***Flawed.

The traditional understanding of “tragedy” is that the tragic hero has some terrible flaw that leads to his or her downfall. Hamlet seems to subvert that understanding somewhat. What is Hamlet’s flaw? To what extent is his flaw the reason for the tragic events of the play? What else contributes to the tragedy?

As a tragic hero, Hamlet definitely evades the quick, simple labeling that can be applied to Shakespeare’s other flawed protagonists like Romeo, King Lear, and Othello.  Initial evaluation seems to point to indecisiveness and hesitation as Hamlet’s primary flaws; for example, it is conceivable that the tragic ending of the play might have been avoided had Hamlet chosen to kill Claudius in the chapel or conceived of a plot less suspicious and complex than the elaborate set up of the Mousetrap to determine Claudius’s guilt.  On a deeper level, however, all these decisions or lack thereof ultimately stem from Hamlet’s tendency to obsessively analyze and debate the merit of every possible course of action, leading him to make few effectual choices throughout the play.  This inclination to philosophize rather than act is shown not only when Hamlet debates when Claudius will be “fit and seasoned for his passage” (III.iii.86), but also when Hamlet considers matters mostly unconnected to his revenge.  For example, Hamlet contemplates “whether [it is] nobler in the mind” to struggle with harsh reality or end his pain through suicide (III.i.57), which, upon examination, is a somewhat strange and impractical way to consider ending one’s own life.  Rather than consider the repercussions of suicide on his family and county or the fact that Claudius would probably get off scot-free without Hamlet’s presence and knowledge, Hamlet chooses to focus a large amount of time and thought on the philosophical implications of suicide rather than the real effects such an action may have.  This penchant for fanciful pondering eventually delays Hamlet enough that he is unable to stay under his uncle-dad’s radar, and once Claudius catches onto Hamlet’s act, Hamlet’s demise becomes almost inevitable.

It’s difficult to call this a flaw in a strict sense; in general, careful consideration of outcomes, well-developed stances on ethical issues, and a generally discerning mind are considered to be strengths rather than weaknesses, but these characteristics afforded Hamlet only delays and setbacks.  While the saddening (and frustrating) aspect of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies seems to be the ease with which catastrophe could have been averted, in Hamlet, the final events seem less avoidable, especially the fates of characters like Ophelia, because the protagonist seems to be doing almost everything in his power to make wise decisions, short of actually exposing or killing Claudius.  Hamlet’s intense planning also causes him to fall short when he finally has a chance to reveal Claudius’s secret to someone in a position of power, Gertrude.  His strange behavior and the suggestion of Hamlet’s insanity discredit his claims about Claudius’s deeds in the eyes of Gertrude, who reports to Claudius after the confrontation in her bedroom that Hamlet is “mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ who is mightier” (IV.i.7-8).  While Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity as his cover may have seemed a clever idea early on, the setup ultimately backfires on him, leaving the audience to wonder whether Hamlet’s fate may have been better had he taken the more straightforward (albeit difficult and dangerous) route of plainly exposing the murder.

Fair Ophelia.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This piece, titled Ophelia, was painted by Arthur Hughes in 1852 when he was only 20 years old and is now housed at the Manchester City Art Gallery.  Hughes depicts the offstage action that precedes Ophelia’s death as told by Queen Gertrude in Act IV Scene 7:

There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

The scene in Hughes’s painting is true to Gertrude’s description with its reflective stream and leaning willow tree, and the verticals created by the birch and other trees further back1 serve to frame the primary figure of the piece, Ophelia. What makes this depiction distinct to me is Ophelia’s gaunt, girlish appearance: her thin arms and shoulders, large eyes, and posture make her appear more like a preteen than a 20-something2. This, along with her white dress and overall pallor, is clearly meant to underline her purity. Indeed, throughout Hamlet, Ophelia seems more often than not to be a victim of the plotting and falseness of others, making her insanity and eventual death seem completely needless and avoidable had she only been clued in to any of the countless schemes of those around her. While I’m not an authority on the subject, it would seem to me that Ophelia’s fall suggests the larger truth that, in some cases, the completely innocent can suffer at the hands of those with less untainted intentions.

