Monday, December 28, 2015

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)

Harry Potter is nominally a fantasy, but as I was reading Goblet of Fire, I kept wondering if it's really a satire.  Shmoop says that satire "sets out to improve bad behavior through sarcasm and irony" and "humorously depicts a current state of affairs, and hopes that by doing so, he" - or she -  "might improve it."  One of the most famous satires is Swift's Gulliver's Travels - and that also works as a fantasy as well.

Consider Rowling's skewering of petty government bureaucracy (yet again), this time casting Percy Weasley as some sort of European Union-type minor official / busybody bureaucrat.  His clucking and tut-tutting about cauldron width is a picture of the henchmen (henchpeople) of EU regulatory minutia, and Ron's snorting disdain surely represents Rowling's own dislike.

Or Rita Skeeter writing gossip in The Daily Prophet; sure she's a stand in for gossip columnists; she literally has a poison quill.

The "pure blood" verses muggles, mudbloods, giants, half giants, house elves, etc.  - obviously a stand-in for not only the racist nonsense many people espouse, but also probably some aristocratic class nonsense as well.

Rowling takes the real world - sports, education, finance, international relations, etc. and delicately and/or brutally impales them on her own quill.  She's still trying to tell a grand story here - and succeeds - but she gets her digs in all the same.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter #4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although nominally a fantasy, I wondered if Goblet of Fire is really, at its core, a satire. Take for example Percy Weasley's job at the Department of International Magical Cooperation and his obsession with the standardization of cauldron thickness as a satirical look at European Union regulations, or the Quidditch World Cup as a more obvious satire of the World Cup of soccer. Rowling injects satire in other areas as well, delicately and/or brutally impaling journalism and the obsession with celebrity (Rita Skeeter's poisonous quill); education; finance. Yet her satire isn't a tsunami over the whole story ; she still has written a boisterous, dynamic, and actually quite provoking novel. There is the deft way she's injected the idea of prejudice, injustice and imperfection into the magical world for three novels and then hammers this home in the fourth; that is fine storytelling. Ron Weasley's casual indifference to the enslavement of the house elves and particularly his distrust of Madam Maxim as a half-giantess is perhaps the most disturbing example of this that should give the reader pause to think that this magical world of Harry Potter, like the muggle world, has ingrained flaws that aren't just because: Voldemort. Don't think too much about the implausible TriWizard Tournament and the Scooby Doo ending - that will spoil your enjoyment of what is otherwise a grand and excellent novel. If Harry Potter for future generations is the Beowulf of our time, it's in large part because Goblet of Fire is the most excellently written keystone to the series.

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God our Creator, Author of Creation

This is a literary and a personal post, and possibly a personal theological post, but not a book discussion post; skip it if you are here to read my book reviews.

I attend a Methodist church, regularly.  My husband is the choral director of the church and I sing in the choir.  I like to sing, and I love my husband.  But I'm definitely a doubter, walking the agnostic tightrope.  I'm not sure what god is, or the afterlife, or creation. I definitely believe in evolution, think the Old Testament is a mixture of myth and stories, and find it hard to accept that virgins can give birth, people can walk on water or come back from the dead (and not be zombies).  I don't necessarily think that prayers heals or helps.  I do not have a strong faith.  

I do believe that Jesus was a real person.  Although there are some historians who have tried to prove otherwise, the historical evidence seems to prove that a real man named Jesus (or the Aramaic equivalent of that name - was it Yeshua?  That seems to stick in  my mind as a piece of trivia).  I believe some (but not all) of Jesus's message is a good one.  In a nutsell, it's "don't be a dick" but that's a helluva lot easier to preach than to put into practice.

I do believe that church, as a community, can help people, both in a social sense, and a psychological sense.  I take great comfort from the idea that people who I only see at most two times a week care deeply about my welfare and pray for me.  That people can come together and make music, think deeply, channel good thoughts and energy in the form of prayer, and simply worship together.  

Today our minister preached a sermon based on the story in Luke, when Jesus gets left behind in Jerusalem, and is found later questioning the teachers in the temple.  Our minister used this story to talk about how questions make our faith stronger.  I don't know how strong my questions have made my faith (I'd say weaker) but they have made my faith more personally interesting and intellectually challenging.

Our congregational prayer fit this theme too, and I thought it was quite beautiful.  Here is the literary part of this post; a lovely prayer.

God our Creator, Author of Creation, we marvel at your mysteries and celebrate the works of your hands.  You give us minds capable of contemplating infinity, meditating on the divine and imagining life beyond death.  Help us to love you not only with our hearts but also with our minds.  Hear our honest questions and lead us to deeper truth so that our belief may be genuine and our devotion pure, in the name of Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Anarchy: A Novel by James Treadwell (2013)

I hate series and sequels.

I'm not disappointed in this book; I just couldn't fucking remember what happened in Advent (book 1).

Unlike Anarchy (which I purchased for my kindle) I don't own Advent.  I checked it out from the library. I may have even asked the library to purchase a copy so I could read it (I have this power!  It's gobsmackingly amazing that I'm in the position after 17 years or so as a librarian to ask for a book and have the collection development folks BUY IT; but I digress [regress?]... anyway).

So when I started having memory lapses on how Advent ended - or even anything about it at all, I was annoyed to say the least.  I vaguely remembered that I enjoyed Advent and that it reminded me of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. I also know I have attempted to read The Dark is Rising series since I last read Advent, and never finished it, because I didn't like it as much as I remembered liking it.  I think this series (Goodreads calls it the "Advent trilogy" but if it actually stays at three books I will pay you a dollar).

Now because I don't actually own Advent, I couldn't immediately go take a look at it to see how it ended (or, everything else).  And, of course, it was checked out.  So I had to place a hold on it and wait.  Meanwhile, I started reading Anarchy even though I didn't know what the hell was going on.

And then I finally got Advent.  But you know what - by that time I didn't care anymore.  It's not that the book is a badly written book - it just drags. When a book drags in a good way, it's lyrical and suspenseful, and I think that this could have been that type of book save for one missing piece.    I think if there had been at least a "morris the explainer" in the first chapter to thread the Advent to Anarchy, I probably would have kept reading.  But you know what?  It started to annoy me that this wasn't the case.  I felt guilty I didn't remember, and that made me want to stop reading the book.

It takes some hubris on an author's part to think that people can remember every stinkin' detail from their previous books.

Or maybe other people can do that, and I'm just a shitty reader.

Also, this book series isn't good enough to warrant that level of detailed remembering in the first place.

In the end, bah, humbug to Anarchy.

