31 December 2009


Before thirteen year old Brian Robeson embarks on a plane trip across the rugged wilds of North Canada to spend the summer with his father, his mother gives him a hatchet as a parting gift. Brian thinks little of it when he hastily clips the hatchet onto his belt, but a few hours later, after his pilot dies and the plane crashes hundreds of miles off course, the hatchet is the only possession that Brian has. Brian quickly learns that the only way he'll stay alive in the rugged wilderness is to learn to use his hatchet...and his wits.

My dear friend Bev loves Gary Paulsen novels and she recommended Hatchet to me. (Thanks again, Bev!) As I have mentioned on here before, I adore a good survival story, and the Newberry Prize-winning Hatchet is no exception. A good survival novel has to have an appropriate level of suspense and action, and Hatchet certainly delivers on that count. Between the terrifying plane crash, Brian's pitiful early attempts to stay alive, and his unnerving encounter with an angry moose, I couldn't put this book down. Author Paulsen is an avid outdoorsman (He's even competed several times in Alaska's grueling Iditarod dog race); consequently, he infuses much of his knowledge of the wilderness into this book, adding an authentic feel that many other survival novels lack. I also enjoyed Paulsen's prose. He writes with a blunt, pared-down style, and his prose has a naturalistic, conversational tone which, oddly enough, reminded me some of The Catcher in the Rye. (That's a weird comparison, but it kept coming back to me as I read.) Paulsen also effectively uses repetition in his narration, giving the text an almost lyrical narrative poetry sound.

The biggest strength of this novel, though, is Brian. He is so easy to sympathize with. Of course, it's hard not to be sympathetic to his plight, but he is also a genuinely likable character. He lacks the angsty, whiny attitude that so many teenaged protagonists have (and which I find to be a distasteful turnoff.) Brian is also a realistic teenaged character who is easy to relate to. He's levelheaded and intelligent, but he's also no superhuman: he's vulnerable; he makes mistakes. His ordinary qualities make him all the more appealing.

Hatchet is a young adult novel which will delight readers of all ages. This novel is well-written, engaging, and exciting - the perfect antidote to a dreary winter day. Erm, dare I say this without being too corny? You'll enjoy getting lost with Hatchet.


Next Time: For my first article of 2010, I will finally post my long-promised article on online book resources. I promised waaaaay back in September to add links to my blog. (You thought I forgot. Admit it.)) This article will serve as a tour guide, if you will, of my additions. I'll include some of my favorite internet sources for books and book recommendations (you guys have to promise you won't desert me for polished reviewers who do not ramble incessantly!), genre-specific websites, and online recommendations lists. If, and this if is highly contingent on my notoriously inept techno abilities, I can get them to load, I will also have links to prominent annual book awards and the New York Times' bestseller lists.

29 December 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front

Paul Bรคumer and his classmates were impressionable teenagers when they signed up to serve in the German army during WWI. They enter the military as idealistic young soldiers, but years of brutal trench combat hardens Paul and his comrades into disillusioned cynics. As the war drags on, Paul begins to question the war's purpose, yet he finds himself incapable of imagining himself in a world without the war which he has come to despise.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a stunning novel. This is one of the most moving novels I've ever read. Author Erich Maria Remarque served in the German military during WWI, and the remarkable amount of detail he uses to describe battle scenes and military life in general adds an exceptional layer of realism to this novel. I have never read more gut wrenching descriptions of battle - several scenes left me teary-eyed and physically ill. I also adored the characters. The sensitive, perceptive Paul is an endearing narrator and his friends, including the resourceful Kat, vindictive Tjaden, and bullheaded Muller are memorable. I always have read that All Quiet on the Western Front is a biting condemnation of war, so I expected to find a lot of blatant pacifistic philosophizing. I don't mind this in a book, (I actually enjoy it), but I do not enjoy being beaten over the head with it. I was relieved that Remarque didn't resort to such heavy-handed tactics. A lesser author would have blatantly told the reader that war was terrible; Remarque, on the other hand, shows the reader the horror of war and his book is all the more compelling because of it.

