Ham on Rye

Bukowski’s most autobiographical work to date, and by far his most linear (plot-wise) is as successful as it is characteristically honest.

Ham on Rye is the story of Henry Chinaski–the slightly-shrouded version and alter-ego of Bukowski. We witness the birth of the man who became known for writing poetry that is as grotesque as it is beautiful, and as heart-felt as it is sickening.

For fans of realism, look no further. Bukowski’s mark of unbiased mediation between the fictional events of Chinaski and his own life marred by alcoholism and womanizing is both heartbreakingly honest and forthcoming.

Bukowski transcribes his life from a strangely quiet, amiss child with an abusive father, to a pock-marked teenager, to experiences with booze and women and the trials of adulthood as they stand for a man who defined himself through a singular value–loneliness.

Beneath it all is the essence of what makes Bukowski the most widely selling poet in American history–the distillation of decades into the crux of isolation–both mental and physical. For in Chinaski’s world we see the side of life not marked by glimpses of happiness of light, but one of profound weight and depth.

Dive into the world of the poet-laureate of back-alleys and brothels with this gut-wrenching semi-autobiography.

Stephen King’s IT

First and foremost, Stephen King’s It is a book that commands respect. Its girth alone merits a level of deference and admiration that other books do not. Weighing in at just under 1100 pages, It is an opus of genre horror and a masterpiece of storytelling.

Before I continue, I’ll dispel some preconceptions about this wonderful book. It is not just about a killer clown. Although that is a recurring character (because of how awesome Pennywise is in the first place) it’s not the entirety of the story. There’s more.

It‘s the tale of seven friends, a timeless malevolent entity, a backwoods northeastern town, love, lust, murder, marriage, really (and this is a total cop-out, but bear with me) everything. Stephen King’s It is a tome that covers the hostilities of what it’s like to grow up in a place where the bullies are iniquitous and criminal, and what lurks beneath the pavement is even worse. Keep close to your friends and allies because there’s danger out there.

From giant spiders, killer clowns, werewolves, evil birds, even terrifying elderly neighbors, King perceptively and deliberately plays off any and every childhood phobia making this novel not just a sensational narrative, but a play on the alarms and consternations of a people entranced by the barbarity and savagery of the human race.

Really, I can’t suggest this book enough. Don’t be a baby, and read It.

A Fraction of the Whole

Steve Toltz’ 2008 Man Booker Prize finalist A Fraction of the Whole is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and over-looked novels of the past decade. Part familial chronicle, part historical saga–the book is nothing short of astounding, and you’ll laugh through it all.

In Fraction we follow the Dean family through their misadventures as cultural heroes, villians, and everything in between. The story centers around Jaspar Dean, the illegitimate son of philosophical agoraphobe Martin Dean and brother to Australia’s simultaneously most hated and beloved, and by far famous criminal Terry Dean.

In between we get everything from zany societal discourse, trans-continental love affairs, literary/publishing debacles that would make Melville (victimized by publishing houses until death) cringe, and the global conundrums of drug-kingpins. It’s an absolute pleasure to read.

For those interested in a laugh-riot a la Garcia-Marquez style saga, look no further. Fraction of the Whole is it.

Christopher Moore’s Lamb

The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Biff, Christ’s childhood buddy is a comedic laugh-fest, and for those of you unfamiliar with Moore’s work–meet the comic mastermind who’s brought society subjects ranging from vampiric tales of blood-lust/love (Bite Me / You Suck), the grim-reaper as savior (A Dirty Job), and cargo-cults in the South Pacific (Island of the Sequined Love Nun).

In Lamb we follow Jesus and Biff during Christ’s “unknown” years from 13-30, and rather than encounter some period of spiritual self-growth in the desert, we follow Christ as he learns Kung-Fu, masters Transcendental Meditation, and slays a dragon. Yes.

I cannot suggest this book more. For those of you in need of a comedic romp and a light-hearted, but still heartfelt story of love, courage, spiritual growth, and above all, friendship. Look no further. Lamb is it.

Spring Reading: My Ultimate Top 5

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It’s Spring. The tinges of greenery buried beneath blankets of snow are beginning to show themselves for the first time in months, and the twitter of birds can finally be heard while I sip my morning coffee–finally.

With a welcome seasonal change underway, usher in a new period of rebirth and growth with the best books to read in springtime. (And, there’s poetry–because we could all benefit from reading more poetry). Enjoy, everyone!

1. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – By Annie Dillard

Let this outstanding collection of naturalistic creative non-fictional essays lead you through the buddings of spring. Annie Dillard is a comedic sage who brings her readers through the worlds of ancient philosophy merged with beautiful musings and considerations of the wilderness around her home. This collection’s unique subject matter and idyllic prose never ceases to amaze. Replete with philosophical meanderings akin to a suburban Thoreau, Dillard’s whimsy and eye for the idyllic are unmatched.

2. Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

For the individual coming to terms with this place we call earth–this is the classic to end all classics. The ever expanding life’s work of the American Bard himself, stands as one of the most uniquely original and totemic American texts today. Leaves of Grass is the self-affirming work of a lyrical genius. The poetic wanderings of a man coming to terms with his position in life in regards to it’s opposition to nature, his sexuality, and his core-being. Learn how to Sing Your Own Body Electric amidst daisy-chains with this phenomenal collection of poems.

3. Illuminations – Arthur Rimbaud

The poetic precursor to the surrealist movement of the early twentieth century–Rimbaud stands today as the penultimate figurehead of the wayward youth. Transient, fleeting, and above all–young (he stopped writing before his mid-20’s)–Rimbaud served as the inspiration for Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and the Punk Rock movement of the late 1970’s. Perfect for the youngster inside us all still clawing at the seams of a society we might not quite understand.

4. Drop City – T.C. Boyle

At once a comment on the state of the American social condition and the irony behind fleeting communes established throughout the U.S. in the 1960’s–Drop City is the story of a ranging commune that moves from the sunny skies of Southern California to the darkening wilderness of the Alaskan bush (with interesting results). Boyle wields dueling plot lines of the commune with the life and times of an Alaskan lumberjack Mountain Man to wonderful effect. This page turner is more than enough motivation to kick off that blanket and jump into sunshine.

5. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Not just one of the best books of Spring time, but one of the best books ever written, Franzen’s immensely grand-sweeping epic is the tale of the Berglund family from start to relative finish. It’s at once a meditation on American genealogy, and a beautifully entertaining saga about a family set amidst the tumultuous waters of the present. Franzen’s crowning achievement–it’s easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

*Read through it all–the painless and the painful, and allow these works wash over you like sunshine. Enjoy springtime, everyone!

Thanks for reading!

Winter Reading: My Ultimate Top 5

Bleak winterscape

The end of winter is in sight. With Colorado and the midwest slowly thawing out of a two-week deep-freeze and Boston coping with its transition to the world’s largest snow-fort, the world needs books. And thus, we masses of slipper-clad, fuzzy-robed bibliophiles revile in sedentary, strangely exciting moments in which we can trade up the apocalyptically bleak moonscape of snow-ridden malaise for a world of more interesting climes.

For me, I want to read about winter, during winter, and thus here are my top five winter reads. No matter how depressing the landscape gets, I can always lose myself in the poetry and wonder of the following books:

1. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky 

*Arguably Dostoevsky’s crowning masterpiece, Crime and Punishment is the quintessential story of madness, illegality, and the extent that consciousness can cope with wrongdoing. Poor Raskolnikov has committed a crime he’s ill equipped to deal with, and we get to delve into the shockingly profound repercussions that follow. Less dense than you might think, humorous despite it’s grim content, this classic is a must read for those of us coping with loss, guilt, or remorse.

2. The Shining – Stephen King

*Drawing on a sense of impending claustrophobia and the insidious presence of a malevolent hotel, this horror staple has captivated readers for decades. My advice: disregard the artistically lofty Kubric film (I love it, but separate it entirely from the novel), and delve into the terrifying world of Jack Torrence, residing author of the most sinister locations on the planet. Sure to frighten and transfix, this lengthy read is sure to distract from the doldrums of slate grey skies and frozen ground. Play more, work less, and read this gem!

3. For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

*Frankly, Hemingway’s best (and one of his longest), this characteristically self-reflective meditation centers around a group of Spanish militia men banding together in attempt to destroy an enemy bridge during the civil war. The novel grounds its reader in the Spanish countryside during the dense snows of winter, and beautifully relates the horrors of warfare on the psyche that lie therein. A characteristic (for Hemingway) tale of courage, bravery, love, and romance, this is a must read for the devout bibliophile.

4. A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man – James Joyce

*My all time favorite book, this masterpiece from modernist genius, James Joyce, relates the story of Stephen Daedalus coming to terms with life as a devout aesthete amongst a more religiously inclined 1920’s Irish boarding school backdrop. Beautifully lyrical and poetic, this classic thesis on the inherent choice we face daily between spiritual gratification and the ethical conundrums of the flesh is sure to take you to places well outside the walls of snow perpetually growing outside your home–a must read for the would-be artist, or aesthetic devotee.

5. Hunger – Knut Hamsun

*Lesser known Norwegian author Knut Hamsun delivers up a terrifying psychological portrait of the starving artist. Told from the viewpoint of an unnamed vagrant writer in the distantly antiquated city of Kristiania (Oslo) desperately writing to live and living to write, this is a story of profound moral ineptitude and baffling artistic choices. Hamsun debates the age old question–which should come first, art or life? Read his tortuous psychological portrait and decide for yourself.

In redux: read more and read often. Let these meaningful classics take you out of the dead of winter into the glorious rebirth and renewal of spring. Ultimately, enjoy!