It’s Burns Night, the traditional celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most iconic poet. Often with a traditional Scottish meal, songs, and poetry reading, Burns Night is celebrated across the Scottish diaspora every year on January 25th.
Although I won’t be partaking in a Scottish meal (though I do love me some haggis . . . not really; it’s okay, but I prefer black pudding), I celebrate by sharing with you excerpts from Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” written in 1787.
Related posts on this blog involving Robert Burns’ poetry, language translation, and definitions include:
“Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a dissection of the Outlander STARZ TV show’s adaptation of Burns’ rendering of the bawdy song “The Reels o’ Bogie”
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race! Aboon them a’ yet tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace As lang’s my arm.
fa’ (v.) – fall sonsie (adj.) – good, honest, lucky (said esp. of women) Aboon (prep.) – above, higher than a’ (pron.) – all tak (v.) – take painch (n.) – paunch, belly, stomach tripe (n., adj.) – tall, thin, ungainly person; slovenly, gangling thairm (n.) – gut or bowel weel (adj.) – well wordy (v.) – worthy grace (n.) – grace-drink, taken at the end of a meal after grace is said lang (adj.) – long
The groaning trencher there ye fill, Your hurdies like a distant hill, Your pin wad help to mend a mill In time o’ need, While thro’ your pores the dews distil Like amber bead.
trencher (n.) – round or square plate or platter of wood or metal (i.e., flatware) hurdies (n.pl.) – buttocks, hips, haunches of humans and animals wad (v.) – would
His knife see rustic Labour dight, An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin’, rich!
dight (v.) – clothe, deck or adorn onie (adj.) – any reekin’ (adj.) – reeking
The next 3 stanzas share delicious language about competing for a portion of the food, defying foreigners to disdain their feast, and the unpleasant consequences after supper awaiting those who ate too well.
The last 2 stanzas frolic with the feaster as he makes his bloated way home until at last we see the final statement of haggis’s superiority to other refreshments, such as porridge and milk.
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He’ll make it whissle; An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned, Like taps o’ thrissle.
walie (adj.) – fine, excellent; big, strong nieve (n.) – fist, grip whissle (v.) – spend? (as in explode?) sned (v.) – chop (off) taps (n.pl.) – tufts, as of bird crest feathers thrissle (n.) – thistle
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care, And dish them out their bill o’ fare, Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware That jaups in luggies; But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a haggis!
wha (pron.) – who mak (v.) – make auld (adj.) – old nae (adj.) – no skinking (adj.) – pouring, pitcher jaups (v.) – dash, splash, ripple luggies (n.pl.) – small wooden dishes or vessels used in serving milk, porridge gie (v.) – give haggis (n.) – “A dish consisting of the pluck or heart, lungs and liver of a sheep minced and mixed with suet, oatmeal, onion and seasoning and boiled in a sheep’s maw or stomach.” (also used as an insult, a term of contempt for a person – blockhead, stupid)
And so, what is Burns Night to a haggis? Complete annihilation.
For a recipe and more information, see “What Is Haggis Made of?” at The Spruce Eats. Of course, Burns Night isn’t complete without bagpipes and whisky. Nae bother, we’ll be better organized by next January.
Happy Burns Night–and weekend. . . .
Speaking of weeks and ends, catch the Season 4 finale of Outlander, Sunday, January 27, at 8pm Eastern on STARZ. Episodes guide here.
Dictionary of the Scots Language. / Dictionar o the Scots Leid. (n.d.). A database supported by the Scottish Government and hosted by the University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.dsl.ac.uk/
Waverley Books. (2011). The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd. pp. 194-195.
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.
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.
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 deliciousturns 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 loveadmire 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:
After a few weeks’ rest, massages, and chiropractic adjustment, I recovered from a spinal arthritis flare-up in early September. Despite the pain, my strenuous photographic efforts to capture speedy, high-flying objects at the Cleveland National Air Show paid off with a post of my best shots from the day.
In early October, my husband and I took a refreshing vacation to California, visiting my brother’s family, some wine and hard cider makers, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and, for the first time, Yosemite National Park. I fell ill during my last trip out there in April 2015, but I made it through this one and the rest of October virus free. Health and sense of mission restored, I’m on to the second half of this series.
In text, maps, and photos, Part 1 started with how the Outlander book and TV series inspired and triggered our Argyll adventure; the first post then showcased our dynamic drive toward the Argyll coast. Part 2 featured highlights of our first stops upon reaching the sea: Crinan Canal, the Paps of Jura, and Kilmory Knap Chapel.
The Outlander Season 4 premiere starting November 4th at 8pm EST on STARZ brings long-awaited relief from Droughtlander and takes the saga into the New World. While I’m eager to follow Jamie and Claire on the next phase of their on-screen adventures, my own travel in Scotland still calls me back. Scotland is, after all, the seed of Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander book series phenomenon, which last month took the number 2 slot of the Great American Read‘s top novels.
Venturing farther inland for Part 3, this post shares some of my most cherished moments from our long day in Argyll with Àdhamh Ó Broin, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and their STARZ TV adaptation.
