Oct 10

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski – Book Review

Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is a book my mom wouldn’t like. That’s not to say it wasn’t good. It’s the best book I’ve read in years (almost by default), but my mom would hate it. The problem is there’s no plot. That seems to be her argument whenever she finds something she doesn’t like – as if it were somehow an intrinsically damning thing to not be structurally similar to everything else. What Ham on Rye does have though is a character that’s realistic, sincere, depressing, funny, and easy to feel empathetic towards. That ultimately leads to a story that’s well worth reading, even without the backbone of a plot to graft itself around.

The narrative of Ham on Rye follows the life of Henry Chinaski from birth until the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That doesn’t mean this story is about that event, only that it literally ends on that day. There are clear parallels between the character of Chinaski and that of Bukowski’s real life, but there are also moments that are obviously imbellished. Some chapters outline the events that caused Chinaski to become the person he eventually becomes, and some seem like drawn out dirty jokes. My favorite chapters are the ones that combine the two.

Reading this on the Kindle you’re able to see the passages that other readers have highlighted. I’m not sure if I like this or not. I know I have the ability to turn it off, but there’s a morbid curiosity I have that prevents me from doing so. It sometimes feels like I bought the book used, as I always find myself looking at the passages the person before me underlined and criticizing their reasoning. Sometimes they’ll underline something that’s totally out of context, and I’ll go in and re-underline the part with the context in tact in an effort to toss my own hat into the ring so that the next person who picks up the book might happen upon my used copy. In the case of Ham on Rye, people decided to primarily highlight passages that say something about life. I highlighted the punchlines to the dirty jokes.

My biggest disappointment with the book, honestly, is how it always feels like it’s leading somewhere, but never quite gets around to going places, then Pearl Harbor gets bombed and it just ends. Henry spends the first half of the book curious about women, but the book never gets around to exploring his first sexual encounter. Henry spends an equal amount of time, his teenage years, with his body covered in boils, but there’s never a big, “my boils were finally gone” moment. Maybe this is my mom’s demand for plot seeping into my subconsciousness, but it was disappointing for these themes and events to never find closure. But then, that’s what real life is like. You don’t have that moment when the things that scar you suddenly go away, it happens so gradually that by the time they go away you’re so used to dealing with them that you barely notice. So, despite my disappointment, I’m not sure I would change anything. That’s just the kind of book this is.


Oct 10

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Book Review

For my birthday (Sept. 25, mark your calendars) I asked for and received an Amazon Kindle. This was sort of a one-off gift and it’s sort of strange since I haven’t read anything in years and I buy CDs instead of MP3s whenever the option presents itself. But something about the Kindle intrigued me. Maybe it was the hope that the lure of technology would entice me into reading again. I’m not sure, but regardless, the first book I picked up for it was Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. I had heard about it on NPR, and it sounded very much in line with my feelings on games lately.

You see, the title is very misleading. It’s called Why Video Games Matter, but it’s as much about why they do matter as it is about how they’re capable of mattering so much more. It’s hard not to agree. I spend a lot of time with games, but there’s always this background notion, even with the best games, that they could be so much better.

The core of Bissell’s argument is that games need better writers. I’ve had an issue with this statement when I’ve heard it in the past, because when I hear that I imagine a game where the cutscenes and dialogue boxes take center stage to the action. Bissell thankfully makes it clear that more writing does not equate to better writing. What I believe he wants is a game that captures the emotions that the best books and movies give us. As much as we ding games for trying so hard to emulate movies, there persists an intangible, hard to describe feeling that you get from watching movies and reading books that rarely, if ever, is captured by games. Games have no problem making you think about things logically and feel immersed in their worlds, but they haven’t quite figured out how to make us consider the human condition, or even feel empathy for their characters. Action movies have love stories added in simply because the smallest amount of humanity goes a long way toward endearing a work, but games still have only scratched the surface of attempting even something this shallow, let alone more complex emotions.

The book isn’t entirely critical, as a majority of it consists of highlighting games that move the medium in the right direction. Bissell points out that these games are a stepping stone toward where games need to be in the future. According to Bissell, games “began in a place of minus efficacy in all of the above, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never done anything but play games.” This is hard to disagree with, and I like how straightforward it is.

For the most part Bissell successfully straddles the line between celebrating games and damning them. The nature of that mixed message means that the book is missing a concise message. The first three chapters and the ninth and final one are all superb, but the fourth through eighth chapters – those highlighting specific games – feel overly apologetic and a bit insincere. It doesn’t help that the fourth chapter is a copy and paste of this article Bissell wrote for the New Yorker.  Still, the excellent half of this book makes it well worth it, and the rest is full of enough worthwhile observations to make them worth reading.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about games enough to read a Kindle file about them that has 2820 locations (Kindle text can be any size, so they don’t display page numbers, but Amazon claims it has 240 pages). It’s a brisk read, and even if you don’t agree with everything, it will at least get you thinking. More importantly though, it turns out my instincts with the Kindle were correct. It got me reading!