image

 

Another aspect of the piece that interests me is Ophelia’s expression, which does show some sense of vacancy but still seems peaceful; her slightly parted lips make it easy to imagine her murmuring or quietly singing to herself as she tosses flowers into the water below.  This image agrees with Ophelia’s behavior in her final moments on stage, singing senseless songs and handing out suspiciously meaningful flowers to the other characters on stage, perhaps subconsciously calling them out for each of their parts in her descent into madness.


1 Seriously what are those trees? Hamlet takes place in Denmark, but the middle ground of the painting looks like it belongs in Florida.

2 Later on in his career, Hughes created another painting of Ophelia, this time depicting her as a more typically-figured woman.

Who cares about Francisco?

When the first character on stage is missing his name, you know you’ve found something especially bad.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the First Quarto of Hamlet, also known as the “Bad Quarto” because it is just that inadequate. While it was originally assumed to be an early draft of the play, evidence suggests that the First Quarto is actually a “pirated” text, extracted from a bribed member of the play’s original cast.

The first difference between the First Quarto and the accepted text that stands out to me (besides the general horribleness) is the differences in the names of the characters. While the anonymity of Francisco doesn’t affect the play much, the series of naming discrepancies that follow became downright distracting. In the First Quarto:

  • Francisco is simply First Sentinel
  • Voltemand and Cornelius are Voltemar and Cornelia (maybe the only actor left for Cornelius’s part was a 12-year-old boy?)
  • Polonius is … Corambis?
  • Reynaldo is Montano (someone’s seen Othello recently)
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Rossencraft and Gilderstone (come on, not even close)
  • Gertrude is Gertred
  • Etc.

The First Quarto has a general sense of abruptness and lack of explanation. For example, the stage directions given for the prologue to “The Murder of Gonzago” is sadly lacking a whole section in which the poisoner of the Player King woos the grieving queen. The lack of this parallel to the reality of Hamlet’s situation makes the play within a play less meaningful to the audience and, we can assume, to Claudius and Gertrude.

For the most part, the missing lines in the First Quarto don’t destroy the general course of the plot, but their absence does diminish the brooding mood of the play. For example, note the many lines missing from the first exchange between Hamlet and the Ghost:

First Quarto:
Hamlet I’ll go no farther. Whither wilt thou lead me?
Ghost Mark me.
Hamlet I will.
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit

Shakespeare’s original:
Hamlet Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak; I’ll go no further.
Ghost Mark me
Hamlet I will
Ghost My hour is almost come,
When I to sulf’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Hamlet Speak. I am bound to hear.
Ghost So are thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Hamlet What?
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit

While it becomes clear later on in the scene that Hamlet plans to avenge his father’s death, the Ghost’s proclamation that Hamlet will be driven to revenge, which is missing from the First Quarto, makes the truth he is about to tell Hamlet all the more shocking. The pervasive omission of these small but significant sections throughout the play make the First Quarto quite clearly inferior to the original text.


 

For another erroneous but quite entertaining take on Hamlet, may I suggest:

Comparing Shakespeare.

In anticipation of the Cushing Memorial Library’s display of a First Folio , here’s a look at a different versions of a passage from Othello, Act V Scene 2.

First Folio – State Library of New South Wales

Oth. Haue you pray’d to night, Defdemon?

Def. I my Lord

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any Crime
Vnreconcil’d as yet to Heauen, and Grace,
Solicite for it ftraight.

Def. Alacke, my Lord,
What may you meane by that?

Oth. Well, do it, and be breefe, I will walke by:
I would not kill thy vnprepared Spirit.
No, Heauens fore-fend) I would not kill thy Soule.

 

Second Folio – State Library of New South Wales

Oth. Have you pray’d tonight Defdemon?

Def. I my Lord.

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any Crime
Vnreconcil’d as yet to heaven, and Grace,
Solicite for it ftraight.

