Book Review: Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

There's something comforting to me about Charles Bukowski's writing. I think it's that, despite his tendency to barely fictionalize his own life of drinking, writing and screwing, there's humanism and emotion through it all. With National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) quickly approaching, I picked up a copy of his Hollywood to keep the word pump primed (having recently re-read Edson, it seemed like a natural progression), and was surprised to discover the book was not about drinking, writing and screwing.

Instead, it's a book about writing about drinking, writing and screwing.

Well, it's a fictionalized version of his experience writing the screenplay and going through the production of the film Barfly.

What draws me – and I'm guessing many others – to Bukowski's alter-ego Henry ("Hank") Chinaski is that he says and does things at the basest level of humanity. And none of the rest of us has the guts to be that much of a jerk. He often gets drunk enough to be belligerent and physically numb. He enjoys fights with bartenders. He picks up women with a bold crassness. And people fawn over him because he's an asshole writer who's enjoyed some success.

But as some writers know, words can be a disease. To counter his incessant need to write, Chinaski drinks, screws and gambles (he loves the horses, except for the half-hour wait in between races). And it's true that when Bukowski died in 1994 in his mid-70s, he looked like he could have been 130.

Hollywood paints a picture of a Bukowski (or Chinaski) in his 60s, happily married to a woman who has accepted some of his vices (gambling), shares in some (drinking) and tamed others (eating) [no word on the screwing, oddly]. Someone has asked him to write one of his novels into a screenplay, and he works through writing in a new medium, pleasing the actors and producers, and going through a roller coaster with the funding.

Sure, the drinking is there (Chinaski is always an anti-social character), but this is the first novel of Bukowski's I've read that really chronicles an event – it actually has a plot line and ends when it's done.

I'm also sad to learn that I'm almost out of Bukowski's novels – he wrote seven; much of his body of work was poetry, and I'm not a fan of his poetry. Not even a little. Oh, and yes, have a go at Hollywood, even if you had a hard time making it through others of his books.

Book Review: Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

There's something comforting to me about Charles Bukowski's writing. I think it's that, despite his tendency to barely fictionalize his own life of drinking, writing and screwing, there's humanism and emotion through it all. With National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) quickly approaching, I picked up a copy of his Hollywood to keep the word pump primed (having recently re-read Edson, it seemed like a natural progression), and was surprised to discover the book was not about drinking, writing and screwing.

Instead, it's a book about writing about drinking, writing and screwing.

Well, it's a fictionalized version of his experience writing the screenplay and going through the production of the film Barfly.

What draws me – and I'm guessing many others – to Bukowski's alter-ego Henry ("Hank") Chinaski is that he says and does things at the basest level of humanity. And none of the rest of us has the guts to be that much of a jerk. He often gets drunk enough to be belligerent and physically numb. He enjoys fights with bartenders. He picks up women with a bold crassness. And people fawn over him because he's an asshole writer who's enjoyed some success.

But as some writers know, words can be a disease. To counter his incessant need to write, Chinaski drinks, screws and gambles (he loves the horses, except for the half-hour wait in between races). And it's true that when Bukowski died in 1994 in his mid-70s, he looked like he could have been 130.

Hollywood paints a picture of a Bukowski (or Chinaski) in his 60s, happily married to a woman who has accepted some of his vices (gambling), shares in some (drinking) and tamed others (eating) [no word on the screwing, oddly]. Someone has asked him to write one of his novels into a screenplay, and he works through writing in a new medium, pleasing the actors and producers, and going through a roller coaster with the funding.

Sure, the drinking is there (Chinaski is always an anti-social character), but this is the first novel of Bukowski's I've read that really chronicles an event – it actually has a plot line and ends when it's done.

I'm also sad to learn that I'm almost out of Bukowski's novels – he wrote seven; much of his body of work was poetry, and I'm not a fan of his poetry. Not even a little. Oh, and yes, have a go at Hollywood, even if you had a hard time making it through others of his books.

Re-reading Edson

The first book that ever kept me up all night because I just couldn't put it down was Edson by Bill Morrissey, who is better known as a songwriter. The book went out of print quickly, but is generally available on Amazon and other used marketplaces. I first read it to prepare to interview Morrissey ahead of a reading at a bookshop. I bought eight copies to gift at that event; I think the author got tired of signing them.

