East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian and Madison go way back – having been roommates at boarding school in high school. And while they’ve not seen each other in years, they’ve been in touch, with Lillian offering minimal details of her dull unaccomplished life, while receiving letters from Madison filled with details of her picture-perfect marriage to the senator, her picture-perfect home and her picture-perfect little boy. Now, finally, as Madison has written to ask Lillian to visit because she has a favor to ask of her, she will finally see her again in the flesh. Will it be the same between them? Will Madison really be as perfect as she has always seemed? What is this mission she is being asked to do? Will Lillian be able to live up to Madison’s expectations? Will she be able to live up to her own?

Spoiler alert: The mission involves Lillian caring for two children who spontaneously combust. Yes, they burst into flames when they are upset. They are not harmed but they can cause harm to what may be around them. They are awkward kids and are clearly affected by this inconvenient trait, but inside, they are just kids. Lillian appreciates them for who they are, in spite of this trait, but others fear them and have difficulty accepting them for who they are.

While I appreciate a dramatic metaphor as much as the next reader, I just find this entire story too incredulous to swallow. Even beyond the flaming children, there is the history between Lillian and Madison that leads one to question why Lillian would come running at Madison’s behest. And then there is the question of how, with such a neglectful mother as Lillian is demonstrated to have, she has such a knack for mothering challenging children that no one else seems to be able to handle.

I think the author had an interesting idea that started well but went so beyond the boundaries of reality that it was no longer viable. And this, at least for me, was a disappointment. Much of the story felt ridiculous and I had difficulty envisioning at least parts of it. While I did develop affection for some of the characters, such as the 2 flaming children, I wondered always what the attraction was that Lillian had for Madison, as Madison was quite the selfish, and eternally self-serving character. And while the message clearly was one I respect – that we should all be appreciated for our weirdness and quirks as well as what we can do for others —  it was delivered at too a high price.

So, unfortunately, I have to say for Nothing to See Here – nothing to read here, at least in my opinion.  

 

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman

Abraham has come from England in the early years of American settlement to work with his uncle who has sponsored his transport  He is surprised by the reception he receives:  he is thrown into the barren barracks with the other poor, desperate workers and sent to peddle the wares of the business to surrounding folks, to the best of his ability.  Abe, as he comes to be known, begins his journey as a traveling peddler by landing surreptitiously in the home of a stunning, fiercely independent, Cherokee woman.  She takes him in briefly, cares for him, and although amused by him, does not return his sudden, youthful passion.  As he seeks to reconcile this woman’s past and discover where her heart truly lies, he grows to understand not only himself,  but the complex stratification of the society he sees growing around him.

My first impression of this story was actually incredulity – that a story was being written about a Jewish man falling in love with a Cherokee woman hundreds of years ago in this country.  It just sounded to me an unlikely scenario, given the insular world of the Jews at that time.  As I read further, what I came to appreciate was that it was a clever vehicle through which to describe the era of the Trail of Tears.  This dark period in our American past is when President Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of thousands of indigenous people from their land and moved them in caravans westward.  This atrocity  was committed under perilous conditions, and thousands of Native Americans perished because of disease, starvation, unwieldy weather conditions and a lack of adequate provisions from the American government.   In telling this story through the eyes of Abe, a Jew and an outsider trying to find where he fit in among the various strata of peoples, there is often a delineation of the pecking order and a redefining of that pecking order as Abe continues to struggle with it.  Where do the slaves of the Cherokees fit in?  Where do the slaves of the Whites fit in?  Where does he fit in relative to them all?  As he is sorting this all out, we see how the groundwork of all of it is being sorted out for future generations – and how some sought to fight against it but, sadly, lost.

So, at first glance, I wasn’t sure about this book, but as I continued through it, it gained more and more value to me and I appreciate it for its very powerful messaging.  I feel it educated me and gave me insight into this bleak blot on our American past.

 

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaid's tale

After years of answering no to people asking me, “YOU haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale???” I can now, finally answer YES!  And now that it’s been both a movie and a Hulu original series, I can crawl out from under the proverbial rock I’ve apparently been living under and show my face.

Offred, who never reveals her true name but who is now called this, is a Handmaid.  Her role in the current social structure in the Republic of Gilead is to become pregnant and give birth to a baby in order to repopulate the Republic.  Gilead has taken over what was the United States and has established a religious order, under which women have the sole purpose of reproducing and watching over the household and men essentially have complete authority over them.  It’s a dystopia that actually heeds backwards and justifies itself in claims of protection of the woman and eliminating the need for competition among women for men’s attention.

What is horrifying is the timeliness of this dystopian novel.  So many comments from the “Aunts” or teachers who indoctrinate the Handmaids in the book sound frighteningly similar to conservative republican comments, with their anti-abortion rhetoric which ignores the woman and focuses on the gathering of cells that happen to be inside her.  Or the hypocrisy, when the Commander (quite like our Commander-in-Chief!) who has his status because of his piety then shows his true colors by taking the Handmaid to a good, old fashioned brothel. Worst, anyone who is different, dissents, or can’t be broken to follow the new order is tortured and killed – and publicly so.

I know this book is fiction.  I know the difference between fiction and reality.  But as our current president chips away at our constitution and all that we’ve accomplished over the years since the 1960’s, I fear the difference between this dystopia and our reality will become smaller and smaller.

 

And I apologize that this book blog so frequently becomes political – but in the current day, it cannot be helped.  Please bear with me!

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

the alchemist

I finally had the opportunity to read what so many high school juniors have been reading for decades now.  Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of what must be wonderful philosophical discussions about it with young, curious minds.

This story is about a boy, a shepherd, who meets a king who inspires him to follow omens and signs that will direct him to a treasure.  The king gives him 2 stones that indicate yes or no and are to be used to guide him through his journey.  Almost immediately the boy encounters failure.  Rather than becoming despondent, though, he picks himself up and begins to work to compensate for his initial failure and as he does, he learns that failure can teach lessons and that the journey is part of what enables him to achieve his Personal Legend.  Because he is mindful and attentive during each moment of his journey, crossing rivers and desserts, he inherits wisdom from each person he encounters, no matter how simple or how obtuse they may be.

It is clear why this book has been translated into so many languages and has been read by literally millions of people.  It can be understood on so many levels and its meaning broadened to so much significance.  So much so, that I will not begin to pontificate on that here in this blog.

Suffice it to say, that as I go on my personal journey in life, I will consider the message of the boy for me to be that we must be mindful of each step – good or bad – all the while taking into account and appreciating what we have already.

If you’re inclined to the philosophical, this book is for you!