|Teenage literary confessions|
|Written by Charlotte K. Jarmy|
|Wednesday, 21 January 2009|
Winter is the perfect time to retreat into books you’ve heard about but have put off because of all the details of daily life. I have recently read three books that provided a feeling of excitement: “Slam” by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Trade, 2008), “The Other” by David Guterson (Knopf, 2008) and “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink (Pantheon, 1997).
Amazing! In two weeks, I finished the first two books and opened to the front page of “The Reader.” I blinked as I read the opening line: “When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis.” Another story of teenage angst. Could my mind accept this third plunge into the world of Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s most-remembered young narrator? I probably should have put off reading Schlink’s book, which already has been made into a much-discussed film.
Here I am, a senior former English teacher appalled that the son of my son rebels against the literary word. But I like challenges. Therefore, I delved into “Slam,” the first-person narration of an English teenager dealing with a young “mum” who at 16 gave birth to him. The boy finds a philosophical adviser in a large poster of a famous athlete, whom he talks to and who he believes talks back to him. His involvement with Alicia, a lovely girl of upper-class parents, changes his life and creates a demand that he grow up too fast. The novel is an easy read, full of contemporary vocabulary that momentarily made me wonder if I should offer this book to my grandson. If he reads the well-written story, it may open his eyes to the realization that his problems are not unique.
The second book, “The Other,” is not an easy read. It deals with the powerful bond between two teenage boys because of a blood oath that they would be forever true. John William, the son of wealthy parents who becomes the central character of the novel, is extremely intelligent but a natural rebel against the world that he believes is stupid and hypocritical. His friend, Neil Countryman, lives in a different atmosphere with working-class parents who praise their son’s desire to write and teach.
True to his fierce dislike of modern values, John William becomes a determined hermit, using his cherished understanding of nature to create a world of total self-reliance. The conflict inside Neil is that his youthful promise makes him desperate to help his friend survive. The book builds up the tension in Neil.
What a difference between the highly literary discussions these boys have compared to the teenager of “Slam,” whose main ambition is to be a top-rated skateboarder. Good writing comes in both styles, the simple and the complex.
“The Reader,” a novel originally published in German, is compellingly translated by Carol Janeway. An undertone of sadness and guilt pervades this novel, making its love story painful to read. The narrator, a 15-year-old, is unlike the main characters in the other books, but oddly they too were about the inner longings of youth facing difficult choices as they move from innocence to the pain of adult reality. Schlink’s spare, clear writing makes his novel easy to read. The boy remembers reading book after book to his lover, an older woman, Hannah, who carries a secret that nearly destroys her life. We are swept along with the unfolding knowledge that Hannah was a defendant in the post-World War II Nazi concentration camp trials. The author poses a very moral question: Where does the guilt belong? The narrator struggles to acknowledge a widespread undercurrent of guilt among the silent majority, even among the second generation.
What this headlong rush into devouring three books means to me is that I have rediscovered the muse that beckons most writers: the absolute necessity to absorb and understand fine stories of human relationships.Charlotte Kaye Jarmy is a Los Altos resident and longtime contributor to the Town Crier.
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