Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My books in December 2010 and January 2011

Due to the very busy time at work in December, holidays and again busy times in January I had to slow down my reading a little bit and only managed to read one book per month. And because it did not make sense to present the two books separately from each other I decided to tie December and January together in one posting.
A while ago I stumbled wandering the winding roads of the internet into some information about Gregory Zeigler and his project that caught my interest:
The teacher and writer decided to go on a trip through the USA together with his dog Max to travel in the footsteps of Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck, who had done the trip 50 years ago with his poodle Charley. Zeigler documented his trip in a popular blog and wrote a book about it based on his travel notes.
With my US trip coming closer and me thinking a lot about my upcoming adventures I decided to give Zeigler’s book a go, but not without reading the Steinbeck original first.

John Steinbeck – "Travels with Charley – In Search of America"


For sure it happened to you as well:  your mom and dad told you that you are too young for something and that made the forbidden thing even more attractive to you? For sure it did. To me it happened quite often with books. From the day I learned reading I loved it and soon enough the books especially written for kids and later teens became boring for me and I tried to get the books of my parents. I remember several "No, not yet" situations, but one very funny I can clearly recall:

My mom had the at that time very popular book "The Far Pavilions" by Mary Margret Kaye in her collection and from the related TV series I knew it was about the adventures of a young guy in the India of the 19th century. I had just finished Rudyard Kipling’s "Kim" and was longing for more Indian adventures and so I asked for "The Far Pavilions" and got a NO. I did not care much, "stole" the book and read with the pocket lamp late at night in bed.
Not much later (but too late) I found out why my mom had turned me down: First of all in her opinion it was too violent for me (a young widow burning with her husband’s corpse for example) AND she definitely thought I was too young for the one explicit sex scene in the book. Funny enough she was right. I was too young, because when I started reading this part I thought it was incredibly boring and skipped it. Innocent childhood that was.

Something similar happened a while later with "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. My parents collected this edition of Nobel Prize winning novels and poems. I read the ones I was allowed to like "The Jungle Book" or "Nils Holgerson" and one day I had an eye on the Steinbeck, because I had just read "The Pearl".
I was older than I was when I stole "The Far Pavilions" and so my mom did not really forbid it, but recommended to wait because it was too dark and complex. I did not listen – of course. Looking back I have to say that she was right again. It is so long ago now that I cannot remember much of the details anymore (time to read it again!), but what I remember clearly is that it left me confused, sad and with a strange, bad feeling in my tummy – it simply overwhelmed me and I was too young to cope with it. I did not feel much desire to pick up Steinbeck again after this experience. (I will change that now of course - there is already a lot of stuff uploaded on my Kindle.)

You may ask now to what kind of school I went to when I did not read any Steinbeck there later to revise my impression. Well – don’t forget that I am German and we have a whole lot of fantastic German literature we focus on at school. And in English at senior high school we tried really hard to wrap our brains around Shakespeare and "The Catcher in the Rye". So I could not look back to any other Steinbeck memory than this awkward feeling, when I picked up "Travels with Charley".

What happened then you I can describe best with "I was blown away". I mean – I am writing "non fictional"* texts here and like every writer / blogger I am trying to write about interesting things, I try to be smart, entertaining, sometimes funny, informative, clearly subjective (because blogging is all about your own perspective and not about sharing neutral information – at least blogging in the way I do it), trenchant, ... and much more. To make it short – it’s dreaming of the impossible, dreaming of having the ability to write like John Steinbeck. No need to say that I enjoyed every page. And although I will never play anywhere near this league of writing is was incredibly inspirational and motivating to read this wonderful book.

What impresses me most is that I had a hard time to recall while reading that this was not written yesterday but 50 years ago.
Of course there is evidence : There is the clear absence of navigation systems and cellphones, which Steinbeck would have loved both because he always got lost especially in bigger cities and missed talking to his wife. There are little things like him referring to the Pittsburgh Pirates as one of the best Baseball teams in the country and big things like Steinbeck discussing the presidency of Kennedy with his family with him being the only Democrat around. And there is the final part with this incredible painful act of racism he is witnessing in New Orleans, which makes clear why it took another 50 years before it was possible that an Afro-American was elected as the President of the United States of America. But in long parts of the book his observations and the way he writes about them seem to be timeless.

