The Great American Dream?

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

folio fitzgerald

Having adored Baz Luhrmann’s new film of The Great Gatsby (which I blogged about here), I just couldn’t wait to re-read the book. It must have been a couple of decades since I last read it, and this time, for my third re-read, I was able to use my Folio Fitzgerald set rather than a paperback, which always heightens the experience.

I must say it immediately struck me how faithful the film had been to the book.  The actual dialogue in the book formed the majority of the spoken words in the film, and so many of the little details in the book – from the man with owlish glasses in Gatsby’s library, to Klipspringer playing for them to dance, Myrtle’s puppy, and not forgetting the giant billboard on the road into the city – are all present in the film too.  Where the two differ is in how the film sets up Nick’s narration with the framing device of him being in a sanitorium recounting the events of that summer.  You may argue that faithfulness to a text is not necessarily a good thing for a film, but each adaptation needs to be taken on its own merits. Personally, I think the critics were wrong in their lukewarm reception to this film.  But back to the book …

Nick’s outsider/insider status is set up from the off, when he visits his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan at their mansion bought with old money, shortly after arriving on Long Island…

‘I forgot to ask you something, and it’s important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.’
‘That’s right,’ corroborated Tom kindly. ‘We heard that you were engaged.’
‘It’s a libel, I’m too poor.’
‘But we heard it,’ insisted Daisy, surprising me by opening up again in a flower-like way. ‘We heard it from three people, so it must be true.’
Of course I knew what they were referring to, but I wasn’t even vaguely engaged. The fact that gossip had published the banns was one of the reasons I had come East. … I had no intention of being rumored into marriage.
Their interest rather touched me and made them less remotely rich – nevertheless, I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms – but apparently there were no such intentions in her head. As for Tom, the fact that he ‘had some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.

This dinner party tells us nearly all we need to know about Daisy and Tom.  She’s selfish and shallow, he’s a boorish philanderer.  There’s few true secrets between them; Tom’s mistress is acknowledged, although not accepted.

Whereas the rumours abound about Nick’s neighbour Gatsby, across the bay in less upscale West Egg, abound – unconfirmed.  When Nick goes to a party at his house, the host is elusive, and Nick sits in the garden chatting…

… I turned to my new acquaintance. ‘This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there – ‘ I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, ‘and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.’
For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.
‘I’m Gatsby,’ he said suddenly.
‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon.’
‘I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.’
He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey…

I’m an incurable romantic when reading novels of this period.  Even if Gatsby was a shady businessman, I wanted him to find love, to consummate his great American Dream – I was willing to suspend my prior knowledge of what happened (again) just in case it had changed. I’d previously been rather lukewarm towards the narrator Nick, but this time having seen what are almost throwaway comments made solid in the film, I appreciated him more.

Re-reading The Great Gatsby after seeing the new film, did give me a whole new appreciation of the book, and I revelled in Fitzgerald’s descriptions. Fitzgerald is one of those few authors whose novels I’ve read more than once before, and will doubtless revisit again.  The Great Gatsby will join Tender is the Night in my Desert Island Books trunk.

I shall leave you today with a photo from my New England holiday a few years ago, when we visited several of the mansions at Newport, Rhode Island.  Rosecliff, with it’s beautiful ballroom, was used as the location for the 1974 movie of TGG starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.


* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, Orion paperback.
The Great Gatsby [DVD] [1974] starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

Falling in love again …

The Joys of Re-reading

I don’t do much re-reading.  I have too many unread books to get through, both new shiny ones and more of those which have been languishing on the shelves for far too long. Once in a blue moon though, I will re-read a book – just a couple a year usually.

Double dog darere-readingbuttonIt so happens that Ali at Heavenali is hosting a month of re-reading for January. It’s a doubly ideal time for some re-reading given my participation in the TBR Double Dog Dare too.  Strictly, a re-read doesn’t qualify as being in one’s TBR, but … books you’ve already read but kept are still available ‘to be read’ – Pedant, moi? (tee hee!). Otherwise, I’m strictly abiding by it and my embargo pile of reading for after April 1st is already growing!

