Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

When I started my goal to read 40-50 books in 2012, I found that the majority of the books I started reading early in the year were written by non-American authors.  I seemed to be on a World Literature kick, if you will.  As I review my list of completed readings, I have discovered that the last six books I have read were written by American authors.  The sixth, and latest, book I have read is the John Steinbeck class, The Pearl.  A shorter novel, The Pearl is nonetheless a powerful novel that speaks to all readers of all generations in all cultures.

Unlike many of his other books, The Pearl is not a period piece in the classic Steinbeck fashion.  While the main character is poor, just like many of Steinbeck's protagonists, he is not poor because of the Great Depression or any other life catastrophe.  Kino is poor because his people are oppressed and that is the way it has always been for him.  A Native American, Kino and his family are often times cheated and taken advantage of by the white men who run the town.

Kino's troubles seem to be over when he finds the largest pearl ever discovered.  For a moment, it seems that all the good things that Kino and his wife, Juana, thought were impossible all of sudden came within their grasp.  However, with the hope and joy that comes with unanticipated wealth also comes evil and jealousy.  While Kino dreams of providing for Juana and their son, Coyotito, others plot how to steal his happiness from him.

The beautiful thing about The Pearl is that the Pearl of the World can be a symbol for any goal, any dream, or any ambition that any person might have.  A dream can be desirable up until the moment it is realized; after that, well, one must face the bad along with the good.  The pursuit of the dream can bring more trials than one realizes at first, and things more precious than the dream can be lost.  Kino learns this lesson the hard way, and the reader cannot help but feel an unsatisfying connection to him; unsatisfying because the reader identifies his own weaknesses in Kino.  The differences are not subtle, they are like flares firing into the sky on a clear, dark night.

It is because of this connection that the reader must keep reading Steinbeck's parable; it is so easy to identify with Kino that one must find out if he is going to realize his hopes and ambitions.  The reader pulls so hard for Kino because he feels that if Kino is able to succeed despite his weaknesses, then the reader will be able to also.

That is, however, not possible.  As Steinbeck so plainly shows us, one needs to realize personal weakness before success is possible.  Facing weaknesses in yourself leads to growth, and growth is what will lead to success.  There can be no shortcuts, even if the shortcuts seem sent by heaven.

Steinbeck's prose is brilliantly simple, in that it is complex yet easy to read.  It is complicated, but easy to understand.  Parents can read this story to their children and they will be able to understand.  This facet, this talent that is presented in all of Steinbeck's novels leave no doubt as to his place among the great American writers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: The Great Gatzby

My resolution to read 40-50 books in this calendar year led me to read a book that, frankly, I should have read a couple years ago, The Great Gatzby.  An American classic, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most famous literary works written in the twentieth century and is required reading in numerous high school and college literary classes.  Due to this, a wide variety of papers, articles, and criticism has been written about this book, and I am sure that anything I have to add will be nothing more than redundant rambling to anyone who has studied it in depth.  However, as many people have not read the book and as I cannot but help give my opinions and criticisms, here I am giving my two cents.

The Great Gatzby is a novel about Nick Carraway, who, trying to make a name for himself in New York, meets and becomes well acquainted with Jay Gatzby, a mysterious multimillionaire with a secretive past.  Gatzby is known for throwing wild parties at his mansion, parties that start on Friday nights and go until Sunday morning.  This is, of course, contrary to what is expected of people who are of such means as Gatzby, and most of New York's elite scoff at him publicly (although they secretly enjoy attending his parties).  Among other things, Fitzgerald's novel is a harsh criticism of America's upper class in the 1920's, evident by the distaste Carraway (the narrator) has for most of the people he meets through his adventures with Gatzby.  Fitzgerald does such a brilliant job at showing the absolute worst personality traits of the rich (snobbery, self-contempt, superiority, etc.) that the reader at times also feels the same disdain.

Perhaps the most famous and, therefore, most over-taught themes of The Great Gatzby is the theme of colors.  Fitzgerald's use of colors to describe lights, nature, clothes, and various everyday objects symbolize various virtues, vices, and other subtle themes.  As noted, this is a subject that, I feel, is so overly touched upon that I can add no original thoughts to it, so I will not.  If this is a topic that interests you, it would be worth your time to look into some scholarly literary journals for articles and papers that are dedicated to it.

