24 February 2010

The Unblogged Chronicles (Jan. and Feb. 2010)

My apologies for not having this up this weekend. My schedule has been crazy lately, and I just didn't have time. Sorry!

I have another gigantic post for this week, but next week I will get back to normal size articles. I promise! This week, I am inaugurating my brand-new series, "The Unblogged Chronicles", and passing out some awards to some very deserving bloggers. I feel like today is a special occasion as a result. Perhaps I should dress up. It wouldn't kill me to wear something a little more formal than the same old T-shirts, jeans, and Crocs. *peers in closet and sees nothing but T-shirts, jeans, and Crocs* Well, maybe I could christen my new series by breaking a champagne bottle over it, like they do for ships. *smashes champagne bottle over laptop* Um...How about I just shut up and get going, eh? We'll start off with the "Unblogged Chronicles" which is a mini-review of each of the books I have read this year and didn't blog about. (And, yes, I do realize that they're now technically not unblogged. I like the title, though. Sounds science fiction-ish.)

*Hogfather (Discworld fantasy): The Hogfather, Discworld's version of Santa has disappeared on Hogswatch Eve. Oh no! Who will bring the kiddies their gifts? Never fear! Erm, Death is here to take over! Hehe Hogfather was another novel in my Discworld journey. I loved this book, because, well, because it's a Discworld novel. What better reason do I need? Well, that and the premise amuses me. I especially loved the villain - creepy Mr. Teatime. It also has what is now my all-time favorite line from a book (which served as my Facebook status for some time): "Pigs are not notably aerodynamic, are they?" (As a side note, when I was googling this quote to ensure I had it right, one of the search suggestions was "pigs are not rodents." Um, duh!) Alas, I didn't blog about it, (the book, not the pigs), because it was past Christmas when I finished it, and I would have looked goofy.

*Animal Farm (satire): I have a review written for this one, so I don't want to give too much away. Suffice to say it was one of my favorites. You'll learn more when I review it.

*Trap with a Green Fence (memoir): Beautiful Holocaust memoir by one of my heroes, Richard Glazar. A Czech Jew, Glazar was sent to the nightmarish extermination camp Treblinka during WWII and was one of the key leaders in the revolt that took place in that camp in 1943. As you may have guessed, the subject matter is bit morbid, but the book is ultimately inspirational. Glazar employs a wry conversational tone that makes it seem as if he's telling you the story himself. The only reason I didn't blog on it is the narrative is hard to follow if you're not aware of the background. I first read about Glazar (and Treblinka) in the book Into That Darkness, so I was familiar with the Jews and Nazis he referenced. Unfortunately, in his book, Glazar doesn't introduce these people, so without that foreknowledge I would have been a bit lost. I still highly recommend this book. Just read Into That Darkness first.

*Phaedra (tragedy): I read this classic drama for World Lit. II this semester. I adore a good tragedy (I am emoting like Hamlet as I write this), so reading this Racine classic was a real treat for me. The translation I read (by Richard Wilbur) had excellent, unforced poetry, which made it lots of fun to read aloud. Phaedra herself is not a likable character, but this is a masterfully crafted play. I didn't blog about it, because I was too busy writing an essay about the play, but this is a must for fellow tragedy geeks.

*Sea of Monsters (YA fantasy): More Percy Jackson! I love this series, even though as a college sophomore I suppose I should've outgrown middle school reads sometime ago. (Nah. You're never too old to read. :D ) This one has been my favorite so far. I loved this redux of The Odyssey, which is one of my favorite stories, anyway. The humor and action of the first book is intact, but I was relieved that Percy finally stopped walking into obvious traps in this one. Yay, Percy!

*The Third Man (thriller): I so looked forward to reading this one. See...I am a classic film geek, and I have always wanted to see the movie The Third Man, what with the noir film techniques, Post WWII Vienna setting, Orson Welles, and awesome zither score. (Oh. My. God. I just officially confirmed my nerdiness with that statement.) But I heard it was based on a novella, and it is my policy to always read the book first. Alas, I was sorely disappointed. Don't get me wrong! The story is great and I still want to see the movie. It's just that the book was never written for publication. Graham Greene only wrote it because he felt that he needed a prose basis for his screenplay. As a result, the narration is jarring and often a bit unpolished. I was frequently confused by what was going on. The moral of this story: Never, ever read stories that were not meant for publication and were written solely to lay the foundation for a film. I am now revising my policy. From now on, I am experiencing the story through whichever medium it was intended, not just the first form it was in.

