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?

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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Ghastly!

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?

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.

 

Cecil’s Dentist: A Short, Fictional Musing

Source: publicdomainpictures.net

Source: publicdomainpictures.net

I end my writing sessions with word sprints – ten minutes of no-hesitation writing based on a random prompt. Recently, the prompt was, “A dentist is stabbed while he waits in line at the movies.” Without any particular forethought, here’s what came out – a short short story (only slightly edited) – a fictional musing, if you will, on the recent hunting of Cecil the Lion by Dr. Walter Palmer. What’s your reaction to this musing? Let me know in the comments.


Cecil’s Dentist

About 800 words. © 2015 Christopher Chinchilla. All rights reserved.

He shouldn’t have gone out tonight. He knew that now as he stood in line for the movie. Someone would recognize him. Someone traveling along the line, going to meet friends, get some popcorn, see a different movie, or head home after their movie got out. He resisted the gnawing temptation to look up and down the line. The less his face moved the better. Otherwise, he’d attract attention, someone wondering why this guy was looking around so much, someone studying his face for clues, and then realizing his face was the clue.

He shook his head.

It was a lion. A damn lion, 13 years old. Probably had a year left in it anyway, and that only if it received constant attention from specialized veterinarians bottle-feeding it whatever vitamin soup decrepit old lions would need to sustain frail bones and weakening organs. Who the hell cares that he snuck the lion out of its zoo enclosure in the middle of Africa so he could hunt it for sport?

Apparently, everybody cared.

He’d been hiding for three months now. Because of the threats. Social media wasn’t blowing up the way it had at first, though. He hadn’t seen his name on the news sites for a while. But here and there, something would catch his ear. Some random comment on the news about him going into hiding. Some snatch of a curse on the radio from a caller, or some radio talk show host referring back to it—“This-or-that politician thinks he can—” whatever, something like “—target the poor. Who does he think he is? A lion-hunting dentist?” Some comment like that.

He knew he shouldn’t have come out tonight. But he hadn’t been out in months. Theaters were crowded, especially on nights new movies released, but if he wore the right clothes—an old jacket that his wife said made him look bulky, a pair of clunky prescription glasses he’d worn once and then replaced with a sleeker pair, stuff like that—and kept his face down, nobody’d recognize him.

The buttery smell of popcorn waltzed along the line. A group of pre-teenage kids yapped about god-knows-what and did some funky new dance for laughs. He thumbed the glossy ticket in his pocket and wished the ticket guy would just let his line into the theater, so he could sit, quietly, in the dark.

What was that?

A flash, something, something meant for him. Someone had seen him.

He looked up and down the line. Several people walked along the sidewalk, nobody glancing at him. Flashes from keychains and cellphones flickered among the moving people. Maybe nothing. Maybe nothing. Just being paranoid…

He felt the blade sink sleekly into the side of his stomach in a sort of fascinated way. Before he registered it as the attack that it was, he thought first that it must be a very thin blade, sharpened on both sides, and it didn’t feel too bad…he was sort of numb to it. Maybe it was because it had slid into fat—he’d put on a few pounds since he went into hiding. This isn’t so bad, that’s all he thought at first.

And then bright blue eyes met his, eyes that insisted on their own youth and their own righteousness, or maybe it was the high voice of the young man the blue eyes belonged to that insisted on righteousness, who said to him through clenched teeth that he should die the way the lion had, unarmed and unawares.

Justice is a funny thing. The knife twisted a little inside the wound. He thought justice was a human concept, something that belonged to humans, something that applied to humans, and only to them. What conscious understanding of justice did this or that animal species have, except for humans? And not armed? The lion had hunting instincts; it had teeth and claws; it had a powerfully muscular body meant for chasing down and ripping apart other living beings, including small, weak, frail humans. Sure, he’d used a riflescope. In fact, he’d felt a great deal of certainty that no harm would come to him. He shot the lion and hollered in his success.

The young man hollered in his success, and a small crowd gathered around his victim as the victim slid against the wall to the ground, blood pouring out of him, his thumb still absently rubbing the glossy ticket in his pocket.

