Book choice for November

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving [suggested by Caz Kemp]

front cover

Owen Meany is a dwarfish boy with a strange voice who accidentally kills his best friend's mum with a baseball and believes - correctly, it transpires -that he is an instrument of God, to be redeemed by martyrdom.  John Irving's novel, which inspired the 1998 Jim Carrey movie Simon Birch, is his most popular book in Britain, and perhaps the oddest Christian mystic novel since Flannery O'Connor's work.  Irving fans will find much that is familiar: the New England prep-school-town setting, symbolic amputations of man and beast, the Garp-like unknown father of the narrator (Owen's orphaned best friend), the rough comedy.  The scene of doltish Dr Dolder, Owen's shrink, drunkenly driving his VW down the school's marble steps is a marvellous set piece.  So are the Christmas pageants Owen stars in.  But it's all, as Highlights magazine used to put it, "fun with a purpose".  When Owen plays baby Jesus in the pageants, and glimpses a tombstone with his death date while enacting A Christmas Carol, the slapstick doesn't change the fact that he was born to be martyred.  The book's countless subplots add up to a moral argument, specifically an indictment of American foreign policy - from Vietnam to the Contras.

The book's mystic religiosity is steeped in Robertson Davies' Deptford trilogy, and the fatal baseball relates to the fatefully misdirected snowball in the first Deptford novel, Fifth Business.  Tiny, symbolic Owen echoes the hero of Irving's teacher G�nter Grass's The Tin Drum - the two characters share the same initials.  A rollicking entertainment, Owen Meany is also a meditation on literature, history and God.

(Review from amazon.co.uk by Tim Appelo)

John Irving was born in New Hampshire.  He studied at universities in America and Europe and published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, at the age of twenty-six.  The World According to Garp, published in 1978 to phenomenal acclaim, firmly established him as one of the most inventive and talented novelists in America.

During the 1980s John Irving wrote a series of absorbing and celebrated books: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  In these novels his originality and striking vision came brilliantly to the fore, along with his trademark subjects � as wide-ranging as feminism, religion, wrestling, sex and New England life.

More recent novels include the complex bestseller A Son of the Circus, the dark and funny novel A Widow for One Year and The Fourth Hand, a black comedy that was another popular success.

Several of John Irving's novels have been made into films, and in 2000 he was awarded an Oscar for the screenplay for The Cider House Rules.  He described the difficult, decade-long journey from page to screen in My Movie Business.  He is also the author of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed and The Imaginary Girlfriend, memoirs of writing and wrestling.

In 1992, John Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  In 2001, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He lives in Vermont and Toronto.  Until I Find You is John Irving's eleventh novel. [read more at the Random House website.]  See also John Irving's Wikipedia entry.

 

Shortlisted for this month

Secret River [suggested by Kathy Macdermid]

Secret River

Synopsis

First novel for 5 years from Orange prize-winning Kate Grenville.  Blanket review coverage backed by a major advertising campaign.  A dramatic and evocative historical novel set between the slums of Nineteenth-century London and the convict colonies of Australia.  Following a childhood marked by poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced in 1806 to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.  With his wife and children, he arrives in a harsh land to a life that feels like a death sentence.  But, among the convicts there is a whisper - that freedom can be bought - an opportunity to start afresh on lush, 'unclaimed' land away from the infant township of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury River.  As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new settlers are drawn.  Whilst some attempt to reconcile themselves with the place and its native people, others fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it.  "The Secret River" joins a tradition of grand historical action.  It sensuously etches the intense light and scribble of the Australian bush onto the page, making them the backdrop to a story about ownership, belonging and identity - themes which are timeless and universal.

(Review from amazon.co.uk)

About the Author

Kate Grenville was born in Sydney, Australia.  Her novel The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize, Britain's most valuable literary award, and became a long-running best-seller.  Her other works of fiction have been published to acclaim in Australia and overseas and have won state and national awards.  Much-loved novels such as Lilian's Story (1985), Dark Places (1995) and Joan Makes History (1988) have become classics, admired by critics and general readers alike.

Lilian's Story was filmed starring Ruth Cracknell, Toni Collette and Barry Otto.  Dreamhouse was filmed under the title Traps, starring Jacqueline MacKenzie.

Kate Grenville's books have been published in translation in seven languages.  She lives in Sydney with her family.

See biographical notes at bigpond.com or Kate's entry on Wikipedia.

