John Steinbeck – Voice of America

Kay T kindly contacted me the other day to let me know that the Melvyn Bragg show about John Steinbeck has been put onto You Tube. If you’re interested in Steinbeck but didn’t manage to see the programme you should be able to view it now. I really enjoyed it, I hope you do too.

John Steinbeck – Voice of America

I don’t know about you, but I often miss TV programmes which I would definitely have watched, if only I had looked at the TV schedules. So at 10.30 last night I realised that I had missed a BBC documentary about John Steinbeck and luckily I had time to watch it on the iPlayer this morning because if I don’t view it quickly then I won’t get around to it at all. Voice of America with Melvyn Bragg will be fascinating to anyone interested in John Steinbeck’s work or American history.

I looked it up on You Tube TV and according to that, there are ways of watching it if you can’t view it through the iPlayer. It’s well worth giving it a go anyway!

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I have to admit that I had never heard of Wallace Stegner before I picked up this book in a recent library booksale. I bought it purely because it’s a Penguin Classic so I thought it would be interesting. I haven’t read any reviews of the book at all and I think that the whole thing was so close to a lot of my life experiences that I’m really unable to be detached from it. It’s a really well written book, as you would expect from a Pullitzer prize winner.

For me it was quite an annoying and uncomfortable read at times and that was due entirely to the character of Charity Lang whom I really, really disliked intensely so it wasn’t a book which I was desperate to get back to whenever I put it down.

It’s the story of two marriages from the 1930s when they were almost newly weds and the two couples become friends when they meet at the University of Wisconsin where the husbands are working. University politics hasn’t changed over the years, it was still a murky, distasteful business when I was in almost exactly the same situation with my husband in the late 1970s.

Anyway Charity and Sid Lang cling to the new arrivals Sally and Larry Morgan like they’re a life raft, almost as soon as they meet and from my experience that’s always a sign of an unhealthy marriage so it rang alarm bells. There’s always a problem in a relationship when they want to spend a lot of time with other people rather than just being happy in their own compmany. Obviously you have to have give and take in any marriage but Charity was only interested in taking – and the only things she gave were orders. Oh and Sid’s money of course. Charity really wasn’t interested in Sid until she realised that he was ‘as rich as Croesus.

Sally is bedazzled by Charity mainly because Charity comes from an old, large, well-heeled American family which is the opposite from Sally’s situation as a young woman from a poor Greek family who are all dead. Charity fills Sally’s need for friends and family and so she overlooks the fact that Charity is a truly ghastly woman who has to be right about everything, even although she’s invariably wrong, she won’t ever admit to it and just about all the bad things which happen in the book are caused by Charity.

The absolutely worst thing though is the way Charity treats Sid. He was never going to set the heather on fire but Charity had great expectations for him and when things didn’t go to her plan, which was entirely her fault for being arrogant and directing what Sid should write papers on to get tenure, and of course she was wrong – she didn’t dust herself down and get on with life the way the rest of us would. Charity ended up having a nervous break-down and spent two months in hospital. Those so-called strong women usually can’t cope with life when they don’t get their own way as it happens to them so seldom.

In the end it’s Larry who saves Sid by getting him a job at another university. The book is written from Larry’s perspective but long before it becomes clear that Larry isn’t a fan of Charity I was gnashing my teeth as she was praised to the sky while she was embarking on her mission of festooning herself with loads of kids which she thought it was a good idea to neglect. Just think, all those other lives for her to control, bully and dominate.

I’m sure you’ll realise that I have had close contact with just such a woman in the past and it isn’t fun having to stand by and watch someone humiliate and emasculate her husband in public, hen-pecked doesn’t come close to describing it. The damage done to family members by such a mother is never healed.

In the book Charity decides to continue to control her childrens’ lives from the grave via her will and even draws up a list of women which Sid has to choose a new wife from as apparently he can’t cope on his own!

Happily I can tell you exactly what happens in such a case. The widower takes up a new pastime, such as bowls. Meets up with all the old boys that he went to school with. Joins a club for local businessmen and goes on holiday abroad with them three or four times a year and really enjoys himself. Has two more grandsons presented to him by the members of the family who had watched the older grandchildren being scarred by Granny’s bad behaviour.

Thinks for himself for the first time in years!

Well I did tell you that I was unable to be detached from it, but it is a good book!

