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.

What I Am Listening To: News

stitcherThe top podcasts on my favorites list (using Stitcher) are not my favorite podcasts. They are the shorter news podcasts where I start the day of listening. My news podcasts increase in length as I listen (in order) to ones that delve deeper into stories.

Here are the titles of what I’m listening to these days as “news.”

You can find them in Stitcher, iTunes or whatever you use to subscribe to podcasts.

You can find many of these on the web too, but subscribing is the much better way to listen since they just appear automatically. If you’re new to podcasts, just think of these apps and subscribing as the audio version of a DVR.

NPR News – NPR has lots of podcasts, but I start with this short hourly one that gets you updated in about 4 minutes.

Up First – also NPR but with more details. Their suggested news stories to start the day.

The Writer’s Almanac – You might not think of this one from Garrison Keillor as news, but the items from the past are often oddly relevant to today. Plus starting my day with having a poem read to me is a balm to the harsh news that makes up the standard news broadcasts. Okay, full disclosure: though I was already listening to this for years (including when it was a radio program that I had to catch at just the right time), Garrison did read three of my poems earlier this year. (see bottom of post)

The Slowdown with poet and former Poet Laureate of the U.S. is another slice of poetry on my breakfast plate. She introduces a poem with a brief personal connection to the pom or its content.

If you don’t have 5 minutes for some poetry, then you probably won’t understand why William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

The Newsworthy is hosted by a remarkably upbeat Erica Mandy who posts at 4a.m while I’m dreaming about the day to come. In 10 minutes, she gives you the big stories of the day and I really like that on her website, thenewsworthy.com,  she gives you the sources if you want to dig deeper into a story. Even the NY Times or Washington Post doesn’t give you links to sources.

The longest podcast on my news slate is The Daily from The New York Times which is a very popular podcast that goes deep on one story using the resources of the newspaper.

I still live a bit in the tech world, but I don’t have the patience for most tech podcasts that run 30, 60, 90+ minutes.

I have an interest in some aspects of the business world, but it’s not my world, so my choices are ones that are understandable to the outsider.

Tech News Briefing is from the Wall Street Journal and is typically about one current issue of tech. Though it has a business slant, the news applies to all of us.

Marketplace Tech is hosted by Molly Wood and this daily show looks at how tech influences our lives. Tech + business + the digital world.

Numbers by Barrons is about 2 minutes long and focuses on some numbers that relate to what’s happening in economics and finance and “navigate the markets.”

Business Story of the Day – is another NPR podcast short that selects one story from their business coverage.

NPR also has its own podcast app – NPR One where you select from their content and then some algorithm picks additional content you should enjoy.

Make Me Smart with Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood is one of the longer ones on this list but it’s a weekly podcast so it comes out to less than 10 minutes a day.  They have good chemistry and nice engagement with their audience and focus more on a theme than a story. It’s business (each of them does other business podcasts) but not “of the day” – more of “of the times.”

Environment is another NPR short podcast taking one story from the current news that relates to environmental issues.

My final recommendation is not really news, but, like the almanac, it’s a good short daily listen.  Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day is like a podcast version of those calendars people used to have on their desk. It gives you the meanings and more importantly the etymology and uses of a word that you may not be familiar with – or have been misusing.

Three of my poems were featured on The Writer’s Almanac earlier this year. A text version of each poem is also posted online. One is a serious poem, “Shame,” and two have the tongue in the cheek, at least partially – “Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” and “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes.”

Your Right to Be Forgotten

   The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via wikiart.org, Public Domain

I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten.

We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name. But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their life to be forgotten.

The Internet is forever. Maybe. Many people have posted things they regret. They delete it but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet the damage is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.

For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured.

A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.

Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.

Do we have a right to be forgotten online?

The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.

It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret,  or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and revisionist history?

That is the focus of a Radiolab episode that looks at a group of journalists who are experimenting with being forgotten. They are unpublishing content – articles, photographs, names, entire articles – on a monthly basis.

As the Radiolab website says, this is a story about “time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.”

What I’m Listening To: Self-Promotional Edition

I post here occasionally about what I am listening to in the podcast/online/radio world.  I still listen to many podcasts (too many, my wife would say) and I will update the list at some point, but this brief edition certainly falls under the category of self-promotion.

I have listened to the daily podcast of The Writer’s Almanac since 1993. It began as a public radio show that was harder for me to catch every day. I was glad when it became a podcasts that I could subscribe to and have waiting on my phone. It ran on public radio through 2017 and episodes are archived online. Now, the show is available as a podcast and online on the host’s, Garrison Keillor, website.

I had listened to Garrison Keillor starting in 1974 on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I loved that voice and his ad-libbed weekly stories of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I went on to read his short stories and novels. You can label him as author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality. He hosted that show through 2016 when he retired and passed the reins over to others.

