Posted by: Jeanie F | June 11, 2014

The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck

This summer I’ll be taking a trip with a friend to Monterey, California. Among other things, we’ll be visiting the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas. I’ve been there several times, but this year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The Center commissioned three artists to accompany members of their staff to travel and document the Joad family’s journey along Route 66 to California. This exhibit will be on a national tour to highlight similarities between the migrant journey in the 1930s and social issues faced today.

This reminded me that when I was teaching high school English in the late 1990s my students read The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, a collection of articles that Steinbeck wrote for The San Francisco News about the “Hoovervilles” of rural California. This series comprised the bulk of Steinbeck’s research for writing The Grapes of Wrath.

This prompted me to pull out my copy of The Harvest Gypsiesand reread it. I found that it is far more relevant today, following the financial crisis of 2008, than it was when my students read it.

When Steinbeck toured the migrant camps he found men who once had been self-reliant farmers on their own land reduced to poverty, humiliation, and starvation as they were forced to follow the crops through Central California in an attempt to keep their families alive. They weren’t always successful.

The circumstances Steinbeck chronicled in 1936 have many correlations to impoverished and homeless families today. A number of his conclusions – based on compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, were “so defeated that they had been cast down to a kind of subhumanity” – are just as relevant today as they were then.

This slim volume – a mere 66 pages – should be required reading for us all.

Grade: A

I am in a quandary. My book club is reading a book this month that is wildly popular and famous – weeks and weeks on the NYT best seller list, nominated for – and winning many – prestigious awards, seemingly uniformly loved, but I just do not like it.

The book is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Stephen King loved it. Ron Charles loved it. As of today, 4,134 readers on Amazon.com gave it five stars. I know they can’t all be wrong, but I’ve read 6% of the book (that’s right, it’s on my Kindle), I’m in the middle of what I assume is the grand inciting incident, and I’m opting to play Solitaire on my iPad rather than pick up the book and read. I need to finish the remaining 94% before June 18 when my book club meets.

If you can give me any good reasons why I’m wrong to think this is a wordy, overblown snoozefest, please let me know. Give me hope that at some point Tartt is able to write a sentence that’s shorter than 56 words long like this one:

Usually she was home just when she said she’d be, so if she was ten minutes late I began to fret; any later, and I sat on the floor by the front door of the apartment like a puppy left alone too long, straining to hear the rumble of the elevator coming up to our floor.

(The sentence that proceeds this one is at least three times as long. If Tartt simply told her story the book would be a third its current length. Do you think she was hoping to sell it by the pound?)

If, like me, you have ever found yourself swimming against the tide in your assessment of a very popular book, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 2, 2014

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

 

I have to admit that I am always drawn to black humor. Recently I had the opportunity to see Edward Albee’s play, “The American Dream,” a dark and satirical look at the American family that I found just as relevant and funny as I did when I first saw it at least twenty years ago. Although many reviewers have compared A.M. Homes novel, May We Be Forgiven, to John Cheever’s view of American life, in some ways it takes Albee’s absurdist view of the American Dream and updates it for the 21st Century. If you like weird, dark humor laced with sweet, though unrealistic, romanticism, you will enjoy this book. It was the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize for Fiction).

The story begins with a murder which results in the protagonist, Harry Silver, becoming responsible for his brother, George’s, children, home, finances, and very liberty. He has always despised his brother, so the fact that he now has to live George’s life for him is ironic. Harry is a soon-to-be-divorced, childless professor who specializes in the life and times of Richard Nixon. As a Nixon scholar, he says:

Dick Nixon was the American man of the moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American Dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all.

What we learn about Harry Silver is that he, in many ways, is the modern personification of the Nixon personality. His challenge is to right the wrongs of both his brother and Richard Nixon by trying to rise above their cynical shortcomings. Along the way he loses his wife, his professorship, and a number of the values he believed were important to him. He finds himself in situations that call into question his moral absolutes. He isn’t so much on a quest to find the American Dream as to find whether such a construct exists.

Over the course of the novel – which is exactly one year, Thanksgiving-to-Thanksgiving – Harry builds his own 21st Century family, an oddly mismatched group comprised of his brother’s children, a boy orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, and the elderly parents of a young woman with whom Harry has a brief affair. This allows him to re-evaluate who he is and find that losing it all was the key to finding the life he wanted.

The ending may be a bit saccharine, but the journey is worth the time to read it.

Grade: B

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel

I can’t remember ever being quite so conflicted about writing a book review. Not because there is the slightest ambiguity concerning my reaction to the work – let me just say now that it has been a very, very long time since I have laughed/cried/been entertained by/been heartbroken by/been  so thoroughly engaged by a work of fiction. I really loved this book – in fact, loved it so much that in spite of the fact that I was on vacation in San Francisco I managed to finish it in three days. Couldn’t put it down!

