2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Drama, Expressionism, Gay Lit, Gender Studies, GLBT, Literature, Madness, Play, PTSD, Sexuality, Tennessee Williams, Tragedy

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

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1001 Books, 2013 Challenges, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Modern March, Modernism, Nathanael West

Thoughts: Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

294459Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 21

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Miss Lonelyhearts is the journalistic pseudonym for a male newspaper man who aspires to have his own gossip column.  The reader is never told his true name, but it is his journey we follow.  Miss Lonelyhearts has a deep and profound faith in Christ and Christianity.  He becomes depressed by the letters he receives on a daily basis, from sad, sick, abused, and lonely men and women who are seeking his advice.  He believes that Christ is the answer but is continuously mocked by his editor, Shrike, who derides his religion and who believes that art is the true answer. Miss Lonelyhearts has a stone where his soul should be – coldness where he should have passion.  He relieves the ache of this by attempting to make love to women, his own girlfriend as well as others (even having affairs with his boss’s wife & some of his faithful readers).  These affairs, coupled with his inability to connect with other people, will lead to his disillusionment and demise.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

In addition to Miss Lonelyhearts, who is the novella’s main character and Christ-figure, there are a few others who complete the cast.  First is Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s editor – Shrike is a womanizer, a hedonist who lives for pleasure, though he cannot get any from his wife, and, essentially, the novella’s anti-Christ (though he survives and thrives, interestingly enough).  Shrike is married to a virginal woman named Marry, which is kind of hilarious, if a bit heavy-handed.  Betty is Miss Lonelyhearts’s fiancée and she represents the good, the naïve – the sheep, if you will.  She praises the country and hates the city, believing it to be the cause of Miss Lonelyhearts’s anxiety and unhappiness (or illness, as she calls it).  In addition to these are Mrs. Doyle, the story’s Mary Magdalene, and her husband Mr. Doyle, a cripple who Miss Lonelyhearts attempts, and fails, to heal.  The rest of the cast are made up of minor characters, such an elderly homosexual man (whose presence exposes a bit of the early psychoanalytical obsession with homosexual “perversion”), the letter-writers who turn to Miss Lonelyhearts for help, and some co-workers at the newspaper.  West knows what he is doing with his characters and, aside from the letter-writers who all tend to write the same way, despite having different backgrounds and problems, most of the characters serve a distinct purpose and come across with believable, individual personalities.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

West’s prose is raw, graphic, and emotionally American.  His narration is swift and to the point, with moments of high and romantic description employed at appropriate intervals.  The dialogue is believable even when certain of the situations are not, but the scenes where Miss Lonelyhearts is alone in his room and coming to terms with his fanaticism (he admits to needing to hold himself in check or risk losing himself completely to an obsessive, extreme  zealotry) are the most poignant of all.  The incorporation of letters from the newspaper audience allows for a broader view of the American disillusionment, without necessitating the inclusion of too many characters which, in a novella of approximately 65 pages, is both necessary and effective.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Nathanael West’s works are deeply concerned with Depression-era America.  He, like John Steinbeck, wrote stories about the American Dream and how truly unachievable that dream was.  Unlike Steinbeck, however, West’s characters are not compassionate – there is no one to root for and, in fact, many are masterful grotesques.  He follows in the footsteps of Sherwood Anderson, creating characters who are less individuals than they are the embodiment of a seedy, disappointing element of humanity.  West was a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist and, coincidentally, died the same weekend as his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Hollywood novelist who explored the darker, disappointing side of the American dream.  Miss Lonelyhearts, though short, packs a punch.  West ironically employs the literary Christ figure, as he does in Day of the Locust and, in both books, it is a failed Christ and a failure of Christian faith in general being presented.  SPOILERS FOLLOW: Miss Lonelyhearts himself goes through Christ’s journey (three days of “death”, a “Last Supper”, and a “Resurrection”) only to be killed (crucified) by one who lacks faith in him.  Unlike Christ, who sacrificed himself for others, Miss Lonelyhearts is killed for betraying another man. Other themes include castration (one which would become increasingly important with the Beat generation), the Great Depression, and the frustrated American Dream.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Great Depression, Loss of American Dream, Castration, Christian Allegory, Social Anxiety, Hollywood novel.

Notable Quotes:

“At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.”

