Thursday, January 24, 2019

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for January

The year 2019 highlights books by an old favorite and a new author. I remembered J.D. Salinger with a reread of Catcher in the Rye, while ringing in the New Year. Salinger would have been one hundred years old, born on January 1, 1919. I also discovered Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a new author with three titles on my reading list “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” Ngugi celebrated his 81st birthday on January 5 (born the same year as my father, 1938).

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, previously known as James Ngugi is a Kenyan author in exile from East Africa, his native country. He grew up in a large peasant family, son of his father's third wife. His father 's polygamist marriage consisted of four wives and Ngugi recalls the familial bond of having twenty-seven siblings along with multiple mothers. During the day, women and children worked the land, but at nightfall they would gather around a fire to hear stories. This was Ngugi's favorite time and he couldn't wait until dark for the stories. When he was old enough to attend school, where Shakespeare was a daily subject of study, Ngugi was glad that stories didn't have to wait until dark. He compares imagination to a time machine, “you can travel through time and space with your imagination.”

During years of the Mau Mau rebellion Ngugi vividly remembers returning home to his village after being away at school for several months and finding everything burned … no one was there. Everyone had fled to safety when fighting broke out. It is this memory that seems to be a part of all his novels. A scene in which one returns to find some unexpected happenings.

In his novel Matigari, Ngugi tells the story of a legendary patriot whose name means, “one who survived the bullets.” This story takes place in Kenya, following liberation from British rule. Matigari has returned from fighting in the mountains and is resolved to reclaim his land peaceably. Instead Matigari finds more resistance and trouble from the children of his oppressors. One phrase repeated throughout the story is “too much fear breeds misery in the land.” People are afraid to speak up for fear of being imprisoned. Police brutality threatens and the rich rule over those in extreme poverty. At one point, Matigari is detained in jail and later mysteriously escapes. His notoriety can be compared to the Messiah and soon he has many followers that view him as their hero. There are several biblical references throughout, camouflaged by historical fiction of African struggles. For example, when Matigari starts out he has buried his weapons under a fig tree and wrapped himself with a belt of fig bark to symbolize peace. Throughout the Bible the fig tree is referred to as a sign of peace and prosperity. When Matigari comes to the defense of Guthera, a prostitute, I was reminded of a Jesus and his protection of prostitutes on whom he had compassion because they were trapped in sin. Comparisons can also be made to ‘fake news’ when the Voice of Truth and His Excellency Ole Excellency, are heard daily on radios and loudspeakers making announcements that discourage listeners from voicing their own opinions. Judiciary members of the government are referred to as parrots. This symbolism illustrates the blind acceptance of leaders and the mechanical mimicking (parroting) of corrupt propaganda. The character Matigari became so famous among Ngugi’s readers that Kenyan officials believed Matigari to be a real person and a threat. The fictional character was on a list of most wanted throughout East Africa, and later when it was learned that Matigari was not a real person, the book was ordered removed from public circulation and banned.

When remembering the history of the Civil Rights Movement I thought about how this movement is global. While Dr. Martin Luther King was leading non-violent demonstrations in America, a violent revolution was going on in Africa. Similarly, though not simultaneously, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was jailed for writing material deemed a threat to the ruling elite. He had decided to write only in Gikuyu, his native tongue, and to drop his European name. This decision was criticized by dictatorial government leaders and contributed to reasons for his incarceration. The readers he wanted to write for did not consider English as a primary language and he began to feel that writing in English was essentially cultural treason. While in jail he wrote his next book on toilet paper, to be smuggled out and prepared for publication. After a year of imprisonment, Amnesty International secured Ngugi’s release and he left Africa to reside in America. He is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine and has been a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize.

My book club enjoyed discussing Ngugi’s book while sampling Kenyan foods. Roast chicken was favored over ugali, a boiled (tasteless) cornmeal mush, and of course black tea was served. Tea is a major cash crop in Kenya. We also listened to authentic Kenyan music, discovered on a Folkways Smithsonian website. The conversation surrounding Ngugi’s book led us in exploring issue-oriented themes related to class and race. It was noted that progress isn’t linear and with every step forward there may seem to be two steps back. Still we must lurch on towards higher callings and higher ground. Matigari is a book that inspires thought for overcoming barriers. Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the list of books we “must read” include Petals of Blood and The River Between.

J D Salinger's initials stand for Jerome David, not juvenile delinquent as one might refer to when describing his famous Catcher in the Rye character Holden Caulfield. Salinger has admitted that this novel is “sort of” autobiographical. The idea for his novel began as a short story for The New Yorker, but before it was published bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, fully immersing America in war. Editors of The New Yorker withdrew their plans to publish Salinger's submission, claiming it was too frivolous at such a serious time.

Soon Salinger was drafted into the Army and became involved in heavy combat serving in five war campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge. After Germany's defeat, he was assigned to a counter-intelligence unit where he worked interrogating prisoners of war. During the war years, he credits Holden Caulfield with keeping him alive. Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine, encouraged him to turn Holden’s story into a novel. Salinger says he “lived” Holden Caulfield’s life in his mind as an escape from daily horrors of war.

Catcher in the Rye is included on many ‘must-read’ lists, and as one that ‘should be read before growing up’ it is recommended for the 12+ age range (making it also a part of the list ‘to read before you die’). It is a classic coming-of-age story, frequently taught in high school literature classes and ironically the most censored book across the nation. Salinger portrays teen angst and frustration through Holden’s inner monologue and creates a unique style of writing that expounds on the character’s exact thought processes.

To summarize Catcher in the Rye’s plot may ruin things for those wanting to experience Holden firsthand, but I will provide my theory behind the title of Salinger’s book and some character personality quirks. In the book, Holden makes reference to a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (Comin’ Thro’ the Rye) mistaking the poem’s title as ‘Catcher in the Rye.’

Holden recalling a dream he had: “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.”

In preparation for this review I not only reread Catcher in the Rye, but I watched a film (Rebel in the Rye) starring Nichols Hoult as J D Salinger. Other research also contributed to my analysis of the author/character. I believe since Salinger saw the worst of mankind during war times he uses Holden, though jaded, to emphasize the loss of innocence. Holden wants to protect his younger sister, Phoebe.
He believes he needs to shield the children at Phoebe's school from vulgar graffiti and tries to erase it from walls in the stairwell. Innocence is something that doesn't last forever, but in Holden's eyes he can't see Phoebe as being anything but innocent.

Salinger’s personal relationships all involved much younger women. He practiced meditation and lived a reclusive lifestyle in the rural town of Cornish, New Hampshire. He was an extremely private person and once his novel Catcher in the Rye became an enormous success, he no longer cared if his writings were published. Salinger wrote for himself and it is rumored that there is manuscript that tells the story of Holden sixty years later. JD Salinger was 91 years old when he died of natural causes in 2010, and left behind stipulations about his work. There were to be no films made of Catcher in the Rye and nothing else to be published until his current work was part of public domain.

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