East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 1952.
East of Eden isn’t a foodie book. But I started reading it and I couldn’t put it down. Since I spent so long reading it (for reasons I’ll make clear below), I couldn’t fit another book to review this month I’ll will review this non-foodie book from a slightly foodie perspective. Luckily, food is universal. With a story about people, food inevitably comes into the picture, either as food or in description.
The title of this book had instant appeal to me. I live in Eden, on Eden Street, near the mountain of Eden, down the road for Eden Reserve and not far from Eden Park.
Written in the 1952 when Steineck was 50, this book is set mostly set in the 1910’s in the Salinas Valley in California. It is the allegory of generations in a brutally honest way. It’s a long story, but I honestly didn’t want it to end. Let me get this straight. I’ve never been a one to read romance novels or floofy poetry. Flowery, touchy feeling stories don’t do it for me. This is not one of those books. It is written beautifully and you can’t help but fall in love with the characters. You mourn their hurt and celebrate their triumphs. I read this entire book with a lump in my throat. It’s quite a big book and it wants to be read slowly. It made my heart feel heavy and full for weeks and I couldn’t help thinking about it’s characters when I was supposed to be doing other things.
“Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands.”
Like the possum who found the box of jam pastries, I have this book smeared all over over.
The book has biblical themes and contrasting characters that are good or evil, and good and evil. Truths vs lies is a strong theme also. The contrast of rich and poor are universal. My favourite characters are Sam Hamilton and Lee the Chinaman. I fell in love with their brilliant minds. The description of Samuel suggests that Steinbeck and all those that met him loved him. Lee was interesting to me and I suppose it would have been ahead of it’s time to portray a “Chinaman” as a clever and well spoken philosopher. There were lots of Cantonese traditions that Lee referred to that I identified with and I guess I see him in the same way he sees his fine old scholars. A Cantonese always enjoys reading about another Cantonese in a white man’s world.
The contrast of Cathy was fascinating. I often wonder at how while no one I knew is pure evil, maybe we are wired differently. Cathy is wired differently. A good villain is just as interesting (if not more interesting) than a good hero.
Some of my favourite morsels from East of Eden
“Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him. The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.”
“He shoveled the bacon out on a plate and broke the eggs in the hot grease and they jumped and fluttered their edges to brown lace and made clucking sounds.”
On Samuel Hamilton:
“He let his mind range more deliciously than any other,”
“There’s a capacity for appetite,” Samuel said, “that a whole heaven and earth of cake can’t satisfy.”
“They called him a comical genius and carried his stories carefully home, and they wondered at how the stories spilled out on the way, for they never sounded the same repeated in their own kitchens.”
“He loved a celebration of the human soul. Such things were like a personal triumph to him.”
Sam on invention and change:
“They say man lived in trees one time. Somebody had to get dissatisfied with a high limb or your feet would not be touching flat ground now.”
Lee on being Chinese:
“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese.”
“My people bury them with drums and scatter papers to confuse the devils and put roast pigs instead of flowers on the grave. We’re a practical people and always a little hungry.“
Lee on his mother:
“My father said she was a strong woman, and I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is almost indestructible.”
Lee on making a living vs making money:
“Money’s easy to make if it’s money you want. But with few exceptions people don’t want money. They want luxury and they want love and they want admiration.”
“Cathy was different from other children in many ways, but one thing in particular set her apart. Most children abhor difference. They want to look, talk, dress, and act exactly like all of the others. If the style of dress is an absurdity, it is pain and sorrow to a child not to wear that absurdity. If necklaces of pork chops were accepted, it would be a sad child who could not wear pork chops.”
“When angered she had a terrible eye which could blanch the skin off a bad child as easily as if he were a boiled almond.”
On creativity and design by committee:
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”
The new Kindle App on iPad
I’ve mentioned before that reading on my iPad is a delight. With a book written before my parents were born, where the language, dates, events and locations can be unfamiliar. I could look up a word that is no longer used and even if it wasn’t in the Kindle dictionary, I could search for the word in Google or Wiki with just a press of the button. I could see a photo of a mountain range referred to in the book by viewing it in Wiki. Brilliant. But they changed it. As of last week, the latest Kindle App for iPad no longer features a Google and Wiki search. I don’t know why they got rid of this, but it was the best feature about reading in iPad. Please bring it back. Now if only I could figure out how to delete the newest version go back to the old version. Any suggestions?
I’ve never read a book twice, but as soon as I started reading this one, I wanted to savour every word, to chew on it slowly and absorb it’s meaning. I wanted to know it and to forget it so that I can read it again. It’s beautiful to read. Read this if you have some time and can laze around with this book. Sometimes books take a long time to read because you struggle to read it, you re-read parts because you’ve lost track of the words. This is not one of those books. It’s a big book, but I re-read sections because the words so delicious that they demanded to be read again.
You can probably pick this up second hand at any bookstore since it’s been around for so long, or on Amazon for Kindle.
I haven’t decided if I will read other Steinbeck books yet. East of Eden was considered by John as his best work. I’m scared that if the others aren’t as good, it will ruin Steinbeck for me. Have you read any other Steinbeck books? What did you think? What would you recommend?
For those that have just joined, as part of my year’s resolutions (read more books) I hope to read and review a food related book every month during 2012.
January Book Review: A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
February Book Review: Don’t Try This At Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the world’s greatest cooks and chefs Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman