Category Archives: Books

TBR 5: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This is a turgid sort of book.  I knew nothing about it going in other than that Steinbeck is a practitioner of the High Seriousness and that he is one of the people to define what California is, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I definitely did not expect psychopathic hookers, so score one for Steinbeck in the surprise department. You could call this a multigenerational family saga, and it has some of the interest and weaknesses of that genre: you want to know how things will come out, but the authorial temptation for redemption narratives is regrettably high.

The opening, which gives us the entire childhood of the main character, Adam Trask, and his half-brother Charles, is actually very interesting in its depiction of dirt-poor post-Civil War life (the father becomes a very successful fraudulent government military expert who later leaves the boys a lot of sketchy money!) except that it is so unremittingly depressing that it’s sure to weed out all but the most motivated readers. Both brothers yearn for love they can’t get from their respective parents, who are both broken themselves and also subscribe to harsh principles of child-raising, so no one feels loved. This doesn’t bring the brothers together, of course, but pits them against each other, with Adam in the role of the pure soul burned by life and Charles as The One Who Understands Evil.

The themes of the novel are set up here, and so much much later in the novel when Adam has to name the twins his psycho hooker wife abandoned when she fled from his repressively moral clutches, we do not actually need the lengthy discussion of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel that Steinbeck injects via his gratuitous educated secondary characters. (He ends up naming the sons Caleb and Aaron. Like Cain and Abel and Charles and Adam. Same initials HMMMM. I bet there are several thousand undergrad papers about this symbolism available on the Internet.)  The novel is working out questions of heredity and individual free will, and of generational debt, and of self-fashioning in a changing America, and so on and so forth. Like many such novels it ends with the First World War, which has always been a convenient way to truncate plot lines: see Downton Abbey.

Here are some parts I enjoyed:

  • The parts about Northern California land and landscape.
  • The parts about post-frontier and small-town life there.
  • The characters who are thrown in there to cast the light of literature and philosophy over brutish, meaningless life because they have Read Books. This is a somewhat ridiculous literary device, but the characters themselves (a well-read but not very successful rancher and the main character’s Chinese cook) are enjoyable company.
  • Whorehouse gossip.
  • The family stories about Samuel Hamilton, the literary neighbor: the Internet says he’s based on Steinbeck’s actual family. Hamilton’s family is a loving but not completely happy one based on a marriage between an intellectual husband and a pragmatist wife, and their kids go very different ways, and one of them is a woman who creates a little women’s circle and haven in her dressmaking shop and then after a disappointment in love dies of, apparently, stomach cancer. Her sister (John Steinbeck’s mother) is a strongwilled teacher who gives it up to get married. The brothers are not strictly allegorical, either. I could read about these people a lot more.

Here are some parts I really didn’t enjoy:

  • The early parts are sickening. So much beating and abuse and general yuck, right there on the page. Yes, we get that brutality is not a modern invention. No, we don’t need to wallow in it.
  • Even though there was abuse in her childhood, Cathy the psycho hooker is more or less depicted as a crazy psychopath, and yet she also is incredibly smart and competent at work–she gets her claws into a whorehouse owner by earning everyone’s trust and running the place flawlessly down to saving money on the meals while improving the cooking. But instead of getting her own whorehouse, she decides it would be easier and more convenient to kill the owner of this one and then turn it into an EVIL whorehouse devoted to S & M hijinks. She collects photos* of community leaders getting their rocks off from whips etc., but never actually blackmails any of them for cash. Apparently she just can’t resist living in an atmosphere of petty criminality, sadism and cowering minions?  This is weak.
  • Adam Trask is a nearly unlovable character. His purity seems to consist almost entirely of being a dumbass who can’t recognize evil. And he is awful and controlling to Cathy in the guise of saving her. Why do other characters find him so appealing?
  • It’s very much a Between Men book. OK, Aaron’s fiancee Abra gets a look-in toward the end, but her life decisions aren’t significant and she has no interests.

I’m not sorry I read this, but if I were a slower reader I might be annoyed to have spent almost 600 pages reading a book that is so heavy-handed, instead of the Cliff Notes.

*On reflection, how is Cathy getting these photos made given pre-WW I film technology? Does she have an actual brothel photographer on staff and do the developing onsite? I am skeptical.

