"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review #26: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Somehow, I escaped high school without ever having read The Catcher in the Rye. I'm not sure how, since it feels like we read every other book in the world. Maybe the nuns weren't crazy about old Holden Caulfield. And strangely, while I have always been aware of Holden, I never really knew his story.

So I embarked on what is arguably Salinger's best known, and most divisive, work without having any idea what to expect. The novel opens just before Christmas, with Holden at Pencey Prep, a boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania. Holden has just discovered that he's been kicked out of Pencey, which is his fourth school in the last couple of years. Unwilling to go straight home, he makes his goodbyes around the school and then boards the train to Manhattan, where he plans on bumming around for a few days before eventually returning to his parents.

Holden looks up old friends - as much as he can call these acquaintances friends - old girlfriends, and old teachers. Each scene is uncomfortable and strange - for various reasons - but I got the sense that Holden never thought that he was the strange one. And to some degree, I never really did either, although with Holden as the narrator, the veracity of each encounter is relatively unreliable. Eventually, Holden decides he can't go home and begins to plan to run away somewhere "out West", but he must see his younger sister Phoebe first. He devises a plan to meet her at the Museum of Art, where they argue about her coming with him - Holden is understandably opposed but Phoebe is a surprisingly mighty foe -  and they wind up at the zoo, with Phoebe riding the carousel and Holden watching as the rain pours down on top of him. The short epilogue finds Holden in a mental hospital and Salinger wraps up Holden's narrative in a few short, terse sentences. He suddenly sounds tired and bored with the story, ready to move on to something else, and so he's done. 

That's the short version, but the longer version involves lots of teenage boy bravado, more than one physical altercation, and several moments where Salinger painted  Manhattan - as much a character as any living person in the book - with such a vivid brush that I could picture myself standing in the rain in Manhattan, smelling the exhaust fumes from the traffic and the cigarette smoke from the bars Holden haunted. There is also a very uncomfortable scene with a former teacher that hints at the possibility of molestation, but in true Holden fashion, he tells it very matter-of-factly, and then moves on to the next part. Perhaps the sections I enjoyed most were his musings on the opposite sex, which made him seem so very boyish to me, this young man trying desperately not only to figure out people, but women, who I'm sure he, like many boys his age, regards as the world's greatest mystery.

I've read bits and pieces about Catcher over the years. Teenagers, in all their angsty glory, love it. Many adults find Holden insufferable. Everyone has an opinion: he's having a nervous breakdown, he's just selfish and self-absorbed, the writing is brilliant, the writing is bad. Google Holden Caulfield or Catcher in the Rye and one can spend days reading all kinds of theories on what it all means, where the ducks go in the winter, what the true meaning behind the mummies in the museum is. But, and I've said this before, I don't want to dissect every nuanced word. I did that enough in junior year English, with a teacher I will never forget, who marked my answer wrong on a Jane Eyre quiz because I answered true on this true or false question: Jane ripped the bridal veil to shreds in the attic. Turns out, she only ripped in half, and the ripping in half Meant Something Big, so I got it wrong. Not that I'm still bitter about something that happened more than twenty years ago. Ahem. Anyway, I digress.

I don't think Holden was having a nervous breakdown. Honestly, Holden reminded me a lot of Don Tillman (The Rosie Project) and Christopher (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). His difficulty reading people, his inability to recognize social cues, even the abruptness of the ending...it's hard to not draw comparisons to those characters. And I think when you couple those characteristics with the usual difficulties of being a teenager and magnify them for the purpose of a book, it makes sense that you wind up with someone like Holden Caulfield. Autism and Asperger's were certainly not words that were common in Salinger's day - cursory research tells me that those terms were still in their infancy when Catcher was published - but all throughout Holden's narrative, that was all I could think about. Holden's mind is busybusybusy, bouncing from one idea to the next, and at times it was exhausting. I can't imagine how it must have felt for Holden, and, by extension, Salinger.

Whether Holden was mentally ill, whether he had an undiagnosed disorder, and where the Central Park ducks go in the winter are questions for the English teachers. All I know is that Catcher is indeed a part of American literature, and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, everyone should discover Holden's story. And if you read it years ago, maybe it's time to revisit it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved this book, so thanks, JB.

