26 August 2009

In Cold Blood

I have a criminal confession to make: I love true crime books. Always have. I still remember the scene of my first crime, er, true crime story : I was six years old and sitting on the top step of my great-grandma’s back porch. The perpetrator in question was a Reader’s Digest article about Waneta Hoyt, the NY State housewife who murdered all five of her children one-by-one, because she couldn’t stand to hear them cry. I was really intrigued and profoundly disturbed by that article, and I’ve loved true crime ever since. In fact, my love of true crime stories led me to seriously consider becoming an attorney or psychologist. (This was before I came to my senses and realized that history and literature are my true passions.) I still love reading a good true crime book, though, and I recently decided to read the granddaddy of all true crime stories: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

This book proves that old adage: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I don’t think Capote could’ve conjured up a more warped story if he would’ve tried. In the early morning of 15 November 1959, prominent, well-to-do farmer, Herbert Clutter; his wife, Bonnie; and their two teen aged children were brutally murdered in their rural Holcomb, Kansas home. Two months later, police arrested a disturbed, neurotic, crippled aspirin addict named Perry Smith and his former cellmate from the Kansas state penitentiary – smooth-talking, manipulative, psychopathic con-man Richard Hickock – as the murderers. In his book, Capote meticulously records the incidents leading up to the murder, the crime itself, Smith and Hickock’s bizarre time on the lam, the police investigation of the Clutter murder, the arrest, the suspects’ trial, and Smith and Hickock’s execution five years after the fact.

In Cold Blood is one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read – I couldn’t put this book down once I started it. The first section, where Capote alternates between describing the assailants’ preparation for the murder and the Clutters’ last day alive, is one of the most suspenseful things I’ve ever read. The murder itself is an interesting one, but what really sets this book head and shoulders above other true crime is Capote’s meticulous research and fine writing. Capote interviewed everyone connected to the crime (from the police investigators to the Clutters’ neighbors to the murderers themselves) and read all of the documents connected to the case while working on In Cold Blood, and his hard work paid off. He really captures the atmosphere of these events, and he also manages to get inside Smith and Hickock’s heads. (As despicable as these two were, I can’t say I envy Capote’s task, but the result is quite interesting, especially when these two losers begin to turn on each other) Capote also pioneered a new writing technique with In Cold Blood. Capote called this book a Nonfiction Novel. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from that when I first started reading; I feared that this book would feature random moments where the author ad libbed whatever he thought sounded best. I was wrong - thankfully! In his Nonfiction Novel, Capote combined the eloquent, lyrical style, descriptive narration, and realistic dialogue that a novelist would use, except in the case of In Cold Blood, everything is factual and told with the objective tone of a journalist. This book is very well-written, and I think that’s what makes it so good.

I won’t say I enjoyed reading this book: it’s a very morbid topic, and the Clutter murder was a horrific, senseless, unjustifiable crime, but In Cold Blood is a fascinating read. This book is, hands-down, the absolute best true crime story I’ve ever read. In Cold Blood is a must-read for true crime aficionados, but anyone looking for a well-written book will relish Capote’s style and innovative approach.

19 August 2009

The Crucible

The Salem Witch Trials remain one of the most infamous trials in American history. In this notorious legal proceeding, twenty people were executed as suspected witches and one hundred and fifty others were jailed on similar charges due to the testimony of several girls who claimed to have been bewitched. The exact cause of these allegations remains unknown to this day. Was witchcraft really being practiced among the staunch Puritans of Colonial Massachusetts? Or was something else afoot in Salem? Playwright Arthur Miller attributes the Salem Witch Trials to the all-too-human sources of fear, greed, jealousy, coercion, and resentment in his classic drama The Crucible.

I enjoyed The Crucible; although, I must admit, that, like most of Miller’s work, this play does not make for cheerful reading. What really impressed me was Miller’s use of dialogue. I’d read Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the dialogue in that play is very typical of 1940s New York, where the story is set. I was curious to see how Miller handled the more formal, archaic speech of the Puritans in The Crucible. He did a great job – his characters sound genuine. Miller has a real gift for using dialogue to reveal his characters’ true personalities. Many plays I’ve read seem stilted or artificial because the dialogue just doesn’t ring true. (This is a pet peeve of mine.) Miller knows how to convey his characters’ motivation while remaining realistic and unforced. I was surprised, though, by the way Miller presented his characters. I expected them to be either very sympathetic or really despicable. On the contrary, most of the characters – even those being unfairly condemned – aren’t that likeable. Miller, rather than casting everyone has a definite hero or villain, makes these people far more complex and interesting by writing them with more ambiguity. (That being said, I really did like the old guy who, while being pressed to death to force a confession of guilt or a plea of innocence, obstinately shouts, “More weight!” I love a good act of justifiable defiance. However, if you don’t want to reach into your imagination and throttle Abigail after reading this, you possess far more self-control than I.)

