The Buried Giant

buried giantFor fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant was two distinct things at once: the author’s first novel in a decade and a sharp departure from the rest of his oeuvre. For me, though, it’s all I know. Despite the massive success of both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, it was The Buried Giant that served as my introduction.

Over the course of the novel, we follow an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) as they search for their son while grappling with a mysterious and pervasive amnesia that they refer to only as “the mist.” The mist blankets the post-Arthurian world that they inhabit, preventing them not only from remembering where their son has gone or why he’s disappeared, but even things that only happened a few weeks ago. All of it hangs in an impenetrable fog.

We watch their relationship shift as they fight to remember their past, while at the same time facing a question with the power to change everything: will they still be the same people—and more importantly, will they still love each other—when they remember their history?  

I can’t say if the sparse, purposefully flat writing I encountered shares any similarities with Ishiguro’s previous work. I can say, however, that my first thoughts were of Gawain and the Green Knight, courtly love, and Arthurian folklore. If his goal was to capture the feeling of those 14th-century tales, then job well done (though let’s set aside the fact that I generally don’t enjoy writing like that for now).

There was something about the world created in this book that I absolutely loved. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never felt more real or more unique to me than in this story. The mythical king’s history seemed less like fairy tale and more like fact.

And yet it pains me to admit that overall, The Buried Giant was a bit of a slog.

Despite being a slim 317 pages, it took me a solid month to get through it. Every time I picked it up, I’d find myself intrigued by the world building, but it was always, always a struggle to pick it up in the first place.

By the end, I was desperate for a book club to discuss it with. I couldn’t help but feel that whatever there was to unpack was whizzing by over my head.

As I think about the book now, despite having only read it little more than a month and a half ago, I’m beginning to wonder if the same mist plagues me. I remember so very little about the book. The overall gist, sure, but what I was supposed to get out of it? How it made me feel? What I honestly liked, what I didn’t?

None of that has stuck. I forgot it as soon as I closed the cover.
I’d definitely read more of Ishiguro in the future, but The Buried Giant isn’t something I’d come back to.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

51iwxnuoqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life,  Tish faces raising a baby alone.

Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.

Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:

“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.

It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.

But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.

Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).

But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”

As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”

And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?

These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.

She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”

To put it ineloquently: gross.

It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.

I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.

That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.

Fates and Furies

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is ostensibly a story about marriage. It spans more than 20 years, taking us through its hills, valleys, and plateaus, making sure we see everything through both sets of eyes. But it’s also a bizarre kind of fairy tale with mermaids, knights, and passion plus a delicate dusting of the Southern Gothic—just don’t expect some kind of typical “happily ever after.” There’s far more to the story than that.

Lotto (somehow short for Lancelot) and Mathilde meet at the end of college in the late 1980s or early ’90s and marry almost immediately. Lotto shines, living life as the sun around which everyone he meets can’t help but orbit. Mathilde, dark and beautiful and mysterious, shines specially for Lotto—“He loved her first for the stun of her.”

Groff’s use of language performs a delicate dance over the course of the book’s nearly 400 pages. She’s poetic and playful, often twirling toward the edge of overwrought without ever really falling over. She has a wonderful knack for creating vibrant, visceral images, several of which I expect might stay with me for quite a while.

I braced myself going into this book. I was ready for the themes, the topic, the deep exploration of a relationship, of love to strike a chord and send me reeling.

I’m less than seven months away from my own wedding. From marriage. I’ve always been an emotional reader and it helps to be a little prepared when touching on themes I might heavily relate to. I was sure that something in Fates and Furies would set me off, but nothing ever did.

It had sadness, to be sure. It had joy. But I never really related to it in that way. Nor did I need to to enjoy it, but I was surprised none the less. It was sort of an odd expectation to have on my part, but I couldn’t help it.

I did enjoy it overall. But something held it back from greatness for me. To start, I think the first half (“Fates”) is undeniably stronger than the second. And second, I thought that Groff left some strange loose threads. The plot moved forward and I could see that she was setting events in motion in order to explain the relationships between characters or their motives, but when all was said and done I’d look at what I’d read and think, “Well… okay but that didn’t actually explain anything. I still have no idea why these people relate to each other this way or why this happened that way.”

And that was frustrating not because I needed to have everything explained away, but because I could see Groff was trying to explain something to me, but was failing. I wasn’t getting out of it whatever it was she wanted me to. I was still lost.

Not constantly, but most instances of such confusion came in the second half of the book as things were winding down and working towards a conclusion. That put this extra weight on everything—the first half had me primed to learn more, to have the gaps in my knowledge filled in. The second half couldn’t deliver all the way. I also have to admit that some of what it did deliver was extremely unsatisfying. I felt like I deserved better and so did the characters.

