Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger published 1951 was a book I first read in high school in the 1970's and I loved it.  But would a rereading hold up after all these years?  I was expecting to be let down, actually.  But I found to my suprise that it is still a powerful novel deserving of its classic status.

The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye as most of us know is sixteen year old Holden Caulfield.  He is probably one of the most famous narrators in literature and at the beginning of the book Holden is staying at a psychiatric facility in California.  He is telling his story to a therapist about "the madman stuff that happened around last Christmas" What happened is that Holden was kicked out of his high school, Pencey Prep:  

"I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all.  They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself  -  especially around mid-terms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer -- but I didn't do it.  So I got the ax.  They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey.  It has a very good academic rating, Pencey.  It really does". 

Holden, knowing his parents are going to be very upset (this isn't the first school he's been kicked out of) decides to delay going home.  He books a hotel room in New York.  The plan is to stay there a couple of days and then go home after his parents have "thoroughly digested it and all".

And so the novel is a three day odyssey of a young teenager wandering around Manhattan visiting jazz clubs, calling up an old girlfriend, visiting the Natural History Museum, going to the movies, Central Park etc before facing the music with his parents.  The book also gives quite a good description of what New York must have been like in the 1940's. 

Holden is a sophisticated kid.  He is smart but also very judgemental.  He can't stand phonies and he sees them everywhere.  His classmates are phonies, his teachers, pretty much everyone he encounters and he can be quite funny with his observations.  Holden is a very ethical young man.  The kind of kid who would come to the aid of a classmate being bullied.  He doesn't like to see people being hurt or put down. It drives him crazy.

Holden has misanthropic aspects to his personality but he loves his parents, his older brother, D.B. and his younger sister Phoebe.  He likes his old girlfriend Jane Gallagher and there are one or two former teachers he admires.  And then there is Holden's younger brother Allie who died from leukemia when Holden was thirteen.  Allie is an important part of this novel.  At one point Holden is in his hotel room feeling depressed and he starts thinking about Allie:

"What I did , I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie.  I do that some times when I get very depressed ... I keep telling him to go home and get his bike and meet me in front of Bobby Fallon's house.  Bobby Fallon used to live quite near us in Maine ... what happened was, one day Bobby and I were going over to Lake Sedebego on our bikes ,,, Allie heard us talking about it, and he wanted to go, and I wouldn't let him. I told him he was a child.  So once in a while, now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, "Okay.  Go home and get your bike and meet me In front of Bobby's house"  ... I keep thinking about it anyway, when I get very depressed".  

That passage got to me.  It's about regret and maybe that's why The Catcher in the Rye is a novel we gravitate to when we are teenagers because Holden's exasperation with the phonies is easier to identify with when we are young. As we get older it's not so easy to judge others since we have too much we would like to change if we could go back.  

Also when I read The Catcher in The Rye in the early 1970's it was kind of thrilling since high school is an anxious time and Holden is a young man who is failing four subjects and could care less.  It was liberating in the same way Jack Kerouac's books filled with characters on the edge can be liberating.  But back then you could still drop out for a time to find yourself.  I don't t think that's true anymore which is why teenagers today from what I've heard are not as likely to identify with Holden's reckless behavior.

And yet it would be a mistake for young people to dismiss The Catcher in the Rye  as a dated novel from the baby boom generation.  J. D. Salinger was not a baby boomer.  He started writing The Catcher in The Rye in the 1930's and in 1942 was drafted into World War II.  He was part of the Normandy invasion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was among the first soldiers to liberate the concentration camps at Dachau.  He fought bravely and rose to the level of army-sargeant.  Right after the war he was hospitalized for PTSD and his experiences and the horrors he saw never left him.  Salinger also carried his notes for The Catcher in the Rye with him all through the war.

Knowing this gives one a different perspective on Holden Caulfield.  His bitter view of humanity and his dream of living by himself in a cabin out west away from civilization doesn't sound so naive based on what the author saw.  Nor does Holden's fantasy in which there are thousands of kids in a field of rye and his job is to catch them before they fall over the cliff (enter adulthood) sound so strange when you consider the author's wartime experience.  

