Author Archives: tomhardin

Five Sparks for Reading and Writing

I had reached a dead end reading long novels and bios about writers. I was going to take a break from reading, but browsed our shelves on a Friday afternoon hoping to find a new book that was fairly short and I found it right in the section that I shepherd: Biographies. It was new and by a poet that I never heard of. But the title drew me in, Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana Gioia with a picture of Elizabeth Bishop on the cover. I devoured it over the weekend. It was pure gold.

It contains 6 vignettes about his learning. Four were famous writers, one was a dead uncle, and the last was a long forgotten poet that he never met. Two of the writers were also his professors at Harvard – Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, famous for his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. It is like taking the juiciest parts of a full load of college classes.

The most famous writer he met was James Dickey, his book Deliverance and then the movie made him extremely well known. He had been a great poet up until his fame took over. Meeting Dickey should have been a great thing except Gioia met him at the wrong time. And he learns that telling the truth is sometimes the hardest decision to make and live up to.

The writer that I was least familiar with was John Cheever. Although, he don’t interest me, I went back and reread his daughter Susan’s bio on one of my favorite poets, E.E. Cummings: A Life.

Gioia is a poet also, and definitely a poet I wish to explore more.

So this also led me back to reading poetry. And I found my way back to one of my favorite poets who is a much overlooked poet, Jim Carroll. I decided to reread his memoirs, The Basketball Diaries, because the last line of the book, “I just want to be pure,” kept floating in my head repeatedly.

I read it about 30 years ago and loved it. At 58, I read it with much different eyes. I was more distanced to it because of mucho personal experience. In my 20’s, he sounded like a punk and smart aleck. Today, it sounds like the purest writing that I have ever read. No wasted words or pretense.

Carroll was 13 when the Diary begins and 16 at the end. In between he discovers drugs and sex, and a lot of both. He experiments with everything and becomes a heroin junkie. He is a star basketball player and good looking, and that is enough to get him through many struggles and into a lot of potential trouble.

There were probably many boring days in the life of a junkie but this doesn’t include any of them. Along the way, I went back and read a bit of The Catcher in the Rye (a must read). Teenage Carroll can be seen as the Vietnam Era’s version of the postwar Holden Caulfield, in proportion to the way America has progressed with the uglier things in life.

Also, I finally got around to reading a book on my TBR shelf, The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs (who – among other things) taught Creative Writing at the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado). It is a collection of essays roughly about the art of writing. Basically, what works for him, and what works or doesn’t work for other writers. Also, his thoughts on Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, and Jaws.

Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the smartest man in America. I believe this to be true. Kerouac was my first favorite writer and probably still is. It has been almost 30 years since I read some of his books, so onward to explore them as an old man.

– Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Louisville Own Prodigal Son

Title: Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson
Author: Juan F. Thompson
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
274 pages

As a teenager, I was afraid of him. Then in my 20’s/college years, I was leery of the fandom surrounding the whole Gonzo ego bit. Then, when I was in my early 40’s, he blew his brains out. I could now trust him. I read most of his books and the bios too. Eventually, I could do Gonzo as good as Johnny Depp.

And then in my mid-40s, other people burned me out on him. No one around me could understand the greatness or complexity of this man. They only told me about his flaws. There were many. So when this book came out five years ago, I passed on it. I wasn’t ready. Recently, I saw a clip of Hunter criticizing Jann Wenner that was so honest and brutal, yet caring, and I knew no one living could talk like that. So I am ready.

I am the same age as Hunter’s son, Juan. I had a very close, but at times difficult, relationship with my dad. He was a tough guy who worked manual labor and fought in two wars. But, he was nothing like Hunter. I suspected Hunter would be someone to avoid at all costs, because he was mean, angry and always boozed up or high on cocaine and other drugs. And my instincts were right. In my 20’s, I read his second (and most famous) book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and didn’t get it. On the first page I missed his use (maybe?) of hyperbole when he listed his drugs for the trip. I thought no one could use all that weird mix of drugs, and why would they want to? Obviously, I didn’t KNOW Hunter.

So after he died, I read his first book, Hell’s Angels, and loved it. In the beginning he quotes heavily from Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side, a favorite of mine. Toward the end he gets into his Gonzo style serendipitously in order to meet a deadline. So I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, got its Mark Twain humor, and realized that Hunter had written a perfect, unique book. When I have insomnia and know that I won’t sleep, instead of fighting it, I read Vegas in its entirety. It is so funny.

