A Prayer for Owen Meany

My senior year of high school, I did not do my summer reading. I was a straight-A student taking two college courses and two AP-level courses, and every year up until that point I not only read the summer books but took notes. For some reason, however, I read just enough snippets to do the project assigned. I managed to get an A on the Owen Meany component because I was clever enough to write his letter to another character in all caps.

I actually wasn’t impressed by John Irving’s first 50 pages at that point, and I think the only thing making me try again was hating to admit I never read it. This time around was slow going to start, but as I got further into the book I was very impressed with it.

This is an extremely difficult review to write, because the book has so much depth and richness that I can’t begin to accurately represent it, and don’t want to give anything away. A Prayer for Owen Meany is told in first person by Johnny Wheelwright looking back on his life, primarily intertwined with that of his best friend Owen Meany.

Owen is special for reasons both immediately obvious and hidden. He never seems to go through puberty, retaining a diminutive statute and a high-pitched voice that Irving writes entirely in capital letters. He is original in his ideas and outlook. Most importantly, he has a deep faith, and a growing conviction over time that God has a definite purpose for him.

The narrative is almost spiral in nature; the overall framework is chronological, but since it is told retrospectively, Johnny keeps going back and forth to revisit events described before, and mention things that are future knowledge. There are also snippets of his present life woven in, often focusing on his current attitude towards religion, love, and politics. He struggles throughout the  book with his personal conflict between faith and doubt. Once you get used to this structure, it is very successful, because that’s how memories really work. It also shows which elements of Johnny’s life story are most influential to him, and those that he circles back to, like the sagamore’s totem or the armadillo, become symbolic under this treatment. The only parts that dragged were those in the present; John’s life seems to have stagnated at the end of the events he is describing, so it makes sense in a way that he lives in the past.

There is also a great sense of fate, everything happening in a specific way for a specific reason, that is present throughout but emphasized by Owen’s convictions. He believes that there is no such thing as a coincidence. In many ways this reminded me of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the increased suspense as the inevitable draws near and you can see all the pieces finally fitting together.

The book truly is a masterpiece, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Even if I never read it again in its entirety, it has joined the ranks of books which I could dip into on occasion, and whose ending would never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books lists.

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Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mattimeo

Mattimeo is third in Brian Jacques’ series but a direct sequel to Redwall. Slagar the crazed fox has long held a grudge against Matthias the Warrior and the creatures of Redwall, and has planned a devious revenge. After the seasonal feast, when they are sated on elderberry wine and nutbrown ale, he and his band trick their way into the Abbey and steal away several of the young ones, including Mathias’s son Mattimeo. Slagar is by trade a cruel slaver, stealing young woodland creatures and turning them into a walking chain gang, to be eventually sold to the highest bidder. Mathias, Basil Stag Hare, and Jess Squirrel set out to try and follow the trail. Along the way they meet up with others whose children have been taken, and eventually learn that their destination is the old abandoned Loamhedge Abbey.

As in the previous books, there are multiple plot lines. The narrative switches between Mattimeo and his captive friends, the harrowing journey of the rescue party, and those still at the abbey, who are distracted from their waiting vigil by the threat of rooks trying to invade. This last part has the most humor, as baby Rollo continues to sing drinking songs learned from Basil, Cornflower masquerades as a ghost, and Sister May earns the respect and gratitude of a bird of prey.

I enjoyed getting to read about so many characters from the first book again. Time is measured in seasons rather than in years, and I get the feeling that lifespans are like those of the actual animals, maturing quickly and taking into account the differences between species. I hope that they will turn up in future books as well. (I think I only ever read Marlfox before besides these three.)

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Revisiting Samantha

I’m guilty of picking up books that I’d like to someday pass down, and brought home a slew of American Girl books from the library sale for 50 cents each. I loved these series when I was younger (Felicity is my favorite, with  Molly and Samantha as close runners up). The stories are entertaining, educational, and easy to relate to. Even the books themselves are always great quality.

