Ten Years in Twisted River

My Goodreads profile told me that I was reading Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving for the 3rd time, but that’s not accurate. I read about a third of it in 2010 when it was a new book and gave up. But a friend later recommended it and I was able to grab it on Audible so I thought I would restart it in that format. I listened to about another third in 2017 and then stopped again. It’s not a good sign when I can’t finish an audiobook.

Last Night in Twisted River received mixed reviews, but I don’t read a book or not read a book because of a review. In late 2019, I put the book on my To-Do list to finish. I went back an hour in the audiobook from where I had left off in 2017 and decided to listen in short sections while I did my walks. That was October 2019.  I finished listening to it this month. I have spent ten years in Twisted River.

Last Night in Twisted River is Irving’s 12th novel. It covers a half-century including the President George W. Bush years and the 9/11 attack.

It’s difficult to summarize his novels because a lot happens. It’s about a cook and his son who are on the run. That son becomes a famous writer and gives Irving a lot of opportunities to talk about writing and the writing life.

It starts in 1954 in the small logging settlement of Twisted River on the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. A young logger has drowned on the river when he fell under floating logs. Dominic Baciagalupo is the camp’s cook who lives above the kitchen with his 12-year-old son, Daniel. We find out that the river also took Dominic’s wife, Rosie, 10 years earlier when Dominic, Rosie and a friend, Ketchum, were drunk dancing on the frozen river, and she fell through.

The accidents that put the novel into motion aren’t over. “Injun Jane”, the kitchen’s dishwasher and girlfriend of Constable Carl, is having an affair with Dominic. One night, Daniel sees the pair having sex and mistakes Jane for a bear attacking his father and Daniel kills her with a cast-iron skillet.

The father and son stash the body at passed-out-drunk Carl’s house thinking he may wake up and assume he killed her (He often beat her up.) and confiding only in Ketchum the pair runs from Twisted River. Their running from Carl and their fear that he will find them and kill them in revenge make up most of the novel as they move to Boston, to Vermont, and Toronto. Carl is really in pursuit and he is also always imagined to be nearby. Ketchum takes up their protection as a mission in life.

The young Daniel is the protagonist but coming of age is very difficult for characters in Irving novels. They lose things, including people they love. They have scars physical and mental. Irving fans see and expect to see certain things repeating in his novels – from bears and odd dogs to loved ones dying in strange ways, people losing parts of their body and the death of children,  For example, in Twisted River someone dies in a car accident while driving and receiving oral sex which echoes a similar scene in Garp.

John IrvingIn interviews, John Irving said that he started thinking about the novel in 1986 but it took 20 years to form. (So maybe my 10-year read makes sense?)

Irving likes to start his novels with the last sentence and work his way back. That’s how Daniel, who uses the pseudonym Daniel Angel for most of his career, also writes his novels. Irving says that he found the last sentence for this novel when in 2005 he heard Bob Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue” and this lyric caught him:

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell

Irving published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968. He has been nominated for a National Book Award three times and he won for the brilliant The World According to Garp which is one of my all-time favorite novels.

Garp was the first of his novels I read. After that, I worked my way backward and read his earlier novels: Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) all of which show themes that are elevated in Garp.

My wife and I read each of those books at the same time and would have our own book club discussions about them. It became our habit to do that with each of his novels and we did the same thing with John Updike’s novels. The two Johns were sometimes confused by readers, which makes no sense to me as their styles are very different.

I loved the film of Garp (I think Irving was not as big of a fan of it) and that surprised me because is a big book that didn’t seem like it could be filmed. It would be perfect for a mini-series and I once read that Irving was working on it for HBO. But the film, with the wonderful Robin Williams and Glenn Close as his mother and the fabulous John Lithgow, works very well.

He followed up this big best-seller with three very good novels: The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) and then The Cider House Rules (1985), and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989).

Five of his novels have film versions: Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules (with a screenplay by Irving), A Prayer for Owen Meany (with a title change to Simon Birch at Irving’s request because he did not believe that his novel could successfully be made into a film – and he was corect) and The Door in the Floor (based only on the first third of his 1998 novel A Widow for One Year.)

I am definitely an Irving fan and had been reading each book as it was published, but he lost me in the 1990s.  Though my wie and I read A Son of the Circus (1994), A Widow for One Year (1998), and The Fourth Hand (2001), they didn’t grab us as the earlier books had done.

I never read Until I Find You (2005), but my wife bought Last Night in Twisted River (2009) and I gave it a try. You know how that went.

Since then, Irving published In One Person (2012) and Avenue of Mysteries (2015) and he has a new novel, Darkness As a Bride due out this fall.  I feel like I should return to one of the three unread Irving novels and start again, or wait for the new one and start fresh and work my way back again.

But the next book on my started-but-long-unfinished list will be Infinite Jest. Yeah, I have the audiobook.

