John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

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“There’s a black violence on this valley. I don’t know – I don’t know. It’s as though some old ghost haunted it out of the dead ocean below and troubled the air with unhappiness. It’s as secret as hidden sorrow. I don’t know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here.”

After being on my shelf since I was in high school, I finally read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I don’t know why I waited so long. I’ve gone back on goodreads.com and wondered why I have given so many books 5 stars in recent months. I don’t necessarily regret these ratings and I’m not going to change them but now I want to somehow signify that East of Eden reached out and grabbed me more than these other books. I want to give it more than 5 stars.

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I consider Steinbeck one of those American writers that grapple with the disillusionment felt by so many after World War I.  In East of Eden, the Biblical allusion in the title got me thinking that maybe the reason for the disillusionment is the sense that something has been lost, something of value is gone. What that something is could take a hundred posts to discuss and maybe we still wouldn’t come to a definitive answer. Maybe the Eden that is lost is so lost that we don’t know what it is anymore.

In the center of the novel, though, Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton, the patriarchs of the two families involved in the novel, discuss the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel with Lee, Trask’s Cantonese servant. It prompts Lee to ask some learned members of his family about the meaning of the verses in Genesis 4. After two years of learning Hebrew, the scholars determine that a certain word that can be translated as a command actually means something closer to “thou mayest” or “to choose”.  The power to choose good or the power to choose evil – maybe that has something to do with what is lost. Are we no longer able to choose good?

In spite of being family patriarchs, neither Trask nor Hamilton are strong the way we might think of family leaders. To me, they seem more inherently good than inherently strong. Their struggle to choose good made them shine as characters – even with their weaknesses and imperfections.

And then there is Lee who I think is both strong and good – and, by choice, a servant. He now firmly has a place on my list of favorite literary characters.

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Jesse Stuart: Lost Land of Youth (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 4)

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Now, Lost Creek was a lost world and a dying world. The dreams of his youth were lost and dying dreams. Even the song of the autumn wind was as melancholy to him now as the organ had been when it played hymns in the church. He was a stranger in the lost world of his youth. He didn’t know anybody. Not one person had recognized him.

Jesse Stuart’s “Lost Land of Youth” is another story where someone finds success outside of their childhood home and then returns. In this case, its for a funeral.

Having read this same theme in Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Evenings at Home” a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but compare these two stories.  While Hardwick’s story easily comes out on top, Stuart’s is still worth reading. As his protagonist is returning to a small Kentucky town, Stuart’s description of the natural world stood out most to me. Also, the person he is searching for and told is at the funeral never really shows up. It’s a powerful idea that this person no longer looks like the images from the past to the point of being unrecognizable.

I read this story when I selected the Six of Diamonds for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. It is included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Bernard Malamud: My Son the Murderer (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 3)

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At night I watch the news programs. I watch the war from day to day. It’s a big burning war on a small screen. It rains bombs and the flames go higher. Sometimes I lean over and touch the war with the flat of my hand. I wait for my hand to die.

With Bernard Malamud’s short story “My Son the Murderer”, I run into a situation that doesn’t occur very often.

All I really want to say is go find this story and read it!

It doesn’t use the traditional prose that Malamud so skillfully uses in the other stories of his that I’ve read. Instead, he runs the inner thoughts of a mother, father and son between paragraphs and sometimes even within the same paragraphs. No quotation marks are used when one of them is speaking. And in this story, that makes sense. It gives the feel that it’s about an entire family even if the son is the catalyst for the plot and emotions.

Set during the Vietnam War, Malamud also brilliantly presents the struggles of an entire nation in a few pages of intense family drama.

This story is included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Five of Spades for Week 3 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I would have told her that Davis and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.

Of the YA authors that I have read (and admittedly, I haven’ t read a lot), John Green is one of the best. As I enjoyed his novel The Fault in Our Stars so much, I looked forward to reading his latest novel Turtles All the Way Down. I wasn’t disappointed.

