31 July 2009

The Trial

Could you imagine spending the rest of your life trying to prove yourself innocent of a crime that you didn't commit? Could you imagine trying to prove yourself innocent when you're not even sure what you've been charged with? This nightmare, besides sounding like a Doomsday version of the US court system, is the premise of Franz Kafka's The Trial.

I'd read Kafka's short stories (and absolutely loved them) before reading this novel. I love Kafka's style. His writing is meticulous and formal, but always engaging. Kafka, who was a lawyer by profession, excelled at writing "legalese" - official-sounding double-speak. Kafka's unique style and his skill in writing droning bureaucratic dialogue certainly adds to the realism of The Trial. This novel is very tense and almost suffocating, which is funny because the pacing is actually rather slow. That being said, the book's tension isn't based on high-speed action; the plot is fueled more by psychological suspense. Kafka creates a very atmospheric tale of suspense and confusion.

As much as I enjoy Kafka's style and atmosphere, I didn't like Joseph K. - the main character who tries to fight the mysterious Court that has charged him with an unknown crime. Conceited and petulant, Joseph is not easy to sympathize with. Kafka, however, is a talented enough writer that I still had to find out what happened to Joseph, whether or not I liked him.

I'm not going to deny it - The Trial is a bizarre book. This novel will certainly not appeal to everyone's taste. Don't expect this book to be a jaunty thrill-ride about a charming but roguish hero out to clear his good name. Expect a complex, murky riddle about a complex, and somewhat, murky protagonist out to clear his name, and you'll be in a better frame of mind to enjoy this book. The Trial is a fascinating literary non-sequitur; this depiction of an insane bureaucracy run amok is far more disturbing than more simplistic stories about a quest for justice.

28 July 2009


I love Jane Austen's novels. I'm not too picky about writers: I love writers who tell great stories (even if their writing style doesn't raise pulses); I love writers who create amazing characters (even if their plots are a touch dull); I love writers who have distinctive styles (even if nothing happens in their books); I love writers who can transport me to another time and place (even if their plots and characters a bit predictable). What I love about Jane Austen is she is capable of doing all of the above. Her novels all tell great stories, feature amazing characters, display her distinctive style, and transport me to Regency-era England. Her final complete novel, Persuasion, is no exception.

Anne Elliot still rues the day she refused to marry the dashing Captain Wentworth. Her wealthy family deemed him "not good enough" for an Elliot. Eight years later, the Elliots are on the decline, Wentworth is a wealthy man, and Anne is still single, convinced that no man but Wentworth would satisfy her. But Wentworth has neither forgotten nor forgiven Anne. He's set his sights on her one of her sister's husband's sisters, and he barely even acknowledges Anne. Will Anne be able to win back Captain Wentworth? Will her family finally stop snubbing Wentworth? Will Wentworth see that Anne is far superior to that dreadful Louisa?

With Jane Austen novels, one always knows the books will end happily. The suspense and appeal comes from finding out how Austen's characters overcome the often insurmountable obstacles to their happiness. Persuasion features Austen's knack for weaving tangled webs for her characters. This novel also fully displays Austen's signature elegant, witty style, and her knack for lushly describing the social mores and manners of her day and time. One reason I enjoyed this book, though, is that Austen broke with her traditional stories in this one. Instead of describing the wooing of a teen-aged heiress to a man who is of greater or equal social position, Persuasion tells of the second romance between the nearly thirty year old Anne and a man who is most certainly her social inferior.

If you're a Jane Austen fan, you'll love how Jane tweaks with her own formula, but still manages to be, well, Jane Austen. If you're not a Jane Austen fan (is there such a thing?), try Persuasion. It's less typical than her other works, so you may enjoy it.

26 July 2009


Elie Wiesel's Night is one of the most famous holocaust books (second only to Anne Frank's diary.) In his book, Wiesel describes his experiences as a teen at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; Wiesel emerged from these death camps as the sole survivor of his Romanian-Jewish family.

I have mixed feelings about Holocaust literature. On one hand, as a history major who also enjoys psychology, I find the historical and psychological aspects of the Holocaust interesting. On the other hand, as a human being (and someone who is half-Jewish), I find the details of this slaughter absolutely appalling.

Night is one of the most powerful books I've ever read. As a history buff who has long been fascinated with World War II, I didn't find many of the details surprising (although certain instances that Wiesel wrote about did shock me), I did find Wiesel's book to be extremely poignant and accessible. What really made Night a great book to me was Wiesel's conversational and elegantly simple style. Wiesel's book reads almost as if Wiesel is telling you his story face-to-face. He has an almost instinctive knack for explaining what happened so that you understand what occured and sympathize with Wiesel's rage and sorrow, but without drowning you in horrifying details. Wiesel's ironic interjections add a much needed jolt of humanity and reason into the midst of the insanity that he describes.

