The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck

by John Steinbeck IV and Nancy Steinbeck

Published by Prometheus Books

360 pages, 2001

The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World

by Hugh Brody

Published by North Point Press

376 pages, 2001




Eden Times Two

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


A few months ago I interviewed an author who told me she was upset about the title of her upcoming book. While she'd chosen a perfectly good -- and original -- name for the novel, her publishers were insisting she call it Paradise Lost. "What do you think?" she asked me. I laughed, of course, and told her that while I thought it was a perfectly good title, there was already a rather well known work by that name. She had pointed that out to her publishers, while muttering something about "Milton spinning," but the publishers were insistent: the sales department even thought the classical connection might help sales. "If that's the case," I told her, "maybe you should be done with it and just call it War and Peace or The Bible."

My point here is that, a lot of attention is paid to how books are titled and how the title will impact on the sales of that book. And it's important to everyone that the new literary child should have a pleasing and unforgettable name. But sometimes people get a little carried away. And sometimes, in a world where hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, duplication is unavoidable.

Take two 2001 releases from major imprints that have unfortunately gotten stuck with the same moniker. While the books couldn't be more different from each other, both are clearly non-fiction and some confusion is inevitable. Especially since the name wasn't all that original to begin with.

If you're going to borrow from a well known wordsmith, you may as well be related to him, which is in fact the case for The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck. Written in part by the writer's son, John Steinbeck IV, the work was completed by his wife, Nancy Steinbeck, after John Junior's death.

While the potential for banality seems great with this book -- completed, as it was, by the wife of the son of a famous man -- it never happens. First of all, John IV was an interesting, talented person in his own right. Raised within the shadows of what we've come to expect as normal from the Hollywood set -- though things are generally at least slightly less kooky with literary figures -- (and there have been those that said that Steinbeck peré was at least slightly ahead of his time: in this case it seems an indisputable reality), Steinbeck Junior writes about the abuse, estrangement and alcoholism that affected his life as a child and continued to affect him until the time of his death in 1991. The Other Side of Eden is no Mommy Dearest, however. Despite the story's somewhat tragic outcome -- you know going in that a lot of the key players are dead by book's end, after all -- Steinbeck's book is, at its heart, a hopeful and even somewhat spiritual story.

In a foreword that fairly glows and actually calls The Other Side of Eden "one of the most original memoirs of the twentieth century," Andrew Harvey, in his typical understated style, writes:

All great memoirs are a clutch of different books marvelously conjured into one. The Other Side of Eden is no exception. It is at once an exorcism of family wounds and secrets, an exposé of the projections of religious seekers and of the baroque and lethal world of New Age cults and gurus .... Reading it is as much a rite of passage as a literary experience.

On the other side of Eden, anthropologist, author and documentary filmmaker Hugh Brody delivers a noteworthy account of Earth's vanishing hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures. While Brody's The Other Side of Eden is not without agenda, the writing is always very good and occasionally even superb. Of a specific trip that involved traveling by dog team to hunt seals, Brody writes:

The entire surface of the world was flowing along at knee height. There were no features to the earth; the dog team was half immersed in this strange current of snow. I stood long enough for the sled and Paulussie to be no more than a blurred, gray movement at the edge of the light.

If The Other Side of Eden were a travel book in the style of Paul Theroux with a little more color or Bill Bryson without the huge guffaws, it would be a fabulous -- perhaps eternally unforgettable -- tome. Brody goes interesting places and has the ability to capture and share those places in beautiful and concise words. But The Other Side of Eden is no travel book. Brody uses this vehicle to hawk a couple of pet theories -- he's an anthropologist, after all -- but those with an aversion to political correctness and/or formal religion will be put off. Brody spends a fair amount of time interpreting The Bible's "Book of Genesis" and saying things like "The truth of Genesis lies in the profound and disturbing insights it offers into the heart of the society and economy that come with -- and descend from -- agriculture." The aspects of the world he illustrates for us, however, make The Other Side of Eden a trip worth making. | July 2001


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death Was in the Picture.