Ultimately, I had a good time with Fates and Furies. It was even hard to put down at times. But overall, it only ever made it to “pretty good” for me. I was hoping for a standout, but this just wasn’t it.

2015: Year in Review

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My last post detailed the success of my project, but I wanted to give an overview of the works themselves. It’s hard to admit that I once again failed in my attempt to post reviews of everything. I know I was wavering in my commitment to this blog sometimes. It was never that I wanted to abandon it, but more that I had a difficult time getting myself to sit down and write.

But I was always happy to be reading.

Here’s the full breakdown (comics included) of everything I read in 2015:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons
  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  3. Ultimates 2: Volume 2 Grand Theft America by Mark Millar
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
  7. Secret Avengers Volume 1: Let’s Have a Problem by Ales Kot
  8. Secret Avengers Volume 2: The Labyrinth by Ales Kot
  9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: Faust Act by Kieron Gillan
  11. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  12. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  14. Secret Avengers Volume 3: God Level by Ales Kot
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Round House by Louise Erdich
  17. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  20. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright
  23. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  24. Sexcastle by Kyle Starks
  25. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (spillover into 2016)

Most thought-provoking: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most disappointing: The Intuitionist
Funniest: The First Bad Man
Most surprising favorite: Native Son
Least favorite: The Wandering Falcon
Most over hyped: Station Eleven

All-Time #1 Favorite: Everything I Never Told You

Overall, it was a very good year for me. Though there were a handful of titles I didn’t especially enjoy and only one that I actively disliked, there weren’t any that I found truly, objectively awful—a marked improvement considering I had to contend with both The Good Girl and Hell House last year.

As for next year? I plan to continue making a serious effort to read more POC, though with less stringent rules. (No more hardcore tracking of percentages!)IMG_4111 (2)

The book I’m looking forward to the most is certainly Mark Danielewski’s 
The Familiar
. It’s currently sitting next to me at the moment, just waiting begging me to finish The Sympathizer or cast it aside and start reading it immediately.

There are a handful of book clubs I have my eye on (including a tiny one of my own), a host of new titles that I missed in 2015, and—thanks to Christmas—some fantastic comics with my name on them.

I’m feeling reinvigorated. I feel more ready to tackle this blog with the dedication it deserves, and I’m looking forward to it all.

I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy reading!

-S

Everything I Never Told You

When I opened Everything I Never Told You I wasn’t prepared for how hard or how fast I’d fall in love. It was magic. Fireworks. A lightning bolt to the heart. It was the electric feeling that reminds me why I read.

The buzz around Celeste Ng’s debut novel was palpable when it hit the shelves last summer, and I quickly added it to my list expecting to get around to it “eventually.” I was delighted this year when I realized it would fit within my personal challenge and a rave review from a friend solidified its spot on my reading list.

The first lines tell you just about everything you need to know:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

The “they” here—Lydia’s mother, father, sister, and brother—will become the stars of the story as they struggle to understand and accept Lydia’s death. Through shifting perspectives, we inhabit each family member fully until it’s impossible not to feel like you know each and every one of them.

Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about loss, but race, gender, sexuality, and the weight of expectations that come with being one of the “first”—whether it’s the first woman in a chemistry class, the first nonwhite professor on university staff, or the first child to go to college.

Ng’s powerful use of language packs the kind of emotional punch that lands with a sick thud right in the gut.

The chapter when Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, remembers her once-bright future as a medical student affected me the most. In Marilyn, I remembered my own mother asking me when I was 16 if I’d sign up for physics, just for her, because when she was in school “that was just for boys.” She wasn’t allowed to take it.

So when Marilyn thinks of her life without her family—

”Without a husband, without children, perhaps it would have been possible. I could have done that, Marilyn thought, and the words clicked into place like puzzle pieces, shocking her with their rightness. The hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances. Tears dripped down her chin.”

—I shudder and feel the tears rolling down my own cheeks.

In the end, this was a book I hated to put down. I always wanted to make time for one more sentence, one more page. I borrowed my copy and already know I’ll be buying it. It’s by far my favorite book I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to read what Ng writes next.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

Americanah

I often like what I read. I’m a lady of discerning taste, and I tend to gravitate toward what I know I’ll like.

I rarely fall in love with what I read. My love is reserved only for the words that move me most, the stories that wrap themselves around my heart. But I think it might only be just once so far that I can say a book changed me.

Americanah is that book. I read it and it was like I’d been shaken awake. It didn’t just change my perceptions, it changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.

The 2013 novel follows the relationship between two Nigerian teens, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they graduate secondary school, go on to college, and finally, look to leave Nigeria for better prospects. When Ifemelu gets a chance to move to America, Obinze encourages her to go, promising to follow soon after. However, as the weeks turn to months, Ifemelu drifts farther and farther away from Obinze, enveloped in America’s strangeness, promises, and failures until it seems she can never be who she once was.

