John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: Book Review

I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat this weekend. This is one of Steinbeck’s earlier novels, published in 1935. It’s a fairly short read, and I read the novel from the Library of America edition.

The novel is split into seventeen chapters, each with a descriptive title. For example, the first chapter is titled “How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless.” The story begins with us finding out about Danny, who used to work as a mule driver during World War I. After he gets back to California, he finds out that he has inherited two houses from his deceased grandfather. The first line of Tortilla Flat:

When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and owner of property.

In what is a recurring theme in the novel, Danny gets drunk and is thrown in jail. While in jail, he shares a drink with his jailer, and not long after, manages to escape. Danny talks to his friend named Pilon into sharing his brandy and one of his houses (for a fifteen dollar rent).  Pilon soon talks to his friend named Pablo, who also is invited to live in the house, but Pilon mentions to Pablo that a fifteen dollar rent will be due. The story evolves into five friends living in the house: Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria Corcoran, Big Joe Portagee, and The Pirate (described as a man whose mind did not grow up with his body, he is a little bit slow and gets easily taken advantage of throughout the novel).

The setting of the novel is Tortilla Flat, a town located above Monterey, California. The five main characters, also known as paisanos, who live in Danny’s house are drunkards, thieves, and vagabonds. They are scheming and conniving, often tricking one another to get a pint of wine to satisfy their cravings. Tortilla Flat revolves around the numerous adventures of these paisanos, including a quest to find treasure on St. Andrew’s Eve by Pilon and Big Joe (they dig at night, only to find a signpost for a geological survey). There are also descriptions of affairs with women. But, I think, the core of this story revolves around heart: the paisanos are generous, and near the end of the novel, when Danny gets afflicted with sadness (he doesn’t leave the porch of his house for a month), his friends throw him the biggest party held in Tortilla Flat. Unfortunately, the night of the party ends in tragedy. The ending of the novel is perhaps not surprising, given the way novel began (no spoilers from me)…

Some interesting quotes from the novel:

An arrival the afternoon:

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks, and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bit at low tide.

On Jesus Maria Corcoran:

Jesus Maria Corcoran was a pathway for the humanities. Suffering he tried to relieve; sorrow he tried to assuage; happiness he shared.

Is it possible to judge the depth of sleep?

If it were possible to judge depth of sleep, it could be said with justice that Pablo, whose culpable action was responsible for the fire, slept even more soundly than his two friends. But since there is no gauge, it can only be said that he slept very soundly.

Four characters described:

Their campaign had called into play and taxed to the limit the pitiless logic of Pilon, the artistic ingenuousness of Pablo and the gentleness and humanity of Jesus Maria Corcoran. Big Joe had contributed nothing.

A lesson about gifts:

But from everything that happens, there is a lesson to be learned. By this we learn that a present, especially to a lady, should have no quality that will require further present. Also we learn that it is sinful to give presents of too great value, for they may excite greed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is when the narration shifted from third person to first person, occurring late in the novel:

In the year of which I speak, the beans were piled and the candle had been burned.

On time near the sea:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

A mention of sack of potatoes:

They went home, and to their horror, they found that the new sack of potatoes that Pilon had found only that morning was gone.

The party thrown for Danny by his friends was of epic proportions:

Some time a historian may write a cold, dry, fungus-like history of The Party. He may refer to the moment when Danny defied and attacked the whole party, men, women and children, with a table leg…

Another instance of the narrator speaking to the reader, this time to persuade an issue of privacy (you have to read the novel to find out the circumstances):

I shall not go into the bedroom with Father Roman, for Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria and Big Joe and Johnny Pom-pom and Tito Ralph and the Pirate and the dogs were there; and they were Danny’s family. The door was, and is, closed. For after all there is pride in men, and some things cannot decently be pried into.

On Nature’s dispositions:

It is not always that Nature arranges her effects with good taste. Truly, it rained before Waterloo; forty feet of snow fell in the path of the Donner Party. But Friday turned out a nice day…

The last sentence of the novel, both conclusive and sad:

And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together.

