Tag Archives: J. D. Salinger

Remember this…

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The Inseparables: A Novel by Stuart Nadler (Little, Brown, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is a family novel that’s populated by several unique and interesting characters.

There’s Henrietta, a cross between Erica Jong and J.D. Salinger. Decades ago she wrote a then-scandalous novel, The Inseparables, which brought her instant notoriety. She’s sought to avoid the spotlight since then. However, after the sudden and unexpected death of her chef husband Harold – a man who ran his restaurant of meals cooked with butter, more butter and even more butter into the ground, she approves a re-release of the book as she desperately needs money.

Oona is Henrietta’s orthopedist doctor daughter, who’s separated from her husband and who unwisely decides to have an affair with her former marriage counselor.

Spencer, Oona’s soon to be ex-husband, is a lawyer who quit his job with a major firm after one year. He desired instead to be a house husband, taking care of his daughter and smoking marijuana. Smoking pot is basically the one thing that Spencer excels at.

Lydia, the teenage daughter of Oona and Spencer, is an extremely bright student who decides to leave her public high school for a private prep school, where she will manage to have herself suspended. That suspension causes Lydia to consider a self-expulsion from the institution.

All of these individuals have led less than perfect lives, but they’re all striving to find contentment even if it kills them. They will find that happiness is not a result of having a best seller or owning a restaurant or living in a fancy city high-rise. It’s about the simple things – the free things in life such as the time a grandmother and granddaughter spend together:

They had been together most of the morning… Henrietta had not done this enough. Been in a restaurant with just her granddaughter. Traveled on a train with her. In the beginning it was the kind of thing she had imagined would happen more. Decent grandmotherhood, she had always suspected, depended on being able to do this well – to dote, to dispense wisdom, to spoil an unruly precocious young person with gifts and irreverent humor… Had she written down her goals for being a grandmother, this kind of thing would have been part of her hopes.

This is also a story about what it means to be an American in a time of rapid change. A time when a failing fancy European restaurant is downtown one day, replaced by a thriving taqueria the next. But these are just businesses, just buildings – structures that can be renovated or rebuilt or destroyed. People go on, families survive; the earth somehow thrives and surrounds us with beauty and hope.

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Before she gets up to go, she turned to see it again. The flat earth. The hills. All the good acres and the wind in the trees.

Remember this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This novel was released on July 16, 2016.

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A Quiet Emotional Work

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, $25.95, 249 pages; Vintage, $15.95, 272 pages)

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In his novel The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield uses the phrase, “quiet emotional” in place of the more typical “quite emotional.” This is a quiet emotional memoir about how Salinger helped a young woman, Joanna Rakoff, find her role, her place, her calling in life – which was to become a writer.

“Have you read Salinger?” Rakoff asks the reader. “Very likely you have. Can you recall the moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you’d previously encountered. I loved Holden, in his grief-fueled rage.”

My Salinger Year is a comfortable, entertaining and engaging story that does not have pretensions of being cinematic. However, Rakoff writes quite well, as in this selection, about the difference between Marc, a friend who is getting married, and Don, Rakoff’s then-boyfriend (and a sad choice of one):

“You ready for the big day?” Don asked Marc, patting him on the back. He was trying for cheer, for bonhomie, which gave him the aspect of an actor in a community theater production…

“I don’t know,” said Marc, with an enormous smile. When he smiled, he seemed to radiate pure waves of goodwill and genuine happiness. This was, I supposed, the difference between Marc and Don: Marc was fully at home in the world, content with life. He needed, he wanted, nothing more than what he had. Don wanted everything, everyone; Don wanted and wanted.

Although this true tale is about Rakoff’s work at a literary agency at the start of her professional career, it’s also a story about what happens when she leaves behind her “right guy” in Berkeley, and takes up with Don in Manhattan. Don is so clearly and absolutely wrong for her. The reader will feel some frustration while reading about her out-of-phase life with Don, a person who refused, without explanation, to take her to his best friend’s wedding.

The writer is now happily married to the “right” person, but she’s quite forthcoming about the fact that she made a key mistake in the game of love as a young woman. Fortunately, she was able to escape into the writings of J. D. Salinger, as she did on the weekend of the wedding that she was blocked from attending.

“All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Rakoff only met Salinger once but spoke to him often on the telephone. He convinced her to do what she needed to do for herself – for her own happiness. His advice convinced her to leave the safety and security of the agency job after just 12 months. It was a job that would get her no closer to writing than reading manuscripts.

Near the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff learns of Salinger’s death and reacts to it in a touching way. Salinger was, and will remain, her rescuer, her larger-than-life hero.

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Salinger was an artist who touched many people through his work. He continues to reach and touch them to this day, as when high school students experience The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey for the first time. It was his work and its effect on others that exhausted him and caused him to seek comfort in isolation: “For years, he’d tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great.”

While Salinger may have remained as distant as Joe DiMaggio on his later years, there’s no denying the fact that he left behind his bold, major impact on the world of literature.

“Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. There were no fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.”

“Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.”

“Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

You may love this book.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This review initially appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-salinger-year-joanna-rakoff/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-My-Salinger-Year-by-Joanna-Rakoff-5676983.php

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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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Looking back

The real message of The Catcher in the Rye – A Teacher’s Perspective

Like all of us who read The Catcher in the Rye, and like many of us who teach the novel, I was saddened by the death of J.D. Salinger.   But I also have been saddened by the eulogies about this most well-known unknown author.

What’s especially sad – from this teacher’s perspective – is that most folks seem to have missed the point of the novel.   Of course Catcher is about a troubled teen trying to work his way through adolescence in a world peopled by phonies.   And, yes, the broader context of Holden Caulfield’s story – the isolated, elite world of private schools in Cold War America – is important.

But all of that is landscape, and none of it helps us to understand the story’s central question:  Why is he so messed up?   And in the same way that nearly everyone around Holden reacts to the manifestations of his troubles – the smoking, drinking and swearing – and not the reason he behaves as he does, for years my students have fixated on his bad habits.   And then I ask them:  Why is this kid who has money, two parents, a successful older brother and a sister who adores him in such a bad place?   Eventually we get to Allie, Holden’s younger brother, who died of leukemia.

Throughout the story, Holden tells us it’s all about Allie, how the grief he had for his beloved sibling led to his broken hand, how he carries Allie’s mitt for comfort and how he prays to Allie to save him.   For me, that is the thread that links all of Holden’s good and bad choices together, that is the layer we must reach to really understand this story, and that is what we adults can look to in order to really recognize the weight and beauty of Salinger’s book.

Holden is meaningful today because, even though he is white and privileged, like too many children he is hurting and invisible.   His absent parents send him off to boarding school, his older brother is away pursuing his career, his teachers sort of try to help the poor guy, and his peers are too screwed up themselves to save their pal.   Only his sister Phoebe understands Holden and, to borrow the cliché of my students, is “there for him.”   Holden tells her of his plan to run away, and unlike everyone else, who advise him to consider the consequences of his actions (so teacher-like), Phoebe’s response is to pack her suitcase and go with him.

She knows what no one else knows – that to rescue someone, you don’t hand them a pamphlet, you take their hand.  

In the movies “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” we see perfect examples of how this works:  Suffering young people are saved when those with Phoebe-like sensibilities intervene.   It’s the only way.

So here’s this teacher’s take-home message:  We all need to be Phoebe and look out for those around us, our friends and family and especially all the children everywhere.   We all need to be that “catcher in the rye.”

I hope I got that right, Mr. Salinger.

This essay was written by Gene Kahane, an English teacher at Encinal High School in Alameda (in northern California).   Reprinted with his permission.

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