I watched the classic 1930 film adaptation of this book before I read it. I loved the movie and that's why I became interested in this book. When it comes to films vs. movies, I am usually biased in favor of whichever I encountered first. Not this time. The movie is excellent, but the book is much, much better. The movie stays with the story, for the most part, but the book has so many touching vignettes, which range from amusing to heartbreaking, that add atmosphere, humor, and character development that a film just cannot achieve. I do like the film's striking, famous end scene over the novel's more anticlimatic ending, but it's two entirely different mediums, so a comparision is a bit unfair.

All Quiet on The Western Front is an intense, powerful tale about courage and camaraderie. I highly recommend this excellent novel. I wish I would've read it sooner.


Next Time: Welllll, it depends. I want to open up the new year with that list of book links and updates to my blog that I have been promising forever. I also want to review Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which comes highly recommended to me by my dear friend Bev. If I can get Hatchet read before Friday, I will post the review and then do a post on the book links over the weekend. If I don't get it finished in time, my post on my new blog look will be the first one of the new year and then Hatchet will follow.

27 December 2009

The Glass Menagerie

The Wingfield family is in sad shape. Domineering mother Amanda clings to memories of her aristocratic Southern childhood, perhaps to block out her impoverished life in a St. Louis slum after being abandoned by her husband. Her son, Tom, feels trapped and has become bitter. He hates his boring warehouse job and seeks escape in late night movies and D.H Lawrence novels. His emotionally fragile, disabled sister Laura has withdrawn into her own private world, which centers on her collection of glass figurines (The menagerie of the title.) Amanda decides that the only way the painfully shy Laura will ever be able to amount to anything is to marry well, so the willful mother badgers Tom into inviting a friend over to help coax Laura out of her shell. If only Amanda knew what devastation this plan ultimately brings...

Tennessee Williams' classic drama The Glass Menagerie is a moving exploration of shattered dreams and shattered families. As you may recall from last week, I had a hard time choosing between this play and Williams' other classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. I still debated over which one to do to the last minute, but I ultimately decided on this play because, as much as I love A Streetcar Named Desire, I think this play offers a more satisfying reading experience. (On the other hand, reading A Streetcar Named Desire is great, but watching it is even better. Watch the 1951 version with Brando. I am not just biased because I think he's the greatest actor ever, well, maybe just a little. If you've never seen it, go watch it now!)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Menagerie. This play, unlike many others, does not rely on convoluted plot devices or outrageous scenarios. Instead, it focuses on a very authentic situation and advances its plot based on dramatic tension. I know that's not every one's cup of tea, but this play is masterfully crafted and never once did it lose my interest. Furthermore, at less than 100 pages long, it's easily read in one setting. The characters are also so realistically drawn that's impossible to not relate to them. Growing up in the South, I have met my fair share of Amandas (some even in my own family) and their smothered offspring; consequently, I found Amanda the most interesting character, even though Tom's the narrator and Laura's the centerpiece. I especially liked the interactions between Amanda, Laura, and Tom. Their petty disputes and heated arguments are something anyone with family will relate to and, even more importantly, their relationships ring true. Williams based all of these characters on members of his own family, and I believe that adds to the realism. Finally, I was pleased with the dialogue - the Southern dialect is perfect. This is something I am nitpicky about, but Williams nailed it perfectly, everything from the sentence structure to the frequent insertions of "honey, " especially when employed after an insult...

My only problem with this play is some of the stage directions. Williams intended this as a "memory" play, in which the scenes are presented as distorted by the human memory, rather than as fact. The result is a dreamy atmosphere that, for the most part, I found effective. However, the stage directions also call for the use of a screen to flash images and text throughout the play. Although occasionally the instructions were amusing, for the most part, I found this distracting. Williams conveys so much through plot and dialogue, so I didn't see why this was needed at all. Most directors of the play seem to concur, since this element of the play is usually not seen when staged, even when the play was first released in the 1940s.

I am a firm believer that, though plays are fun to read, they are still best experienced in their intended state - as performed drama. Sadly, I have never seen The Glass Menagerie performed. It's a popular play, so you may be able to catch it at a local theater. If not, you could watch one of the several film/TV versions available. The best known is probably the 1987 version, directed by Paul Newman. I have never seen it, but I read that it is a faithful adaptation. Critics, however, squabble over the quality of the acting.

