Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck — 112 pgs

Lenny and George are “bindlestiffs” – itinerant ranch hands who travel the countryside making their meager way traveling from ranch to ranch performing physical labor. Lenny and George are different than most of the other laborers, for they tend to travel together and have formed a bond that’s seen as strange to other itinerant workers. Though George sometimes wishes he could be on his own, he feels somewhat responsible for Lenny; a man who suffers from mental and emotional difficulties and who doesn’t know the power of his own body. When George and Lenny abscond from a farm after Lenny has once again acted in an inappropriate manner, they find refuge at a ranch near Soledad. George and Lenny dream of one day owning their own land and being free, a dream they protect from others. Before these dreams can ever be realized, Lenny’s untoward actions put the two of them in danger again, and though George wants to one day be free, it’s his tie to Lenny that may prevent that from ever happening. Soon George must decide how to respond to the crisis that Lenny has once again unwittingly caused, but this time the magnitude of what he’s done might be impossible to erase. In this classic novel of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, two men who have nothing but each other must dance to the tune of violence and misunderstanding that only one of them has created while trying not to lose the very substance that holds them and their impossible friendship together.

While traveling home from SIBA in Charleston, Sandy and I decided to listen to the audio version of Of Mice and Men. I had never been exposed to the story before, other than perhaps seeing a skit about it on Saturday Night Live many years ago. Sandy had read it in high school but was fuzzy on the details, so it was a good choice for the trip home. We had both previously read East of Eden and loved it, so I had been hoping for something deeply awash in emotion and complexity when we started this book. Our audio narrator was Mark Hammer, and I have to say he did a fantastic job. His vocal inflections and the voices he created, especially in his portrayal of Lenny, were very skillfully done and lent the characters a whiff of life and believability that would have been completely missed had I read this in print.

Narrators and expectations aside, this was a tough book. Its length made Sandy and I think that it was more of a novella than a novel, but every utterance between George and Lenny was replete with pain, frustration and heartache. There were so many difficult emotions in this book that at times I groaned aloud at the emotional rawness that Steinbeck had captured. At times, characters would reveal themselves in a way that exposed their vulnerabilities and magnified their helplessness to such a degree that I became a little teary. There were so many characters that were grasping for acceptance and yearning for their worth and dreams to be realized that it was almost physically painful to hear all these encounters laid bare for the reader to see. There were some plot points that I could see coming from a mile away, and I’m not sure if that was because Steinbeck was just a master at foreshadowing or if it was because certain plot points have garnered so much attention over time that they were impossible not to have heard about.

George and Lenny had a very complex friendship. Because of Lenny’s limitations, George had to go beyond the bounds of friendship and become a pseudo parent to him, and this, more than anything, frustrated and angered George to a great degree. Sandy and I both felt that George wasn’t very nice to Lenny at times, and when he admitted to playing some cruel jokes on him in times past, I grew to dislike him. George was not a sensitive and understanding man, and often Lenny bore the brunt of his anger in a very real way. We both felt that George’s friendship with Lenny was not as altruistic as it first appeared, and questioned George’s motivations for binding himself so closely to Lenny. Was George in it for the right reasons, or was this a case of the strong subjugating the weak? After puzzling it over for awhile, I think it was possibly a mix of both.

Lenny, on the other hand, was innocent and naive, and his brute strength got him into all kinds of impossible situations. It made my heart haggard to realize that in almost every way, Lenny was a marginalized and ill-treated man who had no idea what he was capable of. I would have to describe his mental state as “simple,” though it was never discussed in detail. There were times that I pondered Lenny’s capacity for unwitting violence and I wondered aloud where in the world he might find a place where he would be safe and where others would be safe from him. I can’t say I found all this speculation to be enjoyable though, and most of the time I was very uncomfortable listening to this richly disturbing story. Steinbeck has a way of creating characters who seem to be living and breathing facsimiles of real life people, but in this book, the people who I was spending time with were damaged and damaging. Because of that, the book had a very dark and suffocating edge to it.

28 comments:

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one is one of my favorites. I've already reread it a few times, and i'm sure i'll pick it up again.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This was disturbing (as is the movie) but I LOVED this one - a favorite.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I just can't say it is a favorite, no matter how incredible his writing is. It made me feel sick to my stomach, and have no desire to ever read it again. Ever. I'm thinking of even counting it as RIP! I'm glad though that we got to experience it together. My review is coming next week.

Jenny said...

Eek sounds incredibly difficult! I'm not familiar with Steinbeck's writing. I read The Grapes of Wrath but that was maybe in 8th grade. I'm sure I will not be reading this one anytime soon!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

That's the thing - Steinbeck's characters seem very real, yet are they people you want to be with? And so depressing!

TheBookGirl said...

I read this one in high school and remember being quite upset by it...sort of the same way that I was very upset by Lord of the Flies...the darkness side of human nature was just too much..

reviewsbylola said...

I reread this one pretty recently and thought it was so moving. The ending made me cry!

