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Perhaps the difference between good books and the truly great books is that the latter remain relevant long after their authors have died. I have no idea if that is at all defensible as a thesis. Someone has probably spent longer than thirty seconds thinking about it.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has suddenly shot up my list of books that would be on my short list for a desert island. In fairness, that’s because I would rather have ten books and one song than ten songs and one book, so I know I am cheating, but still.
I have to confess that I have a lot of catching up to do on the books I am supposed to have read. For which read authors who are long since dead. I am berated at home for being quite happy to have read mainly post-1945 German fiction, and the same charge could be applied to me when it comes to English language literature. In my defence, I have read Goethe, Schiller and Lessing. I just didn’t really like them. And don’t get me started on Thomas Mann. I spent an otherwise pleasant summer reading his very long Magic Mountain book. It was very long, did I mention that? Not a lot happened. Actually, I think nothing really happened. Certainly nothing that I can recall. When I got back to university, it turned out that nobody else in my year had even bothered. I wasn’t too sure they were wrong about that.
But Steinbeck is not in that category. In fact, if you asked me what book politicians should read in 2016, my answer would be Grapes of Wrath. It puts a human face to the misery we hear about every day.
I started reading the book after asking a colleague at work what his favourite book was. This was one of his top three. And then I got a bit stuck. The dialogue is hard going, written in Oklahoma dialect. I don’t think we would do that now. It makes picking up and putting down the book quite difficult, and as I read a lot that way, in the odd few minutes waiting for someone or something, that did not help. The real impetus came when LoLo announced she was reading it (she found it on a Kindle and just decided to read it) and was already about as far as I was. Then it became a competition, then I missed a few hours sleep to get it finished. The last third just flew by.
The book is the story of the Joad family, tenant farmers who are forced to leave their farm and home in Oklahoma when the bank forecloses on the land. This does not come as a huge surprise to them as it has been happening all around then. We then go with them on a journey to California, where they have been promised jobs, a new home and peaches. They travel in an old car (I learned the word “jalopy” and a host of other words from this book, all of which are, I now know, well known to an American). Three and a half (an unborn baby) generations are travelling together with, they hope, enough money to get them to California, but not much more. We learn about 1930s cars and their tyres, the American economy, and mostly about family and human relationships. And I ended up thinking that, if we had heeded the warning Steinbeck gave in his novel, we might not be in the mess we are today.
Steinbeck takes an unusual approach to the structure of the book. He moves between general descriptions of what is happening in the place the Joad family is about to arrive at to their actual experience. Sometimes he does this by bringing in unconnected characters in the place they are nearing, giving us a sense of what they are about to go through. This starts off as being confusing but we soon get the hang of it. And later on, we start to get more commentary on what is going on in the world around the Joads. Take this example
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out.
I suspect Joseph Stiglitz would find some common ground with those sentiments in 2016. And Steinbeck gives the same message in more philosophical terms, and in only one sentence:
The quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”
There are some wonderful descriptions throughout the book. This was one of my favourites – for the last three words.
About mid-afternoon child bathing began, and as each child was caught, subdued, and washed, the noise on the playground gradually subsided. Before five, the children were scrubbed and warned about getting dirty again; and they walked about, stiff in clean clothes, miserable with carefulness.
Steinbeck portrays the mother in the family – “Ma” – with a wonderful sense of her strength and resilience in the face of whatever happens to them. She adapts, she adjusts, and she shows that what matters most to her is keeping her family together. She expresses her view of life – and the difference between men and women – in these lovely few lines – where you also see the way the dialogue is written:
Man, he lives in jerks—baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk—gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on—changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.
If the theme of the concentration of wealth, then in California, now throughout the world, is not enough relevance for today, we see the Joad family as one of thousands of migrant families. Here is Steinbeck’s description of the change of attitude towards refugees and migrants which we have experienced over the last year:
Then from the tents, from the crowded barns, groups of sodden men went out, their clothes slopping rags, their shoes muddy pulp. They splashed out through the water, to the towns, to the country stores, to the relief offices, to beg for food, to cringe and beg for food, to beg for relief, to try to steal, to lie. And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder. And in the little towns pity for the sodden men changed to anger, and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them. Then sheriffs swore in deputies in droves, and orders were rushed for rifles, for tear gas, for ammunition. Then the hungry men crowded the alleys behind the stores to beg for bread, to beg for rotting vegetables, to steal when they could.
