East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck was first published in 1952 and it was high time that I got around to reading it. I suspect that everybody who is a keen reader already got there long before I did, it’s probably a set book in many schools. I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s books and have never been disappointed and sometimes I absolutely love them, East of Eden comes into that category. It’s 714 pages and I read it in three days as I could hardly put it down.

The setting is the Salinas Valley in Northern California and Steinbeck said about East of Eden: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

I must admit that the title East of Eden didn’t mean anything to me but it is of course from the Bible, Genesis – where Cain was told to go East of Eden after he killed his brother Abel and a version of that story is repeated throughout the book. The main story takes place from the beginning of the 20th century until just after World War 1 but does dip back to the 1880s at times. Mainly it’s about good and evil and how some people are just bad right through to the core whilst others are aware of their weaknesses and fight against their instincts. Many of the characters are from Steinbeck’s own family or neighbours.

As ever Steinbeck’s descriptions of the surroundings and his insight into the human condition, good and evil are a treat to read and I’ve always been slightly puzzled that he apparently didn’t have any Scottish blood in him as those are traits that are particularly prominent in Scottish literature – think Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and many others.

Steinbeck’s maternal family – the Hamiltons – feature in the book and much is made of them coming originally from Ireland and their fierce Presbyterianism, so that solved my problem of how Steinbeck could seem so Scottish – because he was obviously of Scottish descent although somewhere along the way they forgot about going to Ireland from Scotland. Maybe when people migrate more than once it’s easiest to only recall the most recent past. As the Hamiltons were Protestants then it’s likely that they were amongst the Scots who were encouraged by the British government to settle in northern Ireland in an attempt to keep those Roman Catholic Irish people down.

Anyway, all the Scottish elements of writing are in his books, but wherever his talent sprang from he was a great writer and after reading Travels with Charley I came to the conclusion he was a great human being too. If by any unlikely chance you haven’t read any of his books – you should definitely give him a go.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Classic Spin – Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I’ve just realised that I’m a day late doing this post for the Classics Club Spin number 11, particularly annoying as I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row about a month ago. The book was first published in 1945 but the setting is Monterey, California during the Great Depression.

Cannery Row is a street full of sardine canneries, as you can imagine it isn’t the most salubrious of places. It’s smelly and the local workforce is mainly single men who need their comforts so there’s a local brothel which is owned by Dora Flood. She seems to be propping up the whole community as she is so heavily taxed on the whorehouse earnings. She takes great care of her girls, a madam with a heart of gold.

Lee Chong owns a grocer shop, he’s ever on the lookout for a business opportunity but at the same time he’s very easy going and is owed a lot of money from various customers. When a group of local men led by Mack hear that Lee Chong has become the owner of a warehouse they decide that it could be the perfect home for them. When they suggest to Lee Chong that they move in there he thinks it is best to go along with their wishes as otherwise they will probably destroy the warehouse anyway. The guys are well known troublemakers, not so much because they’re evil but they are so immature and stupid that even with the best of intentions everything they do ends in trouble for other people. Mack and the guys have evolved the prefect life/work balance for themselves, only working enough to be able to pay for their immediate needs and dodging work otherwise.

Doc is a marine biologist and lives just across the road from the grocery store. He lives by gathering marine specimens and sending them to various universities to be examined, as well as carrying out experiments himself. He’s also seen as being the local medical man although he’s unqualified, and he’s happy to patch people up when they need it.

Mack and the boys get it into their heads that it’s about time that they showed Doc their appreciation of him and they plan to give him a surprise party. You just know it’s going to be disastrous.

I really enjoyed Cannery Row, it’s funny and has a cast of likeable characters. It’s also a very quick read, just a novella really, but now I want to go on and read all of Steinbeck’s books. I’ll have to add them to my Classics Club list.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is one of those books that I was pretty certain I had read as a youngster, but recently realised that I hadn’t, so I rectified it fast. In fact my copy of the book is in a volume of Steinbeck which contains this one and Cannery Row. I got Cannery Row in the Classics Club spin, so more on that one early next month.

