Book Review: Agnes Grey

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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: The Buried Giant

Rating: 4 out of 5

In anticipation of meeting Kazuo Ishiguro this Thursday, I've just completed his latest novel in ten years: The Buried Giant.

Needless to say, after such a blockbuster success with his last novel Never Let Me Go, fans' expectations were extremely high while reading this book!

The Buried Giant is yet another one of Ishiguro's experiments with genre. It features Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in a mythical, post-Arthurian Britain. Due to a mysterious mist, people have fallen victim to forgetfulness: it's not uncommon for the villagers to get riled up about something only to forget their troubles the next day.

Unsure of their estranged son's whereabouts, or even if he is living or dead, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find him. Along the way, they befriend a skilled Saxon warrior, his young cursed apprentice, and Sir Gawain of King Arthur's court.

This misfit group of travelers face ogres, pixies, and other monsters, but once they discover the cause of this mist, they must confront an even more fearful obstacle--whether to regain their lost memories or continue living in blissful ignorance of the truth.

As you can probably tell, this is no ordinary fantasy tale. Ishiguro packs so much metaphor into this story that what's more interesting is what's going on between the lines. His use of simple, stilted dialogue gives the impression that these characters are allegorical, and you quickly adjust from asking yourself what this book is to what this book means.

By far, the most intriguing part of The Buried Giant is the insertion of Greek myth with the enigmatic boatman. Rumor has it that couples who do not share a most cherished memory do not get ferried together, so how do Axl and Beatrice avoid separation when they cannot remember the past?

Although I did not enjoy The Buried Giant as much as Never Let Me Go, it's still a fascinating tale of love and loss, as well as an apt reminder that history does indeed repeat itself for a reason. This book may not fit in with others in the fantasy section, but it will make readers appreciate a unique kind of magic: our memories.

Book Review: Texts from Jane Eyre

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ever since this book was published in November, I have been itching to get my hands on it, and after procrastinating on my purchase, I finally broke down and bought it this month. Was $14 worth what was essentially only a couple hours of reading? That's certainly debatable, but you love book humor, you'll probably find the money you spend worthwhile.

Author Mallory Ortberg is the co-creator of comedy site The Toast, and presents Texts from Jane Eyre as a collection of text conversations between literary characters of popular novels. She includes everything from classics like Moby Dick and Odyssey to bestselling YA like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.

Want a sneak peek of the fun that awaits you? Here's an example:

Reading these will make you think that literary texts are such a perfect parody and wonder why no one else has seen this kind of success writing them. There's something so hilarious about imagining Hamlet as an angsty teenager or Daisy Buchanan as that ditz who is always trying to bum rides off you. I definitely had many moments internally screaming, "This is priceless! Why didn't I write this book?!?!" while waving goodbye to all that cold, hard cash I could have made.

So open your wallet and wave goodbye to your own cold, hard cash, because Texts From Jane Eyre is a bookworm's wonderland. You'll laugh out loud and want to text photos of the pages to all your friends. It will make a great book for your coffee table or to gift to your favorite English teacher. If I had to give stocking stuffers to all of you fellow book bloggers out there, this is exactly what I'd give you!

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!

Book Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

Rating: 5 out of 5

What a way to conclude 2013 with this magnificent work of fiction by Jan-Philipp Sendker. Born in Hamburg and currently living in Berlin, Sendker is a world-traveler who worked as an international correspondent for the German publication Stern.

Originally published in German in 2002, it took a decade before the English translation of his first novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, was released.

The novel does an exquisite job weaving the past with the present. It tells the story of New York lawyer Julia Win, who travels to Burma to find her father Tin Win who had abandoned her family without a trace. It's only after finding a love letter that he wrote to a mysterious woman does Julia learn how to piece together her father's past.

It's difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away, but I'll say that I haven't had such a engrossing reading experience in a long time. At first you're so ready to condemn Tim Win for leaving his family, but just as Julia learns more about her father, so do you. Understanding his actions by examining the obstacles he suffered as a child puts the story in a new light.

What I love most about this tale is how in tune the plot is with its descriptions. Having never been to Burma (now known as Myanmar), I was transfixed by the beauty of the villages and the surrounding nature. Witnessing such an exotic location made me appreciate the artistry in my own backyard.

