Thursday, 18 October 2012

My Life in Books...

Most people remember their favourite kid's books pretty vividly.  I suppose it's the time in a person's life when they are most likely to read or get read to.  Hopefully.  The ages of 1-10 is definitely the time that most people use public libraries.  They kind of drop off after that.

So these are some of the ones that I remember the most from having stories read to me as a kid.  My mum used to make stories up herself, which was pretty cool.  Or at least we think they were made up.  They could've been partially remembered from somewhere else and embellished.  Some of them went on for weeks too.  My dad always did voices and stuff whenever he read to me & my sister, which was pretty often, considering he worked nights a lot at that time.

This one, The Happy Hedgehog Band, I must have had out of Sutton Library about 30 times.  It had loads of noises in it that you could make a right racket with.
The Happy Hedgehog Band
The hedgehogs start a band.  Apparently hedgehogs are lacking in meaningful activity.  Gradually as word gets around, all the other forest creatures want in, providing their own instrument and vocals/noises to contribute to the band.  This is way before the days of Britain's Got Talent too.  I think everyone gets into the massive ensemble.  I also remember a dog "who was lost in the woods" that just dances.  Like a furry Bez.  

My sister was only about two when we first heard this story, and she christened hedgehogs "Tat-tat-boom"s. We still call them that, despite being in our twenties :)

Blossom Loving Mole
This one I cannot for the life of me remember the name of.
It involved a mole, who was obsessed with blossom.  He finds a 5-pound-note down a drain when wandering around one day, but all the blossom is gone.  He rips it up into little pieces and shouts "Blossom!!" and that's how it ends.  

Nail Soup
I don't know if Nail Soup, is an actual fairytale, or a filler story that just sort of bumped up the page count a bit.  This was my absolute favourite as a kid.  Probably because it was a story almost entirely about food. 
Taken from this bumper book of stories.  I think this was
re-cycled after my aunty's sons got too old for it...
Basically, an old woman takes a tramp in for the night.  Your typical handkerchief-on-a-stick, top hat that's been opened with a can-opener type jolly hermit.  He suggests he makes his special soup as a thank-you for her kindness, using only a nail and hot water.

Intrigued, she agrees.  She tells him she's not very well off and there's no food in the house to eat as an alternative.  The tramp lobs his nail in the pot and waits a bit.  He starts off by saying little suggestions, like "Ooo, have you got some salt & pepper?".  Gradually that becomes "Y'know what would really make this nice?  A couple of onion..."  The woman keeps popping off to the pantry and bringing back increasingly numerous ingredients.  Eventually, you've got a full blown meat & vegetable stew going on, with warm bread and fresh butter and all of the best china and cutlery.  The tramp fishes the nail out and pockets it with a chuckle.

They sit down to eat their Nail Soup.  Naturally, the woman is stunned!  She can't believe that a soup made out of a single nail is so tasty and so filling.  She wants the recipe from the tramp, but he's not sharing.  This isn't  Come Dine With Me.  

Most fairytales have some sort of moral message.  I'm not sure what that is supposed to convey.  Elderly women lie about their financial situations?  The homeless are wiley conmen?  DIY supplies make excellent stocks and sauces?

Famous Five
I know they're not that popular anymore...I guess they're not that relevant.  Who'd let kids as young as 9 run around outsmarting smugglers?  Sleep outside in piles of heather?  Drink milk that has not been consistently refrigerated?  The thing is though, they were as irrelevant and ridiculous in 1995 as they are now, and that did not stop me from loving these stories.  Once I finished number 21, I'd start on number 1 again immediately after.  

For the uninitiated Julian, Dick and Ann, pictures of 1950s rural health and wholesomeness, are siblings.  One summer they go to stay with their Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin, and meet their cousin, Georgina, for the first time.  Georgina is George, she looks, acts and thinks like a boy and insists on being treated like one. She also has a pretty awesome dog called Timmy.  That's your Five right there.  They basically run around idyllic rural England toting picnics, wearing sandles and being quaint.  I'm not sure if the phase "lashings of ginger beer" ever actually appears in the books but as a phrase, it sets the tone.

These pesky kids though...they just fall into adventures wherever they go...Mysterious gypsies, smugging operations, ghostly steam-trains, ruined castles, dungeons, gold bullion, gun running,'s amazing they ever lived to see another term at boarding school.  It's basically Scooby-Doo but with bonbons and rowing boats.