Of Mice and Men is a quick read, just a novella really, it was first published in 1937 and the setting is close to Soledad and the Salinas River, California. It’s the American Depression and is based on Steinbeck’s own experiences of being a bindlestiff in the 1920s, a sort of itinerant farm worker.

George and Lennie are travelling towards their next job on a farm, they’ve had to leave their previous one due to a misunderstanding involving Lennie and a young woman. Lennie is a big man who has the mind of a small and simple child and it gets him into trouble, especially as he doesn’t have any idea of just how strong he is.

George is really Lennie’s carer, trying to stop him from getting into trouble, no easy task. Lennie loves to feel soft things, and he had a piece of velvet which someone had given him to stroke, but sadly he lost it. A teeny mouse was fulfilling his tactile needs, but due to having no idea of the fragility of a mouse and what his manhandling it will do to it, it isn’t long before the mouse is dead. Lennie just can’t understand it.

When they reach the farm where they have some work, they’re looked on suspiciously, it’s unusual for men like them to travel around in pairs, they’re usually loners, and it’s thought that George might be taking advantage of Lennie and taking his pay from him. It’s not true of course, although they both share a dream to own some land and a home of their own. They have it all planned out. They begin to get to know the other workers and Lennie is ecstatic when he is given a pup from a newly born litter on the farm – oh dearie me!

This is a sad tale, you know it’s just not going to have a happy ending and Lennie ends up suffering the same fate as an ancient farm dog.

Of course, Steinbeck took the title Of Mice and Men from the Robert Burns poem – To a Mouse

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley. The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry/askew.

The Bent Twig by Dorothy Canfield (Fisher)

The Bent Twig

The Bent Twig by Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) was first published in 1915. I had only read one book by her before this one and that was Home Fires in France about her experiences in France in World War 1, and The Bent Twig is very different from that. The setting is mainly La Chance, Vermont.

The Marshall family is an unusual one. The father is a college professor and the mother works the land in her large productive garden, they’re an unconventional lot, having no servants, being determined to do their own dirty work. But their home is a popular meeting place for all the more interesting teachers and professors, which is an advantage for the children although they don’t know it.

Sylvia Marshall is the eldest daughter, she has a younger sister Judith and a much younger brother Lawrence. The beginning of the book reminded me so much of Louisa M. Alcott’s books, maybe it was just because it’s about a US family and it’s now historical, but when this book was written it must have been quite revolutionary as Canfield makes it plain that she is dead against separate schools for black and white children. She’s not at all happy about the way that her friends are treated when it gets to be known that they have a teeny amount of black blood in them.

The Bent Twig is about the importance of education for young girls and also the redistribution of wealth, with one very wealthy character feeling seriously uncomfortable about all the money which is earned for him by coalminers.

I really enjoyed this book although I felt it palled a bit towards the end, it wasn’t quite as interesting after the girls had grown up. Canfield was obviously keen to point out what she saw as unhealthy aspects of Edwardian society as far as women were concerned. A time when for a certain section of society money was all and some people, men as well as women were marrying for money and status. What changes?!

Sylvia has always been drawn to clothes and high society but in her heart she knows there’s more to life, but can she pass up the chance to marry for money rather than for love? With that and the subjects of equality for women and people of a different ancestry/colour, The Bent Twig must have been quite a shock for some people when it was first published.

For me it was interesting to see that colleges in the US were way ahead when it came to female education as they were giving degrees to women at a time when women students in the UK were not awarded degrees, although they were allowed to sit the exams.

I read this one for the Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was of course just published this year. Most readers will know the story behind it I suppose and I was nearly put off from reading it because I had heard that people were saying it was a badly written book, and various other negative comments. Thank goodness I decided to read it and judge for myself.

Firstly, it’s absolute nonsense to say that the book is badly written. I can only assume that people dived down that alley because they knew it had originally been rejected by a publisher. (which book hasn’t been I ask myself? ask the Brontes about their experiences!)

I suspect that Go Set a Watchman was rejected because its time had not come – yet. The subjects dealt with within the story were just too hot for the society of the day. I’m not going to say too much about the actual storyline, as is often the way with my bookish meanders. When it was written it was a contemporary novel, the publishers were obviously happier to publish a historical book which would give them fewer political headaches.

