Sunday 24 February 2013

Returning from a long trip to the Salinas Valley...

East of Eden

John Steinbeck

It’s not often in a realistic novel that you find the author turning up as one of the characters. But in this saga about farming in the Salinas Valley at the turn of the century John Steinbeck is tracing his own family history. The plot focuses on two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The poor Hamiltons, on a patch of earth with no water and 6 (I think) children, struggle by somewhat despite the incapability of the father Samuel Hamilton to earn any money. The Trask family, one brother Adam moving out to the Salinas Valley in the course of the novel leaving his hard childhood and scary brother behind, continues with twin boys, Caleb and Aron (biblical reference obvious).

Now I read Steinbeck’s most depressing work The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, and really enjoyed the vision and the detail, but it is such a terrible, horrible novel about humans and greed. In contrast East of Eden has it’s horrible moments, but it is much more rounded. There is young love and exploitation, the severity of the land and the beginnings of accepting multiculturalism. Some people find a problem with Steinbeck’s preaching narrator; personally, I like it when the author lays out their cards as honestly as he does – you know just whose side he is on and don’t have to guess!

The language can also be perfect:

“It was a deluge of a winter in the Salinas Valley, wet and wonderful. The rains fell gently and soaked in and did not freshet. The feed was deep in January, and in February the hills were fat with grass and the coats of the cattle looked tight and sleek. In March the soft rain continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground. Then warmth flooded the valley and the earth burst into bloom – yellow and blue and gold.”
(Opening of chapter 25)

One of the reasons I wanted to review East of Eden on here was to have the chance to revel in it a bit further. It’s only when I typed out that passage that I noticed all the subtleties of Steinbeck’s syntax. It can be so easy to describe something in prose in a way that means nothing because you’ve invested too many descriptors and no feeling for how a reader will read your sentences. For me, this passage is the opposite because it doesn’t look like it tries hard, but then you find such beauties as “each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground”.

Because it is a family saga, the plot spirals around somewhat and sometimes could be accused of being overtly sensational. I won’t go into too many details here, with the hope that some of you might still read it, but the focus on the brothels in the second half of the book definitely descends down that path. That’s not to say Steinbeck does a bad job at it – I wonder if he were writing today whether he would have learnt his craft as a script writer on Eastenders or telenovellas? The character of Cathy/Kate is fascinating though, and well developed during the course of the novel. She clearly holds a great deal of power over John Steinbeck:

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?"
(Opening of chapter 8)

This prose may feel outdated, but the theme is still prevalent today. How can seemingly ordinary people act in ways completely alien to the majority of society? Is it genetic or is it learnt? What are they lacking? Steinbeck clearly comes down here on the side of genetical malformation – i.e. it is nobody’s fault. But it’s a thin line between that and the nature/nurture debate.

I hope I’ve given you a taste of what is so enjoyable about East of Eden. Admittedly it doesn’t have my favourite chapter in Steinbeck in it, the description of the tortoise on the side of the highway from The Grapes of Wrath, but the characters are its unforgettable part. I wouldn’t know which to name as my favourites; they are all so three dimensional – Sam Hamilton, Adam Trask, Tom Hamilton, Aron Trask, Caleb Trask, Charles Trask, Lee, Cathy/Kate.

Monday 18 February 2013

I have been enjoying recently… Podcasts

Now that my technology has caught up with this decade, and I’m walking to work, I have been discovering the excellent world of podcasts. I thought I’d list some favourites on here - partly because I still haven’t finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and partly as something to keep me occupied on a slow Monday afternoon.

I’ve been enjoying the variety of the Weekend Woman’s Hour podcast. I find it’s nice to have the edited highlights of the daily shows together with feedback from the listeners. This is a good one for the walk to work in the mornings as it’s not always too taxing on the brain and yet they maintain a good range of guests and topics to keep it interesting. I particularly liked the interviews with the young girls that were in a flagship mentoring scheme 4 years ago and have all now gained so much self-confidence and “can-do” spirit. There was also a great discussion a few weeks ago with a proponent of “soft” feminism and one for “active” feminism which had me screaming at the podcast! At an hour in length, this generally keeps me busy for a few days in my travels around the city, and I’ve found it great for long train journeys too.

One of the best things about the internet/technology age is the ability to learn about any topic at the click of a button. I find this particularly true with the Freakonomics podcast, which introduces novices like me to some of the basic principles of economics. Each episode tackles a concept or a problem using modern day (or even medieval Chinese!) examples in an entertaining journalistic way. So far some of my favourite episodes have focussed on the problem of providing incentives (The Cobra Effect) and the strange nature of “consultants”. This last one made me even more glad I never intend to apply for a grad. scheme with a consultancy firm! 

I revelled in the wonderful Jane Austen feature on the BBC World Book Club last month. The discussion was just great, featuring writer P.D.James, who recently wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Death comes to Pemberley. The best thing, somewhat unsurprisingly, about World Book Club is that the questions come from all over the globe. I really got an amazing feeling of how universally these books are appreciated.

I’m not quite sure why I downloaded the first Philosophy Bites podcast, given that I recoiled quite strongly from most philosophy at uni; but I was pleasantly surprised, and felt very cultured walking to orchestra listening to a lecture on freedom. The high point though was a wonderful talk about Gandhi’s philosophy, which educated and informed me about a topic I have been meaning to look up for quite some time…

I hope some of you reading this, if you don’t already, will consider investigating the world of the podcast and exploring all the knowledge out there!

Thursday 7 February 2013

Regular updates are hardwork!

Apologies for the silence on the blog front lately. I haven’t quite worked out how to juggle temping, orchestra, gigs and socialising… But seeing as this blogging thing is only worth doing when I update regularly (and therefore get a regular audience) I am endeavouring to improve.

I have in mind to do a review of the gorgeous Les Mis film, but I think that might take more time than the quick 15 minutes I have now. So instead how about a list of things I have been enjoying and hope to enjoy in 2013:
1.       The Hobbit
I know this is a cliché. I was not expecting it to actually be amusing and entertaining… It made me realise how much Elijah Wood put me off the original LOTR films (especially in terms of watching them again). Martin Freeman is absolutely excellent as a wonderfully British Bilbo. And Gandalf was always my favourite. Minus the annoying elf and the tedious trawling to extinguish the ring in the fires of Mordor in LOTR, The Hobbit is much improved. And much funnier!
2.       I am reading Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” right now and revelling in his language and beautiful way of cutting right to the heart of a situation. I don’t remember enjoying Steinbeck at school but now as my tastes have changed I love the apparent simplicity of his vision. I hope to have it finished next week and maybe review it properly at some point in February.

Oh dear I’m going to have to leave it there for now. More to follow, promise!