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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

18 Apr

Ladies and gentleman who read my blog, I would like to introduce another guest blog post, done by Sam Glass. I hope you enjoy his take on The Great Gatsby as much I do!

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, and one of the seminal works of American literature. You’ve read it before. Probably in high school. Read it again. In a world where the relevance of the novel is questioned with increasing persistence and aggression, The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of how literature can act as a unique mirror for the complexity of our individual and collective character. Plus, it’s a genuine pleasure to read, and at times very humorous! Nothing tickles your funny bone quite like disillusionment.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Published: 1925

Quick Read? Yep—it’s less than 200 pages.

Difficulty: Surprisingly approachable! But the thematic subtlety allows for many enjoyable and revelatory re-readings.

Synopsis: Nick Carraway, a recent Midwestern transplant to an affluent New York suburb, quickly finds himself embroiled in the strange culture of his neighbors—among them Tom, an old college buddy; Daisy, Nick’s cousin; and Jordan, Daisy’s sardonic friend. People in East and West Egg spend a lot of time consuming, conversing, and enjoying the trappings of their wealth. About a quarter of the way through the book, however, Nick meets the titular Gatsby. We learn about Gatsby in bits and pieces—he throws lavish parties, cultivates an air of mystery, and enjoys referring to friends as “old sport.” His wealth is the subject of not-entirely-unfounded suspicion. Though Nick is able to make small motions toward an independent arc, the majority of his narrative focuses on his friendship with Gatsby, and Gatsby’s attempt to woo Daisy—his adolescent sweetheart—away from her husband Tom.

What makes this book awesome?: In the future, when homo robotus or the aliens or whomever study the ancient United States of America, The Great Gatsby will prove exemplary of how American culture informed universal human wants and fears. Beyond the beauty and fluency of the prose—which is some of the most beautiful and fluent ever produced—Gatsby is a hard, poignant look at what it means to desire, and what happens when that desire is sated (sort of).

Jay Gatsby has been called “America’s First Antihero.” The charge is not without merit. He’s shady, annoyingly colloquial, and sometimes rather pathetic. But Gatsby’s fervid wish to escape a past he finds shameful and his powerful belief in the attainability of dreams make him a horribly relatable character as well. America has long been a haven for those unable to bridle their ambition, and the novel’s grisly conclusion belies the purported “success” that Gatsby experiences before and during the action of the book.

The Great Gatsby penetrates America’s most pervasive mythos, the rags-to-riches success story. In the end, Gatsby’s desires let him down because they’re seeded in fantasy. His idealism, his optimism, and his ambition—because they service a specious goal—result in an unreal and untenable kind of happiness (and eventually, his downfall). The Great Gatsby is an awesome, frightening book because it perfectly dispels a very appealing notion: that achieving our desires will consequently make us happy.

If only it were that simple.

Some neat-o facts:

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the man you wanted at all your raging parties during the 1920s. This guy, right here.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly famous for heavily influencing the American 1920s “Jazz Age,” but he was also famous for his zany wife Zelda Fitzgerald. In fact, she was so crazy that Fitzgerald’s best buddy Hemingway encouraged her to drink heavily in order to be able to tolerate her better. Classy advice, Hemingway.
  • Unfortunately this heavy drinking that was so encouraged meant that Fitzgerald’s health was poor, causing him to pass away in 1944, a sad fact that means his prolific career was cut short far too soon.
  • The Great Gatsby has been hailed as “The Great American Novel,” and Modern Library cites it as one of the best novels written in English in the 20th century. So really, if you haven’t read it yet, it truly is the paragon for all 20th century American novels after it.
  • While Fitzgerald was alive, his other books sold better than The Great Gatsby. Its literary genius was not recognized until after Fitzgerald’s death.
  • You can play an 8 bit video game version of the book here. Yes, it exists. Thank you Japanese video game company, for making all of our literary dreams come true!

Sam Glass loves reading books, talking about books, writing about books, and perusing artsy pictures of books on book-enthusiast blogs. Unsurprisingly, he works for the Great Books Summer Program. Sam also enjoys writing, television, England, cheese, and hypothetical scenarios. He graduated from Tulane University in 2011, and is thinking about returning to school to pursue a higher degree in literature. At present, however, he is preoccupied with a more immediate goal: moving out of his parents’ house. Some of his favorite authors are David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, Nick Hornby, W.H. Auden, and George Orwell. He hypothesizes that J.K. Rowling will be as critically acclaimed as Charles Dickens in thirty years, give or take.


Orlando by Virginia Woolf

14 Jul

I must apologize, readers, for the small delays to this blog–I’m working two jobs this summer, and sometimes my wonderful ideas for blog posts get lost somewhere between eating, seeing friends, and passing out completely from exhaustion. My summer has been and will remain beyond fun, but alas, sometimes Better Know a Book gets paused. My apologies.

