Tuesday, January 17, 2012



The Catcher In The Rye was one of the first novels to make a major impact upon me when I first read its as a teenager. It was published for adults but because of its themes of teenage confusion, angst, and rebellion it has become popular with younger readers. It also deals with more complex issues such as identity, alienation, and belonging. It is written in the first person, narrated by Holden Caulfield, who addresses the reader directly from a mental hospital in California. He tells of events that took place in the recent past, back at his home in New York, in a long flashback frame story. Holden is at times disaffected, disgruntled, isolated, directionless, and sarcastic. He sees the hypocrisy and phoniness of the adult world. The Catcher In The Rye captures the confusion and problems of adolescence more than any other novel in American literature.


Samuel Beckett is known more as a groundbreaking playwright, with Waiting For Godot as his acknowledged masterpiece, but in the early 50s he published a trilogy of very important novels. After the death of his parents, Beckett was plagued by depression and came to believe that existence was dark and futile. Plagued by his own personal demons, The Trilogy is an exercise in withdrawal. He has mastered the art of nothingness and uses a reduced expression and absurdity to illuminate the illusions that we hide under as opposed to facing the awful truth. Beckett rejects narrative convention yet his writing is still interesting and moving and his prose contains a bare hypnotic rhythm.


Invisible Man addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early 20th century, including black nationalism, and issues of individuality and personal identity. The book is narrated in the first person by an unnamed protagonist, an African-American man who considers himself socially invisible. He looks back at his past from his underground basement apartment and from this perspective attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society. The novel is written in an open style that incorporates symbolism and improvisation as Ellison wanted the book to have a musical rhythm. The narrator passes through a range of violent and tragic experiences and in the end is ready to resurface and find his way into society.


Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who becomes obsessed with, and has a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter Dolores Haze who he nicknames Lolita. Humbert is an unreliable narrator and the book uses a style of fragmented memories and sophisticated prose to render the controversial story. At times he tries to gain the reader's sympathy through his sincerity and melancholoy, but near the end of the story he acknowledges that his actions have been wrong. The novel is a tragic and comedic, and the narrative is full of word play and Humbert' s wry observations of American culture. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as "nymphet." Lolita is a beautifully written book about a disturbing and tragic situation.


Junky was Burroughs first published novel and has come to be considered the seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs speaks as an eyewitness reporting on the feelings, actions, and characters he meets in the criminal fringe of New York, New Orleans, Mexico City, and a Federal Narcotics Hospital/Prison in Lexington, Kentucky. The book presents a detailed account of a drug addict's passage into the seedy underworld, the search and suffering for a fix, and characters he encounters in the process. Burroughs immerses the reader into the world of the addicted. Junky is told in clear, calm, and precise prose and has a hard boiled style. The narrator is intelligent and recognizes the risk he is taking by using narcotics, but also shows the control the drug has on the user. He acknowledges guilt about his predicament and doesn't elicit sympathy from the reader. Junky simply lays out the facts of a world that most would rather ignore. It doesn't glamorize drugs, but doesn't condemn the addict either. Junky is a testimony to a hard way of life, but in the process exposes society's ignorance, intolerance, exploitation, and hypocrisy about the issue. The book is also about a man's attempt to deal with his addiction and change his life. Junky displays Burroughs acute graphic description and shows flashes of his originality that would manifest in his later works starting with Naked Lunch.


I read On The Road when I was young and it had a major impact and influence upon me. It is clear, poetic, raw, and written with an enthusiasm for life. It is a story of a passionate friendship and a search for revelation. Kerouac takes us through the highs and lows of hitchhiking and bonding with fellow travellers. On The Road expresses the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people rush out and see the world. It is a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years after its publication but also penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture. It is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and experimentation with drugs. It is a work of fiction but many of the characters are based on real-life people and friends of Kerouac's including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. The myth is that Kerouac wrote On The Road in a three week period in 1951, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This is true to a certain extent, but Kerouac had kept notebooks on his road trips from which he worked. He had actually started an earlier version in 1948 based on his first long road trip in 1947. Neal Cassady wrote him a 1000-word rambling letter in 1950 that inspired Kerouac to outline the "essentials of spontaneous prose" and tell the story of his years on the road. He wanted the novel to be like a letter written to a friend in a form that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz. The first draft was then produced on the roll in 3 weeks in April 1951. Over the next several years revisions were made and sections omitted and inserted, before it was finally published in 1957.


