Off The Bookshelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

I know it’s been a while since I’ve shared a book on my Off The Bookshelf segment, so this week, I’m going to discuss one of my favorites. I’ve talked about this famous story in depth a few times before, notably to discuss five points that are often missed and the reasons why it’s a greater story than many people think. Once again, I’d like to revisit this classic tale of forbidden love, this time in a double dose. I hope you’ll enjoy this review of one of my favorite books off my shelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story.

Romeo_and_Juliet_West_Side_Story

Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

Summary

First published in 1965, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story comprises two stories in one: the stage play Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare; and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story by Arthur Laurents. The book also includes explanatory notes for unfamiliar expressions in Shakespeare’s play and a foreword by renowned theater director Norris Houghton.

Romeo & Juliet tells the story of two teenagers in Renaissance Verona who fall in love despite the age-old feud between their families, but who are driven to an untimely end by fate and the violent circumstances surrounding them. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, West Side Story tells the same tragic tale of a doomed romance between young lovers, but updates the setting to modern-day New York and the protagonists to a white American boy and a Puerto-Rican girl torn apart by the racism-fueled rivalry between the street gangs with which they’re associated. As much for Romeo and Juliet as for Tony and Maria, love blossoms at first sight and against the odds, only to be threatened and destroyed by hatred that brings tragedy not just to the young lovers, but to their war-torn society as a whole.

Review

Romeo_and_Juliet_BookI first read this book as a teenager, shortly after watching the 1961 movie West Side Story as homework for singing lessons (I was to sing “Somewhere” at my first presentation). Long familiar with the plot of the original play, I had fallen in love with the story of forbidden romance and was eager to finally read Shakespeare’s timeless classic for myself. Of course, I’ve made my love for the story itself abundantly clear in the past, so this review will focus a little more on the format of this book than on the pieces within it.

What I find most interesting about this particular book is the way the same story is presented over two very different backdrops: one in Renaissance Italy, the other in 1950s New York. By combining both stories into one volume, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story offers a unique way to visualize the tale of star-crossed young love across time. The similarities and differences between these popular pieces become clearer as the reader is able to quickly swap a scene in one play for its parallel in the other: the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets becomes a turf war between the Jets and the Sharks, the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym, the poetic exchange at Juliet’s balcony becomes a duet on Maria’s fire escape. Each story is beautiful in its own right, but I’ve found that to be able to compare and contrast them so easily makes the fundamental plot all the more fascinating.

West_Side_Story_MusicRomeo & Juliet was the first Shakespearean play I ever read, so naturally I was yet unfamiliar with Elizabethan English. This is where the notes in the back of the book came in extremely handy. Essential words and terms are referenced to the line with modern English translations and explanations wherever necessary, so the notes were a tremendous help when it came to deciphering the meanings within Shakespeare’s verse. It’s worth noting that they’re still helpful to any new reader who plans to read more of Shakespeare, as several of the expressions used in Romeo & Juliet commonly appear in his other works. Unfortunately, a similar device isn’t available for West Side Story, which relies on its readers’ familiarity with the music to be fully enjoyable, but this is merely a minor drawback to what is otherwise an equally stunning theatrical masterpiece.

Both Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story have had a profound impact on audiences: one for its poetic deconstruction of romantic ideals, the other for its dramatic commentary on the consequences of social intolerance. The presentation of both plays in one volume brings to light the true timelessness of Shakespeare’s classic, proving that the story of love born against hate will be forever relevant as long as people and society continue to be powerfully motivated by both.

Inspiration

Romeo & Juliet is the archetype of forbidden love thwarted by circumstance, so it’s no wonder the story has translated so well into the modern setting of West Side Story. Whether set between feuding families or warring street gangs, this tragic love story reads not only as the epitome of the passion and dangers of young romance, but as a lesson on how hatred kills. Perhaps for its universal themes of love, intolerance, and the cruelty of fate, the plight of the star-crossed lovers is a tale that has fascinated readers for centuries and certainly will for many more to come. It has served as inspiration for much of my romantic fiction, and to this day I indulge in it whenever I feel the need to satisfy my cravings for drama and romance.

