A Year With Steinbeck Books 11 & 12: Part I


Part I: America and Americans
Part II: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

The hardest part about packing for a Steinbeck-tour of California was what novel to bring.I’m a relatively light packer and can frequently shove a week’s worth of clothes into one backpack, but the real concern was, ‘Which unread book do I think will help best capture the experience?” Translation: “What book do I want to be seen reading?” The selection process was akin to choosing the proper wine with dinner. My master reading-order-list told me it was time to read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (Steinbeck’s posthumously released tale of King Arthur), but I wanted something with a bit more punch. A tale that was bold in language and rich in Salinas flavor with a bouquet to bring out the flavor of the scenery and experience.


So I selected the 1966 essay collection, America and Americans. Incidentally, this decision was rather fortuitous as Steinbeck crafted the project during his writing of The Acts of King Arthur. Steinbeck’s literary procrastination mirrored my own desire not to jump right into Arthur as well. As a professed romantic, I was filled with a sense of kinship: As if my decision was somehow justified by the spirit of Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley. Kizmet, baby.

The first pressing of America and Americans differs from the Penguin repress in that the Penguin ed. contains numerous additional essays on war, celebrities, and travel. It even includes his Nobel acceptance speech which I recently purchased in a hardcover collection of other Nobel speeches. The Penguin ed. made for a perfect travel copy by adding more bang for the buck and an innate ‘destrucatability’ I don’t often ascribe to pristine first editions. I did miss out on the black and white photos from the first pressing, but there really is no strong connection from image to word.


The text of Steinbeck’s America and Americans covers his ruminations on the changing face of the American Dream and the make-up of the dreamers. One of Steinbeck’s strengths is that of the armchair philosopher. By the 1960’s, Steinbeck had grown from starving artist to National Treasure, from accused Commie sympathizer to Presidential confidant, and from simple writer to vibrant wordsmith. His characters capture every quintessence of humanity, but his insight into the workings and motivations of those characters are his true talent. Steinbeck understands human behavior in a way most never will.


America and Americans reads like the cheat sheet for Steinbeck’s novels. In it, he takes great pains to spell out his views on the people he worked so tirelessly to define. It’s a harsh criticism of America, but deserved and constructive. It is the ballast for every politician who flavors speeches with condescension and apologies. Steinbeck treats his readers like young adults ready to hear the truth as opposed to those who treat Americans as children needing protection. It can be a hard lesson, but if more people recognized the faults, then perhaps they begin preventative maintenance.

America and Americans is an essential text for anyone considering themselves a patriot or wearing a tiny metal flag to prove love of country. Guthrie’s guitar may have killed fascists, but these essays declare war.


“What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap.”

“The town motto, given it by a reporter ahead of his time, was: “Salinas is.” I don’t know what that means, but there is no doubt of its compelling tone.”

“I wonder if all towns have the blackness – the feeling of violence just below the surface.”

“The Songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and one statement which cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.”

“America was not planned; it became. Plans made for it fell apart, were forgotten. From being a polyglot nation, Americans became the worst linguists in the world.”

“We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are convinced that it is the best government in the world, and would like to impose it upon everyone else.”

“Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.”

“The paradoxes are everywhere: We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men – and then proceed to break every law we can if we get away with it. We proudly insist that we base our political positions on the issues – and we vote against the man…”

“We are afraid to be awake, afraid to be alone, afraid to be a moment without the noise and confusion we call entertainment.”

“Man is indeed wonderful, and perhaps his gaudiest achievement has been to survive his paradoxes.”

“When students cheat in examinations, it may be bad for them as individuals but for the community it means that the graduate is traveling with false papers and very shortly the papers – in this case the college degree – lose their value.”

“I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security – out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is and myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction.”

“A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future, and finds the satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory…A dying people invariably concedes that poetry is gone, that beauty has withered away.”

A Year With Steinbeck: My Spring Vacation


This past week I returned from visiting family in California.

