The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger

The Catcher In The Rye - "The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

The Catcher In The Rye – “The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

Perhaps due to boring literature lessons in school, as a teenager I sort of fell a bit out of love with reading.  The Catcher in the Rye helped reel me back in.  Although it was initially written for adults, it’s characters, theme and style have appealed to teenagers ever since.  The narrator is Holden Caulfield and we as readers see the world through his eyes and in his words.  The novel has come under some criticism for its frequent swearing, but to my mind, it adds authenticity to the story.

The story begins as Holden is facing expulsion from his exclusive school.  After arguing with his dorm-mate, Holden decides not to stay for the last few days of term and instead catches a train to New York City and checks into a hotel until he is due to return home.  Here he contemplates his sexuality, as he labels other residents ‘perverts’.  He goes out dancing and agrees to take a prostitute home, but feels sorry for her and subsequently decides all he wants to do with her is talk. FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THIS SENSITIVE CHAP

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The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

“Why, Tom - us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on.'    The Grapes Of Wrath

“Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’ The Grapes Of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family and is set during the Great Depression.  The Joads are ‘Okies’ – poor farmers, displaced and desperately seeking work, as their farms were repossessed after crop failure due to the Dust Bowl.  The story begins with Tom Joad, who has just been released from prison.  Upon returning home is surprised to find nobody there, and very few people for miles around.  he learns that his family has gone out west, to California, to seek a future for themselves and so he sets off to catch them up.

Setting off with his friend, Jim Casy, Tom soon catches up with the rest of his family – Ma and Pa Joad, Uncle John, Tom’s brothers Al, Noah and Winfield, his sisters Ruthie and pregnant Rose Of Sharon, Rose Of Sharon’s husband Connie and Grampa and Granma Joad.  Together they set off for California, believing in the promise of work.  What they discover is that the roads are packed with people just like them looking for exactly the same things – dignity, hope and a future. DO THEY MAKE IT?

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

The Lord Of The Flies.  Did you know that is a literal translation of Beelzebub?  No, neither did I.

The Lord Of The Flies. Did you know that is a literal translation of Beelzebub? No, neither did I.

Oh this is a horrible book, but I love it!  Actually, the book isn’t horrible, the characters are.  What would happen in a society without adults?  As a kid, I used to dream of a world without authority, as I’m sure all kids do.  Turns out, that world is vile, sick and disturbing.

So what happens?  Basically, a plane crashes on a non-specific island in the Pacific leaving only preadolescent boys as survivors.  Three of these boys become the main characters in the book, Ralph – a level-headed leader, Piggy – an overweight bespectacled outsider and Jack – basically a bully.  Whereas Ralph is representative of order and civilisation, Piggy, as the most intellectual of the boys represents adult reason.  Jack represents all that is animalistic in human nature.

During their time on the island all the boys come to fear the ‘beast’ – a figment of their imagination brought on by their isolation.  In order to appease this beast, the boys make an offering of the ‘Lord Of The Flies’ – a decapitated pigs head, maniacally grinning as it rots on a pole.

When Simon (representative of innocence) tries to reason with the others about the existence of the beast, they turn on him, believing him to be the beast and savagely tear him apart.  After this, there is no going back, as brutality and depravity reign.  Can Ralph and Piggy restore order to their bloodthirsty comrades?  Not very likely!

Focusing as it does on young boys, this wasn’t a book that really appealed to me and I put off reading it for ages, only giving in as it’s on the BBC’s Book Challenge List.  How glad am I that I gave in?!  It’s excellent.  Disturbing and sadistic, but what a book!  This is the sort of book that once read will never be forgotten.  It’s style is easy to read and as such it’s regularly on the English Literature’s GCSE syllabus across the UK. The themes discussed are as relevant across society today as when the book was written in 1954.  It’s a story that’s keeps being reinvented and appealing to new audiences, with successes such as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Beyond all the brutality and vileness, The Lord Of The Flies is an adventure story with the boys battling for survival and, ultimately rescue.  What they lose in the process is their humanity, reason and innocence.

Sample Text:

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood—and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.”

Further Reading:

If you like reading about the savageness of youth you might like The Wasp Factory

If you like the struggle for survival you might like The Grapes Of Wrath

If you like the theme of lost humanity you might like Heart Of Darkness

If you like reading about a lawless society you might like The Stand

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernières

Captain Corelli's Mandolin “History is the propaganda of the victors.”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
“History is the propaganda of the victors.”

Unusually this book was recommended to me by both my Mum and my Dad.  They tend to have very different tastes in literature so I suppose I initially read this out of curiosity.  It was the first De Bernières book I’d read and I had no expectations at all.  I began reading it whilst living abroad, hanging out in cafes, being very continental, bohemian etc.  This was a mistake…

At one point I started crying in a café.  Another time my friends turned up halfway through the last chapter.  I couldn’t wait to get home to read it, so after a fun night with my friends, I sat in a shop doorway and read the last few pages by the light of the lampposts.  Very few books have stayed with me as much as this one.  Ok, so it’s a bit schmaltzy and not entirely historically accurate, but it’s a good story so who cares.

Corelli is an Italian Captain, sent to Kefalonia during WW2 with the occupying forces.  He is met with resistance from the locals (perfectly understandable) until his charm and charisma win them over (not too believable, but I’ll let it slide).  Actually, he is charming.  I’d hang out with him.

Corelli is not a conscientious soldier. He wants, as much as possible, to have a peaceful war.  He doesn’t care about the Nazis or Hitler and would much rather discuss Puccini than politics.  His music is his first passion.  Then he meets Pelagia, a local girl who is engaged to a member of the resistance.  So far so Romeo and Juliet / love across the divide!