This is one of the most disturbing and moving memoirs that I've ever read. If you're unfamiliar with the Holocaust, Wiesel's story is a very human introduction to one of the worst atrocities in human history. If you are a history buff, you'll find Night a far more intense and readable description of life in the death camps than any historian is capable of writing. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

24 July 2009

My Cousin Rachel

Young English gentleman Philip Ashley despises his cousin and guardian Ambrose's bride, Rachel. Although he's never met her, Philip blames the foreign Rachel for his cousin's sudden death in Italy. He vows to make her pay. But upon meeting her, Philip becomes infatuated with the charming Rachel. Or is she so charming?

I'm a big Daphne Du Maurier fan - her novel Rebecca is one of my all-time favorite books - so when I saw My Cousin Rachel at my local library, I happily checked it out. I really love Du Maurier's style, and she doesn't disappoint in this novel. Her first person narration is excellent: It's elegant, amusing, and realistic. Her reputation as a suspense writer is justly deserved. She has a true knack for creating tension and mystery. Du Maurier's engaging style and plot makes My Cousin Rachel a fun read, especially for summer.

I did, however, become a little exasperated with Philip, but his stubborn, impulsive nature was established early on. Although some of his actions are dense, these decisions do seem natural for him. I also found the pacing a little uneven. This novel starts out really well, then lags some in the middle, before racing on to an excellent ending. It's easy to forgive the pacing flaws though: Du Maurier's writing, even when nothing is happening, is enjoyable to read.

Character and pacing issues aside, I really enjoyed My Cousin Rachel. I once read that Du Maurier considered her novels studies of jealousy above anything else. I agree. She excels at portraying the insidious influence of envy. For a fun, suspenseful read, try My Cousin Rachel.

23 July 2009

The Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne is a Puritan woman who has an illegitimate child while her husband (who is assumed dead) is nowhere to be found. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of the child's father and is condemned to wear a large scarlet A (for adultery) for the rest of her life. Her ultra-creepy husband, Roger Chillingsworth, soon arrives from Europe and is furious. He tells Hester to tell no one that he is her husband and then attempts to learn the identity of her lover. Roger is determined to torment this man once he finds him. He soon befriends the fragile minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is nursing a secret shame. Scandalous Puritans!

When I picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, I knew the plot basics but little else. I must confess that I had mixed feelings about this book before I read it. On one hand, I was expecting lots of mushy romance, of which I'm not a big fan. On the other hand, I was also expecting a lot of shame and misery, which, sad to say, I kind of enjoy in literature. By the time I finished reading this novel, I realized that there was lots of the agony I expected but not really any of the tender sentiments I've come to expect in tales of forbidden love. However, this book is more than just pious Pilgrims writhing in an internal hell. The Scarlet Letter is a very intense psychological novel that I found quite compelling.

I especially enjoyed the way Hawthorne contrasted his three main characters. Hester, suffering from public shame, comes to accept her fate and is ultimately better for it. Arthur, tormented with secret guilt, is nearly driven insane due to his personal conflicts. Roger, consumed with bitter revenge, succumbs to evil. I enjoyed following these characters' changes, even though I found the spineless Arthur a difficult character to sympathize with. I thought Roger was a very creepy villain. I'll put it this way: If holding grudges were a team sport, Roger would be my first round pick. The Scarlet Letter is also well-paced. The opening scene of Hester's public shaming grabbed my attention and many of the confrontation scenes scenes (especially the final one) were very dramatic. Hawthorne's style was another big plus for me. Although he's obviously a 19th century writer, his narration is not daunting like so many other authors from this time period. You doesn't have to be an English major to follow the story.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, classics, or intense psychological novels. And anyone who has ever been humiliated in public, nursed a shameful secret, or been obsessed with getting even will relate to these characters (even if you do dislike them.)

21 July 2009


If you were to take a random poll asking people what comes to mind when they think of "Frankenstein", they'll probably tell you that they envision a green monster with bolts in his neck moaning like a zombie while a crazy-haired scientist shrieks, "It's alive!" and a hunchback named Igor looks on. This is a great summary of most Frankenstein movies. Fortunately, Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein has none of these elements and is all the better for it.

The basic plot of Frankenstein will be familiar to most people, even if they're unaware that there is a book about Frankenstein. A brilliant doctor (named Frankenstein) creates a hideously ugly creature. The creature then begins terrorizing the good doctor and creates a tremendous amount of mayhem and horror in the process. What sets Frankenstein the book heads and shoulders above Frankenstein movies is the portrayal of the creature. Instead of a dumb, lumbering brute, the creature is an extremely intelligent, articulate, inquisitive, kind, and sensitive being who appreciates nature and literature. His better qualities make him an even more frightening villain once his anger at Dr. Frankenstein (for creating and then abandoning him) is unleashed. Victor Frankenstein also emerges as a more complex and flawed character. Intelligent and basically decent, he eventually realizes his error in creating the monster. Initially, I greatly sympathized with the creature, but as he wrecked his vengeance on the doctor, I began to feel for Victor. Although flawed, the doctor is not unlikeable. These two complex characters are what made this book a great read for me. By painting each one as more gray than black or white, Shelley makes her story seem much more real and, consequently, terrifying. Shelley's classic horror story is also a powerful meditation on revenge, obsession, and responsibility. This book is far more philosophical than it gets credit for being, yet this in no way makes Frankenstein a struggle to read.

