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East of Eden by John Steinbeck
East of Eden

Baochi, September 15, 2012

I'll begin with an excerpt from East of Eden's omniscient narrator, who is presumably John Steinbeck himself:

"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil...There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well--or ill?"

In a nutshell, John Steinbeck's masterpiece, East of Eden, is about the tension between good and evil and how this tension resides in all humans. Specifically, this novel is an American saga about the Trask family, spanning from the Civil War to World War I.

The story opens with widower Cyrus Trask, a strict military man, and his sons, Adam and Charles Trask. We then follow Adam Trask from the family's Connecticut farm to Salinas Valley, California, where he raises twin sons, Aron and Cal. Lurking in the background is the twin boys' errant mother, Cathy Ames, the embodiment of greed and evil, who threatens to destroy the good and happiness of her estranged family.

So that I don't expose any plot spoilers, I won't go into details about what transpires in the novel. Rather, I'll explain a few elements that make East of Eden one of the best American novels of all time.

First, Steinbeck is a master at painting settings -- indeed, he is like a painter who creates a vivid canvas of a place that we can perfectly picture in our mind's eye. However, he doesn't overwhelm us with long-winded descriptions that detract from the movement of the plot. He gives us just enough that we get a sense of the world in which the main characters reside.

Second, the characters in East of Eden are among the most memorable I've ever encountered in fiction. They each represent a position on the spectrum of human good and evil. On the end of pure goodness is Samuel Hamilton, an Irish immigrant who is Adam Trask's neighbor in Salinas. Just as pure and wise is Lee, Adam's Chinese housekeeper who -- along with Samuel -- teaches Adam to be a better father and person. On the other end of the good/evil spectrum is the already mentioned Cathy Ames. All the other characters fall -- more complexly -- somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and they struggle with their inner demons.

At the heart of the novel is the notion of timshel, the Hebrew word for "thou mayest," which refers to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The Hebrew scholar interpretation has God telling Cain, after his murder of Abel, that he can choose between doing good versus evil. While there are certainly people who are all good (e.g., Jesus, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee) and all evil (e.g., Cathy Ames), the majority of us are far more complex. We have good and evil residing within us, and we have the individual power to choose between good and evil acts.

The entire book is wrapped within this theme of "thou mayest," and there are many parallels between the characters and the story of Cain and Abel. The characters in East of Eden are often confronted with situations in which they must choose between a good or bad act. I found the Biblical themes quite powerful. It's very clear that Steinbeck was well-versed in the Bible.

My only criticism of East of Eden is the lack of well-drawn female characters. There is only one main female character, Cathy Ames, and she is despicable. All other female characters are minor, and most of them are unflattering people. And the few positive portrayals of women focus on old-fashioned virtues like placidity, submission, and good housekeeping. Perhaps these renderings are accurate of the novel's setting in the early 20th century.

Overall, East of Eden is one of the best novels I've read. Steinbeck's deftness and genius as a writer pervade every page, and the examination of good and evil is profound. I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally read this masterpiece. Ever after finishing the book several weeks ago, I find myself thinking about it often. East of Eden really stays with you.

Memorable quotes from East of Eden:

"When a child first catches adults out -- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgements are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just -- his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child's world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing."

"[Said Lee] "But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win."

"You're getting well," Samuel said. "Some people think it's an insult to the glory of their sickness to get well. But the time poultice is no respecter of glories. Everyone gets well if he waits around."

"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world."
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While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
While I Was Gone

Baochi, September 8, 2012

Jo Becker is a middle-aged woman living a content life: she's happily married, she's raised three grown daughters, she lives in a lovely home in rural Massachusetts, and she enjoys her job as a veterinarian. Then, a person from Jo's past moves into town and brings back memories of a significant time in her life.

Jo's blast from the past is Eli, now a prominent scientist. During their early 20s in the late 1960s, the two lived in the same house along with several other people. All the housemates were fun-loving friends in the exploratory stages of their lives. But a horrible murder in the house ended the housemates' bond, and they drifted apart -- until Jo and Eli coincidentally meet again.

Sue Miller's While I Was Gone is a fast and intriguing read. It's the kind of book you look forward to getting into bed to read -- if you're a nighttime reader like I am. The writing is good, even inspiring at times. The murder mystery adds a suspenseful tension.

