15 Years – Remembering Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (July 18th 1937 – February 20th 2005)

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Photo Credit: David Hiser (see bottom of post for more details)

 

Hard to believe that today marks the 15th anniversary of Hunter’s death. I was studying at Regis University in Denver when I learned that he had taken his life at his beloved Owl Farm in Woody Creek. The timing was weird, I had only been talking about him with some friends the previous night in the Hilltop Bar, the favourite watering hole for Regis students and assorted colorful characters that lived near the university. It was the kind of establishment that you could well imagine Hunter holding court, full of weirdness, laughter and an eclectic mix of Americana on the jukebox. The recent election was on everyone’s mind, someone mentioned Hunter and I told them he had been writing about it for ESPN. His most recent column, and what would be sadly his last, involved a conversation he had with Bill Murray, a fellow Regis alumni (and Hilltop!), in which Hunter discussed a new sport he had invented – Shotgun Golf. One of my friends remarked that it was a miracle that Hunter hadn’t shot himself by now. That was February 19th.  Like Hunter, the bar is gone now too.

I had tried to visit Woody Creek in October of 2004 in the hope of running into The Good Doctor himself, urged on by Professor Daryl Palmer, my English Literature teacher at Regis University. He had encouraged me to write my final year dissertation on Hunter and his work. It would be great if I could score an interview, no matter how unlikely.  The trip was nothing short of a disaster, I had set off on a whim one weekend close to Halloween with some friends and needless to say we were totally unprepared for the dramatic and unpredictable mountain weather. Somewhere around Breckenridge we pulled off the highway to visit a lookout point for a short rest from the road. Within minutes of our detour a massive blizzard descended and trapped us on the mountainside for the night. I had brought with me a gift for Hunter that I picked up in Heathrow Airport, a bottle oi absinthe, the first bottle of which had supposedly been sold to one Johnny Depp who had also bought it for his good friend – Hunter S. Thompson. I figured it would be my trump card to lure him out of Owl Farm, if not I’d leave it outside his front gate and hope that he got it. Only a fool would dare to enter Owl Farm uninvited.

We barely made it through the night. The temperature plunged well below zero and I thought we were going to freeze to death at the side of the mountain. I can’t remember why we couldn’t rely on the heater in the car but there was some sort of problem. The absinthe was cracked open and consumed. By the morning we looked and felt like slightly warmed up death. We also had altitude sickness. We slid down the road towards Breckenridge for some breakfast and much coffee. Woody Creek was another few hours up the road, at an even higher elevation. We quickly concluded that only a goddamn lunatic would live in such a place and that it would be better to return in the spring or summer when it was more hospitable.

Sadly that was never to happen. George W. Bush got re-elected, the mood everywhere turned foul. Football season was over.

When news of Hunter’s death broke I was saddened but not entirely surprised. Friends dropped by my dorm room to see if I had heard, they all knew I loved his writing. As I was walking across the quad, I ran into Professor Palmer.

“You jinxed him!” he shouted upon spotting me. “Now you have to write about him.”

The coverage of Hunter’s death continued that week. A lot of it bothered me, with the focus more concerned with his celebrity than the fact that he was a great American writer. It felt wrong and it was wrong. He deserved better.

I returned to Ireland and wrote the dissertation. I got an A grade. After graduation, my English lecturer Dr. Eugene O’Brien asked me if I would like to do an MA in English. That quickly snowballed into a PhD. My dissertation title was – “The Genesis of the Hunter Figure: A study of the Dialectic between the Biographical and the Aesthetic in the Early Writings of Hunter S. Thompson.” It was 130,000 words in length. The viva voce, or dissertation defense, took place on February 21st 2018, a day after Hunter’s anniversary. A huge photo of Hunter projected onto a big screen in the exam room looked down upon me as I defended my work. My external examiner was Professor William McKeen of Boston University and author of Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. McKeen was brilliant and the hour and a half discussion flew by. After a brief deliberation, I was awarded a Mode A, no corrections and the highest grade you can get. It was a great feeling to reach that point after years of really hard work.