As a kid, it does make you question the apparent dullness of your own school-holiday life...
Obviously anybody reading this now is too old to read them for the first time (or not, go mad, whatever) I just hope you won't rule them out for your own kids, or kids that you know.

Harry Potter, the reading epiphany
I know.  It's a depressingly obvious choice to have as a formative book.  But it is toooo important to me to not feature.  The Philosopher's Stone on my shelf is my third copy.  One fell apart, one got left on a plane...
Being the super-cool kid that I was, I was pretty determined at one point to never read HP.  When Azakban came out, I was all "pffft, what?  Another of those stupid Harry Potter books? GOD!"
But then I stopped being an idiot, read the first one in an afternoon and began a (henceforth) lifelong obsession.

Lovely, lovely Harry Potter...
I was pretty convinced for a while that Hermione was based entirely on me.  It didn't seem that crazy.  My actual Hogwarts letter might have got lost in the post, but this could be me...  Bushy brown hair?  Check.  Slightly protruding front teeth?  Check.  Marginally unhealthy attitude to academic competition and rule-following?  Check!!

I was just blown away by them.  The richness of the world, the complexities of the plot, the realistic ups-and-downs of school-mates' relationships (complete with fights, silliness and co-dependence), characters that at the time seemed to be peripheral, like Snape and Dumbledore being so 3-dimensional and so full of their own was revolutionary to a 12 year old.  It really felt that when you closed the book, Hogwarts and its inhabitants carried on with their lives and their adventures whether you were there to read about them or not.

When *THE THING* happens at the end of HBP, it's preposterous and impossible and beyond comprehension.  It.  Simply.  Cannot.  Be.  It's feels like somebody has stormed out of the page and into your life, destroyed everything that you've ever loved and left you a nasty present on your pillow.
*THE THING* was probably the thing that made me realise how powerful words on a page can be.  Despite being 17 at the time and doing A levels in Literature, I'd never been struck like that by words.  
It's happened very few times since.

Monday, 15 October 2012

When She Woke, by Hilary Jordan

This book cover will stare you out.
Hannah Payne lives in a dystopian future America. Uber-conservative Christians make the rules and convicted criminals serve their sentences out in public, melachromed for easy identification and colour coded according to the severity of their crimes. Why should honest Christians pay tax dollars to keep criminals in prison? Hannah is a murderer. She has illegally aborted her unborn child and refused to name its father, so adding years to her sentence. As punishment, she is dyed a vivid pillar-box red and ejected into the world to face the public and her family.

Had this not been the selection of a book club I attend, I would never have read it.  However the premise of an uber-conservative government with a zero tolerance stance on abortion intrigued me.  Particularly when you look at the apparent success of certain pro-life US presidential candidates and the ill-informed 12-week abortion limit witterings of out current 'Health' secretary.  Perhaps it doesn't seem as far fetched as it once might have.

What did irritate me throughout is the regurgative quality of the writing.  You can piece the plot together quite wholly using parts of other novels.  For example.
  • The relationship between Hannah and Kayla is exceptionally similar to that of Offred and Moira in the (Massively Superior) Handmaid's Tale.  One's oppressed, with the potential for uprising but needs bringing out of her shell a bit.  The other is feisty and self-sufficient, a shell-shedding catalyst.  There's also similarities in the far-right Christian extremism and associated war on women, the importance of the colour red, the gender-roles of parenthood and a bunch of other stuff beside.
  • The sadistic Christian 'retreat' that Hannah and Kayla meet in was pretty reminiscent of Jane Eyre's boarding school, complete with Evangelical, cruel patron(ess), scratchy uncomfortable uniforms and insufficient food.
  • The fact that the time spent incarcerated on the "Chrome Ward" was televised felt to me like an attempt to piggy back on the "Reality TV gone mental" aspect of The Hunger Games.  I know many novels have used this previously, but taking into account its recent success/film release...The TV aspect was never mentioned again and I didn't feel it added anything to the plot.
  • The Scarlet Letter.  That is all.
There's also a pretty misplaced lesbian episode that didn't work in the slightest.  For a person who's been raised for 20-odd years believing that homosexuality is abhorrent and ungodly, Hannah has a week living under the instruction of a feminist organisation and BOOM, she sheds 2 and a half decades of evangelist brainwashing and suddenly finds women (or A woman, at least) attractive.  It's the as-read connection between lesbianism and feminism that's a bit worrying there, like they're interchangeable or somehow inseparable.   It would have been more in-character and less ridiculous for Hannah to have just accepted homosexuality as a concept, rather than just leaping right in to her little 'affair', as she calls it.  

