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: The Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch

The Heart of American PoetryThe Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 19, 2022

This book presents forty poems from prominent American poets, interspersed with essays by Hirsch offering background on the poet, the poem, and how the poem reflects upon America. It’s a fine collection of poems, and a thoughtful discussion of them. There will be something new to most readers. While most of the poets are well-known and while there are a few highly anthologized poems: e.g. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Dickinson’s #479 [Because I Could Not Stop for Death,] and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many more off the beaten path selections to be discovered.

As for whether the selection captures the heart of American poetry, on that wouldn’t necessarily agree. That said, it’s presented as Hirsch’s personal selection; the pieces in it are great poems, and he has as much right to his views as anyone. The anthology does capture many elements of the American poetic voice. It does a fine job of capturing the many strains of dissent, critique, and resistance from the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Langston Hughes) to that of the indigenous peoples (e.g. Joy Harjo) to the Beats (e.g. Allen Ginsberg.) What Hirsch seems less comfortable with is the Whitmanian voice of affection and admiration for the country. In writing about Whitman and Frost, Hirsch makes comments about their lack of appeal to him, apparently their respective unbridled positivity and folksiness were found unbecoming of a poet. I felt the fact that Hirsch had to search out one of Whitman’s more angsty and dark compositions in order to be happy with Whitman’s inclusion was telling (Hirsch could hardly leave Whitman out and present the book as capturing the essence of American poetry.)

The anthology reflects much of the cultural and artistic diversity seen in America, but it eschews the middle America voice (i.e. 70% of the poems are from New Jersey and northward up the Atlantic coast, and while New York may be the country’s cultural and publishing capital, skilled poets from South of the Mason-Dixon and more than 150 miles from the Atlantic coast aren’t as much rare flukes as this anthology would suggest.)

I enjoyed reading this anthology, and I learned a great deal from the essays that went along with each poem. The book is definitely worth reading. Mopey Plath-loving New Yorkers are more likely to find it representative of the voice of American poetry than sanguine Whitman-loving Hoosiers, but it’s an enlightening read, either way.


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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Puella Mea by e.e. cummings

Puella MeaPuella Mea by E.E. Cummings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free online at: Project Gutenberg

This is a single poem, Cummings’s longest, a love poem to his first wife. It’s a longform poem – at least by the standards of poets of the Modern era, though at less than 300 lines it’s far from epic in scale. It’s a beautiful love poem, favorably comparing the wife in question to Helen of Troy, Medea (from “Jason and the Argonauts,”) Guinevere, and other historic beauties.

It’s a highly readable poem; its short lines pack a lot of punch, and while Cummings writes in free verse, he’s not afraid to drop a rhyme or play with the texture of meter to give his lines an appealing sound quality.

The edition I read included art from Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Kurt Roesch. It’s definitely worth checking out this edition, particularly if you enjoy Modern and Surreal art.

I’d highly recommend this for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt

The Beats: A Very Short IntroductionThe Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in the VSI (Very Short Introductions) series, and I read a lot of these books as a means to mainline the gist of various academic subjects. I should point out that the subject matter is more colorful than the average scholarly topic. The Beats were a 1950’s American countercultural literary movement that some may confuse with the hippies of the 60’s, but which was different in many ways. As is emphasized in the book, the Beats were more about revolutions from within than they were about upending society. In that sense, they might have more in common with the Transcendentalists (i.e. Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) than the hippies. That said, some Beats did flow pretty smoothly from one movement to the next, and were both interested in revolution from within and without – most notably, Allen Ginsberg.

The first thing that one finds compelling is the biographical sketches of key Beat figures (i.e. chapters 3 and 4 on Beat novelists and poets, respectively.) A disturbing number of Beats lived tragically short lives, owing to drugs, alcohol (e.g. Kerouac,) and sometimes just being around a violent contrarian. Even the Beats who lived long lives had their share of outlandishness, such as William Burroughs killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in an ill-fate William Tell imitation. (Those who know Burroughs from later in his career may wonder why he even had a wife, being gay and all. That’s just one of the ways that hidden, latent, and repressed homosexuality plays out as tragedy in the Beat story of the socially conservative 1950’s.)

