Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: More a Comparison than a Review

 

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

My copy of Of Mice and Men. Inherited from my grandfather and published in 1938

Isn’t it strange how the fiction we completely adore are the most elusive to review?  When you are completely absorbed in another world, a world more real than our own, who has the time to analyze themes, symbolism, motifs, and all that faff? Sometimes fiction just works, no thousand words necessary. And I say this as someone who used to spend every day analyzing themes, symbolism, and motifs.

In case you haven’t guessed, I completely adored John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I couldn’t put it down when reading. I even spent my lunch break reading. I was desperate to know what will happen to George and Lennie. What I’m having trouble with is putting into words why I loved Of Mice and Men so much.

In Of Mice and Men, we enter the lives of two drifting California laborers during the Great Depression: George and Lennie. Both men have fled their previous employer because of an incident involving Lennie. It’s easy to infer that Lennie has a mental disability and is both devoted and dependent on George, but George cares deeply for Lennie as well. They are sustained by a shared dream of owning their own piece of land.

George and Lennie quickly find new employment, where they find friends and kind souls along with the new boss’ belligerent son and his dangerous wife. Characters and events weave around each other to a climactic action, leading into tragedy.

(I will never laugh again at generic blubs. It is difficult to write the synopsis of a book without spoiling key plot points while not sounding pathetically vague, which I have failed to do. Apologies)

Part of the reason why Of Mice and Men confounded me, despite my love, was how similar I found Steinbeck and Hemingway’s themes and dominant male presence. Yet I found Hemingway cold and dead. I reviewed Hemingway’s collection Men without Women very negatively last year. Meanwhile, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is heartfelt and exciting.

A dear friend and fellow Steinbeck lover suggested that Steinbeck had “sensitivity to injustice and personal emotions [and] deep commitment to realism and humanism.” I do think there’s something to her theory. Humanism and sympathy are key. There’s a tenderness to Steinbeck that Hemingway lacked. I cared for George and Lennie and Of Mice and Men’s cast. Fiction that inspires emotions just work, no thousand words necessary. Sometimes the difference between a magical author and a merely skilled author is the breath of life he gives his world and characters. I think, ultimately, that is the main difference between Steinbeck and Hemingway.

 

Early Impressions: Nigella Bites and Some Baked Goods

This post was supposed to be a review of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but I forgot to take a photo of my copy and I’m away at the moment. Thereby, my review is postponed. Foreshadowing alert: I loved Of Mice and Men. It’s the second book I rated five stars on goodreads in 2016.

You may think it’s a bit silly to delay a book review just because of its cover. Yes, I can easily upload a picture of one of the hundreds of Of Mice and Men covers floating online. But my copy is dear to my heart. It previously belonged to my grandfather and was published in 1938, merely one year after Of Mice and Men was first released. I kind of want to give whoever is reading this blog a feel of how damn thick 1938 paper were. Reading my grandpa’s Of Mice and Men felt luxurious, even if I shudder to think of the unnecessarily murdered trees.

So instead, here’s a mini-review of Nigella Bites and some tested recipes.

I adore Nigella Lawson. I love her style, her personality, and her philosophy. As a young teenager, her television shows were a revelation. Wow, I thought, cooking really isn’t so difficult. I can do that.

Until little over two weeks ago, however, I did not own any of her cookbooks – even though I’ve always had lemmings for all of them. Cookbooks are notoriously expensive. The inside flap of Nigella Bites says it normally retails for 35 US dollars, but I scored it for around 11 bucks at the Big Bad Wolf sale.

Now, I haven’t read the cookbook from cover to cover. Nor have I tested all the recipes (who has?). But this is a lovely book to flick through when tired after work. Or when searching for practical recipes. Nigella has a wonderful “voice:” funny and charismatic, unaffected and unpretentious. Weirdly, I find that she is more eloquent when presenting her television shows; naturally rattling off quotes by Oscar Wilde and John Keats. Her prose is more restrained and simple, but no less charming. I like both her speaking wit and her writing, but it is funny when someone’s prose is more conversational than her actual conversations, is it not?

