Book Review · Books · Fiction · Summer Reading

What I’m Reading: Factotum. By: Charles Bukowski

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Around the time I was a freshman in college, I was turned on to Bukowski. I was reading a lot of Henry Rollins’ books, and from his works I fell into a rabbit whole of subversive literature; Henry Miller, Chuck Palanuik, Irving Welsh, and so on. I think most people get into subversive fiction when they’re young and at their most angst-ridden and confused. Reading Factotum as a teenager was like, I imagine, how a first shot of heroin feels. It felt to me like my brain and my feelings were having a brawl inside of my mind. It felt that the first time I read A Catcher in the Rye and listened to Chopin for the first time. I look for that feeling over and over again when I read. It’s so rare to come by. So many books are dumb down these days.

How was I when I was young? Even worse, how were my friends? Ever had a friend that was deep into absinthe and Steampunk cosplay or got into goth, rap metal, and writing vampire fan fiction?  We were all frustrated, overwhelmed, trying to carve out our identities, to find out where and how the hell we belonged. We were fire balls of frenzied emotions, of emotional turmoil, and mental anguish. It was the only time when being dysfunctional was valuable. I don’t know how most people live life without experiencing a little bit of anguish. Everything I was attracted to was solemn, vulgar, dark, exploitative, brooding, but, in my mind, cool. The countless times I’d sat in my room with my windows blacked out with newspaper, drinking bad beer and writing shitty poetry while listening to blues records (I’m talking Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, not that bullshit Eric Clapton wastes his our time with instead of giving us Cream fans an appropriate album AND tour. Rest in Paradise Jack Bruce). My friends look back on that time of their lives, photos included, with a code red level of cringe. But, I feel that it was their most expressive time, a time when they were at their most creative and free. Now, they’re afraid of chaos, or they suppress it with prescription drugs. I don’t know. I sympathize with their fear. Some people get older and feel that it’s probably safer not to feel anything, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t mind being a loser. Living’s a lot easier, I feel good. I just don’t think that you should go through life being completely numb. Face your failures, the stuff that saddens you, just a little bit.

Bukowski was a shrewd dude. He was also a pretty vile dude, but he was conscious. He had a thumbprint on life that I admire and try to maintain for myself, though without the influence of drugs or alcohol. He saw life for what it was, human beings living in a whirring madness of boredom and wasteful living that he just couldn’t understand. Neither do I. But, I’m empathetic to those who continue to live this way. They haven’t figured out how to escape the asylum. I suppose people get older and that’s when the pointlessness of life hits them. Bukowski and his Chinaski alter-ego broke free with sex, women, gambling and booze. And because of the way he lived, he is seen as a hero, or an anti-hero depending on your level of cynicism. Like Bukowski/Chinaski, you want to walk into work drunk off your balls and tell the boss to kiss your ass. Because, somewhere underneath the squander and grind of it all, we all want to believe that happiness exists, unaffected. Far from all of the disappointment and apathy, we want to believe that there is still a resistance within ourselves driving us to live in our own way. It’s a feeling that drives us from our youth that into our adulthood, and we hope to hold on to it for as long as we can.

But, nah. That ain’t reality.

Most people live with both feet on the ground and their head on their bills, and then others are comfortable with permanence and find a rhythm in being broken in like a dog by habituation and routine. I’m not judging those people, but they can only live vicariously through other people’s lives, and that has to be a painful reality, I think. Not being brave enough, so that as an adult, that that six pack of beer and that joint starts to become things that get you through the daily 9 to 5 bullshit. Most people are going to sit on our asses and watch the clock hit five and sweat it out on a packed smelly train on the way home, because home is where your food and bed is, and then do it all again tomorrow. But, hell, you can laugh about it someday when you look down at the joke of a pension check you’ll have to retire on. I’ll probably be that bum you see coming out of work, selling her shitty poetry pamphlets and knitted loves that you’ll throw your unwanted pennies at. We’re all end up losers in some sort of way in this life, I guess.

