keep passing the open windows

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind week – or, as I’ve been known to say, it’s been an “interesting” week. Well, an interesting two weeks, to be fair. My department manager has been on holidays this last fortnight, so I’ve kind of been filling in for her. Nothing terrible has happened, but it’s just … it’s been interesting. And I’ve done my share of over-time. The 7am starts didn’t turn out as bad as I was expecting (I’ve only had one coffee this whole time, and that was more as a treat than for any alertness benefit).

For some reason, this last week has just taken a lot out of me. I had to work yesterday (Saturday) as well (and it was crazy-busy, as far as Saturday mornings go). Yesterday I felt a bit destructive, felt a bit like I was edging closer to a breakdown of some sort (probably being a bit melodramatic there, and possibly hormonal, but I won’t go into that). But, you know what, apart from the wonderful people I work with, something that helped pull me through was reading John Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire”. (Also spent some time playing “Pokemon” last night while listening to Sia’s “Elastic Heart”, but let’s not get into that.)

THNH is a novel that is, ultimately, very endearing. It’s about the Berry family (Winslow (“Win”) Berry and Mary Bates, and their five children: Frank, Franny, John (the novel’s narrator), Lilly and Egg) and their life living in different hotels. The story starts out normally enough, with the parents recounting how they met, but it gets very random very quickly. However, after reading “The World According to Garp”, I felt like nothing in THNH could really surprise me. And that’s not a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading THNH, and there were certainly still a lot of things that made me smile. Irving does have a good sense of humour – an interesting sense of humour.

Despite that random-ness, there’s something very human about THNH, as if they could all be real people. (If you’re wondering just how random THNH was, let me just tell you that the edition I read had a picture of a bear riding a motorcycle on the cover.) I sympathised with their struggles, and did not begrudge them for their successes (spoiler alert – they return to America and make loads of money from Lilly’s novel and related ventures).

Actually, there are several similarities between THNH and “Garp”. Both John Berry and Garp are running enthusiasts. Both novels also feature a fair bit of writing about writing – Garp and Lilly both become authors. And Susie’s rape help centre based in the third Hotel New Hampshire (by the sea) is reminiscent of the Jenny Fields Foundation based in the Field’s family mansion (also by the sea). The Berry children attend the Dairy School at which their Grandfather Bob coached football, and their father taught English (he had also attended the Dairy School as a student). Similarly, Garp grew up in the school where his mother was the resident nurse.

But, you know, I don’t mind all of these similarities between the two novels. It kind of gives a sense of familiarity that’s as good as being surprised and astounded. THNH is still an amazing book. I’ll probably end up reading most, if not all of John Irving’s novels – one day.

“Keep passing the open windows” is a phrase the children say to each other throughout the book, and basically means “don’t jump out of any open windows” i.e. don’t commit suicide i.e. persevere. Just keep passing the open windows – that was the kind of encouragement I needed yesterday.

“Get obsessed and stay obsessed” is another great pearl of wisdom from THNH, and is spoken by Win’s father Bob AKA Iowa Bob AKA Coach Bob, who is obsessed with fitness, particularly lifting weights. I don’t really like the idea of being obsessed with something or someone, but maybe people need to get obsessed with something from time to time. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

A big chunk of the book is set in Vienna, so I kind of learnt some random German words as well, such as schwanger (pregnant), schraubenschlussel (wrench) and schlagobers (whipped cream, but a German workmate informs me that this is not really German, but more of an Austrian thing to say). Not necessarily useful words to know, but it adds to the interest in the novel.

The edition I read was published over 30 years ago. The manager who has been on holidays for two weeks was the one who lent it to me. She lent it to me after I told her that I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Garp”. And, yes, the book is old and kind of falling apart (split right down the spine – twice); and the pages are yellowed and stained; and it altogether has such a beautifully musty smell like it’s been well-read and well-travelled (to the minds of various readers), but has long ago retired to a corner of her bookshelf.

And I think this is important to mention because, in the same way that foodies like to tell us that “we eat with our eyes”, I think that format and context and other factors not directly related to the actual words of a book can enhance how a book is received by a reader. Don’t get me wrong – I love the look and feel and smell of a brand new book as much as the next book-worm, but there’s something wonderfully sentimental and, yes, endearing about a novel that’s a bit worn out and well past its physical prime.

“Sorrow floats; love, too”