The book I’m re-reading is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. It won the Pullitzer Prize in 1993. I discovered it when the paperback came out and I adored it. That was way before I started the blog, but I did write about it in one of my first posts where I said:

Whereas the English equivalents of novels based in small-town America often seem so claustrophobic they have an unreal quality about them, this is not true of their US counterparts for me. North America is so vast, the novels also have a quality of space about them. Sure, everyone still knows everyone else, but they’re not squashed together like sardines, they have to make an effort to interact.

This is so in The Shipping News, where one of life’s failures, Quoyle, betrayed by his wife, opts to start all over again in faraway windswept Newfoundland. The novel is all about how he starts to fit in with the local community which takes time, as they’re mostly failures of a kind too. The quirky characters are superb, both comic and sympathetic. If you liked the TV series Northern Exposure, you’ll find similarities here, but that’s where it ends, as Annie Proulx’s writing leaps off the page and makes everything seem totally real. The chapters are headed with figures from a 1944 book of knots and quotations from the Mariner’s Dictionary which add to the considerable charm of this book.

I’m still reading the book, and will write more fully about it soon, but I am overjoyed to report that it has won me over again instantly, and is totally worthy of being one of my real favourite books.

There’s nothing like a successful re-read. If you remember the essentials of the book from the first time, the second and subsequent readings let you delve a little deeper into the psyche of the book, or to analyse what it is you like about the author’s style or writing techniques.

Occasionally when you re-read a book, the experience isn’t as good as the first time. It can be hard to put your finger on why it doesn’t gel with you again. This happened to me with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Given how many times I’ve heard the original radio show, watched the telly series, (and less so the movie, although that had its moments), it wasn’t until I re-read the book that I started to find it not as funny – it still had some great jokes, but the inbetween bits rather bored me – maybe I wasn’t reading it with the voice of Peter Jones as the Book in my head.  Can’t quite put my finger on it.

I hope to include a few more re-reads this year, particularly books that I first read a couple of decades ago. Simon’s recent post about Graham Greene has made me hanker after revisiting him for instance.

What are your favourite re-reads?
Which books didn’t work as well second time around? 
Do share …

Living without your ABC

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

This was our book group’s choice for April into May. This one was my suggestion – I read it ages ago, then it popped into my mind after a blog post discussed it a month or two ago (sorry I can’t remember whose blog to credit it).  After last month’s choice (reviewed here), we were after something a bit more quirky…

A quick resumé: Nollop is a small island nation off the USA, where the inhabitants revere their founder, the man who devised the famous pangram ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ which is emblazoned on his statue in the town square. One day, a letter falls off the statue, z, and this plunges the community into disarray. The Council decide that Nollop is sending them a message to do without that letter in their lives, and issues edicts to all inhabitants not to use it any more and destroy all things containing the letter. Offenders will be punished – two counts and you have a choice of stocks or a lashing; three counts and you’re out – banished. This hitherto tranquil island quickly descends into a totalitarian state, and even with just one letter lost, the cruel punishments are meted out and banishments start to happen. Then more letters begin to fall with increasing consequences …

The entire book is written in letters, mainly between relations Ella and Tassie who live in Nollop’s two communities, which are not linked by telephone. Nollopians are fond of linguistics and routinely use quite elaborate language anyway, but as the letters are removed, it becomes more and more complex, they have to become more and more inventive.

I had expected this book to have been a real marmite book – for our book group to either love or hate it. However, everyone enjoyed it, although admittedly to different levels.  All enjoyed the linguistic machinations, and Miles spent ages trying to make his own pangrams! I found it shocking how fast the society degraded, finding the punishments very severe – but as one of our group retorted, with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’!  At this time of political limbo in the UK, it made us all laugh.  Censorship was another issue – most of the books had to go instantly – absolutely terrible! 

This was a good book group choice. Quirky and quick with plenty of talking points.  (7/10, I bought this book.)  For another review read Nymeth’s here.

