Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Forever Weird (by Joe Klein, the New York Times)

Note to the campture: Hunter S. Thompson. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

November 18, 2007
Forever Weird

On July 2, 1974, I started work as deputy Washington bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. My unlikely boss was Richard Goodwin, the former Kennedy speechwriter, who invited me to join him in temporary residence at Ethel Kennedy’s home in McLean, Va. (the owner was in Hyannis for the summer). On July 3, Hunter Thompson joined us. Much of what ensued that holiday weekend is lost in the mists of history and a fog of controlled substances. There were extensive conversations about the viability of renting a truck, filling it with rats and dumping them on the White House lawn. There was also an effort to remove all the Andy Williams songs from the Kennedy jukebox and replace them with Otis Redding. But mostly I remember having a marathon conversation with Hunter about books and writers, settling finally on Joseph Conrad’s exhortation in “Lord Jim”: “In the destructive element immerse!”

This was, no surprise, one of Hunter’s favorite lines, and it led him into an astonishingly candid assessment of his own career, which was then at its peak. He had published his two brilliant “Fear and Loathing” books, and he was worried about what came next. He didn’t want to become a dull parody of himself but feared he lacked the gumption to jump the gravy train. I asked if he’d ever thought about stowing the psychedelic pyrotechnics — his “gonzo” journalism — and sitting down and writing a serious, straight-ahead novel. Well, of course he had. But, he said, “Without that,” and he glanced over at the satchel in which he carried his array of vegetation and chemicals, “I’d have the brain of a second-rate accountant.”

Hunter Thompson was always much more, and sometimes a bit less, than the sum of his ribald public persona. In compiling this oral history, Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour could easily have succumbed to the same temptation that Hunter did: to celebrate the myth, to recount a numbing parade of hilarious, drug-addled Hunter stories, and to miss the man. Happily, they have produced a rigorous and honest piece of work. “Gonzo” is a wonderfully entertaining chronicle of Hunter’s wild ride, but it is also a detailed, painful account of his self-destructive immersions; the brutality he visited upon his wife, Sandy; and the anguish of a life that veered from inspired performance art to ruinous solipsism. It’s especially good to be reminded that Wenner, in addition to being a successful media mogul and perpetual gossip item, has been a journalist of real distinction, with the ability to find talented editors like Seymour, who, I assume, did most of the actual cutting and pasting to create the book’s unflagging pace from interviews with 112 sources, ranging from Jimmy Carter to Johnny Depp. It was Wenner’s patience and indulgence that enabled Thompson to produce his very best work; Wenner’s vision made Rolling Stone, in the early 1970s, one of the most exciting publications in American history.

Hunter Thompson was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937 and, from adolescence on, seemed intent on becoming a classic American Literary Character, part of the outlaw slipstream that produced Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, Guthrie, Mailer and Kerouac. This might have been a staggeringly banal career choice — there’s a testosterone-addled, troublemaking puer aeternus spewing fountains of self-absorbed gush in every high school — but Thompson actually turned out to have a distinctly American genius for comic hyperbole. He was the son of an insurance salesman who died when Hunter was in high school and an alcoholic mother who didn’t have a prayer of controlling her wild child. He was antsy, violent, a lover of books and guns, a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association in Louisville and of a street gang of pranksters, most of whom were sons of prominent families. In his senior year of high school, Thompson was arrested with two others after one in his group stole a man’s wallet — this, after other scrapes with the law — and thrown in jail. Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s literary executor, recalled: “Hunter wrote his mother these very philosophical letters from behind bars. ... The buddies that he was with ... were waltzing because they knew the judge, ... he was the poor kid on the other side of the railroad tracks with no dad. The game was fixed.” The judge gave Thompson a choice of prison or the military; he chose the Air Force. One senses that Hunter saw the experience mostly as grist for his legend. No doubt it helped solidify his politics, such as they were — a blithe populist libertarianism, unencumbered by doctrine.

