How Do I Love Thee

After writing about the importance of short stories, I thought I would post a short story I wrote. I wrote this story in February 2012 for a short story contest held by The Strand bookstore in New York City. The prompt was the write a love story that took place at The Strand. This story won 2nd place, so I hope that means I’m not a total hack at writing. Enjoy.

“How Do I Love Thee”

Jackie rushed inside in her attempt to escape from the ghastly wind. She pulled the door closed behind her, locking out the animalistic wind and rain. It was the worst weather all month, and sane people were shut up inside their apartments watching Oprah marathons. But Jackie couldn’t stay inside. She couldn’t sit on her couch any longer, waiting for that phone call. It wasn’t going to come. That’s what all her friends had told her. He wasn’t going to call. If he had wanted to call, he would have called already. And even if he did call, her friends had told her not to answer. You didn’t get seconds chances after cheating with your ex-girlfriend. That was the rule, they told her; she was better off without him anyway. She deserved better. And still…all morning she had sat on her couch. By her phone. Without even bothering to make coffee.

“Welcome to The Strand,” a young man said to her, interrupting her reverie. Called back to the present, Jackie smiled slightly, walking past the employee in a brisk fashion. She had come to the bookstore to escape people. She wanted to be with the one thing in her life that never cheated, disappointed, or came up short: books. (Though, it must be noted, she had felt cheated by the ending of The Painted Veil.)

In her own world of thought, slowly disappearing to that indescribable realm of oneself, a place un-shadowed by people, problems, and pain, Jackie began to make her usual round among the eighteen miles of books. She walked through the shelves of Homer and Dickens and Bronte. None of her usuals called out to her. Her fingers gently caressed the spines of the books, but none of their silent efforts managed to halt her progress.

She knew not where her feet were taking her, which book her fingers sought. She had an established pattern that she walked every time upon entering the store. She checked on her favorite authors, made sure they were well, looked for new translations of her Russian friends, new illustrated printings of her British ones. But today…today even her fellow American Louisa May Alcott could not attain her attention.

“Can I help you find something, miss?” a woman asked her. Breaking from her absent train of thought, Jackie took a moment to understand what the woman had said to her.

“Are you looking for something specific?” the woman asked. Jackie shook her head.

“No,” she answered, somewhat vacantly. “Just looking.” The woman nodded and left, carrying a group of books stacked a little too high. Jackie watched her go, then looked at the shelf in front of her. Shakespeare. She was farther in her route than she had realized. Tragedies. Wonderful.  She and Ophelia and Juliet could have coffee together. She sighed and looked around.

Later, she wouldn’t be able to say what had caught her eye. It may have been the pull of something new, the desire for something unfamiliar. Maybe it was a mistake, but Jackie looked to her right and saw the poetry shelves. Poetry was not on her map. It wasn’t that she disliked poetry. On the contrary, she found poetry beautiful…when someone could explain it to her. It was one of those things…she knew, or believed, deep truths and unexplainable beauties to be found in the lines of poetry, yet she could not extract these for herself. She had one professor in college who spouted Frost like flowers in May. Once she had tried to read a set of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And once she had gone to a poetry reading with her friend Rebecca. Yet despite her efforts, poetry was all Greek to her.

But this did not explain how Jackie found herself gazing up at a myriad of poetry volumes. She tilted her head sideways to read the names. Some she recognized, Pound, Eliot, and Byron. Many she did not. She pulled out a poetry collection, scanning the names. Irish poets. She could barely name a handful of American poets, what would she do with poets from across the pond? She put the book back and sighed, turning to go. Then again, something caught her gaze, as if the book had whispered some call to stay. Jackie reached out to the shelf in front of her and pulled out an old, paperback book. It was a worn book, the pages yellowed and the spine wrinkled. Many of the pages were bent. It was hardly a copy to be proud of, and yet the book felt warm in her hands, light yet heavy, as if just holding it gave her comfort.

Jackie gingerly turned the book over in her hands. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Jackie opened the book to a random page. “How do I love thee?” she read. “Let me count the ways…” Jackie sighed. Is love the only thing poets had to write about? Seriously. Reminded of the phone call that was not coming, her face fell and she started to close the book. But Fate decided to take yet another hand. Jackie noticed writing at the bottom of the page. Curious, she peered closer. The writing was in pen, an old-fashioned cursive script. Jackie flipped to the front of the book and looked at the publishing date. 1912. Intrigued, she turned back to the poem. The poem was the only writing printed on the page, the bottom half of the page covered in a handwritten message. Jackie squinted, trying to decipher the writing, slanted like her grandfather’s handwriting.