This book? Wow, there is so much. Hunter was an absent dad, off chasing fame, drugs, adventure, and other women. So that led to a broken marriage, then divorce, fights, then more madness. A megalomaniac with drug abuse and a large collection of fire arms is not a good combination. But he could write like no one else from the mid 60’s until his habits caught up with him by the Reagan era. He still wrote until the end, and there were flashes of brilliance at times, but he wasted himself and his talent by the 80’s.

Juan states from the start that this book is a memoir and it is. Thus, we learn about his life and the way Hunter interacted in it. There were angry hurtful times but by the end there was forgiveness and growth, and even love. Much like my own father and I, Juan and Hunter were poles apart. But there were things that they both loved, such as guns. But even with that common interest they were very different, Hunter being the irresponsible one. He even accidently shot one of his many female assistants.

And eventually, Hunter’s vices caught up with his body too. I didn’t know specifics of this and his suicide on February 20, 2005 at age 67, but I had always wondered. Juan has an entire chapter titled “The Last Day.” Hunter had planned this suicide and wanted all of his immediate family there. He had been through two brutal operations which he had to face the problem of being an alcoholic in a hospital. So like one of his top heroes, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter shot himself at home. His body and mind had given out and he lacked the will to fight it any longer.

There is also a long section about Hunter’s return to Louisville for a celebration of him put on by Ron Whitehead in 1996 that included Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon, and Douglas Brinkley. It was a wild ruckus, and I don’t regret making the choice to not attend.

Sure, Hunter was a wild, out of control, drug addled freak. But I don’t need my literary heroes to be saints. His first three books are as good as any writer’s top three books. And they are all different from each other. So forgot the image, and read this book to see how complex a man he was. Then go read his stuff from 1967-1979.

– Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

In Praise of Solitude

BUKOWSKI: A LIFE by Neeli Cherkovski

This is the book that I had been waiting for. This biography came out last year in time for Charles Bukowski’s 100th Birthday, August 16, 2020. It is a rewrite of Cherkovski’s 1990 book Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. It is updated as Hank (Charles Bukowski’s nickname) died in 1994.

Most people have heard of Bukowski and form polarizing opinions of him. He is either seen as a drunken, womanizing, slob and bum. Or as the King of the Streets and the working underclass. Especially the drinking kind. Like all of us, he was mostly somewhere in between the extremes that the world can see us as.

Cherkovski, a fine poet himself, was a friend of Hank’s and knew him well from the 1960’s until Hank’s death in 1994. He humanizes Hank and sees the wild man, but also sees the sensitive poet within. Hank was probably the most prolific poet ever. He lived to write. He often starved to write. The rest was just a rebellion against a phony society and abusive parents. His father beat him often with a razor strap and his mother offered no help. He also had really bad acne and was a total outcast in school. All of this oppression made one great poet with no pretensions except the one he created as himself, but he winks to let you in on it.

He began writing short stories, with very few getting published. Later he wrote poems that often were like short stories. He worked at the Post Office for about a decade. He was freed from that mental slavery and physical pain at age 50 by a publisher who paid him to just write. Since poetry doesn’t make a lot of money, Hank finished a novel in three weeks called Post Office. It is short and funny. He wrote five other novels and countless books of poetry. He endured the loneliness and solitude it takes to be a prolific writer. He starved for his art like few others.

So, read this book. Read his poems and novels. You will find he was a true philosopher of human nature, much like fellow Californian Eric Hoffer, but with poems.


AT THE CENTER OF ALL BEAUTY by Fenton Johnson

This is a book that I found by accident, and being a person who writes and craves solitude, this was a must read. The author’s name sort of rang a bell, but I couldn’t place him. Later I found out that Johnson grew up in Kentucky and he teaches half of the year right down the street from where I work at Spaulding University.

Much to my surprise, I had much in common with the author. His great grandfather and I have the same name. His family was close to the monks at Gethsemani. I have visited and know two friends of Thomas Merton, their most famous monk. And I got to meet Merton’s secretary. Although I’m not Catholic, I have an affinity for the monks. Johnson and I both have spent long periods of our lives living alone. Fate had a hand in this for both of us. We both crave SILENCE!  And Thoreau’s simplicity, too, as a direct rebellion against consumerism as happiness.

