A Prayer for Owen Meany – (an early frontrunner for my favorite book of 2011)

My book club read this John Irving novel in January, and – for me at least – it was a great start to a new year of reading. Some books become favorites of mine due to a great, innovative or twisting plot (like last year’s Two on a Tower), some others due to a setting unlike I’ve encountered before (perhaps like The Hunger Games trilogy), and some are endearing because of a great character or characters. I would put last year’s reading of The Millenium Trilogy in this last category, with it’s refreshingly unique (anti-?) heroine, Lisbeth Salander. And now, one of my new favorite literary characters is Owen Meany.

“Owen (Meany) possessed a completely reliable frankness; you could trust him absolutely”

Owen Meany is an unlikely hero. A child of somewhat strange and reclusive parents, he was born with some sort of defect in his larynx, which rendered his voice into something not quite human-sounding. He also suffered from stunted growth – even as an adult never growing to five feet tall. It’s remarkable that he is able to overcome these “handicaps,” but he does- seemingly almost with ease. Irving starts out the novel with the narrator saying in the first paragraph that Meany “is the reason I believe in God.” That’s a pretty good hook to get one reading the rest of a book isn’t it? And if that’s not enough, in the SAME SENTENCE we also learn from the narrator that Meany “was the instrument of my mother’s death.” That’s enough to keep one reading too, I think.

The novel is also a story of the friendship between Owen and his classmate Johnny Wheelwright. Their friendship is an unlikely one. Johnny comes from a privileged family; Owen does not. Johnny is physically “normal” (if there is such a thing) while Owen is not. Owen is a brilliant student; Johnny is not. (or as Owen put it, “YOU’RE MAINLY SLOW. YOU’RE ALMOST AS SMART AS I AM, BUT YOU NEED TWICE THE TIME.”) Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Owen spoke in all capital letters throughout the book – it’s that unhuman voice, you see. Their friendship endures in spite of circumstances that would wreck most. Throughout everything, Owen is fiercely loyal to Johnny. The book made me think a lot about friendship, actually. It made me kind of regret never having that one, best friend that Owen and Johnny had in each other. It made me wonder what that must be like..

Its hard to write in depth about this novel without revealing some spoilers, which I don’t really want to do, so I will just add that the book is also abundant with witty humor, and some of Irving’s characterizations nearly made me laugh out loud. For example, when describing a dog: “…the lumberyard dog, the Eastmans’ slobbering boxer, a mindlessly friendly beast with halitosis vile enough to give you visions of corpses uprooted from their graves…” Later, he describes one of the Wheelwright’s maids as “a short, heavyset woman with an ageless, blocky strength; yet her physical power was undermined by a slow mind and a brutal lack of confidence.” Later there is a woman who “wore a fur coat that was responsible for the death of countless small animals,” and so on, and so on

I heartily recommend this book. Has anyone else “out there” read this one. What did you think? What other Irving book would you recommend that I read next?

-Jay

Just Finished: The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is a great, short book that can be read in an afternoon but revisited forever.


The author chafes against the growing “homogenization” of people and things in the modern world, and chose the character/story of Procrustes from Greek mythology for his title. (for those unfamiliar with the myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on the moon, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds – the preceding lifted from Wikipedia)

The book delivers exactly what it’s title indicates. A few hundred great aphorisms, many of which the reader has to ponder a moment in order to grasp their full meaning (as a reader, I like that challenge). Some of my favorites:

“A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence.”

“You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.”

“Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.”

“To be completely cured of reading newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”

“You can tell how uninteresting a person is by asking him whom he finds interesting.”

I guess that’s enough. πŸ™‚ Check out this book if you enjoy a good aphorism…

(below: Taleb, and an ancient depiction of Procrustes’ bed)

I’ll be reading this one soon…

Next Tuesday is the publishing date of Frank Brady’s new book, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. I’ve posted about Bobby Fischer before, and I’m also sure that by now everyone’s tired of hearing me say how I used to compete in chess tournaments in a prior life, but I won’t be able to resist reading this new book and writing about it once I’m done. There is a good review of this new book in the new York times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/books/24book.html?_r=2&ref=books

I think maybe it’s the uncomfortably close relationship between “genius” and “madness” that makes Fischer such a compelling figure. The history of chess is almost littered with tales of geniuses who “went mad” ostensibly due to their obsession with the game, or even the overworking of their brain in mastering its complexities. E.g., “Blindfold Chess” – where one player must keep track of the board and positioning of the pieces in his head vs. a sighted opponent – was “forbidden” for a long time in the former Soviet Union because it was felt to increase the risk of madness. Fischer, however, was the first celebrated case in this modern age of mass media, which may make him a kind of poster boy for the phenomenon. I can’t wait to read more about him. Supposedly, the book is very accessible to even non-chess players, so it may be worth a spot on your TBR lists..

