A Parrot in the Pepper Tree: Chris Stewart


Many of us dream of giving up the rat-race and living the simple life in a community far removed from the hustle of cities. These remain dreams for most of us, but not for Chris Stewart and his wife Ana. In 1988, they moved to Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain, and bought a farm called El Valero without running water, electricity, telephone or an access road. And they are there still.

Stewart’s claim to fame before he became a well-known writer was that he was the drummer in Genesis when they first started out. He has since sailed a boat (and written about it), worked on a building site, was the drummer at a circus and sheared sheep before settling down in El Valero. The sheep shearing came in handy when he was at El Valero—Swedish farmers would pay for his services, money that kept the farm going. I doubt that he needs to do that any more—his books about living in Spain have, much to his surprise, been huge successes.

This is Stewart’s second book about life in El Valero with Ana and their daughter, Chloe, who was born there.[1] Like the others, it is laugh-out-loud funny. There are several wonderful moments: Stewart addressing a group of Swedish farmers about farming in England (about which he knows nothing) and leaving them with the impression of a country that produces two-ton cows and improbable crop yields. Walking home one day, he finds his neighbour Bernardo contemplating a fig tree. “I have a little problem.” The corpse of Bernardo’s dead Pekinese, Moffli, was stuck in the tree because of his attempt to hide the dog’s death from the kids (“I swung him round and round…and then I let him go…but I think I got the timing wrong”).

The Stewarts have a motley collection of animals, including the bad-tempered and misanthropic parrot of the title, Lorca, renamed Porca. Porca falls head over heels in love with Ana and won’t let her out of his sight. He hates everyone else (especially Stewart) because they are competition for the attentions of his beloved. Porca builds nests using whatever he can get his claws on—toothbrushes, bits of twig, cutlery. Once the nest is done, he tries to entice Ana in by emitting lovesick meeps.

All this sounds idyllic but Stewart doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of living the simple life. The family try to keep their vegetable patch safe from marauding sheep and badgers, he has to stop writing to deal with a bumper crop of potatoes, and making a phone call involves walking for hour, some of it through a fast-flowing river. The telephone belongs to a family who charge exorbitant rates. “Once inside the gloomy sitting room, she [the lady of the house] would click the meter back to nought and then stand beside it, arms folded, glaring at me. On a really bad day, other members of the family would gather and glare, too.” And all this while he is trying not to (and clearly failing) to drip river water onto the floor.

There is also the very serious threat hanging over their valley: if the planned dam in the area goes ahead, their valley would be flooded, and Stewart and his farmer neighbours would have to leave.

I love these books. The family have become part of the community and obviously love it there. Stewart’s affection for their neighbours and his love of the region comes through in the book. He writes lyrically about walking in the borreguiles, the high mountain meadows of the Sierra Nevada and seeing the Sierra Nevada gentians. “Common to them all is the perfect peace, the almost supernatural clarity of the water and the springiness of the deep green grass. … In early July…I walked up to the meadows… . As I clambered over the lip, I was struck dumb by what I saw. The grass was no longer green, it was a sheet of livid blue—a blue so dazzling that it seemed to come from outside the normal spectrum of perception.”

I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that the dam will not go ahead, and Chris Stewart will continue to be able to live in the place he loves and which he has made his home.

[1] I reviewed the first one, Driving over Lemons, for Women on the Road : it was my first review for the website. You can read it at the bottom of the page on Europe.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

AllthelightwecannotseeReview by Thomas Peak and Susanne Gjønnes

Set during the darkness of World War II, All the Light We Cannot See is a powerful and emotional novel. It follows a young boy and a girl caught up on each side of the whirlwind of Nazism and war. Werner, a poor orphan drafted into a special school for Nazi cadres and then the Wehrmacht and Marie-Laurie, a blind girl living in Paris with her father, whose life is turned upside down by the German invasion. The fates of Werner and Marie-Laurie slowly weave together over the course of their young lives, finally merging in the picturesque town of Sant-Malo during heavy bombardment.

Werner and his sister Jutta live in a cramped, impoverished and dirty home for orphans in a dead-end coal mining town in the Ruhr. Until his extraordinary scientific abilities and talent for mending radios attract attention, it seems that his life will follow the same predictable course of all poor boys in this town and that he will be broken – and like his father, possibly killed – in the coal mines. Werner seemingly escapes his fate by being sent to a special school for Nazi elites, where he is exposed to predictable cruelty, but also meets his best friend.

