Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

2010 TBR, Book Review, Fiction, John Steinbeck

Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an intense, harrowing account of one family’s struggle to survive, after being dislocated from their Oklahoma ranch and forced to move to California – land of prosperity for work.  The Joad family and their local (former) preacher, Jim Casey get caught up in the web of agricultural monopolies & Hoovervilles.  They bounce from farm to farm, job to job, and camp to camp, as they search for enough work just to feed themselves.   The story ends on a note of acceptance and understanding, but without promise or hope.  The reality of the Great Depression and the dust bowl devastated “Oakies” seems to settle over the entire novel, the entire country, without so much as a glimmer of better days to come – though the Joads are sure to keep on. 
The Good:
Steinbeck’s use of language and scene as emotion is absolutely brilliant.  His description makes the moments – and there are many intensely moving moments.  He also breaks up the storyline with chapters interspersed that tell almost like a news reel.  There will be a chapter, for instance, on the life of a cotton picker, what a man can expect to be paid, how he struggles to feed his family off it, how the pickers are forced to fight over bolls and weigh down their bags with rocks for extra pay; how the scales are tipped in the farmers’ favor and how arguments ensue which are for the benefit of pride, but never truly resolve anything.  Then, in the next chapter, Steinbeck brings his reader back to the Joad family and their personal struggle.  The reader finds the Joads in the midst of situations described in the former chapter – only this time the impact is more intense, because we know this family – we are rooting for this family, but we already know, we have the facts, that this family is doomed to fail.  Still, Steinbeck forces us to cheer them on and to believe, like the Joads believe, that everything will turn in their favor sooner or later.  The format – the style and language- make this novel read like a play or a movie, as something almost watched rather than read.   Steinbeck’s close, personal relationship with California is also an asset to the tale; he knows these peoples’ destitution and pain; he knows the land and what it does to people, how it promises wealth and easy-living, then turns on those emigrants who have come to reap the land’s riches.  Steinbeck touches on this in many of his novels – East of Eden, for instance, but nowhere else is the land such an active character, such an antagonist to the Joads success – and to the success of all the “Reds.”  Still, these folks love the land, and will continue to work for just a small space of their own; so we too love the land.  Finally, Steinbeck is clearly speaking out in preference of the Union.  Casey and Tom Joad – likely the novel’s two most conscientious and laudable protagonists – both, in the end, come to the conclusion to “organize.”  They believe it is the only way to get ahead, to get out of the slums and to earn a living for the people and their families.  At a time when Unions were being demonized by big and small corporations alike, Steinbeck was courageous –and right- in his championing of them. 
The Bad: 
The only negative I see in The Grapes of Wrath is the lack of resolution.  What happens to Connie, for instance, or to Noah?  They disappear – walk away from the Joad family and are never heard from again.  Are we to believe that they made it, or that they perished?  Jim Casy, when he chose to take the fall and was driven away from the Joad family, letter returns as a hero – so, in contrast, we can assume that the two deserters met a less heroic fate? Tom Joad, too, the novel’s main character – in close race with Ma Joad- disappears at the end.  We get a sense of where he’s going, but we never know if he succeeds.  Finally, the story of the Joads themselves, or at least those Joads whom are left, is also left unresolved.  Just when things start looking up for this family – when a little money has come in, when the family is fed and food is not wanted – all luck turns, and everything is washed away.  The Joads are flooded out of their camp, lose their truck and their reserves.  Rosa Sharon loses even more than this and yet we see her giving care to another in the last moments of the novel, a “mysterious smile” on her face.  Steinbeck leaves a lot to the imagination which, in a six hundred page novel, seems unnecessary.  My interpretation would be this: the Joads will never make it, but they will never give up trying.  This seems to be the reason for Rosa Sharon’s smile – like Mona Lisa’s.  Sad, resigned, but alive.
The Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0
Not since Melville’s The Confidence Man and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have I felt an author has so completely and implicitly captured the American spirit.  The only faults to find in this novel were that too much, though not much really, was left unresolved.  Why doesn’t this reduced my overall score for the novel?  Because Steinbeck knew the problem itself was unresolved – yes, characters in this novel wandered off and were never heard from again; so it was with the migrant laborers, split from their families to find work, with promises to strike it big and return with wealth and advantages.  The language and dialogue were masterfully wrought, and the novel’s structure is something unique and wonderful.  The interspersed chapters of detached observation give the readers a clearer understanding of what is really happening, and the realization that, left with only the Joad family’s journey, we too would continue to be hopeful when there was no reason left to be positive.   It is no wonder that The Grapes of Wrath is considered by some, such as Dorothy Parker, to be “the greatest American novel.”
Book Review, Classics, Creative Non-Fiction, Dave Pelzer, Fantasy, John Steinbeck, Literature, Lois Lowry, Madeleine L'Engle, T.C. Boyle, Thomas Hardy