This novel is not a mystery, however. The story is most essentially an examination of betrayal and what it reveals about a person and his/her relationships. It may be an ambitious theme, yet the author conveys it well through the singular focus on heroine Jo Becker and the complexities that lie beneath her ordinary, near-perfect life. These complexities come to light through Jo's re-acquaintance with Eli, who brings back intense memories from a significant time. Jo's reaction to Eli and her resulting choices jeopardize her relationships with her family members. Everyone feels betrayed and betrayal -- at its heart -- is about being surprised when we realize we don't know someone, including ourselves.
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White Teeth (Vintage International) by Zadie Smith
White Teeth (Vintage International)

Baochi, June 16, 2012

From the Baochi Book Collection
Zadie Smith's White Teeth was published in 2000 and received critical acclaim. The novel won numerous awards, including Time Magazine's 2005 list of 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. I think White Teeth is a magnificent work of fiction filled with wit, satire, depth, and a cast of unforgettable characters.

The novel takes place in contemporary London and centers around two men -- Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal -- and their families. Englishman Archie and Muslim Bengali Samad form an unlikely friendship as soldiers during World War II and later become neighbors in a working-class suburb. After a failed first marriage, the once-conventional Archie unconventionally marries Clara, a Jamaican woman. The couple has a daughter named Irie. Samad enters into a pre-arranged marriage with Alsana, and they have twin boys named Millat and Magid.

As the members of the two families struggle to define their individual identities in a political and racially-charged society, their bond to one another becomes tenuous. Expectations abound between these two intertwined clans. Samad, a sometimes erring and devout Muslim, finds that his wife's will outmatches his own and that his wayward twin sons have strayed from his religious faith and their Bengali roots. Simple Archie wants everyone to just get along; he is baffled by the tension between his wife and daughter, as well as the teenage angst rippling through all three kids.

White Teeth is a novel about the history of ordinary yet multi-faceted people. It's the story of old and new roots, the immigration experience with its expectations and disappointments. Immigrant parents strive to preserve their native culture yet their children draw towards assimilation with the new world.

Significantly, the novel takes place shortly before the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and a few years prior to the 2005 London underground bombings. So Smith's London is a melting pot simmering up with ethnic tension, especially among Islam extremists.

When it feels like the world is coming to an end (and even when it doesn't), Samad and Archie retreat to the sanctuary of an Irish pub-turned-immigrant-bar with an exclusively-male clientele. There, over a hodgepodge of greasy food, the men reminisce about their personal histories and commiserate over life's disappointments. They are a picture of opposite extremes, one white and uncomplicated if not clueless and the other dark, intense, and anxious. The combination of Archie and Samad is a comical one; their exchanges are often chuckle-worthy. In fact, humor and satire pervade throughout the novel, perhaps a reminder that while the themes of race, religion, and identity are important they shouldn't be taken so seriously that one can't enjoy a beer and grub with one's friend of another race in a bar where everybody knows your name. It makes you wonder if Archie's simple desire for everybody to get along is in fact profoundly utopian.

White Teeth is an energetic, delightful novel worthy of dissection and analysis in a college literature course. I'm impressed.

Below are a few of my favorite passages from Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

"...don't ever underestimate people, don't ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television., from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt.

What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping Madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll -- then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect."
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The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Baochi, December 20, 2011

If you've read Jeffrey Eugenides Pultizer-Prize in fiction, Middlesex, and you're expecting something similar in his new novel, The Marriage Plot, then you will be disappointed. But if you set aside that expectation and you're prepared to enjoy a totally different type of novel penned by one of the best writers of our time, then you will enjoy The Marriage Plot as much as I did.

A very general way to describe the plot of The Marriage Plot is that it's a love triangle: boy is convinced girl is his destined mate, girl is in love with another boy, that other boy is mentally ill. No, this is not lighthearted stuff. At a more cerebral level, this is a novel about books, reading, and how the experience shapes readers at any given time. All three main characters, intellectual Brown graduates, draw connections between their personal lives and the literary works they read. I found the reflections on literary theory works a bit difficult to trudge through -- even though I spent most of my English Master's program studying literary theory (I guess I didn't enjoy that stuff too much). But don't worry about understanding Barthes et al. The point is the influence and experience of books.

The strongest theme of The Marriage Plot is the cynical aspects of marriage. The novel explores three types of matrimony: ones that result from the temporary insanity of passionate love (indeed, that "honeymoon" period of any relationship is a time when lovers have irrational chemicals flowing through them), ones that result from societal propriety, and ones that result from true compatibility.