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I hadn’t read anything by Steinbeck since I was a teenager so when I saw that the Classics Circuit was doing a Steinbeck tour I thought it was about time that I rectified the matter. But what should I read? I didn’t have any unread Steinbecks in the house but on a visit to an Edinburgh charity bookshop the only book of his they had which I hadn’t read already was Travels with Charley so I took that as a sign. I hadn’t heard of the book but fellow bloggers all seemed to have loved it, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.

Steinbeck mentioned that like many men of his age he had had a bit of a health scare and had been in hospital the year before. Many men in his position opted to live a quiet cossetted life after that but he didn’t want to be a half-man who changed from being the head of the household to being the baby. He took it as a warning that it was later than he had thought and he should do what he had planned to do one day and take a road trip of America visiting places that he hadn’t seen before and revisiting old haunts. So instead of shifting down a gear he decided to step on the gas literally and the result is that he had a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck specially designed to his specifications with all the necessities of life, double bed, stove, fridge, lights worked from butane gas and a chemical toilet. In 1960 it was a thing of great interest to people wherever he travelled. He gave the truck the name of Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He over-loaded poor Rocinante with tons of books, paper, water and all sorts of things which I’m sure he didn’t need. He obviously couldn’t travel light! For companionship he took Charley his large blue poodle, a very intelligent dog which was seen as an exotic in America and was a good social ice-breaker. Charley could also converse, well nearly. Ftt meant that he ‘wanted to salute a tree’ and Ftt Ftt Ftt meant that he was hungry!

As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.

In Vermont he felt the need to look for a ‘John Knox’ church to worship in and he wasn’t disappointed. The congregation was subjected to a ‘glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon’ I would say a proper Presbyterian you are all miserable sinners sermon. ‘Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me’….. ‘I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it’ The sermon revived him in spirit and gave him a ‘lovely sense of evil-doing that lasted clear through till Tuesday.’ A couple of generations earlier J.M. Barrie wrote something very similar in his book The Little Minister which was set in the Highlands in the 1800s – it’s nice to see that Presbyterianism hadn’t suffered any dilution over the years.

He does mention the mobile homes which were popping up everywhere and seemed to intrigue him and in Maine he was invited into one which he was very impressed with. They seemed to be inhabited by people who wanted to dodge paying taxes though and I think that their reputation is not what it once was.

The people that he met along the way seemed to me to be very friendly, even the police/national guards were pleasant and helpful. The people in each state had different characteristics but it was the state and the people of Montana which gave him the most pleasure and in fact he said that if Montana had had a sea coast then he would have settled there but he had to live near the sea. He hadn’t visited Montana before.

Visiting his old home of Salinas in California he realised that people from your past are best left in the past as everyone concerned prefers their own version of their memories and they tend to be different from what was the reality.

Steinbeck says that in his journey each state had its own character, he was dreading going to the South because of the race problems there but he felt that he had to go. So he travelled to Louisiana to witness the ‘cheerleaders’ in action. They were a group of white women who chanted racist abuse at a young girl as she went to school. This was something which I didn’t know about and he doesn’t mention the name of the small black schoolgirl that they were abusing but it must have been Ruby Bridges I think and you can read about it here. I’m not sure if things are very much better down there now, but I hope so.

Although John Steinbeck was a well known face in America he said that he was never once recognised. Some people have suggested that a lot of the book is in fact fiction, we’ll never know but, whatever it’s a very entertaining read. I haven’t read many travel books just R.L Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of Scotland and a book called Breaking Away which is about Coleridge’s tour of Scotland accompanied by William Wordsworth and Dorothy. It strikes me that although those journeys all took place in the 1800s, you can still visit the places that they went to and in fact people still do recreate the R.L. Stevenson journey, complete with donkey! I don’t know if it would be possible for anyone to do the same with this book as often the details of where he stopped for the night are quite sketchy and probably the places have been built over now, so probably there are no blue plaques in lay-bys saying: John Steinbeck and Charley slept here. At the end of the book I was so in tune with him that he seemed like a friend rather than a famous author.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a wee flavour of what the book is like. I haven’t said much about Charley the blue standard poodle. What degree of dog is that? was the question that Steinbeck was always being asked. Charlie was a great companion dog and like most poodles was very smart. It’s just a shame that people often make them so daft looking with strange hair cuts. We used to have an apricot poodle – yes apricot!

A big thank-you to Rebecca and Karen for putting in all the hard work to bring about the John Steinbeck Tour.

