East of Eden

One of Steinback's two great novels (the other clearly being the one most commonly known by high school students country-wide, The Grapes of Wrath) is East of Eden, a look at good and evil. It is a beautifully written, retelling of sorts of the Cain & Abel story from the Book of Genesis. The title is derived from the last line of the story of Cain & Abel, "And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." (Genesis 4:16). Steinback also alludes to Cain & Abel in the names of his main characters - Charles & Adam, Caleb & Aron, Cathy & Abra.  While the novel is based on this very old story, it uses this story as a lens through which to look at the Hamilton and Trask Families at the turn of the 20th century. Throughout East of Eden, Steinback focuses on the concept of "timshel," a Hebrew word which translates into thou mayest, which demonstrates the innate choice man has in between good and evil. As Lee, a secondary (yet extremely important) character in the novel describes,
...But the Hebrew 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.’ Don’t you see?”
The first half of the novel tells three seemingly unconnected stories of Adam Trask (and his brother, Charles), the Hamilton family (living in the Salinas Valley in California), and Cathy Ames (a cruel, cold girl). These stories all interweave (I won't spoil it for you), and culminate in the story of Cal & Aron. Cain is described in the Bible as a "worker of the ground" and Abel as a "keeper of sheep" (Genesis 4:2); Caleb invests in bean crops and Aron studies to become a priest (in Psalm 23, the term "Shepherd" is used for God, therefore priests can be referred to as shepherds). (If you want to spoil yourself, click here for more parallels between the Book of Genesis and East of Eden)
However biblical this review is getting, Cain & Able's story isn't the truly focus of the novel. The theme of good and evil permeates throughout. As the narrator tells the readers, "I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us...Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have..." His novel attempts to capture the essence of this story, just as Cain & Abel do in the Bible. While it is a 600-page novel, I was immediately drawn in and I could not stop reading. I finished the book in little over a week, and while it may look intimidating, time simply flies when you're reading it. I highly encourage you to read this when you have the chance Rating: ★★★★★


Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Part two of two of a series on Rajiv Chandrasekaran (read part one here). This novel differs from Chandrasekaran's first one in that it focuses more on the military/civilian conflict of America's intervention, not the complete civilian failures. "Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan." (source) It is how America has failed to understand Afghanistan, and never will. Chandrasekaran was a correspondent for the Washington Post, and from 2009 to 2011, he reported on the war in Afghanistan, traveling extensively throughout its the southern provinces (Helmand and Kandahar) to reveal the impact of President Obama’s decision to double U.S. force levels. President Obama ordered the increase in American troops in 2009:
And that's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts.
(Read his full speech here) The so-called "surge" was largely seen as a failure, and Chandrasekaran's book helps his readers to understand this. As in Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he doesn't outright comment on America's policy, and lets his readers make his own opinions. Yet, as the NYT Book Review writes, "No doubt most readers of this book will come away with the conclusion that our principal enemy in all this is ourselves." In the last chapter, Chandrasekaran wavers and he lets out a stream of complaints about America in Afghanistan. Yet, he doesn't offer another viable alternative, besides going long, not big: a policy which Americans were clearly against. Afghanis, too, didn't support the increase in troops: “We were not happy about the arrival of the surge troops, and we are not sad that they left,” said Mohammad Naim Lalai Amirzai, an Afghan Parliament member from Kandahar. “As the American surge ends, the Taliban surge will begin.” (from a NYT article, Troop ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan Ends With Mixed Results) That is a serious question: once America officially leaves, will the Taliban take over? Should America have tried harder to fix its flawed policies? These questions linger after you finish the superbly written book. I urge you to read it if you want to understand what happened in Afghanistan since 2009. Again, thanks to my dad for recommending it. Rating: ★★★★★