Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: Of Mice and Men

I barely remember the first time I read Of Mice and Men. It was one of those classics I read in school because I had to. As a teen in the 1970s, it was not easy to relate to two drifters in the 1930s.

But when I read — or listened to — the novella again this month, I needed only a few minutes to see why so many consider it a masterpiece of literature. Published in 1937, it is the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, California migrant field workers.

As is so often the case, the friends are polar opposites. George is “small and quick and dark of face.” Lennie is a mild-mannered giant with a low IQ and penchant for petting small animals to death. Together they work toward a shared goal of financial independence.

When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, this goal appears to be within reach. But it isn’t long before Lennie’s habits and limitations invite trouble and put a happy future at risk.

The thing I liked most about Mice was the author’s description of time and place. I could almost smell the stench in the bunkhouse and see the dust roll over the fields. No one described the United States during the Great Depression like John Steinbeck.

I also liked the narration by Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors. He nailed the accents and demonstrated impressive vocal range, though I must admit his portrayal of Lennie sounded an awful lot like Patrick Star, the dimwitted starfish in SpongeBob SquarePants.

I didn't care as much for the novella's rough language, which I found authentic but distracting. It is one reason that Mice, unfortunately, is among the most challenged of books in schools and libraries.

That said, the virtues of this timeless work, both the print and audio versions, outweigh its vices. I recommend it to anyone who likes stories about a difficult time in American history. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: The Nightingale

Near the end of The Nightingale, a novel by Kristin Hannah, the protagonist, an old woman, makes an observation in 1995. Looking back at her life and her role in the French Resistance during World War II, she observes that war is essentially a guy thing.

When it comes to remembering wartime contributions, it is men who get the parades and the medals. It is men who write the books, make the speeches, hold reunions, and seek the glory.

It is men who get the credit.

But as The Nightingale reminds us, women -- in this case, civilian women -- fight wars too. They do it quietly, bravely, and usually with little fanfare. They do it in ways that are no less important than the men fighting for God and country on the front lines.

In The Nightingale, the No. 1 New York Times bestseller, two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol, take up the fight against their Nazi German occupiers in different ways and at different times. Both succeed to different degrees.

Vianne, the go-along-get-along school teacher, at first seeks accommodation with the enemy. She tries to ride out the war from the family home as she takes care of Sophie, her young daughter, and awaits the return of Antoine, her French soldier husband.

Isabelle, the rebellious younger sister, jumps right into the fight. A beautiful misfit battling a host of personal demons, stemming from a lifetime of neglect, she joins the active resistance and repeatedly risks her life guiding downed Allied airmen to Spain and freedom.

Telling the story from the perspective of both sisters, Hannah produces a novel that is poignant, captivating, and informative.

Many have compared this book to All the Light We Cannot See and The Book Thief, the recent and widely celebrated novels by Anthony Doerr and Markus Zusak, respectively. All three works paint a compelling picture of occupied Europe during World War II.

I think The Nightingale holds up well against the other books. As a work about the role of women in the French Resistance, it also compares favorably to Jackdaws, a novel by Ken Follett, and Charlotte Gray, a 2001 feature film starring Cate Blanchett.

I recommend The Nightingale not only to readers who like riveting accounts of civilians in wartime but also to those who are drawn to celebrations of the human spirit. Rating: 5/5.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

American Journey, Take Three

I didn’t quite match the frenetic pace of some in the NaNoWriMo crowd. It took me five weeks to write fifty thousand words and eight to write eighty, but I got it done. On the fourth anniversary of the release of my first novel, I finished the rough draft of my eighth.

AJ3, as I often call the third book in the American Journey series, is now ready for a revision process that will take twelve to fifteen weeks. At eighty-two thousand words, or about 275 Kindle pages, it will be my second-shortest work, after The Journey, and the first that takes on not only the past but also the future.

It is the story of Cameron Coelho, a loner who stumbles upon an old photo while studying for a doctorate in history. Mesmerized by the beautiful woman in the picture, a society writer murdered in 1925, he contacts Geoffrey Bell, the “time-travel professor,” and soon finds himself on a train to Evansville, Indiana, and the Roaring Twenties.

I hope to choose a title and a cover image by early March. In the meantime, the drive to turn a good draft into a great book begins.