27 January 2010

Fahrenheit 451

Guy Montag lives in a vapid, futuristic America where there are no books, no ideas, and no independent thought. (Sound familiar?) He spends his days as a fireman, burning illegal "worthless" books, including Shakespeare, Faulkner, and poetry, and his nights tolerating his mindless, TV-addicted wife, Mildred. Literature, knowledge, and appreciation of any of the finer things in life are all shoved aside in favor of superficial pop culture and the fast life. And then Guy meets Clarisse, a teenaged neighbor who (insert astonished gasp) thinks and appreciates nature and takes the time to talk to people! Oh my God! How dare she? This is earth-shattering behavior to Guy, who has grown accustomed to the fast-paced, self-obsessed society in which he resides. Soon, he's stealing the books he should be burning and is beginning to question his life. Once he discovers that there is more to life than TV and the saccharine sweet world he lives in, he becomes determined to change society. But at what price?

Fahrenheit 451 is one of the world's premier sci fi books and is one of my favorites. Why? I love Bradbury's writing, for starters. He has a style that is both evocatively descriptive and lyrical, yet still readable. (Bradbury has been accused of overusing adjective and noun sentence constructions. I won't argue that, but I still find his style readable and enjoyable.) Guy Montag is not the most mentally swift of heroes, but he has a good heart and it's encouraging to watch his transformation from an unthinking drone to an intellectual rebel. I also love the gripping, compelling plot - this book is a genuine page turner. And since it's a cool 160 pages, I guarantee you'll read it all in one setting. I particularly love the scene where Guy lashes out at Mildred and her idiot friends by demanding that they have an intellectual conversation and illegal poetry reading with him which, as you may guess, ends disastrously. That scene leaves me howling every time. I also like the unique dystopia that Bradbury creates. Rather than fashioning a totalitarian communistic society, like so many other dystopian writers, Bradbury's futuristic world bears a disturbing resemblance to modern-day America, with its rejection of knowledge and culture in favor of superficial pursuits. This book is often championed as a criticism of book censorship and it is. But the real target of Bradbury's anger is obsession with televison and superficiality in general. The people of this society didn't have book censorship and thought control thrusted upon them by force. They accepted it willingly because they were brainwashed with the box, and this makes the book all the more disturbing because of it.

But the main reason I love this book is because this book scares me! The very notion of a society that burns books tears at my very existence. I would be nothing without my books. Reading has been my favorite hobby since I was a toddler. What would I do with my spare time? I wouldn't have a job, because I work in a library. I wouldn't have a blog, because I blog on books. I wouldn't have a future, because my plan is to teach literature and history and write books. I wouldn't get Hanukkah and birthday presents, because that's what I always get. My God! I am Jewish - We're the "People of the Book"! What would we Jews argue with each other about if we didn't have books? Just thinking about this upsets me. (Of course, I got upset when my books were banished to the basement. I can still hear them whimpering like little lost orphans at night. *sheds tear* My poor darlings, there, there, don't cry, Rebecca and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Garfield 30 Years of Laughs & Lasagna: The Life & Times of a Fat, Furry Legend! *cough* I digress. I do this when I am upset...) And I assume that, since you're reading a blog devoted to books, you also love books. What would you do in a society like the one Bradbury describes?

Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is an amazing, thought provoking read. The narration is evocative, the plot is suspenseful, and the setting is eerily familiar. Read Fahrenheit 451. If it doesn't scare you, I don't know what will.


Next Week: I am going to try to read Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, an excellent historical fiction novel set in the American West. This is one of my favorite historical fiction books. I am rereading it just to blog on it. Yeah, it's that good.