Def. Alacke, my Lord,
What may you meane by that?

Oth. Well, doe it, and be briefe, I will walke by?
I would not kill thy unprepared Spirit,
No, (Heavens fore-fend) I would not kill thy foule.

 

Quarto I – The British Library

Oth. Haue you prayed tonight, Defdemona?

Def. I my lord.

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any crime,
Vnrecconcil’d as yet to heauen and grace,
Sollicite for it ftraite.

Def. Alas my Lord, what may you meane by that?

Oth. Well doe it, and be briefe, I will walke by,
I would not kill thy vnprepared fpirit,
No, heauen fore-fend, I woud not kill thy foule.

 

Modern Translation– ed. Alvin Kernan

Othello. Have you prayed tonight, Desdemon?

Desdemona.                                                                 Ay, my lord.

Othello. If you bethink yourself of any crime
Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
Solicit for it straight.

Desdemona. Alack, my lord, what may you mean by that?

Othello. Well, do it, and be brief; I will walk by.
I would not kill thy unpreparéd spirit.
No, heavens forfend! I would not kill thy soul.

Notes:

1. Some letters are not what they seem

If something looks like it should be an s and it’s not (for example in Desdemona’s name), it should be. This character is a long s, which looks like an f in print, but doesn’t have the hash mark. This letter was used in place of a lowercase s in the beginning and middle of words. The only word using the regular lowercase s in this passage is the word “Alas” in the Quarto. Thankfully, the long s fell out of use in the early 19th century.

Also, there seemed to have been some disagreement about the difference between vs and us. That generally wasn’t too hard to figure out though.

2. Spelling and punctuation are hard, apparently

The First and Second Folio are full of strange punctuation marks, extra parentheses and an out of place colon in the First, and a stray question mark in the second. (Apparently Othello may or may not want to walk around while Desdemona prays.) There are also some comically altered spellings, notable among them “breefe” instead of brief, “I” in place of ay, and “straite” instead of straight. Considering, however, that these letters had to be put into place manually for every page of every different book printed at the time, the mistakes become much more understandable.

“Honest Iago” indeed.

From Othello, Act I Scene 3. Othello’s “trial” is over, and all have left the chamber but honest Iago and sniveling Roderigo.

Roderigo. Iago?
Iago. What say’st thou, noble heart?
Roderigo. What will I do, think’st thou?
Iago. Why, go to bed and sleep.
Roderigo. I will incontinently1 drown myself.
Iago. If thou dost, I shall never love thee after. Why,
thou silly gentleman?
Roderigo. It is silliness to live when to live is torment;
and then have we a prescription to die when death is
our physician.
Iago. O villainous! I have looked upon the world for
four times seven years, and since I could distinguish
betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man
that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say2 I
would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen,
I would change my humanity with a baboon.
Roderigo. What should I do? I confess it is my shame
to be so fond, but it is not in my virtue3 to amend it.
Iago. Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus,
or thus4. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant
nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme,
supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with
many–either to have it sterile with idleness or
manured with industry–why, the power and corri-
gible authority of this lies in our wills. If the bal-
ance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise
another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of
our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous
conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging
motions, our carnal stings or unbitten lusts,
whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect
or scion.

 

 


1
incontinently: immediately †

 

 

 

 

 

2Ere I would… baboon: I would sooner be a baboon than die for a woman I can’t have.

 

3it is not in my virtue: I lack strength of will

4‘Tis in… or thus: How we each turn out is up to ourselves alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In summary…
Roderigo is distraught that Brabantio (warily) blessed his daughter Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, and contemplates drowning himself‡ out of grief. Iago, being his gleefully devious and regular self, comforts Roderigo like any “good pal” would, by advising him to get a grip and insulting his weird obsession with Desdemona.

