Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira.

See also: my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me, for all of us, to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander_cover


If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

See my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.

Backyard Birds: Cleveland National Air Show

From pain comes artistic gain.

I haven’t been blogging lately. Instead, I’ve been recovering from neck and back pain after combing the sky over Lake Erie for the “birds.” The 2018 Cleveland National Air Show brought packed crowds to Burke Lakefront Airport over Labor Day weekend. In 90+ degree weather on September 1, I tried to capture the four final acts of the day. My videos were a wash, but some photos came out. Was it worth it?

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Swan song for a seasoned stunt pilot, Sean D. Tucker – Power Aerobatics Oracle Challenger III

IMG_6082-Sean-Oracle-inverted-L-away-top-visible-smokeIMG_6109-Sean-Oracle-Am-flag-heads-hats-rising-LIMG_6115-Sean-Oracle-vert-climb-belly-visible-no-smoke-angl-slt-RIMG_6074-Sean-Oracle-corkscrew-dive

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IMG_6135-tiger-caught-in-smoke-ring

A tiger caught in the ring – Twin Tiger Aerobatic Team

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U.S. Navy Blue Angels – FA-18 Hornets

IMG_6205-Blue-Angels-diamond-upper-L-climb-pre-break-angles-smokeIMG_6191-Blue-Angels-5-inverted-6-straight-single-file-levelIMG_6217-Blue-Angels-delta-inverted-dive-lower-R-smokeIMG_6203-Blue-Angels-diamond-stair-steps-R-glint-no-smokeIMG_6219-Blue-Angels-delta-away-straight-from-R-dark-smokeIMG_6224-Blue-Angels-delta-upper-R-level-6-visible-2-tails-dark-smoke-6-trails-R-bleedIMG_6216-Blue-Angels-delta-upper-R-climb-smoke-closeup

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On the ground, a huge “bird” out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio

A jet expert and flight simulation & training engineer, my spouse would have liked to see more, but we got a late start on that hot Saturday. So much the better for me and my spine. When the people dispersed, the seagulls swooped in to reclaim their backyard and scavenge the smorgasbord of leftovers. For our part, we headed to the Cheesecake Factory at Legacy Village, east of downtown Cleveland and the airport. The highlight there for me was the pumpkin cheesecake, just come on the menu for the fall season.

As I soldiered on through the spinal dis-ease of Sunday morning, we met with friends for brunch and the afternoon, followed by dinner at a Hungarian family restaurant in Shaker Square called Balaton. Their food was so disturbingly good I forgot to hurt.

With a first night separated from my co-dependent dog (with his co-dependent Ma), whom we left with my husband’s parents over Saturday and Sunday, it was an all-around very good weekend getaway. Two weeks, a massage, and a chiropractic adjustment later, and I’m on the mend at last. It’s good to be back.

 

Grand Showcase coming soon!

Hey, art lovers and writers in northeast Ohio, heads up!

The annual Writing Knights Grand Tournament has been restyled as Grand Showcase and Marketplace 2018!

Grand Showcase 2018

Presented live in Canton, OH ~ July 27-28

Hosted by Writing Knights Press and downtown Canton

I’ll read my poetic “Scenes from a nature film” live @ IKON Images Gallery & Shoppe, July 28 at 1pm

Descriptive nature verse (mostly)–some seasoned pieces, some revised, some made fresh for the show

Located at 221 5th Street, Canton, IKON is just one of several venues where poetry, music, comedy, and stories will be performed over Friday and Saturday, July 27-28.

Check out the full main schedule of performers, including me at 1pm on Saturday, July 28, plus an open mic list. All the action starts Friday night, July 27.

Open mic runs concurrently with the main program on July 28, from 12pm to 6pm. Interested performers for the open mic email writingknights@live.com. Full instructions here.

Below is the general plan. “Love” offerings (cash) will be accepted at each program.

