Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – Gabriel García MÁRQUEZ

What do you do when you come up against an author who is pretty clearly established as THE major voice of Latin American fiction of the 20th century? It’s not like I’m going to be able to say anything new here – I’m pretty sure everything that could be said has been said about Márquez. So prepare yourself for some discussion that you’ve probably heard a thousand times before.

When Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, his widow, Fermina Daza, is met with a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza. He wants, after sixty odd years, to get back together, and grow old with her. And so our story unfolds, covering the lives of these two people, and how they came to be as they are, all against the background of early twentieth century Colombia.

This is, as the title clearly suggests, a novel about love – but I’m not sure it’s actually a love story. And I think there’s a distinction there that I want to talk about for a bit here. Ostensibly, this is a novel about how Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (spoliers!) fall in love, fall out of love, and spend their lives with other people. But Márquez does seem to be far more interested in how the concept of “love” actually shapes these two lives, and how it affects the way they interact with the people they meet during their long lives.

Probably the term most people associate with Márquez’s name is magical realism – it almost seems as though you cannot talk about one without the either. Now, either my definition of magical realism is way off, or I’m just really thick. I don’t really see any kind of magical realism in Love in the Time of Cholera. For me, magical realism has always been, essentially, the literary cop out for when a “real” author writes something that has fantastical elements in it, and I usually think that to mean mystical creatures, wizards, or even weird supernatural happenings, a la Murakami. Nothing like that really happens here. In fact, tying it back into what I was talking about above, this is a truly Romantic novel, with a capital R. He’s working with only a few main characters, but the canvas he’s working on is pretty huge, and covers a pretty vast stretch of time. And he does want to deal with the idea of love, and how love affects people – in both positive and negative ways.

The vast majority of the novel hinges around one decision made by an impulsive young girl who, seemingly on a whim, decides that her fairytale romance, conducted almost entirely through letters, is too ridiculous, and ends it. Just like that. One has to wonder what it was that caused her to do this, and it took me a long time to work through it. I still don’t think I really understand the reason for Fermina Daza’s rejection, and it jarred with me for quite a while. Perhaps it was a youth thing. Maybe she thought love couldn’t possibly come to someone as young as her, and so she rejected it, waiting for ‘real’ love to arrive.

Of course, neither Fermina Daza nor Florentino Ariza are happy throughout their lives. Fermina Daza quickly realises that her husband is not someone she particularly likes, and yet remains with him, stubbornly not thinking about what her life could be like. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, remains obsessed with what might have been, and spends his life waiting for Urbino to die. What interests me most about Ariza is the fact that he can completely dissociate love from sex, so much so that, despite being a giant man whore for the entire novel, he can say to Fermina Daza at the end of it, with a straight face, that he is a virgin, having saved himself for her. His love for her is what sustains him throughout his life, often to his detriment.

Actually, what I find quite ironic about the whole thing is that, having read Roberto Bolaño, and being a pretty big fan, it’s interesting to come back and see what he was reacting against. Bolaño and his crew were all about creating a new kind of South American fiction, one that moved well away from the established voices of Márquez et al. But not really knowing anything about what he was reacting against, it’s nice to come back and see the original stuff. I don’t think this is bad literature – I really enjoyed reading it. But I can understand why someone like Bolaño might get frustrated with Márquez’s work. Márquez sees his world as a truly Romantic place, where love abounds, and there is a romanticised view of the town in which these characters live. Despite the name, cholera is only ever a spectre here. And it is kind of safe. I don’t know if that’s just ’cause I’m reading it 25 years after the fact, but it doesn’t feel revolutionary or genre-bendingly.

And I’ve decided I have to stop reading blurbs. Every time I read one, the twist in the middle of the novel is spoiled, or it is only tangentially related to what the novel is about. Seriously, people.

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Disgrace (1999) – J.M. COETZEE

I should start this review by admitting I’ve never had much interest in reading Coetzee. The only thing I really know about him is that I never know whether to put his books in Australian Literature or not at work. But then this came up on a reading list at uni, so I didn’t really have a choice. Well, I had a choice, but I didn’t want to sound like an uninformed idiot when I went into the tute.