The Glass Menagerie is a compelling combination of family drama, tragedy, and Southern Gothic. Easy to read and achingly authentic, this play is a great way to while away a winter afternoon. The Glass Menagerie is one of the most renowned post-WWII American plays and is well worth your time.


Next Time: I will be reviewing Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I love the acclaimed movie that is inspired by this novel and bought myself a copy of the book with my Hanukkah money. (Yay!) I was trying to decide what to read next and Scott voted for this one. I am over halfway through the book, have enjoyed every bit of it, and should have a review up soon.

23 December 2009

Hercule Poirot's Christmas

You know how everyone this time of year always jokes about killing their relatives? (Everyone does this, right? If not, my friends need counseling.) Well, some people are not joking about this. Case in point: Cantankerous millionaire Simeon Lee relishes terrorizing his estranged family over the holidays - he browbeats his sons, insults his daughters-in-law, and plays mind games with his relatives. Little wonder he turns up with his throat cut on Christmas Eve. Nobody is really sad to see the old man go, but who exactly is to blame? It is up to the eccentric, legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to solve this mystery.

I adore Agatha Christie mysteries! It's been some time since I read one of Dame Agatha's novels and I needed something suitably festive, so Hercule Poirot's Christmas nicely fit each category. If you're not familiar with Agatha Christie books, I offer this disclaimer: Do not read these books expecting a realistic depiction of police investigations. If you want a precise description of forensics, you will have to go elsewhere, my friend. But if you're looking for an amusing, witty brainteaser, then Agatha fits the bill nicely. With that being said, I will proceed with my review.

I think Hercule Poirot's Christmas is one of Christie's better books. The crime is one of her more savage ones (though in typical Christie style, the murder is not portrayed graphically) and the mystery is first-rate. The identity of the killer will have you guessing to the very end. Even the some of the more technical aspects of Christie's murder mysteries may not be as specific as more modern novels, Christie's books work because she possesses an acute understanding of the human mind. Her characters are believable and that adds a touch of realism that many mystery writers who focus on dry technical detail often lack. Furthermore, although Christie relies on characters types over complex characterizations (such as the crotchety old man, the mild mannered Englishman, the doting wife, the roguish adventurer), Christie writes these characters so well, that the lack of deeper characters is not an issue. If you've read enough Agatha Christie novels, you start to recognize these character types, and they seem like old friends. I believe that Christie is at her best when she's portraying domestic life gone awry, and that's true for Hercule Poirot's Christmas as well. The dysfunctional dynamics of the Lee family are both authentic and darkly funny.

My only problem with this novel is the opening chapter (in which the novel's premise is set out) seemed a bit artificial to me. I know that Agatha was trying to introduce the family and their contentious history, but some of the dialogue seemed too staged to me. I found it hard to believe that these relatives would need to explain the background of the family to each other so extensively after twenty years of feuding. It's a small issue though and didn't lessen my enjoyment of the novel.

Need a fun-filled diversion this holiday season? Try Hercule Poirot's Christmas. This novel offers a engaging characters, first rate suspense, and a tantalizing mystery that is to die for. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

Next Time: I have been reading a collection of Tennessee Williams' plays and am a bit stumped on what to review next time. It will either be The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, but I am not sure which. I love both plays, so this is a hard choice. I am leaning more toward The Glass Menagerie, because I enjoy the more subtle aspects of that play, but I find A Streetcar Named Desire more compelling. (Also, the latter was the ticket to stardom for my all-time favorite actor, Marlon Brando. Where would the world of film be without my boy Marlon?) I haven't decided yet, but I should have a review of one of these classic dramas up some time this weekend.

20 December 2009

The Book Thief

I am not sure how to describe Markus Zusak's amazing novel The Book Thief. I could tell you that this superb, beautiful book is the coming-of-age story, as narrated by Death, of Liesel Meminger, a foster child in Nazi Germany who is obsessed with reading and whose family shelters a Jewish boxer from the authorities. And that would all be true. But I much prefer Death's own description from the prologue: "It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery..." This quote perfectly captures the quirky, wry nature of this book.

