Books and Booze

I have been reading since I was a child and as I have grown up, my reading habits have inevitably changed with the ebb and flow of my everyday life. When I was in grade school and had the summers off I would buy a book and binge it until 4AM because I could. In college I would read chapters between engineering problem sets to make sure I got through some books during a busy schedule. When I was working as a shift leader in my previous job I would bring in books to read on the off shifts when things got slow. No matter what the circumstances were, I have always managed to meld my lifestyle with my love for reading.

Perhaps the best addition to my literary lifestyle, though, has sprung up in the last five years. That would of course be the occasional addition of booze to my reading time. Whether it be a cocktail in a quiet café on a Saturday afternoon or a cold beer at five o’clock on a Wednesday, there is something magical about sipping on an adult beverage while devouring a novel.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about reading after consuming 3 tequila shots on a Saturday night – maybe that’s okay for some people, but for me the words would definitely start to blur together and I would find myself ten pages from the last part I remember and have to back track. What I enjoy is that light buzz one gets from one or two drinks and how it helps you get lost in the pages just a little more easily. I love reading at all times of the day, but as someone who is ultra-sensitive to ambient noise and the distractions that come from being alive in 2019, a bit of a buzz helps hone my focus and block out that background noise.

In addition to the aforementioned aid to my focus, there is something romantic about reading a literary piece while sipping a glass of whiskey or gin. A lot of famous authors – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac – drank while writing and a lot of their works use alcohol as a catalyst for some of the adventures, thoughts and often mayhem that their characters experience. Many of these authors had an unhealthy relationship to booze – something I want to explore in a later post – but it cannot be denied that it played a large role in their writing process. As a result, I often feel a deeper connection to a piece when sipping pleasantly on a glass of something strong.

Whether it be sipping ouzo in Greece while reading a classic or hunkering down with a fun fantasy romp and a glass of Guinness in my apartment on a cold night, booze and books is one of favorite combinations. Do you like to occasionally mix alcohol and literature? Let me know in the comments below.

Review: Tales of the Jazz Age

Book: Tales of the Jazz Age

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

My relationship with Fitzgerald is complicated. Aside from The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t make it through any of his novels. I found them to be boring, I hated the characters and the writing was often times too elaborate for my tastes. His short stories, however, I find to be superbly written and entertaining, and Tales of the Jazz Age was no exception.

Originally published in 1922, this vintage edition contains 11 short works that tell stories ranging the full spectrum of human emotion. They explore the mundane and the extraordinary and almost every single one was a great read.

The Jelly-Bean – A slow start to the collection, the short story tells that tale of a Southern man nicknamed “The Jelly-Bean” (real name Jim Powell) due to his lazy and dimwitted tendencies. Powell gets invited to a party and here he gains the attention of a free-spirited, upper class woman whom he fancies. Throughout the night they drink together and gamble together and she takes a liking to him. His dreams, however, are shattered when the next day he finds out she married the boring businessman who had been suiting her. What’s the point? Jim was prepared to change who he was for the love a woman from a different world, but in the end she did what society expected of her and broke his heart in the process. Not everyone gets a happy ending. The interesting part of this one is that Zelda co-wrote it with her husband, in particular the bits about crap shooting.

The Camel’s Back – A very humorous tale about a man who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, and then proceeds to get rip roaring drunk after she declines the proposal. As the story progresses he ends up as the front end in a camel costume and shows up at a party where, lo and behold, his now ex-girlfriend is having a great time. Hilarity ensues. I think the message here is that alcohol can lead to bad judgment. I didn’t need that reminder, but the story was a good time.

May Day – One of the more complex stories in the collection, this one tells multiple inter-twining tales that touched on ideas that I felt were still relevant today. Clashing political ideologies, soldiers’ trouble reintegrating into society, lost innocence, alcohol abuse and false friendships. Fitzgerald says he was trying to capture “the general hysteria of that spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz” and I felt he was successful in this pursuit. The story was interesting and engaging and again, I was able to draw many similes with today’s problems. I would strongly recommend this one.

Porcelain and Pink – A one act play about a woman taking a bath. I’m sure it ruffled the feathers of some of the more religious and prude of the time. Comical, witty and classic Fitzgerald.

