6

The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

1

Penguin Moderns: Albert Camus and John Steinbeck

Create Dangerously by Albert Camus **** (#17)
9780241339121In Create Dangerously, French-Algerian author Albert Camus ‘argues passionately that the artist has a responsibility to challenge, provoke and speak up for those who cannot’.  This ‘powerful speech’ has been accompanied by two other pieces, which were also delivered orally, entitled ‘Defences of Intelligence’ and ‘Bread and Freedom’.  The speeches were delivered between 1945 and 1957.

In ‘Create Dangerously’, Camus says, in rather a poignant manner: ‘In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it.  The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.’  The three speeches collected here, the style of which is quite similar, are intelligent, fascinating, and well-informed.  They are filled with thoughtful ideas and discussion pieces.  It seems fitting, in our current tumultuous global climate, to end with the following quote, taken from ‘Bread and Freedom’: ‘… we shall henceforth be sure… that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.’
The Vigilante by John Steinbeck ***** (#18) 9780241338957
I adore John Steinbeck; in everything which I have read of his, I have been struck by the clarity of his writing, and the depth of emotion which he demonstrates.  I was thus very excited to read this selection of his short stories, presented as the eighteenth Penguin Modern book.  Collected here are three stories – ‘The Vigilante’, ‘The Snake’, and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ – set in the Salinas Valley in California, in which Steinbeck ‘explores mob violence, a disturbing encounter and a bitter betrayal’.  All have been taken from Steinbeck’s short story collection, The Long Valley, which was first published in 1938.

The content here is varied.  ‘The Vigilante’ focuses upon a man who first storms a jail along with others, and then watches the lynching of a black prisoner, recounting his experience to a bartender whom he meets later the same evening.  The protagonist of ‘The Snake’ is about a scientist who ‘could kill a thousand animals for knowledge, but not an insect for pleasure’; a woman comes into his seaside laboratory, and requests some rather unusual things of him.  ‘The Chrysanthemums’ tells the story of a farmer’s wife in a rural part of California, who meets a new acquaintance, and learns quite as much from him as she teaches him.

Throughout these stories, Steinbeck’s prose has a pitch and tone which is customary with, and unique to, his work.  He manages to fit so much into a deceptively simple sentence; for instance, in ‘The Vigilante’, he writes: ‘The park lawn was cut to pieces by the feet of the crowd’, conjuring up myriad questions in the reader’s mind.  Steinbeck’s long fiction really packs a punch, and these stories are no different; indeed, I found them quite difficult to read in places.  Their scenes are haunting and memorable.  The stories collected in The Vigilante are fantastic in their breadth, and in the brutality and beauty which sears from the pages.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck ***

The 29th book upon my Classics Club list is yet another Steinbeck novella, The Pearl.  First published in 1947, The Pearl provides a departure from Steinbeck’s usual Californian setting.  Set largely in a poor community somewhere in the Gulf, which consists almost entirely of ‘brush houses’, the protagonist of The Pearl is a native man named Kino, who lacks education.  He lives with his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito.

When a scorpion makes his way into Coyotito’s crib and stings him, the parental roles are reversed somewhat; Juana becomes strong and authoritative, and Kino ‘hovered; he was helpless, he was in the way’.  Steinbeck demonstrates the way in which Juana gains control of the situation in the following manner: ‘And they repeated among themselves, “Juana wants the doctor”.  A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor.  To get him would be a remarkable thing.  The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses.  Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town’.  When the family travel to the doctor’s abode, and a message is sent to him – reclining with a plate full of sweets in bed – by his manservant, he is nothing short of scornful.  The manservant hands him a pouch filled with ‘eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless’, with which Kino and Juana are hoping to pay.  The doctor refuses to see them.