The Two Towers – the LOTR Readalong month 3

It’s the end of month 3 of the LOTR readlong, and I’ve finished LOTR vol 2: The Two Towers . You can see what others thought via the Mr Linky on Teresa’s post at Shelflove, and you can see my comments on the first half of the book here, but before I leave it totally I just want to share a quote from book three that really tickled me …

‘But Gandalf,’ I (Pippin) cried, ‘where have you been? And have you seen the others?’
‘Wherever I have been, I am back,’ he answered in the genuine Gandalf manner.

Wizards – why can’t they ever talk like normal folk!

Now to the second half of the Two Towers (Book 4 of the sequence) – for you can honestly say that like football, this is a book of two halves!  In the previous book we followed Aragorn and co, and met Theoden and the Riders of Rohan, plus the Ents; in book four we follow Sam and Frodo as they continue on the quest and we meet major characters in Gollum/Sméagol and the noble Steward of Gondor, Faramir, brother of Boromir.

I must admit that I found book 4 slow to get into after the classic Western feel of book 3, but as soon as we meet Gollum properly it begins to get interesting again.  The scene were Gollum argues with his other self Sméagol is wonderful and is perhaps the most important event in this book …

‘Sméagol promised,’ said the first thought.
‘Yes, yes, my precious,’ came the answer, ‘we promised: to save our Precious, not to let Him have it – never. But it’s going to Him, yes, nearer every step. What’s the hobbit going to do with it, we wonders, yes we wonders.’
‘I don’t know. I can’t help it. Master’s got it. Sméagol promised to help the master.’
‘Yes, yes, to help the master: the master of the Precious. But if we was master, then we could help ourselfs, yes, and still keep promises.’

Then the hobbits encounter Faramir. At first they circle around each other, testing out where loyalties lie. They talk of the Elves, and Faramir wishes he could have spoken with the White Lady, which sparks an effusive outpouring from Sam …

‘… Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I every saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.’

Sam’s mouth continues to lead him into trouble blurting out Boromir’s fate, but Faramir is able to piece things together and understand that the hobbits are not a threat to them and deserve help despite what happened to his brother. He is noble indeed. The hobbits’ short stay with Faramir and his men gives them the respite that enables them to carry on, but we soon see that the task is getting harder. Frodo is beginning to feel the weight of the ring, and Sam is sharing his burden and unwittingly upsets Gollum even more accusing him of ‘sneaking’…

…’Sneaking, sneaking!’ he hissed. ‘Hobbits always so polite, tes. O nice hobbits! Sméagol brings them up secret ways that nobody else could find. Tired he is, thirsty he is, yes thirsty; and he guides them and he searches for paths, and they say sneak, sneak. Very nice friends, O yes my precious, very nice.
Sam felt a bit remorseful, though not more trustful. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, but you startled me out of my sleep. And I shouldn’t have been sleeping, and that made me a bit sharp. But Mr. Frodo, he’s that tired, I asked him to have a wink; and well, that’s how it is. Sorry. But where have you been to?’
‘Sneaking,’ said Gollum, and the green glint did not leave his eyes.

Teresa asks about what themes are becoming apparent in the book. For me there is a real sense of history – all the different races have their own, and they all love any opportunity to share their stories with others anytime they get together.

And finally – the obligatory movie comparison. Personally, I’ve no big quibbles with the film, I don’t know it well enough. However, there are some bits that are brilliant. I commented on Theoden’s awakening last time. Now I’d like to applaud the casting of David Wenham as Faramir – he and Viggo Mortensen make a great pair of heroes to long for. But the biggest acting feat of all must be Andy Sirkis as Gollum, and the animator’s brilliant job at bringing him to the screen.

A Science Fiction Noir Classic from 1942

Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak

When I was writing my post the other week about my reading history I tried to remember my favourite Science Fiction books from my teens. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one, Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage was another, but my absolute favourite from back then was Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.  This made me desperate to read it again; it’s out of print, but I ordered an old paperback and devoured its 160 pages as soon as it arrived.

