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.

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 Mystery of Nancy Drew’s Death

nancy drew dead cover
Nancy DrewNancy Drew is dead. We won’t see her peering at clues with her magnifying glass any more. And she just might have been killed to benefit the detectives now trying to solve the case – Frank and Joe Hardy.

Nancy was getting up there. She’s turning 90 in people years, though she’s still a teenager in the comic book world.

Of course, in the world of comic books and comic book movies (big bu$iness), heroes who die often miraculously come back. How many times has Superman and Batman died?

This news comes to me via a new monthly comic series, called Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew. The publisher, Dynamite, had put out in 2017 another series, Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie. That series started with the teenage Hardy Boys being accused of the murder of their detective father. They team up with Nancy Drew to prove their innocence.

They have teamed up before. In ABC TV’s The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-79) and in a joint novel series, Super Mystery, they spent a decade working to solve crimes and attract both male and female readers.

The Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie writer returns for the new Hardy Boys minus Nancy series. Anthony Del Col was someone I came across when a friend lent me another series he wrote called Kill Shakespeare. (The Death of Nancy Drew is drawn by Riverdale artist Joe Eisma.)

My friend assumed as an English teacher and Shakespeare fan I would be interested. In that very dark series, some of Will’s characters (Hamlet, Juliet, Othello Falstaff) battle his villains (Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Iago) and try to kill a wizard named William Shakespeare.

Green Lantern fridged
Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) comes home to find that his girlfriend, Alexandra had been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator. (Green Lantern #54, 1994, written by Ron Marz)

Nancy Drew has been fridged.  That term (short for “Women in Refrigerators” or WiR) comes from a website that was created by a group of feminist comic-book fans that listed examples of female characters being injured, raped, killed, or depowered as a plot device – often to push a male superhero’s story forward. The term alludes to the scene in a 1994 Green Lantern comic shown above.

Nancy Drew was originally meant to be a feminine (feminist?) counterpart to the Hardy Boys. Nancy may have outdone the brothers because she has had so many incarnations in novels, comics and on the screen.

Sill, killing Nancy Drew seems to be a lousy way to mark her 90th birthday/anniversary story.

I have written before about Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. and their “authors,” Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, because the books were ones I really devoured in my youth.

There are Nancy Drew adventures for computers.

Simon & Schuster is still printing both Nancy Drew novels and Hardy Boys adventures, including ones for younger readers, all with ever-changing cover art to make them more contemporary.

There are still TV tie-ins and Nancy has a CW Network show (you can currently stream it) that followed the lead of the popular Archie comics TV version, Riverdale, and much darker The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which started at the CW and moved to Netflix) that also came from a much lighter comic series.

 I still have some of my original Hardy Boys books and the ones my sister bought but that I read. I hate to see Nancy get fridged, and I hope that she gets unfrozen in that magical comic book manner and returns in her perky eternally-teenaged form. Hopefully, she won’t return in some dark “Nancy Drew and the Undead” format.

Nancy Drew cover

Joans of Arc and Arcadia

I noticed on the almanac on January 6 that it was the birthday of Joan of Arc. It so happened that I had just watched an old episode of the TV series Joan of Arcadia. These synchronicities happen sometimes. They are not coincidences.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc) was born in 1412 to peasant parents in Domrémy, France. Nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” she is considered a heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Years’ War.

She began seeing visions when she was 13 and believed that Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret were urging her to defend France against the English.

Joan cut off her hair to pose as a boy and joined the troops of Prince Charles, eventually leading the troops to victory. She was at the prince’s side when he was crowned King.

Amber as Joan
Amber Tamblyn as Joan of Arcadia

The television Joan is an American teenager, played by Amber Tamblyn, who sees and speaks with God and performs tasks she is given by God. It ran for two seasons from 2003-2005. Joan Girardi and her family lives in the fictional city of Arcadia, Maryland.