This is a wonderful story of love and loss, hardship and heartbreak, seeing and believing. You'll come away from it grateful for all that you have in your life, and inspired to seize the time that you have left on earth--a perfect read for the holidays!

And the best part? The book's sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart, will be released on January 16, 2014!

Favorite quote:“Only a few days earlier he had explained to her that he did not merely read books but traveled with them, that they took him to other countries and unfamiliar continents, and that with their help he was always getting to know new people, many of whom even became his friends.”

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Oh goodness, it feels like it's been forever since I've last blogged! This summer seems to be flying by, but I'm looking forward to the fun that's in store this month.

As for meeting my reading goals, I've been trying to pick up the pace. Fortunately, that was easy with this past read since it was so enjoyable.

I'm always interested in reading outside my comfort zone and learning about different cultures, so thanks to a recommendation by one of my loyal followers, I've finished Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

This 2003 bestseller is Nafisi's memoir about her experiences as a literature professor secretly teaching a group of seven girls in revolutionary Iran. Every week for two years, she opened her own home so that passionate women could speak their minds and dress how they wished without facing the morality police.

In this regime, Western literature faces outright banning or heavy censorship for its allegedly immoral and decadent themes, so educating students about Nabokov or Fitzgerald is a huge risk--especially when your students are all young females without male supervision.

First, I should mention that the structure of this memoir is unique. Nafisi does not narrate her life chronologically, but rather separates her recollections in four sections titled, "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen," which are based on the authors or characters that best reflected that respective time in her life.

Some readers have complained that they were expecting a tale about an Islamic book club of sorts, but there's so much more to this story. To ask merely for Iranian chick-lit is a waste of this author's writing prowess.

Have you ever searched for one-star reviews of a book you loved, just because you were curious to know why others thought differently? Well, after reading quite a few diatribes, I couldn't believe that anyone could declare Nafisi boring and pretentious. Gosh forbid a woman get an education and share her knowledge with the world!

While many may not appreciate Nafisi's musings outside of her illicit class, she is certainly an academic at heart, and as a lover of literature myself, I appreciated how she related the political changes in Iran to the novels she critiqued.

Yes, I do believe that there's a slight barrier of entry to enjoying this story. If you have never familiarized yourself with Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, or Pride and Prejudice, you might feel a bit disconnected, since these novels play dominant roles in Nafisi's life.

However, I've only personally read Gatsby, and although I admit that that section was my favorite, it doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the other three parts. In fact, I applaud the author for discussing literature with such fervor, because she encouraged me to experience these masterpieces for myself!

Not only is Nafisi's passion for the written word contagious, her own prose is equally poetic. She manages to reflect on some very painful memories and analyze various sociopolitical ideologies with finesse.

She's also self-aware enough to not present either a condemnation of or support for the Iranian government. The issues present are much more complicated than American vs. Iranian, Christian vs. Muslim, or democratic vs. totalitarian. And as much as I can't stomach such glaring gender inequality, I appreciate Nafisi to offer a nuanced perspective of her country's culture and history.

Needless to say, you're going to learn a lot if you read this book. And unless you're among those ridiculous one-star reviewers, I'd fathom a guess that you like learning...and thus, would like this story.

As for me, now that I've stimulated my mind, it's time to stimulate my other senses...next up? You guessed it! A sexy fun romance novel!

The House of Mirth (Book Two)

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Rating: 3 out of 5

I posted my review of the first half of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, so today I'll offer my thoughts on Book Two.

Book One left off with Lily Bart slipping down the social ladder due to her increasing debt and failed attempts of nabbing a husband. Book Two begins with a cruise around the Mediterranean, where Lily joins the Dorsets and Ned Silverton. This is all the master plan of Bertha Dorset, who wishes for Lily to keep her husband George distracted while she pursues Ned.

When Bertha humiliates Lily by kicking her abruptly off the yacht for allegedly having an affair with George, Lily's reputation is ruined. Her ego becomes even more bruised when her aunt dies, leaving her a fraction of what she originally was to inherit. Facing a life of poverty, Lily desperately seeks salvation by assimilating into a new social circle and revisiting suitors she previously snubbed.

