Ham On Rye

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 24, 2011 by acousticchick

I can’t decide what, particularly, about ‘Ham On Rye’ made me want to drink an entire bottle of wine. Maybe I was simply inspired by the alcoholism of the main character, Henry: As he knocked back bottle after bottle, my brain could have decided, “Hmm, wine sounds tasty.” It’s equally possible that Charles Bukowski’s unapologetically harsh storytelling shat all over my childlike sense of optimism, leaving me depressed to the point of desiring drink.
In small doses, Bukowski is refreshing. I read a collection of some of his short stories a while back, and his gritty, I-don’t-give-a-fuck writing was darkly funny and just depraved enough to be entertaining. In ‘Ham On Rye,’ Bukowski tells what I understand to be an autobiographical story of childhood, but there’s absolutely nothing halcyon or youthful about it. His main character is tired and scarred as an old man before even graduating high school.

The story opens with Henry’s first vague memories. As a child, he’s confused and held down by his asshole father. As he gets older, he discovers fighting, girls, and alcohol but he also discovers books. That’s the one thing I loved about Henry: He was a jerk who picked fights, but he was also a dreamer. He had to be hard because the world was hard, but he retained something that you could possibly call a soul. He became a writer.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. Just because my hopelessly hopeful brain found something inspiring in ‘Ham On Rye’ doesn’t make it a nice, tidy story about a guy who overcomes hardship to follow his heart. If that’s what you want to read, this is not the book for you. There’s no sugarcoating. Some really awful stuff happens, not just your run-of-the-mill crappy childhood experiences.

I couldn’t put the book down. There’s something captivating about misery, something that goes beyond pity. Everyone’s broken, even if we aren’t broken in the same way; so Henry’s story was easy to relate to, even though my experiences have been far from identical.

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Poetics

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on March 21, 2011 by acousticchick

With a name like ‘Poetics,’ I figured this was a book of Aristotle’s poetry. Enthusiastic, I set out to read the forty-odd pages in a single sitting. After valiantly re-reading the first page at least four times, I realized that that was not going to happen.

As it turns out, ‘Poetics’ is an essay about poetry. It didn’t take forever to read because it was boring in fact, some parts were quite interesting, especially to a reader who has any interest in linguistics but the essay is so detailed that it’s hard to follow. This is a rare example of something I’d rather read in a classroom setting. I’m sure there’s a lot to get out of it, but without a little guidance, I floundered.

21 Great Stories

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 17, 2011 by acousticchick

I love short stories: Why use three hundred pages to say what only needs twenty? And this is a good collection of them all of the stories were well-written and there was a healthy variety of genre and subject matter. I enjoyed most of them, and the worst I can say about the few I didn’t care for is that they didn’t hold my attention. And now (since I’m tired of trying to think of a segue), here are twenty-one great stories, summarized in twenty-one words or fewer.

‘War’ by Luigi Pirandello
This story is about war, but it’s more about the dichotomy between what a person says and what he feels.

‘Eve In Darkness’ by Kaatje Hurlbut
Told from a child’s perspective, this one plays with the definition of sin.

‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury
He’s not dead yet, but I couldn’t very well ignore him. Ray Bradbury is the shit.

‘Tobermory’ by “Saki”
A talking housecat calls rich dinner guests out on their character flaws. The humans’ response is surprisingly sinister.

‘The Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany
A story about murder that’s half Sherlock Holmes and half Alfred Hitchcock: short, sweet, and grisly.

‘Footfalls’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele
I’m usually pretty good at figuring out how a story will end; this one completely surprised me.

‘Hook’ by Walter Van Tilburg Clarke
This one’s about a hawk. It’s good and all, but still…that’s it.

‘Wine on the Desert’ by Max Brand
Some jerk murders someone and then dies. The foreshadowing is a little too obvious.

‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ by Frank Stockton
I’d forgotton that I’d already read this story. I love it, and I love the question it asks.

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce
The twist ending is lackluster. The story is about a guy who gets hanged. It doesn’t really stand out.

‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe
In eighth grade, this story was ruined for me by an audiobook narrator with a lumbering voice.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
Classic, predictable Poe there’s darkness, death, and neuroticism. At least it’s well-written neuroticism.

‘So Much Unfairness of Things’ by C. D. B. Bryan
A boy gets expelled from school for cheating. Really good character writing.

‘The Necklace’ by Guy de Maupassant
A story about the consequences of being a greedy, vain bitch.

‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes. Enough said.

‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London
Dude travels alone, on foot, in negative-seventy-five degree weather. Dude freezes to death. Surprise.

‘Leiningen Versus the Ants’ by Carl Stephenson
An M. Night Shyamalan movie where the twist is wait for it the bad guys are ANTS.

‘Eveline’ by James Joyce
Girl has hard life, girl gets chance to escape, girl chickens out. Thinking about why she chickened out is fun, though.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber
To Walter Mitty, reality is whatever he imagines, and what everyone else calls real is a distraction. Sweet.

‘What Stumped the Bluejays’ by Mark Twain
Exactly what you’d expect from Mark Twain: funny and charming.

‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck
A long-winded morality tale. “Riches corrupt” is an old story. But “man = half god, half insane” was a neat idea.

Walden

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 12, 2011 by acousticchick

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” – Thoreau

‘Walden’ is basically Thoreau’s journal, but instead of recording his thoughts and experiences for himself, he wrote to edify his audience and it worked. The highest praise I can give an author is that his or her book changed something. ‘Walden’ didn’t change the state of the world, but it did change the way I thought about a few things. As I read the book, I became more and more envious of Thoreau’s minimalism. Tired of “needing” things that aren’t necessary at all, I gave up coffee and cigarettes.