Late Morning in Mid Argyll
We had taken East Loch Sween Road into Kilmory, drove south to Kilmory Knap Chapel, and returned on the same path. It was a single-track road, known by road management officials as C42. A Scottish government guide explains that “C-roads, like B-roads, are minor, local routes but are not signposted or shown on maps.” However, OpenStreetMap.org was my source for both names of the road because it’s awesome. Score one against the web of Old World secrets.
Road C42 becomes Achnamara Road toward Barnluasgan, where we tracked back to the southwest on B8025 and soon reached our destination. Kilmory Oib township ruins are the moss-eaten traces of a settlement abandoned in the 19th century. Online satellite maps, even OpenStreetMap.org, indicate no name for the site, though a zoomed-in satellite view on Google Maps offers such age-old markers as a low, road-side fence and two discernible standing stones. It seems you can find the settlement itself only by knowing its name and location beforehand. So much for blasting through Scotland’s secrets.
Of course, we had a secret weapon. Our native Scottish guide Àdhamh brought his insider’s knowledge to our discovery of Kilmory Oib. After reading the placards at the clearing’s opening, I then researched further to inform the visit.
What’s left of Kilmory Oib lies within North Knapdale Forest, planted 100 years ago in the heart of North Knapdale. Most of the area is managed by Forestry Commission Scotland. On the ground, two lochs and a bed and breakfast neighbor the former township: Loch Barnluasgan to the northeast where the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial successfully reintroduced beavers to the area, Loch Coille-Bharr to the east, and the White Rock Bed & Breakfast to the north-northwest. Kilmory Oib is closest to Loch Coille-Bharr, but Loch Sween and the Sound of Jura are also not far away.
From the parking lot, we walked south up a dirt- and grass-covered path over the modest grade of a hill. At our feet I pointed out a large black beetle scurrying in the direction we headed. Like a child discovering nature for the first time, Àdhamh stopped to inspect it, as if he were stopping to smell the flowers. A true nature lover.
Portion of placard at the Kilmory Oib site, courtesy of the Dalriada Project
The path opened onto a clearing in the forest bathed in the rising sun. An early autumn, late morning light in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, its brightness shone high enough to illuminate and low enough to dazzle. The sun’s position in the clear sky made a pleasing contrast for photos, and it gave this Ohioan the impression of an earlier hour than it was. A peaceful scene unfolded when we met the clearing strewn with ancient and modern relics.
After my extensive map research for the trip and before we arrived on site, I had never seen a Scottish or Gaelic place name quite like “Oib.” Even Scottish people will pronounce names slightly differently across regions and time, but some guidelines assist the non-native Gaelic speaker. The consonant is simple: “b” here is pronounced like “p.” The vowel in “Oib” is something either like “up” but with a slightly rounded vowel into the “o” in “hop,” or “oip” as in “voip” but with a bit of a slide toward the long “i” sound in “hi.” In sum, close to “Op” or “Ipe” in English.
The Forestry Commission explains the meaning: “Usually referred to simply as Kilmory, the township is part of the estate known as Oib, or Oab, meaning bay or inlet in Gaelic” (Source: “Kilmory Oib,” Forestry Commission Scotland (current owner); contents menu includes links to information about a dozen other historic townships). The closest water body is Loch Coille-Bharr, neither bay nor inlet, but Scotland can be such a moist place, I suppose it matters little. A canal, river, burn, or sea, and precipitation, are frequent encounters. See my discussion on the variable labeling of place names in the sections “Dividing a Nation” and “Notes on Area Names” of the post “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3.”
In 2016, the ground brushed with dew and waterlogged besides, its dense green things slowly swallowed and partly camouflaged many of the decrepit stone structures in the morning sun. Some shapes from the low piles of flat stones suggested old livestock pens, now carpeted with moss. Other forms announced cottage or barn walls, spattered with lichens. Ferns and bracken, a russet brethren showing fern its future, rounded out the signs of growth. The layers of life blanket these landmarks of bygone people and preserve the dark, damp earth underneath.
The Campbell clan owned Kilmory in the 1800s, but due to bankruptcy, ownership passed from Neil Campbell to Neil Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1785. Forestry Commission Scotland is the current owner (“Kilmory Oib”). During our visit, only two other visitors walked nearby and were on their way out when we arrived, but more than plant and fungal life stirred on the site. As it scooched slowly across the jagged stone surface atop a wall close to the trail, a little curl of motion attracted our attention. Again our guide picked up and examined the creature—a fuzzy grey-blue caterpillar with thin white striping and russet-orange bands across the stripes. It wore its own clan’s tartan. With visible signs of fertile land over the buried strata of past farming and fishing communities, could the insect’s glossy wings emerge to echo the plaid? And would it be Campbell, Malcolm or just Clan Butterfly?
Do you know this species? The caterpillar, not the hand. That’s Àdhamh’s.
Across the grounds, enclosed on one side by a crest of evergreens, some of the narrower end walls of the dwellings remain intact to the apex, like a peppering of stone arrows pointing skyward. They are evidence of the roofs’ gable style of only two slopes, a Dalriadian feature from 18th-century architecture of the southwest Highlands (“The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill,” p. 6). Although similar sheltering can be supposed across this collection of buildings, the dearth of surviving walls and roofs leaves mysterious precisely how the structures must have appeared when last they were whole.
