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on July 12, 2001
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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on December 10, 2000
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 doubts. And I can look at how left out of these times I feel - how I rely on pre-history for any sense and influence - and I can simplify this aforementioned garble. I can say: all anyone has is their pre-history. Feeling that you live at an interim time is something in the nature of being born and all the things that never happen to you after birth."
If these words strike a chord with you, this is a book you should read. It is closer to "The Cider House Rules" or "A Prayer For Owen Meany" in character but is more cohesive; it is fantastic but wisely stops short of the extremes of "The World According to Garp" or "The Hotel New Hampshire". It is a novel full of ghosts, of surreal acknowledgement of the things that *do* happen to us after birth, even as we fail to recognize their importance.
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on May 11, 1999
I have always felt that John Irving is a literary idealist of very respectable stature. This book is vintage Irving in terms of its outrageous story line, cast of soul-searching characters, and witticism-infused style of prose, but it lacks the formality which is the inescapable inheritance of a Writer of Major Recognition. This being his first novel, it seems to be the one written with the greatest freedom, and as a tale of misguided, wayfaring characters bound to their less than idyllic fates, it still manages to be heartbreaking in its portrayal of innocent idealism. This is a great book; I consider it Irving's best. I can't say many bad things about _A Prayer For Owen Meany_, either, but the manner in which it is told is much different than this story about the reckless spirit of youth.
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on March 1, 2006
I really can't understand the head-up-the-assedness of many of these reviews. I loved this book when I first read it and I still love it now, having just finished it again.

If John Irving believes that Setting Free the Bears would not be published as a first novel today, then that is more an indictment of the publishing industry than any reflection on the book.

This multi-layered story is involving, illuminating, touching and shocking. Perhaps it is not as rich and polished as his later novels, but since those later works must rank as some of the best ever written in the English language, I think we can cut the guy a little slack. As a first novel, it is simply outstanding.

So yes, contrary to a rather bizarre opinion found here, I did finish it.
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on July 17, 2004
'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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on June 25, 1998
Having read Garp, Owen, Hotel NH, and Widow, I decided that I should read some of Irving's earlier stuff. I tore through 158-lb., but not because it was any good. It was, in fact, one of the most poorly-written novels I've read in a long time. Setting Free the Bears, on the other hand, was absolutely marvelous. The zoo-diary interspersed with the 'highly-selective autobiography' was pure magic, and the end, with the Rare Spectacled Bears loping across a field together after Gallen had just left the hero (I'm blanking on his name) was an exquisite, classic Irving irony.
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on May 5, 1999
I've read at least five other Irving books including Garp and none left me as satisfied. The stories were cleverly interwoven and like so many Irving stories included traumatic turns that where you least expect them. Siggy's life could only be fully realized by the grandest of schemes and it plays out in beautiful chaos. I liked all the stories in this book. I only wish that Irving would doctor this one into a screen play and let some cool young director go nuts with it.
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on October 1, 1999
Easily the best Irving book that I've ever read. This is an especially good read if you're not a huge Irving fan. Much more complex underneath, it does take an appreciation of fine art to understand the subtle nuances in this book, and if you're used to mainstream (boring) fiction, you may not like it. But if you like to see how unreal reality can sometimes be, this is truly a winner.
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on November 26, 2000
Nazis and ill-tempered Asiatic bears, Communists and geleda baboons systematically intersect in John Irving's deliberately schizophrenic debut novel, Setting Free The Bears. Set in 1960s Vienna, some 20 years after the war, where the narrator, a college student Hannes Graff first meets the cryptic Siegfried "Siggy" Javotnik. Graff had often observed this strange fellow sitting by himself in the park, eating radishes and shaking his saltshakers. They, armed with no plans, decide to take a trip across Europe leading to wherever, arriving whenever. In those first 100 pages Irving is at his most irritating, his bland narrator joylessly and endlessly describing the countryside while absorbing the ramblings of the bizarre and obviously more interesting Siggy.
Siggy is one of those passive aggressive intellectuals present in most of Irving's novels (see Freud in The Hotel New Hampshire, Owen Meany in A Prayer For Owen Meany). He often talks to the animals, of the animals, as he plans their emancipation from the Vienna zoo. But unlike some Irving's other intellectuals, who often serve as reflective surfaces for the boring protagonists, Siggy is given a voice, a character and a motive. The novel's masterful midsection is The Highly Selective Biography of Siefried Javotnik, where he hilariously recounts what "could" be the history of his family in WW2, what they "probably" did and what the Nazis, Russians, Chetnick ressitance fighters, Communists and their Partisans actually did. His history, the way he sees it, explains his insane plan to let the animals run free. And what Setting Free The Bears is about is this young mans quest to "to have a thing going for yourself that isn't somehow the apprenticeship to something that's gone before; and not yours and never will be." Born in a land where the lines have been drawn, the enemies pointed out and rules set, they want to define their own morality. They want an atrocity to stop. A cause to fight for. The animals of Vienna Zoo are that cause. In the broadest sense, Setting Free The Bears is about the search for something to believe in.
What they discover is that their grand metaphor for independence doesn't quite fit. Life can not be navigated at right angles, and square jawed logic doesn't cut it. For the zoo bust to be a goal in of its-self, the perpetrators must ignore the consequences. They must not consider the danger of letting predators run among their prey, or what the scavenging humans will do to those free animals. They must dig up injustices, real or imagined, that would justify their crusade. Perhaps a cruel night guard named O. Schrutt, who puts naturally antagonistic animals in a five foot cage for his own sadistic pleasure, would provide them with sufficient righteous indignation for their quest. What are they supposed to do, sit back and let the poor Antelope fight the Indo-Chinese Cat? They have to do something. One thing they must not do is plan. Never plan.
Unfortunately, the figures don't always make a certain sum. And there is a beautiful passage in the book where Graff waits solemnly to hear that Bear's roar. If the now free bear roars, then the bust was a success and both he and his faraway friend can take comfort in the obedience of real life to their ill-defined pipe dreams. What Irving grants the kid, as a measure of empathy, is a vision that may or may not be a dream.
Setting Free The Bears contains the seeds of a masterwork, but is too riled with Irving's detachment to achieve that status. He often resembles a ninety-year-old man, eloquently and slowly describing fantastic events. His "I'm too wise to be moved by this, but I'll laugh at it" writing style drove me up the wall with The Hotel New Hampshire. But his debut is better then that, it has a sense of joy and poignancy that escapes its elaborate metaphoric pretense. Almost despite its author.
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on April 24, 2006
I've never before been pretentious enough to think I could see an author developing through their work but I think I'm starting to with John Irving. This is his first book I believe and has some strong characters and an interesting plot but it very hard to read. Obsenities in the story are weakened into something unintelligable and the whole thing is hard to get through.

I read his second book, 'The Water Method Man', right after this, and it is similar in style but a nicer story and easier to read (a bit).

If you are just starting out with John Irving, don't start here! 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' and 'The World According to Garp' are delightful - start there!
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