Siodmak was born in Germany, of Polish Jewish descent, leaving Germany before WWII and settling in the USA. A mathematician, he became a successful screenwriter getting his big break with The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney in 1941.  At first glance, Donovan’s brain has all the trappings of a pulp sci-fi novel – the melodramatic story of a mad scientist who keeps a brain alive and then the brain takes over him.  However, it’s not that at all!   In fact, it’s rather serious, and alongside the SF with a horror slant is a novel that’s pure noir.

Patrick Cory is a middle-aged doctor who experiments in his lab at keeping animal brains alive funded by his wife Janice. One night he’s called out to a plane crash and rescues a dying man.  He harvests the brain before the body finally dies and connects it up in a tank.  It turns out the man was a rich industrialist, W H Donovan,  who was dying of kidney disease anyway.  Cory manages to keep the brain alive successfully, recording the brain waves, but can’t work out a way of  communicating with it.  The brain starts to grow, and then one night, Cory falls asleep after tapping Morse Code on the brain’s container. He wakes up to find some names written on the pad.  This is the start of the brain’s telepathy with Cory.  The elderly Dr Schratt, his sometime alcoholic assistant, begs him not to take it further…

“… You are killing faith! I’m glad only a few men like you exist! Your researches have made you more and more rational, until you refuse to recognize a single fact cannot be proved in the laboratory. I’m frightened, Patrick! You’re creating a mechanical soul that will destroy the world.”
I listened patiently. Schratt obviously had thought deeply about all this, and saying it seemed to make him feel better.
“Great mathematicians and physiologists,” I said quietly, “inevitably arrive at a point where their minds meet something beyond human comprehension, something divine. They can only face it by believing in God. Most scientists become religious when they reach that stage of research.”

Schratt looked at me astonished. Those might have been his own words. When he saw I had not spoken with irony, he nodded, but doubtfully, still mistrusting me as a convert to his philosophy.

Cory of course can’t let go, he’s already ensnared by the brain, and as the days go on the brain gets stronger, and then it takes his body over, and also adopts the mannerisms, gait and penchant for cigars of its dead owner. Donovan sends Cory to LA to sort out unfinished business, and this is where the novel turns into a noir detective story. Cory cannot resist the brain except when asleep, and finds himself signing cheques, and carrying out the dying man’s last plans to get his own back on those whom he believes have wronged him in business. Cory is finally scared …

I recalled the stages I had passed through during this experiment with Donovan’s brain. At first I had concentrated on Donovan’s orders, forcing myself to understand him. During the second phase I easily interpreted commands, and acted accordingly. Finally I had permitted the brain to direct my body.
Until now I was unable to resist. I had lost control completely!
The brain could walk my body in front of a car, throw it out of the window, put  a bullet through my head with my own hands. I could only cry out from the despair of my imprisonment, but even the words my mouth formed were those the brain wanted to hear.
A wave of terror engulfed me as I realized I was like a man fastened in a machine which moves his hands and feet against his will.

Donovan’s Brain may not have the best writing, but it does have a philosophical side that explores ethics and other scientific dilemmas amongst the many other moral issues raised by the story. It’s also written as journal entries by Cory which help give that first person authentic noir narrative. So, some thirty plus years after I previously read it, how was it on re-reading? I think you can guess – I still love it! I want to track down the film too. (10/10)

LOTR Readalong Month 3 – Midway through the Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers Vol 2 by JRR Tolkien

It’s month 3 of the LOTR Readalong in which we’re reading vol 2 – The Two Towers. This month the readalong is hosted by Teresa at Shelf Love and she has posed some questions for us …

Where are you in your reading? Are you finding it slow going or is it a quick read? It’s convenient that Tolkein splits the Two Towers into two books which are 3 & 4 of the trilogy. I finished book 3 soon after the start of the month – I’m starting book four imminently. I found it a steady read, neither fast nor slow.

If you’re a rereader, how does this reading compare to past readings? If you’re a first-time reader, how has The Two Towers met—or not met—your expectations? What has surprised you most in your reading?   I really can’t remember my previous read much. TTTs feels like a middle novel though. I also thought I’d miss Frodo and Sam, but was surprised that I was enjoying the others’ adventures so much.