(maybe I will pick this up again in the future; I doubt it, but you never know).

Anarchy: A Novel (Advent Trilogy #2)Anarchy: A Novel by James Treadwell

I'm trying not to review books I don't finish, but for this one, I just couldn't help myself. I can go back on Goodreads and in my blog and see that I enjoyed reading Advent, the first book in this series. Anarchy reminds me why I don't like reading series though. Treadwell could have made the two into one long, epic book (there is a third coming, and I'm sure a fourth and fifth and so on...). Instead, he begins Anarchy without any sort of "morris the explainer" to remind us what happened in the last book and I, for one, was completely lost. And of course, I couldn't get hold of Advent in order to refresh my memory. Some series have stand alone entries, or nearly stand alone entries; sometimes series build from book to book. This one did that but so clumsily (and so full of hubris, in my mind) that I just finally gave up.This book series just isn't good enough to warrant detailed remembering that it was going to take (me at least) to read book one and then a year or so later, read book 2. There aren't very many that are (maybe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I will say that Anarchy is well written (although it does drag, particularly if you have no idea what the hell is going on). But I don't want to have to go back and re-read the first one in order to understand the second book.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

The Residence: Inside the White House by Kate Anderson Brower (2015)

Mostly unexceptional; it's worth a read, but lacked narrative thread and seemed to bounce about.  Not quite an oral history, but also not quite a traditional history either - in fact, I thought it lacked some historical detail.  It felt almost as if Brower was writing to find a theme, and couldn't quite ever find one.  The book is occasionally interesting, particularly the chapter that detailed Kennedy's assassination and the events of 9-11.   If you are looking for gossip, there are nuggets, but perhaps nothing that will surprise you:  the Clintons were complicated, Nancy Reagan was a dragon lady.  The Carter boys smoked pot in the White House; Susan Ford was an under-aged drinker.  The older Bushes come across as the most liked; if more of that likability from President Bush I had come across in the election, he might have won.

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White HouseThe Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you are looking for backstairs at the White House style gossip, it's few and far between, and most of it will come as no surprise (the Clintons were complicated; Nancy Reagan a was a dragon lady; JFK had affairs). A few nuggets of gold (at least for me) were sprinkled throughout - the Carter boys smoked pot; some interesting tidbits about the Ford children; Chelsea Clinton referring to Secret Service agents as "pigs" to their face). This is mostly run-of-the mill; Brower seems to be writing towards a theme but never could quite find one, and the book lacked narrative thread. This never is quite an oral history or a standard history (and in fact, I had some problems with some lack of historical detail). The chapter that include details about September 11, 2001 were perhaps the most interesting in the book; those were stories I'd never heard, and Brower writes about them in such a way to bring alive the terror and confusion of that awful day.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martins; illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvahlho (2015)

The World In A SecondThe World In A Second by Isabel Minhós Martins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book, a Portuguese import, is both stunning and irresistible. Each illustration, with caption, tells the story of a certain place, as we cross the world in a single second. My favorite illustration is captioned: "... a thief opens a door (perhaps to his own house, it's impossible to say). Love it! Each and every page is a little mediation on life and time.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

I'm going to utter a bit of anathema here, but sometimes movies are better than books.   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the movie is better than the book.  Whew.  There, I've said it.

The movie is one of my favorites.  It's got a great score, it's cinematographically beautifully shot.  The writing is crisp as hell.  Two things in particular stand out though, in direct comparison to the book.  The magic in the movie is portrayed as something fun and enchanting (pun intended).  And the end makes a helluva lot more sense in the movie than in the book.  So much so that I thought the end of the movie WAS the end of the book, and I missed the dramatic points that were added into the movie (throwing the rock through Hagrid's window, for example) that were absent from the book.

It's still a good book.  But a perfect little movie.

I do distinctly remember being gobsmacked the first time I read the book that Scabbers was the bad guy!

I once again have a British edition.  I found a list online of the differences between the British and American editions, but below are the ones I noticed immediately as I was reading.

On page 189 in the British edition, Fred says that "Dumbledore'd do his nut."  The American edition says "go ballistic."  I had no idea what that meant.  It means something completely different in American slang, something sexual.

Hermione says "I'd better pop my clogs then!" (page 85 in the British edition).  Again, I had no idea what that meant. The American edition makes that clearer to me:  "kick the bucket."

On page 233 in the British edition, the students were "revising for Care of Magical Creatures, Potions and Astronomy."  That means study.

At various times, including page 315, the students refer to their timetables, which in the American editions are called schedules.

Interestingly, Cornelius Fudge is Minister FOR Magic in the British edition and Minister OF Magic in the American editions (and movies) except I noticed Rowling switched back and forth between the two in the edition I have.  (if it is an error, this is the 8th printing, so it was not caught).

I've decided that instead of an asshole, Hagrid is on the spectrum. That would explain his obsessive love with monsters and his inability to interact appropriately with almost all wizards & witches.

Ron is still an asshole though.

Azkaban is where Lupin first refers to Hermione as the "cleverest witch of her age," a line that I love (and use to describe a dear friend of mine as a compliment).  In the movie, I think it's "the brightest witch of her age."

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3)Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm going to state a bit of anathema... the movie version of this book is better than the book itself. I have both read this book enough times (seven at least) and seen the movie enough times (at least four) to hold this truth to be self evident. I have two main reasons that this is true. 1) The movie, which is superbly written and filmed, portrays magic as something wonderfully fun; there is this particular scene in which all the boys are trying some sort of candy that turns their voices into different animals. The enchantment of enchantment never seems to ring as true in the book 2) The end in the movie is so much better than the end of the book. So much so, that I kept looking for things in the book that I realized belatedly only happen in the movie. The movie takes a good ending and makes it stronger and better. All of this said, it's still a rollicking book.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

This is one of those books I like - not loved - but don't have a whole lot of interesting things to say about.  It was written in a creative and interesting way, with famous (at least I assume they are famous; I had heard of all the writers at least) short stories used as a sort of lodestar for each chapter.  It's a bit unbelievable, in a fantastical and fun sort of way (it didn't annoy me in the least), and  - warning - turns into a big, soppy tear jerker by the end (weeping aloud, I'm glad I was alone).

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that can make me weep aloud soppily and snortily in the comfort of my own little corner is at least four-star read, any which way regardless. Zevin's book is creative and interesting, using short stories as a lodestar for each chapter (which are short stories themselves). It's not a particularly deep or eloquent book, but it is quite poignant and moving; and satisfying. A hearty snack rather than a full meal, but enjoyable.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Julia, Child by Kyo Maclear; illustrated by Julie Morstad (2014)

I completely don't understand this book.  At all.  

