Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers

Date of Publication: 2001, Da Capo Press

Number of Pages: 287

Description: Writer Ann Powers delves into her past and her past relationships to find her bohemia, the one she had always looked for. From Seattle, to San Francisco, to New York City, Powers finds her bohemian America is both likely and unlikely places: record stores, universities, punk clubs, suburban backyards, and pricey New York lofts.

Review: This is a much more personal book than I had anticipated. Ann Powers traces her own bohemianism from her childhood in Seattle to her present life in New York, all the while relating the life stories of friends and acquaintances who have defined their lives by their own versions of bohemia. Some of the ideas presented, like those regarding drugs and drug use, appear to be simply justifications of poor choices and bad behavior: junkies masquerading as bohemians. It’s almost as if one can’t be a bohemian without doing drugs. At the same time, Powers makes allowances for many of the “selling out” behaviors that would normally be scorned by true bohemians, such as working in corporate America.

Powers focuses mainly on her own brand of bohemianism, that of the punk scene of the 1980s. But, she never really delves that deeply into it. After reading this book, I don’t feel like I understand the punk scene any better than before. The punk rockers and bohemians, as presented by Powers, feel superficial and somehow as if they’re trying too hard. Another drawback is how outdated this book is. Powers devotes a whole section to the Speakeasy internet cafe in Seattle, which actually burned down in 2001, the same year my edition was published. Many of the cultural references are old, which some may think is excusable, but in all honesty, a book devoted to any cultural phenomenon or philosophy should be able to transcend time. This book doesn’t do that.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there were several aspects of it that disappointed me. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in counter-culture or music.

Rating: 5/10


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

Rating: 10/10

Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Date of Publication: 2009, Back Bay Books

Number of Pages: 371

Synopsis (from back cover): Once upon a time, Blood Orphans were the next big thing. They had a fat recording contract, the swagger of the gods, and cheekbones that could cut glass. They were the darlings of the LA music scene. They were locked and loaded for rock-and-roll greatness.

And then everything…went…wrong. The singer became a born-again Buddhist who preached from the stage. The bass player’s raging eczema turned his hands into a pulpy mess. The drummer, a sex addict tormented by the misdeeds of his porn-king father, was losing his grip on reality. And the guitar player – the only talented one – was a doormat cowed by the constant abuse of his bandmates.

Set in Amsterdam on the last day of Blood Orphan’s final tour, this novel tells the raucous story of a band – and their heroically coked-out female manager – trying to get in one last shot at fame’s elusive bull’s-eye. Rock Bottom is a pitch-black comedy, a wild ride on the crazy train of outrageous misfortune, and a bighearted paean to the power of dreams.

Review: This book is simply fantastic. The members of Blood Orphans, a disgraced heavy metal band, each have their own bitterness and and misfortunes that they are forced to deal with on this last day of their tour. Bobby, the bass player with the diseased hands, spends his day fighting off his feelings of inferiority and struggles to believe in the affections of a beautiful Dutch girl. Adam, the insanely talented guitar player, finds himself believing in a future without Blood Orphans. Shane, the evangelist singer, spends his day covered in rancid peanut butter, struggling with the dying embers of his once white-hot faith. But it is Darlo, the sex-addicted drummer, who goes through one of the biggest transformations. While the other band members think of him only with hostility, he reveals a troubled, pained soul while dashing through the streets with Joey, the band’s drug-addicted manager. Darlo’s life changes with one phone call from the family lawyer, and he is forced to face the demons of his past.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters, which give readers a glimpse into the extreme mental and emotional anguish and journey of each band member. By the end of the book, the band has morphed into something completely different…but I will leave it to future readers to discover what that is! I would recommend this book to any fan of rock-and-roll, or to anyone who has watched and loved This is Spinal Tap.

Rating: 10/10

Germinal by Émile Zola

Date of Publication: 1885 (my edition, 1998 Oxford World’s Classics)

Number of Pages: 524

Synopsis (from back cover): Zola’s masterpiece of working life, Germinal (1885), exposes the inhuman conditions of French miners in the 1860s. The central figure, Étienne Lantier, is an outsider who enters the community and eventually leads his fellow-miners in a strike against pay-cuts which becomes a losing battle against starvation, repression, and sabotage. Yet despite the violence and disillusion which rock the mining community to its foundations, Lantier retains his belief in the ultimate germination of a new society, leading to a better world.

Germinal is a dramatic novel of working life, sexual desire, and everyday relationships, but it is also a complex novel of ideas, given fresh vigour and power in this new translation.

Review: For those who don’t know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers’ rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day’s soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.

But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.

There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it’s no wonder that when a child’s legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.

Rating: 10/10

The Holy Terrors (Les Enfants Terribles) by Jean Cocteau

Date of Publication: 1929, New Directions

Translated by Rosamond Lehman (1955)

Number of Pages: 183

With original illustrations by Jean Cocteau

Synopsis (from back cover): Miss Lehman was able to capture the essence of Cocteau’s strange, necromantic imagination and to bring fully to life in English his story of a brother and sister, orphaned in adolescence, who built themselves a private world out of one shared room and their own unbridled fantasies. What started in games and laughter became for Paul and Elisabeth a drug too magical to resist. The crime which finally destroyed them has the inevitability of Greek tragedy.

Review: Having never even read Jean Cocteau’s poetry, I was completely unprepared for this disturbing story. It starts out innocently enough, with a childhood snowball fight, but the reader is soon enveloped in the fantasy world created by Paul and his sister Elisabeth. But as they grow older, and their competing magnetic personalities enslave their friends, they find themselves almost completely removed from reality and heading toward disaster. Paul and Elisabeth and neither likable or unlikable…they seem to be completely above our likes and dislikes.

This book is a fairly quick and easy read, but it’s still rich in its language and with unforgettable characters. It should also appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone who enjoys French literature, psychological drama, Shakespearean tragedies, or fantasy fiction will really enjoy this book.

Rating: 9/10

La Vagabonde by Colette

Date of Publication: 1910

Number of Pages: 239

Synopsis (from back cover): Largely autobiographical, La Vagabonde recalls Colette’s own years spent touring Paris music halls, taking the reader backstage and into the demimonde of Renée Néré, and aging dancer, mime, and failed writer. Around this extraordinary heroine Colette spins the first of her masterpieces, a novel that brings forth the sensual, unexpurgated perspective of a woman who struggles to choose between freedom and love.

The recently divorced Renée describes the sights, sounds, and excitement of the dance hall, the greasepaint and silk kimonos she wears as she rehearses with her burly partner, Brague, and the downward slide of a young Piaf-like singer named Jadin. And in the ensuing romance between Renée and her admirer, Maxime, Colette – in 1910 – explores male-female relationships from a startlingly contemporary point of view.

Review: This is the first full-length novel by Colette that I have read, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how lyrical and beautiful her writing is. Every passage is like a song, from the heroine’s wanderings in the park, to her laments and agonies over loving a man. One could read this book as an example of an early women’s liberation story, but I think it’s really deeper than that. In a time when women were meant to be submissive toward their husbands, Renée, having been deeply hurt and humiliated by her ex-husband, refuses to give any part of herself to a man ever again. Colette delves deep into the psychological torment that a broken heart can cause, and Renée understands that to love a man again means that she must allow him into her heart and mind, something she feels she simply cannot do. This book asks very important questions, considering the era in which it was written: Can a woman retain her freedom after marriage? Can she even pursue her own career and interests? Must she give up her whole heart to her lover? Renée is a woman who has been wounded too deeply to easily give up the freedom and independence she has cloaked herself in. The life she leads is not the typical life of a Parisian woman, but she clings to it desperately, knowing that without it she is vulnerable again, a terrifying prospect.

La Vagabonde is definitely a story about a wandering soul, searching for her place in the world, and for love’s place in her life. I would recommend this book to any fan of romance fiction, or to anyone who is, like me, wondering about their own place in the world.

Rating: 9/10

Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge by Laren Stover

Illustrations by IZAK

Date of Publication: 2004, Bullfinch Press

Number of Pages: 265

Synopsis (from inside cover): Bohemianism is a way of life, a state of mind, an atmosphere. It’s about living richly and irreverently, beyond convention. It’s about being uninhibited, unbuttoned, creative and free.

Bohemian Manifesto is your entry into this world. It distills the penchants and peccadilloes of every kind of Bohemian and examines their vanities, vehicles, poetry, performances and passions – everything that makes the Bohemian so deviant yet so divinely seductive. What’s on their shelves? In the tub? On the turntable? What’s running wild? Bohemian Manifesto shimmers with all the incandescent ingredients that give counter-culture lifestyle its romantic reputation.

With humor and charm, this book inspires the way out of a brand-washed mass-market consumerist culture and into decadently delicious Bohemianism. Feel it, smell it, taste it, inhale it, and embrace, if you dare, its manifesto!

Review: This is one of those books that you can read over and over again. It’s not only humorous in its descriptions of Bohemian living, but it’s a wonderful escape from the rampant materialism that drives our everyday world. The Bohemian doesn’t worry about cleaning or working or any of those things that we think about constantly. Instead, Bohemian life centers on sensual and intellectual pleasures. Instead of “playing the game”, they do what they really want to do, whatever that may be, despite the consequences. It’s an incredibly seductive image to those like me who are scared of being trapped in the corporate box, which seems to lie in wait for everyone at some point in their lives.

Laren Stover obviously has knowledge of her subject, unlike some other writers who treat Bohemianism academically. Instead of presenting us with a romanticized image of care-free Bohemians, she presents us with the human side of the Bohemians. Although she does not dwell on the downside to to Bohemianism, the picture she paints is no less real. This book does not inspire me with the urge to abandon my home, family, and friends and hit the road with some traveling band of street performers. But it does inspire me to look at my life in a new way, and to adopt ways to live more naturally, outside the confines of the narrowly-defined norms that dictate our behavior, and sometimes even out thoughts. Bohemian Manifesto indeed provides us with a way out. I recommend that everyone read and take from this book something that will rescue them from the trappings of modern society.

Rating: 10/10