Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath

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There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I think all of us have had the experience of being assigned a critically acclaimed classic in school and absolutely hating it. For me, this usually wasn’t the case. My parents encouraged me to read classics from an early age, and, for the most part, my English teachers chose wonderful, thought-provoking books (Fahrenheit 451NightThe Kite Runner). Generally, I’m willing to stick it out for a book, no matter how long, how boring, and how repetitive.

That being said, my willingness to finish reading The Grapes of Wrath is a testament to how much I admire Steinbeck’s prose. When I first encountered Steinbeck last year, I was blown away by the elegant, simple, and descriptive prose. As in East of Eden, the writing in The Grapes of Wrath is astoundingly straightforward and poetic without being flowery. The narrative mostly focuses around the Joad family, who migrate from their native Oklahoma to California in search of work during the Great Depression. Slotted in between the Joads’ story are chapters focusing on the life of migrant farmers in general, and this is where Steinbeck’s genius for prose shines.

As much as I enjoyed the prose, however, I simply didn’t enjoy The Grapes of Wrath. While I acknowledge it as historically significant and an important work of art, I could not sympathize with the Joad family. Logically, of course, I felt sympathetic towards their poverty. However, the characters seemed fairly one-dimensional, and there were so many characters in the family (all introduced around the same time) that it was difficult for me to form a lasting attachment to any of them. I didn’t feel that the characters experienced much growth, or what growth they did achieve happened inorganically. Rose of Sharon, in particular, drove me crazy – although I understand that Steinbeck was showing the debilitating effects of poverty, especially on a young, pregnant woman, I found her to be an irredeemable character.

What I did find relatable in the novel (which I wasn’t expecting) were the acts of police brutality depicted in the novel. Law enforcement officers, and authority figures in general, are clearly depicted as taking advantage of and marginalizing the Joads and their fellow migrant farmers. Although race is not a focal point in The Grapes of Wrath, the acts of police brutality depicted are still discrimination: discrimination against the poor and against those from a different region. With police brutality so often discussed in media today, the novel forced me to remember that such acts, whether racially motivated or not, have an irrefutable history in North America.

YES OR NO?: NO. As much as I love Steinbeck, I simply could not appreciate this book. The characters were bland and the narrative so repetitive that its elegant prose couldn’t save it for me. I’m still glad I read it, since it’s such a beloved classic, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone else.

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Book Review: The Accidental Tourist

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Disaster followed disaster…the hero stuck in there, though. Macon had long ago noticed that all adventure movies had the same moral: Perseverance pays. Just once he’d like to see a hero like himself — not a quitter, but a man who did face facts and give up gracefully when pushing on was foolish.

The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler

My TBR list is annoyingly long because I add books to it whenever I chance across a title, no matter who recommends it. Since my ultimate goal is to be well-read and to expand my own realm of knowledge, I try to read whatever I can. In any case, I happened across this book because an excerpt was used in my Metaphor and Language class in university. We dissected a conversation between the protagonist, Macon, and Sarah, his estranged wife, noting the differences between what people literally say and what they actually mean. I enjoyed the class, and for a few days after the exercise I found myself silently analyzing the words of those around me, finding that real life hardly differed from Macon’s situation.

That’s one thing I liked about The Accidental Tourist. Macon, Sarah, and the other characters felt real to me, and despite their differing personalities, I could see slivers of myself and my own friends and family reflected in them. After reading about the adventures of a male impersonator in Victorian London and mouse knights, it felt refreshing to return to more familiar ground. I’m always amused when reading books written in the 80s and 90s – while refreshingly modern, they lack many of the innovations we take for granted today. There are so many passages where Macon and his siblings become lost while driving through Baltimore that Google Maps could easily handle. I found myself wondering how Macon, with his narrow-minded, specific focus on efficiency, would feel about our modern improvements: Google Maps, Tinder, and AirBnB, and how his line of business (writing guidebooks for business travelers) would differ if the novel was written today. Perhaps a clean, minimalist blog?

The novel is fairly predictable, but never boring. The cast of characters is unique (although not too “quirky”, which often irritates me), and the plot speeds along. I was previously unfamiliar with Anne Tyler’s style, but I ended up liking both the content and style, which was often humorous (whether laughing at or with Macon). That being said, it’s not an action-filled book, and I would categorize it as an ultimately forgettable romantic comedy. At 355 pages, though, it’s a quick read, and I didn’t mind the two or so days I spent with it.

YES OR NO?: YES. Although not a necessary read, I enjoyed The Accidental Tourist and plan on reading more of Anne Tyler’s work. Ironically enough I could see myself enjoying it while being a tourist myself – on the plane, or stuck at the airport.