Now, one large tree that appeared to be in the cypress family twists its way up through the center of a building space, snug against the west-side escarpment. A fruit tree, too, sidles up to a smaller jagged wall remnant on the township’s opposite end.
Àdhamh asked me if he could have copies of my snapshots for a story about the site. I was happy to oblige and, from that point, diligently recorded the scene.
Before leaving, Àdhamh and I became photo subjects for my husband. Leaning on either side of an ancient cross slab (standing stone with a Christian cross on it) next to a water well filled to the ground surface, we struck a handful of cheeky poses.
It wasn’t the Colosseum, nothing so imposing as Linlithgow Palace or other crumbling Scottish castles. Instead, it was an intimate look at the shadows cast by a deserted set of humble communities. Kilmory Oib is an example of not-uncommon displacement from a not-so-distant Scottish past. It is only one of thousands of places where Scottish tenants were forced out by Scottish landowners, their own clan chiefs, or left from threat of clearance when they had no land rights, funds, or legal recourse. These Highland Clearances occurred over an extended period, lasting from after the final failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 at Culloden Battlefield until well into the 19th century.
To varying degrees for about 100 years, Scottish landlords evicted their tenants, whose families had farmed or fished there for centuries, to make room for more economical sheep farming. Known as infamous by someand controversial by others, the Clearances helped destroy clan culture, shrink the rural population of Scots in the Highlands and Islands, and push them into the Lowlands, out to the coast, or, if they could afford it, out of Scotland altogether. Today, land rights, property ownership, resource management, and conservation remain salient issues in Scotland, especially in rural areas.
Although the exact reasons and timing for Kilmory Oib’s end are uncertain, recent excavation and study of the site have shed some light on the context.
The Kilmory Oib settlement may have been abandoned “not long after the [nearby] Arichonan clearance . . . . [, which] took place in 1848 [as] part of the reorganisation of the estates owned by the Malcolms of Poltalloch, the Oib Estate purchased by them in 1798. The active role played by . . . surrounding settlements, including Kilmory, in the disturbances that accompanied the Arichonan clearance, suggest that this opposition was triggered by the threat of a wider clearance programme in North Knapdale” (Source: conclusions section of The Dalriada Project’s“Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report,”Roderick Regan, 2008, pp. 11-12, Kilmartin House Museum).
More about the former township’s particular story can also be found at Forestry Commission Scotland’s page dedicated to the site. Tucked away without a landmark on the road nearby, like many long-abandoned settlements, the modesty of Kilmory Oib belies its complex, and partly ancient, history in Argyll.
Reflecting on our visit stirred my foreigner’s sense of intrigue at a sight so rare in the U.S.: overgrown ruins made of stone. We, too, have ghost towns and run-down urban neighborhoods, but the American city version means exposed rebar, toppled concrete, rusted steel, and broken asphalt. Besides the obvious uniqueness of castle ruins, rural Scotland’s fragments are usually different. The age of Kilmory Oib and its quiet country setting add an irresistible pastoral romanticism to my view of its loss.
But what really is the ruin of a community, a nation, of a dream, an idea, a belief? While the result of misfortune, remnants cultivate a fortitude in shared memory, the roots of a people’s hope for a better future, a way through the challenges that tempt us greatly to give up. Something survives on which to build again. Without those seeds, a glimpse of real alternatives, we capitulate easily.
Without seeing ruins for the living past they represent, our sense of history is stunted along with our capacity for empathy. Our souls are diminished by the very erasure of signs of endings from the past. Without a tangible record, we may doubt, misremember, and completely forget historic events. It may follow, then, that preservation of all sorts of ruins help keep willing hearts awake to see, understand, and consider the needs of others as we prioritize peace and justice alike.
By marking our losses, ruins call us to create a more reasonable and compassionate world. “To all those we have lost . . .” toasts Claire Fraser with a dram of whisky in Outlander STARZ episode 304, “Of Lost Things.”
Loch-side lunch in Tayvallich
Cutting across mid-Argyll, the Crinan Canal serves as northern border to Knapdale, Tayvallich’s surrounding home, and divides Kintyre Peninsula from the mainland. The canal connects salty Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura, and Tayvallich lies just south of these intersections, near the middle of the peninsula. See lower left on map below.
Like Crinan Coffee Shop, Tayvallich Coffee Shop gave us a lunch-time view of the inlet, docks, and boats. We could also see the other side of Loch a’ Bhealaich, at the edge of which dwells the village.
Clockwise from lower left: Tayvallich, Kilmory Oib township ruins, Crinan, A’ Moine Mhòr (The Great Moss), and Dunadd Fort. Yellow bubbles mark my account’s saved locations. Snapshot from Google Maps; darker text added using photo editor program.
Vessels were plentiful as for a busy day but not quite a special event—some at anchor, some docked, of sail and of motor. As I learned from Gazetteer for Scotland, along with the area’s forestry tradition, both fishing and tourism have made up the life blood of the village.
Loch Sween, another sea loch, feeds the inlet from the east. Though subject to tides, Sween with its castle of the same name is substantial enough to spread its wealth into nooks and crannies like Tayvallich’s. Anglicized from Taigh a’ Bhealaich, the Gaelic name translates into something like “house of the pass” or “house in the valley,” depending on which source you consult. In that valley house’s coffee shop, I ate a lovely omelet before we left for our next destination.