Thompson’s chronological adolescence is dispatched in a few pages here, but his militant juvenility lasts the entire book. Even near the end of his life, he was terrorizing his neighbors in Aspen, Colo. The lawyer Gerry Goldstein remembers an episode involving another lawyer, John Van Ness, and later the actor Jack Nicholson: “First Hunter placed these defrosted elk hearts on John’s front doorstep, and then he started throwing these stones he’d collected onto the tin roof of John’s house and just listened as they rolled down. Then he shot off a couple of rounds from a 9-millimeter and started playing a continuous looped tape of pigs or rabbits being slaughtered — a godforsaken screeching, curdling sound. This poor little girl came to the window screaming. Apparently Van Ness was out of town and this teenage girl was house-sitting for them. From there, he proceeded to Nicholson’s house, where he engaged in the same folly.”

Thompson was able to get away with such nonsense, and with his flagrant drug use, because he had befriended the local sheriff, who had an elastic sense of justice when it came to literary perps. Indeed, about the only person in this book who successfully confronts Hunter about his behavior is — amazingly — Bill Clinton, a fellow not known for public confrontations. But at a meeting in Little Rock, just after Clinton was nominated in 1992, Thompson braces the president-to-be with a question about the Fourth Amendment and drug searches. “He leaned back and did one of these long windup Hunter kind of things where everybody is supposed to be amused by it all, and Clinton wasn’t going to have any of it,” Wenner recalls. “Clinton came back with this really tough, aggressive answer involving his brother Roger’s cocaine problem and how he had seen the horrors and destruction of drugs.”

The writer William Greider picks up the story: “Hunter got up from the table right after Clinton’s response. He just stopped asking questions. ... It was like the dream had been smashed, and what was the point of going on with this?”

The structural defect of oral history is that it is easy, given a life like Hunter’s, to lose track of the reason he was special in the first place: the inimitable, hilarious whoosh of words, the cascading skeins of hyperbolic invective that came so close to replicating the disoriented epiphanies of a drug trip. The authors occasionally lay in samples of Hunter’s writing, but not really his best stuff — although the rejection letter he donated to Rolling Stone to handle the hordes of would-be imitators does sing. “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate” you-know-what, it began. “Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again.”

“I never had any doubt that at some point he was going to commit suicide,” recalls his son, Juan. Old age is a difficult concept for a perpetual adolescent. Hemingway couldn’t handle it, and Hunter went out the same way, though more elegantly: with a pistol rather than a shotgun. His best work was pretty much complete by the time I met him, in July of 1974. Indeed, Nixon’s collapse that summer was so garish — the tearful “my mother was a saint” sayonara — that it beggared any acid fantasy that Hunter might have produced. Reality had gone gonzo. There was nothing left to do except to play his designated role as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wandering the campus lecture circuit, swindling would-be publishers, entombed in a mausoleum of celebrity he had created for himself.

Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine and the author, most recently, of “Politics Lost.”

The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.

By Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour.
Illustrated. 467 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.99.

Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles (by Joanne Kaufman, the New York Times)

Note to the capture: Esther Bushell, of Old Greenwich, Conn., leads 10 book clubs and is courted by publishers. Alan S. Orling for the new york times

November 19, 2007
Publishers Seek to Mine Book Circles

In early June, at Book Club Expo, a gathering of reading group members and book lovers, the author Khaled Hosseini opened the first session with heartfelt thanks to the attendees.

“He said that ‘The Kite Runner’ wasn’t being read until book groups got hold of it,” recalled Ann Kent, who put together the event, which was held in San Jose, Calif. “He acknowledged their power in putting his book on the best-seller list and keeping it on the best-seller list. It was pretty profound.”

Profound or not, the message had resonance. Increasingly, authors and publishers are tipping their hats to the power of 8 or 10 or 12 women (and usually they are women) sitting around a dining room table, dissecting their particular book of the month, then spreading the word to their friends.

Along with “The Kite Runner,” the successes of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” “Water for Elephants,” “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Kabul Beauty School” have been credited to the early and continuing support of reading groups.

