Monthly Archives: May 2013

Jon Ronson: a love story

las-jrRead Jon Ronson.

That’s my infallible advice for the day.

For those who don’t know, Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist with a penchant for the weirder side of life. We’ve all fallen a little bit in love with him here at the bookshop.

My personal infatuation began last year when I received a proof copy of The Psychopath Test. It sat on my bookshelf for weeks before I decided to give it a go. I was hooked from the start.

The eponymous test is a questionnaire of sorts called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist used by professional mind-wizards to categorise potential misfits. The book deals mainly with the trouble of defining psychopaths and Ronson’s tireless quest for answers puts him in contact with some of the strangest, most frightening characters in print.

The theme of mental health appears to a large extent in most of his work. In the book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, Jon tackles the murky world of conspiracy theorists – those who believe that there is, somewhere, a hidden elite controlling the masses in all manner of nefarious ways. Here, he talks to white supremacists about their rebranding strategy, to David Icke about extra-dimensional lizard-people and to the Rev. Ian Paisley about the so-secret-it’s-obvious Papist plot for global domination.

Thanks to Hollywood, Ronson is probably best known for his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. This book follows the fates of certain top secret U.S. Military projects created to harness the powers of the unknown. The title refers to a project in which U.S. ‘psychic’ soldiers stared at goats attempting to stop their hearts with the power of the mind.

His latest book, Lost at Sea, is a collection of various articles from the past few years. Here, you’ll find everything from behind-the-scenes mysticism at Deal or No Deal to the dark workings of targeted advertising to UFO hunting with Robbie Williams. I’ve been dipping into it regularly over the last couple of months, taking it slowly to prolong the joy. I’m not sure if ‘joy’ is the most appropriate word – last night I read an article about the shocking number of people who disappear from cruise ships and the evident cover-ups that result.

Because Jon Ronson focusses on the more wacky side of darkness, his books are very funny. In the time-honoured British tradition of self-deprecation, he paints himself as the weedy, middle-class outsider desperately struggling to understand what makes people believe the things they do.  At times, however, we are reminded that the characters are in fact real people with real problems and not just sideshows to be exploited.

So if you’re drawn by curiosity to the darkest, most morbid side of life, do give Jon Ronson’s books a go. When you’ve run out of things to read, pop over to jonronson.com and check out his Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson On… All seven series are available to download for free so be sure and snap them up before someone changes their mind. I like to listen to them when I’m ironing but how you chose to enjoy them is entirely up to you.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn: A Review

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn“Because you can’t be as in love as we were and not have it invade your bone marrow. Out kind of love can go into remission, but it’s always waiting to return. Like the world’s sweetest cancer.” 

Gillian Flynn hates people. That’s the over-riding feeling you have walking away from her latest success, Gone Girl.

Nick’s wife, Amy has gone missing. There are some signs of a struggle and although the police don’t have anything to go on, it’s only natural to assume that Nick was involved in the disappearance.

The book is divided into chapters, each one opening a window into the minds of the central characters. From this, we’re pretty sure Nick didn’t have anything to do with his wife’s disappearance, but he’s definitely hiding something.

As the plot opens up, more evidence is uncovered – evidence which further incriminates our clueless hero (if you can call him that). It becomes clear that someone is trying to set him up.

But Who?

And Why?

“There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.”

Around the half-way point, just as things are really starting to go wrong for Nick, something changes. We, the jaded readers, catch a glimpse of the other side of a dark and tarnished coin, something that sheds a whole new light on the case.

That’s as much as I’ll say on that, but it’s a big twist and it sets the pace a little higher for the rest of the novel.

Now, I won’t say it’s the best book I’ve ever read. The characters are despicable to such a degree that it becomes impossible to identify with them. I will concede, however, that it deserves its success. It’s not a literary landmark but if you’re looking for a clever, psychological page-turner, it’s among the best in its genre.

“Friends see most of each other’s flaws. Spouses see every awful last bit.” 

Gone Girl is a very cynical story which poses a lot of questions about relationships.  The main lesson to be learned is that you can never truly know someone as much as you think you do and in Gillian Flynn’s world, that blind spot will be your inevitable undoing.

So don’t get married and if you can manage it, avoid all contact with the opposite sex. While you’re at it, you might as well shun your own gender because they can’t be trusted either. Keep your head down and mind your own business because you never know what you might unleash upon yourself.

For those who have read Gone Girl, Flynn’s other two novels (Sharp Objects, Dark Places) come recommended and, you’ll be pleased to hear, are both littered with dysfunction and darkness.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt: a review

 

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick DeWitt

“…The Sisters Brothers is the book the Coen Brothers might have written had they not become film-makers instead.”

In The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Charlie and Eli Sisters are guns-for-hire, sent on a mission by the Commodore. With a name like the Commodore, you have to be involved in some shady dealings that require the help of hit men. He sends the assassins to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, again, a fine name to embody a mysterious character waiting at the end of an epic journey.

We follow these outlaws on their odyssey across the dust-strewn plains of an America still in the grip of the manic hunt for gold. The Sisters Brothers are synonymous with death and destruction and everyone knows to give them a wide berth. As the story progresses, Charlie and Eli find their reputation waiting for them wherever they go in the form of the fear and mistrust of the layman. They meet an ensemble of losers, victims of circumstance, and once-normal men tipped over the edge of sanity by the harsh realisation that their American dream was just that.

-“…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”  

Despite its grim setting, DeWitt’s Gold-Rush America has an air of the fantastical about it. The descriptions of the landscape are minimal enough to have been captured from a dream and every character seems to represent their own misfortune.

It’s a funny book, mainly because it is peopled by a collection of sharp-tongued, cuss-slinging smartasses. The one-liners and imaginative put-downs are so regular as to provide an honest-to-god pulse for the story.

The book isn’t without its harsh and gruesome scenes (There’s a particular incident with an ailing horse that I won’t go into here), but our characters can find their own joy in the strangest places. Towards the beginning of the book, Eli, the narrator, is introduced to a new-fangled doo-hickey called a toothbrush and he is so awed that he spends the rest of the story extolling its virtues to everyone he meets.

-“I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led.  I thought:  I want to lead only myself.”  

All in all, this is a tale of redemption.

The brothers come to a head when Eli begins to question the life they’ve chosen. He dreams of a simpler life without any killing, but his brother doesn’t share his sentimental bullshit. Death is paying work after all.

This book made the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker prize and has received great critical acclaim since its publication. It’s still one of my go-to books whenever a customer is looking for something good, something different and I’ve yet to hear any complaints.

If you’ve already had the pleasure, be sure to pick up a copy of Ablutions, DeWitt’s first novel. This is a contemporary tale of alcoholism and inertia set in a seedy Hollywood bar peopled by a wealth of human detritus.

As for the future, there hasn’t yet been a peep from DeWitt regarding any upcoming projects. It’s a shame to have to wait, but in the meantime, you can always read the Sisters Brothers again.

Buy The Sisters Brothers at Waterstones.com