It’s essentially a love story, but there’s different forms of love at work here.  The love between Dr Iannis and his daughter Pelagia, the love between Corelli and Pelagia, Carlo’s love for Corelli, and the love and support of the community for each other.

De Bernières has a great imagination for character creation.  All of his characters are colourful and intriguing.  There’s none of his familiar magical realism here but it’s not needed.  This is a story about the impact of war on ordinary people.  These are the stories you’ll never find in the history books, yet the ones which truly bring home the horror and loss suffered.

I’ve read this book twice now (so far) and each time, I’ve laughed and cried at the same parts and loved the characters more each time.  Do yourself a favour and read it.  In fact, do yourself two favours: read the book and avoid the film.  Nicholas Cage?  What were they thinking?!

Sample Text:

“When you fall in love, it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots are become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the desire to mate every second of the day. It is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every part of your body. No… don’t blush. I am telling you some truths. For that is just being in love; which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over, when being in love has burned away. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But it is!”

Further Reading:

If you like a good wartime romance you might like Guernica

If you like a long-drawn out wartime romance you might like A Town Like Alice

If you like reading about life under occupation you might like The Moon Is Down

Animal Farm – George Orwell

Four legs good, two legs bad

Four legs good, two legs bad

Written four years before 1984, this novel was Orwell’s first attempt  “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” (‘Why I Write’ – George Orwell).  Yes, on the surface it’s about animals, but this allegorical tale is really about the Soviet Government under Stalin.  It begins when Old Major, the farms resident boar, summons the other animal together to teach them a revolutionary song, ‘Beasts of England’.  He refers to humans as parasites and encourages the animals to rebel.  Poor Old Major then dies, without living to see the rebellion.

Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon then assume command and begin their revolt, driving the drunken farmer away in the process before renaming the place ‘Animal Farm’.  Seven commandments are then drawn up in order to unify the animals against humans:

  • Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  • Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  • No animal shall wear clothes.
  • No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal.
  • All animals are equal.

the most important of these is ‘all animals are equal’.  All the pigs then elevate themselves to positions of leadership and keep back extra food, for their own health purposes.  All the other animals are promised better lives once their windmill is built.  Unfortunately this means lots of hard work, but it will all be worth it, they are assured.  When a violent storm destroys the windmill Napoleon (the Stalin figure) convinces the other animals that Snowball (Trotsky) is the saboteur.  With Snowball as a scapegoat, Napoleon then kills any animals who associate with his rival.  ‘Beast of England’ is replaced with an anthem glorifying Napoleon as his megalomania grows.

During a war with a neighbouring farmer, many of the animals receive devastating injuries, but work has to continue anyway.  Somehow the animals still convince themselves that life is better than it was under their previous farmer.  Boxer, a hardworking horse is particularly injured and so Napoleon decides he should go to a vet.  When the van arrives to take him away, Benjamin, a clever Donkey, realizes that it is a knackers van and Boxer has in fact been sold as scrap in order that napoleon can buy whisky.

As the years pass , the pigs learn to walk on two legs, seeing it as being more refined.  The commandments are amended slightly to take in their new human traits:

  • No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.

Eventually, these are condensed into  one ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ and their previous motto of ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ becomes ‘ four legs good, two legs better.’

By the end the animals realize that they can no longer distinguish between pigs and humans as the power has turned them into everything they hated at the beginning.

Animal Farm was initially rejected by publishers because of fears it may sour relations with USSR.  It received criticism for being too gentle, too clumsy and too dull. I didn’t find that true in the slightest.  Perhaps the animals are stereotyped and perhaps, as has been suggested, Orwell could have just written a direct attack which would have been more honest.  But Orwell was a writer and this is a story.  It’s never going to stop governments or change the world, but it doesn’t have to.  Novels are artistic, creative interesting ways of getting a story across.  Taken in this context, as it should be, Animal Farm is a great story.  That is enough for me.

Sample Text:

“It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, “Under the guidance of our leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days” or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, “thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!”…”

Further Reading:

If you like an animal story for adults you might like Watership Down

If you like a good dystopian story you might like The Handmaids Tale

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange - don't be put off by the Nadsat!

A Clockwork Orange – what a front cover!  Just don’t be put off by the Nadsat!

Set in the not-too-distant future, this controversial dystopian novel is the story of Alex, an ultra-violent teen.  Deeper than that, it’s about free will and the desire to do good or evil.  The book is narrated in the first person and as such we see the world through Alex’s mind.  This can initially be difficult due to the invented language used throughout (nadsat) though, as far as I’m aware, every copy comes with a glossary.

Alex and his droogs (friends) delight in violence.  It’s not entirely their fault, it’s the culture of the time.  The novel begins with a night of ultra-violence – drugs, robbery, battery, fights and rape.  Following this, Alex goes home and listens to his beloved Beethoven.  The following day follows much the same pattern, though in-fighting between the droogs leaves Alex stranded when the police arrive. SO, THAT’S THE END OF THE VIOLENCE YEAH?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - classic dystopian sci-fi.

The Handmaid’s Tale – classic dystopian sci-fi.

What makes this different from other dystopian novels I’ve read is that it’s protagonist is female.  Set in the near future, a totalitarian Christian government is in power meaning women have no rights anymore.  Our narrator Offred (literally Of Fred) is kept as a handmaid, which mean basically her womb is used to breed.  Her master Fred is married, but his wife is sterile, as are a huge chunk of the population.  This is due to STDs and pollution and is the reason handmaids are kept.  Fred is only supposed to have sex with Offred whilst his wife is present and there is no affection or relationship between them, Offred is a commodity. NICE PEOPLE, EH?