He looked up at the animal with the bright blue eyes whooping above him. What chance had this animal given his victim? Unarmed. Unawares. And he stabbed stealthily, knowing no harm would come to him.

Will he mount my head on a wall? I don’t know. He’s gone, ran away. Has someone called an ambulance? Oh, are they letting us into the theater now? Someone tell the attendant my ticket’s in my pocket…

END


Note: To be perfectly clear, I do not advocate violence against humans who hunt for sport.


So, what’s your reaction to this musing? Let me know in a comment. And please share this story with others. Thanks for reading!

Colleges promote racism and call it ‘diversity’

I’m four classes away from my bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and one of my last classes is a 400-level Interdisciplinary Studies course called “Diversity.” For the last four weeks, I’ve dealt with textbook essays, and fellow students, that assert the ubiquitous existence of racism, sexism, and so forth in America, especially as displayed, as if it were innate to their nature, by—you guessed it—white heterosexual males. Racism and sexism exist, of course, but they are not ubiquitous traits, and they are certainly not innate. Yet, despite textbook and student claims agreeing with that, the subtext is clear: “privileged” white heterosexual males and females are racist, sexist, and uncompassionate “oppressors” to everyone else. I have done, and will continue to do, my best to reasonably argue against these broad strokes and call out the textbook authors and some of my fellow students as the racists they are, who support white guilt and all that other nonsense. (I can do this because I’m Costa Rican. Right? Oh, wait, never mind…I guess it actually makes me a “white-washed traitor.” #whatevs.) Recently, though, I felt cornered. The guidelines for our third short paper were as follows:

Trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or “minority” group to U.S. culture, for example, to music, the arts, dance, or theater. There are many other possibilities! Develop your composition based on an area of interest to you in the arts.

I decided to rebel, a little. I considered kowtowing and completing the assignment as required, but I couldn’t. My mind doesn’t work under compulsion. But I want a decent grade. So I did what I could to be true to my convictions yet fulfill—in some way—the requirements of the assignment. Below is the introduction and conclusion only to my essay (the middle stuff isn’t too relevant to this discussion, but you can read the essay in its entirety here if you want). What do you think? Will I get an A, B, or C on this paper? What grade would you give me if you were the professor? Here we go!


[Intro.] It is inappropriate to require students to focus on artistic achievements based primarily on racial or ethnic considerations. Were I inclined to meet the requirement, further, I would find it difficult. My area of interest is literature, and as I scan my bookshelf, I see that most of the authors whose works I have read and enjoyed are American white males. However, because they are American white males and do not constitute a minority, I cannot mention their excellent contributions to literature. Since my bookshelf contains few writers of other ethnic or racial origins, and since the assignment guidelines encourage me to focus on an area of art that is of interest to me, I will discuss the contributions of the non-white writers and works with which I am familiar; however, I am not familiar with a large enough corpus of any particular race’s or ethnicity’s writers to trace contributions of one group (nor is it necessary for me, or anyone, to be in order to “appreciate diversity”). Therefore, I will briefly discuss a single contribution from three groups with which I am familiar: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

[I go one to discuss each author’s work and analyze it as a positive contribution to US culture, though I spanked Silko’s work a little because it promotes, rather than condemns, cultural divisiveness…but that’s another topic.]

[Conclusion.] Artistic “contributions” should not be judged based on their creators’ races or ethnicities, nor should colleges require students to “trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or ‘minority’ group to U.S. culture.” Such assignments necessarily instill two subtle assertions: race and ethnicity are important distinctions (which reinforces racism); and majorities should not receive attention (which reinforces antagonism). However, we should recognize the skill and grace of authors who consider questions of race and ethnicity in ways that encourage us to break down these barriers, rather than reinforce them in pseudo-intellectual exercises.


That’s it. I considered adding *drops mic* after the last line, but figured that might not be academically appropriate. So, honestly, what do you think of my response to the essay guidelines? Should we focus on art because of the race of the person who created it, or because of the artist’s skill? What grade would you give me? Thanks for reading!

