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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars thoroughly enjoyable--but not as deep as some of his other work
With Jim Harrison, you always know that you'll be reading something that is well off the beaten track, so to speak. He writes for himself, not to please a segment of the population. With most of his work, you feel that you're getting deep within a person's soul. The English Major is a bit more "escapist" than some of his deeper and darker (in the sense of unsettling,...
Published on September 18, 2008 by David W. Straight

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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Coming Home Again
This novel concerns the transition of a 60-year-old man from one chapter of life to another using the device of a road trip. Cliff addresses his life, but not always successfully. Harrison is a fine writer, but at times I felt he almost phoned in some of his observations. There is really not much soul searching during this aborted voyage of discovery. Many times the...
Published on November 26, 2008 by K. L. Cotugno


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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars thoroughly enjoyable--but not as deep as some of his other work, September 18, 2008
By 
David W. Straight (knoxville, tennessee United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
With Jim Harrison, you always know that you'll be reading something that is well off the beaten track, so to speak. He writes for himself, not to please a segment of the population. With most of his work, you feel that you're getting deep within a person's soul. The English Major is a bit more "escapist" than some of his deeper and darker (in the sense of unsettling, not supernatural, although there may be a surreal feel) novels. The story is about a man recently in his 60's whose wife of almost 40 years has booted him out for another man. Cliff leaves his farm in Michigan on an Odyssey (using caps seems appropriate) across many of the western US states. He takes with him an old jigsaw puzzle, and as he leaves each state he "sacrifices" that piece of the puzzle.

Cliff's journey takes him to Wisconsin, Minnestota, and eventually into Montana. On this early part of the trip he is joined by a former student Marybelle, who will be dropped off at her husband's digging site in Montana. Marybelle is a cell-phone addict to an extent that rivals Cliff's ex-wife's appetite for junk food. Cliff wants open spaces, Marybelle wants nearby cell phone towers. Harrison's great strength lies in the depth of his characterizations. You seem to always get a good understanding and appreciation of everyone--evn the waitresses in the small cafes along the way. There are wonderful descriptions of Cliff's mixed reactions to Marybelle--the sex, the incessant cellphone chatter, whether it is better to have companionship or quiet solitary communions with nature (Cliff also enjoys fishing).

Cliff's son lives in San Francisco, and always has more advice for him than Cliff wants, the ex-wife wants to see him as well, and, of course, Marybelle and her cell phone intrudes. Harrison's novels are mostly about change, about introspection, about discovering yourself. You may well find youself thinking about Homer's Odyssey: are there parallels? deliberate parallels? or is this totally irrelevant? It's a strange voyage, full of character and characters, and a very engaging story.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A geezer cogitates the myriad mysteries of life, October 21, 2008
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This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
I tried hard to like this book, and I succeeded, at least partly. The title was an instant grabber since I too was an English major, forty years ago. Harrison (who was once, incidentally, like me, a Reed City Boy) has told interviewers that the book's title was spawned by the oft-asked question from his practical-minded and sometimes dim northern Michigan friends and relatives: "Why wouldja major in English when ya already know English?" Point taken, I suppose. The truth is that most English majors were/are people who love books and reading. But then those same people often end up as teachers; and some of them, like me, find out they don't really like teaching, just books. Anyway, ol' Cliff, the book's 60 yr-old protagonist, taught high school English for 10 yrs, then went back to farming, another job he didn't really like all that much, but got kinda used to over a 25 yr period. When his wife of nearly 40 yrs leaves him, his dog dies and he loses his farm, all practically at the same time, he is forced to re-examine his life and try to make a new one. So he goes on the road, fancying himself a kind of codger-Kerouac, perhaps. As is true in almost all of Harrison's books, women fling themselves at him and have their way with his tired ol' body, which begins to very much feel its age after too much vigorous sex. He seems to find more pleasure in frequent naps and food than he does in these adventures in the sack though. In point of fact, his descriptions of his meals, taken in various diners, bars and seedy restaurants, or self-prepared, as he travels west across the country from Michigan to California, and back to Montana, become rather tiresome, as do his frequent digressions on life and sex and just about everything else. The plot, if there indeed is one, is pretty thin. Having said all this however, I have to admit that I often found myself chuckling or even laughing out loud as I empathized with Cliff's revisionist ruminations on growing older and suffering the humiliations and pains of diminishing strenghth and waning sexual energy. His self-deprecating humor as he variously characterizes himself as a geezer, a codger, or an old Studebaker standing in the weeds, is quite contagious and I found myself rooting for the pore ol' fart. So the ending - which isn't exactly a "happily-ever-after" one, but wasn't really too awful either - seemed appropriate. And I'm pretty sure Cliff is correct about his future. He'll "do fine." - Tim Bazzett, author of the Reed City Boy trilogy
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Coming Home Again, November 26, 2008
By 
K. L. Cotugno (San Francisco, CA USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
This novel concerns the transition of a 60-year-old man from one chapter of life to another using the device of a road trip. Cliff addresses his life, but not always successfully. Harrison is a fine writer, but at times I felt he almost phoned in some of his observations. There is really not much soul searching during this aborted voyage of discovery. Many times the protagonist snapping pictures, usually of cows, and applying quotes from his past as an English teacher. It is not certain why he gave up that profession to become a farmer, and the characters are somewhat 2 dimensional except for his beloved late dog, Lola. His project, that of renaming all the states and their state birds, seems more of a device than a calling. There are some lovely passages hinting at the talent of this fine writer, but this is not one of his better efforts.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Barely got through it, June 20, 2010
By 
Daniel Holland (Arroyo Grande, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This book was barely passable for me. I'm an old fan of Jim Harrison, although I fell off at "Dalva" after enjoying the hell out of books like "Farmer," "Sun Dog," and "Legends of the Fall". "The English Major" starts off with promise. I liked the 50 states theme and started getting into his rhythm, but the style of the book is to constantly look backwards and also to give meandering thoughts about life. It took away the forward momentum. And I honestly just got tired of Harrison's manly-literary style. The narrator became Harrison and it all just got stale. The AD (Alcoholic Doctor) character and state puzzle pieces and names became crutch literary devices. Harrison plays with the concept of artist with a project of renaming the US states and birds, calling it art, and it seems he's making a statement about art, but it doesn't have much interest in the end.

