Month: March 2014

Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1” by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood [Audio]

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1: The BiographyReminiscing about Metallica

There was hardly elbow room, that’s how packed with metal fans the open-air arena was — people with attitudes and a passion for good hard music.  The summer night was electric.  The anticipation for the Metallica Load tour to Indianapolis, Indiana, on 02 July, 1996, was unprecedented in our teenage minds.  Songs like “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were on the tips of our tongues, waiting to be screamed out in unison with James Hetfield and other fans alike.  This 1996 tour was set at a time in Metallica’s career where their fan base was firmly and internationally in place.  I didn’t know a single person who had never heard a song off of the Black album, the frequency of “Enter Sandman” on Indy’s X103, the favored radio station for hard rockers at the time, contributing to this.  In fact, this was how my friends and I learned that Metallica was coming to Deer Creek.  We immediately went to the local Ticketmaster at Kroger’s and bought four tickets.  Like every metal fan going to their first concert, we worshiped those tickets on the altar of metal, and we banged our heads in acceptance of their awesome goodness.  The day finally arrived.  I had a car, so we all drove to the concert in my 1978 olive green Chevy “the beast” Malibu, listening to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning all the way to Indy, which was a good three hour drive for us.  This little road trip mentally prepped us for the energy and excitement of seeing Metallica live, on stage, at the Deer Creek Music Center for the first time.  How could we have had any idea for the sheer magnitude of such an experience?

Aaron was the only one who had been to a concert before.  He had gone to see Pearl Jam, which as a band compared in no way to the show we were about to see.  Rumor had it that Metallica put on an epic show, that they knew how to entertain their audience.  We were about to find out.  The opening act was setting up their stage as we entered the arena.  Jerry Cantrell, known for his part in Alice in Chains, opened for them, which was a pleasant appetizer, but it did nothing really to prep us for what was coming.  Our thirst could only be quenched with songs like “Metal Militia” or “Whiplash.”  Cantrell, a musician of some renown even, didn’t really stand a chance.  It was a great experience seeing him perform live, but it was just not what we were there for.  Finally, everyone cheered for Cantrell and his exit.  The stage went dark.  The night had settled upon us, and Black and White Rock Handsthe crowd was buzzing with energy.  The smell of pot and booze was everywhere, the open-air pavilion doing little to clear out the heavy cloud looming over all of the smokers looking for a fix just before the show.  Out of the darkness, Hetfield’s voice bellowed loudly into the night, “So fucking what?”  Signs of the horns were held high by everyone in the crowd, as the stage lights flared into existence and metal filled the air, revealing the only thing between us and the stage to be a sea of long conditioned hair waving in perpetual motion set to the razor-edged rhythm of fast-paced guitar rifts and drum percussions.  The rumors were right; what a great show that was.

Getting to know the Band

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1 is the coming-of-age story of the band that I worshipped as a teenager.  It is safe to assume that by this point the band really needs no introduction in this review.  If you, good reader, don’t know who Metallica is, then I recommend picking up the Master of Puppets album (1986) to listen to “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” or the Black album (1991) for a sample of “The Unforgiven” to get a feel for what this band is like.  Hell, any song off of any album will be telling for their style of music.  The moment I learned about this biography, I jumped at the opportunity to read about the metal band that I followed so diligently during my teen years.  I downloaded an audio copy of this book with the same enthusiasm I had those so many years before when I waited in line at the Ticketmaster.  Metallica was about more than simply banging heads and marching around angrily.  It was about having a release for that anger, for being different, for being ourselves.  It meant knowing that we weren’t alone, that we were fans, belonging to a like-minded collective — a legion really — of people who saw in Metallica a way of fitting in, but, most of all, it was about being cool.  That Metallica, themselves, were much the same as their fans only made them all the more influential, all the more important to us.  We could relate to them some how.  It was part of being a teen to like them, at least in the circles that I ran around with, especially during the 90s when music and popular culture were taking a darker, more burlesque, more sinister theme. This had its appeal.  The decadence of the 90s was marked and inspired by musicians like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, Maynard James Keenan, Till Lindemann, Rob Zombie and Jonathan Davis, amongst others.  If it wasn’t dark, it simply wasn’t.  The undertones surrounding the 90s were dystopic; the millennium was approaching its end, and people were feeling jubilant (or morose) about the end of days.

Metallica always knew how to stand out from the crowd, though.  This biography, written by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, music journalists both, sets that clear.  This book helped to explain a lot of the emotions I was experiencing for the band in the early 90s when the Load album was released.  Like so many other fans felt, Load took some getting used to.  The rifts were milder, more melodic, not the same high-tempo rifts as their previous works.  Many saw this album as a break away from the thrash metal scene that Master of Puppets and And Justice for All so skillfully represented, and it disappointed fans, including myself.  As Lars Ulrich states in the biography, which has been paraphrased here, thrash metal was a scene they ultimately wanted to distance themselves from.  There was no future in it for them (qtd. in Brannigan and Winwood).  It had been their desire to perform first and foremost for themselves that makes Metallica the remarkable band that they are, but I failed to see this back then.  The only thing that I knew was that they were changing their approach to music, maturing as performers even, and I felt betrayed by what I failed to understand.   I eventually came to love songs like “Until It Sleeps” or “Outlaw Torn.”  In fact, I listen to the Load  album with a great appreciation for many of its songs now.

Brannigan and Winwood reveal how this wasn’t the first time fans felt disappointed for a move Metallica made in their own interest, what with the song “Fade to Black” on the Ride to Lightning album, the second to be released by the band in 1984.  This song broke from the head-banging, stage-diving, moshing traditions that were often associated to thrash metal concerts, and some fans immediately distanced themselves from the band for it.  Metallica stuck it out, though, and played the song, regardless of reactions from their fans — and more importantly, from the reviews that followed.  While their passion for the music they wrote is clear, the turbulence that came with being a rock band filled with adolescent emotions amidst the public eye takes a different toll on their music, especially as they were seen breaking away from normal conventions, a point the biography captures well with personal anecdotes from band members, music journalists, producers, and other friends to the band.

Keeping a Distance

One thing the band sought to keep its distance from was the drama that was often associated with stardom.  In fact, the band didn’t really make a major name for themselves until almost a decade after their founding with the release of the Black album by Elektra Records, the first major label to back up their name.  Before this, Brannigan and Winwood remind us that they had a lot of great reviews.  They were even adored by fans on the British metal scene and their West coast home front, but they were striving to move away from the same gigs.  They toured arduously with bands like Ozzy Osbourne, serving as the opening act, in order to get as much stage time as possible.  But, while Metallica was focused on playing smaller venues and opening acts, building a name for themselves with fans who identified with their simple image, hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison showed off the glamor and glitz that came more typically with being rock stars of the 80s (notice the comparison between the two bands here):

Picture of Metallica

Copyright Megaforce Records, Inc.