In closing, here is an excerpt from the conclusion of my PhD dissertation. It gives a flavour of what the whole thing was about. I am currently working on getting it published in book form.

Spare a thought for Hunter’s family and friends today, keep them in your thoughts. Hopefully Hunter, wherever he is, has found peace at last.

 

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic
conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything,
means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast,
vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a
seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was
faithful to the end.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

 

It has been fifty years since Hunter S. Thompson made his breakthrough onto the literary scene with the publication of his first major work, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. Were he alive today, Thompson would have just marked his 80th birthday. It has been over a decade now since Thompson’s death, yet interest in his life and work is as fervent as ever. The Hunter Figure, with his aviator shades, converse tennis shoes, Hawaiian shirts and cigarette holder, has become a modern-day myth, a pop culture reference known to millions who have never read a single word of his writings. His trademark phrase, ‘Fear and Loathing’ has become part of the public lexicon, inevitably invoked with each election cycle, and recognised around the world as a succinct epithet for contemptuous human behaviour. Likewise, ‘Gonzo’ has flourished to describe all manner of first-person subjective endeavours, particularly those that reject established traditions. Thompson is one of those rare writers who have had the honour of contributing  a word to the dictionary, with ‘Gonzo’ now a standard entry, its first widespread use being attributed to Thompson’s brand of journalism, even if the origins of the word are uncertain.

Indeed, uncertainty has followed Gonzo since Thompson popularised the phrase, with its meaning, origin and Thompson’s brand of journalism confounding many a critic. Defining what Gonzo is was no simple task, not least to Thompson himself, who had adopted the phrase as a convenient way to distinguish his own writing from that of the New Journalism movement. Explaining and defining it, was an entirely different matter, with Thompson viewing his most celebrated Gonzo Journalism effort, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as a failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism (Thompson 2003, p. 106) Ultimately, Gonzo Journalism became whatever Hunter S. Thompson wrote. This confusion as to what exactly Gonzo is in terms of epistemology, even had its own pop culture reference in the form of Gonzo the Muppet, with the ambiguity surrounding his species used as a point of comedy throughout the Muppet show – ‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane …What is it? It’s Gonzo!’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper he is shipped to Blighty in a crate labelled ‘Whatever’ (Elborough 2005, p. 15). In his review of Muppets from Space (1999), critic Roger Ebert stated: ‘The funniest scene in Muppets from Space is the first one, where Gonzo is refused a place on Noah’s Ark because he is one of a kind’ (http://www.rogerebert. com/reviews/muppets-from-space-1999). Likewise, this has long been a problem when it comes to critically evaluating the work of Hunter S. Thompson. The tendency has long been to downplay the Hunter Figure persona and to emphasis Thompson’s creation of Gonzo Journalism as the measure of his literary worth. This has proven to be enormously problematic when it comes to evaluating, not just Thompson’s work, particularly the latter half of his career, but also his legacy and influence. The present study argues that it is fact the Hunter Figure that is Thompson’s greatest literary achievement, serving as the fulcrum around which Gonzo Journalism operates. Indeed, this helps to address many of the problems concerning Gonzo Journalism, from determining its merit as a unique genre; to issues regarding its definition; to questions concerning Thompson’s literary influence. By recognising the Hunter Figure as Thompson’s greatest work, we must reconsider not just the early part of Thompson’s career (as in this thesis) but in fact his entire literary oeuvre. In the foreword to Thompson’s second volume of letters, David Halberstam writes:

His voice is sui generis. He is who he is. No one created Hunter other than Hunter. Somehow he found his voice, and he knew, before anyone else, that it was special. It is not to be imitated, and I can’t think of anything worse than for any young journalist to try and imitate Hunter. That’s the price of being an original. There’s room for only one on the ark. (Halberstam in Thompson 2001, p. x)

It is fitting that the ark is used in reference to the uniqueness of Gonzo, albeit in two entirely different contexts, and with two entirely different outcomes. Thompson always warned of the pitfalls of following in his footsteps. Given the role of the Hunter Figure as the focal point of Gonzo Journalism, coupled with the enormity of that presence, attempts by other writers to pursue Gonzo Journalism frequently results in misguided pastiche. Without the Hunter Figure, Gonzo Journalism loses its heart and authenticity.

