Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Reviews: 'Last Night in Montreal' by Emily St. John Mandel and 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

1. Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John Mandel
This book reminded me why I love reading. In expert hands, words take you prisoner and you become completely enveloped in the story they are telling, and that's how I felt with Last Night in Montreal. It was one of those reading experiences where you are so engaged with the story that it's as if you have put your entire heart in its hands, and I find those experiences are so rare. I came across Last Night in Montreal by fluke while scrolling through Literary Hub, one of my favorite literary sites, and the premise intrigued me, so I added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. My library happened to have it, so I figured I'd try it, and I'm so happy I did. Last Night in Montreal is about Lilia Albert, a young woman who has been leaving people behind her entire life. She spends her childhood and adolescence traveling constantly and changing identities. In adulthood, she finds it impossible to stop. Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, she moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning friends and lovers along the way, possibly still followed by a private detective who has pursued her for years. Then her latest lover, Eli, follows her from New York to Montreal, determined to learn her secrets and make sure she's safe. The book also becomes the story of the private detective, whose entire life becomes about solving Lilia's case, and the heartbreaking impact it has on his daughter, Michaela. Last Night in Montreal reads like a short story that just keeps going for 250 pages, and it's very well written. I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but I think Mandel's writing style works well here. As the dust jacket promises, Mandel's characters "will resonate with you long after the final page is turned," and that is very much true. All of her characters are extremely well written and well developed. She also captures her settings and atmospheres very well, especially what it's like to live in Montreal and French Canada. I was initially only going to give Last Night in Montreal 4 stars because it was a tad slow in the beginning and took a few chapters to get going for me, but ultimately I couldn't put it down and I loved every minute, so how could I not give it my highest rating? Definitely recommend. 5/5 stars.

2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger:
I did it. I gave in and read one of literature's most famous and most controversial novels of all-time. Did I love it? No. Can I appreciate its literary and pop cultural significance? Definitely, and I think that's what I enjoyed most about reading The Catcher in the Rye. I've read in several other books that say any feeling you've ever had of teenage angst or rebellion, or the feeling that adults don't understand you, Holden Caulfield experienced it first, and that seems quite true after you've read the book. The Catcher in the Rye is very clearly ahead of its time and I spent most of the time reading it amazed that it was first published in 1951, at the beginning of a decade that would soon promote and praise conservative conformity. In a way, I almost feel like this book could be considered among the same level of rebellion as the literature of the Beat generation, like Kerouac's On the Road or Ginsberg's Howl. All of this to say is there are many things to appreciate about The Catcher in the Rye and, as a person interested in pop culture as well as a student of English literature, I picked up on a lot of it. 

But... there are some negatives I must mention. For starters, this book has very little plot. At first I thought it might be like The Bell Jar, which does have a plot but is very hard to follow and so it ultimately comes across as having very little plot. That wasn't the case here. The Catcher in the Rye was not hard for me to follow, so I was able to easily detect that it had very little plot. Holden gets expelled, mopes around New York City, expresses some pretty depressing thoughts and eventually deems himself as "the catcher in the rye": saving children from losing their innocence. That's all great and meaningful and everything, but didn't make up for much of a story for me. Also, I know I'm gonna sound like a teacher who thinks teenagers are dramatic and all adults are trying to ruin their lives, but Holden Caulfield annoyed me. We get very little information on why he thinks adults are "phonies" and don't understand him, or why he thinks the world sucks and society is against him. Don't get me wrong, those are all very valid emotions (maybe they wouldn't have thought so in 1951, again emphasizing that the book was ahead of its time), but in this case, it just seems like he's young and moody and, much like what the condescending eye-rolls of high school teachers say, thinks adults are destroying his life. Like, he was expelled from school with good reason, yet Holden acts as if everyone just hates him and, again, adults and the world are against him. EYE ROLL. He just bugged me. Maybe I would have felt more connection to Holden Caulfield if I had read this when I was in high school (which I didn't, I somehow was never in any of the English classes that read this book at my school), but now he's just annoying and unnecessarily moody and mopey. Also, a part of me felt distinctly uncomfortable reading The Catcher in the Rye with the knowledge that this book influenced several famous criminals, most notably Mark David Chapman, who had a copy of the book with him when he shot John Lennon and described the shooting as his "statement" towards Holden Caulfield. Yeah... I don't know how I feel about that. Anyway, I definitely appreciate the book for what it represents in the literary and pop cultural world, but I didn't personally enjoy it as much as I could have. 3/5 stars. 

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