The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, one of the most acclaimed authors of America, was written almost a century ago about the Dust Bowl, but still manages to evoke emotion to this day.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family and some friends, who have lived in one home as farmers in Oklahoma for many generations, but are forced off the land by the government as a devastating drought wrecks the Midwest. They, along with thousands if not millions of other unfortunate families, head to California in search of a better life as fruit pickers, but it’s an extremely difficult journey. With one creaky caravan that can hardly go a hundred miles without breaking down, and very little cash or backup, it’s a risky trip that eventually leads to two family members dying along the way and one deserting. But even when they finally reach the promised land of California, the Joads face discrimination and realize that what the poster advertising the help needed on farms of California didn’t tell the entire story.

Steinbeck has a unique diction and syntax. He often writes a chapter composed entirely of dialogues without quotes and no narration, choosing instead to let snatches of conversations of nameless characters set the mood and paint the scene. It’s very effective, even more so as Steinbeck writes the words as they sound in Southern accent that catches your attention. He is also very descriptive and incorporates a plethora of literary devices. But most importantly, the issues he wrote about are still relevant and relatable today, and the death of a character feels as real as it does in life. The Grapes of Wrath is a very good read and there is no wonder why it’s deemed “the most American of American classics”.

-Michael Z.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download from Overdrive for free. 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

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My English teachers have always had an affinity for John Steinbeck- and it’s not hard to see why. The last book my 7th grade English class read was The Pearl by John Steinbeck, and while I don’t remember the plot clearly, I remember that it was a very well-written short story. My current English teacher assigned another short story by the same author, the acclaimed Of Mice and Men.

Of Mice and Men isn’t any different- set in Northern California in during times of hardship (Great Depression), it tells the tale of two friends who want to buy a ranch, own some animals, and enjoy life. But as they are extremely destitute, they must work on a farm to raise enough money first.

In just a span of a few chapters, Steinbeck weaves a touching story about friendship, freedom and confinement, suffering, and almost any other universal theme imaginable. The twist at the end was heart-rending but not surprising, and you realize that not everything will always go your way, no matter how hard you try.

There’s one thing I think could’ve been improved: the story was slightly too short. Yes, I understand that it’s a short story meant to be simple and fast, but I felt that the reader didn’t have enough time to connect with the characters other than the two main protagonists. If the book would’ve spent slightly more time on the hope and joy that the benevolent characters were experiencing, rather than just skimming over it, it may have made the ending even more effective.

All in all, I definitely recommend Of Mice and Men as well as other books written by Steinbeck (including the one I’m currently reading, The Grapes of Wrath), as all of his short stories are extremely realistic and poignant.

-Michael Z.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Films of Character: Local Hero

Image result for local hero aurora borealisAfter viewing Local Hero, February’s movie that was shown at City Hall, adjacent to the Mission Viejo Library, I realized that even though some movies may have been made many decades before and have a distinct feel, they still remain contemporary and topical to this day. Local Hero is one of these such movies.

The 1983 movie Local Hero chronicles the journey of a business negotiator, “Mac”, who works for the fantastically rich Knox Oil and Gas headquartered in Houston, Texas. He is sent to a small village in Scotland by the sea by his boss, Mr. Happer, because he suspects that there is a ludicrous amount of oil that could possibly be hidden offshore. His job is to buy the strip of coast, as well as the land four miles inland, which means that the local community would be uprooted.

The reason why Mac is sent there is because he supposedly has Scottish blood due to his “Scottish” last name, MacIntyre, even though he is actually Hungarian. On his way to the village that is a far cry from the hectic city life that Mac is used to, he teams up with Oldsen, who is actually Scottish. Once they arrive in the quaint village filled with many interesting characters, they are surprised to find that the community is actually secretly willing to sell their houses and relocate, possibly due to the many millions of dollars that Mac is offering.

But one thing stands in their way: Ben Knox, a loner that lives in a hovel by the sea, has lived there his entire life and refuses to leave, saying that there is no other place in the world where he can make a living, and nobody to take care of the land.

Things get more complicated as throughout his stay, Mac and Oldsen discover more and more about the area and how beautiful the nature is, begin to fall in love with the local Scottish community, and are soon doubting that buying the land in order to exploit it would be a good idea.

With a surprising plot twist at the end that reveals who the titular character really is, Local Hero has one of the most genuine and well-paced plots that I’ve ever encountered for a movie in its era.

With breathtaking cinematography, decent acting, and a surprisingly remarkable plot line, Local Hero shows that you don’t need a fast-paced plot line, famous actors and actresses, out-of-this-world story, or exceptional special effects to be a classic.

-Michael Z.

