Friday, September 30, 2016

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

 When I was about eleven years old, I absolutely fell in love with Disney's animated version of The Hunchback of  Notre Dame. I had the VHS tape, the coloring book, the soundtrack, and a barbie doll version of Esmeralda (with both her normal outfit AND her dancing outfit, thank you very much). I don't know what about that movie fascinated me so much, but I couldn't get enough. I was even Esmeralda for Halloween that year.  So obviously, I have a history with the Hunchback.  

I knew that the original novel was going to be pretty different from the Disney version, and part of my interest in reading this was to see just how different from each other they were. As I started in on the 500 page tome, it didn't take me very long at all to discover the answer to that question...

Very.  This book is very different from the Disney movie.

 The Hunchback of Notre Dame combines a lot of different characters and story threads into a single narrative set against the backdrop of the Notre Dame cathedral in medieval Paris. Most of the story revolves around the orphaned gypsy teenager, La Esmeralda, and the men who are interested in her. 

The first man, Phoebus de Chateaupers, is a handsome and decorated military hero. He rescues Esmeralda one night from an attempted kidnapping and she instantly falls in love with him. Phoebus is engaged to be married to a wealthy, high society girl, but his heart isn't in the match. He'd much rather spend his time with wine and women. He takes advantage of Esmeralda's naivety and adoration of him and tries to spend a night with her, plying her with words of love and empty promises. His attempt is eventually interrupted, but Esmeralda remains devoted to him.

The second man, Claude Frollo, is a deeply conflicted priest. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the streets one day. He tries to quash his feelings for her, since as a holy man he can never enter into a relationship with a woman, but is ultimately unable to do so. Soon, he gives into his desires and attempts to force himself on Esmeralda, but she steadfastly refuses. He is old, scary, and, most importantly, not Phoebus. Frollo eventually decides that the only way to free himself from his obsession is to arrange for Esmeralda's death, which he immediately begins to make preparations for.

The third man, Quasimodo, is the eponymous hunchback. Adopted by Claude Frollo when he was an infant, he is hideously deformed and completely deafened from his job of ringing the massive bells in Notre Dame.  He stays inside the cathedral most days, far away from the judgement and cruelty of the outside world. His isolation and unusual upbringing have made him mean, impish, generally unpleasant. However, when Quasimodo sees Esmeralda in the streets one day, he falls hopelessly in love. When Frollo's schemes place Esmeralda in danger of being executed for a crime she didn't commit, Quasimodo becomes her fierce protector, carrying her off to claim sanctuary in Notre Dame and watching over her. He scares and repulses her, but her fear doesn't weaken his devotion.  

The actions of these three men, plus those of several other minor characters, combine to draw Esmeralda inexorably towards her fate. What ultimately emerges is a story full of injustice, cruelty, pain and the messiness of human emotions and desires.

I had mixed feelings about this one. I did enjoy reading it, and I thought Hugo's writing was masterful and clever. Some parts of the novel were hilarious, others were suspenseful, and others were shockingly risque for a classic novel. The plot was engaging and the characters were extremely well-drawn and memorable. Even Esmeralda's little pet goat, Djali, had an endearing personality.

What I struggled with was the sexism. The actions of the three main male characters pull Esmeralda around the novel like a puppet. She is a character completely without agency; her every move is determined by the actions of the men surrounding her, and she meets with an awful, unjust end because of their attentions. It's not really fair to judge an older work by modern standards, but her situation was pretty horrifying. I found myself wishing that Hugo could have written Esmeralda a little bit braver. A gypsy who spends her days hustling in the streets to support herself should have been able to kick a little butt, wouldn't you think? It's too bad she stayed so bland throughout the story.

Another element of the novel that I struggled with were the numerous sections that broke away from the plot and explained different aspects of France. Hugo includes several chapters about French history, architecture and geography. He elaborates quite extensively, with these sections ranging from 20-30 pages apiece. He is obviously very proud of his French heritage, and his knowledge of his country is impressive, but for a modern American trying to read his work, these parts are almost incomprehensible. The names of people and places are difficult to pronounce and remember, so the information presented didn't stick in my head. Plus, these chapters definitely ruined the momentum of the story.

In the end, I think I may have missed the point of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I enjoyed the story and I'm glad I got to see the iconic literary moments it contained for myself, but I don't know what I was supposed to take away from the experience. This is an unhappy story with an ending that rivals a Shakespearean tragedy. Both the good and bad characters are punished. I'm not sure what message I was supposed to receive from this.

