A Year with Steinbeck Book 19: Once There Was a War

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In the sixty-plus years since WWII, there have been thousands of hours spent on retelling the war through film, novels, and video games. Most of the retellings come from people whose experience with the war came from memories or stories in history books. Hell, some even merge the two to showcase the reality of the war in all its crimson glory.

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It’s more like this. Less like Call of Duty.

Even John Steinbeck, who went as a correspondent, writes that he ‘attended’ the war, since he did not fight. He also goes on, in this collection of accounts, to say that he had to be mindful of the heavily hand of the censors. Well after the war, when he began to put Once There was a War together, he found that many details escaped him and all he was left with were half remembered stories. All of them true, he swears, but still just outside of his recollection. I guess this leads me to wonder about the power of the propaganda machine and if what we see in film, novels, and video games, are nothing but creative re-imagining of the true horror of war.

I suppose that is where the title comes from: the fairy tale retelling of heroics and victories. The danger of said remembrances can have an adverse in a culture’s consciousness. It dehumanizes those men who fight and those who die. Steinbeck begins his writing Somewhere in England in 1943, “The troops in their thousands sit on their equipment on the dock…The men wear their helmets, which make them all look alike…The have no identity, no personality. The men are units in an army.” It’s not even possible for me to image thousands of men, armed with rifles and fears, ready to face an enemy and possible death.

Steinbeck realizes early on that in order to discuss the soldiers, he must seek out what separates them from the mass of machine men and make them individuals. The remainder of the collection finds Steinbeck seeking the heart of the soldier. It’s an examination of a soldier’s life when he isn’t fighting, but living.

Readers looking for a bit of levity will enjoy the chapters on Bob Hope, Chewing Gum and a good luck goat.

A Year with Steinbeck Book 16: A Russian Journal

Here we are – America just celebrated another Independence Day. I’ve eaten plenty of my special Tiki Dogs with Supernatural Sauce (thanks Ron Effinrules for creating this culinary delight) and I’m reading John ‘America’s Greatest Author’ Steinbeck. The pride of my people swells in my heart.

The Famous Tiki Dog and Supernatural Sauce
The Famous Tiki Dog and Supernatural Sauce

Of course, I’m reading A Russian Journal and about to dig into the war correspondences. So I’m not sure the swelling is as patriotic as I’d imagine. Sometimes I think I’m obstinate and obnoxious as a matter of choice instead of selective breeding.

A Russian Journal is an interesting time capsule from The Cold War. In an effort to write about Russia and her people, Steinbeck sought to avoid the growing scourge of punditry in which, “A man sits at a desk … reads the (news) cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his bylines.” He goes on to say that, “What we often read in the news now (1948) is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what the news means.” I like to think Steinbeck would be apoplectic over the current state of ‘news’. Fox News might have even killed him.

Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa
Steinbeck w photographer Robert Capa

Steinbeck sought to humanize the Russian people. To describe to Americans what 1948 Russia looked like. Keep in mind, there were no visits, there was no reporting, and there was no way of peering behind the Iron Curtain. All America and the world knew was what we were told. Steinbeck wanted to show us who The People were: what they wore, what they ate, and how they made love, and how they died. It was a simple concept no other journalist considered. After all, it was much easier to be a part of the propaganda machine than question it.

Again, Steinbeck viewed the experience with the understanding that the experience would be alienating and uncomfortable, but, “we determined that if there should be criticism, it would be criticism of the thing after seeing it…”

A Russian Journal is must for die-hards and young journalists everywhere. It acts a historical thesis in support of adventure and first-hand experience. It seeks to get its readers to realize that we are all the same and we all deserve understanding. Classic Steinbeck.

I'm sure it means something entirely different
I’m sure it means something entirely different

Quotes:
“Censorship can control film, but it cannot control the mind of an observer.”

“The camera is one of the most frightening of modern weapons, particularly to people who have been in warfare, who have been bombed and shelled, for at the back of a bombing run is invariably a photograph.”

“…Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

Bibliodiscoteque Ep 50: John Steinbeck Road Trip Mix

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The Road Neverending – The Tillers – I imagine Steinbeck and Charley, his dog, in the off hours. The moments not recorded in the book and not experienced by on-lookers. This is introspection.

