Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck

James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lenny in the 2014 stage revival of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, first published in 1937.

Book Review
Of Mice and Men (1937)
by John Steinbeck

  This last portion of the 1001 Books Project has felt a bit like a high school english class:  Of Mice and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Burmese Days... the combination of Authors and titles is such that almost everyone with a junior college degree has read one of the three.  To be fair Burmese Days by George Orwell isn't one of this top hits, but Orwell is a monster of high school English class.  Of Mice and Men is clearly a book I should have read in school:  It's by a native Californian author, it is set in the Great Depression and it is barely 100 pages long- if even that.

Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first hit.  As the chronology of his life included in the back of the volume which contained it makes clear, Steinbeck went through a great deal of struggle both before and after fame.  Before, he lived in garrets, worked in warehouses and lived off of Daddy's money.  After, he cheated on his wife, got divorced and struggled with numerous physical and mental maladies.  He would go on to publish The Grapes of Wrath and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 Today he is considered the most famous inhabitant of the Monterey/Carmel/Pacific Grove/Salinas Central Coast area, with his own museum and numerous landmarks.  His description of Central Coast places like Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row have become synonymous with those places, as do his descriptions of Depression area farming life in the Central Valley.

  Of Mice and Men is located firmly inland in what sounds like the Northern reaches of the Central Valley.  The kind hearted George and slow witted Lenny are iconic literary figures.  My take is that the success of Of Mice and Men is tied to his depiction of a mentally challenged character with a level of insight and sensitivity that is new to literature.  He also generates enough atmosphere to keep attention despite the banal surroundings.  The timelessness of the fields being worked are given a sharp counter-point by the action sequences- flirting, fistfights and more.  The overall impact is to create a pleasing rhythm in spite of the awkward length.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
by Zora Neale Hurston

  Virtually forgotten by the 1960s, Their Eyes Were Watching God and the work of Zora Neale Hurston is a great example of a literary revival.  According to the afterword in the edition I read, near the end of her life Hurston was working as a maid in Florida, and she was buried in an unmarked grave, which Toni Morrison famously located.  Hurston is the acknowledged inspiration for Morrison.   Unlike most of the major works of the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes Were Watching God is written in vernacular and Janie Crawford is no tragic mulatto (she is mixed race, though.)

  Crawford's story is notable for a sophisticated rendering of the inner life of an unsophisticated heroine.  Huston, a student of Franz Boas (famous anthropologist) was sophisticated as any author in the 1930s, but Janie is not.  Despite an absence of formal education, Janie is a subtle, complicated character.  She demonstrates deep personal insight and the book basically has a happy ending.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell

Book Review
Burmese Days (1934)
by George Orwell

  George Orwell is a staple of English class from Junior High, where Animal Farm is a perennial, to High School, where 1984 is required reading, to college, where Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in London and Paris and his short story Killing An Elephant are like as not to pop up in the general requirements for a B.A. degree.  Orwell is certainly not fashionable in post-graduate circles, quite the opposite, with his reputation suffering in the aftermath of the 1960s led revolution in voices outside the limited perspective of the entitled white male.   Although George Orwell made his reputation on books criticizing mid 20th century totalitarianism in ways that anticipate much of 20th and 21st century radical thought, he himself was a relentlessly bourgeois white male with issues related to women.

  This makes his more autobiographical novels, including Burmese Days, more of a chore and less appealing for the contemporary reader than his immortal hits.  BUT if you are someone who actually likes George Orwell and aren't just reading him because of a school assignment, it is more biographical works that really tell us about the Author.   Andddd man, he seems like he really had issues with women.  Burmese Days pivots on the relationship between John Flory, the Orwell figure, his Malaysian slave-prostitute and Elizabeth Lackersteen, a young English orphan (20 years old) who arrives in his remote Burmese village with the idea that she needs to find a husband and soon.

 Like the love interest in Keep the Aphrisdia Flying, Elizabeth Lackersteen is a confused figure whose inner life only appears as a reflection of the narrative of Flory.  In his more biographical novels, the love story takes second shift to the struggle between man and society.  In Burmese Days, his critique of the British Imperialist project is trenchant and insightful.  The lower level government employees and European representatives of Corporations doing business in the Teak forests of Burma are a surly and servile lot.

 Compared to their Burmese and Indian counterparts (Burma was a part of India under British rule), the English are one dimensional a-holes; all the depth is reserved for the fascinating native characters, Flory himself excepted.  Modern readers are likely to find Burmese Days troubling for repeated use of ethnic slurs and the casual use and disuse of a sex slave in the context of British Imperial rule.  

Monday, February 09, 2015

England Made Me (1935) by Graham Greene

England Made Me (1935) by Graham Greene is loosely based on the real life story of Swedish industrialist and con man Ivar Kreuger.

Book Review
England Made Me (1935)
by Graham Greene

    England Made Me is loosely based on the life of Swedish industrialist and con man Ivar Kreuger.  Kreuger invented several financial instruments (debentures, Class A and Class B shares) and became internationally famous before committing suicide in 1933.  Kreuger's legacy is somewhere between John Rockefeller and Bernie Madoff-  his confused Wikipedia entry is a testament to his mixed legacy.

    England Made Me, while not quite a spy novel in the way his later books were, is close to being a spy novel in terms of character and theme.  Set in inter-war Stockholm, with a shiftless English protagonist possessing some of the attributes that would later be associated with Secret Agents and Spies in 20th century fiction, I was waiting for Greene to shift into a higher gear that never came.  I suppose that is something that he developed later in his career, but England Made Me is still a suspenseful, atmospheric read, and at 200 or so pages this is a book you can digest during a morning commute on the train or on vacation.

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list

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