The only problem I had with The Crucible was some of the stage directions in Act One. A few times, Miller breaks off from the dialogue and action to describe (almost as in narration) the background and temperament of certain main characters and draw parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare that dominated the Cold War. I, quite frankly, didn’t see the point in this. I know from reading this play (and Death of a Salesman) that Miller is a talented-enough dramatist to convey this information about his characters through dialogue. I also thought the insertion on the Cold War, though interesting, was forced. It interrupted the flow of the action to me. (Of course, I’ve never seen The Crucible performed on stage as it is intended to be seen. These stage directions may form a crucial part of the play, so I’ll withhold too much judgment on this point.)

Overall, I thought The Crucible was a powerful reflection on honor and honesty. This play, despite its 17th century setting, is easy to read and relate to.

P.S. I have an announcement! It’s not very epic, but I’m starting school today. That means that I’m probably not going to be able to post three times a week as I have been doing. I am going to try to post at least once a week though. I’m thinking it will be on Wednesdays, but I haven’t decided yet. I can’t guarantee that I’ll post every week, but I do have some reviews already prepared, so if I don’t have time to read (Perish the thought!) or type up a review, I still should be able to post something. That’s the plan anyway. Also, since I find it difficult to read really deep, heavy books when I’m in school, I’ll probably start covering more escapist fare…mysteries, horror, fantasy. I’m also planning on reading and reviewing some books that have been released in the past year or two – rather than just the last millennium! I will still be posting on classic novels; I’m just trying to inject more variety into zellakate and save myself from going insane this semester. Finally, Rose, Scott, and Hannah, I want to thank all of you for following my blog and taking the time to read my book-induced ramblings. Before y’all came along, I was basically talking to myself in cyberspace (and I do that enough as is). I appreciate all of you!

P.S.S. I was going to participate in the Kreativ awards, where you name seven interesting things about yourself and nominate seven bloggers for being Kreativ. I didn’t have time though. (Plus, the things I was going to list about myself are just silly - like my fear of frogs.) I did still want to give out some blogging awards though, so here are my nominees for the Zella Kate Amazingly Awesome Awards for being, well, amazing and awesome:
Ergo Humor: Scott gets this, not because he nominated me, but because his blog always makes me laugh so hard that my family gets worried about me.
Shadowland: Rose deserves this for writing some of the most hauntingly beautiful poetry I’ve ever read and uploading amazing images with each of her posts.
I also want to give Hannah a Zella Kate Amazingly Awesome Award for following my blog. (I haven't had a chance to directly thank you, and I wanted to tell you that I do appreciate your support!)

16 August 2009

The Count of Monte Cristo

Sailor Edmond Dantès has it all. He has just been named captain of the Pharaon, he is going to marry the love of his life, Mercédès, and he is beloved by everyone who knows him. Then Edmond is denounced as a Bonapartist agent. In 1815 France, this is a serious charge of treason, but it is not true. Edmond is no servant of Napoleon. Someone has falsely accused him, but who? Nevertheless, Edmond is imprisoned in the notorious Château D’If in solitary confinement. After a daring escape from prison, Edmond assumes the identity of the mysterious and fantastically wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond is determined to make those responsible for his suffering pay. But will Edmond take his quest for vengeance too far?

The Count of Monte Cristo is arguably one of the world's best-known revenge tales, for good reason. Edmond’s elaborate plan for revenge is entertaining and satisfying. There’s just something reassuring about a good revenge story – it’s so nice to see the really bad guys get their justly-deserved comeuppance. Edmond Dantès is also one of my favorite characters in literature - it’s very easy to sympathize with him. The poor guy goes through a lot of pain and misery, but he still retains his ethics and code of honor. I also really enjoyed following his transformation from simple, humble Edmond Dantès to the dashing, manipulative Count of Monte Cristo. As the Count, Dantès is clever and witty – a formidable opponent for those whom he is paying back. Author Alexandre Dumas’s writing style, though melodramatic at times, is also easy to follow. Although this was written in 1844-1845, The Count of Monte Cristo is not a hard book to read.