Atticus Finch is 72 years old and crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Jean Louise has been away living in New York for the last two years, but she has travelled back to Maycomb for a holiday. She has gone by train because Atticus isn’t able to pick her up, the driving would be too much for him, and she’s shocked by the change in him.

But more shocking is the change in his attitudes to other people. He doesn’t seem to be the man that she knew and loved, the man who brought her up to be decent and unprejudiced. Atticus uses the ‘n’ word. The change has come about because there has been a shift in the attitudes of the black inhabitants of Maycomb. Previously they had known their place in the pecking order of life. No matter how hard working and decent they were they were the bottom of the pile, below the ‘white trash’ some of whom weren’t only poor but were more than a wee bit ghastly.

The NAACP have been educating the black people with the result that the old relationships between black and white folks have disappeared. The white elite of Maycomb are very unhappy about the possibility of a change in the status quo. They’re determined to hang on to the power they have and fear what would happen if the black people were seen as equals and had the vote. How could they possibly run Maycomb County, none of them are educated enough to be trusted with a vote.

But things are changing in Maycomb, not only for the black people. The men who were away at war have come back with ambitions of their own, they’ve seen more of life and they’ve brought some of it back with them.

It’s far too simplistic to see Atticus as being racist. If you’re of a certain age you’ll probably have had the experience of rolling your eyes at the archaic attitudes of elderly parents already, but such is life. Jean Louise doesn’t roll her eyes though, she’s a bit more demonstrative. She discovers that her father isn’t the hero she had thought he was, he’s just a human being, which is a massive disappointment to her.

Go Set a Watchman is about changes in society which are painful and dangerous to the people who have held the power and had all the advantages in life. It’s about snobbery too. I’ve long thought that the US is a very snobbish society, much more so than the UK which comes in way down the snobbery league tables in my experience. Where else are people given the tag ‘trash’, just because they’re poor, have a different culture/customs and haven’t been given any opportunities in life?

Atticus does give one young ‘white trash’ man a chance in life and takes him on as his protege. He’s smart and decent and thanks to Atticus has a good job and bright future ahead of him. But he’s never going to be able to get away from that ‘white trash’ tag and he’s certainly never going to be good enough for a Finch daughter to marry, according to Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack anyway.

I really enjoyed this book and for me it is of absolutely no interest whether it was written 50 years ago or some other time. It’s a good read.

The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 The Pat Hobby Stories cover

The first of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s Pat Hobby stories was published in the January 1940 issue of Esquire magazine. Pat Hobby is a hack writer in Hollywood, long past the glory days when he was writing for silent movies and being very well paid for it. Twenty years on he’s scraping a living getting a week’s employment now and again from a studio, mainly because people feel sorry for him.

His red rimmed eyes say it all, after having had several wives it’s the bottle which is the most important thing in his life now, and everyone in the movie industry knows it. In the past he earned thousands a week for his work and he’s down to getting $250 a week, if he’s lucky. He’s gone from having his own house with a swimming pool and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ronald Colman to living in his car.

This is a funny book but at the same time is sometimes unbearably painful to read, when you realise that the author is writing about his own experiences. He became very famous and wealthy, too young to appreciate how lucky he had been. The money ran through his fingers, booze, drugs and general high living had taken their toll on him. Early in his career he had been hailed as a brilliant writer for The Great Gatsby, and since then he had been trying to write something as good, never quite managing it. This book is well worth reading though, and it has a gorgeous cover.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I decided to gird my loins, pluck up all my courage and such and get down to reading Moby Dick early on in the year, I’ve been putting it off for years. I inherited an ancient copy of it but that hasn’t surfaced since our house move so I read it on my Kindle – in about five days! That’s what you can do when the weather keeps you stuck in the house. I read every word of it too, no skim reading for me.

Well just call me a twit because all that I knew about Moby Dick was that it was about a whale, it never occurred to me that that would obviously mean it was about whale hunting, not a thing which appeals to me at all.

