The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

tgg*This post contains spoilers, so if you are one of the few who have not read this classic, skip this post. 🙂

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was my fourth read for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge sponsored by Adam over at Roof Beam Reader. I had never read this selection, not even in high school. I really had no idea what to expect. Fitzgerald’s writing – the language … the words …the sentences –  were fabulous, but I found the story, the plot, to be a little lacking for some reason. The action starts slow and ends with a bang, but perhaps I found it too predictable. Perhaps I was having a hard time trusting the narrator, Nick Carraway after he says: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But, isn’t it Gatsby we aren’t supposed to trust? Jay Gatsby … the ultimate American self-made man, right down to his name. I adored him. Something about the mystery, sadness, and darkness that surrounded him really appealed to me. Then there is Daisy. I don’t think I have disliked a character the way I disliked her in a long time. Fitzgerald says: “Her voice is full of money.” So shallow … there was nothing to her, like she was a wisp that could just blow away with the slightest wind. Choosing wealth, security, the easy thing at every turn. What did Gatsby see in her? Why would he have gone to such lengths to bring her back to him? And for her to not even acknowledge his death … his blood that was ultimately on her hands … I could not fathom. It was so sad that no one came to his funeral, but I should not have been surprised. None of those “friends” ever really knew him. They were just fascinated with the idea of him, with what he represented, with what he could provide them. Fitzgerald’s words about Daisy and Tom not only describe them, but most of the people who had surrounded Gatsby in West Egg: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

f. scottFavorite quotes:

* “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”

* “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

* “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”

* “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Early on, Fitzgerald foreshadows how things will end for Nick and Gatsby’s friendship: “When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” Much like Gatsby was “borne back ceaselessly into {his} past” with Daisy, I assume it may have been the same for Nick with Gatsby … that he was haunted by him. Although the story may have been lacking for me somehow, I find that I am still thinking about this little novel, days later. Perhaps I am also haunted just a little bit by Jay Gatsby.

This is certainly a cautionary tale about the carelessness that seems to be a fixture of the Jazz Age. The 20s have never been one of my favorite periods in history, maybe because I do not know a lot about this period. It is growing on me though, as I begin to explore the writers and literature of this age.

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

 * This post may contain spoilers.*

Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, was actually a re-read for me. We read this in my AP English class senior year of high school … almost 20 years ago. I remembered nothing about the book other than I thought I remembered liking it. This time around I have to be honest and say I really wasn’t impressed. The story was rather predictable and frankly I was a bit bored. I am learning that I have to stop making assumptions about a work before I read it. I assumed I would like Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I assumed I wouldn’t like Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre ended up being a much better novel in my opinion. I am anxious to try Anne next with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Random Thoughts:

* Considering Emily named the novel after the house, I thought perhaps Wuthering Heights would have become more of a character in its own right … sort of like Manderley in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but I did not find this to be true. It was a sad place, sure, but it didn’t seem to have a presence.

* Emily Bronte’s choice of Ellen Dean, housekeeper, as narrator was interesting. Although I am aware that English servants during the 19th century often had very intimate knowledge of the family for whom they were employed, the narration is still unreliable. I found myself wondering if we, the reader, really knew the characters. Could Heathcliff have really been that much of a monster? Perhaps he was more/less cruel and vengeful than described by Dean. In any event, it is likely that Heathcliff was a shocking character for readers in 1847, but he pales in comparison to the cruel, violent realities paraded before us on the cable news networks today.

* One thing is for sure, this really isn’t a love story. I felt that Heathcliff and Catherine were not so much in love as they were the same soul somehow mistakenly divided into two different bodies. And so, when Catherine passes away her soul cannot be at peace until it becomes whole again through Heathcliff’s death: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” – Catherine Earnshaw. An interesting premise, but one that didn’t seem as fully developed as it could have been.

* Speaking of Catherine’s death, I am always fascinated by 19th century diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions, or lack there of. I sometimes like to make my own contemporary diagnosis. Did Catherine have rheumatic fever that weakened her heart causing pregnancy and childbirth to be too much of a strain?

1818 – 1848

Favorite Quotes:

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” – Catherine Earnshaw … this has happened to me!

