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(A scan of my actual copy of East of Eden)

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.  Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places.  They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought.  Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?  The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg and produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”

East of Eden is not a subtle book. I usually like subtle. Philosophy is bluntly spoken, not intricately woven in.  It is Good vs. Evil, in your face.  There are biblical references out the whazoo.

But it isn’t black and white.  Good doesn’t always triumph, and when it does, someone still gets hurt.

This is a family saga, or perhaps a dual-family saga, or perhaps a region saga.. is that possible?  This is the story of the Trasks, destined to replay the story of Cain and Abel, whether in Connecticut or California.  It is the story of the Hamiltons, the large Irish family in California, jovial and tragic.  It is the story of the Salinas Valley, hot and fertile and set in its ways.

I shared a scan of my exact copy of the book because it seemed to hold a strange power.  When I opened it, I saw all of California spread out before me.  Then I zoomed in slowly, past fields and mountains… finally reaching the Salinas Valley.  There, I sat unnoticed in a corner,  watching two familiar families intertwine, pull apart, grow, falter.

Literally.  That’s what it was like. I got sucked in. I didn’t like all of the characters. They each had their flaws, their strengths. But even the ones I didn’t like.. I enjoyed reading about. I think this might be the first book of this size (700 pages in my old, thick, mass-market paperback) where every page was important, where every interaction was significant and yet.. part of everyday life. Many of the characters live their whole lives in the pages of this book, so I began to feel like they were intimate friends.

So yes, read it.  And then.. read about it. While the Trask family is made up, the Hamilton family is based off of Steinbeck’s own relatives. He wrote it for his sons, to let them know where and who they’re from.  Pretty cool.  And it’s going on my ‘favorites’ shelf.

Have you read East of Eden?  Did it draw you in as well?  Did the lack of subtlety bother you?  Is The Grapes of Wrath just as fascinating?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts.


I’ve had a run of stinkers… bad enough to dislike, but not interesting enough to devote a full review to.  So here’s a brief run-down of 3 books to avoid:

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.  Written 25 years before Dracula, this novella presents a female vampire.. twice.  I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he spent half the novella describing one girl’s encounter with the vampire Carmilla, then the next half describing the vampire doing the exact same thing to another girl, so that the reader was subjected to the rather boring depiction twice, but there ya have it.

I picked it apart for my term paper on the treatment of women in Dracula and Carmilla, but it was so vague that almost any feasible claim could be made about it.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Victorian sensationalism, and another one for my British Lit class.  To be fair, this one wasn’t as bad as Carmilla, but it was still pretty lame.  George Talboys runs off on his wife, Helen, to make his fortune in Australia, and when he comes back he finds only her obituary.  Robert Audley is taken with his uncle’s lovely new wife, but her past is a mystery.  Oooh.. what has really happened to Helen and from where did Lady Audley spring?

While it is rather interesting to see how it plays out, it takes 450 pages to do it and.. well, not that much happens.  For sensationalism, it was sure boring.  However, we “simulated the Victorian reading experience” by reading it in chunks of 32 pages each Wednesday.  This might have added to the “omigod is this ever going to end and why is nothing happening” feeling.

Mister Pip by Llyod Jones.  I thought this YA novel would be a quick, easy, and interesting follow-up to Great Expectations. On some tropical island, war erupts and most of the white people flee, leaving the natives to fend for themselves.  One white man stays.. and he takes it upon himself to become schoolmaster, though he’s had no experience with it.  One of his primary lessons is reading aloud.. a chapter each day from Great Expectations, and Mister Pip chronicles the effects of war and words on these native children.

Except it was shoddily written and boring.  I know I’m supposed to love it because it depicts the power of storytelling and all that jazz, but I just could not finish it.  It was awful.  It’s gotten a lot of good reviews, though, so maybe it just wasn’t for me.

I’m hoping that this run of stinkers is over.  I’ve got some good stuff lined up.  I’ll be finishing East of Eden soon, Palimpsest (which we’ll see about..), then I’ve got Fingersmith and The White Tiger in the line-up, along with whatever next hefty classic falls off the shelf.

 “As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.  The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.  From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sicky.”  – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 1

My parents divorced when I was young, and I visited my father on alternate weekends.  I slept on the couch at my father’s, and the few possessions I left there were kept in a laundry room cupboard.  He did not have cable television, but he had a VCR and an acre of land with many trees to sit under and read.  Consequently, I watched one movie and read one book over and over.  There were three movies I could watch, but I found The Color Purple boring and Candyman too frightening for repeated viewings.  Consequently, I came to treasure Beauty and the Beast and it remains one of my favorite movies even now.

The book I read again and again was a children’s abridged and illustrated version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.  I was rather fond of it as well, but never sought out the unabridged version.

This past Christmas, however, audible offered a free recording of it to members, and I downloaded it without much thought.  It was magnificient.  It was the same story I loved as a child, but all dressed up with added description and a wonderful performance.

So it was with, well.. great expectations that I turned to Great Expectations.  I downloaded an audio version of it, performed by one of my favorite readers: Simon Vance (who I discovered while listening to [marvelous] Frankenstein).

The story: Orphaned Pip, living with his sister and his brother-in-law Joe (who treats him as a treasured friend), seems destined to become a blacksmith.  His childhood is relatively eventful: he meets and assists an escaped convict; he spends time at a rich woman’s house playing with her adopted child (Estella, who he quickly falls in love with).  Then in the years of his apprenticeship, an unknown benefactor offers him wealth, but he must move to London and become an educated gentleman as his part of the bargain.  He sets out to London quickly, makes new friends and explores new opportunities, all while trying to woo Estella and discover the truth behind his newfound wealth.

Sounds promising.  The beginning went swimmingly.  I was fond of Pip, curious about the convict, admired Joe.  But then Pip moves to London, and it all changes.   For about 12 hours of the 16 hour audiobook, Pip is rather unlikeable; Joe and the convict are hardly present.  The only truly likeable character who plays a role in the middle of the book (Mr. Wemmick) only appears, it seems, when needed to swiftly furthur the plot.

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, that Mr. Dickens was paid by the word.  You’ve all heard this used to explain why his books are so mightily long.  Personally, though I believed the first bit, I couldn’t believe that any self-respecting author would purposefully draw out a decent story for more money.  I thought, surely, his books are only so long because he has so much to say.  Or because his stories are so intricate, his characters so elaborate, that this length is required.  Now, though, I’m not so sure.

The beginning masterfully draws the reader in.  The ending leaves the reader with a feeling of justice and satisfaction (when considered separate from the middle).  But in the middle, it all falls apart.  It is no pleasure to read.  It drags the reader through the actions and introspection of an unlikeable, ungrateful brat who recognizes his mistakes as he makes them, makes them anyway, then laments, and repeats.  Dickens can do better.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen it in this very book.

I give it 3 of 5 stars.  Good beginning, good ending, good story.  Terribly plodding middle.  I will try another Dickens, but it’ll be awhile.