He quotes many of my favorite people, such as Van Gogh, Eudora Welty, Henry David Thoreau, Colin Wilson, Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. Johnson is gay, and I am not, but that doesn’t really matter. We are both outsiders by nature and circumstance. Toward the end he goes into personal Queer experiences which I have no understanding of. But, I am truly grateful that they are getting the human rights and freedoms they deserve.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. So, go sit in a room alone and read At the Center of All Beauty. You’ll be glad you did.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Farewell to a Dissident Poet

On February 22, one of the greatest living men of letters in America died 30 days short of his 102nd Birthday. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, a painter, a publisher, and a bookseller. His City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco was founded in 1953 and is the best known bookstore in America.

In 1956, he published Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg in his Pocket Poet Series (#4). It resulted in a major obscenity trial that could have resulted with Ferlinghetti going to prison. But he won and censorship was defeated. This case was made into a very good movie, Howl, starring James Franco as Ginsberg.

In 1958, New Directions published Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. It became the all-time bestselling book of poetry in America with over a million copies sold. It is the first book of poetry that I read cover to cover. I highly recommend it. He paints pictures with words.

During the final years of my college experience, A Far Rockaway of the Heart was published. It is a sequel to Coney Island, set 40 years later. So I wrote my final college paper on it. Ferlinghetti was 80, and I thought how much longer can he go on?

He did go on and continued to write, of which I read bits and pieces. Occasionally, the entire book. But then on his 100th birthday, he published a novel, titled Little Boy. I couldn’t wait to get it and I devoured it. Maybe too quickly. So about a week before his death, I was listening to his good friend Bob Dylan’s latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, and one of the long songs reminded me of Little Boy, so I decided to reread it. But a bit slower this time. And then the sad news hit. And now this book took on special meaning to me. So I watched Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder for about the 20th time and began reading slowly.

Little Boy is a small book, just 179 pages, and it is unlike any novel that I have read before. Perhaps similar to the few pages that I have read of Finnegan’s Wake. It is really, just one long run-on sentence like a saxophonist holding a long note. It moves and it moves fast. And it really isn’t a novel. It is autobiography mixed with a history of literature and the 20th Century. But it is pure poetry. Only a poet could write these sentences.

Ferlinghetti had a very interesting life. Born the fifth child to a mother who just whose husband had just died. He was taken in by his aunt, later abandoned. He was an orphan for a time but eventually was taken in by a rich family related to the founder of Sarah Lawrence College. They had previously lost their son named Lawrence. It was a family without hugs and kisses, but provided him a good education.

Being a bad boy at times, Lawrence was sent away to a sort of reform school. There he met a boy with two novels in his pockets: The Sun Also Rises and Look Homeward, Angel. He eventually followed the boy, Thomas Wolfe, to the University of North Carolina.

Then WWII came. He was skipper of a submarine chaser and was at Normandy beach. After the war, Lawrence attended Columbia University. He also earned a Doctorate at the University of Paris, where he met George Whitman (future owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank). He would remain a lifelong friend until his death in 2011 at age 98.

In 1951, Lawrence moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights in 1953. He took the torch from Kenneth Rexroth, who was the leading Anarchist, dissident poet in San Francisco. And then he changed the world. So this little boy lived to 101 but remained as open minded as a child. He had the bite of an old school Anarchist but always was a Romantic.

RIP Lawrence (3/24/1919-2/22/2021). A life well lived. I hope readers of this review will pursue what he had to say.  

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher

This is the latest biography of a writer you have probably never heard of. But his story and reputation have made a bit of a comeback of late. There have be a couple of biographies and three documentaries on Nelson Algren in the past few years. He was considered one of America’s greatest novelist in the 40’s and 50’s, but during the Red Scare, his stature took a tumble. He won the first ever National Book Award. It was presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for his 3rd novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Five years later, Otto Preminger broke the Production Code and it became the first major motion picture about morphine addiction, and it starred Frank Sinatra. But Hollywood and Preminger cheated Algren out of money and respect. Preminger thumbed his nose at the lowlifes Nelson hung around with, and Nelson saw Hollywood as fake.

Algren held a lifetime grudge and he became sour on the American Dream quickly. He got a decent amount of money, but he was a gambler and lost it all quickly. He preferred the losers in life to the winners. So he hung around junkies, prostitutes, gamblers, and con men.

In 1956, he published A Walk on the Wide Side (WALK). It was a re-write of his first book, Somebody in Boots, a depiction of his travelling days throughout Texas and New Orleans during the Great Depression looking for work. Louisville’s Hunter S. Thompson was a big fan of his and WALK, and would getting into a letter writing feud with him about the amount of a long quote that Hunter used in his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Lou Reed would take this title in the early 70’s and make one of the most iconic rock songs ever about a different kind of misfits.

