Why *The Grapes of Wrath* is worth the read

The Grapes of Wrath is now my third favorite book, behind first The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. To be clear, I do not agree with or support the politics or philosophy espoused in The Grapes of Wrath which is decidedly collectivist in nature (i.e., communist and altruistic). However, the humanity in the book is astounding. I quote from this edition’s dust jacket:

[The book’s] power and importance do not lie in its political insight but in its intense humanity, its grasp of the spirit of an entire people traversing a wilderness, its kindliness, its humor, and its bitter indignation. (back flap)

Setting aside its politics, the book itself is beautifully devised and written.

The book’s language is wonderful. Steinbeck narrates in clean, descriptive, and heart-wrenching prose, while his characters speak in gritty dialects that make you feel like you’re right there with them. He manages to convey important ideas in very simple language without it feeling phony; quite the opposite, it feels truer, more plainly sincere and human, than anything ever has.

The book’s plot is not quite a plot, which is a purposeful progression of events driven by the values of its protagonist (paraphrased from Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction.) Instead, the book’s protagonists are pushed from behind, from one struggle to the next, where the survival of each struggle is a triumph, but the triumph is undercut by the next struggle. Still, though they are pushed from behind, they are also value-driven, and their values are life, productive work, and family. The constant battle for survival and the overwhelming odds the Joad family faces can make for an exhausting read emotionally…but that only draws you deeper into the narrative, for you feel the exhaustion the Joads feel. While that might not sound pleasant, if you think of it in terms of a novel’s ability to bring you into the story, this novel delivers more than any I have ever read.

Finally, the very last scene is one of the most beautifully melodramatic scenes I’ve ever read in literature. I closed the book with my heart pounding, not sure if I was feeling indignant, triumphant, relieved, or simply, simply, hopeful.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you hate its politics and philosophy, you can’t reasonably deny its power as a work of enduring literature.

What do you think of The Grapes of Wrath?

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Quick review of *The Catcher in the Rye*

I read The Catcher in the Rye in one day, my 32nd birthday, and loved it. In many ways, it hardly has the makings of a book I’d appreciate. It has no plot and no ending to speak of, and its main character, who whines and calls people phony throughout the book, provides nothing to fill the void, so to speak. But there is a subtle genius to the book’s structure. It has to be this way for it to have the right impact: for it to infuriate you and, at the same time, make you examine people and yourself more closely.

Forgive me if you consider what I’ve said to be “spoilers.” I don’t, because before I read it, this is similar to what my sister, Amie, told me…except she hated the book for the very reasons I loved it. Anyway, it didn’t spoil the book for me; instead, it made me more conscious of it as I read it. I do not enjoy plotless novels and whiny characters, but The Catcher in the Rye is the exception to the rule.

What do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

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Being young, “a thing all by itself”

Earlier this morning, I was reading John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and this caught my eye:

When you’re young, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing.

On Facebook, I said:

It struck home with my memories of childhood and teens. Everything did seem to happen as an isolated incident, as if the fate of my life hung in every moment…whether a girl said yes or no when I asked her out, whether first period science went well and whether sixth period math would be overwhelming again, on and on. It’s not tragic, really. I think the loneliness of youth is part of what makes us wise when we get older…wise in some ways, at least, as in the ability to appreciate both pain and joy, solitude and society.

20160119 Being young, a thing all by itselfWhen I think about my teenage years, I remember how disconnected everything felt. My world ended if a girl said no to a date. My world swelled if she said yes, or if class was fun. I felt at home in English with Mr. Roe, where my ideas had some weight, but I felt like an island in Geometry, where everything was happening five steps ahead of my mind’s ability to comprehend (my fault more than anything, really), and I prayed the teacher didn’t call on me where I sat in the back. Every day was a roller coaster, and the ups, downs, loops, starts, and stops each seemed like my entire world for the exact moment it was happening.

Probably not every teen felt like this. For reasons I won’t go into now, I know I was an emotionally unbalanced teen beyond the norms of teen angst (as in, deemed so by counselors). I’m sure that heightened my experiences of lonely frustration.

Still, with strife came wisdom…though on a delay of several years. I appreciate solitude more now, but I don’t cling to it quite as much as when I was a teenager. I value society now, far more than I did—than I could—as a teenager. Back then, everything was “a thing all by itself.”