Jim Harrison remains one of my all-time favorite writers. He still can put together some funny stuff and is fearless in writing about how men are put together. But honestly I had to trudge to get to the end of this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The biological dumpster, November 13, 2009
By 
Jay C. Smith (Portland, OR USA) - See all my reviews
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If there is such a genre as "geezer lit," Jim Harrison's The English Major surely fits. No aspersion intended -- I am a geezer myself, and I liked it.

Cliff is age 60, recently estranged from his wife Vivian, their Michigan farm sold as a consequence. He sets off on a road trip west, and the novel recounts his attendant thoughts and adventures. The story includes several elements that are likely to appeal to many older men (and surely some others too), not the least being Cliff's hook-up with a former student, Marybelle (age 43), that tests his endurance in more ways than one.

Cliff is not perfect. The marriage break-up was set off by Vivian's fling with a former classmate, but Cliff was himself adulterous before that. He once took the life of literature seriously -- he had been an English major at Michigan State and taught high school for fifteen years -- but had fallen away from his youthful ideals. He questions where reading literature had gotten him, thinking it had given him a "bundle of intentions" but not the "pluck" to pull them off. He is a curmudgeonly fellow in several respects, a man with some definite dislikes about contemporary life (cell phones and cities, especially).

Yet Cliff is quite likeable. He shares mutual affection with his gay son, Robert, who lives in San Francisco and has a successful film location career. He seems to fall in easily with the locals he meets on his trip, mostly in bars and restaurants, with the ranchers and farmers, in particular. He is the kind of man who finds considerable satisfaction in the companionship of dogs and cattle.

The novel explores whether it is possible, or even necessary or desirable, for a man like Cliff to "start over" later in life. Prone on a sleeping bag in Montana he is bothered by the thought that "with my clumsy consent my own script and most of the human race's had been written for us." He muses that "Time tricks us into thinking we're part of her and then leaves us behind."

Cliff receives lots of advice from Marybelle, Robert, and Vivian, which he mostly disregards. He has more tolerance for the wry observations of his hunting and fishing pal, "AD" (alcoholic doctor).

Cliff comes up with a somewhat quixotic idea for a "writing" project that seems to re-energize him. He makes some progress, and his output is appended to the novel.

