Tag Archive | re-read

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

catcher-in-the-rye-cover-imageSo I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in about twenty years (or maybe longer, although I shudder to think) because I am teaching Grade 11 this year and Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story is on the reading list. Now I have to figure out what I really think about this book – not just what I want the kids to think I think about it.  It’s a problem because I believe that Holden Caulfield is definitely a character adolescents should encounter, if only because he (and this novel) is alluded to in so much of the literature, music, and films that followed.

If you’re out of the loop, The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and concerns almost-17-year-old Holden Caulfield, a smart but disenchanted student who has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania. “You’ve probably heard of it,” Holden tells us. “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time.” Holden is flunking all his courses except for English (he’s a voracious reader) and so he’s being sent home.

When the novel opens though, Holden is recounting “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown” from a rest home in California. Once he establishes where he is, Holden starts to tell his story – embellishments (by his own admission, Holden is “the most terrific liar”) and all.

There is no question that The Catcher in the Rye is dated. Holden peppers his speech with “goddam” (a rather tame expletive by today’s standards), he smokes and drinks (not that today’s teenagers don’t, but there is something old-fashioned about the way he treats these vices) and he’s able to spend an extended amount of time in New York City without breaking the bank (I wish!). Everyone Holden encounters is a “phony” and despite his obsession with sex, Holden is still a virgin. That said, there is something thoroughly modern in Holden’s quest to make sense of  his life, which has gone seriously off the rails.

At its heart, The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up. Holden doesn’t want to, not really. It is perhaps the reason why he’s still a virgin and why he thinks the Museum of Natural History is a perfect place.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Holden can’t stop time, although I think he would desperately like to. He also can’t undo the fact that his beloved brother, Allie, is dead. “You’d have liked him,” Holden tells us. He is preoccupied with the loss of innocence that precipitates the headlong fall into adulthood. He tells his little sister, Phoebe, that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,”

…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…

Holden’s narrative amounts to a desperate cry for help, for someone to listen to him, for someone to answer his questions, questions which, on the surface (like, where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes over) seem innocent, but which really demonstrate Holden’s search for meaning.

In Holden, Salinger has created a timeless character who will always have something to say to anyone who cares to listen.

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

velocityA couple of days ago on Information Morning, I talked about how I wished that I could carve out some time to revisit some of my favourite books. I mentioned three in particular: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Kristin McCloy’s Velocity. All three of these books had a profound impact on me, the first two when I was much younger and McCloy’s book when I first read it as a twenty-something. Of those three, I have actually already re-read Velocity numerous times and I just finished reading it again.

I think I am going to have a difficult time articulating exactly why I continue to find Velocity so compelling, but I do want to honour the book and its place in my personal canon here, especially because I recently had the very good fortune of exchanging a couple emails with the novel’s author, Kristin McCloy. (Insert fangirl squee here.)

When it was first published in 1988, Velocity caused quite a stir and earned copious praise. I am not sure what year I picked up my copy, perhaps 1989, but I definitely purchased it at The Strand in NYC. I devoured the book then for reasons that will surely become apparent a little further on.

So, what’s the book about?

Twenty-five-year-old Ellie Lowell has returned to her backwater North Carolina hometown to scatter her mother’s ashes. Ellie’s an only child and she’s been living in New York City for the past six years, so she’s finding it difficult to connect with her taciturn father, a local cop. They share the family home like two strangers might share a taxi ride to the airport – making small talk, but never really connecting.

Despite the awkwardness, Ellie decides to stay home for the summer, leaving her fledgling career in the film business and her boyfriend, Dec, back in the Big Apple. She gets a job at a local diner and before you can say two eggs over easy, she’s hooked up with Jesse, the half-Cherokee biker who lives down the road. Ellie knows he’s trouble. She says

…it occurs to me, a thousand woman, he’s had a thousand women, and every one of them has fed him everything she had.

Even though Jesse isn’t much for talking, Ellie finds herself pulled into his orbit. The attraction is sexual, of course, and she remarks that his “crazy height and that straight hair down to [his] shoulders, even from the shadows of [his] porch, the way [he] stared at me would’ve burned a hole in a blind woman’s side…”

When she’s with Jesse, she doesn’t think about anything else and that’s a good thing because what Ellie doesn’t want to think about is that her mother is dead. She can’t avoid the knowledge that “Everything crumbles. The walls, the rooftop…every structure will fall. Everything known, all that is so familiar, will vanish. Including myself.” What she can do, however, is push that knowledge away and although she is “aware of [her] grief waiting for [her], patient and thick,…right now it is remote.” Jesse is in its path.