Film companies are trying to get in on the act, according to Russell Perreault, director of publicity at Vintage Books. “They’re asking us how to get clubs to read books before the movie version comes out,” he said.

Accordingly, Mr. Perreault sent reading group coordinators copies of the novels “Evening,” “Reservation Road” and “Atonement,” all Vintage titles adapted for the screen by Focus Features.

“By working so closely with the publisher, we have been able to spark interest from not only the avid moviegoers who seek out films of substance, but also the reading and discussion groups that are still very much a part of today’s marketplace,” said David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing at Focus Features.

Similarly, because of the tremendous success of “The Kite Runner” among book clubs, its publisher has spread the word to them that the movie is coming in December. The hope is “that they would support the movie as much as they had supported the book,” said Geoffrey Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group.

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said an increasingly potent sales pitch when debating the merits of a manuscript is whether “this would work for a book group.”

Five years ago, the topic might not have come up. Reading groups were still a bit of an untapped resource. When, for example, Ms. Kent was introducing Book Group Expo two and a half years ago, she asked publishers to serve as sponsors. “They said it sounded like a good idea and wished us well, but they weren’t having the ‘aha’ moment,” she said. For the meeting last June, however, Random House, Penguin and other houses got involved.

“You don’t see the whole picture when you start out,” said Elinor Lipman, a novelist. She was initially hesitant when her publisher urged her to visit book group gatherings near her home in suburban Boston. “You see it as seven women wanting me to come and talk about their book. It seemed local, not a phenomenon. I didn’t realize it was spreading like wildfire.”

When Esther Bushell, a former English teacher, began working as a reading group coordinator five years ago, she said, she had no interaction with publishers. But now, “there’s a lot of courting going on,” said Ms. Bushell, who is based in Old Greenwich, Conn., and leads 10 groups. “I receive daily packages of galleys. I’m solicited by publishers asking my opinion of upcoming books.”

Additionally, publishers have arranged for Ms. Bushell to take field trips to New York with one or another of her groups to meet the authors of some of the books they have discussed. “I’m already planning our spring visit to the city,” she said. “The publishers are very eager to accommodate me.”

All the wooing from publishers has made Ms. Bushell part of the marketing front line. “I’ve done a good job of promoting a couple of the books to my groups,” she said. “They all read ‘The Book Thief.’ They all read ‘The Shadow of the Wind.’ They all read ‘Snowflower and the Secret Fan.’”

Making reading groups aware of a book is, increasingly, an effort that takes place on the Internet. “Technology opens a lot of opportunities to connect with readers,” said Ellen Archer, publisher of Hyperion Books. “For the most part, author tours are not as successful as they used to be.”

Publishers are buying space on AuthorBuzz, a two-year-old Web site that helps writers promote their work. “We have 10 spots a month for our book club promotions, and we’re selling out three to four months in advance,” said M. J. Rose, a novelist and the founder of AuthorBuzz.

Some publishing houses, like Simon & Schuster and Ballantine, have set up dedicated Web sites where reading group members can arrange phone chats with authors, download discussion guides and podcasts, and take part in live Web events. Sometimes there are sweepstakes whose grand prize is a visit from the author.

Simon & Schuster has created 40 downloadable videos of authors, some of whom “directly acknowledge book groups and thank them for their support,” said Aimee Boyer, a Simon & Schuster senior marketing manager.

And the Bantam Dell Publishing Group plans to introduce in February a new imprint for women’s fiction, which will pump out books meant to appeal to reading groups — using the trade paperback format — and for the mass market in the smaller size.

