Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger: Read-A-Long

Published: 1951
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: NYC 1949
Rating: 5
List: 1,001
Review: Goodreads

Love it, love it, love it.  And I am only in the first couple chapters.  I hope this love affair will continue.  Because I am getting so much out of my reading, thinking and journaling through the chapters, I want to take my time.  So it will be my own "read-a-long" with no structure or deadline.  The links to the posts (on Josh's blog) are below.

Chapters 1-3   (posted 6/7/11)
Chapters 4 - 10  (posted 6/13/11)
Chapters 11 - end   (posted 6/30/11)

This book reminds me of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain as both protagonists are adolescent boys who are non-conformists at heart, challenging and rebelling against social expectations, not because they are bad but more because they do not see the point.  They look at adults with skepticism and distrust, having seen clear evidence of hypocrisy and in Holden's word, phoniness.

Twain and Salinger excel at capturing the thoughts, musings and speech of the boys, each in their respective time periods. Of the two master plots in fiction, "stranger comes to town" and "hero takes a journey", both are the latter.

I would re-read, but for different reasons.  Twain's story chronicles the adventures of Huck and Jim, a run-away slave, as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft.  Although Huck is an uneducated, homeless boy, his honest, simple and genuine character shines through, making for a "feel good" story.

Salinger's story is much darker.  Holden is alone in his journey which leads him to an increasingly depressed state.  My interest this book stems from trying to glean whatever I can, via fiction or non-fiction sources, the fragile state of an adolescent boy's mind.  To help me better understand what could've been going on in my beloved boy's head.

Takeaways:  Read other books about adolescents

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Killing Floor" by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #1)

Published: 1997
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction - Hard boiled detective
Rating: 3
Reviews: Goodreads
Author web site

Another library book that I picked up based on a recommendation from my sister-in-law.  A very quick read that did not disappoint.

The narrator is Jack Reacher, an ex-military cop who is wrongfully charged with a brutal homicide in a small town in Georgia.  He happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but as it turns out, it is good for the US economy that despite being homeless, jobless and a self described vagrant, he wandered into Margrave, GA when he did.

Because this is told in the first person, we are privy to all his observations, thoughts and reasons why he reacts one way, and not another.  Very interesting.

We may not think very much of a military cop but are cautioned against underestimating them.
A military policeman deals with military lawbreakers.  Those lawbreakers are service guys.  Highly trained in weapons, sabotage, unarmed combat.  Rangers, Green Berets, Marines.  Not just killers.  Trained killers.  Extremely well trained, at huge public expense. So the military policeman is trained even better.  Better with weapons.  Better unarmed (53). 
Reacher is one such military cop - to the nth degree.  This is good because the bad guys are really bad - sadistic, malevolent and evil.  The torture scene of a married couple is one of the most gruesome ever.  Anyone other than Reacher and his special skills would not stand a chance.  In this quote, he examines his feelings after ruthlessly killing one man and blinding another:
But I didn't feel much at all.  Nothing, in fact.  No guilt, no remorse.  None at all.  I felt like I'd chased two roaches around that bathroom and stomped on them.  But at least a roach is a rational, reasonable, evolved sort of a creature.  Those Aryans in that bathroom had been worse than vermin.  I'd kicked one of them in the throat and he had suffocated on his smashed larynx.  Well, tough shit.  He started it, right? Attacking me was like pushing open a forbidden door.  What waited on the other side was his problem.  His risk.  If he didn't like it, he shouldn't have pushed open the damn door.  I shrugged and forgot about it (118). 
My heart felt like it stopped beating when reading this explanation from the coroner to Jack. It made me think of the fateful morning when I found Josh, our beloved son, dead.
Postmortem hypostasis.  Lividity.  When you die, your circulation stops, right?  Heart isn't beating anymore.  Your blood obeys the law of gravity. It settles to the bottom of your body, into the lowest available vessels, usually into the tiny capillaries in the skin next to the floor or whatever you've fallen down onto.  The red cells settle first.  They stain the skin red.  Then they clot, so the stain is fixed, like a photograph.  After a few hours, the stains are permanent.
In Reacher, I see a combination of several famous detective protagonists. He is highly observant and surprises many with uncanny deductions, similar to Sherlock Holmes.   He is violent, like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade as depicted in the previous quote, but deferential to women in a Philip Marlowe way.  All three; Reacher, Spade and Marlowe are magnets for women.

