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.

07 October 2009

Going Postal

Con artist extra-
ordinaire Moist von Lipwig has just been offered the job of a lifetime – postmaster of Ankh-Morpork. Well, in poor Moist’s case, it will be the only job offered in his lifetime if he doesn’t take it. Otherwise, crafty ruler Lord Vetinari will arrange for Moist to pay the hangman a visit…again. Forced into an honest job, Moist tries to make the best of his situation, despite being up to his eyeballs (and beyond) in mountains of talking undelivered mail and having to contend with a ragtag band of postal postmen, not to mention the murderous competition with the heinous Reacher Gilt and his ill-gotten Grand Truck clacks system. It’s a tall order, but Moist and his more than ample skill for conniving are up to the challenge!

When I asked for book recommendations a few weeks ago, Scott suggested Going Postal to me. He warned me: “You will love Going Postal. You may love it too much.” He was right. I did love Going Postal too much. In fact, I didn’t want to return it to the library. It’s sort of an obsessive, possessive love. (If Going Postal were a person, I suspect that I would have a restraining order served on me.) I know that’s wrong (and a touch creepy), but this book is just so funny. I love anything that makes me laugh, but Going Postal made me laugh on so many different levels. This novel is a brilliant send up of by-the-book bureaucracy and corporate greed. It’s also a hilarious satire of traditional fantasy novels. I love epic traditional fantasies, such as Tolkien's work, but they are always so serious. It’s refreshing to read something that is not afraid to be outrageous and quirky. And quirky is the only word that I can think of to describe these characters, especially the disturbingly pin-obsessed Stanley and the equally disturbingly post office obsessed post men. I like quirky characters (primarily because I am one), so I loved how unique Pratchett makes his characters, without making them seem artificial or forced. As much as I loved the satire and characters, I really loved Pratchett’s style. He writes such witty dialogue and sarcastic narration. I especially loved his comic descriptions and his renderings of Moist’s inner thoughts. (I kept trying to choose a favorite example, but I gave up after about chapter three.) His laugh-out-loud sarcasm reminds me of some of my favorite writers – Roald Dahl and Lynne Truss. (Snarky English writers fill me with a profound sense of inner joy.)

Going Postal is an excellent comic novel, but it’s also really enjoyable to read just because it is so well written. This book has a very fast pace, and the outrageous goings-on means you’re certainly never bored. Even though things get pretty crazy, Pratchett always infuses his scenes and characters with such realism that they never seem absurd or unbelievable. At the same time, Pratchett gets you really wrapped up in the action. I loved Moist and wanted him to succeed. (And that’s saying something, because I usually hate the hero.) True, I wouldn’t let Moist anywhere near my bank account (not that he’d find much), but I adored his brassy chutzpah, his flamboyant showmanship, and his crafty quick-thinking. Before I read this novel, I was concerned that I might be a bit lost. Going Postal is the 29th Discworld novel, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow who was who. I was relieved that that was not a problem at all. I’m sure that, as a newbie, I may have missed some aspects that were references to previous novels, but I never felt like I was missing anything.

I’ve never read a Discworld novel before reading this book. After reading Going Postal, I now feel ashamed of myself for not discovering Pratchett sooner. I also feel a bit deprived. I’m sure Discworld fan will relish Going Postal, but to all of those who swim in a sea of regrettable ignorance in regards to Discworld: I urge you to come out of the darkness and into the light. Discworld is a world well-worth visiting. You may not want to come back. I don’t. I’ve already checked out two more Discworld novels and have another one reserved!

Next Week: I am going to try to read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time now and haven’t. (Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “Laziness, thy name is Zella.”? Maybe not…) But for the past month, I’ve kept having random encounters (both online and in person) where this novel keeps getting mentioned, most recently on Adeline's blog. I am not superstitious, but I consider this a sign. A book sign! If I don’t get to finish it, I will try to review Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste For Bones. (Don’t worry. It is not about cannibalism…that I know of. It’s a murder mystery set in medieval Britain.)