Thursday 26 July 2012

The best customer in the world

This morning when I arrived at work there was a message flashing on our shop answering machine:

"Hello to my friends at the bookshop.  It's David ----- here.  I wanted to say thank you for the card you've sent to me.  And I want to say an extra thank you for going to the trouble of finding one with a lovely Land Rover and farm animals.  It's very touching...  *sneeze*... *pause while he tries to work out how to hang up his mobile*...*end of message*"

Today is our favourite customer's birthday.  His name is David, and he's got fluffy hair and a curly beard and the twinkliest, cheekiest little face you've ever seen outside an Enid Blyton story.  Back when we were first refurbishing the shop we used to leave the door open so locals could pop in and say hello; David was our first visitor, and ordered a book from us before we'd even opened!

Since then he's been a firm fixture in the shop.  He has so many health problems and struggles to get around sometimes, but he comes down whenever he can and sits in one of our red tub chairs, catching us up on his sons' exploits and talking about his life and waxing lyrical about his favourite things: animals, rallying, chickens, Land Rovers and biscuits.  He's a joy to listen to, so funny and down-to-earth and enthusiastic about life.  Sometimes we bring him a cup of tea and a biscuit or two so he can take his tablets, and secretly we love it because it means he'll stay and chat a bit longer.

The card he sent when the bookshop turned three this year.  He's separated from Joan but still sees her all the time because she helps him with things when he can't manage...

He lives nearby, in a little flat in a warden-monitored building, and he's every bit as eccentric as we are, which helps!  But he's also incredibly generous and has the warmest heart of anyone I've ever met.  I rang him this morning when I got that message, and he went into raptures over the card, and was very excited because another had just arrived in the post.  He's been invited to tea with Joan and the family tonight and he's hoping there might be blueberry cheesecake.  Then he got a bit quiet and said again how touched he was by the card - and when I said, "We love you David, you know that!" there was a sudden silence and he got all choked.  After I put the phone down I found myself welling up, and Mum did too.

It's people like David that make the fairly thankless job of running a shop worthwhile.  Sure, it's great being surrounded by books all day, but all the books in the world can't save you when your head's aching and kids are throwing tantrums and people are moaning in stage whispers and you're exhausted.  But when David appears at the door, I can feel a smile spreading across my face, and it's like the world falls back to rights for a few minutes.  I remember that there's someone out there who really appreciates what we do, and makes a special effort to come here for books and chatter, and who remembers our shop birthday, and who brings us shortbread at Christmas, and who knows when we're ringing him because no one else does, and who told us he'd make room for us at his tiny flat if we ever got caught out in the snow, and who brings photos for us to look at, and who cuts out magazine articles he thinks we'll like, and who shares his life with us as generously and openly as we try to share ours with him.  

THIS, ladies and gentlemen, is what it's all about.

Monday 23 July 2012

REVIEW: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson (4*)

(Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)

I was a little intimidated at the thought of starting this book, and yet again I was overjoyed to find that I am, in fact, a grown up after all and can handle a cult classic with the best of 'em.  I don't know why it's such a surprise really, because so often when I've been daunted by a book I've found my fears to be completely unfounded.

Anyway.  This book is mad.  Funny, chaotic and mad.  I can see why it made such a good film, and why Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp fit the lead role so perfectly.  Not that I've seen the film, but I've ordered a copy and from the trailer it looks pretty close to the original, certainly in spirit!  Basically, Fear and Loathing is a semi-journalistic, semi-fictional, semi-situations-have-been-altered-for-artistic-reasons journey through the heart of early-seventies Las Vegas, set against the shifting drug culture and the dissipation of the hippie idealism of the sixties.

This is a time when the American Dream is falling apart.  When money talks, the power of the masses is seeping away, 'consciousness expanding' drugs are disappearing from fashionable circles, and flower power is transforming into something darker, dirtier and a whole lot more seedy.  At the heart of the book, Raoul Duke (Thompson's persona), his attorney and a very nice Red Shark convertible loaded with a medley of dangerous substances coast through conventions and rallies, bars and casinos, seeking the remnants of the American Dream and getting amazingly loaded along the way.  Part 1 is about their 'coverage' (I use the term loosely) of the Mint 400 race in the Nevada desert, and Part 2 documents their return to Las Vegas to gatecrash the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (there might be samples!).

