Usually, I’m not a fan of the so called “slice of life” works of fiction, but Cannery Row is the exception. It’s called a “slice of life” because it really doesn’t have any plot. Instead, it is intended to capture the feeling and people of the cannery district of Monterey, California. The novel introduces the reader to various denizens of the Row. The story (however unimportant it is) is about Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men, wanting to do something nice for Doc, a proprietor of a biological supply house on the Row who serves as friend and caretaker to all of the Row’s depressed inhabitants. Mack and the boys plan to give Doc a party and spend most of their time and energy acquiring the provisions while also simultaneously enriching and enraging the local grocer: Lee Chong. Cannery Row is not as heavy handed as “Of Mice and Men,” but it does similarly romanticize its cast of misfits. The book emphasizes the values of the lower class and insists that friendship and a warm heart is all that is needed to create a paradise in one’s life like the Row. However, the novel has several instances of violence and cruelty just like “Of Mice and Men,” showing that however utopian a society one might inhabit, there are always messy parts to disrupt the peace.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was my favorite book from sophomore year. However, some people I have talked to surprised me by saying that it was in fact the worst novel we read, but if you by chance enjoyed All Quiet like I did, then you will enjoy Catch 22. Similar to Remarque, Joseph Heller bases his novel on his own experiences during war, in his case, as a bombardier during World War II. The novel follows Captain John Yossarian in his exploits as a member of a fighter plane crew in charge of releasing bombs during the war. Yossarian has one wish: to survive the war. Unfortunately, the wish becomes more and more difficult, as Colonel Catchcart continues to increase the number of missions the crew must take. John is convinced that everyone is trying to kill him—a notion that sometimes arises in a war where… everyone is trying to kill each other. The book is written out of chronological order giving the story a confusing quality resembling the atmosphere of war. The most interesting part to me is the contrast between the actions of Yossarian, which are motivated by his interest in self-preservation and that of the Air Force Administration whose actions are based on making America look good in the war. This book isn’t just important for the word that it added to our language, but because it takes dead aim at many of the basic principles of war.
Revolutionary Road is the Great Gatsby in the 50s. Where Gatsby lived during the roaring 20s, with its extreme decadence and pervasive parties, Revolutionary Road presents a different take on the pervasive theme of the American Dream during the staunchly conservative 1950s. However, there is very little similarity between the settings and plots of the two stories. Besides the themes, the thing that struck me as the most analogous between the two novels was the writing—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style is a big reason why Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and Richard Yates was certainly on even ground. Revolutionary Road chronicles the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, from their meeting through their crumbling marriage. At first Frank and April had high hopes. Then April gets pregnant, and they are forced to move to the suburban Revolutionary Hill Estates. Despite this, they are self-assured that they’ll never become suburbanites. They only begin to question where their lives have gone, after April stars in an embarrassing amateur theatrical production. The plot reminded me of the 2010 film Blue Valentine, with kids being the catalyst for derailing the couples plans, and becoming the scapegoats for the troubles in the marriage. Just as in Blue Valentine, Revolutionary Road leaves the reader with a jolting feeling of catharsis when the final scene is finished.
Seniors have not read Frankenstein yet; luckily, I read it in eighth grade. If you finish Frankenstein, and are in the mood for another Gothic novel, then you should try out The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Frankenstein is well written, and has a very creative plot albeit antiquated—or at least that’s what you’d think. Its themes are probably more a part of society now than ever (you’ve heard about stem cell research, right?). Although they are different from the ones in Frankenstein, the themes in The Historian—harnessing a love of scholarship—serve as important lessons to a modern audience in the same way as those of Frankenstein.
Even if you don’t end up liking Frankenstein, there’s a good chance you’ll like The Historian, after all it mixes about ten different genres from travelogue to historical thriller to provide quite literally something for everyone. The Historian recounts a historical investigation into the life of Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince of Wallachia known as “Vlad the Impaler” and his fictional counterpart, Dracula. The story is told through three narratives connected through letters and journal entries: that of the a historian named Paul during the 50s complimented by his mentor during the 30s and daughter during the 70s. When you pick this book up, be prepared for not only a good read, but for a story that might literally haunt your dreams.