“He read it for the same reason an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain.”

“He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.”

“Art Is a Way Out. Do not let life overwhelm you. When the old paths are choked with the debris of failure, look for newer and fresher paths. Art is just such a path. Art is distilled from suffering.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 1 completed for the Modern March event.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 11 completed for the Classics Club Challenge.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 134 completed for the 1,001 Books TBR Before You Die Challenge.

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American Lit, Anita Loos, Book Review, Epistolary, Feminism, Fiction, Gender Studies, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, PhD

Thoughts: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

512704Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 11

I first read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in graduate school (2007?), as part of a 20th Century American Literature class. I loved that class, and the professor, because we read primarily unexpected texts – important ones, and ones which said much about the culture and politics of the time, but books which are nonetheless often overlooked, particularly in the classroom setting (such as Nathanael West’s, Day of the Locust, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, etc.). What I loved about the book when I first read it was its humor. Anita Loos’s protagonist, Lorelei Lee, a genuine flapper and perhaps America’s first sensational gold-digger, is also the epitome (perhaps the originator) of the all-too-recognizable “blonde joke.” Her story is one of “education” and “morals” – a girl who is on a journey to improve herself, except that improvement, in Lorelei’s case, simply means getting her hands on as many jewels and as much money as she possibly can.

Along for the ride is Lorelei’s best friend, Dorothy, who, while a flapper, is much more sensible than Lorelei and truly is in search of love, rather than money – a claim Lorelei makes of herself all along, but the evidence repeatedly says otherwise. Dorothy is outspoken and direct about what she wants, and this attitude – though feminists might champion it- cause Lorelei to think that it is Dorothy who is in need of “education” and “improvement.” The joke, of course, is that it is Lorelei whose choices are highly suspect and rather immoral.

Upon reading the book for a second time (this time for a Gender Studies course in my doctoral program), I find that I love all of the same things, including the humor, the wit, and the wild adventures, but I also responded strongly to the bond between Dorothy and Lorelei and also to the subversive themes, particularly women in traditional male roles (dominating sexual/romantic relationships, traveling abroad without chaperones, etc.). Much of what this book is about, and why it is so great, can be summed up by the following passage:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of a gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

The spelling and grammar errors, the flippant attitude, the game of conceal and reveal (quite prevalent in this book – she has a lot of sexual encounters, for instance, though she never, ever specifically mentions them. She does, however, mention that this “diary” of hers might be given to a gentleman, one day, so we know she’s not revealing everything), the faux-innocence, it’s all here. What is interesting about Lorelei is that she seems to think that everything is a result of fate. She never takes responsibility for the things she does, though she is a character of extreme agency. For instance, when the above scene is referred to again later, Lorelei never says “I shot the man;” instead, see says that “Mr. Jennings came to be shot.” This victim-esque mentality comes about in many ways, as when she is “abused” by wealthier men and women, whom she will later exact revenge upon (though she was in the wrong in the first place), or in her general gold-digging nature – she believes she is a girl “that things happen to,” which leaves her free to make all sorts of dubious decisions and not feel any kind of guilt or remorse about them. She is a woman with a bad reputation (which even Dorothy jokes about, though Lorelei never “gets” the joke) – she’s understood by others to be sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt, yet she doesn’t see these things in herself; ironically, she ultimately seeks “saving” (rather than “education”) by marrying a religious man who works as a censor (hilarious considering both Lorelei’s personality as well as Anita Loos’s career as a screenwriter).

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_posterThis book has received wide and varied reactions, from James Joyce who fell in love with it and reserved his ailing eyesight for the serial installments (the book having first been published in chapters, through Harper’s Bazaar) and Edith Wharton, who called it “the great American novel;” to William Faulkner, who absolutely loathed it. Many people are familiar with the 1950s film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The film, too, is brilliant, but readers should keep in mind that the two are very different. Much of the book’s essence is changed to suit the 1950s mentality and to strengthen the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy (a relationship which is often stained in the book, but which is paramount in the film). Leaving the film aside, which one might argue is perhaps more feminist, the book is deceptively complex. Lorelei comes across, in her diary, as a type of brainless valley girl, full of “Like’s” and “So’s;” but this is Loos’s genius. She exposes the underbelly of 1920s hypocrisy and morality in a raw and humorous way. As Loos herself mentions in the introduction, this book was enormously popular in Russia, where it was likened to the dreary, often fatalistic social works of Tolstoy and this is because, leaving out the humor, Loos’s depiction of the world, of capitalism, sexual commodities, body image, and the treatment of women, is all very bleak. It’s a fun ride but, somehow, a dangerously serious one, too.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Studies, Feminism, Women’s Literature, 1920s American Literature, Flappers, Jazz Age, Modernism, Epistolary.