Àdhamh and I discussed place names and poetry along the way. I would ask him to repeat the Gaelic names he rattled off as we passed, and then pronounce them in my turn. At other times, I took more careful note, gathering spellings as well.
Hear Àdhamh and me pronounce and spell the Gaelic name for Tayvallich:
In asking my husband and me about our jobs, Àdhamh opened a path to more of our shared interests. He and I are both educators, both artistic in some way, and both happened at the time to be working on a project involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. I told him how I’d just started a spin-off novel based on Through the Looking-Glass, and he told me about his work to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Scottish Gaelic. Writing a book is hard; I can’t imagine having to translate an entire novel.
At any rate, the three of us all love learning, and Àdhamh and I work with language, literature, poetry, and song. Next time we meet, we’ll have to have a sing-along or something. Later in the day, toward evening, I discovered I would not be equal to a duet with such a voice.
Two years later, I’ve followed a referral he made to a famous Scottish Gaelic nature poem “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” (“Praise of Ben Dorain”) by Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Like the mountain it praises, the poem, Àdhamh said, is something special. I investigated to find out why and how.
Originally written in Gaelic, published in Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s collected poems (1751), the poem tells the pastoral story of a beloved mountain in what was once northern Argyllshire and Perthshire, the poet’s home region. Today, you can see Beinn Dorain’s almost perfectly conical shape grow larger in your windshield driving the A82 north from Tyndrum toward Bridge of Orchy, as we did on the way to Glencoe two days later.
In the poem, through a first-person speaker, a deer hunt occurs on the mountain, but for sustenance, not sport. The piece is highly descriptive and reads well in a good English translation. I’ve also heard it spoken in Gaelic, which was quite beautiful.
According to a 2016 article in The National, self-described as “The Newspaper That Supports an Independent Scotland,” the poem has rather complex form and soulful content. Like much Scottish poetry, it was constructed to be played and sung rather than simply spoken. An unnamed author declares, “Its shape is essential to its meaning. Composed in the musical structure of a pibroch – in Gaelic the spelling is piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.”
Identifiable sections of the poem include a main theme in three parts, a second movement that develops each of those, repetition of the main theme, another movement, and so on. Three journeys occur between themes, then a synthesis of all prior elements–a climactic deer-killing scene. The song moves in circles as new material comes into the chronological plot, establishing a reader expectation of renewal and drama.
The prevailing mood, The National argues, is a question for Scottish readers and listeners. Exultation is there, but so are sadness and violence, suggesting wrath. What are the sources and the objects of those emotions? Answers may help decide the role of “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” in Scottish literary history and politics.
Passionate writers tend to fixate, and in the article they speak with a unified voice. Its title claims a premeditated “manifesto for land reform” on MacIntyre’s part, but The National also admits this is “not explicitly depicted in the poem,” but rather “its historical context implies it.” That’s quite a leap of logic. If every historical context played the predominant role in all of literature, there would be little need or inclination to study it through any other lens, including solely by its own merits and content.
Literary criticism moves us beyond such a limited perspective for 21st-century analysis. Besides, among other relevant facts, Duncan Ban MacIntyre fought on the Hanoverian side of the ’45 Rising, not the Jacobite side. So, historical context argues at least partially the other way in this case. The article then claims an environmental conservationist purpose to the poem, as distinguished from a work praising human or religious subjects. While the content of the poem does focus on nature and wildlife, plus the destruction and loss of a piece of it, Ban MacIntyre also wrote a poem praising the king.
Literature can be interpreted to mean what we wish it to, but perhaps first we must read for ourselves to determine whether a message exists, waxes inherently political, or just depicts such things as the human experience of the interplay between life and death.
Excerpted from Alan Riach’s translation posted at Kettillonia, the cyclical rhythm of the “chorus,” or main theme, is reinforced with internal rhyme in “Praise of Ben Dorain”:
Praise over all to Ben Dorain – She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun – In all the magnificent range of the mountains around, So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run, Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves Of the woods, where the thick grass grows, And the curious deer, watchful and tentative, Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.
Whatever else the poem may be or mean, however we may appropriate it, at least Àdhamh was right. It is special and deserves more recognition by a wider audience.
As a musical man himself, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin would have to be keenly aware of Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his iconic song-poem. At our next stop, our host shared some other tunes in the Scottish tradition by playing his bagpipes for us, which he brought along for the occasion.
Mid-Day in Mid Argyll
After lunch in Taigh a’ Bhealaich (Tayvallich), and on more than one occasion that day, I was trapped. As the guys left the vehicle, I remained locked in the back seat of our rental car like a child mistrusted with her own safety. Despite calling out, I had to wait a beat or two for them to realize my plight and then for my husband to figure out the lock situation so as to set me free.
It seems the back doors automatically lock on the 4-door Vauxhall Corsa when the driver closes his door. An odd feature to set as a default, I thought. The first time it happened, I suspected my husband of jumping the gun on locking up before I had a chance to get out, but after the second time he swore he didn’t do it, the nature of the issue became clearer. After my release, it was smooth sailing–almost.
Dunadd Fort, ancient seat of Dalriada Scots
Not quite fit for munro bagging (climbing mountains of a certain height in Scotland), I climbed up Dunadd Fort hill and felt my lungs fighting before I reached the top. It’s not really up that high, but the rugged terrain requires the climber’s legs to stretch farther for most steps than on a smooth grade.
Fortunately, the plant specimens among the uplifted rocks made for a convenient excuse to take photo breaks. The creases and sloping shelves in the rock were lovely, adorned with tufts of still-blooming heather, fern, and wild grasses.
Once the center of the Gaelic kingdom of Dàl Riata, or Dalriada, the artifacts of Dunadd Fort monument tell the tale of the first Scots and the first kings of Scotland, 8th century A.D. But the site was in use as early as the 5th century A.D.
Archaeological research conducted in the early 1980s helped stretch the history of its use as far back as the Iron Age, and further evidence suggests its importance persisted through the 1500s, the late medieval period. All told, therefore, Dunadd was something more than a monument for 2,500 years.
Dunadd Fort, fellow visitors with dog
Fence and gate to Dunadd Fort hill
The hill rises in isolated elevation from its flat surroundings. On the cluster of rocks clothed in moss, painted with lichen, and crowned in heather garlands, we could see evidence of human use, described and mapped on the placards labeling the fortress site.
“An Dùn Rìoghail” – “The Royal Fortress.” All placards on site provided under stewardship of Historic Environment Scotland.
In early medieval Scotland, Dàl Riata leaders became kings when they stepped into a stone footprint, still discernible today. This “inauguration stone” is shown in these pictures as item 3.
The hilltop features of some ramparts (2) and a citadel (5), or upper courtyard, loom over the “traces of buildings” (4).
From there, steep cliffs on the far side from the parking lot plunge into the surrounding farmland with cattle and sheep on the plain.
A’ Moine Mhòr
As we looked out over that plain, known as the Moine Mhòr (Great Moss) bog, also a designated national nature preserve, Àdhamh played a few tunes on his bagpipes for us, including “The Piper’s Warning.”
The story goes: A piper is imprisoned at a castle and by playing his pipes warns his beloved son to stay away, lest he too be captured.
Àdhamh shared the lyrics in English for us, noting that the Highland Scots had no embarrassment about calling fellow men “my love” because they’re so “[expletive deleted] hard.” That is, Highlander men are so manly in the sense of having impervious strength that they fully own what, say, the Sassenach might consider effeminate endearments between them.
Whether this really explained the choice of phrase or Àdhamh just wanted to dispel any suspicions of sexual overtones, I do not know. But it was clear, because he was barely audible and did not smile, that Àdhamh was proud of the Highlander reputation for “hardness,” or hardiness, this bit of his cultural heritage. It made us smile in turn.
As the sunshine beamed on, visible in the distance from atop Dunadd Fort was an isolated, ruined cottage Àdhamh admired and dreamed of owning on the Moss. Beyond were lochs and hills; behind those, the west coast. A wide, winding stream reflecting bright blue sky ran through the farmland below the remnants of Dàl Riata’s royal center.
Starting in the northeast and proceeding past Dunadd and beyond the Moine Mhòr National Nature Preserve, the River Add bulges again, running roughly parallel to the Crinan Canal, as it finds its way to the Sound of Jura at Loch Crinan, a wide-mouthed inlet just east of Crinan Harbour.
Dunadd was one of my husband’s and my favorite parts of our day. Fellow visitors, one of whom Àdhamh recognized and greeted, and his humble piping at the cliff’s edge made our time at the ancient site extra special.
From the Trossachs to the seaside and curling back inland, so far that day, we had gone to places that offered wide sweeps of panoramic views. Whether from loch side, coastal perch, forested enclave, or ancient hilltop surrounded by vast plain and winding river, we saw the beauty and brushed the mystery of a quiet Argyll countryside.
Next Time: Part 4 of 4
The final post in this series follows late afternoon into night of this magical day: from the intrigues of prehistoric stone structures in Kilmartin Glen to the singular charms of our host and Cowal Peninsula’s small village, Clachan of Glendaruel; and from the perils of single-track night driving to a night view over the Kyles of Bute onto the city lights of the mainland. Plus, a surprise encounter from the day after. I hope you’ll join me for the finale.
Duncan Ban MacIntyre and “Praise of Ben Dorain” / “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain”
“#7 Seat of all seats.” (2016 June 17). Mountain: a podcast about adventure [podcast]. Includes excerpts of “Praise of Ben Dorain” read in Gaelic and English. Interviewer: Christopher Sleight. Readers: Siobhan Anderson, Anna MacQuarrie. http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/7-seat-of-all-seats/
Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote ofAn Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”
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.
Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
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.
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.
Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included
While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post. The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition. That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.
Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog. Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s. Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions. Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze: “It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.” “When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3). The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet. Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality: “Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.” As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage: “They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.” satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com. similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica – “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.
Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation: “At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!” But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point. The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene: “The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.” Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman. Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle: “It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.” The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance. The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13: “Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.” Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids. Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14: “. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.” Translation: The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc. As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.
Hardy had balls, that’s for sure. One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions: “2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.” Spoilers ahead. At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec. And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all. Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable. Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing. Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.
