Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (with an introduction by Robert DeMott)

Like most people, I first read Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in high school. It was one of four books that we read in a class called "20th Century Literature." For most of the class, it's very length and breadth made the reading of the book a daunting task. I was the geek in the corner who literally lapped the class, reading the entire book twice in the time that everyone else read it once.

Although this isn't my first time to re-read this classic, I was drawn to it this time by all of the correlations that are currently being made in the media between the Great Depression and today's financial crisis. First and foremost, "The Grapes of Wrath" is the quintessential dust bowl ballad of American literature. Steinbeck was able to capture the struggle of the migrant farm worker in 1930s America in a way that makes it not only accessible but also resonant to readers far removed from the events of the novel.

In this reading, which is either my third or fourth reading of the book, I can't remember for sure, I was struck more than ever by the power of the expositional or background chapters, which alternate with the narrative chapters on the plight of the Joad family. In his fascinating and informative introduction, Robert DeMott compares these chapters to jazz riffs, which is as appropriate a comparison as I can think of. The writing throughout the book is powerful and moving but, it is in these "interchapters," as Steinbeck called them, that the author really flexes his muscles as a writer.

I was also moved by the never ending resolve of the Joad family in the face of what amounts to a constant assault on their human dignity. There is an underlying goodness to most of the characters in the book that, while it may be old fashioned, is a powerful assessment of the ability of human beings to rise to an occasion or at least to band together in defeat.

"The Grapes of Wrath," is by no means a happy story and the ending is probably as far from the classic "happy ending" as could be imagined. It is, however, a story that is often moving and at times inspiring. If it's been awhile since you've read it, you should revisit this masterpiece of American literature. If you've never read it, then stop fooling around on the Internet, get yourself a copy of this book and read it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Vote For Barack Obama (If You Haven't Already)

I spent yesterday afternoon hanging around on the mall in downtown Cleveland, waiting to hear Barack Obama speak. Four years ago, I spent most of the night before the election in the same place waiting to hear John Kerry make his final pitch for the presidency. While there was a sense of deja vu to yesterday's event - thousands of democrats, Bruce Springsteen performed etc., - the differences couldn't have been more palpable.

Both crowds felt like rock concert crowds but Kerry's crowd felt like a Springsteen concert while yesterday's rock star was the candidate, Barack Obama. There were vendors wandering about selling t-shirts, buttons and rally towels. Near where I was standing, dozens of parents cheerfully boosted their children up on top of what appeared to be a very wobbly structure for a better look. I don't condone putting children in danger but it did say something about the historic nature of the event. There was a sense of this being something that we've never seen before.

I don't remember seeing a more diverse crowd at any event I've ever attended. There were old people, young people, white people, black people, Hispanics, Asians, hippies, preppies, gays, straights and even a few football fans spilling over from the Browns game. I don't believe that his ability to unite diverse groups of people is reason enough to elect Barack Obama president but I think it's a start. There has never been a president or public figure in my lifetime that has galvanized the American population in this way.

So, if not for his ability to unite diversity, why should you vote for Barack Obama? Because it's time for America to take the plunge. To put our money on the horse that has the most potential instead of the one who has been in the game the longest. A vote for John McCain is a vote in support of the politics of misdirection. We must, once and for all, repudiate the idea that half truths and outright lies are just part of a so called "tough campaign." The attempts by the McCain campaign to characterize Barack Obama as a terrorist who hates America or a Socialist are at least as repugnant as the legendary Willy Horton incident that sunk the campaign of Mike Dukakis back in 1988. The difference is that this time they don't seem to be working.

So if you haven't already voted, get to the polls early tomorrow and stand in whatever length of line you need to and cast your vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. It's time to have a president who can inspire us to actually be the greatest country in the world instead of merely mouthing those words that we've been told since childhood. Use your voice to cast a vote for leadership over cynicism, hope over fear, ideas over character assassination and hope over anger.