The dictionary definition for Gonzo also presents us a second alternative meaning for the word, one that addresses another aspect of our understanding of Thompson and the Hunter Figure, namely a sense of the bizarre or the crazy. This resurrects a longstanding problem that the Hunter Figure has presented for academia, with Thompson’s persona too easily utilised as justification for dismissing the credibility of his writing amongst critics. To do so however, is to misunderstand Thompson almost entirely. In his tribute to Thompson in the aftermath of his death, Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, invoked the figure of the Madman prophet from Jewish mysticism in relation to this very issue:

I have heard more than once that Hunter S. Thompson is a madman. That oh look at what he could have done if he lived a more sane life. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, preeminent Jewish author, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in THE TOWN BEYOND THE WALL, says: ‘Mad Moishe, the fat man who cries when he sings and laughs when he is silent…Moishe – I speak of the real Moishe, the one who hides behind the madman – is a great man. He is far-seeing. He sees worlds that remain inaccessible to us. His madness is only a wall, erected to protect us- us: to see what Moishe’s bloodshot eyes see would be dangerous.’ In Jewish mysticism the prophet often bears the facade of madness. Hunter S. Thompson stands in direct lineage to the great writers and prophets. And as with the prophets of old, the message may be too painful for the masses to tolerate, to hear, to bear. They may, and usually do, condemn, even kill, the messenger. Hunter stood as long as he could. He fought a valiant fight. (Whitehead, http://www.tappingmyownphone.com /tribute-to-hunter-s-thompson/)

Whitehead has perhaps, come closest of anyone to understanding what the Hunter Figure was, and the manner in which Thompson utilised his persona throughout his writing. For Thompson, it was all about the greater truths, which lay at the core of his persona, and the core of his entire oeuvre. It was no coincidence that his mail-order doctorate came from the Church of the New Truth. Thompson appreciated truth when he saw it, even if it was cloaked in apparent madness. This is evident in a letter Thompson wrote to Selma Shapiro, publicist at Random House in 1969, in which he praised Frederick Exley’s novel A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir of Frederick Exley that addressed the carnage that alcoholism, mental illness and obsessive fandom had inflicted upon his life. Addressing the American Dream and the consequences of failing to achieve it led to comparisons with The Great Gatsby, no doubt one of the reasons that it appealed to Thompson’s sensibilities. In writing to Shapiro however, he singled out another aspect of the book that had caught his attention: ‘there is something very good and right about it, hard to define. He’s not a “good writer” in any classic sense, and most of what he says makes me feel I’d prefer to avoid him . . . but the book is still good. Very weird. I suppose it’s the truth-level, a demented kind of honesty’ (Thompson 2001, p. 184). David Halberstam singled out the same quote for its importance in his foreword to Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968 – 1976, with Halberstam also quoting from another portion of that letter in which Thompson states ‘it’s clear to me – and has been since the age of 10 or so – that most people are bastards, thieves and yes – even pigfuckers’ (Thompson 2001, p. 185). As Halberstam notes: ‘that is, I think, a very important passage, and perhaps the most revealing in the book – it shows what he is really about and what he is searching for, and why his work is so powerful. It’s all in the truths’ (Halberstam in Thompson 2001, p. xi).