Review #25: Breathing Room, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Years ago, I read a book by Susan Elizabeth Phillips called Glitter Baby. It was chick lit, but it wasn't half bad. Boss, who purports to be a book snob but secretly devours celebrity biographies - and the much jucier autobiographies - made fun of it, and now Glitter Baby is office shorthand for trashy romance novels. So when I was looking for something light (and free on the library's website), I found Breathing Room, and figured that I couldn't go wrong with another Phillips.

Dr. Isabel Favor is a high-powered self-help guru, but it turns out her personal life is a mess. She's just discovered - in the course of 24 hours, mind you - that her accountant has robbed her blind, her fiancé is breaking up with her for another woman (she apparently is pretty rigid in the bedroom), and her business is crumbling. Unsure of what her next step should be, she accepts a friend's offer to escape to a farmhouse in Tuscany for a couple of months to regroup.

Once in Italy, Isabel decides to throw caution to the wind and sleeps with a fellow tourist she picks up in a bar. She sneaks out of the hotel room in the early morning hours, sure she'll never seem him again. Except in typical romance novel fashion, he's the owner of the farmhouse where she's staying, and their paths cross again. To add drama to the drama, they both used fake names for their one-night tryst, and he soon discovers she's the Oprah of self help, and she figures out that he's really Ren Gage, a world-famous actor known for playing the bad guy.

Shenanigans ensue, the townspeople are acting strange, there's a strange fertility statue missing from the town, Ren's pregnant ex-wife turns up with her four children, the ex-wife's new husband comes along later, Isabel and Ren fall apart, there's a big storm (with storm sex, during which all I could think about is that, having grown up in Florida, I know you should never, ever, ever have sex in an open field when there's crazy lightning), they pick grapes and make wine and go truffle hunting, and of course, there's a happily ever after ending.

As this kind of book goes, it's halfway decent. There are no surprises, but sometimes you just need something light that you can read in ten minute snippets of time. It's no Glitter Baby, but, as Boss would say, not much is.

Review #24: Mr. Maybe, by Jane Green

I think the first Jane Green book I read was Family Pictures, and it was fantastic, so I had pretty high hopes for Mr. Maybe, but unfortunately, it fell flat for me.

Libby is a twenty-something single woman living in London. She works in PR, handling mainly local B-list celebrities, including the local morning news personality Amanda. She has a best friend, Jules, who is married to an awesome guy named Jamie, and a relatively good circle of friends. But the one thing she doesn't have is a guy. At a party, she meets Nick, a gorgeous unemployed novelist. He's wrong for her in every way, but she decides to have a fling with him. No feelings, just sex. A friends with benefits deal, if you will. And Nick is on board with this, saying that he's not ready for a relationship right now. Except, of course, that's not what happens, and Nick and Libby begin to feel things for each other, and because of some event that I can't remember (which should tell you how invested I was in their story), they decide to break up.

So Libby meets Ed McMann (yes, that's his name, and no, there's never a joke about it, and I really, really wanted there to be) at a club the night she breaks up with Nick. Unbeknownst to her, Ed is Britain's most eligible bachelor, a successful, extremely wealthy businessman. She's uninterested, but accepts a date with him because she thinks it's time to settle down with a "grown up". Ed is dull. And needy. And a wimp. And doesn't appear to like Libby's personality. And for a few horrifying moments, I thought that he was going to be a thirty-nine-year-old virgin, but it turns out that he's just bad at sex. Really, really bad at it. But Libby toughs it out, changing herself in to the woman she thinks Ed wants her to be. It's hard to turn down fancy dinners and giant bouquets of flowers and thousand dollar Gucci bags. 

There was the making of a good story here. We've all had that relationship that we knew we should keep casual but that felt like it wasn't, we've all experienced the Ed phenomenon (although my Eds never had that kind of money), and we've all stuck it out for far longer than we should have because we thought we were doing what we were supposed to do. But it just didn't do it for me. Maybe Nick was too perfect, maybe Libby was too selfish, maybe Ed was too dull. 

I'll give Green one more shot - there was a snippet of a new book in the back called Saving Grace that immediately caught my interest - but I just can't recommend this one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review #23: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game arrived in my inbox from JB with this note: "Read this now...better than whatever you are currently reading." Since I was reading Every Day, I can't agree with that statement, but I can say that once I finished Every Day, I blew through Ender's Game in just a couple of days and loved it. 

