Book Review: Agnes Grey

Image via Goodreads

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.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Classics I Still Haven’t Read Yet

Classic PicMonkey Collage

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is all about those books that are still collecting dust on our to-read lists. Every book blogger has experienced the guilt of knowing that you should read a critically-acclaimed or otherwise particularly awesome novel, but have yet to get around to it. Excuses know no bounds!

On any typical “Best Books of All Time” list, I can cross off about 20 percent of the works, which is better than the average American (a poor standard), but could definitely use some improvement. In fact, at the risk of humble-bragging, I would have read many of the classics I’m about to mention in high school had I not been in honors and AP English classes. Instead of reading popular classics like Huck Finn and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I delved into more obscure ones, like Saint Joan and The Return of the Native.

Yep, that might have been the most hipster thing I’ve ever written, and I completely deserve to be publicly shamed a la Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones.”

Anyway…moving on! High school-me may have been preoccupied, but present-me needs to get it together and finally cross off these ten classics that I still haven’t read yet: 

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  4. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  5. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  9. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  10. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Alright, time to see if you can out-hipster me…how many of these classics have you read?

Top Ten Tuesday: Literature You Should Read If You Love Ancient Greece & Rome

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Image via The Broke and the Bookish

I know it’s Wednesday, but I couldn’t resist participating in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, even if it is belatedly! This meme, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is about literature every [blank] should read, inserting the blank for whatever our hearts desire. I was originally going to title this post, “Literature Every Classics Major Should Read,” but let’s face it, we already have!

As many of you might know, I majored in Pre- and Early-Modern Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, and minored in Classical History. I am absolutely obsessed with ancient Greek and Roman texts and have read these epics, plays, and essays multiple times. But even if you never studied these in college, you can consider them the best starter course into this fascinating period of history.

This blog post is also perfect timing, considering that I only have one month left (!) before I’m traveling to Greece and Italy to walk the lands where these amazing philosophers, dramatists, and oral historians once lived! To say I’m excited is a huge understatement!

Classics Collage

  1. Iliad by Homer
  2. Odyssey by Homer
  3. Aeneid by Virgil
  4. Art of Love by Ovid
  5. Symposium by Plato (Be sure to watch “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a theater production/film that has a song about this story!)
  6. Medea by Euripides
  7. Bacchae by Euripides
  8. Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides) by Aeschylus
  9. Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) by Sophocles
  10. Lysistrata by Aristophanes

(Side note: As a former scholar, I’m not a fan of using articles in these titles. If you want to sound sophisticated, refer to Homer’s Iliad rather than The Iliad by Homer. After all, it’s an epic that’s part of an oral tradition, not a novel!)

So are you interested in the tales of ancient Greece and Rome? Which of these have you read, and what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Image via Amazon

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!

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The perfect wine pairing for your book club!

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Things I Give Major Side-Eye

Image via The Broke and The Bookish

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is a free-for-all, meaning that all us book bloggers who participate in the meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish are allowed to discuss anything that’s on our minds.

Now normally I don’t get snobby about books. For the most part, I’m just happy that people make reading a priority. However, since we’re being completely honest today, there are quite a few book-related things that rub me the wrong way. So if you want to avoid receiving some major side-eye from me, make sure you avoid the ten items on this list!

1. Men who only read male authors. There’s a particular brand of hipster dude in the Bay Area who thinks he’s so enlightened because he reads literary or experimental fiction. The problem is, ALL of these books are written by men. If you’re on a date with a guy, and he prattles on about his obsession with Franzen, Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Wallace, and/or Bukowski, get up and leave immediately, because you’ve just come across a literary chauvinist.

2. Non-fiction readers who don’t value fiction. On the flip side, there’s another type of reader (unsurprisingly, also often male), who thinks he’s above reading fiction entirely. He’ll bore you with the latest WWII war read or Steve Jobs biography, and if you attempt to bring up that fantasy novel you’re interested in, he’ll brush you off patronizingly by saying he’s more concerned with reality than fairy tales. He’s a total square with no imagination, so don’t bother trying to convince him that fiction makes people more empathetic and intelligent. He’s too dumb to care.

3. Readers who look down on romance/erotica. Once again, men are typically at fault for this snobbery, but plenty of women also believe that the romance and erotica genres are inferior to those of “substance.” I am not ashamed to admit that not only do I read romance/erotica, I write it as well. I came across this type of reader in my creative writing workshops in college, and although they were fortunately shut down by the peers who came to my defense, the experience was an eye-opener to the literary discrimination that romance novelists face from many readers.