PS My husband says I should have known the Beach Boys song that mentions Steinbeck and Travellin’ with Charley (the California bit of California Saga.)

As on You Tube. Have a listen!:-

Silly me! Of course I know it.

Classics Circuit Tour – John Steinbeck

I’ve just signed up for the John Steinbeck Classics Circuit Tour and there’s still time to sign up if you want to. I read the more usual Steinbeck books, Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row and such, when I was a teenager and I didn’t feel like revisiting them. So I’ve decided to go for a book which I hope will be completely different – Travels with Charley. It’s about his journey to rediscover America, accompanied by his French poodle Charley.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book sometime in August, I think.

The Popular Girl by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve been neglecting to read anything from my 2011 Reading List over the past few weeks, which is not good because I had aimed to read one book from the list every week. So I’ve got a wee bit of catching up to do.

The Popular Girl is a book of short stories and was a very quick read. I know quite a few people who aren’t at all keen on F.Scott Fitzgerald but I enjoyed the two which I had read previously, the ubiquitous The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon. I read them for school, getting on for a shocking 40 years ago. I’ve just had to re-read that and re-calculate and shockingly I was correct the first time – 40 YEARS!

My two sons also read those ones for school, about 10 years ago for them I think, which seems a bit strange to me, you would think that there would have been some changes in the curriculum over all those years.

Anyway, back to the book. Apparently these short stories are amongst his lesser well known ones, which is a surprise to me because I really enjoyed them. Again Scott Fitzgerald is writing about class and money.

The five stories in the compilation are:

The Popular Girl
Love in the Night
The Swimmers
A New Leaf
What a Handsome Pair

I think my favourite one is Love in the Night which is about a young Russian prince who flees to the south of France after the Russian Revolution and has to eke out a living as a taxi driver there. A meeting with someone from his past changes everything.

I must say that I enjoy short stories, they’re good for journeys or times when you don’t feel up to plunging into anything which you might have to concentrate on. I hate it if I have to keep picking up and putting down a novel and only get the chance to read small amounts at a time.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’ve really enjoyed all of the books by Willa Cather which I’ve already read so I’m going to work my way through the rest of them.

I was quite disappointed that she wrote a book about the Roman Catholic church because as I was brought up in the west of Scotland I’ve found that avoiding religion is the best policy. Anyway, I ‘girded my loins’ and remembering that I had enjoyed Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, I took a big breath and plunged into it.

As ever it’s Cather’s descriptions that I love, she gives her novels a wonderful sense of place and makes it really easy for you to live there in your imagination, even if the landscape which is written about is an entirely alien one to you.

Looking at the story from a non Catholic viewpoint: This is about Roman Catholicism taking over from the original religion and traditions of the people of New Mexico. Two priests Father Vaillant and Bishop Latour are given the task of making the RC church more powerful. They are welcomed by the natives who are generous to a fault and the two priests sponge off them, taking everything that is offered to them – and more. The one mountain in the area which is a beautiful cream coloured rock is plundered and quarried to build a huge stone cathedral in a sparsely populated area. It’s Bishop Latour’s vanity project.

From the Roman Catholic point of view: This is the story of the church spreading its influence into New Mexico and helping the inhabitants have a better way of life through Catholic worship.

Having been brought up a Presbyterian and married to an Episcopalian (which Willa Cather converted to), I decided that atheism was the one for me and the only ‘religion’ that interests me is Celtic mythology because I like the importance that it places on nature and plants. But the Christians nicked all of the Celtic/Pagan festivals. The December holiday should be the celebration of the winter solstice, especially as Christ was apparently born sometime in September.

Anyway, back to the book, I didn’t like this one as much as My Antonia as the subject and the setting didn’t appeal to me as much. I was amazed to read that this book had been banned at various times, according to the Wikipedia article.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

This is the third Willa Cather book which I have read and this one didn’t disappoint me either. I’ve read Alexander’s Bridge and The Professor’s House.

The book begins with the 10 year old Jim Burden travelling to Nebraska by train. Both of his parents have died and he is going to live with his grandparents on their farm near Black Hawk. Ántonia and her family (The Shimerdas) are travelling in the immigrant car ahead and they are headed for Black Hawk too. They are described as Bohemian which meant they were Czech.

The area has already been settled by Norwegians and the book is really about the movement of people and how they cope, or don’t cope, with their changed circumstances. The characters are followed from childhood through to middle-age, and there are surprises along the way at the turns that their lives take.

