The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Remember me talking about books I was familiar with but wasn’t really familiar with? We’ve hit another one, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. I was familiar with the title because of the old movie. Really familiar. However, I never saw the movie. Didn’t have a clue, not the slightest clue, what it was about. Didn’t even know there was a book. Literally, all I knew was the title. Absolutely clueless as to anything about the book, even the context.

So…what is The Postman Always Rings Twice about?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Walter Kirn)

Frank Chambers is a drifter. Depression era. He stops in to a Greek’s restaurant/gas station and ends up being offered a job. He isn’t intending to take it, but then he catches sight of the Greek’s wife:

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

‘Meet my wife.’

She didn’t look at me. I nodded at the Greek, gave my cigar a kind of wave, and that was all. She went out with the dishes, and so far as he and I were concerned, she hadn’t even been there. I left, then, but in five minutes I was back[.]

Turns out, the woman (Cora) is only with the Greek because he rescued her from an even more dismal life. Faced with Frank, she is no longer satisfied with the Greek. She begins to despise the Greek, and falls for Frank. Unable to take it anymore, because Frank can only offer her the life of a drifter if they just leave, they decide to kill the Greek.

Fun ensues.

There’s actually a dark comedy of errors for a bit. However, eventually, the Greek dies. They seem locked in for conviction and end up turning on each other, but then they’re suddenly free. However, the fact that they turned on each other can’t go away. It eats them from the inside:

‘I guess so. But I thought an awful lot, Frank. Last night. About you and me, and the movies, and why I flopped, and the hash house, and the road, and why you like it. We’re just two punks, Frank. God kissed us on the brow that night. He gave us all that two people can ever have. And we just weren’t the kind that could have it. We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it. It’s a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.’

I actually dug The Postman Always Rings Twice quite a bit. Minimalistic and gritty, the words are like punches to a speed bag. It isn’t horrifically complicated, but it get the job done and does it well. It’s also much more moving than I would have expected. The Postman Always Rings Twice makes me want to read more of Cain’s work.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

I need to offer my sincerest and humblest apologies for posting late twice in a row.  Last week I had very legitimate reasons.  This week, I simply forgot.  Now! Onto everything else.

I loved, loved, loved Grapes of Wrath by the end.  Saturday night Amelia was having a sleepover at a friend’s.  Leaving Greg and I by ourselves for the evening.  We went out for Thai food (where Greg decided again that he should have gotten what I got-he did the same thing at Pepperjax too).  Then we came home and I sat down and picked up Grapes of Wrath.  And that was all there was for 2 hours.  Greg fell asleep even! So, yeah.  Poor Greg, getting forgotten for Grapes of Wrath.  Don’t worry, we watched something on tv afterwards and spent time talking.  So.  It’s all good.

This week I am talking about Romeo and Juliet.  If you haven’t ever heard of Romeo and Juliet before, please make sure to blast the rock you’re living under and go research it.  Emma Donoghue and Lorrie Moore listed R&J in their top tens.

Ok.  So, while I admit that there is definitely a fair amount of wit in portions of Romeo and Juliet:

From Act 1, Scene 2:

CAPULET
My child is yet a stranger in the world.
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years.
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

PARIS
Younger than she are happy mothers made.

CAPULET
And too soon marred are those so early made.
Act 1 Scene 3:

LADY CAPULET
Marry, that ‘marry’ is the very theme
I came to talk of.—Tell me, daughter Juliet,
How stands your disposition to be married?

JULIET
It is an honor that I dream not of.

And something from Act 1, Scene 1 that might be familiar to some even if you have not read the play:

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON
I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON, aside to Gregory
Is the law of our side, if I
say “Ay”?

GREGORY, aside to Sampson
No.

SAMPSON
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir,
but I bite my thumb, sir.

And while Romeo & Juliet has some of the best writing of physical attraction since Song of Solomon in the Bible:

From Act 1, Scene 2:

ROMEO
When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fire;
And these who, often drowned, could never die,
Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars.
One fairer than my love? The all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun

From Act 1, Scene 5:

ROMEO
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Romeo and Juliet also employed dramatic irony in such brilliance that it’s rarely surpassed, even 500 years or so later.  (For information on that if you have not read the play, just look up the plot on any website talking about it.  I figure y’all are smart enough to work it out on your own ;) )

Even with all of these things.

I didn’t really like Romeo and Juliet much in high school when I read it, in college when I re read it and this week when I re-read it again.