I don’t get out to the West Coast often, but as it was during my ‘Year With Steinbeck’ project, my wife and I took the time to swing by Cannery Row and The National Steinbeck Center.

While visiting my wife’s family, I should note, that I got a chance to speak about this project with people who live in the surrounding areas of Salinas and Monterey about the Love/Hate relationship people of California have with Steinbeck. My Uncle John, even grabbed me a copy of a San Francisco paper about the history of The Grapes of Wrath and an article about Ed Ricketts’ son. It’s great to see, regardless of opinion, Steinbeck remaining such a strong and polarizing figure. As Oscar Wilde once said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”


We began our trip with a visit to the Monterey Aquarium.

For those who haven’t been: Go. It is a bright and vibrant building with massive tanks and schools of active happy looking fish. We managed to catch an exhibit called Tentacles which featured numerous cephalopods. I was reminded of Steinbeck’s discourse about Doc’s octopod tanks from Sweet Thursday and the mood coloring of the devil fish; so it was cool to see several displays that built upon Ricketts’ work.

Ed and the Squid
A bookshelf to admire

Although Ricketts wasn’t named in the octopod exhibit, there was a display at the entrance featuring pieces from his original lab – including specimen and excerpts from his book shelf. I have to admit to getting more excited than I should have when I discovered that we shared the same edition of Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold.

Black sweatshirt. Khaki pants. Fishing cap. Steinbeck Cosplay.

On the road from the aquarium I had a chance to see Pacific Biological Laboratories (home to Doc and workplace of Ed Ricketts). Despite the busy street barely anyone even gave the brown shingled building a cursory look. Here was the home to one of America’s premiere biologists standing silently among the eateries and Otter-themed store. I found myself explaining my adoration of the façade as “Disneyland for the Steinbeck fan”. A tour of the interior would simply have pushed me over the edge.


Just a frog’s leap from Pacific Biological are two statues in Steinbeck’s honor. One, is bust of Steinbeck (created by Carol Highsmith), the other is a fantastic statue depicting characters from Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. There is no plaque explaining the context and, as I leaned in to snap pictures of Suzy, Ricketts, and Flora from the Bear Flag, people asked why I was so interested. I’m thinking of opening a tiny Steinbeck bookmobile next to the street food vendor. Perhaps I’ll give soapbox lectures and readings imagining myself as a Hal Holbrook-esq educator.


The following day I stopped off at The National Steinbeck Center which houses some spectacular ephemera. The highlight for me was seeing a photograph of the real Samuel Hamilton. I’m currently two-thirds through East of Eden and every time I read it, he remains my favorite character. Perhaps it is because we share the need to fill silence with rhetoric and rambling as it isn’t my handiness on a farm.

Part of the Ricketts’ Lab recreation

Other highlights included the wooden box with timshel in Hebrew carved into it and the guts of Rocinante (his camper from Travels with Charley).

Riding around Salinas, I got to thinking about Steinbeck’s readers and what others must think of the center. What do the legion of fans feel looking at nine foot tall copies of East of Eden, German movie posters, and building facades? Why do we pose next to busts and stare at dead fish soaked in formaldehyde? Why did I get enormous amounts of pleasure standing in a replica steam engine listening to a terrible musical rendition of Sweet Thursday?


I guess that Steinbeck fans are romantics. I hesitate to call him The American Writer, but for me he is. His characters are men and women searching for their place in the world: Farmers, academics, migrants, soldiers, and whores, fighting against the inevitability of life’s ambivalence. Strong people – resolute and firm as oak, but, at the root, lonely and afraid. Steinbeck manages to put a face to Americans of all types and I believe that those who hate him based on his characters, simply don’t like seeing their reflection.

Steinbeck: As Seen on TV…or in some books.

A Year with Steinbeck Book 10: The Pastures of Heaven


The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of tales about the residents of a lush but unlucky valley in Monterey, California. In these pages,  Steinbeck weaves together critical turning points in the lives of his characters (both ficticious and culled from real life) to create a narrative about failure and humanity’s ability to deal with misfortune. Its a story about an haunted land and a cursed people.  Take for instance the story of Tularecito, the handicap character who can paint beautifully, but flies into violent rage when the images are destroyed. It’s theme is simple: There are those who will always fail to understand the motivations of others.

