31 December 2009


Before thirteen year old Brian Robeson embarks on a plane trip across the rugged wilds of North Canada to spend the summer with his father, his mother gives him a hatchet as a parting gift. Brian thinks little of it when he hastily clips the hatchet onto his belt, but a few hours later, after his pilot dies and the plane crashes hundreds of miles off course, the hatchet is the only possession that Brian has. Brian quickly learns that the only way he'll stay alive in the rugged wilderness is to learn to use his hatchet...and his wits.

My dear friend Bev loves Gary Paulsen novels and she recommended Hatchet to me. (Thanks again, Bev!) As I have mentioned on here before, I adore a good survival story, and the Newberry Prize-winning Hatchet is no exception. A good survival novel has to have an appropriate level of suspense and action, and Hatchet certainly delivers on that count. Between the terrifying plane crash, Brian's pitiful early attempts to stay alive, and his unnerving encounter with an angry moose, I couldn't put this book down. Author Paulsen is an avid outdoorsman (He's even competed several times in Alaska's grueling Iditarod dog race); consequently, he infuses much of his knowledge of the wilderness into this book, adding an authentic feel that many other survival novels lack. I also enjoyed Paulsen's prose. He writes with a blunt, pared-down style, and his prose has a naturalistic, conversational tone which, oddly enough, reminded me some of The Catcher in the Rye. (That's a weird comparison, but it kept coming back to me as I read.) Paulsen also effectively uses repetition in his narration, giving the text an almost lyrical narrative poetry sound.

The biggest strength of this novel, though, is Brian. He is so easy to sympathize with. Of course, it's hard not to be sympathetic to his plight, but he is also a genuinely likable character. He lacks the angsty, whiny attitude that so many teenaged protagonists have (and which I find to be a distasteful turnoff.) Brian is also a realistic teenaged character who is easy to relate to. He's levelheaded and intelligent, but he's also no superhuman: he's vulnerable; he makes mistakes. His ordinary qualities make him all the more appealing.

Hatchet is a young adult novel which will delight readers of all ages. This novel is well-written, engaging, and exciting - the perfect antidote to a dreary winter day. Erm, dare I say this without being too corny? You'll enjoy getting lost with Hatchet.


Next Time: For my first article of 2010, I will finally post my long-promised article on online book resources. I promised waaaaay back in September to add links to my blog. (You thought I forgot. Admit it.)) This article will serve as a tour guide, if you will, of my additions. I'll include some of my favorite internet sources for books and book recommendations (you guys have to promise you won't desert me for polished reviewers who do not ramble incessantly!), genre-specific websites, and online recommendations lists. If, and this if is highly contingent on my notoriously inept techno abilities, I can get them to load, I will also have links to prominent annual book awards and the New York Times' bestseller lists.

29 December 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front

Paul Bäumer and his classmates were impressionable teenagers when they signed up to serve in the German army during WWI. They enter the military as idealistic young soldiers, but years of brutal trench combat hardens Paul and his comrades into disillusioned cynics. As the war drags on, Paul begins to question the war's purpose, yet he finds himself incapable of imagining himself in a world without the war which he has come to despise.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a stunning novel. This is one of the most moving novels I've ever read. Author Erich Maria Remarque served in the German military during WWI, and the remarkable amount of detail he uses to describe battle scenes and military life in general adds an exceptional layer of realism to this novel. I have never read more gut wrenching descriptions of battle - several scenes left me teary-eyed and physically ill. I also adored the characters. The sensitive, perceptive Paul is an endearing narrator and his friends, including the resourceful Kat, vindictive Tjaden, and bullheaded Muller are memorable. I always have read that All Quiet on the Western Front is a biting condemnation of war, so I expected to find a lot of blatant pacifistic philosophizing. I don't mind this in a book, (I actually enjoy it), but I do not enjoy being beaten over the head with it. I was relieved that Remarque didn't resort to such heavy-handed tactics. A lesser author would have blatantly told the reader that war was terrible; Remarque, on the other hand, shows the reader the horror of war and his book is all the more compelling because of it.

I watched the classic 1930 film adaptation of this book before I read it. I loved the movie and that's why I became interested in this book. When it comes to films vs. movies, I am usually biased in favor of whichever I encountered first. Not this time. The movie is excellent, but the book is much, much better. The movie stays with the story, for the most part, but the book has so many touching vignettes, which range from amusing to heartbreaking, that add atmosphere, humor, and character development that a film just cannot achieve. I do like the film's striking, famous end scene over the novel's more anticlimatic ending, but it's two entirely different mediums, so a comparision is a bit unfair.

All Quiet on The Western Front is an intense, powerful tale about courage and camaraderie. I highly recommend this excellent novel. I wish I would've read it sooner.


Next Time: Welllll, it depends. I want to open up the new year with that list of book links and updates to my blog that I have been promising forever. I also want to review Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which comes highly recommended to me by my dear friend Bev. If I can get Hatchet read before Friday, I will post the review and then do a post on the book links over the weekend. If I don't get it finished in time, my post on my new blog look will be the first one of the new year and then Hatchet will follow.

27 December 2009

The Glass Menagerie

The Wingfield family is in sad shape. Domineering mother Amanda clings to memories of her aristocratic Southern childhood, perhaps to block out her impoverished life in a St. Louis slum after being abandoned by her husband. Her son, Tom, feels trapped and has become bitter. He hates his boring warehouse job and seeks escape in late night movies and D.H Lawrence novels. His emotionally fragile, disabled sister Laura has withdrawn into her own private world, which centers on her collection of glass figurines (The menagerie of the title.) Amanda decides that the only way the painfully shy Laura will ever be able to amount to anything is to marry well, so the willful mother badgers Tom into inviting a friend over to help coax Laura out of her shell. If only Amanda knew what devastation this plan ultimately brings...

Tennessee Williams' classic drama The Glass Menagerie is a moving exploration of shattered dreams and shattered families. As you may recall from last week, I had a hard time choosing between this play and Williams' other classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. I still debated over which one to do to the last minute, but I ultimately decided on this play because, as much as I love A Streetcar Named Desire, I think this play offers a more satisfying reading experience. (On the other hand, reading A Streetcar Named Desire is great, but watching it is even better. Watch the 1951 version with Brando. I am not just biased because I think he's the greatest actor ever, well, maybe just a little. If you've never seen it, go watch it now!)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Menagerie. This play, unlike many others, does not rely on convoluted plot devices or outrageous scenarios. Instead, it focuses on a very authentic situation and advances its plot based on dramatic tension. I know that's not every one's cup of tea, but this play is masterfully crafted and never once did it lose my interest. Furthermore, at less than 100 pages long, it's easily read in one setting. The characters are also so realistically drawn that's impossible to not relate to them. Growing up in the South, I have met my fair share of Amandas (some even in my own family) and their smothered offspring; consequently, I found Amanda the most interesting character, even though Tom's the narrator and Laura's the centerpiece. I especially liked the interactions between Amanda, Laura, and Tom. Their petty disputes and heated arguments are something anyone with family will relate to and, even more importantly, their relationships ring true. Williams based all of these characters on members of his own family, and I believe that adds to the realism. Finally, I was pleased with the dialogue - the Southern dialect is perfect. This is something I am nitpicky about, but Williams nailed it perfectly, everything from the sentence structure to the frequent insertions of "honey, " especially when employed after an insult...