It all started off so well with the author explaining exactly how the word whale should be pronounced – huale. It is a difficult thing to put down in print but you know what he means and I’m completely with him on this – no ‘wh’ sound should be pronounced ‘w’. Let’s face it, that makes for all sorts of unecessary confusion such as whether/weather – which/witch – whales/Wales – where/wear – what/watt and such. It’s an English thing to pronounce ‘wh’ and ‘w’ the same and I can clearly remember when I was being taught to read that it was important to make that ‘wh’ sound.

This is a writer that I can relate to I thought and I did find it interesting. Ishmael is keen to join a whaling ship although he knows he won’t get much in the way of pay and he might be away for as long as three years. He finds a bed in a rough looking inn and has to share a bed with Queequeg which is a scary prospect because Queequeg is a tattooed cannibal with sharpened teeth. But the two of them end up getting on very well, mainly because Ishmael recognises that Queequeg is a man that he can learn a lot from and Queequeg is happy that Ishmael has no prejudices against him. In fact the lack of prejudice is the best thing in the book with the make up of the crew of the ship which they both end up joining being like a league of nations.

Unfortunately Melville decided to dredge up every bit of history and writing about whales that he could get his hands on, from the bible, Shakespeare, letters, historical documents, reports from monks, if it mentioned whales he pulled it out from somewhere, what can I say – he needed an editor. He even mentioned the monks at Dunfermline (in that abbey which I blogged about a few days ago) eating whale/porpoise balls, presumably ‘meatballs’ (don’t tell IKEA). Descriptions of different sorts of whales and what we would nowadays call dolphins, their habits and habitats.

It all got quite tedious, in fact if about 60% of the book was filleted out of the middle of it then I think it would be an improvement. It did get a bit more interesting when they actually got down to whale hunting but only from a historical perspective as you can imagine, the thought of harpooning whales is disgusting and being told that their bodies often have multiple harpoons already embedded in them from previous hunts is horrific.

Captain Ahab doesn’t appear all that much. He’s obsessed with Moby Dick because in a previous encounter with the great white whale, Moby Dick relieved him of one of his legs from below the knee. In an act of vengence Ahab uses a whale bone as his lower leg instead of the more usual wooden ‘peg leg’. I think that J.M. Barrie might have based his Captain Hook on Ahab.

Nantucket seems to have been where the best whalers came from and a lot of them had originally been Quakers, but those who took up whaling were Quakers with a vengeance, which I found amusing.

But of course whale hunts still take place, with the Japanese and some Scandinavians insisting on keeping it going as it’s a traditional occupation, and of course lucrative, while the rest of us are out there trying to save beached whales who have got into trouble on our coasts.

I took a few notes of bits which I liked early on when I was optimistic about the book:

There was Queequeg, now certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo (his god) …. and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

When the landlady thought that Queequeg had killed himself: Betty, go to Snarles the painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with – “no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor,” – might as well kill both birds at once.

I did think as I was reading it that Melville must have some Scottish blood in him because he does use the word ‘wee’ quite a few times and he mentions Presbyterianism a lot but it would seem that it was the Dutch form of Presbyterianism.

Anyway, that’s Moby Dick ticked off my bucket list. I read this one as part of my Classics Club challenge. The book was first published in 1851 and it apparently spent quite a long time in the wilderness before someone decided that it was an American classic.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

This is the sixth book by Willa Cather which I’ve read and as usual I wasn’t disappointed in fact I really enjoyed it, the only trouble is it was all over too quickly for me, it is a very short book, a novella I suppose. Somewhow I’ve managed to read her books completely out of order, I should have started with this one.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be, as that word ‘pioneer’ always makes me think of Little House on the Prairie and patchwork quilts, but this book isn’t exactly all sugar sweet and towards the end it did take an unexpected twist, as far as I was concerned anyway.

The story begins in Nebraska with Alexandra and her very youngest brother Emil visiting the nearest town to ask the doctor to visit their father who is ill. Alexandra knows that her father isn’t going to get better, her father has already accepted his situation and spends what little time he has left ‘stocktaking’ adding up how much he will be leaving for his family in the way of land and goods.

