Re-reading A Prayer for Owen Meany

I just finished re-reading A Prayer for Owen Meany for the second full time and seventh partial time. It took six tries (and ten years) of picking up the book and reading 100 or so pages before I actually got through the book the first time. Getting through the whole book that first time may have been due to my interest in the story, or may have equally been due to the fact that I was living in South Korea and it was the only English book I had with me that I hadn’t read. And it was 640 pages, which kept me preoccupied for a good amount of time.

I re-read it this time (eleven years after reading the entire book the first time) because it was our book club’s selection. As I read the first 100 or so pages, I found myself skimming, remembering all the details. After that, I read the next 100 or so pages more closely, remembering some of the details, but also discovering parts that I had no recollection of. The last half of the book I read as if it were a new book; I didn’t remember any of it until the very last scene.

It’s a beautiful story of friendship, love, fate, and faith. Owen and John are childhood best friends. In an unfortunate baseball game one afternoon, Owen, a diminutive child with a high-pitched voice, hits a ball that strikes and kills John’s mother. John views it as an accident; Owen believes he is an instrument of God. The book follows their passage through childhood to adulthood, and the decisions they make, particularly Owen, who staunchly believes he is God’s instrument.

After I finished the book this time, I found myself thinking about what would I have done if I were Owen’s friend? Would I support his sometimes seemingly crazy ideas about God and religion? Or slowly pull away from him? When he repeatedly talked about his dream, would I have listened compassionately? Or disregarded his ideas? When he insisted on enlisting in the military, could I have supported him? This is one of the reasons I like this book so much, it’s a great story, and I can almost (if I don’t give it too much consideration) believe that I, too, could have a friendship as quirky, loving, and everlasting as Owen and John’s.

There were parts of the book that drove me crazy: Owen speaking in ALL CAPS, John’s lack of ambition, reading for hours on my Kindle and realizing that I still was only 21% of the way through the book. Despite this, I’d recommend the book. And will probably read it again.

Muchas Gracias, Señor García Márquez

Yesterday Gabriel García Márquez passed away. I was saddened, and in my mind imagined that all the yellow  butterflies in the world had gathered to escort him to heaven.

I’ve thought for a long time, and truthfully can’t remember when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude. What I do know is that my copy is tattered, the pages worn thin from so many turns, and the book wrinkled from being exposed to the elements, perhaps caught in a rainstorm on the beach, or perhaps the victim of an overturned drink on a flight.

I loved his use of language. I loved the magical mixed with the reality. I loved the history of Macondo, and the generations that lived and loved there. Most of all, I loved the yellow butterflies that followed Mauricio. So much so that whenever I see a swarm of butterflies, I imagine he’s near. It taught me to look for the magical in my life and honor it.

I’m sad that Señor García Márquez won’t have the chance to share any more of his tremendous stories with the world. It’s probably time to re-read a few of his stories. And remember the magic.

Meeting the Authors in Three Acts

Published authors are magical people to me. I am so in awe of people who gather their thoughts, write them down, solicit a publisher, go through the process of drafts, edits, and then, finally, publishing. This year I’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet three authors in person, of three books that I love.

Act I
In May I was visiting a friend from college who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. I was on a business trip to Seattle; she lives not far from there so I spent the weekend with her. I glanced on her coffee table and saw a book called, “The Happiness Project.” I had heard of the book, and it was on my list of “to read.” I picked it up and asked her how it was. “I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You should take it.” I did. And loved it. Loved the idea of making small, sustainable changes in your life to increase your overall happiness. Who knew that making my bed every day would bring me so much joy?

In September I attended the Mighty Summit, a weekend gathering organized by Maggie Mason and Laura Mayes, which was simply amazing. Maggie and Laura gave the gift of a relaxing weekend in Guerneville to 22 women. We ate delicious meals together, bonded over stories shared, and supported each other in our life list goals. The first evening, many women were relaxing in the hot tub and I decided to join them. As I eased down into the steaming water, I introduced myself to the woman next to me. She introduced herself. Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen Rubin? How many Gretchen Rubin’s could there be? The author of The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin? As has happened previously when around people I admire and respect, I became completely tongue tied. We made small talk for a few minutes before I blurted out, “I really liked your book.” My inner voice immediately spoke up. “Really? You meet an author you respect in a somewhat intimate setting, and that’s what you come up with? You sound like you’re in second grade.” Gretchen, however, was incredibly gracious. For the rest of the weekend, the conversation flowed smoothly. We talked about finding the perfect apartment in big cities, children’s antics, and the value of keeping a fully stocked costume box (replete with wigs). I left the weekend not only feeling like I knew the author, but had connected with an incredibly witty and charming woman.

