Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

All I can say is, don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
We've moved to a year somewhere around 1945, and our main character is Holden Caulfield, who I think is about 16 years old. Maybe 17. He's just been kicked out of Pencey Prep School for Boys, in Agerstown, PA, for flunking all his subjects but English. We learn throughout the book that he is most likely failing because he has lingering depression from his brother Allie's death. Allie had leukemia, and passed on a few years before the book starts. Holden decides to leave Pencey early (Christmas break starts on Wednesday, it's Saturday night, I think, when the book begins). He figures his parents won't get the letter saying he was kicked out until at least Tuesday, and he wants to have an adventure. He goes to New York City, his hometown. He sees a few acquaintances, stays in a hotel, orders a prostitute on a whim (it goes terribly), leaves the hotel, and goes on a date with a semi-obnoxious ex-girlfriend. The date goes sour, he ditches the girl, and he sneaks into his house at night to visit his littler sister Phoebe, who is about 9 years old, I think. He hides from his parents in Phoebe's closet, Phoebe gives him her Christmas money to fund his adventure, and he calls an old teacher, who lets him spend the night. Holden seems happy at his teacher's house, but freaks out when he wakes up in the middle of the night and his male teacher is patting him on the head. He leaves in a hurry and sleeps on a public bench. Holden finally decides to hitch hike out west, but when he tries to drop off a note to Phoebe saying goodbye, she tries to come with him. This stops him from going, and in the last chapter, we find out that Holden is "sick" and being treated in some kind of hospital. He talks about returning to school, but isn't too hopeful about not failing out again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I started reading Franny and Zooey, Caulfield's only other famous work, just before I started this blog. I didn't finish it, because I found the plot to be lacking a driving force. I noticed quite a few interesting similarities between that book and this one, though, and I'll start this post by mentioning them here. If you don't mind.

Both books feature the same family structure: two parents, three sons, and one daughter. Both books deal with the loss of one of the children, a son, and the repercussions of this loss. And in each book, the death of that sibling is a quiet driving force for the main character's actions. Maybe it's not really that quiet, but it felt subtle to me.

All right, on to random comments, as I eat my cream cheese-stuffed french toast and hash browns. I don't even really like french toast that much. I just like to drown my hash browns in syrup.

- Holden talks about his brother Allie's death, and he says that when it happened, he smashed all the windows in his garage. Holden points out that, though he now can't make a fist with that hand, fist-making is really only crucial for surgeons and violinists. I thought this was funny, considering that my sister Diana could potentially be both of those things.

- Holden loves his red hunting hat with ear flaps that he buys in New York City with the Pencey fencing team. I think the hat is adorably interwoven in the story (haha. get it? woven?) It made me want to knit myself a red hat. Maybe I will.

- Holden wants to know what happens to the ducks in Central Park in wintertime, but no one can tell him. One taxi cab driver tells him that he doesn't know what happens to the ducks, but the fish stay in the pond, frozen in the ice. Holden doesn't seem to believe this, but I know it's true, seeing as how we had that fish pond growing up and I watched the fish keep on living under the ice each winter. Right, mom? Except for that last winter, when they all died mysteriously. Oops!

- Holden cries when the pimp, Maurice, and the prostitute, Sunny come to fetch more money from him for the sex he didn't have. He gets punched by Maurice in the stomach, but I liked this moment because it felt like Holden was crying not because he was hurt, but because he was angry at being cheated out of money. It felt very vulnerable and childish to me.

- Sorry I forgot to mention this earlier, but the title of today's post is in reference to a movie that Holden and Sally (his ex-gf) went to see. I thought it was a very Holden comment, so I chose it for the title.

- When Holden is in a bar (he manages to get cocktails "on account of his gray hairs, and his height") he pretends he's been shot in the gut. He keeps pretending for several hours. I don't know if I've ever imagined quite that scenario, before, but I've certainly imagined some random scenarios, so I can identify, Holden.

- In what I thought was one of the most poignant moments in this novel, Holden talks about going to see Allie's grave. He went with his family only a few times, and twice, he said, it rained. It rained right on Allie's stomach. This image makes me want to cry it feels so real.

- Phoebe tells her mother that she said her prayers in the bathroom, at one point. This reminded me of when I used to tell my mom (after long car trips, and after my dad had carried me to my lovely bottom bunk bed) that I had already been to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. And someone (ahem. Diana, little miss top bunk) used to rat me out, and tell mom I hadn't. I know it's just because you care about my dental health, Diana. And everyone knows you used to beat me up because you still slept with a night light and I didn't like it. And I guess I did get your mouth washed out with soap. Twice. Ahem. Sorry.