If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, can a thousand words paint a single picture? I’ve thought about this question a great deal since finishing The Pastures of Heaven and come to the realization that Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is the single image.


Yes, the painting is based in Maine and was completed decades after Pastures was published, but there is a strength of will in the face of adversity that echoes Steinbeck’s lines.

The model for Wyeth’s painting, laying a fair distance from her farm house, suffered from a polio-induced paralysis in her legs. Despite being alone and unaided, Christina looks onward toward the horizon. What lay before her is struggle and adversity, but there exists an unseen attitude in her posture that, to me, has always been a determination. Steinbeck’s view of the valley is much like that painting; folks struggling against their own handicaps and emotional failings. It’s a book which makes beautiful the struggle of mankind.


Interesting note: Steinbeck alludes to Cervantes’ Travels with Donkey in the text. Cervantes wrote is when he was still dependent on his family for financial support; just as Steinbeck was for the early part of his career. Cervantes recounts his 120-mile solo journey through France. Of course, Steinbeck will allude to the title with Travels with Charley when he writes about his solo adventure across America.

Next Up: I’m off to Monterey! I’ll post a few pictures.

“Allen Hueneker not only walked like an ape, he looked like an ape. Little boys who wanted to insult their friends did so by pointing to Allen and saying, “There goes your brother.” It was deadly satire.”

“When Alice was born, the women…prepared to exclaim that it was a pretty baby…Those feminine exclamations of delight designed to reassure young mothers that the horrible reptilian creatures in their arms are human and will not grow up to be monstrosities….”

“It seems to me that a good thing or a kind thing must be very large to survive. Little good things are always destroyed by evil little things. Rarely is a big thing poisonous or treacherous. For this reason, in human thinking, bigness is an attribute of good and littleness of evil.”

“Well, I think a man ought to see everything he can. That’s experience. The more experience a man has, the better. A man ought to see everything.”

A Year with Steinbeck Book 9: The Grapes of Wrath Part I


Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– John Steinbeck; as quoted in Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life


The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most important novels in the last 75 years.  Not only has it lived in controversy, but it has spoken to numerous generations of the hardships and defeats of the twentieth century family. Even if it doesn’t speak to you, it certainly spoke for you. GoW brought immediate attention to the thousands afflicted by the Dustbowl, The Depression, and the abuses of Big Business and banks.

Few other novels have spoken to both the educated and the uneducated with the same voice; a voice of compassion and understanding. Steinbeck’s microcosmic tale of the Joads strikes to the heart of anyone with a sense of empathy for the working poor. The word on the street is that Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to be understood on several different layers. These layers are a scaffolding of understanding allowing anyone with a fourth grade reading level to pick it up and dig in. He recognized the key to a good message is making sure your audience understands the point.

However, what fascinates me beyond the words and phalanx theory (the idea that we are all one collective soul) is Steinbeck’s legacy of music and protest. It’s my belief, that without The Grape of Wrath, 60’s protest music, the folk revival, punk, and even hip-hop, would not exist. Follow me for a bit, reserve questions until the end, and email any point/counter-points.

After watching the film version of Grapes, Woody Guthrie was compelled (Peter Seeger remembers it as greatly urged) to write a series of Dust Bowl Ballads. Soon after, Woody magnificently condensed the legacy of the Joads into two three-minute tracks. Sparknotes wishes it could be this concise.

Guthrie, of course, was a monumental influence on non-protest singer Bob Dylan (who did his best Guthrie imitations on his eponymous first album) and Dylan even cited Grapes as a favorite novel saying of Steinbeck, “John Steinbeck is great.”

The obvious jump that most then make is to Springsteen’s response to Guthrie’s call with “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. It’s a great track (and well covered by Rage Against the Machine), but it’s not the only answer to The Dust Bowl Ballads; simply the best known.