PIA recommended The Book Thief to me a couple of months ago, and Penguins Quack assured me that this was an excellent book a couple of weeks later when I mentioned on Sparklife that I was reading it. (A big thank you to both of you!) That delighted me because the subject matter already had me intrigued. (Remember in my review of Sashenka when I said one of the periods of history I planned to specialize in was The Russian Revolution? Well, Nazi Germany is the other. My mother's family is German Jewish and I've always been both mortified and fascinated with this historical period.) Fortunately, my excitement about reading this book was completely justified. The Book Thief did not let me down!

I adored this novel! This book reminds me of To Kill A Mocking bird and Life of Pi. As with these two novels, The Book Thief features a compelling coming of age tale, a strong protagonist, and an offbeat plot. I especially loved the narration, which is simultaneously hauntingly lyrical and sardonically conversational. Death has a distinctive, witty voice which greatly enhances the appeal of this novel. I also loved the pacing. This book is big (550+ pages), but I was never once bored. The Book Thief is alternately hilarious and sorrowful, but it's never slow. (You will not put it down. I was so taken in by the story that I snuck this book into a shoe store with me and read it.) The historical details of this novel also impressed me. Zusak portrays the little-seen world of ordinary working class Germans during WWII vividly.

My favorite part of this book, though, was the characters. Liesel is one of the most likable, realistic, and complex female protagonists that I've ever encountered and I loved her. (Her freakish obsession with books was another reason as well!) As great as Liesel is, the rich cast of colorful supporting characters are just as intriguing. You will not soon forget Hans, her kindhearted foster father; Rosa, her foulmouthed foster mother; Rudy, her mischievous best friend; Max, the determined Jew Liesel's family courageously shelters; and Death, the eccentric narrator who will surpass all of your preconceived notions about the Grim Reaper. I usually dislike fiction about this period because the characters are often so one-dimensional, especially if they're German. (It's as if authors believe that all Germans during WWII were devilish Nazi fiends or noble superhuman resistors. If you've ever read Gitta Sereny's powerful, disturbing nonfiction book Into that Darkness, you would know the situation was far more complex than that and is all the more troubling because of it.)

I have nothing but praise for this book, but I will warn you: You will cry at the end. I dare you not to. I sobbed for ten minutes and still have not fully recovered. Not that this book is unrelentingly melancholy. It isn't. In fact, The Book Thief is hilarious in many parts and has an essentially uplifting message. But after getting to know these characters, the heart-rending ending will bring you to tears.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book. The Book Thief is a captivating novel about courage, family, and, yes, books which you will want to reread. This book has received high praise since its publication a few years ago and it has merited every bit of it.


Next Time: Well, the holidays are approaching and I decided to review a Christmas themed book: Hercule Poirot's Christmas. (Um, yes, it is a murder mystery. But I love Agatha Christie and I just bought this one. And it is set during Christmas, so it will do.) If I do not read this one, I am not sure what I will blog about.

17 December 2009

The Dictionary of Disagreeable English

If you know me, you know I adore snarky books about the English language. I am obsessed with Eats, Shoots and Leaves, addicted to The Joy of Lex, and infatuated with Anguished English. My family knows all about my love for English at its best…and worse. Therefore, for Hanukkah last week, I received a copy of Robert Hartwell Fiske's The Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar. Ah, be still my beating nerd heart.

We all have dictionaries, right? (If you do not, just humor me and say you do. Please.) However, as Fiske illustrates in his book, dictionaries are not what they used to be. Prominent dictionaries, including the vaunted Merriam Webster, have increasingly resorted to including nonstandard English, i.e. improper English, in their texts, all in the name of recording English as it is used, rather than how it should be used. Fiske attacks this concept of "descriptivist" as inexcusable. Although I admit that English does evolve, I am firmly in Fiske's camp - dictionaries should champion proper English, not popular English. After reading this book, you may find yourself taking up arms in Fiske's war as well.