Disney's version was easy - Quasimodo was kindhearted, Phoebus was heroic, Esmeralda was brash and sassy and Frollo was evil. You knew who to trust there. Hugo's work is much more complicated, and not in a way that's particularly fun to unravel. At the same time, this was a very unique reading experience with a lot of great moments. Ultimately, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was okay for me - not a favorite, but one that I'm happy to have read. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

My next scary read for the month of September was Gaston Leroux's classic tale of horror, The Phantom of the Opera. This novel is also a part of my Back to the Classics Challenge - it's my "Classic in Translation." I wanted to read this one because I am a big fan of the musical (I know, it's a total guilty pleasure). I've seen Phantom on the stage twice, own the movie version of the musical with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, and have listened to the soundtrack countless times. I was interested to see if the book was anything like the show...and get this people, it actually kind of was!

The Phantom of the Opera is the story of Christina Daae, a young opera singer who becomes entangled with the mysterious Erik, a disfigured genius living under the Paris opera house that she performs in. At first, Erik appears to Christine to give her voice lessons, but his interest in her becomes obsessive when he falls in love with her. Determined to keep her away from her fiancee Raoul, Erik abducts her and takes her to his secret underground lair. To save the woman he loves, Raoul must embark on a dangerous journey through the mysterious basements of the opera house to rescue Christine from the grips of the dangerous "phantom."

This was quite the exciting little story! The action was well paced and consistently suspenseful. I read this book in under a week, which is much faster than I'm usually able to get through a classic novel. The story is structured as a "true" narrative of an investigation carried out by the author into the mysterious rumors of the Paris opera ghost and the disappearance of the opera star Christine Daae. The plot unfolds through the letters, interviews and research of the author, which lends the story a feeling of credibility that was kind of fun.

The character of Erik was appropriately creepy. Hideously disfigured since birth, he was powerful, obsessive and sad in turns. He has a number of special abilities that make him into a sort of terrifying Superman. He's described as being the world's best ventriloquist, a musical genius, a master at sleight of hand and an expert at killing people with lassos (seriously). He also spent a few years as a building contractor before he disappeared under the opera house, which explains how he could build trapdoors and secret rooms inside of it. The mischief he gets up to throughout the story is impressive and hilarious (in a horrifying kind of way). 

Indeed, Erik is endlessly talented, but his physical appearance repulses everyone. He is shunned by society, so he is forced to turn his talents to tricks and deceit instead of using them to help people. He turns himself into the Opera Ghost in order to lord over the opera house and have a place to live while he composes his operatic masterpiece. However, underneath all the posturing and bravado, Erik is hurt and lonely. He is so desperate for companionship that he kidnaps the first woman to show him an ounce of compassion. He tells Christine more than once that he just wants to be like everyone else and live a normal life, above ground. You almost feel a little bit sorry for him until you remember that he's absolutely bonkers and abducts and kills people whenever he has a mind to.

Christine and Raoul, sadly, pale in comparison to Erik. They're your stereotypical "good guys," Christine is the beautiful and helpless woman and Raoul is the brave hero. They are flat characters, but luckily, the mystery surrounding Erik and his schemes is enough is keep the story interesting.

As I mentioned before, the book actually does resemble the musical very closely. Some events occur in a different order, and some details are changed, but all of the big stuff is here. The chandelier still falls, Christine still rips Erik's mask off, and Erik still abducts Christine in the middle of a crowded theater.  There's even a masquerade that the Phantom attends in a super-scary costume.  It is literally impossible to read this without the songs from the musical playing in your head, which only enhanced the reading experience for me. I was even inspired to pull up the soundtrack on Spotify and had a grand old time belting out show tunes.

The Phantom of the Opera was a scary little adventure that was well worth the read. Fans of horror novels will love this classic story and fans of the musical will enjoy a literary trip through the Broadway show. This one was fun, and an excellent choice for my month of scary stories.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I finished reading this little gem a few weeks ago, but haven't had the time to sit and write a review until now. Usually, this is a bad thing, because the longer I wait before sitting down to record my thoughts on a book, the more details start to slip away. I don't have that problems with A Monster Calls, however, because this novel is emotionally striking and deeply moving. This is most definitely one of the best books I've read so far this year.

A Monster Calls is about a young boy named Conor, who lives alone with his mother in a quiet English town. His mother is slowly dying from cancer, and while Conor pretends like everything is going fine with her treatments, he knows the truth deep inside. He is struggling with his emotions and suffocating under the immense sadness of everything when he is visited by a monster. The monster is ancient, tree-like, and terrifying. Conor isn't afraid though, because he has worse things in his life to be afraid of.

Over the course of the novel, the monster tells Conor three stories, and then asks for Conor to tell him one in return. The monster's stories are confusing--they don't contain a clear hero or villain and their resolutions are vague. Sometimes good things happen to bad characters, and sometimes it's the other way around. When it's Conor's turn to tell his story, he realizes that he must face a secret he's been hiding in his heart so that he can begin to heal.