“How do I love thee?” it read. “Let me count the ways…I love your laughter, I love your smile. I love you compassion and your sincerity. I love you like my best friend, my lifelong companion, my one true love. Ms. Barrett made a mistake in this poem. She assumed the ways of love could be counted. If you could count the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore, still you could not count the ways I love you. With eagerness I await to be reunited with my dearest.”

Jackie’s eyes glazed over, the words on the page become fuzzy and illegible. Did people still write like that? Did people still feel like that? No one had ever written anything like that for her. She could feel the love resonating from the page. She gently traced the words with her fingers, as if trying to absorb the deep-seated passion lying within them. Such a precious secret hidden within these pages, she could feel it. A story long forgotten yet still living vibrantly from page to page. Suddenly stricken with a sense of panic that someone might discover the secret she held in this book, Jackie looked around, but no one was near.

With great care, Jackie turned the page. Nothing besides the printed poem. Disappointed, Jackie hurriedly flipped a few more pages and breathed a sigh of relief when she found another poem with a scrawled footnote, this time in a woman’s handwriting. “Indeed this very love which is my boast,” the poem read. Jackie scanned down to the bottom of the page.

“Which is my boast? Not merely that but my pride and joy, my reason for living and for dying. For you are my love and my life and every breath of mine hinges on the promise of your return.” Jackie sighed and leaned against the wall behind her, clutching the book to her chest. Love and hope jumping from the page, refusing to be confined by a book cover.

Lost in the renewal of a love story lost, Jackie flipped the pages of the entire book, thrilled to see glimpses of many handwritten footnotes to the poems. She smiled to herself as she as the words went rushing by. Then her smile turned into a look of curiosity as the book fell open to one of the last pages, a wrinkled piece of paper tucked away next to one of the last poems. There was no writing, only the poem and the sheet of paper. Jackie began to read the poem, sinking to the floor as she did.

Go from me.  Yet I feel that I shall stand

Henceforward in thy shadow.  Nevermore

Alone upon the threshold of my door

Of individual life, I shall command

The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand

Serenely in the sunshine as before,

Without the sense of that which I forbore—

Thy touch upon the palm.  The widest land

Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine

With pulses that beat double.  What I do

And what I dream include thee, as the wine

Must taste of its own grapes.  And when I sue

God for myself, He hears that name of thine,

And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

An intense sadness overcame Jackie as the words of the poem sank in. Never had she understood a poem so vividly. Her eyes darted to the paper hanging loosely from the book. Frightened, for some reason she did not understand, Jackie merely looked at the folded piece of paper. It, like the pages of the book, was faded yellow, wrinkled as if it had been crumpled, unfolded, and crumpled again many times. Holding her breath, Jackie slowly reached for it and gently unfolded it in her fingers.

The first thing Jackie noticed was the smeared ink where tears had stained the paper. They almost felt fresh in her hands, as if they had come from her own cheeks. Hesitantly and with some reluctance, Jackie read the letter. Not all of the words registered in her mind, but some seemed to jump at her. “Died bravely in combat,” she saw. “August 1916.” None of the other words mattered. Jackie quickly refolded the note and placed it beside its poem, closing the book and putting it on the floor next to her. She ran her fingers through her hair, taking a deep breath. What to think? What to feel? She could feel the woman’s sorrow reading the letter that came home in place of her love. She felt the despair and loneliness. What to think? What to do? She felt the love lost as her own, some deep connection with the previous owner of this book.

Jackie gently picked the book up once more and turned to the letter. She held it for a moment, running her fingers over the words. She sighed and folded the paper again. As she did so, she noticed something written on the back of the letter. It was messy, uncoordinated, written out of grief.

“If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” Jackie felt the tears, this time her own, as she closed the book. She sat there for a moment, her thoughts with two young lovers on the brink of World War I. She jumped at the feeling of her cell phone vibrating. Looking around, she quickly wiped away her tears and pulled her phone out of her pocket, looking at the caller ID. The call that wasn’t supposed to come. She took a moment, staring at her cell phone screen. Then she pressed the ignore button and stood up. Taking the book with her, Jackie walked to the check out line.