The Clash’s Joe Strummer went through a college-age phase requesting people call him Woody, after the late folksinger.  But it was Steinbeck’s voice of defiance (as set to music by Guthrie and echoed down the line) which helped Strummer find the words to protest and emote. Take for example Strummer’s famous line, “Without people you’re nothing” as a mirror for Preacher Casey’s “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” Part of Strummer’s overwhelming appeal was his faith that humanity could improve itself. A hope that somewhere buried under cynicism and anger people would fight for humanity.

Strummer disciple and punk icon Henry Rollins even cites Steinbeck’s importance on his own literary life; “Growing up, I loved great literature. I lived for your Steinbecks and your Hemmingways as a kid, and I read them all again as an adult and got the better version of the story. My comic books were reading things like the The Grapes of Wrath…”


Steinbeck’s words have fed  artists and writers continually in  the 75 years since The Grapes of Wrath’s initial publication and shows no signs of turning fallow. For as long as there is an artist railing against society, The Grapes of Wrath will be there. Whenever a songwriter speaks out against the faceless bureaucracy of The Man, GoW will be there. Whenever an instrument of art is used to kill fascists, Guthrie and Steinbeck will be there.

And some people won’t understand it. But the music will play for them anyway.

Next week: Part II – Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath

A Year with Steinbeck Book 8: Of Mice and Men


or “Retard on a Ranch”

A friend recently asked me what I planned on talking about when I finally got around to reading Of Mice Men. He wondered, naturally, what new insight I hoped to bring to such a frequently discussed novella. It was a fair question and one I had been wondering about for some time.

I’ve already stated that OMM is my gold-standard Steinbeck. It is, as the New York Times reviewed, “… a thriller, a gripping tale running to novelette length that you will not set down until it is finished. It is more than that; but it is that….In sure, raucous, vulgar Americanism, Steinbeck has touched the quick in his little story.” The London Time, in their review stated it was, “A short tale of much power and beauty. Mr. Steinbeck has contributed a small masterpiece to the modern tough-tender school of American fiction.” How can you add to that?

Via Josee Bisaillon

However, in this age of unrestrained internet opinion and trolling, I wondered what the reviews looked like on Amazon – the one’s written by the ‘raucous’ and ‘vulgar’ Americans for which Steinbeck captured and wrote for.

I’ve gathered that most of these reviews are written by high school students and most seem to be attached to a required project of some kind. I imagine a well-intentioned neophyte educator walking his cadre down to the computer lab to teach them the beauty of posting opinions in comment sections. With the path to hell expertly paved in good intentions, this was the product of that afternoon’s lesson:

“I hated every minute of this book so boring I hated how it ended it was at to sad but I had to read it for school.”

“I had to read two Steinbeck novels in 9th grade and this was one of them. He is a great author but I found this book terrible.”

This one absolutely kills me:

“Of Mice and Men had a good begining and a good plot. It would have been a better book if Steinbeck had made it longer and put more effort into it. When you read his books you get the feeling that he started out with this great idea, and then got bored so he just finished the book real quick.”

This one from a reviewer in Monterey, Ca.:

“After reading the book, it appears to me to be a story of mentally retarded people narrated in their own language. There is no psychological or philosophical insight in the novel. In fact, I did not find a single fresh thought or an intelligent or even intelligible idea.

This is a story of how a few people of less than an average intelligence casually kill dogs and each other. I am quite aware that such people exist and that they can hardly speak their native tongue, but I cannot relate to such people and I positively do not want to associate with them. I am afraid that this is the first and the last book by Steinbeck that I intend to read.”

And a few more:

“I had to read this book for my english teacher at my high school. I finished the book 3 weeks late, and the only reason I read it in the first place was because my teacher said read it or fail. Looking back I wish I would have just taken the zero, cause I failed anyway. If you have the choice for God’s sake take the 0. They should re-name this book Retard on a Ranch.”