Marie-Laurie is the daughter of a locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Falling completely blind at an early age, she nevertheless develops a curiosity for the world akin to Werner’s, encouraged by her loving father and nurtured by a childhood spent exploring the museum. Following the Nazi invasion, Marie-Laurie and her father flee Paris and the museum. Before they leave, the locksmith is trusted with the greatest treasure in the museum, a perfect but cursed diamond, the ‘Sea of Flames’. The diamond must be protected from the roving Nazi hunters at all costs, and the museum disperses a number of fakes among its scattered staff.

A mysterious radio broadcast that captivated young Werner and Jutta, the bravery and the stubbornness of the ordinary children and women who risked everything in the resistance, and the relentless pursuit of Nazi treasure hunters whose shopping list for the Reich extends to all of the cultural wealth of Europe, these all meet in the story’s climax, under the heavy bombardment of allied war planes and artillery shells in Saint-Malo in 1944. All the light we cannot see is dramatic and engaging, the reader is swallowed into the book, and it is difficult to set aside.

Insightful children move this novel – Marie-Laurie is beautiful, the simplicity of her goodness stands out, and the reader really wishes to discover what will happen to her; Werner, an undersized, but brilliant and caring child who must face his own crimes; Jutta, Werner’s sister who sees through Nazism from the beginning; and Frederick, Werner’s pure and unbending friend at the Nazi school – they would all be at home in one of Roald Dahl’s stories. Together they create a tension that carries the reader along the short, energetic, chapters.

Much of the beauty stems from the flickering of candles of humanity that could not be blown out by the winds of war. But, whilst not clichéd exactly, the mise en scène becomes somewhat transparent at points. The ritual evils lurking in the special school, a place which makes the dim reality of the mine shafts shine brightly by comparison, the flatness of some of the characterisations, a slightly mono-tone and unchallenging depiction of the failed Nazi dream. But these notwithstanding, it is an emotionally engaging tale. The war is described in a way that makes the reader feel the hunger, the brutality and the desperation of war, reminding us of the terrible suffering in large parts of the world today.

Saying goodbye to an iconic bookshop: Imran Ali Khan

The Strand Book Stall in Mumbai has been an icon for readers. Books of all sorts piled everywhere, where readers were encouraged to browse and get into conversations with like-minded people. It was one of my favourite places: a trip to Bombay (as it was called then) was incomplete unless I had been to Strand. There is a sign in Foyle’s, London, that says “Welcome, reader. You are among friends.” It reminded me of Strand–that was exactly the sort of atmosphere that its owner, TN Shanbagh aimed for.

But the bookshop is going the way of too many others and is closing its doors. Imran Ali Khan , a writer (and a contibutor to this blog) and a longtime customer of the Strand, he bids farewell to a place which gave him some of the books that have become a part of him.

“When I was five my parents took me to visit Bombay, as it was still called. For the time we were in the city, we lived in one of its great towers, the likes of which I had never seen before. In an attempt to make me feel right at home my parents took me to a bookshop. Tucked away in the by-lanes of this vast city, it was the only bookshop I had seen in my life other than Manney’s in Pune, where we lived at the time. Great towers, this time of books, rose before me, names and titles stacked one over the other. A narrow, seemingly endless staircase led to the children’s section. My parents bought me a children’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

“A few years later when we moved to the city, the great towers had names that I would remember, and the streets that coiled around them like giant serpents did too. I knew how to navigate the giant serpents, I knew that when I left the sea behind me and saw Flora Fountain and the Four Seasons I wasn’t far from Strand Book Stall. I went back to Strand, climbed the deep, narrow stairs and read. As time passed, Strand became integral to my survival, my escape from the confusions of chemistry and the madness of mathematics. I no longer needed to climb the stairs to the children’s section because the looming towers of books on the ground floor began to make sense. I had met some of the books before, some were introduced to me, and others I bumped into without meaning to.”

Read the full article on Scroll.in.

Photo: huppypie via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Catching Thunder: The True Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase, by Eskil Engdal & Kjetil Sæter

9781925322224This true-life crime novel, ‘Catching Thunder: The Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase’, is the dramatic account of Sea Shepherd’s 110-day long international pursuit of the pirate fishing vessel Thunder.