Final Thoughts

I thought Tortilla Flat was a very good novel, but it pales in comparison to Steinbeck’s greater novella, Of Mice and Men. If you haven’t read any of Steinbeck’s novels, I think Of Mice and Men should be the first one read, as it is the most accessible, and perhaps the most poignant of his shorter novels. I’ve also read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels of all-time. Primarily, I read Tortilla Flat because I enjoyed Steinbeck’s other novels (outside of the novels I already mentioned, I’ve also read The Winter of Our Discontent, The Pearl, and Travels with Charlie), and I also enjoy reading the more obscure works of particular authors to get a greater understanding of how they wrote (especially interesting is development of Steinbeck’s writing style, from his early novels to his magnum opus, East of Eden). I will probably read one or two more of Steinbeck’s novels before the year’s end, since the Library of America edition of his novels from 1932-1937 is on my bookshelf.

If you’ve read Tortilla Flat before, what did you think of it? Do you agree that one should read Of Mice and Men first? Of Steinbeck’s other novels (The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row), which one do you recommend I read next?

Readings: Jobs and Genetics, Booking Flights, Roger Ebert

Here’s what I read over the weekend:

(1) “The Genetics of Job Choice” [The American] – This is an interesting piece suggesting that the kinds of jobs we seek, how satisfied we are in the workplace, and our propensity to “be our own boss” is highly impacted by genes. The most interesting paragraph to me:

Like the character Michael Scott on the hit TV show “The Office,” many business people daily supervise others. Amazingly, your interest in this kind of work is more heavily influenced by your genetic endowment than by how your mom and dad raised you. A study by Betsworth and Bouchard found that about 25 percent of the variation in interest in managing people is attributable to genes, while family environment accounts for only 8 percent of this interest.

(2) “Booking Flights the Frugal Way” [New York Times] – From the Frugal Traveler blog at The New York Times, this is a great post to bookmark. There are a plethora of tips on finding the cheapest flights, for domestic (in the U.S.) and international travel. One of the suggested websites to use is, which I love as well:

My first stop is, as it’s been for years now, It’s the simplest airfare search engine — minimal graphics, no discount vacation deals to confuse me, and it searches almost every other site out there — and also the most flexible. I can not only choose a window for my departure and arrival times but also decide where I want (or don’t want) to spend a layover, or which frequent-flier alliance to stick with.

(3) “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” [Esquire Magazine] – a sobering account of how Roger Ebert’s life has changed over the last few years. He has undergone a number of surgeries on his jaw and throat, and in the process, has lost his ability to speak. Everything Ebert says must be written, either on his writing pad or on his computer:

But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it’s like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It’s not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.

Roger Ebert writes a lot in his journal, which for all intents and purposes, is his autobiography. The entire article is a must-read, but Ebert’s thoughts on how to live a life resonate with me:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Case in Point: Book Review

I finished reading Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation in January 2010. I previously read this book in 2007, but I re-read it this year to reacquaint myself with some techniques in tackling case interview questions. If you’re preparing for a case interview, then my recommendation is to purchase this book to help you prepare.

The introductory quote to this book is clever:

The mind is wondrous. It starts working from the second you’re born and doesn’t stop until you get a case question.

And so, the premise behind this book: to learn how to prepare for the case interview question.

And what is the case interview? It’s a type of interview typically held by consulting firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Monitor Group, and many others. The purpose is to see how the applicant can apply business fundamentals in solving a (usually) real-life case revolving around business principles such as increasing profits, creating a larger marketing presence for a particular product, pricing a product, reducing costs, etc.

In the rest of this review, I explain how the book is organized, what you will learn in each section, and where appropriate, my comments regarding the different sections.

The book is organized into nine sections, with lengths varying from a single page to one hundred twenty pages. The chapters/sections, explained briefly, are below.