What Bukowski is saying is, just have the fucking courage to embrace it.

© 2017 • CoffeeCupcakesKafka

 

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Book Review · Books · Fiction · Novel · Summer Reading

What I’m Reading: A Room with a View by: E.M. Foster

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E.M. Forster was a wonderful observer of human nature in all of its complex motivations, self-destruction, disorder, and idiocy. His works are an observation into the complexities of human nature in all of its irrational, changeable glory. Forster seems to value individualism above all else. The idea of living at the beat of another drummer’s rhythm, for people to “march to their destiny by catchwords” where the individual does not live a life they want but rather one that others desire for them, seems to lead to an unhappy life. A person who would rather live falsely than to embrace the truth is one who cannot express feelings openly and is prone to maintain unhealthy social norms. It leads to a dreary and dull life, and creates a world where moral zealousness overtakes our sensibilities, and destroys our happiness.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving away the whole plot. I’ve yet to see a book review which has done otherwise! I think this is due to the fact that the novel is so layered. Some people see it as a feminist study, others an untraditional romance novel, or a philosophical study of morality as it pertains to one’s freedom of choice and happiness. It is a very complex novel and, in all honesty as with most of my reviews, my interpretation of the novel is simplistic and simple and I like to relate personal experiences to the books I’ve read, so you would be hard-pressed to find me writing a feminist study or a deep study of social caste or morals.

With that said, in my opinion, A Room with a View is a book about individualism and even rebellion. Characters challenge the status quo even if it means they lose relationships, and even positions, in respectable society along the way. And in the end, it is in challenging a rigid world and leaving it behind that the characters find that they’re better served in the end. Lucy Honeychurch and The Emersons (George and his father) are in my opinion, some of literatures great individualists. They represent an alternative vision of society where individualism is valued above conformity, where freedom of choice is optimal, and even though they upset many people close to them with their choices, they all lead happier lives as individuals.

I often find myself returning to this book whenever I need to try and sympathize with the complexities of the world and the people within it. I like returning to this book because it’s a nice escapist novel, a book to take me away from the messy times we’re living in. I know, it’s not very healthy, any kind of escapism. I think about the world, how it seems more of a mess than it once was, or maybe it was always a mess and I never noticed. There seems to me this great tension in the world, a breakdown of honesty and tenderness, reality and good manners. Mostly, I find that the world is becoming a place too ingrained with a rigged morality, where people often live based on what society thinks is commonplace rather than what the individual wants. To me, it seems as though human beings are losing touch with their own imperfect, eccentric natures, the kind of natures that made this world so interesting in the first damn place.

When I was younger, I prided myself on my individualism, on the thought that people were as intellectually receptive to the ways of life and living, and that as adults people rarely grew up somber and cynical unless they’d had unrealistic expectations of life. I always stood by my own beliefs of optimal living; that one could possess optimism and knowledge, practicality and idealism and live a good existence. I looked upon the world with such zeal and excitement at that age, I still do, but I am a bit more sober with experience. I don’t regret such idealism, but I think that maybe things would have affected me less harshly as an adult if I’d also imbued some of life’s complexities into my own idealistic nature. I wish that I’d been told more about the heartbreaks. Your heart breaks, a lot. It’s painful and it can ruin the best of you, the parts of you that push you to be driven and hopeful of the future. If you’re not self-aware, brave even, it’s so easy to fall in line and be compliant with convention, to lose yourself in the safety of conformity, all because you don’t want to get your heart broken again and again.

But a bit of rebellion doesn’t have to be about being self- destructive. I’ve found that sometimes it’s as simple as having an open heart and mind, a healthy dose of self-awareness, and a good amount of empathy for others, that makes life worth living. I’m opposed to a single-minded view or idea that settles on stringent beliefs or values. My life is very unconventional, but I don’t feel as limited to experiences in life as I think I would have if I’d stuck to norms, plus, I feel good about myself. It’s this “rebelliousness” that keeps me grounded, compassionate, but also allows me to question conventions. It’s also helped me to build my confidence.