Picture of Poison

Like night and day, we see from the two pictures above how Metallica appears dressed in little more than their jean jackets with torn off sleeves and long hair; no adornments of any kinds, as opposed to Poison, who dresses themselves in leopard-skin prints, tight-fitting leather pants, head bands and other such accessories that were typical of the 80s hair metal genre.  We need no audio samples to tell from these two pictures how differently each group was to one another.

Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the two original founding members of Metallica, sought to keep as much distance from these types of bands as possible.  From reading the biography, one even gets the impression that Ulrich and Hetfield loathed these other bands.  And with good reason.  According to one anecdote in the book, Ulrich and Hetfield were promoting their up-coming concerts by personally handing out flyers to people in one club, while band members from Motley Crue were flaunting their lifestyles around with chics at their table.  When it came to performing, Brannigan and Winwood make it clear to the reader that Ulrich and Hetfield were all about work first, then play.  The performance, not the “show,” was what mattered.    The fact that they made it to billboard charts without the aid of MTV or any radio airplay in America is a testament to the hard work they invested into the promotion of their music.  Ulrich, the more ambitious of the two, was always looking for connections and leads to promote their name,  the book revealing quite a holistic look at the groundwork being laid during their earlier years.  But, for all it was worth to keep the band’s name away from drama, it was an inevitable part of their careers as rock stars that it should find them.

The relationship with Dave Mustaine, who later went on to create the band, Megadeth, is an example of such drama.  His excessive drinking and thirst for satisfying his ego, a true rock star’s calling card, was one of the earliest friction points in the band, his lifestyle a contradiction to their hardworking mentality. Ultimately, he was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who has since been the band’s lead guitarist (Brannigan and Winwood).  The book tells us how this happened midway through a tour, with Mustaine sent packing back to California, while Hammett flew overhead en route to where the band was to replace him.  Another account that led to the inspiration for “Fade to Black” was a robbery of their equipment just outside of Boston while touring for Kill ‘Em All.  This set-back was a major burden on their financial situation at the time.  On the verge of entering into recording for Ride the Lightning, their profits from sales were fully devoted to financing this label, even to the point of living modestly.  At the time, Metallica was a band that set themselves apart from other bands like them, holding to a discipline and rigor unlike any other in the industry, but they weren’t really making much money doing it.  While there are a number of reasons to attest to this, one can definitely say that things started to look up for Metallica once Cliff Burton, the sought-after bassist from San Francisco, joined them, creating for the band a unique harrowing sound that helped to make a more professionally driven Metallica as a result.  They knew what they were making was good.  In fact, his baselines are  what made him one of the greatest bass players the heavy metal world at that point had ever known.  Regrettably, he is the source of Metallica’s third mishap with unwanted drama.  While in Sweden on their And Justice for All European tour, Cliff Burton was crushed in an accident as their bus’s driver lost control of the vehicle due in part to black ice on the early-morning road.  Band members had little time to mourn, though, as business is business, and they departed on their Asian tour scheduled to take place as originally planned, only four weeks after his death.  This forced them to move on, and fans were largely sympathetic to them all for it.

About the Book

This biography is worth the read if you are looking to learn more about an international band that established its roots first in hard work and self-image.  Without having that sense of what they themselves wanted from their music careers, they would have ended up like many other metal bands of the 80s, distant memories of an iconic era.  Instead, Metallica challenged many of the conventions that defined heavy metal at the time and paved the way for many bands to follow in their wake.  By setting their own ambitions around their commitment and passion for heavy metal, instead of catering solely to their fan base, they were able to withstand the test of time and have become one of the planet’s most influential bands.  Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1 is an excellent look at not just the founding of one of metal’s most famous bands, but at the making of a genre of music that has since never looked back.  If you’re a novice to the metal scene and would like to learn more about what this subculture has to offer, especially from the vantage point of the 1980s, then this book is a great start.  Volume 2 of this biography will be set from the Black album (1991) onwards and is pending release “in autumn 2014” (Perry).

Works Cited

Brannigan, Paul and Ian Winwood. Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1.  Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013. Audiobook.

Perry, Andrew. “Back to Black: Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1, by Paul Brannigan & Ian Winwood, review.” The Telegraph Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight ClubPerusing through the bookstore the other day, I chanced upon this book in one of the more remote corners of the shelf and thought how this was a book I had yet to read.  At the time Fight Club was being released in theaters, I was joining the U.S. Armed Forces and was on my way to basic training.  I had never heard of Chuck Palahniuk, nor of his novel and only learned about the story, like so many others, through the film adaptation starring a young Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.  Its cinematic release was an instant hit that captivated even younger men like myself, who for whatever reason romanticized the notion of fisticuffs.  The idea of fighting, openly at that, was both foreign and innate.  It was something you just didn’t do, but secretly wanted to.  Basic combat training, or Boot camp, was the perfect outlet then for this strange fascination that beset many of my peers.  Hand-to-hand in the sand pits of Fort Sill was where we vented our frustrations, but for what exactly?  Were we upset about things in the same way Tyler Durden and the unnamed narrator in Fight Club were?  Was there something more deeply rooted going on amongst those of us “men” who became infatuated with Chuck Palahniuk’s work?  Having since read the book, I look back at that time in my life, at a pivotal moment really, and see how I was moving on from that small town (“corn-fed” as my uncle called it) mentality, moving on to bigger and better things — what those “things” were I had yet at the time to figure out exactly, but I was moving on, nonetheless.  Considering all that the 90’s represented, a conundrum of cultural shifts and fluxes, the decadents of a century, moreover a millennium, taking form for us through boyish tendencies and primal acts of infighting, Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel definitely offered a fresh look at the counter-culture that was emerging in response to these shifting dynamics that were marking the turn of the millennium.  Like his protagonist, I was also at a turning point in my life and needed something to change.  And that was what this book was ultimately about — change.

In many ways, Fight Club is an uncomplicated book from a narrative standpoint; its short chapters (a total of 30 over a 208-page novel) reveal a sequence of unlawful events that are seemingly piece-mailed together and make up the basic premise of the story: the unnamed narrator who meets Tyler Durden, who forms Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization devoted to the oxymoronic notion of organized anarchy, who becomes victim to his own whims.  One reviewer puts what this book is doing well into perspective, where the initial fight forms the club, a “new religion and secret society for males who want to reclaim their instincts as hunters within a society that has turned them into consumers. Fight Club provides a space in which men can transcend the reality of their lifestyle, their jobs, and their bodies. The club begins to present the body as a site of power and resistance to its followers, through violence and destruction” (Byrne).    This transcendence taking place occurs through a baptism in pain, with the temple of the body being cleansed of its repression.  It is in this transformation that we find the real complexity to Fight Club, the story, emerging.