Joan’s visions are quite real and God appears to her as people recurring in her world – a child, a student at her school, a guidance counselor, an old woman at the park, etc. God gives her assignments or tasks that initially seem silly or useless but ultimately have positive outcomes for her or other people. Each episode has a lesson.

The show had critical praise and won several awards including a nomination for an Emmy Award in its first season for Outstanding Drama Series.

At 18, Joan of Arc went into battle again but was captured by allies to the English. They put on trial for heresy. Her visions were at the core of their prosecution, though it was obvious that she was being tried for opposing the English in battle.

The prosecutors tried to trick her by asking her if she knew she was in God’s grace. Church doctrine said that no one could know that for certain, If she answered yes, she was guilty of heresy. If she answered no it would be taken as an admission of guilt. Her answer was a clever avoidance: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

Joan was found guilty. She had no legal counsel. There were forged court documents. Joan, who was illiterate, signed a confession that was presented to her as being something else.  She was burned at the stake in the market square in Rouen in 1431. She was 19.

Joan of Arc was declared a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, who called her a “most brilliantly shining light of God.” Her story affects people in different ways – as a religious figure, feminist, a symbol of courage and faith and a victim of political powers.

Joan TV series

My wife and I watched Joan of Arcadia during its original run. Both of us used an episode in our classrooms (mine, an English class, hers, a French class). It is available on DVD but on this second viewing, we recorded the series on the DVR as it ran (in order) on the startTV channel. It is still on as I write this.

I  really loved the show during its original run and I dug into both Joans a bit deeper. For example, I discover that Joan Girardi’s middle name is Agnes. That made me check into St. Agnes, a virgin martyr. She is the patron saint of girls and chastity. A good choice for 21st century Joan a girl whose virginity was an issue in the series.

Joan of Arcadia was canceled after its second season. Despite great reviews, it lost a portion of its first-year viewing audience. I think it is partially because the show (and audience) was split between Joan’s stories and those of her family, especially her father.  I also felt that the second season got much darker in its themes.

The final episode (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”) had God telling Joan that her last two years were just practice. It set up for the intended third season when Joan would face off against a man who also talks to God, but seems to have an evil agenda. This perhaps-Devil is charming, wealthy and influential. He saves Joan’s boyfriend Adam and he works his way into her family who doesn’t see anything sinister about him.

I have read a half dozen books about Joan of Arc including one that I read as a teenager written by Mark Twain that probably inspired my interest in her life. Both Joans have things to teach us and I recommend reading and viewing them.

Religion has a tough time on TV.  “That’s what religions are: different ways to share the same truth,” God tells Joan in one episode.

Other people have written that the series (and ones like it) have a place on the air.

Jason Ritter, who played one of Joan’s brothers on the show, later did a similar series called Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. (which had formerly been known as The Gospel of Kevin). I watched that series too and enjoyed the big themes it took on.  Ritter played Kevin Finn, a man who survived a suicide attempt but loses his way in life, who ends up moving in with his twin sister Amy and her teenage daughter. He encounters an “angel” named Yvette who claims that God has tasked Kevin with saving the world. Yvette clearly has some otherworldly powers and does not appear to others and is there to guide and protect him. Kevin is an unlikely candidate for this task.

Kevin is told that in every generation, there are 36 righteous souls on Earth whose existence protects the word. Kevin, she tells him, is the last of them. This idea of 36 righteous people comes from an idea in the more mystical dimensions of Judaism that says that at all times there are 36 special people in the world and that if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.

That series came to an end after only one season for probably the same reasons as Joan of Arcadia. I think the big themes and any hint of religion scares TV networks – and maybe viewers.

The latest series to take on similar themes certainly owes something to Joan of Arcadia. That is God Friended Me, now in its second season on CBS.  In this series,  Miles Finer is an atheist and podcaster, who gets a friend request on Facebook from an account named “God.” Skeptic that he is, when the account sends him other friend suggestions (so far people living near him in New York City) of people he discovers need assistance he follows up and investigates.  As with Joan, though initially, the friend suggestions don’t make sense, he does end up helping them.

