Briefly, Danny, the chief protagonist in this novel, returns from the war to Tortilla Flat (a paisano district that sits upon a hillside above Montere...moreBriefly, Danny, the chief protagonist in this novel, returns from the war to Tortilla Flat (a paisano district that sits upon a hillside above Monterey), to find he has inherited two houses. What then follows is a comedic tale that fundamentally can be summed up in 5 words - wine, friendship, food, women and err..wine again :o)
This is the first John Steinbeck novel I've had the pleasure of reading, and quite simply it has left an indelible mark on me. What captivates me in the first instance is the remarkable talent Mr. Steinbeck shows in the quality of his prose. He demonstrates an incredible talent for expressing himself literarily, and in the most poetic way. I could provide endless examples but as an illustration, instead of penning something simple such as "the Pirate used his wheelbarrow to help Danny", Mr. Steinbeck eloquently scribes it as "then borrowing the Pirate's wheelbarrow and the Pirate to push it, Danny..", which, like the most of the sentences in Tortilla Flat, read like silk.
If the quality of Mr. Steinbeck's prose forms one half of the success of Tortilla Flat, then the sublime depth of his characterisation fills the other half. Mr. Steinbeck succeeds at magnificently bringing his characters to life. Every one is profoundly realised, with each possessing their own idiosyncratic yet appealing qualities. It is a difficult choice to make but the most endearing character for me is "The Pirate', the man `whose head had not grown up with the rest of his body'. Conscientious, hard-working, a man of simple pleasure (a pleasure that consists of him either showing affection for his dogs, or working towards winning the approval of his friends), the Pirate epitomizes how a humble, honest and largely pious life should be lived, which superbly juxtaposes the lifestyles of the other friends in the group (well, with the exception of Big Joe Portagee :o)) which are as far from pious as one could get.
This is not to say that Danny and his friends never show good intentions at heart. Mr. Steinbeck is masterful at setting his characters on a path of good intention, only for them to either falter, or to manipulate circumstance to meet their own needs. This happens a lot, and more often than not, wine plays a role as either the primary motive or betrayer.
I truly loved reading Tortilla Flat. It is a delightful story, with magnificent characters, and I would consider it to be a work of absolute genius. I never thought it could be possible to be completely captivated by an author on the strength of reading one book, but I can state without fear of contradiction that Mr. John Steinbeck, thanks to Tortilla Flat, has found a rare place in my heart. I look forward to discovering the rest of his collection.(less)
**spoiler alert** As posted on my blog [NOTE: The following may contain minor spoilers]
When I finally laid this book on the table as finished (as part...more**spoiler alert** As posted on my blog [NOTE: The following may contain minor spoilers]
When I finally laid this book on the table as finished (as part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge), I blew out hard and gasped Wow! I knew I was in for a ‘bumpy ride’ before setting out to read this post-apocalyptic tale of human survival, but I didn’t realise quite how bumpy that journey was going to be (quite literally, as a lot of the action is cross-country :o)). I thought of metaphorically comparing the novel to being on a roller-coaster ride. However on a roller-coaster, the ride is full of ups and downs and in this novel, aside from occasional moments of success, the characters only really experience ‘downs’. It’s definitely not a ‘feel good’ book.
Mr. McCarthy does an incredible job of ‘painting’ his post-apocalyptic America. The impression of bleakness, of total destruction, of a country where everything has been reduced to nothing is wholly apparent. The author spends a lot of time describing the landscape with everything covered in ash, all plant life dead, every man-made structure in a state of ruin and it almost always raining or snowing. I couldn’t get it out of my head, how grey everything must look in this landscape, and being faced with such a monochromatic vista, how could everything not seem bleak?
Whereas the majority of these kind of ‘world disaster’ novels illustrate apocalyptic destruction and survival by basing their ‘survivors’ in cities (typically New York), or towns (typically mid-sized, and cut off from the outside world), barely any of the action in The Road takes place in cities or towns. Urban areas are treated as ‘passing points’, places to briefly forage for anything of use (and to proceed through with extreme caution). As such this brings both, an increased emphasis on the nomadic journeying aspect of the novel, and a greater emphasis on the main transit ‘artery’ used by any of post-apocalyptic survivors, the road.