But fear not, for there are plenty of posts to come. Today, I’m tackling another book from my favorite writer, the Woolfinator–Orlando. For anyone who thinks Woolf is an uber-serious, stuffy, boring writer, they have clearly never come near this gem. It’s a fun, whimsical ride through British history, defying gender norms and ideas of love even today. It’s a love letter to love, but also, an actual love letter, and one that almost always gets wrongfully shafted on summer reading lists.

Published: 1928

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Quick Read?: Let yourself get into the flow of it–once you do, it is definitely very quick.

Difficulty: Not very. It does help to know some British history, but even then.

Synopsis: Written in faux biographical form, Orlando opens during Elizabethan era of English history, where our hero, Orlando, is a young lord in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. He is a handsome young man, with lovers in, ahem, very high places, but when the Russian princess Sasha comes to visit, Orlando is beyond smitten. After an intense and short affair, Sasha must leave suddenly, leaving Orlando devastated, resorting to poetry to heroic valor for his country to soothe himself. Yet somehow, magically, Orlando lives not for decades, but centuries, and finds himself an ambassador to Turkey from England. It is there that, during days of slumber after a battle, that he turns into a woman (through a beautifully written passage). As he/she parades through British history, Orlando meets with historical figures, including many writers and poets, to try and understand poetry and love, both of which he abandoned once Sasha left. He/She does this up until the 19th century, living amongst history and the present day. A charming, whimsical work, it flows just like Orlando’s beloved poetry, filled to the brim with the euphoric feel only being in love can really give.

What makes this book awesome? It’s entirely possible you ended up reading all that just to think Holy crap, this book sounds weird as hell, I don’t get it. But that’s truly it–Orlando is just a magical human being who transcends both time and gender, and is able to make larger assertions and ideas about both through his experiences. Woolf writes about his/her life in a way that is seamless and entirely believable. It seems natural that Orlando discussed poetry with Alexander Pope just as it seemed natural that he went ice skating with Queen Elizabeth I’s court. So if you’re worried this will just be too weird, just trust your imagination. It’s only weird if you allow it to be–if you don’t allow it to be, it’s a beautiful love story.

And yes, it’s humorous! Woolf pokes fun at a lot of historical eras, figures, and writers. Even if you only know a tiny bit about these ideas, you can still pick up on the humor, and really is giggle-worthy. The narrator is just as taken aback by Orlando as we are, and it is this exasperation on their part that causes us to laugh as well. This book is proof, if any of them are, that Woolf actually had a wonderful sense of humor.

The way she writes gender is fascinating as well. She makes Orlando extremely androgynous, with very feminine and masculine traits all at once. It is gender-bending even by today’s standards, and shows the effect of time on our ideas of gender, our relationships, and on society’s beliefs as a whole. Many believe this to be one of the first pieces of lesbian literature, though few realized this at the time it was published, thanks to its magical traits.

The Woolfinator, messing with homophobes since the day she was born. Also, messing around with women when her husband wasn't around.

Some great facts to know:

  • When folks say Orlando is a love letter, they mean it. It’s not just to English history or a love letter to love either–Woolf had an affair with noted painter and eccentric Vita Sackville-West. Their affair prompted the novel, as noted in Woolf’s own diary. (Their letters to one another are a hoot, for the record). No one recognized the lesbian elements to the story until much later on, thanks to the warping of time and reality throughout.
  • Because no one recognized these elements, it was one of Woolf’s best-selling works while she was alive.
  • There has been a movie adaptation of it, as well as several stage adaptations, given that it is one of the least cerebral of her works, and the most straightforward (seriously, isn’t that ridiculous? a book about time travel and gender bending is your most straight forward book? You crazy, Virginia).
If you like, try: any other works by Woolf, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

The lady who inspired this Orlando, Vita Sackville-West. Who knows how old she REALLY was when this was taken...

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

29 Jun

A controversial and often over-looked book, Lady Chatterley’s Loveris a personal

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

favorite. I’m not afraid to say it. For those of you with a passion for banned books, look no further than Lawrence’s glance into the mental versus the physical nature of the human spirit.

Published: 1928

Genre: Fiction (romance…?, literary fiction)

Difficulty: Not bad at all. I read it on a train/airplane. Though you may get some looks when you read this. Just a heads-up.

Quick Read: Fairly. It probably took me 4 days, I could it see it taking somewhat longer if you are a slow reader–there is a lot in here.

