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From Harlequin Romances to Charles Bukowski

I have to watch what I read, for two reasons. The first is that I tend to adopt the writing style of whoever I’m reading. It’s just like “You are what you eat,” only it’s “You write what you read.”

My mother first brought this to my attention when I was about twelve and she found one of my half-written stories lying about.

“You’re writing a Harlequin Romance!” she said, horrified. I didn’t believe it, until she produced the first and only Harlequin Romance I’d ever read, and outlined the similarities. Even then I wasn’t convinced until she pointed out that my protagonist and the Harlequin’s protagonist shared the same first name.

The other reason I try to read good books is because I force myself to finish books I’ve started, even if I don’t like them. I rarely abandon a book. I think this might be Mrs. Stevenson’s fault. She was the librarian at Fitzroy Centennial Public School, where I went from the middle of grade five till the end of grade eight. The library wasn’t an actual room – it was a bunch of book carts that were stored in a locked room and wheeled out into the hallway once a week.

Mrs. Stevenson was hostile toward children, and mistrusted their motives. She was also stingy with books. I took out the maximum number of allowed books each week. I think it was four. Mrs. Stevenson challenged me, accusing me of taking out more than I needed, more than I would actually read. I wasn’t sure what she was insinuating, maybe that I was being greedy.

But she was right, I didn’t necessarily read all the books I took out of the library. I wanted extras in case I didn’t like them all. I wanted to make sure I had something good to read. But she made me feel guilty about it, so I started forcing myself to finish all the books.

This morning I finished reading a book I hated. Notes of a Dirty Old Man, by Charles Bukowski. It’s a compilation of columns he wrote for an underground newspaper in the 60s. They gave him license to write whatever he wanted. I’d read some of Bukowski’s short stories when I was much younger, and I remembered him being raw and raunchy and disturbing, but also fascinating and occasionally poignant (in a raunchy and disturbing way, of course).

Notes of a Dirty Old Man, though, was just disturbing and gross and depressing. Bukowski’s a vulgar misogynist. He hated everybody, including himself, but he hated women most of all. Reading this book felt like poking at a maggot-infested corpse.

Now I need to take a very long shower and read something uplifting. Any suggestions?


18 comments to From Harlequin Romances to Charles Bukowski

  • Lucy Dillon! Her books are all good, but Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts is my favourite.

  • Julia

    Not sure why but “The Art of Racing in the Rain” came into my head, as uplifting fiction. However, it has some tough passages in it and I cried like a blubbering child near the end, so maybe not. Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” is uplifting, even if someone dies there too. So what about anything by Bill Bryson? Funny stuff, sometimes inspirational as in, “I could do that too.” I recently read “Bleak House” and found it very good. I found the central character of Esther to be almost, but not quite, too good. But people die in it too. You can Google “uplifting books” and get links like

    There are a couple of passages from Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three men on the bummel” that made me laugh so hard I had to stop reading. They were about cycling and specifically, on a tandem. The best thing about Jerome is that his books are so old, you can get them easily at the library.

  • Cara

    Helen Simonson’s The Last Stand of Major Pettigrew is very funny and nicely done. Speaking of wanting to take a shower after reading Bukowski my skin was crawling after seeing a film about him called Barfly. Come to think about it, I think Major Pettigrew is the exact opposite of Bukowski.

  • Jacqui583

    I just started reading “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson. Light, quirky and funny. Lawson publishes a blog called

  • Bukowski. UGH. You are brave to have finished that at all.

    I recently re-read Rachel’s Holiday, by Marian Keyes – one of my favourites, about a 20-something’s stay in rehab in Ireland. Cleverly done and funny and lovely. Her book This Charming Man is also fantastic – a much darker theme, but still manages to be funny and redemptive. All of her books are a tad “chick lit-y”, so if you don’t dig that, the covers may put you off. But don’t be fooled! These two are worth a read!

  • I second “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened”. Funniest book I’ve ready in awhile. I loved “Rachel’s Holiday” too!

  • Ami McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure – it starts in the slums of 1880’s New York and is full of dirty old men and the girls that they prey on…and the whole book is one big kick in the nuts to them. Its about strength of character, and the virgin whore dichotomy, and what existed for women outside that …. and its about lovebirds.

  • Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. My summer reading is mostly murder-mysteries – not exactly uplifting but the authors are good story-tellers.

  • molly

    Look me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison
    I just loved it.

  • Anything by Annie Dillard will likely fix ya up some.

    Most coyotes, when polled, generally like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life about the best…

  • future landfill

    Just finished Irma Voth by Mariam Toews and now getting into Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill. Both excellent, I’d say. Always, always in my Top Ten is Emma Donoghue. She could write the phone book and make it compelling.

  • jenny

    Ooh! Ooh! Watership Down. I’m re-reading it for the umpteen millionth time, and it’s still such a good read. Also very uplifting! I also read everything I pick up to the end. Usually it ends up working out, but sometimes I get to the end and think: There’s a book’s worth of reading I’ll never get back… It’s like I don’t understand it’s bad til it’s over or something. Although there are some books I managed to put down in the middle, and I’ve certainly never regretted it!

  • “Sticks & Stones” by George Bowering.

  • There are sooooooo many wonderful books and so little life span. Don’t waste a minute on anything that doesn’t captivate you. You were being totally sensible by taking out extras to ensure that you would find the best. Poor Mrs. Stevenson. A miserly librarian.

    I was a high school English teacher for years and I turned many kids into readers by NOT making them read what they would not enjoy. I would listen to their interests and suggest something. If they didn’t like it, they got to choose something else.

    I’m rather fond of Robertson Davies work (The Deptford Trilogy and others). He’s Canadian. And I recently reread LA MARAVILLA by Alfredo Véa. Some enchantment, magical realism in that one. I also finished HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson last week. Haunting and beautiful.

    Of course, if you really need a pick-me-up there’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE.

    And I hope you’ll never finish another unsatisfying book. Life’s short. Good literature is long. Let them join.

  • grace

    I have read and retread the Deptford trilogy. I often turn to Anne Tyler for comfort reading. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favourite.

  • Ah, yes, Anne Tyler. DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT is lovely.

  • fuzzpedals

    Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
    and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.
    Both recommended (and loaned) by friends while I’ve been off work sick, both very well written and uplifting as heck.

  • Bukowski has always been one of my favourite authors.
    I haven’t read Notes of a Dirty Old Man, but I have read his poetry, and some of it is astoundingly good. And some of it, well, not so much.
    And although he often writes about the down and out, the sick and depraved, he is insightful and at times inspired. He’s not offering anything except his own sorry self. A reporter-poet down on his luck and liking it that way.

    But you want uplifting… um… well, I guess I can’t offer much. I prefer the dark underbelly.