“You are one of those things that are ever found when least wanted, and when you are wanted, never!” – Catherine Earnshaw to her husband Edgar Linton

“And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” – Heathcliff after Catherine’s death … hmm, be careful what you wish for, Heathcliff!

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Welcome to The Classic Circuit’s Steinbeck Tour! (Click on the button to the left to link to other blog posts discussing John Steinbeck’s work.) The book I chose for the tour was the 1939 Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath which chronicles the lives of the Joad family as they are forced out of their home in Oklahoma, travel to California, and try to survive their new circumstances as migrant workers. They head to California with a dream of new land and new chances, but certainly not by choice.The Joads are sharecroppers who have been replaced by more efficient farm machinery because losses from the Depression, drought, crop failure, and foreclosure must be recouped at all costs.

When I was a kid, potatoes were the crop of choice in my small town and its surrounding areas. Toward the end of summer, migrant workers would travel up from the south to pick the potatoes. Suddenly, there would be strangers in the grocery store and laundromat. When school started, there would be new faces in our classroom that would be gone again before Halloween. They were a seasonal fixture for many years, but I never really gave these families much thought as a child. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I began to wonder: where did these people stay while they were here, how much were they paid for their labor, were they made to feel like outcasts, foreigners in their own country?

“Okies” like the Joads sure were. The Californian owners purposely brought them to their towns. They passed out handbills back in Oklahoma advertising work knowing that if they could lure hundreds of desperate people to their orchards and fields they could procure the cheapest labor possible. If one man would not work for pennies there would be another hungry man standing behind him, with starving children at camp, who would. They brought them there, but then had the nerve to despise the burden they had created.

“They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies – the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong … and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend … and the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.”

California turned out to be a nightmare. The Joads were discouraged, destitute, homeless, hungry, and work was scarce. And yet, where there is a community of survivors, there is hope. There were hundreds, thousands of people in this same situation. Perhaps the formation of unions could be the salvation for these laborers? Even more interesting, what would happen if all the strong matriarchs like Ma Joad were to unite? She was quite a woman!

“Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear suspect each other … the danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one … the two men squatting in the ditch, the little fire … the children listening with their souls to words they do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket – take it for the baby … this is the beginning – from I to we.”

John Steinbeck 1902-1968

This novel made me think about many things. There was so much to wrap my head around, but perhaps I was most struck by the notion that despite all our technological advances in the last 70 years, we really haven’t come that far. Big business is still pushing out the little guy. Unemployment is a major issue facing Americans right now. Homes are in foreclosure. The Hoovervillles that the Joad’s encountered in California bear striking resemblance to the tent cities that sprung up in California due to the housing crisis.

My one criticism is that the ending was too abrupt. Steinbeck had lured me in. I was invested in this family. Oh Steinbeck, what happens next? You succeeded, the Joads are haunting me. As they should.

Favorite Quotes:

“I figgered, maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” – Casy, the former preacher

“Use ta rip off a prayer an’ all the troubles’d stick to that prayer like flies on fly paper, an’the prayer’d go a-sailin’ off, a-taken them troubles along.” – Casy

Checkin In … and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I’ve been busy … thinking … thinking about reading rather than actually reading. The problem is that there are just so many books out there that I want to read that I have been having a hard time focusing on any one selection. I need to finish that Anne Sexton biography, but I suddenly couldn’t help myself and decided to join Allie’s (all ready in progress) read-along of Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray. (I did not have a copy of this selection, so I checked it out from my local library. The original library card was still in the back of the book, although check-out is now computerized. The book was first checked out on July 27 1963! Suddenly, I was wondering what brave souls in my town had checked this out before me … before I was even born?) I am craving a look at Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma, and Breaking Night by Liz Murray. Apparently, the memoir addict in me needs a hit.