My only problem with this play is some of the stage directions. Williams intended this as a "memory" play, in which the scenes are presented as distorted by the human memory, rather than as fact. The result is a dreamy atmosphere that, for the most part, I found effective. However, the stage directions also call for the use of a screen to flash images and text throughout the play. Although occasionally the instructions were amusing, for the most part, I found this distracting. Williams conveys so much through plot and dialogue, so I didn't see why this was needed at all. Most directors of the play seem to concur, since this element of the play is usually not seen when staged, even when the play was first released in the 1940s.

I am a firm believer that, though plays are fun to read, they are still best experienced in their intended state - as performed drama. Sadly, I have never seen The Glass Menagerie performed. It's a popular play, so you may be able to catch it at a local theater. If not, you could watch one of the several film/TV versions available. The best known is probably the 1987 version, directed by Paul Newman. I have never seen it, but I read that it is a faithful adaptation. Critics, however, squabble over the quality of the acting.

The Glass Menagerie is a compelling combination of family drama, tragedy, and Southern Gothic. Easy to read and achingly authentic, this play is a great way to while away a winter afternoon. The Glass Menagerie is one of the most renowned post-WWII American plays and is well worth your time.


Next Time: I will be reviewing Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I love the acclaimed movie that is inspired by this novel and bought myself a copy of the book with my Hanukkah money. (Yay!) I was trying to decide what to read next and Scott voted for this one. I am over halfway through the book, have enjoyed every bit of it, and should have a review up soon.

23 December 2009

Hercule Poirot's Christmas

You know how everyone this time of year always jokes about killing their relatives? (Everyone does this, right? If not, my friends need counseling.) Well, some people are not joking about this. Case in point: Cantankerous millionaire Simeon Lee relishes terrorizing his estranged family over the holidays - he browbeats his sons, insults his daughters-in-law, and plays mind games with his relatives. Little wonder he turns up with his throat cut on Christmas Eve. Nobody is really sad to see the old man go, but who exactly is to blame? It is up to the eccentric, legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to solve this mystery.

I adore Agatha Christie mysteries! It's been some time since I read one of Dame Agatha's novels and I needed something suitably festive, so Hercule Poirot's Christmas nicely fit each category. If you're not familiar with Agatha Christie books, I offer this disclaimer: Do not read these books expecting a realistic depiction of police investigations. If you want a precise description of forensics, you will have to go elsewhere, my friend. But if you're looking for an amusing, witty brainteaser, then Agatha fits the bill nicely. With that being said, I will proceed with my review.

I think Hercule Poirot's Christmas is one of Christie's better books. The crime is one of her more savage ones (though in typical Christie style, the murder is not portrayed graphically) and the mystery is first-rate. The identity of the killer will have you guessing to the very end. Even the some of the more technical aspects of Christie's murder mysteries may not be as specific as more modern novels, Christie's books work because she possesses an acute understanding of the human mind. Her characters are believable and that adds a touch of realism that many mystery writers who focus on dry technical detail often lack. Furthermore, although Christie relies on characters types over complex characterizations (such as the crotchety old man, the mild mannered Englishman, the doting wife, the roguish adventurer), Christie writes these characters so well, that the lack of deeper characters is not an issue. If you've read enough Agatha Christie novels, you start to recognize these character types, and they seem like old friends. I believe that Christie is at her best when she's portraying domestic life gone awry, and that's true for Hercule Poirot's Christmas as well. The dysfunctional dynamics of the Lee family are both authentic and darkly funny.

My only problem with this novel is the opening chapter (in which the novel's premise is set out) seemed a bit artificial to me. I know that Agatha was trying to introduce the family and their contentious history, but some of the dialogue seemed too staged to me. I found it hard to believe that these relatives would need to explain the background of the family to each other so extensively after twenty years of feuding. It's a small issue though and didn't lessen my enjoyment of the novel.

Need a fun-filled diversion this holiday season? Try Hercule Poirot's Christmas. This novel offers a engaging characters, first rate suspense, and a tantalizing mystery that is to die for. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

Next Time: I have been reading a collection of Tennessee Williams' plays and am a bit stumped on what to review next time. It will either be The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, but I am not sure which. I love both plays, so this is a hard choice. I am leaning more toward The Glass Menagerie, because I enjoy the more subtle aspects of that play, but I find A Streetcar Named Desire more compelling. (Also, the latter was the ticket to stardom for my all-time favorite actor, Marlon Brando. Where would the world of film be without my boy Marlon?) I haven't decided yet, but I should have a review of one of these classic dramas up some time this weekend.

20 December 2009

The Book Thief

I am not sure how to describe Markus Zusak's amazing novel The Book Thief. I could tell you that this superb, beautiful book is the coming-of-age story, as narrated by Death, of Liesel Meminger, a foster child in Nazi Germany who is obsessed with reading and whose family shelters a Jewish boxer from the authorities. And that would all be true. But I much prefer Death's own description from the prologue: "It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery..." This quote perfectly captures the quirky, wry nature of this book.

PIA recommended The Book Thief to me a couple of months ago, and Penguins Quack assured me that this was an excellent book a couple of weeks later when I mentioned on Sparklife that I was reading it. (A big thank you to both of you!) That delighted me because the subject matter already had me intrigued. (Remember in my review of Sashenka when I said one of the periods of history I planned to specialize in was The Russian Revolution? Well, Nazi Germany is the other. My mother's family is German Jewish and I've always been both mortified and fascinated with this historical period.) Fortunately, my excitement about reading this book was completely justified. The Book Thief did not let me down!

I adored this novel! This book reminds me of To Kill A Mocking bird and Life of Pi. As with these two novels, The Book Thief features a compelling coming of age tale, a strong protagonist, and an offbeat plot. I especially loved the narration, which is simultaneously hauntingly lyrical and sardonically conversational. Death has a distinctive, witty voice which greatly enhances the appeal of this novel. I also loved the pacing. This book is big (550+ pages), but I was never once bored. The Book Thief is alternately hilarious and sorrowful, but it's never slow. (You will not put it down. I was so taken in by the story that I snuck this book into a shoe store with me and read it.) The historical details of this novel also impressed me. Zusak portrays the little-seen world of ordinary working class Germans during WWII vividly.

My favorite part of this book, though, was the characters. Liesel is one of the most likable, realistic, and complex female protagonists that I've ever encountered and I loved her. (Her freakish obsession with books was another reason as well!) As great as Liesel is, the rich cast of colorful supporting characters are just as intriguing. You will not soon forget Hans, her kindhearted foster father; Rosa, her foulmouthed foster mother; Rudy, her mischievous best friend; Max, the determined Jew Liesel's family courageously shelters; and Death, the eccentric narrator who will surpass all of your preconceived notions about the Grim Reaper. I usually dislike fiction about this period because the characters are often so one-dimensional, especially if they're German. (It's as if authors believe that all Germans during WWII were devilish Nazi fiends or noble superhuman resistors. If you've ever read Gitta Sereny's powerful, disturbing nonfiction book Into that Darkness, you would know the situation was far more complex than that and is all the more troubling because of it.)

I have nothing but praise for this book, but I will warn you: You will cry at the end. I dare you not to. I sobbed for ten minutes and still have not fully recovered. Not that this book is unrelentingly melancholy. It isn't. In fact, The Book Thief is hilarious in many parts and has an essentially uplifting message. But after getting to know these characters, the heart-rending ending will bring you to tears.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. The Book Thief is a captivating novel about courage, family, and, yes, books which you will want to reread. This book has received high praise since its publication a few years ago and it has merited every bit of it.


