Book Review : A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

owen meany

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.

This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that the John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.

The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.

The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.

It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.

And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.

Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.

Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then John meets his step-father, Dan and a few years later his mother and Dan get married.

And then his mother dies in an accident and he has to deal with that. Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…

Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…

Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.

This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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Book Review : The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes...

This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say.  This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.

They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.

But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.

At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?

The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.

They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.

Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.

But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.

As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.

This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.

This is a very good book, a must read.

Trivia : The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”

Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.

The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.

Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”

Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.

At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.

The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Twain’s death in 1910.

In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

A major criticism of  Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.

Sources:

Writer’s almanac

mentalfloss.com

twain.lib.virginia.edu.com

literature.org

Book Review : 3001 The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

3001

This the fourth and final part of Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in my opinion, it is the most disappointing.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise and I found the first half of the book very engaging, but then it completely lost it’s way and towards the end, I was reading just to find out how it would all be explained.

This review will probably not make any sense to someone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series. I apologise for that, but it is a complicated story and a bit too long to go into here. I will say though, that 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two are utterly brilliant and a must read for anyone who likes science fiction.

So, Back to 3001 The Final Odyssey. The book begins with a space ship finding Frank Poole (one of the astronauts to go on the original discovery mission in 2001.) He was presumed to be dead, but it turns out that he was frozen and therefore still alive. He’s rescued and revived. The year is 3001 and Frank wakes up to find himself living in a world that is a 1,000 years after his time.

The first part of the book deals with him learning about this new world and trying to find his place in it. This part of the book is very interesting. I like the way Arthur C Clarke has imagined and presented the beginning of the 30th century. It is all very plausible and yet it is intriguing and the reader finds himself discovering all the new and wonderful (and sometimes not quite wonderful) changes along with the protagonist.

Then the focus turns to Europa. Poole makes a trip to Europa and contacts his old ship mate Dave Bowman who was turned into a creature of pure energy by the end of the first book. Poole talks to him and tries to make some sort of contact with the Europans….

The story is quite interesting up to this point and then it jumps ahead 15 years in which time Poole apparently gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. And one fine day he gets a strange message from David Bowman saying that humanity might be in danger. The how and the why are never explained. We’re just told that the monolith on Europa which has been inactive for a thousand years is suddenly receiving a lot of messages and instructions and that Bowman can only guess that it is threat and humanity has to somehow find a way to save itself.

I won’t go into any more detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone. All I will say is that I wish this book had lived up to all the potential that it promised in the first few chapters.

 

 

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

9780007586356 This is a book that might be described as experimental fiction. It is a novel written entirely in letters. That is hardly new, but these are all recommendation letters.

The main character is Professor Jason Fitger. He teaches creative writing at Payne University. He has been teaching for many, many years now and a good part of his work life is taken up with these letters, recommending students for jobs or fellowships, recommending colleagues for promotions and so on.

As any academic knows (I used to be one, so I can definitely relate) writing recommendation letters is a somewhat tedious part of your work. And it seems that Professor Fitger has just about had it. He is so sick of the whole business that he starts adding his own touches to what are essentially form letters.

There is humour, irony and sarcasm as he pokes fun at his students, their prospective employers, the university and the system. But there is sadness here too and genuine warmth as he tries to help a deserving student. As the letters go on, you start to see glimpses of the Professor’s own life, his hopes and ambitions, his mistakes and his regrets.

It is a beautiful book. It is touching and thought provoking. It makes you wonder about students and education and the what and the why of it all. How can you possibly tell a coherent story in recommendation letters? I thought when I first heard about this book. Well it seems you can. It is incredibly hard to do, but Julie Schumacher has definitely pulled it off.

Book Review : The Martian by Andy Weir

I have just finished reading a remarkable book, a truly brilliant piece of writing and I cannot stop talking about it. I heard about The Martian several months ago. I heard a lot of good things and I got the book, but somehow, I never got around to reading it.

I picked it up three days ago and it started a bit slow, but then it took off and it was such a wonderful experience. The key word being experience. It wasn’t just a book that I was reading. It was a world that I was transported to, a world that felt so very real that it was hard to believe that this was a story. This had to have happened somewhere, I kept thinking. The martianI could continue gushing, but I will stop so I can tell you about the book. The Martian is set sometime in the future and it centers around a manned mission to Mars, the Ares 3 that goes horribly wrong.

A team of six astronauts have landed on Mars and they are going about their regular duties when on the sixth day of their month-long mission, they are hit by a huge storm that makes it unsafe for them to stay on Mars because if their spaceship is damaged, they will not be able to return to Earth.

They are leaving when the communication dish is ripped apart and one of the astronauts, Mark Watney is stabbed by the antenna. He falls off their path and disappears into the storm. His life sign readings shut down and his colleagues conclude that he is dead.

He wakes up a couple of hours after they have left and well, there he is, stranded on Mars, injured,  not dead. But with little hope for survival. The next ship to Mars isn’t scheduled to arrive for another four years. He has no means of communicating with Earth, he is going to run out of food in a few months time and no one knows that he is alive.

This would be a thoroughly depressing scenario if it wasn’t for the fact that Mark Watney is a very resourceful guy who is determined to survive. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and he comes at every situation with the attitude that he can figure out what to do if only he thinks about it.