Eventually, Lily finds herself cast aside into the working class, suffering from financial trouble and emotional turmoil. Her attitude that she was more superior to less beautiful women and less promising men backfires as people of lower rank surpass her, gaining prosperity and happiness where she could not. And although the ending is ambiguous, the reader learns that Lily's fate is as much due to her own follies as the elite's oppressive and alienating conventions.

Unlike other female protagonists created by Austen or Chopin, Lily is characterized as a woman who realizes much too late the consequences of believing that she could always do better and marry richer. When your motive is not directed by personal happiness, tragedy is bound to ensue, and Wharton paints that harsh reality. The House of Mirth is obviously titled ironically, because it's not some fairy tale where a knight rides in to rescue the damsel in distress.

Rather, it's an apt depiction of social Darwinism, where only the most handsome, charming, wealthy, and powerful individuals survive. For females of the human species, according to authors of this time period, marriage is the key to successful social mobility--another way of looking at cultural "evolution," one might say.

There's so much more to this story in regards to themes, motifs, and symbols, so I recommend it to someone who is a fan of the "fallen woman" genre. However, for those who are new to experiencing these types of classics, I believe that The Age of Innocence, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights portray the battle between love and money just as well, but also offer a more emotionally investing read because of their characters.

I'll be making a nice transition into next year, since my first novel in 2013 will be a modern adaptation of The House of Mirth, called Gilded Age by Claire McMillan. How will Wharton's tale play out over 100 years later? I'll have to read and see!

Favorite Quote:

Lily: "That's unjust, I think, because, as I understand it, one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it." 

Selden: "You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people--they may not be thinking of money, but they're breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!"

Book Review: Animal Farm

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

After 1984 became my favorite book of last year, I knew that I had to get my hands on more of George Orwell's work. Animal Farm (1945) was an easy choice, given how popular it is in the Western canon. Plus, I had already seen the 1999 film version in high school, so I was not new to the story.

But for those of you who still are, I'll summarize the tale: One day, a boar named Old Major shares his harsh thoughts on the human race. He passes away soon after, but the rest of the farm animals create a philosophy called Animalism based on his beliefs.

Unhappy with their master, Mr. Jones, the animals decide to revolt. They run the farmer off Manor Farm and rename it Animal Farm. They also establish the Seven Commandments of Animalism, which forbid them from imitating humans by wearing clothes, sleeping in beds, and drinking alcohol. The most important commandment was that "All animals are equal."

In need of leadership, two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, are quick to take charge. At first the animals enjoy their freedom and autonomy, but soon the pigs become power-hungry. Napoleon turns the farm against Snowball, then proceeds to overwork and underfeed the animals, killing those who he deems as threats.

The years go by, with Napoleon changing the commandments to suit his own desires. The uneducated, brainwashed farm animals are easily manipulated into submission, even when the pigs move into Mr. Jones' house, drink his beer, and start walking on two legs. "All animals are equal" gains an amendment, "...but some are more equal than others."

I guess that was more than just a summary, but of course it's only the tip of the iceberg. Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution. Animalism is analogous to Communism, with Old Major as a representation of its philosophers Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Therefore, Snowball and Napoleon are Trotsky and Stalin, respectively.

As seen with 1984, Orwell is a master of intertwining literature and history, telling a fantastic story while conveying strong political messages of his time. He was extremely critical of Stalin's regime--how the tyrant corrupted socialist ideals and oppressed his people.

However, Orwell's novels remain in the echelon of literature because their themes are timeless. The never-ending cycle of working class and elite is not merely seen in Communist nations. Orwell demonstrates that people with the best intentions often get so consumed with greed that they become the very enemy that they revolted against in the first place.

Call this struggle what you will--proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, the 99% vs. the 1%--but take heed of Orwell. Our politicians may say that they have our interests in mind, but are they really serving their constituents, or are they just pigs in suits?

Favorite Quote:“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” 

Book Review: 1984

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Rating: 5 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

Published in 1949, 1984 was George Orwell's final novel--a masterful foreboding of what could come should the world continue its thirst for power and hegemony. While many critics might write off the book as merely an allegory for the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, it is so much more than that because it warns that it only takes enough torture and brainwashing to turn a man into an empty shell devoid of emotion and independent thought.

Winston Smith lives in London, which has been absolved into the great superpower of Oceania. Given that he's not even sure if it's really the year 1984, his memory of the past is sparse: after the nuclear war of 1950, science and prosperity have been abandoned in exchange for militarized mass production.