One thing I found that Mr. McCarthy achieves just as successfully in The Road, is to wholly personify the human bond that can exist between father and son, especially when a father and son are facing insurmountable odds in unimaginable circumstances. I can’t recall seeing this father/son bond being so well exemplified in words, anywhere else, and it’s truly one of Mr. McCarthy’s crowning glories. The father’s love and devotion for his son is clearly evident, as is the son’s love and utter reliance on his father.
While I hugely enjoyed The Road, I did have a couple of minor niggles with it. Firstly I was hoping to see a more moralistic struggle for survival being shown from the main characters. Although it’s clear that the father would stop at nothing to protect the safety of his son, I would have liked to have seen him wrestle more with the biggest survivalist taboo, and one focused on often in the novel, that of cannibalism. He does touch on the issue but not to the level and depth I would have liked to have seen.
There is also an aspect of the prose that take some getting used to at first: the severe lack of punctuation. Seeming as though he has an aversion to their usage, Mr. McCarthy omits quotation marks and apostrophes for the majority of his contracted words. However, although such a practice may leave a grammar teacher squirming in his/her seat, this is a technique that I think works. It brings a kind of visual barrenness to the page that mirrors the emptiness of the landscape of the novel. As I said it does take a bit of getting used to at first, but once you do it becomes invisible.
Favourite quote: “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself. Sharper than steel.” [Note: This is not my favourite quote because of the quality of the prose, it is more to do with what the quote relates to]
Favourite scene: When the father and son come across a grand house at the edge of town and find something ‘interesting’ in a locked cellar.
What this novel has taught me about writing: How important it is to create an environment that is wholly described and wholly believable. The realism that Mr. McCarthy presents in his apocolyptic landscape is stunning and added hugely to the sympathy I felt for the survivors (even the bad ones :o)) (less)
As part of my *Steinbeck Special* (which in turn is part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge) I’ve finished reading Of Mice and Men and desp...moreAs part of my *Steinbeck Special* (which in turn is part of my 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge) I’ve finished reading Of Mice and Men and despite its short length, I’ve got to say it’s a monumental piece of literature, with a story as powerful as anything I have, or am probably ever likely to read.
The story centres around George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who are scouring the Californian countryside in search of work. Again, as was other Steinbeck novels, I have been mesmerised by Mr. Steinbeck’s profound ability to create characters that are wholly ‘stick in the head’ memorable. Lennie, despite being a bit of a ‘man mountain’ and a ‘hell of a good worker’ suffers from a high level of mental disability. His only motivation seem to be that one day he’s going to own a farm with George, solely so he can care for a load of rabbits. Lennie loves to pet soft cuddly things, but as you’ll find out if you read Of Mice and Men, this passion ends up being quite detrimental to him at times.
George acts as a kind of mentor or carer for Lennie. It’s obvious he has a real affection for Lennie (and he apparently made a promise to Lennie’s aunt that he would care for him after she passed away), but one has to wonder to what extent George may be exploiting Lennie’s strength and ability to work. George like to proclaim to potential employers, the fact that Lennie can do the work of many hands, and this seems to be a good ‘bargaining chip’, provided Lennie can keep his mouth shut at the ‘interview stage’ for securing work.
George and Lennie may be the primary ‘players’ in Of Mice and Men but Mr. Steinbeck has also created a whole host of characters that are equally interesting. It would be giving way too much of the plot if I went into detail so suffice it to say that characters such as Candy, Slim, Crooks and Curly will remain unforgettable to the reader of this novel.
The story, although powerful is, as I’ve found with a number of Mr. Steinbeck’s books, fairly linear and not hugely plot-driven. I often see the plot and settings of Mr. Steinbeck’s novels to be more a stage for his characters rather than anything else, but that’s no bad thing, given that his characters are so well put together. However what Mr. Steinbeck does do well throughout this novel is to infuse suggestions of an ulterior motive for George and Lennie’s nomadic wanderings (it isn’t just to find work), which becomes clear near the end of the story.