At her age I was doing much the same thing, which is, I suppose, why Velocity struck a chord with me when I first read it all those years ago. I don’t recall what I was running from, but I sure knew what I thought I was running to. My guy, let’s call him S., was crazy tall, mostly silent, beautiful, at least to me, and he’d often disappear for days at a time, throwing me into a frenzy of longing, and then reappearing like an apparition. Like Ellie, I read into the smallest of gestures – a moment of tenderness could sustain me for weeks. S. wasn’t a criminal, but he definitely had his own demons and he was in no position to give me what I so desperately wanted. Our relationship was doomed from the start, but that didn’t prevent me from showing up where I’d know or hope he’d be or using sex as a bargaining chip. Our whole relationship was just fraught. And the weird thing is, 30 years later, I still feel that little electric charge on the rare occasion that I see him around.

When I read this book back in the day it was ALL about Jesse and Ellie’s relationship. I believed that Jesse did, in his own way, care for Ellie. I excused his bad behavior because Ellie excused it. I wasn’t blind to Ellie’s grief, but I hadn’t experienced real grief yet and so, although I could sympathize, I couldn’t personally relate to that part of her story. I knew exactly how she felt with Jesse, though. I knew that “electrical current” and the “pleasure like mercury.”

So, how does the book hold up upon rereading? Um – it’s still freaking fantastic. And here’s why. McCloy is a beautiful writer. That has always mattered to me. From the book’s opening line:

Sometimes in my dreams you rise up as if from a swamp, whole, younger than I remember, dazzling, jagged, and I follow you into smoky rooms, overwhelmed by the sense of being in the presence of an untamed thing, full of light, impossible to control.

…until the final pages, McCloy’s writing is fluid and evocative and painfully honest. But we readers know that beautiful writing only goes so far; we have to care about the characters, too. From this vantage point (on the slippery downward slope), I want to tell Ellie what I’m sure she already knows: he’s not the right guy. But I never wanted to shake her and say “Ellie, you’re acting like an idiot.” Her grief is palpable. I feel it like she feels it “a fist, hard-knuckled and small.”

She is so clearly out of control and there is no one able to ease her pain. Her father is caught in his own. Dec is helpless in New York and when he arrives unexpectedly, his presence just muddies the waters. It’s easy to see why Jesse becomes the center of her universe. He doesn’t ask questions that she can’t answer. He doesn’t ask anything of her at all, he simply “hunted down [his] needs – simple and precise – and in those days, it was me.”

Velocity is a novel about loss. And grief. It just so happens that it also has some incredibly erotic sex scenes; trust me, you’ll feel it in your knees. But here’s something interesting about my reread: this time, for the first time ever, I cried.

Now I understand. Since the last time I read this book – and it’s been a few years – both my parents have passed away, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2009. I get Ellie’s frantic desire to sublimate her grief. Everything about her journey seemed organic and honest to me. I ached for her. I missed my parents. I also missed, strangely, that feeling of being so crazy in love with someone that you can’t think straight. All those things are lost to me now.

Velocity is a special book. Thanks, Kristin, for writing it.

Off the Shelf – The Great Summer Re-Read

Listen here.

So, summer offers a great long stretch of free time for a lot of people. I do teach summer school, generally, but that still leaves me with lots of sunny afternoons at the beach and rainy days on my couch. Last time I was on Information Morning,  I offered some suggestions of great books to while away your summer afternoons, but here’s another option: re-reading. I never have time for this and I always wish I did because there have been some books in my reading life that deserve another look.

Some people say that life is too short to re-read books, but I disagree. It’s like watching your favourite movie a million times. That never gets old, right? It’s your favourite movie for a reason. It would be embarrassing to tell you how many times I saw Grease in the theatre the summer it came out. (A lot. In the double digits.)

There are lots of benefits to reading a book for the second or even fifth time.

Researchers have suggested that re-reading can benefit your mental health, reigniting emotions and benefitting knowledge. If you’ve ever had the experience of falling in love with a character, then re-reading is one way to re-connect with that character. Books themselves often have the ability to transport us back to a special time. I have very specific memories of some of the books I have purchased

Another benefit of re-reading is that the pressure is essentially off; you already know how it’s going to turn out. The flip side of that is that because you know how the plot will unfold you can concentrate on other aspects of the book, characterization on even just the beauty of the writing.