Next Time: Well, the holidays are approaching and I decided to review a Christmas themed book: Hercule Poirot's Christmas. (Um, yes, it is a murder mystery. But I love Agatha Christie and I just bought this one. And it is set during Christmas, so it will do.) If I do not read this one, I am not sure what I will blog about.

17 December 2009

The Dictionary of Disagreeable English

If you know me, you know I adore snarky books about the English language. I am obsessed with Eats, Shoots and Leaves, addicted to The Joy of Lex, and infatuated with Anguished English. My family knows all about my love for English at its best…and worse. Therefore, for Hanukkah last week, I received a copy of Robert Hartwell Fiske's The Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar. Ah, be still my beating nerd heart.

We all have dictionaries, right? (If you do not, just humor me and say you do. Please.) However, as Fiske illustrates in his book, dictionaries are not what they used to be. Prominent dictionaries, including the vaunted Merriam Webster, have increasingly resorted to including nonstandard English, i.e. improper English, in their texts, all in the name of recording English as it is used, rather than how it should be used. Fiske attacks this concept of "descriptivist" as inexcusable. Although I admit that English does evolve, I am firmly in Fiske's camp - dictionaries should champion proper English, not popular English. After reading this book, you may find yourself taking up arms in Fiske's war as well.

In The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, Fiske has compiled a rogue's gallery of painfully incorrect English. If you love acerbic sarcasm, you're in for a treat. Fiske's acidic commentary is frequently laugh out loud funny, as are the truly hideous examples of murdered grammar which Fiske has culled from journalists, celebrities, and politicians. As much fun as this book is to read, The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is also a handy, informative guide to avoiding the most common grammatical pitfalls. Fiske lists frequent misspellings, misuses (my favorite being "grisly" for "grizzly"), mispronunciations, and non existent words which are used with alarming frequency. Fiske also targets so-called "idiotic" words (many which were developed in business) which he argues have no place in the language, i.e. "consequate" and "office" as a verb. Many of the mistakes are absolutely inexcusable, but he also explains many grammar rules which are not common knowledge. (I was mortified to find several mistakes that I frequently make. I will never, ever use "plus" in a non-mathematical context as long as I live. Forgive me! I knew not what I did!)

If you are a fellow grammar geek/word nerd, you will adore this book. You will laugh at Fiske's biting wit and you will cry at some of the most foul atrocities that were committed against the English language in the examples provided. The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is the perfect way to both amuse and educate yourself. *cough* It would also make an excellent last minute gift suggestion this holiday season. *cough*


Next Time: I am reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and loving it. PIA suggested it to me and Penguins Quack raved about it on Sparklife a few weeks ago, so I cannot wait to finish and blog about it.

14 December 2009


I have been watching you. I know that you did not like my review of The Inheritors. I saw that grimace on your face when I mentioned Golding's name. Don't deny it! I watched your reaction over the telescreen I have installed next to your computer. And do not claim the review never existed. I said it existed; therefore, it exists. You must repent of this thought crime against the Dark Lord Zella…or else.

Now, now, there, there, do not be alarmed. I have not morphed into an evil, totalitarian blogger. I am merely acting like one to illustrate what Winston Smith contends with in George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984. Of course, instead of contending against a delusional, blogging bookworm, Smith finds himself going head-to-head with the shadowy bureaucracy of his native Oceania, a futuristic society that is closely modeled on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

I have a confession of my own to make. I have never read this book until now. I have always meant to, because I adore dystopian fiction, but I never got around to it. Then Rebecca posted about this novel, and I felt that I needed to read it ASAP. I am glad I did - I enjoyed 1984. For me, the best part of this novel was Orwell's dystopia, Oceania. Orwell brought this nightmarish society to life with his vivid detail. I particularly loved the scenes set at Winston's place of employment: The Ministry of Truth (more appropriately named the Ministry of Lies) where Winston forges documents in the name of aiding the state. I also liked Winston, although I can't say that I understood him. He's sympathetic in a somewhat pathetic sort of way. He reminded me of a bit of a more likable, more gullible version of Joseph K. from Kafka's The Trial. Orwell also integrates a fascinating exploration of the nature of truth and free thought into this novel, without being cumbersome.

Although I enjoyed this novel, I found the pacing a bit uneven. I was instantly intrigued with the first part, which introduces us to Winston and his world, and I found the ending engrossing and harrowing. (The ending gets kudos for having one of the creepiest tortures I've ever read about.) But the middle part was slow to me. The parts where Winston finds himself descending further into rebellion against the state were interesting, but the bulk of this part of the novel are scenes in which Winston engages in a romance with a coworker who is also disillusioned with the party. The romantic side story did not really interest me. Perhaps my biggest problem was I didn't like Julia, his love interest. The nicest word I can apply to Julia is "vapid." I can think of some other words for her too, but I won't go there.

Pacing aside, 1984 remains one of the preeminent dystopian sci fi novels for a reason. Although written at the start of The Cold War, this novel explores issues that are still relevant. Orwell crafts a nightmarish society with disturbing parallels to our modern world. If you've never read 1984, definitely give it a read.


Next Time: This post was a little later than I expected because I was busy celebrating Hanukkah this weekend. That is not a bad thing though. For Hanukkah, I received a book that I simply must share with my fellow grammar geeks and word nerds here on blogspot: Robert Hartwell Fiste's The Dictionary of Disagreeable English. I should have the review up in a couple of days.

10 December 2009

My Favorite Poets

I know I promised corpses and non-poisoned tea as my next post; however, that just did not materialize. My apologies, but I did not read any books this week. (Well, I did reread Beowulf, The Inferno, and Hamlet for my finals, but I've already blogged on them, so they hardly count.) Even though I thought I could still read something, my finals bore down on me like rabid, mutant weasels bent on vengeance. (Am I the only person who thinks that would make a great movie?) I had to run for my life! As penance for my laziness, I give you this list of my favorite poets. I have been meaning to do this for some time and felt that this should be an adequate peace offering. I should note that, as a complete and utter poetry geek, I found this list hard to compile. I decided to exclude Shakespeare since I bragged so much about him last week, but he is still near and dear to my heart. Without further adieu, here are my favorites, in chronological order. (Don't you dare make me choose one over the other!):

1. John Donne (1572-1631): I have three words for you: Batter my Heart. I find it hard to describe why I love Donne's poetry so much. (That's unusual for me, no?) His words are just so powerful and his work is so masterfully crafted. Donne is the premier English metaphysics poet and his work covers everything from spiritual poems to secular love poems. Donne is, in my opinion, a true genius.

2. William Blake (1757-1796): I love Blake because his work has a lot of philosophical weight to it, but his poems still remain a joy to read. He was a very forward-thinking, innovative poet, and I give him kudos for that too! I admire his originality. I highly recommend his collection Songs of Experience.

3. Robert Burns (1759-1796): I must confess, I have trouble following Burns' poetry at times, but he writes in amazing, awesome Scottish dialect and his work has such a lyrical quality to it, so who cares? It's fun to read his poems aloud with a mock Scottish brogue. Plus his work is immensely quotable.

4. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) I love English Romantic poetry, and Wordsworth is my favorite. Of course, his work is pretty and flowery and vivid and all that English Romantic jazz, but his poems are well-constructed, so they're more than just fluff.

5. Elizabeth Browning (1806-1861): I adore sonnets. And I firmly believe that Browning wrote the loveliest sonnets since Shakespeare. Read her Sonnets from the Portuguese. If they aren't breath-takingly romantic, then I don't know what is.