David Lurie is a twice divorced man of 52, who is rapidly realising his place in the world is being superseded by those younger than him. His job at the university no longer interests him – in fact, the only pleasure he derives from life is sleeping with prostitutes. But when he has an awkward sexual encounter with a student, he is forced to go bush, to go to his estranged daughter’s farm. Waiting there, though, is something that will affect their already fractious relationship.

It’s funny that this was on a reading list for postcolonial literature, because I never really got that vibe from reading the novel. Sure, it’s set in South Africa just after the fall of apartheid, and there are some race politics bubbling under the surface, but I don’t buy for a second that that’s the focus of the novel, or even the aim of Coetzee here. Here, he seems far more interested in gender politics, and how men and women interact with each other in the most extreme of situations.

Central to the plot, and indeed, the philosophy of the novel, are two sexual assaults – though they are world apart in tone and intent. What I’m about to say shouldn’t in any way make you think I’m ok with rape (because I’m really not), but Disgrace asks us to think about some difficult questions, so these are the things I’m trying to answer here.

The first one is uncomfortable, though vague enough for some people to perhaps not qualify it as a rape. Of course, David, our narrator, certainly doesn’t think so, and there is enough ambiguity in the way the girl acts, both during the incident and afterwards, to make us question what we might call the event that occurred. David is in no doubt of what happened – he was caught up in the moment, and it was a momentary lapse of judgement. He offers no kind of apology, simply an explanation of what was going through his mind when it happened. As you can probably guess, he doesn’t come off as a likeable kind of guy.

The second, though, is not so much uncomfortable so much as very confronting. There’s something to be said for typing your main character up in a room where he can hear his daughter be gang raped by three men. Not pretty, but then, I guess that’s the point. Stupid me was so shocked by the whole thing it took me a few more pages to realise what Coetzee was doing here – mirroring the sexual assault at the beginning, and forcing David to think about it from a different angle. Lucy’s reaction to her assault, and Melanie’s reaction to the first, are interesting in that, in some ways, they are the same. Neither of them want to talk about it – Lucy insists that it is not shame, but rather, that her father will never understand her, so she just doesn’t want to talk about it.

And this brings us to the central question of the novel: can a man ever understand what it’s like to be a woman, particularly one who’s been sexually assaulted? It’s not a question that I can answer, and Coetzee only provides a very tangential answer – I suspect he leans towards no, but his narrator is so messed up anyway, I can’t decided if he’s just presenting David as an idiot, or a wider symbol of manhood everywhere. Of course, David is not a symbol of manhood everywhere – he is a symbol of a particular kind of man at a particular stage in his life, where women have abandoned him willy nilly, and he’s done nothing to help the situation, by sleeping around like a man whore, and treating the women he sleeps with very little respect.

It is perhaps telling that, for an hour a few weeks ago, when we had a tute about this novel, I had very little to say. I don’t know how I feel about Disgrace. Certainly, it’s not at all what I thought it was. It is taught, sparse, and above all, unsettling. While David is understandable, he is not likeable. And no other character is, for me, understandable. These people are just doing things that I cannot comprehend. Perhaps, though, that was the point. David is out of touch with the world, and we are just seeing the world through the eyes of a tired, middle-aged man.

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The Museum of Innocence (2009) – Orhan PAMUK

Clearly it’s been some time since I’ve written anything here. Sorry for that – it’s been quite a busy few months, and I’ve not had a whole load of time nor (for probably the first time in my life) inclination to do much reading. But I’m getting back into it, and I’ve read a few interesting tomes in the meantime. So here’s me trying to catch up on the giant backlog of posting I should have been doing.

Istanbul is a romantic city – the old clichés of east meeting west, all that kind of stuff, are true. And in the 1970s, Kemal, a young, rich socialite falls in love with, Füsun, one of his distant relatives. Of course, this cannot be, for he is engaged, and she has no interest in him. But as his love begins to consume his life, Kemal begins to take steps towards an obsession that will dominate his every waking thought, and change his life irrevocably.

I don’t think I really liked Kemal, in the end. He spends so much of his time pining for something he can’t have, without seeming to realise the girl he wants doesn’t necessarily want him, that he simply becomes miserable for its own sake. It’s almost as though he is only happy if he has something to be miserable about. And in many ways, he is the ultimate objectifier of women. He is in love with Füsun not for who she is as a person, but with the items she owns or touches – things that relate to her are more important to him, in the end, than Füsun herself. It’s this attitude towards women that really bugs me, and I know that’s probably the point of the novel, but it did nothing to endear me to Kemal, and since this is such an unneccesarily long novel, I was unimpressed each time he stole something.

