Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premise and Opening

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

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

Summary and Genre

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

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

Point of View and Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot and Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central World and Theme

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

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

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

Peers in Literature

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

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

Flaws in Storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flaws in Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

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

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

Characterization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Great American Reads

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which books did I find most amazing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlander_cover


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

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

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

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

Culling the herd, an original poem

Here’s to a more contemplative, considered, measured Earth Day 2018 (on, around, or far from 4/21), as for all intended days of remembrance, tradition, action, and activism.

Here’s to an antidote to do-something-ism, the arrogance of action for the sake of acting without intelligent, careful thought, patience for information, debunking myths, withholding judgment, uncovering assumptions, probing conventional understanding, and placing a check on emotionalism. Certainty is impossible, but near-certainty must be earned, not used as an excuse or a form of denial beforehand.

Here’s to Earth, to people, to animals, to reason, and to love. To a balanced appetite for details and the big picture. To doubt, to questioning, to human rights, and never killing to punish. To you, if you’re with me on these–if you, too, would cull the herd mentality, whether it claims to come from truth, patriotism, freedom, control, justice, safety, mercy, love, or God.

And here’s a poem of sorts.

Culling the herd    © 2018, Carrie Tangenberg

Sometimes to love animal
 means to love human-animal balance,
 if love is a balanced act of
 compassion, reason, acceptance,
 for human is animal, too.

I couldn’t pull the trigger
 in everyday conditions,
 but I don’t begrudge the hunter,
 farmer, game warden, parks
 ranger, zoo keeper, veterinarian,
 wild survivor, adventurer, 
 conservationist, naturalist,
 lost traveller who may have to,
 want to.

Who am I to stop everything?
 Save everything? Or anything?
 Start something? What exactly and why?
 What is wisdom, wise action here?

Cull the herd, naturally.
 Cull the herd naturally.

What does it mean?
 What is natural? What unnatural?
 Where is the line between?
 And which herd will it be?
 And how?

Curiosity, discovery,
 fascination, wonder, awe,
 anxiety, annoyance, frustration,
 disgust, confusion, amusement,
 anger, sadness, startlement,
 fatigue, and sometimes fear—

These are the feelings
 of living among wild prey
 when one owns a dog
 and a yard with grass
 you don’t want dug up
 by any but yourself,
 and a house built on
 pavement ant pandemic.

But free will is never free,
 never without consequence.
 What if making a difference 
 means doing more harm than good?
 Did you know? Do you? Always? 
 Respect the what-if, at least.

I don’t get squeamish
 reading about creature
 death, butchery, predation,
 and harvesting for food,
 watching wild death
 on TV or the Web, or watching 
 vet shows, trauma, surgeries, 
 sorrows.

I would, I do not like to see
 blood up close, so bright,
 so red, so shiny, fresh, raw.

All it took was a clip
 of the quick on my dog’s
 left back toenail to
 send me into panic
 where I’m usually calm.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
 General Chaos conquered.
 It was Easter 2018.

Bleeding eventually stops,
 and so do breeding, foraging,
 fleeing, hiding, sleeping,
 mating, hunting, scavenging,
 migration, habitats, and life.

We can’t stop everything,
 but everything stops, even
 rivers, seas, forests, islands,
 valleys, mountains, plains,
 planets, stars, solar systems.

Even senses, motion, heart,
 brain, growth, and breath.

Even love, even faith, even hope,
 even panic, idiocy, evil, insanity,
 and this listing of word lists.

If this post or poem resonated with you, you may also enjoy:

Five-Phrase Friday (34): Earth Day, Every Day

Call of the Wild Poetry

Five-Phrase Friday (1): The Poetry Politic

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature
Resource

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

Ideas
  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .

Bibliography

Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.


* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

 

Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Book-Cover_War-and-Peace_Pevear-Volokhonsky-translation

edition I recommend for print reading


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Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Book Review: The Good Earth

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.