A Coffin For Two – The Soaked Lamb –  A sly number for Lenny and George of Of Mice and Men. The first verse manages to capture them perfectly.

Father, Why These Stones – Joseph Huber – This one is for Cal Trask in East of Eden. The sense of brotherhood and competitiveness rings out in “Born restless inside Heaven’s ungrateful gaze.” There is also a strong tone of To a God Unknown with the burning of the tree.

Angel Along the Tracks – The Dirt Daubers – A ‘pick me up’ number for the union fighting folk in In Dubious Battle. The Reds arrived via train and fought to give the working men their due.

Water into Wine – The Cujo Family – Catherine (East of Eden) is my favorite villain in all of literature. She is brutal and manipulative. The Cujo Family tell the tale of a women of all trades; someone able to tantalize but with a sense of darkness.

Hate a Man – Delaney Davidson – While we are on the subject of Catherine, here’s another. Just imagine this song told from her point of view.

Which Side are You On? – Pete Seeger – Well? Are you a stooge of The Man or are you willing to fight for respect and integrity in the workplace? Decide.

Vigilante Man – Woody Guthrie – Preacher Casey (Grapes of Wrath) caught a raw deal by the river. Steinbeck suggests that dedication and commitment to your beliefs can be detrimental to your health. Certainly giving in or ignorance is safer, but at what expense?

Pretty Boy Floyd – The Byrds – I wanted to use two Guthrie songs, but felt it was a dangerous slope to go down. When would it end? Give listen to that last line. It’s pretty important.

Hard Luck Blues – Roy Brown – For the hobo in us all.

Murder in the Red Barn – Tom Waits – Curley’s Wife can be an irritating character for younger readers, but to think that she’s never even provided a name places her as the novel’s biggest outcast. While the others speculate on loneliness, she is the one who suffers the most.

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive – CW Stoneking – A classic.

Reason to Believe –Bruce Springsteen – I wasn’t sure whether to use Springsteen, but this track is pure Steinbeck. Most people on the web link (rightfully so) The Ghost of Tom Joad to Springsteen, but this song actually seems pulled from the the pages of his work: People lost in a world of speed and insensitivity.

There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonley – Possessed by Paul James – One for those lonely nights on the road and the promise of returning to your love.

No Depression – Uncle Tupelo – A view of heaven from the view of the downtrodden. A hopeful song amidst the hell of the Great Depression (love the double meaning in depression). This is the sound of Steinbeck’s people.

Sickle and Hood – Brow Bird – Death comes swaggering. We all face the reaper, so we might as well face it with hand-clapping and slide guitar.

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A Year with Steinbeck Book 15: Zapata!

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“He’s in the mountains. You couldn’t find him now. But if we ever need him again – he’ll be back.”

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In 1991, Robert E. Morsberger reprinted the screenplay Viva Zapata! along with a series of collected essays and the significantly large and more expansive narrative script. The first narrative is a “long narrative that provides extensive historical and cultural background, along with a more detailed life of Zapata… .”

In this initial narrative, Steinbeck tries to explain the causes of Mexican Revolution to Americans in the most straightforward manner possible: All the while attempting to be authentic and true to the people of Mexico.

In the current wave of Americana music, numerous reviewers (including myself) have discussed the level of ‘authenticity’ in the music. We try to attribute the instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics, to some zeitgeist we never experienced. The concept of authenticity has come to represent a romanticized ideal of what early troubadours were like. What we fail to realize in this quest of authenticity are the conditions necessary for the music to exist. Part of what makes ‘olde thyme music’ so appealing is at longing for a past which no longer exists. Beyond the moonshine and quarts of beer lay ringworm, abject poverty, blacklists, a Great Depression, no credit, and no wi-fi. Sure, times seem simpler, but it’s because we aren’t living in them.

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Steinbeck, in a lengthy introduction to the original screenplay, creates a solid thesis for authenticity. Despite his obvious romanticism and respect for the Mexican people, he realizes that the only possible way to tell the tale of Mexican rebellion is to go against traditional Hollywood and utilize actual Mexican actors and locations: A rarity for the time. Steinbeck writes, “Nearly every American production company gets into trouble in Mexico because of a lack of knowledge of local courtesies and local practices.” He also suggests that by not remaining true to the people, they become stereotypes and caricatures. An ignorance capable of hurting everyone.