In The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, Fiske has compiled a rogue's gallery of painfully incorrect English. If you love acerbic sarcasm, you're in for a treat. Fiske's acidic commentary is frequently laugh out loud funny, as are the truly hideous examples of murdered grammar which Fiske has culled from journalists, celebrities, and politicians. As much fun as this book is to read, The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is also a handy, informative guide to avoiding the most common grammatical pitfalls. Fiske lists frequent misspellings, misuses (my favorite being "grisly" for "grizzly"), mispronunciations, and non existent words which are used with alarming frequency. Fiske also targets so-called "idiotic" words (many which were developed in business) which he argues have no place in the language, i.e. "consequate" and "office" as a verb. Many of the mistakes are absolutely inexcusable, but he also explains many grammar rules which are not common knowledge. (I was mortified to find several mistakes that I frequently make. I will never, ever use "plus" in a non-mathematical context as long as I live. Forgive me! I knew not what I did!)

If you are a fellow grammar geek/word nerd, you will adore this book. You will laugh at Fiske's biting wit and you will cry at some of the most foul atrocities that were committed against the English language in the examples provided. The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is the perfect way to both amuse and educate yourself. *cough* It would also make an excellent last minute gift suggestion this holiday season. *cough*


Next Time: I am reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and loving it. PIA suggested it to me and Penguins Quack raved about it on Sparklife a few weeks ago, so I cannot wait to finish and blog about it.

14 December 2009


I have been watching you. I know that you did not like my review of The Inheritors. I saw that grimace on your face when I mentioned Golding's name. Don't deny it! I watched your reaction over the telescreen I have installed next to your computer. And do not claim the review never existed. I said it existed; therefore, it exists. You must repent of this thought crime against the Dark Lord Zella…or else.

Now, now, there, there, do not be alarmed. I have not morphed into an evil, totalitarian blogger. I am merely acting like one to illustrate what Winston Smith contends with in George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984. Of course, instead of contending against a delusional, blogging bookworm, Smith finds himself going head-to-head with the shadowy bureaucracy of his native Oceania, a futuristic society that is closely modeled on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

I have a confession of my own to make. I have never read this book until now. I have always meant to, because I adore dystopian fiction, but I never got around to it. Then Rebecca posted about this novel, and I felt that I needed to read it ASAP. I am glad I did - I enjoyed 1984. For me, the best part of this novel was Orwell's dystopia, Oceania. Orwell brought this nightmarish society to life with his vivid detail. I particularly loved the scenes set at Winston's place of employment: The Ministry of Truth (more appropriately named the Ministry of Lies) where Winston forges documents in the name of aiding the state. I also liked Winston, although I can't say that I understood him. He's sympathetic in a somewhat pathetic sort of way. He reminded me of a bit of a more likable, more gullible version of Joseph K. from Kafka's The Trial. Orwell also integrates a fascinating exploration of the nature of truth and free thought into this novel, without being cumbersome.

Although I enjoyed this novel, I found the pacing a bit uneven. I was instantly intrigued with the first part, which introduces us to Winston and his world, and I found the ending engrossing and harrowing. (The ending gets kudos for having one of the creepiest tortures I've ever read about.) But the middle part was slow to me. The parts where Winston finds himself descending further into rebellion against the state were interesting, but the bulk of this part of the novel are scenes in which Winston engages in a romance with a coworker who is also disillusioned with the party. The romantic side story did not really interest me. Perhaps my biggest problem was I didn't like Julia, his love interest. The nicest word I can apply to Julia is "vapid." I can think of some other words for her too, but I won't go there.

Pacing aside, 1984 remains one of the preeminent dystopian sci fi novels for a reason. Although written at the start of The Cold War, this novel explores issues that are still relevant. Orwell crafts a nightmarish society with disturbing parallels to our modern world. If you've never read 1984, definitely give it a read.


Next Time: This post was a little later than I expected because I was busy celebrating Hanukkah this weekend. That is not a bad thing though. For Hanukkah, I received a book that I simply must share with my fellow grammar geeks and word nerds here on blogspot: Robert Hartwell Fiste's The Dictionary of Disagreeable English. I should have the review up in a couple of days.