I purchase a lot of books from bookoutlet.ca and I always stumble upon books I never expected to see again. One of those books was The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.  I LOVED that book when I was twelve; I read it when I was a student at Forest Glen school in Moncton. So – 40 years later I re-read it and I have to say that it did not in any way live up to my memories. Still, I’m so glad to have it on my bookshelf.

For me, re-reading is a real luxury because I have so many tbr books, but as I am reading The Goldfinch this summer, I think re-reading might be a nice companion to that experience.

So here are some books I think I might revisit this summer:

brooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I probably read this book when I was eleven or twelve and it’s a book that I often recommend to my students. It’s one of those classics that I have really fond memories of because it’s evocative of a time a place that was, when I was a kid, so beyond my experience. It’s the story of Francie who grows up in Brooklyn with her younger brother Neely and her parents. They are really poor and I can remember as a kid being fascinated with how they made do with so little. I loved Francie and I would love another chance to spend time with her.

jane eyreJane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

This was, looking back, my first “adult” read. I might have been twelve or thirteen when I read it. I absolutely adored Jane who, despite not being beautiful, was smart and self-reliant. Even at my young age I admired her feisty nature and her determination to be self-sufficient. Plus, she lands the handsome but tortured Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre was ahead of its time, although I probably didn’t appreciate it for those reasons when I read it as a kid. It would be interesting to re-read it now.

velocityVelocity – Kristin McCloy

Okay this book is really special to me for a variety of reasons. I bought it at The Strand in NYC in 1988 or 89. I don’t remember why I even knew about it except that it was kind of a superstar novel when it came out. I have reread this novel numerous times, but not recently. I actually posted a one line review of the book on Goodreads – more as a place holder than anything else, and recently Ms. McCloy herself thanked me for my “review” – which of course it wasn’t. She also provided her email address and we exchanged a few emails back and forth. I am sure I was totally inarticulate about the book. Being able to chat with the author of a book you love is sort of the literary equivalent of meeting Ryan Gosling who is my celebrity boyfriend.

Velocity is the story of 25 year old Ellie who returns to her home in the southern States after the death of her mother. Her dad is a local cop and he’s mostly silent in his grief, but Ellie’s grief manifests itself very differently. She pursues Jesse, the biker dude who lives down the road. He’s totally wrong for her and she totally can’t stay away from him. I was, at the time I read this book, of a similar age in a similar relationship and there wasn’t anything about Ellie I couldn’t relate to – except the dead mom. On top of that, the writing is just so beautiful. Never mind spending good money on E.L. James’ Grey (I mean, seriously, do we actually need to hear that story from another p.o.v.?) track down a copy of Velocity. It’s steamy, yes, but it’s also poignant and just so, so damn good. Since this segment aired, I have finished Velocity and I’ll post a proper review asap.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I first read Ian Serraillier’s novel The Silver Sword when I was 12. All these years later I had vague memories of what the story was about, but  very vivid memories of having loved it. We read it in school and so it wasn’t a book that I’d actually come across elsewhere. One day, while perusing the selection at Book Closeouts I came across the book and decided to order it. I wondered, after all these years, if it would stand up. Some childhood books do and some don’t.

The Silver Sword is the story of Polish siblings Ruth, Edek and Bronia. When the Nazis invade Warsaw in 1940 their father, Joseph, and mother, Margrit, are taken away leaving the children, then aged 13, 11 and 3, to fend for themselves. We hear a little bit about the father who manages to escape a couple years later and make his way back to Warsaw. There he encounters a young ruffian named Jan. It’s part luck and part contrivance that the children should meet up with Jan and together they set off for Switzerland in search of their parents.

I am sad to say that The Silver Sword wasn’t a magical experience the second time around. The story is simplistic, the characters are one-dimensional and the happy-ending is unrealistic. That said, it in no way diminishes my memories of what I loved about the book 30-odd years ago. Then the trials of these children: their hunt for safe places to sleep, finding food, trying to stay out of the way of the Nazis, searching for their parents, was both thrilling and heart-wrenching. I can only attribute my disappointment to the fact that I am older and jaded.

I think my children will love it as much as I did then.