Today’s quest for authenticity in a scene almost demands a comedic over-generalization. Steinbecks’ quest understands that Zapata’s story is in itself ‘semi-mystical’ and that the film needs to be ‘simple, direct…it must also have a quality which indicates that it is a world story…for its meaning is exact.’ It is a perfect excuse for the romantic, so long as director Eli Kazan also understands, the ‘explosive qualities’ unique to the Mexico that created such a folk hero. Steinbeck goes on to warn that ‘the hatred and suspicion of the gringo is very strong in Mexico’ and that there should be as much a ‘cushion’ as possible. In order for Steinbeck and Kazan to tell a story for the world, one must show absolute respect for the ‘beloved hero of the people’.

So, I guess the question and overuse of authenticity is best answered by intent. Is the spirit of the people more important than the actuality of the world at the time? Does the truth of the story trump the truth of events? Discuss amongst yourselves.

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Next week, I’ll be releasing Episode 50 of Bibliodiscoteque: Travels with John. I’ll be playing some ‘authentic’ revisionists in order to create a soundtrack for reading Steinbeck, drinking quarts of beer, and going on road-trips with your favorite companion. Stay tuned.

Book 15 is slated to be the play Burning Bright followed by Steinbeck’s Russian Journals.

Quotes:

“The villain here, as everywhere, and in all times, was greed.”

“They (the men in power) ignored the explosive qualities in their own people; and why shouldn’t they have so ignored them, for the people were disarmed, they had no weapons, they had no learning. The middle class was destroyed, the schoolteachers dominated. The priests, those who favored the people, had little power…These are the conditions which brought about Emiliano Zapata and which brought about out story.”

“It is not propaganda in any sense.”

“This was a slavery of dept. A man who owed money could not leave the land until it was repaid, and by a process of charging more for food and clothing than a man could possibly make, the probability that he could ever escape debt was very remote.”

“The pay and wages were exactly pegged to the point where a man could not possibly ever, in his whole life, get out of debt. It was not called slavery, but it was the most effective kind of slavery.”

A Year with Steinbeck Book 14: The Red Pony

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Animals – Miller Williams

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John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony

I think the death of domestic animals
mark the sea changes in our lives.
Think how things were, when things were different.
There was an animal then, a dog or a cat,
not the one you have now, another one.
Think when things were different before that.
There was another one then. You had almost forgotten.

I hate to sound like an adolescent kid forced to read The Red Pony for the first time in some cinder block cell of a classroom, but Steinbeck is a F*@#ing horse-killing maniac!

Yeah, you’re damn right that warrants an exclamation mark.

To me, the death of an animal in literature is a bit of a cheap shot, but as Williams mentions, the death is a sea change. As readers, it is my opinion that we steel ourselves against the death of humans. We reach a turning point in our adult lives when our parents and friends die and we understand, firsthand, the effects of death’s proximity. The impact of a human character’s demise fails to wield the same emotional impact.

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But forced to helplessly watch a pony sicken and slowly die is cruelty. We feel more for dead animals than we do people: It’s the same with Of Mice and Men’s dead puppy, or The Grapes of Wrath’s dead dog, or the deck full of dead fish from The Log from the Sea of Cortez. These animals have not snapped any necks, beaten anyone with a shovel, or handed out any similar cruelties. In other words, animals in literature rarely deserve their deaths.

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In The Red Pony, when an old paisano named Gitano comes to the ranch, Jody (the story’s protagonist) finds his father using the cruelty of slaughtering a beloved horse to torment the old man. It is reminiscent of Curley’s fear that his uselessness on the ranch is tied to his old dogs. When the mutt is unceremoniously executed in the woods, Curley fears he is not far behind. However, Gitano’s absent reaction angers Jody’s father who pushes the issue in an effort to cast his hurt onto the old man. In this transference of fear, Gitano becomes a scapegoat carrying off the responsibility of death. The chapter ends with Gitano taking the ancient horse for one final walk into the mountains – providing it the death it deserves.

But the slaughter doesn’t stop there. Nope.

John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony
John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony

In the third chapter, Steinbeck murders a third horse to show that death isn’t the only brutality. Often birth can be just as horrible.   As can adolescence.

