REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I started writing the review for John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany 10 times. Literally.  I’d get a sentence in, and then lose all direction. It has been frustrating. To be clear, I enjoyed the book. More than enjoyed, I devoured all 600 pages in two days. I am a longtime fan of John Irving; he’s the king of New England (catch that reference?). I blame A Prayer for Owen Meany for why I am so behind on my reviews; for a while I refused to write anything else until I could justly capture and comprehend the mess of feelings I have for this magical little boy.

I am a compassionate person, but I am known for tamping down this quality in myself and frequently default to cynicism and eye rolling at writings of the saccharin and sappy nature. My sense of romance and magic is offbeat (as mentioned in my review of The Princess Bride). I do, though, have an embarrassingly large soft spot for Meg Ryan romcoms (pre Kate & Leopold), but that’s a whole different bag of self-contradiction to unpack. After doing some digging, I realized this is why I had difficulty reviewing A Prayer for Owen Meany. I didn’t want to admit that the damn kid got to me. He got to me hard. And he got to me on a very personal level.

The reason John Irving is so popular in American culture is his ability to highlight the good in humanity without overselling it. None of Irving’s characters are perfect or one dimensional. They exhibit compassion and the capacity to grow. A Prayer for Owen Meany uses it’s titular character to bring out that compassion in those who surround him. As much as it would be easy for one to say that an Owen Meany type is such an extreme  character, he could never exist in the real world. The truth is, we’ve all come across that person (or persons) in our lives; the ones who display that little bit of magic and inspire us to be more open with our benevolence; the ones who remind us there are no tragedies or shortcomings (no pun intended) so large that we should forget what it means to extend a hand to others; the ones that unite us through our love of them. The ones who are simply too good for this world.

A Prayer for Owen Meany hit on something specific to my life, and Irving sold me on his portrayal of it. So I don’t want to taint this beautiful and cathartic moment with addressing the weaknesses of the novel, though there are some. All I  want to say is, if ever there was a time we needed the Owen Meanys of the world, it is now. So do yourself a favor and introduce yourself to him, and pay his magic forward.

 Rating: 4 Armadillos

 

I dedicate this review to CD. All of those who knew you, even if just for a moment, use their hearts to love a little stronger, extend a little further, and embrace a little wider, because of the magic you brought to our lives. Your goodness will always live on.

 

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REVIEW: The Thing Around Your Neck

Thanks to this blog, short story collections have quickly become a favorite genre of mine. While some collections are significantly stronger than others (The Redemption of Galen Pike vs A Good Man is Hard to Findthe art form on the whole is one I am fascinated with. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie maintains this fascination with her collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Though not as consistent a collection as Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike (but, let’s be real, that’s a near impossible bar to hurdle over), Adichie does a stunning job of capturing various universal adversities. Adichie explores all walks of life and primarily focuses on female narrators who have been marginalized – the only story not told from a woman’s perspective or focused on women is Ghosts. In making The Thing Around Your Neck a femalecentric collection, Adichie provides a strong voice to those generally ignored by the masses. Imbuing these voices with a distinctive and comforting style makes The Thing Around Your Neck a unique and powerful collection.

To those who love short stories and strong female voices, The Thing Around Your Neck should be added to your TBR stat.

Standouts:
The Thing Around Your Neck
A Private Experience
The Shivering
On Monday Last Week
 
Rating: 4 BAMF Babes

REVIEW: In the Garden of Beasts

Time for a little dip into historical non-fiction.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts explores the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. And let me tell you, it is chilling.

In the Garden of Beasts stands out, because of Larson’s strong writing, and because it explores a period that is generally omitted in standard teachings of the World War II era. Most of my knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust centers on the effects of Hitler’s regime, leaving out the details of his rise to power. Reading Larson’s recounting of American ambassador, William Dobb’s, experiences in Berlin just as this political shift is taking place adds another (or 10) more layers to just how (pardon my French) effed up that world was.

Some portions of In the Garden of Beasts do drag, the bulk, however, is a fascinating (though unsettling) read on manipulation of power and the subtleties of brainwashing. Most of the insight actually comes from Martha Dobb’s (daughter of William) experiences as she inhabits the social circles surrounding the rise of a New Germany and engages in numerous affairs with members of the Nazi party. Frankly, Martha’s story is what held my attention the most since she was so enticed by the glitz and glamor of the world of the Third Reich; her journey from the start to end of the period Larson covers offers a unique perspective on the times. Mr. Dobb’s journey is a bit cut and dry, but highlights his struggles as he rationalizes the turmoil that surrounds him, and eventually attempts, unsuccessfully, to protest against what he comes to realize is where this new Germany is heading. The relationship among Dobbs, the American government, and the German government is a dark and stormy triangle. And one in which America and it’s ambassador should not be proud of.

In today’s political climate which has left many wondering “how did we get here?” I highly recommend reading In the Garden of Beasts. It is worth sticking it out through the slower sections to gain a sense of the slow burn it takes to make strong and shocking governmental shifts happen, and maybe help us figure out how to stop them before they start to burn too brightly.