As much as I enjoyed this story, I did have a few issues with it. My biggest problem: This book is a mammoth! The version I read was 1,462 pages long. I don’t mind long books, but I thought this caused The Count of Monte Cristo to have very uneven pacing. The opening part (which details Edmond’s arrest, imprisonment, and escape) was very good and held my interest, as did the chapters that record Edmond’s extensive game of cat-and-mouse with his enemies. But this book has a lot of subplots, and I found these distracting. (For example, after Edmond’s escape, the story abruptly switches to a young French noble named Franz and his adventures in Italy, and while Edmond’s wreaking havoc on the minds of his enemies, there is a lot of attention given to the secret love affair of one of his friends with one of his enemies’ daughters.) These side stories do eventually tie back into the revenge part of the story, but I thought the parts with Edmond were the most powerful. Whenever the story veered away from Edmond, I became a little exasperated because he was the character I found the most interesting. In all fairness to Dumas, he does make most of these other scenes interesting, so it’s not really painful to have to read them – it just irked me somewhat.

Despite my problem with the pacing, I thought The Count of Monte Cristo was an enjoyable read. The story is exciting and engrossing (particularly Edmond’s ingenious escape from prison), and Edmond Dantès is a character who is well-worth getting acquainted with. Don’t let the length of this novel intimidate you. The Count of Monte Cristo is a grand epic that is well worth your time.

12 August 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird

Spunky, uncouth eight year old Jean Louisa “Scout” Finch spends her days in Depression-era Alabama playing and quarreling with her older brother, “Jem;” admiring her attorney father, Atticus; and longing to come face-to-face with her small town’s local character, Boo Radley (who has acquired an almost mythological status because he hasn’t been seen in years.) Her relatively carefree life comes to a crashing halt when Atticus is chosen to defend Tom Robinson, an African American accused of rape. Suddenly, Scout’s kind, wise father becomes the target of spite, and Scout and Jem (deemed guilty by association) also begin to suffer the social consequences.

To Kill a Mockingbird really impressed me. Author Harper Lee skillfully delves into dark territory but still manages to be entertaining. Lee vividly recreates small town Southern life in the 1930s. As a Southerner who has spent most of her life in small towns, I must say: Lee perfectly captures the quirks and personality of the South and the familiarity and gossip that dominate small town life. The dialogue is perfect too. I hate when authors overdo Southern accents, especially by using atrocious grammar and haphazardly inserting “y’all.” Lee’s characters don’t sound like caricatures – they sound like authentic Southerners. All three of the main characters are also immensely likeable: Scout is fiery and ornery; Jem is philosophical and courageous; and Atticus is the epitome of the noble, wise Southern gentleman. Jem and Scout have one of the most realistic brother-sister relationships in all of fiction - they fight and bicker constantly but still look out for each other.

In addition to featuring some of literature’s most memorable characters, To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent story. The scenes where Jem and Scout desperately try to get a glimpse of Boo are genuinely entertaining. This book also has its fair amount of suspense. The courtroom scene is gripping but not at all melodramatic, and two of the more tense confrontations (one outside the jail; the other in the finale) had me on the edge of my seat. Another thing I liked: Lee manages to seamlessly combine the social justice aspects of her novel with entertainment. Many novels I’ve read that dealt with social justice issues mean well, but they often descend into a lecture that, even if true, isn’t fun to read. That’s not so with this book. Lee balances out the serious and humorous elements of her story masterfully.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an entertaining coming-of-age story, a compelling plea for social justice, and a witty portrait of the 1930s Deep South. This book is popular with kids, but don't let that convince you that this is a juvenile book. It isn't. To Kill a Mockingbird offers a little bit of something for everyone.

