Ninth book of 2018: John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

Following a short play, A Streetcar Named Desire, I thought I could dare a longer read… I have always been a fan of Steinbeck; I probably favour his and Anton Checkov’s works the most of all the books I’ve read.

I have read a number of Steinbeck books. Cannery Row was very memorable to me the first time I read it and quickly became a favourite of mine. A while later I discovered Fat Thursday, then Of Mice and Men. I also watched East of Eden, the classic with James Dean, a few times in my time.

However, I have not had the pleasure of reading The Grapes of Wrath.

John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath

I had heard of the work, I knew it was of his best, but I was still so impressed by the book when I read it.

The book takes place during the times of the Oklahoma Dust Storms, a period I was not that familiar with. It describes the adventure of the Joad family, a family of Oklahoma farmers, that struggle to make a living and survive in a time of depression, drought, and economic hardship.

The Joads are numerous and the family spans three generations. There are three young children under or around the age of ten. There’s Tom Joad, who is the central figure of the story, there’re his brother and his sister. Tom’s parents, as well as Tom’s grandparents, make the family house complete. As they have already lost their farm, we are introduced to the Joads as they are already in the final planning stages of making their way to California. California, so it is promised on a hand-note Tom’s father has, is a country full of fruits, vegetables, wine and plenty of great farm-land where work is plentiful and the Joads hope to make a new life in the West.

They sell whatever they can, buy an old jalopy to get them from Oklahoma to California. They strap and tie as much of their belongings to the car as they can and also offer the local priest to come with them. The priest is no longer a priest, albeit the Joads still think of him as a man of God. He seems a good man, a smart and just fella that later in the book becomes important.

The book follows the Joads for every other chapter in the book. Every chapter, so it seems, is intersected with a brief narration of what happened in the US at the time. It tells of the many struggles of people that fled their homes due to economic catastrophes, how they made their way by the hundreds and thousands to the West, crossing the desert in old cars, with their whole families and what awaited them when they finally got to California.

The book gives provides a fascinating and believable story of the Joads, but it is the context the small intersected chapters provides that really make this such a moving book.

It may well be timeless, but I felt that it is incredibly relevant in today’s world. Today we have masses of economic migration happening all over the world and, if it’s to be believed, it’s only going to get worse. And in this time, it becomes so vital that we take learnings from the past.

In the 1930s it was American migrants, people from Oklahoma, Kansas or Arkansas that uprooted their lives to seek new opportunities in the West, in California. They were ostracised, called names, degraded of their humanity, spat on by the local residents and abused as workers. Today it’s people from elsewhere in the world. Steinbeck’s criticism is strong and applies very well to today’s resurgance in nationalism. The same sneers and insults, the same language is applied to degrade people of their humanity.

But Steinbeck’s criticism also extends to capitalism and how it’s used the abundance of workers to the farm and factory owners’ advantage. How wealthy people with land or industry can dominate those that have nothing and are in need of food. He describes the hungry children and the desperation that is felt by all of those that came in search for a better life.

There is a brief period in the book in which the Joads almost make it, where they can almost stay and live. Otherwise, it seems, their situation is getting worse and worse. They are good people and reading their story, they grow on you. So, as a reader, you are naturally upset by the drama and disaster that befalls the family.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The next book I read was On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. I will follow up with that summary shortly.

Eights book of 2018: Tennessee Williams – A Streetcar Named Desire

It’s been a while since I updated my reading section. I’ve read five books in the last three months and will try to write a brief summary of what I’ve read here today. I hope that I roughly maintain their order.

The first one on that list is Tennessee Williams – A Streetcar Named Desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire

I am not unfamiliar with Tennessee Williams’ work. I vaguely remember reading The Glass Managerie in high-school and I watched a number of his plays. I was, however, not familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire. I have heard of the story and elements of it are often parodied in popular culture and I get that it’s a reference to this book, but I haven’t read it or seen it as a show. So I was quite excited about reading it.

The play takes place in New Orleans in, I presume, the late 1930s to early ’50s. The main protagonist is Blanche Dubois who comes to see her sister Stella. The sisters apparently come from a good standing and, although Stella must’ve left her wealthy family behind, it becomes clear that Blanche never really had to work for a living. She’s a teacher, but it seems that this has been a career choice of passion, rather than a way to guarantee her independence.

Following the death of her father, the family estate has collapsed, the family home sold and Blanche seems to be left destitute and broken. For months before coming to her sister’s home, she must have relied on the kindness of those around her. But as this dried up, she is left with little options.