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz – More of a fun fiction than some of Fitzgerald’s other stories, this one follows a young Southern gent as he is brought to the home of a classmate. Upon arrival he is introduced to extravagance he has never even heard of and discovers the mountain the family owns is one large diamond, kept secret from the government and general public by imprisoning anyone who gets close to finding their secret. Good times (read: death and fear) follow as the secret is threatened once again and this young Southerner tries to escape with his life. Well written and pretty funny – one of the best stories in the collection.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Let me preface this by saying I never seen the film adaptation of this story, but knew the general premise going in. I was pleasantly surprised to absolutely love this story about a man who is born into old age and ages in reverse. Seeing life through his eyes as he gets younger and younger was an interesting commentary on what it means to live a meaningful life and what it means to be happy. The ending was both fitting and terrifying as he slowly forgets himself into the simple joys of childhood. A quintessential Fitzgerald story and probably my favorite in the entire collection.

Tarquin of Cheapside – A very short, confusing piece of “poetry”. The one piece in the collection I really didn’t like. I couldn’t tell you what it was about if I tried.

“O Russert Witch!” – My second favorite story in the collection behind Benjamin Button, this one tells the story of a man who works at a book shop and lives in a small apartment by himself. He is essentially a stand in for everyone who wants more out of life but is too afraid to do anything about it. At various points in his life, the man interacts with a mysterious woman and the story is told mostly through these various interactions, which span young adulthood into old age. His attraction to this girl, but fear of approaching her, represents his general approach to life. In the end he realizes the truth about the woman and who she is, which leaves him feeling regret over his life’s choices. He chose an easy, boring existence over passion and excitement and as it closes he realizes it is too late to do anything about it. Typical Lost Generation themes of regret, living life to the fullest and false illusions of happiness.

The Lees of Happiness – A story about a writer and dancer who get married and move to the countryside. After enjoying life for a short bit, the man has a stroke and is left a vegetable. The woman then spends the next few decade caring for him alone in their large country house. When he passes, she is left without purpose and eventually decides to open the house up as a boarding house. There was some commentary here about life’s purpose, regret and loss. It was a little boring, but worth the read.

Mr. Icky – An old man is abandoned by his ungrateful children in this short piece. It was okay.

Jemina, The Mountain Girl – A funny story about two warring clans of bootleg distillers in the mountains. Action packed along with humorously written mountain accents. It was an interesting choice for the end of the collection, but I enjoyed it well enough.

Overall, the majority of stories here were memorable and I took a lot away from this read. Everything I love about reading stories by Lost Generation authors is on display here – regret, loss, love and the purpose/meaning of life. Fitzgerald again proves himself a master of short fiction and I highly recommend this collection for fans of his work. As a final note, the cover of this edition is beautifully bound and I love the simple cover art.

Review: All the Names They Used for God

Book: All the Names They Used for God

Author: Anjali Sachdeva

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is a diverse and outstanding collection of nine stories that range from mystical realism to speculative science fiction. While these stories cover a broad range of topics, I felt they all fit appropriately into this volume and they were all standouts. Sachdeva, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has taught writing at a variety of colleges, is an excellent storyteller and her writing style really left me feeling engaged and entranced.

The World by Night – A strong opener, this short told the story of a half-blind woman living on the frontier of early America. When her husband leaves to find work, she is left feeling lonely and sad, but quickly discovers a cave entrance on her land and begins to venture into the cave system. She feels alive in the caves as her lack of perfect sight is made up for by an enhanced sense of touch and smell. The ending was phenomenal and overall this was a story about lost dreams, the fragility of relationships and how we search for purpose wherever we can. A beautiful story that almost felt like a dream; hope and hopelessness are both found here.

Glass-Lung – Probably my least favorite story in the collection, this one is about an immigrant steel worker who is raising a daughter by himself. Things are going well until an accident at work leaves him permanently disabled. It was my least favorite because the plot was a little dull, but Sachdeva still touches on some interesting themes here. As someone who spent four years working in a factory and hearing stories of people getting seriously hurt, I felt this man’s pain at losing everything and going from someone who takes care of his daughter to having her take care of him. The idea of one’s life purpose is a strong theme here and is explored through the lens of the main character, his daughter and the man she falls in love with (an archaeologist trying to make a name for himself). This story also addresses the ideas of love, loss and again that clash of hope vs hopelessness.

Logging Lake – An interesting commentary on modern relationships, this story tells the tale of Robert, a man recently left by his long time girlfriend who decided she wanted more out of life than him. After wallowing in sadness, he meets an adventurous woman named Terri and she invites him on a poorly planned backpacking trip in the Washington wilderness. I really liked this one because I felt it was an accurate portrayal of one of the biggest problems people come across in relationships – that difference in opinion as to the purpose of life. After the breakup Robert tries to reinvent himself and here Sachdeva brings to light the idea that sometimes we need to just accept who we are because changing ourselves for others usually won’t make us any happier. As the story progresses there is a beautiful meshing of magical realism and then in the end Sachdeva asks the reader to decide what defines happiness and a healthy relationship. Did Robert find it or is it all an illusion?

