Sunday, April 12, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (I)

I almost couldn't find an I author. There are authors who write fantasy beginning with I (Ian Irvine and Eva Ibbotson spring to mind), but I either haven't read them or wouldn't list their work amongst my favourites. So to get someone I had to think outside the box a little and I've probably stretched the definition of the genre to breaking point and beyond, but here goes anyway.

The distinguished looking man holding the Oscar above is not a film maker, he's a writer, although films made out of his books have been nominated and won Oscars. That picture was probably taken in 1999 when he won the Academy Award for the best adapted screen play. The book and film were The Cider House Rules, and the man in the picture above is John Irving.

John Irving grew up in and around academia, his stepfather was a faculty member at the Phillips Exeter Academy. John Irving attended the school and has set a number of his books in and around it. He's been writing since 1968, when his first novel (Setting Free the Bears) was published. It took him ten years and two more lukewarm receptions to achieve best seller status in 1978 with The World According to Garp. This was later made into a very successful film starring Robin Williams in the title role. The World According to Garp was the first Irving novel I read, and it was prompted by a work mate lamenting how an awful film ruined a good novel. I'd actually seen the film and liked it, so I read the novel. It is very different, but I don't think the film did that bad a job of it to be totally honest. I didn't read everything Irving wrote, but I did like a couple of his other better known novels in The Cider House Rules and especially A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Since the publication and success of The World According to Garp, John Irving has worked primarily as a writer of fiction, and published 11 novels, at least 4 of which (including The World According to Garp) have been made into films, and has a 12th novel (Avenue of Mysteries) scheduled for release in 2015.

I don't think many people regard him as a fantasist or see any fantasy in his work. I'm probably the only one. Maybe it's magical realism. His books to me seem to be set in an idealised 1950's New Hampshire, that doesn't quite come across as real. They're peopled by odd quirky characters that don't exist in most people's realities. I think the fantasy element comes across most keenly in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Unsurprisingly with that last statement, the nod goes to A Prayer for Owen Meany. Along with The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, it's probably one of John Irving's most popular novels. I think most people had The World According to Garp at the top, then the film version of The Cider House Rules came out and that leap frogged The World According to Garp.

I think there's a great deal of fantasy in A Prayer for Owen Meany. It's set in that same dreamy 1950's - '60's east coast for a start. Then of course there is Owen himself. He's an odd kid, who always speaks in italicised capitals, because it's the only way Irving could properly describe the sheer strangeness of his voice, and convey that to the audience. Owen also believes that he's an instrument of God, he has prophetic visions of his own death and even his parents think that he was conceived immaculately. This is later disproven by Owen's best friend and the narrator of the book John Wheelwright. However the very existence of it and the beliefs held by Owen and his family classify it as fantasy in some ways to me. The real world does intrude on this one, especially in the form of the Vietnam War. Again I felt the unbelievable or fantastic element of the book returned here as well. Owen enlists and is accepted as an officer in the US Army (he works as a casualty officer, returning dead bodies home), but I can't see that Owen would have ever been accepted in the Army. His stature (he never grows very much), his voice (it never alters) and his mental state would have disqualified him from any sort of active service.

Something about the book, especially the early parts of it, spoke to me when I first read it, and it quickly became a favourite. I even successfully recommended it to others and they also enjoyed it. One friend wrote emails to me for a time using a special 'Owen Meany font' as a sort of in joke between us. I'd never really thought of it as fantasy until recently, but the more I think about it, the more it is, and that may be part of why I liked it so much, even more so than his other books.

Filming the book as it was written would be near impossible, and wouldn't make a very satisfying viewing experience. However it was optioned and adapted. The film version is called Simon Birch, it covers only part of the book, and it was given a different title at Irving's request as he felt that it was so different from the novel that to give it the same name would mislead the audience. It wasn't greatly successful, even though the cast included names like Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt and Jim Carrey, although the latter's role was mostly off screen as the narrator, he was the grown up version of Joe (the film's version of John).

Further and related reading: because A Prayer for Owen Meany isn't generally regarded as a fantasy novel, most of the recommendations here won't be, either. A Prayer for Owen Meany is very typical of John Irving's and if a reader did enjoy it, then I could also see them really liking The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules. I'd also recommend seeing both films. The World According to Garp largely for John Lithgow's performance as a post op transexual, who used to play NFL football, for which he received a best supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards. The Cider House Rules follows the book more closely and is an excellent film, with some fantastic performances. Michael Caine won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role. I wouldn't recommend Simon Birch, though. It's not a bad film, but it's not in the same class as the other two, either as a film or an adaptation of the source material. I have a few recommendations on work that has a similar feel, two are classified as fantasy and one isn't. One is Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, this is a series of vignettes about small town life during a 1920's summer, and it evokes that same idealised small town America feeling that Irving's work does. Then there's Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs, which I covered when I did the B authors. Finally is the non fantasy, it's an Australian coming of age novel; All The Green Year by Don Charlwood, about a young man growing up and the year that changed his life in a small Victorian coastal town in the 1920's. It's also completely different, but I have to mention Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, because every time I read about Artemis Fowl I'm put in mind of a young Owen Meany.

Next week, the J's and that will be more productive and less of a stretch then the I's were.

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