(Yes, yes, someone probably scripted her television monologues – but she always pulls them off with aplomb)

I’m more of a baker than an actual meal cook, so the recipes I have tried were the chocolate fudge cake and the breakfast orange muffins. What I loved most were how easy they were to make. I’ve tried plenty of Nigella recipes (mostly from online and by memorizing the telly shows) by now, and she has never lied about the practicality of her recipes. Texturally, the cakes turned out wonderful. Visually, they had that rustic/homey look yet were still somehow attractive.

Nigella’s Chocolate Fudge Cake

What I think the recipes lack were that extra kick of flavor. I wanted the cake to be even more chocolatey and the muffins to be even more citrusy. Although in this case, your mileage may vary. The Javanese have a word called medok, which essentially means thick – too thick, tasteless makeup; too thick a speaking accent; or too thick a taste – almost vulgar flavors. My preference is for my food to be medok. I rarely want subtle, delicate, or flimsy. I want overly flavored nearly all the time.

Breakfast Orange Muffins

People that I have offered the orange muffins were pleased with the subtlety. And the same people found the fudge cake very chocolatey already, so again, different strokes for different folks. They also appreciated the fact that the cakes weren’t overly sweet, I sentiment I happily share, even though I didn’t reduce the sugar content of the recipes.

Now I’m curious about the savory dishes listed in Nigella Bites. I’m already bookmarking the gingery-hot duck salad, although I think I’ll replace the duck with beef.

 
Oh, I still want Nigella’s other cookbooks, by the way.

 

Belenggu (Shackles) by Armijn Pane

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Published in 1940, Belenggu (or Shackles in its English reincarnation) is widely considered the first modern Indonesian novel. I agree with this assessment. Prior, Indonesian prose focused on the dramatic romances of star-crossed lovers with rotten villains twirling metaphorical moustaches. Granted, early Indonesian literature had cultural and social commentary to make up for the soapy melodrama, but for the most part, novels like Sitti Nurbaya have always elicited eye rolls from my part.

Belenggu is a love story too. A love triangle, in fact. However, the novel was written in a radically different way than its predecessors. There is no antagonist; all the conflict is strictly internal. No one is a paragon of virtue or a symbol of all evil. It is also a city novel, unlike previous prose that favored rural settings.

Despite its revolutionary status, however, I didn’t like Belenggu much.

**

Tono and Tini’s marriage is fading. They scarcely spend time with each other and when they do have to face one another, Tini is angry and bitter while Tono is nonplussed and retiring. Worse, their ideologies clash. Tono wants a traditional wife who stays at home and takes off his shoes. Tini wants independence and freedom – she explicitly states that she has the right to go out anytime, just like her husband.

When Tono meets his childhood playmate and neighbor Yah again, he finds in her the woman of his dreams. Yah is warm, polite, and completely devoted to pleasing him. It is not long until they fall into an affair.

**

Despite the summary, Belenggu couldn’t be further from torrid. This is a thinky, Freudian novel – with massive amounts of thought processes and philosophical meanderings. My biggest problem with Belenggu is that for its modern storytelling approach to work, the fictional characters had to be at least somewhat believable. The characters in Belenggu are not, sadly. After a certain point, they even stopped speaking like normal people. Going further, they became symbols. Or conduits for Pane’s philosophical reflections.

My edition of Belenggu (I read Shackles, the English version) is only 162 pages long but the story dragged so badly. There really wasn’t much of a story to begin with – which makes all the thinking and philosophizing and symbolizing feel like copious padding.

Pane tried to tackle a myriad of themes in Belenggu: equal rights, politics, ideology, gender relations, philosophy, even the meaning of life. Yet all of them fell flat and none of them stood out.

The usage of shackles as a motif is good. Everyone in Belenggu is shackled by something: shackled to a marriage, shackled to an ideology, and most of all, shackled to the past. Motifs alone don’t make a good novel, though.

**

Overall, I think Belenggu is valuable mostly for scholars studying the development of Indonesian literature. If you’re a casual reader wanting a readable novel, look for something more contemporary.

Rurouni Kenshin (Volume 1) by Nobuhiro Watsuki

I have two friends whose tastes I completely trust and align with mine 99% of the time. To the first, Rurouni Kenshin is the manga closest to her heart – not just because it was a childhood favorite, but because it is a great manga full stop. To the second, it’s meh in general. A good manga, but forgettable. How could their assessments differ so? I had to investigate.