21 January 2010

Guards Guards

We all know the drill, right? Every fantasy city, at some point, is oppressed by a vile dictator , and the people need to be rescued by a hero, preferably an impoverished man of noble but secret birth brandishing a fancy sword to slay a dragon to prove his mettle. (If only politics were that much fun now..) Well, the problem in Ankh-Morpork is everyone does know the drill. So much so that the sinister, mysterious, and most incompetent Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night decide to overthrow benevolent dictator Havelock Vetinari by conjuring up a dragon and staging its "slaying" by their own handpicked "heir" to the throne. Only problem is that these sorry excuses for conspirators didn't consult the dragon on its wishes. Soon, the scaly, gigantic beast declares itself king and spends its free time burning streets (and its former handlers) to ashes. The dragon must be stopped! Alas, there is no hero in sight. Unless you count the City Watch. Between pathetic drunken Captain Sam Vimes, gigantic dwarf Carrot, stolid Sergeant Colon, and crafty kleptomaniac Nobby, most wouldn't, but they're all Ankh Morpork has.

I fell in love with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series late last year when I read Going Postal. Since then, I have read eight of the series novels (with more to come) and have enjoyed every single one. That's saying something, because it's easy for me to get burnt out with a series. Not with Discworld. Pratchett's uproarious sense of humor and irreverent take on high fantasy is a treat to read. I can only describe it as Monty Python meets Tolkien...with lots and lots of zaniness, puns, satires, and allusions to classic literature and current events.

Guards! Guards! is no exception. This comic crime fantasy had me laughing out loud all the way through. I like Pratchett's work because it is funny in so many different ways. I especially enjoy his witty third person narration, which is frequently as hilarious as the characters and plot. His characters are also unique, realistic, and endearing. This is the first time I had read about Vimes and Carrot, though I had come to know and love Colon and Nobby (especially the scrappy, roguish Nobby) in previous books. I look forward to meeting all of these characters down the road in future Discworld novels. I also enjoyed seeing how Pratchett takes crime fiction cliches that have been beaten to death and makes them fresh by transferring them to a fantasy setting. I adore crime fiction, but his satire of the genre was excellent. There are some hilarious allusions to Casablanca, Dirty Harry, and Dragnet if you pay attention.

Even if you're not a Discworld fan, this novel is fun to read. The pacing is breakneck, with twists and turns throughout. The mystery is a pretty good one, too. Rather than keeping the villains in the dark until the end, Pratchett traces the Watch and the Brotherhood throughout (only keeping the latter's identity secret) until the climactic point when their interests collide and everything falls to pieces. Fortunately, Discworld novels are accessible, even if you're not a fan. The series is broken into smaller series focusing on individual characters; I have read those smaller series in order, but have not read the series in general in order. So far, I have found that Pratchett does a magnificent job of not overwhelming a newbie with old references or boring a veteran reader by rehashing old stories.

Guards! Guards! is a delightful mix of high fantasy, sharp satire, and crime fiction. If you're an old Discworld fan, I am preaching to the choir, but if you're unfamiliar with the series, this fun, fast paced book is a great start.


Official Apology: I had this blog ready on time, but tech trouble threw me off schedule! ARGGGGGH! I am so sorry. I was only late two times last semester. Two weeks into this semester I have been late every week. I pride myself on punctuality, so this angers me, especially when it's not due to my own laziness. I will try my best to have next week's up on time. *glares at computer*

Next Week: I will review either Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Depends on if I feel like book burnings or anthropomorphic dictators…

14 January 2010

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Robert Jordan's orders are simple enough. At least on the surface they are, though he has his share of misgivings about them. Jordan, an American demolition expert who is fighting with Spanish Republicans versus the Fascists in the vicious Spanish Civil War, is assigned to destroy a key bridge with the aid of a band of a partisan band. Sound simple enough? However, unprofessional allies, bad weather, worse infighting, a budding romance, the threat of betrayal, and a growing realization that his orders are impossible to fulfil all collide to greatly complicate Robert's task. Will Robert succeed in his mission? Or will his obstacles get the better of him?