“It sucked”

“I’m torn between giving this book one star for making me depressed and giving the book five stars for how well written and how honest the book is. All in all, the book deserves the classic status it has attained, but do to how the story made me feel, I had to throw my copy away. I am not a reader that will say a simple “this book sucks” but this book made me feel bad. The truth behind the tale disturbed me. That was probably the point trying to be made, but even so, I cannot get by how it made me view the world at the end.”

It occurs to me that these reviews all share a common denominator: An unparalleled anger at the finale.

To that effect, I think Steinbeck succeeded in providing a harsh lesson in fairness. These students witnessed true disappointment in a story. After investing the time to read, discuss, write, and do vocabulary for a book, their time was rewarded with a scene of shocking and almost unexplainable violence. Where is the Disney finale? The last minute escape? The resolution that warms the soul and promises that everything will be alright as long as you have a friend?

Steinbeck gives nothing but the reverberation of a gunshot and a group of men unclear at its true impact.

via Ninataredesign

These kids aren’t writing about the story. They are writing about their inability to come to terms with the emotional impact of the story. No one wants to be the first to cry or express sadness in the pack (or in the midst of 9th grade literacy class), so they turn that sadness into anger and vent it at the book. Steinbeck proves his point. The loneliness of humanity’s inability to empathize leads to anger and hatred. These reviews are the gut reactions of kids upset over emotion and decide to give it ‘one star for making me depressed’. It’s a review I think Steinbeck would have appreciated.

“Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”

“I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . .”


A Year with Steinbeck Book 5: Sweet Thursday


“Change was everywhere.”

World War II has ended and  Doc returns to Cannery Row only to discover that the world moved on without him. Sure, the Palace Flophouse and The Bear Flag brothel are there, but Western Biological has fallen into disrepair and new faces parade the streets. The newest face though belongs to Suzy , an outsider whose tone and attitude threaten and intrigue the residents. For a man returning from the war, these changes are too much and, as Doc sinks into a well of loneliness, Mac and Hazel decide to once again help their old friend. It’s a tale of sound and fury, signifying our basest need for companionship and recognition.

When I began this project, I decided that Of Mice and Men would be my gold standard. By Chapter 3, “Hooptedoodle (I)”, I was seriously reconsidering my stance.

What begins as a sequel to Cannery Row becomes a fugue to the melancholy of man’s loneliness , a relief map of the angers that flood a heart devoid of friendship, and a quest for love and companionship. It surpasses its predecessor. Doc’s self-deprecation and increased anger quickly ripples across the Row disturbing the ebb and tides of its inhabitants. It’s enough to force the Row’s affable stumble-bums turn to sullen introspection and murderous contemplation.  But the novel’s dark undercurrent is crossed with a tide of light mirth and gaiety that keeps the reader from submerging into the abyss. Steinbeck’s deft prose allow us to laugh at the nonsensical scramble to get Doc hitched. It is a comedy in the truest sense of the word; a series of baffling errors resolving in bittersweet happiness. It’s a tale which must be told as comedy otherwise it would drown us all. Sweet Thursday turns its readers in the outsider freeing us to examine the contents of Cannery Row like Doc does with his aquarium of color-shifting octopodes. We can laugh, because it isn’t happening to us.

Even the poster fills me with kitsch rage

Sweet Thursday was turned into a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It was titles Pipe Dreams and may, in fact be the worst pun ever created. I’m sure someone patted themselves on the back real hard over it, but, c’mon, the book deserves better. It premiered on Broadway on November 30, 1955 and originally had Henry Fonda slated for the role of Doc until it was realized that “still couldn’t sing for shit”.
It was panned but did yield this great review: “You know why Oscar shouldn’t have written that? The guy has never been in a whorehouse in his life.”

Also inspired by Sweet Thursday comes the significantly better punned title,Suite Thursday from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. It astonishes me how many famous people were influenced and inspired by Steinbeck’s works.


Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtain of dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wild flowers hidden in the grass.

Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you…And to prod all these, there’s the bastard Time.