Similar to Chandler's writing in The Big Sleep, Lee Child also uses interesting analogies.
This was a man who wallowed in the yuppie dream like a pig in shit (50).
She was going to come face to face with reality the same way a runaway truck comes face to face with the side of a building (205). 
What remain unanswered is why he is jobless and homeless.  I wonder if this will be disclosed as the series continues.  Only one way to find out.....

Takaways: Read next few books in the series:
  • Die Trying (#2)
  • Trip Wire (#3)
  • Running Blind (#4)
  • Echo Burning (#5)

Friday, June 24, 2011

"The Memoir Club" by Laura Kalpakian

Published: 2005
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 2
Review: Goodreads

I picked this up at the library based on the title, thinking it would be an interesting and quick read.  The plot is pretty straightforward.  A group of strangers with various motivations take a memoir class.  After finishing, several members continue weekly meetings with the instructor and in the course of sharing their memoir writings, strong friendships develop.

The book held my interest long enough to finish but I will not pursue reading other works by this author. Regardless, I can always find meaningful quotes.

One particular character, a Dr. Caryn Henley is dealing with a horrific tragedy.  She was married with two small children and had an affair which ended her marriage.  Her ex had taken the kids on a trip and on the way home, the plane had crashed.  There were no survivors.  Her guilt is overwhelming and threatens to crush her.  She struggles constantly with suicidal thoughts.

Quotes from her grief journey:
"She could not evade them, but they eluded language."
"I like to dwell with my losses.  It's the only place I can bear to dwell.  Every day that I do not shoot myself I have endorsed life."
"Why can't I die of a broken heart?  It would be so much easier than living with it."
"I know that the body goes on, dragging the broken heart behind it like a ball and chain, and all you want is to be rid of that broken heart.  Even it it means being rid of your life."
Quotes about writing a memoir:
"Your memoir should reveal to you questions you have not heretofore been able to articulate.  That's one of its functions."
"If you put a sort of narrative over your life, over your experience, you do impose structure on it, even meaning." 
 "Clarity is the responsibility of the writer.  Not the reader."
I had to write this quote down:
"We take men into our bodies and expel children."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler

Published: 1939
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction  Hard-boiled detective
Setting: Los Angeles
Rating: 3
Lists: TIME's 100 Best Novels (2005), 1001 books
Review: Goodreads

I wanted to read this after reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Both are hard-boiled detective stories featuring iconic protagonists, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Both authors wrote their novels after first submitting well-received short stories for the immensely popular pulp-fiction magazine, the Black Mask. 

The book I checked out from the library was interesting.  According to information on the last page, it was one of 425 copies printed in 1986 by Andrew Hoyem at Arion Press.  Forty photographs, re-created  to mimic the look of 1930's movie stills are peppered throughout the book.  There was no censorship as two of the photos are of a half-nude and fully nude woman.  I should probably put a note on the book upon return.

The introduction describes Philip Marlowe as a "crusading knight, fighting evil both individual and social".... with "hard-boiled decency" and "gallantry towards women and other downtrodden."  I would agree.  Different than Hammett's Sam Spade who is edgier,  rough with women, and motivated by personal profit rather than righting any wrongs.

Before continuing on, I have a question: where does the term "hard-boiled" come from?  According to Wikipedia, this is a "colloquial phrase of understatement.  For an egg, to be hard boiled is to be comparatively tough" which means the "protagonist confronts danger and engages in violence on a regular basis." Interesting explanation.

While Hammett uses a third person narrator to tell Sam Spade's story, Chandler uses the first person, Philip Marlowe.  This has got to be one of the best descriptions of a guy who knows he is super-cool.
I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it.  I was everything a well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars. 
Chandler's use of analogies was striking and is the main thing I will take away from this book (besides the twisty plot and sub-plots, interesting bad guy/gal characters and clear description of LA in the 30's which I do not plan to write about as it would spoil the book for anyone else).  Here are some of my favorites:

When Philip first meets Carmen Sternwood:
...she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.
Description of General Sternwood's greenhouse - where did Chandler get such crazy analogies?
The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.  They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
Description of General Sternwood, an old, dying man who is not allowed to smoke, but would like to.
A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.
The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.
I lit the cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat hole.
When Philip found an uninvited naked Carmen in his bed and after he took her home:
....her eyes large and dark and empty like rain barrels in a drought.
I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets.
When he offered a cigarette to Harry Jones:
His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly.
Chandler's writing is what all writing should be: crisp, clear and concise.  My favorite examples and why:

The General's description of his own daughters.  In five short sentences, we know this family.
Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless.  Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies.  Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.  Neither have I.  No Sternwood ever had.
How Philip felt after comprehending that someone like Carmen was in his space, his room, his bed.  This paragraph reveals character.
This was the room I had to live in.  It was all I had in the way of a home.  In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family.  Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that.  Nothing.  Such as they were they had all my memories.
When Philip goes to meet Harry Jones at his office.  Great descriptive writing. Many adjectives, only one adverb, miserably, which does its job to describe how this poor guy was sleeping.  Love it.  My notes in italics.
A nasty building.  A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor (yuck!).  An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackled stool, with a burst-out cushion under him.  His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light.  He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse (where does he come up with this stuff?)  Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion (so much is inferred by this comment).  On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.
The next two quotes hit me as they are about death.  This one reminds me of the day I found Josh - horribly true.
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
At the end of the book, Philip's musing about death or the "big sleep".
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marbled tower on top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
  • Read three other novels:  Farewell My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943)
  • Other "noir" detective book:  L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett

Published: 1930
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction - Detective
Setting: San Francisco 1929-1930
Rating: 3
List: 1,001 books
Review: Goodreads

I got this book off my daughter's bookshelf as it is referenced in David Morrell's book Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing.  I'm sure it was also mentioned in Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading as she is a fan of the hard-boiled detective genre.

Hammett's book is short, only 217 pages.  Told in the third person by a narrator who knows all (I think), but discloses little, which is frustrating.  Maybe this is because I just finished Madame Bovary, where Flaubert's use of free indirect discourse exposes the thoughts and motives of the characters so the reader , like the narrater, knows all and sees all.

Instead, Hammett's characters are revealed via succinct description, snappy dialogue and quick-paced action, making the novel easy to read but the characters enigmatic.  So more questions than answers.  After chapter 2, I had so many, I had to write them down.

Hammett's protagonist is Sam Spade, the smooth-talking, physically tough, emotionally detached, poker-faced private eye who can read others like a book but is himself, inscrutable. WhiIe reading, I wasn't sure if he was a good guy or not.  For example, his calloused reaction to his partner's murder was disconcerting.  The morning after, he says to his secretary, Effie Perine, very matter-of-factly while leaving the office, "Have the Spade & Archer taken off the door and Samuel Spade put on."  And later, when she remarks, "'You look like you'd swallowed a canary.'  He grinned contentedly, 'I think we have a future.  I always had an idea that if Miles would go off and die somewhere we'd stand a better chance of thriving.  Will you take care of sending flowers for me?'"

After finishing the book, I think he is an okay guy but am not sure I like him. Spade is a magnet for women and ruthlessly uses this to his advantage. But the two women he treats harshly, Iva Archer (newly widowed) and Brigid O'Shaughnessy (victim or manipulator?), were out to use him too.  In contrast, to Effie, he acts like an older brother, with teasing affection.  So maybe, he is a good judge of character and treats people accordingly.

The easy nonchalant way in which he knocks someone out is a bit scary.  With Hammett's writing, I can picture this in slow motion.
Then Spade smiled.  His smile was gentle, even dreamy.  His right shoulder raised a few inches.  His bent arm was driven up by the shoulder's lift.  Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.  The fist struck Cairo's face, covering for a moment one side of his chin, a corner of his mouth and most of his cheek between cheek-bone and jaw-bone.  Cairo shut his eyes and was unconscious.
Here is an example of how we learn that Sam has an uncanny way of reading people, not by the narrator revealing his thoughts, but by "watching" what he says and does.
He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her.
'You aren't,' he asked as he sat down, 'exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?'
She blushed and replied hurriedly, not looking at him, 'I told you this afternoon that I've been bad - worse than you could know.'
'That's what I mean,' he said. 'You told me that this afternoon in the same words, same tone.  It's a speech you've practiced.'
What else do we learn about Sam from this scene and dialogue?  That he is unafraid of confrontation.  He doesn't mind making people feel uncomfortable.  He is cocky and confident in his observations and assumes he is always correct.

