Thursday, September 8, 2011

East of Eden - John Steinbeck (Audio)

I'm not sure how I can call myself a book lover and never have read John Steinbeck (OK, maybe I read Of Mice and Men in high school but I don't remember it).  I feel bad about that.  He is one of the American greats, and I've ignored him for 45 years?  But what my literary schooling didn't provide me, my book club does, God bless them.  They have forced some proper literature upon me.

Synopsis:  The setting is Salinas Valley in Northern California, turn of the century, when farmers are scratching out a living, and capitalism is on the rise.  It is against this backdrop that the epic story of good versus evil is told.  At the heart of the story is two half-brothers, Charles and Adam, one loved more than the other by their single father, and thus plants the seed of jealousy and competition that will endure into the next generation. 

Enter the perfect antagonist, Cathy, who believes the world is all evil, and sets out to use that to her advantage with a heart as cold as ice, for personal gain.  Not only will she infect the lives of Charles and Adam, but have a pervasive influence on the lives of her and Adam's twin sons Cal and Aron. 

Rounding out one of the most realized cast of characters in a literary novel are the supporting crew that deserve their own separate billing...Samuel Hamilton, the joyous, Irish farmer full of friendship and sage advice for his neighbors, and Lee, the Chinese American that works for Adam Trask and serves as the caretaker of Cal and Aron's souls. 

In what has been heralded as the "great American novel", the reader finds themselves overwhelmed in themes of good versus evil, jealousy, brotherly love and hate, and the notion of "timshel" or "thou mayest"...freewill to overcome that darkness which can ruin a man.

My thoughts:  To even attempt to write a synopsis on this monster is bogus, plus 90% of the reading world already knows the plot anyway, but I had to try for sport.  This is the perfect example of a novel being greater than the sum of its parts.  It is big and epic, filled with four dimensional characters (where they almost stick their fingers out of the pages and poke you in the eye, or the ear as it were), and expansive themes that my little brain almost can't comprehend.

The emotions laid before you are jarring.  There was very little here that was lukewarm.  I hated Cathy - she was as close to pure evil as you find in a book, and made my skin crawl and my stomach turn.  But I loved to hate her too!  I wanted to hug Samuel Hamilton and Lee, and befriend their warm, giving hearts.  I wanted to smack Adam, that sap.  For all the mistakes his father made, he turned around and made the same stupid mistakes with his own sons.  He was gullible as well.  Grrrr.  Then there was all that murky, oily, gut-deep turmoil between brothers.  It was expressed in such raw and feral terms, and at such a Cain and Able level of human nature, it made me uncomfortable and squrim in my chair. 

It was these violent emotions that Steinbeck so perceptively described that caused me to spiral into a malaise when I finished the audio.  The anger!  The angst!  The tragedies!  The moral ruin! While the book was brilliant, it was not uplifting.  Not even Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and the ultimate victory of timshel could save me.  I wildly grasped for a David Sedaris audio afterwards like a life preserver.

A word about the audio production:  More than a few of my book club members raised their eyebrows when I mentioned I would be "reading" this classic on audio.  Almost seems sacrilegious, doesn't it?  But it did work.  At the outset, the narrator, Richard Poe, came across as stiff and vocally inflexible.  But as the story developed, he grew on me.  For anyone that may not have the time to sit and read over 600 pages in print, I'd highly recommend the audio option.

5 out of 5 stars                   

22 comments:

JoAnn said...

One of my all-time favorites, Sandy... so glad you loved it, too!

Jeane said...

Next to Grapes of Wrath this is my favorite Steinbeck novel. Granted, I haven't read many of the hefty ones, really ought to get to more!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Doesn't it kill you in books when the author has the son do the very same thing he hated the father for? You just want to scream!!!! That was also the case with "The Wake of Forgiveness" by Bruce Machart, a similarly dark and absorbing tale with very good writing (not however to compare him to Steinbeck!).

Trisha said...

I've read Steinbeck, but never this one. An awesome Secret Santa gave me this last Christmas though, so someday I will get around to it.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't experienced Steinbeck since high school and I never experienced this one. It seems like my sister read it a few years ago and raved over it too.

Alyce said...

Our book club read & discussed this last month but I was one of the two people who didn't finish it. His writing was beautiful but life was just too busy (and he has a habit of breaking my heart, so I didn't have much incentive to finish).

Zibilee said...

I thought that this book was brilliant, but also very sad and at times emotionally heavy. I absolutely despised Cathy, and felt that Steinbeck created a villain that was not only terrible, but horrifying as well. The book was indeed as epic as you've described it, and it had so may themes and ideas running through it. I found it incredible that it was both so complicated yet so easy to get invested in as well. This was an exceptional review by the way. I wrote one up for this book (which was also a book club read for me) and then never posted it.

farmlanebooks said...

I'm sure I read several Steinbeck books in school, but can't remember anything about them either. It sounds as though I should give him another try.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I'm so glad you loved it. When I finished this one (also on audio) I was just destroyed. I didn't know what I felt about it, because like you said, it forces you to have such extreme emotions. When I reflect back on it though, I realize that it's an incredibly powerful and complicated book.

p.s. Sometimes I think it works better to listen to classics on audio, because you can't get hung up by the old language.

Jenny said...

I've really never even considered needing to add a Steinbeck to my shelf, LOL... uh, I don't know why. But it sounds like this has been a mistake! This sounds so good. I did read Grapes of Wrath back in the day.. maybe even junior high but really that was a waste of time because I couldn't appreciate that kind of literature then!

heidenkind said...

I really liked The Grapes of Wrath, you should read that.

wordsandpeace said...

I also listened to it, years ago, at a time I was not blogging, and I was not even paying attention to readers, but I can still hear Lee's voice! I just loved it so much.
My Steinbeck's favorites.
Did you know that The Classics Circuit last month was on Steinbeck's books? Here is the retrospect with books and links of blogs where they got reviewed. I reviewed Of Mice And Men.
http://classics.rebeccareid.com/2011/08/john-steinbeck-in-retrospect/
Thanks for your review. Emma @ Words And Peace

caite said...

this is one of his books that I have not read...although I must say my fav book of his is the non-fiction Travels With Charley. Love that book.

Julie P. said...

We read this for my book club last summer. What an amazing book.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've actually never read Steinbeck (I don't think), but...I did see this movie with James Dean in it. Delightful.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I love John Steinbeck and had an opportunity in college to read most of this works. I remember East of Eden vivedly, and I really enjoyed it. One day I'll have to reread it.

Ti said...

I love that you used the word "bogus" in this review. You are definitely my kind of people.

East of Eden is one of my fave books of all time. Cathy is pure evil. There are no gray zones with her...she is all black yet at the same time, I sort of felt sorry for her. There are people in this world that don't know what happiness is, and that describes her in a nutshell.

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

This is my VERY FAVORITE BOOK. I think I will have to attempt an audio re-read at some point.

reviewsbylola said...

Cathy was such a great villain! She made my skin crawl.

The Bumbles said...

Well I will just have to read this one - a chunkster classic with a terrible villain? My kind of read. Will I miss out terribly on the underlying themes if I am not up on my bible stories?

Teacher/Learner said...

I'm sad to say that I too haven't read a single Steinbeck novel. *sigh* The guilt eats away at me :D East of Eden sounds great. It was a very good movie--James Dean was terrific, and I'd highly recommend checking it out.

Alice Teh said...

I have this buried somewhere in my pile and I'm glad you took the decision to try to write the synopsis. I haven't had a clue although I did own the book for years. I need to read this (yes, I know I've said the same thing over and over again for all the other books...).