War All the Time: Poems 1981-1984

War All the Time: Poems 1981-1984 by Charles Bukowski

publication date: 1984
pages: 280
ISBN: 0-87685-638-5

My interest in Charles Bukowski was piqued last year when he was mentioned several times in the movie Beautiful Creatures. That interest solidified when I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls last month and Bukowsi was discussed by three lovably precocious teenagers. Anything on Gilmore Girls is gospel for me, but the discussion included this especially winning dialogue:

Lovably Precocious Female: Typical guy response. Worship Kerouac and Bukowski, god forbid you pick up anything by Jane Austen.

Lovably Precocious Male: Hey, I’ve read Jane Austen. And I think she would have liked Bukowski.

Well, suffice it to say I went to the library the very next day and picked out the Bukowski book with the best-looking cover. After reading my inaugural Bukowski, I have to say I agree more with Lovably Precocious Female than Lovably Precocious Male. Not to say that guys only read Bukowski, but I don’t know that Austen would have liked him. This collection contained none of her subtlety and wit, and wasn’t so much satire but a diatribe.

The poems centered around an uber-Bukowski narrator, known as Hank Chinaski, as he drank, gambled, and screwed his way through life. During his escapades, he managed to write poems about humanity, most of which were negative. His negative observations were sometimes contradictory and often repetitious. As an example of how repetitious this work was, I will confidently open the book to a random page, and am certain it will contain some dig at the amorphous “them” who just aren’t clever enough, or high enough, or exciting enough, for Chinaski. I am not disappointed:

they are at the track every / Saturday afternoon: two / immensely fat men / a fat woman / and the fat woman’s son / (who is also getting obese / and is the son of one of / the men). / they sit together / eat hotdogs / drink beer / and scream together / during the race / and after the / race. / no matter / who wins / they scream. / between races they / argue while consuming / hotdogs and beer.

Bukowski’s poems were not always blatantly negative; they sometimes contained hope, and even joy. Here are the ending lines of a poem written as the narrator watched young ice skaters:

I stand up, wave, smile, / things seem very happy / as down below us they whirl and / glide. / some moments are nice, some are / nicer, some are even worth / writing / about.

Bukowski also had moments of insight and clarity, which to me is one of the advantages of poetry. Sometimes feelings or sentiments simply can’t be conveyed linearly or directly, but can be conveyed through poem. For example, this stanza, where Bukowski’s pacing and rhythm created a mood and idea:

well, I think the idea of the track or the / roulette wheel or whatever else is around is / so that we don’t have to sit around all day / thinking, I am a writer.

I found Bukowski’s poems generally repetitive and uninspired, although there were moments of wit or courage. If you want to read more about Bukowski’s writing or his life, read this wonderful and perceptive New Yorker piece about the poet.

3/6: more good than bad

I couldn’t find any online reviews of this book, beyond Amazon and goodreads.

Modern Art: The Groundbreaking Moments

Modern Art: The Groundbreaking Moments by Brad Finger

publication date: 2012
pages: 187
ISBN: 978-3-7913-4271-9

This book was a wonderful introduction to modern art. It described, in loosely chronological order, the most influential art pieces in the modern art world from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. I say “loosely” chronological because the art was not presented in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, Brad Finger would introduce a piece of art and, after a thorough discussion, describe several later works that were influenced by the subject art piece. This format made the book interesting and thought-provoking.

Additionally, the book was filled with lush and thrilling images. Nearly every page contained a crisp and perfectly-colored image. Further, the image captions were informative and helpful.

Although the images were probably the best part of the book, the discussion was almost as impressive. I don’t know much about art, and the sensible and interesting content made Modern Art an ideal primer. Because the structure was logical and enlightening, I was able to understand Finger’s analysis of the art pieces and I was able to make connections and conclusions about the artworks and modern art in general.

Finger also included anecdotes about artists. One of my favorites was this discussion of Marcel Duchamp, which showed how irreverent Duchamp could be:

For Duchamp, in fact, an over-reliance on manual craftmanship could produce shallow “retinal art,” or art made purely “to please the retina, to be judged for the retinal effect of the picture.”