Of Mice and Men is proclaimed by many as being one of the greatest works ever written, and after reading it I can see why. For anyone wishing an introduction into the novels of Steinbeck, this title is ideal. It’s short enough to complete in one or two days, and while the characters in Of Mice and Men are profoundly realised there are only a handful of them, and each is presented in an uncomplicated and straightforward way. I’m sure there aren’t too many people who haven’t read Of Mice and Men sometime in their life, but if you’re one of them then I highly recommend picking this book up. I know you’ll enjoy it.(less)
I didn’t know what to think at first after I finished reading The Catcher in the...moreAs posted on my blog
Warning: the following may contain minor spoilers
I didn’t know what to think at first after I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, I really didn’t. Fundamentally, and perhaps rather controversially (because it has such a positive following), I didn’t really like the novel as much as I thought I would. I thought that the story was weak, that the plot was largely uneventful, and I was left wondering why so much ‘evangalising’ of this novel? That was my initial thoughts, but once I’d determined that the purpose of this novel was not to deliver an enthralling action-packed story, my opinion began to change and I realised that Catcher in the Rye does have something a bit special about it. That ‘something special’ is in the characterisation of the chief protagonist, 16 year old Holden Caulfield, a youth teetering on the edge of manhood.
Holden Caulfield’s ongoing struggle to fit into the adult world, is superbly realised by his creator, it truly is. Again and again Mr. Salinger thwarts Caulfield’s attempts to rise into the realm of adulthood. Caulfield nonchalantly speaks of drinking alcohol, as though it were the same daily ‘matter of fact’ activity for him, as it was for an adult. However in reality, the reader sees that he is almost always turned down in his requests for ‘booze’. Additionally, and most eloquently, the author further indicts Caulfield’s failure at ‘being a man’, by detailing Caulfield’s numerous failed attempts to ‘amplify’ his maturity, by connecting with women of the more mature variety.
I also loved how Caulfield’s attempts at acting as an adult were often betrayed by his inherent juvenile behaviour; his habit of continually exaggerating things, of coming up with ‘on-the-spur' unfeasible notions of escape to a ‘better’ life, and his critical bemoaning of everything and everyone around him, belied, rather magnificently, the true immaturity of his personality; Caulfield may not admit it himself but it’s evident that under the grown-up veneer, he was still very much the boy.
Another wonderful thing I enjoyed following through the novel was Holden Caulfied’s serial hypocrisy. He spends much of the time criticising everyone around him, labelling almost everyone as ‘phoney’, and questioning their moral values. However Caulfield shows himself as being just as ‘phoney’ as they were, if not more-so, through the endless yarns he spins, and his use of multiple pseudonyms; and how can anyone question someone’s moral values when they themselves agree to spending time with a prostitute?
All in all I really did enjoy this novel. I stick by my opinion that the story itself is largely dull and without plot, but Mr. Salinger’s depiction of teenage angst, and the challenges faced in the ‘coming of age’ is truly applaudable.
Favourite quote: “[the fish] live right in the goddam ice…[…]…They get frozen right in one position for the whole winter…[…]…Their bodies take in nutrition and all, right through the goddam seaweed and crap that’s in the ice”
Favourite scene: When Holden sneaks home to visit his little sister Phoebe. I love the tenderness of the scene and the obvious connection that Holden has with his sister and vice-versa. If I have to be honest I much more preferred the character of Phoebe. She’s a much more endearing character than Holden, and hugely charismatic. Every time she came up in a scene I couldn’t help but think that Phoebe would make a great sister.
What this novel has taught me about writing: Probably the importance of building your characters as comprehensively as possible, and to use a language for their direct speech that truly reflects them. I think Mr. Salinger nails his character’s voices perfectly, ‘breathing’ a high degree of believability into them. (less)
War on the Margins is a debut novel from Libby Cone, set on the Channel Islands during World War II, with the main focus of the story centering on how...moreWar on the Margins is a debut novel from Libby Cone, set on the Channel Islands during World War II, with the main focus of the story centering on how the islanders endured the Nazi Occupation. Moreover it’s a story about resistance, as a number of the islanders unify in an attempt to expel the Fascist menace; for some though it’s also a story of endurance, as the hardships of imprisonment become a reality.
