Retro Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

of-mice-and-menYou probably read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men back in high school. I did; it’s been on many school’s reading lists throughout the decades. I decided to dust off an old copy of Of Mice and Men and to me it is as vital now as it was when it was published nearly 80 years ago.

Of Mice and Men is about two migrant farm workers living in California named Lennie and George. Lennie is large in stature and strength but sadly, mentally slow. George, Lennie’s friend, is small, dark and much smarter than George despite his lack of a proper education. Because of Lennie’s limited mental faculties, George takes on a protective, almost big brother role, in his friendship with Lennie.

After traveling around California, George and Lennie arrive in Soledad, California, to work as field hands at a ranch. George and Lennie have one simple dream; they want to own their own plot of land where they can grow crops and raise rabbits. But at this moment, this dream is just that, a dream. Plus, they are escaping their old jobs because Lennie was accused of rape when he got a little handsy when he was attracted to the dress his accuser was wearing.

While working on the ranch, George and Lennie face foes and friends. One foe is Curley, the son of the Boss, who takes an instant dislike of George for his large stature. Curley’s wife, simply known is Curley’s wife throughout Of Mice and Men is known of her provocative, flirtatious ways. She’s also bitter because she’s feels she been denied her dream of fame and fortune as a Hollywood star.

However, Candy, a worker who lost one of his hands in an accident, befriends George and Lennie and he offers to help the two achieve the dream of owning a plot of land. George and Lennie are thrilled and tell Candy he can live with them once this happens.

And Slim, a jerk-line skinner, has a dog that has just had a litter of puppies. He gives a puppy to Lennie who vows to take care of it.

But George and Lennie’s hopes dim as they face obstacles, their own and those of their fellow workers. Curley attacks Lennie who in turn crushes Curley’s hand. Lennie finds himself attracted to Curley’s wife, who flirts with him but also treats him with utter derision. A fellow ranch hand is shunned by the other workers because he’s black (and Curley’s wife threatens him with lynching). And one ranch hand, Carlson, ends up killing Candy’s dog, which foreshadows future tragedies for George and Lennie.

These tragedies occur when George decides to leave Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Though he often stays close to Lennie, acting as his protector, George believes Lennie will be okay if he’s gone for a short while. Sadly, this turns out to be not the case, and George feels responsible for Lennie’s unintended behavior, which leads to a very tragic moment for Lennie, George and their friendship.

For a very short book, just over a hundred pages, Of Mice and Men packs a wallop, one really made me think of its themes of loneliness, oppression, powerlessness, the need for friendship and the desire to “be somebody.” These are themes so many of us can relate to, especially in an era where there is so much polarization and divisiveness in this country. I believe our country is in need of healing, and we need to regard each other with compassion. George and Lennie have their failings, but I felt nothing but empathy for their plight and I truly wanted things to work out for the both of them. It’s funny how fictional characters in a novella published decades before I was born can do this.

As I mentioned, Of Mice and Men remains a classic. It has been made into a play, which is currently being revived on Broadway and features James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. It’s been made into a couple of movies, the most recent starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in 1992. There is even a band called Of Mice and Men.

I remember liking Of Mice and Men when I read it back in high school, but it means so much more to me now that I’ve dealt with several decades of adulthood, broken dreams and hopes for the future. It’s definitely a book that needs to be re-visited if you read it ages ago, and if you haven’t, pick up a copy and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Marks

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Other Books That Forever Changed the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Genre.

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Books That Should Have Sequels.

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

16068954Meet Harbinger Jones, who goes by the less weighty name of Harry. Harry is in his last year of high school and applying to various colleges. To impress the “Faceless Admissions Professional” (FAP for short), Harry eschews the standard 250 word essay on his application and instead writes over 200 pages about his short but eventful life, which makes up Len Vlahos’ YA novel The Scar Boys.

When Harry was eight years old, the neighborhood bullies tied him to a tree. The tree caught fire when it was struck by lightning. Harry was burned by the fire and is now hideously scarred and disfigured. This doesn’t exactly make him Mr. Popularity, and Harry pretty much believes he’ll face a life devoid of friends.