Finger relayed these anecdotes in a dispassionate and neutral way, but that didn’t conceal the eccentricities inherent in some modern art. For example, I love this account of what artist Yves Klein did in his attempt to elevate the importance of empty space in an exhibition:

Klein [developed] a new kind of ritual performance. It involved a “commercial” transaction, where Klein “exchanged” a piece of immaterial space – what he called a “zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility” – for a predetermined amount of pure gold. When the “payment” was made, Klein gave the buyer a signed receipt from a specially-produced receipt book.

Finger tried to report this story with a straight face, but how ridiculous is it to imagine some rich guy buying nondescript empty air for a bar of gold?!

The only major flaw of the book was Finger’s decision to clog the space at the top of each page with a confusing and irrelevant time line. The time line was seemingly arbitrarily split into four sections and each section would repeat itself every few pages. At first I thought the time lines corresponded with each artist or artwork, but after several pages of incongruous dates running across the header, I just gave up and stopped reading it.

4/6: worth reading

The only other reviews of this book online that I could find were on goodreads.

Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth

publication date: 2011
pages: 425 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-06-202402-2

Well, guys, I made a big mistake. I read the entirety of this series before I wrote the review for the first book: Divergent. And of course that completely colored my thoughts on the first book. With that in mind, I will try to keep this review as uninfected and focused as possible. Except for this one remark: don’t feel the need to finish the book series; if you want to, be my guest, but it is certainly not necessary. In fact, it would not be misguided to only read the first book and create your own ending.

The Divergent series is the next big thing in YA fiction, with a movie coming out soon. The book is set in a future dystopian Chicago, where everyone is separated into five “factions” based on one personality trait. The main character, Tris, was born into the Abnegation faction, which most values the characteristic of selflessness. The other factions are Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless. At the beginning of the book, a teenage Tris, along with other students her age, must choose the faction she wants to be associated with for life. As the consequences of her decision unfolded, she also discovered that the factions’ leaders were not as uncorrupted and honest as she believed.

For readers who enjoy YA fiction, Divergent had a lot to offer. First, the book featured an interesting and unconventional main character. Tris was legitimately unpleasant and even unlikable. She was still the hero of the story and of course I still rooted for her, but the author exposed Tris’s faults and included several scenes where Tris was not brave or nice or lovely or everything a main character in YA is supposed to be. Additionally, the book contained one of the most refreshing YA passages I have read. Commonly in YA fiction, the main female character thinks she is unattractive or insufficiently attractive; Divergent was no exception. However, unconventionally, the other characters in Divergent agreed. At one point, Tris and a young man have this conversation:

“Don’t pretend,” I [Tris] say breathily. “You know I’m not [pretty]. I’m not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty.”
“Fine. You’re not pretty. So?”

I also enjoyed the stark and simple tone of the book. Roth did not include a lot of flowery or figurative language. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy in that way.

Maybe its just because I’ve read a lot of YA fiction lately, but sometimes I found the book boring or tiresome. The romance scenes between Tris and Four especially seemed forced, although Four was a compelling character on his own. Additionally, there were some pacing issues, and scenes and plot lines would begin and end suddenly.

4/6: worth reading (not the rest of the series though!)

Some other reviews:

New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
The Book Smugglers

Minutes Before Sunset

I want to give you all a heads up that the novel for this book review, Minutes Before Sunset, was given to me by the author, who approached me to review it. Although I had not heard of Shannon A. Thompson, or the book, before she emailed me, my opinions expressed here are not colored by how I received the book. Also, after the review is an interview I conducted with Thompson. I hope you enjoy!

Minutes Before Sunset by Shannon A. Thompson

publication date: 2013
pages: 247
ISBN: 9780615788128

When I was introduced to Minutes Before Sunset, I was also introduced to the nomenclature that described its genre: paranormal romance. I had never heard that term before, but I had already enjoyed numerous books from that genre, the most famous of which are probably Twilight and The Mortal Instruments.

Minutes Before Sunset is a wonderful addition to the genre, as it has all the trappings of the category. It is filled with imaginative characters, teen angst, teen romance, an intriguing plot, and parents who just don’t understand. The book begins with Eric, who has lived his whole life as a Shade, a soldier of the Dark. Eric is destined for greatness among the Dark, but at what cost? Later, we meet Jess, an ordinary human girl who wants to discover her past.

The plot description sounds vague, but that’s because I don’t want to give anything away. The plot was such a fun part of the book and so was Thompson’s presentation of it. Thompson had a wonderful grasp of what I call the “knowledge trickle.” The knowledge trickle is the pacing, frequency, and tone in which an author reveals any plot or character secrets. Minutes Before Sunset had an excellent knowledge trickle. I was always intrigued, although never confused, by the plot, and there was continually something just around the corner that I wanted to know.

