BOOK REVIEW: The Last Chairlift by John Irving

The Last ChairliftThe Last Chairlift by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The latest (and quite possibly last) novel of John Irving is a fine work of literary fiction. It’s not “A Prayer for Owen Meany” good, but it’s alright. Whereas “Owen Meany” was masterfully plotted with continuous points of tension and well-timed reveals, Irving’s new book meanders through the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting fascinating characters and the occasional powerful and poignant event.

In varied outlets, I’ve seen this referred to as a book about skiing and a book about ghosts. It’s neither of those things, though they both figure in the book. I would say it’s mostly about sexual identity and sexual politics in America. The story follows the life of Adam Brewster and his unconventional extended family of a lesbian mother who marries Adam’s father figure (Elliot Barlow, a man at the time who subsequently transitions to female) and has a simultaneous long-term committed relationship with another woman. Other major characters include his lesbian cousin and her committed partner, the partner, Em, being Adam’s lifelong crush.) At some point in reading, it occurred to me that this group was thick as thieves and there was really no ingroup dissent or conflict among them, and I wondered why that worked [instead of being painfully boring,] and I think it’s because they’re faced with so much outgroup [or edge of group, e.g. Adam’s aunts and – later – wife / ex-wife] pressure that it forces them to be closer in all ways.

Earlier I said that the book meanders through the second half of the twentieth century, but it actually continues through almost to the present-day. The biggest criticism I would offer is that the last twenty-ish years are rushed through and the author frequently seems to forget that there are characters that should have interesting life events. Instead, the book engages in long strings of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition on American politics, and when it’s not ranting about politics, the end reads a bit like a family Christmas letter. After what is the novel’s undisputed most moving moment, an event masterfully imagined and articulated, it’s kind of a slog to the end. [Which is, unfortunately, the last twenty percent of the book or so (at least it feels that way.)] Putting it another way, Elliot Barlow (aka. “the snowshoer” / “the pretty English teacher” / “the little wrestling coach”) is arguably the most likeable and compelling character in the book, and very little of interest occurs after she is out of the picture.

I enjoyed reading this book, but – as I say – it can be a slog compared to many of Irving’s earlier works. It’s worth noting that this book features multiple writer characters and an editor character, and still would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor. It does have a couple chapters that read as screenplays, and they are intriguing and make for a nice pace change. If you’re an Irving fan, you need to read this book. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, start elsewhere.


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BOOK REVIEW: Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain [Ed. by Jerome Tiller]

Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark TwainTwain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers three pieces of Twain’s short fiction and presents them in an edited and illustrated volume. The stories are edited from the original published editions. My understanding is that the editing was confined to making the volume more readable to a present-day audience (and probably to younger readers, specifically.) As far as I can tell, that’s the case.

The three stories have in common that Twain, himself, features as a character. [This is less explicit for the second story than for the first and third, it being merely written in first person while the others reference Twain by name.] The first story, “Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow,” is essentially a roast of those three important 19th century American poets. The story is written as though Twain is traveling on walkabout and happens upon a miner’s household where, as luck would have it, the three titular poets had stopped in previously. Supposedly, this was first a speech given in Boston at a celebration for another poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and it went down like a lead balloon.

The middle story, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” is about a mysterious visitor who comes calling who seems to know about all the narrator’s misdeeds. It turns out that said visitor is the narrator’s conscience. This personification of conscience is a clever plot device and makes for a hilarious story.

The final story is entitled “Running for Governor,” and it shows that fake news is far from a new phenomenon in American politics. It imagines Twain running for governor of New York and the one news story after the next presenting outlandish, contrived claims that begin to stick as Twain ignores them. This reminded me of the Twain essay that disabused me of the popular notion that we are [at any given time] in uniquely contentiously partisan times for American politics.

