Book Review: Agnes Grey

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

After a belated book club this week, followed by a fantastic birthday weekend, I can finally share my thoughts on Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey.

I haven't read so-called "literature" in a while, so I felt rusty, but the book club babes and I agreed that it was great to be challenged intellectually. One friend even commented that she enjoyed needing to consult a dictionary a few times!

Agnes Grey is the perfect novel if you haven't kept up with the classics since college. It's a short read with a simple plot: Agnes is a 19-year-old living in rural England who decides to become a governess to help her family who's struggling financially.

A pious young woman with a strict sense of morality and integrity, Agnes must learn how to raise the spoiled children of the English elite. Her patience is tested, first with the Bloomfield brats and then with the Murray girls. Time and again, she is insulted for her shabby clothes, plain looks, and other indications of her lower socioeconomic class.

Unlike the gothic romances of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontë's debut novel is not tragic. Despite her meekness, she attracts the interest of Edward Weston, the town's parson, who spends his time assisting the poor villagers. It's not much of a spoiler to say that Agnes and Edward find their happy ending, since the stakes of this story are so low. Other than terrible demon-children abusing animals for their own amusement, you never get the sense of real danger.

When it comes to literary merit, Agnes Grey is not even remotely in the realm of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The plot is too straightforward, the style too expositional, and none of the characters ever develop, for better or worse. In fact, as I was reading, I kept giving Brontë a pass given how difficult it was for a woman to write in the 19th century, all the while knowing that she'd never be published today.

That said, for what this book is—an autobiographical narrative of one woman trying to remain true to herself in a world of vanity—I appreciated the reading experience. At times it even felt like a Victorian version of "Mean Girls," with Agnes playing a Cady Heron who never flipped to the dark side. Those of us who were victimized by the richer, more attractive and popular Rosalie Murrays and Regina Georges will feel vindicated when the nice girl wins in the end.

Although all the Brontës are creatively successful in their own rights, there's definitely a reason why Anne lives in the shadow of her sisters and Agnes Grey rarely makes it on required reading lists in school.

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Rating: 3 out of 5

Usually it doesn't take me an entire month to complete a novel, but life has been keeping me more than busy lately. If it wasn't for my book club acting as my group of accountability partners, I'd be concerned about getting any reading done right now!

Today the film adaptation for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is released, and the real-life Book Club Babes will be taking a field trip to see it on Wednesday. This week we had tons of fun sharing what we thought of Seth Grahame-Smith's parody of the Jane Austen classic.

Only a couple women in the group had read the original Pride and Prejudice, and I had to admit that I never finished it. I have always felt that the novel was lacking, from its tittering dialogue to its lack of passion. I much prefer the gothic romance of the Bronte sisters, arguing that Wuthering Heights is the superior story of love vs. money.

That being said, I definitely felt that zombies improved this tale dramatically. My only complaint was that there weren't enough of them! According to Amazon, about 85% of the original text is preserved, and the remaining 15% includes references and scenes of the walking dead. Popular demand for more zombies even contributed to the release of an "ultraviolent" edition, which I'm bummed was not the version I borrowed from the library.

These sporadic additions are hilarious. I find it amusing how there's no real explanation as to why zombies have been ravaging England for decades, but the Bennet sisters do a kickass job of keeping them at bay. Mr. Bennet is more concerned with their abilities as warriors, while Mrs. Bennet just wants to see them married.

It's very clear that a man wrote this adaptation, given the over-the-top fight scenes complete with Elizabeth ripping hearts out of ninjas and eating them. I also look forward to watching her roundhouse kick Darcy into the fireplace when I see the film. Our book club agreed that Jane Austen would be pleased with this uber-feminist portrayal of her protagonist.

Another minor issue that I had with this book was its unnecessary Orientalism by fetishizing China and Japan as places to train zombie fighters. It also references that the zombie plague originated in the east, so it inherently positions the region as both the problem and the solution. Jane Austen's work has already been critiqued by English literature scholars for postcolonial themes, so Grahame-Smith does her a disservice by making Pride and Prejudice sound more racist than intended.

