Tag Archives: Vintage Books

A Quiet Emotional Work

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

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salinger-year

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.

catcher-in-the-rye

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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Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (Vintage, $15.95, 304 pages)

This book is guaranteed to appeal to certain subgroups of readers who are absolutely going to love it: old, new and former runners, middle-distance runners, marathoners, long-distance and ultra-marathon runners, and those who gravitate to stories about indigenous tribes like the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest.   If you’re not a member of one of these groups, the subject matter is unlikely to hold your interest, unless from time to time you pick up a copy of Runner’s World or Marathon and Beyond magazine and find such to be fascinating.

Of course, there have been books – not intended for the general public – that have been huge and surprising successes, such as Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.   Yet, I suspect that this tale of world-class ultra-marathoners will remain a specialized taste for most.

This true story is about a magazine editor who gets to observe an almost-secret race between some of this country’s best ultra-marathon runners and a group of “fleet-footed Tarahumara Indians.”   The race itself comes at the book’s conclusion and is not as interesting as the build-up to it.   Instead, the book is at its best when explaining the science of long-distance running, and how and why the skill of running long distances has been essential to human survival and evolution.  

The author explains why there may be an almost instinctual need for some humans to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon, or further.   He is, however, mystified as to why some persons today avoid running altogether.   The section that active runners may enjoy the best is one in which Christopher McDougall fully details the reasons expensive and highly cushioned running shoes – and those sold in the U. S. continue to be more expensive and more cushioned with each quarter of a year that goes by – lead to inevitable injuries.   After finishing this section, many runners (not including this reviewer) will certainly think about hitting the roads in their running flats or rubber sandals or even barefoot.   Fascinating stuff!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This bestselling book is now available in a trade paper release.   “Inspiring… destined to become a classic.”   Sir Ranulph Fiennes

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Beauty’s Only Skin Deep

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls  (Vintage, $14.95, 448 pages; Random House Audio, $19.99, 13 compact discs)

If ever there was a clear-cut category for One Day, “dramedy” is where it belongs.   By now it’s likely that the book, audio book and movie have been enjoyed by countless tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people.   The story thread is not really new.   A similar example this reviewer recalls is Same Time Next Year.   In the play and movie of the same name, a couple’s thrown together by chance, has a romantic encounter and agrees to meet on the same weekend each year.   They do so for 24 years.

One Day revisits the main characters, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew each year on the 15th of July, St. Swithin’s Day, for 20 years following their graduation from Edinburgh University in Scotland.   Emma and Dexter spend graduation night together at the beginning of this saga.   Dexter is a beautiful young man from a well-to-do family who enjoys being admired and bedded by many women.   Emma, on the other hand, comes from a lower-class background and is significantly brighter academically than Dexter.   However, her life experience and confidence are seriously lacking which does not bode well for her success in life.

Post-graduation finds them in London.   Dexter exudes confidence and is highly photogenic which lands him a job as a TV show host while Emma toils away at menial jobs including as a waitress and eventually the manager of a Tex-Mex restaurant.   Their annual check-ins prove to be both funny and poignant.

The years roll by and it is clear that both Emma and Dexter are good friends, although Emma is clearly more devoted to Dexter than he to her.   Let’s face it, Dexter is devoted to Dexter.   On St. Swithin’s Day their lives don’t always intersect, although Nicholls provides the reader with ample evidence of how each is managing life.

This novel has been reviewed twice previously on this site.   The prior reviews were written based on the hard copy.   This review is based on the unabridged audio book.   The word “unabridged” is key here because, unlike the book, the movie version is highly abridged and offers little more than snapshots of some of the July 15th episodes.   This reviewer is grateful to have heard the audio version prior to viewing the movie because the film was no more than a shallow glimpse into the characters’ actions.   Sadly, the serious and deeply moving aspects of the book were lost in the movie version.

