Book Review – Of Mice and Men (By: John Steinbeck)

I must say before getting too far into this review, that Of Mice and Men is my favorite book, and has been for quite some time. It probably has the award for the book I’ve read the most times, but for me “more than once” is a rarity. I’ve been using the book as a benchmark for what makes a good book since I first read it, but is had been some time since my last (subsequent) reading, and I felt I needed to refresh my memory. I must say I was not disappointed.

At the risk of potentially sounding more biased than I already sound, I believe I can safely say that my barometer for what is a good book has been reset so high with this one that I almost feel myself going “why do I even read other books? Couldn’t I just read this one again and again forever?” Even from the very beginning, which in and of itself is a master’s course in how to do exposition, I was wrapped up and engrossed again. Of Mice and Men does not wait to hook you, or need to spend pages of setup to allow you to understand it. At only a little more than a hundred pages it doesn’t have time for that. You are there, and it has you, and it will not let go.

The story is one of Steinbeck’s California workers’ collection, about two men: George and Lennie, who are working bucking barley in the hope of saving up enough money to buy a farm of their own. Lennie is big, strong, and “not bright”, while George is slim, quick-witted, and… harsh I guess. They were “kicked out” of the last place they worked at because of a misunderstanding with Lennie and now they’ve just come to a new place where they only have to keep a low profile for a little while in order to get their money and get out. Of course as the title alludes, these plans “often go awry”.

The rest of the cast of characters is pretty small (indeed, the book was meant to be half-novel, half-play, so it stands to reason): there’s Candy, the one-handed “swamper”; Curly, the boss’s son who’s “just mean”; Slim, the cool-headed team leader; Crooks, the “negro” stable-buck; Curley’s unsatisfied wife, and Carlson; a man who has a Luger (and a couple of other people there for convenience). Most are simply stereotypes, but instead of that being a “narrow-minded” or “easy-way-out” writing trick, here it is used as a way to introduce characters and themes without having to go into too much depth in the setup, allowing for more depth subsequently without bloating the size. For instance, Crooks isn’t just “cursed” to be black, but crippled, and his separation from the others gives him both a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of dependence. And Curly’s wife (only identified as such) is a “flirtatious” “tart” but she had to settle for the life of a farm as opposed to the social life of an entertainer she yearned for.

With very few words, the stereotypes turn into people, understandable and empathetic people. One could suppose that there is an antagonist, and most would call our main characters protagonists, but in the end it’s just a story that happens to have them as the center. The book really gives the impression that things are happening because things happen, bad and good, to people, bad and good. There isn’t anyone malicious planning everything or being a villain “because”. It feels real, like you know these people and this actually happened.

And in my mind, my words don’t do it justice. I keep mulling over time and time again what exactly it is I have to say about this book, or how much there even is to say. really, and I come up with so many things that just never go down on paper quite right. It’s hard to express how much I enjoy it. Even with its flaws (both typographical and narrative) it just stands head and shoulders above any of the competition for me. It works, and it works as a story that is relatable on so many different levels for so many different people: for farmers, for workers, for friends and family, for planners and dreamers. It’s a cautionary and sad tale, but realistic. It doesn’t wallow about in its misery, it moves forward, as people tied to time are forced to do. Sometimes it’s a bit fast, and the transitions don’t always feel like they’ve adequately explained the amount of time that has passed (if any), but if picks it back up so fast after that little fumble that one barely notices it.

With my opinion already fairly obvious, I’ll say I’d recommend this book to most people. There are a selection of people who prefer very specific genres, books about non-serious topics, and who really don’t like less-than ecstatically happy endings. Those types of people I would not recommend this book to, but it’s not often I find one of them around. And even if one doesn’t enjoy the book it can be finished in a few hours and you’ll likely take away something major from it.

Book Review – The Little Prince (By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

When attempting to clean up and organize my books, I found I had (at least) three copies of The Little Prince (all 3 from various print runs). Seeing that I had so many copies of such an acclaimed book that I had never read, (and had been recommended to me a few times when out in the world selling my own books) I just had to put it into my to-read pile.

Slightly Higher in Canada

I knew very little of the book, save that it was an illustrated “children’s book” and the titular prince lived on a small planet (asteroid). And upon starting it up I was captivated from the dedication (a good dedication is something you don’t see very often). The story is simple: a pilot crashes in the desert and meets the little prince while trying to fix his plane. As they talk the pilot learns more about the prince, an astral child living in a world of whimsy (and adults “unfortunately”) and relays this information to the reader.

The first portion of the book, where the author is talking about himself and then meeting the Little Prince is thoroughly entertaining and engrossing. This wanes slightly as it moves into the mildly monotonous recitation of the prince’s adventures coming to and on earth. But it comes back with a wonderfully emotional, if heavily telegraphed, ending. And even if you don’t think it’s as great as I do, it is very short (after all, it is ostensibly a children’s book) and a good chunk of its page length is taken up by the illustrations.

Supposedly it is a children’s book, but I might have to disagree. While most morals in children’s literature are dubious, quite often the ones on display here aren’t particularly good. And I feel that the story wouldn’t resonate as much with children or early teenagers as it would with the adults it appears to me it was obviously written for. It’s a tale of childhood imagination and love made while the author had recently seen his country defeated by Nazis and was living discontentedly in the Americas. At the time the author was a man who was tired of “matters of consequence”, as it were.

And that desire to go back to being childlike doesn’t seem like something children would enjoy. Or if they picked up on the motifs, they might get the wrong idea. The flower (the object of the little prince’s affection) is selfish and harsh; friendship and taming are presented as strangely absolute but with little benefit to either party, and there is an overarching feeling of futility through it all. The world of selfish men, tipplers, businessmen, and kings (not forgetting the “negro kings” as it says) isn’t changed by the little prince, and while he “sees through it” it is obvious that “matters of consequence” do have consequences.

And the prince himself is a mysterious character. On his “planet” he is quite responsible, cleaning out the volcanoes, pulling up the baobab trees, and tending to the flower. But he suddenly leaves with little reason and shows almost no concern for the plight of others. He relentlessly asks questions until he gets a response but doesn’t answer any himself, and he takes actions only to further his own personal journey. And that might be indicative of many a young person, or the story must simply go on, but still, it is quite a contrast.

Even so I was very engaged with the story and enjoyed it the whole way through. The pilot and the prince both have a charm and personality that comes through the words. Of course I’m reading in English, so the original French may have been better or worse (how do I keep reading translated works?). And there’s a quality in it that just speaks to me both as an artist and a twenty-something.

So is it good? Yes. Would I recommend it? Probably, though it is a sad and longing book (my eyes blurred once or twice). Does it deserve all the praise? In a way, I don’t think it’s quite as good as many people do, but it is an excellently crafted work of literature and art as well as being a halfway decent children’s book. And as a creative person in either painting or prose (or both), it is almost a mandatory read. For others, there’s a lot to be found in this little book, and not a lot to be lost save an hour (and maybe some tears).