Rurouni Kenshin is remonikered Samurai X in Indonesia

Rurouni Kenshin is a historical fiction manga and follows Himura Kenshin. Kenshin was once a fearsome and feared assassin, but we enter at a point where Kenshin now traverses Japan as a humble wanderer.

The manga is set ten years after the start of the Meiji Restoration. We find out that Kenshin was a pivotal warrior during the bloody struggle between the shogun era and the Meiji Restoration. Most samurais who fought for the Meiji cause were honored with key offices in the new government. But why Kenshin chose to wander instead is a mystery that I’m 100% sure will be central to following volumes.

Volume 1 is standard shonen fare. Kenshin meets Kaoru, a dojo master who teaches the way of the sword to protect humanity, and immediately forges a connection with her. Along the way, they adopt a young orphaned boy named Yahiko as student. Volume 1 ends with the introduction of fighter Sagara Sanosuke as a fight brews between Kenshin and Sanosuke.

So: whose review of Rurouni Kenshin do I agree with more? Drumroll please!

I side with my first friend, who adores Rurouni Kenshin. The manga is promising so far and the characters likable. Something about Rurouni Kenshin feels slow and staid in a good way, perhaps it’s the thick historical atmosphere. I read the first three chapters very slowly not because it was boring, but because I was immersed in the setting and the art. The following chapters offer a faster pace.

I was happy to learn a bit more about Japan’s history through Rurouni Kenshin; I’ve been fascinated by Japan for a while now but know little about its history. My second friend, who finds Rurouni Kenshin average has said the historical richness won’t stick. The manga will become more general and focus on friendship as it progresses. That doesn’t sound like a bad place to be, though. I’m excited to soak myself more in the world of Rurouni Kenshin.

Tintin in Tibet by Hergé

Because I am obsessive *cough,* I mean meticulous, I dug up facts about Tintin in Tibet in preparation of this post. My favorite was how prior to writing, writer and illustrator Hergé was tormented by dreams of endless white expanses. His Jungian therapist advised him to quit the Tintin comics. Hergé responded by creating Tintin in Tibet, a beautiful volume stuffed full with white snowy panoramas.

Tintin in Tibet is widely considered Hergé’s magnum opus. It is frequently featured in “Best of Tintin” lists. Hergé himself stated that Tintin in Tibet is his personal favorite. According to Wikipedia (make of my sources what you will), he said, “It is a story friendship the way people say, ‘It’s a love story.’”

***

It has been years since I last read Tintin in Tibet. Despite the accolades heaped upon it, Tintin in Tibet is not my favorite Tintin. That honor goes to Explorers on the Moon.

Yet I can see why critics value Tintin in Tibet so much. Sharp Tintinologists have spotted that it is the only Tintin comic book without a clear antagonist (though I would argue that The Castafiore Emerald is another). Tintin in Tibet is poignant yet subtle. The drama is never bombastic – a far cry from Hergé’s usual fare of swashbuckling adventures and international mysteries.

***

Tragic news assail Tintin and Captain Haddock on their vacation. The papers report a horrific airplane crash in Nepal – there are no survivors. Before reading the news, Tintin dreams of his old friend Chang barely alive and begging for help. After reading the news, Tintin receives a letter. Chang was in that Nepalese plane crash.

Believing his dream to be a vision, Tintin sets off to rescue Chang. Captain Haddock, ever crabby yet ever faithful, accompanies him. And so we have the set-up for our adventure.

Hergé is a man of his words. Tintin in Tibet is centered on friendship. Searching for a friend against all the odds is the most obvious motif. But more than Tintin’s telepathic connection to Chang, Tintin in Tibet is all about the dynamics between Tintin and Captain Haddock. Captain Haddock loyally supports Tintin despite his near madness (not without some boisterous swearing and temper tantrums, of course). The high point of Tintin in Tibet is seeing how one would sacrifice his life for the other. Tintin and Captain Haddock: truly a friendship for the ages.

Tintin in Tibet also beautifully shows the humanity of both Tintin and Captain Haddock. I loathed Tintin’s stubbornness. He was stringing people along into danger and that is not what a good person does. But his faith and his big heart are undeniable.

As a child, Captain Haddock could do no wrong in my eyes. But with this reading, I will readily admit that he could be a bit more respectful of others and their culture. But hey, Haddock’s irascibility is a great chunk of his charm!