“Is this all?” the woman behind the cash register asked.

“For now,” Jackie answered. “For now.”

With her precious book tucked away in a yellow Strand bag hidden under her coat, Jackie headed back out into the weather eager for her apartment and a chance to recount an unparalleled love story amidst the pages of a poetry book.

A Dying Art

ImageShort stories seem to be going to same way as cursive and hand written letters. They used to be the staple for famous authors and authors struggling to make a living. Ernest Hemingway wrote quite a few short stories, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack London, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today, however, short stories are scarce. Some authors still write short stories, authors like Stephen King, Daphne Du Maurier, and Melina Marchetta, but short stories are no longer the rite of passage that they used to be.

I still believe that short stories have value, both to writers and to readers. Here are a few reasons why short stories are beneficial.

For writers:

1. Short stories teach writers how to structure plot.

Short stories are short, much shorter than novels. They’re a way for writers to practice structuring a plot in an engaging way. Like any story, short stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. However, because they are shorter than novels, it is easier to look at the story as a whole. Writers can work on setting the scene, building to a climax, and wrapping up the story.

2. Short stories teach writers to write with a purpose.

Short stories always have a purpose, some kind of message or theme. If a short story doesn’t have a clear theme, then it’s just a misplaced piece of writing. It’s a scene without a novel. According to the theme of Stephen King’s story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” short stories teach writers to get busy living or get busy dying. Short stories make a point quickly or they’re just bad writing.

3. When it comes down to it, short stories are practice for everything.

Plots, characters, themes, style—short stories are good practice for all of those things. They also provide the satisfaction of finishing a story. It is difficult to finish a 50,000-100,000 word novel, but a 2,000 short story is very doable for new writers. It’s an opportunity to practice the trade. And when you’ve mastered the short story, you can move on to write longer stories.

For readers:

1. Themes.

As I mentioned in no. 2 earlier, short stories always have a theme or message. Sometimes it’s obvious, but often times the message is tucked away in the prose, similar to themes in poetry. Short stories can be a challenge to read because they make the reader work for it. But the read worth the effort, and short stories are good practice for readers to look beyond the surface for deeper themes hidden within good writing.

2. Time.

Some times, a reader doesn’t have time to sit down and read Crime and Punishment (though you should read this book at some point in your life). Short stories offer the enjoyment of reading without requiring as much time to get through the entire story.

ImageSome of my favorite short stories are “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, “To Build A Fire” by Jack London, and “The Body” by Stephen King (which was made into the excellent film Stand By Me). I think short stories are a great form of literature, and it’s a shame they are no longer a common practice. They are valuable to both readers and writers, and I wish writers would still take time to experiment with them! As both a writer and a reader, sometimes a good short story is just the boost I need.

Check out “How Do I Love Thee” to read a short story I wrote.

A Less Than Ideal Heroine

ImageKristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling received praise and awards upon its publication in 2008. The book takes place in a world where certain people, called gracelings, are gifted with extraordinary talent in one area. The novel’s heroine, Katsa, is graced with killing. Her uncle uses her as a weapon against his enemies, but Katsa eventually breaks free from his control in order to join Po, another graceling, on a quest to find out why his grandfather was kidnapped. On this journey, Katsa and Po become lovers, and they defeat a wicked king controlling a kingdom through his own unique grace.

The New York Times review of Graceling wrote, “[Katsa] overturns every biological reality and cultural stereotype of feminine weakness, which is a large part of her charm. She is the girl’s dream of female power unloosed.” The Kirkus review of this book called Katsa an “ideal adolescent heroine.” Readers and reviewers alike rave over the character of Katsa, but that left me confused. In my opinion, Katsa was the book’s biggest problem.

Katsa falls into both of the two most common stereotypes of the contemporary heroine—everybody is in love with her and she is a badass fighter. The first stereotype, the fact that everyone is in love with her, is very reminiscent of Bella Swan from Twilight, and it is just as baffling. Why does do the handsome, straight characters (Po and Lord Giddon) love her? Katsa’s only skill is murder. She struggles with the moral dilemma of her job as her uncle’s assassin, but even in her moments of doubt, she fails to show any real sense of compassion, pity, sympathy, or love. If she “overturns every cultural stereotype of feminine weakness,” she does it only through killing. And murder is anything but charming.