In the following scene, we see what he does and in particular, what his eyes look like, but the question is: what is he thinking?
Spade's arm went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among her red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back.  His eyes burned yellow.
Interesting description.  Reminds me of a cat.  A predator or a conquerer.  There is nothing romantic about him.  A little spooky.

This sentence is amazing - I had to write it down.  The choice and use of words is so interesting.
The appearance of Gutman and his companions seemed to have robbed her of that freedom of personal movement and emotion that is animal, leaving her alive, conscious, but quiescent as a plant.
Takeaways: Read Raymond Chandler's novels, set in Los Angeles with Philip Marlowe as the protagonist, modeled after Sam Spade.

  • The Big Sleep
  • Farewell My Lovely
  • The High Window
  • The Lady in the Lake

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert

Published: 1856
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Provincial town in Northern France 1827-1846
Rating:  2
List: 1,001
Review: Goodreads

Emma Bovary, the protagonist, is a hopeless romantic.  As a young girl of fifteen, she "made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries."  She drank her fill of novels that "were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, 'gentlemen' brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains."

Emma cannot be faulted for loving books and losing herself in a good story.  However she did not understand that when the last word is read and the book is closed, the story is over.  Life is not a novel.  Love is not like in novels.  Men are not like heroes in novels.  Fiction is not reality.

Unfortunately, Emma did not have any women in her life; ones that she could confide her confusing thoughts to and receive perspective. Her mother died when she was a girl leaving her in the care of a father who catered to her every whim.  Thus, she never learned to keep her mind and emotions in check.  She grows into a beautiful young woman who marries a non-romantic, country doctor that has no chance of understanding his new bride.

For a while, "in accord with theories she believed right, she wanted to make herself in love with him.  By moonlight in the garden she recited all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart, and, sighing, sang to him many melancholy adagios; but she found herself as calm after this as before, and Charles seemed no more amorous and no more moved.  When she had thus for a while struck the flint on her heart without getting a spark...she persuaded herself without difficult that Charles' passion was nothing very exorbitant."

The marriage was doomed.  The reality of her life was simple, plain and provincial.  What she wanted however, was love, passion, beauty and wealth.  The dichotomy of these two worlds in Emma's mind drives her to a kind of madness.  She can't see beyond the superficial.  She cannot love her healthy baby daughter.  She lives with such unrealistic expectations, and is therefore always disappointed.

She becomes ripe picking for the conniving womanizer, Rodolphe Boulanger, who successfully seduces her.  So she becomes an adulteress in pursuit of what she feels is "owed" to her. Her sense of entitlement is amazing.  This is why I say it is almost a madness.  She has broken from reality and will do whatever it takes to live her fantasy.  The first affair ends badly, causing Emma to have a breakdown.  She slowly recovers to then fall into the arms of a lawyer, Leon Dupuis, whom she knew previously.  He had always been infatuated with her and the second affair begins.

Emma's moral decay continues at a fast pace.  She goes into debt in order to finance her secret life with Leon, and ends up owing money she cannot possibly pay back.  By this time, Leon has tired of her and neither he or Rodolphe will save her from bankruptcy.  When she has exhausted all her options, she swallows arsenic and dies a slow, painful death.

The only one who truly loved her, which she could not see, was Charles.  After her death, he became a romantic, ordering her to be buried in her wedding gown.  And later,  "to please her, as if she were still living, he adopted her predilections, her ideas; he bought patent leather boots and took to wearing white cravats.  He put cosmetics on his moustache, and, like her, signed notes of hand.  She corrupted him from beyond the grave."

Reading the book was like waiting for a train wreck.  One could see it coming.  But I had no sympathy for Emma.  She was responsible for her actions.  And even in death, there was no humility, no sorrow, no repentance.  She died as she lived - a cold, heartless, selfish woman who could've been happy, had she just opened her eyes and heart to those who truly loved her.

I did not find any enlightenment in the famous suicide scene.  To me, it was just "par for the course".  Of course she would take her life, when rejected by her two lovers, leaving Charles to clean up the mess.  An utterly selfish act.

Flaubert's prose is flawless.  I would have rated this book a 4 or 5 had he written about a more likeable character.