1939 – good morning, midnight ~ jean rhys

Choosing a novel – just one novel – to represent the year 1939 was always going to be tough.

For some reason, 1939 was a pretty good year for literature. Perhaps it was something in the water? James Joyce published his final novel, Finnegans Wake in 1939. But given the…err, slightly less than ideal experience I had reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last year, there’s no way I’m ready for another barrage of Joyce’s particular brand of bollocks genius just yet. Maybe later. Much later.

John Steinbeck published his other well-known work, The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. But, to tell the truth, I’m not completely over Of Mice and Men. I can’t even think about rabbits without getting a little teary. Which isn’t very convenient, given that it’s the Easter long weekend as I write this review.

If you’d excuse me for a moment, I think there’s *sniff* something in my eye…

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1938 – brighton rock ~ graham greene

Isn’t it funny, the way many modern writers seem to believe a violent story can’t be told without showing us the violence?

I’m not denying that writing convincingly about violence is a skill. But, in my opinion, there’s an equal amount of dexterity that’s required to deal with violence indirectly, too. The modern trend might be for gritty realism, for brutal detail – but after spending so long reading books from the early twentieth century, I’ve come to really appreciate the seemingly lost art of subtlety. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better way of doing things: it’s just different.

A novel can still be effective without subjecting us to every sordid detail of the violence that takes place between its pages.

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1937 – of mice and men ~ john steinbeck

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Published in 1937

I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again. It’s all John Steinbeck’s fault.

This book, this damn book hit me with the force of a truckload of trucks. I’m still recovering. You’ll have to excuse me if this review is a little on the shaky side…

As the novel opens, George and Lennie are on the run from the law, after a misunderstanding saw Lennie accused of a crime he didn’t commit. In his pocket, Lennie carries a dead mouse. He’s petted the fragile creature to death.

Set in America during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men introduces us to two very different characters. George is small, wiry and clever. Lennie is an enormous, strong man – with a profound mental handicap.

George has it all worked out. Once he and Lennie have earned enough money, they’ll buy a small farm and live from the land. George has promised Lennie can look after the rabbits, because he loves petting soft things. George often repeats to Lennie the story of how they’ll retire to their farm, like a bedtime story. It’s one of the few things Lennie can remember.

But in order to achieve their dream, Lennie and George need employment. The pair begin working at a farm, where they find new allies…and make dangerous new enemies. Through it all, the two men have their grand plan firm in their minds. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men…

Of Mice and Men is an intensely character-driven novel. It’s simple and clear – and deceptively powerful. The touching friendship between two outcasts from society – world-wise George and simple Lennie, is presented with a blinding beauty. In all of literature, surely there are few relationships that are as powerfully bought to life as the beautiful, awful relationship between George and Lennie.

It’s this complicated relationship that forms the heart of this novel. Without George, Lennie wouldn’t be able to survive…but there’s something George needs from Lennie, too; a basic companionship that keeps the two men together in a world where suspicion and loneliness are all around.

I found while reading Of Mice and Men that it was an experience similar to watching a play (it was only after I’d finished reading that I discovered that this was Steinbeck’s exact intention). At the beginning of each chapter, Steinbeck carefully lays out a scene, before sending his characters onto the stage to say their lines. 

Of Mice and Men is a remarkably easy book to read. It’s as if everything just happens in front of you. It’s quite a cruel trick Steinbeck plays on the reader. His uncomplicated language lulls you into a passive state. You watch, as the novel’s plot unfolds before you. Then, when you least expect it, Steinbeck reaches out and grabs you by the very heartstrings. It’s cruel, but undeniably clever.

It’s a difficult thing to write, tragedy. In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel could easily have been a melodrama. But not Steinbeck: he makes tragedy work – he makes it beautiful.

Of Mice and Men operates at a human level. It works because you can understand its characters and the forces that drive them.

There’s more to the novel, of course, than just George and Lennie. On the farm, they meet other characters, a raft of rejects who are equally as well-depicted as our two beloved main characters. And, of course, the novel wouldn’t work at all without Steinbeck’s skilful dialogue, which is so clearly written you can hear the characters’ voices in your head.

I can’t fault Of Mice and Men. On its surface, it appears so simple, but beneath, just out of sight, lies an intricate, efficient structure. The foreshadowing towards the beginning of the novel? Perfect, albeit unexpected. The way Steinbeck uses repetition for dramatic effect? Absolute genius.

As for me, I’m still coming to terms with the novel’s ending. I’d give anything to change it. But the logical part of me knows it had to be this way. The reader in me recognises Steinbeck’s mastery and bows down in awe. To bring a reader to tears – that’s true power.

I discovered this week that it’s possible to love a novel just as much as you hate it. Of Mice and Men might just rip your heart out. But honestly, sometimes you have to weigh things up. You simply have to experience the genius of this novel for yourself. The heartbreak is worth it.

~~

Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should you read it?

You haven’t been paying attention to anything I’ve said, have you? Please read this book. It’s available as a Popular Penguin, so it’s insanely cheap. It’s only one hundred and twenty pages long – you could read it in a single sitting, like I did. It’s written in very clear, non-pretentious language, so it’s easily accessible. Tick, tick and tick. Just read this damn book, okay?

In a word:

Crushing.

1936 – double indemnity ~ james m. cain

Book to the Future isn’t only about reading the so-called classics, you know.

I’m making it my mission to read plenty of popular fiction too. Ideally, I’d like to pursue as much variety in my reading as possible. Although it might seem as if I only read books by dead white dudes, that’s never been the point of this project.

As the years go on, deciding what to read is going to gradually become more and more interesting. And difficult…

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