January 19, 2007 archive

The House on Mango Street – Book Review

Sandra Cisneros’ love of poetry shines through in her novel: The House on Mango Street. Her sparse, beautiful prose conjures up vivid images of life in the Latino section of Chicago. Told from the point of view of Esperanza, a young girl living in the inner city with her family, the novel reveals the harsh realities of the city and the innocent beauty of a child’s perspective. It is a coming of age story, a story about a young girl who dreams one day of a house of her own “quiet as snow, a place for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

A short read that flows easily along and leaves the reader with a sense of hope.


Favorite passages:

She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.                                                                                                           
-page 11-

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.
-page 28-

You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad. Here there is too much sadness and not enough sky. Butterflies too are few and so are flowers and most things that are beautiful. Still, we take what we can get and make the best of it.
-page 33-

The Grapes of Wrath – Book Review

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

                                                                                                                                                            -From the Grapes of Wrath, page 349-

In John Steinbeck’s most renown novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad gets released from prison and returns to a home decimated by technology:

“Le’s look in the house. She’s all pushed out a shape. Something knocked the hell out of her.” They walked slowly toward the sagging house. Two of the supports of the porch roof were pushed out so that the roof flopped down on one end. And the house-corner was crushed in. Through a maze of splintered wood the room at the corner was visible. The front door hung open inward, and a low strong gate across the front door hung outward on leather hinges.                                                                              -From The Grapes of Wrath, page 41-

Thus, this sweeping novel takes us on a journey with the Joad family as they join thousands of migrant workers seeking a better life in the West. Steinbeck fills his novel with homespun characters and the bitter reality of life in the 1930s during the Great Dust Bowl migration.

This novel has been banned, burned and challenged since its publication in 1939 for reasons such as “vulgar language” and “sexual references.” In addition, Steinbeck angered many for his honest depiction of the political and economic landscape in the 1930s, where large landowners artificially inflated the cost of goods by destroying surpluses and drove down wages by luring thousands of workers to a California  that could not support their numbers.

Steinbeck is a genius at characterization and using symbolism to draw images for the reader. Tom Joad represents all the survivors who joined together and found strength in numbers; who fought back when the future looked the bleakest; who rose up to fight for their families; and who refused to lose dignity even while camping in Hoovervilles.

The women who people this novel are wonderful – strong, authentic, the glue that holds the family together. Ma Joad’s tough, realistic character drives the novel and tugs at the reader’s heartstrings:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.                                                                                                                            – From The Grapes of Wrath, page 74-

Beautiful descriptions of a desolate country; use of symbolism; amazing characterization; compelling dialogue; a vivid and honest portrayal of the family; and an ending which will shock…are all reasons why Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few great American novels. A must read. The Joad family will stick with the reader long after the final page has been turned.

Highly recommended.

Following are some of my favorite passages from the novel.

About the countryside:

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from  dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.  From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.     -page 118-

About Granma:

Behind him hobbled Granma, who had survived only because she was as mean as her husband. She had held her own with a shrill ferocious religiosity that was a lecherous and as savage as anything Grampa could offer. Once, after a meeting, while she was still speaking in tongue, she fired both barrels of a shotgun at her husband, ripping one of his buttocks nearly off, and after that he admired her and did not try to torture her as children torture bugs. As she walked she hiked her Mother Hubbard up to her knees, and she bleated her shrill terrible war cry: “Pu-raise Gawd fur victory.”     -page 78-

About symbolism (the turtle):

He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment.         -page 14-15-

About community:

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was a dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby.     -page 193-
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