I enjoyed this collection. I would probably have preferred an unedited text, but it’s readable, engaging, and humorous as is. The illustrations are line-drawn, and many are cartoonishly jocular while others are more realistic caricatures. It’s certainly an entertaining read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Ghetto, and Other Poems: An Annotated Edition by Lola Ridge [ed. Lawrence Kramer]

The Ghetto, and Other Poems: An Annotated EditionThe Ghetto, and Other Poems: An Annotated Edition by Lola Ridge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: January 17, 2023

Non-annotated edition at Project Gutenberg

This collection was originally published in 1918, and, therefore, the original edition is public domain and can be acquired via Project Gutenberg or other such sites. However, this review is for the new Fordham University Press edition, the value-added of which is primarily to be found in the annotations — as well as in the inclusion of an abridged version of the titular poem that appeared in The New Republic. (i.e. There are two versions of “The Ghetto,” in this edition, one in an appendix.) The annotations definitely add benefit for the average poetry reader because, being over a hundred years old, many of the poet’s allusions will not be self-evident. That said, if you’re reading the poetry purely as artistic language and don’t really care about the author’s allusions or intended messages, the annotations might not have much value for you.

I was captivated by Ridge’s poems. She wrote a great deal of poetry of dissent and protest, and – as with standup comedy – it’s no simple matter to take on such subject matter and still produce an appealing product. [That’s part of the reason why the annotations can be valuable, because the metaphors and allusions may not be clear for a reader who can only access a literal reading of the poems.]

If you’re interested in American poetry, and particularly that of social objection, this collection is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: American Poetry: A Very Short Introduction by David Caplan

American Poetry: A Very Short IntroductionAmerican Poetry: A Very Short Introduction by David Caplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book does a great job of helping the reader understand what distinguishes the American strain of poetry from other poetic traditions, particularly the one from which it sprang and to which it’s most closely related, linguistically speaking: i.e. English poetry. Among the unique aspects of American poetry are a shift toward more idiosyncratic poetry, a shift that flows from America’s individual-centric orientation, the employment of American idiom – especially informal language, the connection to other American artforms (e.g. Blues music,) the diversity of form and style that resulted from being a diverse population, and the loud and clear expression of dissenting voices.

The page limitations of a concise guide keep this book from drifting wide in its discussion. The reader will note that it’s focused on mainstream poetry, and there’s little to no mention of counter-cultural movements, e.g. the Beats (e.g. Ginsberg and Synder) are not discussed. However, even within the restriction to mainstream poets, there’re only a few poets that are discussed in depth. Of course, these include the two poets largely considered the pillars of the American form: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. It also includes two poets who were challenging cases for a discussion of national poetic movements: W.H. Auden, a Brit by birth who spent most of his poetry writing years in America; and T.S. Eliot, who was an American by birth but moved to Britain. Both poets produced poetry of importance while on both sides of the Atlantic, and, so, the question is whether anything of note can be said about their poetry vis-a-vis its location of origin (and, if not, have we exited the era in which nationality of poetry is worth discussing?)

I learned a great deal from this book. Again, if you’re looking for a broad accounting of American poetry, this isn’t necessarily the book for you, but if you want to gain a glimpse of the interesting and unique elements of American poetry through a few of its most crucial poets, this is an excellent choice.


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ESSAY REVIEW: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and DepravedThe Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Online Available Free: Grantland

Available within the collection: The Great Shark Hunt

This story is cited as the first work of gonzo journalism, a highly entertaining style of immersion journalism which takes liberties with objectivity and factual detail for comedic effect or heightened narrative impact. The Kentucky Derby is more setting than subject of the story. It’s Thompson attempting to throw together coverage of the horse race at the last minute for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine that existed less than a year. So, the story is as much Thompson racing around trying to con his way into some press passes as he and the graphic artist sent by the magazine go on a booze-fueled junket on and around the race track grounds.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and features Thompson’s irreverent and fast-paced style throughout. It really was something new. Thompson, apparently, thought he’d failed completely when he sent in the story, but the response indicated that – rather – he’d invented something new, something for which there would be a huge market.

It’s definitely worth reading this story, just don’t expect deep insight into the horse racing tradition of Kentucky.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cotton Candy by Ted Kooser

Cotton Candy: Poems Dipped Out of the AirCotton Candy: Poems Dipped Out of the Air by Ted Kooser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: September 1, 2022

The new collection by Ted Kooser is vibrant and playful. While imagery is front and center in these poems, it’s not the imagery of still life, but rather conveys the constant motion of all things. It’s that dynamism that makes for an uplifting read. Most of the entries are nature-centric, but a few – like the titular poem – delve into the world of man.

