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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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?

Review of *The Martian* by Andy Weir

Well, I just finished The Martian last night, and all I can say is WOW!

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

Summary (from the back cover): “Six days ago astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, Mark won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain old ‘human error’ are much more likely to kill him first. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength–Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

What makes The Martian absolutely fascinating is its “real science” science fiction. Author Andy Weir is a self-proclaimed “space nerd” who studies orbital dynamics and astrophysics as hobbies. He dreamed up The Martian when he was developing his own concept of a manned mission to Mars–just something to pass the time, y’know? And something for which he developed his own software. On considering all the disaster scenarios that could face astronauts, he decided to write a novel about it. What he created is fantastic, not only for its real science, but for the structure of the story itself.

In his short essay at the back of the book, Weir says, “I didn’t want my hero to suffer one unlikely, disastrous coincidence after the next. I decided that each problem Mark faced had to be a plausible consequence of his situation–or, better yet, an unintended consequence of his solution to a previous problem” (384-5). That soon became apparent to me as I was reading. It’s the essence of good writing: plot is king! One solution I remember led to such a huge problem it was nearly heartbreaking. I won’t say exactly what happened, but I will say it involved a handheld drill and a power shortage…

Watney himself is a lovable character with a dark sense of humor, which becomes as important to his survival as his scientific knowledge. I laughed with him, feeling the same sense of dark irony he felt, knowing it was the only thing that kept him from going insane.

The Martian surface, too, is given beautiful, haunting attention. There are moments of silence in which the reader gets to survey the harsh, unforgiving Martian landscape through Watney’s eyes, and it gives you chills.

My only complaint is that Weir is not a stylistically gifted writer. However, his writing gets the job done, and the plot is so spellbinding that you don’t care about the writing; you just want to know what happens next!

The Martian is a fantastic, fast-paced, heart-breaking, breathtaking, triumphant read! The Wall Street Journal says it best: “A celebration of human ingenuity” (Weir front cover)! I’d recommend The Martian to all fans of literature, whether or not they read science fiction. For sci-fi readers, though, it is a must-read!

The commentary at the end of the novel suggests that a movie is in the works. I truly hope so!

The Martian is available here. (Note: I receive no benefits from this review or from the link provided.)

Favorite quotes:

  • “It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!… I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.” (99)
  • “To [NASA], equipment failure is terrifying. To me, it’s ‘Tuesday.’” (152)
  • “I’m not giving up. Just planning for every outcome. It’s what I do.” (192)
  • “Conclusion: I don’t need the water reclaimer at all. I’ll drink as needed and dump my waste outdoors. Yeah, that’s right, Mars, I’m gonna piss and shit on you. That’s what you get for trying to kill me all the time.” (230)
  • “More thinking is required.” (231)

Work Cited

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway, 2014. Print.