4. Writers who look down on romance/erotica. Newsflash: Romances make a boatload of money. It’s the 2nd most popular genre behind thriller and makes over $1.1 billion annually, accounting for about 20% of all book sales. The publisher Harlequin alone sells more than 3 books PER SECOND worldwide. So get off your high horse, because there are millions of people around the world who love this genre, and thousands of novelists are profiting from it. You can be a starving artist if you want, but if desiring my cut makes me too “commercial” of a writer, then I’ll just go cry into my sweet, sweet cash.

Oh, and as for the writers who say they’re writing “love stories,” not “romance,” I give you double side-eye. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks!

5. People who think Fifty Shades of Grey is good erotica. That being said, just because I enjoy the occasional racy romp, that doesn’t mean that I have no standards. Writing good erotica involves more than inserting Tab A into Slot B, and it certainly involves more than writing terrible Twilight fan-fiction and changing the characters’ names. See, if you remove the shame from reading erotica, then you can open up the discussion to what makes good erotica. So let’s do our part and start talking! Recommendations are always welcome!

6. People who don’t respect LOTR. It’s a well-known fact that I’m a die-hard fan of The Lord of the Rings. I’m positive that if you are as well, then you’re most likely an awesome person who I would get along with. On the other hand, if you think LOTR is dull, then you probably are too. Call me harsh or judgmental if you want, but #sorrynotsorry.

7. Readers who prefer electronic over print. This is likely an unpopular opinion given the mass adoption of tablets and e-readers, but I guess that I’m too old-school. I’m already on a computer all day at work, so when I’m home, I prefer to give my eyes a break from the screen. I understand how convenient e-readers are when traveling, but I would argue that reading should be a sensory experience. There’s nothing better than getting lost in a library or local bookstore, holding an old book in your hands, thumbing through its pages and taking in its intoxicating scent. But maybe that’s just me?

8. Book bloggers who don’t read the classics. Let me preface this item by saying that I’m not hating on book bloggers who have a favorite contemporary genre. Most of the blogs that I follow focus on YA because they’re managed by high school and college students. I love YA as well, but I believe that if you pigeon-hole yourself as a blogger, then you’re missing valuable opportunities to widen your subscriber base. Love The Hunger Games? Check out Lord of the Flies. Big fan of Divergent? Why not try Brave New World? Stretch your literary comfort zone by reading the classics, and you might find your new favorite novel!

9. People who only read books being made into movies. I often say that Hollywood has run out of original ideas, and you only have to look at the blockbuster list of sequels and reboots for evidence. I’m not hating on books that get made into films, and would in fact be overjoyed if a book I end up publishing gets its own adaptation, but if you’re only reading novels to see them on the silver screen, then you’re not exposing yourself to overlooked but equally talented authors. Sure, I may be reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with my book club right now in anticipation of the film release next month, but those selections are few and far between.

10. People who don’t read anything, period. As I stated in the beginning of my blog post, at the end of the day, I’m just happy if people are reading. Fiction or non-fiction, male authors or female authors, romance or realism, pretty please–for the love of all that’s holy–just pick up any book and read it. Turn off Netflix for once, and let your brain create the pictures for you. And don’t give me any crap about your crammed calendar: You’re never too busy to read (or at least, listen to audiobooks!). Almost a quarter of the population hasn’t read a single book, probably since high school when they were forced to, and that fact is awfully depressing. Don’t be that person.

What other bookish things would you give major side-eye? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Love YA? Try These Classic Alternatives to Your Favorite Novels

Happy Friday everyone!

My week off has flown by, and tomorrow I travel to NYC for one of the biggest tradeshows in the software industry. I’ll be much too busy with work to blog, so to leave you on a high note until I get back in October, I’ve created another vlog!

In this video, I take a look at a few insanely popular YA novels and recommend some classic alternatives. Given that the vast majority of book bloggers focus primarily on young-adult fiction, I wanted to encourage them to read outside their comfort zone.

Many readers may think that the Western canon is full of boring tales written by dead white people, and although I can’t deny its lack of diversity, I can speak for its merit. There are tons of reasons why we read these literary classics in school: the themes are timeless and the writing is superb.

If you’re a huge fan of YA like I am, then I highly recommend that you challenge yourself with these older novels. Sure, you might have to look up a tough piece of vocabulary or review the SparkNotes to get a better understanding, but it doesn’t hurt to exercise your brain every now and then! In fact, I believe that you’ll appreciate your reading experience more when you do.

Book Review: Frankenstein

Image via Goodreads

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!