J. D. Salinger and Me

So there I am half asleep, sprawled out in my bed with the covers pulled over me. I duck my head under the covers because I am not sure I am seeing what I am seeing. After all it is early morning and I am still in a fog. I am always this way before I’ve had my first five cups of coffee in the morning.

I stick my head back out from under my covers, and yep, he’s there. It’s none other than Jerome David. I am talking the world-famous J. D., author of “Catcher in the Rye”. I recognize him from the jacket pictures. He’s as young as he once was. Somehow he’s dropped all those years since he died and he’s back to his youthful genius of a self. He’s standing at the end of my bed and he’s puffing on a cigar. I’m thinking it’s a Cuban cause they’re not banned from importing them in the hereafter. He’s halfway through the stogie and he is frowning at me.

“So you didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye?” he asks, his foot propped up on the end of my bed.

“What? Who?” I ask from my prone position.

He sits his foot back down on the floor. “I asked you if you didn’t like my book. You responded with a what and a who. Who the hell do you think it is? It sure isn’t that son-of-a-bitch Hemingway. What an asshole. Papa indeed. I never much cared for him. Now Scott Fitzgerald, there was a writer who could write.”

“Go away.” I rub my eyes and turn over on my side, hoping that this is a nightmare and I will wake up soon.

“I will not go away. You’ve got a lot of gall not liking my book. I did some damned good writing with that book. Not as good as later but still it’s a great book, even if I say so myself, and you don’t like it. Who the hell are you?”

I turn over and face Salinger. “I am the fellow who is telling you to get out of here. That’s who.”

“It’s all about alienation, you know?”

“I. Know. That.”

“Oh, you do. Well, I guess you were never a teenager, suffering from all that teenage angst, were you?”

Now I am mad. How dare this s.o.b. come into my bedroom and tell me I was never a teenager suffering from teenage angst. I had more teenage angst in my little toe than his spoiled prep school kid had in his whole body. Holden Caulfield’s biggest problem was that he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

“That book is all bullshit. Pure All American bullshit.”

“Bullshit. What do you mean bullshit? I worked my butt off on that book for over ten years. Put my whole life into it and you say it is bullshit.”

“That’s what I say. I read it in high school and I just didn’t get it. I understand Hemingway’s Old Man. He was fighting for survival. I understand the Joads. They were fighting for survival. I understand Gatsby. He was fighting for romance. And, as far as angst, existential angst, goes, I understand Camus’ Stranger. He didn’t mourn his mother the way he was expected to. And he was condemned for it. But Holden Caulfield, all he was fighting for was to be an asshole. I kept wanting to say, ‘Get a life.'”

I can see Salinger clearly now. I’m awake and I can see the fake Buddhist with his hands in a fist. He crushes that cigar against the bottom of my foot.

“Oh. That hurt. Thought you were a Buddhist. You’re going to screw up your karma, you know.”

He ignores my Buddhist comment. Somehow I knew he would. “Critics. That’s why I gave up on a public life. Became a hermit. You’re all full of shit. A big bag of shit. Here I am, the world-famous J. D. Salinger, standing at the foot of your bed, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Trying to give you some insight into my brilliance. And all you can do is insult me. Why do I even care? But that’s my problem. I care too damned much. If you only knew how much blood I sweated into that book. Trying to make every word perfect.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say the writing wasn’t good. It was. Damned good. Some of your best. But it was so wasted over that Holden Caulfield. Thing is that I’ve known people who complained about their good fortune their whole lives. In my book that’s Holden Caulfield. I just don’t care one iota about those kind of people. Never did. Never will.”

“But that’s not the point,” Salinger goes on. “He brought out the best in me. I guess you just don’t get it. But a lot of other teenagers did. And still do. That’s why it’s so popular. Not that I wrote it to be popular. I didn’t. I wanted to call attention to what it felt like to be a teenager in fifties America. I hit the nail on the head. That’s why I went into seclusion. I got tired of all that hero worship. Like I had the answers to all of life’s questions. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I had more questions than answers. Anyway I tired of it.”

Suddenly he had a martini in his hand. Where the martini came from I did not know.

