Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tortilla Flat

by John Steinbeck

Thumbs up, I think.

I seem to be giving alot of partial or mostly or kind of thumbs up lately.  Some books are just not cut and dried, good or bad.

Tortilla Flat is a paisano community on the hills above Monterey, California.  Steinbeck spends several paragraphs describing what this means.  In summary, the paisanos are of mixed blood, early Spanish immigrants and Native Americans.  They inhabited the American Southwest prior to the later waves of immigrants from Northern and Western European traditions.  The paisanos live on the fringe of development and participate in modern society according to their own rules.

When Danny comes home to Tortilla Flat after his service in World War I, he finds he has inherited two homes from his grandfather.  He is a wealthy man.

The story tells how Danny opens his homes to his friends and they enjoy the good life.  They wake up when they want, they philosophize on sunny mornings on the front porch, they eat the charity food The Pirate brings each day.  They drink wine from glass jars.  And they take care of their own.  Sort of.

In the end Danny is disenchanted with this subdued lifestyle.  He engages in three weeks of dissipation, followed by a time of despondence.  The communal structure between Danny and his friends winds to a halt after Tortilla Flat comes together for a memorable night of festivities in Danny's honor.

Danny and his friends do exactly what they want at all times.  They are the protagonists. The reader cannot help but love them, in spite of their laziness, drunkenness, violence, thievery, prostitution and fornication/adultery.

Tortilla Flat was quite obviously written prior to our current age of political correctness.  The paisano community is portrayed in what we today would call a negative light.  But somehow, Steinbeck draws empathy from the reader toward such characters.  I think the book reaches a bit of Rousseauvian romanticism in me.

There are many life lessons that a reader can ponder while reading this book.  It might be useful for an ethics discussion with a upper highschool aged child.  The book is rife with fodder for such an evaluation.  Because of some of the vices touched upon, a parent should read the book first.

Monday, October 11, 2010


by Gary Paulsen

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down.

Paulsen is a great story teller and this book is no exception.  But this book left me with a hollow feeling in my heart.

I've heard periodically since moving to this area about this book and the controversy associated with it throughout the years.  I've heard from several local people that the books is somewhat autobiographical, with the fictional town of Twin Falls being a pseudonym for Paulsen's hometown of Thief River Falls, MN.  Many of the characters and incidents, apparently, have basis in real people and happenings in Thief River Falls in the days during which Paulsen grew up.  The character telling the story lived through many things that Paulsen lived through.  Paulsen faced a libel suit over this book; after going all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, he was exonerated.  But apparently it almost spelled an early end his writing career because he was so disheartened by the accusation.  How can a writer write about things he or she has no experience with, after all?

The story is told by a thirteen year year old boy whose parents are violent drunks.  He tells of his friendship with a mild mannered drunk, a local police officer, and his time at two different foster homes, his first girlfriend and his early jobs.  The story ends abruptly after a crushing loss in the boys life.

Again, excellent story telling.  But very sad.

The Whitechapel Conspiracy

by Anne Perry

Mostly Thumbs Up.

Scottish author, Ann Perry writes mysteries set in Victorian times.  I've not read enough of her titles to speak with any real authority, but this book was much different than any of hers I've read previously.  The Whitechapel Conspiracy, was an interesting book to read on the heels of Glenn Beck's The Overton Window

Instead of the Sherlock Holmes type mystery that leads a reader along the quest for the culprit of the the crime and the method used by the criminal to commit the crime, this book, as is apparent in the title, is the unraveling of a huge, convoluted, societal and political conspiracy.  The book takes place in London in the troubled years of the latter half of 19th century.  The industrial areas of London are filled with poverty ridden, worked-to-the-bone poor.  The royal family is seen as irrelevant; the prince is a prodigious spender.  In the poorer sections of London, several people groups (Jews, Irish, Catholics) have become marginalized and are suspected of causing all the ills facing the city.  Revolutions have risen around Europe and revolution fever is surging through certain segments of the London populace.

Bow Street police superintendent, Thomas Pitt, and his household are drawn into what appears to be a conspiracy to hide evidence in a murder trial.  The deeper they dig, the more sinister the plot appears.  Eventually Pitt's wife, servant and her suitor, and his distant aunt put all their various skills to work to solve the crime, and save the city and even the British Monarchy.

The reason I rated the book as only "mostly" thumbs up is that there are parts at which the reading is tedious.  The plot gets bogged down a bit in the history of the various political and societal situations in London at the time.  I also dislike historical fiction that mixes fact with fiction so thoroughly that it is hard for a reader to determine what parts are fiction and what parts are not.  Sometimes historical fiction spurs me on the further research, but this time it just made me feel hopelessly uninformed.  I wouldn't know where to start my research.

The Old Curiosity Shop

by Charles Dickens

Mostly Thumbs Down

I used to read primarily classic literature.  It was my way of trying to constantly increase my cultural literacy.  Most classic titles have become classics because they are rich in some quantifiable factor: memorable characters, historical commentary, well-crafted interpersonal scenarios, ethical or social dilemmas, or simply great story telling.  The really great stories combine several of these factors.  There are a few, however, that become classics for some more vague, perhaps unquantifiable reason.

I will put The Old Curiosity Shop into this category.  Dickens does give readers a cast of very colorful, memorable characters.  He also presents a variety of ethical and social situations, many not good.  But in general, the story seems to drag.  And drag.  And drag.  I did finally feel a pull by the plot in about the final 120 pages or so of the 530 page book.  But for the entire first portion of the book I really had to force myself to pick it  up each time.  It just wasn't that interesting.

And it was sad in wearying kind of way.  I found myself repulsed by the behavior of so many of the characters.  I know there are evil people in the world, but thankfully, God has spared me contact with evil such as Dickens give Mr. Quilp and a few of the others in the book.  When I sit to read, I want to be refreshed, not worn down.

There were, however characters of great virtue.  There were many witty paragraphs that gave astute insight into human nature.  There were touching scenes of caring.  I find myself intrigued by Dickens' ability to use the English language.  And I was taught several words with which I was previously unfamiliar.