Monday, August 12, 2013

29: The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
It would be incredibly awkward if J. D. Salinger were my terrific friend because I really would not want to call him up after finishing it. In fact, I am already a book and a half ahead of this book, but have been dragging my feet on writing a review because I didn't feel that I could justify my mixed feelings that land on the side of disliking this book. I still don't think so, but I really want to talk about my next book which handles growing up, recognizing evil in the world, etc so much better (To Kill a Mockingbird ftw).

"I don't know exactly what I mean by that, but I mean it."
"You'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior."
Oh Holden. The way he says things passionately (with much cursing and repetitive turns of phrases that feel very much like I'm-trying-to-develop-my-catch-phrases) without knowing what he means but feeling self-righteously angry about what he means is...boring to me. When his former teacher reveals that Holden is going through a universal experience about being confused, frightened, and sickened, my thought is...get some real problems. Well, he has real problems (Allie's death), but he pretends that that is not what is bothering him at all - and maybe it's not, I really can't speak for him. However, he is too much of a bored rich kid whose 'problems' (everyone is phony, everything is boring, everything and everyone is stupid, high school sucks) are too dumb to get my sympathy. [Full disclosure: I have a real problem with people with money (especially that was not earned by them). It is not fair, but everyone has their prejudices, and this is mine. I am not particularly worried that my prejudice is affecting my reading of books - I think I (and the book) will survive this injustice.]

"People never notice anything."
"People never believe you."
"People are always ruining things for you."
"People never give your message to anybody."
"People never think anything is anything really."
"Sex is something I really don't understand too is something I just don't understand. I swear to God I don't."
Sometimes I actually liked Holden. I am a high school teacher, and I love my job, and you cannot love teaching high school unless you love teenagers. Teenagers are hyperbolic and absolutists (see above lines about people are always and people are never - very typical) and very confused by the world while pretending they're not (see above line about sex in the midst of quite a lot of apparently fake confidence about being sexy and making it with the ladies). I get that - I was there, and I see my students there, and when Holden is very teenager (in the moments where he cries, admits he doesn't understand something, has honest emotions) I sympathize. However, these moments are so few and far between (the betweens just being him acting like an asshole and a richie) that it doesn't sustain my sympathy for him throughout the text. 

"I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again...they started giggling like morons...I'm not kidding, they were three real morons...God, could that dopey girl dance...she came out with this very dumb remark...she really was a moron...I let it drop. It was over her head anyway...they were too could hardly tell which was the stupidest of the three of you think you could get an intelligent answer out of those three dopes?"

Having just taken a gender studies class, I couldn't help but rereading this scene (where Holden encounters the three tourists in his hotel's bar) and looking for all the misogyny. Holden is really afraid of women or has an inferiority complex or just hates them. This scene plus kissing a crying girl who gives no appearance of consent plus his worry over his roommate making it with a girl while he is also talks about making it with girls plus his hiring of a prostitute....ugh. I hope some day someone has a serious conversation with him about how damaging his thought process is. 

This is my second reading of The Catcher in the Rye. My first was near the end of high school/beginning of college (it left that much of an impression on me), and I really felt like I was too old for it. I definitely had more of an appreciation for it, but it just doesn't hit anywhere near the top of my Great Novels List. I read many reviews around the web about why people loved this book and noticed that the people who love it love it unreasonably. Ask why it's so great, they will roll their eyes at you and tell you to go back to reading Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, because clearly you cannot understand any great literature if you cannot understand this book. 

Catcher in the Rye is one of my juniors' summer reading books and while I am curious to see what the contemporary teen thinks of it when I grade their homework, I'm totally okay with the fact that we probably won't spend a heck of a lot of time talking about it. 

I do think that I will try to buy myself this T-shirt because I think it's funny. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

28: Maus I and II - Art Spigelman

I have been carrying these graphic novels (Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began) around for the past few years waiting for the right time to read them. I thought that after Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies (where I think a common essential question is: How could people do this to each other?) they might be a good place to find some materials that helps answer that essential question in a different way. I am kind of a genocide weirdo. Sitting in an undergraduate class talking about the Rwandan genocide, a classmate said, "I can't believe it! I remember learning about the Holocaust in school and thinking, that was a bad idea, good thing we don't do that anymore, but we do? We still do it?" and I was doing my very superior eye roll and decided I never wanted to be the girl people were rolling their eyes at superiorily in this field. I went on a genocide-story-reading kick, went to a conference on teaching the Holocaust, saw Gerda Weissman Klein speak (while clutching my best friend's hand and sobbing together. If you read ONE Holocaust book, read All But My Life. It has the happiest ending a Holocuast book can have), and then proceeded to burn out on genocide and need a break from everyone dying. 

These graphic novels are the end of that break. First, the art is great. I really dig the black-and-white style, it reminds me of Persepolis in the best way (although it came first). The animal species for people totally makes sense, especially with all the "Jews are vermin" propaganda that was everywhere. Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, French are frogs, Germans are cats, and Americans are dogs. (For the record, this is something that some people find VERY offensive. I read some of the low-star reviews on Amazon because I couldn't imagine how someone could NOT like these books, and apparently they find the Polish pigs and American dogs to be terrible ways to portray all the good Americans and Polish people.) The story is a Holocaust story, but the author's father, Vladeck, is such an interesting and unique person, both as an older man in the 'current' part of the frame story and as a young man in the flashback part of the story. The way he manipulates situations in order to come out of the Holocaust alive is truly impressive and creative.

The structure of the story - a frame story where AS is IN the story surrounding the flashbacks while he visits with his father to GET the story - works well for many reasons. It's fun because it gets meta (the mouse-author has a conversation with his French-converted-Jewish wife about what kind of animal she should be, or at one point the cartoon author runs away to take notes on the conversation that we just saw). It also works because AS asks his father many of the questions that people ask about the Holocaust: why didn't anyone fight back? why were some Jews complicit and working with the Nazis? what happened to the people who weren't? why didn't you do x, y, z? and his father addresses all of his concerns. At the how-to-teach-the-Holocaust conference I attended, we spent a lot of time discussing how to talk to students who are unsympathetic and feel like they would have 'done something different.' Ultimately, the Holocaust was about people being forced to make IMPOSSIBLE choices. 

In this book, parents are trying to decide whether they should send their child away with X family to hide. They are too afraid to be away from their child, so they do not. Later they are given the chance to send their child away with Y family to hide. They are too afraid to stay with their child, so they do. X family survived, Y family (and the child) did not. Two impossible choices with absolutely NO WAY to know which was going to be the right choice. Over and over in this book we see people die and people survive and there is so little that separates the survivers and the dead besides just dumb luck.

This is an absolute recommended book - it did not win the Pulitzer for nothing after all - but if a teacher were ever going to teach anything about any genocide, I think there are many panels from here that could be pulled to teach that will help grab more students' attention.