Indiana chess master (and blogger!), Dennis Monokroussos, has written a review of the book on his web site, The Chess Mind. You can find it at:

http://www.thechessmind.net/blog/2011/1/4/a-review-of-frank-bradys-_endgame_-a-bobby-fischer-bio.html

Note, however, that his comments about the book lacking photographs and other supporting material only apply to his review copy, not the upcoming published version.

-Jay

The Raven (first published 166 years ago today)

It was January 29th, 1845 when this poem of unprecedented popularity was first published. Or so I learned when looking at the paper this morning during breakfast. I’ve read “most of Poe” over the years and have revisited this poem several times. In October of 2009, for my book club’s annual “ghost story month,” we read a selection of works by Poe, including this one. A few of us also viewed a YouTube clip of Vincent Price’s famous recitation. It remains one of the most famous poems of all time.

My first memories of the poem are of my dad reading it. When he was growing up, he was a huge fan of those ‘spooky’ radio programs, and I remember him imitating “The Shadow” and other creepy voices he grew up with. He was actually pretty good at scary voices and would often frighten my two brothers and me on our almost annual summer camping trips, telling ghost stories (more often than not beginning with “once upon a time, there were three little boys…”) until my youngest brother would get too scared and Mom would make him stop. My little brother’s lack of fortitude to endure these stories was a constant source of exasperation to my other brother and me.

Dad was always interested in memory and memorization (he was a teacher) and even late into his life was working on memorizing poetry. He even wrote some basic computer programs to aid his memorization. The Raven, however, was a poem he memorized long before the computer age, and his retelling of it to us kids was injected with just the right amount of the supernatural to keep us enthralled, even if we didn’t fully understand the deeper meaning of the poem. Dad was also a mathematician and I think he appreciated the structure and rhythm of poetry in a way I’ve never fully been able to. The older I get, though, the closer I think I am to having something approaching admiration for the poetic forms. Maybe someday I will become a connoisseur myself. (please don’t hold your breath, though)

So, happy birthday to The Raven. Go out and read a Poe story in celebration, or perhaps tap a cask of Amontillado… πŸ™‚

What do you think of Poe? What are some of your favorite poems or poets? I’d love to hear about them…

-Jay

Recommendations for young (7 year-old) readers?

Any recommendations out there for books for a seven year-old reader? A friend of mine wants to buy her nephew a book for his birthday next week. Does anyone have any suggestions?? Sent from my iPad

Tomorrow begins the Ancient Greek Classics Tour…

… and I can’t wait to see what the other “tourists” on The Classics Circuit come up with. Three posts are scheduled for tomorrow, and a total of 26 posts over the next ten days. Tomorrow’s features are about Homer, The Odyssey, and Euripides’ Electra. Go to http://classics.rebeccareid.com/ to see the entire roster of upcoming posts. I’m looking forward to discovering some great new blogs (and bloggers) and revisiting a lot of works from the classic world that I haven’t pondered in years. Why not check it out yourself?

As for me, I’ll be rejoining my hoplites this afternoon as we begin our march out of hostile territory… (my contribution to the tour is Xenophon’s Anabasis – aka The Persian Expedition)

Gilbert’s Mother by William Trevor

I’ve been slowly working my way through William Trevor’s short story collection, After Rain, for several months now. The title story of this collection is part of my “Deal Me In” short story reading project for 2011, but the other remaining stories are fair game for ad hoc reading whenever I have a spare half hour or so. I had just such a half hour today, and I didn’t want to delve back into The Persian Expedition with Xenophon (mainly because I knew I wouldn’t want to return to the 21st century after “only” half an hour with my mercenary Greek hoplite friends…). So – I chose instead to knock out another William Trevor story.
I first learned of William Trevor at one of my favorite blogs: Ana the Imp. Ana is a young but very astute reader who focuses mainly on history and political topics. She is a great writer, prolific blogger and always seems to have something fascinating to post about. Back in September she introduced me to William Trevor. Her original post about the author can be found at:

http://anatheimp.blogspot.com/2010/09/seanchai.html

As one reviewer on Goodreads.com put it succinctly – and accurately, Trevor is “The master of the quiet, but important story”

The story I read today was wonderful and chilling at the same time. It begins with the news that a young girl is murdered on the way home from work in South London. In the following pages we meet another resident of them neighborhood where this happens. She is Rosalie Mannion, a fifty year-old “single mother” who Trevor describes economically as having a “round, pretty face (that) had taken charge of what wrinkles had come, by chance distributing them favorably.” Isn’t that a great description?

Anyway, what we then learn is that Rosalie has an adult son living with her who has always been a bit odd and troubled. We learn that he is antisocial and even spent a year once in an institution. His mother had hoped they “would keep him” but was assured by the haughty doctors that “as long as he stays on his medication, there’s nothing to worry about.” She knows they are wrong, and her life becomes a kind of private hell as he becomes wont to disappear for sometimes days at a time, during which she hears on the news of crimes or mischief where he has been. He mysteriously acquires a car, is absent from home and in a town where serious arson occurs, etc. etc. Yet seemingly he can also function rather normally in society and even holds down a job in an architect’s office.