Edson is about Henry Corvine, a songwriter who quit the misery of writing and the hardship of touring in favor of the happy, stable life of a married 20-something. When his marriage ends – he's 37 now – he takes the summer to fish on a boat in Alaska and then returns to the small mill town of Edson, New Hampshire, where the snow starts early, there's one convenience store, everybody knows everybody else, and a young songwriter is getting popular singing Henry's old songs without giving him credit.

When a young woman – who lives next to Henry in a residential hotel – discovers Henry's records in that young songwriter's apartment, things change for Henry. When the mill closes unexpectedly and moves south, things change for Edson.

What I love about this book is that Morrissey's words feel like a change in seasons. His voice (singing and speaking) feels like winter is coming on, and so does the air here in Syracuse. This might become an annual ritual for me as we head toward winter.

If you can find a copy, I highly recommend reading it, with a cup of something warm nearby.

Book Review: Lamb by Christopher Moore


This disclaimer applies here, too.

I love me some Chris Moore. Of course, with titles like Practical Demonkeeping and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, how could you not?

Anyway, I've just finished Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. This goes back to that perspective thing I was on about last week.

Raziel, the barely competent, perpetually late angel (in Moore's telling, he shows himself to Jesus – Joshua, actually, because that's what the name translates to from the Hebrew – and Biff at 10 years old, when he was supposed to show up at Joshua's birth), is told to raise Biff from the dust right about the year 2000, give him the gift of tongues (so he can write in modern English) and charge him with writing a new gospel, since no one else seems to have included much about Jesus from, oh, birth until his 30s.

So, Biff details the journeys he took with Joshua to visit those three wise men who had come to visit Josh upon his birth. They learn kung fu, they learn meditation (Joshua's so good at it he actually manages to disappear). They free children from sacrifice in India, they learn magic, and Biff has a lot of sex.

The new gospel is interwoven with stories about Raziel's love of soap operas and professional wrestling, Biff's enjoyment of pizza, and it's topped off with a sappy love story ending.

Moore is more reverent with this subject matter than usual (for obvious reasons), and it's clear he was going long (the book comes in at 444 pages, including an afterword that you should read), because when Josh and Biff return to Judea for Josh's ministry, the modern-day Biff and Raziel are absent until the epilogue.

Features: Mary Magdalene is a very strong, positive character. The whole water-to-wine thing is done to spice up a boring wedding. We get the origin of certain stories and quotes that have been attributed to Jesus.

In all, a funny book. More or less typical Moore, but with some pretty serious subject matter. If you're the sort of person who can't handle your faith being ridiculed or your messiah being a drunk, horny teenager, don't read it. Otherwise, do.

Book Review: Lamb by Christopher Moore


This disclaimer applies here, too.

I love me some Chris Moore. Of course, with titles like Practical Demonkeeping and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, how could you not?

Anyway, I've just finished Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. This goes back to that perspective thing I was on about last week.

Raziel, the barely competent, perpetually late angel (in Moore's telling, he shows himself to Jesus – Joshua, actually, because that's what the name translates to from the Hebrew – and Biff at 10 years old, when he was supposed to show up at Joshua's birth), is told to raise Biff from the dust right about the year 2000, give him the gift of tongues (so he can write in modern English) and charge him with writing a new gospel, since no one else seems to have included much about Jesus from, oh, birth until his 30s.

So, Biff details the journeys he took with Joshua to visit those three wise men who had come to visit Josh upon his birth. They learn kung fu, they learn meditation (Joshua's so good at it he actually manages to disappear). They free children from sacrifice in India, they learn magic, and Biff has a lot of sex.

The new gospel is interwoven with stories about Raziel's love of soap operas and professional wrestling, Biff's enjoyment of pizza, and it's topped off with a sappy love story ending.

Moore is more reverent with this subject matter than usual (for obvious reasons), and it's clear he was going long (the book comes in at 444 pages, including an afterword that you should read), because when Josh and Biff return to Judea for Josh's ministry, the modern-day Biff and Raziel are absent until the epilogue.

Features: Mary Magdalene is a very strong, positive character. The whole water-to-wine thing is done to spice up a boring wedding. We get the origin of certain stories and quotes that have been attributed to Jesus.

