Monday, October 31, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche

If you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you will almost certainly become one upon reading Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Marche dexterously crafts an ode of rhyme and reason to the Bard’s towering influence on the working-day world, from the words and phrases he coined to his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement to his popularity among the Nazi party. In one fell swoop, this book compellingly chronicles the ubiquitous presence of the Bard in our politics, our language and our sex lives.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a collection of essays, starting with one on the influence of Othello on the integration of African-Americans in the theater business. While the title character was often played in blackface, Paul Robeson made a name for himself as the infamous Moor, and went on to become an important figure in Civil Rights campaigns nationwide. Marche also makes the case that John Wilkes Booth was inspired to assassinate President Lincoln by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Among the more ingrained influences is Shakespeare’s coining of over 1,700 words and countless phrases that have a strong presence in our language today. These essays culminate into a generous homage to arguably the most influential writer that ever lived.

Citing Shakespeare’s bold refusal to censor the violence and bawdy humor in his plays, among the more histrionic of Marche’s claims is that Shakespeare influenced Freud’s studies of human sexuality, and, by extension, the way we view sex today. The custom of teen girls swooning over celebrity heartthrobs allegedly began with Romeo and Juliet, which idolized star-crossed flaming youth. Claims such as these may require readers to suspend disbelief; however, this does not sully the book’s quality as a whole.

Besides revealing little-known trivia and fun facts about Shakespeare, Marche also delves into persisting mysteries about the Bard: how he looked like, for one, and how he really spelled his name, as well as the circumstances surrounding his marriage. Among the more humorous of Marche’s tidbits is Leo Tolstoy’s passionate hatred for the Bard and the book he wrote detailing all his failures as a writer, making him out to be the devil incarnate. Marche covers a lot of ground, from proven facts to myths and speculations to zealous critical acclaim and naysayers alike, resulting in a well-rounded and accessibly written portrait of a man so renowned and yet so mysterious.

While slightly farfetched in some of its claims, How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a fun, enlightening read and a goldmine for Shakespeare fans, who will surely get their money’s worth. It’s a foregone conclusion that Shakespeare has left his undeniable mark in many aspects of our daily lives, both large- and small-scale, and Marche’s faithful tribute to the Bard is to be admired, despite an exaggerated claim here and there.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy comes full circle as author Suzanne Collins provides a gripping conclusion to her action-packed, politically charged young adult series. A page-turner from start to finish, Mockingjay is a flawed yet resonant denouement to this tantalizing tale of rebellion, warfare and the loss of one’s childhood.

In the aftermath of her surviving the Hunger Games a second time, Katniss Everdeen is brought to the frontlines of war as she’s taken in by the authoritarian regime of District 13 and prepared for battle with the Capitol. Her comrade and love interest Peeta Mellark has been taken hostage, and she reunites with her best friend, Gale, as they become soldiers in arms against the Capitol’s high-tech weaponry. Despite Katniss’s single-minded determination to bring down the regime and assassinate President Snow, she soon finds herself questioning who she can trust and what to believe. Her torn loyalties culminate in a series of betrayals and plot twists into a breathtaking climax in which her survival skills are put to the test.

The love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta reaches resolution as Katniss grows and gains some perspective on herself. As the battle to bring down the Capital wages on, she finds her principles clashing with the ruthless tactics that Gale and his fellow soldiers employ. Meanwhile, during Peeta’s imprisonment, the Capitol employs human experimentation to brainwash him against Katniss and the rebellion force. The rapport between these three provide depth and intrigue beyond the nonstop action, and helps the novel achieve emotive significance in addition to its thrills and plot twists.

The novel’s ending was slightly rushed, leaving some loose threads untied and having characters disappear without readers knowing their fate. Readers may feel cheated out of following their favorite character to the end, and will be left begging for more. Nonetheless, we do know the fate of our courageous heroine Katniss, who has been the driving force of all three novels with her audacious pursuit of revenge and justice; perhaps, for some readers, that would be a satisfying wrap-up.

Mockingjay will certainly prove enthralling to fans of the series who have eagerly awaited the outcome of districts’ rebellion. While they have a few disappointments their way, this one does succeed at the quality and level of intensity of the first two.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen

A blend of realism, fantasy and Biblical elements, Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota is just as its title implies: the placing of the world’s center of Christian pilgrimage—and the childhood home of Jesus—into a run-of-the-mill U.S. state. While happenings of Biblical proportion ought to ensue, this underwhelming attempt at retelling the story of the Messiah falls flat.

Nazareth, North Dakota chronicles several decades in the lives of a group of people living in this fictional town, each of who represent a Biblical figure. There’s Roxy, an alcoholic in her thirties who represents Mary; she takes in a baby named Sam, left on her doorstep at a seedy motel—who, despite his scarce appearance throughout the novel, is supposedly the new Messiah. Roxy meets a kind carpenter, Joe (obviously Mary’s husband Joseph) who she marries. Sam’s cousin Jan (John the Baptist) grows up to be a controversial preacher who foretells the Second Coming. The Mary Magdalene of this menagerie is a high school outcast, Daylene Hooker, who has a crush on Sam.

While the prospect of modernizing Biblical stories certainly has potential, sadly few of these characters evolve beyond their God-given roles. Most of them simply appear, then leave, serving little to no purpose in the story. For example, there’s Severo Rodriguez, the bitter, malevolent sheriff who represents Herod the Great. At first he seems to be shaping up to be a formidable villain, as he abuses his power, bullies his subordinates and vows to track down and apprehend Roxy and her mysterious new child. Disappointingly, the story fast-forwards into the future, when Severo has died and his son, Anton, has taken over the force. While Anton himself is an interesting character, I couldn’t help feeling that Severo’s potential as a villain was wasted.