Nymeth said...

This and Wharton's Ethan Frome are tied in my mind for most depressing ending ever :\ I found it a tough read as well, but worth it all the same.

bermudaonion said...

I guess y'all were too worn out to talk on the way home. I think I read this in high school, but I'm sure I didn't really understand it. I don't know if I want to re-read it now or not since it's so dark.

Wall-to-wall books said...

OH MY GOSH! This is one of my most favorite books of all times!
It was prob. one of the only required reading books in high school that I actually liked.

Ti said...

I love Steinbeck and I know I've read this one before (in high school) but it's not ringing bells with me. How horrible is that? I must read it again as it's left the building.

Suko said...

Excellent, incisive review, Zibilee. I read this many, many years ago, but your review brought it back to life for me. It is definitely dark and disturbing, and thought-provoking.

Tracy said...

I've recently finished reading East of Eden for bookclub, and it was the first Steinbeck I've read. This one sounds like it ought to be my next Steinbeck read.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I completely agree. I LOVE East of Eden, but this is not a Steinbeck novel I can say I enjoyed. I had to read it in high school and I just remember wondering why in the heck they thought it was a good choice for HS students. SO SAD.

Vasilly said...

I love love love East of Eden and almost feel the same way with Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck was so talented at asking so many hard questions in his books. I think it's why he's one of my favorite authors.

I think George was just an imperfect man who was frustrated sometimes with being tied to Lenny. He really wasn't obligated to take care of Lenny but I can understand why he did. The ending is heartbreaking and makes me think that George was heartbroken too afterwards.

Great review.

Steph said...

Oh my. It has been ages since I read this novella (and you're right to characterize it as such), but I cannot imagine listening to it while driving! I fear the tears streaming down the face would be hazardous to my driving, and I'd undoubtedly have to pull over while I sobbed. This is just such a gutwrenching, heartbreaking lens through which to view the world. For such a short book, it's really brilliant and so moving. It's one of my tests to see if someone's a human being: if you can read this book and not be moved to tears and extreme emotional agony, I suspect you are a robot!

I know it's a painful experience, but I'm really glad you finally know what OM&M is all about. To me, it's one of those critical works of literature that really achieves greatness.

Aths said...

I didn't realize that this book was so short. Just 112 pages? And yet, after reading your review, I realize that's a wrong assumption to make. There seems to be a lot of depth to this novel and I'm surprised that the author manages to do that in less words. Loved your review, and it has made me want to read this book finally.

Beth F said...

I love Steinbeck. In late high school and early college I read pretty much everything of his I could find. This is one of Mr. BFR's favorites. YOu should try his Travels with Charley (nonfiction).

nomadreader said...

I remember really enjoying this one when I read it in high school, but I realized while reading your review I remember nothing about it. I'm intrigued enough to pick it up again, although I think print sounds better than audio for this one.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Great review. This is one of my favorite books, and I was completely amazed by how Steinbeck managed to pack so much emotion into such a short novel. Until now, I'm still thinking about the ending, and I haven't decided for myself whether George was right or wrong in the end.

Jenners said...

This book is brutal. I remember reading ages ago (high school?) and being so upset. Then I saw the movie with Gary Sinise and it was sooooo good. Great review. I bet it would make for a good audio listen.

Jenny said...

I loved the writing -- but not entirely the characters -- in the one Steinbeck book I read, The Grapes of Wrath, and have been semi-wanting semi-feeling-nervous-about-it to read another of his books. Maybe not this one, though.

Jenny said...

I loved the writing -- but not entirely the characters -- in the one Steinbeck book I read, The Grapes of Wrath, and have been semi-wanting semi-feeling-nervous-about-it to read another of his books. Maybe not this one, though.

Darlene said...

Although disturbing, this is one of my favorites of Steinbeck's along with the movie. Have you ever read Grapes of Wrath? That's another favorite of mine.

Lisa said...

Steinbeck told a more complete story in this short book than most authors can write in a book five times the length. Lenny and George are characters I'll never forget. And that ending? Wow--just broke my heart!

Erin said...

My teacher realized at the end of 11th grade English that we were supposed to have read this one (along with a couple of others). Since we didn't have enough time left in the school year to read them, we watched the movies. I've always been curious to read those few books since then, and this one is at the top of the list. It seems like it'd be a tough book, both from the movie and from what I've heard about it, but I'd still like to try it...when I'm in the right mood!

Aarti said...

I've never read this one, and I admit I am unlikely to try much Steinbeck because I didn't love the two novels by him I did read - The Pearl & The Grapes of Wrath. I found them both pretty miserable reading, but I HAVE heard great things about East of Eden. It's so long, though! So I wish I could take another go at him with this shorter novella, but it doesn't seem to be quite uplifting.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

My favorite Steinbeck is THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but this does run a close second (sorry, Sandy!). Good choice for a shared audiobook experience, especially since you hadn't previously read it - you had a mini book group on wheels!

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