I’ve been collecting John Irving’s better known novels since I read The Cider House Rules in high school. I finally got around to reading (well, listening to) one of them.

About the Book:

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving (audiobook) on erinreads.comT.S. Garp’s mother wanted a child, but she did not want to give her life to a man to get one. So, she conceived her son in a rather odd and controversial way: by sleeping with an injured World War II veteran she cared for as a nurse just before he died.

That’s the beginning of The World According to Garp. What unspools as the pages turn is Garp’s life in its entirety: childhood, marriage, writing career, family, and eventual death. Interspersed are pieces of his writing and bits of his mother’s history. I could say more about what happens, but that would just be a mess of spoilers!

My Thoughts:

I liked The World According to Garp well enough. It was a strange story, full of odd people and bizarre incidents and surprising episodes of violence. It’s not a story you can really get close to, I think — more one that you follow at arm’s length. That alone is enough to keep it from being the newest addition to my list of favorites. I tend to prefer books I can connect with, and this wasn’t one of them. Still, it was pretty good.

Irving has this interesting ability to create characters you like and care for sufficiently, but that you never get overly attached to. It’s like the difference between watching a movie on a huge screen in a dark theater with surround sound and watching it on a laptop in your brightly lit living room. You might like both experiences equally, and there’s nothing wrong with either, but one feels much more immersive than the other. Irving’s writing, at least in The World According to Garp, is more like the laptop than the theater.

There were parts when the story seemed to drift beyond the confines of what could reasonably be expected to happen in a realistic novel, somehow, and that got to me just a little. It felt like certain incidents were too well planned to seem natural. They didn’t bother me, really, except for a little nagging disbelief in the back of my head now and then.

I did like how Irving worked bits of Garp’s writing into the novel itself. I’ve always enjoyed the “story within a story” approach when done well. But in this case, it was also quite interesting to see the relationship between what Garp was writing and what was going on in his life — probably Irving’s intention, if I had to guess. Everything from theme to language to vibe shifted depending on where Garp was in his life, and you can see what’s seeped over or been transposed somehow and worked into the stories.

Michael Prichard read the audio version I listened to. It’s an old recording — from the 1980s, I believe — so the sound quality isn’t great. His voice was a little tinny and crackly, hard to listen to at high volumes. Still, he worked for the book. His narration had that same detached feel I get from Irving’s relationship to his characters, somehow. And his no-nonsense voice seemed to suit Irving’s no-nonsense prose.

I knew The World According to Garp was made into a movie. I’ve not seen it, and based on my ambivalent feelings toward the book and my general dissatisfaction with movie adaptations, I wasn’t planning to. Then I looked up who’s in it. Robin Williams? John Lithgow? Glenn Close?? Maybe I’m going to have to see it after all!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I don’t really have any complaints to lodge against The World According to Garp. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t feel any sort of emotional attachment to it. A Prayer for Owen Meany is on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year, so I’ll get another chance to see how I like Irving soon.

Your Turn!

Do you like your books to hold you at a distance or get up close and personal? What’s a good example of your preference that you loved?

{ 2 comments }

Despite the fact that I didn’t much care for Thrity Umrigar’s later novel, The Weight of Heaven, and put her memoir, First Darling of the Morning, aside after just a couple of chapters, I’d heard enough good things about The Space Between Us that I decided to give Umrigar one more chance.

About the Book:

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (erinreads.com)Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for more years than she can count. She’s seen Sera, now middle-aged, through the early years of a tumultuous marriage, the birth of her daughter Dinaz, the death of her husband Feroz, and everything in between. Even now that Dinaz and her husband are grown and living with Sera, Bhima continues to come each day to do the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning. She and her orphaned granddaughter, Maya, are as close to the Dubash clan as people from very different worlds can be in Bombay society. In fact, Sera often draws criticism for how well she treats her servant.

Bhima’s life outside the Dubash household is hard. She and Maya live in a rickety hut in one of Bombay’s sprawling slums. Her family was torn apart years ago, and now Maya is all she has. Sera was kind enough to help Maya get into and finance college, and Bhima had dreams of a life for Maya that didn’t involve cleaning up after someone else’s family. But Maya has gotten herself pregnant, father unknown, and the shame of it has forced her to drop out of classes.

That’s how the stage is set at the start of The Space Between Us. What follows is a short span concerning future events, interspersed between great swaths of reverie and remembrance as Sera and Bhima alternately dip into their pasts to reveal their own family stories and the crucial moments that knit their own relationship ever closer together.