The second thing I found absorbing was the discussion of how these writers and poets made art. Like the aforementioned Transcendentalists, the Beats drew heavily on Eastern philosophies and psychologies – most notably Buddhism, and Zen, in particular. Beat authors not only looked to the East for subject matter and aesthetics, but also to help them achieve the spontaneity and nowness associated with Zen. However, this wasn’t wholesale conversion to Buddhism, it remained a uniquely American strain, and also sought to draw inspiration from that most American of arts, Jazz.

If you’re interested in the Beats or their approach to writing, I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This classic Vonnegut novel stresses the existentialist notion that whatever meaning is to be had in life is up to the individual to find. (And they’re likely to find that it’s to love whoever is around to love.) Vonnegut rejects the entrenched view that a human is master of his/her domain and that we exist as part of a deep and well-reasoned plan. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Malachi Constant (a.k.a. Unk,) spends much of the story, literally, being controlled by unknown forces via the combination of a brain-shocking device and memory erasure.

The book is as humorous as it is philosophical, though it’s dark humor, e.g. the humor of an invading army that suicides itself without realizing that’s what it’s doing. [i.e. a bit like Monty Python’s Black Knight sketch, but on a planetary scale.]

The backstory of the Tralfamadorians in this book offers a great metaphor for the book’s theme. (Note: the Tralfamadorians morph a bit between the various books that they appear in, or at least different information is revealed as is relevant to the story at hand. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the emphasis is on the fact that this alien race sees all time simultaneously.) While the Tralfamadorians here still see all of time simultaneously, what is emphasized is that they’re a species of robots that came about when the original (biological) Tralfamadorians kept off-loading less meaningful work to robots. But biological Tralfamadorians would always come to believe that whatever work remained didn’t feel sufficiently meaningful. When they finally asked an AI to calculate the absolute most meaningful work there is, they were told that there is no meaningful work, and so they have the robots end their existence.

Vonnegut’s wild creativity can have the flipside of being challenging to follow. Fortunately, understanding of this novel doesn’t rest on understanding the workings of the “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” but rather on much simpler and more humorous concepts. Like “Cat’s Cradle,” I found this novel easier to follow than Vonnegut’s time-jumping masterwork “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

This is a hilarious and thought-provoking book. I’d highly recommend it for all readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and MoralPoems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

Many talented poets have caught flack, but few have managed to take it from as many directions as Phillis Wheatley. A slave from The Gambia, Wheatley was one of the most skilled poets of Colonial America. Obviously, she got bad-mouthed by racists. Some of them claimed she wasn’t the true author of her poems. Others said she wasn’t a good poet. Still others, quite nonsensically, made both claims simultaneously – i.e. that she plagiarized poems that weren’t any good.

If all she had to contend with was the criticism of racists, well that’s like Einstein being critiqued on General Relativity by the slack-jawed yokel working a Slurpee machine at the carnival. But when she (posthumously) became more well-known, she also started to get sass from blacks who considered her an Uncle Tom because her poetry featured the hallmarks of mainstream poetry of the era, as well as little of the visceral anger one would expect of a person who wasn’t recognized as a person. (Wheatley was eventually freed.)

It’s true that Wheatley’s poetry was – in form and content – quite in line with the poetry of her day. In terms of form, most of her poems are iambic pentameter with couplet rhyming, with a few sestinas and common meter quatrains thrown in the mix. In terms of content, Wheatley draws heavily upon Christianity, Western classics (e.g. Ovid,) and the elegy, discussing her African heritage almost in passing. When Wheatley is accused of not being good, the only sense in which that statement could be said to have a speck of truth is that her poems are quite reserved (certainly not unique to her.) But – to be fair – I think she fought enough of an uphill battle to be published and the fact that her poems are brilliant in language and cadence makes them well worth reading. I think Wheatley’s poetry must be considered in light of her time and stand on its excellent craftsmanship.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Man And The SeaOld Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.

The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.

I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.

This short book is definitely worth reading.

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