09 August 2009

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Illustrated Edition)

Hold the press! There’s been a last minute change here at zellakate. I was going to post my review of To Kill a Mockingbird today. However, circumstances have intervened. I used to believe that there was no better book on Planet Earth than Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I’ve spent all summer badgering family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and complete strangers, pleading with them to read this book. But I was sadly mistaken. Yesterday I was introduced to a book that supplanted Eats, Shoots and Leaves for my undying affection: the illustrated edition of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

And exactly what is the topic of this book that is so near and dear to me? Punctuation. Yes, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is an entire book on punctuation (with cute, armed pandas on the cover no less.) This is hardly a fitting description for one of my all-time favorite books though. In this book, British journalist Truss manages to explain all of the basic rules of punctuation, vent about the public’s apathy toward proper punctuation, provide hilariously awful examples of said punctuation apathy, and delve into the surprisingly fascinating history of punctuation. Sound boring? Not in Truss’s able hands. With sarcasm, wit, and snarky commentary as her weapons, Truss has declared war on bad punctuation…and the results are beyond merely entertaining. I can honestly say that I’ve never laughed so much (or so hard) at a nonfiction book in all of my life. Truss takes a potentially snooze-inducing subject and turns it into a book that is positively addictive.

Everyone who develops chest pains, throws temper tantrums, or lapses into mild depression at signs that cheerfully announce “Sorry Were Closed” will love and cherish Truss’s militant punctuation manifesto. You’ll laugh (and cringe) at some of the truly abominable examples of bad punctuation, and you’ll learn some very intriguing trivia along the way (including the case of the man who was “hanged on a comma” and the ill-fated Jameson raid which was triggered by a misplaced period.) What if you’re not a grammar geek? Will you feel hopelessly lost or annoyed reading this book? No! Truss’s writing is hilarious even if you could care less about apostrophes, commas, and semicolons. And, if you’re a bit rusty on your basic punctuation rules, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the best tutorial that you could ever have. Truss’s memorable examples and witty observations enable her to explain punctuation much, much better than most droning English teachers. Now, I loved this book when I first read the original, but the illustrated version is even better. It’s full of delightfully absurd drawings of beneficent punctuation fairy pandas, revolutionary pandas picketing improper punctuation at Harrods, and shady pandas peddling “dangerously habit-forming” semicolons. (The panda theme originates from a joke that also gives the book its title.) I had fun just flipping through the book looking at these fine illustrations by The New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the rare book that is both truly educational and entertaining. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you (as I have everyone) to read this book. If you’re already a Lynne Truss fan but have never seen the illustrated edition of this book, you must get yourself a copy – it’s well worth moving heaven and earth for. (And, Mom, thanks for the book. I can now, ahem, return the non-illustrated copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves that I've held hostage for the past two months to the library and pay my fines.)

06 August 2009


I’m getting sick and tired of people who refer to the creatures in the Twilight Saga as vampires. I beg to differ. Vampires are not sparkly wimps with whiny guilt complexes. Vampires are big, bad creatures of the night who unremorsefully prey upon the souls (and blood) of innocent victims. I firmly believe that an intervention program for Twilight fans needs to be created, so that these people can recognize real vampires. These poor, misguided souls should be introduced to the biggest, baddest vampire of them all – the most diabolical (and quite awesome) Count Dracula.

After centuries of terrorizing his native Transylvania, the Count has decided to relocate to Victorian England. As can be expected, his bloodsucking ways upset some of the locals. Lord Godalming (after his fiancée succumbs to Dracula) joins forces with his two close friends, Quincey Morris and Dr. John Seward; English attorney, Jonathan Harker (whom Dracula used to come to England); Harker’s wife (and Dracula’s possible next victim), Mina; and Dutch vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, to end Dracula’s reign of evil. Will they succeed? Can Dracula be stopped?

Although this book was regarded as schlock when it was first published and some readers still denounce Dracula as trashy, I really enjoyed this novel. I found Dracula’s misdeeds and Van Helsing and his associates' quest to kill Dracula quite entertaining…and scary. There are several scenes in this book that just flat-out made my skin crawl! The pacing is really good too. The first part of the book (when Harker is in Dracula’s castle) is terrifying; after Dracula arrives in England, the story then becomes something of an intriguing mystery as you wait for the characters to realize exactly what Dracula is up to; and the finale is a really exciting chase as Van Helsing and company pursue Dracula back to Romania. This book is told through multiple points of view and entirely through diaries, letters, and documents. I’m a big fan of stories with multiple points of view and experimental narration, so I enjoyed this unique approach. My only qualm: Occasionally Bram Stoker’s writing is too melodramatic for my taste (specifically the newspaper article on Dracula’s arrival in England), but I didn’t find this to be too distracting – just a little overdone.