In all, a funny book. More or less typical Moore, but with some pretty serious subject matter. If you're the sort of person who can't handle your faith being ridiculed or your messiah being a drunk, horny teenager, don't read it. Otherwise, do.

Book Review: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck's back.

I've been a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk since reading Choke a few years ago. I swallowed the rest of his novels and one of his nonfiction collections pretty quickly, and have been faithfully waiting for each novel since.

His new novel, Tell-All is a return to what got me hooked – a somewhat ridiculous but still semi-plausible story line with an ending that makes the reader say, "Wait, did that just happen? Let me read those last 20 pages again."

It's been a long time coming for me. I was disappointed that Rant turned into a cheap sci-fi joke at the end; I thought Snuff was a total throw-away book that probably sounded good after a bottle or two of wine; and Pygmy's redemption-of-the-villain ending was way too shiny happy for me.

This is supposed to be from the guy whose every review called him funny and subversive – I guess that's what happens when your first novel is Fight Club.

And so.

Katherine Kenton is an Elizabeth Taylor type. Hollywood actress, famous leading lady, lots of husbands (or "was-bands") in her wake. The novel is narrated as a tell-all by Hazie Coogan, the ugly girl who was a better actress than her Miss Kathy when they were younger, but she could never compete for parts with those good looks. So Hazie becomes the assistant. She's a maid. She dresses and coaches Ms. Kenton. She's there when all the husbands die, and when young strapping Webster Carlton Westward III comes into Kathy's life. And she's there to bury Katherine Kenton when the time comes and publish her best-seller, because anybody who's ever lived in a star's shadow has everything but the last chapter written and ready to go to the printer.

Tell-All brings back the we-thought-she-was-beautiful character types I loved in Invisible Monsters, which really needs to be made into a movie, if anyone's got backing money to commit, since it seems to start off then falter every few years.

Anyway, read this book. It's summer, it's the perfect time for some fun fiction, and this definitely fits the bill.

Next up for me, I'm going back to getting serious with John Jantsch's The Referral Engine.

Lessons in bleeding red

I finally read Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Don't ask me how I got through high school without reading it (or Catcher in the Rye or 1984 or Julius Caesar...), but I finally decided to give it a go. There are definitely some lessons to be applied today.

I've written a little about racism, and then there was the wedding that technically didn't count. And I've mentioned that sometimes sexism manifests in subtle ways.

But it all boils down to one thing: no matter what we look like, who we share our lives with, what we believe in or what sexual organs we're attached to (if any), if you puncture our skin, we bleed red.

Underneath it all, we're all the same. That our young narrator, Harper Lee's Scout, could recognize that, is a sign that it's such an elementary concept, anyone should be able to get it.

Growing up, I learned that America was supposed to be a "melting pot" – a place where we all contributed to each other. As I hit high school and college, the prevailing attitude changed. We're a salad bowl – a place where a diverse group of people can all be in the same place and contribute to the overall aesthetic while maintaining their own individuality.

In other words, we all bring something to the table, and we're all important.

2010 will be the first U.S. Census on which people will be able to check more than one race. I'm not sure if this is a recognition that people identify with more than one heritage, a recognition that not everyone procreates intra-racially, or a way to brag about more diversity in some Congressional districts.

Check out NPR's series on mixed-race Americans for some interesting stories. I'm a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth, that this is even something we're still curious about – shouldn't we just be at the "we're the same" point by now? Do we still need to classify everything – everyone?

Dispatches from the other side(s) of misogyny: Two book reviews

"What are you doing, studying chauvinism?" my brother asked.

We were visiting our parents for Thanksgiving and he saw the two paperbacks I had been reading simultaneously sitting by the bed. The were Women by Charles Bukowski and He's a stud, she's a slut, and 49 other double standards every woman should know by Jessica Valenti.

My love of Valenti's (bio) work is well-documented. I do, however, approach her material with the knowledge in mind that I am not her target audience.

One thing I really liked about her first full-length offering, Full Frontal Feminism, is that she was reaching for young women, and I think she found them with her voice. She writes personally and informally, and with an educational but not preachy tone.