From the outset I’ve got to say that War on the Margins is a real eye-opener. I was fully aware of the fact that the Channel Islands were occupied during WW2 before reading this novel, but I had no idea to what extent the Islands and its residents suffered under Nazi control. This novel really does bring home just how widespread starvation and persecution were on the Channel Islands during the period, and it ain’t pretty!
The novel follows a number of primary story threads, the main one being the Occupation experiences of the chief protagonist, Marlene Zimmer. Marlene works for the Aliens Office on Jersey, and after gaining an advance insight into the Occupation measures being implemented by the Germans, she discovers that her distant Jewish heritage is detrimental to her safety. So she quickly flees to begin a new life elsewhere on the island; a covert one that involves few pleasures and much indignation. I really like the author’s treatment of this character. She evolves Marlene from being a woman largely devoid of ambition and unsure of her own identity, into one of the complete polar opposite. My only complaint is that the author didn’t spend more time exploring Marlene’s evolution (more on that later), but putting that aside, Marlene’s story is a definite highlight of the novel.
Another primary focus of War on the Margins is on the French artists and lovers - Lucille and Suzanne, the ‘real life’ island residents who inspired the novel in the first place. Their relationship brings another aspect to the ‘marginal’ theme of the novel, and although no exploration of homosexual persecution is explored (presumably because it never emerged as an issue), the relationship between the lovers is, and what emerges as a consequence of Cone’s excellent crafting of the story, is the depth of love and devotion that the two artists showed for one another; a depth that undoubtedly nurtured an inner strength in both women and kept them motivated during that great time of adversity. That adversity reaches its zenith when both women were arrested for suspected clandestine activity and jailed in the local prison. Here I feel the novel really reaches its zenith too, with the author making full use of the actual prison letters and poems of Lucille Schwob to enrich the story.
Aside from an additional couple of less significant story threads, War on the Margins also focuses on the plight of political prisoners shipped to Jersey en masse, to provide the workforce for building construction. The main ‘player’ here is Peter, a Polish political prisoner, who eventually ties up with one of the other main characters of the novel. Again I liked the author’s treatment of the character, at least in the initial stages of his introduction. Here in Peter the reader sees the stoic resoluteness of a prisoner wronged for his beliefs, surviving in an environment pretty much akin to Hell. It’s powerful stuff from Cone and aside from the descriptions of punishments served out to deserting or non-compliant German soldiers, it’s the portion of the novel that provides the most graphical impact.
As good as War on the Margins is though, it’s not without a couple of minor niggles in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned that the novel follows a number of primary story threads, and while these are all tightly controlled and interwoven well into the narrative, the number of story threads included is perhaps a little too ambitious for a novel of this length. I feel there’s not enough focus spent on a particular story thread at any one time to allow the reader to fully connect with a character, or to sympathise with the situations that they find themselves in. There are some dire situations created in this novel, mainly centering around characters ‘holing up’ in squalid conditions such as cellars, prisons, transport ships etc., and while Cone paints the story of their plight superbly well to some extent, you never really get a total sense of sympathetic connection with them.
My other minor niggle with the novel is centered around the flow of the story. I’m delighted that the author has seen fit to include official documents and orders in this novel, both for historical reference and context-setting, but the documents are presented verbatim, with their expanse usually filling a number of pages. All good and well but this had the affect of interrupting the flow of the story for me, and I found I needed a paragraph or two afterward, just to get back into the story. I’m well aware of the importance of these documents to the novel but perhaps it would have been better only embedding extracts of these documents in the narrative flow, and linking these extracts to full reproductions in an appendix at the back of the book.
