Tag Archives: Ben Tarnoff

Book Club Reflection: The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff

23 Jul

A few weeks back, my book club met to discuss The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. If you remember my review, I wasn’t a huge fan. I thought the book was too much of a textbook to be enjoyable as a casual read. Seems I wasn’t alone.

Most people in the group finished the book and most of us agreed it was too long and too much information so it read like an assigned textbook. We suspect that Twain’s name was in the title to help it sell. If Harte’s name or another’s were there, there wouldn’t have been the name recognition and we doubt it would have been as successful. We had one member who did enjoy it and she thinks it’s because she was born in Missouri and lived in California. She knew about Twain’s history with California and the Gold Rush. She was already two steps ahead of most of us.

The book did succeed in highlighting an interesting cultural change in literature during a big change in technology, specifically the transcontinental railroad. I would never have thought to associate the two. Those who traveled West before the railroad brought the Eastern culture with them and civilized the region. We were surprised at the number of magazines in San Francisco. The stories the Bohemians created were reflective of the new and exciting place they were living. They were living somewhere fun and would be damned if those Easterners were going to come ruin it for them. Though at the same time, they wanted Eastern approval and money.

The Bohemians were very hot and cold with each other. Sometimes they’re friends helping edit each other’s work and encouraging new ideas. And then sometimes it was fierce competition and ignoring those who had helped another rise. Specifically, the relationship between Harte and Twain. It reminded me of the movie Mean Girls.

Most of us didn’t know that Twain had such a struggle toward success or that he had become famous through lectures. We were especially surprised to find he became famous first in California. Most of us associate him with Missouri. It seemed ironic that the man who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wanted to avoid the draft. But I guess principles hold out over adventures. We found Twain’s obsession with poverty a bit unnerving. It almost felt like he had a mood disorder because of his deep depressions and manic highs. He seemed to be living at the edge of bankruptcy and was either crippled by it or reveling in it. It seemed convenient that his wife came from so much money. During his good moods, Twain seemed like the man everyone wanted to be friends with. He was the life of the party and fun at the bar, weaving great stories. It was his nature to be a bit hodge-podge and lie and be messy. The amount of editing Harte had to do for his work is a bit representative of that. We wondered if there were first drafts available so we could see the amount of change in editing his work went through.

Those in our group who knew the most about Twain knew it because of a 2014 PBS documentary by Ken Burns. Here’s the link if you’re interested.

Harte’s drastic change in the end was really shocking. He was angry and mean when Twain started to become famous instead of being happy for his friend. When The Heathen Chinese made him famous overnight, he went from a diligent writer and editor to an unreliable alcoholic. He went solo and things went downhill from there. He couldn’t produce when it was for someone else. It was better doing it for himself and being a kingmaker than writing for another editor.

We didn’t speak about Coolbrith and Stoddard much. There wasn’t much to say about these two who disappeared into obscurity. We felt bad for Coolbrith because she seemed to be the only responsible one in the group. She was a very modern woman with the way she cared for her family and worked. Stoddard seemed like a lost soul, but we suspected he might have had ADHD which would have contributed to his inability to focus and stay in school.

Our overall comment was about how we felt those in the book threw caution to the wind much more readily than we would in 2015. We have bills and mortgages and families while these things didn’t seem to hold Twain and Harte back. Maybe this is a bunch of women (and a few men) talking because Coolbrith did seem to be held back by the things that plague us today. Though I have to admit I would love the freedom to pick up and move across the country. It would be very freeing.

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Book Review: The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff (2/5)

15 Jun

My book club tries to read non-fiction twice a year. I’m not sure where this rule came from and to be honest, I might advocate bucking the trend. Don’t get me wrong, I like non-fiction. I don’t tend to read it as often as this club does and I don’t think it makes for a good discussion. We’ll see how this talk goes, but I think this book is one that will generate little conversation.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

Summary from Goodreads:

The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young Mark Twain, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protectorate of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers would together create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East.