But the world is very different, the people within it, at times not as brave. Sometimes I feel like I am standing on the outside of everything, observing, watching. I see a lot of frustration, a lot of people oppressing each other, trying to contain each other’s spirit. Why is that? Fear, I think. Forster understood this fear and how it destroys people:

“[She gave up trying to understand herself, and]…the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters-the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go.”

About fear, Thich Nhat Hanh says: “People have a hard time letting go of suffering, out of a fear of the unknown. They prefer suffering that is familiar.”

Still, what I love is that Forster is unwaveringly optimistic throughout. There are no villains or good characters. Characters do not suffer for objecting to the status-quo (as so many writers of the time such as Edith Wharton and Henry James were prone to show in their novels). And even though this not very realistic, I like that Forster still believes in a happy ending. Still, happiness only comes when one has the courage to break away from convention.

So, think outside of the box, kids. And then once you’re out, take a can of gasoline, throw on it a lit match, and walk the fuck away. I say this as a metaphor, of course. Please don’t set literal fires, except to your mind, with knowledge, and a book.

© 2017 • CoffeeCupcakesKafka

 

Book Review · Books · Fiction · Short Stories · Summer Reading

What I’m Reading: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

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Salinger is a writer who all writers want to be when they are young and first starting out. He has an incredible ear for dialogue and an eye for observation that takes many writers years to perfect. And, more than anything, his work is free of the shackles of mawkishness.

In Nine Stories, Salinger has written a series of shorts that are, like the author himself, complex; humorous and tragic, expressive and aloof. And yet, Salinger is great at what he does because his work comes from a place of honesty. Each story has a laidback sensibility to them and Salinger creates a wonderful collection of enlivened characters. The one thing that stands out about Salinger’s writing is how he excels at creating smart, natural dialogue, which can often be a bit beguiling to the reader, especially when they are delivered by children, but even when it is delivered by them, it’s refreshing.

There is a deep sense of the author’s movement into exploring vulnerability through the theme of innocence, which can be seen through the lives and experiences of children such as in “For Esme with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Of relationships he ventures into more spiritual depths about life and death in a way that is typical of the human journey. He writes about war, passion, loss and heartbreak with an openness that is free of judgment, and he seems to desire a return to a life of simplicity, a life full of balance, virtue, and honesty. Salinger observes as a writer who is very impartial. As he writes about the lives of people, whether they live in and out of the cities or the suburbs, he writes about them without bias. He is non-judgmental; he writes what he sees as opposed to what he assumes.

There is also a sense that behind each story there is a feeling of emptiness, that what writing Salinger’s core self is someone who is often consumed with want, particularly of intimacy. A lack of intimacy seems to destroy innocence in some way, often by death or dishonesty, common predators of innocence. Salinger never outright tells you how he feels. Desire is aloof, it hides behind wit and disappointment or it gestures towards a grand ending that is possibly too simplistic for some readers but all readers can agree that his works are neither banal or cliché by any measure.

All in all, Salinger’s Nine Stories is a book filled with sincerity and heart.

© 2017 • CoffeeCupcakesKafka

 

 

 

Book Review · Books · Fiction · Novel · Summer Reading

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

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“The war came to an end and I went home. I’d always been keen on mechanics, and if there was nothing done in aviation, I’d intended to get into an automobile factory. I’d been wounded and had to take it easy for a while. Then they wanted me to go to work. I couldn’t do the sort of work they wanted me to do. It seemed futile. I’d had a lot of time to think. I kept asking myself what life was for. After all, it was only by luck that I was alive; I wanted to make something of my life, but I didn’t know what. I’d never thought much about God, I began to think about Him now. I couldn’t understand why there was evil in the world. I knew I was very ignorant; I didn’t know anyone I couldn’t turn to and I wanted to learn, so I began to read haphazard.”