- When Holden spends the night with his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, and his teacher pats him on the head in the middle of the night, Holden launches into this mania, worried that his teacher is a "flit" and a pervert. Later on, when Holden has cooled down, he realizes that his teacher might not be a pervert, and even if he is a "flit" (a gay man) that might not be such a bad thing. I thought this was pretty forward-thinking for 1945. Thanks, Salinger.

- Holden sees inappropriate phrases written on his sister Phoebe's school, and later on in the museum, and it upsets him. He tries to erase the first "f*** you" that he sees on the school wall, but when he sees it in the museum, he despairs, and says that ultimately there will always be someone to write "f*** you", and that it will probably be written on his tombstone. I think it's true that people write nasty things, Holden, but I don't think anyone would write that on your tombstone. I'll erase it if they do.

- I counted the number of references to "depression" or "being depressed" Holden made in the book. Guesses? 37 is the answer. 37 separate references to feeling depressed, or things that happen that make him depressed. And yet, I was somehow still totally surprised that Holden ended up being treated for mental illness in the end of the book. I guess I just don't have that much faith in the quality of mental health options in 1945. As someone who suffers from depression, and had helpful discussions with mental health professionals, and unhelpful discussions, I appreciate Holden's plight, and I hope that things go well for him after the end of this book.

Last comment. In reference to the title of the book, Holden says the only thing he can see himself doing in life is summed up in a Robert Burns poem. It turns out he's misquoting it (it's "if a body meet a body coming through the rye", not "if a body catch a body coming through the rye") but he sees himself in a field of rye with a bunch of little kids. The children are playing ball, and they're standing right near the edge of a cliff. He says he's the only "big one" around. "What I have to do," he says, is "I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

I think Holden wants to be the catcher because he knows he's running off a cliff, and he doesn't know if there's anyone there to catch him. We all need a catcher in the rye, Holden. I think that's a perfectly respectable career choice. In fact, I've spent the last two and half years being a catcher in the rye, now that I think of it.

I'm off to Middle Earth.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Every Third Merriweather is Morbid

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So we've moved back to 1935, and our main characters are children. To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in the rural South, in Maycomb County, Alabama. Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, a prominent local lawyer. The story chronicles Scout and Jem's transition from childhood innocence into a heightened level of awareness. Race, poverty, class, manners, education, and morality are all themes that arise in the novel. The novel's plot stems from two main characters: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Boo Radley is a neighbor of the Finches who hasn't emerged from his house in many years. Scout and Jem frequently play games near Boo's house, trying to coax him out, but Atticus disapproves. Tom Robinson is a black farmhand who is accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell, a low class white woman. Atticus defends Tom Robinson in court (it becomes clear to the reader fairly early on that Tom is innocent and Mayella's father attacked her) but to no avail. Tom is convicted, and, despairing while in captivity in prison camp, attempts escape and is shot to death. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, holds a grudge against Atticus after the court case, as the whole town knows what really happened, and Bob Ewell is a mean drunk. At the book's climax, Scout and Jem are attacked by Bob Ewell, but Boo intercedes, emerging from his house and killing Bob Ewell. Scout realizes that Boo is really very nice, and the book closes.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book, above all, is funny and endearing. I loved it when I read it in 8th grade, and I loved it when I read it last year with my 9th graders at Fels, and it was enjoyable once again as I read it this time. The title for this blog is a reference to certain Maycomb families that "everyone knows about", according to Scout. Coming from a small town where there were lots of preconceptions about "the Zackey family", I know what Scout means.

I'm going to continue with my random comments/analysis style from last week's post. Hope you don't mind.

-Haverfords are jackasses in Maycomb. I found this pretty funny, as a Haverford alum and all.

-When Scout and Jem first meet Dill (sorry he didn't make it in the plot summary, he's delightful, but not really essential to the plot), a neighbor's relative, he's so small he barely reaches above the collards. I thought this image was rather funny, and very reminiscent of cabbage patch kids.