*Matchless (fairy tale) : Gregory Maguire's sweet retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl" is heartwarming and easily read in one setting; however, I was a teensy bit disappointed. This makes me sound cold-hearted. Allow me to explain: I liked the story (it made a little tear well up in my eye at the end), but I love Maguire for his gorgeous wordsmithing and his elaborate world building and the ironic way he turns fairy tales upside down. This story was written to be read-aloud for NPR, so the style is less complex than Maguire's other works and the story line is more streamlined and more traditional than his more experimental offerings. A good book - would be a great one to read as holiday tradition - but not what I was expecting. Read it for the story. If you read it expecting vintage Maguire, you'll be a bit surprised.

*The Titan's Curse (YA fantasy): Deja vu. It's Percy Jackson all over again! This is the third book in the YA series, and as with the previous two, I loved it. Same great blend of mythology, action, and humor. Only complaint: The ending was a little too pat for my taste. Still a fun, fast read. I anxiously await the last two Percy books!

*Witness (YA historical fiction): This is an unusual, fascinating novel, suggested to me by my dear friend Bev. Author Karen Hesse tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan's hate-filled rise and fall in a small Vermont town during the Roaring Twenties. The story is told in first person blank verse poetry, by several town members, who range from Klansmen to the two little girls the Klan targets (one is African American and the other is Jewish). The plot is compelling and the narration is fascinating. I highly recommend this one. I didn't blog about it only because I didn't have time.

Next Week: I am not sure. I am getting ready to read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Maybe that. Or that historical fiction I've been promising for weeks...


And now for the awards. I was so thrilled this week when Scott (Ergo) gave me an Over the Top Award and when Lucy (Amusing Seth) gave me two awards: the Sunshine award and the Humane award. Thanks so much, guys! Now, in order to pass on the Over the Top award, I must answer the following questions in one word and then nominate five other bloggers. To pass on the Sunshine and Humane awards, I had to pick some of my favorite blogs to nominate. I decided to give each of my nominees all three awards. But first you have to suffer through my answers to the questions. :D

Your cell phone: Murdered
Your hair: Long
Your mother: Complicated
Your father: Amazing
Your favorite food: Spaghetti
Your dream last night: Non-existent
Your favorite drink: Tea
Your dream goal: Ph.D
What room are you in: Living Room
Your hobby: Reading
Your fear: Frogs
Where do you see yourself in six years: School
Where were you last night: Online
Something you aren't: Practical
Muffins: Yum!
Wish list item: Weasels
Where did you grow up: Everywhere
Last thing you did: Homework
What are you wearing: Jeans
Your TV: Silent
Your pets: Chihuahuas!
Your friends: Nerds
Your life: Bizarre
Your mood: Whimsical
Missing someone: Um
Vehicle: Honda
Something you aren't wearing: Heels
Your favorite store: Books-a-Million
Your favorite color: Blue
When was the last time you laughed: Today
Last time you cried: Yesterday
Your best friend: Renee
One place you go to over and over: Sparklife
Facebook: Abandoned
Favorite place to eat: Home

The Blogs I have nominated (in alphabetical order):

James (Cornelius's Crambe) for his always entertaining observations.

Ryan (The Dark Corner of the Mind) for his helpful writing articles.

Jourdie (I Read This!) for his excellent book reviews.

Math is a Plentiful Harvest (Math is a Plentiful Harvest) for her superb, introspective poetry and her thought-provoking essays.

Penguins Quack (Tales Featuring the Penguins Demise) for her always hilarious posts (and for having the best online name EVER!).

*thunderous applause* Congratulations, guys! Go forth and nominate other worthy bloggers.

