"Take no heed of her...She reads a lot of books."
~Jasper Fforde

Friday, August 5, 2016

100 CC #1: Tortilla Flat (John Steinbeck)

When I was in high school, John Steinbeck was my favorite writer.  Rereading Tortilla Flat after all these years has reminded me why.  When it comes to books, there are those that you read, those that you experience, and those that you climb into and live in for a while.  Steinbeck's short novels have always had that effect on me.  In particular, it is those novellas that focus on a group or a small town that really had the most profound effect, especially Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and of course Tortilla Flat.

This is the story of Danny and his friends, a group of paisanos, which Google tells me is a group of Spanish or Italian peasants.  Growing up, I always looked at them as poor Mexican/American immigrants, so I guess I was a bit close.  Basically, they are a group of poor ruffians who go on adventures, stealing wine and chasing women until they accidentally draft themselves into the war in a drunken fit of courage.  Upon returning, Danny, who becomes the leader, learns that his grandfather has died and left him an inheritance: two houses.  In a social circle where no one else has a house, let alone two, this is a huge boon for Danny, but his friends worry that it will make him distant and aloof.  But, instead, this newfound property draws to it a ragtag group of characters, including righteous Pilon, clever Pablo, and the humanitarian Jesus Maria.

Despite taking place in 1930s California, this story is a retelling of the exploits of Arthur and his knights.  Our heroes go on adventures, feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.  They give offerings to the saints and punish scoundrels and cheats.  It is a beautiful, romanticized story of a group of men just living out their lives.  I have two quotes which I think apply here.  One came from the back of my copy and is attributed to William Rose Benet: 

The extraordinary humors of these curiously childlike natives are presented with a masterly touch.  These silly bravos are always about to do something nice for each other, their hearts are soft and easily touched: and yet almost absentmindedly they live with atrocious disregard for scruple.

And this second comes not from Tortilla Flat, but from another Steinbeck favorite, 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.

This is one of my favorite books, and for good reason.  It captures an essential glimpse of humanity, and romanticizes it so that each character becomes more than himself, larger than life.  It's hard to really capture the essence of Steinbeck in a review like this, not if you really experience him the way I do.  That's not meant to sound pretentious.  I'm just saying that my experience is hard to put into words ;)  If you're looking for something to read, and would like to try Steinbeck, this is a great place to start.  But, be warned: this is not a book that can be read fast.  It must first be experienced and savored, like a fine wine or a rich dessert.  Never rush Steinbeck.  You'll miss out on so much.


  1. Hi Emmy! Ii am currently a High school senior and I just wanted to say that your blog is pretty rad. I also had a question which is what literary merit books have you read and have enjoyed? I Hope you see this!

    1. Hello, B. :) Thanks so much for the compliment. I've not blogged much lately, but I'm glad you've enjoyed what you've seen so far.

      When I was in high school, I read a lot of Classics, most of which I think have literary merit. If you're looking for suggestions, I would say just about anything by Steinbeck, Wodehouse, Tolkien, and Chesterton. Also, I really loved Picture of Dorian Grey, Phantom of the Opera, and To Kill a Mockingbird. If you want to see what else I read, follow the 2014 Reading Challenge widget on the sidebar to go to my Goodreads account :)


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