Book Review: A Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Wow, I am conflicted about this book.

3.5/5 stars

cover a catcher in the rye

Goodreads Description

Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.

My Review

I read this book for school, and I had no idea what to expect. From the first pages, I was in love with the vividness of Holden’s voice, but I was also frustrated with the lack of plot.

I love and hate this book, and I have a lot of thoughts, but most of them are half-sentence “yeah, but”-s that refuse to coalesce into a review. Because I read this book for school, I also have a lot of other people’s comments in my head, a lot of which I disagree with.

Let’s start with Holden. A lot of people in my class described him a whiny, selfish, and lazy, which is kind of fair, I guess. But Holden is also a poster child for depression, something that a ton of people (including, apparently, my teacher) missed, and for me, it explained a lot of his character flaws.

Seriously, I goggled symptoms of depression and Holden hits basically all of them at some point or another.

I’d love to hate his guts for all the times that he mentions something that he’d like to do, then says he “isn’t in the mood for it”—but when I looked at his apathy through the lens of depression, I couldn’t hate him for it. He’s damaged and lonely and cynical, and he has a ton of opportunities to make his life better that he doesn’t take, and of course that is frustrating as hell to read about. But he’s also living in a time before antidepressants existed and a world that says guys don’t need therapy.

It really frustrated me how often people in my class wrote off Holden as bitchy and stupid when he so obviously needs help. How are we supposed to deal with mental illness in a positive way when our class discussions reinforce the “depressed people are just people who are too lazy to smile more” narrative?

However, Holden also has a fairly crappy personality, even factoring his depression. He’s oblivious to his own self, out-of-touch with the struggles of people who aren’t rich and white, and incredibly judgmental. He’s hypocritical and immature. There were times when I wanted to bash Holden in the head with some common sense. When you get down to it, Holden is the kind of character people hate, and though I didn’t want to fall into that majority, I did at times.

I LOVED the way JD Salinger wrote Holden’s voice, though. It goes beyond your average first person, drawing the reader in and giving you an incredibly clear picture of who Holden is. (Which sometimes backfired, since who Holden is can be really annoying.) His cursing felt natural, and his voice was clear and alive.

My biggest problem with this book is the lack of plot. There is no clear arc, besides Holden slowly dissolving in a mess of self-hatred and sleep-deprivation (okay, that’s overly simplistic, but you get the idea). Lots of things happen, but they are disjointed and muddled, never gelling into a clear plot. It was hard to get into the book when I had no idea where the book was going. The book ended suddenly, almost as if JD Salinger just stopped writing and sent it into the publisher.

But I can’t write off this book entirely, because every few chapters, there would be an intensely emotional few sentences and I’d fall back in love with the story. Hidden in the jumbled mess of Holden’s New York explorations are some gorgeous tidbits about life and loss. A lot of them are sad, not exactly inspiring, but they make you feel something, and think.

I would recommend this book to people who are willing to read a book that will frustrate them, but that will offer a window into the mind of a person struggling with depression. JD Salinger did an amazing job crafting his character, so if you want an example of intense first person, you should also read this book. And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t need a clear plot arc to enjoy the story, you should definitely pick up this book.

Book Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

An incredible window into the mind of a depressed teenager that tackled serious subject manner with a careful hand, creating an unforgettable story.

5/5 stars

cover its kind of a funny story

Plot (via Goodreads)

Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.

Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.

Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.

My Review

I don’t usually read books that deal with mental illness. I’ve read a few—contemporary and fantasy—but few of them “worked” for me, for various reasons.

This book was different.

I didn’t pick up IKOAFS on my own. A friend of mine wrote an incredibly touching review of it for my journalism class and I was the editor that handled it. I’d never seen the book before, but after reading about how important this book was for my friend (who struggles with depression like the MC, Craig), I asked if I could borrow it. Once I started reading it, I read it in two sittings.

This book is raw and powerful. Craig, the protagonist, suffers from depression, and the story (told in first person) vividly portrays the mental state Craig was in. I’ve talked to friends who suffer from depression, so I already felt like I knew some of what Craig would be going through, but being inside his head gave me an incredible insight into his thought process as he battled depression.

I enjoyed Craig’s character. In the beginning, I was afraid that he was going to be a carbon copy of the Perks of Being a Wallflower MC, but as the story progressed, Craig developed unique characteristics and blossomed into a complex and realistic character. His voice conveys the truth of who he is: a teenage boy trapped in a war with his mind, struggling to not be defined by it. Indeed, Craig’s voice—humorous and self-deprecating, frustrated and hopeful—was the most powerful and realistic part of the book.

I loved the rest of the characters as well. The other patients in the psychiatric hospital were some of my favorite characters in the entire book, lending subtle (or sometimes not-no-subtle) humor to the story. Each one of them got their own clear personality, even if that personality was a quirk of their particular mental illness. The subtle romance that developed throughout the plot was perfect; it added another layer to the plot without taking away from the overall message of personal growth.

Craig’s family and friends were clearly imperfect, and some of their actions pissed me off, but I never hated any of them completely. They were human, and the plot showed both good and bad qualities of each character. In this way, I was able to forgive them (instead of continuing to hate them even after the MC has forgiven them, as usually happens to me in books like this).