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Kristin Cashore

Besides the cliché of every male character falling in love with her, Katsa is also a skilled fighter. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it fails to make Katsa interesting or three-dimensional because it is ridiculously cliché. Having killing as a grace makes Katsa’s ability to defeat every opponent in a fight somewhat believable, but my suspension of belief is not that powerful. Realistically, a teenage girl can’t beat everyone in a fight, and I don’t see why all “ideal adolescent heroines” have to be the best fighters and always be better than the men. All that says is that women can only be heroes by becoming warriors; that the only way is to fight, but that isn’t true, especially for teenage girls coming of age today.

Katsa is a cliché heroine, but that isn’t her biggest problem. The worst thing about Katsa, and about holding her up as a role model for young girls (or anybody for that matter), is that she doesn’t love. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t even know what love truly is. Cashore writes, “Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.” There is an inherent contradiction in that excerpt from the book. Katsa can’t give herself to anyone. She can’t trust anyone with her heart. And so she cannot actually be in love. Being in love inherently means no longer belonging only to yourself. Your thoughts, actions, emotions, and very being are intertwined with another person’s. Katsa can never be anyone’s but her own, and so she cannot love Po. By stifling Katsa’s emotions, Cashore reduces Katsa’s relationship with Po to nothing but lust, a passionate romp in the forest without trust, mutual care-giving, and love.

Graceling is an enjoyable read in many ways. The characters are not unlikable and the concept of a “grace” and how it is used is interesting, but Katsa is not a good heroine. She is cliché—male characters are falling over themselves to love her and she is a fighter, but the worst thing about her is that she cannot love. To uphold Katsa as a role model for young girls is to tell them that they can only achieve greatness by fighting and that they can only be worthwhile if men love them. It is to also say that love, true love that involves a level of trust and affection so deep that you are no longer only your own, is bad. Graceling teaches that love somehow deprives you of your own identity, that it is wrong to give your heart to someone. For Katsa, there is no love, no compassion, and no pity. There is only fighting—fighting against a loving relationship and the kindness found in a feminine identity. Is that what we want to teach young girls?

Maus

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Art Spiegelman’s intensely personal and honest masterpiece won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

I love comic books and graphic novels. I always have. I love how the stories told in comics can reflect the psyche of our culture, as seen in the rise of serious graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the late 1980’s. But while these stories are wonderfully done, the graphic novel that truly showed how this medium could be used to tell a complex and powerful story is Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus. Completed in 1991, critics and scholars have labeled Maus in many ways. It is a novel, a documentary, a memoir, a fable, as well as a comic book. It is also the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. But, when you look past the acclaim, the accolades, and the awards to the bare bones of Spiegelman’s work, Maus tells the story of a relationship between a father and son that is haunted by the past.

Art Spiegelman was born in Sweden in 1948 to Vladek and Anja Spiegleman, a Polish couple who survived the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s childhood was dominated by something that author Marianne Hirsch calls ‘postmemory’, which is “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before — to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” Spiegelman’s mother would sometimes talk about Auschwitz, but his father always shut down when the subject was broached. Nevertheless, the Holocaust loomed large over Spiegelman’s life, especially after his mother committed suicide when he was twenty. His relationship with his father, always unstable, deteriorated after her death.

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While Maus tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, it is also a story about the relationship between a father and son.

Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s relationship to his father during the years 1978-1979, when he interviewed his father about his experiences before and after Auschwitz. While the Holocaust had haunted his life, it was then that Spiegelman finally understood the horrors and tragedies that his parents faced during World War II. Maus telescopes between Spiegelman’s interviews and relationship with his father to Vladek’s point of view in World War II Poland and Germany.