I chose The Catcher in the Rye for the 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a humor or satiric classic.  I did so because Holden is very funny in a sarcastic sort of way.  But make no mistake this is also a serious novel and I am glad I reread it.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Starbridge Book Series by Susan Howatch

Currently reading Scandalous Risks by Susan Howatch (published 1990).  It's the fourth novel in Howatch's wonderful Starbridge series (6 books in total).  These novels are set in mid-twentieth century England (1930's-1960's) and they center around the town of Starbridge and more specifically the Cathedral of Starbridge and the Bishops, Archdeacons, wives, children, parishoners, who live there.  Each novel is narrated by a different cleric who has risen high in the church but now finds himself at a crisis point in his life and the question is why?  What has gone wrong that has brought him to this point?  

Theology and the history of the Church of England get discussed in these books in a very informative and interesting way.  And also psychology as we try to learn what got our main character into the predicament he finds himself in and the roots in these books are very often located in the main character's early years before he ever entered the clerical life.  I am currently listening to Scandalous Risks on audio and the British actress Sian Thomas who is reading this novel is doing a fabulous job.  I plan to listen to more of her audio recordings.

One thing I will say is that though the Starbridge novels can be read out of sequence,  I don't advise it.  These characters carry over into each novel and there are things you learn from these prior books that are essential in order to get the full enjoyment of the series.  So my advise is start with the first book, Glittering Images, and you won't be disappointed.

P.S. I should add that Scandalous Risks (book 4) is the one book in the series narrated by a woman, Venetia Flaxton.  The year is 1963 and Venetia is twenty-six years old, rather innocent in spite of her outward sophistication and she makes the mistake of becoming involved with the married Archdeacon of Starbridge, Neville Aysgarth.  Part of the fun of reading Scandalous Risks is that we learn everything we need to know about Neville Aysgarth in Ultimate Prizes (book 3) and he is no prize.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot

In 2015 the BBC took a poll asking critics around the world to name the greatest British novel ever written.  The critics chose Middlemarch by George Eliot published  between 1870-1871.  Now, I don't believe too much in ranking classics. They all have their unique genius and admirers but what I will say is that Middlemarch is one of the greatest books I have ever read and I have read a great deal.

Middlemarch is also a novel that covers a wide range of topics:  love, marriage, religion, families, industrialization, class, medicine, politics, human nature and the narrator of Middlemarch doesn't hold back in giving her opinions and observations.  But I didn't mind because the narrator (possibly George Eliot herself) has great insight into why people behave as they do and why they make the bad choices they sometimes make.  There were characters I didn't like in this book, specifically Rosamond Lydgate and Edward Casaubon but even there George Eliot is able to flesh them out so that I had some sympathy.  And so now, on to the plot.

Middlemarch is set in England during the early 1830s and the novel begins with an unusual preface, a brief story about St Theresa of Avilla and how in 16th century Spain as a child she and her young brother set out from their home hoping to become martyrs. We then leave this brief tale and are introduced to Dorothea Brooke, the main character and heroine of Middlemarch. 

Dorothea is 17 beautiful, intelligent, upper class.  She lives with her sister Celia and her Uncle Arthur Brooke who has raised both young women since the death of their parents.  Arthur is a somewhat foolish character but he's done a good job raising his neices   The town of Middlemarch assumes that Dorothea will make an excellent match with some lucky fellow.  

But Dorothea is not like other young women.  Clothes, fine jewelry, wealth mean nothing to her.   She wants to do good in the world and had she lived in the twentieth century she might have joined a humanitarian organization but in 1830 she doesn't have this option.  And then while talking with Rev Edward Casaubon at a dinner party she is smitten. Edward is 50, a loner and a confirmed bachelor. A recluse who rarely leaves his estate and who has been working on a book The Key to All Mythologies for the past 30 years which he has yet to publish.  He's not a great catch but Dorothea is convinced there is so much more:

"It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great work ... and then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here -- now -- in England.  I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know, -- unless it were building good cottages -- there can be no doubt about that.  Oh I hope I should be able to get the people well housed in Lowick! I will draw plenty of plans while I have time".

