Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Old Holden. He Kills Me. He Really Does.

The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

The death of J.D. Salinger a few weeks ago, at the age of 91, prompted me to get out my old copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I had not read it since high school, and had forgotten most of it. I did, however, remember that I had liked it, and I think I appreciated it more this second time around. Holden Caulfield has to be one of the most realistic literary characters ever created. I remember hearing that the novel was loosely autobiographical, and that Salinger struggled a lot as a teen and young adult.

Holden definitely has his favorite catchphrases (see my title), and Salinger drives that point home in a way that borders on the annoying, except it is so dead accurate. The phrases change from one generation to the next, but all adolescents through young adults have hackneyed sayings that they, like, almost cannot get through a sentence without, like, saying. Beneath Holden's vernacular is a spirit crying to be noticed, longing to connect with other people but so afraid of being rejected that he pushes people away before they can turn away from him. Holden also has noticed the amount of pretending that most of us do, which he acknowledges in his universal condemnation of "the phonies." Reading his story again reminded me to be a little more patient with teens' angst and seeming apathy. Sometimes they are just expressing what a lot of us think but do not have the courage to say out loud. Often they are doing the best they can to figure out how to live and love in this world. I hope I remember Holden when my boys get to be teenagers.

This is one of those books that should be in my canon of being re-read every few years. There are sentences that capture the isolation of adolescence so well that they bring tears to my eyes. Yes, Holden is profane and dishonest and self-indulgent and (occasionally) offensive. He also is (at least for the three days that the novel covers) wasting his potential. But what Salinger did so brilliantly was to make us like Holden in spite of all that, and to identify with his pain. I wish Salinger had written a sequel - it would be nice to find out what happened to this sensitive and misguided young man.

Salinger is rumored to have died with quite a bit of unpublished writing in his file cabinets. Is it possible that Holden's fate may be revealed to us? We can only hope.

Reverent Reader

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thanks Be to God

Strength in What Remains: a Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness
by Tracy Kidder

Deogratias. "Thanks be to God." By some quirk of grace, a mother in Burundi named her child this (he now goes by the nickname "Deo") unique word. Twenty-four years later, that same child survives a genocide in Burundi and lives to tell about it. He witnesses unimaginable horror and several times only narrowly escapes with his life. Strength in What Remains is Deo remembering the atrocities of the 1994 genocides in Burundi and Rwanda, as well as his processing what living through something like that did to his emotional and spiritual health. It is a moving story about a remarkable person.

Through a combination of luck and fortunate human connections, Deo was eventually able to escape the violence in his home country and fly to New York City. The narrative moves back and forth between memories of the wars that began in 1994 and Deo's building a life here in the United States. Something that stuck out to me about the narrative as a whole was the startling numbers of ways that we humans find to dehumanize each other. The Hutu rebels in Rwanda and Burundi called the Tutsis "cockroaches." To diminish the Tutsis in such a way probablymade it easier for the Hutus to slaughter them. Even though Deo was physically safer in New York City, he still endured slights and humiliations and people who seemed to think he had no right to exist just because he was born somewhere else. He also suffered the gradual erosion of his own ambitions and dreams, and began to lost hope that his life would ever include companionship or joy or intellectual stimulation. He thought he was going to work the same dead end job forever, and that if he disappeared no one would notice. I am not equating the busyness and apathy of American citizens with intentional slaughter, but I do think that looking through another person (and other ways of treating them like a non-person) is dehumanizing. If we do not engage with another person, we do not have to bother ourselves about what is happening to them.

Deo was lucky. He made friends with a small group of people who did care about him. They gave him a place to live, helped him get an education, and helped him navigate the labyrinth of becoming a US citizen. Deo has paid that forward by becoming involved with Partners in Health and working in Burundi to build accessible medical clinics. He still struggles with survivor's guilt, questioning of God's presence and goodness, and other issues related to the genocide that he lived through, but his survival story is amazing - as is his ability to move forward in a healing and productive way.

This is a great story, but I am not sure it is Kidder's best - that is probably Mountains Beyond Mountains. Still Tracy Kidder is incapable of writing a bad book. His eye for detail and ability to penetrate the workings of his subjects' minds make all of his books a window into the ways that other people live. What I most took away from Strength in What Remains is a confirmation of the power of relationship in the lives of people who are hurting. One person truly can make a difference in the life of another. We know that, of course, but it is a joy to have it affirmed so powerfully.

The book's title comes from a poem by William Wordsworth, a portion of which I will leave you with now:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;


Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Am I Missing Something?

Where the God of Love Hangs Out
by Amy Bloom (short stories)

OK, maybe it's just me. I was intrigued by the title of this short story collection, and was very moved by Amy Bloom's novel Away a couple of years ago. So I was very eager to read these, and even suggested them for a book club at my church. That may be the last time I make a suggestion without having read the book first. These are a big disappointment. What I remember about Away is the clear message that life is difficult, and there is a lot of pain and sorrow, but there are also people through whom love is communicated and moments where grace is evident. Those people and those moments give us the strength to endure the pain that eventually comes our way. Where the God of Love Hangs Out has all the darkness with very little of the light.

