Saturday, March 29, 2008

Now That's a Sandwich
"Ham On Rye"
by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski is the friend I never had. The guy who gets beat up in fistfights, gets up, and walks home as if he had only scraped a knee. The guy who will say what he thinks about anything to anyone, just because you asked. The guy who will piss all over someone's shoes if he doesn't like them, but is really insecure and unsure about life at the end of the day.

I've not read any Bukowski before this, and my only knowledge has been lyrics from a Modest Mouse song: Bukowski, and yeah, I know, he's a pretty good read but God didn't have to be such an asshole. So, naturally, I was expecting something raw and intense. Ham On Rye blew away my expectations.

Reading a book like Ham On Rye is like spending a night in a bar with the most interesting patrons, if you could wrap all the barflies into one and make that culmination all sixteen years old. The book is, like most of Bukowski's work, semi-autobiographical, and takes on his childhood up through his college career. It's like The Wonder Years but R-rated, and instead of Wendy there are various teachers and authority figures Henry Chinaski (the main character) admires but never gets.

To say the writing is obnoxious and vulgar is an understatement, but the writing is so good, so alive and full of truth that you don't want to stop reading. You want to hear more. You'd read Bukowski tell you how grass grows because he would make it interesting. Its labors towards the sun would be adolescently sexual, its thirst for water reminiscent of Chinaski's early adoration for alcohol (which, I can only assume, became a lifetime pursuit), its harsher times much like Chinaski's beatings by his father. You'd laugh with it, feel for it, and want to know everything about it. That's Bukowski.

I highly recommend this book, not just because of the cover either! And though, Ham On Rye was my first Bukowski read, it certainly will not be the last. I can't wait to read Post Office.

Mushrooms Galore!
"Chasing the Rain"
by Taylor Lockwood

Taylor Lockwood takes lots of pictures of mushrooms around the world. There are a lot of different types of mushrooms.

This makes his pictures very interesting. But Taylor is a terrible writer so you don't learn a thing about the mushrooms themselves or even mushroom hunting.

I loved the pictures, but was hoping to learn a little more about the fungi, so it was a little disappointing.

So it goes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Old Ball and Chain
"Here Lies My Heart"
Edited by Amy Bloom

Okay, I confess, last month I shadowed a book club. A non-fiction book club. I nearly went to the discussion but chickened out, possibly last minute, for several reasons. I could argue they are all valid.

First off, Here Lies My Heart is a collection of stories about marriage - why we marry, why we don't, and what we find there (directly from the cover, as you can see). This collection provides a nice cross section of couples, singles, and single couples, going through various stages of the life-changing process. Some have been cheated on, some have cheated, some have given up on love only to have found it anew, others suffered devastating losses when disease killed their partner. All are interesting stories in their own way.

The collection as a whole was worth the read. Most, I don't say all because there were a few that weren't, were heartbreakingly honest. So much so that I relished a glimpse inside these worlds and felt cheated when a writer wasn't completely forthcoming with details so as to close the shades on me. I got that, as a collection, marriage tends to be something that is really hard, and I can't agree, which is why I found the book kindof intimidating.

This collection is filled with grief over infidelity, and broken partnerships. And while I've not been married all that long, I can't share the sentiments about marriage many of the writers profess. Mine has been an altogether positive experience. I like compromise. I mean, I don't like compromise but I like that we both have to compromise. It's the best way to live for one as lucky as myself to find an amazing wife (okay, too much, yeah).

So I couldn't discuss the book partly because it intimidated me with it's lopsided, probably later-in-life, cynical, view of marriage. And I couldn't discuss it because I felt like I would be outweighed in my argument by a bunch of bitter old people with a lot more experience in their ammo bag. And I couldn't discuss because I really don't have that much of an opinion about it other than that it has been great for me. I feel liberated, I feel like I have a partner, someone I can share my fears and desires and needs and failures and successes and everything else with, plus I can kiss her when I like and she usually kisses back. It's not a bad deal. Maybe one day I'll write a story and send it to Amy Bloom, the editor, about my positive experience with marriage. But not now, I'm too busy being married as it is. Read this book, it's good for its voyeurism and you really get a look inside some lives that are kindof messed up and secretly feel good about the place you're at. Plus the cover is similar to what my wife and I had as our Ceremony program. Small world!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Most Important Thing in The World
"In Defense of Food"
by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has officially changed my life. Because of him I really really consider what I'm eating on a daily basis. It's cool and it's a lot of work, but it really is worth it.

I was hooked from his last book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, so when I saw he had a new, more advisory book coming out, I immediately purchased it.

While In Defense of Food was very insightful, and Pollan gives some great advice on broad ways of thinking about food, he elects not to go into specifics and give the somewhat confused reader an idea of what exactly to eat. Instead, he gives many examples of the types of foods you should not eat, which is basically anything processed or anything claiming to have added nutritional value.

Pollan's book can be summed up in the words on the cover: Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too Much. Great words, great advice. Interspersed are guideposts to help navigate you through the vastly confusing world of food (especially at the supermarket) today and some tenets of wisdom to keep in mind when considering what, exactly, to have for dinner (if it's beef, make sure it's grass fed - see Pollan's website for where to find grass-fed beef). Even if I didn't get all of the answers I was looking for, I got a lot, and what Pollan has succeeded in doing is pointing me down a path, a path of knowledge and rediscovery about food that is exciting and empowering.

For anyone interested, I highly encourage reading Pollan's website,, his books (of course, as well as books by people he hangs out with), and visiting and getting to know your farmer's market. It's a great experience that puts one in touch with the people that grow one's food and allows one to appreciate the supreme interconnectedness of life. Food is life, and life is good.

Moving Words
"The Invention of Hugo Cabret"
by Brian Selznick

Experimental fiction is something I am drawn to, I think, just by way of having something new to read and decipher. Sometimes the payoff is well worth it, sometimes, not so much.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a huge payoff.

Probably most interesting is that the story is told in the form of a silent film, with pictures lending just as much (if not more) to the story as the words. The pictures, done by the author in pencil, are so detailed and interesting that you can lose yourself just staring at any one of the hundreds through the book. And the story itself is a compelling one, filled with mystery, intrigue, legends, and the importance of family and friendships.

I guess you could say I enjoyed it. This was a book my wife recommended to me after she read it (plowed through is the best way to describe how she devoured this book) and I felt, after a few months, that it was time I stop ignoring her urges and read the book. Needless to say, she has an appreciation for good stories.

The story of Hugo Cabret is a good one, like I said. Hugo is a young boy, eleven or so years old, who has taken over fixing the clocks in a Paris train station from his mischevious uncle, recently gone missing. He gets caught stealing a toy from a dealer that sets off a chain of interconnected events that leads Hugo to an impressive discovery about his father and a mysterious automata he has been keeping for some time.

I don't do this book justice. It's a hip book to read now because it's good and different. Read it. It's quick and outstanding, and the pictures are so much more enjoyable than the cover, which is good anytime that happens.