Monday, February 18, 2013

The Winter of Our Discontent

It's been a long time since I've read anything by John Steinbeck, and I think he's great. So I got The Winter of Our Discontent as an audio book and listened to it during my commute. The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare's Richard III, and in that play we see what one man is willing to do to achieve his ends.

I'm really glad I listened to this book. Although, I've spent several days recovering from it. Steinbeck is an amazing writer. His descriptions alone are worth reading. That being said, Steinbeck is tough, and this novel is slow moving. Like many of his books, this one drags the reader through the mud before finally giving a little spark of hope at the end. The happy theme of this is corruption and dishonesty taking over America as seen in the life of one man and his family.

It's written in the first person (except for some random chapters in the middle that are inexplicably and jarringly written in the third person) from the perspective of Ethan Allen Hawley. Hawley considers himself an honest man, and he is. He comes from an old family, who used to have money, but now Ethan works as a grocery clerk in a store he used to own. What starts as a game on Good Friday leads to Ethan's complete moral destruction by the Fourth of July.

A fortune teller, some passing conversations with a bank teller, and Ethan's own dissatisfaction with being a grocery clerk, leads him slowly down a pathway of decisions that destroy the man he used to be. And it happened so easily and organically, that Ethan seems to wonder how it all got that far. He convinces himself that integrity is something that he can put on and take off like a shirt and go about his life as if nothing has changed. Just as killing people in the war didn't make him a killer, taking advantage of someone else, or robbing a bank to get ahead won't make him a thief forever.

But in the end, he figures out that he was wrong. He sees his own moral failings in his dishonest and cheating son. Ethan suddenly can't live with himself.

The female characters are interesting in this novel. Hawley's wife is kind of a thin character; there's not much to her. Her friend Marjorie is described by Ethan as a predator, and she is. She wants to lead him down the morally corrupt path and snare him at the end. It's Ethan's daughter Ellen that ends up being a surprising and interesting character. He mistakes her for just another shallow, selfish, teenage girl. In the end it's her perceptiveness that saves Ethan and gives the reader hope for the Hawleys and for the country.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What the Dog Saw

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell has been sitting on my shelf for a while waiting for me to pick it up. I've enjoyed Gladwell's work ever since I read The Tipping Point several years ago. He has an easily identifiable style, and I like the way he writes clearly and beautifully lays out the story he's telling.

This book is a collection of essays that he originally wrote for The New Yorker magazine. It's divided into three sections. The first section looks at minor geniuses; the second looks at ways we organize experience; the third section looks at the predictions we make about other people.

Gladwell explores hair dye, the birth control pill, choking versus panicking, the Challenger disaster, job interviews, ketchup, and pit bulls among many other topics. One of my favorites was the essay "Million-Dollar Murray" which looked at solving the problem of homelessness instead of just managing it.

I don't think you have to agree with everything he writes to enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's writing. It will help you look at the world, or at least some small part of it, in a new way.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Three audio books to begin the year

I've been meaning to read something, anything, by P.G. Wodehouse for a long time. Finally, I picked up the audio version of Carry On, Jeeves. It was read by Martin Jarvis, and he was fabulous. I loved the book so much that I immediately got the audio version of My Man Jeeves. Jeeves is the private valet or gentleman's personal gentleman to Bertie Wooster. Jeeves is where we get the iconic character of the well-educated butler and his amazing ability to solve problems and do just about anything. Bertie is a self-proclaimed "chump" and I don't know how he got along before he met Jeeves. These books consist of short stories in which Bertie or one of Bertie's friends gets into a ridiculous scrape that Jeeves must then get him out of. Carry On, Jeeves also had stories about Bertie's friend Reggie Pepper. I liked those stories, but I liked the Jeeves stories best. I'm not sure why I liked the stories so much or why I found them so funny, but I did. I think I will major in Wodehouse for the 50/50 challenge this year.

Next, I listened to Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. I enjoyed it, and it was pretty funny. But I didn't find it as friendly or welcoming, if you know what I mean, as the Jeeves books, so I didn't like this as much as I did those. I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not just listed to the Wodehouse books. The scene in which the men try to open a pineapple tin without a can opener is pretty awesome.