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Narrator Aza Holmes plays internet detective with her friend Daisy as she deals with her unnamed mental illness. While experts in mental illness would make a better case for exactly how well Green portrays this aspect of Aza, I will say that he easily pulls the reader into Aza’s world. The mystery that Aza and Daisy try to solve plays second to the ups and downs of the teenage characters and their relationships with friends and family- and to Aza’s illness.

In the two other Green novels I’ve read – The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines – the humor Green uses made me occasionally stop reading because I had to laugh so hard. While Turtles All the Way Down has some very funny moments, I don’t recall having to stop reading. That’s not necessarily something negative, its just different.

Green’s use of science in this story blends perfectly with all of the human emotions and reactions to things that can’t always be explained – such as human suffering. I think Green is a master at taking the lives of teenagers and showing how they fit in with the deeper meaning and bigger picture of the world and life in general.

Lorrie Moore: How to Become a Writer (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 2)

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Understand what you must do. Switch majors. The kids in your nursery project will be disappointed, but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit. You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.

Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” is made up entirely of directives that point to the title. It’s a very funny and creative story that had me nodding my head and chuckling pretty much the entire time I was reading it.

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An interesting aspect is that the narrator (Francine, but one gets the idea this could be Moore, herself) tends to be self deprecating but also manages to make fun of both her creative writing college crowd and the crowd, like her family, that looks down their nose at her chosen field of work.

All of the amusing sarcasm and satire in the story might be covering up the deeper loneliness that the narrator feels. She’s not sure she fits in to either crowd and doesn’t have any other crowds to consider.

This story is included in my anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 2 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise, is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, and speedy shall be her descent from it.

I have finally finished Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey! At only 187 pages, this has to be the shortest book that its taken me the longest to read. I can blame the holidays, work or perhaps its because its the third Austen novel I’ve read in a row. But I have now finished all six of Jane Austen’s novels and I have no regrets in doing so. I think I’ve rated all of them as 5 stars on goodreads.com.

Northanger Abbey

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I find Austen’s satirical humor similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s. While they write in different time periods with different styles, they both manage to write with such a wonderful twinkle in their eye. And in Northanger Abbey, I found another similarity. They both put themselves in their story as a sort of fictional creator of the other characters in the novel. Northanger Abbey‘s heroine Catherine finds life imitating art as she explores the mansion of her new found friends the Tilneys and then as Jane situates herself as not just the author but a creator, as well, life tends to imitate art imitating life imitating art. And maybe Jane could ingeniously keep going on and on and on.

Yes, by now, I can pretty much tell who will end up with whom and who will give up the social and monetary status for true love. Jane doesn’t change much in that regard but that doesn’t really matter. Going where we know what will happen has never been as delightful as in Jane Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen Read All

I read Northanger Abbey as a participant in the Jane Austen Read All Along over at James Reads Books. I’m a little late in finishing and since I read Persuasion last year, I opted to not re-read it.

So here is the list of Austen’s novels in the order of my own personal enjoyment, but as I stated before, I gave them all 5 stars:

  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Emma
  3. Sense and Sensibility
  4. Northanger Abbey
  5. Persuasion
  6. Mansfield Park

 

Elizabeth Hardwick: Evenings at Home (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 1)

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When I left I heard the beautiful bells ringing to announce that it was five o’clock and I went home in a lyrical mood, admitting that I had spent many happy, ridiculous days in this town.

Along with the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover, it appears you can’t judge a short story by its title. When I realized that Elizabeth Hardwick’s short story “Evenings at Home” showed up as my first short story for Deal Me In 2018, I wondered why I had put this story on my list since the title seemed too uninviting – rather boring, if I’m honest.

However, it blew me away and while I have 51 more stories to go in 2018, I can’t help but think this is going to rank somewhere at the top as a favorite.

The narrator returns home to Kentucky after living in New York City for a while. The story feels like a stream of consciousness moving through the emotions between what is and what used to be. The emotions also move in and out of the conflict between both the narrator’s disdain and love for her hometown. In theme and style, this story reminds me very much of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Poor Visitor”.

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Incidentally, the introduction to this story explains that Hardwick herself moved to New York City after graduation from the University of Kentucky. It’s included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I picked the Five of Diamonds for Week 1 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In 2018 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.