TBR 4: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

It is unfair to judge this novel against Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but I finished that novel in the last year sometime and it did what the very best nineteenth century novels do: it jumped from one grouping of people to another, effortlessly engaging you in their lives and making you excited to see each group again next time they pop up. It also made some very complicated and more historically distant history immediate.  It sucks for Kiran Desai that Seth wrote India’s Middlemarch already, but there it is, fresh in my mind still.

The Inheritance of Loss is trying to do some of the same things–talk about how the personal is political, show how seemingly distinct groups are connected to each other in unexpected ways, show personal life against a backdrop of political turmoil, bring emotion out of the distance between generations–and the writing is lovely from page to page. It does all those things adequately. But it was hard to care about the characters. They’re mostly static: the judge long stuck in his resentment of the universe, Sai with no particular plan or direction, her tutor who suddenly jumps from shyly courting his student to furiously resenting her, the cook’s son thrown around from job to job with no apparent trajectory.  What is it all for? The cook is the only one who seems to see a future, and his is vicarious. I guess the novel demonstrated the enormous losses of cultural imperialism in a tragicomic way, but not in a way I could connect to.

I ended up skimming the last quarter to find out how it all worked out and without spoiling the plot–meh. I also wish I hadn’t read the horrifying parts about the abusive marriage.

TBR 3: Travels with a Donkey Through the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

I read this more than a month ago and I’d like to say it was memorable, but it’s more of an atmosphere than a narrative in my head. After the opening hijinks with the donkey, Stevenson is pleasant but not terribly memorable company. There’s an interesting interlude where he spends the night in a monastery and is majorly proselytized, in part by the other visitors who are there to be Very Catholic, but all in all I probably would have liked it better if I had seen any of the places it describes. I don’t regret reading it and might again but it didn’t burn with a hard, gem-like flame. It is what it says it is: a well-written travel journal with not many events.

Fun fact: the donkey’s name is Modestine, which is why there is a donkey named Modestine belonging to some grungy academics in one of Angela Thirkell’s novels.

TBR 2: The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott

Yes, it’s the end of March and I need to wedge in another book or I’ll be seriously behind soon.

The Antiquary is a bit of a puzzle for modern readers who are used to being addressed on their level by a book. It’s full of everything you tend to dread in a nineteenth-century novel: florid descriptions of landscape; references to historical events you know nothing about;perilously-constructed sentences with multiple dependent clauses; untranslated Latin tags. And so, so much Scottish dialect! Although the dialect is mostly from people in low life: one wonders if it’s supposed to be the equivalent of the script of Trainspotting, minus the swearing. (I really need an edition with actual notes. Mine had none. I pride myself on being the kind of reader who forges on past bafflement and extracts only the relevant context, but I came close to foundering a couple of times.)

Here is a sample of the eponymous Antiquary talking (and he is supposed to be overeducated and baffling):

“You must know,” he said, “our Scottish antiquaries have been greatly divided about the local situation of the final conflict between Agricola and the Caledonians; some contend for Ardoch in Strathallan, some for Innerpeffry, some for the Raedykes in the Mearns, and some are for carrying the scene of action as far north as Blair in Athole. Now, after all this discussion,” continued the old gentleman, with one of his slyest and most complacent looks, “what would you think, Mr. Lovel,—I say, what would you think,—if the memorable scene of conflict should happen to be on the very spot called the Kaim of Kinprunes, the property of the obscure and humble individual who now speaks to you?” Then, having paused a little, to suffer his guest to digest a communication so important, he resumed his disquisition in a higher tone. “Yes, my good friend, I am indeed greatly deceived if this place does not correspond with all the marks of that celebrated place of action. It was near to the Grampian mountains—lo! yonder they are, mixing and contending with the sky on the skirts of the horizon! It was in conspectu classis—in sight of the Roman fleet; and would any admiral, Roman or British, wish a fairer bay to ride in than that on your right hand? It is astonishing how blind we professed antiquaries sometimes are! Sir Robert Sibbald, Saunders Gordon, General Roy, Dr. Stokely,—why, it escaped all of them. I was unwilling to say a word about it till I had secured the ground, for it belonged to auld Johnnie Howie, a bonnet-laird hard by, and many a communing we had before he and I could agree.”