17 February 2010

The Night of the Hunter

John Harper lives with a dark secret that he dare not reveal to anyone. He swore to his father, on the day that the old man was arrested for bank robbery and murder, that he would never tell anyone about the location of the stolen money. Not the police, not his distraught mother, no one. Only nine-year old John and his five-year old sister Pearl know. But then a charming preacher named Harry Powell strolls into the John's Depression-era Ohio town and claims that he was his father's chaplain in prison. Everyone else in town is taken by the seemingly kind and moral Powell, including John's mother whom Powell eventually marries, but John is not fooled. He knows "The Preacher," as Powell is called, is up to no good. (John is the only one who figures out that there's just something remotely creepy about a dude with the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles...) A sinister game of cat and mouse develops between the precocious youngster and his ruthless stepfather as The Preacher attempts to make John talk, a game of cat and mouse that ultimately sends John and his sister on a terrifying race for their lives to escape Powell.

I love a good thriller and have been meaning to read the suspense classic The Night of the Hunter for several years now. I came across it in a suspense novel collection at my local bookstore late last year and couldn't resist buying it...and several other books. My anticipation was well worth it - this book is excellent! For starters, this is a very well-written book. It's written in third person but with a period dialect. The accent is not overdone and it greatly adds to the storytelling feel. I felt like I was listening to my grandpa relay a story about his childhood while reading this. (Not that his childhood was similar, though he does have some pretty crazy stories to tell...) Author David Grubb also creates an authentic Depression-era setting without beating the reader over the head with tons of description. He conveys a lot in his sparsely eloquent narration.

More importantly, though, this book is a genuine page turner! It's a relatively short novel, so it's a quick read to start with, but the pacing is superb. Grubb builds up to the exciting climax with so many twists and turns, but it never feels like he's being gratuitous with cheap tricks. The denouement, after the climax, goes on a few pages too long, to me, but that's after all of the action is over, so it's not a big deal.

The highlight of this book to me was The Preacher. Oh. My. God. I haven't encountered a literary villain this despicable in a loooooooong time. Powell is genuinely scary, what with his mind games and the sterling facade he puts on for everyone else. (In fact, I couldn't sleep after reading this book and made a complete fool out of myself that night, because I mistook some balloons for Powell at 3am. I thought The Preacher had come to "get" me. In my defense, I can't see very well and have a vivid imagination...) Powell is actually based on a real murderer - Harry Powers, who was known as "The West Virginia Bluebeard". I was not aware of that until I read this book. I am more familiar with the movie version of this movie, in which the Preacher is played by Robert Mitchum, so I had Mitchum's face and voice in my head when I was reading this book. Perhaps that made it more scary, but it's pretty intense to begin with.

The Night of the Hunter is a superb thriller. This book takes a relatively simple tale (evil stepfather vs. innocent children) and makes it far more compelling than many more complex plots. If you're looking for a good psychological thriller, this book will do the trick.


Next Week: Um...something possibly historical. Like Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals or Robert Graves' I, Claudius. I have no idea...

Announcements: I have a few announcements this week. *clears throat, stands on strategically-placed box for the height-deprived, and employs loudspeaker*

I have decided to start a new monthly series: "The Unblogged Chronicles". Basically, I am going to do a post each month (probably the last weekend of each month) in which I post mini reviews about all of the books I read that month and didn't blog about. Both Penguins and Scott have asked me recently if I blog on books I dislike. The answer: nope. For various reasons, I don't feel comfortable devoting a whole review to a book I don't recommend. However, I thought about it and decided that there are enough books I don't write about that are good and deserve to be mentioned and it couldn't hurt to mention when I don't recommend a book (and my nefarious reasons why), so I am looking forward to trying this new series, which will start this weekend. This month you guys will get a double dose, because it will cover both January and February. Yeehaw!

Also, you may be seeing more lists in general for the next couple of months. Have I abandoned reading? God forbid! Am I becoming lazy? I wish... You see I am going to be working as a student editor on my college's fiction magazine. *dies and goes to heaven* I am super excited about that, but it may cut into my blogging time. *undies and comes back to Earth* I will try my best to post something every week, but it may not be a review. I have several ideas for posts, so hopefully I won't bore you anymore than usual. (Likewise, if I drop off of the face off the Internet for a few days, don't fear. I will just be up to my eyeballs pouring over submissions, not abduced by intergalactic aliens. And if I am abducted by aliens, well, then, well, we won't go there...)

