The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – What’s Old is New

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

One thing Nicole and I have realized during our year with What’s Old is New (our literary classics podcast, if you didn’t already know) is that we tend to like the books based off of and inspired by classics a lot more than we like the classics. Another thing we have realized is that much of our popularity actually seems to come from our dislike of so many of the classics we have read. People wait with horror to see what blasphemous things we will say about their favorite classics, or with anticipation to see if we will join them in their distaste for something they were just never able to get into.

With that in mind, we’ve added a new format of show to our schedule, one we are informally calling the Classics Rip, in which we simply just both read a book, and then discuss it on the podcast. Essentially it is just the first section of one of our main shows. For our inaugural show, we decided on The Catcher in the Rye, perhaps one of the more polarizing classics out there.

I don’t want to spoil this episode for you, but my background with The Catcher in the Rye is that I read it in college and absolutely detested it. To me, Holden was nothing more than a whiny brat. On this read, my reaction was a bit more nuanced. Holden still grated, and all his talk of the ‘fakes’ all around him made me think he was protesting a bit too much (dude is the fakiest faker that ever did fake), but I was able to recognize more clearly just how much his brother’s death screwed him up, and my annoyance was (somewhat) tempered with sympathy. Of course, that didn’t eliminate all of the obnoxiousness, and I still can’t remember the last time a book made me want to swear so much.

Nicole, on the other hand, really liked The Catcher in the Rye when she first read it (she was younger than I was when she first experienced it). Up until now, we have always agreed on the classics and whether or not they should remain in our personal canon. Will this be the first literary cat fight on What’s Old is New? You’ll have to listen to find out.

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Source: Library, for What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz – Audiobook Review

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, narrated by Sean Pratt
Published in audio by Penguin Audio, published in print by Penguin Press

Deresiewicz was recently interviewed on the podcast I cohost, What’s Old is New

Synopsis:

When Bill Deresiewicz was in graduate school, he knew exactly the authors he wanted to study, including among them some of the manlier men of literature in the 20th century. Jane Austen was nowhere on his list of authors that intrigued him. In fact, when he was finally assigned one of her works, Emma, for class he was annoyed just thinking of the girly drivel he was going to have to read. And then something happened.

After complaining about the minutia-laden novel for nearly half the book, Deresiewicz had a revelation when Emma behaved cattily towards her friends and neighbors:

By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face…. Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter – and much wiser – than I could have imagined. -p. 12 (Emma)

This realization changed Deresiewicz’s life in more ways than one. First, it transformed his interactions with friends and family:

There was one more thing about my life that had to change, now that I’d read Emma: my relationships with the people around me. Once I started to see myself for the first time, I started seeing them for the first time, too. I began to notice and care about what they might be experiencing, and they began to develop the depth and richness of literary characters. -p. 36-37 (Emma)

Perhaps more importantly, though, this experience with the transformative power of Jane Austen’s work led Deresiewicz into a life-long love affair with Austen that would teach him what it really meant to be a human being.

Thoughts on the story:

Part memoir, part literary criticism, and part Austen biography, A Jane Austen Education is an absolutely wonderful little book. Particularly impressive was the balance Deresiewicz struck while explaining the revelations Jane Austen brought him. It is not uncommon in this sort of memoir for either the events/books or the lessons to feel shoehorned in. This was simply not the case in A Jane Austen Education. Every lesson seemed to be authentically in tune with what was happening in Deresiewicz’s life at the time.

In addition to outlining the lessons learned, A Jane Austen Education also serves to educate the reader about Austen and her work. A number of biographical details are included in order to ground Austen’s oeuvre in her reality. Also offered was a scholar’s understanding of Austen’s work, including a comparison of Austen and her great detractor Charlotte Bronte that I myself found revelatory in understanding why I enjoy Jane Austen and couldn’t really stand Jane Eyre:

In Pride and Prejudice, reason triumphs over feeling and will. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s own typically Romantic coming-of-age story, emotion and ego overcome all obstacles. Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn’t imagine how you could stand to read anything as immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn’t believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. -p. 70 (P&P)

Thoughts on the audio production:

Sean Pratt did a fabulous job narrating what at times was a really very personal memoir. Like all of the best memoir narrators, he became Deresiewicz for the duration of the audiobook, to the point where I was momentarily taken aback when I spoke to Deresiewicz for What’s Old is New and he sounded different than the voice who had relayed his story to me

For a more completely review of this as an audiobook, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

Highly recommended in either print or audio for fans of Jane Austen, or anyone who is interested in the power of literature to shape lives.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Print*
Indiebound: Print*
Audible.com

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach – Book Review

Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach
Published by Bantam, an imprint of Random House

Berthe Bovary is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in Madame Bovary, if only by the virtue of being one of the least developed. Finding herself a penniless orphan at the end of her parents’ story, Berthe goes off to her grandmother’s house and then to a workhouse, and then Flaubert feels no need to tell us anything else about her.

It is at this point that Linda Urbach picks up Berthe’s story, beginning with her moving to her grandmother Bovary’s house. Urbach balances the beginning of her story quite well, addressing both Berthe’s current situation and some of the background of her parents’ story. In fact, Berthe’s memories lend additional depth and meaning to moments of Emma’s story, such as the moment when Emma is effectively dumped by her first lover.