For all the above reasons and more, Romeo & Juliet is and likely always will be my favorite story at its core, regardless of the characters, settings, and details that flesh it out. To be able to enjoy my two favorite versions of the story in a single volume is simply the cherry on top of a classic poetic delight.

Off The Bookshelf: Treasury of Christmas Tales

Remember when you were a kid, how you enjoyed reading or listening to holiday stories with your family at the end of the year? That was a good part of my childhood, as we had several Christmas-themed books sitting on our shelves when I was growing up. So to celebrate the season, here’s a brief review of a Christmas book we had when I was a kid: Treasury of Christmas Tales. Enjoy!

Treasury of Christmas Tales

Treasury of Christmas Tales, by Carolyn Quattrocki

Summary

Treasury of Christmas Tales is a children’s book published around 1994 and consisting of a collection of classic Christmas stories. The book was put together by author Carolyn Quattrocki, and includes colorful illustrations by Susan Spellman and adaptions of works by writers such as Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”), Clement C. Moore (“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”), the Brothers Grimm (“The Elves and the Shoemaker”) and Hans Christian Andersen (“The Little Match Girl”). Written in simple text, Treasury of Christmas Tales contains 19 stories, all themed around Christmas and the winter holiday season:

  1. A Christmas Carol
  2. The Wishing Star
  3. The Little Match Girl
  4. The Christmas Mouse
  5. Jingle Bells
  6. The Magic Toy Shop
  7. The Littlest Angel
  8. The Twelve Days of Christmas
  9. The Christmas Bear
  10. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
  11. The Nutcracker
  12. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  13. The Tiny Elf
  14. O Christmas Tree
  15. The Elves and the Shoemaker
  16. The Little Drummer Boy
  17. Christmas Carols
  18. The Happy Snowman
  19. Rudolph’s Adventure

Review

I remember I enjoyed reading this book with my mother and sisters when I was a child. Around the end of the year, my mom would read some of these tales to us while we followed along with the pictures, which really made for a fun family experience.

Treasury of Christmas Tales 1994

The 1994 edition of Treasury of Christmas Tales from my childhood

What I especially enjoyed about this book was how accessible the text was for us at our young age. Originally complex tales like “A Christmas Carol” were adapted into language that we as children could easily understand, but that didn’t lose the Christmas spirit of the story. Even sad tales like “The Little Match Girl” were told in a way that was uplifting and heartwarming. I also liked the colorful illustrations on every other page of the book, which made the stories even more comprehensible and memorable. It isn’t a broad collection for sure, but it does have good stories and illustrations that made it a joy for us to read every holiday season.

Inspiration

Though I hadn’t read this book since I was a kid, recently rediscovering it among my childhood belongings brought back pleasant memories of enjoying the holiday season with my family. It’s always fun to revisit stories from a happy time in your life, and the tales I enjoyed as a kid usually have a way of inspiring me to create stories of my own as an adult. So if you have some good holiday stories from your childhood, I encourage you to read them again this season. You may find just what you need to write your own cheerful Christmas tale!

Off The Bookshelf: The Little Prince

I wanted to start this year’s Off The Bookshelf posts with a review of a beautiful story that I finally got around to reading recently. I know I really should have read it (or rather, finished reading it) a long time ago, and after I did, I realized what I had been missing since I was a kid. So long overdue, here is a review of a classic tale by a French aviator and author: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Summary

The Little Prince (or Le Petit Prince, in its original French title) was first published in 1943 by Reynal & Hitchcock, in both English and French. Narrated in the first person, the book tells the story of a pilot who ends up stranded in the desert, where he meets a strange boy from a distant and tiny “planet” (which is really an asteroid). Over the eight days it takes him to fix his plane, the narrator gets to know the story of this “Little Prince”, from the life he had on his planet to the journey that brought him to Earth. The Little Prince enchants the pilot with his eccentric and poetic outlook on the world, and when the time comes for both of them to return home, the narrator is utterly heartbroken to lose the only friend he’s ever known who could appreciate life with the beautiful innocence of a child.

