The Bane of My Backlist

I figured it was time for another summary of my reading and book collection as of late.

First up, what I’ve recently been reading (and the reason why this book is the inspiration for this post title).

My edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.

I started reading this one, often regarded as an American classic, towards the end of August, just after I finished reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I read that one after finishing Rebecca and it only took me 12 days to read it. It was 200 or so pages compared the 400 or so in Rebecca and the 600 pages in this book I’m about to talk about.

Now, The Grapes of Wrath and I have a complicated history. I first obtained this copy when I was assigned to read (or, as it turned out, attempt to read) it for my AP English class (one of two slightly different English courses I ended up taking) in my junior year of high school. And I know it was my junior year because I distinctly remember my teacher (who was also my English teacher in my freshman year) explaining the origin of the book’s title: it came from the opening lines of the Civil War-era patriotic song “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. For those unfamiliar with the opening lines of the song…

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on.

Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Anyway, my school had a deal with a local independent bookstore where they would share the reading list for the AP English courses each year, and not only would the bookstore order more copies of those books for their inventory, they would also bundle the books together and sell them as a package with a discount. I have maybe a dozen or so books in my collection that were bought in this manner. Not only did we not have to borrow books from the county and were free to mark up our own copies with margin notes and highlight relevant passages, it also provided the bookstore with extra business. This bookstore is actually still open all these years later (although I think the ownership and management has changed since my high school days), I have since returned to that bookstore one more time, which I detailed in this previous post back in 2018. I’d love to go more often, but…yeah, money.

My attempt at reading this book in high school (as with many of the books I was assigned in high school English) did not go well. When you have to balance reading with a bunch of other coursework, especially in the math courses where I tended to struggle more and thus placed a higher focus on getting homework done there, reading often fell by the wayside. And it showed in the quizzes and tests on those books. To be honest, the reason why I passed all those English classes was because of the written portions. Essays I tended to do well in. Needless to say, I started The Grapes of Wrath, but I never finished it. I think the only novel I may have finished during those courses was Native Son by Richard Wright.

It took many years for me to rediscover my love of reading, and once I did, I decided to revisit some of those novels that had fallen by the wayside. One of the first was The Great Gatsby. Over the ensuing years I have also read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Awakening, The Sound and the Fury, and Beloved. I still have some in the collection that are awaiting a full revisit: Crime and Punishment, Native Son (I attempted a re-read a few years ago), Heart of Darkness (although I have not found my copy). But somehow, Grapes kept eluding me. I remember trying to start it at a family friend’s gathering. No luck. I remember at least one other attempt to start it. No luck.

So, you can see why I call this book “The Bane of My Backlist”. The fact that I have never finished it has been annoying me to no end ever since high school. Which is why I was determined to set a goal this year to finally read it and finish it. I even decided to try and dedicate the summer to not only reading this book, but some of John Steinbeck’s shorter novels. At this point, I have only read Tortilla Flat, which I’ve read in fits and starts. But it does have sort of a humorous element to it that keeps it interesting. Grapes, however, has fared much better this time around.

One way I decided to tackle this book was by deciding to narrate portions of it to myself when reading it, usually on nights when my dad was at work and it was just me and the dog in the house. I did this with portions of Rebecca as well. Reading it aloud helps to cement the text in my mind. Sometimes reading silently makes the text pass by with a blur, so reading aloud makes it impossible for me to ignore the text. And I’d adopt different voices for different characters. For example, Tom Joad got sort of a low, flat-ish voice reminiscent of Henry Fonda (who played Tom in the film adaptation of the novel). Jim Casy got sort of a twang. Ma Joad is basically my own voice, but with a more exaggerated accent (which Steinbeck renders out in the text with unique spellings and punctuations). Grandma and Grandpa got sort of raspy voices reminiscent of old people, although Grandma’s voice got a higher pitch to it. And so on, and so forth.

Well…it worked. I finished it last weekend. It had its challenges, though. Steinbeck also employs an unusual narrative device throughout the book. The book alternates between short descriptive chapters (that either set up the environment that the next part of the story takes place in or adds context to what the characters are about to experience) and longer narrative chapters (that sometimes are at least 50 pages in length) that tell the actual story. Those longer chapters I normally could not finish in a single sitting. I sometimes had to read a little, and then put it down…read a little, put it down. This was a book that had to be taken on a little at a time. But much like a marble statue, what started off as a giant, imposing block of text — with a little patience, time, and attention to detail — eventually became a work worthy of the adulation. It wasn’t a 5-star read for me, but because I felt like the challenges I had with it did actually eventually serve a purpose and get me into a rhythm when it came to how the story progressed, I felt it was worth 4 stars.

Currently Reading

I have also been adding to the collection in recent months. The last time I updated you on the physical books I had added, I think it was June and I had briefly shared with you the books I had gotten in January with some of the cash my dad had given me from the sale of my mom’s hospital bed in June of last year (a couple of weeks after her death). I’ve already read one of those books (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison), as well as one other one, and I took a break from my newer books to read The Grapes of Wrath. I’m now on the second book from that purchase, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s memoir about him and his family. I’m only a few chapters into it, but his grandparents (“Mamaw” and “Papaw”) married as teenagers in the 1940s and left their impoverished hometown in the dirt-poor Kentucky Appalachians for the chance at a better life in Ohio. J.D., whose mother was a drug addict, would go back and forth between his troubled mother and whatever man she happened to be dating or married to at the time and his Mamaw’s house; he eventually came under Mamaw’s guardianship. I haven’t read enough to see how his story really pans out, but Vance eventually graduated from Yale Law School and made a career as a venture capitalist. He’s encountered some controversy since this book was published in 2016 for comments he’s made in his bid to become the Republican nominee for Ohio’s open Senate seat up for election next year. (The current Senator in that seat, Rob Portman, is retiring.) One of the more notable comments he made blamed the “childless Left” (as he put it) for the culture wars currently going on. He also proposed that parents be given an extra vote for each child they have. As you may have gathered, I do have issues with the positions he holds, but it’s not stopping me from reading his book (which I bought months before he announced his Senate run and before I even really knew much about him; I had bought it on impulse because I had recognized that it had been adapted into a movie for Netflix directed by Ron Howard).