Sea Shepherd is a group of activists committed to fighting illegal fishing led by the Swedish-American captain, Peter Hammarstedt. Their ship Bob Barker is trawling around for the ‘Bandit 6’, a list of six vessels fishing illegally in the Southern Ocean. At the start of their adventure, they come across Thunder, a vessel with an INTERPOL purple notice, and wanted by several governments around the world. This is the start of the ever-longest chase at sea, lasting 110 days, and crossing three oceans. Behind the scenes, INTERPOL and various countries’ fisheries management watch the chase, collaborating with Sea Shepherd in unconventional ways behind closed doors.

The book takes us from the once state of the art fishing vessel’s birth in 1969 in Ulsteinvik, Norway, across the oceans, and to Galicia, Spain, where unscrupulous mafias have specialised in the illegal fishing and whitewashing of Patagonian tooth fish, a lucrative species of cod icefish also named the “white gold of the ocean”. A criminal business extending across several jurisdictions, and including a web of tax havens, insurance companies, and ship registries, facilitates this lucrative poaching.

The product of a three year investigation taking them to four continents, the Norwegian investigative journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter, have produced a book which is both a page-turner and a highly impressive documentary account of their work.

Chilling in places, with many situations hovering on the edge of extreme danger, one admires Sea Shepherd but also yells at them for the reckless peril they subject themselves to. Hammarstedt knows that the world and their donors are watching, and giving up is no option. This is both bravery and stupidity, but in the end a deep passion for protecting the oceans wins through, one that is hard to disagree with.

The book depicts how the international system fighting illegal fishing still has a long way to go if it effectively wants to get rid of the mafias out there, who are exploiting valuable ocean resources. In a really exciting fashion, the book highlights the problem of illegal fishing that has profound impact on communities across the world, but is largely unknown to the majority of people.

The takeaway is that combating environmental crime requires greater international cooperation than is the case today, and meanwhile, environmental NGOs are filling the enforcement vacuum left by inadequate government action. They take great risks to do so, risks that should not be required.

Catching Thunder will be out in English in March this year.

Aya of Yop City: written by Marguerite Abouet, drawn by Clément Oubrerie

The three young women in Aya of Yop City, the first in a series of graphic novels, have boys, parties, marriage and future careers on their mind. They rebel against their parents, pick unsuitable boyfriends and try to figure out their place in the world. The three friends—Aya, Adjoua and Bintou—live in Youpougon (known as Yop City in slang), a neighbourhood of Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

The central character, Aya, is a hard-working and ambitious young woman who wants to become a doctor. Adjoua and Bintou, on the other hand, are interested in the “three c’s”: “coiffure, couture et chasse au mari” (hairstyles, clothes and the hunt for a husband, preferably a rich one). It’s a conventional role for a woman, and something that Aya’s parents want for her too. But she has other plans and is determined to see them through.

Aya’s parents set up a meeting with Moussa, the spoiled and none-too-bright son of Aya’s father’s boss. Aya is not at all interested, but her friends are. Moussa has money to spend, and takes Bintou partying. Meanwhile, he is also seeing Adjoua. The relationship has gone beyond partying, with the inevitable outcome—she becomes pregnant.

The family is central, and the girls’ families are very much part of the story. In the first few panels, the reader is introduced to all of them. When Adjoua becomes pregnant, she goes to see Aya’s mother, Fanta, who is a healer. The mother and daughter are the core of this community—both, in their own ways, provide succour and level-headedness.

Aya of Yop City is, in many ways, a universal story, and young women (or those of us who were once young!) will identify with it. But it is also a glimpse into life in Yopougon. Young people go to the maquis, open-air restaurants that are informal and cheaper than proper restaurants. And once the maquis close, it is where lovers meet at night. At the end of the book, there is a recipe for sauce arachide, the peanut sauce that is typical of the region. And that is what is so great about this series—this mix of the familiar and the new. (An aside about the familiar: as a young woman living in my hometown, I had to put up with visits from so-called eligible bachelors living abroad who were scouting around for a nice Indian wife! So Aya’s visit to Moussa’s family resonated with me.)

The book combines humour and social critique with believable characters. I felt like I’ve met some of these people, and I want to know what happens to them.