Act II
In November, a dear friend gave me tickets to hear Joan Didion speak in San Francisco. I discovered Joan Didion’s work about 5 years ago, and have devoured it since. I love her straightforward, no-nonsense style. How she weaves together words in unusual ways. How she writes, describing a scene so vividly, that I’m transported there, forgetting where and when I’m really living.

We listened, rapt, throughout the discussion. Afterwards Emily suggested we wait in line to get our books signed. The line moved quickly and before we knew it, we were standing in front of Ms. Didion. Once again, I stammered, completely tongue-tied in front of a woman who I admire more than any other author.

Act III
The day before I left to return to North Carolina for the holidays, my dad sent me an email. “I met this woman. She’s been to 67 countries. She wants to meet you. Download her book and that can be part of your Christmas present.”

I downloaded the book, An Unreasonable Woman, In Search of Meaning Around the Globe. I started reading it before bed on my first night in North Carolina. And couldn’t put it down. My eyes were droopy, but I wanted to read just one more chapter. And then another one. And another. Until I looked at the clock and realized it was 3 am. Oh, goodness.

I was beyond enthralled. Here was a woman who had perfect pitch, was an accomplished accordion player, and had decided to travel the world on her own in the 1950s, earning money as she traveled. What chutzpah!

Dad arranged for her to come to lunch one afternoon. Oh, goodness. Another opportunity to meet an author that I admired. I envisioned sitting there in silence, tongue-tied, as I’ve been with other favorite authors. Should I list topics in advance that I wanted to talk about? Should I have some questions prepared? What if she was nothing like her writing?

I shouldn’t have worried. She arrived and greeted me with the most incredibly warm, sparkling blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Her peaceful manner invited conversation and soon we were both chatting animatedly about favorite places we’d been, where we still want to go, and the importance of writing everyday. After lunch, we continued chatting until we realized the sun was setting. As I hugged her good-bye, I had connected with a kindred soul. I have no doubt our paths will cross again. I’m looking forward to that day.

An Evening with Joan Didion

Joan Didion is my favorite author. The first book of hers I read was The Year of Magical Thinking. I literally devoured it. I was so enjoying every page, I found myself skimming, reading fast, aching to learn what happened next. After the first reading, I was spent. It was so raw, so real, I had to rest before picking it up a second time and reading it slowly, enjoying the language, appreciating the grammar. Everything that a slow read allows you to enjoy.

It’s a recount of her life the first year after her husband, Gregory Dunne, died.  And it’s still my favorite book. It’s a real account of marriage, loving someone, and the joys and pains that comes with that love. It’s a book about the grieving process, and struggling to survive after losing someone. It’s a book that I pick up over and over again because reading it makes me feel alive.

I was hesitant to read other books of hers. I’ve had experiences where I love a book an author has written and go into a phase where I read as many pieces of literature that they’ve written. And I’ve been disappointed. Tremendously disappointed. Nothing lives up to that first great book. I was hesitant to read other works Ms. Didion wrote. A friend lent me A Book of Common Prayer and I seriously debated whether to read it or not. I did, and I was flooded with the same reverence for the incredible writing that I had when reading The Year of Magical Thinking.

And I’ve read more. Each time I see one of her books at a friend’s house I ask to borrow it. I read it, then buy the book for myself.

Five months ago, a dear friend asked me to reserve Nov 15 on my calendar. I couldn’t imagine what we would be doing. We never make plans five months in advance. Then she told me. Joan Didion was speaking in San Francisco and she bought us tickets. I don’t think I’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift. I marked my calendar and waited.

Part of me feared that something would happen to mar the evening. Speakers cancel engagements all the time. Joan Didion is mature. What if something happened to her? I pushed the evening to the back of my mind. I wouldn’t allow myself to get excited for fear of disappointment.

