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?


(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. 🙂 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. 🙂 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?

240 Minutes with Paulo Coehlo’s “Eleven Minutes”

I’ve struggled with how to write about this book. As I mentioned in a prior post, this was a “new to me” author, and I ignored the advice of the person recommending him to me by choosing this book instead of The Alchemist. One of the reasons I chose this one was it’s brevity – only 215 pages in my edition – and frankly the subject matter seemed to be more likely to “grab me.” Its the story of a simple girl, Maria – from the Interior of Brasil (I’ll spell it the way she, being a native, prefers) – and her journey of discovery. Discovery of herself and of the very nature of love. How’s that for a tall order!? This book is a quick read (it took me just about four hours – 240 minutes 🙂 ) but is NOT for young readers due to it’s graphic descriptions of “sexual activity”…

Maria’s early encounters with love do not end well, and each one teaches her another “lesson” about love, which she accumulates as her young life progresses. After one early experience, she memorably says that she “began to associate love not with someone’s presence, but with their absence.” Of course I don’t mean by this that she loved it when they weren’t around, but rather how she felt when they were absent was what could tell her if she was in love or not.

A remarkable thing about this book (well, I’ve noticed this in many other books, but it always amazes me that writers can pull it off) was that, though it was written from a young woman’s point of view, it was a man who did the writing. This might be even more remarkable in this case since much of the action is of a very sexual nature. ****Minor Spoiler Alert**** The protagonist visits Rio de Janeiro on a holiday, and ends up signing on with a man from Switzerland who needs ‘dancers’ for his club back in Geneva. Maria is still rather naive and goes off with the smooth talker and works in his club for awhile, but is dismissed for a trivial reason. Although she gets a nice “severance” check she realizes she will need money and eventually turns to prostitution, which gives her a crash course about the ways of life and love and SEX of course. Throughout all of this her dream remains to make enough money to return to Brasil and buy a farm for her parents.

Maria is a beautiful girl and has no shortage of customers, or of those who want to marry her and “take her away from this life.” All this time she is still trying to determine the true nature of love and throughout the book continues to come to conclusions that determine her future behavior. Sometimes these conclusions are overruled by subsequent discoveries and sometimes they are amended, but in the course of just about a couple years, she has become a very wise young woman indeed.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the occasional sprinklings of excerpts from Maria’s diary and the end of chapters (actually, I don’t think there really are distinct chapters in this book). These excerpts give the reader insight into what she was “really thinking” during her encounters and frequently left me wondering about what an advantage it would be in romantic encounters if one or both knew what the other really wanted or really thought. My recent “Deal me in!” reading project has gotten me thinking in terms of poker and – in a way – romantic encounters are somewhat like that game: how we can’t always see what cards the other person is holding, and if we did we might play our hands differently. Or how, sometimes we think we have deduced what the other is holding and act accordingly, but we may be totally wrong. AND we sometimes may play our hands a certain way, based on an erroneous assumption and yet have things work out anyway. Maybe this means that one could view love as a big gamble? This feels about right to me. 🙂 (sorry, end of digression)

After awhile, i feared Maria had become over-analytical of everything and was threatening to make the book become tiresome. Thankfully this doesn’t quite happen, and eventually Maria meets a couple men of a different type (“special customers” as her manager describes them) that lead her to even more discoveries and a choice between paths she might take as she prepares to return to Brasil. I won’t spoil it further for you by saying how things end up; you should read the book for yourself.

One final thought and then I’ll let you go: as I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a break in my reading of John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, to read this book, and when I returned to Irving today I was struck by a similarity. Both books are about characters who are on a voyage of discovery in learning the ways of life, but Maria really had only herself and her feelings to guide her while Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright had each other as they tentatively took their steps toward growing up. Both journeys are intriguing and remarkable, but Maria had to “go it alone” and for that reason, my hat is off to her.