Like Joan of Arcadia, the show also deals with Miles’ family (his father is a pastor of an Episcopal church) and his girlfriend which are subplots that often weave into the friend suggestions. Another plotline that runs throughout the series is attempts by Miles, his girlfriend Cara and his hacker friend Rakesh to find out who is behind the “God” account. All of them believe it is a person, not God.

Now that I have gotten into the series, I hope the jinx of Joan and Kevin doesn’t strike Miles.


Cracking Up

“Of course, all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

cracked plate

The end of the year and winter sometimes leads people into a kind of depression. When I was on the winter break of my high school senior year, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” essays that were published in Esquire magazine in early 1936.  It was a “deep and dark December,” as Paul Simon described it for me.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship,
friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

I was in my room with my books and poetry, Friendships had caused me pain and I felt that being alone would be safer.

Fitzgerald wrote: “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” He’d “cracked like an old plate.”

He had a bad decade with his wife, Zelda, suffering her first breakdown and hospitalization, and he found himself in his mid-30s deep in debt and broken. He went to Hollywood to work on movie scripts because it paid well. He drank a lot. He worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon.

In the second part of his essays, “Pasting It Together,” he went into the third person and said “this writer told about his realization that what he had before him was not the dish that he had ordered for his forties. In fact—since he and the dish were one, he described himself as a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving. ”

I identified with that wondering about whether it was worth repairing and preserving that “plate.”

Ernest Hemingway was a friend to Scott – but not a good friend. It was a friendship that caused pain. They were so very different in life and in print and Hemingway said some unkind things about Fitzgerlad. That bothered me because I liked both of them as writers.

Hemingway wrote and seemed to believe that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I think I believed in a kind of optimism that I would be “strong at the broken places.” I believed that I could come back from these depressive periods stronger.

I don’t believe that anymore. I reread “The Crack-Up” this past week and I am closer to Fitzgerald who wrote that “A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.”

I have come back from several depressive periods. Fitzgerald did not. He wrote in 1940 to his daughter Scottie that he had “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”

That mixed message seems to be where he was in his life when on December 21 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.

I am glad that I haven’t arrived at the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were at the end of their lives.  F

Fitzgerald wrote that “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” There is no hope there, and he continued “I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain that you are… only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope.”

I have hope, and part of that hope is that you also have hope and do not find yourself in the state of Fitzgerald at the end. It was difficult for my high school self to get out of that room and be with old or new friends, but those two things were so important to my “pasting it together.”

I came to agree more with the line of poet John Donne that Paul Simon was rejecting in his song: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent.”

Christmas Book Flood

book tree
A book tree. I suppose it should be topped with chocolates for Jolabokaflod but bourbon isn’t a terrible idea.

I got a book for Christmas this year and also an Amazon gift card to buy books on paper, digitally or even Audible audiobooks (my current favorite format). I don’t know if books are still very popular gifts, but in Iceland it seems that they rank high on the Christmas gift list.

I didn’t know this before but Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. 93% of Icelanders read at least one book a year. 73% of Americans read at least one book. Iceland ranks as the third most literate country in the world. No, America is not number one – Finland and Norway take the top two spots.

The majority of books sold in Iceland are sold from late September to early November, but it kicks off when the Bokatidindi catalog of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association is distributed free to every Icelandic home. This national tradition is called Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas/Yule Book Flood.”

Giving books as presents, generally on Christmas Eve, is part of their culture. Some families select a book for each member of the family, and others buy a book they would recommend and each family member chooses the one they’d most like to read. Many people then spend the Eve reading one of their gifts. This is all about physical books, not e-books.

The Book Flood tradition began during World War II when gifts were restricted. One item that was less restricted was imported paper so books became a good gift choice.