Overall though I wouldn’t let any minor complaints that I have put you off reading War on the Margins for yourself. My annoyances may well be just idiosyncratic, and regardless, they do little to interfere with the ‘enjoyment’ of this novel. This is truly an accomplished work by Libby Cone, not least for its historical value, and it is one that should be read by anyone who has the slightest interest in the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands. Cone should be celebrated for what she has achieved in War on the Margins, for aside from illustrating the suffering that the Channel Islanders endured, she’s spotlighted the degree to which Nazi persecution of the Jews extended; a persecution in this case, that offers a chilling glimpse into the fate that would no doubt have awaited Jews in mainland Britain should the Nazis have succeeded with their belligerent expansion.
Libby Cone’s biggest success in War on the Margins though is undoubtedly her ability to weave the real-life prison diaries and poems of Lucille Schwob into the novel (along with the other primary source documents to a lesser degree). Before reading War on the Margins I was aware that the author had included primary source material in the novel, so I was intrigued to see how successfully she would manage this. I’m happy to say, although I would have liked to have seen more, that she’s achieved it admirably. This on its own makes War on the Margins a worthwhile read, and one I highly recommend. Just be aware that War on the Margins isn’t a casual ‘pick up and put down’ kind of novel though. It’s one of these novels that requires a fairly high level of engagement and plenty of cogitation. Put the effort in though and I guarantee that you’ll be richly rewarded.(less)
Although not wholly triumphant in plot, The Solitude of Prime Numbers takes the ambiguous form that is literary fiction and gives it a clear, precise...moreAlthough not wholly triumphant in plot, The Solitude of Prime Numbers takes the ambiguous form that is literary fiction and gives it a clear, precise and glorious definition. Definitely one for the reader who loves to see their characters squirming in a perpetual wrestling match with their inner selves.(less)
Song for Night follows the journey of Nigerian boy soldier My Luck as he endeavours to re-attach himself to his platoon, following the unexpected deto...moreSong for Night follows the journey of Nigerian boy soldier My Luck as he endeavours to re-attach himself to his platoon, following the unexpected detonation of a mine. The platoon is a special one, one whose job is focused on reconnaissance and mine clearance, and My Luck’s particular role is in the diffusing of mines, a job for which his small stature is particularly suited. My Luck has also been ’adapted’ for mine clearance, having his voice cords severed so he is unable to scream should he be blown up and severely wounded.
Narrated in the first-person by My Luck himself, Song for Night follows the boy soldier as he navigates his way across a war-torn landscape full of danger and horror. Pausing at times to reminisce on his time as a boy soldier, My Luck reveals the abominable acts he's been involved in, and the sights which have scarred his soul forever.
Definitely not recommended for the faint of heat, Song for Night offers a vivid a powerful impression of what it may be like to wander a veritable ‘Hell on Earth’, in an African civil war that’s left little for salvation. There are threads of hope running through the story which keep the reader on the right side of abject despair, but overall a grim story which reveals the abhorrent consequences of war.
At times My Luck's ‘visionary interludes’ can make things slightly confusing at times, but putting this aside Abani presents a truly praiseworthy piece of literature. Read it and you’ll remember it for many years to come. Just be prepared for the shocks.(less)
Cannery Row is the third Steinbeck novel I’ve read in succession, and for me it stands out as the finest; quite simply I’ve never been more captivated...moreCannery Row is the third Steinbeck novel I’ve read in succession, and for me it stands out as the finest; quite simply I’ve never been more captivated by a fictional place, or its characters, than I have been whilst reading this novel.
Cannery Row centres on life upon a small strip of largely dilapidated land situated next to a sardine cannery in Monterey Bay. It’s the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, and the story follows the daily interactions between the mainly down-trodden residents. These residents (all of whom symbolically represent various class structures in society) are primarily comprised of: Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer, Mac and 'the boys' who reside in a ‘refurbished’ storage hut loving christened the Palace Flop-house, Doc who runs the marine laboratory, and Dora, the owner of the Bear Flag restaurant, which in actuality is a house of ill-repute.
Given Mr. Steinbeck’s incredible talent for creating remarkable characters, and settings (something which I’ve discovered in ALL of the his books that I’ve read), I’m not surprised I’m so enamoured with Cannery Row, there’s just something so magical about each and every one of them. This is the first novel I’ve finished where the characters, and the place, have carried on living in my head; out of nowhere I suddenly begin wondering how Doc’s getting on in his laboratory, or whether Mac and the boys have managed to get up on their luck, if Mr. Chong is still in his sentinel position in his shop, behind the cigar counter, or if Dora’s place is busy or not.
