Today I roamed through Bird Library at Syracuse University while searching for some summer reading. I took home five books, including Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Bag of Bones by Stephen King. And as I am wont to do, I pulled a book off a shelf at random, flipped it open to the middle and began reading the first text I saw.
The book had a light green cover with the title The 1916 Poets (edited by Desmond Ryan). It contains a selection of poems from Irish authors. My eyes settled on the poem “Litany of Beauty” by Thomas MacDonagh, and I found the words inspiring, particularly the lines:
Beauty of dawn and dew,
Beauty of morning peace
Ever ancient and ever new,
Ever renewed till waking cease …
I finished Ham on Rye last night (or more accurately, early this morning), and while I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter ego Henry Chinaski, I don’t think I would want to live next to him. Being Henry’s neighbor could put you in peril. He’s loud, rude, gets drunk all the time and brawls with his pals and strangers who cross his path. Say the wrong thing to him and you’re likely to be on the receiving end of a right upper cut.
But in one scene toward the end of the book, we find Henry reflecting on his life as he drinks alone in his room in a Los Angeles rooming house. Bukowski paints the scene with humor, absurdity, loneliness and truth.
Our narrator Henry takes over from here:
It was a Saturday night in December. I was in my room and I drank much more than usual, lighting cigarette after cigarette, thinking of girls and the city and jobs, and of the years ahead … Then I heard the radio in the next room. The guy had it on too loud. It was a sickening love song.
“Hey buddy!” I hollered, “turn that thing down.”
There was no response.
I walked to the wall and pounded on it.
“I SAID, ‘TURN THAT F**KING THING DOWN!'”
The volume remained the same.
I walked outside to his door. I was in my shorts. I raised my leg and jammed my foot into the door. It burst open. There were two people on the cot, an old fat guy and an old fat woman. They were f**king. There was a small candle burning. The old guy was on top. He stopped and turned his head and looked. She looked up from underneath him. The place was very nicely fixed-up with curtains and a little rug.
“Oh, I’m sorry …”
I closed their door and went back to my place. I felt terrible. The poor had a right to f**k their way through their bad dreams. Sex and drink, and maybe love, was all they had.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1982. 275. Print.
A short time later Henry walks back to the other room, knocks on the door and apologizes to the couple; he invites them over to his place for a drink. But the man, described by Bukowski as having a face “hung with great folds of sorrow,” refuses the offer and closes the door on Henry.
And so our Saturday night ends. Henry awakens the next day with what he calls, “one of my worst hangovers.”
Charles Bukowski does it to me every time. His snappy dialogue and streamlined prose make his books a joy to read. I also like the first-person narration, with added sarcasm, and Los Angeles settings, which remind me of Raymond Chandler novels. Whenever I am reading one of Bukowki’s novels while lying in bed, I will come across a passage that incites laughter. I will read it again, only to laugh louder. Last night was no exception.
I am currently reading Ham on Rye. As we pick up the story, Bukowski’s protagonist, Henry Chinaski, is unemployed and has decided to enroll at L.A. City College. And being a journalism major in college, I appreciated the humor of this conversation. I’ll let Bukowski take over from here:
My father was simply ashamed that I was unemployed and by going to school I would at least earn some respectability. Eli LaCrosse (Baldy) had already been there a term. He counseled me.
“What’s the easiest f@%*ing thing to take?” I asked him.
“Journalism. Those journalism majors don’t do anything.”
“O.K., I’ll be a journalist.”
I looked through the school booklet.
“What’s this Orientation Day they speak of here?”
“Oh, you just skip that, that’s bull****.”
“Thanks for telling me, buddy. We’ll go instead to that bar across the campus and have a couple of beers.”
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1982. 221. Print.
I am sure Bukowski will keep me laughing as I work my way toward the end of the book.
Editor’s note: I forgot to write down the page number and then was unable to find the passage while skimming through the book.
Book 7:Music of the Mill by Luis J. Rodriguez
“Eventually it wasn’t a fantasy. I often walked home from school, which was hard at first since I got so many stares and whistles, especially from the paisas, the Mexicanos, freshly wet from over the Rio Grande. There were run-down motellike apartments on Florence Avenue that I had to pass by every day. Nothing but newly arrived men lived in them. They worked in local construction and factory jobs. By the afternoon, many of them were hanging out, already drinking beer, with the shirts off, wearing Mexican vaquero hats, a type of cowboy hat. They always yelled and whistled at me.”
Rodriguez, Luis J. Music of the Mill. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 216. Print.
Book 8:These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Edited by Marjorie Agosin.
From the poem Rosa/Fili by Maria Arrillaga:
“He did not leave
You left, Rosa, Rosario, Rosina, Rosaura/Fili
Your name grows
In that new path
Furrows flee your face
Your features are refined
In the contour of precise strokes
Calm you are
The towering heights of the past
Become the happy landscape
Of your big waist
Your hair undulates defying
He who will appreciate your body
You are intelligent, Fili
You have your life
You have yourself
It’s no small thing.”
Agosin, Marjorie. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1994. 194. Print.
Book 9:The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
“One September morning, Giovanni Drogo, being newly commissioned, set out from the city for Fort Bastiani; it was his first posting.
He had himself called while it was still dark and for the first time put on his lieutenant’s uniform. When he had done, he looked at himself in the mirror by the light of an oil lamp but failed to find there the expected joy. There was a great silence in the house but from a neighbouring room low voices could be heard; his mother was rising to bid him farewell.