I think it might be partly because of how we now see the tale.  I think that Shakespeare wanted to show the irony of how these two families feuded so much (Capulets & Montagues), refused to allow their children to be together even in the face of love, and then after a tragedy united together and resolved their feud.  But, now it’s reduced to the romance between Romeo and Juliet.  And, really, the romance is farcical.  It’s two very young teenagers, who fall in “love at first sight” and base a lifetime of decisions based upon that first sight.  Romeo is lamenting and mourning over a beautiful woman 2 minutes before he sees Juliet.  Then suddenly upon seeing Juliet is in raptures and has forgotten the other woman.  That suggests Romeo thinks with neither his heart or his head.  And Juliet?  Well she’s also captured in love by the pretty words that fall from Romeo’s lips and thinks he’s everything.  Just silly.  And I thought this at 14 too, the same age as the two of them.  So it’s not just as a grown up looking at teenagers that I’m saying this.

Now:

I will say that I absolutely loved:

This

Because of:

This

(if you only watch one of these links, watch the 2nd one.  Otherwise my paragraph below won’t make as much sense.)

Probably because all of the original language was used instead of changing it up.  They changed the world around the words but kept the words the same, showing the universality and endurance of Shakespeare.

So, if you haven’t read the play but think you might, I’d recommend the 1996 Romeo and Juliet movie.  Get over any Leonardo Dicaprio dislike you might have.  Remind yourself that he was never once Justin Bieber.  It should help.  There is also no Celine Dion.  I promise. This is the only time I’d recommend a movie over a book fyi, and that’s merely because they use all of the original language from the actual play, and since it is a play you’d typically be viewing it anyway :) It’s written to be viewed.

Enjoy.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I will admit this right up front at the beginning of this post.

I still have not finished Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

However, I am loving it.

Here are the reasons I’m not done.  I’ve had one of those weeks where events conspired to pack just as much as possible into them.  Months ago, we signed Amelia up for a class at the Rose Theatre (the children’s theater here in Omaha), specifically for a camp about Mary Poppins (which is their big spring production) because she’d have the chance to go behind stage et cetera.  Well, then about 6 weeks ago, Vacation Bible School at our church was planned for this week.  Luckily in the evening, since we had camp in the afternoon.  THEN about a week and a half ago, where I work some of the time doing title reports when they get too many orders called.  They needed me to work.  Of course.  9 to 2.  So, I have basically had about 2 hours total a day to do something other than events.  And things like dishes, meal prep and staring into space while drooling all had to occur in there.

But, maybe, because of the slower pace of reading, I’m loving this book.  Last week, I couldn’t get into it, which is part of the reason I didn’t have it finished last week when Dave blogged in my place.  But, not even a quarter into it and it began to work its magic on me.

The following authors listed it as favorites: Sherman Alexie, Pearl Cleage, Kent Haruf, Ken Kalfus, Wally Lamb, George Pelacanos, Barry Unsworth, Susan Vreeland and Tom Wolfe.

I have always said that I’ve learned more history from historical novels or contemporary novels written in times now historical than I ever have from history textbooks.  Grapes of Wrath proves my point.  I, of course, knew about the Dust Bowl, and had even heard about the migration west of those whose farms got plowed under and they got shoved off the land.  But, at the same time I didn’t know about it.  Not truly.  It was just a random historical fact that in my readings about the Great Depression or Midwest history type stuff had come up.  Now, I feel like I know.  I know how it was to lose the right to farm the land that had been in my family for three generations.  I know what it was like to find a group of people camping alongside the road in the panhandle of Texas and join the camp for the night.  I know what it was like to watch loved ones die along the way.  I know what it was like to get your hopes up high for a better way of life, only to slowly realize that it wasn’t the truth.  I know how it feels to feel like you’ve been cheated by “the man” all along.

Great books of whatever genre, whatever time period, bring you into the world of the story.  You are a part of it.  It’s the weird author/reader symbiosis that leads to no two people reading the same novel, even if they’re both reading a book with the words Grapes of Wrath on the cover and following the Joad family on their trip across the country to California.  And when you aren’t actively reading it because you’re in your car (listening to an audiobook maybe even) or at work (listening to an audiobook maybe), greeting people and kids to Vacation Bible School (definitely not listening to an audio book), laying in bed with your flailing 7 year old next to you refusing to sleep (also definitely not listening to an audio book at that point, but maybe playing Words Tour while lying there), it’s with you still.  Part of your mind is with the story, part of your mind is still in that world.  And when you’re done with the book, the world leaves a residue in your soul.  And I think that explains why so many people pick a lot of the same books as ones worth reading.  And why so many of us re-read books.  We miss the world(s) in them.

