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.

East of Eden–John Steinbeck

I read East of Eden over the last week and a half.  I have to say, I usually don’t take this long with a book as good as East of Eden.  However, I felt like it was a book that I needed to prolong.  The richness of it would have overwhelmed had I attempted to rush the reading.  Part of the reason this is so late is that I was still finishing it up.

Melissa Bank and G.D. Gearino both listed East of Eden in their top ten books.  The surprising thing to me is why more people didn’t list it. 

I had to read Of Mice and Men in high school.  While it was a decent enough book, I wasn’t overly thrilled with it.  So, I never was really anxious to read his other work.  I am glad I did however.

There is so much to talk about with East of Eden, that I really don’t know where to begin.  Steinbeck parallels Genesis in a lot of places, mainly the Cain and Abel story.  (To recap for those of you unfamiliar:  Adam and Eve, upon being kicked out of the Garden, had two sons, Cain and Abel.  Cain was a raiser of vegetables and fruit, Abel a shepherd.  Both gave offerings to God, Abel of young, fresh good meat, and Cain of veggies and fruits.  The problem wasn’t (contrary to what anti vegetarians would want you to think) that Cain didn’t give meat.  The problem was that he did not give the best of his crops to God.  God looked more favorably on Abel.  Cain got mad and murdered his brother in a fit of jealous rage.  He was then cast into the wilderness by God. 

Steinbeck has two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles and Aron and Cal (Adam’s children or possibly Charles).  As you can see, he’s not shy about directly paralleling them to Abel and Cain.  Juxtaposing this family, is a huge sprawling Irish American family, the Hamiltons.  The lives intersect in more than one way and more than one generation.  Aron and Cal owe their names to the patriarch of the Hamilton clan. 

Secrets abound in East of Eden, secrets kept from others and secrets kept from ourselves.

I have a few things I wanted to quote from the book.

In one part Steinbeck is talking about older men crying out for the 1800s to end;

“History was secreted in the glands of a million historians.  We must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating, murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all”.  (Personally, this sounds like every century of human history to me).

The older men have this to say “Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch”.  I just found that such an appropriate way to describe aging.  Not necessarily the thighs of women part, but just that everything starts to seem bland.  Strawberries don’t taste the same, the intoxication of sex goes away et cetera et cetera.

There is a section of the book, where Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton and Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant, discuss the very Cain and Abel story that Steinbeck uses as a center point for East of Eden.  I can’t quote it here, as the whole conversation is about 5 or 6 pages long.  However, I did find it an effective way to frame the book in such a way that readers understand better, without disrupting the narrative flow.  Steinbeck does interject himself into the book (in the form of the narrator who is a grandchild of Samuel Hamilton, but you can sometimes hear it as Steinbeck), but not often and not with much interruption.  I contrast this with Les Miserables and Victor Hugo, where you could constantly feel the author’s presence in between bits of narrative, to the point where it could be distracting.

One of the areas where Steinbeck interjects himself is to say this, and I thought it was beautiful, a statement of what art is as well as what life is.

“We have only one story.  All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil.  And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is”. 

It’s another way Steinbeck frames his story for you, as many of the characters do struggle with themselves.  Cal, Adam’s son especially.  Cal and Aron’s mother, she doesn’t struggle much, contrasted with Sam Hamilton’s wife who also doesn’t struggle much.  They’re on opposite ends of the spectrum though, with Cal and Aron’s mother being on the evil side and Liza Hamilton on the good end.  Those two characters are the most fixed and least struggling with themselves.

I checked this out from the library.  But I think I will be buying a copy of it.  And for those of you that know me well, you know that’s high marks of honor for a book.  For those of you that don’t me, well I don’t keep many books, partly due to room and partly due to I read a lot and most of it isn’t worth a 2nd read even if it entertained me immensely the first time around.

See you next week!