Monday, August 29, 2011

East of Eden

Between this book and The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  This is partly because I like his style of writing, of describing people and places in a way that really lets the reader see inside them. I also appreciate the fact that his books aren't just about the storyline, or about the lessons the characters learn, but the storyline is also used to reveal deeper truths. In this book, Steinbeck uses symbolic characters which are meant to be types, not necessarily actual people who are a mixture of different types. In the end, the story and its deeper meanings hinge on the choices and actions of Cal, who is the everyman. East of Eden is ultimately about choice, the human power to choose one's actions, which means one is able to stand against one's environment, one's genetics and family and one's personal past when necessary. Even Cal, with so much stacked against him, has within himself the power to make the right choice. The reader doesn't learn what Cal and his father ultimately choose until the very end of the novel.

     This story of two brothers is dedicated to Steinbeck's two sons; it is a double-narrative which, in his words, will tell “the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness” — the mutually-dependent pairings out of which creativity is born. Steinbeck considered this book his masterpiece, with his previous works leading up to it. East of Eden is a portrait of the artist as a mature man. He says, "But in this book I am in it and I don’t for a moment pretend not to be”. The book is thus a vehicle for what he is or believes himself to be. To use a term that is common in classifying archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, this book is Steinbeck's soul jar. A soul jar is just what it sounds like: a container or object which holds all or part of a person's soul (or life, or heart); which makes that person immortal. A fairy tale example would be Koschei the Deathless, who kept his soul in a box buried in the ground. Literary examples include Sauron's ring, the picture of Dorian Gray, and Lord Voldemort's horcruxes. (I know; these are all bad guys...don't draw a similar conclusion about my opinion of Steinbeck!) The soul jar appears in film in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, in which Davy Jones keeps his heart in a wooden chest instead of the more common thoracic chest cavity generally used by humans for cardiac storage. Now, all this is not to say that East of Eden contains Steinbeck's soul in some kind of Cali-voodoo way. Rather, through this book, Steinbeck will live forever in that his name and reputation will never die. He put so much of himself into this book that it can be considered a metaphorical soul jar.  Myths and fairy tales, including those mentioned above, remind us that the price of immortality is our humanity. Those who chose to literally live forever slowly ceased to be human. With Steinbeck, the exact opposite has taken place. By embracing, analyzing and internalizing his humanity, he gave birth to East of Eden and his own literary immortality. To quote the Havamal, an Old Norse wisdom poem, "Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self must also die; but a good name never dies, for the one who is able to achieve it."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Little Women

Little Women has an excellent but inaccurate reputation as a children's novel.  Alcott's work is a classic bildungsroman (coming of age story), which partially accounts for its enduring appeal. It is better classified as a young adult novel than a children's book, and society's reliance on simplified versions results in ignorance of much the book has to offer. Alcott explores issues of identity, loyalty, class, women's roles, personal development, death and the definition of success, among others, but much of this exploration takes place in dialogue between the characters, through narrator musings or within an individual character's thoughts, rather than through plot devices. Perhaps it is the style of presentation of these major themes of discussion which doesn't lend itself well to screen adaptations.
      The author's transcendentalist upbringing is obvious in some of the musings. Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, was a founder of the transcendentalist movement, and Louisa was tutored by noted transcendentalists and writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Fuller. Considering her education, it is no surprise that her writing talent flourished. Can you imagine being tutored by Emerson and Thoreau?! Ah, if only... 
     The book is so well-written, and the characters so believable, that it's no wonder it became an instant classic.  This is a story of four average teen girls (well, average for 1868) experiencing average challenges, relationships, failures and successes. Even in abridged or adapted versions, the appeal shines through (but I still recommend reading the original).  While teaching English in Kazakhstan, I taught a unit using an adapted version of Little Women, and I was surprised at the students' enthusiasm for the story.  The enduring themes and issues mentioned above remain salient across time and cultures. I think of Alcott writing in her attic, and wonder what she would have thought had she known that, 130 years later on the other side of the world, her description of a well-loved character's death would bring tears to strangers' eyes.