Like many people, I first came across Valenti's writing through the group blog Feministing, which she founded, edits and co-authors (also, I love when people take nouns and turn them into gerunds, but that's probably just me). Between her and my friend Catherine, I've probably learned more than I learned through most of the first 18 years I was in school – and what I've learned from them is stuff that every guy (especially every white guy) should learn.

I didn't enjoy Double Standards as much as FFF, and some of that had to do with the format: essentially, each chapter is three pages of setting up a problem with examples, and then a one-to-two-paragraph solution on a facing page (the title double standard begins on page 14, and the final one ends on page 213, so the book is faithful to this format throughout).

Some of it is the fact that I'm predisposed to disliking books of lists.

That's not to say I didn't get anything out of it – I definitely did. Valenti points out the discrepancies in health care costs and availability, wage inequality, and double standards in everything from rape culture to the daily makeup-or-no-makeup decision.

I'm very much looking forward to her next offering.

But me being me, I had to be contrarian. Or maybe I just couldn't handle one viewpoint at a time.

So I grabbed a copy of Women.

My enjoyment of Bukowski's work has come much slower, much harder. He has proven through his writing – and his alter-ego recurring main character Henry (Hank) Chinaski – to be an unapologetic, well, pig.

Women chronicles his drunken sexual exploits as a 50-something-year-old writer who drinks heavily at his readings and corresponds with female fans. He is constantly getting laid by women less than half his age, and even wins them over when his drinking leaves him impotent for the night.

His occasional recognition that he is a disgusting human being and his even less frequent moment of remorse do not redeem him, although his closing to this novel makes it clear he disagrees.

So, umm, Josh, you liked this book?

Well, yes, I did, thanks for asking. Bukowski writes plainly, if brutally (if you can't stand to read the words "fuck" and "cunt" repeatedly, skip this one). He hates fame, he hates other writers, he prefers boxing and horse racing, he despises other people (but still admits to loneliness once in a while).

If you're looking to ease into Bukowski, start with Post Office (OK, no one eases in, but still), and be sure to skip his poetry – it's godawful.

Book review: Gather Together in My Name by Tracy Price-Thompson

Tracy Price-Thompson writes like it comes from experience, and for those of us who will never know or directly understand that experience, it's beyond good, bordering on amazing.

Gather Together in My Name by Tracy Price-ThompsonAlvin C. Romer actually does a really good job summing up the novel, so I won't rehash his work.

What I do want to say about this book is that Price-Thompson writes amazing characters: characters with very human flaws, but super-human strength.

Maybe it's a common strength in the projects in Brooklyn, I don't know. Like I hinted above, I will never understand that experience directly (or, at least, it's highly unlikely).

This is a quick, astounding, plot-twist-driven read. It will be back at the library Friday around lunch time, if you'd like to go grab (and I recommend that you do).

Book reviews: Torpedo Juice and The Big Bamboo by Tim Dorsey

After a desperate cry for fiction recommendations on Twitter a few weeks ago, Mitch came through with shout for Tim Dorsey.

So, I headed over to the local library and grabbed Torpedo Juice and The Big Bamboo.

They were both lots of fun.

First off, let me warn you away from these books if farcical, derivative work bothers you. Because seriously, you're going to recognize:

• Buddy films
• Jack Kerouac
• Hunter Thompson
• Jimmy Buffett
• Coen Brothers
American Psycho

And that's off the top of my head at 6:15 on a Friday morning.

Dorsey was a reporter for 12 years, then started writing novels about Florida.

This is going to be more of a character review than a pair of book reviews, because it's the main characters, Serge and Coleman, who make the stories.

Coleman is an obese drug-abusing alcoholic. He's a classic bumbler who somehow makes it through life as a sidekick without messing things up too much.

Serge is a teetotaling serial killer and scam artist who only kills and scams people who really need it – like nursing home developers who close down, rebuild, then reopen, kicking all their Medicare patients out.

Serge is the mastermind, an obsessive sociopath you really want to hand a glass of Scotch and tell to chill the heck out (although he does camp out and meditate when necessary, and always enjoys a sunrise).

Coleman really just isn't sure what's going on, but he can follow instructions at least 40 percent of the time, and the reader is always left guessing which 40 percent it will be.

Anyway, these books are fun. Go read them. There will be some available at the DeWitt Community Library sometime after lunch.