Thursday, May 27, 2010

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour

Continuing my revisitation of J.D. Salinger, did I extract my Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction from the shelf.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters unfolds in that brilliant way, revealing pieces bit by bit, including that marvelous title.

Seymour is exquisite and indulgent, a dream to read. For fans of the Glass family, and me reading these stories so close together, it, to borrow a phrase from The Dude, really ties the room together. Told from the perspective of Buddy, it's Buddy who tells us that he wrote many of the stories in Nine Stories, even those that don't have to do with the Glass family, like "Teddy". No less than a meditation on art and artist, "Buddy" writes some killer lines, like "When he was twenty-two, he had one special, not thin, sheaf of poems that looked very, very good to me, and I, who have never written a line longhand in my life without instantly visualizing it in eleven-point type, rather fractiously urged him to submit them for publication somewhere." and "You can't argue with someone who believes, or just passionately suspects, that the poet's function is not to write what he must write but rather, to write what he would write if his life depended on his taking responsibility for writing what he must in a style designed to shut out as few of his old librarians as humanly possible." Buddy bristles at the idea that Seymour's art is based on biography, that old saw that true art comes from the imagination - it's one I don't particularly believe in because I think it's generally used as a defense of art by men and a way to discard art by women, but I never get tired of the argument.

I'm waiting with baited breathe to hear if any more stories will be published. Rumor has it that he had piles of stories about the Glasses.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Plot Against America

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth writes an alternate history to WWII in which, instead of going to war, America doesn't re-elect Franklin Roosevelt but instead Charles Lindberg, who becomes an ally of Hitler.

The story is told from the perspective of a young, Jewish boy in Newark whose parents view with immediate suspicion the change in leadership and the direction of the country. A family vacation to DC reveals the first public expressions of anti-semitism the family faces and soon after the oldest son is recruited to be part of a program to send young Jewish boys to the "heartland" to work on farms. He returns with less respect for his parents and deeply ingrained with the lessons he learned in "real America."

Mr. Mawhinney owned not just one farm but three--the lesser two rented to tenants - land that had been in his family going back nearly to the days of Daniel Boone, and my father owned nothing more impressive than a six-year-old car. Mr. Mawhinney could saddle a horse, drive a tractor, operate a thresher, ride a fertilizer drill, work a field as easily with a team of mules as with a team of oxen; he could rotate crops and manage hired men, both while and Negro; he could repair tools, sharpen plow points and mowers, put up fences, string barbed wire, raise chickens, dip sheep, de-horn cattle, slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, sugar-cure ham- and he had raised watermelons that were the sweetest and juiciest Sandy had ever eaten.

The anti-semitism grows stronger and stronger until eventually the US experiences something quite similar to Kristallnacht.

What Roth's book illustrates is how easily compliancy can lead to vast human rights violations. Published in 2004, it seems quite likely that the book was influenced by the liberties of the Bush administration, although I haven't read anything by Roth himself about that. For me, what really struck home, after some additional research, was the untold story of Charles Linderberg and other notable historical figures like Henry Ford, who are no less than national icons and symbols of all that is good about American ingenuity and capitalism, but were both anti-semites and used a fair amount of their political capital to promote that agenda. (There's a very helpful postscript in the paperback version that includes a "note to the Reader" and a "A True Chronology of the Major Figures" that provides more information.) Many of the hateful comments made by those characters in the book are taken directly from public speeches made by those men. (The postscripts reveals that history has literally been re-written in which re-publications of Lindberg's journals omit anti-semitical statements.)

Roth seems determined to expose Linderberg and Ford for the contributions of hate they added to the political and social atmosphere and I think that's a worthwhile endeavor. Ignoring their faults does a disservice to people who work for peace and, well, shows us that history is often a lie. And, of course, it is.

Aside from providing a lot of fodder for thought, the book is very entertaining and readable, as almost all of Roth's work is. I've never been disappointed by him with the exception of his 1971 Our Gang, which I think I just didn't have the historical perspective to appreciate. If you've never read Roth before, I'd suggest Goodbye, Columbus, which is one of my favorites - but, I certainly haven't read all of his stuff and would appreciate your suggestions if you have!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Nine Stories

After re-reading J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zoe, I re-read Nine Stories as well. It begins with A Perfect Day for Bananafish, an at-first charming and mysterious and ultimately alarming little story about the eldest Glass child, Seymore, on a beach vacation with his wife. That story's shocking ending rather keeps the reader on their toes for the rest of the collection. I'm quite fond of The Laughing Man, about a young boy who idolizes this young man who's kind of like a boy scout leader that all the boys call the Chief.

I like how many of the stories have a little mystery that unravels, like Down at the Dinghy, in which the maid has said or done something she shouldn't have and doesn't become clear until the end. Or Teddy, the last story, about another young boy of preternatural intelligence or perhaps (no spoilers) something else? I think all the stories highlight Salinger's incredible skill in the realm of the short story, and how in a few short pages he creates such a rich landscape of history and language and suspense.

From Teddy:
"I have a very strong affinity for the them. They're my parents, I mean, and we're all part of each other's harmony and everything," Teddy said. "I want them to have a nice time while they're alive, because they like having a nice time... But they don't love me and Booper - that's my sister - that way. I mean they don't seem able to love us just the way we are. They don't seem able love us unless they can keep changing us a little bit. They love their reasons for loving us almost as much as they love us, and most of the time more. It's not so good, that way."

I mean, wow. You could just spend the next two weeks thinking about that handful of sentences, couldn't you?

Unnatural Death

I picked up a Dorothy Sayers' book in South Beach at a fine little book store on Lincoln Road. I'd heard her mentioned reverently on some of the various book blogs I read and I was not! Disappointed! The book I somewhat randomly selected from her series was Unnatural Death, first published in 1927. It features a Lord Peter Wimsey, this wealthy dude who's really great at solving mysteries. He's kind of like Jeeves and Wooster rolled into one person, with a little Sherlock Holmes (He likes comparing himself to Holmes, as a matter of fact.)

The mystery in question is the death of an older woman for whom there is no sign of foul play and yet Peter Wimsey has a suspicion that she was murdered and sets out to solve it. Apparently the book was quite topical when it was published, relating to a change in inheritance laws which caused me to recall Austen and even consider looking up the definition of an "entail." (Just to consider, not to do, ultimately.)

Well, I thought it was absolutely marvelous and I intend to read many many more books by Sayers. It's very British, very funny, very smart and kind of scary! (I got spooked at the end!) Here's a passage that made me laugh:

"Your friend's going to be left behind," said Mrs. Cropper as the train moved out."

"That would be very unlike him," replied Mr. Murbles, calmly unfolding a couple of rugs and exchanging his old-fashioned top-hat for a curious kind of travelling cap with flaps to it. Mrs. Cropper, in the midst of her anxiety, could not help wondering where in the world he had contrived to purchase this Victorian relic. As a matter of fact, Mr. Murbles' caps were specifically made to his own design by an exceedingly expensive West End hatter, who help Mr. Murbles in deep respect as a real gentleman of the old school.