For Esmé – with Love and Squalor and other stories
by J D Salinger
I have been dipping in and out of this short story collection for a long long time, which means that I can really only say anything useful about the second half. But I’m reasonably sure I liked all of it, if that helps.
Anyone who’s read Catcher in the Rye will recognise the dry, not-one-of-the-crowd narrative voice of all these stories. Quite a few are also young male narrators, adding weight to the comparison but also to the possibility that a little of Salinger’s own life is being told here. The title story hints at this most strongly. It’s a letter to a woman on her wedding day, apologising for not being able to attend and detailing how they met (presumably for the benefit of wedding guests who might have this note read out to them?). It’s a simple, touching story of an American GI dining alone in a British cafe and being approached by a young girl who asks if she can write to him. The GI is quiet, bordering on non-communicative, possibly already struggling with the stress of war. The girl is precocious and demanding. But the pairing works brilliantly and the conversation is both believable and interesting.
Most of the stories are like this, inasmuch as they’re snapshots of ordinary lives and the not-so-ordinary personalities who are stuck living them. A couple have clear story arcs but most are more snatched, seeming to fade in and then fade out of the scene or situation being described.
First published in the USA as Nine Stories by Little, Brown and Company 1953
Published (in edited form) in Great Britain under the present title by Hamish Hamilton 1953
This edition, reproducing the original American text, published by Penguin 1994
T-Minus: the Race to the Moon
by Jim Ottaviani (author), Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (artwork)
I think this comic book is strictly aimed at children but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it and learning all sorts of new facts about the space race. And I live with Tim and have been to Kennedy Space Center, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in this stuff.
The story begins in 1957 with the text “T-minus 12 years” and ends (except for a short postscript) in 1969 at “T-minus zero”, the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story inbetween shows both the Russian and the American teams of scientists, engineers and pilots, not to mention the politicians who had their own ideas about going into space. There’s more detail about the Americans, possibly because much more information about them is available to an American author, and not every question I had was answered, but overall this was an impressive and entertaining summary of historical events.
Most of the missions get their own panel with a list of pertinent details: rocket used, launch date, flight duration, etc. Deaths and other disasters were not lingered on, which I actually found a little difficult, but there were enough of them to make it clear how immensely daring the astronauts and cosmonauts were. These men and women (the first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – I didn’t know that before today) really were braving the unknown, human guinea pigs essentially. Early flights went up before having figured out urine disposal or temperature control. There’s a scene where cosmonauts discuss not taking much food on a 2-day flight because the smell in the capsule made them feel too queasy to eat.
There are a couple of jumps back in time to show the development of the science behind space travel, though I’m sure another book this long could have been written/drawn on that subject. The story is reverent without painting everyone involved as perfect. NASA engineer Caldwell C Johnson is picked out as being a workaholic who rarely saw his family, lost track of days of the week and didn’t stop to celebrate each victory on the way because he was already immersed in the next challenge (or indeed the one after that). Russians are shown mocking American failures and achievements, not to mention covering up the cause of Laika’s death and keeping many other details secret. Interestingly, the book does mention that the American and Russian teams met up every so often to discuss their work and that these meetings were friendly affairs, but no detail is given. I don’t know if this is because it’s all classified or if there were no details important enough to pick out for this abbreviated history.
The full-page bibliography reveals that most of the authors’ sources came from NASA, including mission transcripts, but they also spoke to astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Alan Bean. They also say that they didn’t read one particular book they found because it was only available in Russian, which sounds like a bit of a rubbish excuse when researching Russian history. Surely they could have found a Russian speaker to help out? However, they did do a lot of research (they provide a web address for the full list, described as a stack of books “more than ten feet tall”) and it shows.
I heartily recommend this to any adult or child interested in the space race, but I would also be interested in learning more about the Russian side of things.
Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster. Available from GT Labs.
My second parcel of goodies is here (after a delay while it sat forlornly at the sorting office until Tim kindly cycled over there and fetched it for me). In case anyone missed my last post about this, I took part in the Great Grocery Bag Exchange, organised by Carin of A Little Bookish. Go here to find out more.
This second parcel came from Lydia of The Lost Entwife, another book blog that was new to me and I am now enjoying. Which was what this was all about, after all. Thank you Lydia for my lovely lovely parcel. Here they are:
Yes I have eaten three of those rather chunky cookies already and yes they are very tasty. Yum yum. Thanks again Lydia!
by Nick Hornby
I’ve read Nick Hornby books before and I’m reasonably certain that I liked them. So I was a bit disappointed to find that I was so, well, disappointed with this one.
The story is narrated by Sam, a teenage boy, which was the first thing that grated. Not that it was done badly. In fact it was probably the realism of the narrative voiced that made it so irritating. This is not a smart or interesting kid. It’s a slightly dumb, largely boring, typical teenage boy. I don’t usually mind disliking a main character but I think I still need to be interested in them. This kid skateboards, talks to his Tony Hawk poster, is a little clueless about girls but still somehow pulls the first pretty girl he tells us about, rarely sees the couple of friends he names and doesn’t have a lot to say about school, except that he likes art and is apparently good enough to stand a chance of going to art college. So he’s either dull or not very well fleshed out. I suspect it’s mostly the former but a little bit of the latter too.
