: Scenes from Indian Life
Nation of Fools: Scenes from Indian Life
by Balraj Khanna
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good coming-of-age story, 31 Dec. 2005
Khanna’s ‘NOF’ is the story of Omi Khatri, a young Indian boy entering the painful transition to manhood. Omi is a tearaway, bright but undisciplined, and is in danger of repeatedly failing his exams. His father is a poor sweet seller, recognised locally for the excellence of his wares, but nevertheless living in poverty selling sweets in Panchkoola, a town little more than a truck-stop. Omi’s father is determined to better himself by opening shops in the local capital of Peshwar, and for Omi to have an education that will give him a chance of a better future. Omi’s parents also plan an arranged marriage for him, and not with the girl he loves. All Omi wants to do is meet girls, watch films, play cricket and ignore his future. Slowly, painfully and reluctantly, Omi learns the value of his parents’ dreams for him and the need to accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
What, for me, sets Khanna’s book apart from other, similar stories, is the richness with which he fleshes out the Khatri family. They are not perfect. In some ways they are very irritating people but, above all, they are believable. This meant that they were very easy to empathise with, Omi in particular and, for all his failings, he becomes a very sympathetic character by the end of the book. Omi’s transition from boy to man is also utterly believable and Khanna never has to resort to startling contrivances or unlikely twists. The very banality of the story is its strength, because it allows the readers to feel like we are looking in on an everyday drama of Sikh family life. The fact that the book is by a Sikh author and about a Sikh family was also interesting. I have read a few books by Indian writers but Khanna’s was distinctive because the Sikh India he presented was very different from that of Salman Rushdie, for example.
‘NOF’ is a well-told little novel about growing up. The Sikh backdrop added a layer of exoticism (for me), but it could really be about any teenager anywhere. It is , at times, disturbing and dark, but it is suffused with the happiness of family life and ends up having a surprisingly strong ‘feelgood factor’. Khanna is an excellent writer, particularly in building his main characters. I would thoroughly recommend that you try this book, if you get a chance.

The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana
The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eco’s most accessible book yet, 31 Dec. 2005
‘TMFOQL’ is a departure for Umberto Eco. All of his other novels are either set in the distant past or are rich with medieval references and imagery. ‘TMFOQL’ is very much a twentieth century book with modern themes and ideas. It is also the easiest to read and understand of all of his works and hopefully will bring him to a wider audience.
‘TMFOQL’ is the story of Yambo, a Milanese book dealer. After an undefined incident he wakes in the hospital with no memory of his life, or of the world as a whole, except what he has read in books or seen in films. Unable to recognise his wife, children or home, he is sent to a house in the country in which he did most of his growing up in an effort to jog his memory. He reads the books and comics he read as a child, and tries to piece together his growing up from them. Prominent in his collection are pro-fascist comics and stories, and his schoolbooks, also full of pro-fascist jottings. As an older man he is determinedly anti-fascist, and he tries to work out how this change happened using the things of his childhood. When he suffers a second incident, his memories come flooding back, and he is able to compare the real causes of his growing up with the ones he guessed at from the evidence that he could find.
‘TMFOQL’ is a surprisingly personal book from Eco, whose characters are usually too far removed and themes too lofty to see the author in any of them. Yambo the bibliophile is easily identifiable with Eco, and the vivid descriptions of Yambo’s childhood literature can only have come from Eco’s own upbringing. This creates a more intimate feel than Eco’s other books. However, some of Eco’s trademarks, such as the layers of truth and sly winks to the readers, are still very much in evidence. There is a strong ironic twist on Marcel Proust’s ‘Search for Lost Time’. In Proust’s book, the objects and senses of our childhoods can be used to reconstruct the events of our lives. Eco has a wry smile at this idea, as Yambo’s attempts to reconstruct his past fail to tell him anything meaningful about himself. Like all Eco’s books, ‘TMFOQL’ is a very clever book, but is much more accessible and personal than the others. If you have struggles with Eco in the past, this could be the one to get you started.

by Alessandro Baricco
Edition: Paperback

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful and sensual novella, 31 Dec. 2005
This review is from: Silk (Paperback)
Barrico’s ‘Silk’ is the story of Herve, a young man working in the silk industry in Europe. Every year he must return to the orient to replenish the supply of silkworms because they cannot be bred in Europe. He develops an overpowering desire for his Japanese supplier’s daughter, despite only glimpsing her briefly. Back in Europe, Herve fantasises about her constantly, and is filled with longing for this girl who he has never really met. Each year is spent looking forward to his next trip to the east. Eventually he receives a letter in which the girl tells him of her desire for him, only to be shocked when he finally understands its source.
‘Silk’ is an achingly beautiful. It is sensual and erotic without being at all pornographic (except, perhaps, for the letter that eventually arrives). Herve’s love for this mysterious oriental girl is brilliantly contrasted with the loving familiarity provided by his wife in France. It is an examination of passion and the foolishness which accompanies it, and it is told in such plain language and simple style that it is instantly accessible to anyone who has every desired the unknown and mysterious.
‘Silk’ is only a small novella, but it completely blew me away. It is succinct, beautiful, familiar and powerful. Its sensuousness is overwhelming, and the denouement startling. One of the best novellas I have ever read.