I have to say though, that I found no real story behind Cannery Row. As I found with other Steinbeck novels, the onus of the story is all about the characters and how they interact with one another, rather than any hugely engaging plot. The lack of plot should not put anyone off reading Cannery Row though. What story there is, is perfectly constructed to both engage the reader, and to provide the ‘props’ and setting for a level of sublime character interaction. In that respect, the story can be viewed as a work of absolute genius, and in my mind it is.
Another thing that Cannery Row demonstrated beautifully to me, is how talented Mr. Steinbeck is at making something stunning out of the ordinary, especially when describing surrounding scenery. His description of an empty weed-covered lot, makes it sound as though he describing the Garden of Eden, and of particular magnificence is his description of what he calls ‘pearl time’, the time of day when night ends but the sun has not yet begun rising. It is during this ‘magical time’ that ‘weeds are a brilliant green’, ‘the corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence’ and the cats ‘drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground’. Magnificent!!
I think you know by now then, that I LOVE Cannery Row and as such I wholeheartedly encourage you to read it, if you haven’t done so already. I’ve mentioned that the place and the characters have gone on ‘living in my head’, and if that isn’t testament to the power of this novel, then I don’t know what is.(less)
I confess to not reading much fiction in my lifetime, but when I was a kid I did read quite a lot of children’s novels (my favourites being Just Willi...moreI confess to not reading much fiction in my lifetime, but when I was a kid I did read quite a lot of children’s novels (my favourites being Just William and The Famous Five). The opening to Never Let Me Go instantly propelled me back to those junior years, with the setting, the characters and Mr. Ishiguro’s style of prose being wholly reminiscent of the English-esque adventures of Enid Blyton’s famous quintet. However any resemblance to anything I’d read before quickly dispeled as the story unfolded, and I realised that Halisham, the ‘boarding school’ that the first part of the story was solely centred on, was a place that could never be found in an Enid Blyton story; that Halisham was a school with a difference.
This is not to say that Mr. Ishiguro comes right out and tells the reader that Halisham is far from norm, instead he slips strange, and seemingly out-of-context nouns into the narrative, such as 'donations', 'guardians', 'possibles' etc., to get the reader's mind thinking. He also increases the ambiguity of the story by describing unusual activities, such as the regular visitations to Halisham by the mysterious Madame, and her quest to find art additions for the ‘gallery’.
Ambiguous is probably the perfect word to describe the feeling one gets when reading the bulk of this novel. In the latter chapters all, or at least most, of the obscurity is cleared up, but for the most part the reader is left very much ‘in the dark’ about what exactly is going on. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not really. Mr. Ishiguro injects just the right amount of intrigue into the story, to instill the reader with enough curiosity to make him/her read on - which is pure genius on Mr. Ishiguro's part.
Friendship and trust emerge as the most important themes in Never Let Me Go. Given that the ‘students’ are related by a common bond, and live mainly as an isolated collective, it’s not surprising to see these themes explored so fully. However the point of note is how well Mr. Ishiguro treats these humanistic themes, especially through his main characters - Kath, Ruth and Tommy. Not surprisingly, given that the focus of part of the novel occurs during puberty, sexual exploration is another theme explored to some extent. However Mr. Ishiguro treats the theme quite eloquently, never going into graphic detail, but making it clear how important, and indeed sanctified, sexual exploration is to the characters.