Frankenstein [suggested by Siobhan FitzMaurice]

Frankenstein

Synopsis

If you like horror, you owe it to yourself to read this book from the beginnings of the genre.  You will enjoy seeing the themes in Frankenstein repeated in other horror novels that you will read in the future.  The book and the movie have essentially nothing in common, so assume that you do not know the story yet if you have only seen the movie.

If you do not like horror, you probably won't like the book very much at all.

The story opens in the frozen Arctic wastes during an sea-going expedition to find a passage through the ice to the East.  Aboard the ship after a strange meeting, Frankenstein tells his story.  As a young man he wanted to make a splash in the sciences, and invented a way to create life.  Having done so, he became estranged from his new being with significant consequences for Frankenstein and his creation.  The two interact closely throughout the book, like twin brothers in one sense and like Creator and creation in another sense.

This book presents significant challenges to the reader.  Like many books that relate to scientific or quasi-scientific topics from long ago, Frankenstein seems highly outmoded to the modern reader.  In the era of psychological knowledge, the development of moods and character in the book will also seem primitive to many.  A further drawback is that this novel takes a long time to develop each of its points (even after the eventual action is totally foreshadowed in unmistakeable terms), so patience is required as layer after layer of atmosphere and thought are applied to create a complex, composite picture.  Finally, the structure of the novel is unusual, with layers of narration applied to layers of narration, creating a feeling of looking at never-ending mirror images.

So, you may ask, why should someone read Frankenstein?  My personal feeling is that there are two timelessly rewarding aspects to the book that well reward the reader (despite the drawbacks described above).  Either is sufficient to please you.  First, the book raises wonderful ethical issues about the responsibilities of science and the scientist towards the results of scientific endeavors.  These issues are as up-to-date now as they were when the book was written.  Those who developed atomic weapons and biotechnology tools appear to have given little more thought to what comes next than Frankenstein did toward his creation.  Second, the moods that are built up in the reader by the book are extremely vivid and powerful.  The artistry of this book can serve as a guide for novelists for centuries to come, in showing how much the reader can be deeply engaged by the circumstances of the characters.

Why, then, did I grade the book at three stars instead of five?  Few will fail to be annoyed by the scientific awkwardness of the story, and that is a definite drawback.  Also, only the most dedicated students of style will avoid feeling like the book moves and develops its story too slowly.  Less is more in novels.  In this case, more is less.

I cannot help but comment that this book is perhaps the finest example of appearances being deceiving that exists in literature.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a close competitor in this regard, but that fine work definite has to fall behind Frankenstein.  In this book, beings of physical beauty act in inhumane, ugly ways.  Beings of great ugliness act in beautiful ways.  The same being may act in both ways, in different circumstances.  Looks are deceiving, and our perceptions are flawed even when our attention is fixed.  If the characters could have overcome this form of stalled thinking, the horror would have been averted.  So the lesson is that the misperceptions we aim at others rebound (like a reflection in a mirror) right back onto us.

If you have not yet read Paradise Lost, Frankenstein is a good excuse to read that poem.  The development of the story in Frankenstein assumes a knowledge of that story about Satan leading a rebellion against God and being dispossessed into Hell.

After you have had a chance to absorb and appreciate the nice issues this book raises, ask yourself where you in your life are acting without sufficiently considering the implications of your actions.  Then, commence to examine those potential consequences.  You should be able to create more good results in this way, and take more comfort in what you are doing.  Both will be excellent rewards for your introspection.

(Rather preachy) review at Amazon by Donald Mitchell "Founder of The Billionaire Entrepreneurs' Master Mind -- http://billiondollarbusiness.blogspot.com/"

About the Author

Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (who died of complications from the birth) and William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was raised by her father and a stepmother.

In 1814, after a brief acquaintance, Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Her father refused to speak with her for several years afterwards.  They married in 1816 when he extricated himself from his previous marriage.

She's known today as a member of the Romantic circle, as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, and as the author of the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.

Frankenstein enjoyed immediate popularity upon its publication, and has inspired many imitations and versions, including many film versions in the 20th century.  She wrote it when her husband's friend and associate, George, Lord Byron, suggested that each of the three (Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Byron) each write a ghost story.

She wrote several more novels and some short stories, with historical, Gothic or science fiction themes.  She also edited an edition of Percy Shelley's poems, 1830.  Her biography of her husband was unfinished at her death.

See further biographical notes at Women's History or Mary Shelley's entry on Wikipedia.

Previous Months' Book Choices

October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006