08
Sep
10

What I’ve been reading, Summer 2010

Like most people – including Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi – I’ve been doing a lot of this this summer involving liquids that come out of a bottle.

And like Snooki, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading.

Granted, I’ll admit our tastes run a little differently. Where I’ve been reading mostly fiction, she’s been boning up what appears to be The 48 Laws of Power, a book one review described as “a wry primer for people who desperately want to be on top.” Given her current stature, it’s hard to imagine what that book could add, but hey, taste is subjective. Maybe by October she’ll plow through The Prince or Leviathan.

That said, here’s a few notes on some stuff I’ve enjoyed recently.

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. ThompsonGonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson by Corey Seymour

Corey Seymour and Jann Wenner’s oral biography of Hunter Thompson is a balanced, interesting look behind the curtain, as it were, of one the more interesting literary figures of the 20th century.

The book gets down-and-dirty on Thompson’s life, from his early days in Louisville to his days as a young writer in New York, South America and San Fransisco to his final days in Woody Creek. It sheds light not just on how he wrote his most famous books, but on how everybody else reacted to them – often better then most would have.

By the sheer weight of all the different number of people who knew Hunter, a clear portrait begins to form. As much as Thompson was a wild man –  if just half of these stories in the book are true, he was indeed wild – he was intolerant and kind of an asshole. He was charming, sure, but  manipulative and got what he wanted from people without making it seem like they were giving him anything.

While the book does show how dark Thompson’s life could be, it also takes great pains to try and explain why; there’s such a feeling of protection among his friends that even after his death, they still seem to feel the need to explain away and defend his behaving badly.

I don’t believe the term Cult of Personality was used once in the book, but the phrase “Hunter People” is. Same difference. He is such a polarizing figure that people are drawn to him like a flame. While some were longtime friends, others burned out after some time. He was one of those people where the closer you get, the deeper you get sucked in and are probably the worse for it. Not many people lasted long once there.

Indeed, this book is full of tragedy. Thompson’s first wife, Sandy, comes off as long-suffering and probably abused. Her marriage reads like one episode after another of Hunter yelling at her, blatantly sleeping with other women or just not paying attention to her. Eventually, Sandy descended into cocaine and alcohol abuse and, after bottoming out, left Thompson, kid in tow. Few other people close to him come off any easier. Thompson was a talented guy and maybe even was somebody fun to hang around with, but he’s certainly no husband of the year.

If anything, Thompson comes off as a tragic, almost broken figure. While he may have been trapped by his alter ego of Raoul Duke, it’s hard to keep track of all the references to Thompson’s insecurities and lack of maturity. A common refrain is that he’s like a teenager who never grew up, he’s somebody who never become a responsible adult. Remember, this was a man who was prone to addiction and fits of rage and seemed to struggle over every line he wrote.

Gonzo is an interesting read and is definitely engrossing, and although I’d hesitate before I call it fun, there are some pretty good anecdotes here. But so much of what everybody has to say seems not only to echo what Thompson wrote – his book Songs of the Doomed feels more and more like a memoir – but curiously feels protective, like it’s trying to defend his legacy in spite of what they’re saying. Sure, his absurd idea of a joke may to be fire a blank shotgun shell at you from up close… but to his friends, that’s endearing.

But to anybody who isn’t as familiar with Thompson, it probably isn’t. It’s stories like that which make Gonzo fun for anybody already into his books, but offputting to anybody who isn’t.

Rating: 5/10

******

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and ArgumentsA Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

It’s been said by probably every single person who has read anything of his work, but when David Foster Wallace died in 2008, we lost a truly orginal voice.

Wallace was primarily an author of fiction and only occasionally dabbled into journalism. However, in both collections of his non-fiction (this volume and the even-better Consider the Lobster), he showed a capability to not only expose what he felt must have been some greater truth to what he was covering, but he’s able to make light of it all; he’s not just reporting on the kind of person who goes to a state fair, he’s not just making easy jokes about them, he’s setting everything up as satire, including himself: the overeducated, over-verbose, nerdy wuss who’s writing about things rather then experiencing them.

That trait is exemplified in my favorite two pieces, both of them travelogues – one to a state fair, the other a seven-night cruise. Both show two sides of DFW’s writing equally well:how he’s able to pick up on a huge number of details and show how they add to a (completely insightful) whole, and how he’s more then able to stuff his essays with a slightly absurd sense of humor. To wit: the carnies are sexist pigs, the girl he’s with just wants to cut loose from her mundane life and have fun and our intrepid reporter has gotten sick from eating too many sweets and walking around in the sun.

I should mention the other pieces are worth checking out too: his piece on Michael Joyce and mens tennis c. 1995 is the best piece on the lower rungs of tennis probably anybody was ever written while his essay on David Lynch is great, especially in how he’s able to put all of Lynch’s movies into a greater context (it comes off less pretentious then I’m sure this sounds). These two also had a nice little treat: one can start to see little details of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, occasionally coming into focus. Be it in James Incandenza’s experiments in filmmaking to the details of daily life at the Enfield Tennis Academy, it’s interesting to see how much of that book came from real life.

Rating: 9/10

*****

The Adventures of Don QuixoteThe Adventures of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

First off, don’t let the name fool you. Quixote is really two books, each of varying quality. The first is essential to the second, and it’s a good read: it follows the misadventures of a man who would be a knight, a peasant who would be a squire and a cast of unlikely people who all wind up at an inn.

It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s not exactly classic.

When people call Don Quixiote the first modern novel – one recent review I read called it the first postmodern novel, a remarkable achievement for a book from 1615 – they’re referring to the second half.

Without giving too much away, Quixote lives in a world where the first book has been published and pretty much everybody who can read has read about his exploits. And more or less everybody finds him charmingly mad and openly exploits his delusions.

It’s this really interesting idea of self-awareness that propels Quixote into another level: if the first book is a like a drive in the city, with lots of starting and stopping and a few times when all the lights are green, the second is like finding yourself on a freeway at night, when there’s no traffic and you can just cruise along.

That said, it never ceases to be entertaining, even when it poses some tough questions – why do people feel they must take advantage of Quixote? Is it right how higher-ups in society are so quick to continually mock Quixote and Panza so savagely and so often? Is Quixote really as mad as he lets on – and does he really need to be ‘cured’?

But those questions aren’t really the reason to read Quixote. It’s not something you should read because it’s ‘good for you’ or anything. It’s something I’d recommend because it’s a really fun read – it’s long, but it’s always entertaining.

Rating: 9/10

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