There have been many recounting and retellings of the Holocaust over the years, as the world has tried to understand the atrocities, destruction, and devastating losses that the Jewish people faced, but none of these retellings are quite like Maus, which anthropomorphizes its characters. The Jewish people are mice, the goyim Poles pigs, and the Nazis cats. Through this lens, Spiegelman is able to show the unspeakable acts of evil and depravity of the Holocaust in a new light, and he explore these events in a way that hits incredibly close to home. Paul Buhle, a scholar and retired professor from Brown University, muses that, “More than a few readers have described [Maus] as the most compelling of any [Holocaust] depiction, perhaps because only the caricatured quality of comic art is mausequal to the seeming unreality of an experience beyond all reason.” Spiegelman does not shy away from any of the darkness in his father’s tale, or the darkness that has resulted in his own life. His unflinching honesty and his willingness to show the true depths of evil during that time make Maus compelling and, also, incredibly difficult to read.

If, like me, you cry easily when watching movies or reading books, be prepared. This book is a hard read. But it is also an important read. Maus explores a relationship between a father and son in an incredibly intimate way, and it does the same for the Holocaust. Perhaps it isn’t a beach read, but it is a work that should be on everyone’s reading list.

A Long Expected Movie

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson alike waited over ten years from the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie in 2001 to the release of Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit in December of 2012. After ten years of disputes with the Tolkien estate, Warner Bros. buying New Line Cinemas, changes in the director, and the splitting of The Hobbit into two and then three films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finally hit theaters last December. It came on a wave of high expectations, as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy set Oscar-winning records and received excellent reviews from fans and critics alike. Now people waited anxiously to see if Peter Jackson could pull off Tolkien’s smaller, happier, yet still beloved story of a hobbit who travels with a company of dwarves to fight a dragon and regain their homeland and treasure.

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

Even before the film was released, Jackson’s decision to split the story into three films raised a lot of doubts among fans. There were rumors of some kind of romantic relationship going on between Gandalf and Galadriel, and Jackson almost cut the dwarves from 13 to 8. Jackson, along with writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh added a new female character not created by Tolkien (Tauriel) and that also ruffled a few feathers. For these reasons, many fans were uneasy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not a perfect film, but this die hard Tolkien fan enjoyed it. Here is a quick run through of some of the things that I thought made the film worth watching.

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo

The acting was very good. Richard Armitage was an excellent Thorin, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with this. When I read the book for the first time in third grade, Thorin was my favorite character. Richard Armitage did a wonderful job embodying Thorin’s leadership, stubbornness, pride, and loyalty. The Thorin in the movie was the Thorin of the books, and Richard Armitage deserves credit for this.

I cannot say enough good things about Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He is the perfect hobbit. He was respectable yet quirky, unassuming and English. He portrayed Bilbo’s deep love for his home. He struggled with self-doubt but he managed to prove himself, which he will continue to do in the next two films.

It’s needless to say that Ian McKellen was fantastic as Gandalf the Grey, and just as needless to say that Cate Blanchett was superb as Galadriel. It was also quite excellent to see Hugo Weaving return as Elrond, not to mention Brett McKenzie (Figwit) as well. In Sylvester McCoy (Dr. Who) we definitely saw the animal loving wizard Radagast, but I hopefully look forward to seeing his badass wizard side in future movies.

It was incredibly heart warming to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return in the beginning of the film to set the story before “An Unexpected Party”. Gollum also made an appearance. There were also other elements that LOTR fans will recognize from Jackson’s original trilogy and the books. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens included Tolkien’s original playful song when the dwarves crashed Bilbo’s home. Their subtle tributes to Tolkien’s original novel will endear this film to true fans. Dedicated fans will also appreciate the extra footage from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, including the meeting of the White Council and Gandalf’s investigation at Dol Goldur.

Despite all the good things about this movie, there were a few things that I did not like about the film. The movie was longer than it really needed to be, but given Peter Jackson’s record with films, that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Still, at times it felt like Thorin and company were traveling from one skirmish to the next. This is in part because they were being hunted by the orc Azog. While Azog is an original Tolkien character, he does not chase Thorin and company in the book. However, besides Azog, the plot was true to Tolkien’s original story.

In comparison, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. However, I think that fans of both Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s work can enjoy the film. It features “Riddles in the Dark,” my favorite chapter in The Hobbit, and gives you a glimpse of the dragon Smaug. I look forward to seeing the next two Hobbit films, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again. There is more to come in the Hobbit trilogy, including giant spiders, elves, a dragon, and a huge battle. So watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on DVD and look for The Desolation of Smaug in December.

