The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Arnold Spirit is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, where everyone calls him Junior.  As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, which caused seizures, poor vision, and a perception from his peers that he was different.  Most of the others on the rez picked on him, except his family, and his closest friend, Rowdy.  Rowdy was a tough guy and would fight anybody over anything, especially anyone who got too rough with Junior.

Beginning high school at the rez became a turning point for Junior.  He got upset that the textbooks were so old his mom’s name was in them.  He was suspended for throwing the book, which hit the teacher, Mr. P.  During his suspension, Mr. P visited Junior and convinced him to get his education off the reservation.

Most of the Indians picked on Junior because he was different, now they picked on him because he was a traitor for leaving the rez.

Reardon was Junior’s new school, it was twenty miles from the rez.  Sometimes his dad was sober enough to drop him off and pick him up, but every once in a while, Junior had to walk. He was the only Indian at the white school, and it was a rough start for him.   He was half white at the rez, and half indian at the school.  It took some time but Junior found his place, realizing he was as smart and athletic as anybody at Reardon.  While finding himself there, he also lost some close friends and family back home.  Rowdy believed he was a traitor and went for blood during the high school basketball game. Alcohol was also a major contributor to the losses at the rez.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the character’s in NS Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which focuses on an American Indian’s struggle with modernization- living in the white world. It is a struggle between balancing everything your family knows and has held on to for centuries, or going out on your own to find a better life.  A struggle of honoring your ancestors to keep the culture alive or turning your back on them to leave the rez. It is a tough battle, and many on the rez don’t fight it.  They stay and become prisoners there.

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Hollywood – Charles Bukowski

 

Bukowski’s book, Hollywood, gives the reader a backstage pass to see how the gears move behind a Hollywood film. Many pieces fit together to line up the financial backers, the writer, the director, all the way down to the movie premiere.  From the late nights drinks to make a deal, to the ghetto BBQs, this one digs deep for the unedited glimpse behind the scenes and characters.

Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski is an alcoholic writer, late in life.  Most of his old friends have died from their habits, but his most recent wife, Sarah, has been pushing the health foods and Hank thinks this is the reason he’s outlasting all the other alcoholic writers from his generation. He’s done several novels and poetry, but his friend, Jon Pinchot, a director, is urging him to write a screenplay.  Pinchot has some connections, money, which will help it along.  What would an alcoholic novelist write  a movie about?…  His glory days of course.  The dirty bars, the seedy motels and apartments, the women, the fist fights.  Hank barely believes his movie will amount to much of anything, but the eager support of Pinchot has him playing along.  Financial backing appears and disappears, actors want their own directors, production companies withhold payments and threaten to shut down the movie.  Pinchot takes matters into his own hands when Firepower Productions tries to back them into a corner by refusing to release the movie deal while they also refuse to make the movie.  Finally the day of the big premiere, and Hank gets to relive the good ol’ days.

What does a writer do when his first screenplay is developed into a mildly successful movie?  Write a novel about writing the screenplay, of course!

Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

Rating: *********9/10

Dress Your Family in Corderoy and Denim – David Sedaris

This was my first David Sedaris book, it was enjoyable, he has a knack for storytelling.  Each chapter was a new story and while I came in expecting loads of humor, each was a different spectrum of emotion.  I noticed a lot of disappointment- be it with himself, his parents, boyfriend, or siblings.  He seemed to try to find humor in some of the stories, but many of them were just put out there.  Some seemed believable, but others involved such nonsense as his sister rifling through trashcans at night and collecting teeth.  An interesting aspect of his stories involved his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorders.  One story relayed the feeling of needing to touch a stranger’s head.  Many times in an airplane he gets the itching sensation to touch the passenger’s head in front of him.  Not once, multiple times.  He tries to play it off as an accident, but the compulsion returns again and again.  He said the normal number of touches is three, any more and the person catches on and gets upset/uncomfortable.  The writing reminds me a bit of Augusten Burroughs in humor, storytelling, and non-sense. While it may seem uninteresting, the stories were all little pieces of his life, where one could think ‘This happened to me,’ or ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with that.’  Sedaris is a contibutor to NPR and I read the book, I imagined an ‘NPR voice’ projecting the story over my car radio.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard him on there, but it was a fun way to imagine the stories.