My Thoughts:

Of the three of Thrity Umrigar’s books I’ve now tried, I liked The Space Between Us most. It held my attention all the way through, was nicely written, and had characters I cared about, more or less. Still, I didn’t love it. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Somehow, the book felt predictable. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I didn’t know any of the details before I read them, but that didn’t matter. The outline, the overall shape of the story fell into place the way I’d subconsciously expected. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means. One of the lovely things about fiction is how it can reveal what is to us. Some novels can show the truth of the world in a way that delights, or enlightens, or catches at your heart. For me, The Space Between Us did none of those, though. It felt inevitable, decided from the start, a toy train engine wound up and set on its track. I finished the book no more moved or enlightened than I had been when I’d started.

It’s certainly written well enough. The language flows, carrying the story along on its back. The transitions between present and past were fluid and effortless, and rarely did I lose track of when an event was occurring. The relationship between Bhima and the Dubash family felt real, in all aspects. The characters acted as one might expect them to. And Bombay society did, too.

I wonder if part of the problem for me was that the story bordered on overkill. Bhima and Sera have both had extremely hard lives, though perhaps Bhima more so. It’s a stream of one awful thing after another. And while I absolutely do not deny that such lives exist and that I am extremely lucky not to have lived one so far, when the only things that happen to characters in a novel are negative, you start to expect that whatever comes next, it will probably follow the established pattern. Sera and Bhima shared each other’s lives for decades, and yet the events in The Space Between Us that appear to draw them together are all tragic. Maybe if they’d bonded over and recalled the bright spots, too, I might have felt differently.

Also: without giving anything away, I’ll say that the ending didn’t do it for me. It felt too abrupt (and yet also somehow predictable). I needed more.

In short? I didn’t hate the book, but I feel no attachment to it, either.

The Verdict: Mediocre

I think perhaps Thrity Umrigar is another Ann Patchett for me — an author most readers seem to appreciate but about whose fiction there is something that turns me off. As the vague issues I had with the book are largely personal, I wouldn’t caution others not to read it. But I think I, for one, am done with Thrity Umrigar’s novels.

Your Turn!

What books that the world seems to love do you actually not so much like?

{ 1 comment }

Years ago, when Wicked the musical first came out, I read the book on which it was based: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I’d forgotten most of it, though, and I’d never read the other three books in the series. So when I came across all four on audio at my library, I decided to revisit them.

I’ll do my best to avoid major spoilers, but no promises since I’ll be discussing all four books in the review that follows!

About the Books:

The Wicked Years series by Gregory MaguireThe four books — Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz — chronicle the people and events of the Oz made famous in our world when Dorothy Gale blew there from Kansas in a twister. They begin with the birth of Elphaba Thropp — the future Wicked Witch of the West — and they continue through several generations.

Wicked

Wicked is probably the best known of the series. It tells of the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, starting with her birth and following her through her college years, her friendship with Galinda (later shortened to Glinda), her rebellious period spent working against the Wizard, the events that brought her to live alone in a castle in the far reaches of Oz, and eventually to her death. Its culmination is Dorothy’s fateful trip to Oz and the mission given her by the Wizard as payment for his helping her get home to Kansas.

Son of a Witch

Son of a Witch tells the story of Liir, Elphaba’s son. It begins when he is a young man, found unconscious and battered in a desolate area and nursed back to health by a religious order of women. In his comatose state, his memory dips back into his past, filling readers in on the gap in time, until he wakes up. Then the story picks up from the present and follows his struggle to figure out who he is and what part he might play in the growing crisis facing Oz.

A Lion Among Men

A Lion Among Men is the Cowardly Lion’s story. His name is Brrr, and he has been sent by the government of Oz to the same religious order that cared for Liir to search for a magical book rumored to have been among Elphaba’s possessions. We learn his past and the past of another key character as he interviews one of the order’s oldest members. Most of this installment is backward-looking; only at the very end does anything happen to move the present-day narrative forward.

Out of Oz

Out of Oz, the final volume, is double the length of the others. It tracks several bands of companions in changing configurations, chronicling long periods of waiting and watching before much of anything happens. Oz grows ever more dangerous, and the various players we’ve met in previous books struggle to hide the magical objects they possess, or the bloodlines that run in their veins, or both. Before the book ends, some — though not all — of the threads left loose in the other books are finally tied together.

My Thoughts:

Well, Wicked is definitely my favorite of the four. I like the clever way in which it alludes to the version of Dorothy’s story we know. I think inventing new circumstances for familiar stories is a large part of Maguire’s skill.

I was less sold on his original creations. Their plots continue long after Elphaba is gone, and no other character seems able to step forward and fill the powerful and compelling role she held in the first book. It felt, just a little, like something was missing, like her absence left a bit of a void in the rest of the series. (Perhaps that was intentional?) I think Out of Oz was my second favorite, then A Lion Among Men, and finally Son of a Witch.