I also enjoyed Thompson’s characters. They were full of teenage spirit and curiosity, without being too precocious or angst-ridden. Also, the dialogue was vivid and well-formed; just clever enough to be interesting, but not so clever as to be heavy-handed or unrealistic. Jess, especially, had some great lines. One of the most well-crafted elements of the book, however, was the narrators. The book started from Eric’s point-of-view, which was aptly written by Thompson. The point-of-view periodically shifted to Jess, however. Sometimes shifting narrators can be gimmicky or pointless, but not with Minutes Before Sunset. The voices were distinct enough that I never got confused and the changing viewpoints gave me insights into the characters. Also, I love love love when authors show you the same scene through two different characters’ eyes, and Thompson did that a few times.

The book was not perfect, however; Thompson’s writing was sometimes unpolished. Her word choice was occasionally puzzling. Additionally, I was confused by some scenes, because I didn’t understand their significance. Finally, the fluidity and pacing of the book was often disjointed.

That said, if you like this genre, you should give this book a read.

4/6: worth reading

Readers reviewed this book on goodreads

And, as promised, here is the interview:

The Book Babblette:  Please, Shannon, introduce yourself!

Shannon A. Thompson:  Well, my name is Shannon A. Thompson, and I first realized I wanted to seriously pursue publication after my mother’s sudden death when I was 11.  Five years later, I was published at 16, and I haven’t stopped since.  I now have two novels, a short story, and poetry published, and my next novel releases March 27.

BB:  Was your mother an author?

ST:  She always wanted to be one, but she never pursued publication.  She was a writer, and she taught me how to write after I fell in love with reading.

BB:  Do you think you picked up any writing habits you may have from her?

ST:  Definitely!  She originally encouraged me to write in order to cope with my night terrors and nightmares, so most of my novels are based on my dreams at some point.  She’s a huge influence in my writing life.

BB:  Wow night terrors!  Do you still get those?

ST:  Actually, I do.  I never really grew out of them.  I sleepwalk and other things as well.  But generally only when I move or I’m under high amounts of stress.  I’ve learned to deal with it though, so it doesn’t bother me anymore.  In fact, I rather enjoy the inspiration I receive afterward.

BB:  I actually get night terrors sometimes.  I love that you turn them in to a positive.  You mentioned your dreams influence your writing, what are some other influences?

ST:  Yeah, [night terrors] can definitely be scary, especially if you don’t take precautions.  I had to have wraps around my bunk bed in college (I slept on the bottom.)  The wraps prevented me from hitting my head in my sleep.

I believe I am inspired by everything around me.  I love photography, so that’s probably my second main inspiration.  Psychology is another big one.  Meeting and talking with new people is also a great way to challenge myself to understand more types of people, cultures, and situations that I can interpret into my writing while also learning more about life.

BB:  Do you read a lot of psychology books or take courses?

ST:  I was originally a double major of English and Psychology, but I ultimately decided English was my path.  I read a lot of medical journals for recent studies that have been done.  I find people fascinating.

BB:  People are fascinating!  I think a Psychology influence reveals itself in Minutes Before Sunset.  And, of course, dreams play a prominent role.

ST:  Yes, they do.  I am excited for book 2 — Seconds Before Sunrise — because I was able to incorporate some of the exact dreams that I had into the storyline through Jessica’s eyes.  I wrote about one here: My Dreams: Seconds Before Sunrise on Goodreads & Extras.

BB:  What was your favorite chapter or scene to write in Minutes Before Sunset?

ST:  My favorite scene to write in Minutes Before Sunset was the bat scene, which is on pages 206-207.  Although many reasons made me love this scene, the ultimate deciding factor was that the scene is based on a real life moment I had during the time in my life that I was writing these novels.  You can read more details about it here:  Kygrabowski.wordpress.com.

BB:  That scene was certainly vivid.  It doesn’t surprise me that it was based on real life.

How did you choose the genre for Minutes Before Sunset?

ST:  I wrote it without worrying about the genre, but I think the story itself chose the genre.  Although it’s a paranormal romance, many would call it an urban fantasy, but I think the romance factor is what defined that in the end.  In terms of young-adult, the themes were important.  Coming-of-age is as relevant as finding an identity, and I feel like young-adult books often revolve around that since young adults are trying to find themselves.