Next week, I’ll give my final opinion of Grapes of Wrath while talking about my next selection (which is possibly going to be Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, I am not decided).

Have a great weekend everyone! Mine includes going to see Mary Poppins, the play, and other various items that I’m not remembering.

Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams

Change up in the routine, folks. Kim’s book for this week is taking longer than she expected, so I’m going twice in a row. Kim will be back next week, and the week after, so no worries. Anyway, on with the show:

Willie and Liberty rent a home of their own. However, they spend much of their time breaking into vacation homes of the wealthy in Florida. They don’t really steal anything; they just live there for a while. Sooner or later, they leave and break in somewhere else. This is the basic set up for Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Douglas Coupland)

Willie and Liberty broke into a house on Crab Key and lived there for a week. The house had a tile near the door that said CASA VIRGINIA. It was the home of Virginia and Chip Maxwell. It was two stories overlooking the Gulf, and had been built with the trickle-down from Phillips-head screw money. Willie achieved entry by ladder and a thin, flexible strip of aluminum. Crab key was tiny and exclusive, belonging to an association that had an armed security patrol. The houses on Crab Key were owned by people so wealthy that they were hardly ever there.

Liberty and Willie saw the guard each morning. He was an old, lonely man, rather glossy and puffed up, his jaw puckered in and his chest puffed out like a child concentrating on making a muscle. He told Willie he had a cancer, but that grapefruit was curing it. He told Willie that they had wanted to cut again, but he had chosen grapefruit instead. He talked quite openly to Willie, as though they had been correspondents for years, just now meeting. Willie and Liberty must have reminded him of people he thought he knew, people who must have looked appropriate living in a million dollar soaring cypress house on the beach. He thought they were guests of the owners.

There doesn’t seem to be much point to what Willie and Liberty are doing, but perhaps that’s because we see this through Liberty and she doesn’t really seem to think there is a point. She’s just following Willie. They’ve been together since they were children and her parents dumped her with Willie’s family. However, Willie is drifting further and further away from her as time goes on:

Willie stood up and leaned toward Liberty, his hands on the table. His hands were tanned and strong and clean. His wedding band was slender. Liberty remembered the wedding clearly. It had taken place in a lush green tropical forest in the time of the dinosaurs. “I’ve got to shake myself a little loose,” he said. “Do you want the truck?”

“No,” Liberty said.

“Just a few days,” Willie said. “Later,” he said to Charlie. He left.

“A butterfly vanishes from the world of caterpillars,” Charlie said.

Liberty saw Clem get up and look after the truck as it drove away. He trotted over to the restaurant and peered in, resting his muzzle on a window box of geraniums. Liberty waved to him.

Much of the book seems to center on isolation. Willie seems isolated unto himself, unreachable. Liberty is isolated from everyone but Willie, and increasingly from Willie. Everyone they run into seems terribly isolated and needing connection, connection they seem to want to fight by connection to Liberty. For the most part, she isn’t interested. It just happens and Liberty and Willie continue to drift:

“Okay,” the woman said, rolling the beer can across her midriff, “I will tell you the worst thing that happened to me. I was just a little kid like you and I was at the circus. I was having such a wonderful time at the circus. The thing I liked best were the aerialists. I didn’t like the clowns and I didn’t like the man who caught the lead balls on the back of his neck and I didn’t like the tigers, I liked the aerialists. I loved seeing them up so high, flying through the air, sequins on their costumes flashing. I wanted to be an aerialist. Well I was at the circus and a man on a trapeze missed the net and fell into the audience. He fell on me and broke my collarbone. He smelled terrible. I mean, really terrible, like a big mouse or something.”

The woman chuckled. This little group depressed her. She wanted to tell them everything. The truth was, she was worried. She could still bleach her hair and meet a man in a bar, maybe even manage a little water-skiing, but before her lay increasingly untrustworthy memories, hangovers, and pain during intercourse. A tooth had cracked the last time she ate barbecue. Innuendoes were being made. Diagnoses were being written.

“That actually wasn’t the worst thing,” she said. She really was high as a kite. “That happened to a little kid. The worst thing that happened to the lady you see before you was that she was robbed. She was robbed, but the didn’t take anything. Broke into her house and didn’t take a goddamn thing.” She folded her beer can in half with a pop. “I’m going to turn the light off on you now,” she said. Turning out the light on them, standing there, shutting the door on them, their worst things unsaid, unknown, unaccounted for, made her feel a little better.

