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Setting Free the Bears [Mass Market Paperback]

John Irving
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 30 1990
It is 1967 and two Viennese university students want to liberate the Vienna Zoo, as was done after World War II. But their good intentions have both comic and gruesome consequences, in this first novel written by a twenty-five year old John Irving, already a master storyteller.

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Review

"The most nourishing, satisfying novel I have read in years. I admire the hell out of it" -- Kurt Vonnegut Jr "Sensual, moving, truly remarkable" Time "Imagine a mixture of Till Eulenspiegel and Ken Kesey and you've got the range of the merry pranksters who hot-rod through Mr Irving's book, tossing flowers, stealing salt-shakers, and planning the biggest caper of their young lives" The New York Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942, and he once admitted that he was a 'grim' child. Although he excelled in English at school and knew by the time he graduated that he wanted to write novels, it was not until he met a young Southern novelist named John Yount, at the University of New Hampshire, that he received encouragement. 'It was so simple,' he remembers. 'Yount was the first person to point out that anything I did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying.' In 1963, Irving enrolled at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna, and he later worked as a university lecturer. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, about a plot to release all the animals from the Vienna Zoo, was followed by The Water-Method Man, a comic tale of a man with a urinary complaint, and The 158-Pound Marriage, which exposes the complications of spouse-swapping. Irving achieved international recognition with The World According to Garp, which he hoped would 'cause a few smiles among the tough-minded and break a few softer hearts'. The Hotel New Hampshire is a startlingly original family saga, and The Cider House Rules is the story of Doctor Wilbur Larch - saint, obstetrician, founder of an orphanage, ether addict and abortionist - and of his favourite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted. A Prayer for Owen Meany features the most unforgettable character Irving has yet created. A Son of the Circus is an extraordinary evocation of modern day India. He is also the author of the international bestsellers A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You. A collection of John Irving's shorter writing, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, was published in 1993. Irving has also written the screenplays for The Cider House Rules and A Son of the Circus, and wrote about his experiences in the world of movies in his memoir My Movie Business. Irving has had a life-long passion for wrestling, and he plays a wrestling referee in the film of The World According to Garp. In his memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend, John Irving writes about his life as a wrestler, a novelist and as a wrestling coach. He now writes full-time, has three children and lives in Vermont and Toronto. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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First Sentence
I could find him every noon, sitting on a bench in the Rathaus Park with a small, fat bag of hothouse radishes in his lap and a bottle of beer in one hand. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars early John Irving material confuses, bores... July 17 2004
By lazza
Format:Mass Market Paperback
'Setting Free the Bears' is an early work by John Irving that would have been normally out of print, and deservedly so, if it were not for his later fame from 'The World According to Garp'. In some ways the book is similar to 'The New Hotel Hampshire', a book I actually didn't care for, but lacks the humor or the huggable characters (or the curious incest sub-plot, thank goodness). So what exactly is wrong with 'Setting Free the Bears'?
Well the plot itself is rather strange and somewhat incomprehensible. A young Austrian college student bumps into a very quirky fellow, and together the tour Austria on motorcycle. Just when you think the book will turn into a funny road story with an Austrian twist the author decides to split the story in two, with the a narrative of the main character camped out at a zoo and his strange friend narrating his (pre-war) family history. Very disappointing, and very dull. The ending concludes in comical fashion back at the zoo. But this fun ending is too little, too late.
Bottom line: a very amateurish effort by the often outstanding John Irving. A definite miss.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Extremely disjointed March 22 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
The bears of the title are in the Heitzinger Zoo in Vienna, which is why I read this first novel of Irving's. Giving a choice of his novels to begin with, I probably would have selected The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany. But in preparation for our trip to Austria, this novel popped up as having a tenuous tie, and due to the fact that we were not finding much to go on, tenuous was better than nothing.
If you take the middle section, called ''The Notebook," and remove the bits about the zoo, what you are left with is the prehistory it the Siggy character, a biographical compilation of one family from right before World War II up to the time that the Soviets withdrew from Austria. In this section you get a highly detailed and personal account of what was taking place from the point-of-view of the street. I found it strangely similar to Morton's A Nervous Splendour--a feeling of history contained in a microcosm. While fictionalized, Irving gives a clue as to his research on page 222 where in the fictional diarist lists some books of "influence."