And like always when I love a book a lot there are several – in the eyes of other people maybe random – things, which touch me in a special way and "Travels with Charley" is no exception:
  • Steinbeck loves the ocean deeply and so do I.
  • His declaration of love for the Californian Red Wood trees. Nobody who ever had the chance to hug one of these giants (which is of course impossible because your arms are too short - no matter how tall you are) would not love them and definitely take them as beautiful living creatures of strong character.
  • Steinbeck’s obvious strong (biography based) bond with San Francisco makes me travelling in my mind directly to The Beauty at the Bay. I hope to be back soon again.
  • The Pirates episode mentioned above. With the start of the Baseball season coming closer it’s really charming to read this little quote although I am not joining the wonderful @JanePitt in her adorable but senseless optimism. As long as the Pirates are run as a team on a budget that equals the salary of A-Rod’s personal massage staff and as long as the team’s owner is just doing the math and earning as much money as possible with the passion and love the people of Pittsburgh have for their sports teams without investing a relevant amount of money and – even more important - investing passion and love for the game, the fans and the city nothing will really change. But uhm – I am getting sidetracked. Let’s stop the Baseball rant. I am European – I am not getting the rules anyway, but .... GO GIANTS - you can make it happen again!
  • I love how Steinbeck is not leaving out his weaknesses - how he gets lost in big cities, how he misses his family, how he gets grumpy and lonely, complains about food and how he meets his limit of receptivity and finally just focuses on getting home without looking much left and right. It turns the literary giant back into a human being.
  • There is much more and I am sure I will get back to this many times again while writing this blog.

Gregory Zeigler – Travels With Max – In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later


Let’s start with the obvious. Gergory Zeigler is not John Steinbeck. You may think this sentence is pointless. Of course it is – in a way. But what I mean is, that for everybody who adores a writer (and Zeigler is a Steinbeck enthusiast) the biggest danger is to fall in the trap of copying and it is even bigger when you like Greg Zeigler really walk in the footsteps of your idol. But it turns out that he is experienced enough as writer and teacher, experienced enough with telling stories and keep people’s attention that he was able to walk away from Steinbeck’s style and find his own. So he has for example a special kind of way to describe people. He usually gets the name even of random people he meets like a waitress in a diner or the person at the motel counter. Then he finds two, three adjectives to describe the person and manages it to sketch a rough but at the same time tangible picture of the people he meets. I really liked that little element of style.

I for myself could have lived with less road numbers and descriptions, but that's maybe just me as an European who is not so much into the American system of highways, freeways and other kind of country crossing roads. But that's the only thing which I did not follow with full attention and altogether Zeigler managed to keep me involved for the complete road trip.

It’s for example very interesting to see how much deeper the cuts are the economical crisis left in the States compared to Germany. Of course we had some bigger issues with banks going bankrupt, too, and the American crisis made it over the Atlantic hitting one of the back bones of the German economy – the auto industry. But all in all it felt for most of us more like a big media fuss than a real crisis. The picture in the States is different. I of course knew that before, but it gets more real when Zeigler meets people fighting hard to earn enough money for a living like a single parent with three jobs or a woman more or less my age, also with a master degree and a lot of decent job experience being forced to move in again with her parents because she cannot find a new job after being laid off. A lot of people he met on the road made clear, that their personal situation had significantly worsened over last couple of years.

I also followed him with a lot of attention when he was interviewing people about their political attitude and I could see the how much the country is really divided into two totally opposite groups. This is also something we learn here reading the newspapers, but with our own political situation here in Germany, where it became almost impossible to mark significant differences between the most popular parties, this is something which gets much more specific when Zeigler describes the different characters he talked to on the road and how they made their position very clear in most cases - for the one or the other side. 