The book is beautifully drawn by Clément Oubrerie and captures the vibrancy of both the place and characters. Although it is not autobiographical, it is based on Marguerite Abouet’s experiences growing up in the Côte d’Ivoire. Like many Africans, she was fed up of the media’s focus on the wars, famines and poverty, and wanted to present the day-to-day life of ordinary Africans. She has succeeded with this very enjoyable series.

(The series has been translated from the French into English by Drawn and Quarterly.)

Of Human Freedom: Epictetus (translated by Robert Dobbin)

Review by Thomas Peak

This magical little book comes from a time and place far, far away. It is adapted from the Discourses written by Epictetus, an emancipated Greek slave living in the Roman Empire (55- 135 AD). His world is gone. But this hopeful guide to living a worthwhile life, on how to be a happy person and a good person (which are one and the same) feels as present and necessary as ever.

Amongst the greatest of classical Stoic philosophers, Epictetus’ goal is to teach others how to achieve peace and satisfaction, by focusing on what is truly valuable, and not on things which only appear to be. Cultivation of freedom is the ultimate pursuit of human life, and ‘What else is freedom but the power to live our life the way we want?’ (p. 25.) This freedom, we are told, and the calm, happy life is within everybody’s reach. It is the release from excessive desire for anything ‘external’; the acceptance of things as they are; and a rejection of worries. ‘Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.’ (p. 81.) To invest our well-being and in things essentially beyond our control is a foolish delusion. It is slavery. Money, lust, fame, things of these kind are diversions away from the source of true happiness, they are things which cannot deliver the satisfaction that we hope to achieve through them.

In vivid language, which avoids the dry and obscure prose of much more recent philosophy, it is difficult to see how a person could read this book and not come away with any benefit. To follow Epictetus’ advice is to treat others kindly, not to judge them, to recognise that you are as weak and as fallible as anybody else. ‘If you must laugh at someone [who is superficial and not perfect] then laugh at yourself as well.’ (p. 87.) From this two-thousand year old pen we read that we are all slaves together, to the extent that we submit ourselves to passing and unstable things. Thus, the bad person – the selfish, greedy, or the unjust – is simply somebody who lives and acts the way he does involuntarily; because nobody would choose to be a slave and to live an unhappy life.

Who wants to live with delusion and prejudice, being unjust, undisciplined, mean and ungrateful? ‘No one.’ No bad person, then, lives the way he wants, and no bad man is free. Who wants to live life experiencing sadness? So, can we find any bad person who is without sadness, fear, frustration or misfortune? ‘No.’ No more, then, can we find one who is free. (p. 53.)

So, the question is why should we be angry with people who mistreat us?

At times the standard can seem impossibly high. Epictetus is demanding. We are expected to monitor our thoughts, always being conscious of weaknesses and excessive desires, thinking about how we should or will approach various scenarios that we might encounter day-to-day. This is the training needed to live in equanimity and harmony with the world around us, enjoying it and appreciating its beauty for the very short time we have. But imagining freedom in the way Epictetus describes, can at first be as disheartening as to step in the gym thinking about deadlifting 500kg or running a two-hour marathon; of course, this is possible, just not for me. The point though, is not necessarily to be perfect but to try to live freer, happier lives. It is the effort that counts:

‘If you’ve succeeded in removing or reducing the tendency to be mean and critical, or thoughtless, or foul-mouthed, or careless, or nonchalant; if old interests no longer engage you, at least not to the same extent; then every day can be a feast day – today because you acquitted yourself well in one set of circumstances, tomorrow because of another.’ (p. 91.)

To choose fewer things which make us unhappy, and to look at other people more kindly, this seems like a good goal.

This short and accessible book can be read on a single long flight or train journey. It is easy to pick up and difficult to put down, and what’s more, Epictetus’ philosophy is not just warm, intensely thought provoking and witty, it is good medicine for the difficult moments in life. It deals directly with concerns like bad relationships, not having enough money, and not feeling important enough. Epictetus’ advice is the best prompt for reading this book:

Instead of a rich old man, cultivate the company of a philosopher, be seen hanging around his door for a change. There’s no shame in the association, and you won’t go away unedified or empty-handed, provided you go with the right attitude. Try at least; there is no shame in making an honest effort (p. 81)

Winter: Ali Smith

In 2017, two very different writers—Karl Ove Knausgård and Ali Smith—published books around the seasons, starting with Autumn and ending with Summer. However, while Knausgård’s books are more memoirs/missives to his young daughter, Smith’s books are novels that look at “the state of the nation” (ie, the UK).

