Monday, 17 November 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell / Hell's Angels by Hunter S Thompson / The Corsican Brothers and Otho The Archer by Alexandre Dumas

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has been sitting on our kindle since Dave downloaded and read it during last winter's travels. I have been put off by its brick-thick-ness as I'm not a great fan of books that take ages to read. However, our last few days in Almenara allowed me lots of lazing time so I finally got stuck in.

I've read David Mitchell before and liked Black Swan Green, but Thousand Autumns is a more serious novel. It does provide a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre crossover world of Dutch traders in - or at least very nearly in - 1800s Japan. The society with which these few Europeans wish to trade is closed, proud and rigidly governed, yet at the same time corrupt, misogynistic and seemingly stuck in a Medieval timewarp with regards to its technology. The reverse xenophobia of the Japanese officials being unable to tell European nationalities apart was a neat touch and I enjoyed reading about Dejima life and the day-to-day interactions between its residents. Descriptions of the buildings and courtly rituals are well presented and interesting. However, I couldn't buy in to the Ogiwa storyline and found it too bizarre. No doubt Mitchell's research would have uncovered a similar situation within the Japan of the time, but for me, the love triangle followed by the quests to rescue and avenge just didn't ring true.

Hell's AngelsHell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I registered a book at!

I was surprised to find a Hunter S Thompson book in Eastbourne's Age Uk shop, even more so when it turned out to be his reportage on the mid-sixties rise of the Hell's Angels. For 89p, I gave it a try.

Thompson spent the best part of a year living, partying and drinking with Hell's Angels chapters in California. At the beginning of the period about which he writes, they were a small, almost defunct motorcycle gang, but rabid press attention over a few months secured their fame so much that the name is now known world-wide and, indeed, the gangs still exist.
The overall impression I have come away with is that Angels life was mostly dull. Few are able to hold down a job and most of their time is spent in the same closed circle of company, half-cut or stoned, and repeating conversations for the nth time. Occasional runs out en masse for weekends 'camping' or bar room brawls relieve the tedium. The surprise is in the outrageous paranoia and hysteria that was whipped up by outwardly respectable newspapers printing exaggerated accounts of Angel activities. It is common these days that news is taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but it would seem that 1965 middle America expected to be able to trust their Press. The moral of this book must be that irresponsible journalism can be more damaging that any topic they choose to highlight. Reading of dozens of small towns right across America being so frightened that they were actually arming themselves against the imminent arrival of thousands of motorcycle hoodlums felt unreal. Especially as only a few hundred Angels and the like even existed at the time!

Thompson writes clearly and levelly of both the motorcycle gangs with whom he spent time and also of the police officers who were set against them. The inevitable violence is described and also contextualised and I was interested to read about the right-wing politics of many Angels. Had I considered it, I would have assumed the disenfranchised men to have been more left-leaning so their attacking Vietnam and Civil Rights protesters was unexpected.

I'm not sure I will rush to read more Thompson any time soon. Perhaps this was not the best of his to start with but, having heard so much about his work, I expected to be dazzled by the writing and wasn't. Maybe I'm just fifty years too late!

The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer (1904)The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This pairing of Dumas novellas makes for an odd book as, other than the author obviously, there is nothing to connect the two stories. Maybe they are earlier works of his which were later discovered because there is little of the flourish I expected in his writing.

The Corsican Brothers is a lightly supernatural tale of separated Siamese twins who retained a psychic connection. Dumas stars himself as narrator apparently seriously recounting an adventure undertaken in Corsica and its Parisian aftermath. There is lots of nice description of the Corsican landscape and of everyone's clothing and appearance, but I didn't think the story ever decided whether it wanted to be a spooky ghost-like tale, or a straight adventure so ultimately fell between the two stools.

Otho The Archer is an even stranger amalgamation of genres. This story meanders all over Medieval France being by turns chivalric romance, Christian religious fantasy, road trip, zombie epic, ghost story and history lesson. Despite, this it's not a bad read, but I wonder if this was Dumas' finished effort or if its publication happened by a more circuitous route. I felt as if several narrative strands had been sandwiched together, not because they realistically belonged, but more to make up enough of a word count.

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