-When Scout first starts going to school, she gets reprimanded for already knowing how to read. After her teacher tells her to stop, Scout says, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." This is classic poignancy from Scout via Harper Lee. I can't imagine a world without books, or without reading. It reminded me of when I accidentally failed the French placement exam in college (they were playing this recorded French woman's voice and asking comprehension questions and I messed up some of the scantron answers and started erasing and all of a sudden the test was over) and passed into French 001. The first semester I played catch up, relearning essential grammar, but the second semester, I got a new professor, and she started giving me C's on papers. I asked her why, and she said, "Well, you started using the past tense, but you used it wrong. Don't worry, we won't learn the past tense for a few weeks." And I said, "Well, can you teach me, so I get better grades and I use it right?" And she said, "We aren't learning it for a few weeks, don't worry about it." I transferred up 2 levels to a French-Canadian's class. (That class was awful and I didn't realize for weeks that the main character in a story we were reading was "aveugle", which means blind. That was a fairly crucial vocab word, as it turns out. Serves me right, I suppose.)

-Okay, I'm already getting long-winded. Sorry. Reeling it in. I also loved when Scout tried to "spit-seal" a compromise she makes with Atticus. Very adorable 8-year-old behavior.

-Harper Lee does a beautiful job with the relationship between Scout and Jem. At one point, Scout tries to cheer Jem up. "I picked up a football magazine, found a picture of Dixie Howell, showed it to Jem, and said, "This looks like you." That was the nicest thing I could think to say to him..." Hilarious. I love the way Scout's mind works.

-Dill cries when it becomes clear that the court is going to go against Tom Robinson. I love that he cries, because I cry when things feel wrong and unjust, too, and I rarely feel more like a child than when I cry at things that seem immoral.

-I take offense at Harper Lee's discussion of why women can't serve on the jury. Scout seems dismayed upon first finding this out, then decides that women would "talk too much" and "ask too many questions". I don't know if Harper Lee is being ironic and I'm just not getting it, but I just got called for jury duty, and I'm damn proud. I feel very excited about the prospect of serving on a jury.

-The owner of the town paper writes an editorial about the case against Tom Robinson, and Scout sums it up in these words: "Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. " Much goes on in the secret courts of men's (and women's) hearts, and the best lawyer with the best intentions often has no sway there.

-Boo cultivates a sort of secret friendship with Scout and Jem, leaving them gifts in a tree. After Boo rescues Scout and Jem at the end of the book, Scout says, "Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. " I wonder if this counts as zeugma. Zeugma is my favorite literary term, and it refers to mixing the literal and the metaphorical, like "Mrs. Weasley threw dirty looks and sausages into the frying pan." Delightful, right?

Lastly, I'd like to point out what I remember from when I was Scout's age - 9 years old. I was in fourth grade. I was best friends with my still best friend, Deanna. (We met in second grade.) I had Miss Patches (now Mrs. Erb, and now, in fact, my neighbor). I loved my enrichment classes, and I remember we used to draw on laminated copies of the Pennsylvania map. We had to write in cursive on our spelling tests (I maintain my cursive is ugly because I missed some of handwriting when I skipped 1st grade) and there was a mean girl named Vanessa, that I called a "wishy-washy". I posited that "wishy-washies" were the worst kind of people. Sometimes they were nice, but sometimes they were incredibly cruel, and I never knew what to expect. People used to think my sister and I were twins, which I thought was utterly stupid, because we looked (and still look) very dissimilar.

I hope you all Thoroughly enjoyed that trip down memory lane with me. As you can see, my life is fascinating, and being 9 was very formative for me. What do you remember from when you were 9?

I'll close this incredibly long post with my favorite lines from this book.

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"No, honey."
"Then why-"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

I didn't want to turn this post into a diatribe on race, but I know that I share Atticus's opinion when it comes to making the world better for people of every color, every gender, every sexual orientation, and every faith. The good fight is always worth fighting.

On to The Catcher in the Rye...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one

Greetings, readers! I've stuck to the schedule so far, and I finished 1984 in exactly 7 days. I've decided to start each blog entry off with a quick synopsis so that people have some background as they read my thoughts. If you're planning to read one of the books on the list and haven't read it before, skip the synopsis so you don't ruin the plot for yourself.

1984 by George Orwell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

So we've got Winston Smith, who is our main character, and I suppose we must say, our protagonist. He is rather dull, very run of the mill, and fairly uninteresting. Winston lives in 1984, a time in which, according to Orwell, the world has basically gone to hell in a handbasket. This lovely dystopia features constant surveillance of the "party" members by the government, as well as the ritual torturing, interrogation, and murder of dissenting citizens. Winston spends most of the book trying to determine if a revolution against the party really exists. He has a love affair with a woman named Julia, who is also against the party (in secret, of course) but doesn't believe that an organized revolution exists. Winston latches onto a man named O'Brien, who helps Winston to "join" the revolution. Winston soon realizes, however, that O'Brien is merely a member of the "Thought Police", and Winston and Julia are captured, tortured, and interrogated. Winston withstands the torture, despite its long duration, maintaining the belief that as long as he doesn't offer up Julia's life for his own, he will have succeeded in his rebellion. In the end, however, when faced with his greatest fear, Winston offers to sacrifice Julia, and O'Brien (and the party) have won. Winston and Julia are reintegrated into society, and though they meet again, they cannot love each other any more because they were both willing to offer the other's life in order to save their own. Winston ends the novel with the realization that he does, in fact, love Big Brother (the icon for the party).

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The first thing I did after I finished 1984 was take a shower. I spent the rest of the day doing traditional, Saturday afternoon, free human things: I made a beef stew, a Thai curry chicken soup, and chocolate ginger soufflés. I needed to reassert my existence and my freedom after reading about Winston losing his completely.

I underlined a few sections of the book as I read (I know, scandalous! Writing in a book! And I can't do it for the next 2 books because I got them from the library. Sad!) so I'm just going to jump about with a few comments on each one, then I'll discuss general feelings about the book as a whole.

Cabbage - Orwell says that everything smells of boiled cabbage, and I found this interesting. I mean, I like the taste of cabbage, but I suppose sauerkraut is probably on my list of permanent scents for hell. Also making the list are cooked scrapple, raw chicken, and patchouli.

Children - the children in this novel are some of the most despicable characters. They rat on their parents to the Thought Police, they are the mouthpieces and earpieces of the party, and they don't know anything before the existence of the party. I found this frightening, and somewhat reminiscent of Briony in Atonement. Briony means well, but she sets in motion a series of truly horrible events. I found Winston's discussion of his own terrible behavior as a child to be particularly interesting. Orwell seemed to try hard to make Winston unlikable, and yet, he was the only possible character we could hope would do anything really important. He was, in fact, pretty much the only character at all!

I found the aspects of revisionist history (the past is what we decide it is, not what actually happened) and Newspeak (the destruction of words - why do we need good and bad, if we can have good and ungood, which are true opposites) to be provocative, and rather too close to home. Revisionism made me think of people who don't believe the Holocaust happened, and Newspeak made me think of the Académie Française, who decide what foreign words are allowed to enter the pristine French language. (Only so many are allowed each year, so they have to decide whether to let in "ahmbaregare" (hamburger) or "papier de toilette" (toilet paper, instead of hygienic paper). Most French people say what they want anyway, sorry Académie. I asked my host mom for some "papier hygiénique" when I was in France, and she looked at me like I was an alien. Then I waggled the old toilet paper roll at her, and she was like, "ah! papier de toilette!")

Bowels - When something frightens Winston, or shocks him, he feels it in his bowels. I suppose this is true for many people, but I was amused by Orwell's constant reference to things happening in Winston's lower area.

At several points in the book, Orwell discusses sanity and what it means to be sane. I chose the quote for the title because it felt brilliantly poetic. Winston thinks for some time that he is, perhaps, the only dissenter against the party, and he wonders if he is insane, or merely a solitary revolutionary. Don't worry, Winston, I often feel like a lunatic and a minority of one. Winston also comes to the conclusion that stupidity, or ignorance, is a coping mechanism for the masses to remain sane. I have always wished I were less intelligent, less of a critical thinker. I think happiness might be more attainable, and, if nothing else, my mind would be a little more quiet. But I'm sure that's just "grass is greener" talk, and I know everyone has their own worries and struggles.

When Julia and Winston have a tryst in the woods, a thrush sings for a long time. Winston says later that he felt the thrush was singing just for them. This was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments in the book. To be perfectly honest, I hate birds, and have a totally irrational fear of them, (Well, maybe it's not so irrational - when I was little a blue jay landed on my head. I'm almost sure I'm not making that memory up. But sometimes you just don't quite know either way.) so I was surprised I liked this section as much as I did. But it's one of the very few moments when I truly felt that the world of 1984 was still a world, a place where people and animals and plants existed at all.