By the final chapter, Jody’s experiences with death boil over as he spends several paragraphs readying himself to smash the numerous fattened mice living under the hay. He is absolute in his bloodlust until his grandfather drops out of the rodent-cide in lieu of sitting in the sun and resting his bones. When Jody questions his where his grandfather’s bloodlust has gone, the old man bestows the final death lesson: The death of Westward Expansion and the American Dream. Man, Steinbeck argues, no longer ‘hungers’ for exploration. Instead, men line the shores, angry and frustrated, ‘hating the ocean because it stopped them’. This savage war against the mice becomes a symbol of anger and frustration turned toward the innocent.

This ‘hating’ is what tears us from the land: We are repulsed by death and the natural order because we are disconnected from it. We buy our meats, we don’t worry about predators, and we balk at slaughtering our dinner. We pollute and we clear cut and exterminate because we hate. We take the world for granted and we feel we owe it nothing in return.

This all brings us back to Williams’ poem. We have forgotten too much over the last century: We have forgotten about the purpose of the land and our need for it. In The Red Pony, Steinbeck takes one of mankind’s greatest achievements, the domestication of the horse, and ties it to our desire to manifest our destiny.  Jody doesn’t just grow up in these chapters, but so does the American.

Quotes:
“School had just opened two weeks before. There was still a spirit of revolt among the pupils.”

“Why don’t you just call him Gabilan? That means hawk.”

“The pony would probably throw him off. There was no disgrace in that. The disgrace would come if he did not get right up and mount again.”

“He hated his brutality toward Gitano, and so he became brutal again.”

“’I’ll kill everyone tomorrow,’ he promised.”

“He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber.”

 

A Year with Steinbeck Book 13: The Pearl

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The Pearl, for those who don’t know, is one of Steinbeck’s most famous works. It is a folktale about a father’s love for his child, corrupt authority, and greed. In it, Kino is late to save his child from the potentially deadly sting of a scorpion. Kino and his wife race to save Coyotito’s life, a wretched beast of a doctor refuses treatment until Kino discovers “the pearl of the world”. This pearl becomes the epicenter of a covetous attack on Kino and his eventual downfall.

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It’s a tale written, along with Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down, as a script. Steinbeck strips back his philosophy –laden prose into a brutal examination of humanity in action. He allows the characters to generate the moral ambivalence and comments on society. The outcome is three of his most powerful pieces.

The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden clearly show Steinbeck’s ability to craft a world and convey multilayered story-arcs, but The Pearl’s impact comes from its brevity. It is the lack of intercalary chapters and universalities that drive the story home. This is the literary equivalent of a grenade. It only serves a single purpose: to drive home a singular theme.

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There is no doubt that The Pearl carries with it a terrible parable of greed. The novel is used in hundreds of schools across the country and read by thousands of kids. However, it never seems to carry the same weight as Of Mice and Men. As I write this, it dawns on me that the only two authors taught in nearly every grade in every school are Shakespeare and Steinbeck. I suppose it has to do with both author’s ability to nail down the human condition so concisely, but I think is has to do with sound.

Both Steinbeck and Shakespeare craft their lines like poetry. They not only able to summarize their land and feelings of their people, but there works carry in them a vernacular. A sound of the people. A song. As Steinbeck writes in America and Americans, “The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and one statement that cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.” As he writes in The Pearl, “The Songs remained…” These are but refrains of Shakespeare’s lines from The Merchant of Venice, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; / The motions of his spirit are dull as night / And his affections dark as Erebus: / Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.” (5.1.91-7)
There is no doubt of music’s impact on humanity. Steinbeck’s strength is to hear the sounds and rhythm of the world and, for all its discord, transcribe it as a tablature of prose.

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Steinbeck is a romantic. Of that there can be no debate. His novels strike to the heart of American fears and passions. But he understands that lengthy sermons (even Steinbeck’s token preacher, Casey, leaves the church) tend to be ignored. That once a hypocrisy is exposed, the story and the lessons lose their value. Understanding his own human faults, Steinbeck crafts his prose like operas because we trust musicians to be morally ambiguous. We cut them slack so long as the song remains the same.

The Pearl is a folksong in that it sings out warning. We are all some part of Kino’s world; whether we ignore those in need, deceive our neighbor, or struggle against impossible odds. The Pearl is a story that could be ignored as easily as the murder of Kitty Genovese. But as a song it resonates. The tune sticks with us and we are never the same after hearing it.