Truth, authenticity, honesty – these words became the preserve of Hunter S. Thompson and part of the very DNA of the Hunter Figure, cloaked in the mantle of the righteous outlaw. Recalling the first time he met Thompson, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner acknowledges that what he saw was already ‘classic, fully formed Hunter’ (Wenner 2007, p. 245). The focus of this study has been to delineate the genesis of the Hunter Figure in his earlier writings, and to demonstrate the extraordinary manner in which Thompson fused his life and work in a complex creative process: the intricate self-referential circular dance took on a momentum that propelled and encouraged Thompson to take ever more radical choices and to increasingly break boundaries both in terms of living and literature. The end result, was that Hunter S. Thompson revolutionised journalism and his commitment to his aesthetic ultimately cost him his life.

Dr Rory Feehan 2017

 

PS: The above photo by David Hiser is my favourite of Hunter. You can buy prints of it signed by David at Gonzo Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

GonzoFest 2018 Literary Journalism Contest

Reposting from LibraryJournal

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Together with the Louisville Public Library and BiblioBoard, We’re celebrating the national expansion of the GonzoFest Literary Contest — and invite all public libraries, their independent authors, and writer communities to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Has there ever been a more suitable time than 2018 for fire-honed and razor-edged journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson?

To encourage such work, and to honor our hometown hero Thompson’s memory, the directors of the annual GonzoFest Louisville event invite writers and artists from all corners of the world to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism and art of any kind to enter this year’s literary and art contests.

There is no type of story preferred over another — so long as it’s true, and interesting. The emphasis will be on the quality of the writing, and the significance of the story it tells.

Entries between 1,250 and 2,000 words are encouraged. They must be unpublished non-fiction, based on the author’s original reporting, observations or insights. Please include a cover page containing the author’s name, address, and contact information — as well as a brief statement attesting to the entry’s originality.

Entries must be submitted via the Literary Contest Portal.
All 2018 literary submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. EDT on March 28, 2018.

Link for submitting 

The winning entry will be considered for publication in the GonzoFest edition of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, Louisville’s venerable alternative weekly.  The author will also be honored during the festival, and receive a $1,000 cash prize, thanks to contest sponsor BiblioBoard. BiblioBoard is a community engagement platform for libraries, helping the library connect with and distribute works from local writers, journalists, musicians, artists, filmmakers and other cultural partners.  Also supporting the contest as BiblioBoard’s Media Partner is Library Journal, which will feature the winning entry on its website.  Library Journal is the most trusted and respected publication for the library community.

The judges, which include prominent journalists from across the U.S. and Europe, encourage work that is reported with a keen eye for detail and written in a bold and elegant style, as Thompson’s best work was. The judges for 2018 will be posted soon.

Questions: 

Michael Lindenberger
Gonzo Festival Literary Contest coordinator
The Dallas Morning News
mlindenberger@dallasnews.com.

Gonzo Gallery and Thomas W. Benton Update

Hi folks,

First of all a belated Happy New Year to you all! Lets hope 2014 is a good one to everybody.

I know updates have been few and far between in recent months, which is due to the amount of PhD related work that I have been wading through. As my thesis is now in the final stretches I hope to be able to devote a little more time to the site this year, not to mention finally finish that damn PhD once and for all.

Anyway, I have been in touch with DJ Watkins recently and he was kind enough to update me on changes to the official Gonzo Gallery and Tom Benton websites.

Here is what he had to say:

The Gonzo Gallery is now officially broadcasting from www.gonzogallery.com. Artwork by the usual cast of characters – Thomas W. Benton, Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson, and William S. Burroughs – is now online including work that’s never been available for purchase before. 
 
We also decided to leave behind the old Thomas W. Benton website and showcase his work in a lavishly post-modern style at www.tomwbenton.com. Unlike our previous, quasi-analog site, you can actually purchase original prints and paintings now.  
 