No, the point of conflict for me is not in giving my fullest endorsement. It was the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, which should tell you everything you need to know. The conflict arises over how to tell you why you should read it without giving any of it away. It is the discovery – in fact, discoveries – that make this such an engrossing read. Around every turn there is something you didn’t know or suspect and to know anything in advance would surely destroy some – although not all – of the pleasure. . . and the pain.

So – I feel constrained in what I should say. And I’m not alone. Here’s what Barbara Kingsolver, a far more erudite reviewer than am I, had to say about this in The New York Times Sunday Book Review:

To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review. [Heed this advice – her review is full of spoilers!]

Several reviewers did attempt to parse some important themes while skirting others:

“This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family . . .” (Dan Choan)

“You know how people  say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s new book is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible – a funny, moving, entertaining novel . . .” Dr. Mary Doria Russell

From Kirkus, “Rosemary’s voice – vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest – is so complex . . .Technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.”

In her review, Kingsolver also said, “A novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get . . . [Its] fresh diction and madcap plot bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d’etre . . .”

Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being) came the closest to identifying my own reading experience when she writes, “It’s been years since I’ve felt so passionate about a book. When I finished at 3 a.m., I wept, then I woke up the next morning, reread the ending, and cried all over again.”

I really have nothing to add except my full endorsement that you read this book. Right now. . . provided you have nothing else to do for the next eight to ten hours. Once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down.

Grade: A+

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 2, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I first came across Ruth Ozeki in her odd, but powerful, novel, My Year of Meats. My book club read it in 1999, and it has stayed with me ever since. I can’t say that about every book I read so, when I saw that Ozeki had written a new novel, I was anxious to check it out. Once again (spoiler alert), I found her story to be odd, but powerful.

A Tale for the Time Being is the story of an existential correspondence between an unhappy Japanese teenager, Nao, and Ruth, an unhappy woman living on an island off of British Columbia. I use the term existential in the sense of “having being in time and space” (Merriam-Webster) as well as “a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world” (Robert C. Solomon). Both definitions play a role in this story as Nao and Ruth both struggle with disorientation and confusion in their lives.

If you’re still reading, congratulations, because there are parts of this alternately frustrating and riveting story that made me want to put my Kindle down and play online solitaire. However, the voice of Nao, her story, her hope and her spirit kept me going, just as it kept Ruth going when she discovered this “letter” in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washed up onshore following the 2011 Tohoku tsunami.

Nao lives in Tokyo where her family moved after her father lost his job during the California tech bust. She is hounded and harassed by her Japanese schoolmates, her parents are distracted by their shame and loss of income, the only friend she had in California has stopped answering her texts. Nao is surrounded by disorientation and confusion yet, from her spirited writing, it is obvious that she struggles to rise above it. Sitting alone in an ersatz “French Café,” she begins a letter to the unknown future recipient, writing:

…right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

And, in fact, Ruth wonders a great deal about Nao, Nao’s grandfather, a WWII kamakazi pilot, her 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Buddhist monk, Nao’s suicidal father – and, primarily, how Nao’s “diary” made it to British Columbia. Ruth worries about where Nao is “in time” – has she survived the tsunami, are they in the same “present” or is Nao now “past”?

A great deal of this story deals with concepts about time – past and present – which have the overall effect of making the reader consider the many aspects and ambiguities of what we mean and know when we talk about “time.”

But don’t be put off by the esoterically philosophical aspects of this story which is, at heart, a very human story of a young girl struggling with a life that she tries not to give up on. It’s worthwhile to keep with it as you root for both the girl and the woman – strangers to each other, but joined together as “time beings.”

Grade: B

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 3, 2014

Where Do You Get Book Recommendations?

New and Recommended

Last week I had the good fortune to visit one of my favorite indie booksellers, Bay Books on Coronado Island. This is a great store, small but extremely well-stocked, with knowledgeable staff to recommend and discuss books. It got me thinking about how my own reading habits have changed since I’ve started doing most of my reading on my Kindle.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my Kindle, and I have been a Kindle reader since its inception. Recently, however, I’ve noticed that I’ve been jumping around, finding it difficult to settle on a book I want to read cover to cover. This is unusual for me, so I began to analyze what’s happened to my reading habits.

My trip to Bay Books crystalized my thinking. I miss examining a real book before I commit hours of my life to it.

When buying ebooks on Amazon, I tend to limit my choices to specific books that I am searching for, usually after reading a review or getting a recommendation. While I was in Bay Books I realized that some of my all-time favorites are books that I stumbled upon while browsing in a bookstore, often titles I had never seen. While Amazon displays the covers and provides free samples of the book, it really isn’t the same as holding the unknown book in my hand, flipping through the pages, maybe discussing the book with knowledgeable staff. I realized that the “real world” assessment of a book seems to net better results for me.

I’m not saying I won’t continue to love reading on my Kindle, but I am going to make a more concerted effort to get to some of my favorite Indies: Bay Books, Laguna Beach Books, and Vroman’s in Pasadena to name a few.

How about you? Where do you go for great recommendations? Please participate in the poll below. I’d love it if you would also follow up with a comment to elaborate on your response.

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