About that…
Iago reveals quite a bit about his deceptive nature in his little monologue, which immediately precedes the “put money in thy purse” speech. The dismissive attitude with which Iago regards Roderigo’s suffering (for which Iago is definitely partially to blame) is chilling, not only because he downplays Roderigo’s pain, likening women to guinea hens††, but more importantly because the general gist of Iago’s advice is… actually kind of good. Therein lies the scariest part of Iago’s personality: he is able to spin the look of situations into exactly what he wants them to appear as, with vivid rhetoric like the mind-garden metaphor, deceiving unfortunate Roderigo with a semblance of friendliness and ease. This facade causes Roderigo to trust Iago so much that he will do any stupid thing Iago tells him to, for example, putting all his money in his purse.

Finally, the idea Iago expresses of controlling one’s own destiny by any means available, particularly the more devious ones, is probably similar to the advice he is giving to himself about rising in the ranks of the Venetian army. In this case, Iago is definitely taking the natural pursuits of one’s own interests way too far.

 


† incontinent… heh… yeah that’s bad

‡ apparently the canals in Venice are pretty gross, so… bad way to go

†† :/ nope

 

On The Martian.

Andy Weir’s episodic survival novel The Martian has gained international interest after the release of a film adaptation of the same name starring the always in-demand Matt Damon. Here, I’ll be covering both, their differences, and probably spoiling them a little bit. Sorry.

The basic plots of the two are generally parallel. At some point in the not-so-distant future, astronaut-botanist Mark Watney is left for dead on the planet Mars after he is impaled by a piece of flying debris in a dust storm and the rest of the Ares III crew is forced to leave the planet without him. With only his wit, determination, and copious amounts of disco music, Watney surmounts an endless barrage of challenges and complications to establish sources of food, communication with NASA, and a dangerous escape plan, which eventually earns him a safe return to Earth.

Much of the pleasure of reading Weir’s novel is in the careful attention to detail and extensive research behind Mark’s immense resourcefulness. The novel’s plausibility is expanded by the depiction of the sassy and intelligent Mark, whose tongue-in-cheek humor and realistic emotions and reactions provide a welcome contrast to the painstaking detail of his troubleshooting. These two elements, while present, are both sadly lacking in the film adaptation. This along with a lack of development in supporting characters, an excessive focus on events happening on Earth, the censorship of a small book’s worth of expletives, an unexceptional soundtrack1, and the half-baked feel, fabrication, or entire omission of many plot elements (rover modifications, the trip to Schiaparelli, Beck-Johanssen romance2, etc.) make the movie pale in comparison to Weir’s original.

But of course, it’s very easy to find fault in a two hour-long movie attempting to cover a 400-page novel while remaining palatable to a wider, less scientifically inclined audience. The greatest asset of the movie was, as one may expect, its visuals. Beautiful but expected CGI aside, the movie was able to invoke a graver atmosphere than the book at times, for example when Watney exits the shower and we are able to see what heavy labor and strict rationing of food has done to his body and his once-resilient expression over a seven-month gap in the movie’s course.

As a general rule, books provide a fuller and more immersive experience than their movie counterparts, and The Martian is no exception. That being said, both are, in my opinion, definitely worth experiencing.

tumblr_nvrn4duaze1uis6f0o1_500


1 unless you’re Commander Lewis

2 what happened to “don’t tell anyone I liked it”?!

 

Life change: Grendel.

After reading and thinking about a book like John Gardner’s Grendel, it’s only natural to wonder about the author’s intentions in writing. Fortunately, we have access to some such information through Gardner’s letter in response to Susie West and three of her students who wrote essays regarding Grendel.

One of the most important points Gardner makes in his letter is that experiencing art is an individual undertaking, for one work can have variable effects on readers of different maturities searching for different kinds of experiences1. I think this point is pretty self-evident and not contradicted by the insights Gardner offers throughout his letter, considering that the students have apparently already put significant independent thought into the book.