10 December 2009

My Favorite Poets

I know I promised corpses and non-poisoned tea as my next post; however, that just did not materialize. My apologies, but I did not read any books this week. (Well, I did reread Beowulf, The Inferno, and Hamlet for my finals, but I've already blogged on them, so they hardly count.) Even though I thought I could still read something, my finals bore down on me like rabid, mutant weasels bent on vengeance. (Am I the only person who thinks that would make a great movie?) I had to run for my life! As penance for my laziness, I give you this list of my favorite poets. I have been meaning to do this for some time and felt that this should be an adequate peace offering. I should note that, as a complete and utter poetry geek, I found this list hard to compile. I decided to exclude Shakespeare since I bragged so much about him last week, but he is still near and dear to my heart. Without further adieu, here are my favorites, in chronological order. (Don't you dare make me choose one over the other!):

1. John Donne (1572-1631): I have three words for you: Batter my Heart. I find it hard to describe why I love Donne's poetry so much. (That's unusual for me, no?) His words are just so powerful and his work is so masterfully crafted. Donne is the premier English metaphysics poet and his work covers everything from spiritual poems to secular love poems. Donne is, in my opinion, a true genius.

2. William Blake (1757-1796): I love Blake because his work has a lot of philosophical weight to it, but his poems still remain a joy to read. He was a very forward-thinking, innovative poet, and I give him kudos for that too! I admire his originality. I highly recommend his collection Songs of Experience.

3. Robert Burns (1759-1796): I must confess, I have trouble following Burns' poetry at times, but he writes in amazing, awesome Scottish dialect and his work has such a lyrical quality to it, so who cares? It's fun to read his poems aloud with a mock Scottish brogue. Plus his work is immensely quotable.

4. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) I love English Romantic poetry, and Wordsworth is my favorite. Of course, his work is pretty and flowery and vivid and all that English Romantic jazz, but his poems are well-constructed, so they're more than just fluff.

5. Elizabeth Browning (1806-1861): I adore sonnets. And I firmly believe that Browning wrote the loveliest sonnets since Shakespeare. Read her Sonnets from the Portuguese. If they aren't breath-takingly romantic, then I don't know what is.

6. Henry Longfellow (1807-1882): Oh, I adore Longfellow - his couplet narratives are so much fun to read aloud. Of course, his poems are American folk classics (The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, Evangeline) but my favorite is The Wreck of the Hesperus. Read it aloud on a dark, stormy night.

7. Edgar Alan Poe: Confession - If I had to choose a fave poet, it'd be Poe. He is the first poet whose work I loved and he still holds a special place in my heart. The Raven is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favorites. (When I am stressed out and tired from homework, this is what I read to myself), but his lesser known poems are even more haunting, especially Ulalume and Annabel Lee. Granted, Edgar had enough issues to keep a psychiatrist happy for life, but his work is simply amazing.

8. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): I love Dickinson's whimsical morbidity. Plus her crazy punctuation, original meter, and slant rhymes are a blast to read. Because I couldn't stop for Death is justly famous, but I also adore I heard a fly buzz.

9. Robert Frost (1874-1963): You've probably read this list and thought, "Zella, do you like any poets who aren't demented, neurotic, and/or obsessed with death?" To which I say, "You mean such poets exist?" OK, I wouldn't say that. I would point to Frost. He is the quintessential American poet. I adore his naturalistic style (which is saying something because I usually prefer the more wordy poets). My all-time favorite winter poem is Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Eve. However, as soothing as Frost's work can be, he can pack an intense, philosophical punch when he wants to.

10. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963): To fully appreciate this confessional poet, you have to know her background. Plath led a sad life, marred by mental illness and cut short by suicide, but she is a genius. I first read Daddy - quite frankly one of the most haunting and well-crafted poems I have ever read - and have been addicted to Plath ever since. She writes with such distinctive style and wry cynicism. If you forced me to choose favorites, Plath would give Poe a run for his money. But do read a little of her background before you read her poems. Otherwise, she may freak you out.

So there you have it. My favorite poets. Well, not all of them. I put up the main ones. The big cahunas, so to speak. Well, what poets do you guys like? Any favorites I missed?


Exciting Announcement: I finished my school semester today! Hurray, Hurray, Hurray! What does this have to do with my blog? Welll, instead of only posting once a week, I can now resume posting two to three times a week, as I did in the summer. I have a Read-A-Thon planned for myself over my winter break, with all sorts of amazing classics, contemporary, genre, and YA fiction planned. Let the reading begin! (At least until mid January.) I also will add those book links I promised back in September. I didn't forget!