My theme for September is scary books, and A Monster Calls is certainly scary, but not in the traditional way. This novel deals with what we are all truly scared of deep inside - illness, loss and pain so heavy that we can't bear it. Secrets, feelings we might be ashamed of, and the lies we tell ourselves when the going gets rough. This novel was written so beautifully and truthfully that it felt like a weight was sitting on my chest while I was reading it. We will all go through what Conor is going though at one time or another in our lives, and this story was a peek into the emotional turmoil that surrounds the loss of someone you love.

The monster and his confusing stories were a perfect mirror for real life. We all want things in our lives to be clearly defined. We want heroes and villains, truth and lies, and good things and bad things to all neatly present themselves for us, so we know what choices to make and which directions to go in. But nothing is so clearly defined. We all contain shades of gray that make us complicated. Like Conor's dad, who divorced his mother and moved away, but does the best he can for his son, or his grandmother, who is distant and strict, but loves Conor fiercely, none of us are all one thing or another. Death and illness are messy, terrible things. They bring out a side of us that we don't often acknowledge. This novel explores that idea unflinchingly, and in so doing, worms its way into your heart.

The illustrations that accompany this text are phenomenal. They are dark and creepy, and perfectly match the tone of the story. It was really cool to read a complex young adult novel with glossy pages and lots of pictures. I found myself very glad that I owned a physical copy of this book instead of the Kindle version. This one deserves the shelf space.

This is one of those books that sticks with you for a long time. I have a soft spot for books that I think are true. This one is. I'm so glad that I found it. A Monster Calls is most definitely a new favorite for me.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey was the perfect way to kick off my month of reading scary books. This sci-fi horror novel was creative, emotional and, of course, suspenseful from start to finish.  I couldn't put it down.

Part of the fun of reading this one is unraveling what exactly is going on. It begins with a little girl named Melanie waiting patiently in her room for school to start. However, Melanie's room is more like a jail cell, and she has to be restrained into a wheelchair by one soldier while another holds a gun on her and reminds her not to move before she can be wheeled into her school room with her similarly-restrained classmates. She is sprayed with a chemical solution instead of bathing and is given a bowl of worms to eat once a week for nourishment. Obviously, the reader gets the sense that something post-apocalyptic is happening, but we aren't given all the details right away.  The narration switches perspectives between Melanie, one of her teachers, the Sargent of the base they are on, a young solider, and a doctor performing medical research. As you begin to put all the pieces together and start to make sense of the plot, what emerges is a very creepy survival story set in a collapsed world.

Beyond the suspenseful aspects of the plot, this novel was satisfyingly deep. Questions about ethics and morality in times of catastrophe are raised, and I found myself frequently pausing while reading to wonder what I would believe to be right if this situation were real. I very much enjoyed the ending of the story, which didn't really answer any of these questions, but instead, gives you even more to think about.

I was similarly happy with the characters, of which many were female and totally strong in different ways. There wasn't a damsel in distress here- an incredibly feat for a horror story when you think about it.  Instead, we have Miss Justineau, a teacher with both physical and moral strength, Dr. Caldwell, a scientist with intellectual and logical strength, and Melanie herself, a child with all of those traits combined. While the story was quite fast-paced, I still thought that each character was well-written and suitably interesting.

To say too much in my reflection would be to spoil the reading experience for someone just picking it up, so I'm going to end my thoughts here. I definitely recommend this one to people who like both horror and those who enjoy stories that draw you in emotionally. M.R. Carey wrote the screenplay version of this novel right around the same time as he was writing the book, and the movie is set to come out in the U.K. at the end of this month.  I'm hoping for a U.S. release to follow quickly, because this story would make for an amazing film.   

The Girl with All the Gifts was a really cool read.  My month of scary books is starting out strong - I hope this trend continues!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Reading List: Scary Books

For the month of September, I'm going to jump into a genre that I don't read very much - scary books!  With hurricane season ramping up in Florida, this just feels like the right time of year to slip under the covers with a scary story and creepy myself out.

Here's the tentative plan for this month:

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey - I'm not entire sure what this one is about and I don't really want to know before I read it.  What I do know is that this book won a bunch of paranormal/horror/fantasy awards, which makes it perfect for this month.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux - This classic story about a disfigured young man who haunts a Parisian opera house has been made famous on Broadway.  I'm interested to see what the book is like.  This will also fit my "classic in translation" category for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo - I meant to get to this book in August, but I didn't get the chance. I think it still qualifies as a slightly scary book, so I'm sticking it here.  This fits my "classic with a place in the title" category for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs - I have to read this creepy young adult book before the movie comes out.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - Another young adult book I want to get to before the movie comes out.

That's all I'm going to plan out for now, since I haven't exactly been cranking out the reviews since school started back up.  At this point, I'm doubting that I'll be able to read 100 books this year.  I'm going to keep on trying and having fun though, and that's what really counts.   

