Sunday, January 5, 2014

Useless Spoiler Alert


Currently Reading: Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde


When I first received The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, I was worried that I had run into another accident like the one I had with The Count of Monte Cristo when I bought the wrong edition of the novel. I had seen the theatrical adaptation of this story in high school and assumed the book would be a typical length of about 200 or so pages. After all, it had to have enough substance to entertain an audience for over 2 hours. Instead, the book I unwrapped for my birthday was a sliver; the same thickness of books I read in elementary school. It was so short that I was concerned that I had mistakenly added the abridged version to my Amazon wish list.

Turns out, it’s a novella not a novel, and it really is only 54 pages long.

While surprising, I was relieved I had the right version. And, frankly, Stevenson’s brevity was welcomed after the rather hefty books I’d been reading.

However, I hate to admit it, but this reading experience was disappointing.

It wasn’t that the story was poorly written, uninteresting, or contained insufferable characters like some of the other books I’ve read for this blog. No, the novella suffered for one simple reason:

The climatic plot twist that the whole story leads up to wasn’t a surprise.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s shared secret of being the same person is commonly known and has even become a somewhat common expression to explain split personality disorders. Hell, there’s even a superhero that suffers from the same problem. If you know the story of the Hulk, you know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

So when the whole novella is dedicated to a third party’s investigation of who Mr. Hyde is and his relationship to Dr. Jekyll, it was really hard to be as curious as the character. The mystery and suspense were completely gone. I had hoped that I’d at least get an insight into more of Hyde’s exploits than I did. While the one incident that is described is indeed repugnant, it didn’t seem like enough to show that Hyde was essentially the evil inside Dr. Jekyll come to life. Maybe I’ve just watched too much Game of Thrones and my threshold for horrific if much higher these days…

Either way, I found that a thriller without suspense is really not much of a thrill to read at all. I would really love to have read this story before it became popular and famous. It had all the makings for a really well executed mystery story. It just couldn’t deliver when the ending was spoiled almost a decade ago.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Love and Death: An Excellent Combo - Who Would Have Thought?


Currently Reading: Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde



I’m desperately attempting to squeeze in one more blog post before the year ends.

Ordinarily when it takes me this long to write a new blog post, it’s due to a combination of extenuating circumstances, a lack of motivation, and a severe case of procrastination. While December did bring about some expected distractions – another wedding and the holiday season – what really kept me from writing was plain old writer’s block.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of those rare books that’s so beautiful and challenging that it’s seemingly impossible to write about it. Every time I would sit down to write about this layered story, my thoughts would fly about and suddenly my pen would transform into a useless butterfly net, desperately trying to catch them and eventually pin them down into a logical order. Not an ideal situation. Partly because the idea of pinning butterflies is abhorrent to me and partly because I would end up frustrated and feeling stupid – how smart can you feel with a butterfly net?

There are so many aspects of this novel I want to discuss, but I refuse to write another post like I did for Brave New World, as I feel that disjointed mess almost shamed the book rather than praised it. So I’m going to do my very best to limit myself and make this post cohesive.

If nothing else is convened clearly in this post, I want to make this point undeniably clear:

This book was so well written!

Marquez is an unquestionably talented author. No matter what else I feel about this book, I know that I would love it just for the writing. In addition to rich, unique descriptions and multi-dimensional, flawed yet loveable characters, Love in the Time of Cholera has some of the most impression transitions I have ever seen. Marquez effortlessly moves from one aspect of the story to the next; from one character's point of view to the other's. Reading this novel feels like floating on a lazy river, when you become so relaxed and engrossed with the glorious calm that you barely notice that you’ve drifted to a completely different part of the world. The smoothness of his writing flow made the journey through his novel an easy, enjoyable ride despite the complexity of the characters and the story.

The graceful writing almost disguises just how complicated some of the ideas of this story are. After all, Love in the Time of Cholera dares to take on two of the most confusing aspects of life – love and death – and handles them with equal parts romance and practicality.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!

It begins with a childish love story between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, who fall deeply, passionately in love in their adolescence despite barely exchanging more than twenty words in person. Instead, they communicate through love letters and eventually agree to marry, inducing a series of intense eye-rolls from this somewhat jaded reader. However, the lovers’ plans are thwarted by Fermina’s father, who takes the irrational girl away to visit family in the hope that she will forget her fiancĂ©, whom he has deemed unworthy. When the love-struck girl finally returns and is reunited with her love, maturity instantly clears her childish vision and she is shamed and horrified that she ever thought she truly loved Florentino.