He makes Alexandra promise never to sell any of the land, the improvement of which has really curtailed his lifetime, he knows that given the chance, his two remaining older sons would sell up and go back to Chicago.

Alexandra takes over the business side of the farm, she learns all she can from other farmers in different districts and makes a great success of everything, but in the meantime her older brothers don’t see her as a separate human being at all, as far as they are concerned she is there just to be a cornerstone of the family but should have no ambitions for herself outside it.

So that’s a brief bit of Alexandra’s story but there are so many likeable characters, even the spoiled and petted Marie is adored by Alexandra, who always seems to see the best in people, but her innocence and friendliness have unexpected consequences.

I know, I’ve already said it, but I wanted this book to continue, because I was right there, in that red land where farming was just beginning to be mechanised but women still enjoyed making their own aprons and embroidering intricate cross stitch designs on them, as well as being businesswomen. For me Willa Cather strikes a perfect balance, description-wise, whether it’s the landscape, houses or people’s clothes and jewellery.

I downloaded this book from Project Gutenberg, I’m sure you’ve already read it but just in case you haven’t, you can get it here.

The Fathers by Allen Tate

The Fathers cover

I bought this book, a Penguin Modern Classic, because I liked the cover, so shallow of me I know, but the subject matter interested me too. It popped up in an Edinburgh second-hand bookshop. The cover shows a detail from The Plantation c.1825, is by an unknown American artist and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It’s about the beginnings of the American Civil War and how it affected the lives of the Buchan family and the story is told by Lacy Buchan who is now an old man looking back to the events of 50 years before, but his story begins with the death of his mother when he was just a teenager and his family is gathering for the funeral at Pleasant Hill, Virginia.

For some reason Lacy hero-worships George Posey who has married Susan Buchan, Lacy’s sister. I say for some reason because for the life of me I can’t see anything to admire about the man.

The two families are vastly different, Major Buchan, of Scottish descent has the manners of a gentleman and is crushed by his wife’s death. The Buchans see themselves as Southern aristocracy, but they’re poverty stricken. Major Buchan leaves the running of his estate to his son-in-law George, which is a bit like putting the child-catcher in charge of an orphanage.

George has only one interest in life really, the making of money, and George even sells his own half-brother Yellow Jim – a slave, as he tells him he’s liquid money. Even Lacy suspects George of brutality towards Susan, so it’s no surprise when the civil war begins that George’s interest in it is the chance to make a profit.

I enjoyed this book, which is apparently quite neglected and only read in academic circles in the US. Obviously the two families are supposed to represent the different factions of the civil war, and after the events of this week (the Obama/Romney election) it’s obvious that the US is still a country which is very much split in two in some ways. A lot of people aren’t happy about the result but when you think of the alternative of all out civil war, instead of sorting things out, you have to say the election was a triumph, whatever the outcome.

If you want to read more about the book and author have a look at this interesting article from The Washington Post.

Gore Vidal – my kind of guy.

I woke up this morning with the news on my clock radio telling me that Gore Vidal had died in Hollywood, at the age of 86. A good age, especially when you consider that his beloved schoolfriend Jimmie Trimble didn’t survive the fighting on Iwo Jima in World War II. You can read the Guardian tribute to Vidal here.

My first experience of Gore Vidal was seeing him on TV years ago during an American presidential campaign. He used to be given the job of commenting on the whole thing in his wonderfully witty and cynical way. He had stood for election a couple of times himself and as the grandson of the first ever senator for Oklahoma, he had plenty of information to pass on to the viewers.

It must be about 25 years since I started reading his books, his American historical fiction novels are my favourites but his memoir, Palimpsest is a fascinating read. He was a great writer, if you haven’t read anything by him you should give him a go, especially if you’re interested in American history.

Have a look at the video below if you want to listen to some of Vidal’s wisdom, you can follow on to parts 2,3 and 4 too.

It was Maeve Binchy yesterday, Gore Vidal today. Will there be a third author death this week?

Last week it was actors, with Simon West, Angharad Rees and Geoffrey Hughes (Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances).