The Cider House Rules – John Irving

CiderHouseRulesTitle: The Cider House Rules
Author: John Irving
Year: 1985
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Read: March 5, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 9.0 / 10

The Cider House Rules, John Irving’s (1942 – ) sixth novel is riddled with intricacies that make an already rich narrative all the more compelling. Initially centered around the adolescent development of Homer Wells, an orphan at Saint Cloud’s, and the orphanage’s director Wilbur Larch, the novel gradually expands to encompass a broader setting consisting of several areas in Maine as well as a growing set of perspectives and storylines. This expansion is masterfully done by Irving. The chapters slowly grow in length (beginning at around 35 pages and getting a little longer with each addition), and the spectrum of what each chapter takes in goes from isolation to being grand, yet interlaced.

The novel focuses thematically on the dilemma of deciding whether or not withholding information or lying is beneficial for others. This idea is at the forefront of the characters’ and reader’s conscience throughout the majority of the book, and, as a reader, I had as much difficulty as the characters did on choosing whether or not they should reveal their secrets. The Cider House Rules also deals with the ideas of abandonment and self worth, aptly labeled by Irving’s characters as being “of use.”

The characters themselves are brilliantly crafted by Irving. He shift perspectives more as the narrator’s omniscience grows and seamlessly switches between them without a moment’s notice. Despite the shifts being rapid, the new perspective thematically matches that of each previous one so that each transition is incredibly smooth. The characters each have unique attitude, and all of them stay true to form for the entirety of the novel.

Irving plays with language at different parts of the novel which causes the reader to make connections between different occurrences. Sometimes these instances are overt, yet at other times the association occurs almost unconsciously for the reader. One example that particularly struck me involved the character Homer Wells identifying himself as a Bedouin while Dr. Larch decides that Wells’ imagined persona attended Bowdoin College. The corollary between Bedouin and Bowdoin may not have been intentional on Irving’s part, although I am under the strong impression that it is, the similarity in the sounds of the self implied description of Bedouin and the college Bowdoin creates an echo and brings the idea that Homer is without a permanent home (the essential meaning the book uses for Bedouin) to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

The scenarios that play out in Irving’s novel are stretched to the point of almost (significant emphasis on almost) being completely unbelievable. Characters are seemingly fated to be reunited for different purposes and to destined to fulfill certain roles. That being said, though, the novel is one of few I’ve read recently where the plot is laid out as soon as the reader understands what the conflict is. Irving does an excellent job of keeping every reveal a surprise and hiding the direction that the novel is going until the twilight of the book, keeping the reader fully attentive to the plot and the intricate web that the characters find themselves in.

“That’s when he learned how to make the make-believe matter to him more than real life mattered to him; that’s when he learned how to paint a picture that was not real and never would be real, but in order to be believed at all – even on a sunny Indian summer day – it had to be better made and seem more real than real; it had to sound at least probable.”

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The Cider House Rules also became a film. Screenplay by John Irving.


My Experience with Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate

Despite it only being about an hour long, Seamus Heaney, one of the world’s most prestigious living poets, covered several far-reaching topics in his Q and A session. I had the opportunity, along with about fifteen other individuals, to meet with the poet and ask questions regarding his career, inspiration, and life.

“I believe poetry is too big for any of us…to be defined. To call yourself a poet is quite an undertaking, or overtaking.”

20130304_163548-1Heaney, 73, in his wry and witty demeanor, quickly demonstrated his creativity and eagerness in tackling different subjects. When asked about how to introduce young students to poetry that do not already have an appreciation for it, Heaney mentioned an occurrence from a few years ago when, in an interview, he praised the rap artist Eminem for his “subversive attitude” and “verbal energy,” and he stated that perhaps music lyrics, especially rap, may be a proper gateway or introduction to poetry and poetic styles. He also comically stated that the title of the journalist’s article the next day was something along the lines of “Poet commends vulgarity in rap music.”

“I’m not sure if this is poetry or not, but it is a thing that I can do,” Heaney recalled saying after writing “Digging,” one of his first major poems. He indicated that he was not comfortable being considered a poet by profession until years into his career. He would write “in binges, on a roll for awhile” when struck with ideas instead of devoting a set amount of time each day to his work. However, he admitted that he regretted not having a more strict process, saying “At this age, I’m more sorry that I didn’t practice a more disciplined attitude.”

“Perhaps you should write a journal, which I didn’t do either.”

20130304_165511An appreciation for the fellowship of support between poets is something that was readily apparent in talks with Heaney. When discussing influence, he declared that the “enabling quality of other writers was important. Love was also important.” He discussed the methods used in reviews and criticism between poets. Heaney stated that he favors appreciation and having a “judicious take” on poems, stressing that reviews need “honesty and mercy.” On the importance of love in his works, Heaney mentioned the importance of his wife and family on his career.

“It would be hard to keep it going for 50 years” without the support of his family. “Marriage is a hell of a job, really. An inevitable job, I suppose.”

The conversation with the renown poet ended on his perception of his legacy. He jokingly pointed out that he was once referred to as “Famous Seamus,” and he followed Wordsworth’s definition on the difference between pleasing an audience and pleasing the public. “You don’t set out to please the public. You set out to please the audience.”

After the private Q and A session, Heaney engaged several hundred people in a public poetry reading.


Meeting Seamus Heaney

ImageI have the unbelievable opportunity to meet Seamus Heaney, world-renown Northern Irish poet, tomorrow in a private Q and A session at my university as well as getting to listen to a poetry reading conducted by him. Needless to say, I am extremely excited. I’ve been told that he prefers not to autograph things in person, but has copies of his collections that he’s previously autographed. I will definitely be taking my book of his collected works with me for the entire event so that I can make constant reference to it. Hopefully I will be able to get a question in during his Q and A, although I have no idea what I would even begin to ask him. I can only hope that I don’t freak out at the sight of him and embarrass myself. If there’s any question that you, reader, would like to ask him, let me know and I’ll consider stealing it and asking myself! I will be posting every bit of the Q and A session that I can remember and my impression of the poetry reading after everything is over. I just needed to express how much I anticipate this opportunity.

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – David Wong

ImageTitle: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It
Author: David Wong (Jason Pargin)
Year: 2012
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Date Read: January 20, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.5

My Rating: 8.5

I was ecstatic when I saw that this book had finally been published. I downloaded it onto my Kindle app (one of the rare occasions that I don’t require a hard copy of a book) upon departing on a twelve hour road trip. Luckily, I rode in the passenger seat the entire way and finished the novel exactly when we arrived at our destination. Since I read it on my phone, the implication in the title wasn’t as relevant, but it’s still incredibly clever and grabs a potential reader’s attention.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is the sequel to the combination horror/comedy novel John Dies at the End by David Wong (1975 -), senior editor of John Dies at the End is a book that I frequently recommend to my friends, both those that read for pleasure and those that don’t. It’s a book that is extremely entertaining, so much so that it recently became a movie. David Wong, in both books, engages the reader directly, and plays with the conventions that are typically seen in novels. The title of the first book in, according to an AMA on Reddit, a trilogy, John Dies at the End, toys with the reader’s perception by seemingly spoiling the ending with the title of the book (I won’t specify whether or not John actually does, indeed, die [he does {but not at the end <I’m sorry for the spoilers>}]). Wong frequently employs different tactics of addressing the reader or making the books seem like an impromptu retelling that is both interesting and fresh. He succeeds in writing, in a sense, a meta-novel – where the fact that the novel is a novel is acknowledged, allowing the author and narrator (both of which are David Wong) to do things that other novels can’t. Hopefully that statement makes any sense. Moving on.

If you watched the trailer that I hyperlinked, I would think that you are undoubtedly confused as to what the premise of John Dies at the End is. It’s probably to be expected. Both novels read almost like a dream which is what I particularly love about Wong’s writing style. The content throughout is entirely absurd and it seems impossible to suspend disbelief at any point. However, the ridiculous details of the plot of This Book Is Full of Spiders, along with Wong’s first novel, only seem so when viewed individually. When progressing through the novel, the reader doesn’t find the fact that a cluster of turkeys (or gaggle? I don’t know what the proper term for a group of turkeys is.) conjoin to form the figure of a human – think Power Rangers or Voltron – is out of place enough to lose the suspension of disbelief. The process is comparable to how over top the events in dreams are, but they rarely wake up the sleeper. Similarly, explaining This Book Is Full of Spiders to someone, or reading a quote from it, is like explaining a nightmare: only after you finish do you realize how strange everything actually is. When I told my friend about a humorous portion of the book while on our road trip, and there are many portions worth reading aloud to friends, the reaction was, not surprisingly, “What the Hell are you reading?”

