Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

Few writers have earned as much of my respect as John Irving. Yet I have never read two of his books consecutively, and until now never any closer than six months apart. So having received two of his novels, Last Night in Twisted River – his newest novel – and The Water-Method Man – published thirty seven years prior – for Christmas, I wanted to undertake an examination of Irving as both a younger writer and as a seasoned author.

Which I did. And there's some of the changes one might expect from the age of the man and the maturation of the wordsmith. There's also much of the same man behind both books.

But approaching this novel with the intent of studying Irving the author, I did not expect it to be a book about writing, which it is – at least in part. One of the main characters becomes a writer (or, Irving might say, is always a writer who finally starts writing), and particularly near the end of the book much is made of Daniel Baciagalupo's writing methods.

I'm not much of one for biographical readings of books. I don't care if anything in any of Irving's books actually “happened” to him. But there's no way one can read his descriptions of Danny's habits without believing that, really, Irving is to a great extent describing himself.

And the writing method fascinates me.

Is a book still fiction if it's heavily based on actual events? Does how much a writer is informed by reality even matter, if the story is well written? Who gives, as the old logger Ketchum would say, a mound of moose shit if a writer bases his characters on people in his life?

Maybe it is a load of Hemingway-dogma to say that a writer writes what she knows. But doesn't a writer have to be influenced by circumstance, by experience, by perception? Even if writers, as Danny (and presumably Irving) believes, are always on the outside looking in, don't they somehow have to be writing either about what's on the inside or how it is to be on the outside?

Why all these questions? Could writing, the need to scribble ideas in a tangible, transferable fashion, simply be a way – flawed or not, successful or not – of making sense of the questions around us? Of addressing the uncertainties that surround us always, and prodding into the certainties?

Why not?

Monday, March 8, 2010


Spring is coming -- actually, it's off and on already here -- and with it, I feel the need to clear some space. To de-clutter. To (gasp!) get rid of some books.

Here's the thing: I am completely incapable of selling, or otherwise ridding myself of, my books.

But I have a plan, and with it a resolution of sorts. Sitting on my desk, which doubles as a one-level bookshelf along the back, is a whole heap of books which I have not read, but are also not mine. I'm going to read all of those books -- not necessarily consecutively, seeing as I have plenty of books I DO own that will be interspersed -- before I allow myself to purchase or check out a single volume more.

I don't know if I can do it.

I'm a'gonna try, though. I'm reading John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River right now (an owned book, not a loaned one), but as soon as I finish it -- not long, now that I'm past his substantial exposition -- it's on to the loaners.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare

Once again -- and this is going to become a familiar refrain -- I'm involved in the theater. Only this time, I'm (probably) not on stage.

A common comment from friends and acquaintances who attended Twelfth Night was that we did a great job with the production, but they wished that the language could have been modernized. Certainly, Shakespeare's words were easier to understand in performance than in writing... but they felt it lost (or they missed) something because of the language's antiquity.

For people who struggle with Shakespearean English, these books are great dual-language editions. They're the texts we use with the children who will be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream in May. But -- and this is a big but -- the kiddos don't perform the "modern" English version. They perform it Shakespearean-style.

And there's not much more impressive than a little kid reading, understanding, and then performing a piece of Shakespearean dialogue.

I completely understand those people who say that Shakespeare, even on stage, is sometimes difficult to understand. Heck, I agree with them. But anything literary -- and I'm including film and television here -- is most rewarding for everyone involved when it takes a little extra concentration and a little extra effort to comprehend it. When it rewards the reader or viewer for paying attention earlier on, whether it was three acts or three hundred pages or thirteen episodes ago. When it doesn't assume the lowest common denominator.

And to anyone who finds Shakespeare incomprehensible -- I've done it before, and I'll do it again -- I point at these amazing students and say, "They can do it."