I brought this up a bit on my Instagram when I posted about this book a few days ago, but I’ll elaborate a bit more about it. When it comes to authors who are known for their careers or influence on politics (whether it’s politicians like J.D. Vance or writers who influenced politicians, like Ayn Rand, or people known for their connections to politicians, like Michelle Obama, who I will be getting to shortly), I try not to read to create or advance an agenda, but rather to get an understanding about them and at least give them a chance to tell their story. And as I’ve said in the past, people have different life experiences that shape their beliefs as they get older. No two people have the same experience. Reading with an open mind is the only way I can stay sane when it comes to this highly politicized world anyway. I wish people on both sides of the aisle would think the same way when it comes to hearing out people they don’t necessarily agree with.

In my e-reader, I’ve currently got The Short Novels of John Steinbeck and Congo: The Epic History of a People as active reads, although I’m considering starting either Foundation by Isaac Asimov or Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut very soon. As mentioned earlier, I’ve only just finished Tortilla Flat in the Steinbeck collection and am now up to The Red Pony, though I’ve yet to start that one.

My Acquisitions

The third book from that “mini-haul” back in January was Educated by Tara Westover, which is about a woman who was raised by a survivalist Mormon family who were so wary of public schools and the federal government that her family did not practice formal education. She eventually was able to study independently and get into college, and earned her doctorate in intellectual history in 2014. I’ve heard a lot about this book and can’t wait to read her story.

More recently, I’ve taken to just getting one or two books at a time when I’m at the local Walmart Supercenter for groceries, so I haven’t gotten all of these at once, and several of them were from the bargain books bin, which has been selling what I guess are remaindered books (unsold books from a particular printing) at a steep discount. This store has been selling them for $5.97 a copy, which, considering the original list prices of most of those books, is a major steal. Anyway, here are some of my more recent acquisitions.

  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (I think this one was described as a Southern mystery novel)
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (A psychological thriller published in 2019; heard quite a bit about this through Bookstagram)
  • The Pioneers by David McCullough (A history book looking into Americans settling the Northwest Territory — which contained parts of what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin — in the decades following the American Revolutionary War. I normally don’t study as much American history, but the book was from the bargain bin, so I thought it was worth a shot.)
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (The former First Lady’s memoir about her life, her marriage to husband Barack Obama, and finding her voice during his time in the White House; she did have some assistance from a ghostwriter, as many celebrities end up doing when writing a memoir, so I’m not going to fault her for that. I do eventually plan to get a copy of her husband’s latest memoir, A Promised Land, when it comes out in paperback.)
  • Wham!: George Michael & Me by Andrew Ridgely (A memoir about Ridgely’s friendship and career with his classmate-turned-Wham! bandmate George Michael, who would go on to become a pop music icon as a solo artist. One of the bargain bin books.)
  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (A thriller novel set in New York City that reportedly borrows elements from The Talented Mr.Ripley. Another bargain bin book.)
  • Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki (A noir novel described as being about a “babysitter gone bad” in the Hollywood Hills. Yet another bargain bin book.)
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (A psychological fiction novel about a woman who was groomed into having an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher when she was 15, and has internal conflict over whether to come forward when the teacher is alleged to have slept with another student nearly 2 decades later. The most recent book from the bargain bin.)

That’s been quite a bit to catch up on, hasn’t it? I hope you all have been reading interesting books as well!

2 thoughts on “The Bane of My Backlist

  1. Oooooh! So many amazing titles here! First off, congratulations to you for banishing the bane of your backlist! (Mine was Pride And Prejudice, and I remember feeling SO PROUD when I finally grit my teeth and got it done, after – at least – six attempts.) And it makes for a super-interesting pair with Hillbilly Elegy!

    Loving your Walmart hauls, too – you’re right, they’re absolute steals! I actually enjoyed Becoming way more than I thought I would, it was a pleasant surprise. Looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They make for two very interesting views on the subject of poverty coming from two completely polar opposite authors politically. As I mentioned in the post, J.D. Vance is a very conservative Republican (who made his name as a venture capitalist), but it’s also worth noting that John Steinbeck was very well known in his lifetime for his left-leaning and anti-capitalist political views. When Steinbeck went to Vietnam in the late 1960s to support on the war there, he caught a lot of flack for being sympathetic to the U.S. Army in his writing during a time when public opinion was starting to turn against the war. (It is worth noting, though, that he was friends with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and Steinbeck’s son, John IV, was also fighting in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Army. He survived the war and later became a correspondent for the Department of Defense; he died in 1991 due to complications following an operation to repair a ruptured disc in his back.) I think I’ll have to finish reading Hillbilly Elegy first, but I can see similarities between the hillbillies of Appalachia and the migrants from Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Luckily, Hillbilly Elegy is only about 1/3 of the length of Grapes, and Vance’s prose is surprisingly quite readable, flows well, and keeps the reader engaged.

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