“We want to get books on that circuit,” Barb Burg, a Bantam spokeswoman, said of the reading groups. “There’s not a publisher in town for which this isn’t a top priority.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ugly Stick (by Richard B. Woodward, the Village Voice)

Note to the Caption: Ah, love! Caricature by Bartolomeo Passerotti, 16th century
Private Collection of Peter Willi/Bridgeman Art Library

The Ugly Stick
Severed heads, devouring monsters, Marilyn Manson—Umberto Eco gazes at the grotesque
by Richard B. Woodward
November 6th, 2007 4:25 PM

Umberto Eco is 75 and has entered the autumnal stage of intellectual renown when publishers sell his books with his name rather than his actual writing. He is not yet the factory of anthologies that Harold Bloom has become. But like On Beauty, Eco's previous well-packaged venture into aesthetics, much of On Ugliness is a collection of quotes from writers— Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Kafka, Sartre—who are even bigger brands than he is.

As a historical survey of our responses to horror, this format is fine so long as you don't expect the semiotician-cum-novelist to spend much time analyzing these matters. The muddled relationships between ugliness and evil, physical and moral deformity, dread and mockery of ugliness he's content to leave muddled, pointing out simply their conjoined ancestry.

Eco starts off with a few promising insights. "Whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation," he points out, "almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not of violent repulsion, horror, or fear." Before pausing to wonder why ugliness rebounds in our gut, however, he is rushing us off to pull down another classical author from the library shelf.

The chapter "The Ugly, the Comic, and the Obscene" opens with a citation from Montaigne, who wondered why sex, a "natural, necessary, and legitimate act," should provoke shame and jokes. Next is Freud's dubious observation that the sight of genitals is always exciting, even if they are "nonetheless never considered beautiful." Eco then closes the section with a few paragraphs about Priapus, the minor Hellenistic deity with the major schlong who inspired laughter but was himself "not a happy god," according to antiquity.

The buried assumptions in these thoughts would be worth unpacking if Eco would spend time to rest before the next stop on his tour of civilization. And a Eurocentric tour it is: He includes virtually nothing here, text or image, that touches on the many examples of grotesque or terrifying figures in Japanese, Chinese, Indian-American, or African art—stunning omissions given that he also harps on the obvious point that ugliness is relative to period and place.

The pleasures of the book—and they are considerable—derive from listening to an aging scholar's discourse on a lifetime of reading. Eco has always been at heart a Latinist. The numerous medieval texts he unearths help argue his case that figures such as St. Bernard were more fascinated by monsters and other sinister avatars than they knew they should be. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas made room for lots of individual ugliness as part of a more comprehensive divine plan.

The book's illustrations are less parochial than the text, running the gamut from an astonishing, almost sci-fi painting of the Temptations of Saint Anthony by Salvator Rosa in the 17th century to a snarling photo of Sam, winner of the Ugliest Dog in the World contest. Judith's beheading of Holophernes by Caravaggio shares a spread with a 2003 photo from the Liberian civil war of a man holding his enemy's severed skull. Nosferatu, E.T., Divine, and Marilyn Manson also find a home here.

Striking are the centuries of writers and artists who have violated norms, embraced distortion, and deliberately made work they hoped would force their contemporaries to shudder or puke. The Renaissance Mannerists, including Michelangelo, stretched classical ideals to the breaking point. The Romantics reveled in perverse logic ("I love spiders and nettles/Because we hate them," wrote Victor Hugo in 1856). Other French writers (Marquis de Sade, Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille) have contemplated evil as a kind of spiritual exercise, testing how much their minds—and readers—could tolerate.

Ezra Pound hailed a "cult of ugliness" as part of a modernist program. This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled "Let Us Be Courageously Ugly," which stated that "our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness." The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn't able to effectively separate them.

At times, he speculates that absolute ugliness may exist. The smell of excrement and the sight of putrefying flesh, he points out, are offensive across all cultures. If he had included the writings of evolutionary biologists, he might have told us why this could be so. That he shows no awareness of post-Darwinian science can mean only that he isn't serious about locating the sources of aesthetic feelings. Hegel suggested that ugliness was a "species" of beauty. I suspect Eco's latest effort was hatched as a sport of his earlier research, and although both books are handsome and kinky fun, in neither case does he appear to have overexerted himself.