“Friday July 27th from 7pm to 9pm: We will have one show at Makeshift Makerspace.
Saturday July 28th will be the big day. We will have the following shows:
  • 12pm to 2pm show at IKON Art Gallery
  • 3:30pm to 5:30pm show at Makeshift Makerspace
  • 7pm to 9pm the final show of the event at Avenue Arts/Kathleen Howland Theatre.”

Vendors will set up along Court Street, so bring cash for food, souvenirs, etc.

Writing Knights will also be selling copies of the Showcase issue of their literary magazine The Wayward Sword for $15. Four of my poems made it into the litmag.

Full details at Writing Knights Press, see the posts using key word “Grand Showcase 2018.”

Come out to support the arts scene, share your work, get inspired and just have fun!

Outlander STARZ Returns November 2018

Check out @Outlander_STARZ’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/Outlander_STARZ/status/994291582567264258?s=09

Poetry in song: Indie rock music lyrics

My preferences in music lie in this general direction: good lyrics, good groove, good singing, complex instrumentation, but my tastes are much more specific. The truth is, I can be kind of a musical snob. I grew up learning the trombone, a little piano, and dancing and singing on the fly whenever I could. Learning how to read and listen to music for its parts opened the door for me to enjoy music in greater variety and depth, which made me a more discerning consumer.

I don’t tend to like mainstream pop. I go more for alternative rock, indie pop, New Wave, electronica, movie and TV soundtracks, jazz, and classical, or rock that incorporates combinations of these elements. Such as No Doubt’s use of ska or Kings of Leon’s and Glass Animals’ blues-heavy alt rock. See the glossary at bottom for genre definitions.

I’m also a sucker for the occasional nostalgic 80s pop tune and musical theater production. I listened to a A Chorus Line a lot as a kid and have memorized most of the Rent soundtrack. Growing up on Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel took a dramatic turn in the early 90s with my exposure to alternative bands The Cure and Depeche Mode. I always liked U2, INXS, and Duran Duran.

Then, at age 13, I became a Tori Amos fanatic, with sides of Bjork and The Sugarcubes, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, PJ Harvey, and Sheryl Crow through the next decade, much of which I’ve outgrown, though I do reminiscence. The story is similar with Fiona Apple and The Ditty Bops, and, earlier on, The Cranberries and The Sundays.

Today, some of my favorite bands include Young the Giant, Foster the People, Of Monsters and Men, Modest Mouse, Nothing But Thieves, Chvrches, The Killers, Bastille, and Cold War Kids. I went through a Florence+the Machine phase (Baroque pop), and I really like Hozier, Lorde, Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and The White Stripes), The Black Keys, Silversun Pickups, The Kooks, Muse, Tame Impala, Metric, Snow Patrol, Joywave, Big Data, Matt & Kim, Alice Merton, Phantogram, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend, Saint Motel, and St. Vincent.

I still groove to the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Incubus, Keane, Ra Ra Riot, Faith No More, Cake, Fitz and the Tantrums, Phoenix, Garbage, Soundgarden and Audioslave, Ben Harper, Over the Rhine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Beck, Metric, Gorillaz, Rilo Kiley, Passion Pit, Ben Folds Five, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tove Lo, Queens of the Stone Age, Siouxsie and the Banshees (keep hearing “Turn to Stone” in my head for some reason), and The Clash when they pop up. Alternative rock, alterna-pop, punk, funk, post-punk revival, and offshoots of those.

I also love the music of James Brown, Blondie, Sam Cooke, The Police, Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Prince, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson.

I don’t like most of today’s streaming radio apps. I like to choose my own playlist of specific songs, not songs derived from the artist or song I chose. But I’m also still looking for a music player app that truly understands the definition of random shuffle. Open to suggestions.

Anyway, these somewhat rigid standards translate into listening to a lot of the same music on repeat–for years. Thus, the following throwback recommendation. As a send-off to National Poetry Month 2018, I’m sharing some poetry in modern musical form. 