While Nazareth, North Dakota is split up into chapters, they read more like a set of anticlimactic short stories with little to no sense of unity among them. While it can be understood that the last chapter’s cliffhanger ending is meant to set up for the upcoming sequel, Apostle Islands, that does not explain the various loose threads left untied throughout the whole novel. One gets the feeling it’s more of an episodic showcase of modernized Biblical figures rather than a novel with a plot.

While this novel was not satisfactory, I’m not ruling out reading the sequel, as it could possibly provide the answers that this one lacks. At best, Nazareth, North Dakota is well written and has its moments; just don’t expect any neat wrap-ups.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo by Lars Arffssen

As a devoted fan of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, I picked up this parody not knowing what to expect. Author Lars Arffssen, who allegedly also wrote A Popular History of the Swedish Meatball, certainly had a good time writing this one. While the original series deals with domestic violence, serial killers, sex trafficking and wrongful conviction, The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo contains evil twins, Nazis, ninjas, and many, many boxes of Twinkies.

At the forefront of the crime scene is a reindeer strangler, whose crimes are somehow connected to the decapitation of two men: failed crime novelist Twig Arsson and the world’s leading authority on Baltic sturgeon, Dr. Jerker Ekkrot. Framed for this crime is the heavily tattooed, Twinkie-obsessed computer hacker, Lizzy Salamander (Arffssen’s spoof of the famous Lisbeth Salander). With the help of her friend, journalist Mikeal Blomberg (originally Mikeal Blomkvist), Lizzy sets out to prove her innocence and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy involving a furniture company and its ties to Adolf Hitler.

Arffssen especially enjoys poking fun at the quirks of Larsson’s characters. While the original Lisbeth is a feminist vigilante, Lizzy Salamander is a rampaging castrator of men who goes by the alias Jane Manhater. While Larsson’s Blomkvist is originally a middle-aged womanizer, his overweight alter ego, whose favorite food is fried eel, comically questions the judgment of women who flock to him despite his clear lack of charm. Additionally, while Larsson originally critiqued the Swedish government through his novels, Arffssen takes pleasure in spoofing the liberal sensibilities and social norms of Scandinavian culture. For example, Swedish police carry squirt guns, because real guns are too violent, and a case of jaywalking makes the nightly news.

Some jokes are overused throughout the novel and quickly become repetitive and tiresome, such as the sex jokes involving Blomberg and his lover, Erotikka (originally Erika Berger). Really, there’s only so far you can go with jokes about naming body parts before it becomes boring. While Arffssen has no lack of comedic material to work with, at times he gets too indulgent and provokes eye-rolling rather than laughs.

Unabashedly silly, bawdy and bizarre, The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo makes for good entertainment both for fans of the original series and avid readers of the crime genre. It could be considered the Police Squad! of crime novels, as the sheer absurdity of the crimes committed—such as decapitating a man and playing soccer with his head—should ring true for readers for whom contrived pulp novels are a guilty pleasure. I dare say Stieg Larsson himself would have had a laugh at this enjoyable farce.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Fans of dystopian sci-fi should gladly pick up this worthy successor to The Hunger Games, a series which has the thrills and imaginative vision of George Orwell’s novels, combined with the accessible first-person narration and comic relief of young adult fiction. Author Suzanne Collins does not disappoint with Catching Fire, an electrifying sequel that exceeds its predecessor in action and intensity.

Catching Fire chronicles the aftermath of Katniss Everdeen’s victory in the Hunger Games, and the subsequent rebellion that shakes the districts of Panem. Upon returning to District 12, Katniss and her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark, soon discover that citizens other districts have begun to revolt against the oppressive Capitol, and are using Katniss as a symbol of their uprising. In order to demonstrate their power and enforce their authority, the Capitol sends Katniss and Peeta back into the arena, where they must fight to the death against previous victors from other districts, and they soon become pawns in the power struggle between the government and the people.

Catching Fire lends development to the love triangle involving Peeta, Katniss and her best friend, Gale, which is more than generic teen drama. Katniss’s torn loyalties between her loved ones and the greater good of the districts are manifested in the character dynamics between her and the two boys, as she struggles to decide whether to escape the district with her family and Gale or to stay and fight the Capitol alongside Peeta. Though her two love interests are underdeveloped and thinly imagined, they nonetheless serve their purpose in representing the internal struggles of Katniss, who remains a soundly developed and rousing protagonist.

The uprisings in the districts may remind readers of the Arab Spring; indeed, part of Collins’ inspiration for the novels was the Iraq war. The districts’ fight for freedom and democracy meets violent responses from authorities, reminiscent of protests in places like Morocco, Syria and Bahrain. Needless to say this series functions as both a fun, action-packed read and an allegory of current political conditions in some parts of the world.

Adding to the fun of the arena action is a cast of colorful characters: Finnick Odair of District 4, a stereotypically handsome, flirtatious jock who wields a trident and is skilled in underwater combat; Enobaria of District 2, whose best weapons are her sharp teeth; and the beautiful Johanna Mason of District 7, who pretends to be a delicate ingénue and yet is a force to be reckoned with.

Powerfully pumped with adrenaline, Catching Fire provides a satisfying return to District 12 and a welcome reacquaintance with the brave Katniss Everdeen. Readers will likely catch the contagious spirit of rebellion as the districts rise to claim their independence, and eagerly move on to the final book in this thrilling series.