book of books – For Esme with Love and Squalor and other stories

One of the biggest problems with reading a collection of short stories over a few days then losing the book and taking an enforced break is that it is difficult at the end of a disturbed reading period to try to gather your thoughts about it all.

One of the first things that can be said about this collection of stories is that unlike the last book I read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters… these stories are not linked in the same way and as a result it is slightly easier dipping and then dipping out. It also has the result of showing off different styles of writing and the appreciation of J.D Salinger increases as a result.

With short stories it is sometimes useful to picture where the text first appeared with some of these stories being printed in literary magazines for consumption in a way that is different from this book. With a pressure to grab the reader and keep them engaged there are some stories here that really stand out as examples of how to keep the reader involved and it is worth mentioning a couple.

For Esme with Love and Squalor
An American solider getting ready for D-Day pops into a church to watch choir practice and notices a girl who then follows him with her brother and governess into the café where he is having tea. He strikes up a conversation with her and it turns out that her father and mother are dead and she is mature for her years partly as a result of that but her brother Charles does seem damaged by it.

The narrator tells her he is an author so Esme asks him to write something for her that is not silly but about squalor and so he mentions he will but then the story switches location and the solider has had a nervous breakdown after D-Day. As he sits down to write a letter he notices a package that has been sent and it is from Esme who has sent him her watch, something he admired in the café, and he suddenly feels like sleeping and remembers her asking him to come back with all his mental facilities.

A young boy who has captivated professors round the world with his arguments that he is reincarnated and that the true road to understanding God is through meditation and spiritual concentration. He is challenged by an academic who is on the same boat travelling back from Europe to the US and asks him why he responded to some of the questions professors asked him about predicting death – in response Teddy outlines a possible scenario where his sister pushes him into an empty pool and kills him.

The professor is obviously disturbed not just by Teddy’s views but by his self-confidence and the meeting between them ends with him pausing for thought before running after the 10 year old genius. As he gets down to E deck and nears the pool he hears a shriek of a young girl rebounding off four tiled walls and you realise that the scenario that Teddy sketched out for his own death has happened exactly as he foretold.

Is it well written?
Some of the stories are almost too subtle, Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes as an example, and others seem slightly dated in their wartime setting like Just Before the War with the Eskimos. But in places this feels like a flower opening up to the sunlight with the title story and the final Teddy both having a twist in the first instance moving and in the second disturbing that shows real depth. The ability of a child to pull back a man from the edge of the abyss is described with such light touches that a great deal could be learnt from how he writes that scene.

Should it be read?
As has been previously commented with Salinger, the more you read beyond Catcher in the Rye the more you discover a writer that is capable of delivering much more than just a teenage angst ridden novel. Just like Catcher there is an independence of view that carries through the writing and reappears in some of the characters but there is also a variance of style, observational intelligence and recognition that the reader is strapped in and ready for a few hairpin bends to make this worth reading.

Version read – Penguin paperback


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