Leap Days, Years and Seconds

Leap Year 2012

2020 has an extra day because it is a leap year. This year has 366 days instead of 365. This year also will not begin and end on the same day of the week, as a “normal” non–leap year does. The extra day is February 29 – a day added nearly every four years to the calendar year.

Why? The short answer is that try as we do to control time, we need to adjust to keep our calendar aligned correctly with the astronomical seasons. The Earth’s orbit around the Sun takes approximately 365.25 days, so without this extra day, our Gregorian calendar would get out of sync.

A leap year is also known as an intercalary year or bissextile year and a year that is not a leap year is a common year.

This is for the Gregorian calendar. It’s a lot more complicated if we get into other calendars. In the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, Adar Aleph, a 13th lunar month, is added seven times every 19 years to the twelve lunar months in its common years to keep its calendar year from drifting through the seasons.  Complicated. In the Bahá’í Calendar, a leap day is added when needed to ensure that the following year begins on the March equinox.

A long time ago, Leap Day was known as “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” as it was the one day when women were free to propose to men. One tradition today is called Sadie Hawkins Day which sometimes applies to February 29 and allows ladies to ask men for a date or dance.

Two questions that puzzled me about leap years: 1) Why is it called a “leap” year?   2) What happens if your birthday is on February 29 and you only have that birthday every 4 years?

In the Gregorian calendar, a fixed date normally advances one day of the week from one year to the next. January 1 this year was on Wednesday and normally the following year it would be on Thursday.  But in the 12 months following the leap day (March 1 – February 28 of the following year) the day will advance two days due to the extra day. So, next year January 1 and the other days will “leap” over one day in the week. January 1 will leap over Thursday and be on Friday next year.

A person born on February 29 is sometimes called a “leapling” or a “leaper.” In common years, they usually celebrate their birthdays on February 28, but it could be celebrated on March 1 since that is the day after February 28. Though a leaper might claim to be only a quarter of their actual age (by counting only their leap-year birthday anniversaries). For legal purposes, these birthdays depend on how local laws count time intervals.

At the end of 2016, there was a “leap second” added to the year to correct the length of a day into Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This tiny insertion adjusts because of variations in Earth’s rotational period. Leap seconds are not regular things because variations in the length of the day are not entirely predictable.

And though you won’t hear anything like the madness that surrounded the Y2K bug, leap years can present computing problems if the 366th day or February 29 is not handled correctly.

The State of Surveillance Revisited

camerasA surveillance state is a country where the government engages in pervasive surveillance of large numbers of its citizens and visitors. Do we live in a surveillance state? Some would argue that we do, but it’s not like living in Russia or China. But do YOU live in a state of surveillance?

I wrote about this topic here last year and the topic continues to be in the news. Surveillance is often pushed as necessary to fight terrorism. That’s the big one right now, but it is also touted as a way to prevent crime.

droneIn the worst surveillance states, it is used to control the population, especially when there are protests and social unrest. Even in the best states, surveillance on a massive scale threatens privacy rights, civil and political rights and freedoms.

Thankfully, it seems that the worst of surveillance hasn’t hit America yet because there are legal, constitutional protections.

In 2013, Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosure freaked a lot of people out on both sides of the issue – those shocked by what was being done to them and those shocked that the secrets were being made public.

My earlier post had been inspired by an interview with Andrew Ferguson (author of The Rise of Big Data Policing) that points out that Amazon and other companies have “allowed” us to create a surveillance state around our lives and, as Ferguson says, “somehow as consumers we seem okay with giving up this information to a private company.”

That is the part that is really frightening to me. We are creating our own surveillance state. We are giving up our privacy voluntarily  – although companies and the government are quite willing to help.

We should watch what is happening in China as a cautionary story.  Their city surveillance systems scan facial features of people on the streets and match this information against scanned faces of “suspects” in government databases.

China is not unique. Many countries have added thousands of surveillance cameras, especially in urban areas. That includes the U.S.  The ACLU said back in 2017 that we are “in danger of tipping into a genuine surveillance society.”

Clearview has been working with law enforcement agencies to match photos of unknown faces to people’s online social media photos which it is legally collecting…



The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


Our Love-Hate Relationship with Classic Novels

Twain quote

As an English major and teacher, I have read a lot of novels. I have also forgotten many novels old (classic) and new. Mostly, I have enjoyed and sometimes loved those I have read. So, when I saw an article about the most loved and hated classics (according to Goodreads users), I had to give it a read.

Mark Twain (who wrote some classics) said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” The author of the article compares reading classic literature to “going for a 6am jog. It has its loyal fans but few enjoy it. Most people want to tell others they do; sometimes people experiment with it, but mostly, people just don’t like it at all.”

As a teacher, it pains me to say that some classics that might make your “hated” list were probably required reading in a classroom. But some of the most popular classics are also assigned in American schools.

“Required reading” is not the way you really want someone to encounter literature, but if some of these novels were not required, people would never experience them.

