30 September 2009

The Red Badge of Courage

I think it would be fair to say that we’ve all had at least one moment of epic cowardice in our lives. You know…one of those moments where you totally wimp out and run away from your problem rather than facing it, whether your problem is the SATs or that big bully down the street. And, usually, that wimping out moment stays with you for life. You constantly berate yourself, “I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done it this way…” We’ve all been there, right? Well, welcome to Henry Fielding’s world.

The whole shame from cowardice complex is the major theme of Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage. In this novel, young Union soldier Henry Fleming runs from the battlefield in a moment of panic. He spends a lot of time agonizing over his actions, tries to justify his actions to himself, and then realizes that he can’t justify his actions. Henry is then motivated to redeem himself in battle to pacify his nagging conscience. I have always liked this novel. I first read it when I was eleven and recently decided to reread it. Crane is considered one of the first psychological realists in fiction, and for good reason: His description of Henry’s shame, halfhearted excuses, and mental self-berating is very believable, even if you have no way to relate to his battlefield experiences. Not to say that Crane isn’t adept at straightforward narration as well. Quite a few of the battle scenes are very intense. Crane also writes with a more direct style than most 19th century writers…you won’t get lost under a mountain of adverbs and adjectives with him. I love wordy writers, but Crane’s conciseness adds to the realism of his work and makes it much easier to read. My only issue was that some of the dialogue is a bit stilted and cliched, especially some of the officers. (Their lines sometimes sound like they come from a very stereotypical Disney cartoon about the Civil War.)

Although I liked this novel, I have talked to many people who can’t stand it. I believe you have to approach this novel with the right frame of mind. Don’t read this book expecting tons of dramatic action. The dramatic tension comes from Henry’s mental wrestling, not the battle. Therefore, there is a lot of narration dwelling on Henry’s thoughts, rather than his actions. I know this drives some readers crazy, but Crane is very effective at writing this kind of narration. I think Crane could be considered the forerunner of more complex, later psychological writers. If you like psychological novels, but find experimental stream of consciousness novels, a la Faulkner, impossible, try Crane. I really love Faulkner, but Crane is much more accessible.

The Red Badge of Courage is a powerful mediation on shame, courage, and cowardice. It’s easy to relate to Henry. If you go into this novel with the right frame of mind, you’ll find that a good book awaits.


Scott suggested I start giving teasers of my next reviews. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I am very excited to announce that next week I will be reviewing Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal! (I do always have a backup book, just in case I can’t get around to the one I want to review. If I don’t get to finish Going Postal, I’ll throw an Agatha Christie review together at the last minute.) But I hope I don’t have to resort to that, because I really, really, really want to review the Pratchett novel.

I also have a question for you guys. Well, several questions. Adding the previews led me to also consider adding some more gadgets to my blog, such as links to some of my favorite book websites and to genre specific websites (like mysteries, sci fi, fantasy, etc.), feeds from the NY Times’ Bestseller lists and prominent book awards (Man Booker Prize, National Book Awards, Penn Faulkner Awards, Pulitzer Prize Awards, etc.), more of my favorite book quotes, and maybe even a link where you can reach my via e-mail (someone wanted to comment but didn’t have a Google account to do so.) It will probably be some time before I can do any of this, because I like to plot, mull, ponder, scheme, and brood before I make a decision. But I’m a big believer in getting second, third, and fourth opinions, so I am interested in what you guys think. Would these features interest you or not? Any other suggestions to aid me in my plotting, mulling, pondering, scheming, and brooding? I really do appreciate all of you for reading and commenting and I want y’all to be happy with zellakate, so let me know if you have any ideas for things I could add to my blog!

23 September 2009

The Haunting of Hill House

The imposing Victorian mansion Hill House is allegedly haunted. No one can stand to stay in Hill House for more than a few days before the eerie wailings and mysterious things that go bump in the night leave the residents wanting to flee. Dr. John Montague, a specialist in haunted houses, decides to investigate the truth behind Hill House. To this end, he recruits the home’s current heir, Luke Sanderson, and two women with previous paranormal experiences, the selfish, theatrical Theodora and the neurotic, repressed Eleanor, to help him study Hill House. At first, the four regard their expedition as a fun vacation, and then Hill House starts to live up to its reputation. Soon the intrepid ghost hunters have turned on each other and creepy happenings are afoot…