There are some hilariously awkward scenes where Kemal, who just never seems to get the hint, goes to Füsun’s family house every night for months on end, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one else ants him to be there. There are some less hilarious, but no less awkward scenes, where Kemal goes about stealing all these possessions of Füsun’s, so he can surround himself with them in his run down apartment, replacing the love for her with the love for the idea of her, if that makes any sense. It is an obsession that has no basis in reality, for Kemal truly becomes obsessed by his obsession, losing sight of what he wanted in the first place.

The Museum of Innocence is also far, far too long for its own good. As I said my review of Snow, I love Pamuk’s style, but the things he writes about are less enthralling, to say the least. The fact that he manages to stretch this story out for so long is a testament to his ability to just keep writing, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. His descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970s are nice, and he does manage to evoke the neighbourhood in spectacular fashion. But the plot rapidly becomes repetitive, with scenes that were once funny or poignant played out again and again and again. The law of diminishing returns is in full force here, and by the end, you don’t actually want Kemal to be happy.

It is a relief, therefore, to read the inevitable end of his infatuation with Füsun, in the physical sense. Her death is the only way I could have satisfactorily believed their relationship could work, because the difference between what Kemal wanted, and the actual reality of what this relationship meant was too great to be hurdled. And the way in which it occurs – something so random, so unplanned, so opposite to all the thinking and worrying Kemal has put into the possibilities of his future with her, is a nice touch, too.

I so want to love and read Orhan Pamuk. I have always wanted to go to Turkey, and I feel that, as the most famous Turkish author, I should love everything he does. But The Museum of Innocence does nothing for his reputation in my mind. Maybe if it were half the length, this could have been great, but unfortunately, the masterpiece on love, loss and growing up Pamuk was aiming for rapidly becomes repetitive, boring, with an unrelatable main character who gets what he deserves.

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The Land of Green Plums (1993) – Herta MÜLLER

If you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can expect sales to pick up a bit. That, and the rate of people translating you out of your native language. Hey, it works. That’s the only reason I was looking for Müller’s work. I don’t think even I, who has pretty pretentious taste, could claim I was looking for Romanian literature written in German about the Romanian dictatorship of the mid 20th century.

A group of students are struggling to live under the rule of a despotic dictatorship, where everyone around you is possibly a spy. As the days pass, these students must learn to deal with what is happening around them, with the possibility of young love, with the chance of being killed for thinking, and with the frightening reality of escaping such a rule.

There is a gratuitously large amount of fiction dealing with life under dictatorships – from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams. So why is Müller’s work worthy of a Nobel Prize, when it could quite easily be argued that this genre has been done to death? And there are two reasons that I can see.

The first is the immediacy and simplicity of Müller’s language in telling the tale. There is a lot to be said for sparse language stylings – and that’s not just an excuse for bad writing. Müller’s language tends towards the simple, but not the simplistic, and this has probably a lot to do with her background in poetry. She does have a way with language, and that creates some beautiful imagery and character insights with language that no one could attack as being purple. In many ways, it is almost childish in its simplicity, but that is the beauty of Müller’s work – she does not have to rely on overwrought language in order to create a terrifying world.

Having said that, this creates something of a problem with the plot – which is certainly not non-existent, but rather, it becomes secondary to the small images Müller seems more concerned in creating. As I say, there is definitely a plot, but it is far more episodic in nature, and the things that Müller leaves unsaid are almost as important as the things she does say. Instead of overwriting the important set pieces, she prefers to simply write the other things – the tiny reactions to these big events, or the concurrent story of an unnamed Romanian family as we follow the lives of these students.

The second reason, then, for justification of Müller’s work? The bleakness and simplicity of language translates into her characters and situations. The people we follow here are young people, and the choice is not arbitrary. These university students – people, then, in the prime of youth; people we see as perhaps the most politically active and opinionated – have been completely silenced and neutered. And that’s what makes this novel so tragic. There are no big political statements, and I don’t think Müller is trying to overthrow any government with this work, but she is simply trying to show just how bleak this life is. For all of these people, death – and suicide in particular – seem to be everyday thoughts.   nothing redeeming here. And even the chance of escape does not offer immediate respite – trying to escape will more than likely get you killed anyway, so the whole thing is, arguably, pointless. You can either die here, or die trying to get out.