Her Uncle knowing his neice Dorothea has made up her mind to marry Edward Casaubone decides to accept the situation "But you must have a scholar and that sort of thing?".  Dorothea's sister tries to talk her out of this marriage and the rest of Middlemarch is shocked as well:

"Good God!  It is horrible!  He is no better than a mummy!"

"She says, he is a great soul -- A great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!" said Mrs Cadwallader".

"What business has an old bachelor like that to marry?" said Sir James. "He has one foot in the grave."

"He means to draw it out again, I suppose."

Dorothea, after she marries Edward soon becomes aware of the mistake she has made.  They honeymoon in Rome and Dorothea wants to share the experience with Edward but he's been to Rome before and is bored.  Once back in Middlemarch he pretty much locks himself in his library spending all his time working on The Key to All Mythologies.  Dorothea is hurt and disappointed but she is loyal and tries to help him with his book.  Edward is not in the best of health and dies from a heart condition a year or two after their marriage leaving his estate to Dorothea with a stipulation.  She must never marry his young cousin Will Ladislaw.  Edward suspects that they are carrying on an affair which is completely untrue and once the contents of his will become known around Middlemarch it endangers Dorothea's reputation.  

The other main character in the novel is Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor who comes to Middlemarch hoping to set up his practice and make great discoveries in medicine.  Lydgate is similar in many ways to Dorothea.  Both characters are idealistic, they long to do great things to help humanity.  They can be stubborn and Lydgate can be quite arrogant but both have kind hearts and as with Dorothea, Lydgate makes a bad choice when it comes to choosing a marriage partner, the beautiful but spoiled and deceptive Rosamond Vincy.  She reeled him in during their courtship and turns into another person entirely after the wedding.  

There are a number of other characters that populate Middlemarch and George Eliot does a masterful job juggling these characters and plots and then during the last two hundred pages of the book you realize that what seemed like different storylines are coming together due to a scandal involving a minor character in the novel, the banker Mr. Bulstrode. 

I will end my summary here although this is a hard book to describe and summarize.  The great works of art need to be read and even quoting passages often doesn't give you the flavor of this novel.  I so admired Dorothea Brooke but I was truly smitten with Dr. Lydgate and for me that's what makes a book so special, falling a bit in love with one of the main characters. I do hope everyone who loves literature will read Middlemarch.  It's a long book, almost 800 pages and so you have to pace yourself but you will never regret the experience of reading this monumental work of art.

Middlemarch fulfills my 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a 19th century classic.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Books and Beyond - The Classics and Me

Currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot.  I am almost near the end and I plan to post my thoughts in a week or two about this truly great novel.  I am in awe.  And it got me thinking about the classics in general, what I've learned and which great authors and novels I still want to read

Before I began my blog Reading Matters I had spent decades neglecting the great novels and their authors.  I think that's common for alot of us after we graduate from school.  We rarely visit the classics again.  I was taught Julius Caesar at Msgr Scanlan for example but until I started this blog in 2015 and more importantly began to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) it had never occurred to me to read anything else by Shakespeare.  I just felt that as great as he was without a teacher to guide me I wouldn't be able to undersrand his plays.  

But now in this year alone I have read Call of The Wild by Jack London, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.  I am also currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot and later this year I will be tackling Macbeth and I am looking forward to it!  And once again thanks to the Classics Challenge in the past four years I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Giovanni Boccaccio, Zora Neal Huston, ALbert Camus, Charles Dickens, Anne Bronte, Willa Cather, Anthony Trollope, Herman Hesse etc etc.  

It begs the question does it pay to squeeze so many great novels into four or five year's worth of reading or is it better to read these great books one or two a year throughout the course of your life?  I think reading them in a more spread out manner is preferable.  Because cramming these masterpieces into four years during your later years means that rereading them a decade or two into the future may not be as possible and certain books benefit from a reread.  