6. Henry Longfellow (1807-1882): Oh, I adore Longfellow - his couplet narratives are so much fun to read aloud. Of course, his poems are American folk classics (The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, Evangeline) but my favorite is The Wreck of the Hesperus. Read it aloud on a dark, stormy night.

7. Edgar Alan Poe: Confession - If I had to choose a fave poet, it'd be Poe. He is the first poet whose work I loved and he still holds a special place in my heart. The Raven is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favorites. (When I am stressed out and tired from homework, this is what I read to myself), but his lesser known poems are even more haunting, especially Ulalume and Annabel Lee. Granted, Edgar had enough issues to keep a psychiatrist happy for life, but his work is simply amazing.

8. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): I love Dickinson's whimsical morbidity. Plus her crazy punctuation, original meter, and slant rhymes are a blast to read. Because I couldn't stop for Death is justly famous, but I also adore I heard a fly buzz.

9. Robert Frost (1874-1963): You've probably read this list and thought, "Zella, do you like any poets who aren't demented, neurotic, and/or obsessed with death?" To which I say, "You mean such poets exist?" OK, I wouldn't say that. I would point to Frost. He is the quintessential American poet. I adore his naturalistic style (which is saying something because I usually prefer the more wordy poets). My all-time favorite winter poem is Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Eve. However, as soothing as Frost's work can be, he can pack an intense, philosophical punch when he wants to.

10. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963): To fully appreciate this confessional poet, you have to know her background. Plath led a sad life, marred by mental illness and cut short by suicide, but she is a genius. I first read Daddy - quite frankly one of the most haunting and well-crafted poems I have ever read - and have been addicted to Plath ever since. She writes with such distinctive style and wry cynicism. If you forced me to choose favorites, Plath would give Poe a run for his money. But do read a little of her background before you read her poems. Otherwise, she may freak you out.

So there you have it. My favorite poets. Well, not all of them. I put up the main ones. The big cahunas, so to speak. Well, what poets do you guys like? Any favorites I missed?


Exciting Announcement: I finished my school semester today! Hurray, Hurray, Hurray! What does this have to do with my blog? Welll, instead of only posting once a week, I can now resume posting two to three times a week, as I did in the summer. I have a Read-A-Thon planned for myself over my winter break, with all sorts of amazing classics, contemporary, genre, and YA fiction planned. Let the reading begin! (At least until mid January.) I also will add those book links I promised back in September. I didn't forget!

Next Time (hopefully this weekend!): I am not sure. Maybe William Golding's The Inheritors. I adore Golding's Lord of the Flies, but I read that this novel was actually his favorite. I've read the first few chapters today and it is an interesting book. But I may do George Orwell's 1984 instead. (Rebecca, I didn't forget!) If not, 1984 will be next after Golding.

02 December 2009


I assume you've all heard that old saying about misfortune: "When it rains, it pours." I would think Prince Hamlet would know all about that phrase. Just two months after his beloved father's death, his father's brother, Claudius, has wedded Hamlet's mother and is now the reigning king of Denmark. As if that's not enough of a downer, Hamlet encounters a ghost who claims to be his father. The Ghost reveals that he did not a die a natural death - Hamlet's dad succumbed to murder. And the murderer is none other than Claudius. The Ghost orders Hamlet to avenge him, but Hamlet, ever the thinker, is not sure. Is The Ghost telling the truth? Is Claudius guilty? Leave it to crafty Hamlet to uncover this mystery.

How now, gentle readers! As the final installment in Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance Classics I bring you my favorite Shakespearean play: Hamlet! *trumpet flourish* One reason I love this play is because Hamlet blends a moving mix of action, tragedy, suspense, and humor all into one package. I always groan when I hear people describe Shakespeare as boring. I think what these people assume is that since Shakespeare's name is now synonymous with brilliant literature, his work must be boring. I think calling Hamlet boring is operating with a strange definition of boring. Ghosts, intrigue, poisonings (Yes, plural!) , insanity, and the most dysfunctional family this side of Days of Our Lives is boring? Hmm. I think what they fail to realize is that Shakespeare didn't set out to write masterpieces. He was an entertainer. He wrote what would sell! Although our Elizabethan forebears may have had questionable hygiene practices and worn weird, uncomfy shoes, I refuse to believe that the masses of Elizabethan England would've flocked to Shakespeare's plays if they were not entertaining. To think these plays are no longer entertaining because the actor says "Prithee" is being a bit narrow-minded.We still love a train wreck as much as we did then…and oh! what a train wreck this family and country is!

Although Shakespeare may have been an entertainer, I think it speaks volumes of his talent that his work is brilliant literature, even though it wasn't written with that intent. (Come on, how many people 400 years from now are going to look at our summer blockbusters and call them masterpieces? Mmm hmm. That's what I thought.) Yes, the language in Hamlet is beautiful, and this play is full of some of Shakespeare's most famous lines ("Something is rotten in Denmark," "The play's the thing," Fickle thy name is woman," and my personal favorite: "Methinks it is like a weasel.") But the real draw for me is the character Hamlet. This philosophizing, avenging Dane is one of the most fascinating, contradictory, and complex figures in all of literature. (And he is one of my favorite characters, hands down.) Hamlet is undoubtedly noble and brilliant, as his melancholy, philosophical soliloquies and shrewd plotting illustrate, but he also possesses a razor sharp wit, an inexhaustible supply of puns, and a dark sense of sarcasm. (I laugh every time I read his "Polonius is at supper" exchange with Claudius.) But as likable as Hamlet is, he is also capable of being irrational, impulsive, and, at times, downright cruel. Is he perfect? Far from it, but it's his combination of strengths and weaknesses that make him so appealing. Hamlet is one of my favorite characters because he is so human. Furthermore, how can you not feel sorry for the poor guy? His dad's dead, his uncle stole the throne, his mom married the nasty uncle, and now they're both accused of killing dear old Dad…by dad himself. I firmly believe poor Hamlet needs a hug.

I recently read a poll that said the most common issue readers have with Shakespeare is the complex, ornate Elizabethan English. I am not going to argue that Shakespeare's plays are easy to read. You do have to make an effort to read and comprehend the text. However, I am firmly convinced that this is more of a matter of how you go about reading the texts, rather than an issue with the plays themselves. I have posted a companion blog that gives some ideas on how to do this. Feel free to adapt it to your own purposes.
Don't dismiss Shakespeare's Hamlet as a dry, boring, waste of your time! That couldn't be the further from the truth! Hamlet is a masterfully crafted, psychologically intense drama with an unforgettable cast of characters.


Next Week: I am not sure. My finals are next week, so I can not guarantee that I will get anything read. If that's the case, I'll post a blog about my favorite poets or a list of the books I'd take if I were stranded on a deserted island (one must always be prepared). If I do get something read, it will probably be a classic British murder mystery by Dorothy Sayers or Ellis Peters. I miss my mysteries and I want something more light hearted after all of the deep, dark things I've been blogging about. I believe a witty, genteel murder mystery with minimal amounts of blood and ample amounts of entertainment is exactly what we need. Hopefully, next week, I'll meet you here over a (figurative) corpse. And to make up for extorting pie off of you last week, I'll make us tea, erm, of the non-poisoned variety. Oh, fine, I'll taste it first, but I assure you I am not trying to kill any of you. *hides arsenic behind back and grins innocently*

Shakespeare Is Not Trying To Drive You Insane

I still remember my first encounter with the Bard. I was a tender seventh grader staring down Othello. To be frank, I was expecting to be confused and bored out of my mind, but once I figured out what was going on, I fell in love with Shakespeare and became quite addicted to his dramatic plots, epic language, and remarkable characters.