He noticing me noticing his martini. “Shaken, not stirred. The way I like it. You know, Ian Fleming got that from me. We were at a party once. I had been invited down to Jamaica by some friends. I was thinking that the Glasses would be Jamaican. Who do you think shows up at this party? Ian Fleming. We were talking when I asked for a martini. When I said shaken not stirred, he said, ‘Oh, I can use that.'” He took a sip from his martini. “Mmmm. That’s good.”

“So you think,” I say, “Holden Caulfield was like every teenager in America at that time?”

“I don’t know about every teenager but it sure was the way I felt. I must say that all those people coming to me and telling me that I had saved them, that was a little too much. Like I am a Messiah or something. If you want stories about messiahs, read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.'”

I am wide awake now. “Well, I am sorry I offended you with my comment. It’s just my opinion. You can take it for what it’s worth. Every writer has the write to create whatever character he wants. And every reader has the right to not like that character. Personally I liked your stories much more. Thought you had great insight into how children saw the adult world and how they communicated that. ”

Then I realize I am talking to myself. The mirage, or was it a mirage, a hallucination, well, it’s gone. Since I am awake already, I throw off the covers and jump out of bed. Oh, I cry out. My right foot hurts. I sit on the side of the bed and take a look at the bottom of my foot. There’s a burn mark there all right. It can’t be. It just can’t be.

A Swashbuckling Fool

Once upon a time, there was a book and a movie and then another movie and even another movie called The Three Musketeers. Why such popularity? They were superheroes seventeenth century style.

“If you are going to swash your buckle, why not swash it for the Musketeers,” D’Artagnan advised his son. That is exactly what D’Artagnan Junior did. It was his heart’s desire to go off and become the latest in a long line of swashbuckling D’Artagnans to swash their buckles for the Musketeers.

On his way to becoming a full-fledged swashbuckling master of the Musketeer kind, he fought beaucoup number of fights, lost his virginity and had three or four duels. With Musketeers, of course. Only a Musketeer could duel a duel. Otherwise it was not much of a duel. It was a rout. No one else in all of France had enough umph to duel. Only a Musketeer had the duelling umph. ‘Cause that was what Musketeers had for breakfast. Umph with milk and a large mug of black coffee.

Since Musketeers hung their hats in Paris, it was off to Paree for our young D’Artagnan. In case your French ain’t so good, D’Artagnan means “From Artagnan”. In other words, he was from Gascony in Southern France down around Spain. It was a nice enough place to grow up. But if you wanted to be a Musketeer swashbuckler, Paree was the place to be.

That in itself is enough to get an ambitious young fellow into trouble. After all, he was a country bumpkin who dressed country-bumpkinish and rode a country-bumpkinish horse. Even if he did not look the part, he sure sounded like a hick. He would have benefitted from Madame Suzette’s Speak-Like-A-Parisian. And she, being partial to young swashbucklers, would have taught him the latest dance craze, the minuet.

But no, our young friend was of the impatient breed. Like the old saying goes, “when you gotta go, you gotta go.” D’Artagnan just had to go. To Paree, that is. So he was off to the Emerald City. Only they did not call it the Emerald City. It was The City of Lights. That’s ’cause it was well-lit four seasons a year just like Camelot by command of the king.

In case you have a hankering for some swashbuckling your own self, remember to take some advice from a very wise man. “Use the Force, Luke, use the Force.” Or is that the Farce? I never can remember.

What swashbuckler do you think lives up to the name “swashbuckler”?