Then he meets Johnny McKenna when Johnny’s family moves to town. Johnny isn’t put off by Harry’s scars and soon the two boys become best friends. Harry goes from a life of isolation and bullying to one where he feels a bit of hope. If a popular, handsome kid like Johnny likes him, then he can’t be so horrible after all.

While in high school, Harry is rejected by a girl. To comfort Harry, Johnny comes up with a great idea. “Let’s start a band,” claims Johnny. Hmm, a band? Maybe being in a band is what Harry needs. Musicians are cool, right? And it shouldn’t matter that neither Harry nor Johnny know how to play an instrument. They’ll figure something out. So Johnny decides to sing and Harry picks up a guitar and begins lessons. They name the band The Scar Boys and bring on a drummer and a bassist. Now they are ready to rock!

The Scar Boys hone their skills and start performing. It is on stage where Harry truly feels he can shine. He’s no longer a disfigured freak; he’s a rock star! The Scar Boys become more popular and get more local gigs, including one pivotal gig at New York City’s iconic CBGBs. And when The Scar Boys lose their first bass player they replace him with Cheyenne, a beautiful young woman who both Harry and Johnny take a strong liking to.

Soon the Scar Boys go on a summer tour where in-between gigs they face car problems, money woes, in-fighting amongst the band members, petty jealousies, girl trouble, organizational issues and other dilemmas fledgling rock and rollers face.

But most of all, Harry just faces the usual problems of growing up. He seriously crushes on Cheyenne, but of course, she just likes him as a friend. And besides, she and Johnny are hooking up.

And speaking of Johnny, Harry is slowly beginning to realize maybe Johnny isn’t so much of a friend as much as a “frenemy.” Until now, Johnny was the leader to Harry’s follower, but is Johnny worth following? Harry is beginning to question his devotion to Johnny, which pisses Johnny off. Johnny proves to be just as messed up as Harry only his messes are easier to cover up under a handsome visage and boat loads of self-confidence. Will the Scar Boys survive all this turmoil?

The Scar Boys never quite make it to rock and roll glory, but being in a band is a catalyst for Harry. Sure, he’s hideously scarred, his parents don’t always understand him, he can’t get a girl and his best friend is a total dick. But hey, he was in a rock and roll band and he spent one glorious (and yes, very trying summer) touring the country while a lot of his peers toiled at McDonald’s or at the mall. That’s got to impress the FAPs at Harry’s chosen colleges, right?

Well, I hope the FAPs are impressed because I certainly was. No, Harry isn’t perfect. He could be just as irritating as any other teenage boy, and I wasn’t going to cut him any slack just because of his scars. But in the end I couldn’t help but like the kid. I applaud him for taking up an instrument, forming a band and touring the country even if it was for a short time. I also liked how he bypassed the typical 250 college entrance essay (boring) and wrote something actually interesting. Harry is an original, with an engaging voice that kept me captivated. Sure, I wish Cheyenne was a more developed character, but I do understand we are seeing Cheyenne through the lens of Harry’s experiences, not who she really is.

I also loved how The Scar Boys used the title of songs to head each chapter, many that will make any rock and roll lover misty-eyed with musical memories. Including amongst these titles were songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Violent Femmes, Van Halen, Pat Benatar, Joy Division, REM and The Rolling Stones. I thought it was only fitting several of the chapters were the titles of songs by the Ramones considering I was reading this novel when I found out about the death of the last original Ramone, Tommy Ramone (RIP). And as a rapidly aging Generation X-er, I loved the fact that The Scar Boys takes place in the 1980s. Furthermore, when he was younger, Vlahos was in a band called the Woofie Cookies. He knows what he’s writing about.

Apparently, The Scar Boys is Len Vlahos first novel. I hope it’s not his last.