Ask anyone who knows me well. They might say I’m a magician at turning small units of time into much larger ones. Or, they might just say, as I have said, that I operate on a geologic time scale, at a glacial pace. I tend to drag out projects and procrastinate. Because of this and possibly an underlying difficulty letting go of the past, plus genuine interest, I have managed to explode a fortnight’s Scottish vacation from September 2016 into a series of blog posts spread across nearly two years since this trip.
To illustrate the span of time, here are a few examples:
An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4– the story of my trip planning process, snapshots of planned vs. actual itinerary, summary of our experience, and reflections on improvements (posted March 11, 2017)
An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6, the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (posted June 15, 2017)
With several in between, but then nothing derived directly from the trip, until now.
This one has been a long time coming for several reasons, or excuses. I’ll spare you those. Suffice it to say I’ve been writing and thinking about this day ever since my husband and I experienced it, and I wanted its expression to do the moment justice in every way possible. And, I suppose I wanted to keep experiencing it for as long as possible, too, without having to labor over representing it.
All things end, but with those endings, other things begin. While it is in our power to effect that transition, to allow new things to happen, we can also prevent it. But the world and we are the poorer for that stagnation. As Mr. Willoughby says in Outlander STARZ ep309, “The Doldrums,” once I tell my story, I have to let it go. So, it is with bitter sweetness that I let go and share, and smile with hope and wonder to think where it might lead.
Road to Argyll
The Outlander Connection
On a mild Tuesday in mid-September 2016, my love for the Outlander book and TV series gave my husband and me our best day of a two-week Scotland vacation. We attended no conference with actors from the STARZ show. No Outlander filming or book sites came into play, as we had taken an Outlander tour on the first day. We did not meet Diana Gabaldon, author of the book series and consultant for the show.
Naturally, Outlander fans might wonder what would be the point of such a day, unless you’re also captivated by Scotland, whether just its romanticized image or its complex realities as well. Scotland fans just becoming familiar with the country, however, can anticipate from this post series new insights, revealed secrets, intimate portraits, and enticing destinations for future travel.
What we did was simply take a car ride through the inimitable region of Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin (AH ghuv o BROYN), a friendly Scot who just happens to be the Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and its TV adaptation. It felt like a new neighbor was showing us his backyard, but it was much more because the backyard was very, very large.
I’ve been a fan of Gabaldon’s Outlander series since I first read book one in 2011, after two friends from different circles of mine recommended it. Once I discovered the STARZ show’s existence and high quality, I fell in love with it, fascinated by spoken Scottish Gaelic and inspired to learn what the Highlander characters say, in both Scots and Gaelic, in the Season 1 episodes.
It was perhaps the simple genius of the STARZ production’s decision not to provide English subtitles for most of their scripts’ Gaelic lines—had Àdhamh suggested this?—that paved the way for our wonderful day with Mr. Ó Broin. In watching scenes involving Gaelic speech, the viewer feels the outsider narrator Claire’s confusion, alienation, and suspense.
The lack of subtitles also allowed me to focus on and enjoy the words for their sounds and the shapes made by characters’ mouths. Sharing time traveller Claire’s “Sassenach” (“outlander” or “Englishwoman”) perspective on the unknown Scottish Gaelic language fosters a sense of mystery and curiosity, and, for some like me, a real need to know more than could be gleaned from gestures, facial expressions, music, or interactions.
In a handful of fan blogs devoted to translating the Gaelic from the show into English, I’ve found translations of some of those early lines that inspired me to learn more words and phrases of this beautiful language, threatened, like so many, by obsolescence.
As a result, I was one of many thousands of visitors in 2015 who began studying this unlikely tongue through free, self-guided lessons and the two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on theLearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of series actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin, its popularity has greatly increased since the show began.
Soon after I started watching the show, my obsessive re-watching gave rise to posts such as my top-viewed “Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a translation from Scots into standard English of the song Claire sings in ep114, “The Search.” Then, on Twitter I began following not just the actors but also the producers, crew and consultants, including my favorite contemporary novelist Diana Gabaldon and, of course, Mr. Àdhamh Ó Broin.
For his social media followers, Àdhamh shares Gaelic words, phrases, and sentences, often translating them. In August 2016, after having passed 20 or so lessons onLearnGaelic.scot, and reviewing some of them, I replied to his tweet of a translated caption about a picture he received of a sunny Scottish day.
Speur gorm ‘s duilleagan gu leòr son sràid na madainne Blue sky & plenty leaves for the morning stroll
Or, literally, “Sky blue ‘n’ leaves plenty for the stroll of the morning”? Showing syntax, word matchup.
Then, I thanked him for adding “sky” (speur), “leaves” (duilleagan), and “stroll” (sràid) to my Gaelic vocabulary. His liking my tweets assured me I had it right. At the time, I tried not to take my study too seriously, since I’m not a Scottish or Canadian resident–where most fluent Gaelic speakers live in certain community pockets–who can practice and become conversational. After that brief lesson, I had no illusions of greater significance in our exchange, or of further contact afterwards.
Although Àdhamh “liked” both replies, he had not remembered them when I later emailed him our Scotland trip itinerary as an informal request for recommendations. I expected neither that he would recall nor that he would reply to my email, but that reply came! And more swiftly and positively than I had dared to hope.