You can’t cheat in mathematics or poetry or music because they are based on truth.

When people change direction it is a rare one who does not spend the first half of his journey looking back over his shoulder.

and my favorite…

Thought is the evasion of feeling.

A Year With Steinbeck: Tid-bits and a Recipe

Charley was only one of many dogs…who knew?

Today marks the 112th birthday of John Steinbeck.

A great many sites ( like Writer’s Almanac) will be posting various biographical overviews of his career. They’ll mention The Grapes of Wrath (which sees its 75th year of publication this year), Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl. Certainly, Steinbeck’s short time on this earth produced some of the greatest fiction and non-fiction texts of the 20th century, but, as I read more about him, I’ve come across some other quite interesting tid-bits. Here’s six and a recipe.

1) “Charlie Chaplin professed to envy Steinbeck’s country life and visited him several times.” via   Steinbeck even attempted to convince Chaplin to create a novelization of The Great Dictator. This one blows my mind and I’ve spent many hours ruminating over what a powerful novel it very well could have been.

2) He was a man of strong conviction – Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’. He was upset about how Hitchcock ‘turned his well-crafted black character into a parodic “stock comedy Negro” and did not want these “strange, sly obliquities” to be revealed to the public under his name.’ via

3) Steinbeck and actress (and Mrs. Charlie Chaplin) Paulette Goddard had a brief relationship, business partnership, and Steinbeck wrote a play about Joan of Arc for Goddard that was never produced. Via

4) I will most certainly attempt the WEBSTER F. STREET LAYAWAY PLAN which is a martini made with chartreuse instead of vermouth. It’s featured in Sweet Thursday and pops up in The Grapes of Wrath journals. Make it five parts gin to one part Green and forget the lemon twist. This is a knee-knocker, so drink with caution.

5) Ed Ricketts was the Man. If he was even half as interesting as Steinbeck painted him to be, Ricketts was one of America’s unsung greats. I’m glad to have experienced him through the Cannery Row novels.

6) Over the past few days I’ve seen Steinbeck’s Rules for Writers floating around as memes. As excellent and true as they may be, after reading Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath it is interesting to read how he fretted over the work and continually self-deprecated his craft and ability. I guess I just always imagined him knowing he was a great writer.

Finally, I found this recipe here. I will be making an attempt at cooking it, although I am a nightmare in the kitchen.


To read some more in-depth articles about Steinbeck, his life, and interests, head over to SteinbeckNow – a not-for-profit, non-commercial educational portal developed to benefit the public, SteinbeckNow.com accepts original articles and art with a fresh, transformative perspective on Steinbeck’s life, thought, and persona

A Year with Steinbeck
Book 4: Cannery Row
Book 3: The Log From the Sea of Cortez
Book 2: The Winter of Our Discontent
Book 1: The Wayward Bus

A Year with Steinbeck _ Book 4: Cannery Row

Another saucy cover.
Photo Source: Vintagepaperbackarchive.com

For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.

When I tell people about this project, one of the first things they comment on is the fact that I’ve read some of these novels several times. It is true. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath five of six times in its entirety. I’ve read Of Mice and Men some twenty-odd times (thanks to teaching a course in American Literature), and I’ve read Cannery Row twice before.

What people fail to understand is that like a movie, a piece of music, or, heck, even an entire season of a television series, books get better upon multiple reads. It’s been repeated ad nauseam, but we change between readings. We grow more intelligent, our world-views change, and we approach the text paying less attention to plot and more to craft and structure. In this case, I found myself casually drinking from a bottle of Narragansett Lager (unable to find Carta Blanca in New England) and focusing on the tramps’ bottle of spirits; a jug filled with the remnants of unfinished drinks and central metaphor in the novel.