 

 

A Year with Steinbeck Book 7: In Dubious Battle

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Written in 1936, In Dubious Battle is an in-depth and personal tale of Reds Jim and Doc as they attempt to help organize an apple pickers strike. Like the two other tales of the migrant worker (Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath) In Dubious Battle, shows the reader a distinct concern for the lives and struggles of the working poor.

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Steinbeck brings us into the harsh conditions of the migrant worker’s camps and exposes us to the make-shift abodes where people suffer from starvation and illness while sleeping in the woods with negligible sanitation. There is no romanticizing of conditions: In fact, Steinbeck goes out of his way to present the workers and Reds as ‘cowardly, selfish, greedy, dirty, cruel, lazy, or just plain stupid’ (1).  It is evident by the varied degree of characters that Steinbeck made a strict narrative decision to be as objective as possible. We can only trust the story if everyone is shown dirt and all.

It’s hard to believe, after reading the Monterey tales, that this is the same author. Not only are his characters here diverse and purposeful, but his diction and tone are more precise and less meandering. It is a tone that perfectly fits the story structure. Cannery Row, Tortilla Curtain, and Sweet Thursday demanded a loose prose and a drunkard’s sense of sentence structure just as In Dubious Battle demands a forceful voice that cuts to the purpose to sway the readers. The irony, is that Steinbeck does this without sounding as if he is creating Red propaganda. Thanks to his character’s questionable moralities, we see that all of the workers contain elements of hypocrisy. All except Doc Burton.

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Doc Burton is yet another Doc to grace the pages of a Steinbeck novel. In In Dubious Battle, he works as the moral litmus test; never appearing too Red or too big business. He is a man who primarily cares about the safety of humanity and provides counter arguments for the book’s protagonists. Like Preacher Casey from Grapes of Wrath, he can be trusted to speak the truth because he admits his faults and recognizes the weaknesses of man without ever casting blame or choosing sides. One of these days, I’ll get around to writing a thesis about the value of the name Doc in Steinbeck’s papers as one who is there to remedy the problems of mankind.

In Dubious Battle is a powerful novel that doesn’t resolve, but brutally and abruptly concludes. We are left with a cliffhanger regarding the conflict between labor and owners. And we are, as a nation, still trying to figure out how it all ends. The labor battle rages and what was written in 1936, still maintains its significance and value. As businesses push unions out the door, as factories close and move over-seas, as the middle-class fades into extinction, In Dubious Battle is a war that continues to sound.

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Quotes:
“…I lived seventy-one years with dogs and men, and mostly I seen ‘em try to steal the bone from each other. I never seen two dogs help each other break a bone ; but I seen ‘em chew the hell out of each other tryin’ to steal it.”

“Anybody that wants a living wage is a radical.”

“You can’t swing nobody that doesn’t want to be swung.”

“They say you got a right to strike in this country, and then make a law against picketin’.”

“A guy with brains don’t have to be taught. He sees things for himself.”

“The cops are scared as hell. That makes ‘em dangerous. Just like rattlesnakes when they’re scared: they’ll shoot at anything.”

“Fun with dead bodies, huh?”

“All great things have violent beginnings.”
“There aren’t any beginnings,” Burton said. “Nor any ends. Its seems to me that man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t foresee, nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself. How mankind hates itself.”

“You let ‘em shoot our guys, an’ burn the buildings of our friends, an’ you won’t fight. Now they got you trapped , an’ still you won’t fight. Why even a God’damn rat’ll fight when he’s in a trap.”

NEXT WEEK: Of Mice and Men

1. Sarchett, Barry W. “In Dubious Battle: A Revaluation.” Steinbeck Quarterly 13.03-04 (Summer/Fall 1980): 87-97

A Year with Steinbeck Book 6: Tortilla Flat

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I lived in Allentown, Pa, for roughly seven years. It was a great city and I lived about twenty blocks from the coffee shop where I worked. Every day I walked those blocks priding myself on doing my part to save the world from car exhaust.