Thinking about the people and things I refer to as "twee," I guess it's not a state of being I particularly care for and this book is so twee.  It's twee X twelve.  It's twee-noyingly twee.  There is a little sticker on the front of my (library) copy that says "Canada Council for the Arts Governor General's Literary Awards Finalist GG."  I think that's an award for overtly and in your face twee.

I generally like reading about Julia Child; I think she was a fascinating figure from cultural history.  

Not this time though.  The pictures I guess are what make it so irritating (twee-ritating?) because the story is really kind of dull, and didn't really make much sense.  

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Twee isn't my thing, and this is twee to the twee'th degree. Too twee. Way too.

Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira (2007)

Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman HistoryTerry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History by Terry Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the a companion book to a BBC series of the same name, which I tried to watch on YouTube but the sound was all messed up (translated Japanese Godzilla messed up). The "companion-ness" of the book definitely shows; each chapter is sort of ham-handed and clunky, and there is some repetition between chapters that caused them not to flow (Stilicho is an example; he shows up in various places, but not in a seamless way). It's not a horrible book though, by any means; Jones and Ereira are exploring territory that I hadn't ever really read or thought about. The last chapters in particular were totally new to me (how the "barbarians" invented Roman Catholicism and the Papacy are the sub-sub title). A strange scent of melancholy wafts over the book too; it's that same twinge of sadness one gets when reading about the destruction of the library at Alexandria: it's a sad thing that the Romans for millenia got all the glory when they often didn't deserve it, and sad the so called Barbarians got pulled off the world stage by a hook, sometimes so completely nothing remains but a few artifacts. So much we don't know, but luckily for us, Jones and Ereira are around to fill in at least some of the gaps.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (1998)

Fun fact:  My personal copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the U.K. edition.  Remember those first Harry Potters that weren't released internationally all the same time; Brits got their Potters before the Americans.  I was so anxious and excited to read Chamber that I ordered the U.K. edition.  Sans illustrations, it's also has cheap binding (a page fell out in fact).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I've probably read Chamber at least seven times (one of which was probably a listen) but I don't actually recall the last time I read it. For some reason, I've had it in my head for years that Chamber isn't a very good book. I think, though, I was confusing the book with the (mediocre) movie. Chamber the book was really good, surprisingly so, considering my disdain. It is even better than Sorcerer's Stone; to me, Chamber explains why the series became a phenomenon. Stone alone was a spark, but couldn't have created Potter-mania; it's Chamber as a superior book that started the furor.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat byEmily Jenkins & Sophie Blackall (2015)

I'm hesitant to even write about this book.  The only reason I picked it up was because I had read someplace - perhaps The Guardian or maybe New York Times that because there was outrage (internet driven, I'm sure, the new past-time) that Jenkins and Blackall depicted smiling slaves; Jenkins had to publicly apologize and is now donating the proceeds from the book someplace.  I don't remember where.

I'm a middle-aged white guy (albeit a gay one), so I have exactly zero experience in being black.  It wasn't offensive to me; I also can't really understand the why it would be offensive.  I thought Jenkins did a pretty good job explaining herself in the back.  Guess not though.  I feel sorry for her, because I bet she thought she was doing  a good thing.  No good deed goes unpunished.

I wonder if future authors and illustrators, aware of the furor, will just say "fuck it" and write about something else.   

Gay people do this too.  A lot.  Attack each other over language and hurty-feelings.  I'm not sure it helps win people to your cause.

Ugh.  I don't know.  I've read a Goodreads review that put it into new perspective.  Jeesh.

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious TreatA Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A one star for controversy and racial insensitivity. And really, at the end of the day, just three stars for the book overall. For a kind of dull book, it sure generated a lot of furor. I liked it, don't get me wrong. It actually has cute pictures (smiling slaves and all), and a cute story. It's cute. But that's about it. I think it's one of those picture books that has "teacher" written all over it (in invisible ink). Like the works of Patricia Polacco. It would have made a fine addition to a lesson plan on something (slavery even). It's not really all that interesting; it did make me hungry for blackberry fool.

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Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory has made her career on Henry VIII's monstrousness.  Taming of the Queen tackles Kateryn (an unusual spelling choice on Gregory's part, I think) Parr, sixth and last wife of the bigger than life Tudor king.  If nominally each book in her long series has been about the wives, standing with boot firmly planted on each of them has been the king himself.  Gregory's most unsympathetic Henry morphs slightly in each book - the selfish, brattish bon vivant that married Catalina of Aragon and wooed Anne Boleyn; the spoiled royal bro-bag who scorned Anne of Cleves; the creepy old perv who married and murder Catherine Howard; and finally the cold, calculating abusive, heartless, petulant old man who marries and terrorizes Kateryn Parr.  Gregory clearly abhors Henry VIII, and brutally scrapes away any sympathy we may have had for his marital situations or government policies to reveal a tyrant and monster of Caligula proportions.

The last time anyone set eyes on a living Henry VIII, smelled his rot or heard his roar, was five hundred years ago.  Those five centuries have smudged Henry into a legendary figure, fiction and fact blurring into a bluebeard-ish  exaggeration.  Gregory definitely has a story to tell, a proudly feminist story too, and there's no harm in that!  I imagine the true Henry VIII lies beneath the rivers of time, and occasionally bits of him show through as the waters move over him; Gregory has probably tapped into some of his true nature, as the surviving records show men and tyrants behaving in similar ways.  No matter how you color the king, he still brutally killed two of his wives, and and humiliated two others.  I can believe the mad old man that Gregory created  for Kateryn Parr to marry and be in constant fear at the very least was sometimes how Henry VIII behaved in real life, even if Gregory gives him and her some modern language.