Breaking and Entering is a challenging book to evaluate. Much of what is significant movement is subtle and difficult to pin down. There isn’t a neat cycle of conflict and resolution, but there is movement, interesting characters, and a surprising amount of human grace inside. A lot of people want things wrapped up simpler and get frustrated by Breaking and Entering. It’s good, though. If you can be patient and not insist on the book working a way that it just doesn’t simply because other books work that way, you might come to love Breaking and Entering. I’m not exactly an adoring fan here, but I was highly impressed with what I found.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

We’re all familiar with stories centering on people pulling off herculean tasks. Sometimes people just have need to do something that ends up seeming staggering to others, likely even themselves if they aren’t simply foolhardy. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a little bit different though, and that intrigues me. The early massive cattle drive from Texas to Montana when no one had done such a thing was certainly herculean…but it does seem a bit unusual in the fact that they didn’t really have any need to do it.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Arthur Golden)

Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call are aging men, widely famous for years of service as Texas Rangers. An old Ranger buddy shows up with stories about Montana and Call decides to rustle a massive herd of cattle from Mexico and head on up there, despite having more than enough money and all the adventures he really needed to ever have. Gus sees the pointlessness in it, but goes along anyway. Despite his carping, he wouldn’t miss it. Really, it’s more about facing the sunset in a way that is how they have proudly lived their lives than any actual need to accomplish the massive endeavor.

It was that they had roved too long, Augustus concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.

Indeed, it seemed to Augustus that that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.

Augustus had not expected that Call would be satisfied just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.

“I tell you what, Call,” Augustus said. “You and Deets and Pea go on up there to Montany and build a nice snug cabin with a good fireplace and at least one bed, so it’ll be waiting when I get there. Then clear out the last of the Cheyenne and the Blackfeet and any Sioux that look rambunctious. When you’ve done that, me and Jake and Newt will gather up a herd and meet you on Powder River.”

Call looked almost amused.

But don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t just about Gus and Call. There’s love, people trying to love, people trying to survive and make a living, people trying to deal with their pasts, and people being cruel to each other. There’s a lot to Lonesome Dove, as complex a maze of human stories as one might expect in a book this massive. It’s not just a pulp western, regardless what I may have originally feared when I picked up the book.

I’m not usually one for epics or westerns, so I didn’t expect to think a huge amount of an epic western. However, there is a reason why Lonesome Dove is regarded as perhaps the best epic western around. If someone thinks more highly of another, I haven’t heard about it.

Despite a staggering number of characters, I didn’t have any problem keeping people straight. Also, despite a staggering number of pages, McMurtry didn’t seem to have any problem keeping his eye on his scope, a statement about how humans live their lives made in such a way that you can always grasp but perhaps not completely articulate. Lonesome Dove moves, it thrills, and it does so in an unpretentious fashion. In short, which is perhaps not a term really applicable to Lonesome Dove, it’s some very fine writing.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

First, I apologize for the lateness of my post.

Yesterday, I got to have adventures that only parents of small children really get to have. Ones involving a sore throat that vanishes, so no doctor visit needed, to a scalp getting cut open on the corner of a stool, so doctor visit needed, to a “just in case” throat swab turning into an antibiotic for strep throat. Yeah, one of those days yesterday.

Anyway, I read Treasure Island this week. This is probably one of those books that I -should- have read as a child but didn’t. I don’t know if it was never pointed my way because I was a girl. Or if it was pointed my way but I was more interested in pioneer girls, twins with identical descriptions right down to the necklace they wore always on page 6 of each book, or money making clubs involving 4 very different girls with 4 very different clothing and personality styles than with pirates and treasure. ***If you can name all 3 book series I just alluded to, I will send you a book from my bookshelves. I won’t tell you which one, but it will be one that I’ve reviewed for this blog.*** (Dave, you’re exempt from this as you probably have all the books I would consider sending already)

Anyway, I never read it. And now I wish I had. It would have been a fun re-read. As it was, as an adult, I still really was absorbed in the story.

The copy of the book that I checked out from the library has a quote from J.M. Barrie on it:
“Over Treasure Island I let my fire die in winter without knowing that I was freezing”.

I never got quite as bad as Mr. Barrie (also, the advent of electric heat really helped), I was pretty into it. I even managed to read a chapter while waiting for the doctor to come staple my daughter’s head. (She was fine by this point and was opening drawers in the exam room. And Greg was there. Before you think I was some inattentive mom who doesn’t care).