Next Time (hopefully this weekend!): I am not sure. Maybe William Golding's The Inheritors. I adore Golding's Lord of the Flies, but I read that this novel was actually his favorite. I've read the first few chapters today and it is an interesting book. But I may do George Orwell's 1984 instead. (Rebecca, I didn't forget!) If not, 1984 will be next after Golding.

02 December 2009


I assume you've all heard that old saying about misfortune: "When it rains, it pours." I would think Prince Hamlet would know all about that phrase. Just two months after his beloved father's death, his father's brother, Claudius, has wedded Hamlet's mother and is now the reigning king of Denmark. As if that's not enough of a downer, Hamlet encounters a ghost who claims to be his father. The Ghost reveals that he did not a die a natural death - Hamlet's dad succumbed to murder. And the murderer is none other than Claudius. The Ghost orders Hamlet to avenge him, but Hamlet, ever the thinker, is not sure. Is The Ghost telling the truth? Is Claudius guilty? Leave it to crafty Hamlet to uncover this mystery.

How now, gentle readers! As the final installment in Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance Classics I bring you my favorite Shakespearean play: Hamlet! *trumpet flourish* One reason I love this play is because Hamlet blends a moving mix of action, tragedy, suspense, and humor all into one package. I always groan when I hear people describe Shakespeare as boring. I think what these people assume is that since Shakespeare's name is now synonymous with brilliant literature, his work must be boring. I think calling Hamlet boring is operating with a strange definition of boring. Ghosts, intrigue, poisonings (Yes, plural!) , insanity, and the most dysfunctional family this side of Days of Our Lives is boring? Hmm. I think what they fail to realize is that Shakespeare didn't set out to write masterpieces. He was an entertainer. He wrote what would sell! Although our Elizabethan forebears may have had questionable hygiene practices and worn weird, uncomfy shoes, I refuse to believe that the masses of Elizabethan England would've flocked to Shakespeare's plays if they were not entertaining. To think these plays are no longer entertaining because the actor says "Prithee" is being a bit narrow-minded.We still love a train wreck as much as we did then…and oh! what a train wreck this family and country is!

Although Shakespeare may have been an entertainer, I think it speaks volumes of his talent that his work is brilliant literature, even though it wasn't written with that intent. (Come on, how many people 400 years from now are going to look at our summer blockbusters and call them masterpieces? Mmm hmm. That's what I thought.) Yes, the language in Hamlet is beautiful, and this play is full of some of Shakespeare's most famous lines ("Something is rotten in Denmark," "The play's the thing," Fickle thy name is woman," and my personal favorite: "Methinks it is like a weasel.") But the real draw for me is the character Hamlet. This philosophizing, avenging Dane is one of the most fascinating, contradictory, and complex figures in all of literature. (And he is one of my favorite characters, hands down.) Hamlet is undoubtedly noble and brilliant, as his melancholy, philosophical soliloquies and shrewd plotting illustrate, but he also possesses a razor sharp wit, an inexhaustible supply of puns, and a dark sense of sarcasm. (I laugh every time I read his "Polonius is at supper" exchange with Claudius.) But as likable as Hamlet is, he is also capable of being irrational, impulsive, and, at times, downright cruel. Is he perfect? Far from it, but it's his combination of strengths and weaknesses that make him so appealing. Hamlet is one of my favorite characters because he is so human. Furthermore, how can you not feel sorry for the poor guy? His dad's dead, his uncle stole the throne, his mom married the nasty uncle, and now they're both accused of killing dear old Dad…by dad himself. I firmly believe poor Hamlet needs a hug.

I recently read a poll that said the most common issue readers have with Shakespeare is the complex, ornate Elizabethan English. I am not going to argue that Shakespeare's plays are easy to read. You do have to make an effort to read and comprehend the text. However, I am firmly convinced that this is more of a matter of how you go about reading the texts, rather than an issue with the plays themselves. I have posted a companion blog that gives some ideas on how to do this. Feel free to adapt it to your own purposes.
Don't dismiss Shakespeare's Hamlet as a dry, boring, waste of your time! That couldn't be the further from the truth! Hamlet is a masterfully crafted, psychologically intense drama with an unforgettable cast of characters.