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, in addition to having a title that yours truly thinks is one of the coolest on the market, is one of the world's classic war novels and is widely considered Hemingway's best novel. I was particularly impressed with this novel's intense realism. Hemingway was a soldier in WWI and served as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, so his portrayal of combat and partisan life behind enemy lines is authentic and gripping. (Warning: A few of the scenes describing brutal atrocities against civilians, though told through flashback, are a bit difficult to read. The chapter describing the liquidation of one town disturbed me profoundly. I thought my readings about Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had made me hard to shock. I stand corrected.) The real treat for me, though, was the characters. Robert Jordan is not my favorite protagonist, but I do like how complex Hemingway makes him. He is practical and levelheaded, but a bit distant and isn't always sympathetic. Robert's personality quirks were refreshing, because they made him seem more real than the flawless hero of many books. The supporting cast is superb. Hemingway's Spanish guerrillas are so colorful that the come alive: the brutal, inscrutable guerrilla leader Pablo; his brash, willful wife Pilar; morally upright, noble guide Anselmo; foulmouthed, hotheaded Agustin. By the time I finished this book, I felt like I knew them all.

I enjoyed this book, but I thought the pacing was uneven. The first and last parts of the book focus on the complicated mission to destroy the bridge and were suspenseful and entertaining. The middle part, however, slows down to focus on Robert's romance with Maria, a traumatized young woman who the partisans rescued from the fascists. I thought the romance was overly simplistic and a bit too pat. I just couldn't buy the "I saw you and immediately decided to devote my life to you" aspect of their relationship. Part of my problem was that, despite the constant talk of how wonderful their relationship was, it seemed more like blatant lust than true love to me. Also, Maria struck me as being so bland, especially as compared to the other Spaniard characters, that I didn't find her that interesting. I didn't dislike her; on the contrary, I felt sorry for her, but she seemed one dimensional and didn't intrigue me. My only other problem (and this is an odd one) is the profanity. Hehe No, I don't mean that there is too much. In fact, there was too little of it, if that makes any sense. Hemingway, in order to make this novel more marketable, choose to use euphemisms in place of cursing, That didn't bother me, novels with really heavy cursing annoy me, but he also chose to use the word "obscenity" in place of cursing. This confused and distracted me, especially when it was used multiple times in one sentence! This caused me to stop and try to decipher what was being said, so it ended up just disrupting the reading experience. As long as language is not used gratuitously, I do not mind it and actually would have preferred it in this case, because it would have been easier to read.

Pacing and language aside, For Whom The Bell Tolls is a powerful war novel with an exciting story and compelling characters. I have always been fascinated by Spain, but I am not as familiar with the Spanish Civil War as I should be. (Most of my knowledge is about foreign involvement in the war, rather than the actual conflict itself.) Hemingway's realistic, well-crafted book intrigued me and made me want to learn more.
Announcement: I loved posting three times a week during my winter break, but, alas, I returned to school this week. I like school, but this means that I can only post once a week now. (Waaa!) I will continue to use Wednesdays as my day to post reviews, as I did last semester. (My apologies for being late! Life has been crazy lately.) Unlike last semester, my reviews will be posted in the afternoon or evening, rather than the morning. Thanks to all of you for reading! I will try to continue to give you at least one post a week while I am in school. The good thing is I am taking World Lit. II with my amazing professor, so I should get to blog on some of my assigned reading.

Next Week: I will try my best to review Terry Pratchett's Guards, Guards! I have fallen in love with Discworld and am looking forward to blogging about this combo of humorous fantasy and crime.