However, I know that the biggest barrier with Shakespeare for many people is the language. And, as lovely as I think Shakespeare's work is, I'd be lying if I said reading Elizabethan English is easy. It isn't - on the first try. It's a mistake to try to bulldoze through Shakespeare's work. If you want to appreciate Shakespeare's work, you must understand it. And if you want to understand it, you're going to need to do more than just battle your way blindly through the play. I believe the best way to approach Hamlet (or any Shakespearean play) is the way Shakespeare's original audience did, a form of method reading, if you will.

Shakespeare's audiences were familiar with these stories before he ever wrote them (Yep. Shakespeare's ideas were all adaptations. He'd win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, not Best Original.) Therefore, before you try to dive into Shakespeare, you need to be familiar with the story behind Hamlet, or whichever play it is you're reading. I usually object to reading summaries before reading a book, but with Shakespeare it is essential. Read a good thorough summary of the plot and use a side-by-side modern translation (No Fear Shakespeare) as a supplement (but not as a substitute! Sorry, you really need to read both the original and the translation. Do not just read the modern version and skim the original text) to help you figure out what's going on.

In Shakespeare's time, people didn't ask if you wanted to see a play. They asked if you wanted to hear a play. And hearing Shakespeare's work performed is vital - you'll pick up nuances and intonations you can't pick up by reading. Once you know the story and characters, you need to either see or hear Shakespeare performed. If you're like me and live nowhere near a good theater (let alone Shakespeare repertory company), you're going to have to rely on films or audio recordings. I've heard the best Hamlet film is the Kenneth Branagh version. (Alas! I hath never lain mine eyes upon it, but I have watched the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions. Both are well-acted, but cut out essential subplots.) One thing though: if you watch a film adaptation, you're not going to do yourself much good if you watch one of the modern ones with modern dialogue. You want to hear the dialogue in its original; otherwise, you're defeating the purpose of watching the movie. (Don't get me wrong. I am not saying do not watch the modernized versions, just do not think that that will help you appreciate the dialogue. Besides, Hamlet is not Hamlet, to me, unless he's wearing tights and emoting, "Fie on 't," but that's just a personal opinion.)

A good alternative is listening to unabridged audio books of Hamlet and following along with the text. (I love the one performed by Frank Muller. He gives each character a distinct voice, especially the pompous windbag Polonius. I also couldn't believe how moving some of the scenes were and I wasn't even watching anything. I, ahem, got teary-eyed during Hamlet's first soliloquy) Whichever route you choose, the main thing is listening to Shakespearean dialogue performed by someone who knows what they're doing. You will not believe what a difference listening to a talented, well-trained actor delivering a properly intoned monologue is over listening to one of your classmates mumbling through (and utterly butchering) a monologue. In skilled hands, Shakespeare's dialogue (and that mysterious iambic pentameter) jumps off the page and comes to life, as Shakespeare intended.

Then after you know the story and have heard Shakespeare from capable hands, then (and only then) read the play. I think you'll find your experience much more enjoyable and much less frustrating. Good luck!

25 November 2009


Ever heard that Twisted Sister song "We're Not Gonna Take It"? I can't say it's one of my favorites (I loathe Twisted Sister's lead singer to the depths of my classic rock soul), but that would be a great, er, anthem for Anthem's main character, Equality 7-2521. Equality 7-2521 resides in a nameless communist utopia (which bears a striking resemblance to Soviet Russia, not too surprising seeing as author Ayn Rand fled communist Russia as a young woman.) Rejected by the authorities at the group home he is raised in for being too independent, Equality 7-2521 is deprived of fulfilling his dream of becoming a scholar. As punishment for his "selfishness", he is chosen to be a lowly street sweeper. Down but far from out, Equality 7-2521 discovers a secret hideaway from the earlier capitalist "Unmentionable Times". The clever teen then makes a discovery that will threaten all he holds dear…

A couple of months ago I was kvetching to Math is a Plentiful Harvest about my lack of time to read Ayn Rand's colossal classics (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged). Fortunately, Math is a Plentiful Harvest is an Ayn Rand devotee, and she suggested Rand's novella Anthem to me. (Thank you!) I get excited any time I get a book recommendation, but I got even more excited when Saya seconded Anthem as a book suggestion. Not one but two recommendations! I was also pleased because this book sort of tied in with Sashenka, my book from last week.
Anthem is a fascinating little book - it had me at the first sentence: "It is a sin to write this." If you know me, you know I am an exceptionally nosy person, and I had to find out what was up. Rand wrote Anthem as a protest against communism, and the result is a very compelling condemnation of Marxism. Rand's poignant, bleak story of one man's struggle for independence in the face of collectivism is quite powerful. However, I think the primary strength of this book lies in Equality 7-2521. He is such a sympathetic character. If you don't pity this poor kid (especially when he is still in the institution he is raised in and has his dream crushed), I question your level of compassion. His stark, almost lyrical first person narration is a big plus too. A unique twist Rand put on this book is that none of the characters, including Equality 7-2521 in his narration, refer to themselves as "I" or "me", instead they refer to themselves as "we". This took me a few pages to get used to, but it was an exceptionally effective way of rendering the dehumanization Rand saw as inherent in communism.

Now, I know some readers do not like reading novels with an underlying philosophy - they believe it distracts from their enjoyment of the plot and characters. Personally, as long as the book doesn't descend into a lecture, I am OK with a bit of philosophizing. This book stays with the story until the last chapter, which is Equality 7-2521's tirade against his socialist society. I didn't find it boring - I think that Ayn Rand had some fascinating beliefs, although I don't necessarily agree with her on everything. (Quick Refresher: Rand used her books to propound on her Objectivist philosophy. Namely, that the individual trumps the group. She didn't believe in unabashed selfishness, but she did believe that as long as one's actions were moral, self-interest should come first, not the needs of others.) I find her Objectivist beliefs, when applied to the person, harder to accept than when applied to government, but I can see how her experiences in Russia shaped her beliefs. I think if you read this with an open mind, you'll find a lot of thought-provoking material here, even if you may not entirely concede Rand's view.

Looking for a more meaty read than the usual? Try Anthem. This novel lays the groundwork for her better-known works and presents a powerful story, likable hero, and ultimately triumphant message in a compact 85 pages.

P.S. As I am sure all of you know, Thanksgiving is tomorrow. For starters, that means that I am posting this from the comfort of home on my own dainty little laptop and not fighting my savage classmates for a computer (I swear, our school library is like a scene from Lord of the Flies, just without the cool face paint.) *cough* Anyway, I would like to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving. I want all of you to eat until you EXPLODE! Wait! If you do that, you can't come back next week to talk about books with me. I don't want all of my readers to kill themselves with gluttony. So maybe just eat all you can hold. And pass me a piece of pumpkin pie while you're at it. Well, I was hoping for a bigger piece, but thank you. *sprints away with an abundance of pie*


Next Week: I should wrap up my Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance series with *drum roll* Hamlet! I am a huge Shakespeare fan, and Hamlet is probably my favorite Shakespearean play. I cannot wait to review it! Don't fear, if you're not fan of Billy, I will offer some tips that, even if they don't help you love Shakespeare, will help you understand and appreciate his work.

