Books People Are Talking About by Lynette

Lynette facilitates the book discussion group at the Helmerich Library. At each meeting they read books on a particular topic or books by the same author and share their opinions. Below is the newsletter she shared with her group after their December meeting.

How is it possible to sum up a Steinbeck discussion? Our November meeting featured the work of this most American of authors—read by nearly every high school student in the last 30 years. And directly implicated in the (mostly negative) picture those readers have of our state, and even---of us!! Some of our group members are still upset by that. They felt Oklahoma was unfairly portrayed, or at least too narrowly focused in THE GRAPES OF WRATH . Why do the Joads get to represent this state? (Although all agree Ma Joad is an amazing character.) Oklahoma writer Bob Burke has even written a book entitled JOHN STEINBECK WAS WRONG ABOUT OKLAHOMA! --[exclamation mark included in the title!] Many thought that the term “Okie” popularized by Steinbeck’s book, remains pejorative. Several referenced the newer Pulitzer prize winning non-fiction book about the dust bowl, THE WORST HARD TIME by Timothy Egan, a former book discussion selection. Egan focused on the resiliency and courage of those Oklahomans who stayed during the worst of the dust-filled Depression. It’s certainly a counterweight to the grimness of Steinbeck’s writing. Of course, none of us toured those California migrant camps as he did. What he saw made him ..…wrathful. We debated whether he could have gotten his point across even more powerfully by including just a little more brightness or hope, or humor, to contrast with the despair. Examples that came to mind were ANGELA’S ASHES and THE GLASS CASTLE.

About half our group thought Steinbeck’s writing in GRAPES OF WRATH was too wordy, overly descriptive, with too much of a point-of-view, and too depressing. Several felt that it was brilliant, others that it was good writing with a great social conscience. They appreciated Steinbeck’s descriptive powers (you can feel all that dirt blowing around). Not too many contemporary novelists write with such passion about the conditions they see in America in 2010. Someone commented that Steinbeck continued onward in the muckraking tradition of the turn-of-the-century writers who were devoted to exposing social problems. Very few authors have achieved both the critical and popular success of Steinbeck, whose titles were best sellers and then popular movies or plays or television programs. Many of those adaptations have become classics. In addition, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962 which was the year TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY was published, lighter in tone, and a favorite of many. Another favorite was EAST OF EDEN .

OF MICE AND MEN , one of several shorter fiction works, also deals with the theme of the harshness of migrant life—this time among California ranch hands. As in WRATH, Steinbeckenables the reader to feel the loneliness and isolation of those who struggle just to survive in a world that seems brutal and often unfair.

THE MOON IS DOWN is an unusual work, and received good reviews from our readers. Written during World War II, it was banned as propaganda by the Italian fascist government. TORTILLA FLAT and CANNERY ROW received generally favorable comments for their closely observed descriptions, for their interesting characters, and even some subtle humor.


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