Tuesday, July 26, 2011

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck

Five Things I Liked About East of Eden:
1. Timshel
2. The slow build
3. Rich and detailed storytelling
4. Evenhanded and thorough characterization
5. Carefully constructed relationships

Steinbeck and I go way back. In 8th grade I read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, joining my classmates in the thoughtless dismissal of literature a bit beyond our years. When I was a junior in high school, I stayed up later than I ever have before or since to finish a scrapbook-style book report on The Grapes of Wrath (which I managed to like in spite of the indignant loathing inspired by the assignment). East of Eden is the first Steinbeck I’ve read of my own accord which, to be honest, might have as much to do with the fact that this is now my favorite of his works as the novel’s own (prodigious) merit does. Anyone who’s ever been a middle and high school student knows how easy it is to dislike books assigned for class by default, on principle*. Which is a shame, really. Think how many people are wandering around with grudges against perfectly good books simply because they were forced to read them at a formative and obstinate age by teachers who didn’t know how to inspire the right kind of enthusiasm.

But I digress.

If you were to sum up East of Eden in one word, it would be this: Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew, and in the novel signifies a man’s freewill to choose between good and evil. East of Eden is laden with biblical imagery (which ought not surprise you, considering the title), but most ubiquitous are the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and the question they pose regarding inherited sin – whether it is an inescapable burden or a birthright to either accept or struggle to throw off. Though there are certainly good and evil characters in East of Eden, the categorization is never so simple and definitive. Every character has good in them, and every character has evil. It’s just a question of the resistance (or lack thereof) involved.

More words to describe East of Eden: gripping, powerful, sweeping, moving.

East of Eden follows several generations of two families – the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s – settled in the Salinas Valley in California, as narrated by a member of the (then) modern generation, who I presumed to be John himself. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter all that much, however, as most of the attention is given to the first three generations: the patriarchs Cyrus Trask and Samuel Hamilton, their children – the two sons of Cyrus (Adam and Charles) and the Hamilton brood – and their children’s children, mostly Adam’s twin sons Aron and Caleb. The story’s heart is Timshel and the age-old conflict between good and evil, and its outward trappings are the conflicts that arise between and within the two families**. Steinbeck’s knack for portraying the minutia of relationships is one of my favorite talents of his. The subtleties of filial, romantic, and platonic love in East of Eden are carefully and poignantly drawn.

I loved just about everything about this story, but a couple more particulars: I loved the way he built the beginning of the story, introducing various seemingly disconnected characters individually before slowly revealing their connections. In a way, you could say that he creates his own particular brand of suspense, furthered by the fact that the story kept me guessing to the very last page, when the full reality and significance of events built throughout the novel slowly but surely sank in. I was also surprised by just how readable East of Eden is for such a dauntingly sizable book. Once you really get going on it, twenty-five pages go by like nothing. It is an easy read both from the standpoint of being much less dense than you might expect, and from being much more engaging than you might expect.

I feel like for all that it is considered a staple Great American Novel, not that many people have actually read East of Eden. I’d guess they take one look at its spine and assume that it is 1) boring and 2) long and boring. And now that I’ve read it, to me that’s a great pity. I think a lot of people would be pleasantly surprised – both by the book and by themselves – if they just gave it a chance.

Books Read This Year: 58
Top 100 Progress***: 46/100

*In fact, I only remember ever really enjoying a handful of books I had to read for school: And Then There Were None, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.
**I know that’s kind of vague, but with books this big it’s actually quite hard to define a single specific conflict.
***How is this not on the Top 100 list? I think this will be one of the few times I will ever say this, but: Stupid BBC and their blatant anglophilia.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

By Melissa Bank

Three Things I Liked About The Girls’ Guide:
1. The form
2. The story in second person
3. The namesake story

I thought this was a novel. When I picked it up at a recent book sale, I thought it was a novel. 200 pages into it, I thought it was a novel.

It’s not a novel. Not exactly. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is actually a collection of short stories – all about the same person, and following a general and traceable timeline true to novel form – but a collection of short stories nonetheless. They each have unique titles and they could each stand alone if need be. One of them is told in second person, while the rest are narrated in detached first person. The timelines, while generally linear, does jump around some. There’s no typical novel story arc (exposition, conflict, climax, conclusion), but a series of rising and falling actions – similar to real life, actually.

The stories in The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing detail the trials and errors of one Jane Rosenal’s forays into adulthood, navigating the familiar maze of working, love, and familial life that only seems to complicate with age. The Guide begins with an episode from Jane’s late teens, observing adulthood from the outside looking in on a visit from her brother Henry and his latest girlfriend, and progress to see her following in the footsteps of him and her Aunt Rita as a publishing assistant while making her first stabs at adult romance. Jane’s narration is pretty detached almost to the point of objective, which is a style of voice that seems particularly common in short stories, but which always has the effect of making me feel apathetic toward the characters. I’m sure Bank intended the detached voice (not to mention the name “Jane”) to imply that the character and her experiences aren’t unique, but are universal to a generation of women, but the way I see it is that if Jane can’t be bothered to care too much about her problems, why should I?