So do I consider Never Let Me Go to be a good novel, worthy of its 2005 Booker Prize ‘shortlisting’? Ultimately I’d say yes, definitely; the story may not have been one I expected (no bad thing), but it was one that I enjoyed. I wouldn’t consider it to be one of the best novels I’ve read so far, but neither would I consider it to be one of the worst either. Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in characterisation is clearly evident, as is his ability to interweave different time-frames into a story. For those reasons alone Never Let Me Go is, in my opinion, a worthy read. Just be prepared to spend a lot of your time reading this at first, in a state of bewildered puzzlement.(less)
The Pearl is a Steinbeck title that's a little different to say the least. This is a parable rewrite by Steinbeck, based on an old Mexican folktale, s...moreThe Pearl is a Steinbeck title that's a little different to say the least. This is a parable rewrite by Steinbeck, based on an old Mexican folktale, so unlike his others novels, Steinbeck is somewhat bound by an existing plot and characters(?). As such he has little freedom to evolve his characters or plot to the same extent he does in other novels, and it shows.
The story itself is centred on a poor Mexican fisherman Kino, who discovers a pearl - ‘The Pearl of the World’, and it looks as though all of his problems, mainly financial, are now over. However the discovery is set to doom Kino and his family, as paranoia and the evil of others conspire against his good fortune, and shatter his good intentions.
The highlight of The Pearl is definitely Steinbeck’s treatment of the paranoia which is growing in Kino. He illustrates this to great effect, showing Kino becoming more and more suspicious of other people’s motives, and he further emphasises the sense of foreboding through the use of a kind of ‘wandering evil’, the ‘song’ of which Kino often seems to be perceptive to.
All in all The Pearl isn’t a bad novella. It’s quite enjoyable, but not to the same depth of many of Steinbeck’s other works. It’s short so I would recommend it to other people to read, if only to take from it the lesson that wealth doesn’t always bring happiness.
Originally I had planned to read this novella as my only introduction to John Steinbeck. I'm glad I expanded into other Steinbeck works as I don't believe The Pearl, as good as it is, gives a true representation of Steinbeck's skill.(less)
Quite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling...moreQuite simply Water for Elephants is an exceptional read and one that any reader should not miss out on. Briefly the novel is about a circus struggling to survive the Depression-era years in America, or more specifically circus life from the perspective of an ad hoc ‘veterinarian’ - Jacob Jankowski, who jumped on the Benzini Brothers circus train by chance, one evening.
The action in Water for Elephants is fast-paced; more than sufficient to keep the reader glued to the pages. ‘Pit stops’ to the action comes in the form of the story reverting back to the nursing home of the present-day, where Jacob is finding his aged infirmity almost intolerable. These respites back to present-day are brief though, and inevitably the narrative shoots back quickly to Jacob’s circus days where the action regains its breakneck speed.
Gruen has really done her ‘homework’ while researching for this novel. She’s created a circus world that’s wholly believable; one that you feel right in the midst of (especially when she intersperses the chapters with contemporary circus photos). Gruen tells us in the ‘author’s note’ at the back of the novel that she had researched extensively for Water for Elephants and it shows! So much so that you can almost smell the menagerie, and the sawdust of the circus ring.
What really makes Water for Elephants special for me though (aside from the great storyline) is the characters. Gruen has done a remarkable job of creating some truly colourful and memorable people in the pages of her novel. Uncle Al (the circus boss) and August (the animal trainer) are characters you’re going to love to hate. Marlena, Kinko the Clown aka Walter, and Camel are character’s you’re just going to love. You’re going to love the chief protagonist Jacob Jankowski too. Personally I found him more endearing in his role as the ‘present day’ Nonagenarian, but his struggle to fit into circus life, gain acceptance from his peers and deal with the urges of his love interest, make him a hugely engaging character.
In summing up I’d say that that Water for Elephants is one of these rare novels that will both thrill you and shock you at the same time. I really want to tell you everything about the story because it’s so good, but also I don’t want to tell you anything, because it will spoil the thrilling ‘ride’ you’re going to find yourself on when you read this novel. Sufficed to say that the story grips and twists almost ceaselessly on its way towards a quite thrilling climax. Miss this at your own peril!
Note: I should probably point out that the novel does contain some sexual content which could be considered for the more mature audience, so I probably wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under 15. On the other hand I may just be being a little prudish, so perhaps you may want to check out the mature content yourself before passing the book on to any juniors (chap 3. pp.44-47, chap 8 p.97 and chap 10 pp.133-135 contain the ‘offending’ material). (less)