Tag Archives: John Steinbeck

Dream Journal: Travels with Chuck D.

15 Aug

Voyage

Jack Kerouac kept a dream journal. This log of nightly dreams was later published by City Lights Press in 1960 as Book of Dreams. Even before it was published, though, Kerouac encouraged others to pay attention to their dreams. He told Allen Ginsberg to infuse his poetry with his dream life.

When I was a high school student, my psychology teacher assigned us the task of keeping a dream journal. Isn’t that the most fantastic homework assignment you can think of?! According to psychology, we dream every night, but only some nights we remember our dreams. Keeping a dream journal was supposed to help us better remember our dreams. I know some people who hardly ever dream, but I have wild dreams—especially after eating pizza!

This past Friday night I had a doozy of a literary dream! I dreamt that I was writing a book entitled Travels with Charlie, which was a riff on John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Steinbeck’s book is a chronicle (it was purported to be nonfiction but it’s since come out that portions of it were made up) of the American road trip he took with his standard-sized poodle. My book, however, was about Charles Darwin’s travels. Incidentally, in real, waking life I once edited a reissue of his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle. I didn’t make the connection in the dream, but perhaps there was some connection between Steinbeck’s poodle and Darwin’s Beagle. In the dream, I was retracing Darwin’s footsteps for a book about his “road trip.” I kept referring to Charles Darwin as Chuck D. or Chuckie D.—like the rapper!

I definitely need to start a dream journal!

Do you keep a dream journal? What is the wildest dream that you’ve had lately?

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How Many Stars Should a Book Get on Goodreads?

7 Aug

redpony

Yesterday I wrote about my experience on Goodreads. I think most people use it to write and read reviews of books, but truth be told I don’t do that. The only “review” I give is ranking a book through Goodreads’ star system, and I only do that because it seems sort of mandatory.

I actually feel a sense of anxiety in ranking books. I have very idiosyncratic tastes. I often read books that have gotten a lot of hype and dislike them. But give me a book that the general reading public finds “strange” or that “no one” has heard of and I smatter it with stars.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have different tastes and that a book can be worthwhile even if we didn’t enjoy it. I know that sounds strange, crazy even, but hear me out: I don’t particularly love the story of Hamlet (I mean, come on, it has a ghost in it), but the dialogue, structure, and literary techniques are genius, pure genius.

Also, tastes change over time. I didn’t like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars the first time I read it. It was required summer reading when I was in high school, and I was decidedly not into love stories or books that heavily emphasized ethnicity issues, a topic my school focused on a lot. When I read it again in college, though, I was drawn into the story itself as if I were reading it for the first time. Sometimes I don’t even re-read a book and my opinion of it changes. I was looking over my Goodreads list and was surprised at how I’d rated some books. Books with three or four stars are the trickiest. I can really enjoy a book yet give it a lower ranking just because it’s not something I feel will stand the test of time or because it doesn’t have that extra little something. In contrast, sometimes I’ll give a book a slightly higher ranking than my gut reaction to it because it is a good book and I don’t want to discredit it even though in my mind there was something missing from it. See, this is why I should probably actually write reviews!

Anyway, here’s a bit of insight into the method of my ranking madness:

  • Five stars—the highest a book can get—are only for books that I feel have changed my life in some way, that are impressively written, and/or that I would reread. They’re the books I would own a copy of, have either marked up profusely or am careful to keep pristine, and would selfishly not lend out. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book I gave five stars to. An eighteenth-century British novel, it still feels strikingly fresh and relevant to today’s postmodern literature. Read it. It’s wild.
  • Four stars are for books I enjoyed a lot and got absorbed in reading and would recommend to others. I would want to own a copy of the book. I gave J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye four stars, for example, because I recognize it’s a well-written, thoughtful book with deep implications for our culture but it didn’t really move me. I read it when I was a teenager and I read it again a year or two ago for my alumnae book club and my reaction was the same.
  • Three stars are for books that are good—good in the sense that they are solid reading for on the subway, on a plane, or at the beach. Maybe the story was appealing or maybe there was something interesting about the writing style that got me thinking. I’d pass the book along to my mom or a friend without wanting it back. A book like Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday gets three stars. It met my expectations but didn’t blow me away.
  • Two stars are for books that somehow miss the mark for me personally. They’re for books I couldn’t get into, that tried too hard, that maybe had an interesting concept but failed to execute it properly, or that didn’t use interesting diction. Oftentimes they’re for books I was excited to read but weren’t worth the hype. They’re for books where I tend to feel cheated for some reason. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets two stars from me. I’d heard so much about this book I was really expecting it to be something special, but it was kinda a snooze fest. Sorry.
  • One star is for books that irritated me. John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony is an example of a book I only gave one star to. I read it back in high school and maybe I’d feel differently now but at the time I remember feeling tortured as I read it. (Conversely, I gave five stars to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Cannery Row.)

Do you think I’m too harsh? Too fickle? How do you rank books on Goodreads? Do you ever go back and change your ranking?

Retracing Jack Kerouac Mentions Me

7 Jun

RJK

The other day I mentioned how J. Haeske and I have been talking about the correlation between Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. I feel honored that the Retracing Jack Kerouac blog linked back to that conversation.