Killer of Kings – I didn’t know who John Milton was before I read this story. It is about an old poet who has lost his sight and an angel visits him to help him write his masterpiece – Milton’s Paradise Lost. As I read this I was a bit confused as to the point, but after reading up on Milton and his work it made a lot more sense. I enjoyed reading her take on Milton’s development from childhood to adulthood and how his work as a writer was an important tool in political revolt. The culmination of his work with the angel leads to an interesting ending which, considering the content of Paradise Lost, was very fitting.

All the Names for God – The story which gives the collection its name is based on the true life tragedy that saw a group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The fictionalized plot follows two of these girls through their slavery and into forced marriages with their abductors. As the plot progresses it begins to intertwine with magic and it is revealed that the two girls have found a way to free themselves and ultimately get revenge on the men who took away so many years of their lives. This one was obviously strongly centered around loss and how people cope with tragedy. The magical twist was interesting.

Robert Greenman and the Mermaid – In my opinion, this was one of the best stories in the collection. A New England fisherman named Robert is by all accounts happy. He has a wife who he is very much in love with, he has managed to stay away from the bottle and he enjoys his work even though it is providing diminishing returns. On one fateful voyage into the sea Robert spots a mermaid and suddenly life loses its luster and he quickly spirals into depression when not near the mermaid. Touching on themes of unhealthy emotional attachment, the human psyche and life/death, this one was one of the most memorable for me.

Anything You Might Want – A story about a man indebted to a Montana magnate and the magnate’s daughter (the protagonist). When the two fall in love and run away together, things quickly crumble and the woman is left to fend for herself in rural Florida. She quickly finds a place for herself in that society and establishes a life there, only to find herself face-to-face again with the man who left her. While there was nothing thematically special here (grass is greener, passionate love never lasts, don’t rely on other for happiness, etc…) the characters were well written and I stayed engaged in the story until the end. I liked the way it all wrapped up.

Manus – What if large fungal blobs invaded Earth and left things pretty much the same, but demanded that everyone replace their hands with metal appendages – aptly nicknamed ‘forks’? This was an interesting take on the typical alien invasion trope and brought up an interesting commentary on rebellion, loss, and again hope. Above all, this story was about fighting oppression and for that reason alone I liked it. The ending was strange and I honestly had to reread the last couple pages to make sure I understood it correctly. In the end it left me wondering if the form of rebellion humans have adapted here is worth the loss? Is it actually preferable to simply losing your hands? I think the answer will depend on your view of totalitarianism, but this story certainly left me thinking.

Pleiades – Two scientists decide to create septuplets through in vitro fertilization – one egg that would become seven baby girls. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this one was definitely the most heartbreaking of the collection. This one touches heavily on tragic loss, familial bonds, our will to live and humanity’s sometimes irresponsible use of science. A powerful story and a great ending to the collection. One of my favorites and one that will stick with me.

Overall, I really really enjoyed this collection. A lot of reviewers have stated that the stories didn’t fit together in one volume, but I think the thing that ties them all together is that battle between hope and hopelessness which was a major theme in every story. Sure, Sachdeva touches on a lot of other themes and the stories are all different, but that is what makes a good story collection in my opinion. Let me know what your thoughts are below!

Review: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Book: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Author: Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Recommended for: Die hard Neil Gaiman Fans

Reading this book was like sticking my hand into a large jar of loose change. Most of the time you are going to pull out a penny or a nickel, but every once in a while you find that holy grail – the elusive quarter.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions is a short story collection by British author Neil Gaiman. Within its pages are 31 short stories written throughout Mr. Gaiman’s career. There is a good deal of variety between the stories, which range from poetry to micro-fiction to your standard length short story, and they all seemed to fit into this aptly named collection. That being said, my overall impressions can be summed up in one word…meh.

As a reader, I love short stories because I feel they give an author the chance to showcase their abilities in a way that differs drastically from a novel. All of my favorite authors are ones who can not only write engaging novels, but also short stories that entrap my attention and leave me wanting more. Sometimes life is moving a bit too quickly to find the time to sit down and enjoy a full length novel, so having the option to dive into a collection of shorter works and make my way through them one at a time is a nice option. Some authors (such as a personal favorite – Ray Bradbury) embrace the short story and come up with masterfully written sagas that blend together to tell an overarching narrative (The Illustrated Man) while some, like Mr. Gaiman, prefer to write stories that mostly stand apart. I enjoy both equally, but like I said above, a great number of these were duds, pennies in a jar full of change.