And does this not sound awfully like the attitude of many towards the refugees arriving on our doorstep:
The sheriffs swore in new deputies and ordered new rifles; and the comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.
On a slightly happier note, there are many moments of human kindness throughout the book, and these remain in your memory long afterwards. The couple who let the Joads use their tent when a member of the family was seriously ill. The encouragement the family received in a camp which was run by the residents in a humane and caring manner, even if it could not address the fundamental economics of the times. And I was reminded again today that there are little acts of kindness being carried out all around us. This little garden in a small town near us made me think of what Ma Joad would have been doing if she were alive today:
Grapes of Wrath is remarkably relevant to our current world, despite being over seventy years old. But when Steinbeck finished it, this is what he had to say about it:
It isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book.
Gosh, these writers are never happy.
All my bookshelves are full, there are boxes of books under the eaves of the attic, which I am just hoping will continue to survive the temperature and heat fluctuations throughout the year, and this is one of the piles of books to be read, currently at least taking up only one corner of one room.
My solution to this was to ignore the piles completely and read a few books I had on my Kindle which I had also not got to.
It appears that some people read only one book at a time. I learned this recently. I thought everyone had several on the go at the same time. I think I must average about five at a time, or at least five that I consider I am conscious that I think I am reading. At the moment, I think that equates to a biography of someone nobody else will have heard of (he ran a part of the East German government), the autobiography of one of the original small group that came back to Germany from the Soviet Union immediately after the war, a book by Joseph Stiglitz on why inequality is such a bad thing for everybody, a novel by Stephen King in audiobook format (I’m about a third of the way into it and I have no idea what it’s even about – strange for him), a superb novel by Elizabeth McGregor (total surprise find on my Kindle, it must have been on offer at some point), and I think I’m trying to read Gone Girl but not very committed to that one after a few chapters. Oh, and then there’s Thomas Piketty’s book… that’s hard going, I don’t think I’m really reading that one.
I think I am slowly winning, though, having got through three novels in about as many weeks. At that rate, I might have started to make a dent in the unread ones by the end of the year. And I’m really trying not to look at the books coming out soon.
Here are some thoughts on the two most recent novels I finished.
All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and about a gazillion other awards. My experience is that this does not necessarily mean they will be a good read, as opposed to of enduring literary merit. For me, literary merit is fine as long as it’s a good read. This book is the story of a French girl and a German boy who grow up in the years before and during the Second World War. The girl, Marie-Laure, is blind and her father makes elaborate models of where they live, by which she learns to navigate the real world outside. Her world is turned upside down when she has to flee Paris and ends up in a small village by the coast in the house of her apparently mad great-uncle. Meanwhile, Werner grows up in the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. He is far too bright to accept the fate decreed for him of going to work at fifteen in the coal mines which are powering the new empire, but the dream of becoming involved in the technical advances propelling the war forward moves slowly into the nightmare reality of that war.
I was bowled over by the writing of this book. It went at such a pace it was too easy to miss the beauty of the language which was everywhere.
His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.
Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.
Each chapter is so tightly written that it’s hard to believe he gets through so much so quickly without anything missing. There are multiple themes running throughout the book, and a constant expectation of what is to come, if and how the two characters will ever meet and what will become of them.
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer is a fairly disconcerting read. This might have to do with the fact that there is something decidedly not normal about the narrator (to say any more would give too much away). His interactions with his family, with strangers, with everyone, are very strange. And the writing captures what is going on in the narrator’s head in a way that really has you wondering if you have any idea what is real and what is just in his head.
We are unsure what happened between the narrator and his brother, a mystery which unravels and at times re-ravels (is that even a word?). And we remain unsure about a lot of what is going on, or not going on, throughout.