The plot's pacey enough and is roughly divided into three parts: adjusting to life as a Chrome, life in the Christian organisation and the fight from assassination cult "The Fist of Christ".  The first part is probably where the most interesting ideas emerge as Hannah has to come to terms with the stares, the discrimination and the loss of friends and family.  It also doesn't feature as much of the annoyingly pious and fabulously forbidden walking piece of God-fodder Rev. Aidan Dale.  We hear about him.  A LOT.

We get it.  Religious fundamentalism, bad.  Women's rights, good.  Adultery, can of worms.
It's not awful, but there's certainly better.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Hunger Games

Firstly, can I just bask for a second in the rare and amazing glow that the these books provided.  It made me remember why I read and it's just impossible to communicate how strange a feeling it is to finish a book that you absolutely loved- it's that sort of panicky reel, when you go up the stairs in the dark and you think there's another stair when there isn't...

I imagine most people have heard of the Hunger Games: in a bleak dystopian country that used to be the USA, the 12 districts of Panem are forced every year to sacrifice two of its children to The Hunger Games, a vicious reality TV game show. For the indulgent, obscene residents of the comfortable Capitol, this represents the height of entertainment and the pinnacle of the city's social schedule. For 23 of the contestants it means a very brutal and very public death.

It's got to be said that I really did enjoy this series a lot, I read the whole trilogy in 5 days. It's so easy to read, the language flows quickly, it's unfussy, but at the same time is really compelling. Katniss Everdene, district 12's girl tribute makes for an honest and likeable narrator; she's funny, smart and the reader is treated to every thought that goes through her head- we see through her eyes, which can be unreliable, so some characters are possibly presented a little unsympathetically at times (Looking at you, Haymitch love). We see how fear, her values and love affect her decisions and we see how much she punishes herself for giving in to what she perceives as her own weaknesses.  I've read other reviews that have found her trust issues to be irritating, or found her a bit thick, or that she grates after a while.  I honestly didn't find this to be the case.  She does have problems deciding who to trust, she changes her mind a lot, she's sort of unstable.  But at the age of 16, what girl is a beacon of composure, stability and sense?  The criticism of Katniss perhaps becomes more applicable to the 2nd and 3rd books, but when you've become the symbol of a revolution you really had no idea you'd started, you're going to be a bit moody and a bit conflicted about your mandatory involvement.

Getting back to the first book.  It's been so long since I got properly drawn into a Universe like this. The compartmentalisation of the USA into food/resource producing districts for the Capitalist Capitol seems far fetched, but when you think about it, it's not that dissimilar from the real world.  New Zealand as the lamb district.  China the Fishing District and so on.  When you draw contrasts between how the Capitol population exploits the poor, numerous populations for its own comfort and gain it all seems a bit closer to home.

It's a testament to how much the human spirit can endure, what can be survived (physically and emotionally) and how when you think you've given everything to a cause, there's always that little bit of strength to pull out of the bag that you never knew you had.  Brace yourselves, though for what may be the human equivalent of the "Mufasa moment".  Ohmygod, that bit will stab you right in the soul.

In conclusion, the Hunger Games is full of suspense, impeccable, true to life characters and a world that seems both far-fetched, but is just real enough (and grim and heartless enough) to be conceivable   If you liked the film, read the book.  It is immensely better.  Though it does have the disadvantage of no Jennifer Lawrence.  Who, along with Tina Fay, is my lady hero. 

Banned Books Week

This post is brought to you slightly late, on the Thursday of banned books week, so sorry about that!

Banning books.  I've always though the practice to be kind of crazy for several reasons.  Banning anything because somebody is offended/upset/confused by it is ridiculous.  People think and believe all sorts of things, so it's pretty safe to say that if you looked hard enough, you could find somebody to object to almost everything.  A government or an organisation banning a book, film or game wants to stop its people from seeing something. Why? What is it that they object to? It doesn't trust you to understand something or thinks it knows what's best for you.