That being said, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing did have its astute observations and minute characterizations, and some creative moments in the narrative. Like I said, I enjoyed the story narrated in the second person, as well as the namesake story which had Jane meeting a promising new suitor and almost mucking it up by following the advice of a dating self-help book. But somehow Jane’s experiences came off a little too generic, and I just couldn’t get invested. I like to be invested.

Books Read This Year: 57
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Friday, July 8, 2011

Speaking with the Angel

(Edited) By Nick Hornby

Two Things I Liked About Speaking with the Angels:
1. Colin Firth as a writer
2. Story from Prime Minister’s perspective

Speaking with the Angel is a collection of short stories by prominent modern authors (mostly British, including good old Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones fame) edited by British novelist Nick Hornby. I picked it up at a gigantic book sale held by Half-Price Books for only $1. I consider reading to be one of the best ways to practice writing (the best being, of course, actually writing), so I thought that perhaps reading some short stories would spark some inspiration for writing my own. Whether or not that succeeded remains to be seen…

I have mixed feelings about this book. I started out liking it – there were several nice stories, such as one about a Prime Minister who through a series of small decisions accidentally ends up running away from his security escort and creating a dubious situation – but somewhere around the halfway point they dissolved into everything that so often annoys me about short story writing. Why is it that, when they sit down to write a short story, writers feel the need to resort to filthy language, vulgarity, and shock value in order to produce something “significant” or “powerful” that will leave an impression on the reader? Wouldn’t it be more impressive to accomplish those things without resorting to crudeness? That tendency to be crude in order to be edgy or incisive or whatever just disappoints me and makes me lose all respect for the writer and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It was interesting to read something written by Colin Firth, though.

Books Read This Year: 56
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bridget Jones (Top 100 #46)

By Helen Fielding

I just finished reading Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Edge of Reason consecutively, so I thought I’d do a joint review, since they’re kind of a package deal. As sequels generally are.

Three Things I Liked About Bridget Jones:
1. British-ness (slang, behavior, etc.)
2. Diary form
3. Secondary characters

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Believe it or not, this is actually on the Top 100 list, an accolade I don’t exactly agree it deserves and which I can only explain by a) acknowledging that it is a heavily British biased list and b) surmising that they wanted to include something modern and light to contrast the denser, darker material and prove that their literary heyday has not passed but they are, in fact, still producing worthy works of literature. Which I don’t doubt! But I’m not convinced Bridget Jones’s Diary was really the best example they could have chosen. Ah, well.

Bridget is a 30-something Singleton living in London, working in an entry-level publishing job and crushing on her boss. She’s supposed to be the hilarious mouthpiece of The Average Woman, worrying about her weight and how much she drinks (both of which she tracks in daily tallies before each entry) and her parents’ craziness and whether she’ll be single forever and die alone in her flat to be discovered by an Alsatian*, but I didn’t exactly identify with her all that much. Maybe because I’m not a 30-something, but I suspect I am simply just not a Bridget Jones kind of girl. Anyway, her escapades and daily dilemmas range from the frivolous to the completely over-the-tip, as do the appearances of the supporting cast: her mother and her mother’s boy toy Julio, her boss/sometimes boyfriend Daniel Cleaver, her potentially crazy friends, her frenemy Rebecca, and more. Actually, come to think of it, just about everyone in Bridget’s world has a screw or two loose. That’s what makes the whole thing almost campy in its outrageousness.

Also, I have to say it, you know I do: That is the most hideous eyesore of a cover I have ever seen, hands down.
The Edge of Reason

The Edge of Reason picks up four weeks after Bridget Jones’s Diary left off, and in it Bridget’s story becomes, if possible, even more ludicrous and over-the-top. I’m talking mother’s human souvenir from trip to Kenya. I’m talking an interview with Colin Firth**. I’m talking gaping hole in apartment wall covered with plastic for 6 months. I’m talking Thai prison. I’m talking amateur death threat. And I’m totally serious. All in one book.

Basically, The Edge of Reason is more of the same. I mean, I know sequels are by nature a extension of the original story (duh), but in this case the two could literally be combined seamlessly into one volume.

Overall, Bridget’s offbeat personality, over-the-top escapades, and zealous fretting about herself and her relationships based largely on the advice of self-help books makes her enjoyable like that friend you find amusing in small doses but who becomes exasperating and immature with overexposure.

*I am not sure what an Alsatian is. If you know, please fill me in.
**I found it delightfully ironic that Bridget would spend so much of the novel obsessing about Colin Firth as Pride and Prejudice's*** Mr. Darcy, when the Bridget Jones movie adaptation of one Mr. (Mark) Darcy is played by said actor. I hope that was done on purpose.
***Link to famous BBC Pride and Prejudice lake scene, so beloved by Bridget and her gang.

Books Read This Year: 55
Top 100 Progress: 46/100