The Grapes of Wrath

I am still reading the books from my ridiculously ambitious list as mentioned in this post. 

When I started reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics version), I have to admit that I was doing it more out of a sense of obligation than an interest in the plot or characters.

I have heard so much about the novel throughout the years, from sources that vary from friends who have read it to literary tests that discuss its overarching themes and character struggles. I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in middle school or early high school. While I thought it was well-written, I also felt like it wasn’t an experience I’d like to repeat.

I also don’t think that I’d like to see the movie version.

The movie version that I don't care to see- fun poster though!

I feel the same about The Grapes of Wrath to a large extent. The last 80 pages or so were pretty depressing. I mean, I did know that it was a novel about the struggles of one family through the depression, but at a certain point I did feel a bit like I was torturing myself by continuing.

The characters suffer so much, and the “epic” narrative style paints an American capitalist process that I’m not necessarily fond of. Large corporate interests overtake hard working “common” men and women during the great depression, and those men are literally driven off of “their” land (which they stole/ was stolen for them from Native peoples), then pretty much slowly starved because a few greedy landowners want to make more of a profit.

The novel switches between a close and distant narration, alternating chapters between the telling of one specific family, the Joads, and the larger narrative of American “progress.” I found this description chilling and timely when we consider the wealth disparity now in place in our country. It is not only the small farmers and tradesmen/women who are struggling now, but it is also the home-owning middle class.

In the novel, the Joads, along with hoards of other tenant farmers from Oklahoma and surrounding areas, are pushed off the land they tend by the banks, quite dramatically with large plows. In this telling scene, many of the family members are looking for someone to talk to about the matter, for someone to fight with about it. However, they soon find that what they are fighting is so large that they are not even able to find it, let alone fight it.

The Bank is driving them, but they are unable to respond. I feel like this ties directly into the current argument being touted by the Occupy Movement, that corporations are Not people. The fact that Steinbeck was already addressing this phenomenon in 1939 so eloquently, and also the fact that the machine that is the Bank destroys human life, destroys crops, and destroys community, is pretty astounding to me.

One of the quotes I think best illustrates this feeling comes early in the novel. In one of the chapters where the narrator is distant, he points out the conversation one feels is echoed by thousands.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there.

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the                       ~bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is ~something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but ~they can’t control it. (emphasis mine -sorry, the formatting got all wonky when I pasted the text).

I feel like this discussion is very relevant for today, and because of this, I think that I devoured this novel with more zest than I was expecting. It made me appreciate how far we have not come in our understanding of the capital machines that still control and drive our country.

It also made me appreciate the taste of food more. I definitely understand why it’s an American classic. It tells our story pretty poignantly, and asks some questions about the capitalist value system that are not only necessary, but that are also still being asked.

Points taken away: There are definitely a few offensive-to-contemporary-readers storytelling moments in which the characters glorify the old colonial period and the killing of Native Americans, but I also don’t feel like Steinbeck necessarily agreed with those sentiments as much as he was trying to portray the Joads and other Oklahoma residents in the truest way possible.

I would give this book 4.5 of 5 stars for its beautiful writing, its interesting character details, and its importance in our current historical moment.  I would also highly recommend it.

Read with Milk, and some sort of rustic camping food such as fried potatoes, baked beans and coffee.

Regards,

Miss E

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Pondering Publishing in Barnes and Noble

Today I was at Barnes and Noble, contemplating the demise of Borders and the state of the publishing world today. I felt conflicted. Let me give some context for this. As an English-y person, I have kind of become a bookstore connoisseur. I go to all bookstores and libraries- independent, corporate, independent-used, and coffee shop bookstores. I have even been to a bookstore with a bar. I have never been incredibly discriminating about my bookstores, at least not the ones I will go into and purchase a book from. If there are books there, usually I will buy them.

However, since I have moved to Seattle, a place where local business thrives more than anywhere else I have ever lived, I have been going to a ton of great local bookstores. For example, yesterday afternoon I was in a charming bookstore in my neighborhood, one I was seeking out even on short visits before I moved. So yeah, it’s that amazing.

Anyways, at said charming independent bookstore yesterday, I had the best customer service I have ever experienced in a bookstore. I as having a casual conversation with an employee there who was really friendly. He was stocking books and we began discussing what I like to call “Bus Books.” I ride the bus to work every day, and so far I have finished 3 books on the bus. I don’t read them anywhere else- they are just for my commute. They have to be both light, and intriguing enough to grab me at 6:50am when I may have slept 5 hours the night before.

He knew exactly the book he thought I should read. One by Thomas Hardy- Far From the Madding Crowd. Apparently there is also a very amazingly cheesy looking movie. I have not read much Hardy, but from what he described from the story, it seems perfect for both me and the bus.  Has anyone else read this one or seen the movie?

I found the image a few different places, but linked to one of the websites below with a review of the book: http://myggm.org/book-discussion-far-from-the-madding-crowd/

At the corporate bookstore today, I just wasn’t feeling it. Everything felt so sterile, despite all of the books on the shelves.  All the books were shiny and new, many were hardcover, and almost all of the employees were wearing suits (it was in a fancy pants shopping center downtown).  Compared to the bookstore from the day before, I felt isolated and uninspired to buy.

I have not been buying most of my books at full price this whole summer, but more for cost-cutting and a sort of pseudo rebellion against capitalism. However, I feel guilty about it. About only buying books from my favorite, local, bookstores. Conflicted, as stated earlier. Why?

If we don’t support the bookstores that buy their books directly from the publishers, they may stop being able to make books altogether. I do not enjoy reading from a nook, thank you very much. I want that book smell, that physical relationship with the book where you eventually break the spine from reading it so much. So, in order to keep book production going, and be able to go to my favorite local used bookstore, I may need to buy an occasional book from Barnes and Noble. Because if Borders is any indication, the market for paper copy books is diminishing and may continue to decline as online and paperless media rises. So when I finish my current bus book, I may go to a B&N before hitting up my local place for another one.

What do you guys think? Do the pros of local bookstores outweigh the possible cons?

Cheers,

Miss E