I was lucky to have three of my poems featured on the Almanac this month. I really enjoy hearing other people read my poems and that is not something I get to experience very often. The links are below and you can read the poems there online, but I strongly recommend that you listen to him read the poems. The poems are at the end of the program, so you could fast-forward through the news, but I enjoy the news of the day every morning as much, sometimes even more, as the poem.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. This Gothic beauty was the original setting of my poem, “Shame.”
“Shame” is a serious poem that came from an experience I had as a young man in a beautiful cathedral.
The other two are less serious, though not totally meant to be funny.
“Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” portrays the kinds of people I actually have had show up at readings. The poem often gets laughs when I read it, though fellow poets may be more likely to just nod in recognition.
My poem, “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes,” came from reading an actual horoscope column online. The short-form horoscopes tend to be pretty positive, though you might get a warning prediction once in a while. What I thought was missing was ones that were somewhere in-between.

Change Your Mind

Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.

On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.

I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.

“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.

Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.

He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.

From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.

Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.

Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.

Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”

Podcast Listening List 2

This is an update to my earlier What I Am Listening To post about the podcasts that are currently on my device at the end of 2017. In my case, the device is mostly my phone, but I also load certain podcasts on a flashdrive and leave it plugged in my car for driving (though I could just run my phone through the car’s audio, I like leaving the phone for call and GPS).

A study shows that one in four Americans has listened to a podcast in the past month. That number is up from 9% in 2008. The demographics of listeners shows them to be wealthier than average: 45% say they have an annual household income over $75k, compared with 35% of the general US population. The audience also skews younger, with 51% of monthly podcast listeners under age 34.

I have every day podcasts that I listen to that are mostly news. Then I save others, especially longer ones, to listen when I am walking, working outside or even working on the computer. I use them much like I used to use the radio, except now I do my own programming schedule. Those longer ones I download at home on wi-fi so that I don’t have to stream them using data when I am out in the world.

You can find these in Apple iTunes, on Stitcher’s app, and most of them are also on websites in case you like to listen on a computer.

This list is updated from the earlier post. Some shows have gone away (I am saddened by the loss of garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac and News From Lake Woebegone), some I have just lost interest in, and some are new to my list.

There are ones I listen to almost every day – many of those are short – and then longer ones that might only be released weekly or even less frequently – most of those are longer.

It should be its own post, but I also listen to books on audio, which are a big time commitment.


There a few I didn’t add to the list that I did sample but that just didn’t grab me. Like televisions these days, there is so much good competition that I’m a tough critic.  But you might like Pod Save America (political), Risk! (regular folks on stage telling emotional stories), Lore (urban legend weirdness stories), Welcome to Nightvale  (radio broadcasts from a fictional town where the out-of-the-ordinary is ordinary and conspiracy theories abound), two trivia shows: Doug Loves Movies  and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know ( a panel takes trivia from the audience).


Short and Daily Regular Listens

  • Up First – NPR’s short take on news to start the day
  • The Daily – a big story for today from The New York Times
  • NPR Hourly News Summary – in less than 5 minutes
  • WSJ Tech News Briefing
  • NPR Business Story of the Day
  • Film Reviews from WSJ with Joe Morgenstern – brief reviews of new films
  • Marketplace Tech 
  • The Poetry Magazine Podcast – looks at what’s in the newest issue of the magazine
  • Brainstuff – five-minute  answers to questions like Why balloons stick to our hair? How do squirrels organize their nuts?

Longer Shows – weekly or less frequently updated – I choose episodes I’m interested in