The Idiot (Wordsworth Classics)
The Idiot (Wordsworth Classics)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Among Dostoevsky’s finest, 13 Nov. 2005
‘The Idiot’ is the story of Prince Myshkin, a young Russian noble. In his infancy, he was diagnosed with a form of ‘idiocy’ and sent to Switzerland to be cured. The book begins with his return to Russia as a young man, apparently cured. However, he is still labelled an ‘idiot’ because his sheltered upbringing abroad means that he doesn’t understand the complex rules governing social interactions among the Russian middle classes, and approaches these interactions with a simple good-heartedness and a willingness to do the right thing.
The main story involves the competition of several young men for Nastasya Fillipovna, a self-destructive beauty whom the rules of society have labelled a fallen woman through no fault of her own. She is forced to choose between a happiness that she is told that she doesn’t deserve with Myshkin, a dangerous existence with the unstable Rogozhin and a loveless life with Gavril Ardilionivich. The rules of society tell her one thing, her heart another. She becomes increasingly agitated, precipitating a descent into near madness and a truly shocking conclusion.
The clash between Myshkin’s ‘idiocy’ (really Dostoevsky’s image of the perfect Christian) and the realities of nineteenth century Russian society is repeated throughout the book. Dostoevsky never tells just one story where a half dozen can be fitted in, and narratives about money, social status, religion and love are all intertwined to illustrate his point. This can become a little disorientating, but Dostoevsky never loses the thread of the book, keeping one eye firmly on his message throughout. The result is a rather complex series of narratives, requiring a lot of concentration, making ‘The Idiot’ a fairly involved read. However, Dostoevsky never allows ‘The Idiot’ to meander or sprawl, sticking closely to his central themes. It is perhaps less concise than ‘Crime and Punishment’, but I found it every bit as powerful, and although Dostoevsky’s language and pace can be slow and ponderous I was gripped throughout. The ending in particular is breathtaking and shocking, hauntingly written and desperately sad.
The only negative was that the translation I read (Wordsworth) was clumsy, starchy and, at times nonsensical. This was annoying, because it did make certain passages slow and even difficult to work out what was going on. I was caught up enough for this not to be a big problem, but I would advise against the Wordsworth edition (though the translator is wisely anonymous, so I can’t tell if there are other editions using the same translation). This aside, ‘The Idiot’ is brilliant. Dostoevsky at his best, and the very definition of a 5 star read.

Orlando: A Biography (Penguin Modern Classics)
Orlando: A Biography (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Virginia Woolf
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

22 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Messy and sprawling, 14 Oct. 2005
'Orlando' is a sprawling fantasy, in which the title character survives for 400 years, during which time he is transformed from a man to a woman. The book examines the changing roles of women over the historical eras it spans, notably Elizabethan, Stuart and Victorian England, and also examines the role of gender in relationships, as both Orlando and his/her lovers are frequently portrayed as being of ambiguous sex. The book was apparently written to commemorate Woolf's own desire for her close friend Vita Sackville-West, and the themes of love and gender crop up repeatedly.
Unfortunately, I just didn't enjoy reading 'Orlando' at all. The story sprawls and meanders, whimsically changing scene and settings throughout, without any real structure emerging. This (for me) obscured any points that she was trying to make and, although I think that I understood the themes she was writing about, I still wasn't clear how she felt about them. The story was horribly put together and this made reading a bit of a chore. In addition, the writing was very simplistic, resulting in incredibly boring prose and a story that was far too fast paced to get my teeth into. I found this hard work for a short book. On top of all that, Woolf's style has some of the things that irritate me most about some writers, not least the constant asides to the reader or referrals to herself as the author, informing us about what we should all be thinking about the events in the book at a particular point. All this made 'Orlando' a book that I won't be picking up again in a hurry.

The Family Wound
The Family Wound
by Ngoc Quang Huynh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely awful, 14 Oct. 2005
This review is from: The Family Wound (Paperback)
Huynh's 'TFW' is the story of Mai, a young Vietnamese woman caught up in the civil war as the Viet Cong sweep through South Vietnam. She is separated from her fiancée, sees children blown apart in explosions and soldiers raping young girls. She is forced into service with the local VC leaders and is abused before fleeing into the jungle. Her journey takes her through many adventures, some surreal, some very unpleasant. After years of separation she seeks out her family and former lover.
While the events described in the book should have been harrowing and disturbing, the poor quality of the writing meant that I was utterly unmoved by any of it. I never thought that a litany of rape and murder could possibly be made so mundane, and that I could be made to care so little about any of it. Huynh is an awful writer. If the book was not about such horrific events, the style would have been perfect for something written for (or by) young children. It is unfortunate because his professed cause ('to tell the world the hidden stories of the Vietnamese') is worthy, but I would be surprised if the world will be paying much attention to his books. I learnt nothing about Vietnam (other than some anti-VC propaganda), and felt that Mai's story was a rather clumsy attempt to throw as many horrific events into one narrative as possible and hope to tug a few heartstrings along the way. I know that I can be a hard reader to please, but Huynh failed spectacularly. I can't think of a single reason for recommending this book, so I won't.

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