See, the metaphor, as I gather, connects us to Preacher Casey’s concept that we are all one shared soul. No matter what we drink, how high-brow we see our liquor, or how ironically un-cool our tastes are, we all become one in the sharing of a drink. There is a communal brotherhood in the tink of glasses and the honesty of toasts. Even those of us who refrain from the spirits still raise our glasses in toast or discuss the construct of  coffee and tea. Although we pride ourselves on individual tastes, we utilize the same base ingredients and boast of their intricacies in cafes and bars. The jug is coming together of cast-offs and surplusmeant to fill the bladders of others. Drink is community.

Cannery Row’s charm comes from the building of this community. The piecing together of the Palace Flophouse and the utilization of the intercalary chapters work to provide a big picture/ little picture view of the Row. We see this in the scene where Doc is collecting octopi. As he turns over rocks to catch the elusive cephalopods, a man comments that he has lived in the area his entire life and never seen ‘a devilfish’. Doc replies, “You’ve got to look for them…” Yeah, we do have to look. We need to move the obstacles in our way and see what lurks below the obviousness of the world. Sometimes, as Doc discovers in the tidal pool, it can also be horrific and unanticipated.  But if discovery was simple and safe, everyone would do it.

Cover by Kathryn Macnaughton
For quite a while a little river of frogs hopped down the steps, a swirling, moving river. For quite a while Cannery Row crawled with frogs – was overrun with frogs.

Favorite Quotes:

“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails in the air – the really incredible remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable.”

You can order anything you want from Western Biological and sooner or later you will get it.

The starfish were twisted and knotted up for a starfish loves to hang onto something and for an hour these had found only each other.

A man with a beard was always a little suspect anyway. You couldn’t say you wore a beard because you liked a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth.

We’re magic people. We always have been.

In Doc’s head the monotonal opening of Monteverdi’s Hor ch’el Ciel e la Terra began to form, the infinitely sad and mourning of Petrarch for Laura.

The translated lyrics:
Now that heaven, earth and the wind are silent
and beasts and birds are stilled by sleep,
night draws the starry chariot in its course
and in its bed the sea sleeps without waves.

I see, I think, I burn, I weep, and she who fills me with sorrow
is ever before me to my sweet distress.
War is my state, full of wrath and grief,
and only in thinking of her do I find peace.

Thus from one clear and living fountain
flows the sweet bitterness on which I feed;
one hand alone both heals and wounds me.

And therefore my suffering can never reach shore.
a thousand times a day I die, a thousand reborn
so far am I from my salvation.

A Year With Steinbeck_ Book 3: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Another saucy cover
Another saucy cover

I’m not really all that in to science. Don’t misunderstand, science has given me some of my favorite things: paper, pens, penicillin, and electricity producing wind turbines. It ultimately comes down to the fact that I’ve never been ‘science-minded’. I can’t blame it on high school because my teachers were great and made it interesting, but my curiosities never developed to include wondering what’s under a rock or inside the digestive tract of an animal.

Instead, I’ve always tended to the more romantically induced fantasies of daydreaming, literature, and music. Of course, had I read Log of the Sea of Cortez as a kid, I might have felt entirely different.

This is my first experience with Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and the starting point for the next three books in the pile (Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flats). I’m discovering, while reading about Steinbeck’s l journey around the Sea of Cortez, that there is room for the romantic in biology (all Barry White jokes aside).

A Quick Sketch from Johnny Destructo
A Quick Sketch from Johnny Destructo

Steinbeck’s prose here are matter of fact when needed, and generously peppered with keen insight into the human psyche and our interactions with the world around us. Even as Steinbeck shares the life of his pal, Ed Ricketts, in the appendix, he creates a sense that we, the reader, really truly missed out on an experience like none other. We are the envious land-lubbers who must content ourselves with this regal story of the ocean. We could take our own trip, certainly, but without Ricketts to drive our quest, we would only be performing a pantomime.

I found that The Log took a great deal more time to read than anticipated as I constantly stopped to research many of the animals mentioned. I wanted to see the oceans bursting with schools of tuna and swordfish. I marveled at the large horned shark that refused to greet death. I want to pull the ignition chord on the Sea-Cow and hear it defiantly refuse work. I felt myself hot with rage over the Japanese fishing fleet. I could taste the Carta Blanca beer in my throat and the salt water on my lips.