  1. Introduction. Mr. Cosentino begins this book by describing a case question and explaining that “consulting firms are in the business of renting out brains.” What do consultants do? They synthesize data, purge irrelevant or inconsequential information, structure an approach to an issue, and provide recommendations/solutions to the respective clients who have hired the consultants. This is a one page section, but Mr. Cosentino reassures the readers of this book that he has relevant experience regarding the case interview: he has been a career officer at Harvard University for over eighteen years, and he has helped more than ten thousand students prepare for case interviews. Even though this introduction is just one page long, Mr. Cosentino sets the record straight: he will prepare you for the case interview if you read this book, but he advises you to read the entire book and not to skip any pages.
  2. Interview. In this chapter, you’ll find how the typical consulting interview is structured. To be sure, you’ll face the typical behavior questions such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me of a time you showed leadership skills?” (how do you answer that?) or “Have you ever failed at anything?” (quick tip: be sure to answer yes for this one). There’s a handy-dandy box which outlines some reasons why you’d want to enter the consulting field (“You’ll work and learn from intelligent and articulate people” and “You’ll be exposed to many industries” are some good reasons; a bad reason is “It will always look good on your resume”). This section also provides some helpful questions which you could ask the consulting firm or your interviewer (“What type of work does an entry-level consultant do?” and “How is a case team picked?”). Finally, this section concludes with tips on how to handle the “stress interview” (where you’re put on the defensive with a barrage of questions coming at you) and advice for international students (since consultants typically present their cases to clients, it is essential to work on minimizing one’s accent, for instance).
  3. Case Questions. This chapter explains what the case question in great detail. In “The Case Commandments” section, Mr. Cosentino gives thirteen excellent tips on how to go through the case interview (for example: how to properly manage your time, to make sure to ask clarifying questions, and to be coachable). The chapter also explains the types of case questions (such as “brainteasers,” for which you might pick up this book to better prepare, and “back-of-the-envelope” questions, which often involve doing some calculations, such as figuring out the weight of a Boeing 747 airplane). This chapter also includes a short note on what you shouldn’t do (things which could annoy the interviewer, such as asking to repeat the question multiple times, going on a five minute spiel/monologue, and speaking too fast).
  4. The Ivy Case System. This is an important chapter which provides a solid framework on how to approach and solve case questions. The Ivy Case System developed by Mr. Cosentino consists of two parts: the four steps to begin the approach and the approach in tackling twelve popular case scenarios. The four steps are: summarizing the question, verifying the objective (the case question always has at least one objective), ask clarifying questions, and lay out your structure to solve the case. The twelve case scenarios are as follows:

    (1) Entering a New Market
    (2) Industry Analysis
    (3) Mergers and Acquisitions
    (4) Developing a New Product
    (5) Pricing Strategies
    (6) Growth Strategies
    (7) Starting a New Business
    (8) Competitive Response
    (9) Increasing Sales
    (10) Reducing Costs
    (11) Increasing the Bottom Line (Profits)
    (12) Turnarounds

    For each of the twelve scenarios above, you’ll be exposed to the typical questions you should ask when encountering a case question which fits into one of those categories. The best part of this section is that you’ll see a graphical tree chart which summarizes the approach. The end of this chapter includes a very helpful “Ivy Case System at Glance,” which outlines the approach and elements for each type of case question type. For example, in Mergers and Acquisitions, you’ll break down your approach to covering the objectives, the price (and how to pay), performing due diligence, and explaining possible exit strategies. If you’re asked to reduce costs, you can reasonably break down the approach into assessment of the situation, and ultimately performing an internal cost analysis (union wages, supplies, materials, economies of scale) as well as an external cost analysis (state of the economy, interest rates, government regulations). For each of the twelve case types, you’ll find a similar breakdown.