And if two new websites weren’t enough, curators, important curators, who stand as pillars of artistic acumen have chosen to include The Gonzo Museum in the Art Genome Project (Think Pandora for artwork) and feature the Museum on their website Artsy. Thus, Gonzo joins the illustrious ranks of The Getty and The Guggenheim in the annals of art history proving that savage genius will survive in an era of reality television and Snapchat. 
I have said it before and I will happily say it again – DJ Watkins has really done a sterling job on the above. Delighted to hear about the Art Genome Project and it is a testament to the fine job he has done in bringing the collections into the digital age. A lot of this material would be simply unavailable to people if it wasn’t for DJ and his dedication. He also has some more plans in store for 2014 so stay tuned to find out more.
All the best,
Rory

The Gonzo Museum

Hi guys,

First post of 2013 and a long overdue one at that! Some of you will recall the review I posted a while back of Thomas Benton: Artist/Activist by DJ Watkins which I thoroughly recommended at the time as an excellent addition to any Gonzo library. Well DJ Watkins didn’t just finish there and has since established The Gonzo Museum in Aspen. Check out the videos below to see the excellent museum that he has managed to put together. An absolute must see for any Gonzo fiend that finds themselves in that neck of the woods! If you are lucky enough to get to see this, make sure to tell the folks there that you heard about it at Totallygonzo. I promise they won’t run you out of the building.

All the best,

Rory

July 18 – Happy Birthday HST

 I always figured I would live on the margins of society, part of a very small Outlaw segment.

–  Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937 – Feb 20, 2005)

The Outsider’s case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnameable impulses, yet they keep up a pretence, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for Truth.

– Colin Wilson The Outsider

GONZO READING PROJECT PRESENTS…

An unabridged live reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” By Hunter S. Thompson

Aspen— Hunter S. Thompson very much enjoyed hearing his work read out loud and in the moment. It could be an older piece or something new. Reading aloud made the writing come alive.

In that spirit and to celebrate what would be the journalist’s 75th birthday, The Gonzo Reading Project is hosting a continuous reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” on Saturday, July 14th. at The Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado. The live performance project is scheduled to begin atnoon and take about seven hours—depending upon circumstances.

Friends from far and wide will gather to participate and read at one the iconic institutions in Gonzo literature.

“Slower,” Hunter would inevitably say to the reader. He wrote his work to have a certain cadence, and he liked to hear every comma. If you are interested in reading a part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas please email: info@gonzoreadingproject.com.

Will you buy the ticket and take the ride? Are you ready to read?
WHAT: Unabridged live reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” By: Hunter S. Thompson

WHO: The Gonzo Reading Project, Friends and Family of the late Hunter S. Thompson

WHERE: The Hotel Jerome’s Green Library, Fat City, USA

WHEN: Saturday, July 14, 2012 at High Noon

 

You can also watch the event on a live webcast at the following link: –  http://www.ustream.tv/channel/gonzo-reading-project 

 

Many thanks to the folks over at The Gonzo Reading Project for the info.

 

All the best,

 

Rory

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Bulletin Board & All Nite Shooting Range

Hi guys,

As some of have noticed the HST Bulletin Board has vanished from the net in recent times. Unfortunately nobody appears to know why, much less know how to contact the people behind that odd corner of the internet.

So if anyone out there is in the know, can you please email me totallygonzo@gmail.com and hopefully we can get the board back online.

It would be a shame to see it vanish into the ether.

Rory

Review – Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist

Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist 

This stunning coffee-table compilation of Tom Benton’s art is a treasure trove of material that is of huge significance to not only political art history, but also the history of Gonzo Journalism.

Many of you are of course already familiar with Benton through his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters and his striking skull design for the cover of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Yet to date Benton’s work has remained largely inaccessible, with the Aspen Wallposters proving to be particularly elusive due to their scarcity and the high price that they command on the rare occasion that they become available on the market.

Since I started this website just over three years ago, I have been inundated with enquiries regarding the Aspen Wallposters. I think it is fair to say that Benton has been criminally overlooked, not just in relation to his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, but also in terms of his contribution to protest art and political activism both at a local and national level.