There is one particular feature of the book which was a first for me. The font changes from time to time depending on when the narrator was writing that particular part. The whole book is a series of scraps of writing from different times, in different places, and from different mental states. It’s very effective, but the overall sense of the book remains – disconcerting. But very clever and convincing.
I think this counts as reading more widely – it took me two attempts to get beyond the first chapter of The Shock of the Fall, but once I got that little bit further, it was compelling.
Seeing how these novels are constructed is incredibly helpful. And I’m now finding that I’m figuring out more of the twists and endings in both novels and films. I have also learned not to mention this at the end of a film when I’ve watched it with the girls and had to wait for half of it to confirm what I suspected.
Meanwhile, I have to get back to that pile at some point.
For any obsessive reader, Edinburgh is a great place to be in August. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, now the largest of its kind in the whole world, transforms Charlotte Square into a different world. Or different worlds really as the subjects covered are so varied. Several years ago I was having a discussion with someone about travel and they were surprised that we hadn’t been to lots of different countries as a family. My reply included the observation that I had been to a whole host of countries, at least in my imagination, thanks to reading books set in those countries. Stephen King (you can either like or loath what he writes about, but he’s an extraordinary writer) summarises what writing is about in his book On Writing as “writing is telepathy”. Great writers take you to that different place, that different time, and you come away with a different perspective on something.
This year’s Book Festival was a bumper one for me. There are always going to be some events where it just doesn’t quite work. I find it helps if the author attending actually wants to be there, or gives some indication of being interested in the subject which, given it’s normally something they’ve written about, shouldn’t be that difficult. You would think. Fortunately that was the first event I went to this year and I’ve been to enough to know that some are better than others. The final day was probably the one which stood out for me, both for the quality and the variety. The common link I took from the three events I went to (who says Mondays are the worst day of the week?) was the theme of change.
It started with Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel laureate (economics), adviser to Bill Clinton, on more committees than I could even have imagined existed. And such a big name that the press were there in force, putting rather more weight on some of his comments than on others. What attracted me to his session in the first place was his premise that technology has not made society better off. But the main point I took from him was that the economic benefits of technology have increasingly been flowing to a very small elite rather than being dispersed more widely, increasing the inequality in society that we can see all around us. Think of the now billionaires who started Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. The obvious (his judgement) point is that if the population as a whole does not benefit from the value created, the non-elite have less money to spend, therefore can buy less, therefore everyone loses. My practical conclusion – next book in the “I need to find more time to read all this stuff” pile. And yes, I do get the irony that I include a link to the book on Amazon.
Next up was the event I had been most looking forward to. Currently, if I had to do a Desert Island book, it would be Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory Maclean. I read this book in not many hours just before I went to Berlin in spring and was struck by the variety of ways he tells the stories of Berliners over several centuries, mixing fiction and non-fiction forms beautifully. But it was much more personal than that for me. I think he recognised two things. He wrote about people who have imagined a Berlin which did not exist at the time, or – while living in Berlin – themselves as someone they were not yet. They were not all born in Berlin, but they are all Berliners. And he sees the power of change that Berlin not just represents, but is. The city has reinvented itself – sometimes of necessity – so many times and it continues to change. And there is something in Berlin that can allow those of us who spend enough time there to change ourselves as well. My favourite factoid from the book (I know, I’m trivialising it somewhat) – the GB team in the 2012 Olympics entered the stadium to David Bowie’s Heroes. A song that Bowie wrote in Berlin while he was reinventing himself. And a song that is about the Berlin Wall. Yes, I really can find a connection to East Germany in anything… (helped this year by going to hear Maxim Leo talk about his book about his family growing up in East Germany, with stories that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true).
And what better way to finish than with Michael Rosen talking about why books are important. For me, books help me to gain a new perspective, a different point of view, to see things through someone else’s eyes. And they help me to change.
The other change this book festival brought with it was the absence of Derek Landy, and the first time in years that we haven’t been able to get the next instalment in his Skulduggery Pleasant (if you have to ask…) books before its general release. But hey, it’s out on Thursday – and goes straight to the top of the reading list. At least when the girls go to bed and I can get it off them. I should have taken a holiday on Friday…