Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rant or Rave: John Steinbeck

I vaguely remember reading John Steinbeck in high school-- The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, I think-- but only vaguely. I also remember thinking the former was pretty good, but that the dialogue was annoying because it was written to reflect how the characters actually pronounced the world. So that Rose of Sharon becomes Rosasharn. Of Cannery Row I have almost no memory whatsoever. I never read East of Eden or Of Mice and Men.

Okay, that's the set up for my rave-- what a difference a few decades can make in your perceptions. I recently finished listening to an audiobooks version of The Grapes of Wrath and it was spellbinding. The man could write. And tell a story. No small or mean feat. Lots of mediocre to good authors can write, but aren't all that great at telling a story. And vice-versa-- there are many very talented storytellers out there whose work will never ascend to the status of great because their writing is only decent. To have both is a rare thing, and Steinbeck puts his prodigious storytelling and writing talents to good use in The Grapes of Wrath.

The question for me then became-- why didn't I recognize the greatness of the book in high school? What was different about me, that made my reaction to the book so much stronger and more positive than the first time I read it?

I think the biggest single factor was my own experience-- having written both fiction and non-fiction, I have experienced the difficulty involved in writing even good material, much less great material, in a way that I had no conception of in high school. No conception of whatever. The level of detail Steinbeck leverages into his narrative is amazing-- doubly so because the narrative itself never seems to drag, never seems to be too "wordy".

Additionally, the setting (middle of the Great Depression) and the plot (poor farmers, forced to leave their Oklahoma farms because of banks and corporations) resonates with me very strongly right now. Hopefully, 2008 won't be this century's 1929 and the recession won't become a depression, much less a Great Depression, but the timing of my reading was very interesting.

Finally, I have to say that the audiobook version of The Grapes of Wrath was most excellent-- I am becoming a huge fan of a well-done audiobook. With an audiobook, Steinbeck's dialogue wasn't annoying or hard to decipher at all-- instead it became a rich part of the story itself. I was hearing the characters talk in the manner Steinbeck sought to capture when he wrote the diaglogue as he did. And it was really cool.
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The ending was a letdown at first, it seemed so odd, abrupt and inconclusive, but after thinking about it for a while, I made my peace with it. It was still odd, but its non-resolution of what happened to all the major characters stopped bothering me-- the ending to the Joad's story probably shouldn't be too definitive.

Currently, I am nearly half-way through the audiobook version of East of Eden and liking it very much. Not quite as much as The Grapes of Wrath, but that would be a tall hurdle to clear.

So, a big rave for John Steinbeck and also for well-narrated and produced audiobooks!

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