I did finish Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, last night. Although I like mysteries, this was my first go round with Ms. Christie – the most widely published mystery author of all time. I put this selection on my project reading list because I felt that Agatha Christie was the definition of “classic” as far as women mystery writers go. Set on a passenger train, the story held my attention, but by the end I couldn’t help but think that much of what was happening was highly improbable, including Hercule Poirot’s incredible detective skills, and this was a bit of a turn-off for me. Then again, I have never been much of a detective myself (although I can play a mean game of Clue) so who I am to judge the probability of his skills? I was also not impressed with the ethnic stereotyping that I felt was present in the writing.

Agatha Christie 1890-1976

In the end, all I can say is: Was it Mrs. White in the dining car with the fork? Well, you will just have to read it to find out!

Good Detective Advice: “If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, he will usually admit it-often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce your effect.” – Hercule Poirot

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (21- )

I think that Wilkie Collins is an admirable mystery writer. I am glad that I read Collins’ The Woman in White. I really liked The Woman in White! And yet, at the end I was a little disappointed. I was swept up by the first Âľ of the book, but then found that the last ÂĽ dragged on for me. I feel like Collins went to great pains to tie up every lose end possible in the story which I felt was somehow detrimental to the novel as a whole. Nothing was left to the reader’s imagination. There was no lurking shadow of suspense like I still felt at the end of Rebecca. Collins purposely uses the various narrators to bring the reader very close to the mystery and yet doesn’t seem to give the reader enough credit for being able to use that technique to solve some things on their own. I was also not fond of the story line at the end that revealed Count Fosco, as I understand it, to be some sort of a mole inside a secret European society. Perhaps this is because I was unpleasantly reminded of certain contemporary authors’ more recent obsessions with these sorts of societies in their writing.
Another observation about English novels from the 1800s: I am bothered by the gentlemen of a certain title or class in this society, like Sir Percival – who appeared to rely on the earnings of his family estate to survive financially, as they frolic aimlessly through life. Why did society not require these men to have a real occupation, especially when they were sometimes facing financial ruin? How could these people occupy themselves day in and day out, year after year? No wonder they designed intricate plots of conspiracy and matchmaking and such…they were no doubt bored out of their minds half of the time.
Favorite Character: Marian!! Her section of narration was also my favorite. She was certainly a woman before her time. I can understand why Count Fosco was so attracted to her. And, I have to say that Mr. Fairlie also entertained me despite his nervous condition having gotten on my nerves.

Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

Favorite Quote: “I left yesterday to decide … and yesterday has decided. It is too late to go back.” Miss Laura Fairlie
 

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (15-27)

*Warning: this post contains material that warrants a “spoiler alert” for those that have never read the novel Rebecca. J
To say that Rebecca picks up speed in the second half of the novel is an understatement. The suspense was finally killing me, especially after the “OMG” revelation at the end of chapter 19. But, before we get to that: a brief summary of prior events. Since leaving off at the end of chapter 14, we know that the mysterious Mr. Favell is Rebecca’s cousin. The narrator has appeared at her first Manderley costume ball dressed exactly as Rebecca had been dressed at her last…due to the meddling of our eerie Mrs. Danvers. (I knew this was going to happen the moment she suggested a costume to the current Mrs. de Winters.) Then, the following morning the narrator has another fascinating run in with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s bedroom where we learn that Mrs. Danvers had provided care for Rebecca as a child (hence her unusual attachment to the late Mrs. de Winters) and that she was also aware of Rebecca’s infidelity in her relationship with Maxim. The news of Rebecca’s unfaithfulness was interesting, but I did not find the news surprising. During this encounter, Mrs. Danvers also tries to talk the narrator into killing herself since it is “obvious” that Maxim does not love her and she does not belong at Manderley. At this same time, a ship wrecks off the shores of Manderley and eventually a diver is sent down to assess the damage. We learn that Rebecca’s boat has inadvertently been found by the diver and that there is a decomposed body aboard. Could it be one of her lovers?
It is then that Maxim drops a bombshell on his second wife and the reader: “The woman buried in the crypt is not Rebecca … it’s the body of some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere. There never was an accident. Rebecca was not drowned at all. I killed her. I shot Rebecca in the cottage on the cove. I carried her body to the cabin, and took the boat out that night and sunk it there, where they found it today.” I have to say, it is not often that something in a novel genuinely surprises me, but this did. Although I suspected foul play in Rebecca’s death, I never for a moment suspected Maxim. I think I may have been suspecting Mrs. Danvers. Immediately, I began to wonder who else may have known. Was Mrs. Danvers aware? Was that why she had expressed such cold, bitter feelings for Maxim to the narrator earlier that day? Did Frank know? Was that why he had been so insistent that he must explain things to the narrator after her breakdown with him on the telephone that morning? It is hard to tell what good ole “Danny” actually knew and when she may have known it as she was so generally unhinged. It seems though, that Frank may have certainly been aware of the true nature of Rebecca’s demise even though Maxim had no idea that he knew.
I found the narrator’s handling of her husband’s admission remarkable. I am not sure that I would have remained quite so calm and supportive. Although I guess one can understand this reaction as Maxim’s confession also brought with it the revelation that he had never loved Rebecca, but had in fact loathed her and their sham of a marriage. The second Mrs. de Winter was, astonishingly, the one and only true Mrs. de Winter. Rebecca had been sleeping around with anyone and everyone including her cousin, Mr. Favell, and appears to have been an all together vile person. But, isn’t it so ironic that Maxim could have saved himself all this misery? He could have saved his Manderley. After all, Rebecca was dying anyway. Now that I think about it, perhaps Manderley was Maxim’s only true love – the only thing he was ever really married to. In any event, I can’t help but feel sorry for the life that the narrator is left with. And, by the way, what was her name??



