Book Review: T is for Tortilla Flat

I spent the first half of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat wondering whether or not the unusual story was an affront to Mexican migrant workers. Of course, the classification of “workers” in this story is a stretch as Danny, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pilon, Big Joe, and the rest of the inhabitants of the shanty town on the hillside of Monterey rarely if ever did an honest day’s work. More often the lazy day was spent wondering how to acquire — usually less than honestly — worldly possessions to trade at the local watering hole for a bottle of wine.

In a world of poverty in a town with no electricity where a vacuum cleaner with no motor is a prized and enviable possession, a bottle of wine is currency. With it one buys food, companionship, solace, and women. And, at least while the bottle isn’t completely empty, forgiveness, loyalty, and justice.

Danny and his gang have a unique sense of propriety and logic, an innocence acquired through a lifetime of transient living. The death of his grandfather bestows upon Danny the unwanted responsibility of home ownership within the Flat, and magnanimously he shares his newfound wealth with his friends, stirring within them their own senses of purpose and worth. It goes uphill and downhill from there.

Having rediscovered Steinbeck, I may revisit some of his other classics soon.

Book Review: R is for Robinson

Out of the pile of classic novels that I have accumulated over the years, I recently pulled an unread copy of Johann Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson that, according to the book’s ink-stamped inside cover, I acquired over two decades ago from my junior high school library. Fortunately, like the Robinson family, it was a castaway, not a potentially record-breaking overdue book.

For those who may have been similarly out of touch of civilization for an extended period of time, The Swiss Family Robinson chronicles the story of a family shipwrecked on a deserted island, their survivability dependent on only their wits and items salvaged from their crippled ship. The most famous aspect of their adventure is immortalized by Disneyland’s recreation of a treehouse-style domicile created high among the branches of a fig-producing mangrove, complete with staircases, plumbing, and rescued furniture. However, their multiple residences grow far more sophisticated over time.

Author’s Note:  The 1962-built Swiss Family Treehouse was “immortalized” until 1999 when Disneyland replaced it with Tarzan’s Treehouse. For now, you can still view the Ronbinsons’ tree in Magic Kingdom, Euro Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland.

The language was modern back in the early 19th-century when first penned by Johann Wyss but is still easily readable today. Throughout the fast-paced novel I was continuously distracted by the unlikely plethora of wildlife available for domestication and use by the Robinson family. As each chapter unfolded the incredible list grew: flamingos, penguins, agouti, lobster, monkeys, jackals, sea turtles, porcupines, ostriches, lions, elephants, kangaroos, walrus, buffalo, whales, boa constrictors, and bears. Varied, too, were the native plants: coconuts, calabash, sugar cane, wild figs, pineapple, rubber trees, sago palms, terebinth, American fir trees, and cotton trees. What astounding luck to be stranded on a desert island with such a well-stocked supermarket of resources! The patriarch of the new colony dubbed “New Switzerland” was also a MacGyver from a prior century, able to furnish rubber boots, create indoor plumbing, tame wild animals, positively identify unusual flora and fauna and their useful properties, create a loom, and manufacture soap and candles.

I was quite surprised by the ending, its elegant simplicity never occurring to me while I enjoyed the meat of the book. A lover of animals myself, often I wondered what would become of the now-domesticated beasts that provided the Robinsons with milk, eggs, labor, and friendship, and I was pleased that the solution provided by Wyss allowed full closure while still ensuring the safety and well-being of the herds of animals then roaming the island.

It is easy to understand after reading this fabulous tale why Johann Wyss is better known for writing The Swiss Family Robinson then he was for creating the Swiss national anthem. If you haven’t read the Robinson family saga yet, pick up a copy.

Book Review: C is for Catch-22

When I first considering reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I had only a vague idea as to what to expect. In a nutshell, I knew that one US soldier entrenched in Europe during World War II realized that in order to stop flying bombing missions, he had to be classified as crazy. Of course, the only way he could be considered officially crazy was to initiate the process by claiming that he was crazy, thereby proving that he was in fear of his own life and not crazy at all. That was the catch, Catch-22.

I was caught up in the book on the first page. Rarely, I thought the book became a bit repetitive, overemphasizing the apparent or false insanity of several minor characters. By the end, I didn’t have a full grasp on who was sane and who wasn’t. Without over-analyzing the book, I’m almost convinced that Yossarian might have been the only sane soldier in the story.

Catch-22 is a good, light read if you don’t mind the occasional cropping up of senseless violence that always seems to accompany war, an interesting book to pick up that puts world crises such as we are all now experiencing in a slightly more manageable light. For a fun exercise, take note of how often the Catch-22 rule is applied in vastly different situations, and then consider what would happen if today’s lawmakers, soldiers, and military strategists applied the rule the same way. Scary!

I originally didn’t expect to enjoy the story, and I am surprised to find myself looking forward to seeing the screen adaptation.