Book Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton

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It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

I sped through My Name Is Lucy Barton in one day. At less than 200 pages, it’s a fairly short read, and the narrator uses words sparingly in short, soft sentences. After having had a few hours to absorb it, I’m still not sure what to think about it. Like Lucy’s feelings about her own family, I feel conflicted in my own about this book.

Lucy Barton is a writer living in New York after escaping her dysfunctional, abusive household in tiny, rural Amgash, Illinois. When Lucy is hospitalized following an infection from a surgery, her estranged mother visits, spending days sleeping on a chair in her hospital room. Lucy slowly reveals her past in the narration, as well as her present, both before and after her hospitalization.

In some ways, I enjoyed this book. While I didn’t grow up in abuse and poverty as Lucy did, I did grow up in an immigrant household where I was constantly preached the importance of being frugal and not spending lavishly. I understood Lucy in some aspects, especially her guilt for her current financial standing and her inexplicable loyalty to roots that she is also somewhat ashamed of. I also felt that the book was bold about tackling the issues of abuse and poverty, and telling a story that I felt was true and realistic.

However, I found it difficult to actually like Lucy. The narrative voice is soft, gentle, and meandering, telling Lucy’s life in a series of vignettes. To be honest, I found Lucy irritating. The story immediately jumps into having me sympathize with Lucy without making me like her first, and despite Lucy’s status as someone I would normally admire (a young woman raising herself from her meagre means), I didn’t feel anything for her. Throughout the novel, Lucy only focuses on her story through short vignettes that are clearly meant to be thought-provoking, while displaying no humor or personality whatsoever. While I understand that the narrative is meant to focus on the lasting effects of abuse and poverty, I found the constant negativity tiresome. Lucy never appears to enjoy any experience, and even positive experiences are skewed to the bittersweet.

YES OR NO?: I’m on the fence about this one. I initially picked it up because it was on a “Best of 2016” list. While it’s a short read with an important message, I wouldn’t consider it an essential read. I plan on revisiting Elizabeth Strout’s work, though – maybe when I’ve made more progress on my ever-growing TBR list!

Book Review: Tipping the Velvet

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In the window of a shop on the Gray’s Inn Road I saw a little card: Respectible Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger, and an address. I gazed at it for a minute or so. The Respectible was off-putting: I couldn’t face another Mrs. Best. But there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male. I saw myself in it – in the hyphen.

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

During university, I enrolled in a group study program, where I got to spend six weeks in London and Oxford, studying contemporary English literature and the history of the British Empire. For the literature segment of our course, our professor had chosen all works by female authors, set in London, touching on themes of immigration, sexuality, and race, and how they relate to the London of today.

One of these works was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. If you haven’t read Fingersmith, I would highly recommend it. Its gloomy atmosphere and the working class Victorian background has a Dickensian feel, but its plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. Fingersmith is one of those few novels where I actually gasped aloud while reading.

Like Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’s debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, is set in Victorian London. The protagonist, Nancy Astley, is a naive young woman who moves to London after falling in love with a male impersonator, Kitty Butler. Like many a Victorian hero before her, Nancy is forced to work all sorts of odd (often dehumanizing) jobs in order to survive, all the while coming to terms with and exploring different aspects of her sexuality. Again, think Dickens, just with a cast of characters that is mainly female and lesbian. Waters explores a variety of different lesbian characters from a range of classes and backgrounds.

Although sexuality is obviously a huge focus for the novel, Tipping the Velvet, discusses other themes prevalent in Victorian literature, especially the rise of the working class and the poor living conditions for migrant workers in London. While Nancy’s story includes the rollicking and somewhat unbelievable aspects of a bildungsroman, the poor treatment she endures from men, upper-class clients, and landlords is sympathetic and realistic. Still, what makes Nancy a likeable character, despite her sometimes questionable choices, is her willingness to take risks, adapt to her environment, and always work hard and employ her creativity to survive.

One complaint I had about Fingersmith was that it was sometimes too slow, too repetitive, especially at the beginning. Meanwhile, the plot of Tipping the Velvet moves quickly, while employing Waters’s talent for vivid description. When reading, I could really picture Nancy trudging through a polluted London in the late nineteenth century. With many contemporary novelists I feel like their debut novel is imbued with an inimitable sense of energy, and I feel that’s the case with Tipping the Velvet.

YES OR NO?: YESTipping the Velvet is a tightly woven story that never gets boring. However, since female sexuality is a large focus of the book, some of the scenes do get graphic, although I personally didn’t find anything to be offensive. Overall, a solid and entertaining read.