Along with the five students, the most prominent character is that of Captain Pjele, a sadistic and quite frankly creepy officer of the Communist Party, whose life mission, it seems, is to make these students’ lives miserable, a job he pulls off quite successfully. With a single man representing an entire oppressive regime, Müller is able to highlight the sheer ridiculousness of the situation – if this were one crazy man terrorising a small group, he could be stopped. But with the power of an entire nation behind him, he is able to carry out his petty and silly games without interference.

The Land of Green Plums is not immediately confronting or terrifying. Instead, Müller has created a work that, through its language and atmosphere (if a novel can have such a thing), paints a world that is grey. That’s the best way I can describe it. Grey. It’s blank, bleak, nothing. And that’s what terrifies me most when reading it – a world that is so nothing, people are driven to suicide just to escape.

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Snow (2002) – Orhan PAMUK

So I started reading this novel three months ago – in the last uni holidays. For me, that’s a really long time ago. The problem is, I kept picking it up and putting it down. But finally, I have finished it. That’s the greatest thing I’ve done this year, I think. And if this review smells of Stockholm Syndrome, I apologise in advance.

Ka, a Turkish poet living in Germany, returns to his home country to investigate a spate of suicides in the small town of Kars. There, he finds an interesting cast of characters, each with a unique take on what is going on in the village. Of particular interest to Ka, though, is his old flame, Ipek. But as the snow falls around the town, they are closed in, and something terrible is coming.

Ok, first things first. This book is legitimately interesting. It’s one of the few contemporary novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another good one) that actually faces one of the central tenants of Western society at the moment: the problem of Islam. Because, let’s face it, we do have one. Pamuk, as an exiled Turk, has an interesting perspective on the problem, and his ability to discuss and dissect both sides of the argument make for interesting reading.

There’s quite a bit of symbolism going on in the novel, and after a while, it’s pretty clear what the symbols are. Or what I think they are. Kars is a synecdoche for Turkey, and Ka the poet is Pamuk the author. His return to his hometown (read: homeland) means people question him and what he stands for – and he gets a lot of criticism for not being religious. There is definitely an anti-atheism theme to many of the characters who populate Kars, and they constantly question Ka’s beliefs. I don’t truly believe him to be an atheist – I think he attributes the poems he writes to God, or someone higher, at least – but because he is not as sure in his beliefs as many other people in the town, he is a site for attack. Which is interesting in its own right.

What is more interesting, though, is the idea of ‘political Islam’, and the people behind the concept. These people are so determined to return Turkey from its current fate as a secular Islamic state, that they will do anything to ensure this goal. This ties into the girls committing suicide – questions of removing their hijab become vital to their suicides as the pressure from both sides becomes too much. Women committing suicide to make a political point is an old technique, but Pamuk uses it to great effect here.

Pamuk is also an excellent writer. particularly the opening chapter, which is genuinely beautiful. And the descriptions of snow throughout the book are lovely.

Ok, so here’s the caveat. Snow is perhaps one of the most boring, tedious books I’ve ever read.

Well, that’s not totally true. Here’s the problem. Pamuk clearly had a message/issue he wanted to talk about. That’s fine. What he didn’t realise (and clearly his editor didn’t either) is that you don’t need to have huge tracts of circular dialogue between characters going on and on and on for 400 odd pages. Readers are not stupid. We get it. Again and again, Ka and Blue (the leader of the political Islamists) discuss the problems facing modern Islam and Turkey. The problem is, they talk about the same issues each and every time they talk. And there’s no finality to it. Not that I’m expecting a solution to every problem – but most authors have the decency to show even their own viewpoint. But, no  – that’s too good for Pamuk. He sits on the fence the entire time. So what’s the point?!

It’s not just Ka and Blue that face this problem. Each time Ka talks to someone, it’s like he’s having the same conversation again and again. And there’s a lot of reported dialogue in this novel. It’s not bad dialogue – it’s just that sometimes, I wonder if this wouldn’t work better as a play. Or a film. Or anything but the written word. Well, maybe an extended essay would be ok. Each conversation just tears at you, until you have to throw Snow at the wall in frustration, and wander off to find something else to read. Anything else.