When To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by the Hanover County School Board's for immoral content in 1966, the author wrote to the censors with a bit of a zinger:

"Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read."
Surely there is no better novel to promote kindness, equality and a sensible moral code than this one.  Herper Lee was pretty bang on with her wonderings.

Also, there is probably nothing more effective at shifting copies of a book than to ban it.  Mark Twain seems to have cottoned on to this early enough, saying 
"Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

Modern-day controversy surrounding Huck & Tom Sawyer tends to focus on the representation and treatments of African-Americans and slaves and the frequent use of what are now racial slurs.   Contemporary objections were to the mischievous, unruly and parental-authority-ignoring  behaviour of the boys.  What people object to will change, but they will always find something.

The reasons for imposing bans seem to be various, but the full list (of the American Library Association, at least) is Anti-Ethnic, Anti-Family, Drugs, Insensitivity, Nudity, Occult/Satanic, Offensive Language, Racism, Religious Viewpoint, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group and Violence.  Essentially Sex, Religion or Politics.

I challenge anybody to name a decent book, one that held your attention and made you think or feel things that hadn't occurred to you before, that doesn't touch on at least three of the above.  Unsuited to age group is one that baffles me particularly.  Many objections to adult books seem to be their potential damaging effects on children...

Books that are deemed racist/violent/sexist often draw attention to the issue of racism/violence/sexism.  Characters' words and behaviour aren't necessarily the actual, real-life thoughts of the author, they don't want you to repeat them.  They want you to see their effect in a fictional world, so it doesn't happen in the real one.

Read as many banned books as you can, not just this week.  Censors seem to be under the impression that reading a novel where unjust, sadistic or unpleasant events/people occur results in people adopting and acting out these themes.  Because everybody is just that corruptible and insane.  American Psycho does not make you go out and kill people.  It makes you wonder what the hell Patrick Bateman's problem is, and whether he's a massive crazy or a massive liar.  You think "This guy's a dick, 1980s New York sounds like a dump".  If something makes you queasy, contravenes your world view or just generally disagrees with you, you can do one of two things.  Put the book down, move away from it and pick another, or persevere and see what happens.

Reading a couple of top 10 banned lists this week, I've found a couple of interesting bits that I thought I'd share...

Green Eggs and Ham - Dr. Seuss' whimsical rhyme-fest was banned in China between 1965 and 1991 because it apparently portrayed early Marxism.  There really aren't many lines to read between, but that's what was dredged up by important Chinese readers...
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? - An unfortunate and obscure Marxist namesake on the part of the author meant that Brown Bear was banned by the Texan Education Board in 2010.  Most of these bans come from the 1930s and 1960, so they seem pretty ridiculous and archaic now.  But this was 2 years ago.  Pretty depressing. 
In present day Australia, restricted print publications are sold to over-18s only, shrink wrapped and labelled with this sticker. Things are submitted for restriction classification if they " are likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult to the extent that the publication should not be sold or displayed as an unrestricted publication; or are unsuitable for a minor to see or read."  Not all books are classified, but ones that are submitted for classification are considered then either made restricted or deemed to be OK.  I've read that American Psycho is still sold like this.

You can find a full list of all the books that have ever been banned in the UK here on BannedBooks.Org.  Pick one, read it and find out what's so utterly, world-endingly terrible about it.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bloggers & Readers VS literary critics.

This article (Books bloggers are harming literature, warns Booker prize head judge) caught my eye today, and after thinking about it for a few minutes, I think it's annoyed me.  Peter Stohard, a head judge of the Booker Prize panel has suggested that
"If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics ... then literature will be the lesser for it"
Which sounds, to me like saying "We don't want people to talk about books amongst themselves, we want to tell them about what we think is good".  Apparently there is no room in the world for both reader-to-reader recommendations and legitimate literary criticism.  The ability to share opinions online appears to be reducing the need for formal writeups.

Personally, I've never really been able to place literary criticism on the reading scale.  There's reading for academic purposes, to write essays or semiotic analysis on texts, there's recommending books to friends, family, followers...there's reviewing books for sale or for promotion...but the role of the literary critic, to me, has always been a bit of a mystery.  I've always wondered who reads literary criticism recreationally.  There will always be literature the critics write solely for them?  

