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!)