I know that sounds harsh. And maybe if you’re a young guy you’ll totally relate to Sam. But even if I don’t relate to a character I usually feel that I have learned something by being in their shoes for the length of a book. I didn’t learn anything here. I mean, who couldn’t figure out for themselves that teen pregnancy is hard?
Yup, that’s the subject matter. It’s hinted at for a while before it’s said outright but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say it here. And I suspect this is a realistic portrayal in many respects, but it doesn’t get into many of the issues surrounding the subject, really. Mostly it’s a boy whining about how shit it is that he got his girlfriend pregnant even though they used a condom. And if it had been written differently I might have sympathised, but I really didn’t. The writing was easygoing enough that I read on but the entire book was predictable and the end was irritatingly nicey nice.
But the worst bit was the time travel. Yes, you read that right. Possibly in a bid to make the book actually interesting, Hornby has his main character travel into the future randomly, without warning. The first time it happens, you can maybe write it off as a dream, or rather a nightmare of the “oh my god I have an exam and I haven’t revised at all and I may have forgotten how to write my name” variety. But no, we’re supposed to accept that this actually happens, with no explanation or scientificness of any nature. It’s just weird and out of place and made me dislike a book I was already dubious about.
First published 2007 by Penguin.
Out of Sight
by Elmore Leonard
I’m reasonably certain I saw the film of this shortly after it came out and I remember absolutely nothing about it, which isn’t generally a sign of quality. I can’t be sure until some time has passed but I think the book was better.
I’ve been meaning to read some Elmore Leonard for years. He’s often called the king of crime fiction and has won numerous awards. I would have liked to start with something from earlier in his career but this was what the library had. He’s been writing novels and screenplays since 1953 and is still going strong. That’s one long career. This is one of his more famous titles and even spawned a short-lived TV series so it probably wasn’t a bad start point.
The story arch is basically a love story, that of serial bankrobber Jack Foley, just escaped from his third spell in prison, and beautiful, hard-nut federal marshal Karen Cisco, who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Foley was making his escape. In their brief time together an odd bond is established that neither can shake, even though next time they meet they may have to accept that they’re on opposite sides.
It’s not the best writing in the world. And the copy editing was atrocious. There were often words missing, making sentences nonsensical. Leonard’s much-lauded dialogue was very Pulp Fiction, which no doubt I should be saying the other way round, with discussions between characters jumping from how to avoid the cops to a funny news story they just read, or obsessing about clothes. It makes a big difference to the readability of what could otherwise be a very gritty story. There’s some serious crimes going down here, with some not very nice people involved, but Foley and his sidekick – the appropriately named Buddy – are classic loveable rogues and it’s hard, reading this, not to wish that there were some way that Foley and Cisco could believably end up together.
This was an enjoyable, quick read. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next, I felt that was fairly predictable (though maybe I did have a vague memory of the film after all) but I definitely did care about the characters. At some point I will definitely come back to Leonard’s rather large back catalogue.
First published in the US in 1996 by Dell Publishing.
I have received the first of my two parcels in the Great Grocery Bag Exchange, a fantastic idea dreamed up by Carin of A Little Bookish where book bloggers get to know each other by sending a parcel of goodies, including at least one reusable shopping bag, to their exchange partner(s). What fun! Goodies from another country, another blog to read, another blogger to get to know and perhaps the best bit – fun post!
My first parcel is from Amy of Amy Reads, a Canadian blogger whose reading taste has, I think, quite a lot of crossover with mine. At least, I have starred a lot of her reviews in my Google Reader, which is my totally hi-tech system for marking out books I think I might like to read. Amy sent me these good-looking goodies:
The postcard and one of the bags were designed on Prince Edward Island by descendants of LM Montgomery, which gives me a book-nerd thrill. Oh how I loved the Anne of Green Gables books when I was younger. Also, I like how the greeting card has a non-denominational “Happy Holidays” message. Very Canadian, I believe. It’s hard to even get a birthday card in the UK right now, everywhere’s so Christmas-obsessed!
Thank you Amy for my great parcel of fun stuff. I will definitely take your advice and bump Adichie up the TBR pile 🙂
by Carol Ann Duffy
A lot of the poems in this collection by our esteemed Poet Laureate read like little short stories, which made them pleasingly accessible for someone like me who doesn’t read a whole lot of poetry.
The subject matter, as you might guess from the title, is women – the women of myth, of urban legend, of old wives tales – and womanhood, what that means. The tone ranges from meditations on love, beauty, identity to everyday rhythms and humour.
There’s “The Map-Woman” about a woman whose skin is a map of the town, from head to toe. There’s “Work” about a woman taking on increasingly tough jobs as she has more children to support, until she has a billion children and can no longer cope. There’s “Beautiful”, about some of history’s most famous women, from Helen of Troy to Princess Diana, drawing the parallels between their lives and the way they were treated.