In case you were wondering if Tintin in Tibet is too full of internal conflict and spiritual journeys to appeal to the kids, worry not! Hergé’s light comic touch is ever-present and always on point.

***

Why did I revisit Tintin in Tibet in the first place? Friendship, a reason befitting this comic volume’s main theme. One of my dearest friends and I are in a long-distance friendship. The Pacific Ocean separates us. In her last email, she asked me to talk more about Tintin – one of my childhood joys. No Tintinologist worth her salt can leave out Tintin in Tibet in the conversation. It is considered Hergé’s masterpiece.

I will see her in September and already I’m thinking of crafting a care package for her. I was wondering if Tintin in Tibet would be a suitable package stuffer. Reading Tintin in Tibet again today, I thought ‘yes, yes of course – in fact, she’ll love it more than I do.’ And I hope, she’ll think of me when reading her copy.

Big Bad Wolf Haul

Here it is! A photo of my haul of shame:

It wasn’t deliberate that, excepting Nigella Bites, all the books I bought were written by postcolonial authors. Whilst I follow and read a number of book bloggers who focus on diversity in literature, I’d be heartbroken not to have total unlimited choice of reading material.

***

Back to my haul, I affectionately call these two my nostalgia duo:

I first encountered both novels during my semester abroad in London. I call those beautiful four months ‘the best time of my life,’ mostly because what happened immediately after was the darkest time of my life. London came to symbolize that precious time when one felt the world was their oyster and theirs for the taking.

I had never heard of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies until a glorious sunny autumn day in London – yes, sunny autumn days do exist in London. I was on a tour boat, cruising the River Thames with a delightfully snarky Brit as guide. I sat next to out chaperone professor as I felt bad no other student wanted to sit next to a professor. I needn’t worry, he had an engrossing novel. Halfway through the trip, we struck a conversation. I remember precious little: he had been to London several times and I really ought to pick up Sea of Poppies because it is excellent. It was with a smile and with sweet memories I picked up Sea of Poppies at Big Bad Wolf.

Brick Lane was another novel raved about by a London professor. But what pushed my purchase button was the beautiful memories I made in Brick Lane; from taking photographs for class projects to sampling South Asian desserts that turned out absolutely vile to a delicious curry dinner paid for by our Shakespearean professor. That Tesco sticker is staying there – that enabler of endless late night munchies.

***

I named this photo “new and interesting” on my laptop despite knowing all of the authors. Some buying motivation aka navel-gazing behind all of them starting clockwise.

V.S. Naipaul has said some very funny things about women and women writers. Yes, misogyny is still very much a thing. But the blurb of Among the Believers whet my appetite. It’s non-fiction and in it, Naipaul compares Islam in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I am fascinated by outsider views on Indonesia and I cannot resist books centered on such. So into my arms Among the Believers went.

I almost bought A Thousand Years of Good Prayers at full price from the famous Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. So of course I wasn’t going to pass up a copy sold for 60 thousand rupiahs (around $4.50). I’ve never read Yiyun Li before but I’ve wanted to ever since her “A Sheltered Woman” won the Sunday Times short story prize. “A Sheltered Woman” is available to read for free here.

Of course I wanted Things Fall Apart. I’ve never read Chinua Achebe before and everyone starts with Things Fall Apart, but there were only three Achebes at the Big Bad Wolf: A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, and No Longer at Ease. I found No Longer at Ease the most interesting from the blurb and its first pages so it came home with me. Hey, at least when I review No Longer at Ease, I can say: how many reviews of Things Fall Apart does the book blogosphere need anyhow?

A creative writing professor once commented that a short story of mine reminded him of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s early village fiction. My heart soared despite having read next to nothing of Marquez’s works. I’ve made it a mission to read more Marquez during the new few years. Even without that personal quest, the blurb of Chronicle of a Death Foretold would have spurred me on to buy it. It’s apparently a non-linear story about a brutal murder and the contradictory testimonials and journalistic pieces surrounding why and how the murder happened. I love that. I love crime stories that focus on psychology; I don’t read enough psychological thrillers, really.