The Haunting of Hill House is a fun novel to read – it’s fast-paced and entertaining. What really stood out to me are the characters. They are so well-drawn. I thought author Shirley Jackson did an excellent job of sketching out her characters’ personalities and perfectly portraying their oh so realistic reactions to stressful situations. These characters’ suspicious, self-pitying sniping is a treat to read! The two characters I enjoyed most were Eleanor, the pathetic milquetoast middle-aged spinster, and Mrs. Montague, the self-assured, controlling wife of Dr. Montague. (I’m thinking that Jackson must have written these characters after encountering real-life versions of these people, especially the hideous Mrs. Montague.) But the most fascinating character is Hill House itself. The house takes center stage and becomes very much a character in its own right. As good as the characters are in this novel, the most important thing for a horror novel is whether or not it is, well, horrifying. Never fear! (Or rather, do fear): The Haunting of Hill House is genuinely scary! The haunting scenes are quite eerie and several passages absolutely sent chills up my spine.

My only problem with this novel, and it’s not a major one, is that, in true horror story fashion, the characters never seem to realize when they’re in imminent danger although a gerbil of moderate intelligence in the same situation would’ve already locked itself in its cage with a baseball bat and crash helmet. (Is stubborn stupidity a mandatory requirement for horror characters? Are they required to put that on a résumé ?) Jackson does manage to make her characters’ lack of common sense more plausible than many other writers, but it still irks me when I read about allegedly normal people of allegedly average intelligence shrugging off abnormal doings with a blithe shrug.

The Haunting of Hill House is a classic ghost story. I love Jackson’s classic horror short story ‘The Lottery” (an absolute must read!), so that’s why I decided to read this novel. The Haunting of Hill House is an entertaining and genuinely frightening read. Enjoy! (But don’t read this at night by yourself. I tried that and had to put it down until daylight!)

17 September 2009

The Silmarillion

(I’m sorry this post is late. I was recently abducted by brain-slurping aliens. Only after a pitched battle in which I used an umbrella, a soap dispenser, and several yards of floss to fight off these non- Earthlings was I able to escape. Hence, I wasn’t able to post my review in a timely fashion. Or, maybe, I had a few major tests this week, and I just now finished the book…)

Whether or not you’re a J.R.R. Tolkien fan, you’re probably familiar with the Lord of the Ring trilogy and could tell me all about the Ring of Power and Frodo and his little road trip to Mordor. And, if you’re even just a casual Tolkien fan, you’ve probably read The Hobbit and could tell me how the ring landed into hobbit hands in the first place. Right? Very good, but not so fast, batman! Where did the rings come from in the first place? How did the insidious Sauron ascend to power? Where did the Orcs and Elves and Dwarves come from? Why the heck do the Orcs and Elves and Dwarves hate each other so much? For the answers to these Middle-earth questions, you must turn to The Silmarillion.

I’m indebted to Scott for bringing this book to my attention and suggesting I review it. (Thanks!) I’ve loved Middle-earth ever since I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ring when I was thirteen. Even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any Tolkien, I loved this book! Whereas Tolkien’s more popular books focus on the hobbits and that pesky ring, The Silmarillion concentrates on the elves and the Silmarils, a set of jewels that prove just as problematic as the ring. This novel, which is a prequel of sorts to the other books, starts with the creation of Middle-earth and ends where The Lord of the Ring begins. Along the way, the ever inventive Tolkien introduces us to some amazing mythic characters (such as the heroic Beren, the tragic Turin Turamber, and the diabolical Morgoth, Middle-earth’s resident bad guy when Sauron was still a villain in training.) and some very cool creatures, i.e. Orcs, dragons, werewolves. I’ve always loved Tolkien’s characters, but I also love the attention to detail that forms such a major element of his work. The painstaking attention he gives to genealogy, history, languages, and maps always fascinated me, and The Silmarillion gives Middle-earth addicts an ample dose of them all. But this book also has a great story – there are epic battles, heroic deeds, dastardly betrayals, and crafty political maneuvers galore.

This is a very involving novel though. You don’t have to have read Tolkien’s other books to read this one, but you won’t get as wrapped up in the action if you haven’t. (A lot of the fun comes from recognizing characters and names that are mentioned in passing but play huge roles later on.) The one exception to this is if you’re into mythology. If so, you will love this book! Tolkien uses a lot of traditional mythological stories and characters in this book. It’s fun to see how Tolkien takes all of them and puts his own innovative, fantastical twist on them.

The Silmarillion is an epic fantasy novel and an important description of pre-LOTR Middle-earth history. If you love Tolkien, you must read this book!