10 January 2010

The Lightning Thief

Oh, boy, the gods sure are mad. Zeus has just accused Hades of stealing his master lightning bolt (a big no-no) and Hades insist that he is innocent of these charges! Most folks would call a lawyer, but hehe Greek gods do not do that when they get ticked at each other. Instead, they start the equivalent of World War III. What you don't know about this? Hmmph. Not exactly up on current affairs are you? Well, neither is troubled twelve year old Percy Jackson. In fact, he doesn't even believe that the gods are real, but when he learns that his absent father is a god (making Percy a Half-Blood), lands at a summer camp for his demigods, and is tasked with retrieving Zeus' bolt, Percy quickly gets up to speed on things. With his new friends, Grover and Annabeth, Percy sets off on a cross country trek that is fraught with peril and battles with all sorts of cool mythological creatures en route to putting a stop to the gods' pending war.
I have had several people (including Scott and Penguins Quack) recommend the Percy Jackson series to me. Thanks, guys! I loved The Lightning Thief, the first book in that series, and have already reserved the second one. I love mythology, so I am proud of author Rick Riordan, a former teacher of Greek mythology, for introducing younger readers to all of the great characters and stories of Greek mythology with his engaging books. (Riordan's books prove that there is way more to mythology than just characters with crazy, unpronounceable names.) Riordan weaves his allusions to the original myths in well with the modern story; I had a lot of fun guessing which villain was which mythological monster in disguise.

This is a fun book to read in general, though. The plot is action-packed, with frequent confrontations between Percy and the likes of Ares, Medusa, and Chimera, and lots of heart stopping twists and turns. Percy's snarky first person narration is easy to read and is also quite funny. I also enjoyed Riordan's characters - I liked Percy and his pals, and Riordan's characterizations of the mythological characters stay true to form but are still original.

My only problem, and it's a minor one, is that, in true adventure story fashion, there were a couple of parts where I got annoyed at Percy for walking into a trap that I thought was obvious. It wasn't angry annoyance though, so much as sympathetic "Percy, what are you doing? No! Don't do that! What's the matter with you? No!" annoyance, and it didn't affect my enjoyment of the story.

The Percy Jackson series is targeted toward junior high kids, but I firmly believe that nobody can outgrow a good book. The Lightning Thief is an exciting, inventive fantasy adventure that you won't put down. (At least, I didn't.) If you love mythology, you'll love Riordan's take on the original tales and enjoy recognizing the characters. If you have never read mythology, this accessible book is the perfect introduction.


Next Time: I will review Hemingway's classic Spanish Civil War saga For Whom The Bell Tolls. I am about halfway through it and I start school tomorrow, but I will try to have my review up in the middle of the week, if at all possible.

07 January 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Sawtelle family has spent decades breeding and training their own unique breed of dogs on their rural northern Wisconsin farm. Gar and Trudy Sawtelle have raised their only child, mute teenager Edgar, to help with the family business; Edgar is happy and well-adjusted. Then his idyllic life is shattered when his father's estranged, enigmatic brother Claude returns from a long absence and moves in with the family. After a tension-filled stay, Claude leaves, but Edgar's father dies mysteriously shortly thereafter. Trudy and Edgar do their best to keep up the farm on their own, but Claude soon weasels his way into the family business...and into Trudy's affections. Edgar has a surreal encounter with an apparition claiming to be his father's ghost who accuses Claude of murder, and Edgar becomes determined to uncover the truth behind his father's death...

Sound familiar? If that synopsis had you going, "Now, wait a minute! I've heard that somewhere before," then I am proud of you. You either must have paid attention in your English classes or you remembered my teaser from my last post, because David Wroblewski's fascinating novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is a retelling of Shakespeare's classic play Hamlet, with the setting transferred from the courts of medieval Danish royalty to rustic Wisconsin farm country. I love Shakespeare (especially his tragedies), and I also enjoy well-written retellings of his work. Wroblewski, for the most part, stays with the original story, yet his take is inventive and well-rendered. Rather than simply retelling the story with different characters and settings, he makes his version his own - his take on the ghost scene and the epic showdown at the end are original, believable adaptations of the original which stay true to the source but are fresh interpretations that fit Wroblewski's setting.

As fun as it is to read this novel as a comparison, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is fully capable of standing on its own merits. Wroblewski vividly recreates the rugged, northern Wisconsin setting (which is where he was raised), and his meticulous description of the Sawtelle's unique business is captivating. The characters are also well-crafted. I just loved Edgar - he is clever and sensitive, but he's not quite as brooding as Hamlet. Claude also ranks as one of the most despicable villains I've encountered in fiction in awhile. I was ready to volunteer to help Edgar kill him, but the stiff penalties for aiding and abetting literary vengeance made me back off and let Edgar handle it...

