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

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

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.