J. D. Salinger: Slight Rebellion Off Madison (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 32)

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While riding in Fifth Avenue buses, girls who knew Holden often thought they saw him walking past Saks’ or Altman’s or Lord & Taylor’s, but it was usually somebody else.

For fans of J. D. Salinger, does his short story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”, which would later become his novel The Catcher In The Rye, come off as a little disappointing?

For me, not necessarily.

Is it everything one could hope for as a Salinger fan?

No, not really.

According to Wikipedia, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was published in The New Yorker on December 21, 1946 and eventually morphed into chapter 17 of The Catcher in the Rye.

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For those who have already read Salinger’s more famous novel, not much new pops up in this story. Holden Caulfield’s middle name is Morrisey. I didn’t know that or at least don’t remember that being mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye.

In Holden’s rant against New York, I did find one of his complaints amusing. He doesn’t like having to always take an elevator down before going out. He wants to just go out.

I find the story interesting more from an historical standpoint than anything else. For first time Salinger readers, I would recommend the entire novel as opposed to this story.

I discovered “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in a new collection I own: Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I chose Salinger’s story when I drew a wild card, the Two of Spades, for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Looking for Jack Kerouac

The last line of the last book I’ve read in 2014 is probably my favorite last line of the year:

Breathing in the cool salty air in a place I was just starting to know, I was instantly carried back to a summer day in Indiana, playing baseball with my brother in our neighbor’s backyard:  the crack of the bat, the ball rising against the blue sky, and me already running, arm raised and reaching, so sure where it would land that I could already feel it slap against my glove.

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As with most last lines, reading the entire book gives much more insight into it’s meaning and I highly recommend reading Barbara Shoup’s novel Looking for Jack Kerouac.

The year is 1964 and Paul Carpetti stumbles upon a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in a Greenwich Village bookstore on his Senior trip to New York City before graduating high school.  Reading the novel provides the catalyst for Paul and his friend, Duke Walczak, to embark on their own road trip from Gary, Indiana to St. Petersburg, Florida in search of the real Jack Kerouac.

Once they discover and meet Kerouac, as with anyone who is put on a proverbial pedestal, he turns out to be vastly different from their expectations.  Paul, the narrator and protagonist, understands how this could happen.  Duke, who is arrogant and idealistic, seems to think it’s Kerouac’s fault for not living up to Duke’s expectations.  Duke takes off to California leaving Paul to discover both a new family, a new understanding of himself and a new way of grappling with losses back home.

Shoup beautifully incorporates literature, baseball and coming-of-age into a wonderful little story.  Paul’s confusion over and ultimate discovery of who he is and who he might be stays in the forefront of the story.  Baseball and Kerouac, while important to the plot and Paul’s journey, play out in the background as two of several ways in which Paul is pulled forward with his life.

I’ve always thought that fictionalizing a real person is walking a fine line for an author, but Shoup walks that line very well. The book reminds me some of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe.  J. D. Salinger is fictionalized in that novel which also involves baseball.

As a kid in the 1970’s, I made the road trip with my family numerous times from Dayton, Ohio to the Gulf Coast of Florida.  I have vivid memories of seeing numerous billboards along the way, one of them advertising the Weeki Wachi mermaids at Mermaid Springs.  I had a difficult time not laughing when Paul and Duke hitch a ride with one of the “mermaids” and end up at Mermaid Springs during off hours.

This novel made a great end to my reading for 2014.

Happy New Year!

Conrad Aiken: Silent Snow, Secret Snow

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Until I happened to pick up a collection of short stories called The Secret Sharer and Other Great Stories,  I had never heard of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”.  A few quick looks on the internet gave me the impression that everyone has heard of this story and that it’s required reading for many high school students.  I must have been sick that day.  Or maybe I was daydreaming.

Picking the Eight of Diamonds for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2014 project led me to this story that I’ve missed out on reading all these years.  After reading it, I can understand it’s popularity and the literary value it possesses.  Something about Paul Hasleman’s “condition” reminds me of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.  The same alienation theme that runs through The Catcher in the Rye gets the short story treatment by Aiken.

The short introduction included with this story mentions the influence of Sigmund Freud.  I don’t know much about Freud, but a certain psychological influence appears to exist.  Paul enjoys the snow – it’s sound and it’s feel – the only problem is that it’s not really there.  This wintry daydream to which Paul retreats frustrates his parents and his teachers.  In Salinger-esque style, Aiken portrays the adults in the story, including a medical doctor, as unfeeling and completely lacking in understanding.  Of course, they don’t understand Paul because they can’t see the snow.

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(I’ve mentioned J. D. Salinger; however, just for clarification, this is a photograph of Conrad Aiken from goodreads.com)

The reader is inside Paul’s mind and can see and feel and hear the snow, but the reader also knows it’s not real.  This inside knowledge lets the reader ask some questions that are never completely answered.  Is Paul suffering from mental illness?  Is his mind splitting away from reality?  Or is he daydreaming?  Does he simply see the world through snow, when others don’t?  Is that necessarily bad?  All good questions.

Unlike Salinger’s flippant and straight forward prose, Aiken uses a more lyrical style as when a hissing voice speaks to Paul from the snow and wind:

“Ah, but just wait!  Wait till we are alone together!  Then I will begin to tell you something new!  Something white! something cold! something sleepy!  something of cease and peace, and the long bright curve of space.”

