Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden


“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 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.


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.

Posted in Short Stories

John Steinbeck: Junius Maltby

4♦  4♦  4♦  4♦  4♦  4♦  4♦  4♦

It’s week 13 of my 2014 Deal Me In project (Sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis).  That means we are a quarter of the way through the year – which in some ways is hard to believe.

This week I drew the four of diamonds which brought me to John Steinbeck’s short story “Junius Maltby”.  While the story flowed relatively well, for me it was divided into three parts.

For the first part, Steinbeck introduces the reader of the story to Junius and his family, making the point that Maltby is a reader and a reader of fiction at that, specifically enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson.  Steinbeck proceeds to connect Junius’ reading to his laziness.  Maltby is somewhat of a free spirit and while the garden needs weeding, he tends to have his nose in a book and his feet in the pond.  Tragedy strikes part of his family – while he’s reading.  In some ways, I bristled at this first part because I really wanted Steinbeck to paint a man who reads in a better light – but he didn’t.

In the second part, Junius’ free-spiritedness rubs off on his young son, Robbie and his hired hand, Jacob, who doesn’t work and isn’t paid.  The three of them enjoy pretending they are characters in Stevenson stories until the school board decides it’s time Robbie gets an education.  Robbie’s imaginative activities make him the envy of the other kids and Robbie himself becomes quite the little man on campus.  Robbie’s teacher even begins to enjoy the Maltby farm.  At this point, it appears Steinbeck is making a case for children playing and using their imaginations.  However, those pesky things like food and clothes, or the absence, thereof, become emphasized to a great degree by the school board – and in some ways, by Steinbeck.

Here’s part three: As though Maltby had never noticed their lack of food or clothes, at the urging of the school board, he suddenly realizes that he should be providing for Robbie in a more material manner and so they set off to San Francisco.  At which point, Junius indicates to Robbie’s teacher that for twenty years prior to the farm, he had been an accountant.  AN ACCOUNTANT!?

There is always that proverbial book club question “How did this book resonate with you”?  I have to say that reading and hanging around the “farm and pond” as an alternative to accounting resonates with me significantly more than I want to admit.  Thanks, Mr. Steinbeck.

Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck: The Pearl

John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl in many ways appears to be a fable.  The morals of this fable are buried probably as deep as the pearl (from the title) was buried in the ocean.  But I like that.  I like a story that can stand on it’s own and not just as a tool to teach something.

Kino and Juana find a treasure in a giant pearl.  The prospects of what their life could be with the sale of this pearl become an obsession for Kino, if not quite for his wife.  Kino hears evil music while his wife hears the “Song of the Family”.  Juana fears the pearl more than she is attracted to it.

Something about The Pearl reminded me of another story – one more epic – where a “precious” piece of jewelry is central to the plot.  Steinbeck’s story ends a little more tragically.

Now that I’ve read my fourth Steinbeck novel in a row, I think it’s time to move on to something else.  But I’ll be happy to return to him, soon.

Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck: The Red Pony

John Steinbeck’s short novel The Red Pony at first glance seems to be a simple story about ten year-old Jody Tiflin and his life on a California farm.  Steinbeck beautifully describes so much of the details of this farm life from Jody’s chores to his mother’s meals and his father’s work in addition to the mountains and the animals that surround Jody’s world.

Some deeper ideas emerge as the four separate stories that make up the novel begin to come together.  From the perspective of the child, Jody, adults break some promises made to him.  From the perspective of some of the adults in the novel, they make promises to Jody they know they cannot guarantee.  Steinbeck’s description of the wild look in the eyes of the farmhand, Billy Buck, as he takes drastic measures to not go back on his promise ranks as one of my favorite scenes, in spite of the horrific actions Billy takes.

The relationship that Jody has with his father is somewhat shaky although there is a certain amount of respect on both sides.  As with many adults, they don’t like seeing the world become a different place for their kids.  They rely solely on what they know and with what they are comfortable.   Mr. Tiflin gets a taste of his own medicine when his father-in-law comes to pay a visit and talks incessantly about his life moving west to California. Jody’s mother makes an interesting observation when she describes her father’s life as being finished before he dies.  A “nameless sorrow” describes the Grandfather’s world as seeming to crumble when he finally made it all the way west to the ocean – there was nowhere else to go.

I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the realities Steinbeck is able to paint into his stories.  His realities are not always happy but I’ve found them profoundly stirring.

Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck: Tortilla Flat

In twenty years, it may be plainly remembered that the clouds flamed and spelled DANNY in tremendous letters; that the moon dripped blood; that the wolf of the world bayed prophetically from the mountains of the Milky Way.

And so Danny, John Steinbeck’s Arthurian hero in his novel Tortilla Flat, becomes a legend – to his band of knights and to the people of this impoverished community set above Monterey, California.

