What I’ve Been Reading — October 2005

There are a few things about the What I’ve Been Reading column that you may or may not notice upon first glance every month.

First, it’s easy to tell when the column is being prepped to be web-only or if it’s being submitted to Prime magazine — it’s much more concise and has been edited and proof read at least three times when it’s going to be published on paper, and is sloppy and half-assed when it’s web only. Second, there are always things that are not included on the published versions no matter what: the Books Purchased/Borrowed/Etc. part is one of them. Finally, you get short conversational introduction. Much like this one.

Anyway, this one’s for Prime. You lucked out.


Books Bought/Borrowed/Recieved as Birthday Gift:

The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck
Like Life — Lorrie Moore
1000 Places to See Before You Die — Patricia Schultz
Funny Letters from Famous People — Charles Osgood
Uncle John’s Presents the Book of the Dumb (Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader) — John Michael Scalzi
All I Did Was Ask — Terry Gross
Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism — Bob Edwards
South Dakota Atlas & Gazetteer 2ND Edition — Delorme

Books Read:

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams

Writing a column on reading books has tended to skew my normal reading patterns. An ideal month would consist of four or five books that naturally flowed into each other; one book might remind me of another, which in turn could lead me to a similar author, which then might bring mention of a book I’ve long meant to read. This column isn’t meant to be thematic; on the contrary, it’s meant to be fluid, like a stream of consciousness rant.

However, I’ve found that I sometimes fall into the unfortunate rut of choosing a set of rules for a specific month, and thanks to a fifteen-minute session with the “classic reads” section of the public library, this was one of those months.

First off, though, I’d like to throw in a little web only content — a little snippet on the amount of books I recieved this month. See, I checked out all of this months books last month, so all of this months new additions lay unread. This is quite all right with me — I recieved “books aplenty”, and bought even more with birthday money. Birthdays are wonderful for stocking up on reading material, as you can see.

From Kerrie I recieved 1000 Things to See Before You Die and the South Dakota Gazeteer (because I like travel and I like maps) and from our friend Amy I recieved the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader (because I apparently like sitting on the pot.) I ordered All I Did Was Ask and Edward R. Murrow’s biography with a little birthday money while I was ordering Christmas presents. I bought The Grapes of Wrath and Like Life with my grandparent’s gift: a Barnes and Noble gift card. Finally, I recieved Funny Letters from Famous People (to add alongside my book of Groucho Marx letters) from my grandparents-in-law.

All I Did Was Ask and Edward R. Murrow’s biography were both initially contemplated during the last Vilhauer camping trip of the year. We listened to a lot of MPR that weekend, and they spoke at great length of Murrow’s career (there’s a George Cloony movie about Murrow coming out later on) and that naturally led to consideration of Terry Gross’ collection of interviews. Additionally, I bought The Grapes of Wrath because, as you’ll read below, I’m on a huge Steinbeck kick. Like Life was written by Lorrie Moore — the author that Nick Hornby aped (just as I’m aping his book column idea).

Anyway, back to the reading. I started off by delving back into mysteries, a genre I’ve long neglected, with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I grew up with mysteries; my mother was – and still is – a big fan of mysteries, and I guess it was passed on to me, possibly genetically. I grew up watching Mystery on PBS, though I often never made it much farther than the Edward Gorey drawn introduction, and I remember the prim and proper way that Hercule Poirot, a recurring Christie character, was recreated on the small screen. Because of this I tended to fall back on the familiarity of Poirot when I read Christie’s mysteries. It was something recognizable, and I didn’t feel like I was taking on anything too daunting.

And Then There Were None marks my break from Christie’s Poirot. In fact, there are no recurring characters in this book, though that doesn’t make the characters any less interesting. The premise is this: ten random people, who unbeknownst to them have one sinister thing in common, gather together after being summoned to an isolated house in the middle of an even more isolated island. One by one, the people begin to die. Naturally, they start suspecting each other.

The result is not unlike today’s reality television, where hoards of people gather together and one by one get voted off of their respective shows. And Then There Were None, however, does it one better by killing the losers and then standing back as everyone blames each other. Tempers rise, alibis are created, and people start to live in a torrential state of panic. It’s like Survivor, except everyone has a weapon and no one is around to cut to commercial. Oh, and it’s actually worth your time.

Of course, it’s a short book, so I breezed though it rather quickly. I reached over and grabbed the next book off of my library stack: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. I’d like to say I borrowed this from the library in hopes of culturing myself on the role of the dramatic screenplay in literary culture, but in reality I just grabbed it because is sounded familiar and it was short.

I found Streetcar to be a great piece of writing. The action revolves around a series of poker games in Stanley and Stella’s New Orleans apartment. Stanley is a primitive brute who has perfected the art of the drunken rage while his wife Stella, a former southern belle, has hardened into a no-nonsense woman with a wealth of patience for her husband. Both are dropped in upon by Stella’s sister, Blanche, who rushes in amidst a swirl of fishy business. Stanley takes it upon himself to discover whom Blanche really is by displaying a brutish indifference that Blanche can’t bear to deal with

Reading Streetcar is a weird experience if you are not used to the layout of a screenplay. In this type of book you need to think of the lyrical nature of the words. It’s meant to be heard, not read, and this caused my mind to run on two different motors: the one that was paying attention to the words and another that was sounding them out and making them audible. It was a fusion of two different mediums: that of the written word and that of the stage.