(P.S. I love getting book recommendations. If any of you have read a good book lately, always feel free to tell me about it in the comments, even if the book has nothing to do with what I’m reviewing. I’ll try to get around to your recommendation as soon as I can. As I mention on my sidebar, I have really eclectic taste in books, so as long as it’s not one of those hideous Harlequin/Silhouette defamations, I mean, romance novels, I’ll probably enjoy it. zellakate)

09 September 2009

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Iris Fisher’s life has been unenviable of late. Her family fled England after the murder of her father and her Dutch mother, Margarethe, relocated Iris and her sister, Ruth, to Haarlem, Holland. Margarethe soon finds work as a maid for an eccentric painter. Within months, the ever so crafty Margarethe has weaseled her way into a marriage of convenience with a prosperous merchant who has a beautiful but very strange daughter named Clara, better known to the world as Cinderella. Or so Gregory Maguire's version of the Cinderella story goes...

I’ve never been a big fan of the Cinderella story. Oh, don’t get me wrong: The underdog side of the story appeals to me, and I love fantasies, but I’ve always had my doubts about the whole “happily ever after” ending. Plus, that plot just has too many holes: What woman in her right mind would marry a man who spent the entire evening dancing with her, but can only identify her based on her shoes? (I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Cindy married for money.) With my doubts about the Cinderella myth, I found Maguire’s retelling of the story – through the eyes of one of the ugly stepsisters no less – quite interesting.

One thing I really liked about this book is how well-written it was. Maguire’s narration is witty and eloquent, and he did a great job of writing dialogue that sounds authentically 17th century but is still readable. The precise historical detail really impressed me too – you feel like you’re actually transported back to Holland four hundred years ago. As well told as the story is, the real appeal (for me) was how realistic the characters were. Clever, sensitive, but woefully plain Iris is easy to sympathize with. Although Iris is the heroine, Clara isn’t exactly demonized – she’s bratty and selfish, but she’s definitely not the villain. That honor goes to Margarethe. Margarethe is the a combination of every crass, obnoxious, bossy middle aged woman that you've ever met in your life. She’s terrifying in her authenticity! I actually cringed during scenes that featured her. I also thought Maguire did a skillful job of weaving his subplots in. I usually find the side stories in novels distracting - not so with this book. The depiction of the Dutch Baroque art world is fascinating, and the mysterious, recurrent flashbacks of the Fishers’ flight from England are intriguing. My only complaint: The pacing in the final section (which covers Cinderella’s ball) seemed kind of hurried. After Maguire so methodically and intricately pieced together the background, I thought the resulting climax’s quick pacing seemed a touch abrupt. Then again, Maguire’s take on the ball is so much more logical than the traditional version and the final chapter has such a neat twist, so I can’t complain too much.

I really enjoyed this novel. It's a fun book to read. Maguire did a fantastic job of retelling the Cinderella story while still retaining all of the original elements. I’ve been meaning to read Gregory Maguire's books for a while now. I really hope his other books are as good as this one. I look forward to reading more fairy tales from the "villain's" perspective!

06 September 2009

My Ten Favorite Books From Childhood

Yesterday, I was reading a newspaper article on the ten most influential children's books published between 1946 and 1964. The article mentioned some really good books (including The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Charlotte's Web), and it got me into a nostalgic mood, thinking about my favorite books from when I was a kid. And, since I have a long weekend and some free time, I decided to share them with you. (Forgive me if I sound a little weepy. I'm still attached to my favorites.) I'm going to go in the order that I read them:

1. The Butter Battle Book (Dr. Seuss): Yes, The Cat and The Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are excellent, but this gem was always my favorite Seuss book. It told of the epic struggle between the Yooks (who buttered their bread butter side up) and the Zooks (who buttered their bread butter side down.) I had mixed loyalties. As an avid (and opinionated) butter consumer, I firmly sided with the Yooks, but the Zooks had a cooler name. Loyalty is such a fickle thing, but it's Dr. Seuss - and a rhyming butter war. What more could you ask for?

2. Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery (James and Deborah Howe): Who needs sparkly Edward Cullen? The far superior Bunnicula is a vampire bunny, for crying out loud! Chester the cat knows that something is fishy about the new bunny his family brings home, but Harold the dog isn't so sure. Chester sets off on a quest to prove that Bunnicula is a vampire and becomes determined to dispose of the undead rabbit, as best befits a creature of the night. I still think the scene where Chester tries to dispatch Bunnicula with a steak through the heart is one of the funniest things I've ever read...period.

3. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Jon Scieszka): We all know the tragic story of the three little pigs. How that dreadful wolf reduced their home to rubble with the intent to ingest them. That evil beastly wolf! But it's lies! All lies! Just ask the Big Bad Wolf. Or, if you're afraid to ask him, read his take on the pigs in this hilariously subversive fairy tale.