It's always difficult to describe and review such a crazy book, so instead I'll just say that it's pretty damn brilliant.  It made me chortle aloud plenty of times, yet also had some quite poignant and downright repulsive moments that brought home the futility of their search for meaning, and the decidedly less-than-glamorous world a junkie inhabits.  Mostly though, it was the best kind of farcical comedy - funny, ridiculous, outrageous, gutsy and I never quite knew what was going to happen next!

P.S. My Harper Perennial copy also has a handy section at the back with a short biography of Hunter Thompson, a little about the book and film, and some notes on Gonzo journalism.  Very helpful!  :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas."
  • "History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."
  • "It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way - but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs."

Source: I bought this book during a flying visit to Waterstones in Chesterfield.

Sunday 15 July 2012

REVIEW: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (5*)

(Penguin Modern Classics, 2000)

"I didn't want to harm the man.  I thought he was a very nice gentleman.  Soft-spoken.  I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat."     - Perry Smith

Wow, this is an incredible book - and so much more accessible than I was expecting!  In fact, I'd go as far as to call it compulsively readable...  In Cold Blood is surely Truman Capote's masterpiece (Holly Golightly might be cute as a button, but she just doesn't compare) and knocks modern true crime into the dust.  It takes the murder of a Kansas family on their ranch and turns it into a jigsaw puzzle of brilliant storytelling and evocative journalism.

One mid-November night in 1959, four members of the wealthy Clutter family were tied up, shot and killed in their home.  Herb Clutter, a successful rancher, along with his wife and two children Nancy and Kenyon, were found dead the next morning when friends arrived to catch a lift to church.  The book explores how this horrific crime affected the surrounding community, and how the authorities locally and across the US worked tirelessly to catch the culprits.  Alongside events in Kansas, Capote simultaneously offers us the story of the murderers themselves.  Perry Smith and Dick Hickock both had charismatic personalities and complicated back stories, and after the Clutter murders managed to evade the law for over a month and a half before they were finally captured, jailed and taken to trial for their crimes.  They were hanged in April 1965.

So far, so Crimewatch.  What really makes this book special is how much heart and soul Capote pours into it.  His eye for a good story and his focus on people rather than process render In Cold Blood as gripping and enjoyable as a novel.  The amount of painstaking work he must have put into bringing this sweeping story together is genuinely awe-inspiring.  For me, there was also the intriguing fact that Capote was known to have become close to Perry Smith during his research - how much did that skew how he was portrayed?  It was certainly fun to wonder as I was reading. 

Smith and Hickock sit right at the heart of the book, and it is their humanity that provided the most disturbing and thought-provoking aspect of my reading experience.  I found myself reflecting on the complexities of law and order, and the validity of the death penalty.  I began to consider the murderers more closely, to ponder whether one was more guilty than the other and what made them so - their mental health, their level of participation, their attitude?  There were moments where Hickock melted into a normal American boy, and many times where I felt genuine sympathy for Perry and quite liked him - until some little word or gesture reminded me exactly what I was reading and what he had done.

In short, In Cold Blood has everything I want from a book: intriguing characters, an exciting narrative, thought-provoking themes and superb writing.  The fact that the entire book is a work of true crime only adds to its brilliance, because every detail, movement and conversation had to have been so meticulously researched and slotted together to create this perfect piece of storytelling.  I now have the 1967 film adaptation to watch and two more Capote/Hickock/Smith movies to track down (Capote and Infamous) - and In Cold Blood is taking its place as one of my favourite reads of 2012!  Highly recommended.

Notable Quotables:
  • "Imagination... can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in.  Tuesday, at dawn, a carload of pheasant hunters from Colorado - strangers, ignorant of the local disaster - were startled by what they saw as they crossed the prairies and passed through Holcomb: windows ablaze, almost every window in almost every house, and, in the brightly lit rooms, fully clothed people, even entire families, who had sat the whole night wide awake, watchful, listening."
  • "'What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is a breath of a buffalo in the winterime.  It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.' - Said by Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian Chief."

Source:  I borrowed this book from my local library..