This novel has an interesting central premise. But everything else is as boring as batshit.

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Independent People (1934) – Halldór LAXNESS

Sorry for the huge gap between reviews – I’ve just arrived back at uni, so there’s a whole load of stuff that’s being going on and which has impeded my ability to sit down quietly and read. However, I finally finished this book last night, after about three weeks (and after it sitting on my shelf since before Christmas).

Bjartur has just been freed from his time as a servant, and has been given some land so that he may farm sheep. This is no easy task, especially in the harsh Icelandic winters, and the lonely Icelandic summers. When his wife dies after giving birth to what he knows is not really his daughter, Asta Sollilja, he calls on the help of two women to help out around the house. Again and again, though, his ‘independence’ gets in the way of his relationships, and he will never truly be loved.

Most peopel tend to see epic novels as a bit of a chore to read – they have notoriously difficult language, there are hundreds of characters to keep track of, and nothing ever really happens. And while this book did take a while to get through, and it certainly does have an epic feel to it, there is no sense of difficulty in reading it. It is highly readable, and the plot is enough to keep you hanging on, wanting to know what happens next. Perhaps this is because while it is an epic, it is an epic on a very small scale – we are following the life of one Icelandic crofter, and his small family and farm in the middle of nowhere. Again and again, this concept of being alone and being isolated is beautifully described by Laxness – and this extends to emotional distance as well as geographical.

Bjartur is a particularly cold and unfeeling man, more concerned with his independence than anything else – for him, his sheep are more important than even his own family, and he admits as much throughout the book. Bjartur is certainly an independent man in the financial sense, but this ideology of doing everything for oneself impedes his ability to function as a human being. His children are isolated from the rest of the world, and are physically ill because of it, and his two wives die of loneliness. Even at the end of his life, he maybe begins to realise this, but still banishes his housekeeper. He simply cannot perform the basics tasks of humanity, and you really feel for his family. Even when people die, he cannot muster up any kind of emotion. As a main character, you feel absolutely nothing for him, which is actually an excellently cunning ploy by Laxness to allow us to focus our sympathies on his family – who really do suffer throught the entire novel. Life as a crofter is tough, and Laxness has a gift for showing us this human struggle for survival.

While the human condition is certainly the primary focus of this novel, Laxness also deals with many things that are uniquely Icelandic. Convenient, since I know nothing about the country. The novels spans the decades before the first World War, to just after it, and provides a pretty detailed (and interesting) history of Iceland and its political movements of the time. It’s interesting to see the struggle between communism and capitalism, and the eventual success of socialism (ironic, considering Bjartur’s dislike of pretty much everyone else), as well as the rise of one Prime Minister, who is disliked by Bjartur. Granted, he shouldn’t feel special, because Bjartur is pretty much the most misanthropic character I’ve ever read.

I wasn’t convinced that this book would change my life, as Annie Proulx so boldly claims on the cover. And while I still don’t think it changed my life, the book is pretty awesome. I love that Laxness gets into the working class mentality that any kind of help is onstantly bad, and must be repaid at all costs. Pride and independence are closely linked in this novel, and the human condition cannot survive if you are proud. Human relationships are a necessary and vital part of being human, and those that cannot have them will not fare well. Highly recommended if you have the time.

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The Tin Drum (1959) – Günter GRASS

I started reading this about two months ago. I think that’s a record. I have nearly stopped reading it about four times, I’ve read several other novels, and I’d given up reading for about a week, it was frustrating me so much. However, I have finally finished it. And I have found the energy within me to review it. Not that this is going to be all bad. I think. Also, I know I usually avoid telling you what happens in these, but some important plot points are mentioned here, simply ’cause I can’t talk about the book without them.

Oskar Matzerath is a dwarf. Which is fine, except that at the age of three, he decided to stop growing, and did so, placing him in his currents ituation. On the same day, though, his mother gave to him a cheap tin drum, which he picks up with enthusiasm, and never lets go. Through his twisted, and quite frankly, nasty eyes, we see the small city-state of Danzig succumb to World War 2, to the Germans, and to Europe. Eventually, Oskar moves into Nazi Germany, where he becomes famous for his drumming, only to discover that his past is catching up with him.