And here is one of ye olde rustics, Edie Ochiltree, who is a professional licensed beggar, holding forth:

“Few folks ken o’ this place,” said the old man; “to the best o’my knowledge, there’s just twa living by mysell, and that’s Jingling Jock and the Lang Linker. I have had mony a thought, that when I fand mysell auld and forfairn, and no able to enjoy God’s blessed air ony langer, I wad drag mysell here wi’ a pickle ait-meal; and see, there’s a bit bonny dropping well that popples that self-same gate simmer and winter;—and I wad e’en streek mysell out here, and abide my removal, like an auld dog that trails its useless ugsome carcass into some bush or bracken no to gie living things a scunner wi’ the sight o’t when it’s dead—Ay, and then, when the dogs barked at the lone farm-stead, the gudewife wad cry, Whisht, stirra, that’ll be auld Edie,’ and the bits o’ weans wad up, puir things, and toddle to the door to pu’ in the auld Blue-Gown that mends a’ their bonny-dies—But there wad be nae mair word o’ Edie, I trow.

As you may be able to tell through all that language there are a lot of comic elements going on, with the antiquary and Edie both fond of their own personas and expressing them in oratory. Woven in between these two characters is a plot that involves secret identity, possible incest, the succession to a title, and, in possibly the novel’s oddest moment, a seal beating up a soldier who tries to hit him with a staff. (The Antiquary, who is his uncle, teases him about seals for the next many chapters, using its Latin name, “phoca.” There, we learned something.) From the perspective of the modern novel which values control and focus and tone and all those things, this book seems crazily maximalist. It’s very unlike, say, Austen. High life and low life interact all the time. Comic and tragic interweave. Characters break into ballads and get into digressive arguments about poetry.

There is plenty of fun in the book and the characters are amusing, but it’s hard to imagine listening to this kind of thing as a middlingly educated nineteenth-century person. And yet we know that Scott’s novels were extremely popular, and that they were read by children as well as adults. The gothic and comic elements must have been more important than grokking every word. Is this a side effect of listening to sermons all the time? Is it just that people in the early nineteenth century didn’t have as much entertainment to choose from? I don’t know! If you read some Scott, please tell me your reactions.


TBR 1: The Odd Women by George Gissing

(TBR=To Be Read Challenge: a list of 12 books already in your possession but unread, to be polished off within a year.)

I’m fond of smacking my head up against the least familiar sensibilities of the Victorian period–classical digressions, croquet anxiety, moral panics. George Gissing offers up the other side of the coin, which is to say the ways in which the Victorians seem to suffer from all the same problems we do. New Grub Street, which I read a few years ago, is about a journalism market where sensationalism sells and serious journalists starve. The Odd Women tackles feminism, mostly sympathetically.

It’s unfamiliar in showing us a world where women are thought to need protectors and are in constant danger of “falling” out of society (by having been known to have sex out of wedlock, for pay or otherwise). But the question of whether women can seriously focus on a career when marriage is the obvious fallback is still a live one. As is the existence of jobs that could be sustainable only with another source of income, what some of my friends term “joblets”–the non-profit, arts, home industry, or other limited-hours, low-paying jobs that these days often stand in for careers for married women who have lucked into a partner with a “real job.” (Parents with a trust fund work too. Most of these jobs are handled by the independently wealthy or people who are successfully financially dependent, although very young people with the luxury of living on the edge for a few years sometimes take them too, barely making it until they go back to school or find better-paid employment.)

In this novel, for middle-class “ladies,” joblets are the only jobs for middle class women, since the default career IS marriage. (Working class women have it even harder with long hours and terrible pay, offset by a little more freedom.) And the “odd women” who must rely on jobs like “companion” and “nursery teacher” for a real income are living on the edge of starvation, especially as they age.

I started this novel more than once and got too depressed by the opening situation to go on, although it eventually became funny as well as tragic. A family of daughters whose father found serious education to be unwomanly are orphaned, and none of them are terribly accomplished or beautiful. Three sisters die before the action begins, two from physical and mental illness due to overwork; the remaining older sisters, Alice and Virginia, are in their thirties and sharing a boardinghouse room. (Their youngest sister Monica is working 12-hour days in a shop. She has other problems; read on.) Their health is lousy and this is the sort of financial conversation they’re having:

‘I almost wish,’ said Alice, ‘that I had accepted the place at Plymouth.”Oh, my dear! Five children and not a penny of salary. It was a shameless proposal.’