It’s not that the three later books are bad. They’re interesting enough. But they struck me as rambly and kind of pointless in parts, like Maguire wasn’t quite sure how to fill his pages, or like he felt he must account for every moment each character had been alive up to that point. There’s lots of waiting for signs and doubling back and wondering what to do next. There’s definitely enough of a plot line running through everything to keep you engaged and guessing, but I think if had I read the books instead of listening I might have gotten bored in places.

It’s quite possible Maguire meant for his books to read this way. I heard an interview with him, recorded after the first book was published, in which he talked about how he intentionally left loose ends in Wicked, because that’s how real life is. The same reasoning might explain why he didn’t cut out all the boring bits from the later books. After all, for most of us, life is boring more than it’s exciting, eh? It’s funny…I don’t think I’d have noticed so much had the novels been set in our world. It’s because they’re fantastical that I have this different set of expectations for them. Were I a citizen of Oz, reading the stories just after they’d happened, no doubt I’d be thrilled to my toes!

I do have to say that Maguire is quite good at creating worlds for his novels to unfold in. Oz has a well-traveled geography, a history and a mythology, several religions, government and legal systems, political strife, and social hierarchy, all of which are consistent and expanded upon over the course of the four novels. There are so very many characters in these books, and an impressive number have their own histories and personalities, according to the degree to which they’re involved in the story. And the relationships between people, places, and events just get stronger throughout the series.

I liked the audio productions, too. Well, three of them, anyway! John McDonough reads the first, third, and fourth books, and though he struck me as a little too gruff at first, it didn’t take long for him to win me over. Gregory Maguire reads Son of a Witch himself, and though he does a better job than some authors I’ve heard read their own works, I’d have preferred McDonough — and not just for the sake of consistency. Most of Maguire’s character voices sounded strangely robotic, and many of the women had lower voices than the men. Still, I’d definitely recommend the audio versions if you’re thinking about picking up the series. When you get to Son of a Witch, just know that McDonough comes back for the second half!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Overall, I’m quite happy I finally made it through the whole series, and I’m glad I chose audio as the way to go. It’s a mostly engaging and inventive story, even if it’s significantly darker than the version of Dorothy’s story we’re used to.

Your Turn!

What authors do you know of who tell alternate versions of familiar tales?

{ 7 comments }

Ever since I read Never Let Me Go a few years back, I’ve meant to read another by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve had The Remains of the Day on my shelf, waiting patiently, for quite some time, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the sixth book I’ve read for the challenge, which means I’m halfway through!

About the Book:

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro cover (http://erinreads.com)The loose frame of The Remains of the Day is a six-day motoring holiday that Stevens, butler to Mr. Farraday, is taking at the behest of his employer, who will himself be traveling for a few weeks and wishes for his staff to get out of grand old Darlington Hall for a spell. Stevens has had a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, in which he detects hints she might be longing to return to service. The novel is a kind of diary, perhaps, kept by Stevens over those days of traveling the English countryside in 1956, on his way to visit Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, who is a key player in many of Stevens’ recollections.

That storyline, however, takes up just a fraction of the novel. The rest, even as Stevens tries to stay with the present, continually loops back on itself, delving into memories of his life in service to great men and exploring thoughts on topics like the nature of dignity and loyalty, the role of banter in human connection, and what it takes to be a truly great butler.

My Thoughts:

If the above synopsis sounds boring, I assure you that its execution is not. Even as I was reading, I would pause from time to time and wonder how on earth such a story could be interesting — but it is, and quite so at that.

The story itself is a patchwork of vignettes stitched together by Stevens’s commentary. Through his eyes we witness the meetings of prominent men, exchanges between members of the house staff, and, in the background, history unfolding and times changing. We pick up on the themes he loves best and begin to notice things he himself seems to overlook. We hope he will eventually return to such-and-such a thread to fill in the gaps left by vague allusions. And through it all, we follow his progress from Darlington Hall to Little Compton — and his impending reunion with Miss Kenton – over the days of his trip.

Ishiguro has done masterful job capturing the almost stream-of-consciousness meanderings of someone who cannot help but derail the present in favor of some pebble from the past that has lodged in his metaphorical shoe. The associations that toss Stevens into earlier times, the ways he finds to steer the narrative back around to his topics of choice, are nothing short of fascinating. You can almost imagine him sitting there in some quaint roadside inn, physically present but glassy-eyed as the whole of his inner being wanders back to relive some snippet of memory.