Finally, I have a fun announcement and challenge for you. *rubs hands together* My friend Penguins recently blogged about a challenge in which you are supposed to answer a series of questions using the titles of songs performed by your favorite band. I am a rabid, obnoxious, obsessed megafan of the most awesome, excellent, amazing acidtripping band in history. That would be Pink Floyd, in case you were wondering. I go around listening to, quoting, and reciting random trivia about them constantly (What? Why are you looking at me like that? No! Don't flee from me with a look of terror on your face! WHY ARE YOU RUNNING AWAY?! I am not going to attack you with my love of Pink Floyd. Why, I am as sane as Syd Barrett. :D) I did my list (though I had to be weaselly and answer a question falsely with the true answer implied. Don't judge me!) and decided to post it as a sidebar on my blog, entitled "My Life...According To Pink Floyd". It is at the bottom, right under the interview that I most certainly did not conduct with myself. *cough* Have fun laughing at my stupidity, try your own version with your own favorite band (can't be Pink Floyd), and check out Penguins' excellent blog while you're at it. Thanks, Penguins! :) *continues scattering psychedelic rock and penguin pixie dust across blog*

Sorry for the length of this. If you read it all, you deserve a cookie. And if you caught the two Pink Floyd references I slipped in there, then you can eat your pudding before you eat your meat. *hands chocolate chip cookies out*

10 February 2010

Therese Raquin

Therese Raquin lives a sheltered life in 19th century Paris, married to her spoiled, invalid cousin Camille and tending shop with her passive-aggressive mother-in-law. Her only joy comes on Thursday evenings when her husband's friend Laurent, a selfish, talentless slacker painter, comes by to visit. Swept off her feet by Laurent primarily because, well, primarily because he's not boring Camille, Therese slowly comes out of her self-imposed shell. When circumstances threaten to keep Therese and Laurent apart, the two become frantic and decide that there is only one way to stay together - murder. Camille is easily disposed of in an "accidental" drowning; the specter of his memory, however, is not so obliging to the murderers. Tormented by nightmares and driven to the brink of insanity with guilt, Therese and Laurent soon realize that Camille is far more a menace to their happiness as a corpse than he ever was while alive...

I first read about this book in an online interview with Kate Winslet. (I get book suggestions from the strangest places...) In the interview, Winslet was asked what her favorite novel was and why. She said Therese Raquin and the plot description piqued my interest. So me being a nosy sort, I just had to read this Emile Zola novel myself. Fortunately, Winslet did not let me down! (There's a reason she's one of my favorite actresses.) I loved Therese Raquin and couldn't wait to share it with you guys. Unfortunately, I had to put it on the backburner as a backup review, but this week when I am assaulted with tests and essays and lots of snow (Pity me! Pity me!) is the perfect chance to blog about this fascinating psychological revenge thriller.

This novel is a great read, because it is so intense! The plot is a little slow to begin with, specifically prior to Camille's murder, but once the dirty deed is done, the pacing and suspense are superb. Zola crafts a highly original "revenge" tale that is bone-chilling and addictive all the way up to the heart pounding finale. Therese and Laurent's guilt is realistic and their resulting comeuppance is both wickedly funny and somewhat heartbreaking. Zola intended this as a psychological character study; as a result, the book reflects a very keen understanding of the human mind. The plot is masterfully crafted, as well. The plot complications occur from the character's own actions, rather than artificial outside sources (ARGGH! A huge pet peeve of mine), and everything ties in perfectly.

I found this book quite readable, without the complex style that some find daunting in 19th century literature. I have read criticisms that complain that Zola's frequent repetition of certain words and phrases is monotonous; I think these critics are missing Zola's point. I believe Zola's word choice was a stylistic approach intentionally used to build a claustrophobic atmosphere that greatly adds to the suspense. The narration can be a bit vague at times, due to this, but Zola excels at creating an ominous atmosphere and rendering his characters' emotions authentically.

