"A Prayer For Owen Meany"

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

This is a story of friendship, faith, doubt, the sad state of American society, and a whole lot of strange circumstances that (almost) all get neatly explained at the end. I haven't decided yet if it's a little too neat.

John Wheelwright (the narrator) was just a young boy when his best friend, Owen Meany, swung his bat and hit the baseball that struck and killed John's mother. Neither ever played baseball again, but they remained best friends until the end of Owen's life.

Owen is unusual, freakishly small with a high pitched voice. He is very bright and has a prophetic gift that reveals to him the exact date on which he is going to die. Owen has a strong belief in God. As a child he was told by his parents that his was a virgin birth and the author draws several other comparisons to Christ later in the novel. He sees more than ordinary people and seems to understand all; the phrase "instrument of God" is used several times. Every word Owen speaks is written in capital letters, weighting them with importance much like the words of Jesus in a red letter Bible. To me it felt like he was yelling all the time.  

There is a lot going on here. It's a complicated story, full of mysteries, miracles and a few mother issues. As the boys reach adulthood, the Vietnam war begins and Owen enlists because he believes that is where he has to die. Wanting to keep John out of the war, he does a gruesome amputation of John's index finger so he won't pass the medical. I'm not sure what purpose this scene had because he could have gone to Canada with other draft resistors if he didn't want to fight. In the end he rejected the American way of life and moved to Canada anyway so that bit of drama seems, no pun intended, pointless.

I found some of it to be a bit over the top. For instance, Owen keeps the late Mrs. Wheelwright's dressmaker dummy beside his bed - right beside, where he can touch it - all his life, even as an adult. In reality we would think someone who did that crazy, not special. In another instance, when they are still boys in Sunday School the kids like to lift the diminutive Owen and stick him in high places. He doesn't like it and insists they take him down but when the teacher comes in she blames Owen. Every time. There are other things but I don't want to be too picky.

Both Johns, the narrator and the author, seem spellbound by Owen. His friend believes in him, believes there is something special, even other-worldly, about him. When his mother is killed by Owen's unlucky hit, John doesn't experience any anger or hard feelings toward him at all. When the novel ends, he is still asking God to send Owen back. Is his love for Owen more than friendship? Maybe. Read it and tell me what you think.  

I found John's smug tone toward anyone who thinks differently than he does monotonous.  As a student he feels superior to the teachers; as a teacher he feels superior to the students. When Owen dies (not a spoiler - it's obvious from the beginning that he dies) he strongly objects to Owen's parents being at their son's funeral. This young man, who has never raised a child, somehow feels his own grief is more valid than theirs and that he has a right to be there and they don't. Compassion and understanding for Owen are urged throughout the story, but there isn't much of it shown for others.

I get the feeling John is trying to teach us something that he thinks we should already know but he doubts we are capable of learning. There's a condescending tone that wears thin by the end, but it is a fascinating story with interesting characters, and it's a pretty good social commentary on the times. It has an overall melancholy feel, with some comic relief, though for me the funny parts were some of the saddest. This book left me conflicted. I disliked some aspects of it, but still have to say I liked it, maybe even loved it. What I like best is that it does what few books do anymore, it surprises. It is well worth reading. 

"That Old Cape Magic"

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

I've had three Richard Russo novels on my shelf waiting to be read for a couple of years now. It's not bad enough that I buy books based on covers and titles, now I'm buying them if I like the author's name. This one had a great cover, good title, and the author's name is catchy so I had to get it. Fortunately for me it turned out to be a good story as well.

It's about Jack and Joy Griffin, whose marriage of thirty years is beginning to unravel. That sounds a bit ordinary and stale as a subject, but Russo makes the characters so real, so human, that the story feels fresh and new. He writes with a compassion for them that makes you, the reader, genuinely care and root for them. In spite of their weaknesses and flaws we like them, maybe because in truth, they are a lot like us.

The story is set in Cape Cod - perfect reading for summer - but the subject is the very complicated one of family: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, and how all of those relationships affect all the others. I don't think there's a family dynamic he hasn't touched on. The story, like real family life, is funny sometimes and then heartbreaking too. Families are the ones we love most, but they are also the ones who can drive us to the brink.

I liked this one and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story. I hope the other two of his novels I have waiting will be as good. 

"The Whole Fromage"

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison

Imagine taking a trip around France to discover where true artisanal cheeses are still being made. Imagine seeing how they’re made and learning their histories and then being able to taste the cheeses you’ve discovered. Sounds like a dream doesn’t it? Well, this book is the dream come true, maybe not for you or me, but we are lucky enough to get to read about it.

The book is more about cheese than about France, so if you’re expecting a travel memoir you’ll be disappointed. What it is, is a serious look at French cheese and its history. Living on the other side of the world, a lot of these cheeses were unfamiliar to me and many of them are unavailable here. Still it was interesting to read how they came to exist, and how they were made then and are made today. The author makes it's an interesting journey with personal anecdotes and stories about the cheese-makers she visits.

This book reawakened my interest in local cheeses from my own area, so I’ve been searching online and have managed to find a few local cheese-makers that I'm excited to try. This summer I spent a week in Prince Edward Island where a wonderful Gouda is produced by The Gouda Cheese Lady in North Winsloe. If you ever find yourself there, it’s worth stopping in; it's the best gouda I’ve ever tasted. Be sure to try the onion and red pepper, the smoked gouda and the fenugeek. They are all great, but don't bypass the regular Gouda either; it is so good it's almost a shame to add anything to it.

If you like cheese, you will love this book!   

"The Right Attitude To Rain"

The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series about a lady philosopher in her early forties living and working in Edinburgh. In this one Isabel becomes romantically involved with.......I can't tell you. You'll have to read it.

There is, as always, another story going on. This time her cousin, Mimi, and Mimi's husband, Joe, come to visit from Dallas. They all get invited for a weekend at a country house rented by wealthy friends of the cousin. The wealthy friends are engaged but Isabel suspects that all is not well between them and soon discovers the truth, in a surprisingly awkward way.

Isabel's niece, Cat, who runs the local deli, is not happy about her aunt's relationship and they spend much of this book not talking, resulting in Cat's not playing as big a part as usual in the story.

The biggest difference in this one is that most of Isabel's philosophizing is about her own life and romantic situation. Some of her attention is given to her cousin and friends, and some to Cat, but for most of the book she's agonizing over the appropriateness of the affair she's having and what it means for her own life and her lover's. I found that a bit tedious and Isabel can be somewhat smug at times, but I'll go back to this series again because the combination of philosophy and Scotland is irresistible.

My favourite lines:

"That was the problem with morality: it required a consistency and even-handedness that most of us simply did not possess. Or some schools of morality required that; and the more she thought about it, the more Isabel came to believe that such requirements were simply inhuman. That was not the way we worked as human beings. We were weak, inconsistent beings and we needed to be judged as such."

A bit of suspense: expect a big surprise ending. Big.