18 November 2009


Most teen girls prefer to spend their free time shopping. (Well, I don't - I hate shopping, but that‘s a story for another day). Not sixteen year old Sashenka Zeitlin. The daughter of a prominent and wealthy (but excruciatingly dysfunctional) Russian Jewish family, devout communist Sashenka spends her free time smuggling illegal weapons for the Bolsheviks and dreaming of the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. In the winter of 1916, Sashenka gets her chance to aid the Bolshevik cause in a dangerous game of double-dealing espionage that has consequences far more deadly than she'll ever realize. Fast forward almost twenty years later - Sashenka and her secret policeman husband Vanya are at the top of Soviet society, well-respected and well-to-do. Sashenka is about as far up as one can expect to get in Stalinist Russia. And then, against her better judgment, Sashenka becomes involved with an outspoken writer and, like so many of her fellow Bolsheviks who got on Stalin's bad side, she disappears into thin air. Fast forward about another fifty years when a young Russian historian is hired to piece together a genealogy and uncovers Sashenka’s fate in the process…

Let me put up a disclaimer before I launch into this review: I LOVE Russian History. In fact, it’s one of the periods I want to study as a history major. So when I saw a book advertised that mentioned the Russian Revolution and Stalinist purges, I get excited (not in an insane "I condone political radicalism" sort of way, but in an “OMG!I am a pathetic history buff” sort of way.) I first saw this book mentioned in a review a year ago and just now got my hands on it. Fortunately, after that wait, I was not disappointed! Sashenka is an amazing novel! The historical detail is just perfect. This book brings to life the chaos of the Revolution and the uncertainty of the Stalinist purges. (Author Simon Montefiore is a historian and his expertise is really what makes this book so enjoyable. The man certainly knows his Russian history.) As a result, If you also love Russian history, you will adore this book (and have a lot of fun playing “Recognize that Bolshevik!”) Don't panic if you're not a history buff. Unlike many historical novels, this book is historically accurate and still accessible, even if you can't tell Stalin from Trotsky (There is also a handy character list in the back if you get confused).

But what makes Sashenka enjoyable is that it is so well-written. I've read some historical novels that were very realistic but came off as badly-written 8th grade textbooks. Not Sashenka! Montefiore writes in an eloquent, sophisticated style that reminds me a lot of Gregory Maguire and Ron Rash. The characters are another plus. All of them seem so real. I was expecting it would be hard to sympathize with Sashenka, but I was wrong. I disagreed with her politics and her affair (I think I started yelling at her in my mind, “What are you doing?! Vanya loves you! How could you?!”) But I still found her likable, and I had to know what happened to her, even though I knew whatever it was would not be good. Montefiore handles the complex plot with skill. This book has epic proportions (500 pages!), so I was expecting it to drag in spots. Happily, I was wrong! I couldn't put this book down.

I did find a few plot twists in the third part that were a little too pat for my taste, but they weren't detrimental to the novel at all. I will warn you: this book does have some adult content and is a bit disturbing. The ending (where Sashenka's fate is finally revealed) will freak you out. I sat frozen in my chair with my mouth wide open. I believe I may also have started whimpering. You’ll also get an intro to Tsarist and Stalinist jails that you won’t soon forget. Great book, but don’t read it if you are squeamish. (This is my friendly public service announcement for the week.)

Sashenka is the perfect blend of historical accuracy, memorable characters, suspenseful plot, and exquisite style. If you love historical fiction, read this book! And even if you don't love historical fiction, give this book a read - it is masterfully crafted. I am now off to find Montefiore's non-fiction books...

Next Week: Probably Ayn Rand's Anthem. Or Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Leaning more toward the Rand novel, but we shall see. (And no I don't mean we in the royal sense. Or do I?)

11 November 2009

Dante's Inferno

Quick set of questions for my gentle readers (I assume you’re all fairly mild-mannered, but maybe I am wrong. Any members of Genghis's Golden Horde reading this?) - If you were to describe hell how would you do it? How would you structure hell? Who would you put in in? How would you punish them? If you’re Dante Alighieri, you’d give hell a crazy, intricate structure from off the top of your head and people it with tons of historical/mythological/

literary figures (and your own political opponents, of course!) and make an epic poem for the ages out of it.

Ah, Dante’s Inferno. Who wouldn’t find this plot fascinating: Sinful poet descends to hell and is given a personal tour by Virgil. Sound morbid? Well, The Inferno is morbid in spots, but that’s not the whole story. This poem is philosophical, grotesque, poignant, and even humorous, but never boring. What really sets this piece apart from other medieval poems is the first person narration - Dante makes himself the main character. The result is an intimate journey through the nine circles of hell, and it feels like you’re along for the ride. I really loved the personal encounters Dante had (which range from political adversaries to mythological beasts)- they’re alternately horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Dante’s rich characterizations make this poem's characters' seem so human. The Inferno is also amusing in a morbid, ironic way. The punishments are so fitting (I sincerely hope I am not the only person who has laughed at the punishment for the misers and spendthrifts in the Fourth Circle. Hehe It made me giggle in class), plus it’s fun to see where Dante puts someone. Achilles from The Iliad gets banished to the Second Circle. Hmm…I would have put him in the fifth circle for being sullen, but it’s Dante’s hell and Dante's rules. Don’t let any of this fool you though - The Inferno is also a serious reflection on sin, punishment, and redemption. My fellow poetry geeks take note as well: The structure of this poem is superb. Dante broke this down mathematically: 33 cantos (plus prologue), with 33 tercets (3 line stanzas) per canto, with 33 syllables per tercet. As a wannabe poet, I am impressed with how complex this poem's structure is (and I am feeling a bit inferior)!

The Inferno is a great read, but it is really complex, so I suggest using the Allan Mandlebaum translation. Mandlebaum’s poetry is suitably lyrical but not at all daunting. Plus, use an annotated version. This poem is full of allusions to historical, mythological, Biblical, literary, and contemporary characters (at least Dante’s contemporaries). You may not understand what’s going on if you don’t understand who he’s talking to.

So pack your bags, my friends! Dante’s Inferno is an epic poetic journey that descends to the icy depths of hell (Yep, it's icy down there) and manages to be beautiful, entertaining, and philosophical as well. Maybe Virgil will give us the VIP tour. We just won’t stay past lunchtime..if you don't mind.

Next Week: I am going to blog on Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka. This is an amazing contemporary historical novel about the Russian Revolution. I have waited for a year, A YEAR, to get my hands on this book. I was finally able to read it this weekend and can’t wait to share it!

04 November 2009

The Hunger Games

The North America of the future is not a world you would recognize…or a world you would want to live in, for that matter. Panem, as the continent is now called, is ruled by the ruthless Capitol. As punishment for a rebellion decades earlier, the other twelve districts of Panem are required to send a teen boy and girl to the yearly Hunger Games in which the kids are then required to fight each other to the death in a reality show that sounds like Survivor meets The Coliseum. The kids are selected by lots, so sixteen year old Katniss, who is solely responsible for keeping her mother and sister alive, is relieved when she is not selected. Her momentary relief turns to terror when her beloved sister is chosen to go to The Hunger Games. Desperate to spare her sister, Katniss volunteers. The other contestants may think that Katniss is at a disadvantage, coming from the most squalid district in Panem, but they have another thing coming…