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13 Dwarves

The Bell Jar

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Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is known for many things: poetry, depression, suicide, and one novel—The Bell Jar. Plath began writing The Bell Jar after her first collection of poems was published in 1961, but she didn’t finish it until 1963 after she separated from her husband, Ted Hughes. Plath was living in London at the time and the novel was published under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas. About a month later, Plath committed suicide.

Prior to her suicide Plath suffered from a history of depression, including several previous unsuccessful attempts to take her own life. In light of this, it is difficult to read The Bell Jar separate from its author. But I think this isn’t a bad thing in this case. One piece of advice that aspiring writers always hear it to “write from personal experience,” because then they can write about something they are familiar. Writing from personal experience allows writers to write more convincingly because he or she know exactly what a certain experience feels like and he or she can portray that to the reader. This is how it is with Sylvia Plath and depression in The Bell Jar.

ImageEsther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, has the life that every young woman at her time would have envied. She’s living in New York City interning at a fashionable women’s magazine. She has friends and a somewhat serious boyfriend named Buddy. Esther describes her situation as a fig tree, where each fig is something different opportunity for her—a traditional family, a brilliant professor, a successful editor—she could be anything she wanted. But Esther extends the metaphor to say, “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Even though she is in a position to achieve anything she wants, Esther becomes disinterested in everything around her. She stops socializing with her friends and loses interest in her work, beginning to show signs of depression. When she returns to her home in Boston, Esther finds out that she was not accepted into a writing course she was eager to take, which only adds to her depression. Now living with her mother, Esther becomes more and more depressed and fails to find anything that interests her. Eventually Esther decides to take her own life, but she even fails to work up enough resolve to accomplish this. She can’t bring herself to cut her wrists and she fails to drown at sea. Eventually, she overdoses on sleeping pills and is discovered unconscious.

After spending time in a hospital, working with a psychiatrist, and undergoing shock therapy, Esther seems to be on the mend when the book ends, which contrasts sharply with the end Sylvia Plath’s own life because Plath ultimately succeeded in committing suicide (though there is debate as to whether or not she meant to kill herself or was intending to be found before she expired, much like Esther).

At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking that The Bell Jar is as depressing as its author or main character, but depressing is not synonymous with boring. The book is incredibly interesting because of the way the Plath handles Esther’s depression. Esther’s disinterest in the world around her is apparent to the reader, but the reader is drawn into Esther’s side of things. The reader sympathizes with Esther by also failing to find anything that could or should excite Esther. The reader agrees with Esther’s thoughts. Then Esther tries to commit suicide. It’s like Plath has drawn you into Esther’s cavern of depression and you don’t even know it until it’s too late. Everything is normal, if disinteresting, and then suddenly you’re sitting on your couch with your copy of The Bell Jar wondering how you got drawn into this crazy chick’s vicious cycle of depression.

That is the genius of Sylvia Plath’s novel. Esther isn’t crazy. She isn’t different from other people. She didn’t suffer trauma as a child. She’s normal; she’s you. And then she tries to commit suicide. The Bell Jar achieves what only great books can achieve—the reader not only sees, but also feels, Esther’s depression. Plath conveys to the reader what depression is like for some people. It’s a slippery slope of normality until you’re baking your head in the oven with your children in the next room, like Sylvia Plath.

The Bell Jar is different; there aren’t many books like it. It doesn’t just show you a character who is depressed so you can observe as the far off reader. It draws you into the story and shows you what depression feels like. That ability to draw the reader in that intimately is the triumph of a great novel.

The 5th Wave

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Rick Yancey’s new young adult novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the human race is fighting for survival.

The 5th Wave, written by Printz Honor-winning author Rick Yancey, is a compelling read. The book follows a girl named Cassie Sullivan who is surviving on her own after aliens, called the Others, invade earth. The Others are intent on claiming the earth as their own, and have been methodically disposing of the human race.

The Others’ plan comes in waves— in the first wave they set off an EMP that rendered all technology on earth useless; in the second wave they caused floods which wiped out all of the coastal cities in the world; in the third wave they decimated the human population with a terrifying new virus carried around the world by birds; in the fourth wave they started picking off the few surviving humans with sniper rifles.

