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Reading Notes: East of Eden

The blog has been quiet for the past few days because I’m riveted in a very good book: East of Eden by John Steinback. The original plan was to peruse this landmark novel of the Salinas native who was awarded the Nobel Prize and and finish it as the Amtrak Coast Starlight chugs through the Salinas Valley on Friday. With less than 150 pages away from the end, I might very well have turned the last page before I get on the train. To while away the 11-hour train ride, I consign to Plan B: doubling up Ian McEwan with The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden. Both are very thin volumes under 150 pages that hopefully would suffice filling the hours that will be interlarded with eating in the dining car and journaling in my roomette.

Once upon a time a meme asked the question of what fictional character I would like to be and my mind drew a blank. I have found the answer by reading East of Eden—Adam’s servant Lee, the son of an imported laborer from China to build the railway is what I want to be. Lee was an accident: he was conceived at a dangerously inconvenient time. His mother, already pregnant, disguised as a man to sail across the Pacific with his father and gave birth to him. What I resonate most with Lee, a loyal and smart servant filled with wits and insights, is that he hides his English fluency in order to preserve the stereotype that befits a Chinese man. Winning the trust of a master is conducive to the survival of any foreign man who contrives to make a living. Lee’s reverse assimilation makes me question whether the obsession to assimilate to white America now (i.e. whitening skin, all-American labels like Abercrombie & Fitch, speaking like white folks) actually does the minority any good? What has caused the tipping over the balance?

I was watching the Chinese New Year Parade, turned my back to the television and checked on work on the computer. The anchor was interviewing this girl who just spoke like a Caucasian girl, who enunciates certain consonants and stressed on a syllable (and said “amazing…” at least 3 times). I turned around and was surprised to see that the interviewee was nobody but our very own Miss Chinatown USA 2010, who grew up in the Richmond district in San Francisco! (Note: She speaks no Chinese.) In my day-today encounters, I cannot help feeling a misgiving about the impression that if someone speaks English with an accent, be it Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish, or Hindi, then the person is thought of less. You’re FOB (fresh off the boat), or more accurately, FOJ (fresh off the jet). Lee rules.

Another big kudo to Lee, and this especially close to my heart, is that he aspires to save up, move to San Francisco, and open his own bookstore! Steinbeck must have imbued his literary gene into this minor and yet pivotal character who has maintained a collection books that has never been unpacked during his service at the master’s house in King City. Lee might be be the backbone of East of Eden, his relationship to his master and the two boys is one of the reasons why I have been so taken up by the book, which is literally and literarily a page-turner.

29 Responses

  1. It’s been a few years since I’ve read EoE but it’s one of my favorite books to date. I also enjoyed Grapes of Wrath but not to the degree that I enjoyed EoE.

  2. After reading your terrific review and having just finished and enjoyed The Wayward Bus, I can’t wait to read East of Eden.

    • I’m so surprised that this one is such fast-paced read. I enjoy every subplot of the book, it’s continuously entertaining and intriguing.

  3. Isn’t it incredible? I just absolutely loved that book. It has one of my all-time favorite quotes:

    “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.”

    I mean, isn’t that great? And haven’t we all felt like that?

    I was wondering what you were going to think of Lee. He was one of my favorite characters. I thought his story was so intriguing, and I loved that Steinbeck didn’t just leave him in the shadows but really imbued his character with meaning.

    • My heart is pounding now that I’m down to the last 40 pages of the book. Lee has been pivotal in helping Adam Trask laying all his cards with Cathay (Kate). The fate of the twins also concerns me. Of course, I am curious how Steinbeck would do with Lee at the end. I know he will not move to San Francisco and open a bookstore because he tried once but came back to be with the Trasks.

  4. I am so glad you are enjoying East of Eden. I took a semester long English course in college where we read everything of Steinbeck’s. East of Eden is one of my favorites and Lee is a character that is often neglected a bit when people are thinking about the book but is absolutely pivotal to the story. And I think you are right that the development of Lee’s character shows quite a lot about the kind of man that Steinbeck was.

    • One question that keeps coming up when I read is what would become of Adam Trask, and the boys if Lee doesn’t exist? He has so much wisdom to give to the family, resolving tension between father and sons, as well as making wise business decisions.

  5. I need to give this a try. I loved Steinbeck’s writing in The Grapes of Wrath but found it a little preachy for my tastes. But I have heard good things about East of Eden.

  6. You are so making me want to read this one again!!!! I think I can appreciate it much more as an older adult! Loved your notes!

    • I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I read it during my flighty years. Afterall, it’s parallel to Genesis and explores some very deep issues like original sin, the fall of Adam, and the lack of love.

  7. I think I’m going to love Lee myself! Have East of Eden on the TBR pile and will be digging into it this year (vowed to finish off the tbr before the year ends).. can’t wait!

    • I wonder what Lee looks like. His father came to America when China was still under the Manchurian rule. He actually adopted the customs of wearing a braid. He’s very, very Chinese at heart but is also open-minded to new ideas. I like his loyalty and love for the Trasks.

  8. I had a feeling you were going to love this, Matt. Lee is such a great character! EoE is one of my all-time favorites.

  9. Interesting. I hadn’t considered more Steinbeck. But I’m now remembering how much I enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath as well; I’d been expecting something informative (it was for a history class) and found it quite the page-turner too. I’ll definitely move EoE onto the TBR list now.

  10. How delightful! You are doing the “you are there” read, albeit in anticipation of being there. Have you read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris? She has a wonderful essay about “you are there” reading. Hope you will write a post about 84, Charing Cross Road. It’s one of my favourites.

    • Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is now on my list! 🙂 I’ve had 84 Charing Cross Road on my reading pile and will peruse it very soon. 🙂

  11. This novel just has everything that I love in a great book. I’m glad you are enjoying it!

    • EoE embraces all the necessary elements of a great epic novel. It is a moral lesson with family drama, love, sins, internal conflicts, and the iconic Edenic theme.

  12. East of Eden blew me out of the water. Its one of my faves.

    x
    Aimee

  13. WOW! I am so excited that you are enjoying the book. I will see if I can pick up a copy at a book store to read on the plane today. Enjoy the train!

    D

  14. I’m going to have to give this one a try. I’ve had Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row on my nightstand for a few weeks because I wanted to read Steinbeck’s Monterey stories. EofE sounds wonderful, and I might bump it ahead of the other tow.

  15. I was deeply touched when I read this book in high school. I regarded it as a very profound work. It’s been such a long time that I remember very little of it; but I vivedly remember my response. Now, after reading your review, and especially after your remarks on the character Lee, I know I must revisit this book.

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