The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.

The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.

That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?

Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.

All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.

For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.

The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.

Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010

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The Warded Man

By Peter V. Brett

Over the past couple of years I've developed a sort of book-sharing friendship with one of my co-workers. I lent him a couple of Neil Gaiman novels, and he lent me The Stone War. It's been working out pretty well for both of us.

I'd recently let him borrow my copy of Cordelia's Honor, and a couple of days later he stopped by my desk.

"Have you read The Warted Man yet?" he asked, a note of excitement in his voice.

"Warted Man?" I repeated. "Nope, don't think so."

"I'll bring it in tomorrow," he said. "I think you'll like it."

Of course, it turned out that I had misheard him, and what he had actually said was Warded, not Warted, which makes for a pretty different mental image. Happily, I hadn't read (or even heard of) that one either, so I put it into the queue.

He was right, I did like it.

In The Warded Man--author Peter Brett's debut novel--humanity struggles for survival in a world where demons called "corelings" rise from the earth every night, destroying everything they come across. The only protection offered comes in the form of wards--magical symbols painted onto homes and city walls that repel the corelings. There is no other way to stay safe, no way to fight back, and when someone is caught outside after sunset--or, worse, when the wards on their home fail--death is swift and terrible.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to three young characters from three different towns, between whom the narrative skips back and forth. Arlen, a boy whose rage at losing his mother to the corelings while his father cowered in fear drove him to strike out on his own to find a way to fight back against the night. Leesha, a Healer's apprentice who becomes an outcast in her village after her fiancé lies about having slept with her. Rojer, raised by a Jongleur--this world's equivalent of a traveling minstrel--after his village is destroyed by corelings. We follow these three through their youth and into young adulthood as they each uncover hidden talents that may help turn the tide against the corelings.

Because it's the first episode in a series, much of The Warded Man works to establish the backstory of the characters and give you a peek into the world in which they toil. Indeed, about the first two-thirds of the book fall into this category, with things not really picking up until near the end. You'd think that would make the book feel slow and uneventful, but rather than relying on exposition, Brett instead largely focuses on the characters' individual stories, giving us only glimpses at the larger world and its history. The result was a book that was hard for me to put down once I got going.

If I had to make a comparison to other works, the closest I can think of might be Terry Brooks' Shannara series, which also features a fallen world in which dark forces run loose. But Brooks had a tendency to rely pretty heavily on cliché--in fact, the entire first book of that series is blatantly derivative of The Lord of the Rings, and though over the course of the next several books he sort of grew into a more compelling writer, I'm not sure I would really put him in the top tier of epic fantasy authors. Brett, on the other hand, seems fresher in his approach to the genre, and although the novel starts out a little stylistically thin, it continues to develop with the characters--a trick that made me suspect that Brett is a better writer than I had initially guessed--and there's also enough content to pull you in anyway.

The only real negative experience I had with The Warded Man was in not discovering that it was part of a series until I was three-quarters of the way through the book. I hate having to wait for new episodes, so I usually prefer to wait until a series is complete (or at least mostly complete) before starting. Based on the strength of this first volume, though, I think I'll just have to suck it up and wait for the sequels, because it seems like they'll be worth my time.

Started: 7/25/2010 | Finished: 7/29/2010

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Toy Story 3

I heard today that Toy Story 3 recently passed the billion-dollar mark in worldwide box office sales, making it a member of a very exclusive club--only six other films in history have done that. And, despite the fact that the movie is now over two months old, it's still in first-run theaters and still apparently chugging along. My local cineplex still has three showtimes for it.

What with the movie being pretty old at this point, rather than doing a normal review, I'd like to take the opportunity to meld in a topic that I've been thinking about a lot lately: coming to movies after the hype.

Obviously, at this point we're way after the hype for Toy Story 3, but even though I saw the movie almost four weeks ago now, that was also still far enough after the premiere that I couldn't help but be aware of the huge buzz about the film. That's just how it goes for my wife and I now that we're parents; we see movies late, if at all. On the one hand, it's good for us, because we see so few movies nowadays that we want to make sure we get the most out of our time at the theaters. We just can't waste time with the mediocre ones the way we used to.