Minor spoilers to follow as I give small summaries for most of the stories in the collection, along with my thoughts.

Reading the Entrails – Not for me. Gaiman’s poetic style is not one I enjoy reading.

The Wedding Present – This was included with Gaiman’s introduction and was somewhat interesting. A couple gets a novel as a wedding present and each time they open it the story has changed. It kept me engaged, but it wasn’t anything special.

Chivalry – One knight’s search for the Holy Grail in modern UK leads him to an old woman’s mantle. Originally written for a children’s story collection and it shows. It was boring.

 Nicholas Was… – The first piece I really liked! A dark twist on Christmas and I think the first time I have ever seen micro fiction in a published work. I liked it a lot.

The Price – A story about a cat who protects a home from a demon. This was one of the better crafted stories in the collection and was one of my favorites. I don’t even like cats, but this was definitely one of the top three for me.

Troll Bridge – I actually read this one first when deciding whether or not to buy this collection in the bookstore. A child meets a troll under a bridge and then again and again as he grows up. The ending was fitting. One of the better stories in my opinion.

Don’t Ask Jack – This one was really boring. I suppose it was supposed to be a chilling tale of a Jack-in-the-Box, but I honestly don’t even remember what happens.

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories – A story about a writer’s disillusioned journey to Hollywood and the hotel attendant he meets while he is there. Another hit for me, this one was a bit longer and it was entertaining throughout. I loved the way he portrays Hollywood.

The White Road – More narrative poetry – didn’t make it past the first page.

Queen of Knives – I actually finished this narrative poem, but overall it was meh.

Changes – Interesting concept. A new cancer drug has unintentional side effects when it is discovered it can allow people to change gender on a whim. I liked the dialogue it raises on the ethics of pharmaceuticals and the questions of gender in society. Execution felt like it could have been better, though.

The Daughter of Owls – Rape in olden-times. Not for me.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar – I kept thinking it would get better, but in the end I don’t really know what this one was about.

Virus – A short piece on video game addiction. It was also very MEH.

Looking for the Girl – I like stories where the main character goes through their life, but there is always that one constant they come back to. Here it was a girl the main character saw in a dirty mag one day. It was well written and entertaining.

Only the End of the World Again – Cult of Cthulhu tries to sacrifice a werewolf to revive the fallen God. Werewolves and ancient gods – what’s not to like?

Bay Wolf – The werewolf character returns in a different story to kill a monster terrorizing Venice Beach. This one was funny and well written. Two thumbs up.

We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – An entirely average guy finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him and finds an ad for an assassination company to kill her lover. As a man who can never turn down a good offer or a sale, he finds himself in a precarious position when the company rep offers him a deal on multiple hits…This one was funny and I liked the concept, but it kind of peters out as it ends.

One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock – I don’t know who Michael Moorcock Elric is so this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Cold Colors – More poetry so I inevitably didn’t enjoy it.

The Sweeper of Dreams – Who cleans up your dreams when you wake so you can go about your day as a functional human? What happens if he stops cleaning up your dreams? This one was short, but I wish it had been longer. An interesting concept.

Foreign Parts – For someone with minor hypochondria this was a nightmare to read. I don’t need stories about STDs in my life.

Vampire Sestina – Even more poetry.

Mouse – Another one that I finished without really grasping if there was a point to it all. Boring.

The Sea Change – I wish I had known how much poetry was in this collection and how much his poetic prose bores me.

When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ – Yawn.

Desert Wind – A poem about a man who sees a mirage in the desert. The only poem I really enjoyed in the collection.

Tastings – Erotic fiction is not for me, so this was not one I enjoyed.

Babycakes – I liked it. Title says it all.

Murder Mysteries – A story within a story of the first murder in Heaven. This was well crafted and entertaining.

Snow, Glass, Apples – A twist on Snow White. Another top three for me and a good selection for the closing piece. At least I will remember this one when I think back to this collection.

If you bothered to read through all of those then you will see I liked about half of the stories in this collection. Mr. Gaiman writes killer novels and is an amazing storyteller, but this one just fell flat for me. I have heard good things about Fragile Things so maybe I will give that a try some day. Unless you are a die hard Neil Gaiman fan, I would recommend passing on this one.

Review: Cat’s Cradle

Book: Cat’s Cradle

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of fun, thought provoking novels, those going through an existential crisis, anyone who likes the idea of challenging science and/religion, fans of other Vonnegut works as this is often called his best.