Taking said Streetcar Named Desire, she arrives in her pregnant sister’s home. It’s a small home, not what Blanche is used to. She’s even less used to the brutish, crude husband of Stella, Stanley. And Stanley cannot tolerate Blanche, who is in a vulnerable and fragile mental state, after seeing her world collapse around her. Blanche drinks a lot, drinks to forget her sorrow and worries. I guess she hopes to stay indefinitely, but as she sees that this would be impossible with Stanley, she looks to see if she can find a suitable husband in Stanley’s friends.

She successfully goes on a date with Mitch, a poker-friend of Stanley’s. And Blanche is trying her best to make Mitch fall for her. However, due to her drinking and mental health issues, their affair isn’t consummated. Stanley, possibly out of worry for his friend, potentially out of distrust of Blanche, researches Blanche’s recent whereabouts. He finds out that she was, for a while, prostituting herself and that this was the reason for why she’s lost her job as a school-teacher.

This is too much for Mitch, he considers her indecent and unclean. He won’t marry her. This was, so Blanche sees it, her last chance to escape complete destitution and homelessness. Blanche, confronted – and quite obviously raped -by Stanley, loses her mind completely and, at the end of the play, is sectioned in a mental hospital.

I enjoyed reading this play. For one, it was very quick to read – and I don’t mean that it was just slim. Which it was, but still! It is an easy play to read, the dialogue, albeit a bit dated, is easy to comprehend and follow. The characters are believable, albeit quite polarised. Blanche, the Southern Belle, that’s lost her standing in high-society, who drowns her thaught in alcohol. And Stanley, who’s seemingly all brute and testosterone.

Seventh book of 2018: Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End

A Farewell to Arms left me quite stunned. It was quite a heartbreaking story and so I yearned for something easier again. I also managed to order Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke, a book I wanted to read ever since I learned that the song of the same name on the Pink Floyd album, Obscured by Clouds, is named after the book.

Getting a copy was a bit inconvenient, as I bought two other Arthur Clarke books, both from the SF Masterworks series from the publisher Orion Books. I wanted to have Childhood’s End from the same series, for bookshelf-vanity reasons. But a paperback was nowhere to be found and I turned to emailing the publisher itself. They, in turn, explained that they don’t own the rights to the paperback. Those were sold separately in the past, and, for some unknown reason, they bought the hard-back rights for this book only. -Mmmh!

Anyhow, I bought it as a hard-back and we will see how it looks in the bookshelf.

It turned out that the story is one that I was vaguely familiar with. I think I must have watched parts of the SyFy series of the same name and forgotten about it completely. I did remember parts of the story, some more well than others…

The story describes what would happen if Earth was taken over by a benign alien overlord or Overlords. They do not show themselves to mankind, but their spaceships are visible allover the large cities dotted across the planet. They bring about reforms and world peace and ask little in return. Well, they forbid mankind from leaving the planet, until further notice.

The book doesn’t have a single main protagonist and takes place over multiple generations on planet Earth. However, there is one Overlord throughout the book. His name is Karellen and he describes himself as Earth’s supervisor.

There are few people that openly resist the alien Overlords as most people are happy and satisfied with the luxury and prosperity the Overlords bring about. There is also little a resistance could do against the might of the interplanetary force of the Overlords.

So live continues for fifty years until the Overlords finally reveal themselves to mankind. And it is quite a surprise for they seem to have been here before. Spiked with other mysteries, alien deceit and a surprising finale, the novel was quite an entertaining read and a welcome break after the heavy-ended Hemingway book I read before.

As a next book I picked A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, a play I heard a lot of but never actually saw. I do like other Tennessee Williams plays and I am sure to find it very enjoyable.

Sixth book of 2018: Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms

I have a strange relationship to Hemingway. The first book I read of his was The Old Man and the Sea. I thought the story to be incredibly boring, yet somehow I read the whole thing really quickly. I remember it not being very long?

In any case, it was years until I read another one of his books. I must have been in my mid-twenties when a friend gave me Death in the Afternoon to read. I am not a fan of bullfighting. I think it’s an incredibly cruel and heartless way to torture an animal. But I appreciated reading the book and when I did, I was captivated by it. Hemingway was able to describe the fascination of the spectacle in such an interesting way that I understood the fascination.

A Farewell to arms is, therefore, the third Hemingway book that I read.

I believe that the book is somewhat autobiographical in nature. The book takes place at the Austrian-Italian frontier during the First World War. The main protagonist is an American that volunteered in the Italian army as an ambulance driver. All this matches Hemingway’s biography.

