Monday, August 15, 2011

guest post: how Becky met Hazel

A few weeks ago I asked my friend Becky if she would do a post on my blog detailing her recent adventures with my favorite author, John Steinbeck. She kindly obliged and provided the post below.

Becky is from one of my favorite places on planet Earth, Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of our lovely northern neighbor, Canada. She currently resides in Calgary, Alberta. Becky has a blog of her own, unabashedly becky, so please go read, comment, follow, share, repeat, ect.

And now, Becky:

Hey peeps! I want to tell you a story. Spoiler alert: It’s about me, and John Steinbeck.

I had a phase (that lasted for years) where I didn’t read novels. I couldn’t stand fiction. I was still reading, but I read non-fiction. Books like The Stuff of Thought (authored by Steven Pinker), or The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene wrote that one), oooor...anything Malcolm Gladwell wrote (that guy is the boss). When I came out of that phase, I was craving not just stories, but good stories. Entertaining stories. Literature. I started out by reading Salinger, then moved to Kafka, then Vonnegut. All good stuff. Mostly, incidentally, short stories. Short stories are the best, for me anyway. I love that I can get through an entire narrative in a few fifteen minute blocks -- give or take.

I should tell you now, I suppose, that I had an unofficial boycott of Steinbeck going for many years. It began when my dad was reading The Grapes of Wrath. See, my dad has this quirk* where, when he really loves what he’s reading, he has to read it aloud to someone. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Grapes of Wrath contains one whole chapter which is devoted to a turtle crossing the road. This is the chapter my dad read to me. It could have been because I was a teenager, but I found the whole thing ridiculously boring. That’s how the boycott began, it continued on account of a boy I particularly despised in high school** choosing Grapes of Wrath as his book of choice for his Independent Study in our last year of high school. So, you can see how I might be poisoned against reading Steinbeck, so to speak.

ACT III: Through a short series of events, mostly consisting of my sister-in-law emailing me a link, I started reading and then following Myke’s blog. Both of them, actually. After reading what he posted about Tortilla Flat on Earthbound But Aspiring I resolved to read it. You know what convinced me? This: “Each short chapter is so self-contained, but not to the point of being able to stand alone like a short story.” Granted, he does say they can’t quite stand alone like a short story, but I figured...close enough.

Guys, I loved it. It made me laugh out loud. On the bus. In public.

Once I had the skeleton of the plot (by which I mean setting and characters) it really was almost like a series of short stories. Of course, the chapters build on previous ones, so they really can't stand alone out of context, but I was able to read roughly a chapter or so a day while riding the bus. The characters are fantastically loveable (a few notches above scamps on the scale of badness, really) and I couldn’t get mad at them, even when they did very bad things. One part in particular made me laugh until I cried and tell anyone who would listen. It involves a gift that is as thoughtful as it is thoughtless: a vacuum cleaner for a special lady-friend who has no electricity. The description of her "using" her vacuum is reason enough to pick up the book. With that, the boycott was officially lifted.

Next I read Cannery Row which I also really liked. It has a similar feel to Tortilla Flat but the characters aren’t as loveable. They’re no more conniving, but they seem less innocent. Nevertheless, I found it mostly funny, and sometimes infuriating***, and I fell totally in love**** with Hazel. And while I’m not American, I loved the Americana in the book. It feels like Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan, or a segment of “This American Life”. I don’t know how to describe it better -- maybe that’s just because I’m not American.

During the time I was reading Cannery Row, my best friend Darryl found a copy of East of Eden and started reading. Yep, it spread. We resolved to swap when we finished our respective books, but East of Eden is like five times the size Cannery Row, so I started Grapes of Wrath. Or, rather, I tried to start it.

It was the perfect setup, even. My dad has a copy (had, I stole it from him), and it was right on schedule with Myke’s reading list. I couldn’t, and still can’t, get past the second page. I meant to just borrow it from my dad, read it and then put it back on the shelf, but then I couldn’t get interested in it, and then I moved. So I took it with me. It’s on the tippity-top of my pile, actually. I just, for whatever reason, can’t get past the second page. I’m going to keep trying though. Maybe Grapes of Wrath is my Macbeth? Just in case, as a backup, I bought a used copy of East of Eden for ten bucks.

Anyway, kids, that is the story of how I became a fan of the badassest looking author...probably ever.

* I have the same quirk, incidentally. Nature or Nurture? Who can say.
** I had very good reason to despise him, trust.
*** (Spoilers) I’m pretty sure my blood pressure went up a few points while I was reading the chapter with the first party. I could not believe they let the frogs out.
**** Not romantically, yeesh!


  1. Is a knack for titles something you can cultivate to the same extent as writing ability in general? Kinda curious.

  2. Sheesh, that's where GoW is... I guess if I want to find out what happened to the turtle, I'll have to get myself another copy...