Not every chapter is riveting, but it’s certainly not a dull book. It was written purposefully, and there is a richness to the details of Thoreau’s storytelling that saves it from being pedantic, whether he’s writing about ants fighting or the depth of the ice. (Though I admit the chapters about winter are about as wearing as the season itself.)

I thought I’d be bored by ‘Walden.’ I doubted Thoreau could have much to say about living alone in a one-room cabin. Instead, I was pretty deeply inspired by the lifestyle he presented in this memoir. Henry David Thoreau really lived, really noticed things instead of taking them for granted. He wasn’t compelled to live at a breakneck pace, didn’t try to impress anyone, and wasn’t inclined to materialism. That’s a lifestyle that I want to emulate.

The Best Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on March 4, 2011 by acousticchick

Well, the unthinkable has happened. I have read a book of Dostoevsky’s writing, and I have absolutely nothing to whine about. Dostoevsky positively shines in short form. Each of the seven short stories in the collection I read featured both a plot and a perfectly acceptable amount of rambling so acceptable, in fact, that I can’t even really call it rambling.

The collection starts out with “White Nights,” which the author calls “a sentimental love story.” It was nice of Dostoevsky to warn me about what I was getting into, but I didn’t find it sentimental at all. Given that it’s a Russian tale, there was a nicely subtle bitterness to it that kept me from wanting to puke. Basically, a girl likes two dudes. The expected drama ensues, she picks one, and the other is all, “Well, at least I had her for a moment,” except it’s Dostoevsky, so he says, “Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” As far as happy endings go, that’s one of the more sorrowful I’ve ever read.

“The Honest Thief” and “The Peasant Marey” are character sketches. In both stories, the plot is straightforward and static and the characters are complex and thoughtful. This sort of writing makes me squirm it’s so easy to identify with the scummy motives or intense feelings the characters are experiencing.

“The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” is a pleasantly creepy story of pedophilia and greed. Over the course of nine pages, a sticky-fingered old man hits on a little girl born to a rich family, charms her mother, and marries the child, who is just old enough to realize that she’s going to live the rest of her life in despair.

“Notes From the Underground” was the first story that I was apprehensive about. Given that it’s the longest in this collection, I was expecting Dostoevsky to relapse into tangents, but instead he takes you through the ins and outs of his main character’s brain as he analyzes himself and philosophizes about the world. And as an added bonus, things actually happen. The story hops back and forth from introspection to action frequently enough to keep even my attention span engaged.

“A Gentle Creature” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” I read during the delirium of illness, so while I got the general idea of the stories, I didn’t pick up on any of the subtleties. I’m going to go ahead and assume they were as awesome as the others.

So kudos to Dostoevsky. In short form, the philosophy and psychology of his writing is clear and sharp. I’m not recanting what I’ve said about him before, but I have a new appreciation for his writing after having read these stories.

The Metamorphoses

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2011 by acousticchick

I love Roman mythology for the same reason one of my best friends loves video games: I can’t ride a chariot made of fire in real life, but I can read about it. That said, Ovid doesn’t really have anything to add to the stories I’ve heard before. He doesn’t skimp on the gore and orgies, but all the uncontrollable hormones in the world wouldn’t make ‘The Metamorphoses’ a must-read.

My lamentable attention span probably casts an undeserved shroud on the book. It’s not a bad read, but it isn’t broken up very well. Instead of using chapters, Ovid strung all the stories together with little more than an “and then.” Sometimes I found myself in the middle of a new myth without noticing that the previous one had ended and had to backtrack, which always makes me twitch.

When I did know what was going on, though, I enjoyed Ovid’s writing. ‘The Metamorphoses’ was written as a poem, which is probably why the prose translation I read felt musical and almost feminine. I wasn’t really a fan of the convoluted sentences the translator substituted for verses, though I guess I can’t pick on him until I learn Latin.

As a whole, ‘The Metamorphoses’ is a little tedious, but the individual stories are as entertaining as a reader could want. Whenever mortals and gods wander around pissed-off or lust-ridden (or both), exciting circumstances ensue. And hey, one of the myths inspired a poorly-drawn comic by yours truly.

American parenting as illuminated by Phoebus and Phaethon.

Fathers And Sons

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on February 9, 2011 by acousticchick

BOORRRIINNNGGG.

‘Fathers and Sons’ shouldn’t have taken a week to read. It’s a short book, but it didn’t take long to bore the snot out of me, and once it did, I had to suppress a groan every time I opened it. The only thing the novel has to boast about is a been-there-done-that banality that isn’t even worth getting mad about. It’s instantly forgettable.

I have no idea why Turgenev named his book ‘Fathers and Sons,’ as it has nothing to do with that relationship. Yeah, there are fathers in it. There are also sons and peasants and a few chicks, and none of them did anything worth mentioning. One son brings a school pal home to visit. The pal, Bazarov, is an arrogant nihilist who gets into arguments, falls in love, and then dies. Admittedly, it sounds slightly interesting in summary, but I assure you it’s not at all interesting to read.

Apparently the book was supposed to be about the peasant class, which is weird, given that I remember exactly one scene containing peasants. I don’t know what Turgenev was going for with this one. Unless it was an unimaginative plot with a dull delivery, he failed.