Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Tortilla Flat" by John Steinbeck

Shall I make a shocking confession?  Until this week, I had only read one book by John Steinbeck.  I read Of Mice and Men in high school.  I disliked it enough that I haven't read any other Steinbeck since.  But I decided that after seventeen years, maybe I should give the guy a break.  So I picked this up at the library.  

I didn't actively dislike it, so that's a step up for Steinbeck.  On the other hand, I didn't particularly like it either.  Mostly because I didn't care for the characters, but partly because the blurb on the back cover made it sound a lot awesomer than it was.

Tortilla Flat is a sort of shanty slum place on the outskirts of Monterey inhabitied by Spanish-Mexican-Americans.  After WWI, a man named Danny inherits two houses there.  He invites some friends to live with him, and they spend the book drinking a lot of wine, gossiping, and doing as little work as possible.  They do invite a mentally handicapped man to live with them, which is nice since he was living in an abandoned chicken coop before, but then they proceed to rely on him to go begging scraps from restaurant kitchens to feed all of them.  He was my favorite character, called simply The Pirate even though he wasn't a pirate, and the way they exploited him was pretty shameless and made me dislike the rest of the characters enough that I won't be reading this again.

So.  Yes, Steinbeck can write, but his characters are unpleasant and so is what happens to them.  Still not a fan.

Particularly Good Bits:

Fruit trees were there, bony and black with age, and gnarled and broken with neglect (p. 13).

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man (p. 39).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R for all the love-making that gets casually mentioned, and all the drinking.  Probably would just get a PG-13 from the MPAA, though.

This is my 12th book read and reviewed for The Classics Club and my 11th for the I Love Library Books challenge.

10 comments:

  1. Me too! I read of Mice and Men in high school and have never cared for Steinbeck since! However I do plan to read East of Eden because I've heard very good reviews on it.

    I feel the same way about F. Scott Fitzgerald. At times, he can write but his characters are ALL unlikeable and I couldn't really care what happened to any of them. I wonder if this is a trend of writers of this era?

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    1. I don't know much about Steinbeck -- was he a lonely, miserable, unhappy man? I need to find out. I know that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were drawn to writing about the meaninglessness and futility, about the emptiness of modern life. But Steinbeck's a little too young to be one of the "Lost Generation," so I don't know what his deal is.

      Your comment made me wonder -- why do I love Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but Steinbeck just leaves a stale taste in my mouth? Partly, of course, it's that his prose doesn't sparkle like theirs -- they appeal to my writerlyness because I admire their style. But I'm sure there's more to it than that, and I haven't quite figured out what. Other than that I do quite like some of their characters :-)

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  2. I've only read two: Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, and I can see what you mean about his characters. The likable ones are helpless. I plan to read East of Eden, too, and Grapes of Wrath. I don't care how miserable his characters are; I just want to figure out what Steinbeck's problem is.

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    1. I do want to read "The Grapes of Wrath." But not in the summertime -- for some reason, it feels like a late fall book to me. This based solely on having seen the movie when I was like 10. I thought it was incredibly boring, and it made me dislike Henry Fonda for a long time, though I can't remember why anymore. Which is weird, because I used to love reading Lois Lenski's books about the Depression.

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  3. I have an even more embarrassing confession...I've never read a single novel by Steinbeck (although I have read short stories). Good to know this isn't the one to start with.

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    1. Any short story recommendations? Can't say I recall reading any of his stories.

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  4. The only Steinbeck short story that I've read is "Junius Maltby". While not a favorite, I found it worth reading. Like you, I do like some of Fitzgerald and Hemingway's characters - even the "unlikeable" ones. If there was a Steinbeck character I like it would be Ethan Allen Hawley in The Winter of Our Discontent. Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath isn't too bad, either.

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    1. Yes, I really like Jake Barnes and Bill in The Sun Also Rises, and the old man in The Old Man and the Sea. Those are the Hemingway characters that pop into my head as ones I really quite like -- not coincidentally, those are the two fiction works of his that I own.

      I keep hearing about "The Winter of Our Discontent" (and who can't love that title?), so perhaps I'll try that one too sometime. Not adding it to my Classics Club list right now, though -- it's up to 70 books! Though I aim to only read 50 of them...

      Anyway, I read Wikipedia's article on Steinbeck yesterday, and nothing there made me go, "Oh, so that's why his books are off-putting to me," other than that his politics and mine wouldn't agree, which tends to not matter to me much. Hmm.

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  5. I recognize what you mention about reading something in high school and then not looking at it again until much later. In high school, I 'learned' to hate Dutch literature and in the past 12 years, I've only read 1 book in this genre (which I did sort of like)

    (This is a shockingly late comment, I know... I'm back from holiday and playing 'catch-up' with my blog-reading list!)

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    1. The trouble for me is that sometimes I'm just not ready for a book, but if it's required reading and I have to read it... it's the best way to make me hate a book, honestly.

      I'm never shocked by late comments. I have all my book reviews listed here for that reason, so people can easily find books they like/hate and see what I've said and discuss them.

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