  5. Additional Tools and Frameworks. This chapter explores some supplements to the Ivy Case System. One of the frameworks you’ll learn about is the “Five C’s and Four P’s” (Company, Costs, Competition, Consumers/Clients; Product, Price, Place, Promotions). There’s also a small section on the BCG Matrix, which you can read more about in an excellent Wikipedia article. Also discussed is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” case framework and a framework developed at McKinsey known as the 7-S Model. This chapter also has a very helpful section on “If” scenarios, useful for cases dealing with sales, profit scenarios (example: if profits are declining while revenues are increasing, it is useful to review change in costs, changes in prices, the product mix, or change in customers’ needs), and product scenarios (example: if a product is in its emerging growth stage, it is fruitful to concentrate on the R&D, competition, and pricing). The last part of this chapter contains some business case tips, including a one page peer advice from students who successfully went through the case interviews.
  6. Practice Cases. This is the meat of this book: one hundred twenty pages of thirty-six (36) practices cases. If you’ve previously read about how to approach the case interview but just need to go through more practice cases, this is the chapter to read. The 36 cases touch upon all of the twelve case scenarios listed in the Ivy Case System. My recommendation for reading this chapter is to read the case question and write out your own initial thoughts and approach on a separate paper. You cannot answer the entire case question on your own because the nature of the case question revolves divulging important information relevant to the case depending on the prompts/questions you ask the interview. In effect, most of the cases are read through (which perhaps is a major limitation of this book). There are other case preparation guides which contain charts, graphs, and other information required to solve the case from the beginning. You won’t see this approach in this book (because the practice cases are actual interview conversations), but nevertheless, it is still extremely helpful to read through the cases. You’ll find excellent responses as well as mediocre ones (the end of each case question ends with a comment on the approach taken and how well the student answered the case question). To be sure, you’ll also find incredible responses, to the point where you might question how it would have been possible to even approach the elaborate, clever, and such well-organized responses.
  7. The Roommate’s Guide. This is a one page section which outlines what to do if you’re the friend that was asked (or as Mr. Cosentino puts it, “begged, bribed, or blackmailed”) into helping your friend(s) prepare for the case questions. The review list consist of a bulleted list of questions such as “Did they ask probing questions?” and “Were they well-organized?” to “Did they have a positive attitude?” and other subjective questions. The best part of this section is the “Aftermath,” which simply concludes with a single bullet point of “Go out on the town.”
  8. Final Analysis. This section is only a half-page long, but it perhaps contains the most important advice: no matter how hard you prepare, it is vitally important to come to the case interview with a perspective of self-worth and confidence. In other words, methodical preparation will only go so far in the case interview; the rest of your evaluation is how you come across in terms of personality, confidence, and demeanor.
  9. Consulting Buzzwords. This is a short glossary of key terms which you should be familiar with (or rather, know very well). Some business terms which are listed in this glossary include barrier to entry, cost-benefit analysis, depreciation, economies of scale, interest expense, market share, overhead, price-based costing, variable cost, and venture capital. This is a very short section and definitely not exhaustive.

If you’re preparing for the case interview, Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point is an excellent resource. I do recommend reading it from cover to cover. While the methods and practice cases presented in the book will help you create excellent strategies in tackling/approaching/solving case questions, I should mention that reading the book on its own is not a substitute for a solid education in business, finance, and economics. Those of you in an MBA program are already on the right track; undergraduate students in a non-business major may want to invest in a solid economics textbook and a book on basic financial principles. Overall, having read through numerous case preparation books, I do think that Case in Point is worth your time and money; you’ll learn the solid framework and practice from the numerous (36) case questions this book has to offer. If you’ve already read the book and looking to practice more cases, check out, the complementary website of Case in Point.

As Mr. Cosentino puts it: Case closed!

Links of the Day (02/08/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” [New York Times] – I am not e-mailing this column, but I am blogging about it. The New York Times conducted a six month study to determine which articles were the most popular ones (as measured by number of times the articles were e-mailed):

To make sense of these trends in “virality,” the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article’s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

The results of the study are interesting. Most people preferred to send out emotional articles (in particular, those articles that were positive or happy in nature). I also found it surprising that people preferred to share articles which were longer in length (perhaps because longer articles are better researched or more compelling in general). The New York Times elaborates:

Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

The only thing left to do is for you, Dear Reader, to email that article to your friends (or you can just tell them about this blog).

