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.

A Separate Doom: Summer Reading Lists

I am having a dilemma. Well, maybe not a dilemma so much as a full-blown crisis of the highest order. My 13-year-old son doesn’t like to read. I am a writer. I love books. And my son does not.

Tonight, we talked about his reading list for the summer. The eighth grade looms large on the horizon. The reading list is long; the requirements from that list rather short. My son needs to read two books.

Two books? I asked him.

Two books, dad.

So, like any good parent I went to the school’s web site. Sure enough. He’s required just two titles from the list. Just when I had lost faith in the public school system I saw one of my favorites on the list:

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Even after all these years I am still in awe of Cather’s sentence structure; to say nothing of her use of description and character relationships. Sadly, my son was having none of it.

The other book he eyeballed tonight was A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.

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An aficionado of all things xBox and Call of Duty-related, my son of course was enticed by the cover: a boy with an AK-47 assault rifle over his shoulders. Soon, however, my son was dismayed to find out that boys about his age found themselves fighting wars in various parts of the world; some ‘voluntarily’ and others forced into committing the reprehensible acts documented in the media.

We still have to pick a second book. I cringed when my son found the story line to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace appealing.

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Of course, I didn’t let him see me cringe. That would be bad. But I seem to remember stumbling through that book in my adolescence. Later, as an adult, I found out why. It was no small wonder that I stumbled over awkward sentences like “I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”

The bonus, if there was one in reading Knowles, is that it ranks above an eighth grade reading level on the scale his school uses. If my son chooses to slog his way through A Separate Peace this summer; if he can navigate his way through sentences and phrases that are as awkward as the conversations my son is having with girls his age; my penance will be to see my way through this book too. All things considered, however, I’d much rather spend time getting reacquainted with Antonia or visit Ishmael Beah in Sierra Leone for the first time along with my son.