On the other hand, though, it also means that it's more or less impossible for us to see a movie without being biased. Of course, now that every movie is previewed and reviewed inside and out for months before it debuts, almost nobody actually goes to see a movie without any preconceptions. But back when we saw 50 or 60 movies in a year, we'd see them before most of our friends and before we knew that this movie was a flop or that one was a critical darling or this other one made a trillion dollars. Having all that information ahead of time can't help but influence the way you view a film.

Take Inception, for example. Everyone I know that saw that film came out discussing theories about what was really going on. None of them gave me any of those theories, of course, not wanting to spoil it for me, but just the fact that I knew that they were doing it meant that I watched that movie with an eye toward "figuring it out." Now, I generally do watch movies with a more analytical mindset than the average audience member, but this one had me examining things like themes and cinematography not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but also with the intention of unraveling some sort of secret. I still enjoyed it a lot, mind you, but I can't help but wonder what my reaction would have been had I seen it on opening night.

Similarly, with Toy Story 3, I went in with the knowledge that a huge percentage of my friends (both offline and on social networking sites) had talked about the fact that they cried at the end. So I knew that there was going to be a big emotional moment, and it absolutely changed the way I reacted to the plot and characters--there were several points in the film, for example, where my predictions about what was going to happen next were way off base. Even the fact that I was consciously making predictions in a movie that isn't about "figuring it out" says something.

And this brings me to the "review" portion of this post, because the fact that I knew what everyone else's reaction was, my tendency is to remove myself to a cool, analytical distance from the story and characters, one where I'm more likely to notice how a scene evokes an emotion than to actually experience the emotion for myself. So the fact that I was still hit hard by that emotional payoff and did cry, and that it came in such an unexpected and truly heartwrenching manner, that speaks volumes to the skill and talent of the filmmakers.

That I can still be amazed by what Pixar does, that I've come to the point where I can simultaneously take for granted that their films will be amazing and yet still be profoundly touched by them, that is something wonderful. With every new offering, Pixar keeps managing to bring me back to that place where film is new and exciting, where I remember what it is that keeps me coming back to theaters, and for that I cannot thank them enough.

Viewed: 7/27/2010 | Released: 6/18/2010 | Score: A

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It feels a little silly to write a review for a movie that opened almost six weeks ago, especially since I already wrote up a piece about my interpretation of the movie, but, you know, that's where I am these days.

What can I tell you that you don't already know about Inception? Probably not a whole lot, if you're even remotely interested in movies. It is, like many Christopher Nolan films, complex and layered, and rewards looking closely and (I would think) watching it more than once. On one level, it's basically a heist film and even if you view it as just that and nothing more, it's a very good movie. But, as I pointed out in my previous piece, there may be a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.

As far as the performances go, my appreciation of Leonardo DiCaprio continues to increase--a trend that kind of started with Catch Me If You Can but didn't really kick in until The Departed. I do still find his performances a little on the heavy side--he's clearly a guy who takes himself and his profession very seriously--but given the sort of films he does, that's probably appropriate. It was also very nice to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I quite liked in (500) Days of Summer) take on a more adult role, one which he handled expertly. The one who stole the show for me, though, was Tom Hardy in the role of the "forger," Eames. I've only ever seen him before in Star Trek: Nemesis--which was a pretty forgettable movie overall--but here his combination of charm, dry wit, and occasional seriousness came off just perfectly for me.

There's a lot more to talk about with a film like this, of course, but at this point it's kind of yesterday's news. Besides, the best part about a movie like this is the face-to-face discussions with your friends that you have as you're walking out of the theater, so if you haven't had a chance to check it out yet, grab a couple of friends and get to it.

Viewed: 7/25/2010 | Released: 7/16/2010 | Score: A

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The Vorkosigan Saga

Since committing to a regular update schedule of normal blog posts and photos, my reviews seem to have fallen by the wayside. I've actually managed to read seven books in the two months since my last review, but somehow I just haven't had the time or motivation to write about any of them. To those three or four of you who enjoy reading these reviews: I apologize.

