Two Salingers are Better than One

There are rare but beautiful moments when you know you are experiencing something close to perfection: attending a Wilco concert, eating the butter poached coturnix quail breast at Quay, watching Steve Waugh single-handedly drag Australia through the 1999 Cricket World Cup. And recently I experienced reading perfection: JD Salinger’s Seymour—An Introduction.

It’s a big call, isn’t it? And how on earth does one write about writing perfection when they are so far from that feat themselves? Imperfectly, I suppose. Ramblingly. Perhaps with an edge of pedestrianism. All of those things which are not present in Salinger’s work. It is trickier still because I read the collected novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction over two months ago on a holiday, and so I now have that dreadful experience of being able to tell people that I LOVED a book and that they MUST read it but not being quite as able to explain why nor recall all that much about it. It’s a terrible affliction. It is harder still because I did my usual holiday reading ritual of leaving the book for another wanderer to discover, so I now can’t even refer to it to refresh my still-vacationing mind.

So, to be crass, my qucik precis: In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters we hear the tale of Buddy Glass trying to attend his eldest brother Seymour’s wedding, only to find once he is there that Seymour is missing. Buddy is then subjected to an interminable car ride and then visit with some of the guests of the wedding, including the matron of honour. In Seymour—An Introduction Buddy attempts to in some way memorialise Seymour after his suicide (written about in the most excellent short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish) by telling the reader about his brother. I really liked Carpenters—really and truly—but I love, love, loved Seymour.

And though I am failing to tell you much, what I can tell you is that I was so struck with Seymour in particular that I copied sentences and paragraphs out of it into my journal, and that when I surrendered my book to a hotel room in Mykonos in the Greek Islands I wrote a little note to the finder of the book wishing them the same reading experience as myself. These are not things I usually do. I do not usually bother to dog-ear multiple pages, nor copy down quotes from a book I am reading (not unless I’m expected to write an essay on it) but Seymour threw me for a loop. It meanders marvellously as Buddy thinks things through, but is actually a deftly-constructed story that is both high brow and highly sensitive (and also humourous). It only intensified my already firm love for the Glass family.

This is one of those occasions where I’m asking for a little trust, dear readers. At some stage in the future we many try to ‘unpack’ (that awful sociological verb) the reasons why when I have had three months off work and plenty of time on my hands that I have barely kept up with my blogging. In the meantime, please forgive my lack of detail and discussion of these two novellas from JD Salinger and simply take my word for it that they will be a reading experience you will treasure.

R is for a Richard who Rocks

What I want to write about is hard to discuss without potentially revealing myself as at least one of three things. 1) a moron, 2) a snob, 3) a cultural philistine. And yet this isn’t a post about TV, my inability to snag a man, or my not-so-secret love for a power ballad…

In recent years I’ve discovered I really like American fiction. American fiction in particular which is focused on specific landscapes and types of people. McCarthy, Leonard, Proulx, Meyer, Gay, Carver, Capote are names which roll off the top of my head. They aren’t all related by an easily boxed-up a theme, style or setting, but they are authors I think of as embodying an American literature that speaks to me, which shares particular qualities that I admire, enjoy and gain much food for thought. Qualities like a particular spareseness of style, an ear for language, an interest in those on the edges of society, an eye for landscape, an ability to express what is true. And now, after reading Rock Springs, I add Richard Ford to this list.

So why is it so bloody special for me to admit to liking American literature? Well, because it’s a public acknowledgment that I’m shaking off an old shackle. A shackle I wasn’t always necessarily aware was there, but which I think was clamped on my wrist from a young age. And that was that America is a cultural wasteland. Well, for ‘high’ culture. Rock ‘n’ roll and television, sure. Art, poetry, literature—no. My lovely American readers, please accept my sincerest apology.

I don’t  blame anyone for this and I’m willing to accept it as a weird idea I gained as an impressionable youth, along with many other weird notions no one meant to place in my head (flannelette shirts were fetching, Luke Perry was hot, orange cheese-flavoured corn snacks were a food group). But if I look back on my schooling and on the cultural and literary influences in my life, they were pretty much pushing the British line of culture. Perhaps with the odd Italian painting or French classic thrown in for good measure, and some Australians, but pretty much British. And by British, I mostly mean English.

This could have been luck. A coincidental conglomeration of teachers, parents and other influential adults’ personal tastes; a strange symbiosis of syllabus; an unintentional leaning to Commonwealth cultural heritage. And, of course, it could have been just my subconscious. Somewhere around age 12 I may have decided that the absence of American culture in my learning meant that it wasn’t worth learning, that it had nothing to offer. Which is, of course, nonsense.

What this babble is about is that I think for a long time I was biased against American literature. As a school of writing—if I can be so insanely general. Sure I used to read American authors, but I wouldn’t have offered that American literature was something I was ‘in to’, or which I sought out. I was straightjacketed, in a way, by the notion that the odd American book may be wondrous, but British was best. And this is what I meant at the start about looking like a moron.

Whatever the connections my subconscious once made about the value of American literature, this cultural apartheid has served one good purpose: I now have the pleasure of discovering how much I really, really like particular branches of American writing; and how much I really, really like authors like Richard Ford.

Rock Springs is a collection of stories set in the American West, many of them in Montana and its surrounds. We read of unforgiving cold, single parents (many of them fathers), people holding down deadend jobs, bad cheques being passed, folk trying to avoid (some unsuccessfully) the law, odd strangers met and even odder family members being tolerated. These are not big stories. Some of them are more minute—in action, in setting—than you think a story can be. They entail part of a train ride, the fixing of dinner, random phone calls, an afternoon’s trip into the hillside, a drive to nowhere. And yet the power of Ford’s short stories reverberate inside you like a shift-change whistle. The language is as taut as a trip wire; the characters are ever-intriguing, and often endearing, in their everyday hopelessness. Some stories have an odd humour about them, some a plain old sadness, some a plain old oddness; there isn’t one you could do without, nor one you wish was different.

