The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Book # 593

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TGOWI have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing all of John Steinbeck’s entries on the 1001 list.  I started with Of Mice and Men back in 2012 and followed up with Cannery Row last year.  I had put off The Grapes of Wrath because in my head I had an image of a long, dour story of hardship that I would not enjoy, despite loving Steinbeck’s writing style.

I was both right and wrong.  It is a long story; it is a story of hardship and yes, I still love the way Steinbeck writes.

The novel was published in 1939 and is set during the Great Depression.  It follows both the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who are forced off their 40 acres and join the mass migration to California looking for work and a new life, and the mass of migrant labour that was caused due to the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s.  Steinbeck intertwines both the personal narrative and the larger, more generalised story of the masses through alternating chapters.

We start by meeting the Joad family.  Tom, the second son, is released from McAlester prison after serving a sentence for homicide.  He meets an itinerant preacher on his way home and they travel together to the family farm.  When they reach the farm they find it deserted.   It is at this point Steinbeck begins his social themes around the hardships of the sharecroppers.

The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this.  Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the lows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight.  And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive.  There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life.  But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from.  The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse.

There is considerable time spent on this theme of people having a connection to their land and that the mass farms and mechanisation by tractor is cold and disconnected from the land and therefore so are the ‘tractor men’.  It reappears throughout the story in the searching, wishing and dreaming of having a bit of land that each of the Joads expresses.

Once Tom and the preacher, Casy, find out that the family are planning to leave for California with his uncle John, they make their way to his land and join with them in preparation.  Even though it means breaking parole, Tom goes with them as he and his younger brother, Al, are the only ones able to drive the cheap, broken-down vehicle they’ve had to buy in order to leave.  Once on the road Steinbeck breaks in to another theme, that of being refugees on Highway 66.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.  From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads.  66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Steinbeck writes some terrible, moving passages in this section of the novel.  The pathos is palpable.

Listen to that gasket whistle.
Chee-rist! There she went.  Blowed tube an’ casing all to hell. Have to fix her. Save that casing to make boots; cut ’em out an’ stick ’em inside a weak place.
Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mended. Cars limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling. Too hot, loose connections, loose bearings, rattling bodies.
Danny wants a cup of water.
People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.
Danny wants a cup a water.
He’ll have to wait, poor little fella. He’s hot. Nex’ service station. Service station, like the fella says.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?

It is a brutal story but it is, for the most part, told in a way that makes it readable and relatable.  You feel a whole range of emotions for this family as they meet hardships at every turn.  Ma Joad is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across in my reading.  She has terrible faith and determination despite all that happens to her family.

I have barely touched on the ideas raised by Steinbeck, others being around ownership and waste, unionism and enslavement.  This is a fabulous book, with wonderful writing, but at around page 300 it began to lose me.  Only with a bit of determination did I keep it up and finish off the last 230-odd pages.  This last part I read with constant trepidation of what was going to happen.  I’m glad I kept at it, and with the exception of finding it a touch too drawn out, would recommend this highly.

As a piece of historical, social fiction and part-treatise, it is a must to read.  We like to think we are civilised enough that such displacement couldn’t happen again, but I think there are timeless lessons to be learned in the Joad’s story and we’d be well advised to think on it.

Happy reading.

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Beloved – Toni Morrison

BOOK #223
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

BelovedBeloved was my first Toni Morrison novel, and golly, what a place to start. This is a powerful story, with memorable characters and a strong sense of history.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver, who have escaped from slavery to Ohio – a free state – after the American Civil War.

In order to keep her children safe, Sethe tries to kill Denver and her three siblings, but is is successful in killing only her eldest daughter. Her two sons run away, and Denver is just a baby at the time, but her older sister, age two, is buried with a tombstone with simply “Beloved” on it. When a strange young woman appears on their new front porch, saying nothing about who she is but claiming her name is Beloved, Sethe believes that she is her murdered daughter. She falls over backwards to spoil Beloved, offering her the best of everything, including food, to the detriment of her own health. While Sethe wastes away, Beloved grows larger; she becomes very demanding and throws toddler-like tantrums when she doesn’t get her way.

While Sethe’s actions towards her children seem abhorrent on the surface, one of her redeeming features is her intense devotion to her children; her attempts at murder are to keep her children protected from the horrors she experienced as a slave. I went through stages of loving and hating Sethe for her treatment of Beloved and Denver, and by the end of the story, I still had mixed feelings towards her.