At a minimum The English Major is entertaining. You may even find a bit of wisdom in it, that is if you believe that "how to live?" is a question that never goes away.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Travels with Geezer, November 17, 2008
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This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall is one of my favorite reads and so I was curious to see how he would approach a more personal subject, in this case his own aging process. I was not disappointed. He tackles the subject by exploding the droll existence of his main character, 60-year-old Cliff, forcing him to move beyond his comfort zone which in this case means literally away from the strident wife who kicks him out of his farm and then out of Northern Michigan and into a Homeric journey of self-discovery. Harrison does this with marvelous humor, always poking fun at himself (Cliff) and at the social conventions that make up the world Cliff inhabits, i.e, the USA. Nothing is sacred here, including marriage, women, religion, diet, medicine, sexuality, substance abuse, minorities, and on and on as Cliff drives his dumpy car, an old geezer like himself, from state to state in his quest for a sense of identity. Cliff's parochial life as a farmer in a part of Michigan that seems more 1948 than 2008 allows him to react with naive disgust at the way people live in the real world of cities and traffic jams and sexual confusion and upward striving. Harrison is a master at describing the everyday routine of his characters in a way that fascinates. I particularly enjoyed Cliff's intimate relationships with animals -- his dog, an old pig, cows, fish, snakes, and a variety of birds. The critters seem more human than most of the people Cliff meets. Ultimately he winds up right back where he started as he learns to appreciate the importance of honoring his own likes (the simple life of a farmer) and dislikes (the complexities of modern life) and to hell with the rest of the world, including his ex-wife, his gay son, and a neurotic younger lover. This is a joy for the reader who is lucky enough to tag along for the ride.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A refreshing surprise., January 9, 2009
This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
Most books I've read that deal with the topic of late life exploration tend to be somber, repenting and annoyingly preachy. Not so the English major. Reading this book was like being surprised with a cold fluffy mousse when I was expecting a hot chocolate cake. The narrative flows pretty easily and is not encumbered by unnecessary characters or plot twists. I quite enjoyed this book over the Holiday break. At the start I felt a little bit lost by the absence of commas that made me reread sentences, but I got used to the style soon enough.
If you want a book about deep self exploration you will be disappointed. In essence Cliff finds out that the things he enjoyed before the trip are the things he really enjoys in the end and the rest is just the setting - no big deal. The English Major comes at a good time when the financial crisis has renewed the general appreciation for life's simple pleasures.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cliff, it's not too late!, January 18, 2009
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This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
Cliff, you're only 60, buddy! Forget Vivian; she's a fat, heartless bitch, who screwed you out of your life's work. She did you a favor divorcing you. It's not too late! Get back on the road; visit the rest of the states. Call Sylvia; I bet she'd love to go with you. (Bring the dog this time; it'll make all the difference, you'll see) And tell your son to mind his own damn business. (He and that Marybelle? Now there's a match made in purgatory -- right where they'd like to keep you!)

Didn't you notice that everyone you met in 254 pages is a product of their own reinvention?

Time to rename yourself. (I'd suggest "Sosiouxme")
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A road trip that goes nowhere, November 20, 2009
By 
T. Broesche (Houston, TX, USA) - See all my reviews
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I have read several Harrison novels previously. Although none were outstanding, they were interesting enough to lead me to buy this book and then again, against my better judgment, to actually finish it. I did so thinking, surely there will be something here, if I just persevere. Surely the story will go somewhere or there will be some worthwhile insight into life or character. Well, I was sadly wrong. Contemporary fiction is full of well written, insightful novels about man aging and confronting the growing realization of mortality and the loss of vitality and energy. This book is certainly not one of them.

This novel is a road trip story that truly "goes nowhere," just repeats itself over and over. And what is repeated is hardly interesting or worth the energy or time of the reader. I can't tell whether this supposed 60 year old has the mind of a eight or sixteen year old. Maybe it is somewhere in between. To the extent that the sexual banter-musings-dialogue is humorous it loses even its virtue as humor very quickly.

From prior readings, I know this author can write a good story, one that has rounded characters, develops in a meaningful way, and provides some substance or insight. Here, I have no clue what he thought he was doing, other than wasting the reader's time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eventually acceptance (3.75 *s), November 18, 2008
By 
J. Grattan (Lawrenceville, GA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The English Major: A Novel (Hardcover)
At first glance, sixty-yr-old Cliff seems to have run into a dead end: Vivian, his wife of 38 years, has dumped him for a high school classmate; she's basically taken him to the cleaners in the sale of their farm, and his faithful dog Lola has expired. But there is life left in Cliff. As an English major in college and ex high school teacher, he is not unaware of what authors and characters have said on the vagaries of life. And he has a sustaining love of animals and nature.

With no encumbrances, he embarks on a westward journey from N. Mich in his worn-out Taurus with no grandiose plans - just a desire to enjoy nature, record it with his camera, and reflect on it all. One of the pleasures in life for Cliff is women, although he has had few relationships. He appreciates them; and his former student Marybelle takes full advantage of that as she keeps him in a state of near exhaustion after he meets her part way to Montana. Between her large appetites for food and amorous activities and her constant use of a cell phone, Cliff is only too happy to drop her while he continues to San Francisco. A fishing hole looks good compared to a week of that.

Although the book is rather short, the journey is a bit tedious for both the reader and Cliff. It seems like he is either getting wet in a thunderstorm or in a creek while fishing, becoming overly tired and even hurt, and in need of food and water and a place to stay. And there are the frustrations, yet acceptance, of the well-turned anatomical form of a waitress, jogger, etc, especially a barmaid in Montana who sensed Cliff's ambivalence. Slowly he reconciles his situation and age as he returns to a solitary cabin near his old farm with a new mutt. During his months on the road, Cliff reminisces widely and openly, not sparing himself. It's unlikely that anyone wouldn't learn a little something about a life starting to wind down, but, as Cliff would attest, there is no formula.
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The English Major: A Novel
The English Major: A Novel by Jim Harrison (Hardcover - October 1, 2008)
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