Other than that, if you love Pride and Prejudice, you probably don't need an excuse to read it again with zombies added. And if you're like me and never liked this novel...well, at least it's more entertaining now!

Book Review: Frankenstein

Rating: 4 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

Ahhh, it feels good to return to the classics after so, so long. As much as I love YA and contemporary literature, I'm embarrassed to say that the last classic I read was Catch-22 in July 2013! A year and a half ago! That's just pitiful.

So big shout-out to Bridget at Dog-Eared and Dog-Tagged for gifting me her copy of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley! She's a book-loving Army wife with a penchant for horror stories, and Frankenstein is definitely the crème de la crème of that genre!

But before I get into my review, I want to pause for some real talk, guys. Because, to be honest, I think very few people have actually read this book. Hollywood has tricked everyone, including myself, into believing some major myths about Frankenstein, so I'd like to structure my thoughts about the book around these big, fat lies.

Sound good? Let's do this!

MYTH #1: Frankenstein was written by a man.

Okay, I'm not sure how many people actually believe this myth, but I bet a lot gloss over the author's name and just assume that this is yet another classic written by some dead white guy. On the contrary! Mary Shelley--though she ran around with some pretty cool dead white guys given that she was married to Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and vacationed with Lord Byron--was just as much of a badass as her male literary counterparts.

Born to political philosopher William Godwin and famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, she began writing Frankenstein when she was just 18 years old! It all started one rainy summer in Geneva in 1816 when Lord Byron challenged the traveling group to each write a ghost story. Shelley imagined the terrors of a corpse coming back to life, and two years later Frankenstein was published, forever setting insanely high standards on aspiring young writers everywhere.

MYTH #2: Dr. Frankenstein's monster looked like this:

Frankenstein is, of course, the surname of the mad scientist Victor, not the monster himself, who was given no name in the book. Hollywood has portrayed the monster as green with many nuts and bolts keeping him together, but his real appearance is much more terrifying:

"His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath: his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips."

If Frankenstein had just done a better job with his creation by making him human-size and normal-looking, instead of eight feet tall and grotesque, no tragedies would have occurred. Seems as if he should have taken beauty school electives in medical school!

MYTH #3: The monster was a dumb, barbaric creature that pillaged and destroyed everything in his path.

After reading this book, you definitely sympathize more with the monster than Frankenstein. The doctor immediately regrets his creation once completed, leaving the monster to fend for himself. After secretly watching a family of peasants, he learns how to read and speak French. He's extremely well-mannered and rational, and only retaliates against people when they attack him.

In fact, the only people he murders are those closest to Frankenstein. After requesting that his maker create a female companion for him so he does not have to live his days hated and alone, Frankenstein breaks his promise and destroys the new monster before she is finished. I'd be pretty pissed and want to strangle a few people after that kind of betrayal too.

MYTH #4: Dr. Frankenstein had an assistant named Igor.

This is the biggest, fattest lie that we've all been sold, and I have no idea why. Spoiler alert: Igor is an entirely made-up character by Hollywood, and he never existed in the book. Frankenstein didn't have any assistants, because the whole point was that his crazy experiment was a secret. The only person who knew the true story was Robert Walton, the captain who rescues Frankenstein before he later succumbs to pneumonia.

Although Frankenstein had many opportunities to tell his best friend Henry Clerval and his wife Elizabeth, he instead was so consumed by guilt that it often made him sick and caused him to go insane. All he had to do was make the monster look appealing and give him a girlfriend, but his morality made him stupid and sentenced him to his doom.

Frankenstein, or the "Modern Prometheus" as Shelley subtitled her book, is a well-written, symbolic tale about the evil within us all. I could write paper after paper of literary interpretation, but this isn't English 101. As a casual reader, the moral of the story is to go big or go home: Don't play god and defy the laws of life and death if you aren't at least willing to do it more than once. Practice makes perfect, and monsters need friends too!