Stevens himself is another masterpiece. His voice is distinct and consistent, even if he himself is not the most reliable of narrators. His shifting interpretations and justifications, the way he subtly reveals or conceals information to suit his purpose, his backtrackings and musings, paint a picture of a well-intentioned man who cannot quite be honest even with himself. His ongoing commitment to performing his duties with the utmost professionalism and dignity lead to some quietly heartbreaking moments of missed connection. Infinitesimally fleeting glimpses of different endings go by unnoticed by Stevens, and even though I hoped he might eventually recognize one and seize it, I knew he would not. He is not a character destined for thrilling plot twists, and you know it from the start. That’s ok. It’s not that kind of story, anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable the prose was. It could have been dense, but instead it was both pitch perfect and easy to read. The pages flew by with the miles and memories. After tackling bigger commitments like I Know This Much Is True, Black Swan Green, and The Cunning Man (all excellent, by the way), it was nice to zip through a TBR Pile Challenge title without feeling like I’d veered into the realm of fluff.

The Verdict: the high end of Enjoyable

I liked Never Let Me Go, but I think I prefer The Remains of the Day. The two books are quite different, and the latter is more my style. Still, both are competent works by a skilled author, and I’d recommend either to anyone interested.

Your Turn!

What novels do you love that are continually wandering back into the past?

{ 5 comments }

Since enjoying The Eyre Affair last fall and Shades of Grey during my blogging break, I’ve been meaning to read more by Jasper Fforde. When I came across The Big Over Easy, the first book in the Nursery Crimes series, on audio at my library, I picked it up.

About the Book:

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde (audiobook) (erinreads.com)Detective Sergeant Mary Mary has just transferred to Reading from  Basingstoke (which, as we hear quite often, is nothing to be ashamed of) and is hoping to land a more exciting position — maybe even one with the suave and wildly famous Friedland Chymes, an esteemed member of the Detective’s Guild and a media darling. Instead, she finds herself assigned to the Nursery Crimes Division under Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, where her colleagues include gems like Constables Baker (a hypochondriac who’s certain he is dying) and Ashley (an alien who speaks binary and can stick himself to walls). Not exactly a promising development for her career.

The NCD’s jurisdiction is anything having to do with nursery rhyme or storybook characters. Located in tiny, cramped, outdated offices, this joke of the Reading Police Department is expected to be disbanded at any moment. But when Humpty Dumpty is found dead at the base of one of his favorite walls, shattered to pieces, the NCD finds itself with a chance to prove its worth after all.

My Thoughts:

Jasper Fforde is a delight to read. His imagination must be an incredibly fascinating place, because the stories that come out of it and the worlds in which those stories are set are some of the quirkiest and most fun I’ve encountered. The Big Over Easy is no exception.

I actually expected to like The Big Over Easy less than The Eyre Affair, owing to the fact that more traditionally plotted mysteries don’t tend to be my favorite sort of book. But what I liked about The Big Over Easy — and where The Eyre Affair fell just a hair short — is its cohesiveness. Both novels, of course, stretch beyond the realm of the realistic, but where The Eyre Affair dipped into strange technology and even something like magic, The Big Over Easy simply incorporated nursery rhyme characters alongside human beings. Odd as it may sound, I had to suspend less of my disbelief in the latter case.

I love the way Fforde steeps his novels in little side-note references. As you’d expect, The Big Over Easy is full of allusions to various nursery rhymes, fairytales, and the like. If you’d never heard of anything Fforde refers to, I bet the book would seem quite strange indeed. But when you pick up on the clues, you end up snickering quietly to yourself on a fairly regular basis. Familiar characters show up in unfamiliar roles. The Gingerbread Man, for instance, is a psychotic serial killer, while Georgio Porgio is the former head of a mafia-like crime syndicate. (Both, you’ll be happy to know, are behind bars.) The Three Little Pigs were recently — and unsuccessfully — prosecuted by the NCD for murdering the Wolf. And Jack has an uncanny habit of unintentionally killing giants (or, as he insists, one giant and several very tall people).

The mystery component was quite entertaining, too. I had no idea where it was going (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, as I’m a terrible mystery solver). There were so many twists and layers that eventually I figured Fforde was out of options. He wasn’t, of course, and at the end everything made sense. I mean, the actual plot points were out there — I’d expect nothing less from Fforde — but it all hung together quite well.

Reader Simon Prebble did an excellent job bringing The Big Over Easy to life. His inflections often highlighted humor I might have missed in writing, and his lovely accent fit the setting nicely. I’d been warned that Fforde on audio can be a little hard to follow, but I didn’t have any trouble. I’m hoping my library has others of his so that I can keep going with both the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I think The Big Over Easy would be an excellent first Jasper Fforde novel, if you’ve been meaning to give him a try. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and it’s engaging. It also seems to be a fairly good taste of what Fforde’s writing is like. As long as you can handle a little weird in your novels, you should be good to go!

Your Turn!

What books do you love that blend reality with make-believe in a particularly engaging, clever way?

{ 2 comments }