The plot of IKOAFS is simple and moderately paced. There are no ohmygod cliffhanger moments, but I was happy about that. They would have seemed gimmicky in what was (without them) a story that struck me as intensely realistic. The meat of the story comes from Craig’s ups and downs as he comes to terms with and tries to overcome his depression.

IKOAFS is a story with a lot of messages, about life, love, mental illness, high school. Thankfully, it never came off as preachy, with the themes subtly woven into the plot so that the reader discovered them for themselves instead of being hit over the head with them.

Though IKOAFS deals most centrally with depression, I think this is a book everyone can relate to in part. Craig got into the prestigious high school of his dreams, but then his depression hit at the beginning of freshman year. Suddenly unable to compete with his peers, Craig struggles with intense feelings of inadequacy and being overwhelmed by the multi-faceted expectations of high school today. This part of the story touched me deeply, and I doubt there is a high school or college student out there who wouldn’t connect with Craig’s panic, at least a little.

IKOAFS never made me feel depressed, even though I was in Craig’s head. Somehow his voice, plus the humorous moments in the plot and the optimism of other characters, was able to keep this book from dragging me down. It sounds insensitive, but I was hesitant to read this book because I was afraid of it putting thoughts I didn’t want in my head. And yes, Craig has suicidal thoughts. Craig is undeniably depressed and the reader is privy to his feelings.

But the book is ultimately positive. There is no perfect or cheesy fix-all ending, and the humor never feels insensitive or out-of-touch. IKOAFS is exactly that—kind of a funny story, with a serious focus and message. It is definitely worth reading, whether you suffer from depression or not. It’s the kind of story that breeds compassion, and if that isn’t the kind of book that the world needs regarding these issues, I don’t know what is.

I couldn’t write this review without extending my horror and sadness at the news that Ned Vizzini committed suicide in 2013. This book came out his own time in a psychiatric ward, giving hope and a promise of survival to those suffering from depression and to those around them. There aren’t words for the knowledge that Vizzini didn’t get the hopeful ending that he gave Craig. He left behind an incredible piece of literature that can hopefully help others through depression.

Top Ten Books that Celebrate Diversity

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

I am getting really bad at posting these on Tuesday…

I have to admit something: I am not a diverse reader. Or at least, I am not a purposefully diverse reader. I’ve never gone out and searched for books that feature diversity. I buy books because of the plots they have, not necessarily who the characters are, but that unfortunately leaves me with a bookshelf dominated by straight, white protagonists.

I want to read books that have diverse characters but that are about something more than just what makes the character diverse. I wish there were more diversity-focused fantasy books. Basically, I am a white girl wishing she reading more diversely, so if you have recommendations, please send them my way.

1. Every Day by David Levithan

cover every day

I loved the simplicity with this book discussed the nature of sexuality and gender identity. The main character, A, wakes up in a different body every day, with the powers that be making no distinction between genders. As a character essentially removed from the idea of gender, A’s falling in love with a normal girl effortlessly challenges the idea that “gay” love is any different from “straight” love.

2. The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

cover the summer of chasing mermaids

Featuring an ethnic protagonist whose culture heavily influences her personality, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids separates itself from the contemporary pack with a plainspoken discussion of gender identity, trauma and healing, socioeconomic divides, and the meaning of voice.

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

cover beauty queens

This book has everything. In terms of books I’ve read, this book “wins” diversity for me. It has a separate plot that stands on its own but perfectly showcases (and celebrates) diversity of all stripes.

4. Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

cover freaks like us

Featuring a schizophrenic protagonist, this novel humanizes mental illness while telling a sweet and compelling story.

5. Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

cover atlanta burns

This book celebrates diversity in a slightly different way: by focusing on hate crimes. Atlanta, the badass protagonist, takes a stand against racial supremacy and homophobia (as well as animal cruelty) in this gritty and humorous read.

6. Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

cover black dove white raven

I haven’t read this book yet, but my sister told me to put it on the list. Historical fiction set in Ethiopia with Europe on the brink of WWII, the story focuses on the racial tensions of blacks and whites mingling during Mussolini’s occupation.

7. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

cover five flavors of dumb

With a deaf protagonist taking over management of a high school band, this book tackles the social perceptions of disabled people from page one. A hilarious story that proves stories don’t have to have the perfect ending you would expect, Five Flavors of Dumb holds a special place in my heart.

8. More Than This by Patrick Ness

cover more than this

A hauntingly unique exploration of death and reality, More Than This has a gay protagonist and back-up characters that bring racial and body image issues into the touching plot.

9. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Steifvater

Fantasy stories set in an urban world, The Raven Cycle brings together the pampered son of the uber rich with the scholarship student, the recovering abuse victim from a broken home, and feisty, ragtag girl protagonist who refuses to comply with society’s rules for young women. Later books deal with LGBT themes and issues of social classes.

10. For Darkness Shows the Stars and Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Companion fantasy/dystopian novels, both of these books deal with societies with heavily entrenched class systems and characters trying to bridge the gaps created by them. They also explore mental illness, focusing on a fictional sickness called Reduction that bears similarities to autism.

What do you think? Have you read any of these books? Do you want to read them now?

Seeing these books that I enjoyed, do you have any others that you think I’d like? Please comment!