August 2016 Wrap Up

My month of reading books from my shelves is over, and we're heading out with a whimper instead of a bang. I definitely didn't read as much as I wanted to, but that's okay. I cleared a few books I had been meaning to read off my shelves, got to read some NEW Harry Potter, and discovered a new favorite.  You can't do much better than that, honestly.

Did my month of reading from my shelves help to curb my book buying habits?  Not a bit.  I think I bought five or six books over the course of the month.  I'm committed to cutting back, but I'm not made of stone!  At least I've been getting grownup books on the Kindle, which helps with the space issue I was having.  I still buy physical young adult books, since I can add them to my classroom library when I'm done. I guess you can say I'm practicing being more mindful about the whole thing, but I'll always be that person that is constantly buying books.  It's just who I am.

Books Read:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero

Best of the Month: I Am the Messenger
Worst of the Month: You Are a Badass

I'm hoping to get my numbers up a little bit in September.  Reading Better Than Before this month has really inspired me to recommit to my routines and make more leisure time for myself.  Not an easy task with school starting up again, but I will do my best!  

You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero

I had high hopes for this book when I spotted it at Target a few weeks ago.  My hopes were so high that I went home, downloaded it on my Kindle and started reading it right away, despite the fact that I was supposed to only be reading books I already owned throughout the month of August.  You see, I struggle with self-confidence.  I'm plagued with a natural shyness that causes me to doubt my abilities. I know in my head that I do awesome work, but often, I'm not assertive enough to let people know about it. When I saw this self-help guide, I thought that maybe there would be some useful advice in it on learning how to come out of my shell and take ownership of my abilities. Disappointingly though, this book ended up being a little too weird for me.

First, the good. You Are a Badass contains some useful food for thought about pursuing your dreams and living without fear. I especially liked the chapters about getting rid of the drama of "feeling overwhelmed" and using people who annoy you as mirrors for your own negative qualities. There were definitely some interesting ideas to think about in most of the chapters. Sincero spends a lot of the book advocating for positive thinking and self-love, which I do agree is a beneficial way of thinking about yourself.

However, her advice on becoming a badass frequently veered away from practical steps and sped head-on into the spiritual realm.  This is where Sincero completely lost me. She asserts within the first few chapters that to benefit from her advice, you must believe in some sort of higher power, whether it be God, the Universe, Karma, etc., and spends most of the book talking about raising your energy to the proper frequency so that the Universe can bring you success. This kind of thinking is probably perfect for a lot of people, but I am not spiritual in the slightest. I respond to lists, plans, research, and strategy.  I do not believe that there is a higher power out there that wants to give me money if only I surrendered myself to believing in it. As such, this was all a little too hippy-dippy for me. But hey, more power to people who can use this way of thinking to improve their lives!

Another problem for me was informal writing style. Sincero uses a conversational tone, swears a whole lot, and incorporates a lot of slang into her chapters. I don't mind swearing or writing in a way that is accessible to people, but for me, her wording felt like she was trying too hard. For example, when she claims her strategies are, "freaky- deaky. And super easy. It’s like having a craft day with God," I was rolling my eyes. It closed me off from listening to her advice, to an extent. I'm sure a lot of readers found her writing to be hilarious and motivating, it just didn't strike me that way.

Sincero is a spectacularly successful person.  She's done very well for herself in many different areas of her life, as she describes throughout this book. She credits this with believing in the power of the universe, but I think that it's more from a combination of natural charisma, good luck, and hard work. No one makes millions simply because they sit back and believe that money will come to them, but Sincero glosses over the practical aspects of her success in favor of positive thinking exercises.  I do believe that positive thinking is important, but what about the part where you actually had to go out and do stuff? I'd have liked to hear more about that.

At times, Sincero also shows a startling lack of sympathy for people who are struggling in life, calling them "wusses" and "weenies." I was very troubled by her thoughts on people struggling with depression.  She writes:
Let’s say, for example, that your story is that you’re depressed. Chances are pretty good that even though it feels awful, when you feel awful you don’t have to work hard or do the laundry or go to the gym. It also feels very familiar and cozy and comfortable. It gets you attention. People come in and check on you and sometimes bring food. It gives you something to talk about. It allows you to not try too hard or move forward and face possible failure. It lets you drink beer for breakfast.
I don't think this is how depression works. To say that people who are depressed are seeking attention and subconsciously trying to get out of doing chores is insulting. Positive thinking and "trying harder" don't always fix serious emotional issues, and it's harmful to assert otherwise. This irked me. 

So, a lack of specific advice, a heavy reliance on spirituality and an overuse of an annoying writing style meant that I didn't get too much out of this book.  There were definitely some useful nuggets of information here, but overall, this book wasn't a game-changer for me. I much preferred the advice and style of Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin, which I just finished reading prior to this one.  I suppose that's part of the task of finding self-improvement books that are useful to you - finding an author that resonates with you personally. Sincero just didn't do that for me.