He had many fans, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut to just name a few. He had famous lovers and many one night stands. He had a relationship with a junkie prostitute that was being abused by her husband and he helped her get clean and remarried.

The world’s leading feminist Simone de Beauvoir would visit him in Chicago from Paris in 1947. They would become soulmates. He showed her the underworld of Chicago and she was hooked. In the 1950’s, the FBI and State Department had him under surveillance for his days as a Communist in the 1930’s alongside Richard Wright and Studs Terkel. So he couldn’t leave the U.S. and his relationship with Simone fizzled. But she was buried wearing a ring he bought her.

He was able to visit Cuba and while there he called on Hemingway, who had just survived his second plane crash at the end of 1955.

In the 60’s, Algren wrote mostly for money. Quick books about his worldly travels. A book defending Hemingway after his death. Many magazine articles. He had never made the money or got the prestige that he deserved, so he made a mockery of his life and work, because that’s how the world treated him.

He taught a semester at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-60’s, but he was a terrible teacher and didn’t think creative writing could be taught. He was the highest paid writer there and he got his third wife a position too, but he gambled all their money away.

Nelson always had a love-hate relationship with Chicago and after living there for almost six decades, he left to write a book about the Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1975. He would call Carter “the sanest man that I ever met.”

Nelson died in 1981 on Long Island at the age of 72. He was alone much of his time, despite many friends and lovers (and three brief marriages). In the documentary, The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All, Terkel called him two images, the Cat and Art Carney (from “The Honeymooners”). Vonnegut, who had met Algren at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says Algren was the loneliest man he ever knew. 

If you want to read some of the greatest prose ever written, read Algren. If you want to read a great biography of an interesting life, read this work by Colin Asher.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Casey Rae

David Bowie and William Burroughs, photo by by Terry O’Neill 

I didn’t read much as a child. As a late teen, I discovered good literature via my love for Rock & Roll. And I continue to do so as an old man.

I had a need to find the sources of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed’s references in their lyrics and interviews. Once I found The Beats, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, and Hubert Selby, the flood gates broke and unleashed a “word hoard” that has drowned me. But, I believe, literature is a good way to die. Or live.

The writer who has influenced all the rockers that I mentioned before is WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS.

Paul McCartney chose him to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And through Paul, Burroughs was a big influence on The Beatles’ avant-garde development in the mid 60’s. Bob Dylan read Naked Lunch (1959) and it influenced his lyrics and poetry collection, Tarantula, which is like reading Burroughs’s later cut-ups. Lou Reed was very influenced by Burroughs’ subject matter in Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, reflected in many songs such as “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Heroin.”

Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs, photo by Victor Bockris

Bill lived a very hard and lonely life. But an exciting life.

Born in 1914 in St. Louis to a prominent family, Harvard educated, but bored and a total misfit, he began hanging with seedy people in seedy places. Bill was a founding member of The Beat Generation that began in the late 40’s with the meeting of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

He began doing morphine around age 30 and was a heroin junkie for a large part of his life. This made for him a very peripatetic life around the globe (Tangiers, Paris, London) until he landed in NYC in the mid 70’s. He was always running from the law. He was in his early 60’s and managed to get another bad heroin addiction in NYC. His assistant helped him move to Kansas to get away from drugs. He was on the methadone program and smoked weed until his death at age 83.

This book is not a biography but a travel through Burroughs’ life and those that choose him as a friend and an influence. And the list is long of musicians that sought Bill out at his place in NYC (known as “the Bunker”) or to his modest home that he owned, late in life, in Lawrence, Kansas. David Bowie (pictured above), Iggy Pop (pictured below), Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, members of Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth to name a few. Many just mined his writings for their band name (Soft Machine, Steely Dan, and Mugwumps – an early version of The Mama and Papas – to name a few), or for song titles/lyrics.

Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs

This book explores every musician inspired by Bill’s very wild life and writings. The irony in such a book is that Bill had no interest in Rock & Roll or Punk Rock (which he is oftentimes called the Godfather of Punk Rock). But he took a great interest in the musicians that visited him. And he formed a few friendships with men young enough to be his grandsons.

He was very fond of Kurt Cobain, who visited him 6 months before Kurt committed suicide. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”

I have read a lot about Burroughs’ life and some of his books, yet there are stories told here that I have never heard before. For example, there’s a very funny one about his first visit from Al Jourgensen, the leader of the band Ministry.

William S. Burroughs is a writer that you should know and this book is a good way to begin. Or if you already familiar with him, it is a good book to add to your knowledge of him.

Reviewed by Tom,Main Library