Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan

An impassioned guide to The Great Gatsby by a highly qualified and devoted fan.

so we read on

NPR’s Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan (Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading) didn’t like The Great Gatsby the first time she read it for school when she was a teenager. But after teaching and lecturing about it for decades, her enthusiasm and ardent passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel infuse So We Read On (a title that spins off the novel’s famous closing line).

Corrigan argues that “if there is such an animal [as the Great American Novel], then The Great Gatsby is it.” She feels that many readers who encounter Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school are too young and inexperienced to appreciate it fully; many will unfortunately and unnecessarily form a dislike for a book that they might learn to love later in life. She also debunks a widespread interpretation of the novel as a grand, decadent celebration of materialistic American culture; it is, rather, an enormously subtle criticism of a class system that Fitzgerald felt had snubbed him.

In exploring these and other ideas, Corrigan undertakes a close reading of the text, examining language and punctuation and considering the context of the Roaring ’20s, the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald’s literary colleagues (including his “frenemy” Ernest Hemingway) and family (the famous or infamous Zelda). Despite her scholarly method, Corrigan’s work remains resolutely accessible to the everyday reader. Indeed, those who haven’t encountered Gatsby since high school are her intended audience. With humor and even the occasional pun, Corrigan offers the love of a classic novel to any and all.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dives.

Teaser Tuesdays: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

tortilla

I am pleased to return to old standbys from time to time. It has been too long since I’ve read any Hemingway. And Steinbeck is another love, one I’ve not explored enough. This audio production of Tortilla Flat, an early novel of his, is going well for me so far. I wanted to share a few lines that I think show what he can do with simple language. Tell me this doesn’t paint a scene – one you’d be happy to inhabit, in fact.

The grace was not quite so sharp to Pilon when he could not tell Big Joe about it, but he sat and watched the treasure place while the sky grayed and the dawn came behind the fog. He saw the pine trees take shape and emerge out of obscurity. The wind died down and the little blue rabbits came out of the brush and hopped about on the pine needles. Pilon was heavy-eyed but happy.

This makes me feel peaceful.

Teaser Tuesdays: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

so we read on

I am quite over the moon for the latest book about The Great Gatsby, by NPR’s Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan. It’s called So We Read On. Please note that even the title of this book is a nod to the complexity of language. Presumably if we were to hear Corrigan speak about her book (as, since she works in radio, I hope we will), we would know what I am still wondering: does she say “so we read on,” rhymes with feed, current tense? or rhymes with head, past tense? I love this ambiguity.

But wait! There’s more. In the opening pages, Corrigan shows that she will have a sense of humor even while exhorting her audience about the importance of her topic:

When we make our first chain-gang shuffle into Gatsby, we spend so much time preparing for standard test prompts on the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the color of Gatsby’s car and – above all – the symbol of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that the larger point of the novel gets lost. It’s not the green light, stupid; it’s Gatsby’s reaching for it that’s the crucial all-American symbol of the novel.

One main premise of her book (which is very friendly and accessible, by the way) is that most of us, who read Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school, are too young or distracted to fully appreciate it on that first try. I rather liked it in high school (I was a pretty enthusiastic English student, believe it or not), but I am absolutely on board with her larger point.

Recommended! Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.

[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I'm referring to were living then. Plath's mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can't confirm Olwyn Hughes's status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]

Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.

Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.

The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)

Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)

Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)

It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.

Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:

The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.

I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.

Also, this:

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.

I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

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