***

A final note on Nigella Bites: Oh, how I have wanted Nigella cookbooks for years! I just didn’t want to part with my money. Cookbooks are expensive, but at the Big Bad Wolf, they go around for about $10 dollars. I’ve already marked some recipes I want to try. I’m more of a baker but the salmon fish cakes are really calling my name…

Let me know if you went to the Big Bad Wolf and have written a post about it. I’d love to read about your experiences and your hauls!

 

Big Bad Wolf Hacks

This can be considered a partial guide to Big Bad Wolf Indonesia, currently running until 11pm Sunday Jakarta time. Apologies that this post is going up Saturday morning, scant more than 24 hours until the event closes – I went to the Big Bad Wolf very late Thursday, stayed overnight at a friend’s house, and am only now functional enough to write.

What is the Big Bad Wolf? It’s an enormous book sale, enormous in book volume and in price slashes. It was introduced first in Malaysia in 2009 and this marks the first time the Big Bad Wolf is adapted to Indonesia. 40 containers full of 1.5 million books are provided, most of them English publications and of all genres.

Of course I was going, despite the event being held at the Indonesia Convention Exhibition (ICE), BSD City – some distance from my house. Luckily, I have a good friend who lives in BSD so I stayed over. We had a fun sleepover and braved Big Bad Wolf together.

Some tips and tricks I’ve figured out are below:

  1. This is the most important rule: Don’t make preconceived lists, do come to the Big Bad Wolf with an open mind.

I read from another blog post that because there’s an ocean of books, it’s best to write down a list of books you want and search for them at the event. With all due respect, I disagree.

I had my heart set on getting Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series and grew frustrated because I couldn’t find any of the books. After thirty minutes of vexation, I took a deep breath and changed my strategy – which is, just look for books that look interesting to me. Irritation was soon replaced with deep, deep joy. So please, just come to browse. You will find books you want. There’s an ocean here, after all.

Literally an ocean

You thought I was joking, huh?

  1. Parking is a headache and shalt always be a headache. Accept it. Alternatively, use taxis. Big Bad Wolf is held in Hall 10 and there were a constant stream of taxis at the entrance, even post-midnight.
  1. The general rule is to go either very early or very late. I think the advice is worthless this late in the game. Big Bad Wolf will always be crowded.

If you are staying at BSD City for more than a couple of hours and you have pals or connections going to Big Bad Wolf the same day as you, use them! Scout the best time to go! Ask them how the crowds and the situation look when your acquaintances are there.

I was lucky to be part of a storytelling group on WhatsApp and two different people went the same day I did. The first gave up because the crowd was overwhelming, but the second only waited twenty minutes. So my friend and I decided to go to Big Bad Wolf an hour after I got the message from the second connection.

  1. Worry not about the layout of books at the Big Bad Wolf. Everything is very straightforward and easy to understand.
  1. The Big Bad Wolf volunteers are your best friends. Seriously. They are exceedingly efficient and helpful. Do utilize them.

My friend showed some volunteers a baking book she wanted and the volunteers said, “Oh, we have loads of those here.” They actually went and searched and found it for her. Meanwhile, I showed a volunteer the books in the Fairyland series and they recognized the novels immediately, saying “Oh, I know them! We put them out a couple of days ago. We put them in the Young Adult section but we may have run out of stock by now.” These people really know their stuff!

Please be kind to them by not messing up the books!

  1. Children’s books dominate the selection at Big Bad Wolf. From Activity Books, picture books, middle-grade, to YA, the choices are vast. However, I’m not sure bringing your children here is a good idea. There’s an ocean of crowds to match the ocean of books and little kids wander. If you have well-behaved children, good. Best to leave them at home and pick the books for them, though.

Someone lost her little boy at Big Bad Wolf when I was there. I hope she found him, she was understandably and truly distraught.

  1. Bring a backpack. renslittlecorner suggested a wheeled suitcase and I agree, especially if you parked far away and will buy dozens of books.
  1. I bought strictly cash and ID to the exhibition. There’s been no complaints of lost items that I know of, but better safe than sorry. By the way, debit BCA cards are unusable here. Bank Mandiri is one of Big Bad Wolf’s sponsors.

***

Whew! Those are my tips and I hope they will be useful to someone out there at least. My Big Bad Wolf haul of shame will be uploaded in a separate post.

Be aware, be careful, but do have fun if you’re going!

Edited same day to fix a factual error. There are 1.5 million books sold at this event rather than 3.5 million.