Reviews: The Earlies Part 3

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Really fun. And interesting. One of the best young-adult fantasy novels, I think.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Not my favorite of Steinbecks work, but considering Steinbeck is an incredible Americcan author, that’s not saying much to the negative. It is a great story and very well written. Certainly interesting commentary on early prejudices toward the mentally handicapped.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Nearly flawless.  Beautiful “young adult” about the dangers of oppressive conformity and thought control. Be yourself!

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

This is one of the first truly literary giants I completed, and one which helped me to define myself as a literature student. Getting through this novel and, more importantly, enjoying it ..well, yay for Hardy. Thanks for turning me into a literature student.

The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer

Wow. Tragic and heartbreaking. Beautiful, honest prose. Disturbing and haunting true story.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

Very moving story but Boyle seems wrapped up in his own style. That is to say, he comes across as quite pretentious. It distracts the reader from what should be a powerful and painfully truthful story.

Book Review, Fiction, John Steinbeck, Literature

Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

With East of Eden, I have gained a new appreciation for Steinbeck. This novel was masterfully written; it demonstrates Steinbeck’s command of language, history, and socioeconomic/political events. As one who came into this novel familiar with, but relatively inexperienced in Steinbeck’s work, I must say that East of Eden does one thing every author must hope for: it leaves me craving more. I must admit that I had my doubts about Steinbeck’s ability to tell such a lengthy story. I had only experienced shorter works (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl) up to this point and, while I knew Steinbeck to be a brilliant and beautiful writer, particularly adept social commentary and the didactic, I couldn’t see either of those short works being successful as a longer novel. The reason for this, of course, is obvious – the novellas are perfect as they are. Steinbeck chooses every word carefully, so that none of his work is longer or shorter than it needs to be. East of Eden proves it, in that it holds ones attention just as raptly as a shorter work, and it’s proves continues to move the reader from page to page, right until the very last words. The characters are well-developed, the plot and sub-plots interweave seamlessly, the setting is beautifully displayed and expresses its importance to the work as a whole (imagining this novel to take place anywhere else is almost impossible). I can’t say enough about East of Eden. I can say that it is more than just a beautiful, entertaining read. It is powerfully thought-provoking as well. Timshel will forever be something for which I strive to understand and to achieve.

Agatha Christie, Autobiography, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Dave Pelzer, Herman Melville, J.D. Salinger, J.K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, John Walsh, Literature, Murder Myster, William Golding

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 18

A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer 4.0/5.0

Amazing book. Sad, disturbing, heart-breaking, and maddening.

Tears of Rage by John Walsh 4.0/5.0

Incredibly sad story (true story) about a child’s kidnap and murder. Tear-jerking and intense. Very good book.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding 4.5/5.0

So awesome. (I warned you that some of these reviews were simplistic! I must have been in my “minimalist” period.)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 5.0/5.0

Best book ever. Well, maybe not, but it’s certainly a favorite of mine.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 4.5/5.0

I read this book in seventh grade, and it is what first got me interested in reading for fun. Until that point, I had only picked up the stray Goosebumps or Choose Your Own Adventure book. I’ve read this book three times and will probably read it again.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville 4.0/5.0

Stunning. One of the most – no, the most elaborately detailed book I have ever read. Not the most exciting plot, not the easiest language, not too many exciting sub-layers to the story. But definitely, positively one of the best books ever written. It took me 7 months to get through (and I’m an insanely fast reader) but it was well worth it.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck 4.0/5.0

Beautiful story about the evils of wealth and greed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling 5.0/5.0

Amazing finale to an incredible series. Well done, Ms. Rowling. Well done.