Denver is a shy, intelligent girl, often portrayed as possessing a gift for communicating with ghosts. While Beloved flourishes, Denver appears to withdraw further from the outside world, but by the end of the novel, she is proven to be much stronger, more courageous and determined than I first thought. Denver is the most interesting of characters, for me, and I found her a fascinating character.

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”

The character of Beloved is also intriguing, and throughout the story, Morrison presents three different perspectives regarding who Beloved may be. She may simply be a stranger, a young woman who has been kept locked away as a slave for many years, which would account for her language and social difficulties. Sethe believes her to be her Beloved, her toddler, because of the way she acts, her outward appearance, her breath that smells like milk and her knowledge of a few facts that only one of Sethe’s children could know. In later chapters, Beloved tells stories that make Sethe and the reader wonder if she is Sethe’s mother; she shares personal traits with Sethe’s mother and recounts stories of her voyage to America from Africa.

Beloved is a great story, with a strong sense of the power the past can have over people, and how they can either overcome it, or let it haunt them forever. It is uplifting, horrifying, saddening and hopeful all at once, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Book #272
Reviewer: J.Gi Federizo

 

The Color PurpleFourteen years old and Celie was already one big mess—pregnant, poor, under-educated. And black, lest we forget. How could Celie even think of leading her life differently? As her future husband said, “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…, you nothing at all.”

The Color Purple starts with Celie writing a letter – a confession – to God. She has just been molested by her own father. Pa has told her to never tell on him unless she wants her mama to die of heart break, so she doesn’t, but the sick mother dies anyway. Celie is forced to be the surrogate mother of the house. Such is the life she is left to accept. But then Pa seems to be setting his eyes lately on Celie’s younger sister and this worries her.

Celie is eventually married off to widower Mr. _______ who only wants a wife to cook, clean, work and raise his children. Life in the 30s could be so cruel, particularly to black women whose main purpose, it seems, is to be their husbands’ servants. Soon, smart Nettie comes to live with them. The sisters are forced to separate later and Celie doesn’t see Nettie again, breaking her heart and spirit.

Celie continues what she does best: live a life of thankless servitude as she takes care of Mr. _______’s house, his mean kids, and just about everything else. That is, until Shug Avery comes along and teaches her what life should really be about.

Now that I have given you enough background of the story, let me tell you about The Color Purple as a literary work. It is a brave attempt at telling the real black woman’s story with author Alice Walker pulling no punches along the way. It is not for the faint of heart, and I mean that in the most figurative way. You have to have enough heart to understand and relate, if only as a human being. It tackles very sensitive issues in a very bold manner that should make not a few people cringe. Page One and already, you get a sample of the novel’s direct, no-holds barred language in the coming chapters. There is such brutal honesty and graphic storytelling that the book itself has become an issue in the literary world, subjected to negative criticisms, censorship and what-not. Then again, that’s what makes this book a very good study. For one, you are allowed to think – do you like or hate this book? Do you like it despite the unpleasant reactions it keeps getting that must equal the pleasant ones? Would you stand by it?

If you are rather sensitive to strong, violent language, it may not be the book for you. Then again, if you have some fragment of curiosity in you and can get pass all the coarseness, continue at your own risk. Beauty is still in the eyes of the beholder.

The Color Purple is written in quite matter-of-fact tones that you have no choice but to take things as Celie describes them in her letters to God. Yes, letters, because for Walker to make her lonely protagonist tell her story, the character must be able to have an avenue to express herself in such an honest manner to whom she believes is the only one left that understands her pain perfectly. Too under-educated, Celie is not wont to practice the art of sugar-coating, not even for God.

So through the letter-writing or epistolary style, that is how we come to understand Celie and what she is about. She is the voice that is not heard and so she writes. There is no getting around it and the frankness of it all is what most love about the book, I guess. In the world of fiction, to make your characters speak as they are supposed to speak, accent and all, is a powerful way to make your readers understand and hopefully sympathize with realistic characters.

This “wrong” use of words is somewhat acknowledged in the book itself when Celie tells of a younger colored woman trying to correct her atrocious grammar that is a dead give-away of her very low social strata.

