March was a busy, busy month for me, but I managed to finish three books. Here's what I thought about them.
1. Waterland by Graham Swift
I read Graham Swift's amazing novel, Last Orders, last summer while I was at Yale, and one of my fellow Yalies, Susanna, recommended this one.
Swift reminds me of Richard Powers, in that both men overawe the reader with the breadth of their knowledge. Reading their books is a humbling experience, as they can approach obscure and daunting topics (for Swift, the business of brewing beer in the 19th century--for Powers, the chemistry of soapmaking) with ease.
Waterland, like Last Orders, is a dense, nuanced, layered novel that keeps you on your toes. It has grand themes, weighty biblical allusions, and clever self-reflection, and if you are not paying attention, you will miss a lot of it.
I enjoyed Waterland and its portentous gravity, but I feel that perhaps I was not paying as close attention as I could have, and therefore I may have missed a thing or two. It did not have the humanity of Last Orders, and as a consequence I didn't relish the book as much as I merely finished it. Last Orders had me choked up--I'm man enough to admit it, okay? Waterland, not so much.
Also, I made a severe tactical error. One night, with fifty pages to go in the novel, I noticed that the 1992 movie version was available for instant watching on Netflix, and I broke the cardinal law that states don't watch the movie while you're in the middle of the book. I figured, "Oh, what the hell? What difference could it make if I watched the first fifteen minutes? Well, it made a lot of difference. The movie was such a terrible travesty that it colored my last day of reading the book. On my chart of movie vs. book, Waterland would be hanging out north of Beowulf, but south of The Great Gatsby.
2. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My senior year of high school was the year of The Catcher in the Rye. I knew we were going to read it in our AP English class, so I read it ahead of time. I didn't think much of it--in fact, I was entirely confused about why it was so controversial. As I was finishing it, I was thinking, "Well, the controversial part must be at the very end. I bet he goes up into a tower with a rifle and starts picking people off." When he only went to a goddam carrousel, for Christ's sake, I was confused.
Then I read it with Mr. Lavecchia in class and loved it so much that I stayed up at night, unable to sleep because I was thinking about it so much. When we were done reading it, I immediately read it for a third time. And then, I put it on my shelf, where it has remained since then.
I was always afraid to go back to Catcher, because I was afraid that it just wouldn't mean the same thing to me once I grew up. But this year, I will be teaching the book for the first time, so, with some trepidation, I took it down and started reading again.
And, of course, Catcher has aged well. When I was seventeen, my life was so dire, and Holden was so important to me, that I failed to catch a lot of the humor in the book. It's a terrifically funny book, if you want to know the truth, and I laughed almost the entire way through. Catcher may not be as heart-stoppingly important as it was back in 1994, but I'm okay with that. I can't wait to start teaching it tomorrow.
* I think that my 1951 copy of Catcher is indeed a first edition. I should post pictures sometime and get some feedback.
* I basically read all of Salinger's available fiction by the time I was a freshman in college. I'm talking about Catcher, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Housebeams, Carpenters and Seymore: an Introduction (which is way too confusing a title for a single book!). I was always aware that there was a short story called "Hapworth" out there, but I didn't realize until this week that the story "Hapworth 16, 1924" is actually a novella, and that while you can't get it in a bookstore, I do in fact have it! It was an edition of the New Yorker in 1964, which I can read because I have this thing.
So there's a Salinger novella that I've never read. And it's right here in my office. Imagine that.
3. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
I read this book on recommendation of Lee Patterson, who taught me Chaucer last year. He promised that it was one of the funniest satires he had ever read, and included this anecdote:
"When I was in my 20s I was reading Decline and Fall in the bathtub and laughed so hard I dropped it in. Being an impecunious graduate student I had to dry it out on the radiator, when it caught fire. But I persevered, despite the wrinkled charring, and it was worth it."
Decline and Fall was a terrificly funny read, and (in parts), one of the more enjoyable reading experiences of the young year. I wanted the first section of the novel to go on for a thousand pages.
It makes me want to pick up Brideshead Revisited, which I just might do.