Book Review: Travels with Charley

It’s been a minute, friends! With so much time at home this past year, you’d think I would have read a lot, but the year didn’t allow much time to read. I don’t know what I’ve been doing, really, but I’ve been busy trying to be more present in the moment with everyone in quarantine. Also, I lacked the motivation to read. The only book that has renewed my interest in reading has been the Bible. Recently it’s been the end of the OT and the book of Romans (I’m trying to finish my Bible reading from last year). [I was supposed to read the OT and Psalms/NT simultaneously but it turned out as OT and Psalms for the most part. I’m finishing up the NT and then I’ll be done for another round!] I digress.

Steinbeck. There are travel books, and there are travel books written by Nobel Prize winning authors.

Travels with Charley was a good read. Travels with Charley is America, past and present. Steinbeck’s account of his travels across the country in the early 60s is still very much a reflection of society today. The fact that not much has changed other than its physical appearance is a scary and sobering thought. I learned from his version/vision of America. I caught a glimpse of the country through the lens of an older white, upper-middle class American male. Oftentimes it was funny because he seemed like a cranky old white man doing something he didn’t feel like doing, which was traveling around the country in full circle. Why would he leave the comforts of his home in New York and the embrace of his loving wife for an uncomfortable, long journey around a massive country, by himself, with his dog, in a pick-up truck? He thought it was ridiculous too. But it was going to be his last.

With the knowledge of his deteriorating health and the encouragement from his wife, Steinbeck packed his GMC pickup, specially made with a deluxe cabin, said goodbye to his wife, and hit the road with his faithful “old French gentleman poodle known as Charley.” I specifically say his dog was French because Steinbeck made it a point that his dog was from France. He states, “Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down. He is a very big poodle, of a color called bleu, and he is blue when he is clean.” The dog turns out to be more than just a companion and conversation starter with strangers; he serves the purpose of keeping Steinbeck grounded in each section of the book.

Though Steinbeck is an older-white-upper-middle-class-American-male, his America is not romanticized or idealized. Other than his ability to travel, freely, without being attacked or discriminated against because of his skin color (or gender), his insights and descriptions of the places he visits and the people he meets seem mostly raw and unfiltered. He acknowledges and understands the privilege of his status, and while he also seems to relish in it both socially and economically, he interacts with the poor, the rich, the uneducated, the privileged, and the under- and un-privileged; near the end, he finds himself feeling sick and running away from the clash of realities. He writes, “I had seen so little of the whole. I didn’t see a great deal of World War II…but I saw enough and felt enough to believe war was no stranger. So here–a little episode, a few people, but the breath of fear was everywhere. I wanted to get away–a cowardly attitude, perhaps, but more cowardly to deny… I tossed about until Charley grew angry with me… But Charley doesn’t have our problems. He doesn’t belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn’t even know about race, nor is he concerned with his sisters’ marriage…I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” There’s a section in the book where he tries to generalize the American image, but he soon realizes its paradoxical nature. There was no generalization for people, especially for America. Steinbeck’s intention for the book started off as a way to revisit his past and to prove that no two journeys were alike. Along the way, it seemed he also wanted to find that American identity. He ends the book weary and filled with sorrow, glad to head back home, but he leaves us with the idea that “many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” Travels with Charley was only a small part of Steinbeck’s life but his experiences and portrait of America continue through our present.

[photos from goodreads]

Some highlights/quotes:

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation–a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here.”

“I drove as slowly as custom and the impatient law permitted. That’s the only way to see anything.”

“Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” … “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”

“In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, a precent participle of vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.”

“It is very strange that when you set a goal for yourself, it is hard not to hold toward it even if it is inconvenient and not even desirable.”

“My voice took on a strident tone of virtuous outrage which automatically arouses suspicion.”

“One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.”

“Charley is an elderly gentleman of the French persuasion.”

“I saw only two real-man fights, with bare fists and enthusiastic inaccuracy, and both of those were over women.”

“Sometimes the view of change is distorted by a change in oneself.”