Ender's Game is the first book in what eventually became a quintet about Andrew "Ender" Wiggins, the youngest of three brilliant children, who is chosen for Battle School, an elite military academy that trains young boys and girls to defend Earth against the threat of a species from another planet. Ender is young - only six when he is first sent to Battle School - but according to some shadowy conversations between some military higher-ups the reader is privy to, he's pretty much humanity's last great hope. It's up to the brass to train him to quite literally save the world. 

If I had read that summary (and/or not trusted JB's taste), I would have put this book back down and moved along to another section of the bookshop. Fantasy isn't my deal, and sci fi even less so, but even though this was largely set in outer space with rockets and zero gravity and all the other trappings of a futuristic story, it was so very human that all of that fell away as I became engrossed in the story of Ender's destiny.

It's hard to talk about the story without giving away the ending, and I really don't want to do that, so I'm going to stop my summary there. The climax and conclusion was so well executed that I truly didn't see it coming, not even a hint of it. And even though the book is part of a series, it works quite well all on its own.

I know much has been made of Card's personal politics both here and on Pajiba, and I didn't connect the dots until after I finished the book. Reading about Card's beliefs is disappointing, and honestly, quite surprising, given the way his characters are constructed. That said, Ender's Game is one of the best YA books I've ever read, and in a sea of books about vampires and uninspiring characters and poorly written stories with weak and uninteresting protagonists, it's a stand out. 

Review #22: Every Day, by David Levithan

I read Will Grayson, will grayson the other day, and developed a little bit of a crush on David Levithan. (Is it dorky that I get crushes on authors the way that other people get crushes on movie stars?) So I went to my library's website to see what I could download, found Every Day, and blew through it over the course of a couple of hours.

Told in a first person narrative, Every Day is the story of a boy named A who wakes up each day in someone else's body. He gets one day to live as that person, and at midnight, he vanishes in to another person's life. It's an interesting concept, how to live a life without changing it too much, and it brings up some unanswerable moral questions. What do you do when the body you're inhabiting is craving a drug that your mind knows could be fatal? Do you let the body win? Or do you let the mind - your mind, not the body's mind - win? Will one day be enough to change the addiction? What do you do when the body you're in is suicidal? Do you step in and try to prevent the death? Do you leave it up to the fates? If you aren't in that body any more, what can you even do?

And what happens when you fall in love? 

Because eventually it's bound to happen, and one day, A falls in love with Rhiannon after waking up in the body of her boyfriend Justin, and he can't get her out of his mind. So he seeks her out, each day in a new body. Rhiannon is disbelieving at first, of course, because it's a preposterous idea, but eventually she sees him in there, hidden behind the eyes of high school wrestlers and Goth art students, the class nerds and the popular girls. But how can a love like that last? Never knowing where he is, or even who he is, knowing he will always leave? Every day, A wakes up in a different body, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fat or thin or beautiful or ugly or black or white or purple. Sometimes he can get to Rhiannon and sometimes he is four hours away, with no way to get even a message to her, so she's left wondering every day if this is a day she'll have him, her life constantly on hold for something that can only last a couple of hours at a time. A and Rhiannon fight with everything they have to make it work, an impossible love in an untenable situation. It's heartwarming and heartbreaking, hopeful and hopeless all at once.

I want to mention Levithan's treatment of mental health in the book. More than a few times, A wakes up in the body of a person who is struggling with depression or body issues or drug addiction. He handles it with exquisite grace, saying that when he was younger, he would wake up and couldn't understand why things felt "muted, dimmer. Or the opposite - I'd be supercharged, unfocused, like a radio at top volume flipping quickly from station to station." He says that he finally realized that these feelings were "as much a part of the body as its eye color or its voice". He makes a very firm statement that it's the body that is sick, not the soul. He talks about how it takes "uncommon strength" to live with those feelings, and how he has seen that strength in many of the bodies he's inhabited. Every Day is a YA book, aimed at teenagers, and I think it's so important for kids to read - and understand - that if they are feeling muted or supercharged, dimmed or unfocused, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with them. I saw the same treatment and care of this topic in Will Grayson, will grayson, and any review would be remiss if it didn't commend Levithan for tackling this topic with such a skillful hand.

"I want love to conquer all. But love can't conquer anything. It can't do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf."