The Taming of the QueenThe Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hasn't Philippa Gregory's career rose on her intense dislike of Henry VIII? I imagine it's a love/hate relationship - loving the many times she was able to go to the Tudor well and draw water; hating the king himself (Gregory's Henry is at best an unlikable Malfoyian brat; at worst one of the most horribly loathsome Roman emperors). This final book has his iron toed boot grinding down over the court and England, and particularly grinding down Kateryn Parr, his sixth and last wife. (I assume it's the last book, because I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Henry is dead at the end; but Gregory's pen may find more Tudor water; she seems adept at doing that). Gregory's Parr is well written and interesting but after five hundred years, the king and his wives are all legendary creatures, with fiction and myth clouding truths. Parr believable comes across as a combination of strong and terrified, a woman who knows from the start she's entered into a pact with the devil, and then horrifying realizing the devil is much,much more crazy and worse than she could have imagined (this is historical horror without the occult; A Child Called "It" for the historical fiction set). Gregory's writing to me is always kind of like the Tudors walked through the shadow of the Valley of the Dolls, and passed out again a heavenly mixture of literary and trashy (litertrashary?) . You can feel good about reading a Gregory book, because it's the very best kind of historical fiction, one historical accurate, beautiful, fun step away from Alison Weir (who, let's be honest, has been known to bore a reader to death with details). But that accuracy is heavily made up with glitz and glam, melodrama and sex, until everything glitters like Anne Boleyn's rubies.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Barbapapa's Ark by Annette Tilson & Talus Taylor (1974)

I knew there was a book called Barbapapa's Ark.  My childhood copy was a yellow paperback.  I knew I liked the book immensely as a child; I probably read it to death as it disappeared years ago.  I tried to find the book again a few years back, but no luck - I could not get a copy from any local library or inter-library loan; nor could I find a copy to purchase.  

Notice that Cindy is NOT wearing a top.
On a whim a few weeks ago, I tried to find it again, and lo and behold - there it was!  Apparently, they've republished the Barbapapa series, and I was able to find a hardcover version via the Fargo Public Library.  

Since I didn't actually purchase this book (£9.99 according to the back of the book), I'm not too upset that it's not as extraordinary as I remember it being.    The cartoonish illustrations are very simplistic, and, well, very 1970s cheap.  It's a little bit like the Smurfs; each character has a personality.  Barbapapa's can change shape, which may be one of the things that fascinated me as a kid; it was still interesting now, to be honest.   Interesting, but undeveloped.  There are more books set in the Barbapapa universe, as well as animated shorts (I checked them out on YouTube and they are stupid to say the least); I did not know as a child that Barbapapa existed outside this one book.  I'm not going to explore more of them as an adult.
This wouldn't have been significant when I was 9 years old, but that orange one is called Barbalib - get it - she's a LIBRARIAN. 

Re-reading this, I have vivid memories of liking this particular illustrations.  There is something about that drag queen of a woman in those furs - including that hat - and the long cigarette holder (smoking!  In a children's picture book).  Delicious!

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A long-lost childhood favorite, rediscovered, and apparently back in print. But, as they say, you can't go home again. Not always. The magic of this book felt by an avid little nine year old in 1979 wasn't felt by his older, wiser self; reading this as a grown up, it seemed simplistic, and sort of cheap. The Barbapapas ability to change shape is interesting; the cartoonish illustrations aren't anything to write home about, but they are sometimes fun. But the story... not so good.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K.Rowling (1998)

I tell people I've read  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at least seven times (one of those was an audio listen).  Every time a new book came out, I re-read up to that point.  That mean's I've read Book 7 only once - except I vaguely remember finishing it then re-reading it again.  Maybe.

I'm simultaneously listening to this book; I finished reading it a few days ago, but the listening takes longer.

This is our book club book - actually all seven - for January 2016, so I'm getting a head start.

I can drone on about how uneven Sorcerer's Stone is after the 8th read; how the characters aren't yet fully developed; how her world building skills seem piecemeal (she adds things when she needs them; the Whomping Willow is one example; you'd think Harry and Co. would find out about the Whomping Willow that very first year; but she needed it later).  Blog-wise, I will stop complaining (book club-wise, I may complain).  They are obviously special, magical, meaningful books; they a reading touchstone for so many, many adults of all ages at this point.  For better or for worse, this series changed children's literature.  Without Harry Potter, no Twilight, no Hunger Games, no Divergent.  After almost 20 years, still going strong.

What  I especially noticed this time was Rowling's disdain for government, power, laws, and rules.  This becomes even more clear in later books, but even in Sorcerer's Stone there is at the very least some contempt.  Harry and Ron break rule after rule, and as Hermione points out, are rewarded for it.  Hermione soon joins them, going so far as to set Snape on fire at the Quidditch match.  I distinctly remember in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry attacks Snape, Hermione  says, incredulously and a bit fearfully, that he's attacked a teacher.  Has she forgotten so quickly that she herself did so just two years before?  The libertarian bent becomes more of a theme much later, when Harry and the Ministry of Magic are at odds.  I think in each book, I can probably name at least one or two characters who represent the rotten-ness of government.  There is also the theme of the corruptibility of power.  In Sorcerer's Stone, it's petty bureaucracy and the power it wields, in the form of one character in particular, Filch.  Filch has no real power in the school, but with his henchman (woman, cat) Mrs. Norris, he uses what little power he possesses sometimes as a bully pulpit, and always as a bullying informer, the petty arm of the law.  Percy Weasley becomes this as well, but I think that's in later books; you sense that he's unlikable and a showboater, strutting around like the peacock of prefects, loudly pushing and telling off and just using power in petty ways.  If Rowling is good at anything, it's creating narrow-minded busybodies who oppress for the sake of feeling superior.  There are many more of these types of characters to come in the series.  And isn't Voldemort ultimately their king?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I'm typing this, there are over 2 million reviews of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on Goodreads. I'm not sure I can add anything new to this discussion. It's a beloved classic, and probably always will be; even after almost 20 years, the whole series is still chugging along. Sorcerer's Stone is a bit uneven and takes much longer to gather steam than I remember (we spend far too long with the Dursleys). But that's quibble. What Rowling does particularly well, I think (besides continually express a disdain for government, laws, rules and petty bureaucracy and bureaucrats) is characters who do EXACTLY those things. I mean, we all love Harry and Co. - but we REALLY love to HATE the Filches and Percy Weasley's that she lovingly crafts. They are what makes Harry Potter books so much fun - the many narrow-minded busybodies who oppress for the sake of feeling superior that she writes into her novels, and how Harry and Co. thwart them and make them look foolish every single time. It's Rowling being her most radical, and secretly that may be why we all love these book so very much.

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As I'm listening to this as well, I may think of some other things.

Here is one:  Hagrid is sort of an asshole.  So is Ron.  Perhaps as big an asshole as Malfoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab (2015)

This had some great ideas - the awesome coat that Kell wears; the idea that London exists in several worlds; how Kell travels between worlds.  But the connective thread between these ideas was half-baked.   My main problem with the book was the London in our world; Schwab sets this during the Regency period (later George III) but the Regency London she paints could stand in for any stock fantasy city - some taverns, a female thief, some ships, cobblestones.  I kept wanting to return to Red London - the most highly developed world.  White London seemed interesting too, although it had shades of Game of Thrones.  But Grey London, our London, was completely flavorless.  Why use the Regency period at all, if you aren't going to USE it.  It's just a backdrop and not a very well painted one.  My other problem - it took so long to build up to anything; this book took forever to get going, and for no good reason.  A disappointment, because those ideas with more meat could have made for a brilliant fantasy.