Synopsis: Lady Chatterley, or Constance, is an young, intellectual aristocrat who marries Clifford Chatterley, a lord who becomes paralyzed during World War I. Though he tries to relate to his wife, she can never be his “intellectual equal” in his eyes, and due to both his attitude and his impotency (thanks to his war wounds), Constance finds herself depressed, bored, and drifting away from him…only to then be attracted to their gamekeeper (no, you filthy-minded reader, it’s not Hagrid, this ain’t fan fiction). Very quickly Constance finds herself growing in touch with her physical, sensual self, and may need to leave the intellectual, mental life of the aristocracy in order to learn the importance of her own bodily needs.

Missing from this synopsis: yep, you guessed it, a lot of sexual activity. But not with her husband. SHOCKER, I KNOW. (I’d hardy say it’s a spoiler–most any synopsis will tell you this, but with more flowery language).

What makes this book awesome? First of all, this novel actually has a lot of historical significance. It was first published in the U.S. in 1928–except it was incredibly censored due to being “obscene.” It was not until 1959 in a historic censorship court case that Lady Chatterley’s Lover finally got the right to be published by Grove Press, in it’s entirety. It set a precedent for obscenity versus censorship in literature, and opened up the publishing of both erotica and literature with erotic content throughout the rest of the twentieth century. I’d say that’s pretty significant.

Second of all, it is just beautifully written. The prose has a wonderful, quick flow to it–even when it is discussing large topics such as the separation of mind and body (or, lack of separation). Parts of it feel poetic, and extremely empowering, both to women and men.

While it is sensual erotic in places, most readers today have probably read or seen worse, quite honestly. And there is a lot of depth to the book, beyond the erotic–classism, post-war British controversies, gender dynamics within the family, and body politics. All of this gives the book the depth that won it the right to be published at all. Lawrence is one gutsy writer, so I urge you to check him out.

D.H. Lawrence, himself. I guess he liked to knock over working class people with trains? I don't actually know that, don't quote me on that.

Some neat-o facts: 

  • Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who fought to allow this novel to be published in it’s entirety, also brought Samuel Beckett’s work to America, worked with Allen Ginsberg, and also brought Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller out of it’s censorship label as well.
  • Once the book was finally published in full in 1959, many considered it part of the start of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.
  • According to Wikipedia (yes, I look there sometimes, oops!), Lawrence was actually a right-wing conservative who favored dictators over any kind of labor movement or movement of the people. Damn. I didn’t see that one coming, did you?

If you like this, try: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Lolita by Nabokov, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The Passion or Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

27 Jun

First book, here we go! Of course, for me, I had to start with my personal favorite and forever homegirl, Virginia Woolf.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Published: 1925

Genre: Fiction (stream of consciousness, feminism, modernism, 1920’s, post-WWI, upper-class British society)

Difficulty: Somewhat difficult, can get confusing at times.

Quick Read?: Deceptively not. Crawl into bed with this one, give yourself some time.

Synopsis: Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged mother and housewife in London, is planning a dinner party for that night. The novel follows her, and those around her, as she puts together the party with her servants. Her life intersects with her own family–her husband, her daughter–but also her former suitor, Richard, who stops in unexpectedly, and war veteran (and obvious victim of PTSD) Septimus. As Clarissa navigates her past and present, she attempts to pull off the perfect dinner party, only to be drawn out it’s revelry by an inevitable feeling of connection with the universe.

Yeah, OK, but why should I read this?:  Now I won’t even pretend I’m not biased here, because I totally am. I love me some Woolf, and modernist prose and poetry never fails to take my breath away.

That being said, Mrs. Dalloway is an absolute classic feminist text. If you have any issues in issues of gender or sexuality, any work by Woolf will be right up your alley, in that she helped form the feminist movement as we know it today. Clarissa’s struggles to be seen as a good wife, and as someone of importance in society, is one that is painful to watch her struggle through, though I’m sure for many women is a familiar struggle.

Also, the modernist stream of consciousness that can make this book difficult also makes it beautiful. As I’ll mention later, read it slowly. The narrator changes constantly, sometimes even mid-sentence. The beautiful flow from voice to voice can be overwhelming, but also incredibly moving. Don’t let it discourage you–I hate to say it, but you really do gotta go with the flow to enjoy this!

If you like this, try: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce, The Complete Short Stories by Flannery O’Connor, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Room of One’s Own by Woolf, To the Lighthouse by Woolf

The lovely Virginia Woolf herself, looking whimsical here.

A Few Intriguing Facts:

  • Woolf would have total mental breakdowns after she would finish her novels. Her writing on mental illness and it’s treatment, in all of her books, is pretty fascinating.
  • Mrs. Dalloway was the basis for the book and movie “The Hours,” by Michael Cunningham. It follows how the novel effected Woolf herself and others who would read her work throughout the twentieth century.