Love and Squalor

Helga’s Post # 64:


It’s the day after Boxing Day. Presents  are opened, turkey, sprouts and pie digested, and the mess cleaned up, more or less. Life is returning to normal, albeit slowly. I delight in knowing that I’ve pulled off another reasonably successful Christmas celebration, circumnavigating the potential disasters that loom this time of year – family gatherings that occasionally trigger emotions, tears, and hurt feelings. That too is Christmas after all.

But, as I said, none of that happened. Teenage girls do eventually outgrow their evil personalities after a certain age, and by extension their parents and grandparents don’t get riled. Or it could be the advancing age of parents and their diminished energy and gusto for taking up fights that blunt said disasters. No matter. Peace prevailed, if not yet on earth, at least in our living room.

My reward for survival of the season is to sit back, no slump, in a cozy stuffed chair, books in easy reach. Not just one book. I first pick up one that was under the tree. Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food II, Recipes, Flavor, and Inspiration from the New Kitchen Garden. Before you stop reading, let me tell you that this is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. It’s so much more, as you can tell from the link. I can’t wait until planting season arrives in a few months. Because Alice grows her own veggies and berries, and she demonstrates how everyone can do it, no matter how small a place you have. She is the owner of Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, California restaurant famous for its organic, locally-grown ingredients and for pioneering California cuisine (one of my favorite restaurants in the world). Whether you reduce your lawn area, or plant in containers, or run a trellis for tomatoes up a sunny wall, you can have salad greens and produce all season. If you don’t have a space of your own, use a schoolyard. Or a neighbour’s. If you have a flower garden, plant veggies and herbs in between your roses. You get the drift. My challenge will be to steal enough time away from my writing. But I’ll cross that bridge later.

The next book on my pile is a biography. I wonder if you can guess whose. Some hints, from a book review:

Growing up on Park Avenue in Manhattan, he was 15 when he first longed to be published in the New Yorker. Over beers in his 20s, when he was churning out little yarns for middlebrow “slicks” such as the Saturday Evening Post, he would brag that he was better than all the greats, from Dreiser to Hemingway (though he allowed that Melville was pretty good). Tall, suave and handsome—“like a candlestick, a Giacometti statue,” recalled one admirer—he swanned about, declaring that he would one day write the great American novel. The problem was what happened when he did.

Love and Squalor

Love and Squalor

He spent ten years writing “__________” and “the rest of his life regretting it,” observe David Shields and Shane Salerno in a new biography and related documentary. Since it was first published in 1951, the book has sold more than 65m copies. With its vulnerable, jaded, teenage anti-hero, he touched countless readers who were startled to discover an author who knew just how they felt. Like pilgrims, many sought him out, craving time, answers, friendship and approval. They stalked his remote cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he struggled to lead a private life until he died in 2010, aged 91. “I’m a fiction writer!” he once complained to a needy fan. “If I’d have known this was going to happen, I don’t think I would have started writing.”

But he loved to write. As a child he scribbled by flashlight under the covers at boarding school. As an adult he referred to his creations as if they were real people. He seemed to prefer them to his own children, according to his daughter Margaret (who aired her grievances in a bruised memoir). And they kept him company long after he published his last story in the New Yorker in 1965.

His alienation from the world and his mania for privacy became part of the myth surrounding his life. His fiction and retreat from society were largely informed by his traumatic experiences during the WWII. As a staff sergeant he fought in some of Europe’s bloodiest campaigns, and pounded away at his novel in foxholes. Apparently he kept writing nearly every day until he died.

You know by now, of course, that this is the biography of the man who gave us Catcher in the Rye. A fascinating, unsubtle look at a complicated author. The book is Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno.

If you are a Salinger fan, you will be delighted to learn that he left instructions “authorizing a specific timetable” (starting between 2015 and 2020) for the release of unpublished work, including five new Glass family stories; a novel based on his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Welter, a German he married shortly after World War II; a novella in the form of a counterintelligence officer’s diary entries during the war; a story-filled “manual” about the Vedanta religious philosophy; and new or retooled stories fleshing out the story of Holden Caulfield, known to generations of readers from The Catcher in the Rye.pbs-preparing-j-d-salinger-bio

If that won’t keep me busy enough, I am yearning to bury my nose in John le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth. It’s about a counter-terror operation codenamed Wildlife, mounted in Britain’s most precious colony, Gibraltar. Its purpose: to capture and abduct a high-value jihadist arms-buyer.

While I am waiting for the book, I am dusting off le Carré’s first and most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. To mark its 50th Anniversary, Penguin have released a beautiful special edition featuring archival material and a special cover design.

It is 1962: the height of the Cold War and only months after the building of the Berlin Wall. Alex Leamas is a hard-working, hard-drinking British intelligence officer whose East Berlin network is in tatters. His agents are either on the run or dead, victims of a ruthlessly efficient East German counter-intelligence officer.

I never get tired of re-reading this breakthrough work. It’s the reason I wrote my first novel, Closing Time, a cold-war novel set in Vienna in 1958.

Which reminds me that perhaps I should work on my own writing. What a unique idea.

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