A search ensues, using Kino’s precious canoe – the only thing of monetary value which he owns – to find a more serviceable pearl which the doctor will accept.  The lack of hope in such an endeavour is exemplified thus: ‘But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both’.  The family triumphs, however, finding a pearl which has the power to change their lives for the better: ‘Kino lifted the flesh [of the oyster], and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon.  It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.  It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg.  It was the greatest pearl in the world’.  News of their find soon spreads: ‘The news came early to the beggars in front of the church, and it made them giggle a little with pleasure, for they knew that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky’.

As ever, Steinbeck’s descriptions are striking, and he has a real knack for capturing the world which his protagonists inhabit: ‘The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east’.  Culturally, the novella is well established: ‘Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach…  [He] closed his eyes again to listen to his music.  Perhaps he alone did this and perhaps all of his people did it…  His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they thought or did or heard became a song’.  Racial issues are highlighted, particularly with regard to the wealth which the white inhabitants of the area enjoy, and the poverty which the natives live in.  One of the real strengths in The Pearl is the way in which the cruelty and greed which can come about when money is involved is exemplified.

The rather simplistic narrative style within The Pearl causes it to feel almost fable-like in its telling.  It is not the best told of Steinbeck’s stories, but it is still vivid, particularly with regard to the descriptions given of characters: ‘Kino was young and strong and his black hair hung over his brown forehead.  His eyes were warm and fierce and bright and his mustache was thin and coarse’.  It is fair to say that the novella is largely concerned with the actions of its characters, rather than adding a wealth of hidden depths which many of Steinbeck’s longer works contain; at times, it feels almost like ‘he did this, and then she did this, and then they both did this’ in its style.  Elements of what could be termed magical realism creep in, and I found these fascinating, particularly with regard to Steinbeck’s usual grasp of reality within his fiction.

The Pearl is a relatively engaging novella, and whilst it was by no means my favourite Steinbeck, it still contains many points of interest.  It does, however, lack the majority of the strengths which are prevalent in the author’s other works, and does not hold the power of such works as Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck ****

First published in May 2014.

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was first published in 1942.  Its title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and on reflection, it suits the piece marvellously.  Unlike much of Steinbeck’s other work, no concrete setting has been decided upon within The Moon is Down.  Even the country in which the action happens is ambiguous, with many believing that it is set somewhere in Scandinavia.

The informative afterword to the novella, which has been written by Donald V. Coers, tells the reader that in The Moon is Down, Steinbeck ‘had decided to write a work of fiction using what he had learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations’.  In doing so, Coers goes on to say that Steinbeck ‘refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotype’ for either his setting or his protagonists.  He also believes that The Moon is Down ‘demonstrates the power of ideas’, and one can only concur with this.

The first sentence is striking, and leads on wonderfully to the main thread of the story: ‘By ten forty-five it was all over.  The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished’.  At the beginning of the novella, six of the soldiers who have been involved in a brutal spur-of-the-moment shootout ‘became dead riddled bundles’, and three others are deemed ‘half-dead riddled bundles’.  This repetition of violence makes it all the more chilling.

Steinbeck goes on to write about the way in which, in the occupied town, ‘The days and the weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on…  The people of the conquered country setled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge’.  Steinbeck exemplifies the solidarity of the community throughout, particularly with regard to the attitudes rallied against the outsiders.    The community in question is centered around mining, and the colonel who infiltrates the town tells the Mayor that his people ‘will be in danger if they are rebellious.  We must get the coal, you see.  Our leaders do not tell us how; they order us to get it…  You must make them do the work and thus keep them safe’.  The Mayor responds that the ‘authority is the town… [and] when a direction is set, we all act together’.  The point of view of both sides has been considered throughout, a technique which works marvellously in a novella, and which makes the whole an incredibly rich read despite its deceptively short length.

John Steinbeck

As with Steinbeck’s other work, I was struck immediately by the quality of his writing and his deft skill, both at building characters and rousing compassion for them.  The scenes which he crafts are unfailingly vivid, and everything which he turns his hand to describing comes to life before the very eyes: ‘Beside the fireplace old Doctor Winter sat, beared and simple and benign, historian and physician to the town…  Doctor Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound’.  Joseph, the serving-man belonging to the Mayor, on the other hand, had a life ‘so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple’.  The divisions, like this one, which he creates between his characters have all been so marvellously realised: ‘Joseph had tried carrying Doctor Winter’s remarks below-stairs before and it had always ended the same: Annie always discovered them to be nonsense’.  Such juxtapositions, which can be found at various points throughout the novella, allow Steinbeck to make his work and his characters so distinct.  His perceptions in such matters are always intelligent.

The Moon is Down is a sage novella, written by a man who is a master at creating believable dialogue and conversational patterns between his characters.  He captures their thoughts and feelings in the most sublime of manners; it feels, in consequence, as though he knows them inside out.  The way in which he captures the foreboding which hovers above the town is stunning, and the entire novella is eminently human and thought-provoking.

Purchase from The Book Depository

5

One From the Archive: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

First published in May 2014.

The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940,is due to be released as part of Penguin’s new ‘Great Steinbeck’ series at the end of the month.  A note at the beginning of the book states that the text of this edition is ‘based upon the special fiftieth-anniversary edition of the novel, which reproduced the original text’.  The novel, arguably Steinbeck’s most famous, was first published in 1939, and takes as its subjects the Joad family from Oklahoma, who are intent upon chasing the American Dream. 

A long and informative introduction at the start of the volume, which heralds The Grapes of Wrath ‘the greatest of his seventeen novels’, sets out Steinbeck’s life and the elements which inspired him to write, as well as what he set out to achieve with this particular story.  The introduction goes on to say that ‘Steinbeck’s aggressive mixture of native philosophy, common-sense politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, folk wisdom, and home-spun literary form… qualified the novel as the “American book” he had set out to write’.  Further, it goes on to say that in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck ‘summed up the Depression era’s socially conscious art’.

The opening of the novel is stunning.  Steinbeck is so perceptive; he views scenes with such clarity, and uses even the smallest of details to build up a realistic vision in the mind of his readers.  He cleverly uses nature to demonstrate the ways in which scenes change, and to denote the passing of the seasons.  One of the most memorable such scenes here is in chapter three, when a tortoise tries to make its way across the highway, and is set back on his mission. Steinbeck’s beautiful writing is so vivid that one can almost feel the oppressive heat of the Oklahoma summer beating down upon him- or herself as one reads.  As in much of his work, he sets the visual scene marvellously, and here he does so mainly through the use of colour.  The start of the tale takes place in ‘the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma’, where ‘every day the earth paled’.  Here the Joads, a family of tenant farmers, live.  They are driven from their home in the infamous Dust Bowl due to hardship, and decide to follow the rest of the ‘Okies’ to California, in order to search for a more promising future.

Tom Joad is the first of the family whom we meet.  He has just been released after doing ‘time’ in a facility called McAlester, after murdering a man: ‘[I got] seven years.  I’m sprung in four for keepin’ my nose clean’.  Their experiences as a family unit are very sad, and occasionally almost brutal.  Along with the more obvious, two of the main themes in The Grapes of Wrath are loneliness and the notion of belonging, both of which almost every character is affected by.

On a wider scale, Steinbeck does not just follow the Joads on their physical and metaphorical journey.  Instead, he considers the whole community who are selling up or leaving their homes in Oklahoma, in order to set themselves up in the more promising location of California.  In so doing, we meet a wealth of different characters, from preachers like Jim Casy, who ‘ain’t got the call [of religion] no more’, and those to whom money matters more than anything else.  In consequence, Steinbeck has written such a rich novel, whose story is comprised of many small plots and stories which have been placed atop one another.  One of the strongest elements of The Grapes of Wrath is the way in which he has exemplified how humans can adapt to different and even alien environments, and how the places in which they find themselves can impact so heavily upon them for a wealth of different reasons.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Classics Club #30: ‘Tortilla Flat’ by John Steinbeck ***

