Tag Archives: Charles Bukowski

On Reading 100 Books, Part II

Another year over, and once again I failed miserably at reading 100 books.


But I did succeed in garnering the silent judgement of cats everywhere.

All right, maybe “failed” is a strong word. I ended up reading 70 books and that’s nothing to scoff at, right? Scornful sideways glances from feral felines aside, I decided to highlight five of my favorite books and three of my least favorite books of 2015. If it tickles your fancy, you can look at the whole list on the next page.

The Five I Liked the Most:

loveLove is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski
I learned about this book of poetry by way of The Limousines’ song of the same name. This was my first foray into the writings of Bukowski and it didn’t disappoint. With lines like “I have gotten so used to melancholia / that / I greet it like an old / friend.” and “I am going / to die alone / just the way I live,” this certainly isn’t Lord Byron or John Keats.  This is the kind of stuff you read after a breakup, right before rushing out to do it all over again. These are a few of my favorite lines from the poem Chopin Bukowski:

people need me. I fill
them. if they can’t see me
for a while they get desperate, they get

but if I see them too often
I get sick. it’s hard to feed
without getting fed.

youYou by Caroline Kepnes
Stephen King—of whom I officially became a fan in 2015 thanks to It and Four Past Midnight—called this book “hypnotic and scary.” What more of an endorsement do you need? You illustrates how easy it is to stalk a person in the digital age. It’s an eerie, well-written page-turner that’s left me eagerly awaiting the sequel, Hidden Bodies, due out in February.

mosquitoMosquitoland by David Arnold
It’s very seldom that a book bring me to tears (in a good way), but this YA debut did just that. The premise—a teenager has to return to her home town via Greyhound when she learns her mother is unwell—was what interested me in this book. Whether in real life or in fiction, I love a good road trip. Just like the tumultuous teenage years, Mosquitoland is equal parts happy and sad. It’s now one of my favorite YA novels of all time.

treesSea of Trees by Robert James Russell
I came across Aokigahara—a dense forest at the bottom of Mt Fuji and a popular place where people go to commit suicide—while reading one of my favorite websites. Doing a simple Google search for more information on the location led me to this novella. It’s a quick, creepy mystery about a couple searching Aokigahara for the woman’s lost sister. What’s even creepier is that two movies have been made about this forest, one starring Matthew McConaughey released in 2015 and one starring Natalie Dormer that came out just last week. The creepiest bit, though, is that this is a real place. Check out this great documentary short put out by Vice for more on the Suicide Forest.

linesPoorly Drawn Lines: Good Ideas and Amazing Stories by Reza Farazmand
This book actually came in for someone else, but I saw it and ordered it for myself. It’s hilarious, nonsensical and was a welcome break from the previous book I’d read, The Price of Salt, which was neither hilarious nor nonsensical. Visit the website of the same name for more giggles.

The Three I Liked the Least:

watchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I went into this book with almost zero expectations. I’ve experienced first-hand how disappointing a decades-later followup can be (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Part of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird was the way that Lee wrote Scout. Everything that happens is seen through a rose-colored, knee-high lens of childhood. That’s not the case with Watchman. Scout is twenty-six and has returned to Maycomb to visit Atticus. Events transpire that make her question the truths she clung to during childhood. The readers question these truths right along with her and I normally love a good existential rumination, but it’s handled in such a bland and forgettable way here. And that’s not even mentioning how certain characters are almost unrecognizable (ethically speaking) from their Mockingbird counterparts or how the death of a beloved character from Lee’s first novel is only eluded to rather than shown. How this ended up on Goodreads’ Best of 2015 list is baffling, especially when almost every patron I talked with about it also didn’t like it. I don’t want to waste anymore digital ink complaining about it, so I’ll just echo Philip Hensher‘s comments:  it’s “a pretty bad novel.”

starwarsStar Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Unlike Go Set a Watchman, I had at least one expectation for this book–that it would prepare me for the galactic landscape after the fall of the Empire. Sadly, this book did little to elucidate the mystery of what happens between the end of Return of the Jedi and the beginning of The Force Awakens. The plot takes its time getting started and by the time it does, I wasn’t nearly as invested in the characters as I should have been. These weren’t familiar characters like Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, so I didn’t particularly care what happened to them. Not to mention the new characters all came across as annoyingly self-assured. Because of this, I felt like there were no real stakes in book at all. But maybe that’s on me; it’s been a long time since I’ve read supplemental Star Wars material. There is one scene of Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon, but as a whole, the book skews toward poorly-written fanfiction. In the plus column, I’ve got to give credit to Wendig for introducing the first gay hero in the form of ex-Imperial soldier Sinjir Rath Velus as well as a lesbian couple. In a universe where there are literally hundreds of different alien species, Star Wars has never been that concerned about diversity … but that’s a blog post for another day.

