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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Something Decent To Read

I rarely have time to read for the pleasure of it. So when I do get the chance to settle down with a book, I like to know it's going to be worthwhile. The joy of the Internet is finding great things you once read and working out from there. Reviews are helpful, as is knowing how someone else stumbled across the book.

My own tale of discovery really begins in 1976, when my father introduced me to Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism, which marked the shift from dispassionate news reporting to stories where the journalist is somehow involved. I was also captivated by Wolf's own collection of magazine articles wonderfully entitled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. From there I meandered to Hunter S. Thompson (RIP) and The Great Shark Hunt and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Much of the New Journalism was spawned by the Vietnam War, and some of the best writing from that conflict can be found in Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and If I Die In a Combat Zone, as well as Michael Herr's Despatches. Norman Mailer seemed to find a similar voice in The Naked and The Dead, about the soldier's lot in the jungles of World War II (and recently Sgt Dan Mills captured it in the recent Gulf War in Sniper One).

Of course, Kurt Vonnegut took war reporting to a different plane in Slaughterhouse 5, about his experiences following the fire bombing of Dresden. His wondrous view of the world (partly via the planet Tralfamadore) can also be found in Breakfast of Champions. I've found some resonance of that in Nicholson Baker's brilliantly observed and highly entertaining The Mezzanine (the story of one man's lunch hour), Vox (a voyeuristic eavesdrop on a chat-line conversation) and his unashamedly voyeuristic tour de force, The Fermata.

Latin American magic realism has also tickled my fancy, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude to Louis De Bernieres' The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.

I actually studied English literature and modern American novels for my Arts degree. That turned me into a fiend for Hemingway (A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom The Bell Tolls), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tender is The Night, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye.

But it hasn't all been high literature. I love crime fiction, and Raymond Chandler was a maestro (Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep - a great film - and The Lady in The Lake), as was Dashiell Hammett (especially The Maltese Falcon - also a great film). Since the '50s Elmore Leonard has been king, I think partly because none of his characters is necessarily good or evil (try Pronto, Out of Sight, Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, Be Cool and so on). Others include the darker, police perspective of Ed McBain (Kiss is great), the blackly comic Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Skin Tight, Double Whammy, Native Tongue, Strip Tease, Skinny Dip and so on), the laid back but brooding Tony Hillerman (A Thief of Time, Fallen Man) and the chilling Michael Connelly (The Black Echo, The Last Coyote, Angels Flight). The story of a crack dealer, Clockers (by Richard Price), sits somewhere between New Journalism and crime fiction.

I had a stab at turning an old manuscript into a screenplay while living in New York in the mid '90s, and Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter's Workbook were hugely helpful on plot and structure in particular. His dissection of Four Screenplays is a must, once you have the basic theory. Robert McKee is also very highly rated, of course (Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting). I also found Joe Campbell's The Hero's Journey a huge help in figuring out characters and their roles. I finished the screenplay, but it needed far more time and it was time for me to get back to London and earn some cash!). And a fantastic experiment in linking literature and film is to set aside a day to read Conrad's Heart of Darkness and T S Eliot's The Hollow Men, watch Apocalypse Now, then the film about the making of it (Hearts of Darkness) and, finally, read Eleanor Coppola's Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now. It's a fantastic journey accompanied every step of the way by the same sense of brooding malice.

While living in New York I became enamoured of JP Donleavy's The Gingerman, which I read after seeing a quote from the book in the bar of the same name. An interesting comparison is Jack Kerouac's On the Road, also written in 1955. It seems to have been the year for manic flows of consciousness. And I must say that chimes pretty well with my experience of living in NYC.

On the blogging front, I've found plenty of inspiration for my contrarian viewpoint in books like Liar's Poker (arguably, the story of where the ethos that powered the credit crunch began), The Black Swan (avoiding or exploiting situations and products that are predicated on their being no surprise events that will have a huge impact), The Long and the Short of It (you're on your own: pay less, diversify more and be contrarian), Blink (the power of the sub-conscious can mean decisions made quickly are as good as those we labour over - but see The Black Swan!), Freakonomics (basically, using data mining to re-appraise assumptions, like what determines a child's academic performance), Flat Earth News (confirmation - if you needed it - that newspapers can only make money if over half of the so-called journalism is a bunch of press releases - we need our news unbundled, like our music etc) and The Lexus and the Olive Tree (once globalisation hits your ville, there's no one you can call to stop it). More recently, I enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die, about the tyranny of positive thinking, and Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, a very readable account of the credit crunch from the standpoint of the JP Morgan staff who somewhat unwittingly unleashed the Bistro-style CDS into an environment of such stunning irrational greed, negligence, recklessness and downright fraud that it's left even the insiders angered and aghast.

And last, but by no means least, are Dean Johns' acerbic reflections on his days in advertising in "
Ad Nauseam", and his "punchy political essays" from Malaysiakini, collected in "Mad About Malaysia" and "Even Madder About Malaysia" - still as inspirational as the day he suggested I read Tom Wolfe.

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