On my way home I would stop at a tiny bar just up the street from my generic little box apartment. It was a tiny, dimly lit little joint that looked as though it had been decorated by David Lynch. The wall paper was a fuzzy patterned number stained by tobacco and the grime of age. Lining the walls in cheap plastic frames were nearly unidentifiable photographs of patrons long dead and yellowed news-clippings regarding people  forgotten except in this small space.

The bar was some sort of high polished wood and ran for twelve feet into the back wall. If you leaned back in your stool, you could snub your cigarette out on the ashtray of the table behind you. I forget the name of the place and I always felt it thrived on its ability to remain innocuous. It remained open because no one remembered to close it.

But it was cheap and quite. I’d order hot dogs and a beer every night (oh, for that metabolism again) and enjoy the darkness of the place. Since it was wedged between two buildings – almost as if it tried to squeeze in, got stuck, and remained – there was only one window.  In the front.  Covered in thick black drapes. While the building itself tried its best to vanish from the world, the people who comprised its guts were men like the ones from Tortilla Flat; folks who seemed interesting, whimsical, or fun on the outset, but who were so cowed by the bottle, that their stories always turned to the epic. You never knew if you were being played, but you enjoyed the game. Hell, the current yelp review for this place is a review of the security (“to go To a bar and feel safe this is the place, security is the best around !”).

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Tortilla Flat, the novel, despite its eclectic and wicked characters left me, no pun intended, flat. After coming off of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, which are essentially more flushed-out revisits of plot and theme, this read like an author stretching his arms. Steinbeck feels as though he is attempting to capture the essence of a place through its people…and almost making it. But I never feel the connection to the characters like I did in his other tales of Cannery Row.

This all changes toward the final three chapters however as the novel becomes increasingly more poetic and universal. Steinbeck takes us from a character driven piece into a beautiful and fluid philosophy of death and morning. “Death”, he writes, “is a personal matter, arousing sorrow, despair, fervor or dry-hearted philosophy. Funerals, on the other hand, are social functions.” This is a distinction that seems so obvious, yet has always alluded me. Steinbeck’s words border on angry, but continue to sum up the emotions of men who don’t feel fit to mourn the loss of a friend. It is an emotional inferiority that eventually divides them.

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Quotes:
“What pillow can one have like a good conscience?”

“Beans are a warm cloak against economic cold.”

“Death is a personal matter, arousing sorrow, despair, fervor, or dry-hearted philosophy. Funerals, on the other hand, are social functions. Imagine going to a funeral without first polishing the automobile. Imagine standing at a graveside not dressed in your best dark suit and your best black shoes, polished delightfully. Imagine sending flowers to a funeral with no attached card to prove you had done the correct thing. In no social institution is the codified ritual of behavior more rigid than in funerals. Imagine the indignation if the minister altered his sermon or experimented with facial expression. Consider the shock if, at the funeral parlors, any chairs were used but those little folding yellow torture chairs with the hard seats. No, dying, a man may be loved, hated, mourned, missed; but once dead he becomes the chief ornament of a complicated and formal social celebration.”

“It ruined a story to have it all come out quickly. The good story lay in half-told things which must be filled in out of the hearer’s own experience.”

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

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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

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My first exposure to John Steinbeck came in high school. Like other American school-kids, our class read Of Mice and Men and mindlessly answered worksheets and listened to the teacher read line after line. Pausing only to ask what passed as an open-ended question. It was long and laborious and I felt nothing for the migrant workers staving off the shadow of loneliness with hollow dreams of a farm overflowing with rabbits. Until the shot rang out in the silence of the Salinas River.

A few years later, some of my friends had to read The Grapes of Wrath for their 11th grade English class: And, well, you know how kids are. Pretty soon it was “Tom Joad this” and “Ma Joad that” and “Preacher Casey says”. So I read it. And immediately fell in love with the prose style and themes of loneliness and struggle. Not soon after, I came across the music of Woody Guthrie via an interview with Joe Strummer and the rest is history.

East of Sweden … John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men faced isolated calls for censorship in Turkey.

To this day I mark Of Mice and Men one of the finest pieces of literature ever written (with The Grapes of Wrath not too far behind). As this year marks the 75th Anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, I am setting myself to the task of trying to get through all 27 pieces of  Steinbeck’s bibliography (in no particular order)  as I can in the coming year.

Prepare yourself to read all about it.

Anyone got $70 for this T-shirt
Anyone got $70 for this T-shirt