Tomboy writer: Jo (based on Louisa M. Alcott herself)
Girly-girl painter: Amy
Shy violet and homebody: Beth
Mother figure: Meg
Honorary brother: Laurie
Curmudgeonly aunt: Aunt March
Setting: New England during the Civil War
There was a lot of: discussions, noble deeds, funny mistakes, unfortunate illnesses, poverty
There should have been more: food. This book would have lent itself well to a Beatrix Potter-type tea cosy effect, with characters sharing toast and tea, meat and potatoes, bread and cheese, etc., around a roaring fire. Or maybe I'm just hungry.
This book makes you want to: show kindness to others, be the best you can be, take the bad times in stride, for they come to us all
This book makes you glad you don't have to: knit all your own socks, fear death from common communicable diseases, work as hard for independence as women did at that time

Sunday, August 7, 2011

20.000 Leagues Under the Sea

If you're looking for a novel that's smart yet fun, this is it.  Jules Verne is known as one of the fathers of science fiction, and while reading this book I tried to imagine the reception of his work by an unsuspecting public in the 1860s.  His contemporary readers were delighted by descriptions of incredible inventions, unusual animals and exotic places. I would have been too, after spending the day scrubbing clothes on a washboard or shoeing horses.

     20,000 Leagues Under the Sea chronicles the adventures of Captain Nemo and his incredible submarine. The narrator, Professor Arronax, specializes in marine biology, and some of the descriptions of marine life forms tend toward extremely detailed scientific categorization. I know a conch from a coral, but he lost me at Carcharodon carcharias (great white shark). Despite this, the book contains enough adventurous episodes, scientific niftiness and intriguing oddities to hold the attention of most readers.  I, for one, am now interested in making anemone jam...but living in a landlocked state, I can safely remain at the stage of armchair speculation.

     Verne's work isn't all sunshine, however.  Even though his editor removed most of his pessimistic and dystopian slant, it is still visible in the brooding, vengeful character of Captain Nemo. Nemo was partly based on Odysseus, the title character of  Homer's Odyssey. After tricking Polyphemus by saying that his name is "nobody" (Nemo is Latin for "nobody"), Odysseus wanders the seas for ten years, tortured by the deaths of his crew members. This parallels Captain Nemo's name and experience. Nemo is also a champion of the oppressed, and throughout the novel he assists those suffering from war and colonial oppression. Verne points out that the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution have done nothing to alleviate the potential for cruelty humans embody. On the contrary, in many cases human cruelty, like travel and manufacturing speed, is multiplied by technology. In the words of Captain Nemo, "It is not new continents the earth needs, but new men."

      Analysts often point out Verne's prescience in describing future inventions such as gasoline-powered automobiles, submarines, electric lights, even the internet (a worldwide telegraphic communications network). Scientifically-minded people are often able to make accurate predictions (hypotheses), but could a few of these correlations be a matter of causation, in which readers were inspired to pursue precisely the discoveries and inventions that were detailed in his books? Is it possible that some polar explorers, pioneering oceanographers or rocket inventors were Jules Verne fans? Let's see.  Admiral Richard Byrd said on the eve of his polar flight, "Jules Verne guides me." William Beebe, one of the first men to explore the depths of the sea in a bathysphere, became interested in oceanography after reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry, was an avid Verne reader as a child. As the author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, observed, "...we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne." And lest you think all the good ideas have been scooped, Verne described some technologies that haven't yet graduated from fiction to fact (Captain Nemo's salt water-derived electricity comes to mind). So introduce your child, younger cousin or neighbor kid to Verne, and you may find yourself in the audience thirty years hence as s/he accepts the Hubbard Medal or the Nobel Prize in Physics (under stage lights using Nautilus-inspired power, of course).

Byronic hero: Captain Nemo
Narrator: Professor Arronax
Faithful sidekick: Conseil
Token Canadian: Ned Land
Source of all food on the Nautilus: the seas
Savage humans: are found even in "civilized" countries
There was a lot of: scientific descriptions, mysterious happenings, dangerous adventures
There should have been more: this book was well-balanced; I wouldn't change it. On one hand I would like more back story on the crew and how they came to sail with Nemo, but that would have taken away from the mysterious atmosphere
This book makes you want to: learn more about marine creatures, travel the polar seas, live according to your personal code of honor, help those who need help, remember that you can't fully understand a person's actions without knowing that person's history
This book makes you glad you don't have to: live on a submarine forever, fight a giant squid, listen to Ned Land obsess about eating meat, be haunted by the desire for revenge