americanAmerican Pastoral by Philip Roth
This is up there (or down there) with The Train from Pittsburgh as one of my least favorite, most hated, severely unenjoyable reads of 2015. The actual plot of this book–an all-American family is torn apart after their daughter blows up a convenience store at the height of the Vietnam War, with musings of the rise and fall of the American Dream sprinkled in–could be boiled down to probably fifty pages. The other 350 pages of Roth’s novel are made up of tangential ramblings including, but not limited to, the history of Newark, the minutiae of Miss America contests and more information on glove-making than any human ever needs to know. It was frustrating for me to read through these prolonged chapters filled with walls of text and just when I thought that there was no point to be made–that maybe I’d picked up a New Jersey history book by mistake–and I was about to give up, Roth would wrap up his tangent and continue with the narrative. In It, Stephen King was similarly long-winded while detailing of the history of the fictional town of Derry, but King held my interest far more than Roth did in describing a place that’s only a six -hour drive away. Again, I have no one to blame but myself–I only read this because first-time director Ewan McGregor filmed the adaptation here, but getting through this book was such an ordeal that I’m now in no hurry to see the movie, despite my well-documented love for Pittsburgh on film.

Did you set or reach any reading goals in 2015? Do you have any reading goals for 2016 or any tips on how I can finally get to 100? Sound off in the comments below!


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The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol











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“Pittsburg Phil” and “Pittsburgh Phil”

Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss

Information is everywhere.  One of our primary sources of information at the library is our customers.  We learn things from them, a/k/a you, every day.

A few weeks back while on the desk in the Music, Film, and Audio Department, I received a call from one of our regulars who is a repository of information that crosses all disciplines.  When he calls, it is not infrequent that he might ask about a Broadway tune, a 70s TV series, a Puccini aria, a grade B 50s sci-fi classic, or any other multitudinous areas of inquiry.

On this particular occasion he mentioned running across a special on Borscht Belt comedians which touched on connections between the Catskill resorts and the Mob.  I ran the special down on Shalom TV.  It was hosted by the novelist Warren Adler with guest star comedian Stewie Stone. At the time (September 2008), Adler was promoting his new novel, Funny Boys, set in the Catskills and peopled with real-life characters.  Adler mentioned  a particularly vicious member of the infamous Murder Inc. gang, whose name was Harry Strauss, otherwise known as “Pittsburgh Phil.”   Though Adler called Strauss by the nickname, no explanation was given as to why Strauss was called “Pittsburgh Phil.”  Our customer wanted to know if we might have any ideas where he got the name since, evidently, Strauss was born in Brooklyn?

I told him I’d see what I could do.

I scoured the net.   I pored through encyclopedias of the crime and popular circulating titles, I called in books from various county libraries that might provide a clue.  I spoke to our notoriously astute Pennsylvania Department, the mavens of Pittsburgh history at the Main library, all to no avail. The sources all mentioned “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss.   Many volunteered the fact that Strauss had never even visited Pittsburgh.

None mentioned why the moniker, though two posited a thought.

The most information I found was in the 3rd edition of The Mafia Encyclopedia, an extensive, grisly, three page, double-columned entry entitled “Pittsburgh Phil (1908-1941) Murder Inc.’s premier hit man.”   Strauss was one mean, nasty character, who was tied to at least 100 victims (some estimates run over 500), more than the rest of the gang knocked off combined.  He killed any which way: knife, rope, gun, ice pick, all tools in Phil’s repertoire.   Most of the stories I learned of I dare not even recount, particularly the one about the corpse he sunk to the bottom of a lake tied to a slot machine.

In a somewhat eccentric twist, Phil was known as something of a dandy, always impeccably dressed in expensive suits.   Once during a lineup, NY Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine observed of Phil: “Look at him!  He’s the best dressed man in the room and he’s never worked a day in his life!”

Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss was finally taken down by possibly the most famous stool pigeon in mob history, fellow Murder Inc. member Abe (“Kid Twist”) Reles.  Reles, a ruthless, coldblooded killer himself, turned state’s evidence giving up enough to mark Strauss for the chair.  Unfortunately for him, he didn’t live long to tell about it.  His story is recounted in the book The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly, the title of which sums up Reles’s fall from a six story window while in police custody.

