The Blog's Mission

Wikipedia defines a book review as: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review”. My mission is to provide the reader with my thoughts on the author’s work whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. I read all genres of books, so some of the reviews may be on hard to find books, or currently out of print. All of my reviews will also be available on Amazon.com. I will write a comment section at the end of each review to provide the reader with some little known facts about the author, or the subject of the book. Every now and then, I’ve had an author email me concerning the reading and reviewing of their work. If an author wants to contact me, you can email me at rohlarik@gmail.com. I would be glad to read, review and comment on any nascent, or experienced writer’s books. If warranted, I like to add a little comedy to accent my reviews, so enjoy!
Thanks, Rick O.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

the CATCHER in the RYE

J.D. Salinger published this reputed American classic in 1951, which was probably the most censored book in high schools and libraries until the mid 1980s. I’m unsure why it’s considered a classic other than the fact that professors and publishers like looking for hidden meanings in each chapter. I’m not saying that I didn’t like the novel because I did enjoy it, but mainly because, I think, Salinger’s descriptions and language usage of the late 1940s was terrific. I forgot about the word “crumby”, meaning inadequate, or “phony”, meaning pretentious. The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Holden Caulfield (a seventeen year old boy) uses those words a lot. And how about “flitty” or referring to people as “old” this or that? The writing is very strong, but the story is moderate at best to this reviewer. I don’t see myself debating hidden meanings with anybody. I’m assuming it was censored in schools because of sexual allusions, the morality codes of the 1940s and 50s, family values, and some coarse language (very mild compared to today’s language). I'm very puzzled by the title of the book. What’s up with the title of the book? Shmoop states: “What's up indeed. The first mention we get of this mysterious catcher in this mysterious rye is when Holden overhears a little kid singing, 'If a body catch a body coming through the rye.' Momentarily, it makes him feel not so depressed, in part because Holden is a fan of little children, and the only things better than little children are little children who are singing.” Apparently misconstruing Robert Burns’s 1796 poem, Holden sees himself as the catcher in the rye catching the children as they fall off a cliff. Who knows? Salinger was a kind of recluse and didn’t give many interviews.

The book starts with Holden Caulfield in a hospital in Southern California narrating the story of his previous December’s adventures in Pennsylvania and N.Y.C. The reader doesn’t know whether it’s a mental or physical hospital. Maybe that is one of the debatable points of this book. Anyway, he is being expelled from Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania. The reader gets the feeling that this isn’t the first school that he’s been thrown out of. He doesn’t seem to see why learning is important, doesn’t get along with his teachers or roommates, and doesn’t seem to respect his very successful parents. And what does his "red hunting hat" symbolize? He heads to N.Y.C. several days before his parents will receive the expulsion letter from Pencey Prep. There, he books a cheap hotel and pines about his life. He likes to drink, smoke, and make an ass of himself. He contacts a previous girlfriend, Sally, and makes a mess of things. He constantly thinks about calling Jane, another old flame, but never does. He contacts his sister Phoebe and an old teacher Mr. Antolini. The crux of the story is what happens on his adventures in N.Y.C, and the big debate with literary scrappers is: What’s up with his mental health, and what does his movements mean? As far as this reader is concerned - who cares, just read and enjoy!

I wonder after reading this book if this Holden Caulfield character is really J.D. Salinger as a young man. I had the same feeling when reading John Irving’s In One Person . Anyway, you literary debaters, I think if you re-read page 170 you will find out how Holden Caulfield really feels about school and life: “You ought to go to a boy’s school sometime. Try it sometime,” I said. “It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques”. Metaphorically speaking, I think Holden was drowning in boredom. Anyway, enough thoughts about Holden Caulfield’s mental state that is being puppeteered by the cloistered J.D. Salinger! Just grab a copy and form your own opinions.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: After Salinger’s death, The New Yorker magazine said on 2/8/10: Salinger was an expansive romantic, an observer of the details of the world, and of New York in particular; no book has ever captured a city better than “The Catcher in the Rye” captured New York in the forties. Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk? (One thinks of the man occupying the seat behind Holden Caulfield at Radio City Music Hall, who, watching the Rockettes, keeps saying to his wife, “You know what that is? That’s precision.”) A self-enclosed writer doesn’t listen, and Salinger was a peerless listener: page after page of pure talk flowed out of him, moving and true and, above all, funny. He was a humorist with a heart before he was a mystic with a vision, or, rather, the vision flowed from the humor. That was the final almost-moral of “Zooey,” the almost-final Salinger story to appear in these pages: Seymour’s Fat Lady, who gives art its audience, is all of us."