(2) “The Time It Takes to Win It All” [Wall Street Journal] – The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV last night. This article explores the amount of work that players and coaches spend working in a typical NFL season. The most eye-opening paragraph:

According to an operational study of National Football League teams prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Boston Consulting Group, the typical NFL season requires 514,000 hours of labor per team. That’s about eight times the effort it took to conceptualize, build and market Apple’s iPod, according to BCG, and enough time to build 25 America’s Cup yachts. If both Super Bowl teams dedicated themselves to construction rather than football, their members could have built the Empire State Building in seven seasons.

It’s a well-researched article and definitely worth reading.

(3) “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language” [The Economist] – this article is from December 2009, but I just read it the other day in my print version of The Economist. I recommend reading the entire piece (did you know that in Turkish you can create a sentence such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, which means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”) but if you’re curious, the Economist’s conclusion for the world’s hardest language:

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ.

Links of the Day (02/05/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading over the last few days:

(1) “Who Dat Owns ‘Who Dat’? Dat’s Us, Sez da NFL” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting scenario is unfolding on the streets of New Orleans. The NFL is telling vendors that they can’t sell t-shirts with the words “Who Dat” printed on them, presumably because the NFL owns the trademark on the phrase. It sounds like the NFL is trying to seize as much profit as this surge by the Saints leads to Super Bowl Sunday. Is this a case of a monopoly or something else?

(2) “The State of Molecular Cuisine” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting look into the world of molecular gastronomy.

(3) “Why Twitter Will Endure” [New York Times] – David Carr explains why Twitter is here to stay. It’s a very insightful piece which has gained more traction recently, as another columnist named George Packer wrote a column in The New Yorker opposing the use of Twitter:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell.

What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Packer hasn’t actually created a Twitter account and discovered Twitter for himself. He’s relying on hearsay. If you’re on Twitter, what’s your opinion of its usefulness? If you aren’t on Twitter, why not?

(4) “Hi There” [The Economist] – a very interesting piece on how different cultures address and treat politeness and/or respect. Did you know that the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, is the only person in the world who can seriously be addressed as Serenity? Definitely worth reading.

Links of the Day (02/01/10)

Here’s what caught my attention today:

(1) “But Who’s Counting?” [Los Angeles Times] – a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the confusion that journalists make between the number million and the number billion. The author goes into some theories on why this mistake occurs so often (or, at least, more often than it should occur). According to the author:

I did some calculations and found that The [Los Angeles] Times’ mistakes totaled about $1.4 trillion, or about twice the amount the U.S. spent on the TARP bailout. Our brethren at the New York Times did even worse, making 38 million-billion mistakes in the same three years. Oddly, they were far more likely to overstate the case, doing so almost one time in four. The total of all their errors was $6.5 trillion, or more than half the amount of the national debt.

It’s a very interesting piece, and perhaps the most reasonable explanation for this error is that our brain can’t comprehend the sense of scale between one million and one billion. If I told you that I have a million paper clips vs. a billion paper clips, would you be able to tell the difference in the volume the two occupy? Probably not. Also, can you visualize one billion dollars? I found this infographic helpful. Also of note is how vastly different one billion dollars is from one trillion dollars; see this telling infographic, for instance. In any case, the author of the op-ed has a dismal conclusion:

More diligence would probably have prevented many of our million-billion slips, but after observing The Times newsroom for decades, I can’t avoid the conclusion that our collective numeric literacy — like that of most of America — is appallingly low.

(2) “News Photos, on the Move, Make News” [New York Times] – The Magnum photo collection (a massive archive of over 180,000 images) is moving to a permanent, public display at the University of Texas at Austin.

(3) “Risks Lurk for ETF Investors” [Wall Street Journal] – a short, informative piece which describes the risks (liquidity, pricing) inherent in investing in certain ETFs.

(4) “Timeline of the LOST Universe” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article, but a wonderful interactive graphic which lets you discover when the events in the LOST universe have occurred. It’s a must-see for any fan of the show.