#owenmeany Round ONE

Welcome to the first official meeting of the Irving Owen Meany  Mini-Book Club!   (say that 3 times fast)      We are blogging and twitting and goodreads.com-ing our way through the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany and this will be the kick-off where we discuss the first three chapters and then some.    Join us! follow along!

INFORMAL SCHEDULE apfombji (<– click here to go to next in schedule)

Care – page 91 / end of Ch 3 The Armadillo – Friday 7/24 TODAY!
Lu – page 183 / end of Ch 4 The Little Lord Jesus – Monday 07/27
Ms Mazzola – page 230 / end of Ch 5 The Ghost of the Future – Wed 07/29
Jessi – page 300 / end of Ch 6 The Voice – 07/31
Jill – page 369 / end of Ch 7 The Dream -08/03
Vasilly – page 450 / end of Ch 8 The Finger –  08/06
Joanne (with an E) – ENDING/Readers Guide by August 08 which is a Saturday

QUESTIONS for DISCUSSION

First sentence of the novel:  “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God;  I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

Is this a strong first sentence?    Does it include TOO MUCH foreshadowing?   Is this too blunt to be foreshadowing? Does it give you a hint that we will have a lot to go through in the 500+ pages ahead?      Is this a religious book!?

The Wiki page for autho John Irving includes a few quotes relevant to the first sentence:

“When I finally write the first sentence, I want to know everything that happens, so that I am not inventing the story as I write it – rather, I am remembering a story that has already happened.”

“I spend about two to three months planning the path of the book in my head before I write the last sentence of the novel. From there I work back to the beginning. From the day I think of the last sentence to the book’s publication date, not more than a semicolon has changed.”

Let’s discuss this technique of writing fiction in general.    Do you think most authors do this or do you prefer – or can even tell? – when an author either plans out the story well beforehand or allows the characters to write themselves during the writing process?      I’m drawing on other author interviews that tell of actually having to write so they themselves know how the story ends.

Do you read the last page(s) of books?

Have you read any reviews lately about what this book is about or do you like to go in ‘blind’?

The Wiki page says this about Owen Meany:   “New England family epic centered around religion set in a New England boarding school. The novel was influenced by The Tin Drum by Günter GrassThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the works of Dickens. In Owen Meany, Irving for the first time examined the consequences of the Vietnam War – particularly mandatory conscription, which Irving avoided because he was a married father and a teacher when of age for the draft. Owen Meany became Irving’s bestselling book since Garp, and is now a frequent feature on high school English reading lists.”

Which of these influencing books have you read?    Any thoughts?   Do you know anyone who ‘had’ to read this in school?

Did you pick up on all the ‘as you shall see’s that BookZombie twitted?

And finally,  comments on the NO ARM theme (per Ms. Mazzola’s twitter) that has frequently been featured?    From the Indian that town founder Wheelwright bought the land from, the discussion on grief and the declawed armadillo, and the dress dummy.

Anything else I should bring up?

Commenting and discussing may now commence.

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27 thoughts on “#owenmeany Round ONE

  1. OK, I’ll be first. I wrote this post last night and scheduled it for a zero hour posting and thought I would sleep on how I would answer my own questions. (I have a feeling comments might be looooong here.) I thought the first sentence was very much a big glaring spotlight telling us what the book was about. and yet NOT. At least, now that I’m 150 pages in, I’m still wondering what all I will encounter next in the story!
    I also must admit that I open and prefer to start a book totally BLIND to what it’s about. Especially a classic, a book that by title and author is a ‘should-read’. I’m not even sure I knew it was going to be so religious and I’m grateful that I went to parochial school and know all this new testament stuff quite well. Also, I want to know more about Vietnam so I’m eager to confront what’s coming in the story. But, again, I’m not sure at all what all will be coming.
    I do not read the last pages. HOwever, in Last Night in Montreal, I did – but only the last page so when the story ending unfolded WOW!!! I was still floored and do think that Ms Mandel has an astonishing debut (even if I only gave it 3.5 pie slices…) and I think she might be one of those authors who has the story & ending in her head before writing the beginning.
    I have only read The Scarlet Letter (and still instantly think of Demi Moore!?) but will likely have to have one of you explain to me the connection to this and any Dickens.

    1. Yeah, that first sentence threw me a bit. A friend of mine read it and asked if it was a religious book, too. I told her I had no idea, but having read a bit of it now I can say, “Kinda? I guess? Maybe a little, in that it talks about the characters going to church and the narrator has all these opinions on different denominations?”

      I’m curious as to where the story’s heading myself. I’ve read no reviews, and I’m not flipping to the back. I want to be surprised, and I already have been several times.

