The World According to Garp by John Irving – A Book Review

There are some books in existence that are simply must-reads.  The World According to Garp is very much one of those books. 

Irving has written a novel of such simple complexity that it astounds the reader time after time.  With this novel the statement is conveyed that all the nuances of life are important; every minute of your day, no matter how mundane, is integral to your overall existence.  You never know what seemingly insignificant instant will arise to change your life in ways unfathomable at the most unexpected of moments.  This is something we’ve all probably thought about at some junction of our lives, but never have I seen it take place in a novel as seamlessly and expertly as in The World According to Garp.

We meet Garp long before he is born in this novel, and we follow his story long after he is gone.  (This is ruining nothing of the plot, the chapters on the contents page tell you as such.)  I’m not sure most of us would like Garp if we knew him in our regular lives, but he is a character of such complexity, of such “trueness,” that one can’t help but become enamored with him.  His victories are our victories.  His mistakes are our mistakes.  His neuroses are our neuroses, and so on.  You will see something of yourself in Garp, and it will probably be an aspect you are not particularly proud of.

This story is epic in plot, though you don’t realize it until you’ve finished reading.  The sentences are expertly rendered, the characters are developed just enough without becoming superfluous; everything about this book works.  In my mind, it is an instant classic, to be cherished and read by all.

Haunted: Tales Of the Grotesque by Joyce Carole Oates – A Book Review

I really looked forward to reading this collection of short stories.  I love well-crafted, gothic tales, and from what I’d heard, Oates, an author I’d never before read, is something of a master.  Sadly, nothing about Haunted indicated as such.

First of all, I’m all for leaving a story off in such a manner that the reader has to work a bit to connect the dots.  However, if the author does not give enough information for the reader to conceptualize a logical ending, well, what’s the point?  Oates started each of her stories interestingly enough, but then they trailed off into oblivion with the ending coming abruptly and disappointingly. 

Secondly, I found Oates’ style in this collection to be careless at best.  Her sentences lacked punctuation to the point that they were sometimes indecipherable.  There were moments when her sentences didn’t even make sense.  While this sort of thing is common in experimental writing, Haunted did not strike me as hoping to achieve an experimental tag. 

I will say that the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me was the afterword.  Here Oates went on an impressive, fascinating, and well-written explanation of what gothic writing is, who its masters are, and what purpose it serves.  Really, really good stuff.

Haunted has not turned me off from Oates.  I’ve heard too many good things about her to avoid giving her a second chance.  However, for me, she’s got a great deal of ground to make up.

Toward the End Of Time by John Updike – A Book Review

John Updike’s Toward the End Of Time proved a bit of an enigma to me.  At times I thoroughly enjoyed it and at other times I seriously thought about putting the book down, never to open its contents again.

In the novel our protagonist goes by the name of Ben Turnbull, a retired finance expert who now haunts his home in the country as his wife obsesses with the garden, her social circles, and a gift shop she helps run.  The year is 2020, and a war with the Chinese has all but obliterated the United States as we currently know it.  However, New England has been little affected and so life is fairly normal. 

Perhaps that is Updike’s most astonishing talent.  Amongst all the mundane aspects of his tale, he’ll sometimes throw in facts about the war, or briefly mention a new life form that has emerged as a result of the war, or slip into metaphysical dissertations about all aspects of science that will virtually boggle your mind.  Along with that, at times Ben, our narrator, will slip into . . . something . . . where he is someone totally different living in ancient Egypt or soon after the death of Christ.  Perhaps just as flummoxing is the disappearance and reemergence of major characters with little to no explanation.

Amidst all this, however, exist the story of a man aging, a man who feels useless to his wife and to himself more and more with each passing day.  He is a man still hot with passion for life and for love, but he finds fulfillment for these passions in the most unusual and sometimes immoral of places.

While this novel presented itself as a constant frustration, one cannot ignore the sheer talent Updike has at imagery.  Ben’s wife’s garden is described in the utmost detail, and there are many, many metaphors as the garden is constantly torn asunder and the local wildlife exterminated in favor of the garden’s survival for Ben’s slow but sure demise and for his strained relationship with his wife.

If you are a fan of Updike and want to explore more of his interesting styles and techniques, you would probably enjoy this work very much.  However, if you are a casual reader looking for a new book, I don’t think you would enjoy this particular work.

Night Shift by Stephen King – A Book Review

This collection of short stories by Stephen King encompasses all that is great about one of our most prolific and talented writers.  I’ve given most of King’s latest work a hard time over the last few years, but only because I know how truly talented he can be.  These stories, most of which are from the middle or late 70s, are absolutely entertaining.  Creepy, engaging, perfectly paced, and utterly shocking, this is vintage King.

If you’re a King fan, this collection will remind you why you love him so much, despite his recent lackluster offerings.  If you’re looking to get acquainted with King, maybe for the first time ever, Night Shift is as King as it gets.  You will not be disappointed.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, so it was obviously held in high esteem by those far wiser than myself.  And I have to admit that I enjoyed it very much. 

Proulx’s a rather fascinating writer.  I’ve read a few of her books now, and I have to say that no two of them struck me as the same.  Her tones, her themes, even her style shifts depending on the subject.  I find this quite commendable.

In The Shipping News, Proulx gives us a story about a suppressed man who moves to Newfoundland with his daughters and aunt.  His lineage originates from that area, and so, in a sense, it was something of a homecoming for him.  He would later find his name was not highly thought of, however.  The story progresses as he deals with acclimating to his new home and job, getting to know his aunt and the indigenous people, and helping to start over with his daughters as they get over the tragedy (or blessing) that prompted them to seek a change in setting.

I suppose this book is an exploration of everyday life within a land that is rarely written about in fiction.  Proulx herself spends much time in Newfoundland, so if anyone were to be an expert to write on it, it would certainly be her.  There is no grand climax, no awe-inspiring resolution.  However, her ending made me smile and instigated a sense of hope for both the people of her story and me.  Perhaps that is the most striking way to conclude a story reflecting true life. 

Much like the people found within her story, her style of writing is very direct, plain, and utterly potent.  At times she drove me insane as she wrote fragment after fragment and ignored basic rules of grammar.  But, the execution proved effective and, by the end of the novel, her style seemed completely appropriate.

I’m guessing it was her study on human emotions and life in Newfoundland, as well as her daringness with language, that brought her the honor of the Pulitzer Prize.  If nothing else, though, I found it insightful and enjoyable, and you can’t ask for much more than that.