It’s a brief collection, consisting of about seventy short-form poems.

With so many mopey poetry collections out there, it was a pleasure to read one that enlivens and energizes. I’d highly recommend it for poetry readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel presents a satire of American socio-economic existence. It spends much of its time poking fun at old money folk (trust fund kids, as they’d be called today,) but the book has plenty of barbs to go around. The story centers on Eliot Rosewater, the head of the Rosewater Foundation, the charitable arm of an old money robber-baron kind of family corporation. Eliot is cut from different cloth, however. He’s in love with the work-a-day blue collar American, and does everything in his power to eliminate his separation from such people, including obsessively working with volunteer fire departments, setting up his foundation in his hometown (Rosewater, Indiana,) and making the Foundation an extremely personal organization that gives what would today be called micro-grants to ordinary citizens for ordinary uses.

Opposing Eliot Rosewater is a lawyer named Norman Mushari who’s made it his mission in life to have Eliot proven insane so that he can have the Rosewater Foundation fortune shifted to Fred Rosewater (of the middle-class Rhode Island Rosewaters.) The challenge is knowing whether Eliot is truly insane or not, even Eliot, himself, doesn’t always seem clear on the matter. For many, such as Mushari, just the fact that Eliot is acting in opposition to the societal norm (e.g. setting up in Rosewater, Indiana v. New York or Chicago and not making big grants to corporations and colossal NGO’s but rather giving a few hundred dollars at a time to residents of Rosewater) is proof enough. And, if Eliot is crazy, is it because there’s something wrong with him, or that there’s something wrong with the world.

This book is hilarious, and the last chapter leaves the reader with a great deal to mull over. I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of SpringThe Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is atypical of Hemingway’s work in several ways. It’s one of his earlier works of fiction, so it may stand to reason that his style and genre preferences weren’t yet set. The book parodies certain works and authors and satirizes the conceits and affectations seen in some popular writers of the day. Not that Hemingway’s work is otherwise devoid of humor, but it rarely plays the central role that it does herein. The story also has plot points that feel surreal in their absurdity, which is a variation from Hemingway’s usual dramatic realism. The novella also features a number of fourth wall breaks in the form of “Notes to the Reader.”

The book combines two storylines, each featuring a different worker at a pump factory in a Michigan town. Scripps O’Neill is a writer who comes to town after wandering away from his home down a train line after his wife left him. Scripps goes native in the town, getting a job at the pump factory and marrying a local woman, but he’s perpetually restless. Yogi Johnson is already an experienced worker when Scripps arrives, and he’s shaped by his experience in World War I, which other characters continually question amongst themselves. He ends up wandering out of town down the train tracks in a way that echoes Scripps’ arrival.

The book is funny and quirky and oddly engaging. Some of the humor would probably land better for those familiar with the pretentious writers that were the book’s target, but even if one isn’t familiar with the literature of the era, one will come away with an understanding of how Hemingway viewed said writers.

I enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it for readers of American Literature.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest HemingwayThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hemingway was widely regarded as a master of short fiction, and for good reason. This book collects published and previously unpublished short stories into one volume. While the collection prominently features Hemingway’s obsessions with safari, war, and (to a lesser degree) bullfighting, it actually covers a lot of ground from what might today be called flash fiction to almost novella length pieces, from grim and gritty tales of violence to quiet stories of being and everyday life, and from crime in the big city to life in rural America.

The complete collection offers all the well-anthologized pieces, such as: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but it also presents some exceptional stories that may have slipped past readers. Some of my favorites include: “The Last Good Country” (about a young man and his sister on the lam from the game warden,) “The Butterfly and the Tank,” (a drunk gets a bit too merry among men of violence,) and “The Strange Country” (Hemingway’s version of “Lolita.”)

The book is arranged into three sections. The first is “The First Forty-Nine,” a collection that gathered all of Hemingway’s fiction published to that point. The second section consists of the fourteen pieces published after “The First Forty-Nine” came out. The final section is seven unpublished stories, a few of which are connected by virtue of the fact that they were meant to be part of a novel that was never completed because of Hemingway’s untimely demise.

If you enjoy short fiction, this collection is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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