Ultimately, this isn’t a science book – it’s a trip to the beach with your salt-dog grandfather as he turns over every rock and smacks every weed in an attempt to show you the minutiae of the world. It not a text book, either, but a way in which we can understand ourselves better through nature’s examples.

Recommended reading: Check out this nature blog named after Trivial Pursuit.

Favorite quotes:
“Man reacts peculiarly but consistently in his relationship with Sally Lightfoot. His tendency eventually is to scream curses, to hurl himself at them, and to come up foaming with rage and bruised all over his chest…He never forgot nor forgave his enemy…Eventually we did catch a few Sallys, but we think they were the halt and the blind, the simpletons of their species. ”

The dreaded Sally Lightfoot
The dreaded Sally Lightfoot

“The cantina owner promptly put his loudest records on the phonograph to force a gaiety into this sad place.”

““Gist” is, we imagine, a word which makes the State Department shudder with its vulgarity. ”

“The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing…An answer is invariably he parent of a great family of new questions.”

“The truest reason for anything’s being so is that it is. This is actually and truly a reason, more valid and clearer than all the other separate reasons, or than any group of them short the whole. ”

Ed Ricketts
Ed Ricketts

“Finally there is a reason to put Ed Ricketts down on paper. He will not die. He haunts the people who knew him. He is always present even in the moments when we feel his loss the most.”

“Life has one final end, to be alive; and all the tricks and mechanisms, all the successes and all the failures, are aimed at that end.”

A Year with Steinbeck – Book 2: The Winter of Our Discontent

The Saucy Cover




Prior to starting this post, but after taking on the A Year with Steinbeck challenge, I came across a group of fellow Steinbeck-lovers (here I thought I was alone in the world) calling themselves Steinbeck Now. This is  a great site with numerous articles, pieces of art, and work inspired by the “Most read American writer of the 20th century”.

I feel a great sense of weight to this project now.

Book 2: The Winter of Our Discontent

“My friends,” I said, “what you are about to witness is a mystery. I know I can depend on you to keep silent. If any of you have any feeling about the moral issue involved, I challenge you and ask you to leave…No objections? Very well…”

Ethan Allen Hawley is the fallen heir of vast New England sea legacy. Now, near penniless, he has little left but pride, family, and a meager inheritance belonging to his wife. But Ethan is a man with vision and, akin to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ethan secretly plans the usurpation of the local grocery store.

The Puritan Cover

What follows is a man’s decision to take responsibility for his actions and resuscitate his family’s reputation. The twist comes from the methods Ethan goes to put his plans into motion. For the moral or ethical ramifications, Steinbeck demands we judge Ethan’s actions for ourselves. We could speak up and simply walk away from the text, but, as clearly stated twice, if we remain, we do so as accomplices. Ethan’s guilt becomes our guilt. His foibles and deceptions are small maneuvers admitted openly but in jest. Where family and friends see a stubborn whimsical man, we see a man adrift; moored to his sense of familial obligation.

Personally, the final chapter is a cop-out. The empathetic reader invests too much time riding shotgun in Ethan’s brain for such an allegorical and frenetic resolution. Hell, there is even a POV switch from 3rd to 1st, just to ensure, we are sympathetic to Ethan’s motivation. So it comes as a let-down that as Ethan begins to reap what he has sown, we are given a jarring twist that, for me, severs my connection the Ethan I come to know. But I guess that goes to show, you really never can tell. Can you?

The ‘Our’ in the title is clearly defined.

Favorite Quotes:

“Men don’t get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I’m scared…It’s slow. It rots your guts.”

“Do you really love America or do you love prizes?”

“No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself. Now, sitting in the Place, out of the wind, seeing under the guardian lights the tide creep in, black from the dark sky, I wondered whether all men have a Place, or need a Place, or want one and have none.”

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.”

“I wonder about people who say they haven’t time to think…Maybe not having time to think is not having the wish to think.”