Notable Quotes:
“Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.”

“Does this boat go to Europe, France?”

“Memory is more incredible than ink.”

“I always think that the most delightful thing about traveling is to always be running into Americans and to always feel at home.”

“Fate keeps on happening”

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2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Realism, Regionalism, Willa Cather

Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

51T04Q139GLO Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

What can I say about Willa Cather?  Not enough, certainly.  She is known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, chronicler of American Pioneer life, and for good reason.  O Pioneers! is the first in a trilogy known as the “Prairie Trilogy”; it is followed by Song of the Lark and My Antonia.  I have been, until now, more familiar with Cather’s later works, such as A Lost Lady, and there is a striking difference between her earlier works of Realism and the later move to Modernism.  In A Lost Lady, one can witness that shift in action, but O Pioneers! is all Realism (with a bit of sensational romance thrown in vis-a-vis the likes of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Thomas Hardy). 

Alexandra Bergson is the eldest child and only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bergson, who have emigrated from Sweden to make a home and farm on the Nebraska prairie.  Things do not go as planned.  The land is difficult to farm, the climate is difficult to live in, and the people – a hodgepodge of French, Swedish, and other nationalities are not always on the best of terms.  But when the farm becomes Alexandra’s, she soon proves her prowess at managing a household (or three) and cultivating the land, so much so that she becomes one of the most prosperous landowners in the region.  This success does not come without sacrifice.  She spends her young adulthood and middle years alone and lonely, sacrificing love and courtship to take care of her younger siblings and to honor the dying wishes of her father.  Much of the story seems to be a lament – a commentary on the difficult way of life these early pioneers endured. 

In addition to Alexandra, the minor characters (and all of them, except Alexandra, are minor), are equally well-drawn and independent.  The youngest brother, Emil, is the secondary character and it is his story that the reader believes will be carried on, after Alexandra’s closes – he is to be the “new” that comes from a successful pioneering life.  Emil has left the farm to get a college education, his brothers despise him for it because they can no longer understand him, and they fear and hate their sister for allowing Emil the opportunity and for forcing, as they see it, their family to change.  In this rural community, being different is not encouraged.  The most important character of all, though, is probably the land itself – and everything Cather wants to express through it and about it.

Alexandra and Emil, as well as Emil’s love interest (a married woman) and the loose-living French community are in stark contrast to the rest of the town.  The main point of the story seems to live here, somewhere.  It is extraordinary that this book, written exactly 100 years ago (1913), still speaks to us today.  Anyone who has felt trapped by modern day’s excesses – too much noise, too many things, too many distractions, too many responsibilities, too much commentary… all of this was at issue, for Cather and the problem, having only amplified over time, is certainly valid and meaningful today. 

Told in a beautiful, almost lyric prose that is accessible at all levels, but somehow transcendent, O Pioneers! is a story about chance and about planning; it is a story of leaders and followers, givers and takers; it is about family, community, hard work, education, and pursuing one’s dreams.  Ultimately, it is a story of fate and impulse – a commentary on control and our inability, perhaps, to command even our own destinies, let alone those of others.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School+

Interest: Pioneer America, Frontier Days, Rural/Farming Communities, Family, Destiny/Fate, American Realism, American Regionalism, Education

Notable Quotes:

“The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom” (11).

“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (37).

“It’s by understanding me . . . that you’ve helped me.  I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another” (39).

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years” (89).

“I’ve found it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences” (105).

“It’s queer what things one remembers and what things one forgets” (178).

“Above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die” (201).

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it – for a little while” (229). 

 O Pioneers! is Book 1 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge & Book 7 for my Classics Club Challenge.