“And there are true secrets in the desert. In the war of sun and dryness against living things, life has its secrets of survival.”

“I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu.”

10 Favorite Books

Many people say they’re bored, twiddling their thumbs, feeling restless. I find myself restless with feelings related to confinement, but not necessarily boredom. My daughter has been keeping me plenty busy–there’s been a lot more cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, teaching, engaging, etc. and I kind of miss having my own time in the mornings. Nevertheless, I will share some of my favorite (fiction) books because you may be in search of a good read or an escape during this isolated time.

A side note: My favorite genres are comedy/satire and mystery, with well-written prose. There are many books that are quick and entertaining, but not necessarily well-written. My favorite books lean more towards classics and dense material. If you find yourself cooped up indoors without work or kids hanging onto your ankles, here are my recommendations:

  • A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz: Laugh-out-loud funny
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Another funny one, and original
  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: Pick any story, any volume; they’re all so good.. and unexpectedly humorous
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas: Thrilling
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Nostalgic
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: Considered Dickens’s best by some and somewhat relatable to current times (amidst epidemics). A slow read with subtle humor and life lessons for all
  • A Lover’s Discourse by Rowland Barthes: Heartfelt, metacognitive
  • The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel: Perfectly written endings
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Thought-provoking, not as dense as his other novels
  • (Poetry) The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins: True to life poems

[Photo from this site: source: elenaleonova/iStock]

Book Review: Harry Potter (1-7)

It’s hard to believe the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997 in the U.K. (1998 in the U.S.)–20 years ago! To celebrate its 20 year anniversary in the States, Target has dedicated a special section in its stores to sell some wizarding merchandise. The truth is, I bought myself a pair of Hogwarts shorts in size XL for kids. They serve as comfortable pajamas. ;)

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I didn’t start out as a Harry Potter fan; in fact, I was pretty adamant about being anti-Harry Potter for a long time and refused to add to Ms. Rowling’s billion-dollar empire. I did try to read the first book a couple of times due to many friends’ persuasions, but it simply didn’t click each time I tried. At the time I was also reading a handful of heavy novels a week for my English major courses, so I refused to abase myself with elementary school level reading, which was what I thought (and still think) of the first book. I think the The Sorcerer’s Stone was written for a middle school audience (11-13 year olds), much like the characters themselves in Book 1, so the vocabulary, jargon, and character portrayals of Harry and his friends were not relatable and captivating enough to hook me into Rowling’s wizarding fantasy. It seemed too childish.

A year ago, a friend gifted me the entire set as a specially requested item from none other than myself. I requested it because I found more time to read and decided to tackle the series with fair-mindedness. I started again with The Sorcerer’s Stone, rereading it to give it an open-minded review, and I finally finished The Deathly Hallows a couple weeks ago.  It’s difficult to remember the details of each book since it has been a year-long feat, but here are my not-so-brief thoughts and review:

To enjoy the books, one must read and think like the characters at their progressing age levels in each book. Book 1 should be read how an eleven-year-old would think and read and Book 7 as an eighteen-year-old. Although witches and wizards are nothing new, the conjuring up of a magical world with new vocabulary, i.e., Hogwarts and its wizards and witches in the middle of London mixed with modern-day regular people (“muggles”) was a brilliant idea, so kudos to J.K. Rowling for allowing the reader to imagine a parallel world where witches and wizards could live amongst us and by propelling the story with a unique problem set by the protagonist and antagonist.

J.K. Rowling creates great villains. Voldemort (Tom Riddle), the Dursleys, Draco (the Malfoys), Peter ‘Wormtail’ Pettigrew, Bellatrix Lestrange, the Death Eaters, some characters from the Ministry of Magic such as Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter, the dementors, and even Snape. Their cruelty and irrational/evil intentions are often so compelling that you begin to hate and/or fear them. The twist was that you also began to feel compassionate towards a few of them because of their unfortunate pasts and turn of events. In the end, Dudley was shown expressing gratitude towards Harry in his own way, Dudley’s mom, Petunia, had a sad story, where as a little girl she too wanted to attend Hogwarts but was rejected because of her non-magic gene. Her bitterness towards her sister and Harry was understandable.  Draco and the Malfoys were characters that you kind of felt sorry for in the end. And Snape, not quite a villain but characterized as so until the end, was my favorite character for his complexity, loyalty, abilities, and unintended humor (Books 3 and 4 had some funny parts that made me laugh out loud).

