Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 2 of 2)

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Because I’m a masochist, I chose another 20th century stream-of-consciousness novel for the next read. I picked up a never-read copy of The Catcher in the Rye at my favourite secondhand bookstore, from a stack of identical perfectly-preserved copies – assumedly donated by some closed store or failed online retail venture. An auspicious beginning, no?

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel was originally published for adults, but has since (apparently) become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. I say “apparently”, because I’m not sure that anyone’s actually asked the adolescents; sure, there’s around 1 million copies sold every year, but I’m pretty sure most of those are mandated reading for high-school book reports. How I myself managed to escape that particular rite of passage is beyond me…

(The book’s also quite popular with murderers, as it turns out, so there’s that.)

The Catcher in the Rye has received basically endless critical acclaim, and also has the honour of being the most censored book in U.S. high schools and libraries throughout the sixties and seventies. Reasons for censorship include its frequent use of vulgar language, sexual references, undermining of “family values”, encouragement of rebellion, promotion of drinking, promotion of smoking, promotion of lying, and promotion of promiscuity. This excited me to no end! My apprehension about its style aside, any book that undermines so-called family values is one that I can get behind.




Straight off the bat, I actually liked the narrator (Holden Caulfield). He’s a bratty, rebellious teenager with a tendency towards profanity, tangential thinking, and wild exaggeration. Salinger’s characterisation was superb; it sounded like the diary of a teenage boy, you’d believe one had written it. I spent a lot of time wondering why I found The Catcher in the Rye so much more gripping and so much less annoying than My Brilliant Career. All I could come up with was the gender differential: characters that sound exactly like the type of person you know are so much less confronting than characters that sound exactly like the type of person you are.

Be warned: The Catcher in the Rye is mostly internal monologue – not a whole lot of plot. You just follow this wayward kid around new York for a few days while he drinks and smokes himself into oblivion (and chickens out of losing his virginity to a sex worker). You find out, on the final page, that he’s relating this story to you from the confines of a psychiatric hospital. Not that it’s a shock twist in the end or anything like that; you kind of get the vibe that this kid is bonkers right from the outset.


Holden’s got some interesting insights, though, and I laughed out loud more than once:

“So, I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows?”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, given my initial reservations about its style and the shell-shock of Mrs Dalloway (and, if I had to compare, I’d say that Mrs D was far more likely to make me want to kill someone, so all those murderers who loved Catcher should probably have read a bit more broadly).

Still, I’m not sure I’ll bother going back for seconds. I’d recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone who wasn’t forced to read it in high-school – you’ll probably enjoy it all the more for having avoided it for so long, as I did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • “DISCLAIMER: I only made it into the first bit of the book. There might’ve been some amazing twist I never reached, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue, it was just so boring. The interactions take forever and say almost nothing at all, and when they do get a point across, it’s a depressing point.” – Jesse Gibson
  • “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the author knew this or not, but the teen in this book does quite a bit of drinking and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to drink under 21. Now sure, we’ve all done it but does that make it right? Maybe. So I guess the real question here is, should we lower the drinking age? I don’t know. Ask JD Salinger.” – JACOB AND SUMMER
  • “Spoiler alert!! Book is not about a baseball player stuck in a giant loaf of bread.” – solomon glowitz

 

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In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: he spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes (what a masochist!), before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still! What an overachiever…

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a tiny little piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.

He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the beginning – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that also happens early, only two-thirds of the way through. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all the gory details of their crime (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, and all told they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, I learned that Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published it anyway, good on him. It takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!


By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I can barely get through that even after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really doesn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hangs around for seven years, and shows no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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