What makes this tale chilling is the gradual realization for the reader that “he knows that she knows” (or suspects) that he is evil. Worse yet, she knows that he knows that she knows, and even worse HE knows that… well, you get the picture. She’s too afraid to report him to the authorities – partly because he’s her son, but mostly because of her fear. The reader can imagine the fear and tension that this poor woman lives in day after day, and can sense that there is not likely to be an end to it. A disturbing but masterful short story.

-Jay

Now reading: Xenophon’s “The Persian Expedition” (aka “Anabasis”)

I read roughly the first 25% of this book this morning. I’ve read at least parts of it before during my former life as a Classics Minor in college. I’m reading it now in preparation for a February 4th post on The Classics Circuit.

The year is 401 B.C. A force of roughly 10,000 Greek mercenaries joins the Persian, Cyrus, who is attempting to wrest the throne from his brother, Artaxerxes. What follows is adventure of the highest order. “Civilized” Greek soldiers in an exotic land, fighting for glory and their own survival. It doesn’t get much better than this. Why not read along with me…? πŸ™‚

(lack of?) Progress Report

Part 1 (written Friday, January 21, 730am)
I must sadly report that I haven’t gotten very much reading done during this (work) week – probably the least I’ve accomplished in a while. I’ve been working more hours than I like (still not as much as others at my office though, so I am probably looked upon in disdain by them – but I don’t care). Last night I got home about 7:15 and after a quick dinner while watching Jeopardy retired to the bedroom to read a couple hours before “bedtime.” I think I read maybe two pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany before I was sleeping like a stone. I still have about 250 pages of that one to go before my book club meeting next thursday, but I’ve only read about 40 pages since Monday. (Slacker!)

Wednesday night I ended up going out and didn’t read anything at all, and Tuesday night I returned to my favorite local pub to report back to my new reading friend on the Paulo Coehlo book I read. I guess Tuesday morning I did accomplish something as I read the William Trevor short story, “Widows’, which possibly has thrown me into depression for the rest of this week…

Also on the horizon is my reading and writing requirement about Xenophon’s Anabasis, which I have committed to writing a post about on February 4th. I’m anxious to get done with my A Prayer for Owen Meany reading so that I can really sink my teeth into this ancient classic.

Oh well, (sigh)… Maybe this weekend will be a banner reading weekend for me. Maybe I’ll spend saturday morning “locked away” at one of the libraries downtown and catch up.

What do you do when you find yourself veering off course in your reading routines? How do you get back on track?

Part 2 (written Saturday, January 22nd, 1145am)

Okay, I have much more progress to report now. πŸ™‚ I am down to under one hundred pages to go in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I read quite a bit yesterday immediately after work and then before bedtime. I got up early this morning and kept reading (it’s too damn cold here for anything to seem more appealing than staying under the covers, warm and reading). I’m now on the final chapter – which is about 100 pages long(!) – and I have to admit I’m going to be sad when this book is over.

I’ve also been thinking about my reading lethargy this week and have decided that my job is to blame. πŸ™‚ It seems to continue to grow more overwhelming and tedious with each passing month, and it is beginning to get to me. I know, I know, “wah, wah,” – I should just be thankful I have a job (and I am), so I will continue to soldier on for awhile and see if things get better…

I also drew another card this morning for my “Deal me in!” project. The ten of diamonds directs me to read Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles?” next. Diamonds is the suit of “mostly recommended by others,” which are all new to me stories. I couldn’t find the story available on line anywhere, and since I’m at the library this morning instead of at home (where my copy is), I guess I will have to wait until tonight to read it. I have to say I am really loving this project. The pace of just one short story per week allows and encourages me to spend more time focusing on just that story, rather than just “go on to the next one” as I used to do when reading collections or anthologies. I’m looking forward to reading Carver (recommended by fellow blogger Bellezza) as I have heard great things about him from several sources.

Have you read any short stories in the young new year? Who are some of your favorite short story writers?

More on Kurt Vonnegut

If you’ve read my blog before, you’re probably already familiar with the fact that a Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has recently been opened here in Indianapolis. (A link to their website is on my blogroll if you’d like to check them out.) One interesting feature of their site is a blog that features a local writer’s journey through reading Vonnegut’s novels (in order of publication). Corey Dalton writes a new post for this “project” roughly once a month, and he’s up to Cat’s Cradle with his latest effort.

http://www.vonnegutlibrary.org/blog/

The posts are deeper than most “reviews” one finds in the book blogging community, and I always learn a few additional things about Vonnegut’s books after revisiting the novels through his “take” on them. Highly recommended.

-Jay

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