‘It was, indeed,’ sighed the poor governess. ‘But there is so little choice for people like myself. Certificates, and even degrees, are asked for on every hand. With nothing but references to past employers, what can one expect? I know it will end in my taking a place without salary.’

‘People seem to have still less need of me,’ lamented the companion. ‘I wish now that I had gone to Norwich as lady-help.’

‘Dear, your health would never have supported it.’

‘I don’t know. Possibly the more active life might do me good. It might, you know, Alice.’

The other admitted this possibility with a deep sigh.

‘Let us review our position,’ she then exclaimed.

It was a phrase frequently on her lips, and always made her more cheerful. Virginia also seemed to welcome it as an encouragement.

‘Mine,’ said the companion, ‘is almost as serious as it could be. I have only one pound left, with the exception of the dividend.’

‘I have rather more than four pounds still. Now, let us think,’ Alice paused. ‘Supposing we neither of us obtain employment before the end of this year. We have to live, in that case, more than six months—you on seven pounds, and I on ten.’

‘It’s impossible,’ said Virginia.

‘Let us see. Put it in another form. We have both to live together on seventeen pounds. That is—’ she made a computation on a piece of paper—’that is two pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence a month—let us suppose this month at an end. That represents fourteen shillings and twopence a week. Yes, we can do it!’

She laid down her pencil with an air of triumph. Her dull eyes brightened as though she had discovered a new source of income.

‘We cannot, dear,’ urged Virginia in a subdued voice. ‘Seven shillings rent; that leaves only seven and twopence a week for everything—everything.’

‘We could do it, dear,’ persisted the other. ‘If it came to the very worst, our food need not cost more than sixpence a day—three and sixpence a week. I do really believe, Virgie, we could support life on less—say, on fourpence. Yes, we could dear!’

They looked fixedly at each other, like people about to stake everything on their courage.

‘Is such a life worthy of the name?’ asked Virginia in tones of awe.

‘We shan’t be driven to that. Oh, we certainly shall not. But it helps one to know that, strictly speaking, we are independent for another six months.’

This reminds me of the way the economy is going now for bigger swaths of people of both sexes who don’t have the protection of family money. Will our Gen Y 20-somethings who don’t luck into a job end up perpetually in scanty roommate situations or bad boyfriend situations for life while they make not enough as admins? Maybe.

By the time they’re having this conversation Alice is already an invalid. Virginia is on her way to alcoholism, and they’re both quietly having fainting fits from the meals they’re skipping. At this point they re-encounter Rhoda Nunn (get it? Nunn?) whom they had met in her girlhood. Rhoda has lifted herself out of dependency through self-education and is now the formidable co-head of a benevolent organization that trains genteel but poor girls in typing and other office skills. She’s energetic and a bit menacing, is prone to argue the necessity of the marriage institution with her more tenderhearted compatriot Miss Barfoot, and is improbably a tiny bit sexy, which is to say we’re given to know she has a lot of hair she could let down if she chose. Mostly she doesn’t choose. She’s sorry for lost causes like Virginia and Alice–but she becomes interested in saving Monica, the youngest at 21.

Our main conflict happens because Monica might not “have to” work. She is the pretty one, and thus may have the option of marriage. Miss Nunn wants to save her from “having to” get married to whoever offers himself, but Alice and Virginia don’t much care whether she is rescued from her 12-hour, declasse, health-wrecking shop job by a husband or by better-paid work. In the event she acquires a middle-aged stalker/suitor, and a very unhappy marriage ensues, proving Miss Nunn’s point pretty well. There is a counterplot involving Miss Barfoot’s slightly caddish cousin Everard, who decides to court Miss Nunn on a whim but finds himself falling in love with her and becoming more attracted to intellectual women than before.  We get little glimpses of a future where women would routinely be educated equally with men and how nice that would be for men (lucky Everard), and the hell of being married to someone intellectually incompatible (for men). But the major risks are still all for women, who are mostly raised dependent.  (New Grub Street shows how this dependency can wreck a man’s life too.)

Gissing gets that this must change but also how hard that is for everyone, and after the initial hump of the opening I found this to be very readable but interesting and, if axe-grinding, also fairminded. None of the characters are saints. They all are very smart about some things and very annoying about some other things, despite their allegorical names, and thus the resolution does not put the blame on any one person but on human frailty and societal baggage. Well worth the reading time.