Sunday, January 24, 2010

Authors: J.D. Salinger

Among the goals of my summer non-genre reading list was covering works that many people read in high school or college that have slipped past me. A top entry on the list was The Catcher in the Rye, that canonical volume for high school novel classes everywhere.

Mentioning this to some good friends while I waited my hold on Catcher at the library, they loaned me Franny and Zooey, which I added to the pile. A short book, I opened it with little notion what type of author Salinger was, why he was well known, what to expect in the least.

Turns out Franny and Zooey was a slightly odd place to start. In many ways it draws on characters Salinger developed elsewhere (specifically Nine Stories). As I read I kept feeling I was supposed to already know bits of back-story, or at least have passing familiarity with events in the life of the Glass family.

The style--much as I would later find with Catcher--was conversational. His narration flows over you. Franny and Zooey especially resembled eavesdropped on an extended conversation. Salinger's ability to capture dialog, and even to make a long debate over religion and philosophy engaging, seems a key to why he retains his reputation so long after he's stopped publishing.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected of The Catcher in the Rye. Much like Franny and Zooey it portrayed an East Coast world of private schools and city life very different from my own experience. The world-weary jadedness of the youths both books strikes a chord, but also evoked sadness for me. So much discontent and isolation coursed through those the books.

Again, the tight description, dialog laced with implications and relationship dragged me along. I read Catcher in a day (at the excellent recommendation of my good friend Brian), and it wasn't tough to do.

Both Franny and Zooey and Catcher obsess over authenticity. Catcher in particular reverberated with Holden looking down on others who he viewed as phonies. However, the view-points of characters in both books seemed equally as "inauthentic" in how they demeaned those around them, in how they set themselves apart and judged. Catcher left me wondering how sad of a life it must be to live so constantly concerned about everyone else's authenticity that you miss tending to your own.

All in all, I like Salinger's style, and I will probably read his other books at some point. But for now, I'm glad to move onto something a little less self-conscious.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Books: Love Medicine

Yet another recommendation came to me from my good friend Nate. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a story about family, about Native American life on the reservation, about accepting those aspects of life we can't change and shouldering on through.

The book is structured more as a series interconnected of short stories rather than a novel with a small number of viewpoints. Many different characters get their point-of-view story throughout, and we see a broad swath of history through the lives of a couple different Chippewa families living in North Dakota.

A large part of the book centers on a love triangle between the characters Marie, Nector and Lulu. We see these characters from their teenage years falling in love, through to life in a retirement home, with all the difficultly and strife between. Along the way Erdrich gives us glimpses many other branches and tributaries of these Chippewa families, building for the reader a strong sense of the broader reservation community.

Erdrich's prose is incredibly lush and descriptive. Reading a bit about her, I wasn't surprised to find her background is in poetry. There is a lyrical sense to the book that verges on poetic. It is also a very conversational, hearkening back to the oral storytelling of Native American culture. That richness of imagery often contrasts with the world she's describing--the bleak, forsaken backwaters of North Dakota that the Chippewa are increasingly forced to by the government, away from their remembered homelands.

Yet again, I wouldn't have typically picked this book up on my own, but I'm extremely glad to have read it. Erdrich's going on my "to-read-all-of" list for sure.