Time continues on. Fermina marries another man, but Florentino continues to devote his life to someday gaining another chance to be with Fermina, who he has decided is his one true love. After a lifetime of patience, Florentino is rewarded when Fermina’s husband dies – in an almost slapstick manner – and he has the opportunity to woo her once again. However, this time he has learned and is able to make a more mature pursuit, one that is equal parts romantic and pragmatic.

In the end, the couple is at last united and despite their old age, they are reinvigorated with their love for one another and ultimately reclaim their youth. Even if you are skeptical of their love story throughout the novel, the lovers’ end is so adorably sweet and refreshingly realistic – including a disappointing first time after decades of anticipation – that it will melt your heart.

I think what makes Love in the Time of Cholera such a wonderful love story is that it handles all the various types of love out there. It doesn’t just examine the tumultuous, passionate, and fantastical first love. It explores the hardships and benefits of marital love, sustained flings, and the too-hot love of one-night-stands. While most stories view one as more important or truer or more honorable, this story acknowledges each relationship as a type of love and treats each as just as valid a type of love as the romantic, passionate one. It was revealing and refreshing and even uplifting.

Perhaps part of what makes this story feel like an accurate depiction of love is (oddly) the ever-looming presence of death throughout. Fermina and Florentino’s love story is not set in a fairy tale land where the world seems to stop and death only appears as a plot convenience. Instead, it is ever-present, casting a shadow on the love story from the very first page. After all, the novel begins with a suicide of a minor character who has consciously made the choice to die rather than grow old. Hell, the whole book takes place during a cholera epidemic, when people are constantly dying of the disease. It’s a little hard to escape death when it’s all around you, even if you are pining for your one true love.

Though at times this focus on death is rather morbid and a bit creepy, I actually believe it adds to the power of the story. It serves as a consistent reminder that time is limited, which makes you want to cherish the love in your life all the more, no matter what kind it is.

I highly recommend this book.

Even if the story between Florentino and his ward at the end is completely perverted and beyond revolting…

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Classic Book Recommendations


Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison


So I’ve really struggled with this last post for Nine New November Novel ‘Ntries. It’s not that I don’t have books that I’ve finished and need to write about. In fact, I still have two to write about in order to be caught up. The problem is that the next book I completed after Death of a Salesman was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was an incredible book and I just don’t feel like I’ve had enough time to digest all my thoughts about it and thus be able to do it justice in a post. So I’ve decided to hold off on that post until I can properly put all of my thoughts in order.


Plus, my best friend from college is coming to visit me today and, therefore, I have a limited amount of time to complete this post and with it my goal for the month.

So I’m slightly copping out and doing another book recommendations post. But with a twist.

As of today, I’ve read 27 of the books on my list of classics. I’m sure that I’ve been pretty clear about which ones I did and didn’t enjoy, but I’m not sure it’s been clear which ones I have enjoyed the most and believe you should read. So today, I’m going to give you book recommendations from my Reading List. As always, descriptions come from the backs of the covers when available.

WARNING: My blog posts about these novels most likely contain spoilers. I would love to know your opinions of the books once you’ve finished, but if you intend to read them, it’s probably better to save my posts for after.


“He’s a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the ward of a mental hospital and takes over …

He’s a lusty, profane, life-loving fighter who rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Big Nurse. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women. At every turn, he openly defies her rule.

The contest starts as sport (with McMurphy taking bets on the outcome) but soon it develops into a grim struggle for the minds and hearts of the men, into an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Big Nurse, backed by the full power of authority … McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will.”


“Seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.
            Together, this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by a galaxyful of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian (formerly Tricia McMillan), Zaphod’s girlfriend, whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; and Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he’s bought over the years.
            Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? For all the answers, stick your thumb to the stars!”


“At once naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. From their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of this new America, Steinbeck creates a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and morale vision, tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.”

And now I've technically completed this goal for November!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Wait – There Are Playwrights Other Than William Shakespeare?

Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison



I don’t have a lot of experience reading plays.

The last play I read – which I honestly didn’t even get through in its entirety – was Doctor Faustus for my British literature class. Before that, it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in my senior year of high school. Not only has it been a while, but I’m pretty sure this is close to the extent of my list. The only other plays I can remember reading are The Importance of Being Earnest and Streetcar Named Desire. Again, my experience is pretty limited.

Well, there’s one rather significant clause to that statement.

I don’t have a lot of experience reading non-Shakespearean plays.

