Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My books in June and July - Part 2

Look - a lovely book in it's natural home territory ;)

I don't know about you, but hanging out lazy at the beach, in the shadow of a tree reading
a book is one of the most relaxing, most enjoyable things in the world, isn't it?

John Steinbeck - Tortilla Flat

I ... honestly ... DON'T LIKE too much

Before you throw stones after me for telling you that I do not like the book that turned 1935 John Steinbeck from a poor artist into a recognized writer, let me explain: 

When I started to write about the books I read, I told you that these "status messages" at the beginning will be purely based on my personal feelings. I am no literary scholar and I do not try to be one.

You may also remember when I told you how much "The Grapes of Wrath" depressed me, when I read it obviously too early as a teenager? This odd feeling of watching strange people living a sad and strange life came up with "Tortilla Flat" again. 

But let's get a bit more organized and explain first what it is about:
We have the main character Danny, who lives in a (fictive) Monterey neighbourhood calles "Tortilla Flat". He is a paisano and a paisano is (quoting Wikipedia) a Californian of Mexican-Indian-Spanish-Caucasian descent.
When Danny inherits two houses he decides to live in one of them and "rent" the other one to his friends. All the "boys" are home- and jobless and their life circles around getting some wine to drink, something to eat, a place to stay and their friendship. 

The book contains 17 episodes about the life of Danny and the boys and their daily struggles.
"Tortilla Flat" might be meant to be nostalgic, but it doesn't really work for me. I mostly see a couple of guys doing stupid things - sometimes with good and sometimes not so good intention. Fact is: most of what they do goes wrong and so it all ends tragically.

John Steinbeck was criticized by some speakers of the Mexican-American population in California for his portrait of the paisanos. Steinbeck reacts schocked about the critic and writes in 1937: 
" did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat...good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes. If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again."

I believe him, but honestly ... being totally unaware of the existence of the paisano culture before reading "Tortilla Flat" I did not really get the positive picture he seemed to have intended and understand when the Mexican-Americans did not really wanted to be seen that way - even if some of it might be even true and realistic. 

On a more positive note: Super interesting is the story behind the story. Steinbeck was since he was a kid fascinated by the tale of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table and so "Tortilla Flat"'s structure reminds of Thomas Malory's (Steinbeck's favorite) version of the tale.
The first session I will visit at the Steinbeck Festival will focus on parallels between "Tortilla Flat" and the Arthurian tale and I am really excited to learn more about it.

John Steinbeck - Cannery Row & Sweet Thursday


Isn't it weird?
"Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday" also tell stories about a couple of "boys" living in a house they never pay rent for. It's also in Monterey, the guys are poor, drink like the paisanos too much wine and often stumble into bad situations even if they were planning to do good. It's all very much (except the paisano culture aspect) the same like in "Tortilla Flat", but in this case I absolutely LOVE the books

I love Mack and the boys, I love of course Doc (the marine biologist / Ed Ricketts main character of both books), the girls at the Bear Flag and all the other characters in town. I could even hug the old China Man for just being there and flip flopping through the scene without ever saying anything. And when I will ask myself one eventually not so far away day again, why I can be tough and smart in life but a dating / love disaster at the same time, I will pick up "Sweet Thursday" and read again what Fauna told Suzy

Honestly I am too tired and too short with time to tell you much more about the plots, but basically both books tell about Mack, who lives with his friends in a house on Cannery Row just across from Doc's laboratory. Doc is the heart and brain of Cannery Row. He is loved and respected by all of them and much of the action is driven by the idea of the boys to show Doc how much they love and appreciate him. In some cases they totally fail although they have the best intention, but in the end - in a quite strange way - they manage to create a happy end.

There are lots and lots of episodes, people and things I love in these two books. It is so much fun reading how the characters and the storylines are developed. There is such a fine sense of humor but also drama and wisdom in the stories about the colorful citizens of Cannery Row

"Cannery Row" is the first part that is set before WW II  and "Sweet Thursday" tells about how life went on for the main characters after WW II a couple of years later.

Of course, when "Sweet Thursday" kicks off a lots of things have changed on Cannery Row. Some people left, some new arrived, the events of the war and the past years have changed the people - some more, some less.

At first it is hard for the reader (at least for me), who loved "Cannery Row" to accept the changes, but change is life. It's natural and we have to deal with it. And once we accept it, we will find lots of good things in it and maybe even - love. 

Lots of the sessions at the Steinbeck Festival will be about "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday" and I can't wait.

You can also expect pictures from the real Cannery Row where the real Ed Ricketts had its laboratory in my upcoming travelodge. I plan to visit Monetery on my way  to San Francisco on Sunday. 

John Steinbeck & Ed Ricketts - The Log from The Sea of Cortez


With the final bit of this posting we are back to Steinbeck's non-fictional writing.

In 1940 John Steinbeck and his best friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, went on a six week boat expedition to the Sea of Cortez (Baja California, Mexico) to collect marine specimen for Rickett's collection and scientific work.

Right after the tour the two released the first version of the book, which is based on notes of the two (there is a discussion about the question of it were really notes of both of them or first of all Rickett's notes, that were then used by Steinbeck to create the actual book) about the trip. The first version also includes a huge species catalogue from the collection trips. 

After Ed's death Steinbeck picked up the first version called "The Sea of Cortez: A Leisuerly Journal of Travel and Research" again, removed the catalogue, reworked bits of the text and added an eulogy about his lost friend and finally released it in 1951 as "The Log from The Sea of Cortez".  The eulogy is the text "About Ed Ricketts" which is also included in "America & Americans". I already wrote about its heartbreaking intensity. 

"The Log from The Sea of Cortez" is an important piece to read if you want to understand Steinbeck and his work. It is the one book where Ed Ricketts himself was intensily involved. It's the chance for the reader to come a bit closer to the man who influenced Steinbeck so much and was the role model for so many strong and vivid characters in Steinbeck's novels.

I am not yet done with "The Log from The Sea of Cortez". One reason is that it makes me tired. Don't get me wrong - it's not boring. Especially not for an ocean lover like me, but traveling with a motorboat makes me sleepy. For real and in a book. I read two pages and get lost in the monotone sound of the machine, the smell of the salty water, the heat of the summer sun and just like in real life it makes me incredibly and sweetly sleepy. It might take a while for me to finish this book :)
Oh btw .... be careful if you easily get seasick. You might feel slight nausea reading ;)

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say that I´ve read both books, "Tortilla flat" and "Cannery row" as well, following Tina´s literary path, so to say. And sure enough, without connecting with her beforehand, I came to the same conclusions. I really loved "Cannery Row" because Steinbeck put his heart in there. There´s lots of love in and between the lines, and it´s contageous. The reader can sense and feel the characters as friends, kind of, and thus be close to them himself. It´s a beauty of a book which drawas you in and makes you happy and sad and happy again - and I definitely look forward to reading "Sweet Thrusday" as well.

    Having read "Tortilla Flat" after "Cannery Row", I felt very disappointed. It was like I´d travelled from a place I liked with people I loved to some other place where people were soon getting on my nerves. To me, there was no real connection between the characters themselves, and none between them and the writer, except for describing their doings with a certain inner distance. I hadn´t even thought for a minute about what "paisanos" were or if it could have been some cultural thing, and I don´t think that´s the point. Well, at least not for me. What counted for me was the impression of Steinbeck writing "Tortilla Flat" in the mood of a student not really liking the subject of his term paper, but having to write it anyway. And that mood caught on, just as the joy and love and spirit of "Cannery Row" had before.