I’d never read any of the American Girl Mysteries and decided to try The Curse Of Ravenscourt: A Samantha Mystery. As with most of the extra books, it assumes a knowledge of events and characters from the main series. I read Samantha’s stories so many times as girl that this felt like visiting an old friend.

Samantha is still living with Uncle Gard and Aunt Cordelia, who have also adopted Nellie and her sisters. While the house is being remodeled the family will stay at the new Ravenscourt apartment-hotel. Once there, however, they learn that strange events have been happening, like vandalism. Is this the work of human hands, or the result of a curse on Mr. Ravenscourt by a disgruntled tenant? When Aunt Cordelia leaves mysteriously, Samantha and Nellie also must struggle with whether this new family can really work.

The mystery plot is good, but the broader story itself is what sucked me in. Samantha’s historical gimmick has always been her social conscience, which remains true in this book. Though she lives a life of luxury she is sympathetic to the needs of others, especially Nellie’s past troubles. She finds a kindred spirit here in Eloise Ravenscourt, a young woman in a similar position. Their trip to the tenement house is an honest look at the poverty of the time. I also like that Nellie plays an equal part in unraveling the mystery. She has always struck me as one of the most well-rounded secondary characters in the AG franchise, probably because her story is so intertwined with Samantha’s.

The “Peek into the Past” at the end of the book talks about the Victorian fascination with the supernatural, and how many people at the time would have easily believed in such a curse. It’s quite fascinating, and a good link from the plot to a further exploration of history.

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bobbsey Twins Series

I was lucky enough at the spring library sale to find two Bobbsey Twins paperbacks. I understand that most adult collectors prefer Nancy and the Hardy Boys in terms of rereadablilty, but I was an avid Bobbseys fan for years before being deemed old enough for the other series.

The first, The Music Box Mystery, is one of the Wanderer paperbacks from after the Syndicate was sold. When a local antique store closes it finds a music box marked for the little girl at the Bobbseys’ address. Mr. Bobbsey recalls that the Wardells, who used to own the house, had a granddaughter who disappeared right before they moved. When the current story breaks, others are also suddenly determined to find the missing Wardell girl for various reasons, including a tie to a lost Lakeport treasure.

In only 120 pages, the book is able to cram in three storylines that end up overlapping. It may be slightly implausible, but it’s also quite exciting. Despite the renumbering this series has a lot in common with the hardcovers, including the bully Danny Rugg.

The Clue that Flew Away, part of the New Bobbsey Twins series, has a different feel even though it was published only a few years later. The series has a more modern feel, and in later volumes gave most of the glory to the younger twins. I remember buying a few of these new in stores when I was little.

When teen heartthrob Tim Archer is accused of stealing a priceless jeweled hot air balloon pin, Nan is sure he’s been framed. Meanwhile, Flossie is chosen as a stunt double for a balloon ride scene in his local movie. Her look-alike Jessica is suddenly afraid to go up, and Freddie thinks her fear might be tied to the theft somehow. This book also has fantastic 1980s illustrations that I’ll have to see if I can scan in.

These were both quick reads (about an hour total, thanks to cliff-hangers), but a fun reminder of why I haven’t forgotten these younger sleuths.

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mossflower

Mossflower is the second book in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and goes back to the time of Martin the Warrior, whose legacy played a large role in the first book.

The creatures of Mossflower Woods live in fear of the wildcat queen Tsarina, who rules from Kotir Castle and imprisons anyone who dares cross her. Such is the fate of Martin, a young warrior mouse from the north who is imprisoned upon unknowingly entering the territory armed. While in the dungeons he meets Gonff, a Mossflower mouse caught playing Robin Hood with the Kotir stores.

The two manage to escape and meet up with  Gonff’s various friends of Corim, Council of Resistance in Mossflower, who are currently hiding out at the home of the badger Bella of Brockhall. They are also joined by Abbess Germaine and a small group of her fellow mice, driven from their old home at Loamhedge by the deadly sickness that decimated their numbers. Now, with Martin’s expertise, the band of otters, squirrels, moles, and hedgehogs who have been training for a fight begin planning to retake their woods and end the rule of the wildcats.