The plot of the novel follows David and John after the events of John Dies at the End, and details the exploits of the two when their city of [Undisclosed] is infested with body-snatching life forms that resemble giant spiders. The dilemma spirals out of control quickly which is to be expected if you’ve read John Dies at the End before opening this book – against Wong’s suggestion not to, no less. The two rely on a mysterious drug called Soy Sauce that has several supernatural effects on the unfortunate duo, one of which being the ability to actually see the creatures that have invaded the city.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is a mixed bag when viewed as a sequel. It obviously uses the same characters and general thematic elements of the first book, but some of the primary features of the first novel that would be expected in the second are notably absent, or thrown in very, very sparingly. The primary offender is the Soy Sauce. John Dies at the End is essentially all about how the friends deal with the effects of the drug. Its sequel uses it only to advance the plot when there is no other way to do so. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Both David and John would know exactly how to handle the Sauce by the time this novel takes place, so it shouldn’t be as prominently featured. Also, the conflict in Full of Spiders is centered more around trust, appearance, and perception of humans instead of using the strictly Man versus Supernatural elements of the first book. Full of Spiders is also a much more linear novel instead of being episodic like the first. Again, this isn’t a problem unless the reader anticipated everything to be exactly the same between the novels. John Dies was written in an episodic manner, with some portions being available for free online years before the novel was fully compiled, edited, and published while Full of Spiders was written, presumably, from beginning to end instead of in independent segments.

This Book Is Full of Spiders is a pleasure to read. The combination of horror with comedy is masterfully achieved yet again by David Wong. Portions will have the reader laughing out loud (Both of Wong’s novels are two of the very few works that have managed to make me do so.), and others will have the reader held in suspense. The movie for John Dies at the End is also particularly entertaining, and it does the book justice despite having a huge challenge in how ridiculous the source material can be.

“The X-shaped cluster of turkeys rose as one body, as tall as a man. Two rows of turkeys forming legs, two forming arms. The turkey Voltron took tentative, lumbering steps toward John. He couldn’t help noticing that after a few steps, the two turkeys it was using as feet had been pulverized into a pink, feathery mess. John stood frozen for several seconds while he tried to decide if any of this was in fact happening. He decided that running was the best option either way.’

Buy or see this book on Amazon.

Or check out the first novel.

The movie is also available for rent online.

Letters to a Young Contrarian – Christopher Hitchens

Title: Letters to a Young Contrarian
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Year: 2001
PublisherBasic Books
Date Read: January 14, 2013

Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10

My Rating: 8.5 / 10

Christopher Hitchens’ (1949 – 2011) Letters to a Young Contrarian is one of many publications in the Art of Mentoring series from Basic Books (Other entries include Letters to a Young Therapist by Mary Pipher and Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel.). Hitchens is probably known to most for his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and his public debates and discourse with prominent religious figures. While his spirituality, or notable lack thereof, is discussed in Letters to a Young Contrarian, the guidance he provides can be absorbed by any reader, religious or otherwise.

Each entry in the book is, as you would guess, a letter, written to “My Dear X,” and serves as Hitchens’ participation in a dialogue between him and his addressee. Although he does respond to specific inquiries, the discourse typically follows the thought process that the reader assumes. The letters consist primarily of Hitchens’ advice on how the reader can come to his or her own conclusions on a variety of issues, whether they be political, social, or religious. He advocates standing in opposition to – if not authority, then – the rank and file conception of standardized institutions (So much so that he spends pages comically musing on what to exactly call his ideal individual before settling on “contrarian.” “Dissenter,” “bad boy,” “curmudgeon,” “oppositionist,” and my favorite “professional nay-sayer.).

While Hitchens does provide clear cut advice, most of his mentoring comes in the way of anecdotes and references to other prominent figures, spanning from Aldous Huxley to Oscar Wilde to Thomas Paine. Hitchens explains how he came to his own opinion on numerous matters seemingly with the hope that his “Dear X,” or the reader, will come to his own conclusions through his own observation and analysis. Almost in a way reminiscent of Emerson, he promotes the reader to think independently, but details his own position so well that the reader is hard pressed to disagree with him, despite his opinions being significantly polarizing, especially when he approaches religion. However, Hitchens explicitly desires that the way of thinking of a dissenter is the goal of his guidance, as opposed to providing the specific perspective the reader should assume. In my opinion, he fulfills this desire which allows the reader to feel empowered and more convicted in his or her beliefs.

In light of beliefs, Hitchens’ arguments regarding religion are worth pointing out. Christopher Hitchens was, if you haven’t already presumed or previously known, a very prominent atheist, and he explains his contention with established religion, specifically Christianity, in his letters. While his position may be unsettling to the faithful (I mean, he does make the claim that Mother Teresa was a malevolent and uncharitable person, among with criticism in similar veins in his letters, books, and debates.), do not be deterred. He explains his position in a well mannered way instead of the confrontational and hostile methods seen in his other works, both written and oral. After all, Hitchens would welcome the idea of his reader disagreeing with him, if he so desires to, on the presumption that the individual reached his perspective through his own inquiry and is capable of arguing in favor of his own opinion.

“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, not something you do.”

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

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