  2. I’ve just finished Chapter 3 The Angel and there are so many thoughts going through my head, and a lot of what I have to say is very jumbled – so sorry if its’ confusing 😛

    That first sentence seems to me perfect, it sets the entire tone so well – prepares the reader for a reflection of past events and gives an illusion that it is sometimes good, sometimes bad. “Doomed to remember” made me think the narrator has regrets, sadness, but “I am a Christian because” gives the feel of hope and faith. It definitely grabbed my attention.

    I could never read the last page of a book first! And if somehow I did, I can imagine I might put the book away immediately. Going in blind with a book is a toss-up for me – if it’s something light I don’t mind reviews or word-of-mouth, but for heavier novels I like to know nothing. If I’m reading for an assignment or a book chat like this then I absolutely prefer going in blind. I like to be sure that I have no preconceived ideas to get in the way of my own thoughts while reading.

    Of the influencing books I’ve only read The Scarlett Letter and I see it’s relation to this book (but that’s a bit into chapter 3 The Angel so I will say no more.)

    I’ve got this really annoying defect in my head that reoccurring phrases in books stick in my head like glue. Sometimes it’s awesome, like with “as you shall see” but sometimes it’s terrible when an author uses the same descriptors (can’t remember what book it was, probably a historic romance, but the author used the phrase “vacuously robust” about a million times – and it makes not sense!) Anyway, I like how Irving uses “as you shall see” during Johnnys narrative, it makes it feel natural when he goes from one topic to another and then doubles back to the original thought. It also gives the impression that Johnnys working through his feelings while telling the story.

    The armlessness that Ms. Mazzola brought up seems to be such a key element to the story! I’ve been thinking about this so much and I have two theories so far:
    1) It’s a tricky misdirection. It could be that Johnny is looking too much into it for answers and that his over-awareness is also clouding the readers thoughts of it.
    2) I’m not religious at all, so this could be me over-analyzing things but maybe the armlessness is a hint that God is the one in control. Take away mans primary tool (his arms) and he is helpless, leaving people to believe God is the only one who has the power to change/do things.
    When the Indian signs over their land early on, the symbol he signs with is an armless totem and this could be meaning that he believes he has no power, or that he will not “take arms” against the people who want the land, or it could be that their belief and faith tells them it is better to let God (or their own higher power) look after things rather than go to war over material things.

    The armadillo has me completely confused though! Did Owen mean to make the armadillo unable to stand on his own as a message to Johnny? Maybe he knew that Johnny would go to Dan about the armadillo and hoped to push the two together in a stronger bond – the armadillo could stand with help from Johnny after losing it’s stability (claws), just as Johnny could stand with help from Dan after losing his stabilizer (his mother.) I dunno, I over think things too much.

    One other thing that has me thinking is Hester. I think she plays some important part in the story but I’m not sure how. There is the kissing cousins, her sensitivity towards Owen, and her name itself – I’m making a connection between the influencing novel Scarlett Letter and it’s characters name Hester. Also her refusal to give up Owen’s hiding place during their game of hide & seek – I’m positive I know where she hid him (but I’m scared to say in case it’s a spoiler) Is this an important part do you think?

    What I’m really curious about is Owen parents, well his mom really. His dad seems normal enough but his mom seems a bit mysterious. What do you think about the Meanys’?

    1. Joanne, you’re going to get a bunch more of Owen’s parents in the Ghost of the Future chapter, as you shall see.

      And, I love your reading so much into Owen’s motivations to get Dan and Johnny to build a strong bond. I hadn’t thought it – I’m already thinking Owen is amazingly bright – but, wow! Sure, I could buy this.

      I am obviously NOT overthinking this. I have no idea where Hester had him hidden – forgot all about it but I hope we find out now. and yes, Hester has had too much description as a slut to not come into the story again.

    2. The “as you shall see” reminded me a bit too much of Dan Brown/James Patterson – to me, they tend to end their chapters on a cliffhanger, to get you to read more. Irving isn’t like that, thank God – I actually care about these characters and want to know what happened to them. When he says, “as you shall see,” I get frustrated because I want to know the story NOW, but then I get sucked back into whatever’s going on at the time. It’s nice when he picks the thread up again later.

      Hester strikes me as a very interesting (and important) character. I thought maybe Irving was hinting at some sort of romance between her and Johnny, but now I’m wondering if it’s actually her and Owen, which would be…I don’t know, almost sweet, maybe?

      I’m definitely intrigued by the Meanys. I’m hoping Irving will reveal some more about Owen’s crazy mom soon…

  3. To me the first sentence is a perfect example of what kept me from finishing the book the first time around (and I’m pretty sure–I hope!–this is evidenced in the first three chapters). Irving continually bashes the reader about the head with foreshadowing, meandering through story after the story with the intermittent IF I HAD ONLY KNOWN THEN ABOUT WHAT OWEN WOULD GO THROUGH, AND HOW IT WOULD CHANGE THE ENTIRE WORLD–say, did I tell you about that one funny thing that happened I was 8?