The theme that I think is the main idea of the novel is the idea that one cannot recreate the past, and that once one realizes it, one can either give up on life altogether or make the best of the situation.  Throughout the book, Gatzby is trying to revisit and rekindle his romance with his beloved Daisy (Nick Carraway's second cousin, twice removed), whom he had fallen in love with right before he had to leave and fight in World War I.  While he was gone, Daisy married Tom Buchanan, a burly member of her high society who epitomizes everything Fitzgerald feels is wrong with the upper class.  When Gatzby is unable to relive the same feelings he felt years before, and is unable to make her feel them as well, he basically gives up on achieving any happiness in life.  As it turns out, Gatzby spent so much time living in the past that he was unable to sustain any real friendships, and no one shows up for his funeral except his father and Carraway.

The Great Gatzby is truly one of the great American novels and will continue to be studied and read for many years to come.  One reason for this, in addition to all of the literary themes, is that the author's own life was very similar to those of his characters.  It would be well worth one's time to research and draw comparisons between events in the book with events in Fitzgerald's life.  In any case, it is a great culture piece as it depicts what life was like in the American 1920's, an age many find intriguing.  It is a short novel, easily read in two or three days; it is, however, full of subtle messages that take much longer to comprehend and understand.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Calico Joe by John Grisham

For those of you that know me, and I mean really know me, when asked if you knew who my favorite author was, you say something like: "pssh... that John Grisham guy."  You would, no doubt, have a tinge of exasperation in your voice as you have more than likely heard me recommend his books to you on countless occasions.  Sadly, however, many of you have not taken my advice to read his books and experience the brilliance with which he tells his stories.  Perhaps it was because you do not like crime or lawyer type books, and that is not a terrible position to have.  However, Grisham has now released Calico Joe, a novel that involves baseball, family, and forgiveness.  If you could not identify with any of my recommendations before, believe me that if you are interested in or have a passion for any of those three topics just mentioned, you will adore this book.

Calico Joe is the story of a boy, Paul Tracey, the son of fictional New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, a below average, mean-spirited, child-beating drunk who happens to have enough raw talent to make a major league roster.  As most 11 year-old boys do, Paul idolizes the best players in the game of baseball.  In 1973, when the book takes place, these players include Willie Mays, Catfish Hunter, Tom Seaver, and Hank Aaron.  All of a sudden, a Chicago Cub first baseman named Joe Castle is brought up mid-season and starts breaking all kinds of records.  Joe, who is from Calico, Arkansas, becomes young Paul's new hero.  When Warren Tracey and Joe Castle finally meet in a game, something happens that will change the lives of both men and that of young Paul Tracey.

Compared to his other novels, Calico Joe is relatively short, a little less than 200 pages.  However, while the book is roughly half the length of his usual work, Grisham is able to convey twice the amount of emotion and internal conflict than in any of his previous work.  Perhaps it is because readers can relate more to baseball, broken families, and crushed dreams better than they can a young lawyer who is caught up in a multi-million dollar conspiracy, but there is just something about Calico Joe that I feel speaks to every individual person, whether they are a baseball fan or not.

The book is formatted so that it is told from both the first and third person points of view.  Paul Tracey recalls what happens on that fateful summer day in 1973 as he deals with his father's approaching death and the feelings (or lack there of) that he experiences as a result.  The experience of the reader, then, is a phenomena of reading a sort of story within a story as they anxiously await knowledge of both what has happened and what will happen.  Right from the onset, the reader is aware that something awful is going to, or rather, has already happened.  One story has already happened and is being revealed to the reader at the narrator's discretion; the other unfolds in "real time" and the reader finds out what happens along with the characters.  It appears to be so simple when presented on the page, but quite brilliant when one sits down and thinks about it.

The aspect of the book that I found most impressive was the degree to which I felt Paul's hatred and anger towards his father right along with him.  It is not difficult, I suppose, for a reader to dislike or hate a character who is cruel, abusive, and downright mean.  However, Grisham tells his story in such a way that I felt that Warren had not only hurt Paul, but also me... personally.  The deep, unforgiving execration Paul felt towards his father is something I found myself feeling as well.  No book has provided me with that kind of experience, feeling along with a character as if I was the character.

Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because baseball season is just started and I am feeling nostalgic about the many happy memories I have watching, playing and cheering with my own dad, while Warren completely ruins the game for his son.  To me, baseball is one of the staples of my childhood, something that I don't remember not liking or playing.  To see a father take what is, in a word, sacred to me and my memories of my dad and ruin it for his son offends me to an astounding degree.  It takes a special storyteller to provoke such connections, and Grisham does this for anyone who has baseball memories with his/her parent.

This book was released to the public today and I finished it in roughly three hours.  It is not a long and complicated read; it is not simple either.  I am sure people who have had poor relationships with their fathers may find this a hard book to read.  However, the story is easy to follow and beautifully told, showing once again why John Grisham is the best storyteller in America.