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2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction

Review: Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

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Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 1

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream was published posthumously and was expurgated by Hemingway’s wife.  A note in the preface states that she removed certain portions of the book which she felt certain that Hemingway would have eliminated himself (which begs the question: Why did he include them in the first place?).  Personally, I cannot stand when books are expurgated, particularly by friends/loved ones or editors who think they “know better” than the author.  That aside, the story is interesting and is much more like his later works, such as Garden of Eden than his earlier works.  This does make me believe that there were probably portions of the book that were rather sensitive and could have been very enlightening, particularly to those familiar with Hemingway and his tragic end.  The story is separated into three parts, including “Bimini”, “Cuba,” and “At Sea.”  Each segment explores a different time period in the main characters life, and also explores different aspects of his life and emotions.  There is one connecting thread throughout the three segments, which is family.  My personal favorite section was “Bimini,” where the main character is visited by his sons and lives with a close male friend.  Their relationship is incredibly interesting, especially considering the homosensual nature of it in contrast to the homophobic comments made by some of the characters (and by Hemingway himself, in real life).  The idea of “manly love” is certainly a main focus in part one, but suffers a bit in the second two segments, which are more concerned with grief/recover and war.

Thomas Hudson, the main character, and his good friend, Roger, are the best developed characters in the book, particularly in part one.  Thomas Hudson continues to develop throughout and his character is interesting to witness, as he struggles to grieve the loss of his loved ones.  Hudson’s sons, too, are delightful – not since Garden of Eden have I seen such lovingly, sincerely drawn characters from Hemingway.  In part two, “Cuba,” Hudson’s true love becomes a part of the story and she, too, is interesting and very similar to the woman in Garden of Eden, which leads me to believe that these two posthumous works might be his most autobiographical of them all.  The minor characters, such as the bartenders, Hudson’s houseboys, and his comrades-in-arms in part three, are all well-crafted, sound, and believable. 

One difference between Islands in the Stream and Hemingway’s other works is in the prose.  It is still raw, but not quite so sparse or bare as usual.  His descriptions are more flushed out, almost tortured at times.  There is a moment in the book where Hudson is fishing with his sons, and it is described in such detail (even better, in my opinion, than in Old Man and the Sea) and with such deep emotion that I actually found myself becoming thrilled and engaged – by fishing. Something I truly dislike.  That is the kind of magic Hemingway works with his words, his language, and his style.  It is brilliant, as usual, but, again, I found myself much more drawn to the first section than any others – it is an exposed nerve.

Personally, I try my very best to separate writers from their works; however, I do believe that, no matter how hard we try, we writers reveal bits of ourselves in our works.  Hemingway is known for his “masculine” prose – his ability to tell a story without much emotion, without much sap, without any flowery nonsense.  This leaves him, throughout most of his chronology, rather walled-off from his works.  In Islands in the Stream, however, as with Garden of Eden, I truly believe we see Hemingway exposed – there is a very sensitive, deeply troubled side to this man and that these books were published only posthumously speaks volumes to his relationship to them.  Islands in the Stream is a delicate exploration of love, loss, family and friendship.  It is a deeply moving tale of a man, an artist, fighting to wake up and live every day, despite his haunting sadness. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Family, Loss, Artists/Artistry, Friendship, Sorrow, War

Notable Quotes:

“Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy all of it while it was there and it was good” (99). 

“I kept waiting for truth and right to win and then somebody new would knock truth and right right on its ass” (147).

“Hell was not necessarily as it was described by Dante or any other of the great hell-describers, but could be a comfortable, pleasant, and well-loved ship taking you toward a country that you had always sailed for with anticipation” (195).

“He thought that on the ship he could come to some terms with his sorrow, not knowing, yet, that there are no terms to be made with sorrow.  It can be cured by death and it can be blunted or anesthetized by various things. Time is supposed to cure it, too. But if it is cured by anything less than death, the chances are that it was not true sorrow” (195).

“I drink against poverty, dirt, four-hundred-year-old dust, the nose-snot of children, cracked palm fronds, roofs made from hammered tins, the shuffle of untreated syphilis, sewage in the old beds of brooks, lice on the bare necks of infested poultry, scale on the backs of old men’s necks, the smell of old women, and the full blast radio” (241).

“There’s some wonderful crazies out there. You’ll like them” (269).