In the interests of speeding things along, rather than reviewing each of the six remaining Vorkosigan novels and omnibuses separately, I'm going to do all of them at once in a single giant-sized, no-holds-barred mega-review. Except, you know, it won't actually be any longer than a normal review and there will be no wrestling or any other form of physical combat involved.

One of the great strengths of this series, I think, is in how each new episode both maintains and extends the overall world and narrative while still remaining relatively self-contained. For people who like to take breaks in between books, this means that you have convenient stopping points along the way. If, on the other hand, you prefer to charge straight through (as I did), you have the effect of a very long story that rewards you with extremely satisfying milestones along the way.

Of course, there's a danger with open-ended, episodic series in that they can get either repetitive or suffer from a sort of "Superman syndrome," wherein the writers have to go to increasingly absurd lengths to continue to challenge the central characters. In this respect, writing open-ended series well can be more challenging than single novels or closed series. I'm happy to report, though, that Bujold has enough skill and imagination to keep her Vorkosigan novels fresh all the way through.

Part of this lies in the way that science fiction lends itself so well to new ideas. So, for example, in Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, Bujold can give us a look at new civilizations and cultures, and explore the differences from and similarities to what we're used to, while in Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, she can tackle topics like identity and brotherhood. As it progresses, the series twists and turns through different concepts and angles, all the while maintaining the same central "feel." It takes a pretty skilled writer to accomplish something like that, I think.

If I had to pick a favorite episode it would probably be either Cetaganda or "The Mountains of Mourning"--the former for the fascinating construction of a civilization both utterly alien and distinctly human, and the latter for the strong characterization and emotional content. My least favorite is probably A Civil Campaign. Really, though, even at its worst, this series is still at the very least a lot of fun to read, and at its best it's grown to be among my favorite works of "light" science fiction.

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem:

Started: 6/21/2010 | Finished: 6/25/2010

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Miles Errant:

Started: 6/26/2010 | Finished: 6/30/2010

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Started: 7/1/2010 | Finished: 7/4/2010

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Miles in Love:

Started: 7/5/2010 | Finished: 7/14/2010

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Diplomatic Immunity:

Started: 7/15/2010 | Finished: 7/20/2010

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Falling Free:

Started: 7/21/2010 | Finished: 7/24/2010

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Samurai William

By Giles Milton

If I were to tell you a story about an English sailor who sails halfway around the world, surviving scurvy and starvation to arrive half-dead in Japan, only to befriend the shogun, become the first Caucasian samurai, and open trade relations between England and Japan, you'd probably think I was making it up. But then, I'm not telling it nearly as well nor with as much detail as Giles Milton in his book Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan.

Milton's book recounts the life and adventures of William Adams, the title figure who, indeed, became an influential member of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu's court, and helped establish the first English trade factory in Japan. But while Adams' life is a great story in itself, Samurai William provides a much broader view. Milton also goes into the history of the European East India companies in Asia and Oceania, the political turmoil at the beginning of Japan's Edo period, and the lives and struggles of the other men at the English factory. The complete picture is one of drama and adventure, presented with some great storytelling.

What struck me most about Samurai William was the sense of how Japan was both impressive and utterly foreign to its European visitors. It's something that you continue to see in Western attitudes toward Japan and its culture, but coming at it from the perspective of men for whom Japan was truly an unknown adds a whole new level, especially considering the relative levels of sophistication of Japan and England in 1600.

I think anyone with an appreciation for history and a good story will enjoy this book. Samurai William manages to both inform and entertain, which, in my book, puts it in the same class as all the best histories.

Started: 6/2/2010 | Finished: 6/18/2010

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The Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

After how much I liked the first volume in this series, I can't believe it took me over a year to pick up the next one. I guess that's just a testament to how long my reading list has gotten.

I should note here that this review will contain some information that could be seen as spoilers if you haven't read the first collection.