Review

What stands out most about this book is how it criticizes the “adult” way of thinking. The story begins with the narrator telling his readers how he was discouraged from pursuing art by grown-ups who couldn’t comprehend his drawings when he was younger. Since that time, the Little Prince was the first person he ever met who understood the vision he had as a child. Still very young himself, the Prince thus represents the simple way children see the world in contrast to the analytical views of adults, and does so in a way that makes the former much more appealing.

The Little Prince and the Fox (Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

The Little Prince and the Fox
(Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Though appearing to be a children’s book, The Little Prince is arguably targeted at adults who have forgotten how to understand the world the way they should. We as mature readers have it constantly pointed out to us that our manners are flawed, that we are too concerned with “matters of consequence”. Basically, we’ve become so focused on trivial details that we’ve lost sight of the things that are truly important. Perhaps this idea is most evident in a scene involving another well-spoken character of the story: a fox that the prince meets on his journey through Earth.

One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

– The Fox, The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

The Little Prince is a charming tale fit for readers of all ages. For adults, it’s a reminder of the lessons that can be learned from youth, many of which may have been lost long ago. As for children, they can find embedded in these pages the encouragement to keep living their own special way, and, if nothing else, a friend who can teach them the real matters of so much importance.

Inspiration

If there’s one thing I loved most about this book, it was the way it constantly reminded me how I used to see the world when I was a little girl (and how I probably should see it again as a woman). Living in a world that seems to demand we grow up as quickly as possible, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to experience life through the innocent eyes of children. The Little Prince’s questions and observations, coupled with the grown-ups’ awkward answers, served as a lesson on how I should never lose touch with the curious child still in my heart, for to do so would be like losing a very special friend.

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. Though it did break my heart a little, it was wonderful to read a story that could effortlessly shine light on the poetry children can bring to the world. The Little Prince has a lovely perspective on life, and after reading his story, I only hope I can remember to keep setting my inner child free. She is, after all, a very important friend to the grown-up writer I’ve become.

Off The Bookshelf: How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

It’s the holiday season, and that means it’s the perfect time to share a blog post about a Christmas-themed story! I had originally planned this post for next week (Christmas Day), but when I realized Christmas is also the last Wednesday of the year, I decided to bump this review up and save next week for a special post instead. So here it is a week early, a review of another of my favorite Dr. Seuss books: How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Dr. Seuss - How The Grinch Stole Christmas

How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, by Dr. Seuss

Summary

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot,

But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did NOT!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (Dr. Seuss, 1957)

Originally published by Random House in 1957, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! tells the story of a grouchy creature known as the Grinch and his plot to ruin Christmas for the town of Whoville, located just south of his cave on Mount Crumpet. Annoyed every year by the festivities of the warm-hearted Whos, he dons a makeshift Santa Claus costume and descends into Whoville on Christmas Eve to steal all their presents, food and decorations, in the hope of stopping the holiday from ever arriving. Come Christmas morning, however, he is surprised to find that despite his best efforts to discourage them, the Whos still have the spirit of Christmas in them, and that day, the Grinch learns a valuable lesson about the true meaning of the holiday season.

Review

I’ve always appreciated How The Grinch Stole Christmas! for its uplifting message about the holiday spirit. With all the commercialization that Christmas has undergone over time, it’s easy to lose sight of the simpler things we should enjoy during the holidays, such as the company of our loved ones and all the possibilities that come with a new year. Puzzled to hear the Whos singing on Christmas morning, the Grinch starts to wonder why his plan didn’t work, and comes to a heartwarming revelation.

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

It probably goes without saying that the author’s intention with this story was to criticize the commercialization of Christmas. Interestingly, the Grinch has been compared to Seuss himself, who claimed to have found inspiration for the character after seeing a “Grinchy” face in the mirror on December 26th. His idea was to write this sour character in order to rediscover the meaning of Christmas, which he felt had been lost on him at some point in the past. The same way he did with Horton Hears a Who!, Dr. Seuss drew from his own life experience to tell a heartwarming story that readers of all ages can enjoy for its important lesson.