As an employee of the ironically-titled Ministry of Truth, he must change the facts of historical documents so that the past always matches the present. Oceania is, has always been, and will always be at war with Eurasia (unless it decides to fight Eastasia instead).

And Big Brother, the ubiquitous face of the Party, exists, has always existed, and will always exist. Anyone who denies this or disapproves of the Party will simply disappear, vaporized by the Thought Police.

It's not the ever-watchful telescreens or the mob mentality behind the Two Minutes Hate that's most terrifying about 1984. It's the concept of "doublethink:" the psychological contradiction that can make you believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and two plus two equals five. Not only can the Party control your every movement, they can also re-program your mind.

You go in knowing that Winston and his lover Julia can never break free of the Party's despotism, that all their secret rendezvouses will only lead to capture, but you still remain foolishly optimistic just like them.

So when the inevitable happens, and they are broken down into submission in Room 101, you feel just as broken. Their hope is your hope, their pain your pain, and their nothingness your nothingness. I find it hard to think of a more cathartic reading experience.

This is the dystopian masterpiece. Everyone owes it to themselves to read 1984. Absorb it, love it, and--most importantly--learn from it. Because if we don't wake up and band together to preserve individuality, encourage critical thinking, and further scientific progress, we will succumb to the same inhuman fate.

Favorite Quotes:"

To hang on from day to day and from week to week, spinning out a present that had no future, seemed an unconquerable instinct, just as one's lungs will always draw the next breath so long as there is air available." (Part II, Chapter 5)

"The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already." (Part II, Chapter 9)

Book Review: Madame Bovary

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I'm finally finished!!! Although I have to admit, I usually don't take this long to finish a book, because if I really like it, I will make time for it, school and work be damned. That means, of course, that I didn't love this book--but it was very good nonetheless.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's first novel published in 1857, is about Emma Bovary, a French woman stuck in a miserable marriage to an incompetent, middle-class doctor. Bored out of her mind with a husband she doesn't love and a daughter she never wanted, she decides to commit adultery and spend outside of her means to desperately fill her life with lust and wealth.

Much like Chopin's The Awakening, this novel polarizes readers depending on their thoughts on adultery. Since I understand how powerless women were during the 19th century, I don't blame Emma for having wandering eyes. She was brought up believing that marriage would complete her and her father pushed her to marry young. Her husband is also a cowardly twit who sucks at his profession--he lost a man's leg trying to cure his limp. If I was faced with the choice between him and Emma's passionate lovers Rodolphe and Leon, I'd make her same decision.

However, Emma is not entirely blameless. I also suffer from her grass-is-always-greener personality, but she has impossible expectations of love and happiness. In modern terms, she's a Stage Five Clinger. Her naivete made it easy for her lovers to take advantage of her, and her neediness pushed them away.

She was also convinced that if she isn't floating on clouds in post-orgasmic bliss, she's in a hell-hole of misery--when in fact, life mostly varies in the grey area in-between. Many scholars have labeled Emma as bipolar, given her extreme mood-swings, but if you read enough 19th century literature, her personality is common among female protagonists (ex. Catherine in Wuthering Heights).

Madame Bovary was not nearly as good as other novels about adultery, like The Awakening or The Age of Innocence, perhaps because Emma in part deserved her demise, and her lovers were not worthy of her attention. I was not rooting for anybody while I was reading, so I felt little sadness at the end.

I also found it interesting that even though the novel is titled Madame Bovary, it begins and ends with her husband. It's tragic that in a book about her, she is still defined by the men in her life. The reading experience was cathartic for me: I pity Emma for her lack of freedom, and I fear her circumstances happening to me. Because if anyone argues that women don't suffer from male oppression anymore, they're greatly mistaken. Feminism has come a long way, but smart, beautiful, successful women are still pressured to believe that if they don't marry and have kids, they're worthless.

That being said, I appreciated the novel's beautiful prose (even in a diluted English translation). Flaubert is obviously a master of his craft, and his legendary commitment in perfecting his writing definitely shows in his first novel. I wish I would've read this in college, because scholarly discussion is half the fun. I would still recommend this book, but only to those who appreciate literary masterpieces, even if they take forever to finish!

Favorite Quote: "Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one's lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy."