Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski

1982; 283 pages. Genre : Modern American Literature; Semi-autobiography. Overall Rating : B..

    With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Charles Bukowski introduces you to his alter ego - Henry "Hank" Chinaski. Ham On Rye covers the first 21 years of Chinaski's life - starting in 1920, going through the Great Depression and ending with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to hard times, Henry hails from a tough neighborhood in L.A., and has an abusive father, and a spineless mother to contend with at home.

.What's To Like...
    Henry is the classic anti-hero; sporting a crappy attitude towards school and home, friends and foes, jobs and bosses, girls amd women, and just about everything else. There's only two things he likes in the world - drinking and literature. He devours authors like D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, Turgenev, and Gorky.

.The book is a quick read - there are no nuances here. But there is a lot of dark humor, keen insight, and a catchy writing style.. Here's an excerpt :
"The rich guys like to dart their cars in and out, swiftly, sliding up, burning rubber, their cars glistening in the sunlight as the girls gathered around. Classes were a joke, they were all going somewhere for college, classes were just a routine laugh, they got good grades, you seldom saw them with books, you just saw them burning more rubber, gunning from the curb with their cars full of squealing and laughing girls. I watched them with my 50 cents in my pocket. I didn't even know how to drive a car..Meanwhile the poor and the lost and the idiots continued to flock around me. I had a place I liked to eat under the football grandstand. I had my brown bag with my two bologna sandwiches. They came around, "Hey, Hank, can I eat with you?"

.There's a lot of cussing in Ham On Rye. Indeed, I was hard-pressed to find a stretch of sentences for the excerpt that didn't have cuss words in it. There's also a lot of drinking and fighting. If Henry can't find a stranger to fight, he'll start punching out one of his friends, then get drunk with him afterwards. There isn't a lot of sex, although there's a lot of talking and dreaming about it. By the end of the book, Henry still hasn't scored with a girl. Heck, he hasn't even reached first base.

Laureate of the low-life; poet of the punks...
Opinions are mixed about Bukowski. He's the polar opposite of John Milton. But he can weave a story. Open Ham On Rye to any page, and you'll find a captivating tale. I think he could hold the reader's interest talking about watching paint dry.

.I give Ham On Rye a "B". I liked the book, even though I couldn't relate to Bukowski's/Chinaski's life. At the end, it was obvious that Henry was going to turn out to be a homeless drunk or a published author. Or both. In real life, that's exactly what happened to Bukowski.
This is a book to read when you're feeling rebellious, anti-establishment, and smart-mouthed. Put on a Sex Pistols CD and enjoy the story.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Spoon River Anthology - Edgar Lee Masters

1915; 316 pages. Genre : Classic Literature; Free Verse Poetry. Original price of this book (1962) : 95 cents. Used price (2009) : $2.00. Overall Rating : B+.

   .Spoon River Anthology consists of 244 epitaphs from the graveyard in fictional Spoon River, a small town in Illinois. Edgar Lee Masters summons up a wide variety of characters from his present clear back to the Revolutionary War. There are arsonists, drunkards, murderers, pioneer women, artists, immigrants, atheists, farmers, politicians, mayors, clergymen, businessmen, a black, a Chinaman and a fiddler; just to name a few.

.What's To Like...
    Spoon River Anthology captures the essence of small-town life from a century ago. Which is remarkably similar to the essence of our modern-day life. The dead speak to us from their graves, and their musings cover a variety of topics. Some tell us how they died, others tell us about their spouse and family. A few confess long-held secrets. Some even use the opportunity to gossip about others.

.Masters does some loose arranging of the epitaphs, starting with the mundane people who fret about things like who they're buried next to, and why they don't have a fancier headstone. The epitaphs then head upward, finishing with those who choose to give us a short, inspirational message.
He even manages to hide his own epitaph in the book (Percival Sharp), and those of his grandparents (Lucinda and Davis Matlock). The dead are not all-knowing. Roscoe Purkapile makes up a tale about his being kidnapped by pirates. He writes how, when he came back to his wife after a year, she showed true love by blindly accepting his story. Mrs. Purkapile then reveals in her epitaph that she didn't buy one bit of his malarkey, but stayed with the scamp (he was having an affair, which he somehow failed to mention) only because of her marital vows.

.The book has its flaws. Masters gets overly flowery and philosophical at times, as he waxes Miltonesque. And the last 40 pages of the book cover something called The Spooniad (presumably a take-off of The Iliad) and the Epilog. The former is a re-hash of the 244 epitaphs, and who knows what the latter is. For me, both were a waste of time.

.Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm,
the clown, the boozer, and the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder. Spoon River Anthology was an instant hit, but he never came close to writing something of equal appeal and skill.

.Yet he had an affinity for the common man the way Steinbeck did. The rich, the powerful, and the religiously hypocritical generally don't fare very well here. This is a book for us plebeians.
.Only the Spooniad and Epilog keep this from being of "A" quality, so I'll rate it a B+. I still recommend it highly; just feel free to skip the last 40 pages.
Closing Epitaph...Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950. What follows is the epitaph his family put on his tomb, taken from one of his poems, "Tomorrow is my Birthday". It isn't from SRA, but is a nice example of his writing.

."Good friends, let's to the fields - I have a fever.
After a little walk, and by your pardon,
I think I'll sleep. There is no sweeter thing,
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep. Here, world,
I pass you like an orange to a child.
I can no more with you. Do what you will..."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sourcery - Terry Pratchett

1988; 260 pages. Book #5 in the Discworld series. Genres : Fantasy; spoof. Overall Rating : B+.
The 8th son of an 8th son of an 8th son always turns out to be a sourceror. And from a sourceror, magic just spontaneously gushes. Which causes massive upheavals in Discworld. Wizards change from stumblebums to conquering tyrants. Mage wars begin. The end of the (Disc)world is nigh, and the 4 Horsemen of the Apocralypse ride forth. Well, okay. One horseman and three pedestrians.
What's To Like...This is an early Discworld book, so there is lots of zaniness, mangled metaphors, and smashed similes. There's a slew of interesting characters, including :
Rincewind - our hero, and the most inept wizard imaginable
Nijel the Destroyer - son of Harebut the Provision Merchant
Conina the Hairdresser - Thief extraordinaire
Creosote the Seriph - a worse poet there never was
The Luggage - a 100-legged enfant terrible
The librarian - a learned simian with a 1-word vocabulary
a genie in a lamp - with a serious attitude problem.
Oook? Oook!The drawbacks are slight. At only 260-pages, it's a bit short. Although there is some character development (most notably Rincewind and The Luggage), there really isn't much depth of character. This was kind of a "transition" book for Pratchett- the tone is just a tad bit more serious than his earlier works, and the book loosely examines the themes of Power, Ambition, and Self-Sacrifice. With time, Pratchett's Discworld books get longer, a smidgen less zany, and a dab more insightful as his writing style evolves.

.Sourcery is a silly yet well-told spoof; perfect for when you want a bit of light-reading. We'll close with a brief philosophical exchange between DEATH (who always speaks in capital letters) and Ipslore, a wizard...

."I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?"
DEATH thought about it.
"CATS," he said eventually. "CATS ARE NICE."

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

2002; 328 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : winner of the 'Richard & Judy Best Read Award' (whatever that is). Rating : A-.

   ."My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer."

   .The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's first novel, examines the devastating effect the murder has on the victim's family, neighbors, and high school friends. It is told in the first-person, through the mind and eyes of Susie, as she looks down on the world from her self-realized heaven. Sebold draws upon personal experience in writing this novel; she was raped during her freshman year at Syracuse University.

.What's To Like...
The story is both heartwarming and brutal. The pacing is good and the ending isn't what I expected. There is emphasis on character studies, especially of Susie's family, each of whom reacts in a different way to the tragedy. The family unit is shattered, then works at putting itself back together. Susie matures as the book goes along, as is evidenced is in her writing.

.It isn't a perfect book. Parts of the ending seem forced, and if you're looking for a Crichton-esque technical explanation of how Susie flits around our world, time-hops, and reads people's minds, you'll be disappointed. Some people were critical that Sebold's depiction of heaven wasn't more "religious" in nature. Pooh to them; Sebold's vision of the afterlife is a pleasant non-preachy change.
"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence : the connections - sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent - that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life." (page 320).

.This is a story about hope and strength, and draws upon Sebold's actions in coping with her college rape. You can read the Wiki article about her here. The writing had a poetic feel to it, which I liked.
I give The Lovely Bones a solid "A-". Highly recommended, provided that the violence of Susie's death doesn't bother you. And in closing, I've heard that the movie version of it will be coming out later this year.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

2005; 383 pages. Book 1 of the "Nursery Crime" Series. Genre : Comic Fiction, Ffordian Slip. Overall Rating : B.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and isn't going to be put back together again. But was it an accident, suicide, or murder most fowl?

.Detective Jack Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary (who is a bit contrary) investigate Hump's death, while at the same time fending off a hostile takeover by a vainglorious colleague and trying to keep the Nursery Crime Division from being a victim of budget cuts.

.What's To Like...
    There's the usual amount of Fforde's zaniness, puns, complexity, wit, clever character names, and plot twists. TBOE is a bit more plot-driven than the Thursday Next series (face it, we care more about what happens to the plot of Jane Eyre than we do about what happens to Thursday's husband). The ending of TBOE is great.
.As expected, a whole slew of nursery rhymes are touched upon. But there are still some literary references (most notably to Shakespeare's Richard III), and also a nod or two to Grrek mythology (the titan Prometheus and Jack's daughter Pandora become enamored with each other).
The Big Over Easy is actually a re-write of one of Fforde's earlier, unpublished stories. It's original title was Who Killed Humpty Dumpty? TBOE and The Well of Lost Plots are interconnected. A half-dozen characters appear in both books, and IIRC, the Nursery Crime world is invented by Thursday in TWoLP. Fforde even back-writes some references to Thursday Next into TBOE. I give this book a "B" only because I doubt it will supersede the Thursday Next series as your favorite work(s) by Fforde. If anyone else had written this, I'd probably be giving it an "A".

.A Quick Trivia Quiz (answers in the comments section)...
01.) How many words are there in Chapter 13 of The Big Over Easy?
02.) How many rejections did The Eyre Affair receive before someone finally picked it up?
03.) Does that web link for "extras" found in all Jasper Fforde books really work?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Eight - Katherine Neville

1988, 598 pages. Genre : Historical Action; Cri-Fi (Crichton Fiction). Overall Rating : B.

   .Two intertwined stories, one set in the 1970's; the other in the 1790's. The modern tale centers around Catherine "Cat" Velis, a computer geek who's about to be transferred to Algiers due to office politics. The older tale is set primarily in France, and follows Mereille de Remy, a novice nun whose cloistered life is about to be upended by the infamous Reign of Terror. Both women soon find themselves trying to collect all the pieces to an ancient, mystical, rumored-to-be-all-powerful chess set that is also coveted by the bad guys.

.What's To Like...
    The emphasis is on the storyline, which is complex, but not confusing. There is the central theme of chess, which has been a lifelong passion of mine. A lot of the book takes place in Algeria, which is a nice change of scenery. Some attention even is paid to the etymology of "Car". As in "Carthage" and "Hamilcar". Kewlness.
There are plenty of twists in the storyline to keep you on your toes. Telling the good guys from the bad guys is quite the challenge. Both Mereille and Cat are strong female leading characters. (Well, the queens are the strongest pieces on the chessboard.) Indeed, there really aren't any weak women in the book. Amazingly, the men aren't pansies either.
Last but not least - there's even some romance. Enough to appeal to women readers, but not enough to lose me.
You are reminded a few too many times that there's a "bigger game" being played. And there's too much "telegraphing" with sentences like "Little did I know that thirty blocks away, a move was about to take place that would soon alter the course of my life." (page 130).

.Once in a while the plot gets clunky. For example, at one point Cat is being chased by a host of gun-shooting baddies, and is forced to jump off a pier into the Mediterranean. Alas (sez you), she has a knapsack of valuables to weigh her down, including a priceless ancient book. Lucky for her, that book just happens to be in a waterproof container (in a desert?), and she uses the weight of the knapsack to walk (underwater) along the bottom of the pier to safety, whilst the baddies wait for her to surface at the end of the pier to shoot her. Yeah. I don't think so.

.But these are minor. My biggest peeve with The Eight is the printing. A lot of the "e's" have their cross-bar missing, making them look like "c's". So your reading gets interrupted by things like trcc, pcacc, crcatc, ctc.

."It's a great huge game of chess that's being played all over the world....Oh what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them. I wouldn't mind being a pawn, if only I might join - though of course I should like to be a Queen best." (Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass)
This is a well-researched book. I can attest to that re the Chess parts. Some critics were turned off by the name-dropping. But I'd much rather read about Napoleon, William Blake, and Robespierre than some unknown commoner. That's what historical fiction is all about.

.Others didn't like the ending, but I disagree. I won't put any spoilers here; so let's just say the ending was similar to, yet better than, that of The Da Vinci Code.

.I recommend this to anyone who likes to read Dan Brown and Michael Crichton, neither of which has put out anything new lately. Yeah I know, Crichton's dead, but that doesn't stop Robert Ludlum. This was Ms. Neville's first published book, so the quibbles are quite forgiveable. She's written a half dozen or so since then, including (15 years later) the sequel to this story, called The Fire. I'm sure I'll be reading it sometime soon.