The Grinch and Cindy Lou Who

The Grinch and Cindy Lou Who, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Like most of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is written in rhyming verse and illustrated with colorful and bizarre characters, making it a fun and memorable read for the whole family. A noteworthy adaptation of the book is the 1966 TV special directed by Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame). I remember watching it often as a kid and smiling every time the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes at the end of the story (not to mention Cindy Lou Who was probably the sweetest little thing I’d ever seen in a classic cartoon). It’s an adaptation I’d highly recommend, so if you haven’t seen it yet and it runs annually on TV in your region, be sure to watch it this holiday season! And while you’re at it, you may want to read the book again; it’s truly a Christmas classic!

Inspiration

What I find most inspiring about this book is the way it never fails to fill me with holiday cheer, regardless of the time of year. I enjoy a good story where the villain is the main character, and seeing the Grinch embrace the Christmas spirit helps me remember that there’s more to the holidays than presents (not that I ever needed much reminding, with a wonderful family like mine).

Overall, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is a very enjoyable read, and one that should definitely be on every Seuss fan’s bookshelf. Whether I’m in the mood for his fun stories and illustrations or for his good life lessons, I always find something wonderful to enjoy in Dr. Seuss’s charming holiday tale! Enjoy, and have a very Merry Christmas!

Off The Bookshelf: Horton Hears a Who!

Since last week’s post was dedicated to the amazing children’s author Dr. Seuss, I wanted to follow it up with a post about one of his many wonderful books. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how hard it would be to choose which book to feature; there are so many good stories by Seuss that it’s almost impossible to choose just one favorite. Eventually, though, I settled on one of the books I find most inspiring: Horton Hears a Who!

Horton Hears a Who!, by Dr. Seuss

Horton Hears a Who!, by Dr. Seuss

Summary

First published in 1954 by Random House, Horton Hears a Who! tells the story of Horton the Elephant, a resident of the Jungle of Nool, and his quest to help the Whos. After hearing a small yelp coming seemingly out of thin air, Horton discovers the microscopic civilization of Whoville living on a speck of dust. Deciding that every life has value regardless of size, he places the speck on a clover and sets out to find a safe location to keep the Whos out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, being the only one with ears keen enough to hear these tiny people, the elephant has trouble convincing the other jungle residents that Whoville exists, and when they decide to put an end to his crazy antics by destroying the clover, Horton must struggle to save his new friends and teach the people of the Jungle of Nool an important lesson: “a person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Review

Horton the Elephant is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss characters, mostly for his kindness and integrity. He stays true to his word no matter what; as seen in the previous story featuring his character – Horton Hatches the Egg – when Horton makes a promise, he has every intention of seeing it through, and that makes him one of the best role models in Seuss’s stories.

I meant what I said
And I said what I meant.
An elephant’s faithful,
One hundred per cent!

– Horton the Elephant, Horton Hatches the Egg (Dr. Seuss, 1954)

Like many of Dr. Seuss’s books, Horton Hears a Who! is more than just a children’s story. It also teaches good lessons, such as the importance of open-mindedness and understanding the issues of isolationism. Horton’s biggest challenge is convincing his peers that something they can’t perceive or fathom actually exists – which, when you think about it, is a story that’s only too familiar in real life. But what’s really interesting about this book is the history behind its lessons. Once strongly opposed to Japan, the author changed his opinions after World War II, and used this book as an analogy for the American post-war occupation, even dedicating the book to a Japanese friend. Overall, the metaphor of two worlds overlapping creates a beautiful message, one that children can certainly understand and appreciate.

Horton and the clover, Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

Horton and the clover, Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

Horton Hears a Who! is one of Seuss’s most notable works. From the children’s book to the TV special to the 2008 full-length feature film (which I thoroughly enjoyed; I swear the “We are here!” scene gives me chills every time I watch it), this story is wonderfully imaginative and fun for readers and viewers of all ages. Though they may have been written for a young audience, no one is too old to enjoy the stories of the great Dr. Seuss!

Inspiration

What I always found inspiring about this book was the main character’s determination to help an entire community that he couldn’t even see. I admired Horton’s devotion to his cause, and the respect he had for all forms of life made him a truly lovable hero. With colorful characters, adventure and a heartwarming message, Horton Hears a Who! is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories, and one I’ll definitely enjoy for the rest of my life.

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