Category: Books

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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Half Of A Yellow Sun – Book Review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun is a wrenching novel about love, disappointment, forgiveness and the unbearable emptiness of loss. Set during the 1960’s, the story details Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria. The novel gives the reader a glimpse into the politics which created Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie’s simple and eloquent language reveals the vivid, stark images of Nigeria’s cities, people and bush villages. Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo, Richard and Kainene are just some of the characters who people this novel – complex, rich and unforgettable they show us what it is like to be vulnerable and human during a time of uncertainty.

This is not a ‘feel good’ novel – instead it stuns the reader with the horrifying images of a brutal war and reminds us that in the end, despite cultural and religious and race differences, we are all just people struggling to anchor our lives with others.

Half Of A Yellow Sun is a literary masterpiece that has earned its place on the New York Times Most Notable Ficiton of 2007.

Excerpts from the book:

About forgiveness….

“I also think that you should forgive Odenigbo,” he said, and pulled at his collar as though it was choking him. For a moment Olanna felt contempt for him. What he was saying was too easy, too predictable. She did not need to have come to hear it.
“Okay.” She got up. “Thank you.”
“It’s not for him, you know. It’s for you.”
“What?” He was still sitting, so she looked down to meet his eyes.
“Don’t see it as forgiving him. See it as allowing yourself to be happy. What will you do with the misery you have chosen? Will you eat misery?”

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,” Kainene said.There was a pause. Inside Olanna, something calcified leaped to life.
“Do you know waht I mean?” Kainene asked.

About the horrors of war…

His first article was about the fall of Onitsha. He wrote that the Nigerians had tried many times to take this ancient town but the Biafrans fought valiantly, that hundreds of popular novels had been published here before the war, that the thick sad smoke of the burning Niger Bridge had risen like a defiant elegy. He described the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, where soldiers of the Nigeria Second Division first defecated on the altar before killing two hundred civilians. He quoted a calm eyewitness: “The vandals are people who shit on God. We will overcome them.”

About loss…

She wanted him to truly talk to her, help her to help him grieve, but each time she told him, he said, “It’s too late, nkem.” She was not sure what he meant. She sensed the layers of his grief – he would never know how Mama had died and would always struggle with old resentments – but she did not feel connected to his mourning. Sometimes she wondered if this was her own failure rather than his, if perhaps she lacked a certain strength that would compel him to include her in his pain.


Olanna reached out and grasped Odenigbo’s arm and the screams came out of her, screeching, piercing screams, because something in her head stretched taut. Because she felt attacked, relentlessly clobbered, by loss.

About racism…

“Who brought racism into the world?” Odenigbo asked.
“I don’t see your point,” Kainene said.
“The white man brought racism into the world. He used it as a basis of conquest. It is always easier to conquer a more humane people.”
“So when we conquer the Nigerians we will be the less humane?” Kainene asked.
Odenigbo said nothing.

To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

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I don’t normally read the books that get all the hype. In fact, I usually avoid them because more often then not they do not live up to the reviews. But, with Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, the rich cover art made me stop and pick up the book. And I’m happy I did. Setterfield creates a world of intrigue set in libraries and an antique bookstore. Her beautiful language and interesting (albeit dysfunctional) characters kept me up late at night turning the pages. She offers many twists and turns on her way to revealing secrets long kept. There is a mystery, a murder, and characters who are not always what they seem.

The story centers around a famous author, Vida Winter, who is facing her mortality and decides to reveal the secrets of her past to biographer Margeret Lea…a woman with her own secrets. It is a story within a story, a rich tapestry of language and images, a gothic fairy tale which pits good against evil.

Highly recommended.

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