The Books of the South is the second omnibus of Glen Cook's Black Company novels. The first two of the included stories--Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel--picks up just after the events of The White Rose. With the Company reduced to just a handful of men, the new Captain decides to turn south to try to return to the group's origin, the city of Khatovar. Along the way, they are swept up into a new battle between the once-pacifistic nation Taglios and its would-be conquerors, the Shadowmasters. Old enemies resurface, and a dark secret is hinted at in the Company's lost history.

Unlike the previous volume, though, this one does not collect a single narrative. Instead, the third novel (The Silver Spike) is a standalone novel that takes place in parallel with the events of Shadow Games. The plot here revolves around a group of small-time criminals who hatch a scheme to steal the titular spike--within which is imprisoned the soul of the Dominator--and sell it to the highest bidder. The Black Company itself isn't involved in the main action; rather, it's the White Rose and her companions--who split off from Croaker and his band at the end of the previous volume--who are left to deal with the problem.

As much as I liked The Chronicles of the Black Company, I expected to be able to jump right into this volume and pick up where I left off. I found, though, that this story was a slower burn. There's a more personal, less epic feel to most of the narrative--the Shadowmasters, for example, seem a pale shadow of the Dominator and Lady of the first arc. Still, I found that I was pretty hooked by the end of Dreams of Steel, which made the cliffhanger ending somewhat frustrating. I'm not sure I can say that this volume was as effective for me as the first, but in any case I'm still looking forward to the next one.

Started: 5/12/2010 | Finished: 5/28/2010

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Personal Days

By Ed Park

The title of Ed Park’s debut novel, Personal Days, is one of those perfect, HR-generated paradoxes. On the one hand, personal days offer the opportunity for freedom, for escape from the humdrum routine of desk-job life. On the other hand, that freedom is contained within a neat, organized little box, usually requiring a form to be filled out and approved to be taken, and in most offices I’ve heard of, you get precious few of them. And, of course, when you do end up using them, it’s more often than not for errands anyway. It’s the kind of title that so perfectly encapsulates the mentality of certain types of jobs, anyone who’s spent even a moderate amount of time working in an office will, seeing it, either smirk or grimace.

Personal Days is the story of a group of co-workers at a faceless sort of “everycompany”--we’re never told the company’s name, or even its business--that is in the midst of a brutal round of layoffs. By the time the book begins, the company is already a shell of its former self, reduced to a handful of sarcastic, distracted, or fatalistic employees and their inept manager. We’re introduced to the characters and the banality of their situation through a series of vignettes, discussions about the differences between the two nearby Starbucks, for example, or a description of the lunchroom dynamics. Eventually, the company is purchased by a group of “Californians,” and the firings resume. The employees become by turns frantic or simply resigned to their fates, being laid off one by one with no apparent logic behind any of it--the Californians and the local management are left quite opaque, with only overheard snippets of conference calls and hastily scribbled notes retrieved from trash cans providing any clues to what’s going on. The real story, revealed in the last of three sections, is even more absurd than anyone guesses.

Park divides his story into three sections, each structured differently from the rest. The first section is a collection of fragments separated by bold-faced headers, while the second reads like a software EULA, complete with paragraph and subsection numbers. The third takes the form of an email from one of the peripheral characters of the first two sections to another who has recently been fired. I was immediately reminded of Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, both from the idiosyncratic formatting and the presentation of office culture. Personal Days cuts harder, though, I think. Much of Coupland’s story is about his characters’ attempt to start their own company, while Park’s characters are never given that kind of agency. Everything about corporate life in Personal Days is dehumanizing, disjointed, and ultimately purposeless.

There’s a lot of humor in this book, and Park is spot-on and merciless as he skewers every aspect of cubicle life. I had a hard time laughing, though. The outlook is just too dark, and there’s never really any hope or redemption given. Even the glimpses we’re given of life after being laid off seem hopelessly mundane. And though we are given an outpouring of emotion and humanness in the stream-of-consciousness email that comprises the final section, it ultimately only serves to make the ending that much more poignant, as we come to realize that the email never reaches its destination.

