Monday, May 18, 2009


I have a confession to make. The year was 2007 and the month was February (I think; it could've been late January). On a Saturday night Fat Cat and I ended up the a Border's book store at Superstition Mall. I was in the literature section looking for a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling classic Treasure Island (while this post is about another book, T.I. is also very much worth a read). I pulled a copy of T.I. off the shelf along with volume of Stevenson's short stories. As I lingered among the "Ste" authors in literature section, evaluating my potential purchases, a red sticker on a hefty paperback novel caught my attention. I placed the two Stevenson books under my arm and lifted the book with the red sticker in order to examine it more closely. The sticker read, "THE BOOK THAT BROUGHT OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB BACK." (Of course after two years I couldn't recall the sticker's exact wording but I was able to find it, thanks to google.) I didn't even know that Oprah had had a book club, that it had disbanded, and that it had been called back into existence by this book. I was intrigued.

I set the book down and picked up another copy of the same book with a different cover. The cover spoke to me. Maybe it was the two trees silhouetted against the dusty yellow sky; or perhaps it was the man painted underneath the tree in the foreground, whose body language conveyed a feeling of despair and anguish and regret; but probably it was the fact that the stupid Oprah sticker was missing. I read title in small italicized print at the bottom of the book: East of Eden. The author's name was printed in capital letters in orange ink: John Steinbeck.

I flipped the book over. The back cover described it as "a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis." Who doesn't love the Old Testament? I was sold. I sandwiched it between the two Stevenson tomes and marched to the cash register.

A (very) brief summary of this multi-generational sprawling historical epic: Cal and Aron were born in the Salinas valley in Monterey County, California (incidentally where Steinbeck grew up). The fraternal twins were raised by their father Adam Trask and Lee, the family's intellectual Chinese servant. The boys grew up being told by their father that their mother, Cathy, died when they were young and was in heaven. Quite the opposite was true: after attempting to kill Adam shortly after the birth of the twins, Cathy ran away and became a prostitute in the nearby town of Salinas.

Sang's Cafe, Salinas, CA. Apparently Steinbeck himself ate here. Apparently.

Rather than wasting your time with my thoughts on the book, I'll let it speak for itself. As a teenager, Cal, the more clever and sinister of the twins, learns the truth about his mother:

Cal drifted toward the door, slowly, softly. He shoved his fists deep in his pockets. "It's like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know--because I've got her in me." His head was down and his voice was heartbroken.

Lee jumped up. "You stop that!" he said sharply. "You hear me? Don't let me catch you doing that. Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you've got the other too. Here--look up! Look at me!"

Cal raised his head and said wearily, "What do you want?"

"You've got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn't be wondering if you didn't have it. Don't you dare take the lazy way. It's too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don't let me catch you doing it! Now--look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it--not your mother."

"Do you believe that, Lee?"

"Yes, I believe it, and you'd better believe it or I'll break every bone in your body."

How would you like to be immortalized by a novel and a liquor store?! This is down the street from Steinbeck's boyhood home, also in Salinas, CA.

This book has several themes: identity and destiny, as illustrated by the previous passage; and good versus evil, according to the following:

I believe there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was is evil? Have I done well--or ill?
= = = = =

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

I suppose I could keep going with passages. But, if you've made it this far you might as well read the book.

Oh yeah, I had a confession to get to, of which I'm slightly ashamed: I owe my discovery of this book to Oprah, her book club, and a tacky red sticker.


  1. I love Oprah's book club. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a member, I think.

    I've wanted to read East of Eden since high school. I even checked it out of the library once.
    Hopefully I become less talk and more action. I really liked those passages.

  2. Don't worry; Oprah's not so bad once you get to know her.

    Like Amy, I have often wanted to pick up this hefty (I'm talking more than just physical weight here) novel and give it a try. I guess because of the way you talk about it I really want to give it appropriate time and space. Yes, I could find ample time to read it now, but I don't feel like I would be REALLY reading in the way I feel it deserves. Thank you for the teaser, however East of Eden will for now remain on my "read this when you have time to devote emotionally, physically, mentally to this book" list.

  3. It's on my list for the summer. I can't wait. Oh and someone above mentioned Their Eyes Were Watching God... that book is ffffantastic.

  4. I'm really glad you guys are planning on reading this book. Please report to me once you begin.