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 This book collects published and previously unpublished short stories into one volume.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: Cold Mountain Poems Translated by Gary Snyder

Cold Mountain PoemsCold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of twenty-four of the three-hundred-plus surviving poems by the Tang-era poet-hermit who went by the name “Cold Mountain” [i.e. Han-Shan.] This translation was produced by the Beat poet, Gary Snyder, and both the translation and the selection are informed by Snyder’s sensibilities and worldview. Snyder is known for nature-centric poetry infused with Buddhist and Native American sentiments, but, like other Beats (though far less than, say, Allen Ginsberg,) Snyder sometimes engages in social commentary. This makes Han-Shan’s body of work a fertile field because it, too, focuses heavily on the beauty and harshness of nature, is framed by Buddhist and Taoist perspectives, and occasionally interjects a societal rebuke. The poems are mostly octave (eight-line) poems which often follow the format of a “straight” sestet that sets up a “punchline” in the last couplet. [Not to suggest the poems are jokes, but they often present a clever twist or commentary at the end.]

Han-Shan’s poems focus heavily on his life as a hermit and the dichotomy of Cold Mountain (the locale) as both a harsh place to live and the only place for him. The Snyder selection focuses heavily on the appeal of nature and the living of a simple and natural life — as well as on the shunning of materialism.

Han-Shan is a mysterious figure, but what is known of him is intriguing. He is considered a mad saint by some, though most of what is known about the man comes from his surviving poems. (Some believe that the 313 known poems maybe only about half of what the hermit composed during the course of his life.)

Even if you’ve read one of the full collections (e.g. Red Pine’s,) you may find some unique insight and imagery in Snyder’s select translation. I’d highly recommend it.


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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: A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Bad BusinessA Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers six pieces of Dostoevsky’s short fiction, each brilliant in its own way. The stories vary in length and genre, but share an interesting insight into humanity.

“A Bad Business” is about a high-ranking official who decides to wedding crash one of his underlings. Like the third story in this collection, it’s the psychology that makes this tale compelling. The lead character vacillates between feeling empowered by his host’s deferential behavior and feelings of embarrassment and regret over violating norms. While it might sound like an unrelatable story, the psychological foibles shine through recognizably.

“Conversations in a Graveyard (Bobok)” is largely as the title describes, and is one of the speculative fiction pieces.

Much like the first story, “A Meek Creature” deals in subject matter that may seem unrelatable to today’s reader, but one will recognize the state of mind that drives the story. It’s about a middle-aged man who marries a teenaged girl. The story revolves around the young wife’s death, and attempts to reconcile her demise, which leads him into a dismal territory of self-discovery.

“The Crocodile” is the one piece that doesn’t at all suffer from being dated. While the details may feel retro, this absurdist dark comedy story remains both hilarious and meaningful. The underlying theme is disappointment that economic considerations have come to rule the world, but the story doesn’t beat one over the head with the politics, but rather lets the absurd situation of a man being swallowed whole by a crocodile do the work.

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” reminded me of the fairytale “The Little Match Girl,” and is a heartfelt Christmas tale.

“The Peasant Marey” is the story of a prisoner having a flashback of the kindness of a neighborhood peasant in his childhood. It’s written in an autobiographical style. I don’t know how much license was taken, but I do know that Dostoevsky did spend time in prison as does the story’s lead.

This collection is well worth reading by any lover of short fiction.

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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: Comparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson

Comparative Literature: A Very Short IntroductionComparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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By the book’s end, I had a much better grasp of the field of Comparative Literature, which is a multidisciplinary subject concerned with comparing / contrasting various forms of literature across time and space (among other ways.) That said, it’s not one of the more friendly of books in this series for a neophyte in need of a grasp of the basics of a field. [I’m a big fan of the AVSI series, and frequently turn to it.]

I attribute the book’s problems to two factors. First of all, the first chapter didn’t feel like it really said anything, and I came away from it with the thought, “So, Comparative Literature is all the disparate things I thought it might be, and more.” I understand why there’s a desire for a broad overview upfront, but it would work better for a discipline that was more contained and orderly.

Second, while it might be the necessary way to tell the story of this discipline, the book spends a lot of space discussing comparisons between literary theorists and what felt like little in comparisons of works of literature. The challenge is that most readers come to such a book with an extensive understanding of major works of world literature, but few people outside the field are familiar with literary theorists and critics. A reader might expect to learn why and how “Don Quixote” would be compared to stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Ovid, but one learns more about how the ideas of Roland Barthes compare to those of George Steiner.

Once I got into the second chapter, I felt I was getting a little clarity on the subject and that the chapter was well organized for learning. In subsequent chapters, I found that there were many interesting ways of thinking about translation of literature, the debates in the field, and the competing ideas about discipline’s future. The book also has a useful further reading section that breaks down the various dimensions of comparative literature a little so that interested parties can find a line of attack to advance their studies.

Ultimately, I think the book helps one get a grasp of the subject, but I’d skip over the first chapter and then go back to it once one has a little confidence that there will be clarity rather than obscurity in store.


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BOOK REVIEW: Fresh Out of the Sky by George Szirtes

Fresh Out of the SkyFresh Out of the Sky by George Szirtes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of nested poems and other short creative writings of varied formats. There are four sections in the book, each with parts and sub-parts. The titular work, “Fresh Out of the Sky,” consists of five parts, each having five parts in turn. It explores memories of an immigrant childhood and being “Citizens of nowhere.” [Szirtes was Hungarian born but his family moved to England in 1956, the year of the uprising that was brutally suppressed by the Soviets.]

The second section, “Inside the Yellow Room,” has an eerie surrealism to it that I found unexpectedly intense. The penultimate, “Going Viral,” touches on the present-day pandemic world while continuing to revisit memories in a hazy, ethereal sort of way. The last section, “Five Interludes” has the tightest interconnectedness of themes, touching upon breath, dreams, and the animal-human world at turns.

I enjoyed this collection, finding it evocative, phantasmagoric, and nostalgic.


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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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