To be honest, the above synopsis is not totally accurate. Though, to try and give some sort of idea of the plot of this novel is too hard to do in five lines. Suffice to say, this novel meticulously details the first thirty years of Oskar’s life, and it is pretty complicated. From his questionable fathers (yep, there are two of them), to his mother, to his grandmother, to the history of his grandfather, to his career (he goes through more jobs than Homer Simpson), to his insane drumming, this book has something for everyone. But is it any good? Does it deserve to win the Nobel Prize for “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history”?

For me, at least, the whole of the Second World War took a backseat to Oskar’s insane journey. Important events are referenced, and indeed, Oskar takes part in many of them, but somehow, you can kind of forget that the war is really going on. Instead, we get this recurring conflict between art and warfare – Oskar becomes the embodiment of art, and how it suffers and mutates during wartime. As a musician, Oskar meets artists, sculptors, even tombstone engravers, who all contribute to the art of the war. It is these people that we and Oskar are interested in, those who continue their art through the war.

By far the biggest part of this book, however, is the tin drum. As a child, Oskar is obsessive about his drum, going so far as to, despite being under attack from the army, placing the safety of his drum before the safety of his first father, who eventually dies at the expense of this cheap, disposable bit of tin. It is the drum that becomes the symbol of childhood, that becomes the thing that Oskar must learn to reject and move on from, before he can fully mature. It is not until the death of his second father, in his early twenties, that he is able to reject the drum, and move on. Again, though, he picks the drum up in later life, and once again, the lure of innocence and childhood proves too powerful, though not just for Oskar this time – for his followers and fans as well.

I suspect I could talk about this book for several more pages before I ran out of the most important things to say. I won’t though – I have learnt from Grass to stop while you’re ahead. I am going to ask myself a few questions before I end, though. Was it a stupidly long and difficult book to read? Did I enjoy it? Is it a work of genius, deserved of the Nobel Prize, contributing to the literature of the world? The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes.

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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John STEINBECK

So, uni holidays are upon us, and this has been sitting on my shelf staring at me for ages. What better way to spend one’s time than by reading a piece of literature that is widely considered one of the greatest American books ever? Though the last American classic I read, Moby-Dick, was really not that good. So I didn’t come into this book with high expectations. Which, it turns out, was probably the best thing. Oh, and it hasn’t taken me three weeks to read – I just haven’t had access to the internet.

The Grapes of Wrath introduces us to Tom Joad, recently out of prison, and returning to his family home after several years away. Picking a preacher up on the way, he soon discovers that the family are moving west – their land is worth nothing, and they feel that they will be better served in the promised land of California. Along with millions of others, they begin their journey to a better life.

On the surface, the plot of The Grapes of Wrath is not that exciting. But, it is an insanely excellent book. Steinbeck is such a genius writer, that I think I could read a novel from him about paper bags that would still be exciting, gripping, and brilliantly written. Seriously, this guy writes like a poet, but in prose form. And I haven’t read it for two weeks, but if I could remember any of it, I would give it to you. My bad.

Steinbeck was very clever when he chose his characters, trying to find a unique point of view that would present a cross-section to be explored in the face of the Depression. Read this book over any history of the Depression to get a glimpse into real life. Mama’s arc in particular is a nice touch for an early sense of feminist uprising, and the inability of men to act in the face of imminent collapse, with the woman coming through to save the day. Several times. Similarly, Jim Casy, the preacher, and his disillusionment with God and the Church is a fantastic look at the effect this massive world event (the Great Depression) has on faith.

It’s not even the characters that make this book, though the Joad family is very nicely done. It is the alternate chapters of the book, which comprise a more holistic telling of the Depression, taking the action away from the trials of the Joads, and instead looking at other people, who sometimes turn out to be the Joads. Sometimes, this is just an excuse for Steinbeck to show off, but that’s ok, because he is very good at it. And this clearly works well – regular readers will remember that James Frey riffs off this in Bright Shiny Lights, in which a similar construction gives us the history of Los Angeles.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is an impressive award. To receive it, you have to make some kind of impressive contribution to humanity. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel in 1962, he won it for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” And that pretty much sums up this book. Don’t let the Nobel tag scare you off – this is one of the most accessible classics, and certainly one of the most brilliant.

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