Next Week: I am not sure. My finals are next week, so I can not guarantee that I will get anything read. If that's the case, I'll post a blog about my favorite poets or a list of the books I'd take if I were stranded on a deserted island (one must always be prepared). If I do get something read, it will probably be a classic British murder mystery by Dorothy Sayers or Ellis Peters. I miss my mysteries and I want something more light hearted after all of the deep, dark things I've been blogging about. I believe a witty, genteel murder mystery with minimal amounts of blood and ample amounts of entertainment is exactly what we need. Hopefully, next week, I'll meet you here over a (figurative) corpse. And to make up for extorting pie off of you last week, I'll make us tea, erm, of the non-poisoned variety. Oh, fine, I'll taste it first, but I assure you I am not trying to kill any of you. *hides arsenic behind back and grins innocently*

Shakespeare Is Not Trying To Drive You Insane

I still remember my first encounter with the Bard. I was a tender seventh grader staring down Othello. To be frank, I was expecting to be confused and bored out of my mind, but once I figured out what was going on, I fell in love with Shakespeare and became quite addicted to his dramatic plots, epic language, and remarkable characters.

However, I know that the biggest barrier with Shakespeare for many people is the language. And, as lovely as I think Shakespeare's work is, I'd be lying if I said reading Elizabethan English is easy. It isn't - on the first try. It's a mistake to try to bulldoze through Shakespeare's work. If you want to appreciate Shakespeare's work, you must understand it. And if you want to understand it, you're going to need to do more than just battle your way blindly through the play. I believe the best way to approach Hamlet (or any Shakespearean play) is the way Shakespeare's original audience did, a form of method reading, if you will.

Shakespeare's audiences were familiar with these stories before he ever wrote them (Yep. Shakespeare's ideas were all adaptations. He'd win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, not Best Original.) Therefore, before you try to dive into Shakespeare, you need to be familiar with the story behind Hamlet, or whichever play it is you're reading. I usually object to reading summaries before reading a book, but with Shakespeare it is essential. Read a good thorough summary of the plot and use a side-by-side modern translation (No Fear Shakespeare) as a supplement (but not as a substitute! Sorry, you really need to read both the original and the translation. Do not just read the modern version and skim the original text) to help you figure out what's going on.

In Shakespeare's time, people didn't ask if you wanted to see a play. They asked if you wanted to hear a play. And hearing Shakespeare's work performed is vital - you'll pick up nuances and intonations you can't pick up by reading. Once you know the story and characters, you need to either see or hear Shakespeare performed. If you're like me and live nowhere near a good theater (let alone Shakespeare repertory company), you're going to have to rely on films or audio recordings. I've heard the best Hamlet film is the Kenneth Branagh version. (Alas! I hath never lain mine eyes upon it, but I have watched the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions. Both are well-acted, but cut out essential subplots.) One thing though: if you watch a film adaptation, you're not going to do yourself much good if you watch one of the modern ones with modern dialogue. You want to hear the dialogue in its original; otherwise, you're defeating the purpose of watching the movie. (Don't get me wrong. I am not saying do not watch the modernized versions, just do not think that that will help you appreciate the dialogue. Besides, Hamlet is not Hamlet, to me, unless he's wearing tights and emoting, "Fie on 't," but that's just a personal opinion.)

A good alternative is listening to unabridged audio books of Hamlet and following along with the text. (I love the one performed by Frank Muller. He gives each character a distinct voice, especially the pompous windbag Polonius. I also couldn't believe how moving some of the scenes were and I wasn't even watching anything. I, ahem, got teary-eyed during Hamlet's first soliloquy) Whichever route you choose, the main thing is listening to Shakespearean dialogue performed by someone who knows what they're doing. You will not believe what a difference listening to a talented, well-trained actor delivering a properly intoned monologue is over listening to one of your classmates mumbling through (and utterly butchering) a monologue. In skilled hands, Shakespeare's dialogue (and that mysterious iambic pentameter) jumps off the page and comes to life, as Shakespeare intended.

Then after you know the story and have heard Shakespeare from capable hands, then (and only then) read the play. I think you'll find your experience much more enjoyable and much less frustrating. Good luck!