Dracula is a horror classic for a reason. Dracula is a formidable villain, and Van Helsing is a worthy adversary. What I really liked about this book, though, was it’s genuinely scary. Other 19th century horror classics I’ve read (such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde) were really good and the concept of the novels were terrifying, but I didn’t actually get scared reading those books. Not so with Dracula. (In fact, as I’m writing this review, I have one eye looking over my shoulder in case a caped Romanian count with suspiciously pointy teeth drops by.) If you’re looking for an exciting adventure and a blood chilling horror read, get a copy of Dracula (and some garlic and crucifixes – just in case.)

04 August 2009

Diary Of A Young Girl

Sixty-five years ago today, the Nazis arrested the Frank family in Amsterdam, Holland. Although the Nazis took a lot of the Franks' valuables when they searched the attic the Frank family had hidden in for two years, they left behind fifteen year old Anne Frank's diary. Talk about not recognizing a bestseller when you see one.

Anne Frank's diary is a really fascinating read. She kept her diary on-and-off for two years, including the entire time her family hid from the Nazis in the attic of her father's business. Anne's diary is an engrossing description of the Franks' time in hiding. I found it really interesting to follow how the family slowly became more fragmented and argumentative under the strain of their situation. Anne's diary doesn't descend into trivial, tedious descriptions of her homelife, though, mainly because Anne wrote when she felt like it, not every day. I also was interested in following how Anne progressed from a somewhat immature thirteen year old to a very insightful fifteen year old. Funny, optimistic, and wise, Anne wrote some amazing entries for a young teen. (I wish my diary entries were as profound and witty!)

Anne Frank's diary is a a great first hand account of World War Two. Her diary is an excellent source on the experiences of Jewish Europeans under Nazi occupation. Anne's also a good enough writer that her experience hiding in the "Secret Annex" reads almost like an adventure story. Several times in her diary Anne derides her writing as silly and inconsequential. Oh, Anne, if only you knew how wrong you were...

(One note: There are actually two versions of Anne's diary. The first was the original one published in the 1950s; the second is the more modern version which includes entries her father edited out of the original. I am fanatical about reading non-abridged works - it drives me crazy to think I missed something. However, with Anne's diary, it's really not essential to read the full version. The material that was edited out is mainly of a personal nature. Although Anne intended to use her diary as source material for a novel after the war (and also wanted to donate the material to Dutch historians interested in compiling chronicles of Holland's occupation), Anne's diary is still a private diary. I don't think Anne intended to have all of the material published. If you're a big Anne Frank fan, by all means read the full version, but if you don't, you'll still get a good understanding of Anne Frank by reading the abridged version.)

02 August 2009

The Bell Jar

I clearly remember the first Sylvia Plath poem that I ever read: “Daddy.” After reading it, I was profoundly disturbed, extremely impressed, and absolutely hooked on Plath’s poetry. I promptly read every poem of hers that I could find. I loved her inimitable, conversational style, vivid imagery, sharp irony, and confessional subject matter.

Her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, is a fictionalized account of a nervous breakdown Plath suffered as a college student. The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a thinly disguised version of Plath. A brilliant student with literary aspirations, Esther becomes distraught and suicidal. Esther is eventually confined to an asylum and undergoes shock treatment, just as Plath did during her mental illness.

I really enjoyed this novel. Like Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar is written in her distinct style – poetic, vivid, and conversational. The chronicle of Esther’s descent into madness is particularly fascinating. Rather than emphasizing how insane and out of touch with reality Esther is, Plath makes Esther’s actions seem almost reasonable – and all the more disturbing as a result. Esther is also a very sympathetic character. Although I disagreed with some of her decisions (especially concerning men) and have never suffered a nervous breakdown, Esther was still easy to relate to and likeable.

The Bell Jar is an amazing book, although the last half of this novel is quite disturbing. Many autobiographical novels, to put it lightly, are a disaster to read. Authors often use these novels to vent, and the result is not always readable. Plath’s novel is an exception. Her description of a sensitive young woman affected by mental illness and uncertainty about her future is a powerful story that you won’t want to put down.