Sunday, October 18, 2009

High Fidelity + Revolutionary Road + Catcher in the Rye + Franny and Zooey

You may have noticed that I haven't posted book reviews for a while.
It's not that I haven't been reading, just that I haven't had time to
write reviews.  To clear up the backlog, here are brief reviews for
four novels that I enjoyed reading in the past few months...

1. "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby

Set in London in the 1990s, this is an amusing story about the romantic
incompetence of a thirty-something record store owner.  The central
character, Rob Fleming, is having a mid-life crisis.  He has to decide
whether to try to win back his long-standing ex-girlfriend, or to
continue his cynical, commitment-free existence.  Does he want to take
the risk that he will grow old alone?  Will he finally grow up?

An enjoyable read, but it probably helps if you're interested in music.
One of the things Rob and other characters do to pass the time is
compile Top-5 lists.  Another little thing that piqued my interest was
the mention of the lost art of preparing mix tapes for friends,
something I used to do when I was at Uni.  The book was made into a
movie in the US in 2000, but I haven't seen it.

2. "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates

Set in the 1950s, this is the tragic story of how the "American Dream"
turned into a disastrous nightmare for a family.  Frank and April
Wheeler, the young married couple, appear to have it all: a nice house
in New England, two kids, good friends, and a comfortable lifestyle.
But they both feel something is missing in their lives.  Frank doesn't
like his job in Manhattan, and has a fling with a young secretary.
April has her dreams of becoming an actress dashed.  All the while they
struggle to conform to the roles that society has placed on them.

One day April suggests the family move to Paris where she can get a job
and Frank can "find his talent".  But, as the family prepares for the
move, things start unravelling.

The book was made into a movie recently, which I've seen.  I was
surprised how faithful the movie was to the original story, given how
tragic and confronting the ending is.  Not for the squeamish.

3. "The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger

This is considered a classic of American literature, and after reading
it I can see why.  Set in the 1950s, Holden Caulfield is a teenage boy,
who despite having some obvious talent, manages to get kicked out of
every prep school he is sent to.  Holden tells us what happens in the
few days between his latest expulsion and his eventual return home.  As
the plot unfolds, we learn of the events in Holden's past that have had
an effect on his outlook, such as the death of his younger brother
Allie.  He's cynical to authority figures and adults in general, and is
aware that soon he too will be an adult.

The book was considered controversial (it was even banned) due to the
occasional bad language, but nowadays it comes across as rather tame.
If I was to recommend just one book out of those reviewed here, it
would be this one.  I wish I had not been cynical myself and read it
a lot earlier!

4. "Franny and Zooey" by J. D. Salinger

This book focusses on a couple of episodes in the life of Franny Glass,
a troubled 20-year-old college girl.  In the brief first episode, we
find out how she has a breakdown while on a date with her boyfriend.
She goes back home in New York, where we find she lives with her older
brother Zachary (Zooey) and their mother.  Apparently the family is full
of talented, intelligent children.  By the time of the second episode,
five of the older children have moved out.  Some have found their roles
in life, while others have failed tragically.

Franny has become obsessed with a book about a Russian monk who finds a
way to selfless peace through the repetition of a simple prayer.  Zooey,
an aspiring actor, knows what Franny is going through, and is aware of
what happened to himself and their older siblings.  He decides he must
help her get beyond her simplistic obsession, which threatens to ruin
her potential.

The book deals with deep issues of spirituality and how should people
live in the world.  However it doesn't come across as too preachy or
heavy-handed.  Salinger seems to have a great knack of writing about the
difficulties experienced by young people as they enter adulthood.