One of my favorite bands for great lyrics is The Shins, described as an “indie rock” band by Wikipedia. Guitar-based, keyboard-infused, and vocally and lyrically focused, The Shins strike the listener with their dynamic melodies, pop sensibilities, and pleasing harmonies. With more keen listening, their wit and ennui emerge.

I only have a couple of their albums, but the songs are very singable and packed with meaning. In dance terms, they tend to be more for swaying and head bobbing. Wincing the Night Away (2007) is my preferred Shins album between the two I own, the other being Oh, Inverted World (their first record, 2001), which I bought second. Wincing seems to me to have a more consistent and polished sound across the album.

 

The song lyrics below form a representative example of the turns of phrase, ideas, mood, and rhythms in many Shins tunes, especially on Wincing the Night Away.


“Turn on Me” by The Shins (from Wincing the Night Away, SubPop Records, 2007)

You can fake it for a while
bite your tongue and smile
like every mother does her ugly child
but it starts to leaking out
like spittle from a cloud
amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound
you entertaining any doubts

(chorus) ’cause you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
though I knew you masked your disdain
I can see the change was just too hard for us
(hard for us)
you always had to hold the reigns (sic)
but where I’m headed you just don’t know the way

so affections fade away
or do adults just learn to play
the most ridiculous repulsive games
all our favorite ruddy sons
and their double-barreled guns
you’d better hurry rabbit run run run
’cause mincing you is fun
and there’s a lot of hungry hatters in this world
set on taking it over
but brittle thorny stems
they break before they bend
and neither one of us is one of them
and the tears will never mend

(divergent chorus/bridge) ’cause you had it in for me so long ago
(boy I still don’t know)
I don’t know why and I don’t care
well hardley (sic) anymore
if you’d only seen yourself hating me
(hating me)
when I’d been so much more than fair
but then you’d have to lay those feelings bare
the one thing I know has still got you scared
yeah all that cold ire
and never once aired on a dare

(chorus) you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
so I took your licks at the time
a change like that is just so hard to do
(hard to do)
don’t let it whip-crack your life
and I’ll bow out from the fight
those old pius (sic) sisters were right
the worst part is over
now get back on that horse and ride.


Note the unique word choices, robust lines of ideas, verb tense nuances, use of repetition in words (sonically a harmonized echo) and verse rhymes (aaabbbb, dddeeeexxffff), which has this unique “oh, and one more thing” effect, and chorus variations. Yet, the chorus also holds a fairly consistent rhyming pattern, especially between the last two: chorus 1, cdxdd; chorus 2, ghgxhhhxh; chorus 3, cacaaaxa.

The tune opens with a spare, rising and falling guitar line with slight reverberation in a minor key, there’s a medium tempo with fast lyric delivery, and the song ends abruptly after the last line.

The collective effect of the words, rhymes, pace, notes, and rhythm is a message of sad but insistent coming to terms with personal differences leading to relationship’s end, seemingly with a friend rather than a lover. It plays as a kind of overture to be frank with the former friend, not to be interrupted, not expecting it to be reciprocated (though knowing the other might heal if release were allowed), in order to reveal that the speaker was more aware of their dynamics than the other probably assumed.

The second verse portrays a sort of cat-and-mouse (or rabbit-and-hatter) game between the people in this relationship, only to dismiss it as pointless role-play that doesn’t befit them. Fans of Lewis Carroll and followers of my blog may notice the Alice in Wonderland references with “rabbit” and “hatters.”

There’s all this friction, tension, wasted aggression, and drama. He “took” the “licks,” put up with the contempt and attitude of “disdain” because of love. But now he sees their fracture was inevitable and releases the other from the struggle, by leaving it himself and encouraging their moving on without clinging to the pain.

It ends with a message, more to self than to other, to get on with life now that he’s said his piece and supposedly found closure in it. He’s trying his best. However, the very need to sing the song, the “oh, and one more thing” pattern in the rhyming lines, the abruptness of the ending (before the declaration has a chance to sink in even to the one making it), and the emphatic, staccato delivery of the last line collectively suggest there will always be some part of it that at least one, if not both, of them can never get over.