  • By the Book – the two hosts live for a few weeks following the suggestions of a self-help book and report back on how life changing or not the plan turned out.
  • Make Me Smart – Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal talk about the economy, technology and culture and try to get help from listeners and experts about the ones they want to know better.
  • In Our Time – a BBC show that takes on academic topics from Moby Dick to Thomas Beckett to Plato’s Republic, but all in a listenable level although the guests are usually college professors.
  • Hidden Brain – fascinating stories that take science and research and make it interesting to anyone. Hosted by Shankar Vedantam
  • Here’s the Thing – Alec Baldwin is a terrific host/interviewer of people in many different fields
  • Poetry Off the Shelf – poets, poems, poetry topics
  • Fresh Air – one radio program that I have listened to since before podcasting – but podcasts allowed me to catch the shows I was missing. With a superb interviewer, Terry Gross.
  • The Business – is in show business, movies and television, hosted by Kim Masters
  • Slate’s Culture Gabfest – highbrow and pop topics – highbrow and pop hosts
  • How To Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black – not the usual celebrity interviews – very revealing interviews.
  • The Treatment – mostly movies with another great host who seems to have seen and read everything, Elvis Mitchell,
  • Maltin on Movies – as in Leonard Maltin, film critic and human film encyclopedia. Interviews with all kinds of movie folk. Often co-hosted by his daughter, Jessie.
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge – One of my favorites. Big ideas and themes covered in different ways.
  • FT Life of a Song – FT = Financial Times but this UK podcast is all about digging into the origins of songs in all genres.
  • WTF with Marc Maron – Long interviews that travel interesting paths with musicians, actors, writers, comedians and even Barack Obama done in his garage. I sometimes fast forward past the intros that are often promoting his own work, but great interviews.
  • On Being – formerly Speaking of Faith and wisely changed to represent what it actually covers. Krista Tippet is the amazing host.  Excellent website.  www.onbeing.org/
  • Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me – a current events quiz show that’s quite funny
  • The Sporkful – Dan Pashman’s show for eaters
  • Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen – pop culture and the arts. Great host. Special American Icons episodes are great: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Disney Parks, I Love Lucy, Superman, The Outsiders…
  • 99% Invisible – the mostly invisible design of things
  • Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell’s series takes unusual views of one topic revisionisthistory.com
  • The Dinner Party Download – cultural oddities and drink recipes based on history
  • You Must Remember This – the first 100 years of Hollywood with host and writer/researcher Karina Longworth. Themes are things like Jane Fonda + Jean Seberg, the Blacklist, Dead Blondes, Boris Karloff + Bela Lugosi, Charles Manson
  • Bookworm – host Michael Silverblatt is a terrific reader and talks to almost everyone important in contemporary writing (fiction, non-fiction, poetry). I haven’t heard of many of the books/writers but all the shows are well done. Huge archive. From KCRW radio. www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm
  • The Nerdist – long-running show hosted by professional talker Chris Hardwick with a vairiety of interesting people. Interview runs pretty long – about 90 minutes.
  • Katie Couric – She does her interview thing that she has done well for many years in podcast form.
  • Harry Shearer – Le Show – a creative mix of news, commentary, music and original skits and songs.

Still on my list but I listen very selectively when I have time

  • The Paris Review – topics that might appear in the magazine
  • Pop Culture Happy Hour – multiple hosts on movies, books, TV and the rest
  • Radiolab – hard to pin down what it is about – it’s about almost anything
  • Planet Money – the economy explained
  • This Week in Tech TWiT – Leo Laporte and crew. I started listening to this years ago but I’ve fallen off as a listener to his shows as they tend to ramble on for 2 hours or more lately. Also the case for This Week in Google – Leo and Jeff Jarvis with some focus on Google but almost an extension of TWiT.
  • This Week in Law – Another one in the series that I listen to selectively when a topic catches my fancy.
  • On the Media – a good weekly media analysis
  • The World Next Week – a “preview” of world events from the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Triangulation – Leo Laporte (Man of a Thousand Podcasts) talks to smart people in tech. These are more controlled (and shorter) and I select based on the guest.
  • Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty – short doses of language, writing and that scary grammar stuff in an engaging way.
  • Slate’s Audio Book Club – monthly look at new and important books
  • Open Source with Christopher Lydon
  • Science Friday – just that – stories about science for the rest of us.
  • Invisibilia – the invisible forces that control us
  • This American Life – one of the originals. A theme is several acts fill up about an hour.
  • Selected Shorts – short stories read aloud by actors. I tend to select selected episodes but when I just listen to an episode I am inevitably surprised to discover some new or classic story.
  • Freakonomics Radio – an extension of the ideas in the books. Economics (ugh!) but done in a way that is interesting (Hurrah!)
  • The Carson Podcast – interviews with people who guested on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Always touches on Johnny and the show but also digs into the entertainers big and small interviewed.
  • How I Built This – interviews with innovators on how they built whatever they built
  • Stuff You Should Know – grew from the articles on the http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/ website. Two likeable guys with more information (usually) than you on a very wide variety of topics.  Most shows are about 30 minutes.
  • Things They Don’t Want You to Know – is another offshoot but needs to be seen because they are video (vodcast) and they are full of all those conspiracy theories. Fun.

Archived, Available But Not Current Programs

  • I had listened to the two previous installments of the true story Serial which were good, although neither had a real ending. During this last period, I listened to the third one called S Town about John who despises his Alabama shit town and decides to do something about it. He asks a radio reporter to investigate a murder, but it’s really about John. This one has an ending. Sort of.
  • Missing Richard Simmons – On February 15, 2014, fitness guru Richard Simmons disappeared and the host of this podcast searches for him. Much like serial, some people were disappointed that he didn’t really “find” him (like a Serial ending) but I thought it was a good ending.
  • Esquire Classic Podcast – looks back at classic pieces from the magazine
  • Unretirement – Life after you retire when you still want to do.. something.
  • By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin – crazy, funny Jeff (Curb Your Enthusiasm) does freeform interviews on stage with folks. On hiatus while he works on his TV show, The Goldbergs which is a kind of The Wonder Years for the 1980s.