Thomas Keneally listed Treasure Island in his top ten.

If you’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, or any other variety of pirate movies, you have watched bits and pieces of Treasure Island already. Stevenson’s work influenced portrayals of pirates in literature and cinema almost from the beginning. J.M. Barrie, after rebuilding his fire and flexing his frozen fingers, proceeded to use Stevenson as an influence for Smee and Capt Hook and all things pirates in Peter Pan.

Treasure Island is told mainly by the view point of a young man, Mr. Hawkins. The antagonist in the story is Long John Silver. Thinking on it, he does resemble the fast food restaurant he is named after. He can seem very, very nice on the surface, making you think you’re getting a true gentleman. But, after, after he’s wormed his way into your life, well then he turns nasty. He keeps you up at night, he makes you fear for your life. But yet, after all of that, he can sit down and charm you all over again. Kudos to the namer of Long John Silver’s!

There’s a pirate’s buried treasure on an island. There’s a ship full of pirates who are disguised as honest men who mutiny. There’s treachery (on both the “good” and “bad” sides), courage, slyness, honor (on both the “good” and the “bad” side), murder (on both sides), stranded marooned pirates, and riches beyond all imaginings that are as drenched in blood as Indiana Jones movies’ treasures.

Just read it. If you haven’t already. If you have kids, read it to them. (Right now, Amelia is more into Princess Palace Pets, but one day I will get this read to her, ONE DAY!).

Trust me. Read it.

Norwood by Charles Portis

I got another surprise (readers of my personal blog will know what I mean by ‘another’) when I picked up Norwood by Charles Portis. I don’t know Portis, but I know he wrote True Grit. I haven’t read it, or seen any of the versions of the movie, (or realized that Kim was coincidentally going to review it the week before I posted this already written review) but I know enough about it to know cowboys are involved. For some reason, I imagined Norwood would somehow be related.

It isn’t.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Walter Kirn)

Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit. The main character wears a cowboy hat and wants to be a country singer, but that’s about it. It’s set around the Korean war. No ranches. That was a good thing for me, though. I didn’t really want to read about cowboys.

Norwood Pratt comes home from the Korean War to take care of his adult sister in Ralph, Texas after his father dies. His sister recovers herself shortly, and Norwood begins to feel trapped:

The job worked out too well. Money and position went to Vernell’s head. She stopped crying. Her health and posture improved. She even became something of a flirt. She grew daily more confident and assertive and at home she would drop the names of prominent Lions and Kiwanians. Norwood listened in cold silence as she brought home choice downtown gossip and made familiar references to undertakers and lawyers and Ford dealers. Norwood had nothing to counter with. No one you could quote traded at the Nipper station. Customers were local Negroes and high school kids, and out-of-state felons in flight from prosecution and other economy-minded transients, most of whom carried their own strange motor oil in the back seats, oil that was stranger and cheaper than anything even in the Nipper inventory. Some weeks, with her tips, Vernell made more money than Norwood. It was a terrible state of affairs and Norwood would not have believed that things were to become worse almost overnight.

Then with absolutely no warning Vernell married a disabled veteran named Bill Bird and brought him home to live in the little house on the highway. Bill Bird was an older man. He had drifted into Ralph for no very clear reason after being discharged from the VA hospital in Dallas. He took a room at the New Ralph Hotel, monthly rate, and passed his time in the coffee shop, at the corner table under the an, reading Pageant and Grit and pondering the graphs in U.S. News & World Report. Vernell took to Bill Bird at once. She liked his quiet, thoughtful air and his scholarship. She kept his cup filled with coffee and during lulls she would sit at this table and enjoy him. Bill Bird was at the same time attentive to Vernell in many little ways.

Norwood ends up taking off on an adventure when a questionable businessman hires him to drive a car to New York City, where Norwood hopes to get some money owed him by an old military buddy. Norwood jettisons the car when he finds out its stolen, and the adventures only increase from there…though at a leisurely pace.

Getting engaged to a woman on a bus, meeting the world’s second shortest midget, rescuing a college educated chicken, Norwood has an interesting journey around the country. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more engaging than my regular drives between Omaha and Denver.

Norwood was refreshingly different from what I expected. I found it unforced and plainspoken, but still interestingly odd. The reason for the drive behind the book seems a little elusive, but it’s still a pleasure to read anyway. Norwood certainly presents an interesting and vivid picture of a particular era in America.