Author Nicholls is a genius at dialogue and fortunately for this reviewer, the audio version was captivating.   Anna Bentinck lends her talents to the character voices and manages to do a good job on both the men and women’s parts.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audio book was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Gotta Serve Somebody

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk (Little, Brown and Company, $23.99, 192 pages; Hachette Audio, $26.98, 5 CDs)

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, all the different planets, and all these atoms with their motions, and so on,  all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has.   The stage is too big for the drama.”   Richard Feynman

Having a scant knowledge of Herman Wouk (the movie version of “Youngblood Hawke”) and having a great appreciation of Richard Feynman (the book Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow) put this reviewer in a one-down situation for listening to the audio book, The Language God Talks.   Moreover, the author’s age of 94 at the time of the book’s completion puts him in my late father’s generation.

The book is brief, a five-CD set.   Bob Walter, the narrator, provides a worldly and mellow voice that one can easily believe to be reminiscent of the author’s.   The smooth wording lends itself well to an audio book.   Sometimes, the somewhat self-indulgent musings of the author drift along pulling the listener into a past that is only partially shared.   Yes, the space age is fascinating and was most riveting at the time of the biggest breakthroughs.   However, those glory days are nearly gone as are the days enjoyed by Mr. Wouk.

In fairness to the author, his works will, no doubt, keep their places on required reading lists for some decades to come.   The quality of his writing puts him far ahead of many of his generation.   His Hebrew scholarship is quite notable and admirable.   Perhaps the comfort he has found in his studies is well matched with the acquaintances he shared with the luminaries of science and philosophy like Richard Feynman.   Wouk’s exploration of science versus religion is a personal one – and not a new one – but his efforts in that regard are exhaustive and lengthy by his own statements.

For this reviewer, the book felt like an honest retrospective of an enormously intelligent man reaching the end of his life’s path.   The book also seems to fulfill a personal promise of exploration that he has kept to himself.   Being honest about why we believe what we believe is something that few in middle age or younger actually ponder.   Perhaps it is left to the last part of life due to the enormity of the subject.   It would be a good listen for persons of any age, as exploring the meaning of life is a most worthwhile pursuit.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy of the audiobook was provided by the publisher.   Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Leonard Mlodinow is available as a trade paperback book (Vintage, $14.95, 192 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   Also recommended is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Mlodinow (Vintage, $15.00, 272 pages).

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Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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No Expectations

reservation-road-amazon

Reservation Road: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Vintage Contemporaries, $15.00, 304 pages)

“Our love is like our music, it’s here and then it’s gone.”   Jagger/Richards

Reservation Road was the second novel from John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner.   It is a tale of psychological suspense made all the more interesting as it is told through the thoughts of three characters (Ethan, a college professor; Grace, his wife; and Dwight, the man whose actions cause the death of Ethan and Grace’s son).   Ethan is a literature professor at a small college in New England, whose life is on course until…  

Returning late from an outing, the family makes an unscheduled stop at a gas station on Reservation Road.   As Grace and daughter Emma go in to use the rest room at the almost-abandoned gas station, Ethan and son Josh wait near the side of the road.   In a matter of mere seconds, a car driven recklessly by Dwight hits and kills 10-year-old Josh.   Life will never be the same for Ethan and Grace Learner…

Life, in fact, becomes “too much to bear” for the Learners.   Grace becomes paralyzed by her grief and Ethan moves on driven strictly by thoughts of revenge against the hit-and-run driver who killed his son.   Dwight, by contrast, is a man who has already ruined his life, his marriage and his legal career due to his recklessness and violence.   He becomes “like many whose lives are fueled largely by regret.”   He’s a dead man walking who eventually does “not seem to care any longer what happened to him.”

Schwartz does a masterful job of building and maintaining suspense through this novel’s 292 pages even though the denouement is obvious…   When the criminal justice system fails to find the man who so tragically killed Josh, we know deep down – as does Dwight – that Ethan will find him.   And what then?

But this is more than just a crime mystery.   It is a quasi-morality play about how people deal with losses – death and separation – in their lives.   We see how some rebound to live again and others never recover.   What is the line from Neil Young?   “On the day that she left he died but it did not show.”   This is a story about Ethan and Grace, who lose part of their life (their reason to exist) late; and of Ethan, who has lost his strength and his will to survive early on.

At the end of Reservation Road, Ethan finds Dwight and gets to serve as his judge, jury and – perhaps – his executioner.   What happens?   You’ll have to read Schwartz’s Reservation Road to find out.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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