When it came to Shakespeare, I just couldn’t seem to get enough. Although I had been exposed to his work in high school, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I became addicted. My professor for my Introduction to Shakespeare class was amazing and she ignited a passion in me for the Bard’s work that has ultimately led to me where I am today (it’s pretty unusual to work at the Folger Shakespeare Library and not be a fan). I took every Shakespeare course offered regularly, a senior seminar just on Othello, and when this didn’t satiate my appetite, I designed an independent study for myself in which I was allowed the opportunity to read every play I hadn’t read in his body of work and discuss them in weekly, one-on-one sessions with my professor. Best class ever? I think yes!

My point is my exposure to reading plays has been almost exclusively Shakespearean.

I didn’t realize it, but this has very much affected my expectations for what the text of a play will include. However, this became instantly clear to me when I picked up Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

To be clear, I never expected every play to have the same language found in Shakespeare plays; I understand that aren’t written in the Early Modern era are not going to have early modern language (give me some credit). Instead, what took me aback from the first lines of Death of Salesman is the complexity, not of the lines, but of what comes in between the lines.

I’ve gotten so used to reading plays with Shakespeare’s famous minimalist approach to stage directions and setting descriptions that I forgot that isn’t the standard. Frankly, I was pretty annoyed with the detail in Miller’s directions and descriptions. While I’m sure the details made it easier to make Miller’s imagined world a reality, his writing felt much more restrictive. By limiting his stage directions and scene settings to things like “exits” or “Street in Verona,” Shakespeare allows his actors and directors much more freedom and opportunity for creativity; they aren’t limited with who they can cast or how the set must be designed or how a line must be said.

Admittedly, the minimalist approach may not have always been a choice. Shakespeare was much more limited in what he could do given the technological parameters of the stage for which he wrote. It was kind of fun to see the things Miller could do with the numerous lighting and sound options available to him, like creating simultaneous scenes in the past and present or using a particular song to associate with a character in his youth versus in adulthood. All these complex time shifts in and out of the past are probably only possible with detailed stage directions and perhaps if Shakespeare had access to the lights and sounds to do it, he would have also made his directions more specific.

Aside from these Shakespeare-lover biases, the play itself was rather interesting. It’s a sad look at the life of a poor salesman, Willy Loman, who has worked himself to the bone his whole life only to be screwed over by his company in the end. It shows how he’s become estranged from his sons and is a bleak look at what happens when he can’t let go of his delusional hopes from them. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the story would be sad, given that the title tells you that the main character will die, but what did surprise me was that I actually felt sad. For most of the play, I was thoroughly irritated with Willy Loman. I was frustrated with how stupidly he lived his life, how he wouldn’t listen to his sons, and how he was literally living in the past – through flashbacks. Yet, in the end, when he was gone, I found myself moved in spite of my dislike for him.

I’d very much like to see a performance of this now that I’ve read it as I’m sure it’s much easier to understand the time shifts when they are acted out and I would hope that an actor would be able to evoke the sympathetic qualities in Willy Loman that I couldn’t find until the end.

But let’s be honest, I’m going to see a Shakespeare play instead.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Round of Applause for Reading Plays

Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

(Yes, I’m giving Invisible Man another shot as I feel invincible after Moby Dick and I’d really like to finish this book before the end of the year.)


ClichĂ© as it may sound, there’s something magical about seeing a live performance of a play. The lights, the costumes, the makeup, the sets – everything and everyone has been transformed to transport you to another world; to sweep you away from whatever is occurring in your life and suck you into the fictitious world of the actors. The scene is set, the lights dim, the curtain rises…

… and you’re sitting in your comfy chair at  home, snuggled in your bathrobe with a good book to begin?

Even though we’ve all done it – most likely in a Shakespeare unit in school – there’s something slightly incongruous about reading a play. Although there are plays that fall into the genre of “closet dramas” (which are plays that are intended to be read and give little to no consideration of the actual staging of the story), most plays are meant to be performed; they were written to be turned into a production that others could watch rather than read.

For this reason, a play is often enjoyed more when it’s acted out. Case and point: I took my roommate to see the Folger’s production of Romeo and Juliet this past Friday. It was his first time seeing Shakespeare performed live and at the end he asked, “Why don’t they teach Shakespeare this way? It makes so much more sense!”

For my roommate – and I’m sure for many others – seeing a production of a Shakespeare play actually makes the language much more accessible and therefore the story more enjoyable. He was simply astonished that Shakespeare was so often read like a novel when it’s not one; it’s writing that’s meant to be spoken and heard, not read.

So why is it that we consistently read plays? How on earth does this benefit us?