Laura suggested this book to me last month, and I only now got my hands on it. (*glares at library wait list*) I absolutely loved this book! (Thanks again, Laura!) The Hunger Games is an incredibly original book. I've never read anything quite like it, but it reminded me of so many different books and themes: Lord of the Flies, Frank Peretti’s Veritas Project series, dystopian sci fi, the Minotaur myth, reality TV at its worst (is there such a thing as it at its best?), Soviet era Russia. This book’s primary strength is Katniss. She is just so likable and easy to sympathize with. She is no mamby-pamby Bella "Rescue me! I have a paper cut!" Swan, but she’s also not one of those obnoxious tough guy, er, girl characters that makes you want to vomit. The story is told in Katniss’ distinctive, ironic, witty voice, and the narration is also in the present tense, which greatly adds to the suspense. And suspenseful this plot certainly is! I started this book one Friday night when I had finished all of my homework. I figured I would get a headstart on my reading for the week. I didn’t stop until I finished it in the wee hours of Saturday morning – this book is that addictive.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: “Zella, brag on that book all you want. It sounds like a slasher movie!” I know it sounds that way, but I promise you, it isn’t. Yes, The Hunger Games is built upon a gruesome, disturbing premise, but the book itself is not gruesome, although it is a bit disturbing. Collins does a masterful job of conveying what is happening with out being unduly graphic. (It is a YA book, after all.) Besides, I think there is a huge difference between something that wallows in the dark recesses of the human mind to celebrate it and something that delves into the dark recesses of the human mind to make a serious statement about that side of human nature. The Hunger Games is definitely the latter. This book is actually very philosophical, without being ponderous. I really loved how this book subtly attacks reality TV. I hope I don't hurt any feelings, but I hate reality TV. I think it is the most unreal, disgusting thing on TV. I despise the way Survivor, Big Brother, and I am a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! condone despicable behavior in the name of entertainment. Yeah, pal, that is not entertainment, at least not in my book. The Hunger Games very effectively portrays reality TV, with its emphasis on ruthlessness and appearance, for what it really is – shallow.

I have learned that modern YA fiction falls into two categories: really good and really bad. Put The Hunger Games in the first category. It is well-written and absolutely impossible to put down. But be warned: This book is part of a series. The cliffhanger ending will both intrigue and anger you (in an "Arggh! I have to know the rest of the story!" sort of way), especially at 2am. If you read The Hunger Games, you will end up hunting down the second novel in the series, Catching Fire!

P.S. Thanks for all of the excellent recommendations! I am happy to know that all of my readers have such great taste in books! I am also going to blog on Ayn Rand's Anthem (suggested by Math is a Plentiful Harvest) and Something Wicked This Way Comes and 1984 (both suggested by Rebecca on her excellent blog Readers Anonymous.) Please send me more recommendations!


Next Week: Part Two of Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance Epics - Dante's Inferno. (I was planning to blog on another book, but I am reading three or four right now and can't make up my mind. I am a book glutton. I pile too much on my proverbial plate and then must consume everything on said plate. Not unlike my behavior at Chinese restaurants!)

28 October 2009


Many centuries ago, the Danes led a pleasant life, full of typical Viking activities (raiding villages, exploring the Atlantic, and wearing awesome, pointy, horned helmets). And they partied in true Dark Ages fashion with copious amounts of mead and Scandinavian folk ballads. Tis the life! And then, the Danes would snuggle into their cozy beds for the night in their mead hall. Their peaceful slumber only disturbed when the vile demon Grendel storms into their hall and GOBBLES THEM UP ALIVE! This is not right! One minute you are asleep, the next minute you’re being eaten by a gnarly demon. This can not be! Grendel must be stopped! Somebody help! Fortunately for the Danes (and Western literature), a hero does emerge from the icy Scandinavian fjords to teach this grubby creep a thing or two. And that would be none other than the fearsome Geat hero Beowulf! *cue triumphant hero music*

As I announced last week, I am kicking off my Zella Kate Presents series with that most awesome of Anglo Saxon epic poems - Beowulf. Forget Schwarzenegger and Stallone (in case you already haven't), Beowulf is the best action hero ever! Even though Beowulf is a poem, and you would think there isn’t much excitement to be had, Beowulf is full of great fights, cool monsters, nasty blood feuds, and ample treasure. It’s absolutely action packed! I was especially impressed that, although Beowulf is missing a few passages, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the text. Some of the ancient texts I've read in class have been really good, but the plots seemed stilted and forced. In large part, this is because some of the text has been lost and parts have been added and taken away for centuries, which has a tendency to weaken a text. But this was not a problem with Beowulf at all. The plot stayed consistent and the missing pieces are not vital to understanding the text. And even though you don't get the character development that you would with a traditional prose narrative, Beowulf, as a character, is easy to like. He is brave, chivalrous, and pretty clever, as his verbal smackdown with Urfurt proved. ("Take that, you sniveling Shieldling!") Beowulf's likeability is a big plus, and it helps make the ending especially poignant. If you like mythology and fantasy, take note! Beowulf has many of the elements associated with high fantasy and was a major influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. (Side note: If you're a fantasy fan and have never read Norse or Celtic mythology, get thee to a library! You will love these myths because this is largely where fantasy, especially high fantasy, draws much inspiration from.)

Almost everyone I’ve talked to (or eavesdropped on) who has read Beowulf told me the same thing: Great story but the Old English is just so….hard. I love Old English - it is a fascinating language, but it is hard to read. In fact, Old English is essentially a foreign language because it is far closer to modern German than modern English. If Beowulf has frightened you in the past due to the Old English, I suggest the Seamus Heaney translation. He preserves the formal, elegant, somewhat archaic tone you’d expect but without the complex original Old English. Heaney is a Nobel prize winning poet, and his version preserves Beowulf’s best attributes and makes it more accessible. His passages are so elegant and beautiful. He preserves the traditional alliteration, so it's also fun to read aloud! Only problem: Heaney is an Irish poet and he uses quite a few Irish words. Wouldn't be a problem, but I am nit picky and didn’t think it was appropriate to use Gaelic words in an Anglo Saxon text about Scandinavian Vikings. It’s a small issue though. I also suggest getting an annotated version, in case any of the cultural or historical aspects of the text stump you.

I know that the two words "epic poem"strikes more fear in your average person than the words "Nazi torture," but give Beowulf a chance! Beowulf is an epic adventure, an amazing poem, and a fascinating slice of Viking/Anglo Saxon culture. Don’t let the haters fool you – Beowulf is a great read!

Next Week: I am so excited! By blogging on Beowulf, I not only read a great classic and had an excuse to surf the internet whilst in search of great images related to awesome pointy, horned helmets, I was also able to read my book for next week. Yay! A few weeks ago, Laura suggested Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, due to a wait list, I only got my hands on the book last weekend. (O Wait List, thou art the bane of my reading existence. Thou art evil. Thou shalt be obliterated the day I take over the world and print enough copies of each book for everyone. *cough*) The Hunger Games is an excellent book, and I can’t wait to share it! I just have to write my review.

21 October 2009

Double Indemnity

Walter Huff is one of the best insurance men in L.A. He can see a scam from a mile away - there’s no fooling Huff. But then Walter gets involved with Phyllis, a woman who is trying to kill her husband to collect his insurance money. Against his better judgment, Walter agrees to help and relies on all of his knowledge of investigating suspicious deaths to craft the perfect murder. He thinks of everything – the crime scene, the evidence, the getaway, the alibis. The only thing he doesn’t factor in his malevolent equation is Phyllis. Faster than you can say “wrongful death”, Walter is drawn into a deadly game of deceit as his perfect murder starts to unravel.