BB:  I hadn’t thought of it as an “urban fantasy” book before.  I like that — it fits the book very well.  Will Seconds Before Sunrise contain similar themes?

ST:  Yes.  The entire trilogy revolves around three major themes: dark vs. light, fate vs. choice, and identity.  However, each novel in the trilogy has a focused plot.  The first novel is about the Dark, the second is about being a human, and the third exposes the Light.

BB:  Who are some actors you could imagine playing your characters in this series?

ST:  If any of my novels became a movie, I would hope for an open casting call.  I would want to give new faces a chance.

BB:  I kind of imagine a young River Phoenix playing Eric!  What are some things you like to do when you’re not writing?

ST:  I could see that!  I love reading and journaling, but I also enjoy traveling when I can.  If I get a new camera, I want to dive back into photography.  And I also love spending time with my family, including my cat, Bogart.

BB:  Is the cat named after Humphrey?

ST:  Yes!  Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor.  I have all of his movies, but Casablanca is my favorite, soon followed by Sabrina.

BB:  Those are both great movies.  African Queen is in my top ten all-time.  Those are all the questions I have, is there anything you would like to add?

ST:  I have a website where I keep everyone up-to-date on my publishing news, but I also share my writing, editing, and publishing tips.  I love to connect. http://shannonathompson.com.

BB:  Thanks very much, Shannon.

Book Review Year-in-Review

One year ago today, I posted my first book review.  I want to thank you all for reading about and discussing the 30 books I reviewed over the past year.  I thought it would be fun to share some information with you about this blog’s first 365 days.

5 Most Popular Posts:

1.  King Dork
2.  Urbanism Without Effort
3.  Artemis Fowl
4.  Why We Broke Up
5.  The Watch that Ends the Night

Best-Reviewed Category (with at least 2 reviews)

classic fiction, with an average review of 4.6

Worst-Reviewed Category (with at least 2 reviews)

history, with an average review of 2.5

13 non-fiction books reviewed

17 fiction books reviewed

And here is my ranking of the books I read this past year, from bad to life-changing:

30.  The Force of Reason
29.  The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
28.  Under the Banner of Heaven
27.  Artemis Fowl
26.  Annie John
25.  I Remember
24.  The Name of the Wind
23.  Skin Game and After the Dark
22.  Beautiful Creatures
21.  Disgrace
20.  The Mansion of Happiness
19.  The Host
18.  Between Women
17.  The Man Who Knew Too Much
16.  Why We Broke Up
15.  Life Itself
14.  Their Eyes Were Watching God
13.  To the Lighthouse
12.  Urbanism Without Effort
11.  Cannery Row
10.  King Dork
9.  Mortal Instruments
8.  Me Before You
7.  The White Album
6.  The Watch that Ends the Night
5.  Cum Laude
4.  You Remind Me of You
3.  Mrs. Bridge
2.  Sense and Sensibility
1.  Boys and Girls

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor by David S. Landes

publication date: 1999
pages: 531 (not including back matter)
ISBN: 0-393-31888-5

This book existed on a spectrum of poor writing. At best, David S. Landes’s writing was imprecise; at worst, it was racist. At its most average, it was merely inaccurate. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes attempted to explain, through a historical lens, the current economic circumstances of different nations. In his mind, these nations could most easily be split into the “West” and the “Rest.”

The best thing I can say about this book is Landes clearly had a lot of knowledge rattling around in his head. He shared detailed facts ranging from the most plentiful agricultural products in 18th century England, to the ships and sailors that roamed the Indian Ocean before England established its dominance in that region. However, that’s about all the good I can say about the book. There were just so many problems.

A very basic issue was that Landes rarely provided numbers to support his assertions. Further, when he did provide numbers, he didn’t provide the sources or the sources were vaguely defined. As an example, here is a passage discussing the income gap between countries:

Is the gap still growing today? At the extremes, clearly yes. Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up.

What an unhelpful passage. What are these countries? Where did you get these ideas?

Next is an example of Landes’s writing that falls on the spectrum I was discussing above. His language was probably just imprecise, but it could be that Landes actually believed what he was writing, in which case he was obviously inaccurate. In this passage, Landes was discussing the health problems that exist in tropical regions. He concluded his discussion with this ridiculous sentence: “The very existence of a specialty known as tropical medicine tells the character of the problem.” Ah yes, much like the existence of gynecology shows how inhospitable and unhealthy vaginas are.

