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!