The real beauty of The Color Purple is it tackles relevant issues – or developments, depending on how you see it – without fear. There’s quite a bunch; take your pick:

Racism is evident – white trumping black, even black trumping black as apparently, there are blacker blacks than black. Walker deftly walks us (pun intended) through some history dating back to a much earlier time when native Africans considered lighter-skinned blacks as a disgrace and sold them to work for the rich, white people as slaves.  

Celie’s own story is set at a time when African-Americans are starting to clamor against racial segregation, a precursor to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. (Discrimination has been a long habit to break, unfortunately, with every color today joining the fray and nobody really wins.)

Feminism or women empowerment, too, is gradually emerging, with two characters setting an example to Celie. Tough-as-nails Sofia is my actual favorite whose personality is probably what makes Celie’s insecure and silly stepson fall for her in the first place. Then this becomes a constant bone of contention as Harpo tries to “make her mind” the way Mr. _______ does to Celie.

Then there’s the enigmatic Shug whose independent nature and charm hold great power over Mr. _______ . Personally, I am not taken by this character. She maybe Celie’s glimmer of light, but she’s not exactly quite a good example either. On the other hand, whoever says she’s perfect? There’s a third one that I should probably mention, then again, that would be too much of a spolier already.

Another big issue is lesbianism, which probably turns off some readers. I have no problem with that; people should be allowed to live as they want to as long as they are not hurting anybody else. As said, I have no problem with any of the characters’ sexual orientation. Not per se; I’m just thinking that it’s not a necessary factor in the story. In fact, it just feeds the wrong notion that feminism is the same as lesbianism.

I think the problem with this book as a whole is it tries to cram all these issues in just 250 pages with big fonts. Issues like child abuse, incest, domestic violence, slavery, gender inequality, etcetera. To be fair, Walker does this in a very cohesive manner. Still, it could be quite overwhelming for the reader to be bombarded like this.

What I love, really, are the letters Celie gets (although suddenly, I feel like history is being forced in again as fast and as much as possible). That makes me feel like I am reading a whole new book, and a whole new book about it would not be a very bad idea. I wouldn’t mind reading more about the Olinka tribe.

So why The Color Purple? I’m not telling. But I can tell you that I do like this book, regardless of the negative criticisms. Yes, I would stand by it. The Color Purple is a contemporary great that any adult reader shouldn’t miss.

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Book # 89

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (First published August 2012)


I just finished Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. This was a complicated read for me because it carried so many echoes of important pieces of my own life. I’m a psychologist, and I treat depression fairly frequently. Often it feels manageable, and I feel confident that our psychiatrist and I can help people reconnect fully with life. But there are patients with whom the physical grip of the illness feels too powerful, and it becomes literally a life and death battle to discover a way to help the patients wrest their minds from the conrol of the illness. In addition, early in my career, I worked almost entirely with HIV patients. From 1991 to 1996 volunteered at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in NY facilitating a group for men with AIDS. Until about 1995, an AIDS diagnosis was almost certainly a death sentence, with potential significant brain damage from opportunistic infections possible on the way. In the mid 90s, protease inhibitors began to turn things around. For those not too far damaged by infections, the reduction in viral load was able to make HIV into a more manageable chronic condition. The emotional complexity of this time was tremendous. Circles of friends already savaged by the disease had to make sense of the new possibility of hope and a resumption of fairly normal life for some, but the tragic reality that discoveries came too late to save the minds or lives of others equally precious. The work I did at GMHC is still the most moving work I have ever done. I loved and lost some tremendous people in those years, and at times the work was a powerful mixture of crystalline awareness of the beauty of life and its simple moments and tremendous despair at the devastation I bore witness to daily.

I think I may be the only person I know who has not seen the movie of The Hours. I knew this was a book that was in part about the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, and that it was about 3 women from different eras. But, I didn’t know I would be grappling with their moments of deep depression, and I had absolutely no idea I would be back in New York in the late 90s looking again into the heart of the AIDS epidemic. I had to take a very deep breath when I found myself walking the streets of my old neighborhood and watching the planning of a party for an author in the waning days of a battle with AIDS. I haven’t been back exactly there in awhile.