4. The Indian in the Cupboard (Lynne Reid Banks): When I first read this in school (before I was home schooled), I was expecting to hate it. Toys that come to life? Especially cowboy and Indian toys? That wasn't really something I was into in second grade, but I read this book anyway, and I ended up loving it. Banks' story has just the right combination of fantasy and real life.

5. Matilda (Roald Dahl): Actually, any thing by Roald Dahl is amazing, but this was always my favorite of Dahl's books. I liked Matilda because 1. She loved to read and 2. She was the best revenge taker in all of children's literature. Gentle Matilda may get the short end of the stick from her dreadfully inept parents and horrifying principal, but Matilda knows how to get even...

6. The Island of the Blue Dolphin (Scott O'Dell): This book tells the story of Karana, an American Indian girl who was accidentally left behind on her tribe's California island during an evacuation in the 1800s and lived in isolation for eighteen years. I've always loved survival stories, and this one is full of exciting adventure, but it's also very well-written. Plus, it's based on a true story.

7. Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery): Anne is the poor, mischievous red-headed orphan who nobody wants on the small Canadian island of Avonlea. But the Cuthberts reluctantly take her in and get more than they bargained for in the process. This is such a sweet novel - Anne is just so easy to sympathize with. And Anne reminded me so much of myself when I was her age. (Even though I'm not a redheaded Canadian orphan.)

8. Old Yeller (Fred Gipson): The movie version of this story is great, but the book is even better. Gipson vividly recreates pioneer Texas, and the story of Travis's battle to keep up his family's farm in his father's absence is both entertaining and touching.

9. Wishbone series: OK, I'm technically cheating, by listing a series and not a book, but I would deserve to be banned from reading for the rest of my life if I didn't mention Wishbone's books. These books (and the TV show) are what got me into classic novels. Wishbone introduced me to many of my favorite books and stories - including The Prince and The Pauper, The Purloined Letter, Frankenstein, Kidnapped, and Moby Dick - with a cute Jack Russell Terrier and relateable contemporary stories that were weaved in with the classics.

10. Great Illustrated Classics Series: I'm cheating again...for the same reason as I did with Wishbone. Whereas Wishbone combined lovable canines with the classics, this series consisted of simplified, abridged versions of classic novels with nice illustrations (which were fun to color) on each page. This series also helped get me into classic literature. After reading the Great Illustrated version of Oliver Twist, Sherlock Holmes, and Robinson Crusoe, I couldn't wait to read the originals.

You know what the great thing about all of these books is? They're still fun to read...even after everyone thinks you've outgrown them. (You can't outgrow good books.)

02 September 2009

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer has a pretty easy life, contrary to what he may believe: his Aunt Polly is indulgent of his youthful pranks, his friends are easily duped into his zany schemes, and his free time is whiled away pretending to be a pirate or bandit. Tom’s carefree life comes to a screeching halt, though, when he and his pal, Huck Finn, witness a savage murder one night in the town cemetery. Tom’s problems suddenly expand from dodging responsibility to dodging the ferocious murderer, Injun Joe.

I’ve always liked Mark Twain as a writer – he’s a natural story teller and he has a wonderful sense of humor. His talents in both of these areas – particularly in the humor department – really shine in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Most of Tom’s adventures are pretty amusing – his running away from home to be a pirate was my favorite. Twain’s narration is also very easy to read. He was the first American writer who didn’t consciously imitate English authors in style. Consequently, his hilarious narration and realistic dialogue are easier to read than most 19th century classics. I didn’t have too much trouble with the rustic dialect that his Missouri characters used, but a couple of phrases did baffle me. (Annotated novels work wonders!)

A couple of minor problems: this novel doesn’t really have a plot – it’s very episodic. Most of the chapters are just scenes in which Tom is wrecking havoc on anyone who is unfortunate enough to be in his general vicinity. The most consistent story line is probably the one with Injun Joe. I usually don’t like these types of slice-of-life stories – I find them boring – but Twain keeps things pretty entertaining, so it didn’t annoy me too much. I didn't always find Tom very sympathetic though; Tom was too bratty for my taste at times. (Poor Aunt Polly - the woman has my sympathies.) And I thought the ending was a little too contrived. But these problems didn’t ruin the novel for me in any way.

With Tom’s frequent disappearances from school and his constant escapades, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a good book for summer. (I reviewed this one about two months too late!) It’s a fun, easy read. But don’t take this one to the beach. It just seems to call out for a hammock. If you have one…