A Darker Shade of Magic (A Darker Shade of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some great ideas here, but a really good book needs meat to connect those ideas together, and this just didn't have any connective tissue. My main complaint was the setting: why set part of the novel in Regency London, and then turn that Regency London into a stock fantasy city (taverns, cobblestones, thieves, boats). Regency London could have been a a romp of a setting (at least it is in all the other novels I've read set in this era, (see Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, or Jane Austen), but Schwab calls it "Grey London," and it is indeed Grey. Perhaps because it's a series, this gets developed later, but that argument holds little water with me as a reader - I'm like Veruca Salt (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) when it comes to novels, I want it all NOW. This could have been a fantasy feast; but let's face it: could have beens aren't very much fun to read.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett (1986)

The Colour of Magic is like smelling Thanksgiving dinner cooking after the car pulls up in front of grandma's house and you jump out - you know you are in for good things.  The Light Fantastic is opening the door, and there is grandma with the turkey and all the trimmings.  Everything I love about Pratchett is here:  not just the humor (that's just a given about Pratchett, I think) but also the wicked wit, the wonderfully awful puns, the meandering plot (everything plus the kitchen sink), the tongue in cheek, the knowing nudge, the rolling eyes - and then the inevitable and usually exquisite philosophical turn, that moment when Rincewind essentially turns to the reader and you learn something about life and/or death.  Speaking of Who, Death is here in full force; plus the librarian (I think in his first appearance as a primate).

There is so much wonderfulness here that nothing can truly be pinned down.  But I did at one point snort so loudly that my husband turned to me, and I was forced to read aloud a particuarly incredible pun describing a riot:  "All the shops have been smashed open.  There was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?"  "Yeah... 'Luters, I expect."

Pratchett writes this incredible  and laugh out loud description of Ankh-Morpork, that deserves to be quoted in full - but I think if you are actually reading this, you should just go find this book and then turn to page 181 (in my edition, or around there).  It starts with "Ankh-Morpork!  Pearl of cities!" with a well quoted paragraph that I won't spoil here (google it) but then evolves/devolves (simultaneously, hense this is one of those truly magical phrases found in strongly crafted literature) into a golden scree describing the smell of the city... "You can talk about tramps.  You can talk about garlic.  You can talk about France.  Go on.  But if you haven't smelled Ankh-Morpork on a hot day you haven't smelled anything.  The citizens are proud of it.  They carry chairs outside to enjoy it on a really good day..."  And  wittily and hilariously so on.

Not my favorite Discworld book - the witches are yet to come - but marvelous all the same.

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld book, is like smelling Thanksgiving dinner cooking after the car pulls up in front of grandma's house and you jump out - you know you are in for good things. The Light Fantastic, #2, is opening the door, and there is grandma with the turkey and all the trimmings. Everything I love about Pratchett is here: not just the humor (that's just a given about Pratchett, I think) but also the wicked wit, the wonderfully awful puns, the meandering plot (everything plus the kitchen sink), the tongue in cheek, the knowing nudge, the rolling eyes - and then the inevitable and usually exquisite philosophical turn, that moment when Rincewind essentially turns to the reader and you learn something about life and/or death. Speaking of Who, Death is here in full force; plus the librarian (I think in his first appearance as a primate). This isn't my most favorite Discworld novel - the witches, always the witches - but it's damn good.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

NOTE:  If you regularly read my blog (thank you), this may be the most FUCKED UP POST I've ever written. I was typing this on an Ipad and a PC, and somewhere it got totally out of whack, so much so I don't know what the hell I was even writing. I think there are lots of good ideas in here, but WTF I was even thinking, I don't know.

So the last time I read The Great Gatsby was when I was in high school; I'm going to guess in 1986 or 1987.  I think everyone who is even a tiny bit literate knows at least one things about The Great Gatsby (or at the very least has heard of it).  Perhaps I'm a snob, but I think if I ran across someone who was an American older than the age of 20 who hadn't at least heard of the The Great Gatsby, and wasn't mentally incapable in some way, I'd at the very least be suspect of them, and at the very worst, actively shun them after that.  And weep that our education system is churning out clods.

Snobbishness aside, I don't know where my knowledge of Gatsby starts and ends.  Before re-reading the book what I knew about  the book was probably based somewhat on the long-ago original reading and studying it in a high school history class full of small town Kansas teenagers who had never been farther away than Kansas City or Denver (the farthest away I had been at that point was Iowa or maybe Oklahoma City).  Shady memories of a green light and giant eyes on a billboard being some sort of symbol, but of what I probably couldn't have told you (and perhaps still couldn't tell you).  I don't remember reading it again in any of my college classes, although I suppose we could have.  I only really have two friends left from my college days, and neither of them were English majors with me.  Mix in the movies - the old Mia Farrow/Robert Redford one which I'm sure we were shown in high school English class; and the new Baz Luhrmann one, which made me want to re-read the book in the first place.  Add a touch what I know about the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, like a sprinkling of powdered sugar on a pretty small cookie.    That's my experience with the greatest American novel of the 20th century, maybe the greatest American novel.  And now, of course, this.

This being I have to lead a book discussion on The Great Gatsby for work next week!  The local museum, which is a partner with the library, is having some sort of prohibition exhibit, and as a run-up to that, they wanted a book discussion on the book of the 1920s.  Although from what I've since discovered, The Great Gatsby really only took off after World War II; Fitzgerald didn't really earn anything from it; so it wasn't really the book of the 1920s  - here is a great list of bestsellers from the 1920s, none of which are The Great Gatsby.  I suppose from our vantage point, The Great Gatsby looks and feels like what we want the 1920s to look and feel like, and Fitzgerald seems to hint, vaguely, like smoke in the far, far distance,  that something was coming that would smash everything up, that Gatsby  and his party goers were dancing on a volcano.  


Nick Carroway.  Nick is the narrator of The Great Gatsby.  He's 29 years old, a veteran of World War I, and from the midwest. He's come east to become a bondsman, which to me at least means he was getting in on the sweet stockmarket that was sweeping the nation into wealth unimaginable and making the decade into the 1920s.  This was something I liked very much about The Great Gatsby; it's definitely set in its time and of its time, while still able to cross the space time continuum and be relevant today.  That's good writing.  Nick will now always sound and look like Toby Maguire in my head, because of the most recent movie.  