I Read It So You Don’t Have To: The Otherhood-Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness by Melanie Notkin

Otherhood-HC-coverNEW2_frontAs a woman who is rapidly entering her dotage sans children, I really wanted to like Melanie Notkin’s The Otherhood-Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness. From the time we are little girls caring for our own Baby Alive dolls, it is pounded into our heads we’ll get married, have a bunch of kids and live happily ever after.

But what did John Lennon once sing? “Life is what happens when you busy making other plans?” Not all women’s lives consist of finding Mr. Right, making a pit stop at the Chapel of Love and then bottles and baby carriages. No, some women find themselves of a certain age without a husband, and even worse-nobody to call them mommy. A majority of women find themselves resigned to this reality and move on with their lives, finding fulfillment and joy in other things.

However, Melanie and her friends are not these women, which made reading The Otherhood a mind-numbingly irritating slog.

I first became of Ms. Notkin when I read and then wrote a review of her book Savvy Auntie: Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids.

Savvy Auntie was a fun read, a bit over the top with the pink and at times a bit twee with its mash up of the word aunt with other words—aunt + entrepreneur=auntpreneur. But in the end, Savvy Auntie is a pretty inoffensive book. Sadly, The Otherhood is pretty darn offensive.

Notkin is the founder of Savvy Auntie, a community for you guessed it, Savvy Aunties. Savvy Aunties is so much more than a book, it’s a lifestyle and a brand. And Notkin prides herself as a successful marketing professional, author and speaker. Well, goodie for her.

Yet, none of this success is enough for Notkin. And it’s not enough for her equally successful girlfriends who Notkin never fails to mention just how amazing, intelligent and accomplished they are. For Notkin, the Otherhood consists of a pretty narrow demographic of Manhattan-dwelling, designer clad professionals who all work in glamorous fields like fashion, PR, marketing, media and entertainment. Apparently, those of us who live in flyover country slaving away in boring McJobs and wearing clothes from Target don’t exist in the Otherhood. Notkin never seeks out their stories.

Interspersed throughout The Otherhood are tales of little get-togethers amongst Notkin and her girlfriends where they dine at fancy pants establishments and whine about men and not having kids. Hmm, ladies. Do you ever discuss pop culture, current events, politics or community happenings? Nope. Life is an endless episode of “Sex in the City” for Notkin and her besties.

Just what are the reasons why these women are single? Well, Notkin et al pretty much lay blame at the feet of men. Men don’t choose to marry these ladies because they are weak and intimidated by their intelligence, talent and success. Oh really? Men end up marrying intelligent, talented and successful women all the time.

Furthermore, Notkin and her friends are ticked that men don’t want to plan dates and often ask them to pick a restaurant when they go out. Asking you where you’d like to dine? The nerve of these men! What monsters! Ladies, if you can’t handle a man about your dining preferences how are you going to handle the immense challenges of raising a child?

Notkin also blames that usual suspect, feminism. Notkin has this strange idea that because of feminism she should have it all! Nope, feminism is about equality between the sexes and opening up doors to women that were once closed. Betty and Gloria never promised you the perfect life. So put on your big girl La Perla panties, Ms. Notkin, and deal with it!

Notkin also throws plenty of shade at women who are married and have kids, younger women and women who work in unimpressive fields like social work, nursing and teaching. The Otherhood pretty much showcases the author’s materialism, snobbery, classism and sense of entitlement. Gee, no wonder men avoid you and thank goodness you have no kids.

Other than some talk about adoption and freezing one’s eggs, Notkin and her little coterie don’t offer much in how to deal with being single and childless. Sure, many relish in being aunties, Savvy Aunties, of course. But there is no discussion of having children in one’s life without being a mom. It’s no secret one doesn’t have to raise a child to have a positive impact on a child’s life. Notkin could mentor kids. She could take part in Big Brothers/Big Sisters. She could tutor a child or get involved in improving our crumbling public schools. But none of this comes up in The Otherhood.