One particularly clarifying statement Gardner made about the book was that, in writing his version of Gren’s death, Gardner did mean to convey Beowulf as Gren’s deliverer. By forcing Gren to recognize that, through approaching understanding of his place in the world from such a negative angle, he has become insensitive, condescending, and brutish, Beowulf gives Gren release from his tormented life, if only for a few moments. This is not to say that Gren is completely to blame, however, for his fate; it just seems all-around unfortunate that the dragon was the first “absolute truth teller” as Gardner calls him that Gren encountered in life. Reading this was particularly pleasing to me, as those who heard my spiel in class discussion probably understand2.

It’s also worth noting that, while Gardner did seem to make something of a jab at the student essays, I’d wager that he didn’t receive any sort of satisfaction from being “sassy”, as his comments have only half jokingly been referred to in class. If Gardner is as thoughtful a man as we should take authors of philosophical novels like Grendel to be, he probably had no malicious intent in pointing out the students’ misunderstandings about the book. Indeed, the reader who thought, essentially, that Gardner embraced existentialism was in great need of some… instruction. In explaining his views on the question Grendel addresses, whether personal values are still warranted with the understanding that all existences and memories will eventually reach their ends, Gardner probably meant to offer guidance toward the kinds of realizations he really wanted to promote in his writing.

 


1 For instance, those of us who read SparkNotes rather than the novel were probably not searching for much of an experience at all.

2 I still love you, Yusha. But yeah gg get wrecked.

One memory.

I’ve had a lot of friends tell me that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the most personally meaningful and beautifully written books they have read inside or out of English class. Compare this reaction to the general consensus about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, namely that it was the dullest book ever, and a truth about the relationship between readers and writing emerges. Assuming that this opinion of The Scarlet Letter has remained largely unchanged, I think it is safe to say that the vast disparity in responses to the two texts has a lot to do with their different styles and narrative approaches. While we, as students of literature, understand that both books have meanings outside the context of Puritan society or the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried is likely more well-received by high schoolers because it is written in an unembellished yet alluring way, as a collection of stories told by an Everyman about a bunch of Everymen forced into a highly unfamiliar situation, allowing readers to gain some amount of pure and true insight into what it is like to be a soldier, not only during a conflict, but for a lifetime.

In an interview with the PBS NewsHour, O’Brien reveals that his intention in writing The Things They Carried was just that. His style of writing is difficult to categorize; it is not an autobiography, as O’Brien specifically says that the book’s events were mostly fabricated, but calling it a piece of inspired but invented fiction undoes O’Brien’s purposeful work in making the stories seem real and thereby relatable. I have finally come to the conclusion that The Things They Carried is best categorized as a ‘collective memoir’. Although the events experienced by the narrator may not have all happened to one man alone, the book discusses the memories that belong to Vietnam veterans as a larger group, and the stories in the book are meant to represent the summed experiences of all the men who lived through and later had to come to terms with their involvement in the war.

This genre seems to work for a lot of people, including young people (in this case meaning high school and college-aged people), and this seemed to come as a surprise to O’Brien, who envisioned his book reaching a more mature audience of people in their late 20s and older. As reflected in the interview, however, O’Brien’s surprise seems secondary to his feeling of satisfaction at being able to reach and share his conclusions with such a wide audience. As someone who read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at age 10, I would say that, despite our current ability to grasp and interpret The Things They Carried, the book is definitely worth re-reading later in life to see how our new opinions and experiences will inform an evolved understanding of O’Brien’s work.

Memory lane in summertime.

With the hot weather comes the relief of the load of homework finally being lifted and an excessive amount of free time for us school-aged children. I recently spent one evening scanning my bookshelf halfway expecting some new volume to materialize, and the familiar spine of a book I hadn’t touched since elementary school caught my eye. Pretty soon, an hour had gone by as I surveyed the largely untouched shelf of my childhood favorites… and a few unsavory ones (I’m no longer a big fan of Rani in the Mermaid Lagoon). To me, books written for “children” can often still hold a lot of meaning. Rereading them when I’m older allows me to understand the events, themes, and symbols I glossed over or misunderstood when I was younger, or simply provide less demanding, more plot-driven reading – not to mention the waves of nostalgia I personally experience when I cracked open these old books. I’ve detailed a few of my old favorites, so if you’re interested in a bit of light reading, I invite you to check these books out!

