Category Archives: fiction

Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel

Mary Shelley; Script Adaptation: Jason Cobley, 2008

This is my first foray into a graphic version of a classic text, and I like it! I was a bit leery when I flipped through and saw the modern, stylized way the monster is drawn–the art is in classic comic book style, and this just did not match my imagination of what this monster, or his female version, should look like (rotting, mismatched body parts). But I pushed on, and I really enjoyed the reading experience. For me, this was a quick and satisfying way to encounter Shelley’s entire original plot, which I had forgotten major chunks of, along with key excerpts of her wonderful language.

The original Frankenstein story is so rich and fascinating, especially in the ways in which the monster haunts Dr. Frankenstein for months and years during his lonely existence in forests and caves. It is powerful to see the monster begin as a kind and gentle being who transforms over time into a brutally marginalized creature whose deep pain eventually becomes anger, resentment, and murderous violence. Personally, I will always prefer the full original text of this work, but I am also DYING to teach this story to high school students (along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and this would be a great way to do it. A medical ethics unit has been on my mind all summer. . .

Classical Comics is a UK-based publisher that creates texts in three versions: Original text, which uses the author’s original language in excerpts on the page; Plain text, which converts each bubble of text into modern English and cuts down on the number of words; and Quick Text, which just puts the essential meaning of each text bubble into modern English–usually in one quick sentence. The artwork and pagination remain the same across all three versions, which makes these great teaching resources for classes in which students are reading at different levels, or just for examining two versions with the same students, akin to using No Fear Shakespeare.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein, 2008, 321 pgs.

Oh no, another book in which the dog dies. But what a life the dog has! Enzo, our narrator, has a great dad who is a race car driver, and who initiates Enzo into the thrilling world of competitive racing. Enzo is perceptive, and has a fine eye and ear for the nuances of human interaction, both verbal and physical. He is loyal to his dad, dad’s wife, and dad’s little daughter. He always tries to do right, but is stymied by his inability to communicate in human language and annoyed that he does not have opposable thumbs with which to open doors. His efforts at communicating are misunderstood at times, but the silent comfort he gives his human companions is very real and touching. Enzo sees his family through tough times, and dies having had a very happy life.

A heartwarming story with plenty of heartbreak. Cancer, bitter custody battles, betrayal, and death plague Enzo’s family. I liked the race car scenes, but didn’t care for all the family drama. The dog-as-narrator trick was refreshing at first, but got old fast as it tried to be too clever. I can see why this has been a bestseller, but I didn’t love it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith, 2009, 317 pgs.

This was a let-down. I think the idea of a novel-length mashup has a ton of potential; this one’s a thrilling concept because it takes “the classic regency romance” and adds a modern fan’s obsessions—zombies and ninjas. But the execution is lackluster. Smith keeps Austen’s plot structure, chapter by chapter, with most of Austen’s narration and dialogue intact, but inserts about 6-10 brief action scenes of zombie slaying, mostly while en route on countryside roads (the ninjas make a minor appearance as Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s minions). These scenes are tacked on rather than integrated into the plot.

Smith does make some character changes by inserting weak strands of feminism and humor. Mr. Bennett has sent all five of his daughters to China for childhood training in the “deadly arts,” so they can defend England from the “unmentionables” and keep their minds engaged in killing rather than “clouded with dreams of marriage and fortune.” This gives Elizabeth and the rest the opportunity to drop the names, weapons, and fighting poses of “Oriental” masters throughout, and Mr. Darcy the opportunity to say that he prefers a woman to be “well trained in the fighting styles of the Kyoto masters and the modern tactics and weaponry of Europe.” Elizabeth spends much time cleaning muskets and sharpening sword blades, but I prefer her headstrong nature in the original, where feminism is shown not by battle acumen but nuanced self-reflection and courageous interpersonal speech and action.

I chuckled a few times, but overall I found the book humorless. There is the running sexual innuendo revolving around the word “balls.” There is Charlotte Lucas, who is bitten by a zombie and then disintegrates bit by bit, slurring her words and acting silly. There are Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham, the cads of the story, who are made to suffer more for their bad behavior than in the original, and it is meant to be funny. Finally, Smith can’t help but get creative in the ways Mr. Bennett verbally abuses his “silly, ignorant” wife.

Pass on this one, and hope that better mashups are in the works.

The Moon is Down

John Stienbeck, 1942, 112 p

This sincere short novel written as Allied propaganda during WWII was very popular in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Stienbeck’s focus is on the psychological effects on people whose countries are occupied–from initial confusion to the formation of underground resistance movements. This is also a novel of ideas, what Stienbeck calls “a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.” The characters are more allegorical than nuanced, and the setting is almost like a fairy tale. The “herd men” follow “the Leader” and invade a peaceful, snowy unnamed country.

My favorite image: the Nazi machine is a snake with only one head and of democracy is a snake with ten heads–if one is cut off, then the other nine will rise up and revolt in the name of freedom. I love the writing style because it is not ranting, formula propaganda, filled with crude stereotypes. It is instead a very sympathetic approach, which portrays the invaders as human beings, who are acting on orders, but who don’t understand why they are planning, patrolling, and killing (American critics hated this). The language is very plain and unadorned, and will not impede comprehension for most high school students. I would highly recommend using excerpts with a high school class during a WWII or propaganda unit.

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen, 1813

A soap opera romance. Elizabeth Bennett lives with her mother, father, and 4 sisters in 19th century England. A respectable yet not wealthy family. Dad spends all his time isolated in his study and mom is a nervous needy wreck, caring only to have her 5 daughters well and properly married. Nobody seems to have a job or need of a job, and the sisters are simply waiting for a handsome, “amiable,” and wealthy man to ask their hands in marriage. Their society is mainly concerned with strict gender roles, impeccable manners, beauty, the keeping up of one’s reputation, severe class-consciousness, formal visits and dinners, precise etiquette, neighborhood gossip, traveling by horse and carriage, taking long meanders in the woods, holding fine parasols, writing and receiving scandalous letters, filling one’s dance card at the ball, and women visiting fine manors all over England with the aspiration of becoming the mistress of one.

The saving grace of this novel is the lively, playful, and intelligent narrator, Elizabeth, who speaks her mind freely—sometimes to the dismay of the proud and rich—and reflects deeply on her experiences and judgment of people’s characters. Midway through the book, she is forced to re-examine the characters of two men she has painfully misjudged, and in the process, she begins to change her views of the respectability of her family and the nature of her attraction to these men. The formal, antiquated style of the dialogue and narration takes some getting used to, but once it clicks for the reader, the plot and the pages go by quickly and fluidly.

Now I must read the version with the zombies and ninjas.