The other parts of the story were less successful, at least for me. This could have been because I was looking to learn about Austria and Vienna, and took less enjoyment from the crazed antics of Siggy and Graff. Although many scenes were vivid--the climactic meeting of motorcycle and beehives, the brutality of the milkman to his horse--the overall plot was extremely disjointed. While I am likely to read another Irving novel, due to his reputation, this novel has soured me on the idea for the moment.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Don't Judge it Too Harshly Nov. 15 2002
Format:Mass Market Paperback
If this were written later in Irving's career I'd rate it lower, but it's his first book, so you got to cut him some slack. The so-called plot of the story involves letting animals out of the zoo in Vienna, a harebrained scheme if there ever was one. The zoo bust is a bust, and I couldn't decide if I should laugh or just be sickened by the results.
Almost half the book is given to Siggy's "autobiography" detailing the lives of his parents and how he came to be during the years leading up to and after WWII. Siggy is a little disillusioned about his generation not having a war to fight, so "rescuing" the zoo animals is similar to the antics of his father and his mother's first boyfriend, Zahn (who may or may not have tried to set free the zoo animals at the end of the war). Siggy's results (through Graff) are similar. The problem with the autobiography and zoo watches is that you spend so much time slogging through them that you get taken out of the rest of the story. Which could be a good thing, because none of the characters come off to be all that sympathetic (which I say for every Irving book I've read to date) and I never did understand why Gallen stayed with Graff as long as she did.
A somewhat enjoyable read, but I think it's best function is to compare Irving's earliest work with his later ones. I think he improved in coming up with better stories, but I've always had a hard time liking any of his characters. If you do purchase this book and have read his later works, just try to keep in mind that this is the first so you won't judge it too unfairly.
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4.0 out of 5 stars one heck of a wild ride July 12 2001
Format:Paperback
While not the most important or most well written novel of all time, "Setting Free the Bears" is one heck of a wild ride.
I am blown away that this book is a "first novel." It is a clear sign of Irving's greatness as an author that he could write something this complex and entertaining his first time out. It seems that among those who have read at least two of Irving's novels, there is usually one that they pick and passionately cling to as their favorite. Most then judge the rest of Irving books as falling short of the glory of their favorite. How unfortunate.
"Setting Free the Bears," when taken by itself, is more than worth reading. However, far too many people seem predisposed to shoot it down without finishing reading it...usually because it's supposedly "not as good as" (insert favorite Irving novel here). People may well be extra harsh on "Setting Free the Bears" because Irving's style is not yet fully formed here (it is something along the lines of Irving plus Jack Kerouac with a dash of Tom Robbins thrown in to boot).
All this notwithstanding, I am glad to have read this book; to have encountered characters such as Siggy, Graff, Gallen and the rest of this unique cast. The literary device of splitting up the book with Siggy's notebook is pure genius.
One of the reasons I enjoy Irving so much is his great sense of humor. There is plenty of it here (though much of it is of a darker kind than later Irving). In particular, I laughed out loud upon reading the scene where Siggy gets his "shave".
All in all, I give "Setting Free the Bears" a most hearty recommendation. Though it is not perfect by any means (I only know of one such book), it has great moments of beauty and humor. Well worth reading.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars It's all relative
Not my favorite of his but I appreciated this book more after some time had passed. Although it was a bit cumbersome at the time, the book has truly stayed with me, more than... Read more
Published on Oct. 21 2011 by Kristian
1.0 out of 5 stars The rest of you are lying; you couldn't finish it.
There's no John Irving novel I don't love, except this one. Most of them, I have re-read about five times. Read more
Published on Jan. 8 2004 by Ben Culture
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read
If you like Irving's work, you will like this book. It's very wierd but that is what ol' Johnny is all about. Read more
Published on Nov. 10 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Setting Free the Details
John Irving (once again) shows us his love of detail - his novels must be read slowly, and appreciatively. Read more
Published on July 26 2001 by "dah68"
4.0 out of 5 stars Pre-History
In all honesty, it's been years since I last read Setting Free The Bears, but I can still find the paragraphs that resonate:
"Some people are proud and some have their... Read more
Published on Dec 10 2000 by Joel@AWS
3.0 out of 5 stars Solace in a Bespectacled Bear's Roar
Nazis and ill-tempered Asiatic bears, Communists and geleda baboons systematically intersect in John Irving's deliberately schizophrenic debut novel, Setting Free The Bears. Read more
Published on Nov. 26 2000 by Mr. Cairene
4.0 out of 5 stars ragged and wonderful
Having met John in Iowa City before Garp was published, BEARS was all I knew of his work. I just re-read it.
Despite some lack of polish, it still moves me the most. Read more
Published on Oct. 23 2000 by James B. Stewart
4.0 out of 5 stars An impressive first novel.
This book has a great deal of mediocre writing, poor character development, and forced humor; however, it was a very enjoyable and stimulating read. Read more
Published on Sept. 21 2000 by Jerry Clyde Phillips
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointing
I have to give this book two stars for being a John Irving novel, and one star for the story of Siggy's mother and father. Read more
Published on Aug. 11 2000
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