Every Day is set against a wholly unique backdrop, but in the end, it's a simple love story. As A says, "It's as simple as that. Simple and complicated, as most true things are."

Review #21: Will Grayson, will grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson, will grayson is a Cannonball favorite, so I'm going to skip the summary and dive right in, because I have lots and lots of thoughts about this book. It's the kind of story that when I was done with it, I needed to call up someone and talk about it right away, but felt like maybe I was overreacting just a smidge, because after all, it's impossible to fall in love with Tiny Cooper, because he isn't real. And that, my friends, is a great, great tragedy.

Because Tiny Cooper might just be the best thing ever. (And did you know he's got his own book now? Hold me closer, indeed.) He's big, black, and gay. And in your face. And a little bit self-involved. And exhausting to be around. And definitely has some delusions of grandeur. But you know what else Tiny is? An amazing friend. Sometimes I wanted to shake Will and scream at him that he would never find a friend as loyal and true as Tiny. Tiny, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who falls in and out of love with the flip of a switch, who is, yes, a little bit self-absorbed, but who loves Will with a fierceness and protectiveness that we all crave in a best friend.

I've read John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns) before. He's a Cannonball darling, and he's a hoot on Facebook. He'd be a blast to hang out and have a beer with and I love his unabashed excitement over seeing his stories come to life. But this was my first exposure to David Levithan, and he blew me away. His treatment of will grayson was spot on. The very matter-of-fact way that he dealt with will's depression and mental health, the running commentary in will's head, his shock at Maura's betrayal...it all felt so natural. His disbelief and anxiety - that anxious hope that someone could like him for him, really like him - was extraordinarily on point. Levithan tackles depression and anxiety, sexual identity, and personal identity, as well as the usual teen angst, in a way that I've rarely seen on the written page. If I want to have a beer with Green, I want to lay on Levithan's couch and explore the inner workings of his mind.

I loved Will Grayson, will grayson the way eighteen year old me loved My So-Called Life. The characters could have easily been a Very Special Episode of Blossom or Glee-ified, but they rang so incredibly true - like Angela and Rayanne and Ricky and Brian and Jordan Catalano did to me twenty years ago (sweet baby Jesus we're old) - that I was sad to close the cover and say goodbye to them.

Review #20: Paper Towns, by John Green

My first John Green novel was Looking for Alaska, and I loved it. I follow him on Facebook (he's delightfully goofy), and with all the buzz surrounding Paper Towns being made in to a movie, I figured I should give it a read. Plus, I was reading Father and Son, which is fantastic but very, very dark, and I needed a little bit of light for a couple of days, and I knew I could count on Green to give it to me.

Quentin (Q) and Margo Roth Spiegelman have been friends since she moved in next door as a young girl, their friendship forever cemented when they discovered a dead man in the park together. But as often happens between boys and girls, they drifted apart as they entered high school, with Q loving Margo from afar and Margo sliding in to the in crowd, leaving Q behind. Until one night, Margo appears at Q's window, determined to take him on an adventure that includes stealing her philandering boyfriend's pants and breaking in to Sea World. After such a night, Q is sure that she's come back to him, but he gets to school only to find that she's gone missing.

What follows is Q's journey to find Margo, discovering clues that he's convinced she's left for him, pleading with his friends to help him. Finally, with just minutes to go before their graduation ceremony, he realizes that she's in a paper town (a fictional town mapmakers use to prevent plagairism) in New York, and he grabs a handful of friends, ditches the cap and gown, and takes his mom's mini-van from Florida to the upper reaches of New York, praying all the way that he finds Margo before it's too late.

I have to say that I really didn't like Margo. Perhaps that was Green's goal, but I wanted to cheerfully strangle her more than once. I found her to be extremely frustrating, the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with more than a dash of selfishness. Q's friends, though, were delightful, nerdy and funny and serious and exactly the kind of support system one should have. And I grew more and more frustrated with Q, because Margo just didn't deserve Q's devotion. At least with Alaska, I could understand some of her behavior, but Margo was just a selfish, spoiled, narcissistic little brat, completely undeserving of Q's attention or affection.

I've read elsewhere that Paper Towns isn't Green's strongest effort. The more I sat on this review, the more indecisive I became about my feelings about it. Sometimes I think I loved it, and other times I think it isn't his best work. But Green himself is so likable that I'll read anything he writes, even if it's a description on the back of the cereal box.