    It frustrated me to no end.

    1. A perfect example of how the reader’s mood does impact how a story is perceived! I’m just ready to roll and see where the leisurely river of this narrative will take me. You seem a bit more impatient – is that a good word? I will agree there is some push-pull, ok a LOT of push and pull!

  4. Okay, thanks to some time on the treadmill, I am now caught up.

    I’m struggling with all of the religious references (it’s what keeps putting me off the book) and the meandery-ness that Ali mentions. I keep thinking, “Dude, get to the story!!!”

    But I keep reading because people keep telling me how awesome it is. And I’m waiting. And waiting. Although come to think of it, no one has said WHY it’s awesome.

    Yes, I read last pages. But not all of the time. And I have yet to be tempted with this one, so I’m still in the dark.

    I’ve heard many authors say they just let the book develop as the write it, and I’m starting to think I much prefer those books. Otherwise, you end up with books like this, heavy with symbolism (which goes right over my head…case in point, the arms. Also, Hester.) And the feeling that I’m being beat over the head with religious references.

    And okay, I suspect he’s going to tie all of the seemingly random back stories together into one giant revelation and I’ll have to take back all of my sniping on how this is not working for me, but for now? I’m not a fan of Irving’s style.

    But I’ll keep reading…if only because it gives me something to complain about. 😀

    1. I used to think I was good at picking up on all the symbolism but I’m finding myself missing a lot in most of my latest reads. But I love the ‘oh yea!’ when someone explains things to me. 🙂

      Honestly, I think knowing the religion/NewTestament like I do actually gives me permission to gloss over and not think about it – does that make sense? and flip side, I know I know zero abt Greek mythology so when I encounter it in stories I get mad that I don’t know more when I probably would gloss over it if I thought I knew it. I don’t think I’m explaining myself. Or like French words in the old classics. I hate not knowing and I let myself get tripped up rather than just breeze over them.

    2. When I told one of my cousins we were reading Owen Meany, she got all excited and wanted to talk to me about it. I told her I didn’t want any spoilers, and I’m pretty sure it’s driving her crazy not to talk about some of the later reveals.

      I don’t mind the meandering and the religious stuff. This was actually a really great book to take the beach, because I could just sit under the umbrella and spend an hour or so getting caught up in the story. Now that I’m back home, I’ll have to wait and see if I still have the patience to sit and read it for long blocks of time, or if I get frustrated, too. 🙂

  5. Do you think the influencing books will be SO OBVIOUS as just naming Hester?! and in the pageant scene, the text actually calls it a reinterpretation of Dickens.

  6. Having read and enjoyed this book several times, I think your observations are very astute, Care. I liked the first sentence, although the Christian reference with a capital “C” alarmed me quite a bit. I was greatly relieved to discover that the novel is not really Jesus Lit even though it contains scads of religious scenes and symbolism. It is a religious satire that denigrates Christian hypocrisy while extolling the virtues of being pure and honest in one’s own belief(s), whether they be Christian or other. This dichotomy probably turns some people off, but I love this kind of writing because it’s fun to try to pick out some of the underlying motifs and messages.

    I can see why there are Dickensian comparisons. Both Dickens and Irving are great social satirists and critics who have a lot to say about the sorry state of society. Both novelists create quirky, yet lovable characters and outlandish situations that are both humorous and emotionally moving at the same time.

    I NEVER read the last page of a novel. The last page is sancrosanct. Those who cheat and do this should be severely chastized by their peers, like ME!

    I can’t wait until Monday, when Lu will be discussing my favorite part of the novel, the Christmas Pageant!

  7. Oh, and BTW, I like foreshadowing. I love it when the last sentence of a chapter says something like, “…but this was just the beginning of the bad times for poor little Henny Penny…” What fun!

  8. The Book Thief is poorly written, IMO. It contains short choppy sentence fragments interspersed with long, meandering diatribes that go nowhere, at least in the beginning. I didn’t read it long enough to see if it got better. If it doesn’t catch me from the get go, it’s a no go.

  9. Okay….there is so much to reply to that I am not sure where to start.

    I do know students who have to read this book— MINE. My AP seniors are reading it over the summer. If only I had known about this then, I could have had them all join in, that would have been a hoot.

    Do I think this is a religious book? Religious, no. A book about faith, yes. Absolutely. He believes in God because of Owen Meany, but look at how many times he changed denominations and churches. It is about faith and doubt more than religion I think.

    As far as Irving getting off track and rambling, I don’t think that’s a fair critique. If you read closely, you will see that those “ramblings” are very much connected to what is happening. For example in The Foul Ball chapter the whole story about playing hide and seek and Owen peeing himself connects to the image of Owen riding his bike home- looking all sad and pathetic and heart-broken. Much like the image Johnny pictures after that fateful baseball game.