My review of this book reflects all this. I’m a little tearful as I type. I really can’t know how this book would feel to someone who doesn’t have these points of emotional connection. You will have to let me know. In the meantime, I am taking a few moments to savor the memories of the men who graced my life in those days, whose gifts to me are greater than they will ever know.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The HoursMichael Cunningham‘s Pulitzer Prize winning homage toVirginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway, the reader travels between single days in the lives of three women. The first is Virginia Woolf herself, convalescing at a country estate to rest from the stresses of London and beginning to craft Mrs. Dalloway. The second is Clarissa Vaughn, humorously called Mrs. Dalloway by her best friend and former lover Richard who is now dying of AIDS and for whom she is planning a party that evening. The third is Laura Brown, a housewife and mother in the suburban LA of the 1950s.

Cunningham explores the wonder that each woman feels at some moments of her day, but also the emptiness and desperation that can, with equal or greater power, eclipse other moments, leaving her feeling profoundly insecure and disconnected from the living of her own life. The least prone to the experiences of emptiness and insecurity is Clarissa, who is now in an 18-year lesbian partnership and mother of a grown daughter. This is not coincidental, both Virginia and Laura are enlivened by a same-sex kiss, the implications of which can not be as easily and fully explored in the social environments of their times as they can be by Clarissa. Clarissa’s freedom to explore her world more fully, to love deeply both the men and women in her life in ways that are honest, seems to be a piece that Cunningham sees as crucial to feeling at home in the world.

Reading Mrs. Dalloway prior to reading this novel is crucial to truly appreciating what Cunningham achieves here. Without it, the book is a meditation on identity, life, and love, with a skillful interweaving of multiple plotlines. Knowing Mrs. Dalloway, a reader is able to savor the echoes of Woolf’s style and the small details of plot which are captured and reworked by Cunningham, particularly in the thread which follows Clarissa’s day.

This novel is also one of a small group of works that expertly captures a particular moment in time at the end of the 1990s in the American gay community. Clarissa’s reflections on the effect of the early AIDS epidemic, and the subsequent changes wrought by the discovery of protease inhibitors, on the lives and relationships within the gay community at that time are exactly on target. This makes up a relatively small part of the novel, and yet the particular questions about life, sanity, and the nature of relationships that the changes in the epidemic cast in stark relief in those days are exactly the questions that form the center of the novel.

This is a complex and skillfully crafted work. Read Mrs. Dalloway first, so that you can truly appreciate it. 4.5 stars.

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Book #291

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

This is the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner, sadly awarded twelve years after the author’s death.  Toole set his novel in 1960s New Orleans and the tone of the language and commentary reflect this. He created a cast of bizarre and colourful characters.  They are:

Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, medievalist, crazy man;  Irene Reilly, Ignatius’ mother with bottle red hair and a muscatel in the oven;  Angelo Mancuso, policeman and master of many, ludicrous, disguises; Santa Battaglia, Mancuso’s aunt and Irene’s new found best friend; Myrna Minkoff, Reilly’s offbeat adversary and “girlfriend”, mostly seen from a distance; Gus Levy, owner of Levy Pants and downtrodden husband; Lana Lee, owner of Night of Joy and part-time purveyor of photographic articles; Jones, the coloured “vagran” and janitor at Night of Joy; Mr Clyde, owner of Paradise Vendors (hotdog vendors) and a large pointed metal fork; Dorian Greene, rake about town (gay) and buyer of Irene’s hat; Claude Robichaux, an old man arrested by Mancuso and later to become the beau of Irene.  Claude is also ever so slightly obsessed with “comuniss”.  George, a juvenile delinquent and partner in crime with Lana Lee; Darlene, an erstwhile dancer at Night of Joy and owner of a parrot; Miss Trixie, the bewildered, ancient accountant at Levy Pants, personal project of Mrs Levy and the fall-guy.  That is quite a few people to keep track of as their stories weave together.

The whole sorry, messy and funny story begins when Patrolman Mancuso tries to arrest Ignatius while he is waiting outside a department store for his mother.  This is not unsurprising when you read the description of Ignatius as he waits.

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.  The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.  Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly.  The hunting cap prevented head colds.  The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion.  Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm stale air that soothed Ignatius.  The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar.  The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

Mother and son bamboozle Mancuso with the help of the crowd and especially Mr Robichaux (as we find out later in the book).
They escape and hide for some time in the Night of Joy club in the French Quarter where they meet Dorian, Darlene and Lana.  Irene gets tipsy & crashes the car when they try to return home.  The accident, where she knocks down a wrought iron balcony, is the catalyst for the ensuing farce of Ignatius finding work and systematically destroying his employers.