Rating: *******7/10

Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Well, this was an interesting read.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with this, just that I heard Burroughs was a funny writer.  I think his writing was good and well thought out.  He had a fun way of telling stories.  This memoir focused on his life from about ages 8-15.  Through his childhood, he struggled a lot with the adults he should have trusted.  His mother had mental illness and what he considered psychotic episodes.  His father left the family and stayed out of communication with the rest of the family.  From a young age, Augusten was enthralled with doctors, acting, and hair.  He had dreams of being a doctor, playing a doctor on a soap opera, or being a hair product tycoon.  As his mother went deeper into psychotic fits, it was arranged for Augusten to move in with her psychiatrist’s family.  The family basically lived as slobs, and other mental patients of the father (Dr. Finch) would move in and out of the home as well.  Augusten missed more and more school and became more of an accepted, slobby member of the Finch family.  Early on, he realized he was gay, and another man staying in the Finch home helped him develop an adult relationship to solidify his homosexual feelings.  As a straight man, it was a little uncomfortable reading graphic details of their relationship, let alone the idea that Augusten was 13 and Neil was 34.  Apart from those details, the book had several short stories of mishaps and adventures Augusten had with the Finch family. For example, the family believed that God used many mediums to communicate, including ‘Bible dips’ and one story even had the family believing that God was talking to the family through Dr. Finch’s feces.  He had his loyal daughter, Hope, scoop them out of the toilet with a spatula and display them on the picnic table in the yard.  Augusten said the Doctor was so proud of this he wrote detailed notes of what they meant along with sketches that were included in the monthly newsletter for his patients!  Gross!

Toward the end of the book Augusten wrote: “I took an inventory of my life: I was seventeen, I had no formal education, no job training, no money, no furniture, no friends. ‘It could be worse,’ I told myself. ‘I could be going to a prom.'”

I found this to be one of the funnier things he wrote, but there were a lot of funny parts in the book that kept me reading.  Ultimately, the book was like a train wreck, it was tough to read a lot of it, but it was hard to put it down.

Rating: ******6/10

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian – Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is a favorite, so this may be a little biased, ha.  Though “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” may sound quite morbid and unappealing, the book was quite interesting.  Vonnegut compiled several short pieces from a show he did on public radio in the late 1990’s, each visiting a different character in history.  Here’s the catch: he wrote as if he went through a blue tunnel up to the pearly gates of heaven assisted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who made him just dead enough to get Vonnegut there and then to safely bring him back from the dead.  At under 80 pages, this was a quick but satisfying read.  He was able to quote memorable historical figures, friends, and acquaintances as he visited about 20 dead souls in heaven.

First, Vonnegut stated that this does not reflect his religious views (as the president of the American Humanist Association), but was a fun way to look at different perspectives of history.  Humorously, he interviewed Isaac Newton, who said he can’t forgive himself for overlooking the theories of evolution and relativity (even though he invented the reflecting telescope and calculus).  Hitler was interviewed, asking for forgiveness.  Yes, Hitler was in heaven, Vonnegut said there was no hell and that everyone simply went to heaven, because nobody knows, who can say he’s wrong?  Isaac Asimov was also interviewed and asked how he became such a prolific writer (over 500 novels).  He replied with one word, “escape,” followed by quoting Satre, saying “Hell is other people.” Vonnegut even wrote in his mysterious alter-ego, Kilgore Trout into an interview.

I have enjoyed all I’ve read by Vonnegut and this was no exception.  His witty and thoughtful work did a nice job of exploring the afterlife and people who have influenced himself and the world.  A quick read, not to be taken seriously, it was a nice ‘brain break’ from the world, if only for a short time.

Rating: **********10/10