Jack’s Book

A couple of months ago I wrote about a trip to Half Price Books to pick up “I Capture the Castle” for a book club read. As usual, I didn’t escape the trip without picking up some other, random purchases. More recently, I made a similar trip to pick up “The Sun Also Rises” for yet another book club read. This time, my “collateral damage” included “Jack’s Book,” an “oral history” of the famous author, Jack Kerouac, by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. I read this book over just a couple days last weekend. I recommend it highly, but only if you are already somewhat familiar with Kerouac.

I’ve read several biographical accounts of Kerouac (& friends) in the past, but what made this one unique was the lengthy quoting of his friends (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Luanne Henderson, John Clellon Holmes, Al & Helen Hinkle, Lucien Carr – the list goes on an on). It was fascinating to read again about some of these stories that I already knew but to this time hear them through some of the other characters and in their own words.

Kerouac’s interlude at Big Sur received more attention in this book than in some of my other reading. It was truly a sad stage of the author’s life to read about. Lenore Kandel (the then girlfriend of poet Lew Welch) had this to say about that: “He (Kerouac) was in a very bad place, and he went there to clear his head. But it’s a really elemental place, Big Sur, and it really burns. I guess it must be a little like an acid trip, a very heavy concentration of reality.”

Another thing I pondered while reading – and this is kind of a favorite speculation of mine – is whether or not this group of friends and aspiring writers (later to become known collectively as “The Beats”) knew they would become as famous as they did, or rather that their work and the “movement” would take hold. Clearly their ambition or goal was clear, but did they really think it would become reality? I remember a discussion at a book club meeting last year where we were talking about the book, Fahrenheit 451, which certainly has become an undisputed classic, and I posed the question “Do you think Bradbury knew he had something special when he was done writing?” I like to think he did, at least to some degree. The same goes for the “Beat Generation” standard bearers. I guess what I really hope is that it’s not just a kind of crapshoot whether books become popular or not.

Another memorable observation in the book – this one by John Clellon Holmes – was this one: “Most books that come out are contained. That is, ‘I want to read that book.’ But what happened when On the Road came out was , ‘I want to know that man.’ it wasn’t the book so much as it was the man.” He noted also that Kerouac became “more and more confused as it went on.”

This book also contained several more “convergences” with my other recent reading. The authors describe a meeting of Kerouac with Kurt Vonnegut in the late sixties in Cape Cod. Apparently, Vonnegut and others were playing poker, and Kerouac joined in but was not on his best behavior (drunk again) and kind of made an ass of himself in that company. Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is also quoted at one point, and Holmes mentions that he had discussions with Jack regarding how “Dostoevsky wrote in the 1880’s that Russia is talking of nothing but the external questions now,” and that “with appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in America, in an American way.” The book also re-prints the famous, original New York Times book review by Gilbert Millstein, which helped launch On the Road, and within it is a reference to The Sun Also Rises: “Just as, more an any other novel of the twenties, “The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that “On the Road” will come be known as that of the “Beat Generation.”. I love it when all my reading starts to link together like this.

How do you feel about Kerouac?

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The Sun Also Rises

This was my first Hemingway novel. Initially, I was a little disappointed because it didn’t seem to be “about anything.” Kind of the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s proverbial “show about nothing.” The action deals predominantly with a bunch of friends – though seemingly not “close” friends for the most part – none of whom (other than the narrator, Jake) seem to have jobs, idling away their time in post World War I Paris and later Spain, getting drunk and getting into petty arguments and hurting each others’ feelings. But of course there’s more to it than that.

Right away the novel struck a few chords with me. One is a nearly universal wanderlust that I would argue almost everyone experiences at times during life. I, for one, am a “chronic sufferer” of this. It seems I always want to move somewhere else, move on to something different, go on a long trip of discovery; in short, anything to avoid the enemies of routine and staleness. Very early in the book, Robert Cohn exclaims, “All my life I’ve wanted to go on a tip like that,” but will “be too old before I can ever do it.” Sadly, though, Jake crushes our hopes later when he says “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” I must say I disagree – and hope he’s wrong.

Possibly my favorite parts of the novel, in fact, are the two episodes when Jake “gets away from it all” – once when he goes on a fishing interlude with his friend Bill en route to Pamplona, and then after the dust settles (literally!) from the bullfighting, and he sojourns in San Sebastian. I almost felt like I was on vacation myself when reading those parts. The latter one also seemed to be a respite for the narrator – AND the reader – from the manic scramblings of the group of friends. It was refreshing.