These are also often the titles that students turn to cheats as a substitute for the actual book. In my student days, those cheats were Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes, but now the Internet gives them Spark Notes and even websites where they can buy or just download essays.

The novels on both the loved and hated lists are all good books, though they won’t be loved by all. I learned long ago that with books (fiction and non-fiction) and films, you hated book or movie is someone’s absolute favorite.

When I was in my most rabid reading days (ages 11-19), I devoured books like I eat potato chips and popcorn now. I would read a favorite author’s entire works. That was easier with Salinger and Fitzgerald and harder with Hemingway and Steinbeck.

I’ve written before about the Classics Illustrated Comics that I loved in my youth. They exposed me to many classic novels. Some of those readings led me to the novels. Moby-Dick is definitely an example of that. Many of those classic novels were way over my ability in elementary school but I made my ways through them and probably benefitted as a reader and writer.

I know the comics led me to read some novels by H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau) and Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea) and Arthur Conan Doyle (lots of Sherlock Holmes and also The Lost World)

The Lost World comic, novel and feature film (1960 version) were the Jurassic Park of my (and Michael Crichton‘s) youth and had a big impact on my reading and thinking about science, if in a fictional and theoretical way.

I suspect that there are some classics that I think I read that I only actually read in comic book form.  I certainly had read a lot of comic book Shakespeare well before I read Julius Caesar in sophomore English class. I could speak pretty well in high school “cocktail-party conversations” about Macbeth and Hamlet if ever came up.

Novels become classics over time. I was once told that the book had to be 25+ years old but there is no rule. The Godfather makes the list looking a bit out-of-place to me next to the other titles. (Though I will always question a book or film labeled as a classic when it only came out that year.)

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is my best example. It is a book I love and have read multiple times. I would hesitantly recommend it though. It is not an easy read. The vocabulary and style are quite old-fashioned.  It takes on all the biggest themes. I would never want to teach it in a class where it was required. I would love to discuss it with other readers who enjoyed it. Still, despite my hesitation, should it be dropped from reading lists? That may be the only way people will encounter it. Perhaps, it should be one of several choices along with other classics. I used to give students such choices and groan when someone chose the shortest book. A short novel that you hate is much more painful than a longer one that you enjoy – though young students rarely accepted that as true.

Like Moby-Dick, Melville’s contemporary, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. also appears to be hated. It’s a lot shorter. So is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but that doesn’t mean easier.

Given a choice of what to require in a classroom, I would go with East of Eden or To Kill a Mockingbird if it meant that my students would actually read the book and leave it with a good feeling. When I taught middle school, I taught The Outsiders many times, not only because it is a well-written novel and totally appropriate for that age group, but because they loved it despite it being almost a historical novel for them today and it having a good and pretty faithful film version (the media cheat) that they also loved but didn’t choose as a substitute.

The article also notes that Don Quixote (1615) is the first classic in the data and the next is Robinson Crusoe which came out in 1719. Where are the classics in between?

The top classic-producing authors are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens on the other side of the pond and Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in America. But in this love/hate thing, quantity does not mean quality to readers.

Charles Dickens (who I mostly like/love and have taught with mixed success) gets average scores.

Jane Austen (who I was required to read and never enjoyed) has multiple truly beloved classic novels and has rabid fans for the movies and TV versions too.

Hemingway (who is very high on my loved list) is pretty much hated across all his novels. I would teach his “classic” short stories before attempting the novels.

Steinbeck (who I read voraciously in those teen years without ever being required to read) only gets some love for East of Eden. I suspect that being assigned The Grapes of Wrath wins it no love (but it is a great novel) and no one is assigning enjoyable his short novels like Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat. I taught and had students who loved Of Mice and Men. The Red Pony is short. I liked it and I taught it once. And only once.

What are your feelings about classics loved and hated,
and how much does it have to do with required reading assignments?
Did you discover some classics after your student days that you love?
Comments welcomed!


MOST BELOVEDloved books


The Sad But Romantic Origin of St. Valentine’s Day

hearts pxhere

Valentine’s Day, the day on which we celebrate Romantic (capital R), has a rather sad – though Romantic – origin.

The legend of Valentine is from the time of Emperor Claudius II. He was having problems getting enlistments to his struggling army, so he forbade single men to get married in order to prevent romantic ties from encouraging enlisting in the army.

An early Christian priest, Valentine, saw this as an injustice and so performed secret wedding rituals in defiance of the emperor. When Valentine was discovered, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death by beheading.

While awaiting execution, he fell in love with the daughter of a prison guard, who would visit him. On the day of his death, Valentine left a note for the young woman professing his undying devotion and he signed  it “Love, from your Valentine.”

Father Valentine was made a saint and martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D.

And so began a tradition. Approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged, and that doesn’t include the packaged kids’ valentines for classroom exchanges. That makes Valentine’s Day the second-largest holiday for giving greetings cards after Christmas.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France Australia, Denmark, and Italy.