In this time of post-Katrina mourning we’d all be a little better off reading some classic New Orleans-based literature. Streetcar is a good short read, but others (Roy Blount Jr’s Feet on the Street; John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces) illustrate the town itself as a bustling and vibrant town of excess. Williams’ play subtly mentions the Big Easy, but it focuses more on the characters instead of the location.

Lest you be thinking that I slacked off with 150-page novels this month, I’ll tell you it wasn’t all short stuff. John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize winner and literary genius, managed to make up 75 percent of my accomplishments with two contrasting types of novel: the short and jovial Tortilla Flat and the epic East of Eden.

Steinbeck, along with Hemingway, Thoreau and others, are names that tend to bring up memories of long, tedious American Literature classes. They are names that are commonly grouped together, regardless of how similar their style is, because they are considered the “greats” of the literary world. They seem to conjure up visions of rugged, bearded men with drinking problems and cold personalities, with numerous ex-wives and plenty of university professor friends. Not knowing much about any of these authors on a personal level, I can’t deny any of these rumors. I can, however, gush on and on about how great John Steinbeck is as a writer.

Tortilla Flat is a series of “troubled people get together and become friends” stories, where members of an outlaw group share a small house and make promises to each other to stay loyal, regardless of how dishonest the group is to the rest of society. Simply put, this is a story about people who should be in jail but aren’t because they are too well loved. It felt like the prefect story to take on as fall skipped by and winter began to set in – the descriptions of warm sunny days in Monterey, California, instantly helped me to forget the fact that I had to scrape ice off of my windows in order to get home.

The first think I noticed about Tortilla Flat is that the characters, above anything else, like to drink. A lot. These guys would do anything (and, quite often, everything) to get a hold of a gallon of wine. When I looked deeper into the story, though, I found a group of odd friendships – friendships that usually began as a series of deceptions and misguided acts but nearly always grew into a strained but common bond. These are friends that found no fault in engaging in fisticuffs after a night of wine consumption, and they would invariably wake up the next afternoon with no recollection of their deeds. They held two things above anything else: love and fighting.

For a quick read you can’t go wrong with Tortilla Flat. Each chapter could stand on its own as a short story, which makes it perfect for those with short attention spans. This is the type of book you can put down and come back to years later and still not miss a beat. East of Eden, on the other hand, is an epic undertaking.

I chose East of Eden over the other longer Steinbeck novels (Grapes of Wrath; Travels with Charlie) because, well, I already had it on my bookshelf. It’s daunting at first glance – 600 pages is a lot of reading, and I could already imagine an American Literature teacher breathing down my neck as I read forty-page descriptions of prairie grasses with a sentence structure better appreciated in biology textbooks.

Of course, the stereotype of American literary greats as authors with wordy and inaccessible paragraphs is not true for John Steinbeck. He doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to know. Its length is a testament to the quality of the story itself; every word has its place and helps shape an intense piece of work that makes his Nobel Prize seem well awarded.

Steinbeck’s initial purpose for writing East of Eden was to give a history of the Salinas Valley, where he grew up, and the book is part autobiography and part fiction. One family, the Hamilton’s, is his own, while its neighbors, the Trasks, is a fictional representation of what Steinbeck called the “universal neighbors.”

These characters are the real stars of the book. Much like Tortilla Flat was driven by the personalities of a group of outlaws, East of Eden is shaped completely by the realism of each person and their connection to the others. Adam Trask is a sad man who was tormented by his brother, his father, and his past. He ultimately finds that one of his sons is nearly identical to him – too loving, to open to pain – and his other son is a perfect match to Adam’s brother, to whom causing pain was second nature. Both sons want to know the real story behind their mother, Adam’s estranged wife Cathy, who is a horrible woman with little conscience and even less heart. As the Trask ranch becomes as barren as Adam and Cathy’s relationship, both boys begin to face the same challenges that their father and his brother had faced years before: competition for paternal love and the realization of their father’s lies.

It’s a long book to summarize, but its themes are incredibly intense and striking. The overall feel is of deceit – three generations of Trasks all have their own version of the truth. Passed down through each generation is the confusion and pain caused by lying to cover the truth, or at least distort it – from father to son and then from that son’s wife to her own children. It’s a case study of three different types of lies – the white lie meant to protect, the blatant lie meant to harm, and the shameful lie meant to cover an embarrassing past. It’s a complex system of events that causes the book to fly by, and because of that I recommend it to everyone.

After reading Tortilla Flat and East of Eden, I’ve come to the realization that John Steinbeck deserves all of the praise that he received during his life and after his death. He’s truly one of, if not the, greatest writer of this century, a man who was able to do it all, from travel memoir to short story, from epic novel to novella. His stuff isn’t as old and creaky as I had once imagined – better yet, his stuff has the staying power that transcends “classic” status. In fact, all of the novels I read this month changed the way I think about the “classics.”

Not bad for a bunch of old books, eh?

This was lovingly handwritten on November 3rd, 2005