Twain arrives by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863 and is fast drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city’s intoxicating energy. He finds that the war has only made California richer: the economy booms, newspapers and magazines thrive, and the dream of transcontinental train travel promises to soon become a reality. Twain and the Bohemians find inspiration in their surroundings: the dark ironies of frontier humor, the extravagant tales told around the campfires, and the youthful irreverence of the new world being formed in the west. The star of the moment is Bret Harte, a rising figure on the national scene and mentor to both Stoddard and Coolbrith. Young and ambitious, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core. But as Harte’s star ascends—drawing attention from eastern taste makers such as the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, questioning whether he should be a writer at all.

The Bohemian moment would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of Mark Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer and helped inspire the astonishing innovations that radically reimagined American literature. At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the western frontier changed our country forever.

Well, that’s quite lengthy. Though truthfully, the book was quite lengthy as well. I found it a bit repetitive and hard to follow. The characterization of the characters, especially Harte, were a bit redundant. I found it hard to follow as the narrative would tend to follow one person for a while until he or she interacted with another character and then jump back in time to talk about the next character. I couldn’t follow the timeline. My overall rating is mostly due to my disinterest in the subject. This isn’t a book I would pick up unless it was a topic I wanted to know more about and unfortunately, I didn’t really want to hear about Mark Twain’s literary awakening.

The four Bohemians were well described and I, being a woman, felt Ida Coolbrith was the most human. She had real problems I could see people having. Stoddard was a flake, Hart was passive aggressive and cocky and Twain was too aggressive. All very human traits but not ones of people I know well or want to know well. I understand why they flocked to each other, but I would have flocked in a different direction.

Ida was my favorite character and I was so sad when she didn’t have a happy ending. Though if she had, she’d be as famous as Twain. She was very grounded and I feel I am the same way. I’ll likely never be a poet laureate, but I work hard each day to keep my small family (aka my husband) running. Coolbrith was never looking for accolades though she very much deserved some.

I liked the parts about Twain because I found him to be the most interesting character. His life was exciting and seemed to have the adventure he lectured and wrote about. The other characters seemed dull in comparison which, while realistic, doesn’t make for engaging reading. A bit of a yawn there.

I hated the jumping timeline. It really frustrated me to read about Stoddard’s wanderlust and adventures around the Pacific and Europe which ended in meeting Twain in London. Then we jump back to Twain in New England before he goes to London and the plot goes on until they meet. I was so frustrated. I understand it’s easier to follow one character for a while and then switch to another, but the plot didn’t do this most of the time. We would follow more than one character and then would spin-off as someone did something interesting. You’re probably finding reading this explanation confusing and that’s because what I’m describing is confusing. I didn’t like it.

There’s no set formula for what will make a writer successful. Ina was talented but went nowhere. Hart was talented and enjoyed moderate success but his selfishness was his downfall. Stoddard was incredibly giving but didn’t have the talent to make it. And Twain had talent, but he needed others to edit his stuff for him and help him forward at every step. So why was he successful? There’s a phrase among writers that you have to write every day. And Twain was able to do that. Ina was busy with family life, Stoddard didn’t have the drive, and Hart seemed to give this up. So Twain was successful. Will it work every time? No. But it worked for him. Though I suspect talent still had something to do with it.

Writer’s Takeaway: This one is a bit hard for me because I don’t see myself writing nonfiction. I think a more interesting subject would be best. You can write a great book on the lives of sloths but unless I love sloths (like Kristen Bell), I won’t read it. There’s been some nonfiction I really enjoyed but this didn’t do anything for me.

A bit dull, a bit slow, and a bit confusing. Two out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1800s time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
REVIEW: The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff | The Literary Flaneur
Freshly Baked Books: A Review of The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff | Readers Unbound
“The Bohemians” by Ben Tarnoff | Look at Books

WWW Wednesday, 3-June-2015

3 Jun

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at Should be Reading and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


HarryCurrently reading:  I’ve been working on La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s reminding me that I need to practice my Spanish more, but I’m really enjoying the story. I hope to finish it this summer.
Good progress with A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I think I’m finally getting somewhere with it and I’m liking it a lot more than I thought I would.
Slow progress with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m not engaged yet and I’m not sure how long it will take, but it’s a good morning read so far.
I’ve started a new audiobook on my phone which is Harry, a History by Melissa Anelli. It’s an oral history of the Harry Potter phenomenon as told by a leading fangirl. Not too far into it yet to judge, but I’ll be sure to report out soon.

KingfisherRecently finished: I got through two! The first was The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine which was an audiobook for me. I enjoyed it and gave it 4/5 stars. Review coming next week.
The second was The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. It just wasn’t for me, unfortunately. I wasn’t really interested in the subject and I felt the narrative jumped around a lot so I wasn’t as interested as I would have liked to be. Oh well. 2/5 stars.

I’ve also got two book reviews posted since last week. Go check out my feelings on Waiting to be Heard by Amanda Knox and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

WidowReading Next: Still planning on it being A Widow for One Year by John Irving. This will be the next book to derail me from Sombra and, to be honest, I won’t mind.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 27-May-2015

27 May

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at Should be Reading and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


BohemiansCurrently reading:  No movement with La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I really want to work on this one over the summer so I’ll be getting to it in the next few months.
Good progress with A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I’m not sure how far I am into it because the format I’m using isn’t very conducive to figuring that out. I guess it will end at some point?
I hope to finish The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine soon. I’m listening to it while I cook which will be more this week because my triathlon is over and I don’t have to worry about training for a bit.
I’m still a bit skeptical of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. So far, it’s interesting but not anything special for me. Reviews I’ve looked at said to wait until you pass the first section because then it becomes amazing. We shall see
I’m making steady progress with The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. It’s a bit dry, but it’s a historical narrative so that’s to be expected. I hope to finish it soon and move back to some fiction. Also, the author favorited my #FF tweet, so that was awesome!

Recently finished: After finishing two last week, I’m not surprised I didn’t finish anything. I did get to a review for The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer so go check that out when  you have time.

WidowReading Next: Still planning on it being A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I hope to get it soon and read it second so I’m not the last of our group to read it this time!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 20-May-2015

20 May

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at Should be Reading and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


CloudAtlasCurrently reading:  Minor progress on La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Two more book club books coming my way so I can’t even promise I’ll get to this soon.
Still going with A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I’ve been having to make a lot of calls in my care lately or have been with someone else so I’ve slowed this down a bit. I hope to pick it up again soon.
Things are going more quickly with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. The plot is moving very quickly and I’m really enjoying it.
I started a new eBook, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m really excited about this one because it’s been #1 on my TBR for about a year now. I tried starting it once  a while back and never made it past page five. I’m beyond that already now. This should be a fun ride.
I’ve got a new book club selection as well.  The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. Not too far into it yet and I’m excited that it will help me fulfill the 1800s for my When Are You Reading? Challenge. I need to focus on this one more.

OceanRecently finished: I absolutely flew through Waiting to be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox. I haven’t read a memoir in a while and it was really refreshing. Knox’s story is fascinating, even if what I read was biased and has been called into question. I hope to review it soon.
I also finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This was a great little story. It was a bit more fantastical than I was anticipating, but I still enjoyed it a lot.

I wrote one review this week, Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Take a look and let me know what you thought of these books.

WidowReading Next: My work book club selected our next book and it will be A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I’m stupidly excited for this selection because it’s off of my TBR and Irving is my favorite writer of all time. I can’t get my hands on it soon enough!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 13-May-2015

13 May

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at Should be Reading and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


KnoxCurrently reading:  I was able to read just a little bit of La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Right now, it’s looking like I’ll have time for it more this summer but not much before then. Stay tuned.
Still going with A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. It’s good and I like it, but I’m not going to be moving very quickly through it.
I’m enjoying The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. I’ve gotten to the part that’s more of a story line and less of a generic flashback/back story. I like this a lot more.
I’m really enjoying my eBook, Waiting to be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox. It feels good to be reading a memoir again and this one is really riveting.
My newest book club selection is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. It’s a nice short one I hope I can knock out in one week!

InnerRecently finished: I flew through my latest book club selection, The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer. I enjoyed the fast-paced thriller even though it’s not normally my genre. I did find it a bit far-fetched, which is normally my complaint. Review coming soon.

I wore a review for The White Tiger that posted Monday. I’d been talking about this book for a long time and a lot of you asked about it so click over there to see my thoughts.

BohemiansReading Next: Next Monday I’ll get a copy of The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. It’s our bi-annual non-fiction which I tend to either love or hate. We’ll see.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!