Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book One - A Prayer For Owen Meany - Part Three

John Irving

Image from John Irving's Official Author Site

I finally finished A Prayer For Owen Meany. It took a long time to read. It got really interesting about page 300 and the last fifty pages I had to read non-stop. But before that, I could put it down too easily.

I think I understand why it is some people’s favorite book. When you’re young, the effects of a book like this are profound. When you’re older, not so much. And I don’t think it’s because I’ve grown more cynical with age; I think it’s because I’ve experienced so much more of life. There weren’t many revelations in this book for me, but I can see that the opposite might be true for someone else. I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov when I was about twenty and thinking it was one of the best books I’d ever read. I reread it this year--that existential stuff that is so enlightening in youth simply isn't the same when you're older and wiser. At this point in my life I know that what seems real or right to me may not be real or right to someone else. I also know that examining my feelings is not always an especially effective use of time.

And this is a thread running through A Prayer For Owen Meany. I was wrong about Johnny not feeling much about the events in his life. I won’t say more so as not to spoil it, but one of the lessons of the book is that feelings are not always terribly important. Sometimes we simply need to butch up and do the right thing in spite of our feelings. Some of us accept this better than others. Some of us are lost without our anchors in life. But if we ever get one of those anchors, how lucky, how fortunate are we! Many people never have a touchstone, never find kindred spirits, never find anyone who truly knows how to love. Some only act as a touchstone to another without having one for themselves, yet they somehow find the power to go on. Where they find that power is one of the themes of the book.

While I was reading A Prayer For Owen Meany it sort of felt like an assignment, like I was back in school and needed to be on the lookout for what wasn’t being said, for the importance of the symbolism, the foreshadowing, and the imagery. Yet I can see that Irving’s plot structure is brilliant. I also dreamed about the book, and that’s a measure of how much something affects me. I don’t mean in a weird, dreams are so totally symbolic, dude sort of way, but in a way that indicates I was thinking about it before I went to bed. It’s similar to the way watching an episode of LOST makes me dream about the island. It affects me; it touches me in some way. And I was affected by the book, especially by the revelations at the end of it and how those revelations affected my opinion of the characters. I never really knew them until that moment. If I had, I would have read the book differently. But I suppose that’s the point.

There is something else I noticed. I don’t know whether it will ring true for anyone else, but here’s a quote from page 461 of my Ballentine Books version.
How hard it is… to teach wit to teenagers. I despair that another fall is almost upon me and once again I shall strive to make my Grade Ten girls notice something in Wuthering Heights besides every little detail about Catherine and  Heathcliff—the story, the story, it is all they are interested in!

I had teachers like that, even in grad school. Those teachers desperately wanted me to see what they saw in a text. And that is impossible. It is reminiscent of being a teenager and having a favorite poem or a favorite song and trying to share that thing with someone else in the hope that they will also share your feelings about it. They rarely see what you see; they cannot. They are not you. They do not have your life’s experiences. They do not have your feelings. They have not experienced your particular brand of angst. I felt that those teachers were more than a little presumptuous in insisting that I see what they saw, in insisting that I accept the "official" (at least in terms of the academic world) explanation of a work's meaning. I was able to regurgitate their version for tests and essays, but then I went back to what the text meant for me and how the story affected me.

And that is one of the beauties of reading. A book doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everyone! It shouldn’t. And it doesn’t even matter if what it means to me is what the author intended. If it touches me, a story has done its job.

At least in my book.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book One - A Prayer For Owen Meany - Part Two

Clearly, I underestimated this book. I don't know whether it took a while to get going or I took a while to get into it, but its subtle humor has grabbed me at last. I believe I understand the narrator a bit more, too. His task is not to convince me to love him. His task is to convince me to love Owen Meany.

And he's succeeding.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book One - A Prayer For Owen Meany - Part One

I wondered at the outset how many of the list books were actually the participants' favorites and how many were books participants thought should be favorites. Sort of like you're supposed to say that you just loved The English Patient when really you couldn’t stand it. I've always felt that way about Wuthering Heights. I heard for years how romantic it is, yet when I read it I did not see Heathcliff as a romantic figure. I saw him as a man in desperate need of medication and a restraining order.

In any case, I am making my way through A Prayer For Owen Meany. I know Irving is supposed to be brilliant but I don't especially love the main character (Johnny) yet. I'm on page 140 and just recently started liking Owen Meany. First person narrators don't usually cause me any problem but the protagonist seems so... aloof, I suppose. When he explains details of traumatic events he seems to want to deny the power of his feelings about those events. I'm not certain what it is about Johnny that prevents me loving him, at least so far. There are things I like about him. He recognizes his flaws and is quite forthcoming about them. I like his view of religion; he believes but also questions and is not threatened by the beliefs of others. He evaluates people by their actions alone. So I like him but do not love him and I don't yet love this book enough to carve out significant chunks of my free time for it.

I do sometimes find that I have this problem with a male protagonist written by a male. I know the statistics say that while men primarily read books only written by men, women read books by men or women. And this has been true in my life. But the older I get the more I find that the books I enjoy the most feature female protagonists written by females. If that trend continues, I suspect I’m in trouble with this list. I hope I find some books I can love, books that are so engrossing that I have to keep reading. I even enjoy the poignant sense of loss at the end of a great book as I miss the characters that came to mean so much.

The Rules

  1. No spoilers here. I will talk in general terms only.
  2. I will give each book 100 pages to get me hooked. This is my SOP. To quote The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, "Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books."
  3. No time limits. I will read other books in between the list books.
  4. Disclaimer:
    1. Subject to change without notice.
    2. Void where prohibited.
    3. Sanitized for your protection.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Waiting

I order my used books from Better World Books, an online bookstore which takes donations of books from individuals, libraries, and organizations and sells them. This way the books don't wind up in a landfill and a percentage of their profit goes to various worldwide literacy organizations. In the U.S. used books are currently $3.98 each including shipping, so it's win-win-win!

While waiting for my new books I am reading A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson, one of the loaners on my unread shelf. (I discovered that I hadn't thoroughly examined the shelf's contents. That ought to teach me something but I doubt the lesson will take.) I am thoroughly enjoying this book. Bryson's style is fluid and easy to read, and his descriptions are lovely. He clearly conducted a great deal of research into the Appalachian Trail's history, wildlife, hikers, and flora and fauna. His slightly self-deprecating humor is natural and honest as he describes his struggles with hiking and camping. While I am not a fan of camping unless an RV is involved, I do understand the serenity of a forest and the awe of a mountain view. I suspect as the book continues he will find a larger piece of that internal peace that seems to come only from spending most of each day in silence and nature. I rather envy him. I have spent weekends that way, but never months at a time.

But seriously, dude, I am so not walking over 2000 miles in one go.