I’ve only read the second in the Ali Smith series, and I loved it. It is a book about how people react to the issues that threaten the world, either through action or through withdrawal. The central theme, however, is relationships—the things that bring people together and push them apart.

The books starts on the day before Christmas, with Sophia in her large house chatting to the disembodied head of a child floating around her. Perfectly happy to be alone in her home with the ghostly head for company, she isn’t looking forward to spending Christmas with her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte, whom she will be meeting for the first time.

Art, who lives in London, is not looking forward to going to his mother’s for Christmas either. He has just broken up with Charlotte and is dreading his mother’s questions when he shows up alone. To make matters worse, it has been a nasty breakup—Charlotte has hijacked the Twitter account of his blog, Art in Nature, and is posting ridiculous messages (which, in the way social media operates, actually serves to build his following). As Art is taking in the extent of the damage at an Internet café, he sees a young woman at a bus stop. She is clearly not waiting for a bus. Why doesn’t he just pay this homeless woman to pretend to be Charlotte?

So the young woman, Lux, walks into Art’s dysfunctional family. Art’s father died when he was a child, and he has two mothers: his own and his aunt, Iris, Sophia’s elder sister. The two women are very different: Sophia, a businesswoman of sorts, is anxious and insecure. Iris is strong and self-confident: she is an activist, was part of the anti-nuclear protests and is now helping migrants in Greece. (She reminds me of the Argentinian cartoon character, Mafalda, grown up.) The two women have not spoken to each other for years. Sophia rebelled against her elder sister’s involvement with protest movements and her scruffy friends and cut Iris out of her life.

Lux is a migrant who came to Britain because of Shakespeare. Reading Cymebeline, she thought “if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end, where the balance comes back and all the losses are compensated … then that’s the place I’m going”. She lives up to her name, bringing light into dark corners of the family. She has an ability to see people—really see them. Lux has barely been in Sophia’s house for a few hours before she’s not only engineered a reconciliation of sorts between Sophia and Iris but has managed to get Sophia to eat, which until then she had refused to do.

The book deals with so many things: the migrant crisis, Brexit, protests—especially the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—social media, and of course, families and relationships. And Smith does it all with a light touch.

It feels like the characters in this book are essentially alone, looking for companionship, sometimes in spite of themselves—they come together and drift apart again. There are no resolutions at the end, but it left me with a feeling of warmth, and I wanted to know what happened to these people. This is a generous, but unsentimental, book. If you have issues with magical realism, don’t be put off by some of the weird stuff. The book is well worth the read. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Eye of the Jade: Diane Wei Liang

This is a detective story set in Beijing that provides a glimpse into life in modern China with all its contradictions. The central character, Mei, is a private detective. She is approached by a family friend, Uncle Chen, to look for a Han dynasty jade seal. The seal had gone missing during the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards destroyed many historical artefacts. Because so many of them were lost, the surviving artefacts are extremely valuable. If the jade were found, it would be a national treasure, but Uncle Chen wants to sell it on the black market. Mei, in spite of her better judgement, decides to take on the case.

The hunt for the jade is less important in itself than in what it unearths. The Cultural Revolution still throws long shadows: Mei’s father was sent to labour camp for being an intellectual. The family went with him, but her mother managed to get herself and her two daughters out, and Mei’s father eventually died in the camp.

Mei’s relationship with her mother is central to the book. It is a complicated one (as it often is). Mei adored her father and couldn’t understood why her mother abandoned him, and never really forgave her for it. Her mother wants her daughters to be successful and to be able to play the game, so to speak—something that Mei refuses to do. She feels that she has disappointed her mother.

Mei had a prestigious job at the Chinese State Security but, for reasons that become clear later, had to leave. She works on the margins, as private detectives are banned in China, relying on some of her contacts in State Security to help her. She earns enough to have her own apartment, a car and a very useful male assistant, but it’s not much compared to her sister Lu, who is extremely successful in television and is about to marry a rich man.

Mei’s mother has a stroke, which lands her in hospital. Who is the mysterious man who Uncle Chen brings to visit her? There are obviously family secrets that Mei knows nothing about. What is the eye of the jade? Although the old proverb says that the truth shall set you free, when Mei finally learns the truth, it is not liberating.