I think the main thing that I object to in this article is the assumption that only the fiction that they deem good enough for them counts for anything.  The reason that they read must be the only reason anybody reads.  People read for all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and they enjoy different things about it and take away different things from every book.  "Unguarded", free opinion is worth less than their journalistic opinion.  Which is obviously nonsense.  In real life, people are more likely to take up a recommendation from someone that likes similar stuff to themselves, that recommends things out of enthusiasm, kindness and genuine interest, not some guy who makes a living writing about books.

I can't imagine this argument being made in any other leisure are.  Can you imagine if sports reporters or pundits decided that Twitter, forums and the rest of the internet reduced the impact or value of what they were saying?  Or if Rolling Stone or the NME decided to shut up shop because everyone gets their music news online and from Bloggers.  It's stupid.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I was nursing a bit of a post-hunger-games book hangover at the time of reading, so had gone for
something completely different.

I started this knowing only the basics: It's an alternate future (or past, I guess, as it's the 1960s) where the Axis forces won World War II.  That was all I knew.  Having finished the book I'm not sure I'm any the wiser.

The narrative switches between several story groups.  They never really link up, so I assume the Author is trying to show a sort of cross-section of life in Japanese San Francisco.  The character groups are:

  • Robert Childan, a middle aged US citizen Antique Americana dealer and a young Japanese couple he becomes besotted with.  The antiques dealer sort of flips between admiration for the unemotional efficiency of the 'superior' Japanese race and hatred and contempt for them, seeing what the American nation has been reduced to.  He adopts the Eastern ways of thinking and acting, he worries that his behaviour is unappealing or vulgar.   He still secretly retains the opinion that the Japanese are trespassers and that they are ultimately inferior to his own race of Americans.
  • Frank Frink, an illegal Jew beginning a jewellery business.  He attempts to revive the pride of the US art world, offering something contemporary and new, rather than pre-war household tat that has proven so popular with the Japanese.  We also meet his estranged wife, Julianna and an Italian soldier that she goes on an ill-fated road-trip with.
  • An elderly Japanese diplomat, Nobusuke Tagomi, and his dealings with a Swedish plastics technician.
  • The Nazis pop up now and again.  The backdrop for the whole plot is the death of the Nazi Party's leader and the choosing of his successor.

Canada also appears to be the only country not currently possessed by either the Germans or the Japanese.  Poor Canada.  Even the fascists shun it.

The most interesting aspect of this book so far for me has been the characters' discussion of a banned book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an in-narrative novel depicting a fictional alternative future where the Allied forces won the war.

The former US states are divided up between the Japanese and the German empires.
Note the apparent neutrality of Canada...
I think this is where I fell down with this book.  Ultimately, I know very little next to nothing about the Second World War.  Most of what I do know, I learned from Call of Duty.  To me, all Russians therefore sound like Gary Oldman.  The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts several events that I presume happened in the WWII.  A War buff could read this and bask happily in the topsy-turvyness of it all.  I'm just sat there thinking, "So did that happen in real life?  Is the actual author making this fictional author seem like a crazy person, a dimension traveller or a prophet?  What was it that enabled the Allies to win the war that didn't happen here?"

So while I'm sure this was a very intelligent and well written book that makes profound comments on the nature of power and the position of the victors,  it just failed to make any connection to my non-American and history-starved brain.  Which is more my fault than its

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest at Nottingham Playhouse

A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.  This play, probably the best known of all Wilde's work tells the story of two aristocratic men leading double lives and the lengths they'll go to to keep them separate.  Algernon, a self-obsessed bachelor is initially confused when his friend Ernest turns out to be named Jack- a country gent with a (make-believe) roguish brother named Earnest who lives a wild and wicked life in London.  Jack explains his motives for this duplicity.  A man may benefit from the pleasures of country and city life.  He may also avoid the boring or unpleasant responsibilities of either life, by quickly flitting to the other.  Algernon himself uses similar methods to avoid his demanding family gatherings, so kind of sees where Jack is coming from with this.

Jack and Algernon are pretty pleased with themselves for having pulled it off so far, whiskey before noon, going to the 'club' and generally being your typical Victorian bachelors.  Jack reveals his intention to propose to Algernon's beautiful cousin, Gwendolen.  Gwendolen accepts, as she "Could only love a man by the name of Earnest", despite the disapproval of her formidable and hilarious mama, Lady Bracknell.  A Lady's daughter cannot marry somebody of such low, luggage-room related heritage.
So what does Jack do now?  Is there any way that he can become Earnest? Afterall, the name does have "a music" to it, and how to produce the parentage that Lady Bracknell demands he trace?