Race Card a


 

Update, 8/14/15: The professor, Dr. Underwood, gave the paper 100% credit, saying, “A superb essay that takes Diversity paper assignments to task. Excellent critical acumen and fascinating examples. A joy to read!” I smiled, took a deep breath, and thought, Good. Maybe there is hope for college curricula. =)

Son vs. Father: Ambrose Bierce’s “A Horseman in the Sky” (1889)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Read the story free online here.

The theme of Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is simple to say yet difficult to follow: Duty supercedes family. Due to the story’s theme, which strikes a personal chord with me, it is difficult for me to decide how to proceed with this criticism. Do I comment on the theme? Do I comment on the story structure? It seems easier to do the latter, so I’ll start there and see if I can work my way around to the former.

Source: aventalearning.com

Source: aventalearning.com

Bierce’s structure for “A Horseman in the Sky” is deceptively simple. For example, the plot is simple: a young Union soldier during the Civil War is asleep at his post; he wakes up to see a Confederate officer a few yards away from him; the soldier knows the officer has seen the Union base below, and if the officer gets word back to the Confederate Army, it will be a devastating defeat for the Union Army; so the Union soldier does his duty and kills the Confederate officer. This plot could serve many stories. Here, though, it is the seam running through a rather intricately woven fabric.

Armed with a simple plot, Bierce is able to use more complicated plot techniques, such as flashback. After Bierce shows us the young Union soldier sleeping at his post, he uses flashback to hand us a simple but important plot point. The soldier, Carter Druse, is the son of a plantation owner in Virginia. At dinner one evening, Carter tells his father, “‘[A] Union regiment has arrived in Grafton. I am going to join it’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s father responds wisely.

The father lifted his leonine head, looked at the son a moment in silence, and replied: “Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you. Should we both live to the end of the war, we will speak further of the matter. Your mother [is ill]… It would be best not to disturb her.” (Bierce 120)

It is a simple flashback, adorned with little setting detail and hardly any character description (except the father as “leonine,” or lion-like), but it creates a point of tension that becomes the crux of the story, the very thing which carries it off in supreme fashion. A simple plot and minimal flashback thus simultaneously establishes tension, foreshadowing, and the basis of the climax. This flashback, therefore, is a master stroke of story structure.

Bierce’s next trick is creating dynamic yet smooth shifts in points of view. He begins as the omniscient narrator, able to look upon Carter as he sleeps on post. We stick with Carter through the flashback, and when we return to the present we are with him when he wakes up and sees a Confederate officer several yards away. Before we continue with point of view, we should pause and admire another tactic of structure: description. Bierce, as the omniscient narrator, describes the valley, a nearby cliff face, Carter’s own outdoor post atop the ridge, and the road leading up to and down from the ridge, in exquisite detail. We see the blue skies, green trees, and purple mountains. We see the Union Army camp in the small, secluded valley below. Further, when Carter wakes up, we see the Confederate officer as a work of art:

[Carter’s] first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal pedestal, the cliff, motionless at the extreme edge of the capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky, was an equestrian statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, but with the repose of a Grecian god carved in the marble which limits the suggestion of activity. The grey costume harmonised with its aerial background; the metal of accoutrement and caparison was softened and subdued by the shadow; the animal’s skin had no points of high light… The face of the rider, turned slightly to the left, showed only an outline of temple and beard; he was looking downward to the bottom of the valley. Magnified by its lift against the sky and by the soldier’s testifying sense of the formidableness of a near enemy, the group appeared of heroic, almost colossal, size.

For an instant [Carter] had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that commanding eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. (Bierce 121)

This detailed description is nothing short of necessary to the melodrama of the story’s climax, which we’ll return to shortly. As the plot continues—slowly, so that it has time to wield a tension-filled flashback and exquisite description—Carter struggles with his duty: “Is it, then, so terrible to kill an enemy in war—an enemy who has surprised a secret vital to the safety of oneself and comrades—an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all his army for its numbers?” (Bierce 122). No, he decides, and shoots the officer. Suddenly, we’re snatched from the point of view overlooking Carter to a new, unnamed Union soldier below: “At that moment an officer of the Federal force…saw an astonishing sight—a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!” (122-3). Here, Bierce cashes in on his previous exquisite description of the horse and officer: imagine that Grecian statue-like image flying through the air above you! Bierce accomplishes several things with his shifting point of view coupled with setting and character description, namely, when the climax begins—when Carter fires his gun, shoots the officer, and scares the horse so badly that it leaps over the cliff—the shift in point of view is sudden to us, and we’re still dealing with that quick shift when we’re hit with another shock, the image of a horseman in the sky.