Still, source after source either ignored or outright admitted to not knowing why Strauss was called “Pittsburgh Phil,” aka “Big Harry” and “Pep.”   I found out that he made it on to the radar of arguably the greatest American crime writer of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler.  He was mentioned in this letter by Chandler to Hamish “Jamie” Hamilton and even gets a nod in the opening paragraph of Chapter 24 in Chandler’s classic novel The Long Goodbye. He even makes a lengthy appearance in Neil Kleid’s graphic novel Brownsville, pages 44 through 48.

To add to the conundrum, while researching Strauss I ran into another, previous “Pittsburg Phil.”  Here is the 2nd dapper lad:

Georg E. "Pittsburg Phil" Smith

George “Pittsburg (or “Pittsburgh”) Phil” E. Smith was a famous handicapper, so famous that a book of his system was put out after his death in 1905 (you’ll find some of his maxims here).  He was described as “the founding father of horseplayers.” Phil was said to be worth 5 million dollars at the time of his death.  He was born in Sewickley and lived in Pittsburg during the brief time period when we had shed our culminating “h” (1890-1911); in fact he lived two doors down from Daniel and Maggie Rooney, Art Rooney’s parents, as documented in the 2010 biography entitled Rooney: a Sporting Life.  He died four years before the birth of Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, but his reputation lived on and on.  A sizable New  York Times obituary attests to his widespread fame.  Charles Bukowski wrote a piece on the horses called “Pittsburgh Phil & Co,” included in his collection South of No North. He remains one of the most famous gamblers and handicappers of all time and surely his name was a household word during Harry Struass’s heyday in the Murder Inc. gang, the 1920s.    The picture above shows him to be a well-turned out, fancy dresser.  For amazing pictures of Phil’s mausoleum gravesite, showing a life-sized statue decked out to the nines (complete with racing form), and still more information, check out the post on the thoroughbred racing history website, Colin’s Ghost.  In all this searching, we even discovered a novel based on the life of George E. Smith entitled, of course, Pittsburgh Phil.


The connection, still, seemed tenuous at best.  I could find nothing in writing, no proof that the mobster Harry Strauss was nicknamed after the gambler George E. Smith, though both were snappily attired.  I could only speculate.

Two sources ventured a guess at where Strauss got the nickname “Pittsburgh Phil,” though at first glance those guesses seemed diametrically opposed.   In Murder Inc.: the Story of “the Syndicate,” Burton Turkus and Sid Feder posit the following: “Harry Strauss was one of (the national crime cartel). They called him Big Harry and Pep and, mostly, the called him Pittsburgh Phil, because he was a dandy of the outfit.”  Indeed, Strauss was sharp dresser, as confirmed by Brooklyn native and comedian Alan King in his book, Name Dropping, but how does that connect with the name “Pittsburgh Phil?”  Could that one picture I saw of Smith be the connection?

The second source, Tough Jews by Rich Cohen, gives the following description of Strauss: “(In high school) they called him Big Harry – he really was very big.  Or Pep – he could be the kind of friendly that demanded a cute diminutive.  Or Pittsburgh Phil – it sounded tougher and more interesting than Big Harry or Pep.”

So, one source has him named “Pittsburgh Phil” because he was a dandy, the other because he was a tough guy.   Go figure.  Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do.

Was it the sharp dressing that connected Strauss to Smith, two dandies in two unsavory professions?   Did Strauss have an undocumented passion for the horses, thus connecting him to the famous handicapper?    Calling a tough guy named Harry “Phil” just for its alliterative qualities is highly unlikely, to say the least.  It must have been a nickname he liked – it’s doubtful anyone would call him anything intentionally to make him cross.

I ran across one last curious bit of information which kept the fire burning.  On Google Books, I found a citation for “Pittsburgh Phil,” (Geo D. Smith) in the Brooklyn Citizen Almanac for the year 1894:

“Pittsburgh Phil,” (Geo D. Smith) purchases a residence in New York for $50,000.” [$1,220,000 in 2010]

Circumstantial evidence for a city, Brooklyn, whose population was just over 800,000 in the 1890s, that Phil’s reputation might spread locally?  Pittsburg Phil the handicapper already had a well-known reputation well beyond his hometown environs.  Having virtually moved to gangster Phil’s neighborhood certainly could only help the theory that the hood was named after the gambler.  It is hardly a stretch to think the criminal world would be particularly interested in one of the greatest handicappers of all time.

Though the mystery is hardly solved, narrowing it down to these two choices, with all the interesting circumstantial evidence, definitely made the ride worth taking.   Our customer sure thought so.  He liked the dandy theory of a couple of sharp dressed men sharing  a name if not a predilection.  And I kind of like that theory, too.   How about you?

And one last thing; I wonder, too, what Chandler and Bukowski might have thought.

– Don


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