Cassie is a survivor. Her parents are dead and her little brother, Sammy, was taken by military personnel who may be more than they seem. Her one goal in life is to get Sammy back and to keep him safe, but she faces insurmountable obstacles. One of the major obstacles that she faces is the fact that in the fourth wave, aliens who had taken over human bodies are killing as many humans as they can. The aliens aren’t green and they don’t come to earth in flying saucers. They look just like humans and are lethal, which means that Cassie does not know if she can trust anyone she meets along the road to finding Sammy.

The road is treacherous. There are Others lying in wait in the woods to kill any humans they find, there are wild animals who could also easily kill her, and Cassie needs to find food and clean water to survive in a now barren landscape. But what waits for Cassie at the end of the road may be the most dangerous thing she has faced since the Others came.

The 5th Wave is a page-turner, which makes it an ideal summer read. I read this book in about six hours because I couldn’t put it down. It’s If you are craving something to read that is reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, this is the book for you. Cassie, the primary narrator in the book, is an intelligent and plucky character with enough grit and sarcasm to make reading the book fun even though her environment is bleak. Like Katniss, Cassie has to find a way to survive in a hostile environment and has to decide who she can trust.

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Fans of AMC’s hit television show The Walking Dead will recognize the parallels between a world infested with walkers and Yancey’s alien infested world.

The book is also similar to post-apocalyptic narratives such as AMC’s The Walking Dead (which is also an awesome  graphic novel, by the way) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the setting is dangerous and the people who populate the world are even more so.

I will say, however, that the writing in The 5th Wave is not of the same caliber as Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully sparse prose in The Road, and I had a few issues with the book. I tore through the book, reading it quickly and really enjoying it. But, as English majors are wont to do, I started analyzing the book as soon as I finished. While the heart of The 5th Wave is Cassie’s search for her brother, the book bounces between several narrators.

One of the narrators is a boy connected to Cassie’s past, who goes by the name Zombie. His narration shows another side of what life is like for the humans who have decided to stick together in groups after the Others begin their attack, as well as insight into what the new fifth wave is.

There are two other narrators, however, that I had some problems with—Sammy and Evan, a boy that Cassie meets along the road. While Cassie and Zombie’s chapters are told in first person, Sammy and Evan’s chapters are written in third person. The switch between first and third person is jarring and grating. I also had trouble suspending my disbelief in Sammy’s section because Yancey did not write convincingly from a five year old’s perspective. Sammy sounded the same as Cassie, who is sixteen, and reasoned in the same ways. I am not trying to discredit five year olds, who can be incredibly intelligent and prescient, but there is a big difference between five and sixteen.

tumblr_m4a7i9JjOQ1rwx4exo1_500My other issue with the book is one that I have with many young adult novels. Evan Walker is a mysterious boy whom Cassie meets on her journey to find Sammy. Evan helps Cassie to recover from a serious injury, and the two bond as they have both been alone for a very long time. Cassie, who has been wary of everyone she meets since the fourth wave began, has to decide whether or not to trust her new friend. Quiet and mysterious Evan is described as being incredibly hot and having “chocolate brown eyes”, a phrase that is used so much in this book that it was ridiculous (Yancey really likes describing eyes, apparently—Sammy has “teddy bear eyes”, whatever that is supposed to mean). Cassie is attracted to Evan, of course, and it’s love at first sight for them both. But Evan has a Big Secret that may jeopardize their instalove relationship.

The problem with this relationship is that the adjective that Cassie uses the most for Evan, besides “hot” and “gorgeous”, is “creepy”. Evan lurks outside her door a lot and is always watching her. This kind of fixated behavior reminded me way too much of Edward Cullen, which is never a good thing. I know that Cassie and Evan are two of the last teens on earth but… aspects of their borderline obsessive relationship, which is built on the foundation of how hot they are, troubled me. The sad thing is that this is prevalent in young adult literature, where protagonists overlook disturbing flaws in their significant other because of how attractive he or she is.

Despite those qualms, I enjoyed the book overall. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it going to win the Pulitzer Prize? No. Is it a fun, compelling read? Yes. The 5th Wave is being marketed as the Next Big Thing in the young adult publishing world, and GK films and Tobey Maguire have acquired the film rights for the book. This is a great book to read on vacation this summer for those who are hankering for something to fill The Hunger Games void.000772cc-630