callistahogan: (Books)
Book: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
GenreHorror
Length816 pp.
Progress (pages): 1,139/20,000 pp. (5.7%)
GradeA

Amazon Summary: Considering the recent rush of door-stopping historical novels, first-timer Kostova is getting a big launch—fortunately, a lot here lives up to the hype. In 1972, a 16-year-old American living in Amsterdam finds a mysterious book in her diplomat father's library. The book is ancient, blank except for a sinister woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya," but it's the letters tucked inside, dated 1930 and addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor," that really pique her curiosity. Her widowed father, Paul, reluctantly provides pieces of a chilling story; it seems this ominous little book has a way of forcing itself on its owners, with terrifying results. Paul's former adviser at Oxford, Professor Rossi, became obsessed with researching Dracula and was convinced that he remained alive. When Rossi disappeared, Paul continued his quest with the help of another scholar, Helen, who had her own reasons for seeking the truth. As Paul relates these stories to his daughter, she secretly begins her own research. Kostova builds suspense by revealing the threads of her story as the narrator discovers them: what she's told, what she reads in old letters and, of course, what she discovers directly when the legendary threat of Dracula looms. Along with all the fascinating historical information, there's also a mounting casualty count, and the big showdown amps up the drama by pulling at the heartstrings at the same time it revels in the gruesome. Exotic locales, tantalizing history, a family legacy and a love of the bloodthirsty: it's hard to imagine that readers won't be bitten, too.

My Thoughts: Although this book could be considered a horror novel, it is much more than that. It combines the Gothic with the modern, the historical with the fantastical, the straightforward narrative with the epistolary. It brings aspects of history, literature, and art together seamlessly, while creating a family epic that sprawls from the early to mid 1900s all the way up to the present day. It could be considered a thriller, an epistolary novel, a historical epic, a fantasy -- you name it, the book has elements of it.

At first, I was rather hesitant to read this book, because I heard it was about Dracula and I had not yet read Bram Stoker's famous novel. However, when my sister gave it to me for Christmas, I just had to crack it open -- and I was sucked in from the very first page. I understand why some people would not like it, because it does have a lot of history, and it does take nearly 750 pages to get to Dracula (hopefully that's not spoiling anything), but I almost found that I liked the journey better than the end result.

From the beginning, I was drawn to the unnamed narrator, because she reminds me of myself in certain ways. She is young, intelligent, with a close relationship with her father. She loves reading and is too curious for her own good -- which leads her to discover the mysterious book with the letters in it that would forever change her life. She hears -- or reads -- about her father's journey so many years ago, and in the process learns about his adviser's life.

The book does not go by quickly. It is one of those mysteries that slowly unfurls, revealing one strand after another, twisting them around and tying them all into knots until you are begging to know what happens but you just know that you have over 500 pages left to read and you can't just peek at the back of the book. In some books, I find that it doesn't spoil too much to skip to the last few pages and read them before I finish, but in this book, I just had to be patient, watching it unfurl, reading with careful eyes, making sure not to miss anything that could explain the mystery of Dracula and those mysterious books.

As said, this book has a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, which is a particular style used in novels that I enjoy especially. I enjoy reading about the way lives entangle together, and how the past can affect the future. I love reading about the lives of one person and how the lives of someone years older than them from decades long past can affect their own futures. It also contains letters, lots and lots of letters, which I found absolutely fascinating. Surely if the book had just been a straightforward narrative I would not have enjoyed the book as much as I did, but the way the book was put together was masterful. Absolutely masterful.

That said, there were a few small gripes about this book, although on a whole I thought it was a marvelous retelling of Dracula's legend that almost felt real. I did feel as though the book went by a little too slowly; Kostova could have cut back on a few more pages. I also wanted to hear more about Dracula himself -- the entire book was about him, sure, and I learned a lot about him in a roundabout way -- but I wished that the book had explored more of his goal. I felt that he was introduced too late in the novel, and that things could have progressed more quickly and the book would have been yet more gripping.

Those are only the few gripes I can think of. On a whole, I found that this book was exactly the sort of book I like: the long, sprawling epic novel spread out across countries and continents, bringing up themes of life, death, love, perseverance, history, and the power of words. I have heard this book compared to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, but this book is nothing like that. While Dan Brown is fluff reading, with no big overarching theme of humanity as a whole -- just a cheap thriller -- Kostova gives us a ride of our lives, if only we are patient enough to strap ourselves in for the long haul ahead.