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a long novel (over 550 pages!), and I did find it a bit slow at times. Not that it's boring - it isn't. The slow parts are rich in atmosphere and are pivotal to the story. I believe my problem was more a matter of expectations. I assumed the story would follow the structure of Shakespeare's play, starting shortly after the murder. This novel, instead, starts at the beginning - long before Gar's death - and works its way forward. After I started reading it, I realized that Wroblewski's decision to structure his novel this way made sense, because it gave the much needed background information and allows the story to build to its ominous, inevitable conclusion. After I realized that, I didn't have a problem with the length, so I believe it's a matter of not judging a book by its predecessor more than anything.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is Wroblewski's debut novel and I am thoroughly impressed with his talent. Few authors would attempt such an ambitious first novel - a retelling of one of the world's most famous stories. But Wroblewski infuses so much originality into this novel that it comes off as far more than just a simple imitation. If you are a fan of Hamlet, you will love this contemporary reworking of that classic. If you're a fan of good books, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle will satisfy your needs, too.

Next Time: I will try to review Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, the first in the Percy Jackson series. Scott and Penguins Quack both recommended the series to me. So far, I have really enjoyed the book (Yay! A fun read!) and will try to have a review up this weekend.

04 January 2010

Gentle readers, meet the new, improved zellakate!

As my first post of the new year, I would like to unveil the new and improved zellakate! (No, not me! I am quite impervious to change. Hehe My family has learned this the hard way. I am referring to my blog, also known as zellakate.) I have tidied up my humble little online abode and added all sorts of nifty sites for your reading pleasure. And, in the name of politeness, I decided to dedicate a post to introducing you to my new sidebar additions. You can consider this the VIP tour. I'll stroll you around, point out the highlights, and even let you bring a soda. Just don't step on the grass. Well, you can stop on that grass, but not the other patch, okay? Without further adieu, let us start the tour.

The first new sidebar I have added are my favorite book sites, period.

1. Edward Hamilton: I cannot say enough about this website. Edward Hamilton is a discount book dealer based in Connecticut. Hamilton's mail order company sells thousands of titles at excellent discount prices. His selection includes publisher closeouts and overstocks, in addition to current titles at discount prices. I have been ordering books from here for several years and have always had good experiences with this company. I highly recommend the nonfiction selection. I have found high quality nonfiction titles that were originally priced at over $50 for less than $15. Just be quick if you see something you want. Hamilton's selection sells out fast!

2. Book Page: I pick up a print edition of this monthly book review magazine at the local library where I work and read it faithfully every month. This has been my source for many newer books that I review, including Sashenka. The website takes a while to get used to, but it offers countless reviews of contemporary books, breaking book news, and author interviews.

3. AuthorTracker: With this handy website, you can sign up to receive e-mail updates about your favorite author's latest books. I "track" several authors and am relieved to say that this website does not bombard you pointless spam. (Yay!) The catch is it only keeps you informed about Harper Collins authors, but many notable writers are signed with HC, so many bestselling writers can be tracked. (If your favorite writer isn't on here, google their name for a website to see if they have an online newsletter you can sign up for. That works, too!)

4. NoveList Plus: This is an excellent book site that is run by Ebsco. You will need to ask your librarian to set up an account for you (Your library may offer automatic accounts like mine does.) But it is worth asking for! NoveList Plus caters to readers of all ages with recommendation lists, book discussion guides (perfect for book clubs!), and articles. I really love their recommended read feature. When you click on it, you will be offered a choice of over 25 different genres (from nonfiction to genre to manga) that are further subdivided into more specific genre specifications. (For instance, historical fiction is divided between everything from The American Civil War to The Victorian Era.) Therefore, you can find look for something more specific.