Regarding the classics I have read since starting this blog my favorites are:

Middlemarch by George Elliot
New Grubb Street by George Gissing
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hursto
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
Bel Ami by Guy deMaupassant 
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell 
Call of The Wild by Jack London
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

And of the above novels my number one favorite is Middlemarch by George Elliot even though I haven't yet finished the book.  But I am almost finished and unless it falls apart at the end, which I doubt, Middlemarch will rank alongside Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment as my all time favorite novels.  Books like Middlemarch remind us of why we read.

Finally, when do you reach a point where you feel you have checked off enough boxes in terms of the classics so that you can slow down and focus on the great authors you like?  I know I want to read something by Thomas Hardy.  Stendahl, Thackeray.  But there are so many other great writers I may never get around to and that's okay.  Because maybe after you have read enough from the classics' list you can start focusing on your favorite authors from that list.  Time is limited and so if you are a Bronte fan, as I am, better to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte than feel you have to read Homer's The Illiad, unless Homer is who you want to read.

Anyway those are some of my thoughts on the great books.  

Friday, July 23, 2021

Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary

For the 2021 Back to the Classics Category - choose a children's classic I wanted to go with Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary but I got halfway through the book and I wasn't getting into it so I decided to try out Beverly Cleary's Ramona series instead.  I went with Beezsus and Ramona published 1955, the first book in the series, and I am glad I did.  

Beezus  is 9 year old Beatrice Quimbey.  She is a thoughtful and intelligent young girl.  Helps her Mom out with the chores which mainly involves looking after her younger sister Ramona.  It's a full time job because four year old Ramona is a little terror peddling around on her tricycle figuring out new ways to get into mischief.  The kind of little kid who doesn't understand the word no.  

The story begins with  Ramona pestering Beezus to read to her from her favorite book The Little Steam Shovel.  Ramona never tires of having the book read to her and her family is at their wits' end.  Beezus comes up with a solution.  She'll take Ramona to the library to pick out a new book and hopefully take her mind off The Little Steam Shovel.  And best of all Ramona will not be able to get too attached to the new book because it will have to be returned to the library in two weeks.  This works about as well as one might expect with Ramona who loves the new book, Big Steve the Steam Shovel (a sequel) and decides it's not going back to the library.

Beezus and Ramona is not very long.  Six chapters in total each dealing with a different Ramona escapade and I had a smile on my face throughout.  Some might say Ramona is a bit of a brat who will not accept being told she can't have everything her own way but I found her adorable.  She is only four and she very often does get her own way.  I liked Beezus as well, a very patient older sister.

I can see why the Ramona series of children's books has been so popular for decades.  Mothers read it when they were young and gave it to their daughters to read who are now giving it to their daughters.  It's also a good series for girls with little sisters. 

Beverly Cleary passed away this year at age 104.  She started out as a librarian back in the 1940's and was inspired to begin her writing career when a young boy asked her if there were any books "about kids like us".  Today 91 million copies of Beverly Cleary's books have been sold worldwide and she has won multiple awards in the category of children's literature.   I never did get to read Beverly Cleary when I was a kid and so I am grateful to the Classics Challenge for once again giving me the push I needed. 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

So Big by Edna Ferber.

"My father was wrong.  He said that life was a great adventure - a fine show.  He said the more things that happen to you the richer you are, even if they're not pleasant things ... Well, it isn't true.  He had brains and charm, and knowledge and he died in a gambling house, shot by looking on at someone else who was to have been killed .. My little So Big... Asleep on a pile of potato sacks because his mother thought that life was a grand adventure Well it's going to be different with him.  I mustn't call him So Big anymore.  He doesn't like it.  Dirk.  That's a fine name Dirk DeLong".

I have been meaning to read Edna Ferber for many years.  She was a very popular writer in her day and many of her bestselling novels were made into successful films, most notably Giant which continues to be shown on Turner Classic Movies.  And so at first I thought I might choose Giant, a big sprawling novel set in the 1950's about a wealthy Texas oil family for the 2021 Back to the Classic's Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author.  

I was hesitant to choose her more critically acclaimed novel So Big (published 1924) which tells the story of a mid-western farm woman because small town/rural fiction has been a hit or a miss for me.  I enjoyed Fidelity by Susan Glaspell for example but My Antonia by Willa Cather set in the Nebraskan prairie I found, despite it's greatness,  rather dull and melancholy.  