It seems like a lot of people read this book in high school – it certainly would have been an easy classic to digest as a high schooler compared to some of the thicker tomes we were forced to read. I, unfortunately, was never introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in my younger years and it wasn’t until I read Slaughterhouse Five last year that I knew anything about his works. It’s a shame too, because Vonnegut does a marvelous job keeping me entertained while also making me question some of the things I would have considered staunch beliefs. This was no different in his novel Cat’s Cradle, a 127 chapter novel about the end of the world.

The plot follows the story of a man named Jonah as he collects material for a book called The Day the World Ended, “an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan”. The story starts with him collecting material on a fictional father of the atom bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. You see, Dr. Hoenikker had long since passed away, so Jonah contacts his three children in hopes of getting material for his book. In the process, he discovers that Dr. Hoenikker had also invented an isotope of water called Ice-Nine that is capable of destroying all life on Earth. Soon Jonah finds himself on the island of San Lorenzo with the three Hoenikker children and a host of other ridiculous characters and the events that follow lead to the death of almost all life on Earth. Ironic, as his journey started while writing a book called The Day the World Ended. Then again, with Vonnegut, irony is the name of the game.

Above all, this book was ridiculous and fun to read. As I mentioned, it consists of 127 chapter and yet the book itself is less than 300 pages long. This makes it very digestible and easy to read – which, I assume, is why it is a favorite for high school classrooms. Vonnegut has a way of making a novel entertaining and funny while simultaneously making the reader think about serious questions and issues.

One of the main themes here is that life is essentially without purpose and therefore, humankind has seen fit to try and give life some kind of meaning. As a result, some people turn to religion while others turn to science. Both have their problems and Vonnegut’s overall point is that it is ridiculous to try and give meaning to life.

Science, while providing countless benefits to society such as modern medicine, has also given the world the atom bomb and other terrible ways to kill and oppress people. Science and the search for truth without pause is a dangerous force that we often use without nary a thought for the side effects. Combine this search for truth – personified in Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant scientist who viewed his work on the atom bomb in the same way he might have viewed the discovery of a new kind of ultra-efficient toothpaste – with the military industrial complex and you have a recipe for disaster (ice-nine). Reckless abandon in scientific pursuits can have devastating results for humanity.

The fictional religion of Cat’s Cradle, Bokononism, is a religion based on lies. When Bokonon, the prophet of said religion, arrived on the island of San Lorenzo he saw the people there had no hope for a better existence so he created this religion to give them some shred of hope. The religion itself is all lies, as it states, and while everyone on the island practices Bokononism and accepts the fallacy of it, they still derive some shred of hope from believing in it. This is Vonnegut’s way of showing the ridiculous nature of all religion, and the teachings of Bokonon poke fun at many real religions practiced throughout the world. Throughout the book, Bokononism is used as satirical humor to dismantle the idea of religion, culminating in a very fitting ending for its followers. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

More than anything, this book is about human purpose. This is shown most prevalently through the story of the three Hoenikker children. Each of them possesses a small fragment of the world’s only sample of ice-nine. As they each search for purpose and meaning, whether that be through love, family or a successful career, they make stupid decisions that result in some of the great world powers gaining access to fragments of ice-nine. This inevitably spirals into a conclusion where ice-nine destroys the world. Funny how that works, huh?

Cat’s Cradle is a really fun and thought provoking read that I think everyone should tackle at some point. Old or young, the messages here are hidden behind layers of satirical humor and irony, but they aren’t hard to decipher. Let me know your own thoughts below!

“What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experiences of the Past Million Years?”

“Nothing.

Introduction and Rating System

Hello and welcome to Journey to Nowhere! The intent of this blog is simple – I like to read and wanted a place to capture my thoughts and feeling on books as I finish them. How did they impact me? Did I relate to them or were they just a fun detour into another world? Growing up, books were one of the most influential aspects of what helped shape me into who I am today and this love of literature has followed me into adulthood. My reading preferences generally center around sci-fi/fantasy as well as American literature and poetry. While these are what you should expect to see the most of, my tastes do vary and you will occasionally see other genres pop up. Hopefully I can provide useful reviews that others will use to influence their next pick!

My rating system follows that used by Goodreads – I will rate books on a scale of 1-5 stars (no half stars):

5 Stars – This book was incredible and I loved every second of it!

4 Stars – This book was really good.

3 Stars – I liked it, but it wasn’t anything that stood out in a meaningful way .

2 Stars – I did not like this book and would not recommend it to others.

1 Star – Reserved for those books I really disliked at a molecular level.

I will use Goodreads as a separate forum for my reviews and will link to the site often when citing books. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy your time here! Leave a comment as you go to let me know your thoughts. Let the book blogging begin!