The book has its share of flaws, but these problems do not negatively impact the book. The supporting characters, compared to Frankenstein and the creature, are not fleshed out well. Then again, they really don't need to be. These characters serve to illuminate Frankenstein and the creature's good and bad sides, so they don't really need to be as deep and interesting. Furthermore, all of these characters are present in reminiscences of the doctor and the creature, so it makes sense that they'd be recalled with a bias, for good or bad. The only other issue I had with this book was the structure. Because it is told entirely through reminiscence, the action occasionally lags a little. This is most obvious in the first few chapters. However, once Frankenstein creates the monster, the pace picks up and the book becomes quite engrossing.

Overall, I really enjoyed Frankenstein. The book's philosophical weight both surprised and delighted me. I also found the story quite entertaining. This story definitely benefits from the complex characters that Shelley created. This book, by being complex, is more terrifying and intriguing than the watered down versions presented on film.

19 July 2009

My Ten Favorite Agatha Christie Novels

You may have noticed that I listed Agatha as one of my favorite writers. I love her books! Some readers may knock her books for being convoluted and somewhat inaccurate in their portrayal of police investigations, but these readers are missing Christie's intent. Her mysteries were intended to be fun, brainteasing puzzles, and, at this, they fully succeed. I decided to write my first article on my favorite Agatha Christie novels. I haven't read all of her books (yet!), so I may update this post regularly.

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: This novel's surprise ending is deemed one of the best in mystery writing history. I read it knowing that there is a twist ending and still couldn't solve the case until I reached the end. There's more than just the surprise ending to keep you interested though. Christie was a master of creating delightfully eccentric characters, and she does not fail in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (Miss Marple fans will note the similarities between the venerable spinster detective and the character Caroline Sheppard. Christie wrote in her autobiography that Miss Marple was inspired by Sheppard.) But the real draw here is the surprise ending. When I finished, it confirmed my belief that Agatha is a diabolical genius!

2. And Then There Were None: This was the first Christie I ever read, and it remains a favorite of mine. The premise (Ten strangers are brought to a remote island. These ten strangers are all accused of committing foul murders by a mysterious voice. The ten strangers then start to die, one by one.) would be ridiculous in the hands of a lesser writer, but Christie pulls this one off beautifully. The characters are all very well-written and the suspense is almost overwhelming. I couldn't put it down!

3. Murder At The Vicarage: The first novel to feature Miss Marple is easily one of the best in that series. The mystery in this one is good, but what really made this enjoyable for me is Christie's witty style. Vicar Leonard Clement's narration is hilarious and a solid cast of delightfully eccentric characters adds to the fun. I laughed all the way through this one.

4. Sad Cypress: I've always felt that Christie is at her best when she's writing mysteries in a domestic setting: Sad Cypress is definite proof. The mystery is a real puzzler, but I was really taken in by the three main characters in this haunting novel: Elinor (who is in love with Roddy), Roddy (who dumps Elinor for Mary), and Mary (who ends up murdered.) And if you don't want to kill Roddy by the end, you're a saint.

5. Sleeping Murder: This was the last book Christie wrote, and it's one of her best. The plot is intriguing: A woman moves to England and buys a home she's never seen. She then begins to suspect that she's living in the same house that she witnessed a murder in as a toddler. The mystery is a fine one, and the main characters, Gwenda and Giles, are quite likable.

6. Death On The Nile: The plot is as old as man: Boy meets girl. Girl loses boy to her best friend. Jilted girl begins jealously stalking boy and her now ex-friend. Someone ends up murdered. This is one of Christie's best mysteries - she keeps you guessing to the very end. The ending, although not as shocking as Roger Ackroyd's, will stun you.

7. Crooked House: This was one of Christie's favorites, for good reason. Crooked House is one of Christie's stand-alone mysteries, and I think it benefits from not featuring Poirot or Miss Marple. The narrator Charles tries to uncover who murdered his girlfriend Sophia's grandfather. Zany characters, a great mystery, and a surprising villain are in store for Charles and the reader.

8. The Body In The Library: A young woman is found dead in a stately home. Nobody knows who she was. Leave it to Miss Marple to unravel the mystery. This mystery is very amusing and cleverly written. This novel also stands out to me for having one of the more callous crimes featured in a Christie book.

9. Ordeal By Innocence: Another excellent Christie standalone novel, Ordeal By Innocence centers on solving the crime after the accused died in prison. A man arrives at the home of Jackie Argyle and claims that Jackie could not of killed his adopted mother, Rachel, because he was with him that night. Instead of being relieved that Jackie is innocent or angry at the stranger for not coming forward sooner, the Argyles are angry that the man would accuse anyone but Jackie. Why? Oh, what a twisted web Christie can weave!

10. The ABC Murders: A serial killer is on the lose, murdering victims with sadistic alphabetic glee (Alice Ascher at Andover, Betty Barnard at Bexhill, Carmichael Clarke at Churston) and taunting Poirot to find him before he strikes again. This crafty killer almost, but not quite, tops the formidable Belgian detective. The ABC Murders is genuinely suspenseful and clever.