The heroes, on the other hand, were dull, if not terrible. Harry Potter was probably one of my least favorite characters, alongside Ron, Hagrid, and sometimes even Dumbledore. Harry was plain egocentric. Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix, was awful, filled with Harry shouting most of the time. He is said to be sixteen years old, so I guess it makes sense that a sixteen-year-old would be so self-absorbed, confused, and annoying. In most of Book 1 and in several other serious situations in latter books, Harry seemed preoccupied with Quidditch than the problems at hand. In Book 7: The Deathly Hallows, Harry finally seems to have outgrown some of his egocentric ways, but he is nonetheless annoying most of the time. Ron and Hagrid were irksome because they were–how should I put it nicely–simpleminded. Even Hermione with her preoccupation with elf rights, and in Book 6 and 7 displaying her short-sightedness with serious problems in which Harry was disclosing, disappointing the reader because we expected more and because she ended up with Ron. What a cruel joke, Ms. Rowling! And Dumbledore–a ubiquitous figure who knew everything and controlled everyone like puppets under his grand scheme to bring down Voldemort. He is said to have cared for Harry Potter, but nothing in his personal interactions with Harry gave me that impression. A classic writing flaw where the author “tells” rather than “shows” (from the adage, “show, not tell”). Dumbledore seemed a bit too distant and omniscient in a way without much character or depth until parts of Book 7. His care for Harry seemed superficial. Of all the good characters, I liked Hermione (half of the time), Lupin, Arthur and Molly Weasley, and Dobby.

Lastly, let’s talk about the failure of love story-telling. Cho-Harry, Cho-Diggory, Ron-Lavender Brown, Hermione-Viktor Krum, Ron-Hermione, Fleur Delacour-Bill Weasley, Ginny-boyfriends, Harry-Ginny. If J.K. Rowling meant to portray all the flings as what middle school and high school romance really turns out to be, then she did well in portraying them in such a juvenile way. Books 4-6 were filled with them. The only love story that was believable and moving was Snape’s love for Lily (“always“), and even that story was subdued. The love stories for the main characters felt forced and shallow.

As a whole, I liked the Harry Potter series. But I wonder if I simply liked the idea of Hogwarts–a magical school with magical people, and a magical London/world. Major events and minor stories were well developed and tied together, but the love stories could have been so much better, if not, omitted. Story-telling was best in Books 3 and 7, and maybe 6. Book 5 was rubbish. Book 4 was a bit digressive. Books 1-2 were interesting enough. And that is my review.

My next blog post on books will feature love stories that are written well.

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A little of Virginia Woolf

Google search revealed that it was Virginia Woolf’s birthday yesterday, and naturally, I dug up some of her books. I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room, and A Room of One’s Own, and I remember enjoying her stream-of-consciousness style and mellow tone. Having moved so often since college, my copies are lost somewhere and all that’s left on my bookshelf are Mrs. Dalloway (not my original copy) and To the Lighthouse. An unfortunate case of lost scribbles, notes, and underlinings, forever forgotten. [sigh]. On the bright side, it gives me reason to read them again.

Here are some excerpts, lines I’ve starred or underlined throughout To the Lighthouse: 

“…sunk as he was in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all, without need of words, in a vast and benevolent lethargy of well-wishing; all the house; all the world; all the people in it,…”

“…for [the sun] was bright enough, the grass still a soft deep green, the house starred in its greenery with purple passion flowers, and rooks dropping cool cries from the high blue.”

“Naturally, if one’s days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table… naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person.”

“…never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.”