On the blog, Haeske reveals that it’s one of Steinbeck’s books that’s his favorite—not Kerouac’s. Can I let you in on a secret? Saul Bellow is probably* my favorite author. (*It’s hard to pick just one! That’s like picking your favorite child! Kerouac’s obviously right up there among my favorites with Bellow.) It’s interesting to discover that although we primarily blog about Kerouac and go to great lengths to read his works, study his literary techniques, research his biography, and retrace his footsteps, there might be one other author or book that for whatever reason we call our favorite.

Is that weird? Do you have a favorite book? Is your favorite book different from your favorite author?

From the Comments Section: Kerouac and Steinbeck

31 May

john

If you happened to read the comments from my post Research, Research, Research, you saw me and author J. Haeske — of the fantastic photo tour blog Retracing Jack Kerouac and the book Anywhere Road — discussing why I had posted a photograph of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row while doing research on Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Hopefully, I did a decent job answering the question. I’ve written about Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck before, and I thought I’d use this opportunity to revisit the archives.

Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written — in which I write about how I used to hate Steinbeck

Big Sur and the Best Laid Plans — in which I talk about reading Cannery Row and offer some Steinbeck and Kerouac links

Overarching Writing Tips from Big Sur Writers: Don’t Censor Your First Draft — pretty much what it sounds like; includes tips from Kerouac and Steinbeck

Road Trip: The Salad Bowl of the World — in which I write about writers writing about Salinas Valley

Road Trip: Monterrey — in which I write about Kerouac and Salinas writing about Monterrey

Sweet Ride: Penguin Book Truck — I don’t mention in the article that Penguin published both Kerouac and Steinbeck

 

Do you see the similarity between Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck … or is it just me?

Research, Research, Research

29 May

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Just a few of the books we’ve been using as research for Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Road Trip: Cannery Row

23 Nov

What’s a road trip to Monterey without a stop to Cannery Row?!  I had read Cannery Row during my layover in Wisconsin so I was all prepared to visit John Steinbeck country.

 

 

 

Road Trip: Monterey

19 Nov

Most people associate John Steinbeck with Monterey.  Many of his famous novels, including Cannery Row, were set in Monterey.  Not surprisingly, there are many tributes to him in the toursity little town.

 

Steinbeck photobombing me

Jack Kerouac also wrote about Monterey.  One of the most beautiful passages about Monterey in Big Sur is:

But it is beautiful especially to see up ahead north a vast expanse of curving seacoast with inland mountains dreaming under slow clouds, like a scene of ancient Spain or properly really like a scene of the real essentially Spanish California, the old Monterey pirate coast right there, you can see what the Spaniards must’ve thought when they came around the bend in their magnificent sloopies and saw all that dreaming fatland beyond the seashore whitecap dormat–Like the land of gold–The old Monterey and Big Sur and Santa Cruz magic….

 

Road Trip: The Salad Bowl of the World

15 Nov

One of the reasons I was excited to travel the California coast from San Francisco to Monterey was because we’d pass Salinas.  John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac wrote about Salinas Valley.  Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was set in Salinas.  In 1960, Kerouac published a piece called “The Vanishing American Hobo” in Holiday magazine, which in part said:

I myself was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew some day my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection — I was not a real hobo with no hope ever except that secret eternal hope you get sleeping in empty boxcars flying up the Salinas Valley in hot January sunshine full of Golden Eternity towards San Jose where mean-looking old bo’s ‘ll look at you from surly lips and offer you something to eat and a drink too — down by the tracks or in the Guadaloupe Creek bottom.  

Kerouac also wrote about Salinas in Big Sur.  Even though it was in Selma, California (called Sabinal in the novel) — the Raisin Capital of the World — that Kerouac wrote about picking crops with “the Mexican girl,” Terry, in On the Road, I imagine it to be very much like Salinas.

The Salinas Valley, which begins south of San Ardo, and runs all the way to Monterey Bay, is known as “the Salad Bowl of the World.”  Most of the green salad produce you eat in the US comes from the Salinas Valley.  Named during California’s Spanish colonial period, Salinas means a salty lake or marsh.  The climate and growing conditions make the valley particularly fertile.

I saw signs promising 7 avocados for $1.  Do you know how much I pay for an avocado here in New York City?  $2 for a single avocado!  I was super excited — “stoked” to use the lingo I picked up while living in Cali (yes, people really talk like that there).  However, in keeping with the everything-going-awry theme of the trip, we did not get to make the stop because our bus had broken down earlier on the trip and we were already two hours behind schedule.  I took these photos from the window of the bus.

Overarching Writing Tip from Big Sur Writers: Don’t Censor Your First Draft

17 Oct

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you’re probably a fan of the Beat Generation, which means you’ve probably read Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prose.  In a recent fit of procrastination, I stumbled upon Henry Miller’s Commandments while browsing the blog a lovely being.  Then through a rabbit hole that began on Poets & Writers, I discovered John Steinbeck’s writing rules on brain pickings.