To anyone who, like me, has never read or heard of this story, I would say give it a try.  It’s short, thought-provoking, and well-written.  The poetry of Aiken’s writing sets it apart from simply a story of psychology.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Classics Club: Favorite Literary Period

The monthly meme question at The Classics Club for March happens to be the question I submitted so I thought I would take a stab at answering it:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

It’s not difficult for me to pick my favorite literary period.  In coming up with a list of my favorite books, by and large, they fall into the category of “Early Twentieth Century”.  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London always come to mind when determining favorites, as do J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck.  Recently, I’ve discovered Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – while Cather could be included in favorites, the jury is still out with Wharton.   And I can’t forget Margaret Mitchell and her one great novel.

I don’t know who decides which years “Early Twentieth Century” encompasses but I would ask to be allowed to include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor in this period, as well as James Baldwin, whom I just read for the first time last week.  These authors all published something in the 1940’s and/or 1950’s which I will still include as “Early” even though several of them continued publishing into the “Later Twentieth Century” and in some cases into the “Twenty First Century”.

Why is this time period my favorite?  That’s the more difficult part of the question to answer.  In some respect, it’s simply that these were the authors I read when I first discovered literature during the summer before 10th grade.  They were the first authors I read when I discovered that there was something more to reading than just an exciting plot – that there was something about the words chosen and the way they were put together.  But one could learn this with any literary time period.

I think another reason would be that from my historical perspective, the “Early Twentieth Century” is on the edge of the old and the new.  It’s far enough in the past to be intriguing but yet close enough to the present to see direct connections and influences to the world in which I live.

Just curious, do you have a favorite literary period?

Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

Teddy

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I’ve come to the end of J. D. Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.  “Teddy” tells the story of a ten year-old genius who in many ways seems more mature than his dysfunctional parents. But an old saying rears its ugly head – “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity”.

Teddy travels home from Europe on a ship in 1952 with his parents and younger sister, Booper.  The story implies that Teddy has been interviewed at several prestigious European universities.  A man named Nicholson appears on the ship.  He and Teddy know each other; however, Salinger doesn’t give his readers much detail as to how they are acquainted or why Nicholson is also on the ship.  I have the distinct impression that Nicholson has a psychology degree although he makes a comment to Teddy that he is in “education”.

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The majority of the story involves Nicholson and Teddy’s discussion about some taped interviews Teddy had with the European university staff.  During these interviews, Teddy discusses his ideas about religion and philosophy.  Teddy believes in reincarnation and tells Nicholson about his previous lives.  Teddy also decides humanity is better off without logic. In fact, he indicates his belief that when Adam ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, he brought all this pesky logic into the world.

As the reader, I can’t help but wonder how Teddy’s philosophy lines up with Salinger’s.  Is Teddy simply a literary device for Salinger’s own ideas?  It’s tempting to see the story that way; however, much like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, the story’s ending throws the reader for a loop – not just a plot twist, but an abrupt wrench in the thinking that Teddy’s ideas are the same as Salinger’s.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories; however, I recommend some of the stories more than others with my favorites being For Esme – With Love and Squalor, DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period and The Laughing Man.  If you don’t feel like reading the entire collection, try checking these out.

If you have read any of Salinger’s other works involving the Glass family, you will appreciate A Perfect Day for Bananafish and Down at the Dinghy.

The other three, Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, Just Before the War With the Eskimos, and Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes, while not my favorite, serve to complete a thought-provoking collection of short stories.  If I would ever reread this collection in the future, I might try reading all the stories at one time.  That tends to be a big question for me when it comes to short story collections: whether to read the whole collection at once or read the stories separately over a long period of time.  I haven’t really perfected any sort of formula as to how to determine which way to go.

Anybody out there have any ideas as to how to read short story collections?

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

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I tried to read J. D. Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” with two mindsets at the same time.  The first mindset encompassed the background of the Glass family that I’ve read in Salinger’s other works.  The ending of “Bananafish” didn’t take me by surprise even if it was rather sudden and abrupt.  Almost all of the other stories about Seymour Glass and his family at least briefly mention this story’s ending.  The other mindset involved pretending that I didn’t know anything else about the Glass family.  If that was the case, I probably would have found the ending a little disturbing.  Even having previously read about the Glass family, there really isn’t any reason or rationale to the ending – just a little more preparation.

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The story focuses on two women (actually one is a child) in the life of Seymour Glass.  I can’t exactly express fondness for his wife, Muriel; however, Salinger paints a vivid picture of her in a small amount of space.  She seems the typical late 1940’s New York sophisticate. She smokes a cigarette while crossing her legs and talking to her mother on the phone from her hotel room in Florida.  Muriel and Seymour are potentially on their honeymoon.

Meanwhile, Seymour, hanging out on the beach, encounters a child named Sybil Carpenter. From the descriptions in the story, Sybil is probably around five.  Sybil and Seymour’s exchange is rather innocent and it contrasts drastically with Muriel’s part in the story. After their friendly conversation, Seymour leaves Sybil and  returns to his hotel room. Seymour’s chat with Sybil has a prevailing, maybe even a foreshadowing, sadness to it. Lost innocence or perhaps even innocence never found could be considered the theme. A theme that’s not uncommon in Salinger’s writing.