1. When You Reach Me — Rebecca SteadWhen_you_reach_me

This book is hard to classify, but it’s like nothing I’ve read before. It discusses a gritty but glorious period of time in the life of a young girl in the New York City of the 1970s, and it involves time travel, a perfectly awing combination. It has a simple feel – the chapters are short and the writing style is undecorated – but all of that contributes to a simply fantastic storyline. Even the minimalistic cover art turns out to be infinitely more important than it may initially seem. If you like books with plots that suddenly fall together and leave you thinking, I highly recommend this novel.

gummstreet2. The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls — Elise Primavera

This book is a real mind trip. And really long. The storyline is quirky with more than its fair share of twists, turns, and Wizard of Oz references, but its eerie atmosphere forces you to bond with the four somewhat disagreeable girls the story revolves around as they are forced to bond with each other against a foe who will probably make you shiver. Trust me, Cha Cha Staccato is terrifying.

ElyonAll3. The Land of Elyon Series — Patrick Carman

While I don’t usually go for fantasy, this series is one notable exception for me. It holds a special place in my heart, as I read it starting in second grade and finished over the course of five years, purchasing one book each year as they were released, and thus became really invested in the fate of soft-spoken Alexa Daley. I love the mood of this book, which is perfectly portrayed by the cover art – it’s soft and subdued, but adventurous, and I feel like I would really love to live in the world Carman created and meet the wise and diverse characters that inhabit this world on the brink of takeover by forces of evil. This series is also notable because it has one of those rare *actually good* prequels, Into the Mist. Awesome.

63638234. The Magician’s Nephew — C. S. Lewis

So I lied when I said Into the Mist was one of the only good prequels I’ve read. While most of the popular hype about The Chronicles of Narnia is given to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I personally prefer this book. The origin story for this series is really flawless, and while it’s sad to think that the four siblings of the aforementioned sequel didn’t get to experience the multitude of other worlds that existed in this first book, I’m glad we get to see it and some characters we know well from such a new point of view and in such rich and beautiful detail.

EgyptGame5. The Egypt Game — Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Like many good children’s books that end up hitting us hard when we’re older, this book begins lightly with a child’s imaginary game and suddenly unravels into much darker, more serious themes (I’m looking at you, The Watsons Go to Birmingham). The children’s takes on the myths and ceremonies of Ancient Egypt remind me very much of the games of make-believe I played as a child, and I’ve always had a penchant for Ancient Egyptian history. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t really recommend the sequel. This book is where it’s at.

maticover26. Matilda — Roald Dahl

No list of children’s books could be complete without a Dahl book. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the bright, charming little Matilda and to root for her as she attempts to develop her mind in spite of her derisive family and abhorrent school principal. The movie adaptation of this book is excellent, but nothing can replace the classic, expressive ink illustrations that fill this book. The humor, pitfalls, and triumphs of this book are delightful, just what you would expect from Dahl.

51I+56UlczL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_7. Falling Up — Shel Silverstein

I’m not really well-versed in literary poetry, but I’ve memorized every page of my beloved Shel Silverstein anthology. Every one of his smart, and even openly mocking little poems reflects his personal style, one that I’ve come to recognize and enjoy immensely. It’s hard not to appreciate these simple rhymes paired with matching ink drawings.

I made an airplane out of stone…

I always did like staying home.

Tell me you didn’t chuckle… at least internally.

little-princess-book-cover8. A Little Princess — Frances Hodgson Burnett

This story is a classic tale of, not rags to riches, but the reverse. Though it isn’t exactly realistic, readers can empathize with the tragedy that the little princess faces and share her joy when she finally has her happy ending. It belongs in the class of books with novels like The Secret Garden – stories of children growing and changing, undergoing hardships that I couldn’t really imagine, and ending up in good places by following their instincts of morality and hoping that their situations would eventually improve.