Algernon meanwhile, is intrigued by the sound of Jack's country ward, Cecily and hatches a plan to make an unscheduled visit to Jack's country address, introducing himself as the wayward brother, Earnest.

Not wanting to give too much away there's an enjoyable sprint through mistaken identities, the institution of marriage and its various pitfalls and triumphs, farcical circumstances and a study in sheer human ridiculousness.  Hywel Morgan's Algernon is brilliantly laid-back and overindulged while Sam Callis' Jack is so uptight and worrisome that it's funny to just watch them sit next to each other.  Joanna Brookes plays formidable matriarch Lady Bracknell to perfection, silencing people with the merest of fingers, controlling their movements with the slightest of gestures-stealing every scene and drawing lots of laughter.  A proper Victorian battleaxe.

The set is brilliant- simple but effective.  One minute your outdoors, the next you're in a comfortable house.  Good sets always have a bit of a mind-boggling effect on me.  It's the ingenuity of the design- little things that contribute so much to the atmosphere of a play.  Many of Wilde's more famous quotes have been lifted straight from this play, so keep an ear out for them.  I promise they will be delivered with excellent comic timing and will raise lots of laughs.  It was a lively matinee that I attended, with spontaneous mid-scene applause.

My personal favourite scene is the first meeting of Gwendolyn and Cecily.  Each is truly delighted to make each other's acquaintance and predict they will be firm friends, until they believe themselves to be engaged to the same man.  Both men have told their ladies that their names are Earnest.  It's such a good send up of the politics and mind games involved in female relationships, and the passive aggressive one-up-(wo)man-ship that flows so easily when women detect a rival.  No wonder a lot of men are baffled by female behaviour.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden
Steinbeck's epic novel starts with a description of the Salinas Valley that's so full of smells, sounds and colours that it'll be burned into your mind's eye forever.  Every tragic story of human nature needs it beautiful natural backdrop.

It's a story of numerous generations of two farming families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks.  The Hamiltons are poor, but work hard and live happily.  The Trasks are a family of soldiers and farmers, and not particularly good (or suited) to either occupation. The Trask brothers seem doomed to re-enact the story of Cane and Abel and their fatal rivalry generation after generation, fighting and competing for their father's love and attention.

So much of the story asks questions about what it is that makes a person.  Is a person the product of a time?  A place? Their upbringing? Is a a person genetically programmed to behave a certain way?  Are they a product of their education?  Their choices and decisions?  Most of the characters in this novel struggle with these questions throughout their entire lives.  Apart  from Lee, the Chinese servant and Sam Hamilton, who are perhaps the only two men in California who can think straight and see sense.  Their conversations showcase Steinbeck's knack of showing true understanding between people and giving the reader faith that perhaps one in every 100 people has that calming influence and sensibility that's needed so universally.

Personally, I think the most interesting character in the novel is Cal, the third generation Trask.  He's dark complexioned, brooding and hugely intelligent.  The type of intelligence that can make a man a brilliant businessman, or a malicious malcontent.  Cal's angelic twin, Aron, is loved by everyone and appears to sail through life with ease.  Everybody knows how it feels to try your hardest and to find that it still isn't enough and the reader can't help but ache with sympathy for Cal, reliving the neglected life of his uncle Charles, who Steinbeck himself abandons part way into  the story.  Cathy/Kate too is a brilliant study of pure evil.  Every Biblical allegory has to have its Devil.  Her complete lack of emotion, her unending patience and her psychopathic-genius intelligence make her seem otherworldly or mythological, like Pandora.

I absolutely loved this novel.  Usually I can tear through 600 pages in a couple of days, but you can't do that with East of Eden.  It's too good to rush.  You get full of it.  Like gateaux or cheese.  The ending is devastating too.  You wonder how you can end a novel that sprawls continents and decades like this one does.  Turns out you end it with a punch to the guts and the confirmation that it's your choices that make you who you are.

I honestly did not know that James Dean played Cal in the film.
I only sort of half knew there was a film.
Casting like that doesn't happen anymore.