My book group read Rock Springs and it was one of those books which set us off on a tangle of conversations about writing, observation, authors’ abilities and then the western world, class, social stigmas, literacy, language, the different opportunities people have and how this affects their future, how this affects our society. We talked for hours and could have kept going; Richard Ford stirred up a whole lot of stuff inside us and we wanted a further whisking.

As I’ve said before, you know you’ve read a marvellous book when once you finish it you go online to look up everything the author has ever written  and decide which books to immediately get your hands on. This was the case after I read Rock Springs. If you like short stories, of if, like me, you’ve decided you need more excellent American literature in your life, then I whole-heartedly recommend this collection of Richard Ford’s work.

January wasteland

Um, did anyone see January come and go? I’m sure I saw it stride in through the door wearing glitter and a party hat and dragging a slightly mangled December behind it, then I turn my back for a few seconds and there’s that bloody February standing a little closer than is polite and breathing its humid breath all over me. Apologies.  Pile o’ Books and the January social madness don’t work well together!

I’m loving my ‘A’ book though (it’s City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare) and we’ll be back to blogging normality soon.

But today I wanted to acknowledge – like every other book-focussed blog out there – the death of JD Salinger. Salinger was one of those authors I avoided like a reheated kebab until a university course made me read him. I can’t quite remember why I had such an aversion. I think when I was young I saw Splendour in the Grass and thought it was Catcher in the Rye for some reason – clearly knowing nothing about the book, nor that a movie had never been made (c’mon I was like, 9 years old) – and forever associated Holden Caulfield with Warren Beatty. And I don’t really care for Wazza, though I liked that movie where he was a politician who went all ‘street’ to get the black vote. I know this makes no sense, but it’s just one of those things my brain does.

ANYWAY, from that forced reading of Salinger at university I discovered one of my favourite short stories ever. For Esme, With Love and Squalor had a profound effect on me. I felt like a different person after reading it for the first time and I cried about two litres of tears. I re-read it often. ‘Squalor’ is such a beautifully sorrowful word. I really love most of JD’s short stories and I’m not a particular fan of short stories in general. So thanks, Mr Salinger, for Esme. With love and due respect. Vale.

Book 15: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

philIt’s been awhile, hasn’t it? So much for a book a week… although were standing strong on a book a fortnight, and there are a couple of pre-pubs I’m waiting for the release date to post on, which will help catch us up some.

Don’t us Industry book fiends love our proof copies. ‘Oh this? It’s just a new book from work I’m reading. It’s not in the stores yet, I  managed to grab/borrow/steal from someone’s office/prise out of  my colleague’s overly possessive claws this uncorrected copy of [something brilliant you’re going to be jealous of].’ I’m so flippant about reading copies I’ll tell friends I lend them to that they can just throw them in the recycling when they’re done. ‘It’s not even a real book…’

Yes, that’s right my literary pals, I’m a book chucker.

Are you shocked by that? Somewhat taken aback? Aligning me with the Third Reich? Cursing me with your shushing Nancy Pearl doll? I worship books like any prose-fearing citizen you can name, but I’m not necessarily possessive about the objects. I keep the books I have read and liked. I release those that I didn’t care for or which are ‘no use to me now’. Is that cold? Perhaps a little hyper-practical, as it’s usually done in a quest to make more shelf-room. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain books I would never be rid of on purpose, and I certainly suffer from thing-lust as much as the next bibliophile. For example I’m currently waving under everyone’s  nose my new copy of 1984. And I have a stunning illustrated version of Strunk and White given to me by a fellow editor who understands one’s passion for long-standing cryptic grammatical texts. It’s just that I don’t feel that way about every book that’s ever been written.

Everyone had their own feelings on how they judge a book worth keeping in their collection. For example, if a book is on a shelf then I’ve read it. My bookshelves are filled with the trophies of my literacy. Others like to fill their shelves with potential or a worldly selection. Read hard or die discusses this idea of possession and much, much more…

Are books precious? Indeed. In fact, I’m a card-carrying member of the books-can-change-lives club. I have a resounding middle-class, well-meaning WASPy belief that being literate is one of the greatest powers a person can have. If I was in The Wire, I’d be a do-gooder hanging out with the Deacon trying to give those corner kids copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. I know a lot of people can’t bear the thought of throwing away books, which is great, because it means these little rectangles of tam-creamy still hold an important place in our world. I blame working in publishing for my ability to let go books. I don’t put the same value on the bound-up sheets of paper I once did. I oversee the printing of thousands and thousands of copies of books and so I think I can ‘always get another copy’. Of course, if  you tried to take my signed copy of Sleeping Dollby Jeffery Deaver, I’d have to gut you like a fish…

One author, whose books I would never rid myself of is George Saunders. One reason I have raved on above is because I knew I’d fail to write intelligently enough about Mr Saunders and his amazingly entertaining, hilarious, pointed, imaginative, realistically-conversationally awkward, touching, stimulating, always and ever impressive, short stories. I feel intellectually refreshed after reading his stories. And I’ve had a good chuckle. You could read a whole text by some quasi-political think-tanker about the evils of consumerism, mass media, economic rationalism, advertising, profit over people philosophies, and governments using military might first, or you could read one of George Saunders’ stories. And they’re not only poignant, they’re funny. Some are downright silly. And beneath the satiric commentary and often terrifying imaginations of our future world, is a touching fondness for humankind.

When I was studying for my masters a few years back, I failed to convince my classmates and tutor of the brilliance and hilarity of Mr Saunders’ books (though they thought The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip was cute – which it is, though much more). Worse for them.