I enjoyed Orwell's description of Room 101 at the end of the book. Room 101 is where Winston is taken for his last bout of torture. It's a torture of the less conventional variety. Room 101 is a sort of boggart. For non-HP fans, that's code for your worst fears. Winston can handle beatings, electric shocks, humiliation, degradation, but not what O'Brien has in Room 101. For Winston, Room 101 is... rats. Well, technically, a cage for your face with rats waiting to chew your skin off. And you know what, Winston? I can't blame you. I can't stand the thought of rats either. I've had several bad experiences with mice, and I just don't even need to think about how much bigger and sneakier and dirtier rats can be. Although I did buy a pair of "fancy rats" for my sister as pets with my other sister one Christmas. But ultimately, we could none of us get over the fact that "Captain Cynthia", and whatever the other one's name was, were still rodents. We gave them to a Biology teacher, who kept them as class pets. I think Captain Cynthia died.

But think about it. What would be in your Room 101? What is the thing that is so frightening that you would sell off any one you loved, the person you loved most, to avoid it? I'm not sure what would be in my Room 101. Birds, maybe. Failure, perhaps. A huge wall of F grades and no books or music or happy thoughts. Maybe 1984 is my Room 101.

I spoke to my roommates about the end of the book, and when I told one of my roommates that I was disappointed with Winston for failing Julia in the end, he said, "well, you do like a happy ending." And it's true, I am always hoping that happiness can come from the most dire situations and hope can spring from darkness. But I think it's more than that. I was angry with Winston because I wanted to believe that, were I in his situation, I would act differently. I would accept the torture, and the rats, and Room 101, and gladly die before offering up the ones I love. But I can't truly say I know if I would be different. If I would be better. Perhaps I'm not really angry at Winston; perhaps I'm angry at myself.

All told, I'm glad I read 1984, though it was challenging to read on an emotional and metaphysical level. I'm really not sure it's something people should read in high school, as I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have understood it on as deep of a level had I read it back then. But who knows - maybe lots of people really connect with it as teenagers, maybe they get it just as well.

I'm looking forward to reading To Kill a Mockingbird next, though I've read it twice before. It will be a nice departure from Orwell's haunting vision, and I look forward to what will hopefully be a slightly less morbid post.

See you in a week or so!

Monday, September 7, 2009

It begins...

“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Greetings, readers! I've decided to read through a list of the top 100 novels and blog about it. I just saw the movie "Julie and Julia", and I was inspired. If you think I'm nothing but an unoriginal, boring copycat, feel free not to read this blog. No one's forcing you!

First things first. Here is the link to the list I chose for this endeavor:
[Update 7.18.2015 - I see that this list has shifted (it is generated by a voting mechanism) and therefore does not match the list I read. Interestingly, if I embarked on the project today, I would have been required to read these titles:

- The Road by Cormac McCarthy (perhaps I would have liked it more than Blood Meridian?)
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (I might read this anyway - I have become quite the Faulkner fan)
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (read it. didn't love it.)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (I might read this - I liked The Kite Runner both times, and have heard that Suns deals much more with gender relations, which intrigues me.)
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (meh. Haven't read it. Not sure I want to.)
- The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (ahem. read it. ahem. more than once. #don'treadintoit)
- Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (interested in reading this, for sure.) Update over!]

The list is also located on the right side of this blog. I just wanted to include the link in case people were curious about who created the list, and/or wanted more background on it.

For those of you wondering how I chose this list, here are my reasons for choosing it.

(1) I considered choosing a list compiled by critics, but the critics seem to think that "Ulysses" is the best novel written. I think that a book which is impossible to understand without the help of structured academic study is hardly accessible to the public and is therefore disqualified. Or, at the very least, demoted. It made this list, but was knocked down a few pegs.

(2) I wanted a list that included the public's favorites, but wasn't too preachy. Another list I found contained several L. Ron Hubbard books, and though my mother pointed out rather heatedly that they seem a little "doctrine-heavy", and it does please me from time to time to spar with her, I must admit that I'm inclined to agree. The list I chose seems to include a good mix of new and old, fantasy and "classic" (not that fantasies can't be classics, but they're not always included in the use of the term). In fact, I liked that both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings made the list, and I look forward to re-reading both series.

But really, a list, an order, no matter how "scientifically" created, is still an arbitrary ordering of objects. So it only seemed fitting that my choice of list was just as arbitrary.

Thus, I begin with 1984.