Finally, Bierce brings together all of his structural elements—plot, flashback, tension, setting, description, and point of view—to carry out the height of the climax. We’re with the surprised soldier for a few more brief moments, then we see a sergeant running up to Carter’s position to ignite the climax and the end of the story:

“Did you fire?” the sergeant whispered.

“Yes.”

“At what?”

“A horse”…

“See here, Druse,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “it’s no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“My father.” (Bierce 124)

Getting full use out of his shifting point of view, Bierce ends the scene and story from the sergeant’s point of view, which mimics our own as shocked readers: “The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. ‘Good God!’ he said” (Bierce 124).

Now, perhaps I’ll touch on the theme. Carter saw his father on top of the horse. Carter, a Union soldier, deemed his father an enemy, an officer in the Confederate Army. His father had told him, “‘[W]hatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s duty as a Union soldier is to help win the war for the Union. However, he can’t shoot his father. So he shoots his father’s horse, knowing the horse will leap off the cliff with Carter’s father astride, killing his father. Setting aside considerations of animal cruelty due to war’s collateral damage, the theme comes into light: Duty supercedes family. Because it is easier to say than to do, Carter, in a way, does not do it: he shoots the horse, not his father. But he also does perform his duty: he knows his father will die. Was Carter right or wrong?

At present, I am no fan of my own father. It would not surprise me if, during the Civil War, I should find myself on the side of the Union while he finds himself on the side of the Confederacy (literally that). Our personal matters are not so dramatic as that right now, but we have drawn lines. Well, I have drawn lines, as Carter did in the story. So, to the question of, “Was Carter right or wrong to kill his father?” my answer is, “Right.” Duty is a choice, a voluntary decision to pursue and defend a certain cause based on one’s own judgment. Family, however, is an accidental quality: a son does not choose his father (though a father chooses his son in the sense that he chooses to have a child). The logic and ethic are simple: what we choose supercedes what we cannot control.

To the man who says, “Carter should not have killed his own father; family comes first,” I say, “To hell with you.”

I admire Carter’s father’s wisdom. He knew, and made it clear to Carter, that they might very well find themselves in such a position as occurs in this story. Carter’s father accepted that. Though he may have felt disappointment, even disgust, with his son’s decision, he nevertheless did his fatherly duty—the duty he owes to his son, whom he chose to have—to make Carter aware of what could happen. Carter accepts it. Once said and accepted, both men are clear: we have placed duty above family, and it’s right that we did. In a sense, too, Carter honored his father by following his advice: “Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.” Carter conceived his duty to be that of a soldier defending the Union, and even though he may have felt turmoil over that conception, he was nevertheless right. Family is accidental; duty is chosen. We are creatures of free will; that’s our nature. As such, our first loyalty is to ourselves and our own judgment. If a man judges that members of his family are unworthy of his loyalty, then his only moral course of action is to obey his own judgment and accept its consequences.

I think it’s time I stop writing this now…

My review: This is an excellently crafted story that shows how simple structure elements can yield a complex overall effect. Bierce’s theme is top-notch: the son versus his father as tied to the soldier versus the enemy. It’s a story I’ll read many times in the years to come. It’s a story I’ll share with my son when he reaches the right age. For him and me, I hope it will only be a lesson, instead of a reality.

Favorite quotes:

  • “He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, that being the just and legal penalty of his crime.” (119)
  • “No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war.” (120)
  • “‘Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.’” (120)
  • “[H]is hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound.” (122)
  • “Duty had conquered; the spirit had said to the body: ‘Peace, be still.’ He fired.” (122)

Work Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. “A Horseman in the Sky.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 119-24. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

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