 

Rating: 4 Concerned Citizens

 

REVIEW: A Life in Parts

Bryan Cranstonone of my biggest talent crushes, is an actor who dominates in all genres and all mediums, a man who speaks insightfully on his art and the world around him. In addition, he’s like super tall. A Life in Parts was undoubtedly going to be on my list this year.
It is always a bit of a gamble to read a memoire by one of your acting heroes – what if they turn out to be a  dull dud, or wildly self-indulgent, or you find out their views on their craft are a disappointment. All failings that would be hard on the little heart of this abundantly passionate actor. But, so far, I’m 3 for 3 on my talent crushes living up to expectations. (Cranston proceeds Alan Arkin and Steve Martin).
My expectations for A Life in Parts were high considering Bryan Cranston is wonderfully well-spoken (as referenced above). The compassion, fearlessness, wisdom, and curiosity Cranston brings to the screen, stage, and interviews, translates beautifully to the page. While A Life in Parts would probably appeal more to those in the arts industry (or Breaking Bad fans), Cranston’s journey is relatable to all. His struggles with his family, finding himself and coming into his own, coupled with his ability to take in his varied experiences, and turn them into something poignant to share with the world is inspiring. Cranston happens to find his voice via acting (what he was clearly destined to do); but the riveting energy of A Life in Parts will inspire anyone to discover the path to their voice in any vocation.
The only, and I mean only, issue I took with A Life in Parts was a bit of overkill with the Breaking Bad section which threatened to erode the heart of the memoir. But, that aside, well done, Mr. Cranston, I now admire you even more.
Rating: 4 Heisenbergs 

REVIEW: The Joy Luck Club

My mother has been asking me to read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club for about, oh, I don’t know, 15 years? So as any good daughter would do, I kept putting it off. I’d say I wish I had read it sooner, but with the current societal climate for women, and goings on in my personal life, I couldn’t have picked a better time to delve into this novel.
I love the structural element Amy Tan uses to tell the stories of the mothers and daughters of The Joy Luck Club. It is almost a series of short stories, bookended by the main plot. 
These brilliant vignettes depicting the relationships between these women, speaks volumes to the hardships women have faced over time, the negative and positive aspects of how we relate with and treat each other, and the power of resilience and kindness.
The Joy Luck Club will definitely be making it to my top recs list for 2017.
 
Rating: 4.5 Mahjong Tiles

REVIEW: Green for Danger

If you are like me, you like your mysteries less convoluted; the focus being on the mystery at hand, with the cast of characters merely breathing life, some humor, and intrigue to the plot as opposed to taking it over. If you are not like me, change. Just kidding. But this review might not appeal to you.
 
Christianna Brand exemplifies the epitome of a straight forward mystery novel with Green for Danger. Brand creates a solid whodunit that cleverly keeps the reader hanging on until the denouement. She offers just enough insight into her characters’ lives without overloading the reader with backstory and drama unless required to create the plot twists and mystery to keep the reader guessing and support the final reveal. 
I simply couldn’t put Green for Danger down, because I was so curious as to how it would unfold (which is kind of sad because I definitely watched the film within the past year and, in typical Day fashion, couldn’t remember a single important thing), and because the cast Brand put together kept me rooting for each of them to be the good guy.
 
Brand certainly has me excited to read more of her works, earning a spot on my 2018 list.
 
Rating: 4 Scrubs

REVIEW: The Death of a Beekeeper

I have been writing my reviews on a fairly long delay. Not intentionally, just because life happens. But, I’ve found it has helped me create clearer views on these postponed reviews.

When I finished Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper I wasn’t smitten. It certainly didn’t spark the ranter in me, nor did I pinpoint anything specifically flawed in the novel, I didn’t for some reason connect with the narrator on a personal level. So, as I finished the last page I had a general feeling of “eh, alright.”

I was very sad to inform my father of my reaction, since The Death of a Beekeeper was yet another of his suggestions, and, as you know, he has been batting a thousand thus far.

Pops recently brought up the novel again, partially to kindly (impatiently) inquire as to when I was actually reviewing the novel, but also to express his reasons why it struck a chord with him. After this exchange, and the writing of a few more overdue reviews, I realized that much of Gustafsson’s words have, indeed, stuck with me over the 2 ½ months since I finished the novel. (Yes, I’m THAT delayed).

The Death of a Beekeeper truly is a uniquely and beautifully written work. And, no, I couldn’t always get myself to feel engaged with our titular beekeeper, Lars (though I could sympathize with his condition…the title is pretty blunt in what we are dealing with here), but the overall essence never left me. In fact, in rereading sections I highlighted, I became quite emotional.

Now, maybe my sentimentality was heightened because of my association of the novel with my father, or maybe something in myself has shifted over the past couple of months. But, The Death of a Beekeeper has moved up in the ranks for me, and I’m glad I waited to share it with you (something I wish I had done last year with The Road, that book has never left me). And, if you don’t trust my unstable judgement, trust my father’s, he always finds the beauty in hidden gems and brings them to light.

 

Rating: 4 Stingers