The Cider House Rules

I believe The Cider House Rules is the third John Irving novel I have read, and although the story is quite different to what I remember of The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire, there is something about it that is still very classically Irving. I think the best word for it is “unapologetic”. He really lays the story out — guts and all — and doesn’t sugarcoat or censor anything.

The other very Irving thing about TCHR and the other novels is that although the events seem rather bizarre and absurd at times, the characters feel so real, and so the events surrounding and involving them also feel real. I think it also has something to do with how fluid his writing is. The story flows effortlessly so that I’m turning the page before I have time to question the plausibility of what is happening. All I want is to keep reading.

[Spoilers ahead — you have been warned]

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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”

The World According to Garp, according to me

I finished reading ‘The World According to Garp’ (by John Irving) this morning, and my first thought was that I wanted to read it again – straight away. Considering that I hardly ever re-read books, and if I do, there’s usually some significant passage of time between readings, I think it’s fair to say that I really, really liked this book. Could it become my new most favourite novel? Well, I’m not too sure about that, but it isn’t like anything that I’ve ever read before – it isn’t like anything that I could have imagined ever reading. It is, however, one of those books that I am so glad I read; I’m so happy that something in my mind told me I had to buy this book at the Lifeline Bookfest.

I read ‘Garp’ over the course of several months (shockingly, I don’t think I’ve finished a novel since about late April!). It’s not an overly long book, but I pretty much only read it on my daily commutes to and from work (when I wasn’t too tired or distracted with other thoughts) and sometimes a bit at lunch times if I had a late lunch and no one else was around (or they were also reading). I even took the book to New Zealand on my recent holiday. I think I only had the chance to read it once while I was there, and then again on the plane back, but that doesn’t matter. If this book was a person, it’d be a loyal, trusted companion.

‘Garp’ is one of those books that I wish I could recommend to everyone. The only problem is that, because of the content and the stuff that Irving writes about, I’m a bit hesitant to go around telling everyone to read it. It’s a bit upfront, and there were parts that made me cringe, and there were a lot of parts that made me wonder how could Irving have possibly thought of that? But all in all, I wouldn’t want any part of it censored; it wouldn’t be the same. Still, it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

One of the things I really liked about this book was that it was extremely well-written. I suppose that kind of goes without saying, though – I don’t think that I can like a book so much if it wasn’t well-written, even if the story was good. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that I was quite impressed by Irving’s use of semi-colons; I’ve never read a book with so many semi-colons (or I’ve never noticed before). I swear I was never properly taught (if at all) how to use semi-colons, but part of me would be ashamed if this punctuation was allowed to become redundant because people weren’t taught how to use it, or were too afraid to try to use it.

Anyway, before I go off on some tirade about how the education system failed to teach me about semi-colons, let’s go back to ‘Garp’… I suppose one reason why I kind of connected to ‘The World According to Garp’ (enough to analogise it to an actual human) was that, despite the bizarre events and characters, it was quite relatable. Garp worried about a lot of things – most notably about his children:

“There was so much to worry about, when worrying about children, and Garp worried so much about everything” (p.262)

I wouldn’t say I’m a compulsive worrier, and I don’t think most of my family and friends would describe me as someone who worries a lot about many things, but I do have tendancies toward what I’d like to call “worst case scenario thinking”. For example, when I fell down and hit my head while snowboarding, I spent a lot of time wondering if I might have a (mild) concussion. Another time, when I came home from work and no one was at home, when I’d expected people to be at home, I wondered if there’d been some sort of emergency I hadn’t been told about. I suppose I don’t usually express or show worry, but worst case scenarios come easily to me, as they do for Garp.

“Late-night phone calls – those burglar alarms in the heart – would frighten Garp all his life. Who is it that I love? Garp’s heart would cry, at the first ring…” (p.286)

I feel like I could go on and on about ‘Garp’ but all I really need to say is that it was a high impact novel, and Garp was a great character – a memorable character. He was also inspiring; when he wrote, he inspired me to write (whether I did or not is irrelevant). I’m not sure that I could write about the same sorts of things that Garp did, or that Irving did, but I do agree with (some of?) Garp’s sentiments on writing, and I think this is a good guiding principle: “fiction has be to better made than life” (p.429).