“Felicite gave Berthe one of the apricots to eat. Beautiful as it was to the eye, the flesh of the fruit was pulpy and strangely without flavor or sweetness.” -p. 108

Berthe is an engaging character, and her story is an interesting one. As a young woman finding her footing, it follows very well from her mother’s story that she would be attracted to the world of fashion, growing up surrounded by Emma Bovary’s beautiful clothing and then going to having nothing. Unfortunately, Madame Bovary’s Daughter suffered a bit from the at malady of historical fiction where the character becomes involved in every major advancement in his or her field.

“What followed was to be known thereafter as the world’s first fashion show. After much commotion, Worth’s models came out one by one, dressed in his most recent creations.” -p. 391

Of course, Berthe’s character is associated with this leader in the world of fashion at the time, but that doesn’t go quite far enough to explain just how influential she is claimed to be.

That historical fiction foible notwithstanding, Madame Bovary’s Daughter is a fun book that provides some much needed closure to Berthe’s story. Recommended.

Nicole and I had the opportunity to speak with Linda for our most recent episode\ of What’s Old is New, a show about Madame Bovary.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys – Book Review

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Five years after the death of Vlad Dracula, the Turks are encroaching more and more on Christian lands. If only the Order of the Dragon had not been discredited when Vlad was, it could still serve as a tool of Crusade for Christendom. In an effort to rehabilitate both Vlad and the Order of the Dragon, the three people who best knew him have been brought to one of his former castles to make confession on his behalf, telling Vlad’s story from his captivity with the Turks through the height of his power and cruelty, on to the time of his discrediting.

Vlad: The Last Confessions is the certainly the story of the ‘real’ Dracula, but more than that, it is a story of how history is written and warped to fit the needs of the victors:

The listeners had been fashioning their own Vlad, according to their needs. For Petru it was simple. he wanted the man who built the castle he commanded to be a hero; more, a Wallachian hero. He had heard of a time of justice, order, strength in his land. Of the smiting of Christ’s foes. He wanted that time again.-p. 69

At one time it was expedient for both the Turks and Hungarians to paint Vlad as a monster, but Vlad: The Last Confession posits a time when it may have been necessary for other European Christians to try to clear his name. The truth will never exonerate Vlad entirely, he was by no means a benevolent ruler, but it does shed a light on his motivations, which may have been more complex than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

So laughed, the sound harsh. “So I have become a tale to amuse fat burghers over their suppers, and to hush their children with terror when they will not sleep,” He lifted his goblet, drank, set it down. “All I did, all the measures I took for Wallachia, against thieves and traitors and Infidels, come to this.” He jabbed a finger at the pamphlet. “Me, reduced to a blood-sucking monster.” -p. 327

The device of telling Vlad’s story through those who knew him best worked very well. In practice it meant that most of Vlad’s story could be told as a seamless narrative. The impression is that all three confidants are telling the story in an integrated fashion, picking up where another left off, coming back to the scene in the castle only when exposition is needed. Some of the scenes of war and violence got a bit old after awhile, but it would have been difficult to avoid them, as they were a very significant part of Vlad’s life.

Overall, Vlad: The Last Confession was an interesting and engaging look at the life of Vlad Dracula and how history is shaped by political needs. Recommended.

For a more in-depth discussion of the book and Humphreys’s inspiration for it, please check out my interview with him on my podcast, What’s Old is New.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer – Book Review

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

I read The Uncoupling for an episode of What’s Old is New. You can check out our interview with Meg about the book, and if you’ve already read it, check out our spoilery outtakes.

Stellar Plains, New Jersey is a relatively happy town. Dory Lang and her husband Robby are certainly happy, even if they do wish that their teenage daughter would read a bit more. Still, they are happy with their lives, with their jobs as high school teachers, with their relationship. Then Fran Heller enters all of their lives as the high school’s new drama teacher and decides to put on Lysistrata as the school play. Suddenly, Dory has no desire to sleep with her husband, which has never been the case in the entire time they have been together. She isn’t the only one, either, all over town women are turning away from their husbands, boyfriends, and lovers. Suddenly the little flaws that have been overlooked in everyone’s relationships are front and center, and sex is nowhere to be found.

At its height, it was a knockout of a spell, fortified by a classic work of literature – a play that had lasted since 411 B.C., and which lasted even now, in this age of very different gratifications. -p. 246

Wolitzer’s prose is phenomenal. I am typically a reader who requires a mixture of good writing and good plot and character development in order to love a book, but I think I could have loved The Uncoupling even if the plot had been completely uninteresting, the writing was good enough to suck me in and keep me reading compulsively all on its own. The quote above is, I think, a perfect example of the compelling style of prose – in addition to containing a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And then there was the fact that the prose was not the only thing that The Uncoupling had going for it. Certainly the book uses the famous Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, as a jumping off point, but it is not about a sex strike in order to end war. Instead, it is an examination of love and sex, of relationships and desire, and how the waxing and waning of one element can have such great consequence for another. So many relationships are examined that a reader would be hard-pressed to become emotionally involved in more than one or two (likely those of Dory and Robby, or their daughter Willa and her boyfriend Eli), but all of the characters are fully realized, even those with extremely minor roles, which lends a richness to the story as if the reader was actually a part of the town of Stellar Plains, watching this spell strike all of his or her neighbors.

I absolutely adored The Uncoupling, it offered me the full package of what I believe makes a book worth reading: prose, characters, plot, and something to connect with on a deeper level. This is a book I can very highly recommend, and one that is likely to make an appearance on my ‘best of’ list at the end of the year (and likely that of many other people as well).

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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