Book Review: THE GRAPES OF WRATH, timeless

When I was young, my grandfather gave me a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and said every self-respecting Oklahoman should read the novel. Since I did just about everything he said, I read the book. But that was a very long time ago, and while I always considered it an an amazing book, I forgot much about it.

For that reason, I was thrilled Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, was the first book in the #yearofsteinbeck buddy read hosted on Instagram. In the book, set during the Great Depression, the Joad family, long-time tenant farmers in Oklahoma, packs all their belongings that will fit onto a jalopy, burning or abandoning the rest. They‘ve literally tractored off their land, forcing them out of the only livelihood they’ve ever known. However, with handbills from fruit growers in California advertising for jobs, they are optimistic that as soon as they make the journey across Route 66, they will no longer face poverty and hunger.

Steinbeck weaves intercalary chapters throughout the novel that serve as short stories, offer foreshadowing, and provide context for the Joads’s journey as they join almost 500,000 other refugees fleeing drought and despair for for the elysian California.

With stark but beautiful language and powerful symbolism, Steinbeck imparts the harrowing reality of the migrant “Okies,” yet he also imparts the strength that comes from family and community ties, emphasizing the humanity and empathy of the poor while criticizing the heartless cruelty of those who are disenfranchised from the land and the laborers.

Despite all the tragedy in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel closes on an optimistic note of largesse. However, I find it lamentable that the issues explored by Steinbeck are still so prevalent, albeit with different migrant groups replacing the Okies. Our society can and should do better. I encourage others to read it: the book remains timely, relevant, and brilliant.

Viet Thanh Nguyen in Ithaca


Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca to discuss The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives in conversation with Jack Wang of Ithaca College. I knew the talk would be thought-provoking and insightful, but I was surprised that I also laughed so much. Despite the moments of humor, I personally find it shameful how the U.S. treats refugees (and undocumented immigrants). If you haven’t read The Sympathizer which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, you should put that at the top of your to-read stack!

The event was co-sponsored by Ithaca Welcomes Refugees and Ithaca City of Asylum.

A portion of the proceeds of The Displaced are being donated to the International Rescue Committee to support their work aiding people whose lives are disrupted by conflict and disaster.

Book Review: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, sadly as relevant today as when published in 1974

Baldwin, James - If Beale Street Could Talk (4)If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin

Originally published in 1974, sadly, If Beale Street Could Talk is just as timely today as it was then. Fonny and Tish, a young couple who have known each other since childhood are embarking on a romantic relationship when Fonny runs afoul of a white police officer. Shortly thereafter, Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Fonny’s lawyer is sympathetic but expensive. Fonny’s mother and sisters disapprove of him, and his father is a troubled alcoholic. Impotent in prison, Fonny relies solely on pregnant Tish and her family and the limited help he can get from his father. While in jail, he, Tish, and their loved ones realize how institutionalized racism is and how difficult to overcome. The victim of the crime is also manipulated by police and is denied justice. This book made me feel sad and angry, even more so because racism in the United States hasn’t improved in almost fifty years. Yet, the love of Tish’s family and the hope embodied by the baby provided a slight solace in the face of so much unfairness and inequity.