Now the ups, downs, and loops are all connected. Not always a smooth ride on the roller coaster, but it feels like a complete ride, one that I can gauge the joy and horror of by seeing what’s ahead or remembering what’s behind.

Life may be up, down, and around, with sudden stops and starts—but with the adult wisdom that comes from teenage strife, the perception of life becomes more balanced, and the roller coaster feels more like a straight road, such that each jerking motion isn’t the world-ending calamity it once was.

Thanks for reading. Do you feel very different from your teenage self? In what ways? If you’re a teen, do you feel like you’re in a whirlwind, or do things seem calm in your life?

20151221 The Woman Alone - SavannahBy Christopher Chinchilla, an adventure set in the savannahs of Africa…

Available now for Kindle and in paperback


20160111 GhastlyTwo images recently inspired new stories for me. Both images are ghastly—at least, to my usually tempered sensibilities. The stories do not use these images for the sake of being ghastly, but instead serve legitimate thematic purposes. Still, they shocked me, and I wondered if I’d be able to write them. Additionally, I wondered if I should write them. Do I want to put such tragic images into the world, even if they serve legitimate purposes?

Ultimately, I decided I would be able to write them (though it might take a lot of editing to write them well, since they go against my nature), and that, yes, I should put the images out there, because they serve legitimate purposes.

Let me segue for a moment to explain what I mean by “legitimate purposes.” In my view, presenting a ghastly image for the sake of being ghastly is inappropriate in any art form. This is why I don’t enjoy most horror or action films. Regarding action, for example, if Jason Statham is the main star, I know it’s a movie with action for action’s sake, and thus, it’s crap. Some people will say, “Well, it’s just mindless fun.” Well, not for me. I’ve never had mindless fun, and I don’t think it’s possible except for mindless people. Regarding horror, I consider Saw to be a movie that (barely) uses horror for legitimate themes—for example, the movie questions how much we value our own lives, and whether anyone has the right to challenge us in that regard by hurting us (they don’t). However, the Saw sequels are generally horror for horror’s sake, and thus, crap. I’m sure I’ve offended a few people here. Feel free to argue the value of horror/action for its own sake in the comments and I’ll read them.

Returning to my main purpose for this post, the epiphany I came to was this: a writer should tap into the extremes of his sensibilities.

I’m fairly levelheaded. But every now and then I find myself enjoying something shocking, because it balances right on the line of what I can appreciate versus what makes me sick to consider. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the movie Pan’s Labyrinth are examples. Sometimes, my own ideas are like that. The two stories I recently conceived would be my first forays into the ghastly fringes of my otherwise tempered nature.

I think a writer should, from time to time, dare to write his own extremes. Don’t let a legitimate story go to waste because it has a horrific or explicit element. Dare yourself to write it and to publish it. You can always return to center, and you need not go beyond your own extremes… Just, every now and then, take a walk along the fringes.

Have you ever shocked yourself with something you’ve written? Is it an experience you would like to repeat, or are you glad it’s done and gone?

What’s the best way to write?

First, let me say, Happy New Year!

Writers have long debated whether it is better to write by hand, by typewriter, or by word processor. Some insist that handwriting is the way to go, as it allows the writer to connect more closely with his work, to create his story in a slow, deliberate manner. Others swear by word processing, claiming it lets the writer get his thoughts out almost as quick as he has them; it is especially useful, therefore, when the muse strikes. Still others enjoy the compromise of the typewriter, which is faster than handwriting, but slower than a word processor, and thus allows for speed and deliberateness in tandem.

In my experience, older writers or writers of thick literary fiction prefer handwriting; younger writers (usually of popular detective, paranormal, or science fiction) prefer word processors; and bearded hipsters prefer typewriters (infer whatever you’d like from that). Then, of course, there are those who switch between two or all of these depending on what they’re writing or how the mood strikes them.

As for me, I’m still experimenting.

Initial notes for my first published short story. Read “Coffee in the Afternoon” for free, as published by Fabula Argentea Magazine in July 2014

My initial brainstorming and plotting always takes the form of handwritten notes, for which Moleskines are wonderfully suitable. Lately, though, my actual writing of the story occurs on word processor. About a year ago, I surmised that my writing is just about the same whether I write by hand or by typing.