What I enjoyed about this book was the glimpse of life in modern China. On the surface, it seems to be a consumer society like many others, where money rules. However, the fallout from the Cultural Revolution still affects people, even those who were very young when it happened. It feels like different historical periods coexist in the city, along with the ever-present ghosts of the past.

Diane Wei Liang was in a labour camp with her parents when she was a child, and was part of the Tiananmen Square demonstration as a young woman. I think this book could have been longer with more about China’s past. As it stands, it is a light, enjoyable read, but one that could have done with a bit more heft.

Reflecting on The Grapes of Wrath

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

Rereading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath after a gap of nearly 50 years has left me with untold riches.

The Grapes of Wrath is not an easy work to summarize, unless one sacrifices many of its uniquely brilliant and always affecting facets. It is a great work of fiction first, meticulously structured and flawless in the portrayal of its characters, their voices pitch-perfect.

His creative genius aside, it is John Steinbeck’s powerful portrayal of agrarian capitalism that dominates his novel. Set in the years of the Great Depression in the USA, the story tells us how small farmers—sharecroppers and tenant farmers—are uprooted from their land one cruel season when the rains fail and the earth becomes a restless bowl of red dust. Land-owners, desperate for quick returns because they owe money to the banks, have tractors sent in to work the land and evict the farmers, breaking down their lives, home by home, family by family, and spirit by spirit.

The plot of the story tracks the excruciating journey of one large family, the Joads—grandparents, parents, four sons and two daughters, the elder of whom is pregnant with her first child, a son-in-law, an unattached uncle, a has-been preacher, and a dog—and their losses, heartbreaks, and shattered dreams; their undying spirit in the face of boundless despair; their goodwill to fellow-travelers on this pitiless road to vanishing dreams. Their dog is the first to die—a vehicle hits him on the highway when the family makes its first stop; the next victim is the grandfather, who had to be drugged and forcibly lifted on to the back of the truck, so determined was he not to leave his home.

Pauperized families fall prey to ruthless car salesmen. Beleaguered families are cheated and humiliated when forced to barter their possessions for gasoline, food, and shelter.

As the hungry and homeless move seeking work, their entire worlds hoisted on rickety wheels, the frightening truth of faceless capitalism unfolds, showing what happens when businesses take over farming, recklessly exploiting precious land to speed up profit. Technology and science accelerate this process, innovating methods, intensifying work, and increasing yields. Expounding on what this means to the migrant farmers, in one profoundly nuanced digression (Chapter 25), the narrator meditates on how science has the capability to help humanity but can’t when it is run by money.

Speaking of “men of understanding and knowledge and skill, who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants whose roots will resist the million enemies of the earth…,” the narrator calls them “Great men.” Pretty quickly following this, he introduces a sub-text that raises a question about the wisdom of interfering too much with the processes of the earth. “And always they work,” he says of the scientists in the experimental farms, “selecting, grafting, changing, driving themselves, driving (my emphasis—KB) the earth to produce.” And when the cherries and purple prunes and pears yield like never before, their price falls, and only “the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries,” where “four pears are canned” per container and sold for huge profits, because canned fruit does not spoil.

What about the grapes that grandpa craved? “There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ‘em on my face and’ let ‘em run offen my chin,” he says. To be sure, there are a lot of grapes in the scientifically enriched farms, but that fruit is not meant for the likes of grandpa. The excess produce of grapes, not fit for good wine, gets pressed into alcohol, smelling of decay and chemicals, on which to get drunk.

The narrator then draws the inevitable conclusion in dirge-like tones that “Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce … And the failure hangs … like a great sorrow.”

This recognition becomes an elegiac note, a key moment in the novel. We read, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Such despair and such disappointment break down some folks, but in others the inescapable friction ignites fires of revolt. Activism to unite farm workers in the USA—anathema to capitalism—is born, and the Joad family’s journey gains a huge historical significance, when two of the novel’s characters, the one-time preacher and his jailbird buddy, set out to revolt against the inhuman exploitation of the poor and destitute farm workers. Even the usually submissive pa observes, “They’s a change a-comin’. I don’t know what. May be we won’t live to see her. They’s a restless feelin’. Fella can’t figger nothin’ out, he’s so nervous.”

It is no surprise that The Grapes of Wrath was banned soon upon publication in parts of California, where the migrant farm laborers suffered most.