Notkin could also take an honest, hard look at herself and do some serious self-reflection on why she’s not a married mom. Sure, it’s okay to have standards when it comes to finding love, and it’s certainly okay to feel sad about not having kids. But in a world where there is war, disease, starvation, murder and divisiveness, being a childless old maid is pretty low on the scale of tragedies. Notkin needs to be a little less self-absorbed and a little more self-aware, but I seriously doubt she is capable of this. Maybe someone should drop her in a third world country so she can get some perspective. Nope. She’d probably complain about not being able to find a Starbucks.

Ultimately, The Otherhood is misleading. The subtitle of this book is “Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” yet never ever is there a discussion of finding this elusive happiness, which is such a slap in the face for women find themselves childless and find fulfillment in other ways. Notkin claims to be a “leading voice for nearly 50 percent of American women who are childless.” Sorry, Ms. Notkin, but you are not a voice for me, and I doubt you are a voice for other childless women. I am my own voice, and my voice says this: The Otherhood is an insult to childless women, mothers, men, and yes, children. All of us deserve better.

All God’s Children by Anna Schmidt

All God's ChildrenIn the first installment of romance author Anna Schmidt’s Peacekeeper series, All God’s Children, we are introduced to Beth Bridgewater, an American woman from Wisconsin who is now living in 1940s Germany with her Uncle Franz, Aunt Ilse and their young daughter. Beth originally came to Germany to help her aunt and uncle raise their daughter. Ilse has not been well since the birth of her daughter and she relies a great deal on Beth, who selflessly helps take care of her little cousin any way she can.

Early 1940s Germany was a perilous time. The Hitler regime was taking over and countless Jewish people were being sent to their death in concentration camps. Beth is horrified by these turn of events, and wonders what will become of her and her German relatives. She is also very concerned about her Jewish friends and acquaintances. In a somewhat hasty, yet giving move, Beth hands over her immigration papers to a young Jewish woman so this woman can escape Germany to avoid being sent to a camp. Now paperless, Beth can’t leave Germany to go back to her Wisconsin home.

Entering Beth’s life is Josef Buch. Josef is a former student of Uncle Franz’s, and is now studying to be a doctor. Josef chooses to live with Beth’s uncle and aunt so he can be close to his medical studies at the university. Despite the proximity to the university, it is a wonder why Josef would choose to live in a cramped apartment attic rather than parents much more spacious home. Josef’s father is also a high ranking official in the Gestapo. Hmm, could Josef also be part of the Gestapo? Is he a Nazi sympathizer? Could he possibly be a spy?

Josef is an enigma, and Beth questions his motives. Yet, she is also intrigued and drawn towards this handsome stranger. Soon she realizes Josef is also appalled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Like, Beth, Josef wants to also resist the Nazi regime and help Germany’s Jewish citizens who live under persecution every single day. Non-Jewish Germans must also fear for their lives; especially those who resist the Nazi regime.

Beth knows she most do something beyond giving away her immigration papers to a Jewish friend. And it is her strong Quaker faith, known as “Freunde” in Germany, that most guides her. As a Quaker, Beth is a pacifist. She refuses to take up violent means to defy the Nazis. However, she knows she can get help in other ways.

It isn’t long before Beth and Josef get involved with the White Rose, a resistance group who pass out leaflets exposing the evil of the Nazi regime and how to defy it. Both Beth and Josef bring their considerable gifts and strong moral code to the White Rose. Whereas, Beth is impulsive, she is also hugely giving and empathetic. And Josef’s considerable planning and organizational skills are also valuable to the White Rose.

Getting involved in the White Rose puts both Beth and Josef in a precarious situation, but they refuse to be deterred even though the face mortal danger every single day.

Before long, Beth and Josef find their friendship turning to love. With their shared commitment to helping others and defying the Nazi regime, they begin to have romantic feelings for each other. Beth and Josef can’t deny their strong feelings, and soon they fall in love and get married.

Unlike most newlyweds, Beth and Josef do not spend time unwrapping weddings gifts, setting up a household and contemplating starting a family. They face danger and death on a daily basis. And before long, Josef and Beth’s activities with the White Rose are discovered and they are sent to the camp Sobibor. Beth spends her days sorting out the clothing, shoes and various items of Soibor’s prisoners. These are prisoners who have already been sent to the gas chambers, a fact that horrifies Beth to her very core.