In a recent interview, Amy Bloom discusses how most writers have a certain theme or subject that finds its way into all of their work. "Whether I chose it or not," she said, "my subject is love." Sadly, I just did not find much love present in these short stories. Bloom's skill at choosing words and constructing sentences is still evident in this collection, but many of the characters behave like fools. There are four interconnected stories about two people named William and Clare. Both married to other people, they are "best friends" who eventually begin an affair that goes on and off for years. In the end, they leave their respective spouses and marry each other. I suppose there is a certain sweetness to them living out their final days together and moving beyond secrecy and deception, but frankly it was hard for me to get past the adultery and their seeming lack of concern for the commitments they had originally made. Plus the two characters are just quite unappealing. As much as I disapprove of adultery in principle, I do think it would be possible to construct a story where the reader at least can understand what has driven the characters to such an act, and where we can sympathize with the characters and even root for them. Bloom has failed to do this.

One of the short stories (unrelated to William and Clare) titled Between Here and Here that was probably my favorite of the collection. It was about a woman who has a difficult relationship with her alcoholic father, who was verbally (and occasionally physically) abusive during all the years she was growing up. In his final years, as his physical and mental health deteriorates, she manages to find compassion for him in his vulnerability. Although he never acknowledges his past behavior (let alone apologize for it), he does seem to develop an appreciation for his daughter. Almost in spite of herself, Allison and her dad come to an uneasy truce. Sometimes an uneasy truce is the best we can hope for.

There is another set of connected stories about a musical, cosmopolitan, interracial family that I was able to enjoy more than the saga of William and Clare. There were some likable characters, and a few touching scenarios. However, much of the energy of the storyline was fueled by sexual tension between a young man and his stepmother. I suppose things like that happen in "real life," but it just left a sour taste in my mouth. Several of the other stories have characters who engage in adultery seemingly without conscience or compunction. Others do equally reprehensible things, and fail to take responsibility for their choices. In most of the stories, I really could not find a God of love hanging out anywhere. It seemed more like the gods of hedonism, self-gratification, and anything goes. Blech.

Reverent Reader

P.S. I'm sorry for the long gap between posts. Our family was caught in the massive blizzard that hammered the east coast starting on February 5. We were without Internet for a week, and are just now resuming some semblance of normal life. BUT, I got a lot of reading done during the storm, so lots of posts will be coming. YAY!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remembrance of Things Past

An Echo in the Bone
by Diana Gabaldon

OK, Diana Gabaldon is no Proust, but I stole the title of one of his best known works for this post, because of Gabaldon's incredibly well researched historical fiction. My friend and sister-in-law, E., got me started on Gabaldon several years ago. She said that the "Outlander" series was about a time-traveling nurse. Frankly, I was not interested. I've never been terribly drawn to science fiction, and thought that the time travel thing would get in the way of the story. Actually, though, the time travel is just a vehicle for drawing us into the narrative of some very good historical fiction.

An Echo in the Bone is the seventh in Gabaldon's "Outlander" series, about the fiery nurse Claire Fraser and her husband Jamie. Jamie and Claire have this passionate love that transcends centuries as circumstances repeatedly force them apart and bring them back together again. The series is populated by lots of other colorful characters as well. Jamie Fraser is a Scotsman who participates in the uprising against England in the 1740s, eventually going to prison for his trouble. When he and Claire find each other again, they emigrate to the American colonies.

An Echo in the Bone picks up the story as the American Revolution is getting going, and Jamie and Claire struggle to remain true to their revolutionary principles while also trying to keep their family safe. Another character, Roger MacKenzie (also a time-traveler), wrestles with his calling to the ministry. His child's illness forced him and his family to leave the 18th century and go back to the 20th century, where medical help would be available for his daughter. He copes with the question "Does a calling in one century carry over 200 years to another?"

If you have not read any other of the Outlander books, you will be lost in this one. The series definitely builds from book to book. One complaint I had about An Echo in the Bone is that the level of detail and having to remember seemingly unimportant things from two or three books back is getting a little tedious. Gabaldon has clearly done her homework - she weaves actual historical characters throughout the saga, and she has a J. K. Rowling-esque ability to pick up threads from book to book and tie them all together.

Gabaldon's books are not great literature, but they are fun and reasonably educational. If you like history, you can get into these. They do have the 18th-century penchant for violence, though. There are some pretty bloody war scenes, as well as some graphic sexual ones. Once you get drawn into the series, though, it's hard to stop. You do feel compelled to find out what happens next. Call it a guilty pleasure, which we all need.

Reverent Reader