Business Times of Edmond, Oklahoma September 2018 - Page 29

BOOK REVIEW BY CAMERON BRAKE | BEST OF BOOKS East of Eden by John Steinbeck Viking Press, 1952  601 Pages  In Review: East of Eden B ack to school season is a busy time for us at Best of Books. We partner with every public middle school and two of the high schools in Edmond to provide the books students will be reading in their upcoming English classes. A portion of the sales go directly to each school’s library. You may have seen us at schedule pick up day standing behind towering stacks of paperbacks. My own part in this undertaking involves receiving thousands of copies of various Great American novels and preparing them to go out to students. When I opened up the first box of John Steinbeck, in this case 200 copies of The Pearl, I could not help but pause and reflect. Steinbeck’s work holds a special place in my heart. I found myself hoping that at least some of these copies would find their way into the hands of a few students who will enjoy it enough to seek out his other books. Maybe one of them will, like me, stumble on to East of Eden and have their world changed. East of Eden is Steinbeck’s greatest work. I’ve read all of his books and though the value is obvious in Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, it is East of Eden that holds in its pages the story of the soul. That is only partially hyperbole. East of Eden is, at its core, a re-telling of the Book of Genesis. Steinbeck blends his own family story with American history to tell the tale of two families. Through their generations, the Trasks and the Hamiltons fall like Adam and Eve. They rival like Cain and Abel. Set in Salinas, Calif., Steinbeck introduces us to characters as vivid and compelling as any in all of literature. You will see some part of yourself in every Hamilton and Trask, save one. Cathy. Oh, Cathy. She is perhaps the most memorable villain in all of American fiction. This is a book about good and evil, about the conflict in the soul to embrace one or the other. No such conflict exists in Cathy Trask. She is evil embodied. Strange as it may seem, there is not much point in explaining the plot of East of Eden. This is the sort of book where the plot’s main purpose is to carry you along Steinbeck’s examination of the soul. I remember shortly after the first time I read it not being able to explain what happens in it to a friend. Not because it is a fractured or experimental story, but because I felt it wasn’t important. What matters is the soul of the book. It does what all books attempt, and so few achieve. For me and so many others, East of Eden is less a novel and more some sort of primordial myth. I say this knowing full well it will sound somewhat absurd, but this book feels like religion. Not just because it uses Genesis as its bedrock, but because it shows you a way to live that is good and true and worthy. It speaks of Glory as if it were just growing somewhere, waiting to be picked. There’s this part in the middle where Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton are discussing one part of Genesis. They are joined by Lee, Adam’s live-in cook who is based on a real person from John Steinbeck’s life. They discuss the Cain and Abel story. Lee tells the others that the story has bothered him so he took it to three Chinese intellectuals. They took to learning Hebrew so as to better understand the story as it was written. What they realize is that one line in the Cain and Abel story has been repeatedly mistranslated. The part about sin lying at your door. In the King James Version God says “Thou Shalt” rule over sin. This is a promise that men will surely, one day, rule over sin. In the American Standard Version God says “Do Thou” which is an order to rule over sin. But, as the Chinese men master Hebrew they learn that the original word was “Timshel,” which means “Thou Mayest.” This is a critical, world-view changing difference. As Steinbeck puts it: “But the Heb rew word, the word timshel — Thou Mayest — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if Thou Mayest — it is also true that Thou Mayest Not.” The first time I read that section and understood what it meant I literally shook. No book had ever caused such a reaction in me. It was one of many stand-in-awe moments that this book produces. I love it because it changed my life. I did not know what literature could do until East of Eden. Everything from my goals in life to the way I look at the world changed the day I finished it. I still read it once a year and find something new and vital every time. All that to say, it turns out those old books they make you read in school really are worth something. REVIEWER CAMERON BRAKE works at Best of Books, Edmond’s independently owned bookstore at 1313 E. Danforth in the Kickingbird Square Shopping Center. September 2018 | The Business Times 29