I haven’t read many of the later books in the series ( I think there are at least fifteen), but I’m familiar with most of the premises. It’s neat to see how after just two books, seeds are planted for many of the characters, places, and themes of the Redwall universe. It’s so rich in detail that I would love to be a woodland creature myself, even if just to participate in their great feasts.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Sun in Scorpio

When I was younger I enjoyed Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books (the inspiration for Disney’s The Rescuers movies). Her adult novels, however, seem to be driven by character much more than plot.

The Sun in Scorpio tells the story of Cathy Pennon, who found bliss during childhood on the Mediterranean island of Malta. With the Great War threatening, however, the family removes to rainy native England, and Cathy’s life then becomes a quest to somehow return to the sun. Until then she remains faded and sullen, hustled along the path of life by circumstances beyond her control.

The book is relatively short (about 250 pages), but spans about thirty years by skimming to focus on main events. Cathy must deal with an overbearing older sister, play governess to a spoiled cherub, and suffer through WWII. The book also gives details on secondary characters here and there, like Cathy’s brother Alan.

Cathy is a well-drawn and unique character, a staunch poker player with astonishing resiliency and a fondness for secretly sunbathing on the roof. She always remains somewhat harsh, though, and I was never able to actually like her, though Miss Sharp may very well have intended that. Overall the book is very well written. If at times it seemed rather literary–the back of my Perennial Library edition calls Cathy “an unwilling symbol of the ‘average’ Briton’s endurance of years of radical historical change”–at least it felt real and interesting.

I have a few more Margery Sharp books on the shelves that I still want to try at some point as they promise to be a little lighter, like Martha in Paris. She is clearly a talented writer with a well-developed sense of irony.

Published in: on April 11, 2010 at 1:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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Redwall

I — am that is,

Two mice within Redwall.

The Warrior sleeps

‘Twixt Hall and Cavern Hole.

I — am that is,

Take on my mighty role.

I’ve read Brian Jacques’ Redwall twice before, but it’s been about ten years. This was the perfect way to help break a reading slump. The series is a favorite in my family, and has forever biased the way in which I classify various small mammals.

It might technically be considered fantasy, but only in the fact that the animals are anthropomorphic and have their own small civilization without any sign of humans. (Except that Cluny’s army is riding in a hay cart pulled by a horse. What other creature besides a human would be large enough to build a cart and harness the horse, or even need to? I never quite got that part.) There is no magic, or mythical creatures, or advanced technology.

The story is set primarily at Redwall Abbey, home to a peaceful order of mice and visitors of other woodland species, like otters, squirrels, and hedgehogs. They have lived a quiet life for many years, but now suddenly they are under threat from Cluny the Scurge, who has vowed to lay siege to the abbey and use it as headquarters for his pillaging horde of bilge rats. The creatures of the abbey are willing to defend their home and way of life by whatever means necessary, but they must learn how to fight and use their wits. This is especially true for Matthias, an impetuous young mouse who will take up the legacy of Martin the Warrior, champion of the the Abbey at its founding.

There are so many great things about this book. It has a large cast of characters, all of whom are fully formed and get their own chance in the spotlight. Some are warrior types, like Matthias and Constance, others have more peaceful roles, like Methuselah and Cornflower, and Basil Stag Hare provides the comic relief. There is a great deal of looking to the Past to solve problems in the present, which is one of my favorite fictional tropes when coupled as it is here with prophetic riddles and a search for missing objects. The plot is full of adventure and excitement almost epic in scope. There is death on both sides, but we feel the victory even more after witnessing throughout the book the depravity of Cluny and and selfish rats.

The books technically belong to my younger brother and are his all-time favorites, so someday I would like to get copies of my own. This is a book that loses nothing upon revisiting.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 9:28 am  Comments (3)  
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