Franny & Zooey, Kenya & Holden

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Seymour once said to me – in a crosstown bus, of all places – that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”

~J. D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey

So this semester I’m teaching Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Perhaps a more accurate way of putting this is that I am reading this book again along with my classes (two, actually; not a single student has read the book before now…it’s that…or they don’t want to admit as much).

There are variety of reasons why I love this book; maybe even more so than Catcher in the Rye and that novel, as it did for so many others around the world over many decades, stayed with me for a long time. With Catcher in the Rye, when I was young I identified with Holden’s take on phonies, etc. It wasn’t until I got older, of course, that two things happened. First, I realized that despite what a ton of critics may have written, Salinger was, and remains so at least for me, one fine stylist. Second, there’s great humor in Catcher in the Rye.

This little entry, however, is in part about Salinger and the Glass family. And I might as well put it out there now: Lane Coutell was a great example of ego and the type of personality that is furthest removed from communion with any sort of Absolute. Of course, at least how I see it, Franny & Zooey teaches us that getting closer to God—if any of us are truly capable of such a thing—will not happen through reading so-called holy books.

Having revisited these two long stories, I have become as of late enamored with the idea of characters that cross over from one story to the next. Salinger as an author was not alone in pulling this off. However, his characterization of the Glass family is one that is detailed and original and despite what some of my students think there are lessons to be learned in such a book as Franny & Zooey.

I am thinking that come fall, and the powers that be give me the green light, I want to pair Catcher in the Rye and Asali Solomon‘s Disgruntled on my next syllabus.

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These are two novels decidedly different books on the surface, but they both offer a look, in part, at disillusionment and alienation in adolescence. Moreover, these two novels deal with a young person’s place in the world—though the world Salinger presents in his novel and the one Solomon portrays in her novel exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, and while Salinger’s story of Holden Caulfield begins and ends in adolescence—a rather affluent adolescence, Solomon’s novel takes us on a journey with Kenya Curtis that is much more encompassing.

If you haven’t read Franny & Zooey, I urge you to give it a go. Chances are if you’re reading this then you may have already read Catcher in the Rye (by choice or it may have been assigned to you, even against your will, back in high school at some point). And if you haven’t read Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled please do yourself a favor. Disgruntled is a novel that, in my humble opinion, will be read for a long time to come. I can only hope that Solomon, like Salinger, offers us more stories concerning the people that populate this flawless work.

Five Books of Influence, or How I Became a Writer

This summer I gave some serious thought to some of the books that made me want to become a writer.

There were many books I had read over my life that moved toward writing stories of my own; admittedly, I still read some books that move me in this way. The more I write, however, the more I find myself analyzing novels I read.

Recently, I told my fiancée that I could remember the last time I had read a book for the sole purpose of enjoying a story. It comes with the territory, I suppose. But this past year I read in no particular order these books that I enjoyed:

The Great House by Nicole Krauss, Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Each of these novels were outstanding, and each of these novels are worth reading. I encourage everyone to read them.

Where was I? That’s right. Books that made me want to become a writer. Every writer has them. The following titles in no particular order taught me many things, but most importantly they taught me the value of story for story’s sake.

1. Wuthering Heights: The only novel Emily Bronte published, and in its time perhaps more modern than most in its depiction of characters the reader may not necessarily feel sympathy toward; but it was also a novel that in its time, written in the mid 1840s, that in my humble estimation pushed the boundaries of imagination. I learned from this novel, as I suppose I did from all the novels that influenced me most, that a writer must write from the heart.

2. Catcher In the Rye: Yes, undoubtedly popular. Yes, greater minds have written about this book since its publication. But for me the tale of Holden Caulfield written by J.D. Salinger showed me that the great human comedy is fraught with downward spirals, often occurring repeatedly through a person’s life. When I was in the army I was reading this book for perhaps the fifth time, flying home on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia, and laughing like a hyena. A flight attendant made her way down the aisle and asked, “Are you reading Cather in the Rye?” I told her yes. “I could hear you laughing in first class,” she said. “I just had to come and see what was so funny and then I saw the cover. I said to myself there’s only one book with that color on its cover.” We talked about poor Holden for a few minutes and eventually my flight landed. Salinger was one of those writers who taught me that there is humor in tragedy.

3. The Sun Also Rises: Say what you want about Ernest Hemingway, but I loved this book. Hemingway was one of the great stylists of any age. He was another one who taught me about pace within a story, and that a novel doesn’t have to be wrapped up neatly at the end to be considered a good story.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s only novel taught me an important lesson about rhythm in prose, how words are like musical notes, how sentences contained their own musicality, and how all good prose should read as if someone is telling you a story. A few years back, a friend who emigrated to the U.S. was at his wit’s end with his 14-year-old daughter. His daughter had to read To Kill A Mockingbird for her English class. My friend asked me to instant message his daughter. What’s the problem? I asked. I can’t get it into this book, my friend’s daughter said. I have nothing in common with the characters. Do you know what a southern accent sounds like? I asked. Even in the movies? Sure, she wrote. Why? Put that southern voice in your head, I suggested. Just imagine it. Don’t tell anyone about it. A few weeks later, my friend’s daughter messaged me to say that she fell in love with the book. Good fiction should be that way, I think. It knows no boundaries.

5. The Outsiders: This book by S.E. Hinton was one of those novels forced on me in school. What my English teacher failed to teach my class was that Ms. Hinton was in her teens when she started writing it, and that she was 18 years old when it was published. Had I known this when I was in middle school I would have sat up straighter and paid more attention. The Outsiders was a simple, straight-forward story. This novel taught me that as long as there’s truth in what you are doing your work will find an audience.

So, that’s it. These are five novels that come to mind that helped shaped me into becoming a writer. There are many other novels and story collections that have influenced me as well, but these are the ones I was exposed when I was young. The beauty in reading, for me, is that now I’m pushing the underside of 50 years old, and some novels continue to shape me. With any luck, I’ll be telling this same story when I am 60, 70 or 80s years old…