Steinbeck’s work is way more than a fat pamphlet or a rant against agrarian capitalism. It is an exquisite novel, meticulously shaped, with the plot-line regularly interspersed with philosophical digressions, sometimes satirical, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes tragic. If the Joad family members are memorable, so are the many itinerant characters whose lives intersect with that of the Joad clan, friends as well as foes.

Nowhere is Steinbeck’s artistry more stunning than in the way he peoples his fictional world. His characters speak in such individual voices that it doesn’t take long for the narrator to establish a sense of their inner lives without any overt commentary whatsoever. And every one of the characters undergoes change. How could they not, for the journey they are forced to undertake is to destinations that are mirages and worse? We see the large and closely-knit Joad family fall apart on this journey, with deaths and desertion taking away elders, brothers, and even a young husband. Steinbeck tells of the pain of such loss as if in a play, always through the voices of characters speaking of their new and frightening despair, where once there were dreams and hopes.

Remarkably, the novel begins with dust and ends in a deluge, and yet it is not nature that destroys the lives of the poor. The story of the journey begins with a young couple anticipating the birth of a child, and ends with the abandoned wife, now enfeebled and distraught with her own immeasurable loss, who still finds the courage to give life to another. As the novel draws to a close, the Joad family is nowhere near a destination, but one gets a feeling that now, for them, a new journey has begun.

The riches contained in The Grapes of Wrath will continue to inspire all who respect life and love the earth.

Levels of Life: Julian Barnes

“You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”

This book is about coming together and moving apart, of soaring to the sky and slipping into the underworld. It begins with balloonists in the late 19th century, then moves on to a love affair between two of the balloonists before leading to the heart of the book: the death of the author’s wife.

Ballooning was dangerous but liberating, a way of breaking free from constraints, both physical and social. It was, however, a freedom that was subservient to the weather, to the direction and force of the wind, and could easily end in disaster. You could be floating in the sky one moment and flung down to earth the next, knee-deep in a rose bed.

The title of the first chapter, The Sin of Height, has echoes of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun which melted the wax on his wings. As the book begins, in Britain and France in the mid- to late 1800s, people are taking to the skies in hot air balloons. The author focuses on three of these balloonists: Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards in Britain, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and photographer Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, in France.

All the characters in this book are real. Nadar, one of the early portrait photographers, also combines photography and aeronautics. Unlike his contemporaries, he is more interested in “the vertical” than the horizontal. Even his portraits attempt to plumb the psychological depths of his sitters, which is what makes them so memorable. But images can be formed in other, more ephemeral, ways: such as when Burnaby and his companions in their hot air balloon notice that the sun is projecting their shadows onto a cloud, like a “colossal photograph”.

We come down to earth in the second chapter, On the Level, which is about the affair between Sarah Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Bernhardt has conquered the stage in spite of being too small, too pale and too thin (she claims to be able to “slip between raindrops without getting wet”). She is Jewish in an anti-Semitic country and also a bohemian, which appals the puritans. Burnaby is a well-travelled man with no time for conventions. The affair between these two misfits in their worlds feels inevitable and natural—until it ends when Bernhardt moves on to another lover. Burnaby is heartbroken but cannot be angry with her. After all, she had always been honest with him: “on the level”. He eventually marries someone else but never gets over losing Sarah Bernhardt.

This takes us to the third chapter, The Loss of Depth, which is the crux of the book. We are now in the subterranean depths of grief: the loss of love, but in a more final and devastating way. After 30 years of being happily married, Barnes’s wife dies. And this is what the book has been leading up to—the unbearable pain at the loss of a loved one. This chapter is hard to read at times because it is so close to the bone, especially if you have been through the death of someone dear to you.

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure how the author was going to lead up to his wife’s death. But it all fits together. The images of height and depth run through the book: “Life’s sonar is broken and you can no longer tell how deep the seabed lies.” Plummeting several hundred feet when a balloon collapses is not so different from the shock of losing a loved one. (I’m sorry, Julian Barnes, I know you hate the use of the word loss to describe death.)

This gem of a book is an elegant and beautiful tribute to Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh. I’d like to end with a line from the last chapter. Barnes goes back to the image of the three balloonists created by the sun: “And so it is with our life: so clear, so sure, until, for one reason or another—the balloon moves, the cloud disperses, the sun changes angle—the image is lost forever, available only to memory, turned into anecdote.”