 

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1001 Books, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Community, Depression, Fiction, Friendship, John Stephens, Literature, Loneliness, Mental Health

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 54

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Cannery Row is a unique stand-out amongst Steinbeck’s works, for many reasons.  One of these is that, unlike with East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, or Of Mice and Men, for example, there is not much of a plot.  Instead, what Steinbeck does is open up to his readers a place – typically American (and Californian)- where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood.  This place is Cannery Row, a small cannery district in Monterey, California.  The people are a mix of shop-owners, layabouts, migrant workers, “girls for hire,” and others who are either genuinely worn down or who have chosen to live humbly in this out-of-the-way town, rather than move on up to the more prosperous areas.  The story itself centers on a man named Mack and his group of pals, all of whom are without work but who get by on their resourcefulness and their ability to find work when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The gang decides to do something nice for the town doctor, who does so much for the town without ever asking for anything in return.  Their first attempt at ‘thanking’ him goes terribly wrong, but they vow to make up for it and, in the end, they succeed.  Their gift to the doctor brings everyone together but, what the reader will realize, is that amongst the friendship and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly the doctor, suffer from.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

Cannery Row is similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the main story is frequently interrupted by short vignettes.  In Grapes of Wrath, these intercalary chapters served to widen the lens from the Joad family and onto the plight of the Great Depression and migrant workers in general.  Here, in Cannery Row, the interruptions often introduce the reader to minor characters – residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, most of which are cruel in nature (dead bodies, violence, suicide, etc.).  Many readers are critical of Steinbeck’s method of interrupting the primary story in this way, but the purpose is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focalize on one person or one family in particular.  This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character – the place, in fact, becomes the person.  This is what regionalists (like Faulkner) do best.  In addition to this, the specific characters who are introduced and witnessed, such as Mack, Doc, and Lee Chong, the shop owner, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful.  Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I am a fan of Steinbeck’s prose.  In this book, he opens many of the chapters with incredible descriptions – short passages that are almost poetic in their beauty.  He has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow reimagining these sensations into written language.  While Steinbeck employs an intercalary method, as mentioned above, his narrative asides and detours are brief and his description of those things taking place outside of the primary story are shortened.  While we might leave the main story from time-to-time, it does not feel, as it sometimes does with Grapes of Wrath, as if we have been completely separated from it.  Steinbeck also manages to capture mood and tone with his narrative voice and through his use of dialogue.  We learn much about the character Frankie, for instance, without necessarily being granted access to Frankie’s point of view.  Instead, we learn about him through others’ treatment of him, through Steinbeck’s description of him, and by the way his and the Doctor’s relationship is presented in the narrative – subtle descriptions and meaningful allusions.  Frankie, one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level.  He represents a type of person but, due to the straightforward and bare, sometimes raw, way Steinbeck approaches his descriptions, he can represent a group of people without becoming a grotesque.  Ultimately, the prose and style are generally sparse with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language.  The style suits the tone of the novel as well as the nature of its characters and “plot” or, more accurately, situation.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Cannery Row, unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, is not quite as politically charged or socially sentimental.  It is still about people and place, exactly what one would expect from such a brilliant regionalist writer, but its purpose is much more ambiguous.  The emotion and pathos is still there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without necessarily being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even the Doctor, lauded by his townspeople, has his faults).  Certain themes from Steinbeck’s other works, such as mental health, community-families, survival, depression (economic and psychological), and labor are present again in this book, but in a much more subtle way.  For those who enjoy Steinbeck but who might be put off by his “peachiness” or heavy-handedness of politics/morality, Cannery Row might be exactly what you are looking for.  There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively sombre tone.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Great Depression, Community, Loneliness, Mental Health, American West, Friendship, Society

Notable Quotes:

“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.” (5)

“Man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” (13)

“Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.” (34)

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  (82)

“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.  And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (135)

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American Lit, Book Review, Culture, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Literature, metafiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Psychology

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

923693White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 51

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

 “This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”

White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated).  Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying.  They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father.  The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community.  This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing.   All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost? 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
 
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family.  They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere).  Parents have lost a certain parental authority.  Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology.  All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children.  Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything.  Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows).  Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it.  Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.  

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
 
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style.  Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him).  He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular.  This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language.  For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
 
This is the book I would love to have written.  This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively.  Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better.  We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers.  Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones.  We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine.  We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets.  We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen.  We are becoming something other than human.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
 
Notable Quotes:

“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”

“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities.  Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

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