As a result, the title “Turn on Me” reads in two ways: (1) Here’s what you did and I never understood why (the question haunts me), and (2) here’s what I almost dare you to do, to respond whether to explain or keep battering away at me, even though my final words say “nevermind, I’m out.”

Even without being put to music, it’s a sophisticated piece of poetry as a whole, conveying a theme not often found in mainstream pop, using incisive remarks, clever yet concise phrasing, and raw but controlled emotion. Like most poetry though, of course, it’s made to be listened to.

Among songs on the album, I also really like the more well-known singles “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” The tunes “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits,” though not popular on Amazon, are additional favorites of mine based on the lyrics and, ultimately, Wincing‘s great sound. Although I find the tune a little too stripped down musically, I do like the lyrics to “A Comet Appears,” the album’s last song.

My introduction to The Shins was through their single “New Slang”‘s prominent role in the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. That lovely single appears on the Oh, Inverted World album.

album-cover_Wincing-the-Night-Away_The-Shins_2018-Amazon

Cover of The Shins’ 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. Credit to image owner.

Notes on the text: I’ve based the lyrics above primarily on the album’s CD jacket text for the song. I forgive The Shins’ editors the CD jacket’s spelling errors, but I do mark them rather than correct them as some lyrics sites have. I’ve represented the lyrics without punctuation except for the abbreviations and contractions containing apostrophes, the hyphens, and the final period as shown in the jacket. I retain most of the line break model provided by MetroLyrics for ease of reading since the jacket has only 3 lines of text for the entire song, extending across two and a half page spreads. It’s one big run-on. To learn where each sentence really ends, buy and listen to the recording.

I restore lowercasing as shown in the jacket text and have re-broken stanzas according to my own sense of idea units and shifts in musical elements between verses and chorus. Per the original published text, I retain phrase truncation and omit question marks, though some lines are questions. I add parentheses around the echoed harmonies that MetroLyrics adds as separate lines of lyrics, as these are not in the original. I also correct several wording errors from the MetroLyrics text.


I recommend more music in these posts:


Glossary of Music Genre Terms

alternative rock, a.k.a. alternative music, alt-rock, or alternative – “a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. . . . as distinct from mainstream rock music.” Benefiting from “the groundwork laid by the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock from the 1970s,” the term has been used at times to describe underground rock artists that are seen to be descended from punk rock (punk, new wave, and post-punk).” (Wikipedia excerpts) In short, not mainstream rock but not easily defined.

Baroque pop/rock – a fusion of rock/pop and classical music with Baroque compositional styles and use of instruments commonly associated with this movement of the classical genre, such as harpsichords (as on Tori Amos’ album Boys for Pele), strings, and, in the case of Florence+the Machine, harps (paraphrase of Wikipedia)

electronica – a variety of “styles including techno, house, ambient, jungle, and industrial dance, among others” (Wikipedia)

electropop – “a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, electronic sound, revived in popularity and influence since the 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

indie pop – “a genre and subculture that combines guitar pop with DIY ethic in opposition to the style and tone of mainstream pop music.” (Wikipedia)

* indie rock – a genre of alternative rock that originated in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s, originally referring to their independent record labels, evolving into a style and further evolving as different genres and subgenres ebbed and flowed in popularity. Often seen as an underground movement stemming from grunge, punk revival, and Britpop bands, some artists described using this term moved into the mainstream as well. At one point used to describe music produced on punk and post-punk labels. (paraphrase of Wikipedia) In short, once a clear genre, now muddled.

funk – “a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions . . . and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.” (Wikipedia) In short, sexy, groovy awesomeness.

post-punk (originally “new musick”) – “a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities. Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock clichés, artists experimented diversely with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, free jazz, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. . . .” (Wikipedia). In short, punk morphed into anything they wanted.

punk rock or punk – “a rock music genre developed in the mid-1970s in the U.S., UK, and Australia rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music; punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock . . . typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.” (Wikipedia). In short, angry protest rock.