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that there are several reasons we shouldn’t just stop reading plays entirely.

First, a play can still be considered a work of literature even if it’s a slightly different format from other works. Plays can be just as richly infused with themes, symbols, plot structures, and character developments as novels. Thus reading a play affords one the opportunity to dissect the literary devices used and to deeply analyze the story and characters that watching a play just doesn’t allow for as the action in a production is continuous. The audience can’t take time to ponder a particularly insightful monologue or sort through a confusing exchange of dialogue at a live performance as the actors will move on with the story whether you’re ready to move on or not.

Second, reading a play without seeing any performance of it means you’re working with a blank slate; you won’t have any preconceived notions of how a line should be said or how a character should look. A performance can very much color the way you view a play. This is especially true if a director or actor has decided to highlight certain aspects that you may not have thought were important. Perhaps he believes one theme is the main message of the play, but in reality, it’s just his perception of it. Maybe an actor decides to play to extreme subtext. Now you will be much more likely to only notice that theme or to read that subtext, which may or not be there. In much the same way that a movie version of a book can ruin the way you read that book afterwards – I’m looking at you Harry Potter films – seeing a play can also ruin your opportunity to let your imagination do what it will with the text provided.

Third, and probably the most important, reading a play allows for quality control. Again, a production of a play is subject to so many variables – like the director’s or the actors’ choices – and sometimes those variables don’t just affect the interpretation, they affect the quality. Ever see a production of Guys and Dolls in which Sky Masterson is going through puberty? Ever go to a play and the main actress has an extremely annoying habit of flapping her arms a certain way or maybe she just has a voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard? Ever see a performance of Jekyll and Hyde in which the title character(s) has a lisp? I have. It’s not pleasant. If a play is a really good play, the text can stand alone. Reading it saves it from a potential mauling and therefore can save your opinion of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I do mostly agree that a play should be seen. I’m just arguing that maybe there’s some logic to the idea of introducing a play as text rather than performance. Perhaps the best option is to do both.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Recommendations Round Three


Currently Reading: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson


Disclaimer: My brain is rather sluggish at the moment as I’m fighting a rather nasty chest cold so it’s possible this post won’t make sense… I’m hoping that won’t be the case, but, considering how hard it was for me write an email earlier today, I’m not too optimistic. However, I’m behind on my goal with four more posts to write and a deadline rapidly approaching at the end of this week so I’m giving this my best shot.

With this in mind, I’m taking a somewhat easy way out on this post since the topics I want to discuss for Death of a Salesman are too juicy to dive into now and I’d hate to not do them justice. So, with the holiday season coming up when it’s the perfect time snuggle up with a good book, I give you a third round of book recommendations:

Again, the descriptions for these books come from the back covers when available.

1. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

“Reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion, Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996. He hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29,028 feet (roughly the cruising altitude of an Airbus jetliner), twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly to the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds…
This is the terrifying story of what really happened that fateful day at the top of the world, during what would be the deadliest season in the history of Everest. In this harrowing yet breathtaking narrative, Krakauer takes the reader along with his ill-fated expedition, step by precarious step, from Kathmandu to the mountain’s pinnacle where, plagued by a combination of hubris, greed, poor judgment, and plain bad luck, they would fall prey to the mountain’s unpredictable fury.
With more than three million copies in print in all editions, this sensational book virtually defines excellence in the genre of narrative nonfiction. Brilliantly written and supported by unimpeachable reporting, Into Thin Air will by turns thrill and terrify.”

Seriously love this book! It’s not a particularly cheerful story by any means and it’s all the grimmer because it’s true. However, this author is such a fantastic storyteller that he makes me rethink how I view the whole genre of nonfiction. I borrowed a copy from one of the girls on my study abroad trip to Sicily and I was riveted from start to finish. I actually found myself getting mad that I’d have to get off the bus and see the incredible sites of Sicily because it meant I had to stop reading. That’s how good this book is! Again, beware that you may need tissues while you read.

2. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

“They mustn’t harm a human being, they must obey human orders, and they must protect their own existence… but only so long as that doesn’t violate rules one and two. With these Three Laws of Robotics, humanity embarked on a bold new era of evolution that would open up enormous possibilities – and unforeseen risks. For the scientists who invented the earliest robots weren’t content that their creations should remain programmed helpers, companions, and semisentient worker-machines. And soon the robots themselves, aware of their own intelligence, power, and humanity, aren’t either.

