Adventures in Reading

Half Way There!

It being July 1st, it is roughly half way through the year and I decided to spend some time looking back at my reading progress so far for 2008 and commenting on some of the more notable books I had adventures with.

I read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad back in January and I loved it. It kicked off my experience with the Canongate Myth series, which I have been increasingly fond of with the more I read. Since reading it though, I have stumbled across a fair amount of less enthusiastic and more critical reviews. While I still find the book charming and is one of my preferred Atwood books, I do feel I must add the disclaimer that I read The Penelopiad shortly after I finished a course on “great literature” with a rather narrow-minded if not misogynistic professor.

In February I was completely enchanted and enthralled with Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. It was a book I picked up on a whim and ordered through Amazon before I had even finished it. This collection of short stories was located in fantasy and science fiction, but I suppose a more descriptive (and somewhat imaginary) genre would be something like contemporary surrealism. Whatever it is though, Link’s book is good and I see many a Christmas stocking in my future I will be filling with it. And, her latest collection available for free here.

In March I read some really terrific books ranging from Haruki Murakami to Terry Pratchett. But I don’t even have to twist my arm to settle on my favorite and most influential book being Words in Context (previously known as Japanese for Japanese) by Takao Suzuki. Reading the book was enjoyable though there were certainly some more grueling moments digging through this commentary on linguistics and language. However, during the past six months this has to be one of the books I refer to the most. Additionally, it gave me an entirely new and more inspiring way to look at learning languages.

I expanded my J.D. Salinger experience in April with reading his short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” from his Nine Stories collection. Until 2008, my experience with Salinger was limited to Catcher in the Rye, but I finally got around to reading Franny and Zooey and dug into Nine Stories for my personal short story reading challenge. It’s a brilliant short story that is… it’s just so perfect. And I got some terrific comments on other people’s experience with the story as well.

Perhaps a bit of a surprise as I read some really great books in May, but I have to say one of the best was Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled, which if not available yet will be out for public consumption over the next few weeks. I typically have a ridiculously horrible time when it comes to popular literature and picked up an ARC of Schooled at work to ease my brain. Though I had to twist my own arm into just enjoying a book for enjoyment sake, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself eagerly turning the page and getting pretty involved with the main character. It’s still the middle of summer and Schooled is an excellent book to spend some time with on a lovely day.

First Step in the New World by David Lida is a brilliant book that I read last month. An eclectic collection of essays exploring some of the many nuances of Mexico City, Lida has provided much more than a piece of travel writing with book. Lida spends time looking at the politics, socio-cultural, food, entertainment, gender studies – the book has just about anything. Whether you’re interested specifically in Mexico City, in modern architecture, or are just looking to expand your horizons Lida’s book is terrific. Perhaps my favorite part of the text is Lida’s actual voice, which makes Mexico City sound so tantalizing I want to hop on the next flight and buy Lida a beer.


“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger
“They lead a very tragic life.”

Sometimes you will discover something and even though you know you have to be the last person in the world to know about this thing it is no different than if you personally had discovered fire (or, even more importantly, s’mores). This is how I felt roughly a page into “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” when all of the petals unfurled and I discovered s’mores, or to be more exact Seymour Glass. Earlier this year I read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey but little did I know that the birth of this book laid in a 1948 short story from The New Yorker entitled “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a snippet from the lives of Muriel and Seymour Glass. They have driven from New York to Florida on an abrupt vacation and concluding the reader’s short acquaintance with them Seymour returns to the hotel room, calmly sits on the bed, and shoots himself in the head. I admit this was another story where I fell flat on my face for the twist.

Salinger brilliantly creates a subtle rhythm of abnormalcy throughout the otherwise very normal occurrences in the story. The opening of the tale portrays Muriel Glass with complete calmness and poise removing a stain from her suit, painting her nails, as she awaits a phone call from her mother. It’s nearly agonizing for the reader watching her continue through her steps even as the phone is ringing. Then Salinger kicks in that twinge of discomfort: “I’ve been worried to death about you. Why haven’t you phoned? Are you all right?” The conversation leads to further suspicion as the mother asks “Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?” and later in the conversation Muriel giggling tells her mother that “he” refers to her as “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.”

However, from here on out the story utterly radiates calm and nearly a full return to normalcy. The scene changes to a small girl being lathered up in sunscreen by her mother for a day on the beach. Sybil runs into Seymour and the two hold a friendly conversation as an adult and child acquaintance might have – think teasing and silly. This leads to Seymour briefly taking Sybil out into the ocean as he pushes her on a flotation raft. During this time Seymour tells her about the bananafish: fish that gorge themselves on bananas they find in holes, later cannot leave the holes from the banana intake, and die of banana fever. Before returning to shore Sybil is thrilled when she sees a bananafish.

I keep wondering about the bananafish. Is someone in the story meant to be the bananafish? Is the bananafish story a parable? Are the bananas symbolic? Because after the bananafish story Seymour returns to the hotel, has a brief and rude exchange with a woman in the elevator who may or may not be staring at Seymour’s feet, and he kills himself as his wife sleeps on the next bed over. In retrospect the story is strangely calm from his wife’s sequential behavior up to Seymour pulling out the gun. But it’s the suggestions, those blips on the radar, that create an unnerving balance to the tale. Not to mention perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story: Why did Seymour kill himself?

Now more than ever I want to reread Franny and Zooey not to mention the remainder of the tales in Nine Stories.