Book.littlehouseonprairie9. Little House on the Prairie Series — Laura Ingalls Wilder

I feel like most people know what this wildly successful (I’m not sure if I want that to be a pun or not) series is about, and a lot of people act like they think it’s silly. Personally, I think everyone can find some place in his or her heart with which to love this series. Something about the way frontier families lived seems to continue to fascinate people. I don’t think this kind of heartwarming story will ever go out of style.

lemony_snicket_a_series_of_unfortunate_events_the_bad_beginning_cover10. A Series of Unfortunate Events — Lemony Snicket

At a whopping thirteen volumes, A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the longest and most depressing series I read in elementary, and the steadily increasing length of the volumes began to put an increasing weight on both my young arms and my psyche. Nevertheless, I fought hard on library websites and in the stacks to secure at least three books ahead of the book I was currently reading should I find that the book I needed was gone the next day. Why? Because every book, every unique adventure was fantastic. I wanted so badly to see justice for the Baudelaire siblings and a torturous end for the most clearly evil villain I knew of, Count Olaf. I was inspired by the genius of the children, particularly Violet, and their maturity in the midst of all the incompetent adults around them gives hope that some day, the children may finally get the happy ending they deserve.

A_wrinkle_in_time_digest_200711. A Wrinkle in Time Quintet — Ruth Stiles Gannett

This series is known to be one of the greatest works of juvenile fiction, and for good reason. To me, one of the most striking features of the series is the range of situations covered in the books, particularly the first one. From the life of a troubled schoolgirl to quasi-psychedelia and from budding romance to the G-rated version of the world of 1984, this book truly has a lot going on. It’s relatable yet fantastical and undeniably heartening – what more can you ask from a children’s book?

phantomtollbooth12. The Phantom Tollbooth — Norton Juster

There is no doubt that you missed something the first time you read The Phantom Tollbooth. To a child, this book is not much more than a wild adventure of a young boy through a strange land. To those who appreciate word play, the book is teeming with punning and clever witticisms. To those looking for a life lesson, they will most certainly find one. This book seems to me to be seeking to instill an appreciation for learning in readers of all ages, and it does so in a playful, and original way.

Happy reading!

Note: Sorry about the atrocious formatting…. WordPress, you’re killing me!

Whence that detached gaze came.

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Most of us know a lot about the rise of The Great Gatsby in terms of its parallels to Fitzgerald’s own life, its initial lack of popular success, and its revival when chosen for reprinting as an Armed Forces edition for troops overseas during World War II. However, I would like to take a look at one of the less commonly discussed aspects of the book’s history, namely that of its cover art.

Fitzgerald commissioned the otherwise unknown Spanish artist Francis Cugat to create the cover art for Gatsby for a sum of $100 while the story was still being written, thus enabling Fitzgerald to incorporate aspects of the design into his work, resulting in the widely-examined significance of the cover to the novel. Initially, however, the cover of the book was designed very differently, instead depicting a small, rural town, probably in reference to one of the book’s many working titles, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires.

One of the earliest designs for Gatsby's cover.
One of the earliest designs for Gatsby’s cover.

Eventually, Cugat ditched the initial setting for a cityscape dominated by the piercing disembodied face that hovers on the covers of multiple editions of the book today. While the way in which Fitzgerald wrote the cover into the book is not, and probably never will be, certain, two leading theories have emerged, one of which is that the eyes on the cover are reminiscent of the billboard of optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in the valley of ashes. Others believe it inspired the description of Daisy Buchanan as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs”. Although Fitzgerald initially seemed to be quite pleased with the cover art, when he presented the book to friends, the image immediately turned off prominent author and journalist Ernest Hemingway. Quite tellingly, this led Fitzgerald to claim that he didn’t like it so much anymore.

A later, more familiar sketch for Gatsby's cover.
Later and more familiar sketches for Gatsby’s cover.

Today, the cover of Gatsby is hailed as one of the most iconic pieces of jacket art in American literature for its deeply symbolic connection with the novel and its raw and expressive style.