The novel concludes what we already know: true love and compatibility are rare. As for that Victorian notion of marriage as a virtue, that works if you're content with that sort of thing. Eugenides makes a great example of this type of marriage via the female protagonist's parents -- the proper, composed mother and the strident father who steps in for the official business.

That leaves us with the third type of marriage: the kind resulting from the temporary insanity of passionate love. Eugenides literally exemplifies this through the relationship between the straitlaced girl (Madeleine) and the mentally-ill boy (Leonard). Madeleine, raised by clones of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice), can't help but fall madly in love with Leonard, who has manic-depression, a severe mental disorder marked by mood swings between mania and depression. Medications such as lithium have been largely successful in stabilizing these swings. But it's common for manic-depressives to go off their medications due to the negative side-effects, and that's exactly what Leonard does several times in the course of the novel. Thus, both Madeleine and Leonard confront the question: is it worth it to subject a partner to the sufferings of a severely mentally-ill person? For better or for worse...or not?

Apart from the Eugenides' theme of marriage and how he uses literal madness to exemplify how madness compels some couples to doomed matrimony, the author's treatment of mental illness is sensitive, well-researched, and on-the-nose. I sympathized equally with Madeleine and Leonard, and how each are affected by mental illness. Madeleine loves Leonard, but his suffering is her suffering: she is often worried about his mental health, and she finds herself cleaning up the wreckage of Leonard's manic sprees. Leonard suffers from his post-mania sprees and depression, and he's well-aware that he is the source of Madeleine's suffering. It's a sad scenario.

In short, The Marriage Plot is well-crafted and well-written. I definitely recommend it.

My favorite passages:

- What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn't alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.

- The worst part was that, as the years passed, these memories became, in the way you kept them in a secret box in your head, taking them out every so often to turn them over and over, something olike dear possessions. They were the key to your unhappiness. They were the evidence that life wasn't fair. If you weren't a lucky child, you didn't know you weren't lucky until you got older. And then it was all you ever thought about.

- All her life she'd avoided unbalanced people. She'd stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She'd avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard's mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol. Madeleine had the urge to turn and flee. Taking one step forward would commit her to a life of doing the same. Of worrying about Leonard, of constantly keeping tabs on him, of wondering what had happened if he was a half hour late coming home. All she had to do was turn and go. No one would blame her.

- Outside, shadows were lengthening along the pavement. Madeleine stared out at the Broadway traffic, trying to stave off a rising feeling of hopelessness. She didn't know how to cheer Leonard up anymore. Everything she tried brought the same result. She worried that Leonard would never be happy again, that he had lost the ability...Even worse, Madeleine knew that Leonard understood this. His suffering was sharpened by the knowledge that he was inflicting it on her. But he was unable to stop it.

- Let me tell you what happens when a person's clinically depressed, Leonard began in his infuriating doctorly mode. What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it's dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it's dying too. And then it begins to shut down. That's why depression hurts, Madeleine. That's why it's physically painful. The brain thinks it's dying, and so the body thinks it's dying, and then the brain registers this, and they go back and forth like that in a feedback loop.
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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Baochi, October 28, 2011

A few years ago, I bought a used copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and I aim to read most ��" if not all ��" Pulitzer Prize Fiction winners through the ages. However, I was in no hurry to read Gilead based on its synopsis. The combination of a seventy-something protagonist, an obscure town setting, and a religious theme just didn’t sound like the page-turning story that I confess I’m always looking to read. Eventually, I had the good sense (or dumb luck) to pack Gilead alongside several other books for a solo vacation a couple of years ago.

I love when my negative assumptions are completely upended, and the object of my assumption is revealed in beautiful truth. That’s exactly what happened with Gilead. What I thought would be a boring novel turned out to be a profoundly transforming one.

The story is narrated by minister John Ames, who is seventy-six and dying. As a gift to his seven year-old son, John shares his meditations on life, love, family, friendship and forgiveness. He describes three generations of Ames men, the misunderstandings between them, their love. Whether John is pondering a moment or a lifetime, he is never far from its spiritual significance. Those soulful musings ��" rather than coming off as preachy or unwelcome or scriptural ��" are delivered gently, simply. The prose is spare yet arresting and beautiful. Gilead is an experience…and yes, a spiritual one I am grateful for.
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