The book is significantly less about front-line warfare than I would have anticipated. It seems that most of the actual narrative takes place away from the front. To me, that was very much a good thing.
The novel is described as a “love story of immense drama”. And once you read it whole you will understand.

The scenes of the war itself don’t appear to be so brutal than they are often depicted in war movies. They are incidents, sporadic, when individuals get shot or the hero himself has to shoot, run, escape or otherwise avoid the dangers of the story’s journey. But it is secondary in nature.

What the book describes so well is the comradeship between the enlisted. Even the American volunteer, a lower officer by rank, it seems, is respected and held in high regard by his fellow soldiers. More than once they declare their love for their “Tenente” (Italian for Lieutenant). At this point, I have to admit, I don’t remember the heroes name. I will continue to refer to him as “he” or “the main protagonist”.

Quite early into the book, he meets an English nurse that works in the nearby hospital. The war is slow moving and, after making her acquaintance, he gets to see her almost every day. I believe the book mentions that she’s younger than him. She also lost her fiance in the war. Relationships were different at that time, I believe they were engaged, but they weren’t really close to one another. Still, she suffered from his death and feels a tremendous loss in her heart. They quickly become romantically linked, even though she tries to hide their relationship from her colleagues in the hospital and he’s not too forthcoming to his colleagues in the army.

The book was incredibly gripping to me. It was tense at many points, almost hair-raising. But what makes it such a great story is the love between them. You feel their love is honest and sincere and he goes to length to do what is right by her and she follows him through the difficulties described in the book. Both their conduct is admirable.

Fifth book of 2018: Arthur C. Clarke – The City And The Stars

It was always my intention to read a bit of Arthur C. Clarke. I was especially interested in the novel “Childhood’s End”, but I couldn’t get that one when I was in Waterstone’s.
I instead decided to buy two other novels of his: “A Fall of Moondust” and, the novel I read recently, “The City and the Stars”.

I read the Ishigoru book before and I would say that, although a different writing style, the books are of equal difficulty. It’s an easy read.

I enjoyed The City and the Stars even though it described a world that is pretty unfathomable to me and I did not ever really identify with the main protagonist, Alvin.
Alvin, btw., was the only name that seems “normal” by today’s standards and I am aware that the story was written in the 50’s. Most other names seem somewhat “futuristic”.

The City in the novel is the last city of mankind, Diaspar, surrounded by desert on an otherwise barren planet earth. No oceans, no trees, no wildlife or flora. The Stars refers to a set of stars that man once inhabited for the novel takes place millions and millions of years into the future. Mankind “lost” access to the stars, so it appears, when they had to surrender in a war against some alien beings, also millions of years ago. It was so long ago, that no one can remember the aliens or the war, only that the stars and everything outside the city of Diaspar is forever off-limits to everyone in it. The alien victors, called Invaders, drove mankind to its last refuge before settling on peace and for mankind never to leave the city again.
In Diaspar, life is comfortable but controlled. People live for tens of thousands of years at a time and when they do die, their memories – or some of them – are returned to a giant database to be returned after many thousands of years into another body for yet another go at life in the city of Diaspar. It is said that a million lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to discover all the city had to offer.

I think, what makes the novel so readable is the anticipation of solutions to immediate obstacles or mysteries in Alvin’s path. You know he’s special from the other inhabitants of Diaspar, you know he wants to leave the city, you know that everything he encounters will have its usefulness in the next few pages. Without giving too much away, the book obviously deals with what’s left on Planet Earth and, of course, how and why mankind lost the stars and you discover so much more.It is a relaxing and entertaining read and I got through the book in about two weeks.

As a next book, I picked something that I thought would be a little more demanding: A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Fourth book of 2018: Kazou Ishiguro – The Buried Giant

I picked up The Buried Giant amongst some other books on a recent trip to Waterstones. Partly because I have heard of him yet never read or seen a movie adaptation of his works, partly because the book was ordained with praises:

  • The No. 1 Sunday Times Bestseller
  • Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
  • A deeply affecting portrait of marital love (Guardian)
  • A beautiful, heart-breaking book (Observer)

I could mention another four such quotes on the back of the cover.

I guess, by first justifying why I bought the book, I already allude to not being a big fan of it.

The Buried Giant

It was entertaining and relatively easy to read, I got through more than half of it in one single day, but I don’t agree fully with calling it a masterpiece or one that is a deeply affecting portrait of marital love. While the portrait of love is cute and you get that Ishiguro wanted to emphasise on the unconditional love of Axl and Beatrice, there is a little to explain where that love actually came from. That, sadly, makes it no more valid or true than the love one can feel for a pet or a thing. I wasn’t taken by this. We all loved someone at some point, I get that. The backside of the book says that “…they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another…” and while it’s true some aspects of their relationship are revealed, it isn’t really what carries the story.

I also wasn’t quite prepared for the fantasy elements in the book. It draws on quite a bit of folklore (the famous King Arthur mystery (complete with Merlin the wizard, I might add)) and also adds a few fantasy creatures to the narrative. Ogres, dragons, and suddenly pixies appear for no good reason other than wanting to have a somewhat easy to overcome and non-human foe appear in the story. All this feels a bit forcibly construed.

The appearance of other protagonists and how they meet or interact feels overly serendipitous. One has to hold ones head and go: ‘Hey, what a weird and unbelievable coincidence!’

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village behind, to seek the village of their lost son and as they are no longer very appreciated in their community on account of getting too old. This journey, about a four day foot march to their destination, is the central plot device. When they talk with one another, they use a lot of subsentences that often seem redundant to what they intend to say. I don’t mind complex sentence, but these seem needlessly complex. Although their son, if he so exists – one cannot be sure as the story evolves, has no idea of their coming, they often talk as if he is, in fact, awaiting them there. No, he’s not. He certainly isn’t. While it seems likely the long lost son would be glad to see his parents, there’s no reason to assume he’s awaiting them. There’s no reason to assume he’s in a position to offer them accommodation or that he is still in that village four days from them. This all seems like massive shortfalls in terms of storyline to me.

Spoiler alert:
At one point quite early into the story, the heroes meet an elderly woman who talks about a ferryman that shipped her husband to an island, tricking her to stay behind. She is not allowed to follow him anymore and they couldn’t make the journey together because the boat was too small. It seemed, at the time I read it, like a parable of a dying partner. At the time I read this passage, it seemed so obvious that they too will make this journey to that island, that they too will be separated. And guess what…

I have no issues with tragedies. In fact, I am a big fan. But what makes a good tragedy is that the protagonists could be aware of their impending tragedy and that they still have no other choice than to follow down the path that leads to the tragic end. I had no such feelings here.

So no, I did not like The Buried Giant and I will be cautious to read more of Ishiguro. Maybe I will watch this “Never Let Me Go” movie…

I have decided to read The City In The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke next. It’s not the A. C. Clarke book that I wanted to have, but it shall give me an intro to his writing. The actual book I wanted to have is Childhood’s End – as it has inspired a Pink Floyd song that I care very much about.

Third book of 2018: F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender Is The Night

Last month I finished two books, Tender Is The Night being the first of them. I had a bit of help in form of a holiday that I used not only to go SCUBA diving and watching late night hotel TV but to also read The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro). A five-hour flight also helped and I read over 200 pages on the return flight alone.

But onto Tender Is The Night:

Tender Is The Night

I found it a bit harder reading than the previous book I read, maybe because of the somewhat turgid way of Fitzgerald’s writing. But I actually enjoyed the novel, a tragedy at that. It took me a while to come around to it, but there were parts that I found quite exciting whilst others were never really dull. I guess Fitzgerald describes a certain society. I don’t think that “ordinary people” are really his forte and so I cannot really read it without silently scoffing at the issues presented of these rich, affluent and beautiful people that do not have to concern themselves with worldly issues, such as working.

The story is about the marriage of the Divers, Nicole and Dick, who also have two children. The children, however, do only play a peripheral role in the story. They tend to not be seen or heard. The first act, or book, is actually written from the point of Rosemary, who comes into the Divers lives as they are living in a villa overlooking the French Riveria. She’s overcome by their sophistication, their splendour and their ability to be exquisite party hosts. She is particularly infatuated with Dick and being a (just turned) 18-year-old Hollywood starlet, she has little trouble to awake feelings in Dick.

The rest of the novel, book two and three, is mainly written from Dick’s perspective, he becomes the main protagonist and the novel jumps a bit back and forth in time in relation to the events of the first book.

What eventually captured me was the ultimate downfall of the Divers, Dick in particular. Without going too much into the detail of the story and spoil it, Dick is a very talented and admired doctor. He is a psychiatrist. The events that unfold as a result of his indiscretion with Rosemary are believable, sad and have all elements of a classic Greek tragedy. It’s masterfully written, in my opinion. And I did get very emotionally distraught by the end of the book.

It is described as “a tragedy backlight by beauty” and so it is. I can very much recommend this read.