In this sense, full credit must go to Daniel J. Watkins for undertaking the mammoth project of cataloguing over 500 pieces of art spanning five decades of Benton’s career, a task that involved traversing the length and breadth of the country in search of these prints, all of which were produced in limited unnumbered runs. No mean feat.

From this wider collection, Watkins has selected 150 prints divided into sections representing the evolution of Benton’s career, from his first posters as advertisements for various businesses and events in Aspen, through his political activism and collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, to his later foray into abstract monotypes and oil paintings. The final section showcases the four buildings that Benton designed and built in Aspen.

Considering that my knowledge of art is fairly limited, I must admit that my initial interest in this book was based solely on the fact that the Aspen Wallposters were finally going to be widely available to the Gonzo community. In many ways they remained one of the final pieces of the Gonzo jigsaw that had yet to fall into place, which is pretty remarkable given the prominent role they have played in relation to Thompson’s infamous Campaign for Sheriff of Aspen, as detailed in his Rolling Stone article The Battle of Aspen – Freak Power in the Rockies. However, the influence of Benton upon Thompson, and vice versa, goes far beyond this collaboration, a fact that is evident from the very first image presented in this book – A stark ,volatile, grey and white print emblazoned with the words – ‘The Garden of Agony – Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.’ The footnote informs us that ‘The Garden of Agony’ was the name of Benton’s studio.

Any doubt that Benton was cut from the very same cloth as Thompson, certainly in a political and philosophical manner, are firmly laid to rest by the inclusion of Peggy Clifford’s excellent interview with Benton at the beginning of this book. When asked about his thoughts on American people in general, Benton replied – ‘Most of them are robots. When I go to Los Angeles and I see those people content with smog and congestion and not rebelling, I have to think they they’ve been brainwashed.’ On his opinion of the corporate interests taking over Aspen he states – ‘I think they are going to win. I’m a pessimist, but I’m not a pacifist. I think you ought to take your cuts at them. If you’re going to go down, go down fighting.’

 Given the deep affection for Aspen that was central to Benton’s creative drive it is unsurprising that he found the perfect platform of expression through the medium of campaign posters centred on local politics (and later on a national level). What is intriguing about many of these posters is the manner through which Benton’s aesthetic approach integrated political slogans with powerful visual symbols of the natural beauty of the Aspen wilderness. Of course there are exceptions, such as his poster for the Woody Creek Caucus which is emblazoned with one of the greatest political slogans I have ever seen (the hallmark of a certain Doctor that lived there).

Indeed it is of course the Gonzo section of the book that showcases the most recognisable aspect of Benton’s political art. The content included here is a rare treat for any fan of Hunter S. Thompson with the aforementioned Aspen Wallposters taking centre stage (all of which fold-out from the book). Their inclusion marks the first time that all six posters, each including Thompson’s writing on the reverse, have been made available since the original run of prints in 1970. I don’t want to spoil the details so all I will say is that the posters and accompanying text is pure vintage Gonzo at its best. To finally have this material is to fill a gap in the Gonzo narrative that has been there for far too long. Yet this is not the only Gonzo material that Watkins has included here, with an original voter registration poster for the Thompson for Sheriff campaign also featured, together with an article from The Aspen Times on the “Scurrilous Sheet” by Benton and Thompson and finally the two-page advertisement from Scanlan’s magazine in relation the ill-fated Nixon Wallposter.

 Benton’s collaboration with Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters appears to have been a seminal event in his artistic development, certainly in terms of influence carried forward in relation to his political art. The activism section of the book clearly illustrates this, with many of Benton’s prints echoing his work with Thompson, which is perhaps facilitated by the subject matter – a thorough disdain for Richard Nixon and American foreign policy.

 Overall this book is a testament to a man who not just embodied artistic vision, but who also had the courage and the passion to use his gift to make his feelings known in a world where speaking up is frequently rewarded with being shot down. Benton’s art tells a story, not just about a single cause or person, it is multi-faceted – at once portrait of a life, a city and a nation.

EDIT: You can buy the book here.