    Joanne- I LOVE your thoughts on the armlessness- the idea that they are all in God’s hands. Yes, yes, yes. I am with you on that one.

    And I hate to admit it (Chartroose please don’t hate me) but I always read the ending before I finish a book. Always. I also used to unwrap my Christmas presents when my parents weren’t home and then wrap back them up. I hate not knowing.

    I think that Irving’s use of flashbacks and flashforwards are interesting. How different this story would be if it was told in the actual sequence of events. This is something I ask my students to really analyze- why does the tell the story in this manner? What effect does it have on the reader?

    I love John Irving- I think he is hilarious and he breaks my heart at the same time.

    Okay, I am sorry if I just came across sounding all English teacher-y. I loved reading everyone’s posts. This is good conversation. -Ms Mazzola

    1. I absolutely LOVE the English-teacher-y-ness! Thank you. I’m also finding how much old Johnny is like his grandmother (specifically his indignation with not being nominated for any positions in the church.) I’ve very impressed with Irving so far.

  10. Okay, I’M READY.
    First of all, I pretty much think that everything John Irving has ever written is ah-mazing. It’s the most vivid writing I have ever read, he moves me emotionally like few authors can. I love love love the way he writes – so I’m a little biased.

    I have to admit – I was at first a little put off by the religious overtones. (Undertones, I’m all for em! Don’t beat me over the head with it, please.) However, after reading more and more, I realize, as some of you mentioned before Msmazzola, that it’s not really a Christian novel (with a capital C) so much as a novel about faith – any kind of faith. It’s not preachy, it’s realistic and I like it.

    As for armlessness, I was looking for it, because I noticed it on the twitter discussion before I started reading. What about the armlessness of the dress-form? It’s on the cover of my book, and I’m trying to figure out what this means; maybe it will play a bigger part later in the book. I know it is kind of standing in for his mother at this point, as a representation of the void she has left behind.

    Speaking of this, the scene of his mother’s death was so so so so heartbreaking and so SO good. Irving has a talent and that’s making the absurd totally, believably, achingly tragic. (Please excuse my excess.) Every death Irving writes, at least all the ones I’ve read, feel so real. About a year ago, I suddenly lost someone very close to me, and Irving has a power to evoke all of those emotions. One of my biggest pet peeves is when an author treats a death like it is nothing – have you ever read a book where an author says “And then she died.” and the next part of the book happens? The death is glossed over and treated as if it were nothing. Irving never ever does this – every death has meaning, every death is important, every death is tragic, even the death of the “enemy.”

    John Irving’s writing style described above seems strange to me. More evidence that he’s a master 😉

    I thought the most vivid scene was when Dan gave Johnny the armadillo. I loved it! That it was followed immediately by the tragic death of his mother was brilliant. I absolutely loved that chapter, so I hope some of the future ones live up to it.

    I’m intrigued by Hester and I’m looking forward to see her role in things.

    Whew, that was long. This is so much fun!!! I love read-alongs. Best part of blogging, no question. Thanks Care for setting this up, and thanks to everyone for participating, can’t wait for the next installment!!!

  11. This is only the second Irving novel I’ve read, and I’m really getting into it. This is probably going to sound a bit morbid, but my dad died when I was younger, so I’ve always been drawn to books where the main character loses a parent. I feel like I can relate to them more, if that makes any sense. Tabby’s death was tragic and a bit ridiculous – I was in shock as much as Johnny and Owen, I think.

    The armless motif is an interesting one, and I’m wondering where else we’ll see it come into play. I’m also wondering about Owen – he seems to me like a tragic figure, and I’m starting to get some “Christ-like sacrifice” vibes off of him. Or maybe that’s just me.

    As far as the literary influences go, I guess I can kind of see some Scarlett Letter in Owen Meany, especially with Tabby’s single motherhood and Hester. I’m not a big Dickens reader and I’ve never read The Tin Drum, so I can’t really comment on those.

    I minored in Religious Studies and even I’m having a hard time keeping all the religious stuff straight. Not the symbolism so much as just the jumping back-and-forth between different denominations, and Owen’s apparent disgust with one of them (Anglican? I can’t remember).

    1. Owen has a big problem with Catholicism, and nuns.
      Re: armless motif – the Wiki page says that a recurring theme of Irving’s is a character’s concern with having control and how life rarely allows it.
      and me, too! on the sacrifice vibe.

  12. OK, this doesn’t count. I’m not really “playing” but had to say something because I love this book, I mean, it’s in my personal top 10 and so glad to see you working through it. (I will never stick on this “challenge” but I love it nonetheless.)

    See? I have to go now, rather than discussing Owen. I have work to do, tonight, darn it. though I’m thinking about getting up really really early.

    Onward, with Owen! Enjoy!

  13. Pingback: Mini Reviews August 2009 « Care's Online Book Club

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