As humans and robots struggle to survive together – and sometimes against each other – on earth and in space, the future of both hangs in the balance. Here human men and women confront robots gone mad, telepathic robots, robot politicians, and vast robotic intelligences that may already secretly control the world. And both are asking the same questions: What is human? And is humanity obsolete?”

First of all, let me say that the movie I, Robot with Will Smith took a lot of license with this book so don’t expect the same story. In fact, this is actually a series of vignettes about various issues of robotics and exploring the limits of the Three Laws as well as – like the back of the book says – the issues of humanity raised with the rise of robots. Isaac Asimov is one of my all-time favorite authors. I’ve actually been saving his Foundation Trilogy as a reward for myself when I get through a particularly challenging book or set of books on my list. He’s a genius. In reading some of his other short stories and this novel, I’ve discovered that he’s scarily accurate about predicting what technology will look like in the future (i.e. today since he was writing in the 1950s). I would absolutely love to have him at one of my fantasy dinner parties so I could pick his brain.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s immensely powerful contribution to the ghost stories which she, Percy Shelley, and Byron devised one wet summer in Switzerland. Its protagonist is a young student of natural philosophy, who learns the secret of imparting life to a creature constructed from relics of the dead, with horrific consequences.

Frankenstein confronts some of the most feared innovations of evolutionism: topics such as degeneracy, hereditary disease, and mankind’s status as a species of animal. The text used here is from the 1818 edition, which is a mocking expose of leaders and achievers who leave desolation in their wake, showing humanity its choice – to live co-operatively or to die of selfishness. It is also a black comedy, and harder and wittier than the 1831 version with which we are more familiar.”

Okay, so I don’t know much about the editions half of this description, but…

This is another instance when you should ignore your Hollywood preconceived notions of this story. As a big fan of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which mocks the Frankenstein movies, I was expecting all the typical Frankenstein nonsense with a slow-walking Creature with bolts in his neck, the creepy assistant Igor, and the rest of the now iconic Frankenstein bits. Instead, I was surprised and delighted to discover that this story is much creepier, much sadder, and much deeper than any of the groaning, green monsters give it credit for. It’s beautiful, touching, and disturbing all at once and I absolutely love it.

And now I’m going to take some cough medicine and sleep some more.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dog-Ear: Cute as a Noun, Not so Much as a Verb


Currently Reading: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


For the sake of clarity:

Dog-Ear the Noun:



Floppy or perked, fluffy or frayed, hanging low or stubby, dog-ears are pretty much lovely as a noun.



We agree kitten. A dog’s ear is wonderful when it’s attached to something so absolutely adorable.

Dog-Ear the Verb:



This image actually makes me involuntarily cringe; just clench my whole body in a desperate attempt to ward off the discomfort of it all. I believe it’s deeply ingrained as my grandmother was a librarian and drilled into my mother who drilled it into me that this was a capital offense in the book world.

I know plenty of people who have no issue with dog-earring a book and to an extent, I get it. It’s a convenient way to save your place in a book especially since it doesn’t require any additional materials like a bookmark or a bookmark substitute.

But really? How hard is it to find any random piece of paper to stick in a book and therefore preserve the integrity of the page? Ransack your purses ladies! Search your wallets for receipts guys! Do what you can do stop the book violence! Because that’s how I view dog-earring: it’s an act of book violence.

Full disclosure, though, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of the occasional act of book violence. My sister can attest to this as I accidentally ripped half the cover off one of her books in elementary school when I put my binder into my desk without checking that its path was clear. I’m not as careful with the way I hold my books open as I should, slightly pulling the bindings apart at the bottom; I make the effort to never crush a book in my purse, but I’m not always successful; and who hasn’t spilled a drink over a book they’re reading on their lunch break?

I once heard or read in an interview that an author actually enjoys seeing abused copies of his books. To him, it was a sign that the book was well loved as the wear and tear only occurs with books that have been read and re-read. He took it as a compliment. It’s embarrassing that I can’t remember any more details about this since it has informed the way I think about my books for most of my life. I have viewed this opinion as a pardon from the book jury on my acts of book violence, believing that the stains and rips on my books are signs of my affection rather than my hatred.

What distinguishes dog-earring in my mind is the deliberateness of the act. Tearing the cover off my sister’s book or spilling my drink was unintentional; I would never have consciously treated a book in such a manner. To dog-ear a book is exactly the opposite. It’s a purposeful action that damages the book irreparably; no matter how hard you try, you will never get rid of the imprint of the fold in the corner. Ever.

For this reason, I hate it.

So if I lend you a book, please don’t ever dog-ear the pages!