Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spring with Steinbeck

I decided to ring in spring with Steinbeck, of course!  Interestingly, Tortilla Flat is considered by many to be the novel that put Steinbeck on the literary map, as it was his first commercial success when it was published in 1935.  Set on a hillside in Monterey, the novel centers around the lives of a group of "paisanos," men of mixed heritage, who come to live together after WWI as a result of Danny inheriting a house from his grandfather.  Danny and his friends, who are portrayed ironically as modern day knights, pursue adventure, love, lust, camaraderie, and jugs of wine.  The paisanos reject and resist social mores by living outside of mainstream society, without regular jobs or commitments.  It is an interesting book, with many themes based on King Arthur's Knights of thre Round Table, but it was not my favorite of Steinbeck's work.  That said, there are some great lines and images, such as when Danny refers to his friend as "my little dumpling" and when Steinbeck describes a new day by saying, "It is a time of quiet joy, the sunny morning.  When the glittery dew is on the mallow weeds, each leaf holds a jewel which is beautiful if not valuable.  There is no time for hurry or bustle.  Thoughts are slow and deep and golden in the morning."  And, my favorite, "It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow." 

In contrast, To a God Unknown, Steinbeck's second novel that was published in 1933, two years before Tortilla Flat, was one of my favorite Steinbeck novels to date, behind East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath.  This slim novel follows the life of Joseph Wayne who leaves Vermont after his father dies and establishes a farm in California.  Joseph is portrayed as a man of conviction with an almost prophetic quality.  The book explores man's love for and relationship with nature, and examines the sacred and profane.  It is written in an accessible yet lyrical manner, and I think it is the best entry point into Steinbeck if one is not ready to commit to his longer works.  My favorite quotes were "....an indescribable heat came into my heart," and "If ever there's need to lose some plaguing thing, that will be the place to go."  This book is classic Steinbeck - beautiful descriptions of the natural world, sparse but beautiful dialogue, and great storytelling.

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