Now though, about a year later, I’ve also seen that typing lets me get sloppy if I’m not paying close attention. Usually I can tidy it up in editing, but it’s a hassle and takes the proper enjoyment out of editing, like moments of stillness during a rollercoaster ride.

Handwriting, on the other hand, doesn’t allow for sloppiness. Either I’m paying close attention, or I’m not writing; I can’t play fast-and-loose with a pen in my hand. That’s why I will probably always brainstorm and plot with pen and paper, no matter what method I end up choosing to write the story afterward.

Next week, I’ll share a bit of inspiration I received on this subject when I visited The Steinbeck House in Salinas, California. A little fact I learned about John Steinbeck made me reconsider (again) what method of writing—by hand or word processor—is better for me. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on these methods? Do you prefer one method to the others? Do you move between them depending on what you’re writing? Do tell!

Blood at Christmas

20151228 Blood at ChristmasSome think that family is simply defined as being blood-related, and “you do anything for blood.” Others say that family begins with blood, but eventually relies on people’s character, such that a friend might become family while a father becomes an acquaintance. I am of the latter conviction. Since Christmas has just passed, I thought I’d reflect on what makes family, and see if you have anything to add to that reflection.

The conviction that “we should do anything for blood” is flawed. It demands sacrificing yourself for people who don’t necessarily deserve it. If your sibling is a wreck, you stand beside him anyway. If your parents crush your spirits, you still help them when they need it, especially as they get older. Sure, the friend who has been by your side through trials and tribulations deserves your loyalty, too, but no one deserves loyalty more than blood family.

I consider such a view of family loyalty to be immoral. It asks a person to be, as the philosopher Ayn Rand puts it throughout her work, a sacrificial animal.

Family is a matter of choice, and loyalty is tied to that choice.

We’re told that children should remain loyal to their parents. Christian theology is especially fond of hammering this into children, as it demands that a child honor his father and mother for no other reason than they are his father and mother. The reverse is true, though. Parents, honor your children, simply because they’re your children. Parents chose to bring the child into the world; the child didn’t choose it. Parents owe loyalty to their children for that reason alone.

Children, however, owe their parents nothing, unless their parents have earned it. “Earning it” doesn’t mean changing diapers or providing food, shelter, and a basic education. These make up the foundation upon which the parent must then build a history of earning their child’s loyalty and respect. The father who crushes his son’s spirits or the mother who clings too tightly to her daughter has not earned these things, despite the number of diapers changed or hours of sleep lost.

Still, parents’ loyalty to their children does not have to be absolute. I’ll discuss this in a future post.

With Christmas behind us, I’m glad to have spent time with my parents, despite the cracks in our relationships. Nevertheless, the cracks remain, and it is no wonder why my best friend feels more like family to me than some of my closest blood relatives do.

There is no easy summation to this post. It barely scratches the surface. How do we earn loyalty, for example? Different people will have different answers to this question. A person will say they have earned loyalty, and their family members will scoff. It’s a lot to consider, but whatever the specifics, the proper foundation is simple.

Family is a matter of choice, not blood.

Family earns loyalty; it does not demand sacrifice.

What do you think?

"In a quiet café, Johnny tells his religiously-oppressive wife, Jessica, that he wants a divorce—and he's taking their daughter, Lily, with him."

For more thoughts on family bonds, check out my short story “Coffee in the Afternoon,” first published in Fabula Argentea in 2014. Read it now for free or get it for Kindle.


You accomplished more than you think this year

Being a writer isn’t easy. The truly enjoyable moments have to be earned through consistent work. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a little lazy. I have bouts of passion-powered productivity, and then drop off like a bear in winter.

Given the greater effort I’ve put into my writing career the last two months, though, I expect I’ll be much more productive in 2016. Still, 2015 had its writing triumphs, too. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to list them.

At first, I wasn’t going to. I thought, “I haven’t done enough to take a victory lap by announcing ‘accomplishments.'” Then, after a few minutes going back and forth, I decided I’m not going to dismiss my own accomplishments like that. Whether it’s been a super productive or embarrassingly lazy year, we all achieved something, and we shouldn’t forget that.