Another Country tells the story and details the bohemian lifestyle of musicians, writers, and artists living in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. It was groundbreaking for its portrayal of taboo themes such as bisexuality and interracial couples. The first section of the book is incredibly powerful as it tells the story of the downfall of Rufus Scott an African-American man who gets involved with Leona a white woman from the south. The relationship becomes serious and eventually Leona is committed to a mental hospital, leaving Rufus depressed and headed towards a tragic end. Rufus' friends have trouble dealing with his death. One of them Vivaldo, a writer, gets involved with Rufus' sister Ida, but the relationship is strained by racial tension and Ida's bitterness about her brother's death. Another Country documents the tension and complexity of living a world that is both racially and sexually diverse. 


In 1984 I moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I lived at the corner of Broadway and Wythe, just a block away from the bridge. The neighborhood was just starting to change. Prostitutes roamed the area and burned out cars were littered around the neighborhood. Heroin could be purchased a few blocks away and there was an occasional drug related murder. It was at this time that I noticed a book in the stores called Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. I read it and was hooked. The writings of Selby documented a Brooklyn that was now disappearing and he captured it with a hard, blunt, streetwise prose. Selby had no formal training but used the raw language of his youth to narrate the bleak and violent world that he had grown up in. He was not concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction although there is a consistency to his work. In a sense he invented his own punctuation. Like Kerouac, he wrote in a fast, spontaneous, stream of consciousness style and replaced apostrophes with forward slashes. He did not use quotation marks and whole paragraphs of dialogue would not have and identified speaker. Last Exit To Brooklyn started out as a series of short stories and would later be connected into a novel. His prose is stripped down and bare. His writings exhibited his experience with longshoremen, the homeless, thugs, pimps, transvestites, prostitutes, queers, addicts, and the overall poverty-stricken community. 


The Painted Bird is a crystal clear depiction of man's inhumanity as it describes the world of a young Jewish boy who wanders through Central and Eastern Europe during WWII. The boy encounters many violent and disturbing events including all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality, and rape. The title comes from a scene where a bird catcher paints one of the birds in several colors. He releases it, so it can find its flock, but when it does the other birds attack and kill the painted bird and it falls from the sky. The book became very controversial because many felt Kosinski pushed the book as being based on his own experiences, but wasn't so in reality. It is also accused of being unfair to the Polish peasants depicted in the book. In the end, The Painted Bird is a novel, a work of fiction, and is written in a clear and powerful prose that makes a strong statement about the horrors of existence.


Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death combines elements of autobiography and science fiction and makes an anti-war statement while being both funny and tragic. Vonnegut was a soldier and prisoner of war during WWII. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge was sent to Dresden, and  experienced and survived the fire bombing of the city in February, 1945. Slaughterhouse-Five was the name the Allied POWs adopted for the name of their prison. Vonnegut recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon and the surviving POWs were put to work gathering the bodies of the dead civilians. Their remains were incinerated into ashes by German troops using flamethrowers. The book explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. The central character, Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life. This allows Vonnegut to create a non-linear narrative where Billy travels both forward and backwards in time, where he experiences past and future events out of sequence. These events include his war experiences, his mundane life after the war as an optometrist in Ilium, New York, his survival of an airplane crash, and his life on Tralmafadore a planet where he has been taken by extraterrestial aliens. The book is an early example of a postmodern or metafictional novel. It combines autobiographical elements from Vonnegut's life with science fiction ideas. While it is clearly written, it is disjointed and discontinuous, giving it an overall structure of disorder. It is a beautiful book that makes a strong statement about the absurdity of existence.