In addition, this book made me look at vampires in a whole new light. While previously my only experiences with vampires have been through the world of Twilight, this book showed a new -- traditional -- side of the vampire, and I have to say that I like the idea of a bloodthirsty monster yearning for my blood better than the sparkly, brooding, angsty vampire who just wants to suck on animals and fall in love with normal human girls. I'm not saying I don't like Twilight anymore, because it is my guilty pleasure, but I just like the more traditional vampire better.

You know what that means: pretty soon I will have to be banging on my brother's door, begging for him to let me borrow Dracula. I need to delve more deeply into the vampire, thanks to Elizabeth Kostova.

I think it goes without saying that this book is highly recommended. It is probably my favorite read so far.

Currently ReadingAlmost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger (I need some light reading after The Historian!)
callistahogan: (Books)
Book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Genre: Horror
Length
: 211 pp.
Progress (pages): 211/20,000 pp. (1.1%)
GradeA

Amazon Summary: There is no greater novel in the monster genre than "Frankenstein" and no more well known monster than the one that is at the center of this novel. However, the monster of "Frankenstein" is more than the common lumbering moronic giant that is most often represented. "Frankenstein's" monster is in reality a thinking intelligent being who is tormented by world in which he does not belong. In this depiction Shelley draws upon the universal human themes of creation, the nature of existence, and the need for acceptance. For it is without this acceptance that the true monster, the violent nature of humanity, emerges.

My ThoughtsThis was the book my English teacher assigned over Christmas break. At first, I did not expect that I would enjoy it, because horror is not my genre. I had heard of Frankenstein, of course -- who hasn't? -- but all I knew about the story was the common scene we all remember: Frankenstein standing over his creation, yelling "It's aliiiiiive" when the creature's eyes open for the first time. All I expected was the common monster story, but as it is a classic, I should have expected more than that. I didn't expect much from this book other than some sort of sick enjoyment, but I found entrenched in this novel statements about acceptance, creation, existence, and how people often judge purely on appearances without bothering to see the person beneath. I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

Frankenstein was slightly hard to get into at first, because I had to get used to the writing style and to be frank, the beginning was rather dry. Not much happened, and the letters at the beginning merely served as development of a character we don't see again until the very end of the novel. As the novel progressed, things got more interesting. I found the story of Frankenstein's past rather boring, especially his education, but as soon as we got to the parts about Frankenstein learning how to create life, I found that the book captured my interest. The unveiling of the "monster" was also very well-done.

The story really took off -- for me, at least -- when we saw Frankenstein and his monster confront each other for the first time. Although the death of two major characters, William and Justine, was a climactic moment in  the novel, the story of Frankenstein's monster intrigued me like nothing else. I felt for the monster. He wasn't created evil, but it was merely the neglect and hatred of him, based purely on his appearance, that drove him to become the bloodthirsty, murderous creature he was in the middle of the novel. His story made me wonder what could have happened, if Frankenstein had instead reached out to his creation, instead of pushing him away with cries of "Wretched creature!" because of his outwardly grotesque appearance.

The creature was not wretched -- not in the least. In the early years of his creation, he was gentle and kind. He took an interest in his "protectors," as he called them, cutting firewood for the poor family and clearing snow away from the door so that they did not have to do it themselves. He was interested in learning how to comprehend speech, and even learned how to read and write better than most of the humans of that time. He thirsted for knowledge, and he did not understand how people could be so harsh and cold toward each other. Just like every human being on the face of the planet, he yearned for acceptance from just one person, but no human could look beyond his appearance long enough to see the soft creature beneath.

The idea of judging people by their appearance is written deep into this novel. We see, time and time again, people harming and decrying the monster, simply because of his grotesque appearance. He is gentle, kind, and intelligent, but people do not see that. Instead all they see is a wretch, and in turning him away, the monster sees no reason to turn to those who do not accept him. All he wishes is to be accepted by one person -- just one, and maybe he'd be different, but even his creator turns him away. This creates the real monster, the one who wishes vengeance on the entire human race.

As said, I sympathized with the monster, who only wanted acceptance, just like everyone else, but was turned away by everyone. This book surprised me with the deep messages written into his pages, how it explored life, death, acceptance, deceitful appearances, and how very judgmental the human race is. The book certainly struck a chord with me, and by the end of the novel, I almost cried because of the way the creature had so much potential -- if only he had not been turned away by all humankind.

This book was a perfect way to start my year. It was not a simple horror story, which I appreciated. If it had just been a case of Frankenstein creating a monster that was evil from the start, I would have probably enjoyed the novel, but not as much as I enjoyed the exploration of the monster's deepest thoughts and yearnings for acceptance and joy. I certainly see why my English teacher assigned it; it has some deep messages that I know I enjoyed exploring. Highly recommended.

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March 2010

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