As I scoured their tips for jewels of wisdom, I considered whether there were any repeating schemes amongst the three authors, who each lived at various points in their career in the Monterey area of Northern California.  The theme that emerges is one of writing with the force of one of the ferocious waves in Big Sur—quickly, spontaneously, wildly, freely, bravely, deeply, purely.

John Steinbeck: Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

Henry Miller: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

Jack Kerouac: Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

In other words, while you’re composing, just get it all out there on the page.  Don’t concern yourself with censoring your thoughts, diction, or punctuation.  You can always go back and fix things later, but for the first draft, at least, it’s better to let the story take shape naturally.

I’m generally not the type of person who subscribes to a set of writing rules, mainly because I believe everyone has their own technique and process, but I am a huge fan of lists.

Through Poets & Writers, I also discovered Kyle Minor’s “Advice to My Younger Self” and Margaret Atwood’s advice to writers, through which I consequently found similar lists by Zadie SmithElmore LeonardKurt Vonnegut, and David Ogilvy.

What are your tips for writing?

Big Sur and the Best Laid Plans….

15 Oct

I just got back from a trip where everything seemed to go awry.

On my recent trip to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, I had big plans to visit John Steinbeck’s Monterey, where Cannery Row is set, and Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, where he spent time in his friend poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin and the title of one of his books.  This idea, mind you, came after plans had already gone awry when I discovered none of my other friends were able to make it to the wedding or were flying in just in time for the wedding, leaving me with a few days to myself.  I’d been to San Francisco a few times and already done the big touristy things and the Beat literary things in the city (minus the Beat Museum, which wasn’t around the last time I was there–and which will have its own post coming up soon!), so I figured I’d take my literary wanderings a bit further south.

Steinbeck’s Cannery Row came out in 1945, two years before Kerouac made that first big trip out West.  Post-World War II, both Steinbeck and Kerouac spent time in the same area of California—Monterey, Big Sur, Salinas—and wrote about migrant workers, the working class, the down and out, absurd heroes.  Steinbeck writes of Cannery Row:

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Steinbeck’s message is very much Kerouac’s as well.  Kerouac writes about “the holy con-man with the shining mind” and other Beat characters whom society might consider derelicts but whom he considers saint-like.

I planned to do a close study of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and to reread Kerouac’s Big Sur to compare and contrast the places, characters, themes, and language.  Visiting a place can sometimes be the best form of research.  You see and hear things that aren’t in books, get a sense of proportion and distance, and see how the landscape has changed.  I wanted to see the land, to feel the sand between my toes, to have the salty ocean breeze whip through my hair, to smell the sardines.  I wanted to experience the rough terrain that so embodied Kerouac’s mind frame in Big Sur.

Unfortunately, a trip to Big Sur would not happen for me.  My plans went awry when I discovered that after Labor Day public transportation to Big Sur stopped running during the week and that the only tour that stops at Big Sur was sold out before I got to book it.  Discovering this two days before I was supposed to leave—okay, so they weren’t exactly “the best-laid plans…”—put a wrench in my itinerary.

Well, here’s my Pinterest inspiration board for Big Sur.

Here’s an article called “Steinbeck vs. Kerouac: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” from Big Think.

And here’s an article from Monterey County Weekly on the film adaptation of Kerouac’s Big Sur.

I was, however, able to book a different tour that at least went to Monterey.  I had to get up super early–did I mention there were several conferences going on in San Francisco so the only hotel I could find within my budget was an hour away?–to get to the 9am bus.  I got there right on time, getting one of the few remaining seats in the very back of the bus, on the side that wouldn’t have a good view.  …Two hours later, we were still in San Francisco.  The bus was blowing hot air through the vents and overheating–not great for all the senior citizens on the trip (oh, did I not mention the demographic was ever-so-slightly older?).  They brought in mechanics, and when they failed to fix it, we eventually got a new bus.  About half the people on the tour were so mad that their precious vacation time was wasted that they refused to get on and left the tour completely.  The good news: I got a better seat.

Here are a few pictures from Salinas and Monterey.

John Steinbeck references the aphorism “the best-laid plans of mice and men often goes awry” in the title of one of his other books, Of Mice and Men.  The phrase can be traced back to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

Don’t you love that eighteenth-century Scottish English?  (One day I will have to describe my misadventures in Scotland too….)

One of the things I love best about On the Road is Jack Kerouac’s candor that trips often do go awry.  When Sal Paradise, the narrator based on Kerouac, starts his first big road trip from the East Coast to the West, he has grand plans of traveling one great highway all the way there.  That doesn’t work out—nor does he even get out of state before having to turn back and come home again.  He’d been trying to hitchhike his way out of New York City and ended up stranded in a torrential downpour in Bear Mountain, one of the places my own family frequented when I was growing up.  Not one to let problems rain on his parade, Paradise/Kerouac heads back to New York City and buys fare for public transportation that will take him to the first leg of his destination.

Sometimes you just gotta keep on truckin’!  It’s a good lesson for traveling and for life.

What’s the worst that has ever happened to you on your vacation?

* * *

I’m reading tonight at 7pm at  The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy) here in New York City! This is a Storytellers event, hosted by C3.  I’ll be reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadcoauthored with Paul Maher Jr.