Tom Buchanan.  Tom went to college with Nick.  I don't remember where off the top of my head, but I think it was at Princeton.  Tom is fabulously wealthy and definitely upper class, back in a time when class still mattered, as much or more than money.  He's a hulking, racist brute.  He successfully played football in college, and he strikes me as someone who probably will never, ever let you forget that for a minute.  He's really quite unlikable.  As far as I can tell, he does nothing for a living but play polo, lounge, and have extra-marital affairs.  He's a dullard.   He's probably in his late 20s/30s.   He's married to

Daisy Buchanan.  Daisy was the richest and prettiest girl in Louisville. "Her voice is full of money."  That's a direct quote, and says everything about her.  She marries Tom Buchanan, and they have a child together (who only appears once, I think; no one cares about her). She's a cipher for all the events that happen in the book, but she's still kind of enigmatic.  She lounges around a lot, and in my mind has a southern accent.  She seems both bored and boring.  I'm not exactly sure what her appeal is, other than she's rich.  I have this acquaintance, really a student of my husbands, who is this cute as a button singer and dancer with a belt of a voice; that's who Daisy looks like in my head, although Alex is far more interesting than Daisy.  I imagine Daisy is in her mid to late 20s.  She's also Nick's cousin of some sort.

Jordan Baker.  Jordan is a professional golfer.  She is never described as such, but in my mind she's a flapper with bobbed dark hair, perfectly red lipsticked lips, and alabaster skin with just dusting of freckles.  She is droll.  Droll, droll, droll.  Christine Baranski could play her in another movie version of her, if Christine Baranski wasn't so tall and Valkyrie-like.  She's a friend of Daisy's; I got the impression they were both from Louisville, but I could be wrong.  I gathered that Nick and she were dating - but Nick is gay, right?  Right?  Isn't Nick supposed to be gay? And Jordan is a female professional golfer - wouldn't that make her a lesbian?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

Myrtle Wilson.   I first started to type "Myrtle Snow" but realized that's the campily beloved witch from American Horror Story: Coven.  No one can ever be named Myrtle again and not channel Frances Conroy?  Digression, all is digression.  Myrtle is Tom Buchanan's mistress. She lives with her husband, Mr. Wilson (did he even have a first name?).  They run a garage in the valley of ashes, which is between the East and West Egg (where the rich folk live) and Manhattan (heaven).  There is some sort of business deal between Tom and Mr. Wilson about a car, that quite frankly I didn't totally understand. Myrtle loves Tom, although god knows why, as he hits her at one point.  Perhaps Tom represents a way out of the valley of ashes, although he's never going to take you out of there, honey.  Never.  Fitzgerald sacrifices Myrtle on the altar of plot and symbolism; she's killed when a car driven by Daisy runs her down.  That car, though, is owned by

Jay Gatsby.  Born Gatz, born poor, World War I vet, and former true love of Daisy, who marries Tom instead of Jay because - because why?  Money, class.  Gatsby has nothing he can offer Daisy but his love.  Everything that Gatsby has done now is to try to win back Daisy - all the giant house, the motor boat, the wild parties; the shirts, the bootlegging, the organized crime - it's all to have enough money to win back his girl.  He will do anything for her.  Gatsby is really, really handsome, at least in my mind.  He's also in his 20s, but I always think of him as older.  He calls other men "sport" which I think is perhaps meant to disarm them, and more likely to annoy them and put them in their place.  He's a cipher and an enigma too.  He's the most likable character in the book though, but his wanting Daisy makes him unlikable.  

How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to "get into it"? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored...?

The Great Gatsby didn't really take that long to "get into."  I was pretty much engaged from the start.  The writing style is crisp and clean, and draws you in; the characters are interesting.  Reading the book, I felt amused (it's very wry and funny), annoyed at some of the characters - well, actually most of the characters; I felt like I'd fallen into the 1920s, which was a cool thing.  I went to the wood between the worlds, jumped into a pool, and came up into a world called The Roaring 20s.  I don't feel like I was ever confused; it also didn't make me feel stupid.  I thought the characters were stupid.

Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, inner qualities.
Why do characters do what they do? 

 I think I covered some of this up above.  But in a nutshell:  Nick tells us the story because he's half in love with Gatsby - a bromance or real romantic feelings, who knows.  But it's love.  Gatsby has done everything nominally because of Daisy, but I suppose he also has acted in such a way to become the "great" Gatsby because he was made to feel so bad when he was courting Daisy; a case of "I'll show them."  Daisy is greedy and mean.  Tom is a racist bully who probably can't ever stand being shown up or beat at something.  I don't know what Jordan's motivations are - perhaps she just likes adventure.  She's also sort of a hanger on, a parasite of her rich friends.  Myrtle, I think she is a probably a golddigger, but she also has a pretty bleak life and probably wants better.  

 Are their actions justified?   

Oh my lord, no!  No one in this whole book does anything that even approaches justification by a person with any kind of moral backbone.  Nick is probably the only pure one in the bunch, and he does the only good things (Gatsby's funeral).

 Describe the dynamics between characters (in a marriage, family, or friendship).

 Nick is Gatsby's neighbor, went to Yale (?) with Tom, is Daisy's third cousin (or second?), is sort of dating Jordan.  
Gatsby used to court Daisy before they broke them up because he wasn't good enough for her; he's Tom's rival for Daisy's affections; he is Nick's neighbor, and really Nick is a better friend to Gatsby than Gatsby was to Nick; Gatsby was using Nick to get to Daisy.  
Daisy is Tom's wife; she's Gatsby's ex-girlfriend; she's a friend of Jordan (in a languid way); Nick's cousin; Myrtle's rival.  
Myrtle is Tom's mistress.  

 How has the past shaped their lives?

Nick comes to the city with the war still on him, and seems melancholy.  Gatsby's actions are completely based on his past interactions with Daisy; everything he has done and is doing is based on the past; the past has completely shaped his life.  I think probably Daisy's past relationship with Gatsby has affected her as well.

  Do you admire or disapprove of them?  

I like Nick; he seems attractive enough, and a nice guy.  I certainly don't approve of Jordan, but she's interesting and would probably be interesting to know.  Daisy and Tom are trash in designer clothing.   Myrtle is unlikable too, but Fitzgerald writes her that way, I think; she's almost a stereotypical floozy without much character development. 

 Do they remind you of people you know?   Jordan vaguely reminds me of someone, but I can't figure out who.  

Do the main characters change by the end of the book? Do they grow or mature? Do they learn something about themselves and how the world works?

Nick certainly learns how cruel the world can be.  This is Nick's story, and everyone in this story exists to help him learn something about how human relationships work.

I think it's quite likely that Nick loses his innocence about people, and has become cynical about them by the end. I  hope for his sake that doesn't last his whole life.

Is the plot engaging—does the story interest you? Is this a plot-driven book: a fast-paced page-turner? Or does the story unfold slowly with a focus on character development? Were you surprised by the plot's complications? Or did you find it predictable, even formulaic?

The plot is very engaging; I was interested the entire way through.  Fitzgerald is a really good writer; a master of the craft of novel writing.  It's not a fast-paced page turner (it's not a thriller).  The story unfolds gradually (and surprisingly for such a short book), and there is a focus on character development; Fitzgerald weaves images and ideas about the characters and their motivations, never bluntly but always subtly.  He makes us think.

Maybe in 1987 I was surprised by the plot's complications.  I was impressed and interested but I don't think anyone can be over the age of 25 or 30 and still be surprised by The Great Gatsby,.  It's sort of ubiquitous in our culture, at least our literate culture.  If the book is predictable or formulaic, it's so because it's so ingrained in our cultural psyche at this point that it's become sort of a caricature of itself.  Last year, for example, a friend gave a huge, over the top party - and when describing it, he said "It was like a Gatsby party."  Everyone instantly knows what that means; Gatsby has become a descriptor, an adjective, a state of mind.  It stands in for our idea - really simplistically - of the 1920s too.  

Talk about the book's structure. Is it a continuous story...or interlocking short stories? Does the time-line move forward chronologically...or back and forth between past and present? Does the author use a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? Why might the author have chosen to tell the story the way he or she did—and what difference does it make in the way you read or understand it?

It's a continuous story, written in a linear way, first person, with a nominally single point of view, although at some points characters relate important stories about Gatsby or Daisy (Jordan does this at some point).  Why does Fitzgerald use Nick as the storyteller -why isn't this told from Daisy's point of view, or a third person omniscient?  I suppose Nick is an innocent, unlike the other characters and using him to narrate is both more interesting and more devastating at the end.  It's told in first person, from Nick's point of view.  It might have been a bit more interesting, perhaps, if the point of view had shifted among the characters. 

What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas?

Oh fuck, this is where it gets hard.  What are the themes of this book?  Isn't this what generations of high school students and college students have struggled over?  What is Fitzgerald trying to explore here?

Those eyes of God  in the form of that billboard watching over everyone doing wrong things.
The green light at the end of the dock, telling Gatsby to "go" when he really should have been stopping.

  • Wealth, and it's manifestations, and how it can twist people, and ruin them.
  • What happens when the party ends.  Who is left clean up the mess? Perhaps a subheading here is The Roaring 20s.
  • Chasing rainbows, the rainbow being Daisy Buchanan.  She wasn't really worth it, although Gatsby didn't really know that.  But why couldn't he get over her?  She was no good.
  • Love and love affairs.   Sex and love swirl around everyone in this book, like cigarette smoke at a party.  Jordan and Nick, Tom and Myrtle, Tom and Daisy, Gatsby and Daisy, Wilson and Myrtle, Nick and Gatsby...


The central conflict of The Great Gatsby could be:

Gatsby verses himself - Except I don't think we internally ever come to know Gatsby well enough for this to be a conflict; we only know what Nick knows or thinks he knows about Gatsby.

Gatsby verses Daisy - Gatsby loves Daisy.  If anything, that conflict is "will she or won't she.?" That's central to the novel, that's what at least part of the plot rests upon - will Daisy give up the shallow life she's built with Tom and run off with Jay Gatsby, the man at least we (through Nick's eyes) thinks she loves. 

Gatsby verse Tom - so the conflict then shifts, when Tom and Gatsby have it out over Daisy, and the truth comes out.  Will she or won't she becomes will Tom win or will Jay Gatsby win.  Jay loses everything for Daisy, and to me, she does not choose him.  She chooses Tom.

Gatsby verses the class that Tom and Daisy.  Is this really where the conflict lies, the central conflict, what the book is about?  Jay Gatsby is one kind of man, self-made, pulls himself up out of the mud and trenches, becomes fabulously wealthy (through various legal and illegal means).  He's also the new man, the kind of new man the roaring 20s was creating, the new man that ultimately stuck a pin into a the old class system balloon that had existed for a while (see:   Edith Wharton or the sinking of the Titanic).  Gatsby loses everything, Daisy and Tom win, but we know from a historical standpoint that they all don't win.  The crash is coming; a war is coming, that will level the playing field, at least for the next century.  The Wilsons sort of win, at least for a while.  We could say that the Wilsons are losing again, and the Gatsby's are on top again.  But the Daisy's and Toms, that rigid class system, is more porous now.

I know if I had to be a character in the book, I'd want to be Jordan, because she's almost too cool and funny and I imagine everyone always laughs at what she says, a beat later after they understand it.  

It's a short book, sort of a novella almost, but we are not briskly skipping through the lives of the characters.  Rather, Fitzgerald uses few words to build a world and build characters here; if some of his characters seem flat and paper-dollish (Myrtle is one such character), the world he builds is unforgettable. For good or evil, Fitzgerald painted the picture of America in 1920s that will resonate through the ages.  So it's really a combination of both of what I've read is a Hitchcockian plot- the affair, the mistaken drivers in the yellow car, the subsequent murder) and some carefully building of the main characters (Daisy, Tom, Gatsby and Nick).

Point of view.

Nick only knows what he can observe, guess or infer; he's not omniscient.  He can't crawl into Gatsby or Daisy's heads and figure out what makes them tick.  The narrator lets us know everything though; Nick (well, Fitzgerald) tells the story in a way that reveals everything, or maybe just enough; I guess that is what makes the book so memorable.  

Nick is convincing; I believed he was "flesh and blood."  He was sympathetic and likable, intelligent.  He talked a strong talk, but I think he still possessed a strong naiveté until the very end of the novel, when he ate from the apple of knowledge.  Nick is weak until the end; he does whatever his cousins or Gatsby ask him to do. I think also Nick is a lonely loner, and also a stranger in a strange land.  

Tom is also a strongly convincing character, albeit a very, very unlikable one.  His racism is disgusting (Fitzgerald throws in some racist language as well, although he is writing from a certain time period, but still).  He is a parasite of sorts, he seems to have no job and no friends.  Gatsby throws these big parties where everyone comes; Daisy and Tom seem to be the opposite, although all three are lonely.   Tom is a bully, and weak.