So, here are my writing accomplishments for 2015, such as they are:

1. In February, I wrote and published the prequel to my novella, The Woman Alone, called Susan’s Lover: A Valentine’s Day StoryHardly the “romance” it sounds like, it explores elements of the inner lives of three main characters from the first novella in a way that, I’m not ashamed to say, had me teary-eyed. I learned a lot about myself from writing it.

20151221 The Woman Alone - Savannah2. I released a beautiful new paperback edition of The Woman Alone that features both the novella and its prequel, with an afterword by the woman it’s dedicated to, my mother.

3. I read three new books on the craft of writing, as well as dozens of novels, plays, and short stories. Reading sharpens writing skills.

4. My blog limped along, but a month ago, I committed to writing a new post every Monday, and this is Post #4. Consistency is key to progress!

5. I attended nearly every meetup of the weekly writer’s group that I organized.

6. I wrote several short stories, but I can’t boast any publications this year…because I didn’t submit anything. You can bet that will change in 2016!

7. I returned to my love of writing science fiction and fantasy. I self-published two books in a new fantasy series. (Check out my alter ego, Chris Raiin, and read the first book free.)

20151221 Bachelor's Degree8. Most of all, I completed studies for my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and English on December 1st, 2015.  A long journey coming to a close.

I’m glad I wrote these down. Seeing them makes the year behind me shine in new light, and motivates me for the year ahead.

What are some of your achievements this year? I’d love to hear about them!

A quick and quiet applaud for *The House on Mango Street*

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Finished! Lovely little book. I’m not particularly a fan of a novel structured in vignettes, though. It feels incomplete and seems lazy. But only seems. There’s a quiet, shining craftsmanship in the structure that I can’t help but applaud. Separate as they are, each vignette connects to the others with thin and delicate strands that are no accident and which are so easy to break that it requires a master artist to string them up.

The intermixed bits of poetic language sometimes felt over the top, but I let it go because it expresses the writer’s personality in a shy yet intimate way. And she’s no amateur; it’s clear the she’s conscious of the “poetry” that appears in the prose, which means it’s worth a second thought to the reader.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Look alive there, children

In Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes, speaking of her husband and herself,

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. (22)

It got me thinkiBoy with bubblesng about what I want to teach my children.

Tritia and I recently married (Nov. 15th, 2015). While we’re in no rush, we both want children in the next few years. There is never a time when you’re “ready,” the platitude goes, but we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Now in our early 30s, with my military service and our college educations behind us (for the time being), at the beginning of our careers, and having sailed a tumultuous ocean on the relationship front, we’re eager for the next adventure.

We want to pass on our morals, values, and experiences to our children, and provide guidance for their lives. It’s easy to get swept up in that, though. I have seen people with children and have found that, for some of them, their children have become their entire lives. In other words, the parents’ adventures have ceased. They pour their hearts into their children’s wellbeing, but I wonder… How much can parents offer their child if their own adventures have stopped?

Of course, I’m on the outside looking in, and perhaps the parents’ adventures continue in moonlit moments after the kids have fallen asleep, adventures tucked into silent kisses before heads hit pillows, or clasped between warm palms and interlaced fingers before the alarm goes off and the day starts over again…

Whether these adventures are real, or are evasions of the fact that the real adventures stopped in favor of the children, I won’t claim certainty, because the relationship isn’t mine.

No matter the fate of Tritia’s and my adventures once we’ve had our first child, I know that I want to “teach our children one thing only[:] to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust.” I’m thinking I’ll commission a small, wooden sign, with this quote engraved in it, to hang securely above our child’s crib, where it will hopefully serve as a reminder to his parents to lead by example and continue the adventure, always.

Work Cited

Dillard, Annie. “Total Eclipse.” Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Annie Dillard. 9-28. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.

Thanks as always for reading. Please leave a comment and share!

There’s more (scifi) where that came from…

Hey everyone, I really appreciate that you follow my blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed its content so far! Recently, I diverged into writing speculative fiction, so I’ve set up another blog where I’ll publish scifi/fantasy related posts. The first post is up and ready for your reading pleasure! Check it out, be sure to follow my new scifi/fantasy blog, and let’s keep having fun! =D

Finding scifi/fantasy heroes in Hellenistic bronze