Banner Archive

Marvel Comics Timeline
Godzilla Timeline



« Paralyzed By Sand | Main | Almost literally priceless »

East of Eden Review

Yes! I completed a John Steinbeck novel. Woo hoo! After starting and never finishing Grapes of Wrath three times, i despaired of ever completing a Steinbeck. I was sure his work was not for me, which is still true in a way. Here's the back of the cover summary:

Set in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons - whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here is the work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence.

(Having just transcribed that, i question the mixing of the semi-colon and the comma in that last sentence...)

This was Steinbeck. This was going to be depressing. I hate depressing. Everyday i would come home and complain to fnord12 about how horrible this book was. And he would keep telling me i didn't have to keep reading it. I did it anyway because, by God, i was going to finish a Steinbeck this time! No matter how much whining fnord12 had to endure, i was going to do it!

So, i did. And i'm glad i did despite how awful it was. The writing is incredibly beautiful. If i had an infant, there would be no Goodnight, Moon at bedtime. I'd read East of Eden just so it could hear how lovely words can be when used properly.

There's this [emphasis mine]:

Liza Hamilton was a very different kettle of Irish. Her head was small and round and it held small round convictions. She had a button nose and a hard little set-back chin, a gripping jaw set on its course even though the angels of God argued against it.

Liza was a good plain cook, and her house - it was always her house - was brushed and pummeled and washed. Bearing her children did not hold her back very much - two weeks at the most she had to be careful. She must have had a pelvic arch of whalebone, for she had big children one after the other.

and this:

Samuel's anger grew and put out leaves.

Steinbeck has this incredible ability to put words together in such a way that they become tangible objects. It's amazing.

Unfortunately, the story itself was much less lovely. It is very in-your-face with the Cain and Abel analogy. The first third of the book is about two brothers, Charles and Adam Trask.

The remaining two thirds are about Adam's sons Cal and Aron.

The relationship between the two sets of brothers mimics each other in a way. Charles and Cal are both protective, yet contemptuous of their "weaker" brothers, exploiting that weakness for their own pleasure, though Cal's method was much more subtle, thus more interesting.

Cal did not question the fact that people like his brother better, but he had developed a means for making it all right with himself. He planned and waited until one time that admiring person exposed himself, and then something happened and the victim never knew how or why. Out of revenge Cal extracted a fluid of power, and out of power, joy. It was the strongest, purest emotion he knew. Far from disliking Aron, he loved him because he was usually the cause for Cal's feelings of triumph. He had forgotten - if he had ever known - that he punished because he wished he could be loved as Aron was loved. It had gone so far that he preferred what he had to what Aron had.

So, it's a "history repeating itself" kind of dread you feel as you keep reading.

I couldn't really stand Adam Trask. He was pretty useless, imo, and so lucky for the people around him who took care of him and his kids. I think they should have grabbed the kids and left Adam on the side of the road someplace.

My favorite characters were Adam's neighbor Samuel Hamilton, and Lee, Adam's Chinese servant (and nanny, despite Adam being an adult). They both can see disasters approaching and are both helpless to do anything to stop them. Sometimes they try and sometimes they just wait for whatever it is to happen in a resigned sort of manner, philosophizing along the way. If the book was more about them and less about everybody else, i would have loved it.

When you are first introduced to Lee, he speaks in pidgin even though he was born in the United States and has no accent at all. In a conversation with Hamilton, he explains why.

"Lee," he said at last, "I mean no disrespect, but I've never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years."

Lee grinned. "Me talkee Chinese talk," he said.

"Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it's not my affair. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't believe it, Lee."

Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren't foreign any more, but man's eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. "It's more than a convenience," he said. It's even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all...I know it's hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn't be understood...Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they'll listen to. But English from me they don't listen to, and so they don't understand it."

That's an incredible accusation to make. I wonder exactly how true it was, how prevalent it was, and if it's still true today. Now every time someone has trouble understanding me, i'm going to analyze the why.

I got through this book by marking every crazy and wonderful thing written in it. By the time i was done, it was full of hot pink post-its. And now i'll post them here so that i can continue to enjoy them without having to read this awful (and beautiful) book again.

Click for the quotes.

There are the quotes that i just thought were amusing:

...he came about thirty years before the turn of the century and he brought with him his tiny Irish wife, a tight hard little woman humorless as a chicken. She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do.

It was quite normal in that day for a man to use up three or four wives in a normal lifetime.

No crime of commission was ever attributed to him, and his crimes of omission were only misdemeanors. In his middle life, at about the time such things were known about, it was discovered that he had pernicious anemia. It is possible that his virtue lived on a lack of energy.

The old house seemed to have grown out of the earth, and it was lovely. Bordoni used it for a cow barn. He was a Swiss, an immigrant, with his national passion for cleanliness. He distrusted the thick mud walls and built a frame house some distance away, and his cows put their heads out the deep recessed windows of the old Sanchez house.

She had a horror of being found dead with mended or, worse, unmended underclothes.

One day Samuel strained his back lifting a bale of hay, and it hurt his feelings more than his back, for he could not imagine a life in which Sam Hamilton was not privileged to lift a bale of hay. He felt insulted by his back, almost as he would have been if one of his children had been dishonest.

Liza: "Samuel," she said, "you're the most contentious man this world has ever seen."
Samuel: "Yes, Mother."
Liza: "Don't agree with me all the time. It hints of insincerity. Speak up for yourself."

"It's Lee at the hens," said Samuel. "You know, if chickens had government and church and history, they would take a distant and distasteful view of human joy. Let any gay and hopeful thing happen to a man, and some chicken goes howling to the block."

And the bits that sounded particularly true or required some deeper thought:

You can boast about anything if it's all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

Adam was glad of Charles the way a woman is glad of a fat diamond, and he depended on his brother in the way that same woman depends on the diamond's glitter and the self-security tied up in its worth; but love, affection, empathy, were beyond conception.

It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

The Irish stereotype:

Lee: "But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes."
Samuel: "There's your pidgin and your queue. They're not. They're a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It's said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they'd kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it's expected of them."

And the Chinese stereotypes [which i thought were pretty hysterically accurate in many cases - my annotations are in italics]:

Cathy had always been able to shovel into the mind of any man and dig up his impulses and his desires. But Lee's brain gave and repelled like rubber. His face was lean and pleasant, his forehead broad, firm, and sensitive, and his lips curled in a perpetual smile.
[he's inscrutable!]

"We're controlled, we Chinese," he said. "We show no emotion."

Lee: "I've been thinking of going to San Francisco and starting a little business."
Samuel: "Like a laundry? Or a grocery store?"
Lee: "No. Too many Chinese laundries and restaurants."
[heh. he's right, you know.]

Lee poured the scalding green tea. He grimaced when Adam put two spoonfuls of sugar in his cup.
[i, too, have grimaced in horror as i watched someone put sugar into their green tea.]

Lee: "I don't think I've ever known what you people call happiness. We think of contentment as the desirable thing, and maybe that's negative."

Lee: "They were recruited largely from Canton, for the Cantonese are short and strong and durable, and also they are not quarrelsome."
[not quarrelsome? someone tell my family. they didn't get that memo.]

Lee: "Don't spill flour on my floor."
[he says this in the middle of a very emotionally personal conversation he's having with Abra. i thought it was funny because i would totally do the same thing and interrupt a serious discussion to admonish someone for making a mess. it doesn't mean we don't care! but really, quit spilling shit on my floor.]

By min | July 18, 2013, 1:09 PM | Boooooks