I usually like love poems best and there are some of those here, but I think my favourite in this collection is “A Dreaming Week”, which uses repetition and clearer rhythm and rhyme than most of Duffy’s poems to create something that sounds really good spoken aloud. Its story, if it can be said to have one, is quite simply a person daydreaming/dreaming a week away. There’s idle playing with words, there’s evocative descriptions of bed and night-time.
I think I prefer Duffy’s most recent book, Rapture, but this is an excellent window into multiple characters/perspectives/ideas about femininity.
Published 2002 by Picador.
One of the joys of having lupus is the many blood tests I have to have. Okay, that was sarcastic but the regular trips to the GP surgery are actually quite fun. Maybe not fun. Diversions from the normal routine that aren’t too unpleasant. That’s closer.
I always book my blood tests for first thing in the morning on a work day. I stroll up the hill against the flow of people heading to work or school, spend about two minutes with a nurse and then amble on my way to work. I’ve warned my manager that I’ll be a little late in, so I’m in no hurry. I sometimes need a pick-me-up after having blood drawn so I treat myself to a sugary breakfast. I get to see a slightly different view of my neighbourhood, like the lollipop man outside the local primary school who makes crossing the road so much easier. And it’s morning, which is a time I think I like. Probably.
The blood test itself isn’t too bad these days. I’m inured to the whole thing. I’m lucky that the two practice nurses are great (that’s nurses at the medical practice, not nurses who are practising on me, obviously, though I did have a student nurse draw my blood once – it wasn’t pleasant, I had to lie down for a while). You might think all nurses are equally capable of taking blood but believe me, you’re wrong. I show them which vein looks good and we chat a little about holidays, family, weather, whatever. Before I know it the tourniquet’s off, the plaster’s on and I’m saying goodbye. While my health is steady as it has been all year (I’m not superstitious but I feel I should touch wood or something here) I only have to have one sample taken, which is a whole lot better than the armful I used to give every month.
But regardless I’m always a little nervous beforehand and a little relieved afterward. As I was today. It was particularly cold, with a biting wind and I was worried I’d chosen a bad outfit for getting at my inner arm easily. But it all went fine and I was feeling cheerful as I bought my cappuccino and brownie from A Cappella, then strolled down the road sipping at my drink, having a nose at a shop that’s opening soon and someone’s house covered in scaffold. Now maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to where I was going or maybe I wasn’t fully awake still but personally I blame the police siren and the car that looked like it was about to mount the pavement and head straight for me. Either way I walked into a wall and spilled my coffee all down me. Perfect.
My day wasn’t ruined but I’m still uncertain about this morning thing. It might just be the lupus, but another hour of sleep sounds a whole lot better than an early morning walk to me.
by Chuck Palahniuk
A few years back I considered myself a big fan of Palahniuk’s novels. Then either they got worse or my reading tastes changed. Either way, this collection of his essays, many of them previously published in newspapers and magazines, lay around unread until I had an urge to read more non-fiction and this seemed to fit the description well!
While I may have gone off his fiction, I still love Palahniuk’s writing style. His short punchy sentences, repetition and colloquial phrasing break all sorts of rules about writing and grammar but they work. He can be very critical of the world but he can also be very sweet in his genuine interest in people, often people no-one else is interested in. He’s led an odd life, some of which he talks about in these essays, and that has no doubt coloured his view of the world. I don’t admire him for doing strange, sometimes dangerous things, but I do admire him for working with dying people, for telling stories that deserve to be told, for openly analysing his reasons for writing what he does.
If you’ve read any of Palahniuk’s fiction these essays will make sense to you. He collects facts and stories about real people and files them away for later use in a novel. Literally, it turns out. He has a wall of filing cabinets full of this stuff. The essays range from moments in his own life, to people he’s met casually, to people he has deliberately researched. There’s the crew of a US navy submarine, three men who built their own castles, a woman who trained her dog in search and rescue, professional wrestlers. There’s Palahniuk’s experiences of having his novel turned into a Hollywood film, of having an annoying faux psychic woman genuinely unearth a troubling childhood memory, of dealing with his father’s murder.
My favourite pieces were the more positive ones, which were mostly about writing. Palahniuk’s career took off when he attended a creative writing class and he writes movingly about the greatness of his mentors and some of his favourite writers. His cynicism is still there but it’s aimed at himself and not the subject.
I didn’t enjoy every essay. Palahniuk does his research thoroughly and in some cases that meant trawling through paragraph after paragraph on a subject I don’t care about, like wrestling or demolition derbies, but the essay as a whole is always worth reading because somewhere in there will be a gem of a portrait or observation, a really real person saying or doing something that makes you stop and think.
These essays don’t get as dark as his novels do, possibly because they’re mostly written for the wider audiences of magazines with editors who don’t want to publish Palahniuk’s darkest thoughts. But they’re clearly written from the perspective of a person who has dark thoughts, who questions the acceptance of any “normality”, who has frankly been through some shit. It’s interesting stuff.
Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.