Finally of course "Travels with Max" has as well these little episodes, which are special to me:
  • I love how naturally he talks about the ghosts who joined him at night crossing the desert. In one of these episodes he refers to the story of his daughters’ ex-boyfriend Aron Ralston, which is also told in Danny Boyle’s recently Oscar nominated drama "172 hours".
  • Funny enough I was in the subway on my way back home to be there right in time for the AFC Championship game Steelers vs. Jets, when I found the Steelers episode. Zeigler himself grew up near Pittsburgh on the campus of the Kiski School, where his father worked as a teacher, and is - although he moved away long ago - still a Steelers fan. So he was pleasantly surprised when he went near Yellowstone (means pretty far away from Pittsburgh) in a bar to eat something and opened the door to a place decorated in black & gold. YAY – Steeler Nation is EVERYWHERE!
  • And finally we have an awesome little story: Still in Texas but already very close to Louisiana he went into a restaurant and met a young waitress working there. He describes her as the "the perfect Southern Belle" - in her early 20ies, petite, blond, sweet, friendly and smarter than you would think of a girl jobbing full time in a restaurant. While reading this I thought this is the almost a perfect description of Anna Paquin as TRUE BLOOD’s main character Sookie Stackhouse. I loved that already, but when Zeigler went on and finally described her t-shirt advertising the restaurant with the line – and now hold your breath - "BITE ME" I had a hysterical breakdown. Sometimes reality just beats out every storyline you could create in your weird mind. I cannot wait for the 4th season of TRUE BLOOD kicking off, but that is a totally different story.
* Epiloge:
You may remember that I put in the Steinbeck part of the text quotes around the words "non fiction" and set the * to link to this epiloge? I did that, because I wanted to pick some things up here without interrupting the presentation of the two books.

When I ran into Zeigler's project and did some additional research in the internet, I found reports of some people who did similiar Steinbeck tours accross the country to write about it. One of them Greg Zeigler even mentions when they almost met on the road.
The difference between a few of those other writers and Zeigler's book and blog is usually the purpose of the trip. Some of them had obviously nothing better to do than measuring travel time and distances, testing locations to find out if it is possible to camp there, compare descriptions from Steinbeck's book with the real landscape - all to proof that it can't be. That Steinbeck made it up, was never there, never met the people he wrote about. That it would be for example too much of a coincidence (Folks ... coincidences are a myth anyway - they do not exist!) to meet a travelling actor in the middle of nowhere. That the book should not be called "non fiction" because it includes actually too much fiction. 

Well .... some thoughts about that:

1) Let's ask Steinbeck the question himself (source: John Steinbeck "Letters to Alice"): 
"It occurs to me to wonder and to ask how much I see or am capable of seeing. It goes without saying that our observation is conditioned by our background and experience, but do we ever see anything whole as it is?"

The clear and simple answer to this question is: No.

As a "non fictional" writer I can tell you that we of course all "make it up". You always select information, you choose the words to paint the picture like you want it to look like, you put the things in the center of attention you decide to be the most important, you add "salt & pepper". That has nothing to do with betraying the reader - it is a natural process. There is no way to write "neutral", to mirror exactly the reality - even if you try (If you try hard it is called journalism).

And even going a step further: There is not even something like an absolute reality. It is always only the reality that exists in us.
I know - quite an abstract idea, but no worries - I'll stop the rant here and I do not start the discours about the concept of radical constructivsm, although it would fit, explain a lot and give me the chance to brag with my university education in communication science ;).

2) I find it almost funny to see the people make wild guesses which encounters in Steinbeck's book were born in the nobel price winner's phantasy and which were real by choosing the strangest ones as most likely to be made up. I of course do not know which ones were real and which not;  which might haven been real but not happened on the trip and were transplanted into the book. And I could not care less.

But one thing I can tell you: It's life that creates the craziest stories - not the writers.

Looking at all this I think Greg Zeigler did it absolutely the right way. He did not check what could be real and what not. He did not look out if some rocks were in the correct position like described in the original book. He did follow something bigger than just a route. He followed the spirit, the idea of Steinbeck's trip to make his own.

And now let's guess what was made up in "Travels with Max" .... kidding ;)

Dear friends, when you made it all the way down to the end of this blog post: THANK YOU VERY MUCH for reading all this.
Very soon I kick off my very own American adventure. I won’t cross the country, but finally after ten years of west coast trips I will make it back to the east coast.

Stay tuned for pictures and stories from the road. I will travel with camera and netbook and keep you posted!

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