In the novel’s introduction, Steinbeck makes the Camelot comparison; however, Danny and his round table have a more morally ambiguous way of life than the Arthur I remember. Steinbeck manages to meld together an innocence to the worldly ways of these men that makes them heroes in their own manner, nevertheless.

Not having a real plot, the novel begins as Danny inherits two houses making room for his friends, Pablo, Pilon, Jesus Maria, The Pirate (and his dogs) and Big Joe Portagee.  One of the funnier scenes early on in the book has the men light a candle for St. Francis in one of the houses. As St. Francis is known for forsaking his worldly possessions, the candle promptly sets the house on fire burning it to the ground – leaving Danny and his friends with only one house. They make do.

Many of the men’s actions have the distinct purpose of obtaining more wine and the cheaper they can get it, the better.  They sit and tell stories to each other with the agreement that the better stories do not have morals or lessons,  as Pablo responds to one of the stories:

‘I like it,’ said Pablo.  ‘I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something.  I can’t tell what.’

Given that some of Steinbeck’s writing leans toward the plight of the poor and his politics appear to fall into a more socialistic camp (literally and figuratively), I’m not sure he won any political points with this rag-tag group of guys; however, I found the story very enjoyable.


Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of frightening.

Hawley, the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent, finds that honesty isn’t paying the bills or giving his wife and children a few extra luxuries.  Coming from a once-prominent family in a small New England town, Hawley sets in motion a plan to regain some of his family’s wealth and prominence at the cost of his principles and integrity.  I think what made Hawley so real was Steinbeck’s ability to provide him with an innocent sense of humor in the face of his not-so-innocent moral choices.

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Hawley family goes back several centuries making American History an important part of the novel.  Steinbeck brilliantly compares and contrasts the dreams and realities of America two hundred years ago with the dreams and realities today (the novel is set in 1960).  A beautiful passage occurs when Hawley is going through the attic of his family’s house to find information for his son’s essay on why he loves America:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain.  The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing.  We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is.  So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

I found fascinating that Steinbeck uses Easter Sunday and the Fourth of July as backdrops for the action in the novel.

Some of the themes and concepts Steinbeck brings out are similar to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby (“the old sport”) made choices in achieving his version of the American Dream just like Hawley.  Gatsby and his world seemed larger than life, though.

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of heart-breaking.

Posted in Books in General, Libraries

Book Sale!

Periodically, my public library, Boone County Public Library (that’s the Boone County in Northern Kentucky of the Greater Cincinnati area), has a book sale.  My guess is that the books that they sell are the ones that have gone through the reading cycle and now don’t have a huge demand.  Since my reading typically doesn’t depend on what’s currently popular, I almost always find something of interest to me when I check out the sales.

This past weekend, the Scheben branch held its sale.  Yesterday afternoon, I wandered over to see what I might find.  It’s interesting that the books for sale are not necessarily in any specific order as the other books in the library.  I think they had them grouped roughly by genre.  I thoroughly enjoy walking up and down the rows of books seeing what might catch my eye.  My two middle kids were with me.  They looked briefly at the teen section then went and sat in a corner with their iPods.  They knew Dad might be a while, but they’re used to it by now.

Here is a rundown of the books that I found:

– The Reef by Edith Wharton:  I have yet to read anything by this author; however, one of her short stories is on my Deal Me In list.  That particular card has not yet popped up in the deck, yet.  I don’t think this novel is as well-known as her novels Ethan Frome, House of Mirth, or Age of Innocence.

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck:  I will probably read this very soon.  I’ve gotten a sudden interest in Steinbeck.

Nights At The Alexandra by William Trevor:  I’ve discovered Trevor’s short stories this year and have greatly enjoyed them.  This novella will probably get read in the near future, also.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster:  Forster’s novel A Room With A View has been a favorite of mine for a long time; however, I’ve never read any of his other works.  This one and Howard’s End seem to be the other novels of his that pop up on my radar from time to time.  I think all of his novels have been made into Merchant/Ivory films.

Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash:  The fact that this book was written by Johnny and June’s son made it difficult to pass up- which reminds me that I have Johnny Cash’s autobiography on my shelf somewhere.  I need to read that, too!

Song Yet Sung by James McBride:  My wife just read McBride’s autobiography The Color of Water for a book group.  I’m not sure what she thought of it.  Something about this novel sounds intriguing even though I was a little disappointed with his World War II novel, Miracle at St. Anna.

– And finally, I found a short story compilation that I am sure will get used for my 2014 Deal Me In project.  Bernard Malamud, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Anton Chekhov, to name a few of the authors included.

The great thing about this book sale was that I got the above books for free!  Each summer, BCPL hosts an adult reading program where adults read books, listen to music and watch movies from the library for “Library Bucks”.  Over the past four summers, I have accumulated an entire drawer full of these.  I can use them at the book sales or to pay fines (which I admit I occasionally have).  It’s looking like I might not ever spend the Library Bucks as fast as I get them.  I only spent five of them for these books!

Check out the website here of a great public library!