Crash was shocking and controversial as it is about symphorophilia in which sexual arousal hinges on the staging and watching of a disaster such as a fire or in this case auto accidents. The characters in Crash have a sexual obsession with car crashes. The narrator is James Ballard, but it centers on the sinister figure of Vaughan a former TV scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in an auto crash near the London Airport. Vaughan leads a group of alienated former crash victims, who follow his pursuit to re-enact  the crashes of celebrities, and to experience a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. Vaughan's ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with the movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Crash explores such themes as the transformation of human psychology by modern technology, and consumer culture's fascination with celebrities and technological commodities. The characters in Crash are cold and passionless and cannot be sexually aroused unless some form of technology is involved. Car crashes are not shocking but seen as a form of liberation to explore new sexual possibilities. JG Ballard was a literary surrealist whose dreamlike narratives explored the darker areas of outer and inner space with a literary beauty and a psychological intensity.  


The Executioner's Song depicts the real-life events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore by the state of Utah for murder. It is based entirely on interviews with the family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims and takes a journalistic approach that was pioneered by Mailer in his earlier works and by Truman Capote with his book - In Cold Blood. The book is over 1000 pages long, but is riveting and fascinating in its dissection of the crime, the background of the killer, and the legal process that comes after. It also opened further debate about capital punishment.


Philip K. Dick wrote novels and short stories that questioned the nature of reality. His work often became surreal fantasies, as the main character within the narrative discovers that the everyday world is actually an illusion constructed by powerful external entities or vast political conspiracies. All of his work starts with the premise that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception. The ground may shift under your feet. A character may find himself living in another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that makes more sense than the real world. The protagonist may cross into another parallel reality or a completely different universe. He explored sociological, political, and metaphysical themes in his novels dominated by authoritarian governments and corporate monopolies. He often drew on his own experiences and in his later work addressed the nature of drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia, and mysticism. In February 1974, Philip K. Dick was recovering from the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth in which he was given sodium pentothal. He answered his door to receive a delivery of more medication from the local drugstore. He noticed the delivery woman was wearing a pendant with a symbol that consisted of two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile. Vesicas Piscis was a secret symbol used by early Christians. After the woman left, Dick started experiencing strange visions. He described the initial visions as laser beams and geometric patterns, with pictures of Jesus and ancient Rome. He would see ancient Rome superimposed on California and felt that perhaps he was experiencing two separate realities at the same time. He believed he was living a double life - one as himself, Philip K. Dick, and one as Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century A.D. In Valis, a group of religious seekers forms to explore the visions of Horselover Fat. The group ends up on a rock musician's estate where they confront the Messiah: a two-year old named Sophia. She confirms their suspicions that an ancient, mechanical intelligence orbiting the earth that has been sending them information in the form of a pink laser light. It is written in a direct autobiographical style based on these strange experiences that Dick was having in his life.


The work of Charles Bukowski is mostly set in Los Angeles where he grew up and lived most of his life. Bukowski's writing covers the ordinary lives of the poor, the working class, the down and out, and the oppression and drudgery of work. He inserted his alter-ego and anti-hero Henry Chinaski into his autobiographical fiction and documented his struggle to be a writer through conflicted relationships with women, heavy drinking, and the constant struggle for money. He writes in a clear, paired down style and was influenced by Hemingway and John Fante. Ham On Rye tells the coming-of-age story of Henry Chinaski in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Bukowski does not idealize LA., but instead reveals the mundane unglamorous underbelly of living in Hollywood. The novel covers the period from childhood to young adulthood and ends with a major American historical event. Bukowski was an outsider since youth as he was socially inept, withdrawn, and had a severe case of acne. He also had a bad and violent relationship with his father. Ham on Rye covers this and his struggles with the forces around him that try to make him conform. Chinaski is nasty at times, but the world around him is even more repulsive. He becomes a sarcastic loner and resorts to cultivating a tough guy image and using alcohol to deal with the world. It all sounds grim, but there is an element of humor that exists in all of Bukowski's work.


The Lover is an autobiographical novel set against the backdrop of French colonial Vietnam. The book reveals the intimacies and complexities of a clandestine romance between an adolescent girl from a financially-strapped French family and an older, wealthy Chinese man. They meet on a ferry crossing the Mekong Delta and he gives her a ride in his limousine to her boarding school. The girl is the daughter of a bankrupt, manic depressive widow and is newly awakened by the reality that she will have to make her own way in the world. Thus she becomes his lover, until his disapproving father causes him to break it off. The book is written in the first person by the girl as she looks back at her life. She never questioned the depth and sincerity of his love, but takes her a long time to acknowledge her true feelings. The Lover is written in a clear, minimal prose that renders a powerful and beautiful story of love.