Here is a passage that exemplifies when Landes’s writing would fall somewhere in between inaccurate and racist. In this instance he was discussing how Europe contained diverse people throughout its history, in contrast to other regions in the world.

Europe, in contrast, did not have all its eggs in one basket. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol invaders from the Asian steppe made short work of the Slavic and Khazar kingdoms of what is now Russia and Ukraine, but they still had to cut their way through an array of central European states, including the new kingdoms of their predecessors in invasion – the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgars – before they could even begin to confront the successor states of the Roman empire.

The implication of his discussion was that other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, and Africa, did not have a diverse group of peoples. I’m no historian, but just a quick check of Wikipedia shows this discussion to be inaccurate. (Asia, South America, Africa)

I have so many more examples of poor and frustrating writing from this book. But I think I’ve made my point. So I will only add one more comment: about the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket. I don’t understand how anyone who read the full 532 rambling and sometimes incoherent pages of this book could enjoy it or find it helpful. The only thing I can think is the reviewers read only a synopsis and brief passage.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book, which are somehow positive:

New York Times
University of California at Los Angeles
goodreads

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

publication date: 2007
pages: 662
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0407-9

After looking over my notes for The Name of the Wind, I have a feeling this is going to be a critical review. But I want to make clear from the outset that the book was fine. It really was just fine. The plot was interesting and captivating and I finished the book quickly. So notwithstanding all the faults I discuss in this review, the book is perfectly likable and acceptable.

That said, this book had a lot of problems. One issue was the book’s strict adherence to fantasy tropes. If you have read fantasy, you can imagine what the book was about: a young man becomes a warrior through hard luck, travel, smarts, wit, and magic. As the young man develops, the world around him becomes ever more dangerous. I won’t reveal much more, although I will tell you The Name of the Wind is the first in a three-part series, so there wasn’t a definite ending.

Not only was the story predictable, but the writing often was cliche. Examples of just a few of the cliches: the main character had “true-red hair, red as flame.” (Ever notice in books that no one has merely “red” hair. It’s always “shocking” or “fiery” or the like). The book’s evildoers were described in a children’s song. (It’s always the children’s songs, isn’t it?). Shocked characters could never just “stand.” They must always “simply stand.” (As in, “Josn simply stood. His face was stricken and bloodless as if he had been stabbed.”)

Also, sometimes the writing did not make sense. I would be reading a sentence, not thinking too much about it, and move on. But if I thought on the sentence at all, I would realize it made no sense. Here’s an example: “Sleep met him like a lover in an empty bed.” What does that mean? Wouldn’t a lover in an empty bed want to keep you awake? Here’s another, longer, one: “As with all truly wild things, care is necessary in approaching them. Stealth is useless. Wild things recognize stealth for what it is, a lie and a trap. While wild things might play games of stealth, and in doing so may even occasionally fall prey to stealth, they are never truly caught by it.” What?

Another significant flaw of the book was its gender imbalance. Now, by no means do I think every book must further the feminist cause. That’s not the purpose of books, at least not all the time. And I can enjoy a book that is neutral or even negative in its treatment of women. But the treatment of women in this book loomed so large at times as to be distracting. First, the book does not even come close to passing the Bechdel Test. Additionally, there were several mentions of a “good” woman versus a “bad” one. For example, the main character shouted to his assistant, who was carrying a sword, “Careful, Bast! You’re carrying a lady there, not swinging some wench at a barn dance.” Later, the assistant stated, “A note? You sneak out and leave me a note? What am I, some dockside whore?” There were also comments about a woman’s loveliness, and how it was connected to her worth.

Basically, as perhaps you have gathered from the above discussion, the book had an imaginative and fantastical plot line that satisfied my desire for escape and entertainment. However, the many flaws in the book, such as its cliched or nonsensical writing, or its treatment of women, would take me out of the story and remind me that I was reading someone’s words. But readers of fantasy will probably enjoy this book, and even someone who has never read fantasy might enjoy it, because they would not get bogged down in the cliches or tropes. However, there are many other fantasy books that I would recommend before this one.

(This is the first book I’ve reviewed through my Request-a-Review system! Thanks very much to the person who sent in their request.)

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Entertainment Weekly
SFSite
Fantasy Book Critic