And then the date was here. I was giddy. I really was going to see Joan Didion. I was going to hear the voice behind my favorite works of art. What would she be like? Would I love her as much in person as in writing?

Yes, I would.

I did.

I hung on to every word of the conversation between her and the interviewer. Many of the stories were from books she had written, so I knew the ending. But to hear her tell the story. To hear her, in her frail voice, pausing between words, sometimes stuttering, to hear her tell her story – was a gift beyond my expectations.

She told of growing up in the Sacramento valley. Of going to school in Berkeley. Of learning to use a computer, learning DOS, and marveling at how logical DOS was compared to her life. Of entering an essay contest, the prize of which was a job at Vogue. Of winning that contest and working at Vogue. Of the personnel manager at Vogue who used to set up a table outside of her office in the morning with small cups filled with barbiturates for the ladies of the office. Of buying her first computer, with a Windows operating system, what she named a Fake Apple. Of arriving at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and having them set up a computer and printer for her and magical days of writing with her husband Gregory Dunne while the tropical rains fell outside the window.

And then the conversation was over. I was happy. I was the complete opposite of disappointed. I was thrilled I had the opportunity to hear her in person.

And then they announced she would be signing books in the lobby. I was shocked. I had assumed she would be tired. The line was long. I looked at Emily. Was she willing to wait in line? (I had brought my copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, just in case.) She was.

We waited in the line that wrapped through the building, and it moved quickly. Before I knew it, I was there, in front of Ms. Didion. She had my books with a post it of my name. She looked at me and smiled. I stammered. “I, I, I, you were awesome tonight. I loved hearing you. You’re one of… no, no, you ARE my favorite author.” My hands were shaking as I said this. I felt like a 12-year old girl, not sure what to say to the boy she has a crush on. She looked at me again. “Thanks,” she said drily as she handed me my books. Lesson learned. Practice what you’re going to say to famous people before you actually meet them. Or, just enjoy the moment.

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Second Chances

Many years ago, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I devoured it. I loved the words; I loved the story; I loved the magic. I read it incredibly quickly, then reread it again (and again), savoring the language. I imagined being swarmed by yellow butterflies, just like Mauricio.

Shortly after finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude, a friend lent me Love in the Time of Cholera. Again, it was love at first read. The obsessions, the twists, the language. Had I found a new favorite author?

Somewhat obsessed myself, I went to the public library and checked out all of the books I could find by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And as I began to read them, I slowly felt disappointment creeping over me. The stories were flat. The plots weren’t intriguing. Where was the magic?

Since then, I’m been somewhat wary of reading additional books from authors who I’ve adored from the first word. That first encounter with them creates such an impression. I want to savor that, not have it tainted by additional works. Yes, there’s the argument that I may discover even more that I love. But I may not.

In 2005, my favorite book was published, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. It is a heart wrenching memoir of the first year of Ms. Didion’s widowhood, during which she was confronting grief, as well as taking care of an adult child hospitalized just before her father’s death. She flashes back to stories when she and her husband are together, suddenly remembering that he is no longer with her. It’s not a book comprised solely of happy memories, though many were. It’s real. It reflects how relationships are built in the day-to-day stuff that you slug through. It highlights how we replay true events in our mind. What if I had just done this differently? Could I have prevented the outcome? Her writing is sharp and meandering at the same time, providing a beautiful juxtaposition. This is my go-to book. Whenever I want to indulge in elegant language, or need a good cry, I pick up this book.

Fast forward to last Friday. I was at a friend’s house. She was on the phone; I was examining her bookshelf. I noticed an old, tattered copy of A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion.

Dare I?

As she hung up the phone, I lifted the worn book from the shelf. I casually asked, “How was this?” She paused. “I don’t remember reading it. You read it and let me know.” I turned it over in my hands.

Dare I?

She gazed at the bookshelf. “You know, I must have read it. This is my shelf where I keep my most treasured books. I just can’t remember what it was about.”

I dare.

I begin reading on the bus ride home. The first few chapters are not disappointing. The language is straightforward, yet complex. The scenes are not in chronological order, so there is suspense and revelation with each fact that is revealed. It’s quirky. It provides glimpses of realistic insight into the nastiness of family affairs and life as a privileged expat. By Sunday morning, I have finished the book.

And I still have a favorite author. Thank you, Ms. Didion.