Sunday, June 27, 2010

(Book #22) John Steinbeck - Cannery Row

John Steinbeck is considered one of the greatest American writers, and despite this, 'Cannery Row' was only the third novel of his that I have read. The other two books, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, were both read in High School English, and at the time I really enjoyed one and was completely bored by the other. Maybe it was because of this that I didn't read another for so long, but after having lived in California for nearly ten years now, I felt a sense of obligation to try another.

'Cannery Row', above all, is a portrait of a place, a stretch of town in Monterey, California. To Steinbeck, the best way to depict and characterize this location was through the people that lived there, which he does beautifully. The book follows a handful of characters, but the structure of the novel gives way to a storytelling technique that is unique and works well for the purpose of the book. Steinbeck splices his overall arc with small side-stories of other peculiar townsfolk and manages to give them a sense of unity with the others. The characters we follow are not the well-to-do upper-class, they are the dregs of society: homeless, prostitutes, artists, a Chinese grocer, and a mild-mannered scientist who collects and sells specimens of marine animals. These people, despite their inadequacies, still strive for a sense of community and friendship with each other, and it is through these connections overlaid with the texture, sights and sounds of the place itself that we really get a feel for what Steinbeck may have experienced in his time at Cannery Row.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

(Book #21) Rainer Maria Rilke - Letters to a Young Poet

In an effort to catch up… a really quick read:

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke is a small collection of ten letters from a well established writer and poet, Rilke, to another young, eager and struggling writer at the beginning of his career in the craft. Over the course of these letters, we get a brief but rich glimpse into the mind of an artist whom has experienced and grappled with many of life's challenges. As we never actually read any of the titular young poet's letters to Rilke, the passages are a little one-sided at first, with each opening with responses to specifics of a previous letter. Beyond this, though, the meat of the letters are attempts at bestowing a bit of knowledge about life, love, religion, sexuality, death and every emotion in between. So, while it was a fast read, it proved to be an enlightening one that provided a view of humanity that any reader could take a bit of inspiration from.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

(Book #20) Frank McCourt - Angela's Ashes

A few days ago, I finished Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. It would seem that I am a few weeks behind in this little project, and even more behind in the write-ups. It's one thing to just read something but quite another to process and come up with some sort of response to what was just read. Some books are more difficult than others to process and get your head around all together and take a bit of time to get through. While this book took me almost 3 weeks to read, it was not because the words were too dense or difficult to grasp, but quite the opposite. McCourt recounted his impoverished youth in Ireland through the literary eyes, ears and words of a child, and what resulted was a beautiful mosaic of emotion and experience. The words gushed with such realism that the book couldn't be rushed; it demanded the reader savor every page.

The narrative of the book actually started out in New York when McCourt gives a little background on the characters of his mother and father, almost opposing forces overseeing the Irish Catholic family. Frank's mother, Angela, is a dutiful woman and traditional housewife with the responsibility over the children (whose numbers rise and fall throughout the book). Their father, who cannot hold a job for more than a few weeks, is an alcoholic whose biggest fault is spending the entire paycheck at the pub. When the family is at their financial end, they travel back to Angela's home in Limerick, Ireland in complete desperation; a reversal of the typical story of the immigrant coming to America filled with hope and in search of a new life.

The majority of the book takes place in Ireland and as we read about every trial, tribulation and difficulty that plagues this family, the reader can only hope that their lives will eventually improve. Each chapter of the story only brings more hardship and a new desperate low. Despite all this, Frank and his brothers manage to live out their childhoods in optimism and making the best out of each situation. As gut-wrenching as much of the backdrop is, there is so much humor and wit injected into the story due to the innocent nature of the children and their inherent sense of hope, that the depressing mood of the overall narrative is diminished.

All in all, I thought Angela's Ashes was a beautiful piece of writing that was well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize and any other accolades it received. It should be required reading for anyone with immigrants in their family, as it provides an honest depiction of the kind of hardship and existence that would bring someone to this "Land of Opportunity". It also serves as a chilling reminder of the difference between necessity and possession. In this age when happiness is often measured by what you own and how you live, it is humbling to be reminded of simpler times when just having food on the table is a blessing.