Despite being separated at Sobibor, Beth and Josef can spend some time together, and soon they lives are upended once again when they make a daring escape.

Beth and Josef face so much turmoil in their young lives uncertainty, violence, betrayal, near death and a gripping fear that they may never see another day. Yet, they are unwavering in their commitment peace, to their family and friends, to helping others and yes, to each other.

All God’s Children is a romance. But it’s so much more than that. It’s not a “bodice-ripper,” and it’s certainly not a romance of the clichéd “chick lit” variety. Too be honest, I’ve never been a huge romantic fiction fan. I went through a brief “bodice ripper” phase in high school, and to me, most “chick lit” has all the depth of a Jimmy Choo in-step. But Josef and Beth are two fully-realized characters who you can truly believe in. Beth is a young woman of both grace and gravitas. And we need more men like Josef.

I also have to give author Anna Schmidt a huge amount of credit for all of the research she did on World War II and the Nazi takeover of Germany and the rest of Europe. I must admit my own education on this horrific time is quite limited, just what I learned in school and through books like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and movies like “Schindler’s List.” I gained so much knowledge reading All God’s Children. I’m smart enough to realize that not all non-Jewish Germans were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Many were truly sickened by the Nazi regime, and many of them got involved in resistance movements and worked tirelessly on behalf of their Jewish neighbors and friends. Also, non-Jewish Germans suffered under the Nazi regime, with many of them being sent to concentration camps, and many of them facing torture and death.

All God’s Children piqued my interest in the White Rose, and through the miracle of Google, I did some research and learned so much more. I can proudly say members of the White Rose are now heroes of mine and I plan on reading about their work.

I also learned more about the Quaker faith. As a lapsed Roman Catholic turned Unitarian, I was only marginally acquainted with Quakers and how they live out their faith on a daily basis. I am in total awe how so many Quakers go above and beyond to help others, and do it without violent means.

Yes, All God’s Children is a lovely romantic story of two very notable and admirable characters. But it is also a story of courage, inspiration and a very worthwhile history lesson.

Writer’s Block

read this summer logo_1Summer is usually a pretty busy time for me, and the summer of 2014 is no different. I had a low-key 4th of July, but a couple of friends from out of town visited me on Sunday, and we had a lot of fun. I had dinner with some friends from church this past Monday. And a couple of friends of mine are having a BBS/potluck this Saturday. And yes, I’m bringing my sugar mint cookies.

However, I am working on some book reviews. Two are for novels, one a historical romance and the other a YA novel set in the 1980s. And I’m also working on a review for a non-fiction book that is so odious it is just begging for the “I Read It So You Don’t Have To” treatment.

And of course, I’m always on the prowl for other books to read and review. In fact, I set up a notepad on my smart phone that has a huge list of books that I want to read. That will keep me busy.

 

Brag Book (With Some Lovin’ from the Oven)

square-recipe-file-bookJust checked the email account I have for this blog, and Emily Matchar, author of Homeward Bound, emailed me back to say she loved the review and she re-tweeted a link to my review. Here it is (scroll down):

Ms. Matchar also mentioned in her email that my sugar mint cookies sound amazing. Well, they are! Here is the recipe.

Sugar Mint Cookies

1 cup butter
1/2 cup of sugar
2 cups of flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp of peppermint extract
2 tbsp of crushed dry mint leaves (or 4 tbsp of crushed fresh mint leaves)*
Additional sugar

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and the 1/2 cup of sugar. Add flour, salt, extract and mint. Chill dough for at least an hour. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Form chilled dough into 1 inch balls and roll in additional sugar. Place the balls on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press each ball with your thumb. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

*The original recipe (which I believe I found in the Milwaukee Journal’s “Food” Section)  calls for dried or fresh mint leaves, but you can also use chocolate chips (Nestle makes a great dark chocolate/mint chips combo), Andie’s Candies chips or mint M & M’s. They’re all good!!!!