In Book 3, we visit lots of new places and meet lots of new characters. There’s Fangorn and the Ents, the riders of Rohan, Saruman at Isengard. Which are your favorites? Least favorites?   I’m not a big fan of the Ents – can’t put my finger on why – I think it’s to do with cartoonish visions of trees with faces, I can’t take them seriously. I do like the Riders of Rohan – Theoden is a great leader, and Eowyn will come into her own.

And the obligatory movie question: If you’ve seen the movie, has it affected your perception of The Two Towers? If so, how?   One of the scenes I thought they did well in the film was Theoden’s reawakening, becoming himself again. This was rather quickly dealt with in the book, but it was nice to see Bernard Hill get his time to come to.

LOTR Readalong Month Two: The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s the end of the second month of the LOTR Readlong and I’ve finished LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring Vol 1.  This month Clare at The Literary Omnivore is hosting, if you want to check others’ progress, but here are my thoughts on the second half …

Just in case you live on a different planet and haven’t read or seen it – rather unavoidable plot SPOILER alert! 

In Book Two, the Fellowship of the Ring is both formed and broken on the first leg of the journey to take the ring to Mordor. Winter means they have to go through the mountains via the mines of Moria, and it is here, in just a few pages, that one of the biggest events in Book 2 happens – Gandalf falls to his presumed end holding off a demonic Balrog.  It all happens rather too quickly and you could be forgiven for having thought you’d missed it – in fact I read it twice.

The Fellowship have to concentrate on staying alive, and don’t stop to mourn so quickly is Gandalf’s fate relegated to the background. At last the eight arrive at Lothlorien, and meet Galadriel, who is the second-most interesting character so far, (Aragorn is first of course).  She is a real fairy queen with telepathic powers; Frodo is a little in love with her and offers her the ring, and she of course, graciously refuses knowing how it would corrupt her.

The Fellowship have to take their leave and on they go, tailed by Gollum whom we don’t meet properly yet, but has been lurking out of sight for ages.  Soon they have to make a choice, whether to go via Gondor and help Minas Tirith, or head directly towards Mordor…  Frodo as ringbearer gets to decide and retreats to ponder the decision, but Boromir has a funny turn desiring the ring and goes after him. Frodo (gasp!) puts on the ring to avoid Boromir’s nasty intentions and runs for it.  Luckily for him Sam is on his tail, but thus the fellowship is broken.

In this first volume  there have been moments of great peril and episodes of sheer elven bliss, but, as with all great fantasy arcs, there are greater battles yet to come.  It’s one helluva setup!   We’re in the early stages of addiction – enough to carry on, but secretly knowing that temptation will keep us reading – even when you’ve read it before and remember the key events that will happen – if anything that makes it even stronger.  Knowing that the fellowship doesn’t last and that the narrative will split makes me miss those who will be off doing something else while we follow one half or another already – but the anticipation is greater…

Bring on The Two Towers !

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

Now – considering that I last read The Hobbit, aged around twelve, many, many years ago – before starting to re-read the book, ask me what I remember of it apart from Bilbo and Gandalf? I would answer, “Gollum and the ring, and Smaug the dragon, but particularly Gollum.” I was surprised to find that Gollum was almost incidental.

But what I had completely forgotten about were the dwarves. Not seven, but a whole baker’s dozen of the grumpy things!

The Hobbit charts Bilbo Baggins’ big adventure to vanquish the dragon Smaug. Gandalf hand-picks the little hobbit, who dreams of adventure (his Tookish ancestry) but is to timid to act, to join the team of dwarves to seek out and smite Smaug.

“This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

Along the way they get into many scrapes, meeting different folk and creatures in each chapter as they make their way through the different regions of Middle Earth. Emotionally, Bilbo is on a journey too as he grows up and becomes the lynchpin in the band of adventurers, (especially as Gandalf has the tendency to disappear leaving them to sort out their own problems).

As a taster of what is to come in the LOTR proper, this children’s tale was a delightful prequel. I’m looking forward to the next three month’s books in the LOTR readalong immensely. (7/10)