Originally published in 1935, Tortilla Flat – Steinbeck’s fourth novel and the first which he found success with – is purported to be ‘also his funniest’ work.  The premise of the novel – set during the Great Depression, ‘when friendship and wine meant more than money’ – intrigued me so much that I found myself immediately adding it to my Classics Club list:

To borrow from the official blurb, the main plotlines of Tortilla Flat are as follows: “Danny is a paisano, descended from the original Spanish settlers who arrived in Monterey, California, centuries before. He values friendship above money and possessions, so when he suddenly inherits two houses [from his grandfather], Danny is quick to offer shelter to his fellow gentlemen of the road. Together, their love of freedom and scorn for material things draws them into daring and often hilarious adventures. That is, until Danny, tiring of his new responsibilities, suddenly disappears…”.

The Penguin edition (pictured) is introduced by Thomas Fensh.  I find that often, Penguin’s introductions do tend to give an awful lot of the plot away, so rather than begin by reading it, I left it until after I’d immersed myself into the story.  Fensh writes that, ‘for many who read Tortilla Flat during the Depression, the novel was pure escapism and entertainment’.  Within the novel, Steinbeck begins to discuss ‘the poor and the downtrodden’, a group of people whom he focused upon in many of the works which followed.  In his own foreword to the 1937 Modern Library Edition of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck ‘suggests the ecological principle that an organism will adapt to its environment: the paisanos are, he writes, “people who merge successfully with their habitat.  In men this is called philosophy, and it is a fine thing”.’

In his preface, Steinbeck sets the scene and tone of the whole in his distinctive manner: ‘This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house…  when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts of men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.  For Danny’s home was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it’.  Tortilla Flat itself, in which both of Danny’s properties are situated, is ‘that uphill district above the town of Monterey… although it isn’t a flat at all’.  Characteristically, too, Tortilla Flat features rather a varied cast of characters, all of whom are held back by their circumstances, but who, largely, try to make the best of life.

Whilst Tortilla Flat is nowhere near Steinbeck’s best work, it is on a par with Cannery Row, and shares many of the same themes to boot.  Socially, the novel is of much importance; it gives us as readers a lens through which to view those affected by the Great Depression.  Steinbeck is adept at weaving in many different themes, and of particular interest here is his demonstration as to how easy it is to both take advantage of others, and to be taken advantage of.  The prose style is rather simplistic in places, but throughout it feels fitting, and the stories nestled within stories gives the whole a marvellous sense of depth.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

American Literature Month: ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck *** (Classics Club #29)

The 29th book upon my Classics Club list is yet another Steinbeck novella, The Pearl.  First published in 1947, The Pearl provides a departure from Steinbeck’s usual Californian setting.  Set largely in a poor community somewhere in the Gulf, which consists almost entirely of ‘brush houses’, the protagonist of The Pearl is a native man named Kino, who lacks education.  He lives with his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito.

When a scorpion makes his way into Coyotito’s crib and stings him, the parental roles are reversed somewhat; Juana becomes strong and authoritative, and Kino ‘hovered; he was helpless, he was in the way’.  Steinbeck demonstrates the way in which Juana gains control of the situation in the following manner: ‘And they repeated among themselves, “Juana wants the doctor”.  A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor.  To get him would be a remarkable thing.  The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses.  Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town’.  When the family travel to the doctor’s abode, and a message is sent to him – reclining with a plate full of sweets in bed – by his manservant, he is nothing short of scornful.  The manservant hands him a pouch filled with ‘eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless’, with which Kino and Juana are hoping to pay.  The doctor refuses to see them.

A search ensues, using Kino’s precious canoe – the only thing of monetary value which he owns – to find a more serviceable pearl which the doctor will accept.  The lack of hope in such an endeavour is exemplified thus: ‘But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both’.  The family triumphs, however, finding a pearl which has the power to change their lives for the better: ‘Kino lifted the flesh [of the oyster], and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon.  It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.  It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg.  It was the greatest pearl in the world’.  News of their find soon spreads: ‘The news came early to the beggars in front of the church, and it made them giggle a little with pleasure, for they knew that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky’.