It also helps that he has a sense of humour and he’s willing to try pretty much everything. NASA does figure out that he is alive and they try to help. They have their own set of disasters and difficulties, but everyone is trying really hard and there’s a ton of creative and sometimes dangerous problem solving.

The book has a tight story line. It starts a bit slow, but it is engrossing and you literally do not want to put it down. The characters are all very well fleshed out, particularly the protagonist. He’s smart and funny, irreverent, but serious in his own way. A good part of the story is told in the first person, in the form of Watney’s daily log entries and that really helps set the tone.

There is a lot of action, obviously, and it so well written that you can practically see it happen. There is also an economy of words here that I truly appreciate. The novel is only 289 pages long, but the story has a scope that belongs in a much longer work.

What endeared the book to me the most is that it is science fiction based on solid science fact. There is a lot of science in this book and it is all explained, so that the action, the events and the characters’ choices make sense. You follow the reasoning and the logical chain of thought and it is stimulating.

What makes it even more remarkable is that this is the author’s first book.

Book Review : The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

uncommon_reader

This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.

It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.

It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.

She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”

She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,

“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”

When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.

Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.

She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.

The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.

There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…

“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”

It is such an evocative scene.

Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”

The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott,  E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…

This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.

This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.

Nightfall the short story and Nightfall the book by Issac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

In my post about Issac Asimov last week, I mentioned that he wrote a short story called Nightfall in 1941 which is still considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written. I looked it up and I was intrigued by the premise. The story is set on a planet called Lagash which has six suns. Since one or the other of their suns is always up in the sky, the people of Lagash have never known the night or darkness in any form.

In fact, darkness is one of their phobias, an experience that most of them simply cannot handle. Now for the first time in 2049 years they are going to experience darkness (cause by an eclipse which happens every 2049 years, a fact that their scientists have only just discovered.) They are a bit disturbed to find that their prediction coincides with that of a religious cult called the Apostles of Flame who have been preaching about the coming darkness and urging people to join their cult to save themselves from the darkness…

The story begins on the night of the eclipse. The scientists of Saro University are ready with their instruments and their computers. The Apostles of Flame are busy fanning fears. But the people of Lagash do not believe either the scientists or the Apostles. They are simply unable to conceive that such a thing as nightfall can happen…and then the eclipse begins.

It is a dramatic story and it is told very well. The people of Lagash are very much human. They don’t feel alien at all. They even refer to themselves as mankind, which is a bit of a let down when you’re reading a story that is supposedly set on another planet. But despite this and despite a couple of plot holes, Asimov tells an engaging story with multiple plot lines all of which come together very well. He builds a complete tale with a history and a very believable back story.

The characters are not very well fleshed out, but that does not matter because the story is driven by plot and action rather than the characters. It was a perfectly enjoyable read.

Nightfall_cover

 

I can see why Robert Silverberg thought there was enough material in it to turn it into a book. Nightfall the novel was written in 1990, so in some ways, it is more sophisticated than the short story. Silverberg takes the very briefly sketched out back story in the original and fleshes it all out. This part of the book is very interesting. I enjoyed seeing the back story laid out in such detail.

He also fleshes out the characters and adds some new ones. I was glad of this for most part except when he brought in a romance towards the end that felt out of place and down right awkward at times. The characters are also a bit more emotional here and while that adds to the story in some places, it also takes away.

Silverberg sticks to the story laid out by Asimov until the eclipse. He even uses Asimov’s words and descriptions, particularly in the sequence leading up to the eclipse and right after.  Asimov’s story ends soon after the darkness sets in. He gives you a hint of what is to come and stops, letting you imagine the rest.

Silverberg tries to continue the story and this is where the novel breaks down. It becomes tedious and needlessly descriptive. The same events are gone over by a whole bunch of people, so it is repetitive as well. The plot meanders along with the characters and you begin to wonder of there is an end in sight.

I was bored by this point, but I kept reading because I wanted to know how it would all end. The resolution was not lame perhaps, but definitely disappointing.

 

Reader’s Block and a couple of reviews

I have been away from this blog for over two months. Some of it was life getting in the way, but mostly it was a lot of not reading. Sometimes I get into this rut when for whatever reason, I can’t seem to find a single book I like. It seems absurd, considering how many books I have that I still haven’t read, but for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get interested in anything.

The last book I mentioned here was Dearie by Bob Spitz. It was interesting and I read it through, but only because the subject (Julia Child) was interesting. The writing was not. The book was at least a 100 pages too long. It could’ve done with tighter editing and and a more interesting manner of presentation. There is a wealth of research here, but it is poorly organised and a lot of times it felt like an information dump rather than the story of somebody’s life…

Anyway, I couldn’t read anything for a few days after I finished this. Then I picked up The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs. I had never heard of this author before and I didn’t know anything about her style of writing. I only picked up the book because it had an interesting premise and a lot of good reviews.

The book started well and it drew me in, but somewhere around the middle it began to unravel.  The story has a complex plot and it deserved a far better resolution than it got. A lot of the conflicts which had been built up rather well, were resolved, with what I thought was unrealistic ease. Towards the end, I was only reading it because I wanted to find out how it all ended…

Since then I haven’t been able to settle on anything to read. At least until a couple of days ago. I am now reading and thoroughly enjoying Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I am only sixty pages from the end, so I will be done by tonight and I should be able to post a review tomorrow.