“…how strangely he was venerable and laughable at one and the same time.”

“A light here required a shadow there.”

“For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was.”

“So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a down pouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness…”

“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in a store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flash kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.”

“‘What beautiful boots!’ she exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, ‘Ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!’ deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it, in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper, complete annihilation.”

“…all sorts of waifs and strays and things besides.”

 

Book & Life: When Breath Becomes Air

To say that Paul Kalanithi is accomplished is a clear understatement.  He graduated from Stanford with a double major in English and biology, then he proceeded to attain his graduate degree in English. When finished, he felt the need to do something more and studied and applied for med school. While waiting for admission, he obtained another degree, studying history, at the University of Cambridge.  Then he received the news that he got accepted to Yale for med school. Instead of “settling” like his peers in dermatology or radiology, which are very competitive in themselves, he chose neurosurgery, the toughest of all fields, and received many awards for his research and accomplishments. Having achieved so much, it seemed like such a waste that he passed away during his last year of residency.  Residency for neurosurgery is at least seven years, and to have died at the very end–ugh, how devastating. He also had an 8-months-old daughter, which was the most heartbreaking part for me. His short narrative ended with a letter to his daughter. [My heart…]

I cannot compare myself to him in accomplishments, but I can relate to him at a human level (even though he seems superhuman): how he knew of all his symptoms and initially got them checked, then they were dismissed without having done any thorough scans because he was young and there were many plausible and harmless causes for his ailments. Then pain persisted and grew worse, in which he had the fear of it being something serious, but his better judgement was brushed aside by what seemed like his state of denial or placing priority on his commitments and objectives. After several ups and downs in his health, he finally sought answers for his ailments when it became absolutely debilitating. He waited and endured too long, and those ailments turned out to be stage IV lung cancer–a rare cancer for anybody under 40. The fears and devastation, along with a similar diagnosis, were all too real as I read his narrative.

His recollection of his past and description of residency was reflective but somewhat ordinary. He didn’t seem like he suffered much in his life, so there wasn’t much substance or character in his stories. He did consistently allude to his life’s goal for finding meaning, trying to find how the mind/brain works in all its intricacies: psychologically, philosophically, physically. And he was certainly knowledgeable with factual details in many fields and references to other writers, but his writing itself was nothing extraordinary as I expected much from a Stanford grad who majored in English, who was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for this autobiography. Maybe I was expecting it to be more poetic like a swan song? Aside from the writing itself, I also felt like his desire to find meaning and purpose in life very… superficial, which was why I felt the book wasn’t as great as others have deemed it to be. However, I must acknowledge that he did find meaning in his life in his own way, and I respect that he lived his life to his fullest. Though I may differ with him in his purpose in life, he sought after something more profound than what most people do not dare try to grasp. He knew he was going to die, but instead of dying, he lived–his inspiration rooted from Samuel Beckett’s words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Going through a similar situation as him, his book haunted me with the realness of deterioration and death. While receiving treatment, he had a brief moment of feeling like he was getting better, immersing himself back to his old life in residency and surgery hours. Then his health came crashing down all of a sudden, and all too soon, he was on his deathbed. It still churns my stomach. He lived his life not fearing death, but rather, accepting that he was going to die. Despite knowing his shortened timeline, he continued his daily business and also wrote this book. What I cannot do, that he was able to do, is accept my death. Death may be a probability, but I simply cannot accept it like he did. Not that I am in denial or think death is the final end; of course not, but because… I have Christ. Whether or not I live or die, I have Christ, and for that reason I cannot accept an ending. If I live, He is my healer and Savior; if I die, He is still my healer and Savior. Because I have Christ, I have hope, and I can live with hope. I pray, I plea, I beg, I cry, I shout, I breathe: Lord, if You are willing, you can make me clean. May Your will be done. 

No matter what happens, I aspire to live with meaning, and my purpose centered around the gospel. My life may not be covered with achievements like Paul Kalanithi, but I want to make my small ordinary actions meaningful.

In the end, may my life be pleasing to Him.