Local Hero is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Film Review: Big Eyes

Both Halloween and Christmas have come and gone, but I’m sure at least a couple of you have either seen the film below or at least have a vague memory of what transpired:

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However, this is not a review of a cross-seasonal classic with much more dark elements to it than you would expect for a children’s film. Instead, this is about a more recent film that was released late 2014, yet didn’t enjoy the same level of success as some of some of Burton’s earlier films (Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, etc.). I believe that it’s still worth a watch.

Related imageBig Eyes is a biographical film based on the life and career of Margaret Keane, an artist who became wildly successful in the 1950’s and 1960’s. After a previous marriage that she left together with her daughter, she met the charming Walter Keane, whom she thought was also an artist. (He wasn’t) She quickly fell in love with Walter after he promised that they would live a comfortable life, and married him.

Margaret was struggling to pay the bills, raise her daughter well, and keep her apartment in San Francisco. It didn’t help that she didn’t have much qualifications, due to majoring in an artistic field in college. She worked at a children’s crib manufacturer painting pictures on cribs.

In her free time, however, Margaret enjoyed painting portraits and selling them for money along the San Franciscan beach. Her unique style of art often featured melancholic-looking girls with oversized eyes. which eventually caught the eyes of the wealthy of San Francisco, and almost overnight her paintings and reproductions were being sold everywhere. But there was a catch- people didn’t know she was the painter.

Margaret’s husband, Walter Keane, was not a great painter himself, but was an extremely persuasive and cunning salesman. Margaret was the original painter, but she always signed them “Keane”. Walter was the one who first went out and tried to sell Margaret’s paintings, which he recognized had true potential. Since the 50’s and 60’s was still a time where people subconsciously perceived women as less creative/intelligent/etc. when compared to men, the first buyers assumed he was the painter. Walter didn’t correct them because he feared that people would lose interest in the paintings if they knew a woman had painted them, and before he knew it, he was raking in hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. 

For the sake of keeping their reputation and the money, the two reach an agreement: Margaret would spend her days in the attic painting her iconic paintings, and Walter would go out and sell them. However, as time went on, Walter became more and more abusive, shutting Margaret in the attic for most of the day and preventing Jane, their daughter, from visiting her. Walter did not take criticism well, and eventually became an arrogant, unpredictable control freak.

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The stakes grow higher and Margaret becomes more and more fearful for her and Jane’s safety. When Margaret uncovers a lie that Walter tried to hide in the past, she confronts Walter, several other things go wrong, and eventually Walter tries to burn down the house and Margaret and Jane flee. What happens next? You can find out for yourself by watching Big Eyes.

While I enjoyed Big Eyes, there are several things I believe could have been done better. The movie was not the best in terms of writing and didn’t appeal as much to the audience as it could have. There were also several historical inconsistencies between the movie and the true story.

Overall, however, I found this movie memorable. I had never previously heard of Margaret Keane, or imagined a scandal like this could occur. The actress behind Margaret (Amy Adams) and the actor behind Walter (Christoph Waltz) both did extremely good jobs, as you can see from their Golden Globe award and nomination, respectively. The music and pacing were both very pleasant, and the sets and props do conjure up a nostalgic feeling for San Francisco in the 60’s.

But what really stood out to me about this film, and in fact the reason why I even knew it existed in the first place, was this girl right here. Delaney Raye portrayed young Jane, the daughter of Margaret, in the movie.

She doesn’t have that many lines in the movie and gets much less screen time than Margaret or Walter, but young Jane is the character I remember most from the movie. Why? Because the actress portraying her was one of my classmates from elementary school. I didn’t get to know her that well because I was only at that school for 3 years, but I remember everyone in the class making a big deal out of it in 6th grade (Back in that school district, you could’ve gone to middle school in 6th grade or chosen to stay. Most people stayed) and that was when I first heard about this film.

Up until that point I never realized I could have been going to school with someone that was in a Hollywood movie directed by a famous director, but when I found out it was true I suddenly became interested in seeing Big Eyes. However, I forgot about it for a couple of years after I moved away (to here), and then it popped into my memory out of nowhere and I decided to watch the film— and was pleasantly surprised by how compelling it was.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this film. It may not have the elements of romance or adventure that many people seek, but if you do take the time to watch Big Eyes it might just take you by surprise.

Be warned, though, it does have swearing and some suggestions of violence.

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-Michael Z.

Big Eyes is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Inferno by Dante Aligheri

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To be honest, I didn’t expect Dante Aligheri’s Inferno to be what it is when I first picked it up. It was originally written circa 1300 before the Middle Ages truly ended, has strong Christian values embedded in them, and seemed innocuous, or at least as innocuous as a book about hell can be.

