There’s never a shortage of books and never a shortage of recommended reading lists, especially with the holiday season barreling down on us. Maybe the granddaddy of all lists is The New York Times “100 Notable Books.” It has what their editors believe are the best books of 2013—and there are, as usual, some gorgeous books, fiction and nonfiction. Who knows, maybe one of your Christmas gifts is on the list.
Voice is perhaps the biggest player in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is an overpowering force of rich-kid anger, disillusionment, and alienation. But what seems so brilliant to me about Salinger’s portrayal of Holden is his contradictory existence. On the one hand Holden hates everyone, yet he wants to be liked. He is confident with hooking up with girls, yet innocent and virginal. He’s intelligent, but fails at just about everything he does. He is, in almost every scene, a giant contradiction.
What I love about this is how Salinger, through his unreliable narrator, captures not only the conflicting values and behaviors of Holden and teenagers in general, but all of us. We all lie to ourselves constantly. We say our health is important, but we smoke. We say school is a top priority, but we play video games instead of studying. We say we’re fine even when we just chipped a tooth and our bank account is empty. Self-denial and contradiction is a natural part of human existence.
As a writer, I wonder how one creates a believable character with so many inconsistencies. To me, the following paragraph, just a few pages into the novel, offers clues:
The reason I was standing way up on Thomsen Hill, instead of down at the game, was because I’d just gotten back from New York with the fencing team. I was the goddamn manager of the fencing team. Very big deal. We’d gone in to New York that morning for this fencing meet with McBurney School. Only, we didn’t have the meet. I left all the foils and equipment and stuff on the goddamn subway. It wasn’t all my fault. I had to keep getting up to look at this map, so we’d know where to get off. So we got back to Pencey around two-thirty instead of around dinnertime. The whole team ostracized me the whole way back on the train. It was pretty funny, in a way.
Everyone knows if you’re the manager of a team you don’t have the talent to actually be on the team. But Holden forcefully re-frames it the other way–”the goddamn manager” . . . “Very big deal.” I’m important, he’s saying, self-preservation intact. But his importance is still threatened: he left the equipment on the subway. Major error. The fencing meet is forfeited because of his irresponsibility. Yet he pulls out the number one survival mechanism of adolescence: Denial. “It wasn’t all my fault.” We’ve gone from “big deal,” to major screw up, to not “my fault” in ten seconds flat. But there’s more. “The whole team ostracized me.” I bet they did. This would kill the self-esteem of any normal kid, and it probably is killing Holden’s too, but Holden’s ability to deflect is not shaken. In fact, like any teenager trying to save his dignity he immediately distances himself from his most recent colossal failure. “It was pretty funny, in a way.” And once again we’re heading in the other direction. Up and down, in and out, seemingly so disparate but convincingly whole–and all in one tiny paragraph. That’s pretty nifty.
By Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
An Amazing Read: Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
In 2012, I was in the Swiss Alps descending the Jungfrau via the Jungfrau Railway, from Europe’s highest-altitude railway station in a world of rock, ice and snow. Seven of the nine kilometres of railway are in a tunnel hewn in the rock of the Eiger and Mönch. The train cars are spacious, with large windows that easily open, and the most pristine view I have ever witnessed. In the seat behind me was a family from India: three young children, their parents, and their grandparents. Just like us, they were enjoying the spectacular scenery. Then I watched the grandfather finish a bottle of water and toss it out the window onto an otherwise unblemished grassy field. It was shocking, the last thing on earth I would think anyone would do. Soon after, though, I realized why the man did it, and now having read Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers, I understand even more.
Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has focused her career on the under-advantaged members of society. In 2007, she began to investigate the slums of India, finally settling on Annawadi in Mumbai. As Jessamy Calkin of the Telegraph writes, “Annawadi is a ‘sumpy plug of slum’, a garish, seething, stinking, frantic wriggling community of 3,000 people, flanked by Mumbai airport and several luxury hotels, and fenced off by hoardings advertising Italianate floor tiles decorated with the slogan ‘Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever…’.” The slum is beyond the tiled fence wall.
At first, the residents of Annawadi thought Boo was there to steal their children or convert them to Christianity. However, the longer she stayed–long stretches over a period of four years–the more they became used to her. Her research resulted in a non-fiction account that reads like a novel. As Calkin writes:
Boo’s descriptions of life within are almost Dickensian, as are her characters: the former slumlord who paints his horses with stripes to look like zebras which he hires out for children’s parties; Kalu, the little thief with a legendary pain threshold whose skills at mimicry keep everyone entertained; Sunil, a touching scavenger who pretends that he goes to school. And there is Asha, the aspiring slumlord, uneducated, ambitious, unscrupulous but somehow very appealing, and her gorgeous daughter Manju, the only college graduate in Annawadi.
Boo writes what she sees. She doesn’t sentimentalize. Chekhov once advised another writer, “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly.” Boo captures that grief with clear-eyed brilliance. She also captures the beauty in the agony and the irony in the literal lives of the Annawadi residents. Of Kalu, one of the many scavenger boy’s who survive off the trash discarded from travelers, Boo writes:
Kalu had no home to retreat to. He decided to go to the airport, taking off across the thoroughfare toward the bright blue signs that lead the way to the international terminal. ARRIVALS down. DEPARTURES up. HAPPY JOURNEY.
The following morning, Kalu lay outside Air India’s red-and-white gates: a shirtless corpse with a grown-out Salman Khan haircut, crumpled behind a flowering hedge.
In the story of the Annawadi slum, there is a lake sewer instead of a pond, rats instead of pets, tin and cardboard instead of walls, and trash collection instead of offices–lots of trash, which is the recycler’s currency, which is what boy’s like Kalu use for survival.
So now I think I have a clue why the Indian grandfather threw the plastic water bottle out the train window. Maybe he thought he was giving some scavenger, like Kalu, a rupee or two. Like the grandfather’s actions, behind the beautiful forevers is a glimpse at another way of life.