Ignatius is both laughable and pitiable.  I found myself wanting to hit him and laugh at him, alternately.  He is such an appalling character that it isn’t possible to actually like him.  Yet he is so appallingly naïve and stupid that you cannot truly dislike him either.

He is perhaps an advertisement for the old saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, for that seems to be his problem.  He lives his own “rich inner life” guided by his Mediaeval scholarship, which naturally has very little to do with the real world in the middle of the twentieth century.  He is critical of everyone and everything, and he has a psychological skin as thick as a rhinoceros.  In no way does he accept his ineptitude and poor behavior as being responsible for any of the calamities that befall those around him or himself.

We follow him through his first job, at Levy Pants, where instead of attending to the filing as requested, he tries to instigate an uprising of the coloured factory workers against the “office”.  There is never any question of success.
He then scrapes the bottom of the barrel when he takes on the job of street vendor of weenies.  He is excessively lazy and skives off at every opportunity, mostly to watch matinee movies.  In this he is aided and abetted by George, in exchange for the use of his bun compartment as storage for dubious photographs.  He eats as much of his product as he sells and brings home an ever-decreasing amount of money to help out his “momma”.

The final straw for his exasperated mother comes when he tries to organise a political party around Dorian, the “deviant”, and his cohort.  He is so grotesque that all hell breaks loose at the kickoff rally (party) and he is tossed out by three rather butch and brutal women.  This leads him to the Night of Joy where the final indignity of fainting in front of an oncoming car occurs.  While lying in a heap on the ground he is photographed and the ensuing image is published in the newspaper.  His mother finally hits bottom.

Without fail I enjoyed this book.  It got a little hard towards the last third, simply because I knew that he was going to repeat the arrogant mistakes of earlier cycles, and I was simply marking time waiting to find out the ultimate outcome of all Ignatius’ ridiculous behaviour.

I can quite easily see how this work won a Pulitzer, even without the cultural knowledge of New Orleans society and the US of the early 1960s.  There will have been jokes that sailed right across my head, but equally my knowledge is sufficient to get many others.  Then, of course, there was all of the very international slapstick bungling that cannot be missed unless you prefer your humour to be highbrow.  Personally I view myself as uni-brow – high or low, I’m happy as long as it is funny or witty or clever.  A mix suits me just fine.

By way of example, I have chosen a passage to help give you a flavour of some of the pointy commentary and the pompous character of Ignatius.

He remembers his first meeting with Myrna, and recounts it thus,

While I was desultorily attending graduate school, I met in the coffee shop one day a Miss Myrna Minkoff, a young undergraduate, a loud, offensive maiden from the Bronx.  This expert from the universe of the Grand Concourse was attracted to my table at which I was holding court by the singularity and magnetism of my being.  As the magnificence and originality of my worldview became explicit through conversation, the Minkoff minx began attacking me on all levels, even kicking me under the table rather vigorously at one point.  I both fascinated and confused her; in short, I was too much for her.  The parochialism of the ghettoes of Gotham had not prepared her for the uniqueness of Your Working Boy.  Myrna, you see, believed that all humans living south and west of the Hudson River were illiterate cowboys or – even worse – White Protestants, a class of humans who as a group specialized in ignorance, cruelty, and torture. (I don’t wish to especially defend White Protestants; I am not too fond of them myself.)

As you can see he is completely delusional about himself.  Fortunately he is well matched in Myrna.  Their swordplay through letter is the key trigger for his ridiculous schemes and constant undoing.

I recommend this if you want a laugh with a lot of barbs attached.  If you are not sensitive about issues around books still published when black Americans are referred to as “colored” or “Negroes” or occasionally “jig”; and can see it for what it is, then I think you will enjoy this.  The same applies to anyone with sensitivities around the gay community, where terms like “deviant” are used.

I don’t believe that the author is intending to slur communities; he is representing the way of thought and speech of a particular place and time.  I did not find it offensive, but others may.   In fact, the “white” folk of this story come off as the intended targets of the humour more than anyone.  They are poked fun at in myriad ways.  If you have read or choose to read this, I’d like to hear what you think about it.

A solid four stars from me.