The First Rule of Fight Club…

And painfully complex it was.  Not the kind of pain you would associate to a woman during childbirth.  That kind of pain is real and intrinsic; no, the pain dealt with in this book was expressed in one of the only ways a man can express his pain, outwardly, in a violent kind of way.  Not necessarily so in the beginning of the book, though; not while the unnamed narrator (from this point on, known only as first person for the consistent use of “I” throughout the book) was sulking in his misery, looking for an outlet.  No, first person was taking his pathetic existence to a whole new pessimistic level, one that seems iconic for Palahniuk, based on what I gather from an impression of his other works.  First person finds some sort of relief by going to support groups for terminally ill people  — Chloe suffering from her brain parasite from the group “Catch-Up Rap” being a good example (Palahniuk 35) –and these narratives are what give him his release.  “‘You cry,’ Bob [with testicular cancer] says and inhales and sob, sob, sobs. ‘Go on now and cry.’  The big wet face settles down on top of my head, and I am lost inside.  This is when I’d cry…. Anything you’re ever proud of will be thrown away.  And I’m lost inside.  This is as close as I’ve been to sleeping in almost a week” (17).  As early as chapter 2, we’re offered this look at his release and how absorbed he becomes in the painful existences of those he visits in these groups.  All of this, his “vacation” as he calls it, is interrupted the moment Marla Singer enters the picture.  “The only woman here at Remaining Men Together, the testicular cancer support group, this woman smokes her cigarette under the burden of a stranger, and her eyes come together with mine.  Faker. Faker. Faker” (18).  The irony of First person’s commentary not withheld.  The impact of her presence is revealing to his inner turmoil.  He confesses:

Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.  I wasn’t host to cancer or blood parasites; I was the little warm center that the life of the world crowded around.  And I slept.  Babies don’t sleep this well.  Every evening, I died, and every evening, I was born.  Resurrected. (22)

This is not the only time the theme of resurrection is brought up in the book.  Enter Tyler Durden.

First person goes to support groups for release.  Marla Singer ruins his outlet by revealing herself as a faker, forcing him to recognize the truth of it — that he’s a faker, too — so we are then introduced to Tyler Durden, the hero of the novel of sorts who challenges First person to take control of his life.  “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” (Palahniuk 29), the book often reminds us.  Add the insomnia first person starts the book off with, and those become very long minutes.  That leaves plenty of time to think about it ending.  It is more about existing than it is living, and the misery of first person is compounded all the more by the underlying themes of consumerism found throughout the story.  Tyler Durden is the one character who grounds first person to what is real.  He forces first person to take a look at himself, to break away from his life of commodity, to regain control of his life.  As Palahniuk tells the reader in the afterword of his book, “Really what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby, updated a little.  It was ‘apostolic’ fiction — where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero.  There are two men and a woman.  And one man, the hero, is shot to death” (Afterword 216).  Before we can reiterate the resurrection reference made in the previous paragraph and in Palahniuk’s words quoted here, we should jump back to the 90s to look at that cultural shift that was happening.

Looking Back

Countless sources will vouch for the fact that this is a story about masculinity.  Palahniuk himself tells us even that his story is about masculinity, challenged by a feminist ideal that, at the time, was prevalently being displayed throughout many pop cultural references.  He writes about the motivations that inspired him to write Fight Club:

At the time, I’d seen a Bill Moyer television program about how street gangs were really young men raised without fathers, just trying to help one another become men… At the same time, the bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt.  These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together.  To sit together and tell their stories.  To share their lives.  But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives. (Palahniuk, Afterword 214)

The point in his quote about street gangs raising men without fathers is worthy of attention as these very words are found coming from one of the disciples for Project Mayhem, who lectures to first person, as if to check his devotion: “If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God.  And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?…What you end up doing… is you spend your life searching for a father and God… What you have to consider… is the possibility that God doesn’t like you.  Could be, God hates us” (Palahniuk 141).  This insightful quote reveals a lot about the Freudian issues at work in the protagonist, along with all the other males that are found in this book; they are all men with daddy issues lashing out against a society where everything is provided for and men have no purpose but to be a part of it.  Pain and fear is the only truth that reminds us of who we are, our individuality, Palahniuk seems to tell us, and that gives us a sense of our own self worth.  Our ability to conquer this is what shows the strength of our resolve.  This is why Project Mayhem operatives go out searching for people, forcing them at gun point to explain what they want to do with their lives, because from one day to the next, it could all end.  It is existential thinking at its finest.  The same way of thinking took place during the 1890s, during the Fin-de-Siecle.

To Be Resurrected

From all that can be seen of the fighting and terrorist acts, the book is not nihilistic, contrary to what some reviewers think (“Fight Club“).  It is about depression on a massive scale.  On a generational scale.  An entire generation of men, who don’t feel like themselves, who don’t really feel like they are men, who have been raised fatherless by women, who are repressed.  When you’re a man, you’ll likely agree that this is hardly anything new for a man to do, to repress his feelings and hide how he really feels, which brings us back to one of the reemerging themes of the book — resurrection.  First person rationalizes with us after his first few fights that “maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer.  Tyler never knew his father [imagine that].  Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”  Later, first person rationalizes with us further in saying that “I’m nowhere near hitting the bottom, yet.  And if I don’t fall all the way, I can’t be saved.  Jesus did it with his crucifixion thing…. This isn’t just a weekend retreat.  I should run from self-improvement, and I should be running toward disaster…. ‘If you lose your nerve before you hit the bottom,’ Tyler says, ‘you’ll never really succeed.’  Only after disaster can we be resurrected” (Palahniuk 70).  This life lesson can be explained when we take a look at the writings of Richard Hilbert in his understandings for chronic pain.  Pain in many ways is a subculture.  Culture tells us how to identify and define pain, but when the pain becomes too much, too overwhelming, we look for extrinsic ways to cope with it.  The key to this process is social interaction (365).  Fight club is just that.  Like the Church or any other organization, support group, what have you, it is through others that we learn to cope with our pain.  Tyler emerges from the narrator as the motivating force for this expression of inner pain.  Without Tyler, the first person would continue to go about his daily affairs, living in his condo filled with commercial commodities, surrounded and alone with things he doesn’t need.  Like the deeply repressed feelings of abandonment and displacement, Tyler comes forth into first person’s world, serving as the expression he needs to cope with his inner pain, his spiritual pain, and it is through Tyler that he bonds with other men who are feeling the same way.  Fight club represents the social interaction these men otherwise do not have.  It is their coping mechanism.

Fighting is what helps to actualize this spiritual pain, to bring it to the surface.  Otherwise, it stays cooped up inside, repressed, like the notion of being fatherless.  These men who take part in Fight Club are searching for something meaningful, something more than the lifeless houses they surround themselves with: “I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct.  The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue” (Palahniuk 43).  The doorman of first person’s complex tells us after we finish reading about our narrator’s apartment being blown up, “if you don’t know what you want, you end up with a lot you don’t” (46).  Fight Club and Project Mayhem are simply the means of taking back control of their lives, to break away from the routine and materialism that would otherwise confine them, to help them truly feel alive.  To be resurrected.