I love good hardboiled crime fiction. It's so atmospheric and has the most fantastic plots and dialogue. But, alas, like most genre fiction, hardboiled mysteries have a bad name brought on by hack writers who have no business writing anything, let alone this genre. In the hands of a capable writer, hardboiled fiction is a privilege to read. In the hand of a bad writer, hardboiled fiction is mind-numbingly awful. Bad noir will kill your brain cells quicker than Al Capone had Bugsy Moran’s boys whacked at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Fortunately, my favorite hardboiled writer, James M. Cain, is a master of the genre and his masterpiece (in my opinion) Double Indemnity is hardboiled fiction at its best.

Double Indemnity is fun to read, in large part due to the plot. This novel is very fast paced and has as many of twists and turns as a rickety roller coaster. (Double Indemnity was originally published as a serial; therefore, the story if full of cliffhangers!) And since Double Indemnity weighs in at a lean, mean 100 pages, it’s easy to get wrapped up in this book and read it in one sitting. If you don’t like mysteries because you think they’re clichéd, try Double Indemnity. There is no standard investigation in this book. The question isn’t who the murderer is, it’s will the murderer get away with it. The novel's considerable suspense is also generated through Walter’s impeccably realistic first person narration. Walter is a fascinating narrator. In a way, you want to despise Walter and you never really like him, but you must know what happens to him. It’s been a while since I’ve read hardboiled fiction, and when I started this one I kept thinking, “Why is this so different from what I have been reading?” I finally figured it out: Cain relies almost solely on action and dialogue to advance his plot. There is very little descriptive narration. This also helps move the plot along quickly, but don’t think for a minute that Cain doesn’t create a very realistic setting for his story. Cain is well known for creating very detailed descriptions of the occupations of his characters. His detailed descriptions through dialogue are, dare I say it, the Mark of Cain. This book is no exception. He goes into considerable detail about the insurance industry, in regard to accident policies and investigations (almost entirely through dialogue) and it’s never once boring. My only qualm with Double Indemnity: The ending is excellent, but the final chapter is a bit murky. It’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on. Otherwise, this book is flawless.

James M. Cain is one of the greats in hardboiled fiction…and for good reason. Suspenseful, authentic, and atmospheric, Double Indemnity is a hard book to put down. If you love hardboiled fiction, you must read Double Indemnity. And if you’re not a big mystery/crime fiction fan, this book is still a great read precisely because it is so original. If you're going to read just one James M. Cain novel, make it Double Indemnity!

Next Week: I am going to start a series! OK, it’s not a real series like Lord of the Rings or Anne of Green Gables, but it is my series. It is entitled (for lack of time to think of something better and less bureaucratic sounding) Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance Epics. (Say it with your most hushed, reverent Masterpiece Theater voice. There you go! That’s the spirit!) I am taking World Lit 1 this semester, and so far I’ve enjoyed all of the selections we’ve read. Wellll, after this week, we are starting medieval literature and will be covering Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and Hamlet. I decided to blog about each of those (not in consecutive weeks though. I think I’ll rotate between them and my pleasure reads every week or every other week.) So next week, barring unforeseen circumstances, I will meet you here with a review of Beowulf. Just bring your own swords. That Grendel may be a handful.

14 October 2009

Life of Pi

I used to think that being stranded alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would be the worst possible situation to be stranded in. After reading Yann Martel’s fascinating, surreal novel Life of Pi, I stand corrected. Being stranded on a lifeboat with a 450 lb. Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is definitely the worst possible situation to be stranded in. And this is exactly what happens to Martel’s sixteen year old protagonist Pi Patel.

I love survival stories, but many of the more recent ones I’ve read have been so clichéd. (If I read another story about a band of egotistical teens that get stranded and learn the values of teamwork, I will scream.) Not so with Life of Pi. This is one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time. The plot is pretty outlandish (and at times a touch fantastical) but Martel always keeps it believable and interesting. (I didn’t want to put this book down!) I was really impressed with the skill Martel crafted his plot structure. He breaks the story down into three very different parts and alternates between settings and narrators. Many books I’ve read like this suffer from uneven pacing. (Yes, books suffer from this medical condition. Sadly, there is no cure.) I didn’t have this problem with this novel at all. The first section is a bittersweet, coming-of-age tale that only hints at what is to come. The second part is the meat of the story – Pi’s harrowing, psychological battle of wills with Richard Parker (the aforementioned Bengal tiger) which is intense, weirdly funny, and quite frightening. The third section is a short, sarcastic interview with Pi that calls into question the entire story of his ordeal on the Pacific. Martel weaves back and forth between these disparate elements of the story effortlessly, and each part more than stands on its own. Furthermore, this is one of the best written books I’ve read in a while. Martel infuses his scenes with so much humor, insight, and emotion. His descriptive scenes are wonderfully evocative and his narration often delves into philosophical territory about faith, fear, and survival, without ever being ponderous or cumbersome. This book is an emotional rollercoaster that has you laughing one minute and cringing in terror the next. (I don’t consider myself unduly squeamish, but there is one scene in here involving a hyena and a zebra that literally made me sick to my stomach. It takes an exceptional writer to produce that kind of an emotional response in a reader!)

As impressive as this book is, I think that Pi Patel stands out as Martel’s greatest achievement in this novel. Pi is intelligent, courageous, and sensitive – he always has your sympathy. I must admit: When I first read the plot description on the back cover, which explained that Pi was a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, I was a bit skeptical. I love to study religions myself, but I thought that sounded gimmicky. After reading the book, however, I realized that Pi’s novel religious beliefs fit him perfectly. One of the scenes that I ended up sympathizing with him the most was actually the one in which his parents and religious mentors desperately try to convince him that his unorthodox beliefs are impossible to reconcile. Many critics compared Pi to the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Pi reminded me more of Elie Wiesel in Night. I know that’s a strange comparison – Pi is an Indian castaway from the 1970s and Wiesel is a Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor (and of course, Pi and Wiesel’s religious responses are polar opposites). But Pi’s maturity, wit, and wisdom (not to mention his distinctive, polished, conversational narration) reminded me a lot of Wiesel in Night.

Life of Pi is definitely one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. Masterfully written, deeply thought provoking, and absolutely captivating, this book has become a modern day classic for a reason. You won’t soon forget Life of Pi.

P.S. Tis the season for Halloween this month, as I am sure that all of you know. I don't celebrate Halloween, but I enjoy being scared senseless and I was going to try to find something suitably spooky for you guys to read. However, I was perusing the Internet yesterday and found a great Halloween reading list on Shmoop that saved me the trouble. (What, you've never heard of Shmoop? *gasp* This is something I shall remedy! Shmoop is a website that features literature and history study guides. Their study guides are amazing [and hilarious.] Shmoop is a fairly new website, but they're adding new features constantly. I highly recommend them.) Shmoop's list features a wonderful assortment of classic horror novels (and poems!) which I either already love (Dracula, Frankenstein, anything by Poe), have been meaning to read and now really want to read (The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Turning of the Screw) or have never heard of and must read pronto (Browning's "Porphyria's Lover." You'll see why when you read the description.) So check out this great recommendation list and be afraid. Be very afraid.


Next Week: So far, I’ve been able to spare you guys one of my multiple choice teasers. Well, not this week. I have no idea what I am reviewing next week. I do know it will be either something by James M. Cain or John Le Carre or Lynne Truss's With One More Lousy Free Packet of Seed. I apologize for being so vague, but there is method to my madness. I anticipate that I am going to be attacked with a cruel and unusual amount of homework in the coming weeks, so I am trying to read some shorter novels (and review some of the books I’m reading in World Lit.), so that I can have things to post on and indulge in longer books (Discworld!) during my period of torture, I mean, studies. That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how my strategy works out.