When I read the plot summary of Dante’s Inferno, it appeared as just another pedantic, abstruse epic. I only gave it notice because my English teacher assigned my class to read at least 500 pages for the quarter, and we could only choose books from a college-approved list of classics. Dante’s Inferno just so happened to be on that list, and I just so happened to have coincidentally checked it out from the library the previous week. Rather than find a book that I may have had more of a predisposed interest in, I chose to just read the translation and its sequel, the Purgatorio. I was not ready for some of the gory parts, the horrible punishments handed down to people, and how Dante seemed to care more about himself and either harass the sinners or break down crying/swooning (but ultimately doing nothing useful). Then again, this is only an allegory, so everything is symbolic and Dante is only using his imagination. Although by today’s standards Dante is ultra-conservative, at that time Dante was actually progressive, being one of the first to use colloquial Italian instead of Latin and combine both Judeo-Christian values and Greek mythology.  

The John Ciardi translation is highly compact. Somehow, he managed to fit text that normally takes up 500 pages into a tiny, 300-page book with a rather tedious font and font size. The Inferno is essentially a very long poem, divided into 34 cantos (chapters). A summary of the events precedes every canto and around three pages worth of footnotes comes at the end. These help clarify many, many fine details that would otherwise go unnoticed. As well as the translation of the poem, John Ciardi’s version of the book also features a lengthy introduction, guide to the book, translator’s notes, information about Dante’s life, etc. If you’re in for a good read, make sure to skip these parts; but if you’re reading it for school, like me, try to at least skim them over.

As far the actual book goes– being irreligious, I at first tried to detach myself from the content of the book. But a few cantos in, I realized that no sane person could possibly agree with what Dante’s view of the perfect world. What is different about the Inferno is that it is written almost in a second-person perspective; Dante is the narrator and a character in the book.

The book is essentially about Dante realizing he is straying from the “Glorious Path” towards heaven and masochistically putting himself through hell to see all the horrible things that happen to such people so that he himself wouldn’t become one of them. Along the way, he is accompanied by Virgil, a wise Greek philosopher that unfortunately ended up in hell because he wasn’t Christian. In each part of hell Dante encounters either a mythical Greek character, infamous historical figure, or somebody he knew personally. Here’s how Dante organizes hell: in the many, many circles of hell, people are handed their punishments depending on their worst sin in life.

For example, hoarders and wasters are sentenced to circle four where they eternally lunge weights at each other, each trying to win against the other side but always failing to do so. I’ll admit that this is rather clever, although more than a little drastic. However, there are also many other circles of hell made especially for some people that I believe do not belong in hell. For example, heretics, or people who did not adhere to Dante’s religion were punished by being placed in an open coffin that burns for all eternity. That would be me, and quite frankly that’s the most boring and unimaginative punishment in the entire book. 

Even worse, if you commit suicide, no matter how noble you were in life or how justified your suicide is, you ended up as an immobile tree that bleeds blood when hurt and isn’t able to talk unless someone snaps off a branch. So even if you were a humble, God-fearing, moral human being that was being tortured or tormented, you must not commit suicide and instead bear the pain because otherwise you were a coward that deserves to burn in hell. Justified? 

What may be the goriest, most horrifying part of the book is the first part of Canto 28. The “sowers of religious discord”, or essentially the proselytizers that tried to convert people of Dante’s faith, are faced with a demon. They walk around in a circle without rest, and every time they come near the demon it swings its melee weapon and cuts through the body of the “sinner”, sometimes to the extent where all the inner organs are dangling out of the body. The victim then stumbles away, only to have his/her wounds heal and repeat the cycle yet again. Dante takes extra care in describing the wounds inflicted on people and the sounds of their screams, yet doesn’t seem too perturbed. Is this justified? Because to me, it’s obvious that Dante is just letting his inner sadist take over. And people praise this as a classic, honoring Dante as the best poet to ever come out of Italy? For me, this is quite disturbing. Aside from that, there is no real progression of events for the majority of the story; Dante spends most of his time trudging through hell, swooning, walking some more, assaulting the helpless, screaming, reasserting his good Christian-ness, climbing some more cliffs, crying, and being incredibly sappy one moment and psychopathically violent the next. Hopefully the Purgatorio will include an actual plot.

What saved the book for me was how beautifully it was written. Even though I read the English translation, which meant much of the details and allusions were lost in translation, John Ciardi painstakingly translated every word, managing to keep the original terza rima rhyme scheme, preserve the wonderful imagery and most of the finer details, and create a vivid, somewhat realistic world all at once, even if much of the words and syntax comes across as rather esoteric. When you read the stanzas out loud, the words all flow together and the transitions and rhymes are both smooth and memorable. For this reason alone, I’ve actually become interested in learning a little bit of Italian to read the original. But that’s as far as it goes. 

In the end, I don’t recommend Dante’s Inferno to everyone (or even anyone) because the read can be rather slow, dull, confusing and horrifying at times, but if you want some ideas on how to write a descriptive, vivid poem, I suggest you do consult Mr. Alighieri, because he does knows how to create a work of art.

-Michael Z.

Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy is available for checkout from Mission Viejo Library