Second book of 2018: Hubert Selby Jr – Last Exit To Brooklyn

I finished Last Exit To Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr., a few weeks ago by now. I am well into Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I actually enjoyed reading the book quite a bit and there were a few situations where I thought the book was hard to put down. Here’s a picture:

There is not a single main protagonist and all characters described in detail are practically anti-heroes. The book deals with a number of stories, each focusing on a single individual or a group of people and all these protagonists, the reader learns, are somehow connected with one another. One story sometimes begins were another ends or the same characters appear in different stories, yet each story is in itself conclusive.

The characters are simple people, ordinary workers, bar patrons, wives and transvestites. Many display a low moral code, cheat, lie or otherwise take advantage of others and one another. There is a fair amount of quite graphic descriptions of drug use, sex and violence. In some cases, it’s borderline pornographic and sometimes even that threshold gets crossed.

I guess I enjoyed reading this book more than the last is that I find the characters more believable. I see their problems and the way they struggle through life more convincing than the musings of the university professors. And while the protagonists don’t deal or overcome their problems – there’s no catharsis – the book makes you feel their emotions and take part in their lives.

What is also quite remarkable about the book is the style it is written in. Huber Selby didn’t think much about punctuation, spelling, let alone capitalisation. There’s nothing to indicate when somebody starts speaking, no quotation marks and words that should be spelt separately are joined and misspelt. The author also uses a lot of profanity and slang, slang which probably was more common for the time it was written in. Some words, or rather their meanings, is occasionally hard to guess. But I think this makes the book more enjoyable to read to me. I feel like I learn something more and I am part of the time it takes place.

Last Exit To Brooklyn is, all in all, very enjoyable to read, IMHO.

So I’m already in the last quarter of Tender Is The Night and I hope to finish it before I’m going away to Israel. It is a good read, I enjoy it more than Eating People Is Wrong, although the content is much harder to understand and to read through than Last Exit To Brooklyn.
I’ll follow up with my comments on it shortly…

First book of 2018: Malcolm Bradbury – Eating People is Wrong

So, making a New Year’s resolution with my colleague this year, we said we would read at least 12 this year. A month in, she’s ahead. Damn!

I am glad, however, I finished Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. I didn’t enjoy it very much. I did enjoy the title though and I believe Amazon’s suggestions are to blame for me buying it.

This is how it looks:

eating people is wrong, by malcolm bradbury
Eating People is Wrong – or is it?

The book’s a moderately challenging read, because of the sentence structure and the fact that Malcolm carries on a bit. The main character, Stuart Treece, Professor of English literature by trade, struggles coming to terms with what, I guess, he describes as the human condition. He also becomes aware of his “middle-agedness” and at some point yearns for love. Actually, he falls in love with one of his students working on her Phd – notably – after having an affair with her first.

The characters are believable, yet alien to me. The book describes a Central England location in the 50s and a society I’m glad to not have witnessed. These were times of a rigid class-systems, racism, casual racism and stricter gender expectations by society. Don’t get me wrong, in no way is Bradbury endorsing any of such. The main protagonist is emancipated. I merely point out that I wouldn’t have liked it there very much – what with my liberal upbringing and that.

The previous book I read was Stoner by John Williams. I enjoyed it more, it made me melancholic. I do not know if this book produced much in form of emotions. Much like when I read Crime and Punishment and all I felt was irritation with Raskolnikoff. So much so, I couldn’t even feel very sorry for Sofya.

The next book I will read is Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. Described as “hellish and obscene” and banned in Britain in 1967, it promises to be a joyride compared to this.

Olympic Glory in Broadcasting

Some post Olympic humour……

Here are the top nine comments made by NBC sports commentators during the London Summer Olympics that they would like to take back:

1. Weightlifting commentator: “This is Gregoriava from Bulgaria. I saw her snatch this morning during her warm up and it was amazing.”
2. Dressage commentator: “This is really a lovely horse and I speak from personal experience since I once mounted her mother.”
3. Paul Hamm, Gymnast: “I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father.”
4. Boxing Analyst: “Sure there have been injuries, and even some deaths in boxing, but none of them really that serious.”
5. Softball announcer: “If history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again.”

6. Basketball analyst: “He dribbles a lot and the opposition doesn’t like it. In fact you can see it all over their faces.”
7. At the rowing medal ceremony: “Ah, isn’t that nice, the wife of the IOC president is hugging the cox of the British crew.”

8. Soccer commentator: “Julian Dicks is everywhere. It’s like they’ve got eleven Dicks on the field.”

9. Tennis commentator: “One of the reasons Andy is playing so well is that, before the final round, his wife takes out his balls and kisses them… Oh my God, what have I just said?”