The author…Daphne du Maurier




An older Daphne du Maurier



The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1-20)

*I am reading from the Bantam Classic paperback edition of The Woman in White. My edition has around 783 pages, so my half way mark for the sake of the read-along is around 390 pages. As I have stated before, I am posting my reactions to the first half of our read-along assignments as I finish that portion, but I will not be posting my final thoughts until the indicated dates. With that in mind, other readers may want to refrain from reading my post until they have also finished the first half.*
Some thoughts while reading Part 1 of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, first published in 1860:
1.      I often find books written by English authors in the 1800s to have more intricate and rambling prose than I prefer. At times, The Woman in White fits this mold and at other times I find the prose delightfully simple. Oddly enough, I sometimes find myself thinking in the language of the day. Either way, Collins has certainly stirred my curiosity with the mystery and suspense that is developing in the novel. What is the story behind Anne Catherick?
2.      I have read that Charles Dickens was a friend and mentor of Wilkie Collins. I have not yet read any Dickens, but am wondering how their writing compares and who I will prefer. Somehow my money is on Collins, although he is the lesser known.
3.      Mr. Fairlie and his nervous condition have succeeded in getting on my nerves. I can certainly understand the trials of suffering from anxiety, but come on. He is a horribly ineffectual guardian for Miss Laura Fairlie. Also, it bothers me that Miss Fairlie does not have any conversations with this man on her own behalf regarding her money, marriage, or feelings. Does anyone else wish they could just run around this man’s rooms talking loudly and slamming doors for fun…much like Marian does in the following passage: “I dashed into Mr. Fairlie’s room-called to him as harshly as possible, ‘Laura consents to the twenty-second’-and dashed out again … I banged the door after me; and I hope I shattered Mr. Fairlie’s nervous system for the rest of the day.”
4.      I find myself feeling so outraged as to the state of women’s rights during this time. Who should we blame for Laura having been compelled to still marry Sir Percival? After all, he did give her the option of ending the engagement. Is it her own fault, her dead father’s, that of Marian’s for sending Walter, her true love, away, or society’s at large? Marian certainly blames herself; an idea I also find disconcerting: “Between those two young hearts I had stood, to sunder them forever, the one from the other-and his life and her life lay wasted before me, alike, in witness of the deed.” I, obviously, lay the blame with society.
5.      What is the deal with Count Fosco? Is it possible that he is the one who actually enticed Sir Percival to marry Laura as a means to recover his wife’s Fairlie inheritance?
Enough writing for now, I must get back to reading the novel. This nineteenth century soap opera has certainly reeled me in. But first, I have to share this: When I went looking for pictures of Collins, I was immediately struck by his resemblance to my own estranged father…weird…very weird indeed. J