The immigrants are homesick and pining for their homeland, even when it appears that they have settled down happily. In reality though they are pining for something which doesn’t exist anymore because people and places don’t stand still, just as they haven’t.

We hear tales from the old country and some of them are tragic stories which culminated in emigration. But there is plenty of humour there too, even if it is ‘black’ humour.

Willa Cather has a lovely way with words and describes the countryside beautifully, the trees and grasses and the taming of the land. As the new farmers become more adept over the years, the fields are changed from swathes of red grass to fields full of rippling crops.

I particularly enjoyed her description of Mrs. Cutter:
She was a terrifying-looking person; almost a giantess in height, raw-boned with iron-grey hair, a face always flushed, and prominent, hysterical eyes. When she meant to be entertaining and agreeable, she nodded her head incessantly and snapped her eyes at one. Her teeth were long and curved, like a horse’s; people said babies always cried if she smiled at them. Her face had a kind of fascination for me: it was the very colour and shape of anger.

I can’t help thinking that Mrs. Cutter was a real person, I wonder if she ever read the book and recognised herself.

Anyway, another very enjoyable Willa Cather book is crossed off the list. I had wanted to read O Pioneers first but as I’m still avoiding actually buying books until I’ve read the books which I have in the house waiting to be read, I had to get this one from the library. I might have to request O Pioneers.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

This was the first book which Willa Cather had published and although I quite enjoyed it, I think I can safely say that she definitely improved with practice.

It’s the story of Bartley Alexander who is a famous bridge builder. He is married to Winifred who is a supportive wife and gives him respectability and a comfortable home life.

He is having what would nowadays be called a mid-life crisis, in other words he just wants to have his cake and eat it. When he meets up with Hilda,who is an Irish actress and an old flame of his, he can’t help being seduced by her and the more Bohemian life-style which she leads. She represents freedom, glamour and Europe.

The book has a very Calvinistic ending, in that you must pay for your sins in this world. It’s also obviously modelled on Edith Wharton’s writing.

I hope to read all of Willa Cather’s books eventually, it should be interesting to see how her style developed.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

It was fairly dire when I was at the library last week, there seemed to be nothing worth taking out. Possibly not all their fault as for some reason my mind tends to go blank. Why don’t I write a list? Well, quite often I do but then I forget to take the list with me – as you do.

Anyway, I spotted this Willa Cather book and as I had read somewhere on the blogosphere a couple of comments on her, I thought it was time to give her a go.

I’ve got a feeling that she might be the literature equivalent of marmite or marzipan in that you either love her or hate her, going by peoples’ comments.

It turns out that I love her!

The Professor’s House was written around about half-way through her writing career I think, so I’ll need to start at the beginning now and work my way through them.

It’s written in three parts with book 1 being called The Family and setting the scene. Book 2 is Tom Outlander’s Story and book 3 is called The Professor. In some ways it reminded me a bit of du Maurier’s Rebecca in that the house is such a big part of the book and an important character is already dead before the story begins.

There are similarities in the lives of Godfrey St Peter and the young Tom Outlander. St Peter had been a big part of the Thierault family when he had been a student in France, whilst for Outlander it had been the St Peters who had acted as a surrogate family.

If you haven’t read the book already and you intend to do so, maybe you should stop reading now.

The copy of this book which I read was a Virago. Don’t read the introduction until the end as they always tell the whole story. It was only after reading it that I realised the significance of some of the names though. A.S.Byatt wrote the introduction but she doesn’t mention anything about the rivalry between the two sons-in-law, one of whom is of Scottish ancestery whilst the other is Jewish. They despise one another and pass the feelings on to their wives causing difficulty in the family.

For me, this had a parallel in book 2 as it was thought that the extinct Mexican Indians had probably been wiped out by a rival tribe.

There were a few things within the book which, for me, had the distinct whiff of Scottish Presbyterianism and so I had to find out a bit about Willa Cather. I felt the same about Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain and sure enough they had Scottish fathers and step-fathers.

Although most of the biographies of her only spoke about Virginia and Nebraska, I eventually found something which mentioned that the family had originated in Ireland in the 1750s. As there was so much to-ing and fro-ing between Scotland and Ireland at that time, it all amounts to the same place really. It’s the Celtic connection.

Willa’s mother’s maiden name of Boak is actually the Scottish word for vomiting. How unfortunate!