And, this is what boot camp did for me.  It gave me control of my life.  I would not be where I am today had I not experienced similar feelings at that point in my life.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I felt repressed or abandoned.  I have rather fond memories of my childhood, and my father was always there whenever my sister or I needed him.  Instead, I believe it lies more in the fact that I needed more control over my life.  I needed to feel like I was doing something for myself.  The military enabled me to find a sense of myself, much in the same way fight club enabled first person to get a better grip over his own inner turmoil and spiritual anguish.  Fight club is as much about brotherhood and bonding as the military is, what with its camaraderie and unit cohesion.  While the book is extremely pessimistic in its approach to conveying this deeply rooted observation about men in turn-of-the-century society, even embellishing the details about male angst to a large degree, I believe it conveys the feelings all young men go through at a period in their lives: striving to find a sense of themselves.  We do this by relating to others.

Works Cited

Byrne, Chrystal. “Fight Club — Book Review.” Weekend Notes. On Top Media, Ltd. 01 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

“Fight Club.” Kirkus Review. Kirkus Media, LLC, 20 May. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Hilbert, Richard. “The Acultural Dimensions of Chronic Pain: Flawed Reality Construction and the Problem of Meaning.” Social Problems 31.4 (Apr. 1984): 365-378. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jul. 2013.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 1997. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Afterword. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 1997. 209-218. Print.

Cutting Wood with Robert Frost

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew LangSpring has finally arrived, and the past couple of days have been kindling some old memories.  Alfred, a friend of the family who happens to be a local farmer, cleared out some small trees along his fields last week, to which the equivalent of eight cords of fire wood needed only be picked up from the wood line where they laid.  Riding on the back of his tractor with a trailer attached, we spent the past couple of days cutting fire wood.  Being outside among the wide-open fields, gathering wood for next year has only heightened my senses toward the act of cutting wood.  Sawdust and its potent smell flying through the air as the chainsaw literally chews its way through the log, the hot smell of oil and exhaust mixed with the loud, obnoxious noise of the motor as the saw works under the pressure of the hand wielding it, the vibration of holding the log in place to keep it steady for the clean cut: all of these elements combined have brought back memories of splitting wood for my grandparents back when I was younger.

At least once, sometimes twice a year, my father would take my sister and me down to my grandparents for the day, so we could cut wood to help them prepare for the winter.  They lived in a housing addition along a recreational lake, where dense foliage went straight to the water’s edge.  In fact, I fondly remember running up and down the gorges and through the woods surrounding that housing addition, pretending to be Davie Crockett or some other hero-type.  We would often visit my grandparents from both sides of my family, but only my grandma and grandpa from my father’s side had a fireplace to burn wood in.  Since we lived so close, only an hour’s drive, we would help out when they needed wood cut.

Cutting wood for them was laborious and meant that we’d be there the whole day.  They often had twenty plus cords worth of wood stacked twice as high as I was tall (back then).  Starting was always the hardest part because it meant establishing a working rhythm.  My dad would run the splitter, a hydraulic press with a wedge welded at the end of an iron beam.  He would man the lever, controlling the pressure the press would give, its loud sputtering exhaust bellowing out under the burden of its load.  My cousin and I would prepare each of the logs for my uncle to lay on the splitter, where we’d watch the first log split apart under the force of the hydraulic press.  The crackle as it split was always loud and sharp, the wood being resistant to the force being placed upon it; nevertheless, the press always prevailed, even when big knots in the logs placed it under more strain than usual.  Once the logs fell off to the side, my uncle would load the next one onto the beam, and my dad would press the lever forward, splitting it in two so that my cousin and I could throw them onto a pile to be stacked down by the house later on.  The longer we worked, the more we were rewarded with time outside, something my cousin, my sister and I didn’t mind so much.   We often explored the wood pile and the surrounding wood line.  We were still young after all, so we would help only when it was needed.  The things we would discover in the wood pile!

The Art of Cutting Wood

Woodcutters in the forest - Carl LarssonCutting wood like I have been the past couple of days with Alfred and from those times with my family is quite different from the way it was done in the days of yore.  Trees were felled with cross-cut saws, large and cumbersome blades with teeth the size of fingers that often required two men, as logging was a man’s business back then, to wield them.  It took effort to cut through a tree with a blade such as that.  Being synchronized with your partner was half the trick to using this saw blade.  This style of cutting has even become a marriage custom here in Europe, where newly wedded couples are to work together to cut a log in half, the point of this menial labor being clear; it takes two to work through the problem.

The other alternative, depending on the diameter of the tree, was to wield an axe.  Cutting with an axe, much like using a saw, required technique and skill.   You couldn’t simply swing until the tree fell down; you had to cut wedges out of certain points in the tree trunk, especially if you wanted the tree to fall in a certain direction.  Once the tree was down and the limbs had been removed, the log would need to be cut into segments just big enough to fit into the fireplace.  If you cut them too large, then the logs wouldn’t fit into the oven, and you’d be left with an awkward-shaped log to stack on the pile.  Cutting the log to just the right size took lots of time and lots of effort.  This doesn’t include splitting those logs into smaller parts — halves, mostly — for the benefit of evenly stacking them in a pile.

After we finished cutting wood along the treeline, Alfred, Peter and I rode back to the house on the tractor and had lunch.  While we were eating, Alfred heartily told me an old German proverb: “You will sweat three times when you are dealing with wood — by cutting it, by stacking it, and by burning it.”  This saying couldn’t be more true.  Stopping to consider all of the effort that goes into preparing wood for the winter, for providing warmth to a household during the cold, bitter months when Jack Frost is outside playing, this forces one to appreciate a saying such as the one Alfred told me.

The Wood Pile

Ironically, this proverb reminds me of the poem, “The Wood-Pile,” written by Robert Frost and published in his collection of poems North of Boston in 1914.  Quite often actually, Frost would write about his experiences in the woods, talking about the paths one often encounters or the thoughts one often has while walking through the woods.  This one poem stands out from many of his others, in my opinion, for reasons that Louis Untermeyer clarifies as “lines… bare of image-making and speculation, stripped clean of everything except perfect observation…[and] in the heightened description of a woodpile, a person emerges” (125).  In this poem, it is not the narrator, driven by wanderlust, lost among the trees, who Untermeyer is referring to, but a man who has abandoned the fruits of his labor.  The poem places us immediately within the “frozen swamp one grey day” (Frost line 1),  the narrator we know is “just far from home” (line 9).   A bird chirps to him from its hiding place — “He was careful / To put a tree between us when he lighted” (lines 10-11) — as if to tell the narrator that he is someplace where he doesn’t belong.  This little bird is what draws the narrator’s attention toward that which the poem is about.  “And then there was a pile of wood for which / I forgot him [the bird] and let his little fear / Carry him off the way I might have gone, / Without so much as wishing him good-night” (lines 18-21).  No longer intrigued by the bird and his protests against this would-be intruder, the narrator takes a moment to describe for us the pile of wood, “measured, four by four by eight. / And not another like it could I see” (lines 24-25) — this being the only pile of wood, the only vestiges around, to suggest that anyone else beyond himself had ever been in this part of the frozen swamp, but it is more in what the narrator takes note of about the “cord of maple” and its overall condition that peeks curiosity: it is rotting in the middle of the swamp.