But I decided in the end to go with So Big because it's Ms. Ferber's most critically acclaimed novel.  Winner of the 1925 Pulitzer Prize and the number one bestseller n the US in 1924.   And so now having read So Big I can see what all the fuss was about. It's a detailed and fascinating story about what life was like for a woman on her own raising her young son in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.  You get to experience life on a farm in Illinois during the turn of the last century but also life in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties and as Selina's son Dirk grows into a man he makes choices that differ in how his mother lived her life and the dreams she had for him.  Selina is advised by a friend that you can't live another person's life for them.  They will have to find their own way.  

And so as the book progresses and Dirk makes his own way you are presented with the question of what defines a successful life?   Is it a career that can provide you with the wealth and security you desire as you climb the corporate ladder or is it doing what you love, what you are passionate about, even if it means you may have to struggle. We go on quite a journey with the two main characters, Selina DeLong and her son Dirk (So Big) DeJong and it's a journey I enjoyed taking.  I finished this novel knowing I will be reading more from Edna Ferber and I am really looking forward to it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Over the years I had been vaguely aware of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir about Paris in the 1920's but the book really entered my consciousness in November 2015 after a series of terrorist bombings had taken place in Paris leaving many dead and wounded.  The people of Paris were devastated and a few weeks later I learned that A Moveable Feast had risen to the top of the bestseller list in France.  As someone once said books will be there for you when you need them and the people of Paris in a spirit of solidarity were reading Hemingway's classic ode to their city and finding strength. And so this year I decided to choose A Moveable Feast published in 1964 for the Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a new author.

A Moveable Feast is a memoir by Ernest Hemingway about his life in the 1920's when he was living in Paris with his first wife Hadley Richardson and their young son. The Hemingways could have lived anywhere in Europe but they chose Paris because at that time it was the gathering place of some of the great writers and painters of the 20th century. 

Ernest and his wife Hadley were poor but Hemingway makes clear it was one of the happiest times in his life. He describes the cafes where he would do his writing, the boulevards he walked down, his trips to the race track which though the book doesn't say so sounds like a bit of an addiction and even more so the wine consumption. 

Hemingway also writes about the people he knew in Paris, his friends and fellow ex-pat writers who would come to be known as The Lost Generation:  Sylvia Beach who ran the legendary Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and of whom Hemingway writes " She was kind, cheerful and interested and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I ever knew was nicer to me".  

There was Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who often had the Hemingways and other writers over for dinner to discuss art and literature.  Paris back then was a place where you never knew who you could run into.  James Joyce and his wife Nora, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot stopping by one's cafe table to chat. Wyndham Lewis,, Sherwood Anderson and of course the Fitzgeralds who have their own chapter in this memoir.  Hemingway writes that he could already see the effects alcohol was having on Scott and rather harshly puts the blame on Zelda:

"Zelda was jealous of Scott's work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern.  Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly.  He would start to work and as soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party"

That was the image many had of Zelda Fitzgerald up until Nancy Mitford's ground breaking book Zelda  published in 1970.  But now that image has changed.  There are now allegations that Scott was very contemptuous of Zelda's writing and the more serious charge that he may have lifted portions of Zelda's journals into his own novels.

But I digress.  If Hemingway is harsh towards Zelda he presents Hadley Richardson, his first wife, in very loving terms tinged with regret.  He writes for example of the poverty they endured during those Paris years 

"I knew how severe things had been and how bad things had been.  The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers ... My wife had never complained once about these things ... I had been stupid when she needed a grey lamb jacket and had loved it once she bought it.  I had been stupid about other things too".

A Moveable Feast is not on the same level as Ernest Hemingway's novels.  His talent was for fiction not memoir.  But I am glad I read this book because it's good to know something about an author before you tackle their great works and in A Moveable Feast and also the recent documentary about his life I learned a great deal about Hemmingway.  He was not the hard liquor, big game hunting, ready to duke it out with his fists caricature I had grown up with.  There was more to the man than that.