East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.

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Middlesex


book by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Since I finished grad school, I’ve been trying the “read what books come to you” approach to choosing books and that approach was serendipitous this past weekend when I came across “Middlesex” in a beach house library. It turned out to be exactly the right book to read for what I’m working on. The general approach to this site is that every book you read is exactly the right book to read for what you’re working on, but some really are more relevant than others.

I enjoyed Eugenides first book The Virgin Suicides. It was tight, lyrical and wickedly funny, so it was inspiring to see him branch out into a much bigger story that crossed generations and cultures. Eugenides presents us with Cal as the narrator who tells the story of his genetic beginnings across oceans and cultures. We start with Desdemona’s journey from an incestuous relationship with her brother that led to a marriage, travel through Ellis Island and into the Detroit of the early car industry. The voice is immediate and absorbing and when Cal gets into these stories of his past, from Desdemona swinging a spoon over her pregnant daughter-in-law’s belly to determine the sex of the baby (the spoon was incorrect in many ways) to the sexual tension between a brother and sister left on a small island in Turkey which belonged to Greece, Eugenides keeps things tense and close.

I’m working on a novel now that takes place in the present and the past, and I was fearful of combining two such very different worlds. I come from film originally, and moving out of the confines of a tight, two-hour story feels treacherous and unwieldy. But that’s where my characters are taking me at this point. Fortunately, Eugenides has given me courage to forge forward and see where the story leads. It seems that as long as each scene is fully created, that as long as we are with aligned with each character, it is possible to create a larger story comprised of these scenes.

That said, looking at Middlesex as a whole, there seem to be some weak spots in the structure. Desdemona and Lefty’s story is so absorbing, and Cal’s coming of age story is similarly all-consuming, but something doesn’t hold in bringing them together with several other family stories. While Cal’s parents’ love story is important and reasonably well told, tension is lost in their section and in Cal’s present–his courtship of a woman whom he is afraid to tell of his being a hermaphrodite–seems like it is being told in another book entirely. Desdemona, who had been the center, the beating heart of the story, disappears in a manner so abrupt that the author self-consciously scrambles to make up for it:

“Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother. You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away. But that was intentional. I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative, because…”(521). At that point I tuned out, a bit miffed by the clumsy excuse. If the excuse hadn’t been there I would have been baffled by her absence, but with the excuse highlighted the problem rather than dismissing it.

In looking at the book in an index-card fashion, holding up the scenes next to each other, something gets lost in the whole. The ending is triggered by Milton’s dramatic death, yet his portion of the story is so disconnected from its beginnings that the end becomes dissatisfying. Desdemona gets no closure whatsoever, having become totally out of it in her dotage (although she gives Cal lovely closure). Cal gets a happy ending in finally being able to open up to a woman about his different anatomy, but as we hadn’t gotten very emotionally involved in this “present” portion of his story (unlike his obsession with the Obscure Object which was a poignant, heart-rending love story), it all comes out somewhat unsatisfying. There seem to be three books here, two of them truly absorbing and brilliant (Desdemona and Lefty/Cal coming of age in Detroit) and the third sorta tossed in like that one ingredient too many in a salad.

While the different stories of lives wrapped together need to be equally involving, there has to be some sort of tight overall arc to pull it all together. Desdemona’s story could have accomplished this, having been woven more carefully into Cal’s coming of age, or Cal’s story could have accomplished this by rooting us firmly in the present before taking us back to fill us in. I’m not suggesting “fixes,” Euginedes accomplished a great deal in this book (as several rave reviews will attest), but while the reading of the book was encouraging for me, it was also a cautionary tale. It was a reminder that we all need to kill some darlings, cut entire scenes–even if they’re lovely–and pay attention to the larger story being told.