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Murakami's work that fuses his realistic and fantastic themes. The book is more socially conscious than his previous work, and deals with the difficult topic of war crimes in Manchuria. The book contains a lot of violence, but also expands Murakami's palette. The central character is a low-key unemployed man who loses his cat. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane boring life is more complicated than it appears. There are many memorable characters and many flashbacks to the past. Like all of Murakami's work the novel is beautiful, strange, humurous, and at times disturbing. The books of Haruki Murakami explore the effects of prolonged loneliness, growing up emotionally stunted in an overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict of following one's dreams and losing them to assimilate into society. Many of his plots remain deliberately unsolved. True knowledge is elusive. There is also a gap between characters perceptions and what actually happens. All of this is included in a stark, beautifully written prose that is both funny and tragic. Other wonderful works by Murakami include Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Kafka on The Shore, and the recent 1Q84.


American Tabloid chronicles three rogue American law enforcement officers from November 22, 1958 through November 22, 1963. Each character gets entangled in a web of associations between the Mafia, the CIA, and the FBI, which leads to their involvement in the assassination of JFK. It is the first book in The Underworld USA Trilogy, with the others being The Cold Six Thousand, and the final book Blood's A Rover. Each chapter is told in the third-person by one of the three characters and the 100 chapters are interspersed with document inserts reproducing newspaper clippings, letters, and transcripts of telephone calls. Flashbacks occur, but only in the present tense memory of the protagonists. Ellroy writes in a clipped hard-boiled prose style and paints a portrait of America that was built on racism, murder, and corruption. He's written other excellent novels including The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential, and also a non-fiction book about the murder of his own mother (My Dark Places) that led him into a life obsession with crime. Destination Morgue is both a disturbing and hilarious collection of non-fiction and Hollywood Nocturnes is a good collection of short stories. Ellroy's body of work is a critique of how power is attained through corruption in America.


Underworld is a novel that spans 41 years of American life and incorporates baseball, Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, nuclear test sites, and the New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thompson's infamous home run at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Underworld's first 60 pages describe this event in amazing detail. The Soviets had nuclear bomb tests on the same day and both stories played out in the newspapers the next day. The baseball that Thompson hit appears throughout the novel and ties the various sections together. There is another great descriptive passage by DeLillo of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. The title came to DeLillo as he thought about the radioactive waste below the ground. The waste and byproducts of history are constantly dissected and discussed throughout the novel and resurface from the underworld, or subconscious of the American people who would rather bury the things they don't want to confront. DeLillo has written many interesting novels including White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Falling Man, and the monastic Point Omega.


The Road is a story of the journey of a father and son across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape, after a major unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and most life on earth. The landscape is gray and full of ash and devoid of living animals and vegetation. Many of the remaining survivors have resorted to crime and cannibalism to survive. The boy's mother gave up hope and committed suicide in the past. They head south trying to find a more livable environment, but in the end their situation doesn't improve much. Written with a direct, clean, and poetic prose, McCarthy creates a world that is haunting and emotionally shattering. Other good novels by McCarthy include All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country For Old Men.


Invisible is a series of intertwined love stories told in a elegant and poetic prose, with a young man named Adam Walker at the center. Adam learns about love from four very different characters. There is Rudolph Born, the father figure, who is a professor who is connected to a vague, sinister intelligence underworld. There is Born's lover, a beautiful Frenchwomen named Margot, who is the classic older instructor of the eager young pupil. In Paris, Adam meets Cecile who falls in love with him, but he does not feel the same way. And then there is his sister Gwyn. There are stories within stories and various narrators and points of view. Something may happen and may then be contradicted. Auster has always played with structural technique in his works, but here he combines it with a great story of emotional depth that is beautiful and a pleasure to read. Other interesting novels by Auster include Man In The Dark, Oracle Night, The Brooklyn Follies, The Book of Illusions, Leviathan, and the New York Trilogy.

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