On 1/16/12, two years after Salinger’s death, Salon.com’s Kenneth Slawenski wrote: “When it came to his work, J.D. Salinger was the ultimate control freak. He strove for absolute perfection in his writing and sought complete power over its presentation. He ordered his photo be removed from the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye,” fought with numerous publishers over his book’s content and presentation, and his disdain for editing was legendary. When a copy editor at the New Yorker dared to remove a single comma from one of his stories, Salinger snapped. “There was hell to pay,” recalled William Maxwell, and the comma was quickly reinstated. Recently uncovered letters demonstrate how the author repeatedly refused any film adaptation of his classic novel. He felt no actor could properly fill the role of Holden Caulfield, although he quipped to Ernest Hemingway that he might be persuaded to play the part himself.” Readers, J.D. Salinger was and still is a legendary writer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This satirical novel is the story of Huck Finn and his adventures down the Mississippi River on a raft trying to escape his drunken father. It is the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and one of the first novels to be written in the local vernacular. How about this from Jim, the slave: “I tuck out en shin down de hill, en ‘spec to steal a skift ‘long de sho’ som’ers ‘bove de town, but dey wuz people a-stirring yit, so I hid in de ole tumble-down cooper-shop on de bank to wait for everybody to go ‘way. Well, I wuz dah all night. Dey wuz somebody roun’ all de time.”? Is that great or what? I've never seen so many words go red for misspellings on Google as I did writing this review. The language does slow the reader down, but conveys all the local color of the mid-1850s.

I loved this book because Twain made me feel like I was in the milieu of the South living on a Mississippian river raft. I could actually feel the heat of the day! He did an absolutely great job of recreating the atmosphere of the South before things became chaotic and uncontrollable; in another words, this novel is set just prior to the Civil War. This is the second novel that I’ve read recently pertaining to this time period in the South, and quite frankly, I’m stunned by the Southerner’s cavalier attitude towards the suffering of their slaves. Yet, Mark Twain made this novel jocular; I guess that’s all part of his satirical style of writing. This version of the novel has 148 illustrations and is a reproduction of the original 1885 masterpiece now published by Piccadilly Books, LTD.

Does the adage “boys will be boys” mean it is hard, often fruitless, to attempt to curb the natural playfulness and tendency to mischief of most growing boys, or does it mean Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? I think the latter. This novel is the continuing saga of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, two 13-14 year old rascals. This story opens with Huck now living with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. Huck has a considerable amount of money in trust with Judge Thatcher, garnered from Injun Joe in the previous book. Huck’s drunken Pap wants that money and somehow gets control of Huck’s guardianship and leaves with Huck to a cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River. There, Huck is constantly abused, so he fakes his death and heads down river in a canoe. He gets to Jackson’s Island (between Missouri and Illinois) and discovers that Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, is there on the run from Miss Watson because he found out that she was going to sell him for $800. Huck learns that the folks back home think either Jim or Pap killed him. They set off on a raft for incredible adventures. Jim wants his freedom, and Huck wants to get away from Pap.

On Huck’s journeys, he faces many difficult circumstances and makes harrowing escapes. The first is in a shore village where he meets the Granderfords feuding with the Shepherdsons. The ensuing big shootout causes Huck to make egress to the river again. Huck, now back with Jim, meets two incredible grifters on the run from a mob of angry townspeople. They hitch a ride with Huck and Jim on the raft. The scams they pull off with Huck are hilarious! One of these swindlers says he is the rightful Duke of Bridgewater, and the other claims to be the exiled and rightful King of France. I will not tell you anything else, but the plot thickens, and the real fun reading begins at this point in the novel (chapter XIX, page 100).

According to an article from Wikipedia: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly racism”. The problem is as I read the novel, I was not convinced one way or the other whether Twain was being real or satirical. I guess it’s too late to ask him. Wikipedia also states: “To highlight the hypocrisy required to condone slavery within an ostensibly moral system, Twain has Huck's father enslave him, isolate him, and beat him. When Huck escapes – which anyone would agree was the right thing to do – he then immediately encounters Jim "illegally" doing the same thing”. Later in Twain’s career, he became the harbinger of satirical comedy, but was he the future Will Rogers or Don Rickles? Regardless of my confusion, I have to recommend this novel as it is considered one of the Great American Novels.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: How is this novel rated by other great writers? Well, Ernest Hemingway said: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Norman Mailer said: "The mark of how good 'Huckleberry Finn' has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page, awkward here, sensational there - absolutely the equal of one of those rare incredible first novels that come along once or twice in a decade." The reader would have to admit this is high praise from two credentialed authors. Some of Twain’s quotes include: "When in doubt, tell the truth."; "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."; "Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts."; "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.", and my personal favorite is: "I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55." However you look at Mark Twain, one has to admit that he was a remarkable human being.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin

On 1/10/1776, Thomas Paine published a 48 page pamphlet titled Common Sense, which was an argument for freedom from British rule. In 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Toms Cabin as an argument for the freedom of all slaves in the United States. Both books ignited a firestorm of debate. Stowe’s book sold over 300,000 copies in its first year. Only a year previous, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prohibiting aiding and abetting escaping slaves. President Millard Fillmore and Congress passed that law as a compromise between the North and the South to avoid hostilities. What were they thinking? Luckily, many Northerners didn’t heed the law, especially the Quakers. Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House in 1862. He called her “the little woman who started this great war.” According to Stowe the characters were drawn from real life, and the incidents described are real. That’s explosive information because this book was (and still is) an emotional time bomb in disguise. She was asked many times whether the narrative was a true one, and her general answer was “The separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under her own observation, or that of her personal friends. She or her friends have observed characters the counterpart of almost all that are here introduced; and many of the sayings are word for word as heard herself, or reported to her.”

The character Uncle Tom is probably one of the most enduring of all time in the world of literature. Who could forget this honest, loyal, and pious Christian slave, who is so maltreated? Stowe fashions Uncle Tom’s trials and tribulations to that of Jesus Christ. Who can overlook the angelic and tragic life of little Eva, the daughter of the kindly white estate owner, Augustine St. Clare? The slave Eliza carrying her baby across the Ohio River, dashing over ice chunks while being pursued by slave catchers is a documented fact. The slaves Cassy and Emmeline are two of the best side characters that I’ve come across covering all genres of writing. Then we have the most infamous and scurrilous character of all time, Simon Legree, the hated owner of a cotton plantation in New Orleans. The empathy and revulsion that the reader experiences reading this novel are monumental.

As Uncle Tom passes from one slave owner to next, the reader hopes for the best. The slave owners see nothing wrong with breaking families up at auction, ripping away a child from its mother, and selling the crying child to a different plantation! Woe is me! Yet the slaves held on to the hope that Jesus Christ would save them. According to Stowe, she believed that the slaves would eventually be “no longer despised and trodden down...” because to paraphrase ”of their gentleness, affection, and facility of forgiveness”. Even the kind owners of the slaves did them wrong by not protecting them from unforeseen factors. If a considerate owner suddenly died without preparing freedom papers for his slaves, his widow would auction the slaves off to pay the estate’s debts, thus breaking up families again. This happens many times in this saddest of sad novels. On page 475, Stowe writes “We have walked with our humble friend (Uncle Tom) thus far in the valley of slavery; first through flowery fields of ease and indulgence, then through heart-breaking separations from all that man holds dear.” Uncle Tom was sold the first time because the estate owner, Mr. Selby was heavily in debt, and Tom was his most valuable asset. So his reward for loyalty is to be sold away from his wife and children! Woe is me!

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brilliant novel is actually two stories in one. You already know about the trials of Uncle Tom. The parallel story is that of Eliza, her baby, and her husband George Harris, a mulatto slave from a neighboring estate. Eliza is also on the estate of the troubled Shelbys and finds out that Mr. Shelby has sold her baby to the despicable slave trader, Dan Haley. That evening she tells Uncle Tom that she is fleeing to Canada! Meanwhile, her husband on a different estate has had enough of abuse and also heads for Canada. Their adventures occupy many chapters and the final result is most rewarding to the reader. Uncle Tom didn’t try to escape because Eliza also heard Mr. Shelby say that if he couldn’t sell Tom, he would have to sell all the other slaves instead. That’s something our hero, Uncle Tom, wouldn’t abide. So poor Uncle Tom is separated from his wife Aunt Chloe, his two sons, and his baby! Woe is me! Will he ever see them again? I’m not going to tell you. This is the most meaningful novel that I’ve ever read. Do yourself a favor and read this piece of American history. It is an awesome event!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Gradesaver says: “Even today, with literature constantly crossing more lines and becoming more shocking, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin remains one of the most scandalous, controversial, and powerful literary works ever spilled onto a set of blank pages. Not only does this novel examine the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward slavery, but…” Folks you must read this novel. According to America’s Story: “Harriet Beecher Stowe cared deeply about human rights. Her family was active in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom in the North. (The Underground Railroad was a system formed by a group of people who were against slavery. These people helped escaped slaves secretly reach the North.) For 18 years she observed a slave-holding community in Kentucky just across the Ohio River from where she lived in Cincinnati. She didn't like what she saw.” Was she a great lady, or what? Her last book was The Poor Life published in 1890. She died in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of 85. God Bless her.