In college, I was deeply drawn to beat writers; Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, (and more modern beat writers like Henry Rollins), writers who are, without a question, some of the greats of their time. They lived by their own rules in both writing and expression, and created adventurous characters. What I love the most about their characters is that they are fucking fearless. They walk forward into the darkness, hungry adventurers crashing into every corner and avenue they can without any care for money or safety or common sense. They were always restless, always searching, never settling. I’ve always been drawn to characters like these. Perhaps it’s why I read so much, why I’m always restless and anxious to dig into the next new book!

But while reading The Razor’s Edge, I couldn’t help but to think about false happiness, mostly one’s own restlessness with life. As I read, I immediately connected to Maugham’s restless world traveler, Larry Darrell, the troubled war veteran and main character of the book. Because Larry is so worn by his experiences in the war and is so weary of the world around him, he is no longer his old self. He begins to disconnect with his old life, and wants to find meaning in it all. He travels to Europe and India, finding enlightenment in toil, meditation, and solitude. I think he speaks for the restless bohemian in most of us. Larry is a character who is always searching, both spiritually and intellectually. He is unsatisfied with the life that is before him. He is a man who does not want to settle, who wants to always learn more about it. In reality, most of us think and feel this way but do nothing about it, or in many ways, we can’t do anything. But we are trying to change things, little by little.

I think that is life’s tragedy, really. People walk around, brimming with ideas, desires and longing, they dream of being heroic adventurers but often live tragic lives. We know what happens to many of those people. Maugham knew, and in the book he doesn’t paint a rosy picture.

But what Maugham shows the reader, and what I took from his book, is that the worst way to suffer is to look upon your life with a bleak view. You see examples of this in Larry’s friends, ambitious millionaire Gray, Sophie the poet, Larry’s wealthy love interest Isabel, and Isabel’s ambitious social-climbing uncle Elliot. As Larry returns to his old life as a new person, he is on the fringe, watching from outside the circle of friends and lovers who no longer seem recognizable to him, or he to them. He returns to Paris and sees many tragedies; Sophie spiraling out of control into prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction after the death of her husband and child, Isabel has settled for Gray but still pines for Larry, Grey suffers from migraines, and because of a stock market crash, the couple is no longer as wealthy as they once were. Elliot is rich but alone, depressed, and angry. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but Larry’s old friends are miserable folks who in some cases aren’t worth a damn! In the book, as it is very much in life, good people suffer and the bad ones suffer comfortably, even if they feel trapped by their circumstances.

Are you a good or bad person? How should you live your life? What is a good/bad life? Maugham leaves it all out for you to decide for yourself.

From Maugham’s book, I was reminded that life is forever changing, and that people are always drifting. You’ll be cynical and sad on the one hand and then accepting and sympathetic on the other. The best way to embrace life is to look at it very much the way Larry Darrell does, as if you’re on a continuous quest, enlightened and experienced in the ways of life and its ills, you have to keep moving. We can explore life and its possibilities while we lament its faults. It’s how, I think, we can grow into happier people. So, even though, at this point in my life, I can’t afford to sip a glass of wine in front of the Champs-Elysse or live surrounded in a more comfortable setting, it’s the illusion along with the reality of false happiness that is the real danger. I’m starting to see that, even as you try to grasp as much knowledge as you can, to know everything you need to know that’ll move you forward, you may not grasp everything that comes your way, but the knowledge that you do possess can lead you towards happiness. I think letting go of your obsession with perfection or with what is definite is key. The way towards a satisfactory life is through contemplation and appreciation, things that can be lost when one has had bad feelings and experiences. If you can’t gain wisdom as you age, I think it can ultimately make you feel like a displaced person within the world, so you have to find a way to be excited about life.

Remain curious, pursue knowledge, get out often.

To live life with few inhibitions and restraints is the key to happiness. It seems impossible, but it starts with the little things, the smallest steps.

©2017• CoffeeCupcakesandKafka