As ever, Steinbeck’s descriptions are striking, and he has a real knack for capturing the world which his protagonists inhabit: ‘The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east’.  Culturally, the novella is well established: ‘Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach…  [He] closed his eyes again to listen to his music.  Perhaps he alone did this and perhaps all of his people did it…  His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they thought or did or heard became a song’.  Racial issues are highlighted, particularly with regard to the wealth which the white inhabitants of the area enjoy, and the poverty which the natives live in.  One of the real strengths in The Pearl is the way in which the cruelty and greed which can come about when money is involved is exemplified.

The rather simplistic narrative style within The Pearl causes it to feel almost fable-like in its telling.  It is not the best told of Steinbeck’s stories, but it is still vivid, particularly with regard to the descriptions given of characters: ‘Kino was young and strong and his black hair hung over his brown forehead.  His eyes were warm and fierce and bright and his mustache was thin and coarse’.  It is fair to say that the novella is largely concerned with the actions of its characters, rather than adding a wealth of hidden depths which many of Steinbeck’s longer works contain; at times, it feels almost like ‘he did this, and then she did this, and then they both did this’ in its style.  Elements of what could be termed magical realism creep in, and I found these fascinating, particularly with regard to Steinbeck’s usual grasp of reality within his fiction.

The Pearl is a relatively engaging novella, and whilst it was by no means my favourite Steinbeck, it still contains many points of interest.  It does, however, lack the majority of the strengths which are prevalent in the author’s other works, and does not hold the power of such works as Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.

Purchase from The Book Depository

10

Classics Club #31: ‘Cannery Row’ by John Steinbeck ****

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read my posts before that I am a huge fan of John Steinbeck.  When deciding upon the books for my Classics Club list, I incorporated three of his novels, Cannery Row being one of them.  In the novel, ‘Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to draw another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles – warmth, camaraderie, and love’.

First published in 1945, the novel’s fabulous opening lines really set the tone for the whole: ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.  Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses’.

As I invariably am in Steinbeck’s stories, I was struck by the way in which he makes use of each of the senses to build believable and vivid scenes: ‘The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in and out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty’.  The end of the prologue, too, is absolutely perfect, and instantly became one of my favourite passages in literature: ‘How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?  When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch.  You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.  And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves’.

Elements of Cannery Row are incredibly gritty; Steinbeck is so good at letting the darker sides of life manifest themselves within his tales.  In the novel, he focuses upon those who have been shunned by society; largely those below, or just hovering upon, the breadline.  We meet the ‘bums’ who live in a shack owned by Lee Chong, the Chinese owner of a grocery store, as well as brothel madam Dora, who is incredibly kind with regard to such things as charitable donations and nursing the neighbourhood’s sick.  Doc, the owner of the Western Biological Laboratory, is a protagonist whom a lot of the story’s action – and, in part, the community’s spirit – spirals around: ‘He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.  It is said that he has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another!’ The historical context of California in 1932 has been well built.  Amongst other things, Steinbeck makes reference to the Model-T generation, and an epidemic of influenza.

Indeed, there are a number of complex and rather fascinating characters here; Henri, for example, an occasionally eccentric artist, who is building a boat which he never finishes.  Doc tells his colleague, Hazel, that the following reason is responsible for his neverending project: ‘”But suppose he finishes his boat.  Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’  Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water.  So you see, he never finishes the boat – so he doesn’t even have to launch it.”‘

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck presents a fabulous look into a complex and vibrant community, making it clear that each and every individual who has made this particular part of Monterey their home needs one another in order to both survive and be content.  Throughout, characters are reliant upon one another, and the boundaries of this interdependence shift as the novel goes on.  Whilst it is not his most engaging novel, I still very much enjoyed my foray into Cannery Row.  I can only be glad that I did so from the boundaries of my armchair.

Purchase from The Book Depository