From Whim to Intention
It was a bona fide wonder that he should be available when we’d be in the region, and I was truly thrilled by the chance to meet him and share the day. At first, I assumed, albeit in amazement, that he must have remembered me from Twitter. Otherwise, why would a semi-renowned Scottish Gaelic language expert beso trusting and kind to a stranger as to offer his company and expertise for the Argyll-area portion of our trip? Surely, he wouldn’t just open himself up like that out of the blue to just anybody.
True enough. When I asked him about it later, he told me that it was the detail and earnestness in my planning (perhaps showing an underlying passion for seeing the country) that helped convince him to pitch his services. It’s amazing where a little encouragement and curiosity can lead when the opportunity arises.
We took our unexpected journey through Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin on 20 September 2016. I waited much longer than intended to finish writing about it because I wanted to make sure I did it justice. Sin mi a-nis agus seo agad ciamar.
Sin mi a-nis / agus seo agad ciamar
Now is my chance / and this/here is how
Getting from Edinburgh to Argyll
That morning, I had dry eyes partly from growing fatigue and, I suspect, partly from dehydration. Besides, there was no sorrow or vexation to well up, no aspect of the first phase that had gone horribly wrong or had been even mildly disappointing. In fact, we had seen many marvelous sights, eaten well, heard great stories, and slept comfortably. Wide eyed and alert, we faced an exciting time as we began the second leg of our Scotland adventure earlier into its first day than we’d begun any day up to that point.
Having packed up from our Edinburgh base at the Residence Inn, newly ensconced in our rental car, and taking a 2-hour, week-day drive to Arrochar in the Trossachs National Park, I was the most nervous I had been so far during the trip. With my husband driving, we were carving our path to Argyll, waving toward Glasgow along the way, to meet and spend the day with the Gaelic language consultant for the Outlander STARZ TV series.
Àdhamh Ó Broin
Psst, a little advice: When an Outlander STARZ / Diana Gabaldon consultant and upbeat native of a country you’re about to visit for the first time offers to show you around for a day, you find a way to make it happen! Àdhamh Ó Broin, like Gabaldon (though herself a Sassenach), faithfully represents the ageless beauty of Scotland and Scottish culture.
When we first met Àdhamh at our B&B in Arrochar, bagpipes case in hand, he greeted my husband with a handshake and half man-hug, half pat on the back, and me with a kiss on the cheek. Of moderate height, his figure betrayed only trace evidence of a whisky belly beneath a baggy, dark grey T-shirt and black zip-up jacket.
Although Àdhamh sported his usual high-cut straight bangs thin and flat against his forehead, his hair suggested no baldness for pushing 40 years of wear. His robust but uniform beard ran a half-shade darker than the natural red with a touch of strawberry blond haze on his crown. Àdhamh wore well-loved brown hiking boots and saggy-hipped jeans in a medium blue that matched his eye color. He fit the part of the humble, fun-loving person who values substance over style. Our kind of people.
Originally from Argyll & Bute, Àdhamh voices a softened (as in, intelligible to Sassenachs) Glaswegian accent. At the time of our jaunt together, Glasgow was his city of residence. The location is convenient for meeting with the cast and crew of the Outlander TV show, which houses its studios just outside the city, on the way to Edinburgh from Glasgow.
My husband and I hired Àdhamh as a guide to help us explore Argyll. After I devised a basic travel plan prior to communicating with Àdhamh, he then upended my original itinerary. I had thought maybe we’d go to Inveraray Castle, Auchindrain Museum, and perhaps the Crarae Gardens. All of these are probably lovely, but I didn’t feel their lack as Àdhamh steered us to more unusual treasures. The schedule may have been out of our hands, but Àdhamh skillfully shaped the journey around our interests. He had places in mind to show us, but he adapted that rough plan to our interests in scenic vistas, wilderness, and ancient sites.
For my husband’s first-ever UK driving experience, he drove from our hotel in Edinburgh past Glasgow through the Trossachs to Loch Long in Arrochar. Then, for the next 7 hours, over 200 miles of winding, hilly, and many single-track roads, in both daylight and darkness, Àdhamh navigated while my husband bravely pressed on. Despite describing the experience as “terrifying,” hubby remained our DD the whole way. There was never a dull moment, in or out of that little black rented Vauxhall Corsa.
From having perused Àdhamh’s website and the Twitterverse, I had only a vague notion of what to expect. But over the course of the day, we enjoyed 5 hours of visits to chapels, a parish church and graveyard, 19th-century croft ruins, farmland, canals, an ancient kingdom’s fort, standing stones, cairns, wild landscapes, seascapes, and loch-scapes, a canal-side coffee shop, and lunch at a little inn off a boat-filled cove. It was a personalized, story-driven portrait of life in Argyll & Bute, past and present.
A conglomeration of land bridges, peninsulas, and islands, with diverse waterways among them, the modern council area of Argyll & Bute (A & B), sometimes alternatively styled as Argyll and the Isles, can appear fragmented and, thus, arbitrarily collected. It’sa part of Scotland where it’s hard to tell whether loch, sea, or land is more pinched off at its edges.
But imagine Scotland, and the outline of its map, as the figure of a bagpiper in full regalia from severed knee at the English border to tasselled pipe tops reaching through the Arctic Circle, much like the frame of the constellation Orion.
If the country’s shape resembles a kilted Scottish warrior—with the Borders and Southwest comprising the pleats below the waist, the Grampian Mountains bearing the shoulder-draped section of plaid, and Northwest Scotland the slanted beret atop a bushy beard—then Argyll & Bute might be either the bottoms of those bagpipes or the fringed sporran swinging from the Highlander’s belt as he marches proudly across the face of the blue-and-white Saltire sky.
And the region is just as full of singular secret treasures as the sporran of Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is.
Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK
The range of Argyll & Bute extends from roughly northeast—beyond where sea-sourced Loch Linnhe replaces the land spread of the Great Glen (at Fort William)—to south and southwest.
The Great Glen is the seam that divides the Northwest and West Highlands from the Grampian Mountains of the Highlands. Though scattered by the sea, Argyll comprises the southern-most wedge of the Grampian Mountains.
East of Argyll, the traveller encounters the Central Lowlands, with its famed cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, south of which the Southern Uplands border England.
Enfolding the isles of Mull, Jura, Islay, Oronsay, Colonsay, Iona, Tiree, Coll, Gigha, and Arran among the Inner Hebrides within its borders, the A & B council area also claims the western shore of Loch Lomond, the Isle of Bute, and the Mull of Kintyre, headland area of the Kintyre Peninsula.
Argyll section of Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK
Argyll & Bute also borders the Firth of Clyde, a bay connected to the river of the same name coursing through Glasgow.
The main peninsulas of A & B stretch south-southwest toward a foreign shore. The extension of the longer, the Kintyre, peninsula halts only 13 miles across the North Channel from Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland shares its island with Northern Ireland beginning at the same latitude but farther west from Scotland.
To help my family with context for our Argyll slide show, I traced our circuit on a map of the area from a page in Fodor’s Travel: Essential Great Britain. The path is shown below.
In dark black ink, the path we drove from Arrochar and Loch Long through Argyll and back. Label “Dunadd Fort” is obscured by criss-cross marks. Map: (2015) Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain guide book.
Morning in Argyll
September 20th, just after 10 am
In the southernmost of the Southern Highlands, close enough to Glasgow to encourage frequent visits by hill walkers and climbers, theArrochar Alpspunctuate the base of Argyll’s Cowal Peninsula like a primitive stone necklace. West of Loch Lomond, and north and west of Arrochar where we lodged, these mountains cut a majestic gateway to the west coast of Argyll. Here we spent a whole day with Àdhamh Ó Broin.
Draped in morning fog, ruddy tidal plains rim the northern arcs of long sea inlets, where up sprout the sharp mountain ridges of Argyll. Some of their bright green flanks shoulder darker tree lines. Whether seen as attractive patchwork or ugly open wounds (Àdhamh saw them as the latter), the swaths are signs of more recent conifer forestry. In a borderland between sea and loch, some waters are fresh and some brackish, and Argyll’s complex web nets incredibly diverse and abundant wildlife.
We launched our day in Argyll from accommodations in the town of Arrochar, near the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Along with the Cairngorms, it is one of only two national parks in Scotland. Here, freshwater and sea loch fingertips reach up from the heart of Argyll through the southern parts of the park. Our lodging, Seabank B&B, sits on the northeast edge of Loch Long, a sea loch, just a stone’s throw seaward from the large, freshwater, and famous Loch Lomond. The A83 motorway led us to the west coast.
Curling first around Loch Long’s northern tip, we passed Beinn Ime to the northeast, between fingertips, and then began our ride around Loch Fyne. From the north, we cleaved to Fyne’s western bank as we drove southwest toward the Atlantic. The shortest path by car between points in Argyll is never a straight line, and never on level ground.
“It’s in the folds and twists of the countryside, the interplay of land and water and the views out to the islands that the strengths and beauties of mainland Argyll lie” – Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll
As we drove the glens, Àdhamh told us the eerie story of a woman named Mary whose neighbor’s premonition saved her from being washed away by a rainstorm’s flood in Gleann Cinn Ghlais (Glen Kinglas), meaning “valley of the greenish-grey (or grey-green) head,” describing the color of the hills.
view of Inveraray Castle from inside the moving car on a bridge crossing the river
Past the town of Inveraray, stronghold of Clan Campbell, with a glimpse of its castle from a bridge, we continued south, where the A83 pulls to the southwest, leaving Loch Fyne’s shores. Eventually, we waved to the Auchindrain Township Museum on the left as we kept driving, drawn back again to Loch Fyne’s western bank on the same A83.
from the car, near Glen Kinglas
At this point, my husband’s terror had not yet begun since first climbing into the driver’s seat of the rental car in Edinburgh; although hills, curves, turns, narrow single tracks, and stonewall bridges greeted us, it was still daylight, the sun shining. On our way to the coast, we made a pit stop at the Crinan Coffee Shop for a sip and a view of the Crinan Canal, along with some lively conversation where my husband could relax and fully participate.
In the next posts, Part 2 and Part 3, look for the wonder and intrigue of new and deeper mysteries surrounding key moments in Scottish history. We’ll start it off with a cup of joe and some details of our conversation.
Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles: Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.
LearnGaelic.scot: a resource for free, self-guided lessons and a two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on theLearnGaelic.scotwebsite (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015with the support of actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin
I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.
Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.
I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.
The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.
My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.
The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.
For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).
I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.
In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.
Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.
What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?
There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.