Famous Literary Products

There is some concern that Americans just don’t read enough. As a way to encourage reading, major companies are coming out with a line of products, featuring literary characters and other literary vehicles. Here is some of the upcoming products:
1. Jeeves-and-Wooster Stiff Upper Lip Gloss.
2. Jabberwocky Translators: We translate your gobblelygook into their gobblelygook.
3. Mary Poppins’ Silverware: To make the medicine go down.
4. Macbeth’s Kilts: (With and without) to bring out the ambition in your man.
5. Hercule Pierogies: You haven’t tasted a pierogi until you’ve tasted Hercule’s.
6. Achilles’ Heels: Socks that won’t separate during laundry. So no use to wonder what happened to that lost sock.
7. Dorian Gray Mirrors: Now forever isn’t just a word.
8. Daisy Buchanan Diapers: Once your child starts using these, their poop won’t smell.
9. Dark and Stormy Bras: The pushup bra that keeps on pushing when all other bras give out.
10. Holden Caulfield Skateboards: We show you what a smartass you can be, riding our boards.
11. Frank ‘N’ Steiners (Odor Eaters): Your stink don’t have to be monstrous.
12. Captain Ahab-o-mobile: Lets you own the road.
13. Ebenezer Scrooge Investments: We squeeze every dollar we can out of your investments.
14. Dracula Dental Repair: Get your bite back.
15. Oliver Twisteds; The pretzel that will leave you begging for more.
16. Charlie Brown Noses: We train the professionals.
17. Sherlock Homes: You won’t need a Doctor Watson for your retirement here.
18. Hannibal Lector’s: The finest liver products anywhere.
19. Gatzby Underpants: Guys, you will be the cat’s pajamas in the bedroom.
20. Madame Bovary Scotch: The drink that will bring out the adulteress in you.
21. Rhett Butlers: The best erectile dysfunction treatment on the market.
22. Portnoy’s Non-Complaints: The condoms that never fail.

The National Holiday We Ignore

September 17th is one of the national holidays we choose to ignore. It’s Constitution Day. It’s the day Congress has set aside to honor the United States Constitution and commemorate its signing on September 17, 1787 by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention.

We all know about the Declaration of Independence when our founding fathers proclaimed that we had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all know about Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, reminding Americans that we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The United States Constitution is the document that guarantees our rights and answers the question: What kind of government is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land.

And despite everything we might think, it’s pretty easy reading. It’s only 7591 words long which means it can be read in an  hour.

Just to get you started, here’s the Preamble:

 

And though we haven’t always lived up to those words as a country, they still inspire us to be better.

I have learned two things about the Constitution. As we have added Amendments to those original words, we have asked the Constitution to do two things:
1.Limit the power of Government, and
2.Expand the Rights of Americans.

When we lose sight of those two things, we have go astray. Consider the 18th Amendment. It was the Prohibition Amendment that banned the sale of alcohol. in 1933, we had to admit “Ooops, We made a boo-boo” and ratified the 21st Amendment which meant the 18th Amendment was no longer law.

Today is the 234th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution. Maybe as a birthday present to the Constitution, we might read it. I know I will.

And if you’re looking for some helpful reading on the Constitution, here’s three excellent books:

The U.S. Constitution and Other Important American Documents (No Fear) by SparkNotes (A modern reading of the Constitution)
The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk
The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide by Linda R. Monk

A Book for Writers

CaptureOnly occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my fellow writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I’d like to recommend What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.

It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.

He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, asking them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert.

Here are some of the writerly insights I found in the book:

1.Build the opening sentence solely from verbs. Make the verbs matter in the opening paragraph.

2.Focus on what the character does and how they do it, not how they look.

3.Different actors can inhibit a role in a play. and we accept those performances as true to the role. See how many actors have performed Hamlet. That’s because Shakespeare didn’t spend a lot of time describing Hamlet.

4.We hear more than we see when we are reading. So use appropriate sounding words to create a rhythm to a paragraph.

5.If the reader has to keep going back and re-reading a section because they are confused, the writer has lost the reader.

6.Describe a character or setting the way a character experiences them through their senses.

7.Show the world through the character’s eyes, not through the author’s.

8.When using a detail to describe a setting or a character, make it memorable and important. Then repeat it. Tolstoy mentions Anna Karenina’s “slender hands.” We remember Cyrano as big nosed. “Which aspect of a character is chosen to represent the character is crucial.” (p.394)

9.Don’t tell the reader everything. Give the reader a chance to use their imagination.

10.When using detailed description, make sure this matters. Such as showing what’s in a character’s closet or in their refrigeration. This probably isn’t needed unless the writer wants to reveal the character’s obsession with clothes or food. For instance, a writer might want to describe a character’s bathtub because the character obsesses over cleanliness.

11.When the writer creates a character, they are creating a world.

Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.