When the book opens, Ifemelu is no longer a girl, but a grown woman that’s been living in America for 13 years. Most of the novel is framed as her reflections of growing up, punctuated intermittently by the present day as well as Obinze’s own recollections. I liked this structure and the way it alternately reminded me both of how far Ifemelu had yet to go and how far she’d come.

And as much as the book purports to be about both Ifemelu and Obinze, it’s truly Ifemelu’s story. Her chapters far outnumber Obinze’s, and I love it for this, too. It reminded me of how disappointed I was that Revolutionary Road didn’t have more chapters from April’s point of view.

Even more importantly, as much as any brief synopsis might make you think this is a love story, trust me when I say it is not. It’s an immigrant story and an African story and an American story. It’s about race, class, and culture and the way all those things collide in the stew of this country. It’s the deepest exploration of the American dream as a beautiful, tempting lie.

Adichie’s writing was constantly making me re-evaluate my ideas about this country and what it means to be black in it.

In one of Ifemelu’s blogs entries she writes:

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

In another section she discusses the hierarchy of color (not race), bluntly stating that in America, dark is bad, light is good, and that’s it. Through Ifemelu’s observations, Adichie pulls no punches:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

These were the moments that rocked me. I already agreed with these ideas, but it was almost as if I never really understood them—not completely—until Adichie laid them out. Even an idea as simple as the immigrant coming to America for opportunity. In our collective consciousness, the immigrant is always fleeing from a nightmare, desperate for a better life, on the verge of dying unless they run.

We never hear the stories we do in Americanah where people like Obinze and Ifemelu are simply middle-class kids looking for options:

“Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for for choice and certainty.”

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to never consider it. It’s so easy to ignore the reality of the immigrant story when we can lazily fall back on whatever we think we know, not having lived it ourselves.

Americanah told me the story I needed to hear instead of what I expected to hear. I will be forever grateful to it. Who knows how often I’ll find a book that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve become a slightly better, more aware person.

This one is required reading, you guys.
This one is for the canon.

Sula

Sula, Sula, Sula.

Oh, Sula.

My heart ached reading Toni Morrison’s second novel.

In it, I saw shades of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a personal favorite) and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Centered around the lives of two little girls in 1930s Ohio, Sula explores the power of friendship, betrayal, and perception. Upstanding, obedient Nel and wild child Sula have the kind of friendship that seems to only exist between children. They are inseparable. They complete each other. They are a force. And soon, they are bonded even more closely by a terrible secret.

Not content to stay in their aptly named home, The Bottom, grownup Sula makes a break for it as soon as she can. When she finally returns, Nel is married with kids of her own and their happy reunion is marred by a betrayal that threatens to end their friendship forever.

Having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye in high school, I almost wonder if Sula might be the better introduction to Toni Morrison. Less epic than Beloved, quicker than The Bluest Eye, I could see how Sula would be more palatable. But then as soon as I think that, I remember the weight of it and feel baffled that any high schooler reads any Morrison at all.

She’s one of those rare authors who just feels prolific in everything she creates. Sula is a short book, but in just 174 pages, Morrison is talking about all of America and the black experience and what it means to be a woman and the very nature of good and evil. I am bowled over by her scope.

I was easily sucked in by her beautiful writing, too. The beauty just brought the whole world alive for me, even with the smallest details, like:

“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.”

or:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. . . . And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

But what struck me the most wasn’t any one phrase or passage, but a thought.

It occurred to me midway through the book how essential race is to any piece of realistic fiction about African Americans. I know, I know—not exactly earth shattering stuff. But in that thought, I was hit by another and I think it was the first time I really understood the privilege I have. A book that reflects my experience has the luxury of ignoring race if it wants to. Morrison doesn’t have that luxury. For a book to attempt to reflect her experiences but to leave out race would be to cut out a part of her. It’s one of those forces with the power to shape everything. And while I know this, I don’t think it had ever completely sunk in before.

With that, I already had my first concrete sign of my experiment doing its job. Hearing different voices had me not just thinking, but opening up my mind to something I thought I already knew.

Though I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Beloved, Sula was too quick and too satisfying not to recommend. It had me looking forward to reading the entire rest of her bibliography. Whether it’s your first Morrison or your fifth, it’s worth it.

The Intuitionist

My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.

I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.

My expectations were wildly off base.

The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.

The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.

If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.

Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.

Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.

I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:

“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”

It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.

Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.

“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”

Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.

I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.

It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.

I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.

The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.

But back to Steinbeck.

His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.

What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.

This is what I can say:

It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.