As a satire and as a portrait of everyday life for so many of us, I have to say that Personal Days is pretty successful. It does feel gimmicky at times, but Park tells the story skillfully enough that I was able to see through the writing tricks well enough to draw me into what I found to be a compelling work narrative. I’m interested to see what he does next.

Started: 5/4/2010 | Finished: 5/11/2010

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Sharpe's Eagle

By Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of the Sharpe novels to be written, and it’s the second in the chronology of the “main” series (at least, as defined by Penguin Books). Picking up some months after the events of Sharpe’s Rifles, this episode finds the title character and his company attached to the South Essex Battalion for the relatively routine assignment of destroying a Spanish bridge in order to keep it from being used by the French. Unfortunately, both his new battalion and the Spanish unit that accompanies them are led by incompetents, officers who bought their commissions rather than being promoted on merit. (This is, as Cornwell makes clear, the rule rather than the exception in the Royal Army of the Napoleonic era.) Sharpe finds himself caught in an unnecessary battle, and though he and his men acquit themselves well, the South Essex as a whole is mismanaged and defeated, and suffer the ultimate dishonor of losing their regimental colors. Sharpe is forced to fight his way clear of the debacle, and in order to save both his career and his unit’s honor, vows to make up for the loss of the South Essex’s flag by doing something that’s never been done before: capturing a French standard, the eagle of the title. Along the way, he must outwit not only his enemies but the schemes and betrayals of the South Essex’s commander and his foppish nephew, as well.

What was most interesting to me about Sharpe’s Eagle was how consistent the tone and characters were with what I saw in Sharpe’s Rifles. Mind you, although the books are adjacent in the chronology of the series, seven years and six other novels actually came between the writing of the two. I might have thought that a gap like that would be problematic, but this episode flows directly from the previous as though they were chapters in a single book. That’s more of a testament to Rifles than Eagle, of course, but it certainly shows the truth of the claim that where you start this series isn’t terribly important.

Everything I liked about Rifles is present in Eagle--the vivid battles, the camaraderie between the men, the friendship between Sharpe and Harper, and the wonderfully flawed character of Sharpe, himself--so in that respect it was a successful story for me. If it didn’t add much more, that’s alright because I don’t really need--or want--anything else.

I tell you: it’s going to take some effort on my part to space out this series and read other stuff in between episodes.

Started: 4/26/2010 | Finished: 5/1/2010

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Young Miles

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Young Miles is the second omnibus in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. Picking up a decade or so after the events of the first volume--which I read and enjoyed earlier this year--this set of stories recounts the events of the early career of Miles Vorkosigan, the son of Cordelia's Honor's protagonists, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. Over the course of the three constituent works (The Warrior's Apprentice, the short story The Mountains of Mourning, and The Vor Game) Miles has adventures with a mercenary fleet, solves a mystery in his home district's backcountry, graduates from the Barrayaran Imperial Academy, stops an interstellar war, and rescues his emperor. As you might guess from a description like that, it's a pretty fun read.

If anything, I liked Young Miles even more than Cordelia's Honor. The backstory of the first volume was woven into these stories quite neatly, and combined with the fact that new characters brought new perspectives on old events, it made returning to this world feel like slipping on a comfortable old sweater; I experienced a feeling of nostalgia that was surprising given that it had only been a few months since my first encounter with the series. Additionally, the change in protagonist from Cordelia to Miles worked well for me, though that's no surprise given how many of my favorite SF and fantasy adventures have been coming-of-age stories. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get over that; most of the time I don't think I want to.

The only thing that bothered me a bit about this collection was the overall structure of the third section, The Vor Game. That novel actually won the Hugo when it was originally released, something that I don't quite get. The story was kind of sprawling and all over the place, and while everything does eventually tie together, it felt loose and episodic while I was actually in it.

Still, the character of Miles Vorkosigan was instantly likeable, both empathetic and funny. I understand he is the main character of most of the rest of the series, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him.

Started: 4/15/2010 | Finished: 4/23/2010

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