Daisy, Tom's wife, has a beautiful voice that everyone notices.  She, like Tom, is careless and at heart , cold and selfish.  People don t matter very much to Tom and Daisy.  She's apathetic.  She's not a good mother, or at least not an attentive, caring one.  She's not naive or innocent.  She is strong, in her own way.  Really, she's quite unlikable.  She's as unlikable as Tom.  

Jordan is far from innocent.  She is droll and observant, secretive.  She lies.  Nothing Jordan says can be trusted at face value. She seems modern (for the time), is intelligent and strong.  She's almost believable as a character, although perhaps since her creation has become a "type" - she appears in screwball comedies of the 30s as a wisecracker, like Ruth Hussey's character Liz from The Philadelphia Story.

Myrtle must be beautiful in a 1920s floozy sort of way, to attract Tom.  She thinks he's going to stay with her forever, which we know is probably not true.  Myrtle doesn't get a whole lot to say, but we can probably assume she possesses some sort of romanticism if she loves Tom that much; she's softer than Tom.  She's not so soft to her husband though, so we can also perhaps assume she's an opportunist.  I guess the question is: does Myrtle want Tom for him OR his money? We don't really know much about Myrtle's personality or motivations though; she's a fulcrum for the plot to turn. Her husband, Mr. Wilson, we know even less about.  They both represent the working class though as opposed to Tom and Daisy's more leisured existence.  

Gatsby seems strong; I guess his strength is measured on whether to think a romantic streak is strong or weak.  Carrying a candle for Daisy all those years, arranging a life so in order to eventually capture her, my midwestern sensibility purses its lips and shakes it head.  The type of person you are also indicates whether you think he's sympathetic or not.  I don't find him sympathetic at all; I think Daisy isn't worth it - although perhaps we don't know that until the end ourselves.  He is innocent, at least when it comes to Daisy.  Perhaps he's naive about Daisy.   

"What exactly does Kylie Jenner do?" was literally just asked aloud by our houseguest, who is on his Iphone (reading celebrity gossip, I suppose) and I think one could ask the same thing about Tom and Daisy Buchanan. I can't identify with them, just like I can't identify with the Kardashian clan (and loathe them, actually).  Tom and Daisy are like Kardashians, they do nothing, they are parasites.  They were worse than Kardashians, as at least the Kardashians supply jobs in the entertainment industrial complex.  
So Tom and Daisy remind me of Kardashians.  

We only know the characters by what we hear from Nick, as he tells the story from his point of view, so we are privy to his inner thoughts and actions.  However, I didn't come away from the novel thinking he was an untrustworthy narrator.  He's also not going to tell us everyone's motivations though, so we have to infer it through his storytelling, and their dialogue and actions.  We can infer that psychologically and emotionally that Daisy is cold, selfish and confused; she also is motivated by class consciousness and money.   Tom is emotionally cold and detached, and selfish, and racist.  Nick is detached and but by the end resilient and a good friend.  Jordan, droll and although in love with Nick, in love with class too.  Jay Gatsby, motivated by love and romance, and also by money, as a means to an end (to capture Daisy). 

The book is about Nick, I think, and how he grows and changes.  He's naive about people and life at the beginning, and at the end has a deeper, clearer, more cynical understanding of human nature.  He has his eyes opened about his beautiful cousin and her infatuation with wealth, how the upper crust can get away with murder, he sees the injustice.  

I think hearing the the end described as Hitchcockian is apt.  I don't feel like it was forced or heavy handed or manipulated.  If it may feel that way 70 years later, that's probably because we all know what's going to happen and it doesn't feel new to us jaded folks of the future; I bet  felt very fresh and real to those GIs discovering the book during World War II


It's ironic that Myrtle dies in the way she does, and then Gatsby gets killed by Myrtle's husband, and Tom and Daisy get away scotfree.  It's also pretty shitty luck for Myrtle, who really hasn't done anything wrong, other than screw around with the wrong guy.  I guess he has to be punished for this, but it doesn't seem fair.

I cheated - the internet says the title is ironic, because Gatsby isn't that great.  He's basically a bootlegger and a crook.  And he sucks at love too.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson (1973)

What a brilliant and honest book.  Nigel Nicolson, writing about his gay parents in 1973; that's fucking courage. These Nicolsons are fascinating, absolutely fascinating, like some sort of exotic bird.  Society, class, whatever forced Harold and Vita into a marriage - or did it?  Would they have married today, and then just been in an open, unconventional marriage?  A part of me really hopes so, because the two of them together, at least seen through the lens of their son (who regardless of his honesty still must have some bias), built this enduring and interesting relationship.  They seem pioneers for alternative relationships.  Not everyone fits neatly into a box, do they?

"Harold was loved by everyone who met him - we were, in fact, a nice young couple to ask out to dinner.  Oh God, the horror of it!"  I think that sums Vita up quite nicely - the horror of being just a nice, young couple.   She was more than that.  They both were, really.

Small point of interest:  when Vita married Harold, Vita's mother "who doesn't like being émotionée" spent the day in bed instead of going to their wedding.  Now that would never happen today!

Lord Sackville was the American ambassador to the United States under the Garfield administration, and his illegitimate daughter was his hostess.  This seems to counter the idea that the Victorians were practitioners of strict, sexual mores; the Queen herself "gave her amused  consent to this odd arrangement" - most certainly a play on the old chestnut "the queen is not amused."  

Violet Trefusis "was always a bird of paradise, different, electric, much loved by young and old, a brilliant, exciting woman."  She sounds delightful - they all sound delightful.  And probably terrible too.  Like all brilliant, exciting people.

"It is not nice to know that one of us must die before the other."  Vita writing to Harold in their old age.

(it's not a biography; it's a portrait; there is a big difference)

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold NicolsonPortrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A courageous, honest book, brilliant and blunt, sort of like being smacked with cotton candy - a sticky and sweet sensation. Nigel NIcolson finds his mother's unpublished memoir, and then fills in the bits and pieces - his mother's memoir about her now famous affair and "elopement" with Violet Trefusis; his father's homosexuality; and how the unusual couple built this enduring, strong, unusual, revolutionary marriage. These Nicolsons all must be rara avis, they are absolutely fascinating people. Nigel describes Violet as "always a bird of paradise, different, electric, much loved by young and old, a brilliant, exciting woman." She sounds delightful - but they all sound delightful. And probably terrible too. Like all brilliant, exciting people. He comes from a biased place, but it's an honest place; I think most would have shied away from their parent's queer (pun intended) relationships. This book made me want to explore Bloomsbury even more; perhaps even (finally?) tackle Virginia Woolf. More please.

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