5. BookSpot: This website is cool because it is essentially a whole website devoted to what I am doing right now - links to online book sites. You can find links to recommendation lists, bestseller lists, and award winning titles. Not all of the links work, but there are so many, you can lose yourself for hours trying out all of the links on this website. *cough*

My next new addition is a compendium of online recommendation lists, everything from genre fiction to classics to children's. Here they are in alphabetic order:

children's: This National Education Association list names great kids' books by age range, from infants up to preteens.

classics: This book list, from an online tutorial site, provides a list of solid classics. If you're looking for more of a challenge, try this website's AP reading list. (Both lists will be on the sidebar.)

fantasy: I had trouble finding a good fantasy list. I still have my share of qualms about some of the picks on here, but this one was the best I could find. It has a nice mix of classic fantasy and newer work, so I cannot complain too much.

horror: The Horror Writers' Organization released this list, and I was impressed with it. It has a list of solid horror titles, both new and old.

mysteries: I give you two lists in one with this. The British Crime Writers Association compiled a list of best crime novels, and, naturally, the American Mystery Writers Association followed suit with their own list. Both lists are superb.

sci fi: This list had a good mix of soft and hard sci fi (in addition to classics and newer titles).

thriller: If you love thrillers, you will love this list of classics.

YA: This comprehensive list (over 300 titles, with more being added regularly) is the best recommendation list I saw on the web. This one lists classics, traditional YA, and excellent contemporary fiction. Even if you don't consider yourself a fan of YA, this list is well worth checking out.

(P.S. I never could find a decent nonfiction list that didn't include a bunch of dry titles that even I wouldn't pick up. If any of you have suggestions, I would appreciate it.)

There is also my new genre-specific website bar, with links to websites devoted to the genre in question:

children: This website, Read Kiddo Read, was founded by author James Patterson. I viewed it with suspicion at first, but it's an excellent resource. There are reviews and recommendation lists that cater to kids of all ages.

fantasy: This British-based website (Fantasybookreviews.com) has reviews, author interviews, recommendation lists, and the latest news on fantasy releases.

horror: I couldn't find a horror website I was completely thrilled with. This one isn't devoted to horror books, but it does have reviews of new releases. I will keep my eye out for a website devoted to horror reads. (If you know of one, let me know.)

mystery: The Mystery Reader offers reviews and news about the latest in mysteries, crime novels, and thrillers.

sci fi: The Sci Fi Reader (no relation the The Mystery Reader, that I am aware of) is devoted to spec fic in general (including fantasy and horror) but sci fi gets prominent billing. You will find reviews, news, discussion forums, and interviews.

YA: This website (Teen Reads) is the same site where I got the superb YA recommendation list. In addition to that great list, you can also find reviews and news about the latest in YA.

I also have a new sidebar up devoted to the premier annual book awards:

Man Booker Prize: The Man Booker Prize is awarded to the best work of fiction by an author from Britain or the Commonwealth. Previous winners have included The Life of Pi, which I reviewed back in October.

National Book Award: The National Book Foundation acknowledges the best fiction, nonfiction, YA fiction, and poetry with this prestigious award.

PEN/Faulkner: The PEN Faulkner award is named for one of my all-time favorite authors (William Faulkner) and is used to recognize excellent American fiction each year.

Pulitzer Prize: This prestigious award is annually given to top-notch fiction, drama, poetry, history, nonfiction, and biographies.

Finally, I also have links up to the two major bestseller lists, if you're interested in what everyone else is reading right now.

NY Times: I wanted to have a live feed on my blog that linked to this, but I feared that my blog would never be able to handle it, so I offer you this link instead.

Publishers Weekly: For the sake of comparison, I also give you this link to the Publishers' Weekly's list of bestsellers.

*slumps into corner* There you go. That's the grand tour. Nothing to see here now. Please disperse and try the new links and tell me what you think. I hope you enjoy the links and I would love to hear if you guys have any suggestions for other online sites. (Please, please, please tell me if they do not work or do not load properly. I will fix it!)


Next Time: I will be reviewing David Wroblewski's amazing debut novel from a couple of years ago - The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This novel is a retelling of Hamlet, set in rural 1970s Wisconsin. I cannot wait to review it!