Then there’s The Bullfighting Thing. I confess that I’ve never understood the appeal of the “sport” – and likely still don’t. Especially in recent years the tradition has been increasingly attacked and condemned for its barbaric nature. What this novel gave me more of an appreciation for, however, is that for most it’s not the killing that people love so much as the traditions of the spectacle. We get a brief glimpse into this when learning about those known as “aficionados” which I took to mean “those that get it” and understand the deeper meaning of what’s going on. I remember years ago reading a book about the series of annual chess tournaments in Linares, Spain (for years they were the chess equivalent of Wimbledon in professional tennis) where attending bullfights was a frequent diversion for the grandmasters on their days off. I learned then something of the super-celebrity status of many famous bullfighters – kind of like what we see that Romero is on the eve of in this book – including the legendary Manolete.  Below- a picture of Hemingway himself (white pants; close to bull) in the ring…


Okay, here’s a slightly off-topic digression for you. While reading book two of the novel, a song kept running through my head. It’s by a band that I bet you’ve never heard of, The Judybats from Knoxville, Tennessee. On their 1991 album, “Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow,” there was a song called “Saturday” that references bullfighting. Here’s a quick sample of lyrics:

He dreams of being a matador
Waving the cape
Killing the killing machine
A hero of the ring he drives his car
His spirits soar his spirits soar

It’s actually a great “undiscovered” CD and band if you’d care to check them out. 🙂

I also really like the book cover of the edition pictured below. It’s so sensational and, like many, is somewhat misleading about the contents of the book. Check out the agony-filled face, the bottle of wine, the gnarled, tortured hands. This is not how I pictured Jake while reading. Then there are the salacious teasers: “Could he live without the power to love?” and “It was a cruel way to be wounded.” Blah blah blah. I guess that’s what moves paperbacks off the shelves, though.

Well, I see I’ve exceeded my recommended blog post length. But what about you? Have you read The Sun Also Rises? What did you think about it and about Hemingway? Which of his novels should I read next? I’d love to hear from you…



June reading – what’s “on tap” for me this month

Seems like my month is kind of already mapped out for me, reading-wise. Let’s start with the “required reading”…


The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This is my personal book club’s selection for June. I actually read about the first 2/3rds of it yesterday. This means it has about 1/3 to go to redeem itself from its current “disappointing” status. I mean, all I keep thinking thus far in this book is, “My God, don’t these people have jobs?!” 🙂 it seems the narrator, Jake, spent about two and a half hours working at his typewriter in one chapter, but that’s it so far. If this book is indeed supposed to capture the “Lost Generation” of post-WW1, I can see why it’s called that. It seems the characters spend most of their time sitting in cafes, restaurants and nightclubs either hurting each others’ feelings or telling each other to go to Hell, or advising each other not to “be a fool” and getting “tight” (drunk).

Wampeters, Foma and Grandfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the June selection for the KVMLBC. It’s a collection of essays by Vonnegut (with the exception of one short work of fiction). I read the first six or seven of them on Saturday. Many are very good, but a couple didn’t capture my interest at all. It’s still Vonnegut, though, and his unique wit is always present. Thumbs up so far on this one.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book of The Barsetshire series by this prolific author of the 19th century. I read The Small House at Allington earlier this year and also the author’s autobiography. Both kindled an interest in me to read more by Trollope. I also have book two of the Barchester series, Barchester Towers, waiting in the wings as The Warden is a mere 284 pages.maybe I’ll get to both of them(?)

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I was reading about this in the NY Times book section yesterday. Many may know that this series of books is being adapted by HBO and is soon to be aired. This first book is quite lengthy (about 800 pages in my ebook version), but sounded good so I downloaded and explored the first couple chapters last night. I think it will go fast, and my recent reading of the first two books of Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle” has whetted my appetite a bit for works of this genre.

Hmm… what else is there? Well, there’ll be a few short stories of course, and I have a few unfinished books from prior months that I still need to knock out. It’s “summer” here though, and I tend to read less “when it’s nice outside” so it may be a challenge to get my standard dose of four or five books in this month. We’ll see..

What are YOU reading in June?

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