It is from this observation that Frost’s craft as a poet becomes recognized.  This ordinary situation, a man standing in a swamp analyzing a cord of wood, becomes something more than that moment we are reading about.  As Untermeyer’s commentary suggests, a person emerges in Frost’s poem:

                                          I thought that only

Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks

Could so forget his handiwork on which

He spent himself, the labour of his axe,

And leave it there far from a useful fireplace

To warm the frozen swamp as best it could

With the slow smokeless burning of decay. (Frost lines 34-40)

And so ends the poem.  As the reader, our attention has now been drawn away from the simple, rotting wood-pile to whomever it was who abandoned that cord of wood to the swamp. For what reason would someone leave “the labours of his axe” in the swamp to rot “from the slow smokeless burning of decay”?  I cannot help but ponder the circumstances surrounding this individual, the wood cutter.  Perhaps the cutter is as the narrator suggests, someone who is quick to turning to fresh tasks and has simply lost track of this pile of wood in the swamp?  Or perhaps something more dire and sinister has happened, the reason for the cutter not returning being some serious ordeal that has befallen him?  Whatever the case may be, my thoughts have always returned to the possibilities left to the imagination, a testament to this poem’s lasting impression and to Frost’s ability to create something so compelling out of something so simple.

The Fruits of Labor

The stories a pile of wood can reveal to us.  The way Frost forces us to think about that wood-pile, left to rot by whomever set it, allows the imagination to wonder.  From my own experiences, I can imagine someone, axe in hand, chopping tree after tree down for the sake of setting it to dry.  The meticulous effort of measuring each log and cutting it to fit within the cord, four-by-four-by-eight, only adds to the mental image of this hard-working man.  This imagery sets me thinking about how my grandparents were given warmth year after year because of the wood we cut for them.  I think about the relationship the cutter never has to his wood-pile,  especially when I look at the pile of wood we stack along the back of the house and how we benefit from it every year.    I think about the circumstances that left that cord of maple to rot in the frozen swamp and how the wood-pile behind my home would never be subject to that.  After all, it has already been gathered and set in its place, ready for use.  I think about the freshly cut wood, waiting in the driveway to be split and stacked like the rest of the logs waiting to be burned.  Unlike the wood-pile that Frost describes to us, left to warm the frozen swamp as best it can,  the wood stacked behind our house has not been abandoned to the slow inevitability of decay.  No, my family and I will know the fruits of my labor next season when the first killing frost takes hold of the earth, placing its icy grip on all that would die during the winter months.  And like Frost’s words, my wood-pile will help to warm my body and soul, to keep the icy grip of winter, decay and death at bay.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Untermeyer, Louis.  Commentary.  New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. By Robert Frost.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Image Source

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew Lang on 13 Jul. 2013.

Larsson, Carl. Woodcutters in the forest. 1906. Painting. Wikipaintings, n.d. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Review of “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy [Audio]

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

One fine afternoon, while walking with my son through the woods just down the road from where we live, we meandered our way down an overgrown path, just off the logger trail, to a hunting lodge,  where I found a sign posted outside the makeshift cabin warning of Tollwut, which means “Rabies” in German.  When I asked my father-in-law about the warning, he said it was something to watch out for in these parts of northern Bavaria where I live, just on the outskirts of the Steigerwald.  Curiosity about the disease seized me from that point on, where luck would have it that Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, husband and wife, journalist and veterinarian, wrote a book about the disease.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus was published by Viking Adult in 2012,  so I downloaded an audio version of the book from the Overdrive digital library to indulge my inquisitiveness.  What I found was a comprehensive and engaging look at the historical, the cultural and the empirical nature of this disease.  And it was a damn good read, too.

About the Book

Wasik, a senior editor for Wired, writes jointly with his veterinarian wife, Murphy, of accounts of attacks made on hapless, unsuspecting victims bitten by all manner of creatures, ranging from dogs to raccoons to bats, some with grueling imagery.  Yet, the book does more than recount these gruesome struggles for survival; it illustrates, rather effectively, how rabies as a virus has captivated our imagination over the centuries when scientific scrutiny offered no insight on the terrible nature of this illness, where people would often mistake its symptoms for demonic possession instead.  Wasik and Murphy take the reader on an exploration through pages of medieval texts, revealing how the virus has become more than that, but an inspiration for myth and legend.  One reviewer wrote that the book was “rather slow” during the earlier chapters where the authors build up their case for this mythical association, what with their “[description of] the potential for rabies as the disease that significantly contributed to vampire and werewolf legends,” but later yields that the “pace of the book picks up”  once Wasik and Murphy begin looking at the earlier works of  microbiologists and how the book directs its focus more on the scientific, microbial aspects of the disease (Boury).  It is safe to assume that with this review being published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the reviewer may be a bit bias toward the more scientific inclinations of the book.  I do agree with her, though, when in the end, she concludes that “this book was both educational and entertaining and worth reading” (Boury).  I feel this book is well balanced  and offers a little something for all readers about the many facets of the disease.

While the book offers clear descriptive accounts for the symptomatic features of the virus, what with hydrophobia, the fear of water that is typically associated with patients or victims of the illness, there are a few areas I feel it could have been more convincing, namely in its attempts to tie rabies to some of today’s own popular culture.  I couldn’t help but feel that the authors were trying too hard to link the virus to popular themes seen in today’s media.  Yes, it ambitiously ties the associations of the disease found in many primeval texts to such folkloric myths as the werewolf and the vampire, which are the more convincing parts of the book, but it takes this even further still by linking rabies to the zombie narrative.  As it is referenced in the book, though, the zombie is somewhat suspect in having its origins rooted anywhere in the history of rabies, a redeeming point I must give back to the authors.  Be not mistaken, I do find the book’s rational for the werewolf myth to be very informative, especially in the accounts told in the earlier chapters of the book for the dog and its role as man’s best friend and servant, but also for being one of the predominant species that carries rabies in the world, thus revealing where a deeply rooted fear for the animal comes from.  Equally, the association made to the vampire and the appearance of the bat as one of the main carriers for the disease by modern science explains some of the myth stemming out of the nineteenth century, where closely linked ties between victims who would fall ill from the bites of bats were more than abundant. A hat tip to Bram Stoker with regard to this one.

About the Disease

The grim accounts told in the book to illustrate these points linking the disease to its mythical counterparts are not for the squeamish, but they do serve to show how those victims could easily be seen as that of the mythical monster, transforming upon a moment’s notice into a raging, uncontrolled beast, on account of the incubation period of the virus in the body.  Losing all control over themselves, the onset of hydrophobia would drive these victims into a raging frenzy, biting haplessly into the air, uncontrollable spasms racking the body as the nerves’ synopsis fail to inhibit their receptors, causing the victim to die rather terribly without the aid of a vaccine to reduce their symptoms.  An example of what rabies does to animals — namely dogs — may be found in this KOAT Action 7 News video, reporting on a case of rabies in a Valencia county animal shelter in New Mexico.  As the report indicates, footage in this video may be sensitive to some viewers.

 Regrettably, the 12 dogs in the kennel were euthanized as a result of the progressive state of the disease.  There was little that could be done for them.

Like any compelling analytical survey does, the book delivers a full account for the historical development of its topic, in this case the vaccine as it was developed in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and self-taught microbiologist.  The trials and tribulations as Pasteur set to discover what he did not know about rabies at the time is one of the more remarkable parts of this book.  At one point, Wasik and Murphy account for why trained medical professionals from the 19th century  had such a profound lack of understanding for the disease, given that all the folklore and myth loosely based around the disease had undoubtedly compounded and misconstrued the truths behind the virus and its symptoms, so much so that 3rd century Grecian philosophers and their observations of rabid dogs were more telling about how rabies really was over these learned medical practitioners, some 1,500 years later.  It wasn’t until the discovery of the virus as a microbial organism that the dynamics for our understanding of rabies changed for the better.

Still, the modern world is not safe from this virus, as it kills many animals and even people from less stable regions around the globe each year.  In more remote regions  where government bodies lack an adequate infrastructure, rabies remains a deadly disease, to which even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges its danger.  The book discusses in its later chapters several threats that occurred across urban spaces in the United States during 2008 and even an outbreak of rabies amongst dogs on the island of Bali, where “the island’s first attempt to combat the outbreak was an unsuccessful culling campaign in which 100,000 dogs were killed” (Belford).  With these incidents happening as recently as 2010, there is little doubt to the magnitude this disease can have on an isolated population, whether it be an inner-city or an island.  One thing the book does well is that it ends with a hopeful look at what is being done in rabies research.

Raising Awareness

Regardless of the breakthroughs that have happened in the way we understand the virus, though, it still poses a threat to anyone who may be bitten by a rabid animal.  If someone is not immediately treated after having been bitten, the results could be terminal, grueling and painful.  The book does not offer a cure for the disease, but what it does offer is awareness.  For all of the book’s strengths — what in its ability to show the disease’s influence over our imagination — and its weaknesses — making associations it, itself, acknowledges as border-line ridiculous — it tells a compelling story of a disease that has haunted man with his tamed natural instinct for countless years.  The book has certainly got me thinking about that walk in the woods I frequently take.  While it hasn’t deterred me from going outside to enjoy nature, I remain vigilant to the signs that are out there, knowing that deep down there’s more to this virus than its own pathological origins.

Works Cited

Belford, Aubrey. “Dog-Loving Bali Tries to Tame Rabies Outbreak.” New York Times.  The New York Times Company, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Boury, Nancy. “Review of: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 14.1 (2013): 139-140. PubMed. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Review of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

Four years ago on the 27th of January, J.D. Salinger died in his home at Cornish, New Hampshire, having lived to the ripe old age of 91 years.  In his life time, he was famously known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (Catcher), which was considered one of the prominent novels of the 20th century by Time but, in many of the same ways, has been widely challenged by censoring boards across the globe who view its message as more unorthodox and have seen it as so since it was first published in 1951.  Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it has been deemed so controversial.  In fact, there are many dialogues happening to this day that attempt to take Catcher off of school reading lists.  The American Library Association (ALA) even ranks the novel as one of the most censored books of the 20th century, but why?  Where does the controversy exist?  I decided to reread Catcher for another look at what makes this book as widely discussed and timeless as it is, even four years after Salinger’s death.  In knowing about Catcher and its widely volatile nature amongst parents, I find it safe to say that this book is widely misunderstood by anyone who seeks to ban it.

First Impression of Catcher

The book is about Holden Caulfield, our protagonist who is an antihero of sorts, a teenager who seems to find trouble wherever he goes.  Throughout the novel, Caulfield offers numerous insights into the world of 1950s America.  Narrating his own personal accounts, we depend on him to describe, often with honest brutality, the way life is for him, but this is somewhat problematic for the reader, especially when he tells us early on in the novel that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16).  I was on my guard, waiting for him to tell me that it was all made up, and that I had been suckered into reading about his Christmas break from school that year; however, this revelation never came, and I was left to ponder his reliability as a narrator, judging him and his actions along the way.

Yet, this is not what makes Catcher a controversial book.  The controversy seems to lie on everything one finds along the surface of the novel.  In fact, a long list of reasons for all the censoring boards across the country that have banned Catcher from being read by their schools has been published in Robert Doyle’s book, Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read, and may be found on the ALA’s website.  Reasons often include the typical buzzwords, such as excessive or unacceptable sexual references and profanity; vulgar language; “anything dealing with the occult;” obscene, premarital sex, alcohol abuse and prostitution; statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled; for it being “anti-white” and “obscene;”  for its “lurid passages about sex;” for being centered around negative activity; for its use of the ‘F’ word; for strong sexual situations; and a plethora of other reasons.  One source even goes as far as to challenge the book for being “blasphemous and undermin[ing] morality,” while another disgruntled parent called it a “filthy, filthy book” (qtd. in Banned and/or Challenged Books).  With each of these “reasons” spanning from parents in towns like Marysville, California, to places as far away as Savannah, Georgia, it is clear that this book causes friction when it is made out to be required reading in high school English classes.  Just from the rough sketch made out above, it is easy to see what makes Catcher appear as a “bad” book for adolescents to be influenced by.

Language and vulgarity, sexually explicit content and prostitution, and lastly, morality and Godlessness seem to make up the general consensus for why parents despise this book so much, but are these solid grounds to stand on for removing a book entirely from a school’s curriculum, especially when these have no bearing on what the book is really about?  Is there nothing that can be learned from it, these “vulgarities” serving merely as reasons for parents to jump on the bandwagon of censorship?  This book is clearly not just about teenage rebellion and adolescence struggling to find its own identity; rather, it is about society and learning our place in it.  As one scholar wrote, “Catcher in the Rye captured the zeitgeist, a particular way of looking at the world we share” (qtd. in “Catcher in the Rye Author”).  In almost every way, this book is about the status quo and applies just as much to today’s society as it did to society of the 1950s.

A Deeper Look at Catcher

While offensive language is seemingly noticeable throughout the novel, it should be stated for the record that the profanity we read actually plays a significant role in understanding  Caulfield.  “Goddam” is the strongest, and most frequently, used expression in the whole book, and it is used quite regularly, I will confess.  In fact, the word is used 12 times over two pages, let alone the rest of the book, but this is only because at this particular point he is upset with Jane Gallagher, a girl he secretly admires, for dating someone whom he considers a “phonie.”  This emotional outburst of cursing is nothing new in the way of profanities.  In fact, John Nicholas Beffel writes about “the lost art of profanity” in a 1925 column for The Nation, claiming that “nobody has a profane vocabulary any more, there is no variety in oaths, nothing unique, no artistry, no sparkle.  Everybody uses the same words in swearing. This indisputable fact is of course chargeable to the universal trend toward standardization in the United States…Originality faces starvation. Artists get no encouragement.  Emotion is at a low ebb.  Passion is gone from us” (270).  When it is put this way, the swearing Caulfield does in the book becomes somewhat relative and heartless, if what Beffel is saying is true about the “old-time brimstone language” of yesterday, particularly when we consider Caulfield’s profane, but limited, use of vocabulary in a modern context.   This book’s use of profanity, in all aspects, is relatively mild to what people generally hear throughout the media, especially when it is compared to how vulgar and sexist the music industry is today — a form of expression that has far more influence over modern audiences than the book Catcher has.  Maybe profanity is making a come-back but not within the context of this book.

When we check language and vulgarity off of the list, we find strong sexually explicit content to be next among the reasons for finding this book offensive.  After all, what kind of book about adolescent rebellion would you have if it didn’t include a few points about the self-indulgent, sexually impulsive tendencies that teenage boys often experience?  Perhaps we forget in his dialogue that Caulfield is only 16 years old.  It’s easy to do, actually, when you consider his mannerisms and outlooks read more like the author’s, the musings of a 32 year old man with a message to make.  To be disgruntled over the sexually explicit content of this book is to really do the book an injustice, as it’s not about Caulfield’s urges at all, but how he deals with them. Sure, he tells the bellhop on his way back up to his room that he’s interested in a “lil’ tail” when he’s asked, but he tells us that, “I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway.  If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin.  I really am” (Salinger 92).  He then continues to explain to us why.  “The trouble with me is, I stop.  Most guys don’t.  I can’t help it…. I keep stopping.  The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them” (92).  This is not the kind of dialogue we would expect from a lustful teenager, but it is one example of the inner turmoil Caulfield has when trying to come to terms with what he feels are his shortcomings.  When Sunny, the prostitute, arrives to his room, his nervousness for losing his virginity amounts to nothing that parents should be concerned over in the long run.  He only ends up  feeling sorry for her in the end: “It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it [her dress] up.  I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all.  The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it.  It made me feel sad as hell — I don’t know why exactly” (96).  He feels sorry for people like this all throughout the book, which reveals a lot about his overall demeanor.

In fact, we learn a lot about his personal beliefs in this way.  Take, for instance, his beliefs in God.  It’s easy to recognize where a lot of the controversy comes into play with this aspect of the book.  Many of the censors argue that the book is grounded with immoral content, with Godlessness, yet the pity he feels for the prostitute in the earlier paragraph shows that he isn’t an immoral character.  He is actually distraught over many things that happen over the course of the story.  At one point, Caulfield even openly reveals his personal beliefs to the reader.  He tells us, “In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist.  I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible” (Salinger 99).  To come forward openly with his beliefs like this for the sake of continuity in the story immediately sets him apart from the sympathy of the reader who may disagree with him.  His atheism defines him, establishing what many opponents of this book believe to be immoral and misguided.  At the same time, we as readers should be careful not to misjudge him.  He is not an immoral character.  He attracts our sympathies on several occasions: first, his curiosity as a teenage boy for the prostitute and his plea for conversation over sex; secondly, the two nuns he meets while having breakfast at the diner and his conversation with one of them about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; and lastly, his dialogue with old Sally at the Radio City Ice-skating rink.  All of these scenarios reveal information about Caulfield that require us to look at him as more than just a rebelling teen, but as someone who is struggling to find himself in the world around him, maybe even Salinger himself.

A Deeper Look at Caulfield

Taking a closer look at the dialogue he shares with Sally shows us where the real issues in the novel begin to emerge.  After skating with old Sally on the ice — “there were at least a couple of hundred rubbernecks that didn’t have anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling all over themselves” (Salinger 129) — Caulfield pulls Sally off for a cigarette and a coke, where he tells her a lot about the turmoil that seems to bother him.  This is a revealing moment for us, the readers, as it offers some insight into the reasons why he calls everyone a “phony,” a word he uses all throughout the book to describe people he meets.  Everyone is a phony to Caulfield, even Sally, the girl sitting across from him, listening to him,  his excitement for finally finding someone he can talk to.  This is the first point in the whole book that he tells someone other than us, the readers, that he sees the world full of “phonies,” or people who he feels are otherwise superficial, fake or shallow.  He asks Sally, “Did you ever get fed up?  I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something?  I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?”  Her reply — “It’s a terrific bore (original emphasis)” (130).  He continues:

“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime.  Try it sometime, it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques” (131).

He is opening up to her, bestowing his trust and his personal opinions upon her, because he wants her to take a risk with him.  To leave everything behind and to start a new life, with no obligations or ties to anything or anyone but themselves.  He tries to convince her of what he sees all around him, but Sally still wants to experience life as it’s expected of her, “college… and marriage and all” (Salinger 133).  In the end, she is just a girl who knows nothing and cares nothing — “you could tell she wanted me to change the damn subject” (131) — for Caulfield’s disgruntled views toward society.  She fails to see what he wants from her, suggesting that it is not he who has lost sight of what’s good for him, rather that society has become a dull and drab existence of status symbols and “phony” appeasement, something that makes him “depressed as hell” (133).  Caulfield is the type of character who longs for genuine experiences, genuine emotions, and he realizes by the end of the chapter that he hasn’t found them with old Sally, the girl he exposes his true feelings to — and he laughs at her: “The whole thing was sort of funny, in a way, if you thought about it, and all of a sudden I did something I shouldn’t have, I laughed.  And I have one of these very loud, stupid laughs” (134).  This is the source of his angst — growing up to fulfill the status quo.  He wants to break away from it by any means that he can.

We detect his longing for honest and unadulterated people at several points throughout the novel too.  He admires the people he meets in his life who are genuine, authentic and true to themselves.   The feelings he has for Jane, for example, tell us that “all you knew was, you were happy.  You really were” (Salinger 79).  Everyone else depresses him.  Sadly, Jane is the one person he can’t share these feelings with.  He feels the same way for his deceased brother, Allie, who died from leukemia at an earlier point in Caulfield’s life, which explains a lot about his inner-turmoil and anguish.  Allie’s death, after all, was a tragic moment for him to deal with: “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage.  I don’t blame them [his parents].  I really don’t.  I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it” (39).  Caulfield is only three years older as he’s telling the story of Catcher, so it’s a strong possibility that his feelings for the loss of his brother are a strong source of his angst toward society.

He can’t look to his parents for help with this inner conflict, either, as he feels his father represents the very thing he’s disgruntled with — the material world around him, the status quo.  “What I don’t spend, I lose.  Half the time I sort of even forget to pick up my change, at restaurants and night clubs and all.  It drives my parents crazy.  You can’t blame them.  My father’s quite wealthy, though.  I don’t know how much he makes… but I imagine quite a lot.  He’s a corporation lawyer” (107).  His well-to-do parents are one reason for this blame game he puts himself through and how he rationalizes his own behavior when he’s up to no good.  In fact, he feels like a source of shame to his parents, especially with the circumstances surrounding his expulsion from school.  “She [his mother] hasn’t felt too healthy since my brother Allie died.  She’s very nervous.  That’s another reason why I hated like hell for her to know I got the ax again” (107).  One review written in an editorial for Life said that Holden Caulfield “is a misfit, but he is no freak; and his virtues and vices are peculiar to his generation.  Holden, for example, is no rebel; he willingly accepts the blame for his own failures. But while he does not dispute ‘the system’ he mentally punishes the many individuals who elicit his favorite adjective, ‘phony'” (“A Generation of Esthetes?” 96).  And punish them he does — he lets us know that these phonies are all about possessions and materialism, while he himself is suffering from loss.  In many ways, he is no better.  Are these not “virtues and vices” that our present generation of youth could learn from?  To owe up to your own actions?  To be responsible for yourself?

Understanding Catcher

Caulfield is a character with many flaws, and this is what makes him the widely discussed fictional character that he is.  It isn’t that he represents adolescent rebellion against all parents; to think this is to read the book the wrong way, to scream “CENSOR!” at the first profane word he uses, and to brand it an icon of the unruly.  On the contrary, Catcher is a book with a deeply embedded message about the status quo and the materialistic ways society drives us to fulfill them.  It is a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of finding our identities amongst a culture saturated with forceful impressions and advertisements that want you only to talk about their products for the sake of more sales.  We are defined by the products we buy, and Caulfield (moreover Salinger) realizes this.  It is a novel about identifying who we are and where we should be going.  Stephen Metcalf tells us in a tribute he wrote for Salinger shortly after his death in the e-zine, Slate, what Catcher meant for him: “Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of ‘Holden Caulfield.'” Any sensible person who reaches the conclusion of the book without jumping on the censoring bandwagon probably feels the same way.  How can a book about teenage rebellion that has been dedicated to the author’s own mother, for whatever reasons therein may lie, be anything other than an apology for his own misbehavior as a teen?  If he was anything like myself, or Stephen Metcalf, or even you, sensible reader, then this book speaks about nothing more than being a teenager and fitting in.  We can all call ourselves ‘Holden Caulfield’ in this way, so Catcher is only as controversial as you or I.

Works Cited

“A Generation of Esthetes?” [Editorial]. Life. Time, Inc. 26 Nov. 1951. Google Books. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” ALA.org. American Library Association, Banned and Challenged Books, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Beffel, John Nicholas. “The Lost Art Of Profanity.” Nation 123.3194 (1926): 270-272. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Jan. 2013

“‘Catcher in the Rye’ Author Leaves Behind Tales of Teen Angst.” PBS.org. Newshour, extra. MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Salinger’s Genius.” Slate. The Slate Group, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.

Review of “Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens

MortalityIt saddens me to a certain extent that the very first book I read by Christopher Hitchens should also be his last. Originally published posthumously by Twelve, Mortality offers one of the last insights into the mind of a journalist who by way was also a socialite, an intellect and an iconoclast, amongst other things. While this may have been his last book to have been published, there are certainly enough other books that precede this one, should I feel the desire to pick up any of his other writings.  He was quite a prolific writer, after all.  Recommended to me by a good friend, I sat down with Mortality periodically and read about the difficulties Hitchens faced, not just with the discomforts from dying of cancer but also of the struggles he endured to maintain his sense of humanity.  It does not matter if you are reading about his antics with a disgruntled believer or if you are reading about the day he learned of his terminal illness, his ability to pull the reader into his world is a testament to his prowess as a writer. I felt more like I was having a conversation with him rather than reading his book.  If his other works are anything like this one, I can understand why so many reviewers either loved him or hated him.  He seemed to be quite the controversial character in his lifetime.  I do not know much about him, aside from the references made by many for his views on atheism and religion. While these were a central theme in his book — after all, he defends his views against critics and haters, even with the face of death staring him down– he is not limited to discussing them only.  I believe he makes these references more out of spite to his opponents and to maintain his reputation for the debate until the bitter end.  I did not read this book, though, for his religious views, per say.  I was more concerned with something else when I picked up this book to read it. The reason why it was referred to me in the first place was because of a particular point in his discussion where Hitchens describes the feelings he has about losing his voice to esophageal cancer. Like Hitchens, my mother lost her voice three years ago, only for other somatic reasons.

I was curious to learn what he had to say about this.  I have never really found much in the way of popular commentary on what life is like for someone who has been struck dumb by an illness, but it happens all the time.  My grandfather had his throat box removed and replaced with a voice box implant, along with countless other people throughout the world; however, what happens to them socially?  This is something that is seldom discussed, even amongst the closest of friends, unless you know someone personally who suffers from such a dilemma.  This is what Hitchens was afraid of the most, the fear that by losing his voice to cancer he would lose his ability to write.  He confirms this by saying, “Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality.  To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice.  All the rituals and etiquette of conversation… were innate and essential to me” (48).  I  have often wondered if this is how my mother feels.  You do not have to be a renowned writer like Hitchens to dread losing your voice.  We are all human beings capable of socializing with each other, but when a voice that was always there suddenly disappears, it is easy to fall into isolation and despair.

It has taken my mother a long time to come to terms with this.  She has been told by multiple doctors multiple possibilities.  It was only a year ago that her health problems were resolved, but it was too late for her voice.  It is all but a wisp that she struggles to express beyond her lips.  She has better days than others, but it is straining to say the least.  She told me that the most discouraging part is how most people immediately distance themselves from her.  When she would order from a restaurant, she would have to write down her order because the waiter/ress could not hear her speak.  When her food was served, it was always incorrect.  She tried at first to get her order corrected, however, over time the difficulties she faced with this forced her to be silent.  Hitchens talks about this, too.  It is something I never thought about before, and having since listened to her stories and having read Hitchen’s account, I try to be exactly the opposite of what he “can’t stand.”  He writes, “Timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent.  I lived for moments like that.  Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’ At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to” (48).  Before my mother and I used Skype to video conference with one another, we would talk on the phone for as little as fifteen to twenty minutes at a time.  I can only imagine for her what a conversation must have been like with a stranger, what with our phone calls back then being so short-lived.  Video conferencing through Skype has been the best medicine for us both since she first lost her voice.  Now over long distance, we can finally “talk” to one another.

To end this, I want to draw attention to the very way that Hitchens ends his own book.  His final words, from a memoir’s perspective anyway, are quoting Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.  He quotes:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives.  Grandparents never die, nor do great grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through generations, all alive and offering advice.  Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers.  Nor do daughters of their mothers.  No one ever comes into his own…(original emphasis) Such is the cost of immortality.  No person is whole.  No person is free (qtd. in Hitchens 93).

Sons and daughters may never be able to escape from their parents’ influence, but neither can parents from their children.  We have to be there for one another, through “thick and thin.”  Family is blood.  An incredible ending to an incredible author.  Requiescat in pace.

Works Cited

Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve (Hachette Book Group), 2012. Print.