We've all read stories with similar plots to this - two lovers conspire to murder one's spouse. Rarely do these tales portray the emotions and aftereffects of these circumstances as well as this novel does. Therese Raquin is a powerful read that is diabolically plotted. This is a novel that will haunt you long after you are finished with it...not unlike Camille's corpse.


Next Week: Probably Davis Grubb's The Night of the Hunter. I guarantee nothing, though. I may hit you with some historical fiction, instead.

03 February 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

If I ask you who Jesse James was, what would your answer be? (If you say that tattooed dude who married Sandra Bullock, I will personally reach through my computer and throat punch you. I kid you not. Well, maybe I do kid you...) Seriously, though, most people know who Jesse James is, right? Confederate raider. Bank robber. America's first celebrity criminal. Most historians are divided between whether James, who was eventually gunned down in his own home by an accomplice, was a murderous, cutthroat bandit or a wronged man out to avenge his losses. Well? Which was he? According to Ron Hansen's exquisite historical novel The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Jesse was a little bit of both.

Rather than follow Jesse and his gang from his first robbery to his disastrous raid on the Northfield, Minnesota bank that effectively ended his career, as so many others choose to do, Ron Hansen starts his story after Northfield, with James and a ragtag band of yokels (including, Ford, his eventual assassin) robbing a train and records the tense disputes, dirty deals, and overbearing suspicion that caused the band to fall apart as members turned on each other. After Ford's killing of James, the novel traces Ford from then until his own murder ten years later in a Colorado saloon he owned. Bob Ford emerges as the real protagonist in this novel, a cocky, sly, awkward young man who idolized Jesse before he became equally obsessed with gunning his idol down for fame and fortune, rewards that he soon realizes are not at all what he expected.

I really love Hansen's characterizations. In this novel, the infamous outlaw is far more complex than the simplistic characterization he usually receives in the media. Jesse is genteel, hot-tempered, cold-blooded, generous, moody, jovial, suspicious, intuitive, clever, stubborn. What he is not is decipherable. Likewise for Hansen's portrayal of Ford, the twenty year old Jesse James wannabe who shot James for the hefty reward money. Hansen's rich characterizations show great psychological insight on the author's part and considerable historical authenticity. In addition to a unique plot and fantastic characters, the historical detail is meticulous. This novel is one of the best historical fiction books I have read regarding period atmosphere, in everything from describing social customs to portraying dialogue. Hansen relied heavily on newspapers from this period for his research, and their influence may have impacted his narrative style. Hansen writes with an eloquent, sophisticated style, somewhat reminiscent of the period. If you adore fine wordsmithing, you will love this novel. It makes word nerds, such as myself, swoon.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book. (In fact, I reread it just to blog on it.) But it may not be for everyone. If you are expecting tons of action, you may be disappointed. Not that there isn't any. There's a train robbery at the beginning (Yeehaw!) and several gunfights, but because this book focuses on James's last months, the dramatic tension derives largely from the ominous suspense that builds up to Jesse James's inevitable assassination. The pacing is not slow. In fact, the book is quite engrossing, but it's not as action-packed as it may at first appear to be.

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a well-crafted novel all-around. The characterizations are first class, the historical detail is superb, the writing is exceptional, and the story is a fascinating examination of the life and death of one of America's most famous citizens. Many people knock Westerns as a second rate genre. They evidentally haven't read Hansen's book.


Next Week: I must confess something dreadful, dear readers. I have several tests and an essay due next week. I am probably not going to read anything. (I weep as I type this.) However, I made plans for such a situation and have reviews stored for weeks like this. I plan to post a review of Emile Zola's psychological realist classic Therese Raquin. I love this book so much! I read it last autumn and didn't blog about it only because I had just done Double Indemnity. The subject matter is quite similar (man helps woman plot to kill husband with disastrous consequences) but the results are oh so different. Can't wait to share it! There is a remote chance I will get to read either Davis Grubb's The Night of The Hunter or Graham Greene's The Third Man, but don't count on it.