This was the day he had looked forward to for years—the beginning of his real life.”
Buzzati, Dino. The Tartar Steppe. New York: Carcanet Press, 1987. 1. Print.
Book 10:Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
“When they had left for France, Siri was pregnant again. She knew when they reached their destination she could not hope for a career on the French stage. They stood on the platform, smartly dressed as always, with their children, their nanny Eva, their trunks and cases of books and the blue and white pram with its milk-stained top. Siri’s career as an actress, apart from her creation of the role of Miss Julie in Denmark in 1888, was over.”
Prideaux, Sue. Strindberg: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 104. Print.
Several years ago I worked as an editor at a national broadcast news wire service in Arizona. My roommate Dave and I worked the same 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, and we would commute together, one of us taking turns driving each week. Often in the morning, after our shift ended, we would go grocery shopping, eat breakfast at a Denny’s or a Village Inn or search for some other activity to do to help us wind down before heading home, closing the Venetian blinds and trying to fall asleep in the Arizona sunlight. Such is the dilemma of night shift workers, struggling to sleep in daylight in opposition to your body’s circadian rhythm.
One morning Dave and I went to a bookstore near Indian School Road in Phoenix. The place offered a hodgepodge of entertainment-related merchandise: books, CDs (this was around 2001), board games, video games and porn (both magazines and video).
I remember buying used copies of Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City and Frank Conroe’s Body and Soul. Both remain two of my all-time favorite books.
Dave and I wandered through the store and then we decided to play a game. We each went into a row in the used paperback section. Dave would pull out a book and a read a paragraph aloud. And then it was my turn and I would do the same thing. As the game progressed, I recall Dave stretching out on the floor of his row, surrounded by a stack of books.
Our selected passages included excerpts from spy thrillers, Dick Francis mysteries and Harlequin romance novels emblazoned with cover art images of men with bulging biceps and ripped pectorals.
Something about the incongruity, the verbal juxtaposition of the different passages, struck me as satisfying. These were books I never would have opened if I was browsing in the bookstore alone. The random act of pulling any volume and reading it aloud was like walking into a movie theater and knowing only the title of a film or buying a CD based solely on the artist’s name or the cover art.
I thought it would be fun to try to duplicate the exhilarating feeling of making a literary discovery. I decided to create an adapted research experiment by going to the fifth floor of Syracuse University’s Bird Library on a recent Saturday afternoon and pulling ten books off the shelves at random.
I spread the books on a table and for each book, I wrote down the author, title and publisher. I then opened the book to any page and read the first passage or paragraph that my eyes traveled to.
At first I wanted to replicate the work of a collage artist by compiling the sentences to form a textual conglomerate—to see the various passages edited into one composition. However, after I transcribed the paragraphs from the ten books, I realized they should each stand alone as a completed work of art. To me each book signifies a surprise that is worth exploring.
And, as a result, my “to-do” reading list has grown by ten titles.
I also wanted to make this a two-part blog post. So here are the selections from the first five books I grabbed off the shelves. I will add books six through ten later in the week.
Book 1: Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature by Lawrence Driscoll; an excerpt from The Book of Dave by Will Self.
“Dave keeps walking and soon we have the kitchen-sink drama moment when the protagonist looks back at his home town, as Dave looks down on London from the height of Essex:
Towards evening Dave found himself mounting up a hill. Up he went…Dave turned back to see the city he had lost spreading to the far hills of the south in brick peak after tarmac trough…In the mid distance a river streaked silver and beside it a mighty wheel revolved so slowly.”
Driscoll, Lawrence. Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature. New York: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2009. 89-90. Print.
Book 2: Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic by Lorraine Clark
“Kierkegaard’s attack on the spectre of negation that dissolves the ethical contraries once again focuses on the “phantom” of the Hegelian negative:
Leaving logic to go on to ethics, one encounters here again the negative, which is indefatigably active in the whole Hegelian philosophy. Here too a man discovers to his amazement that the negative is the evil. Now the confusion is in full swing; there is no bound to brilliancy.”
Clark, Lorraine. Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 134. Print.
Book 3: The Solitude of Surabhi by Deepa Shah
“Twelve-year-old Nimish looked sullenly out of the open window behind his father. Why was Papa so nervous of life and if it was a matter of assuming a role he could become a pilot, a soldier, an actor—well anything, Nimish thought. And then he noticed with surprise the fuzz on the tree outside which had softened the starkness of the branches of a fortnight ago.”
Shah, Deepa. The Solitude of Surabhi. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1997. 106. Print.
Book 4: Black Order by James Rollins
“Keep a historical perspective, Mr. Crowe. The Nazis were convinced that they would give rise to the next superrace. And here was a tool to do it in a generation. Morality held no benefit. There was a larger imperative.”
“To create a master race. To rule the world.”
Rollins, James. Black Order. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. 190. Print.
Book 5: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx
“I had to go to Germany and while I was gone the James Gang and the tile setter handled the enormous job of moving all the furniture and the full bookcases, of closing off and filling in the unwanted floor outlets, of measuring, cutting and laying the tile. The floor was almost the floor of my dreams, clean, smooth, elegant and a ravishing color. I swore always to have tiled floors wherever I lived. The bookcases were perfectly in place. How had they done all this in two weeks? I will never know.”
Proulx, Annie. Bird Cloud. New York: Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2011. 137. Print.