Tuesday, December 22, 2020

2020 Back to the Classics Wrap Up

Here is my 2020 Back to the Classics Wrap Up and thank you Karen K at Books and Chocolate (karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com) for once again hosting this annual event.  And so in 2020 I read the following classics: 

19th Century Classic - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's six classic novels that she completed and in this book you get to see Austen's tremendous talent taking shape.  But having now read Persuasion and Northanger Abbey I have to say that for me nothing compares to Pride and Prejudice.  Next up Emma which I hope to read next year.

20th Century Classic - The Plague by Albert Camus - The Plague as I understand is the second novel in Camus' trilogy (The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall).  All three are stand alone books but should be read in sequence to get the full effect.  I preferred The Plague to The Stranger.  It's a much more humane novel and really drives home the idea through its central characters that  the universe may be a chaotic place but one is obligated to make the world better regardless. 

Classic by a Woman Author - Fidelity by Susan Glaspell - Ms Glaspell was an early 20th century American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the 1930's.  Her novel Fidelity published 1915 is worth checking out and Glaspell deserves to be better known.

Classic in Translation - Bel Ami by Guy deMaupassant - Ruthiella at Booked For Life (please check out her excellent website under blogs I follow) recommended Bel Ami and I recommend it highly as well.  A great 19th century novel about Parisian society and a young rogue named George DuRoy determined to rise high in that society based on his good looks and charm.  

Classic by a Person of Color - Narrative of the life of a Slave by Frederick Douglass -  A classic American memoir by the 19th century abolitionist writer, orator and human rights advocate Frederick Douglass who grew up in slavery but escaped to freedom at age 18.  Its a powerful book about Douglass' early years and once read it stays with you.

A Genre Classic - The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green -  She wrote mystery novels in the 19th century and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I really enjoyed The Leavenworth Case and as with so many writers from years ago, she deserves to be better known.  

A Classic With A Place in the Title - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf  - Modern Library lists To The Lighthouse as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century and Virginia Woolf is a brilliant writer.  I would start though with her classic A Room of One's Own which I loved.  I was impressed with To the Lighthouse but to get the most out of this book a second reading combined with knowledge about what the critics have said is required.

Classic with a Person's Name in the Title - The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - Also named by Modern Library as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald's classic novel of the Jazz Age.  A second reading required here too I think.

Classic with Nature in the Title - Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart - My first time reading Mary Stewart.  She is a mid-twentieth century British writer of classic romantic suspense novels.  A very nice change from all the heavy duty reading and I am so excited to have found this new author.

Classic about a Family - Father and Son by Edmund Gosse -  An excellent 19th century British memoir about growing up under the influence of a very religious father and how the son needed to eventually break away and find his own path.

An Adapted Classic - Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie -  An excellent book to start with if you have never read Agatha Christie and you should read her!

An Abandoned Classic - Dracula by Bram Stoker  After trying to read this novel over the years and never getting past page 50 or 60 I finally sat down and read it cover to cover.  Dracula is told in diary and letter form and it's not only a classic in the horror genre but a superior late Victorian novel as well.  

I wish everyone Happy Holidays and Health and Happiness in the New Year.  Thank you so much for reading my blog.  It's greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I never read The Great Gatsby when I was in school and afterwards as the years went by I kept putting it off.  Something about the plot didn't grab me and now having finally read The Great Gatsby I can't say I loved the book but I have been left with many questions and the realization that one reading is not  enough.

Is this a novel for example about the decadence of the Jazz Age?  Are Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan stand ins for F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?  Is Gatsby a cautionary tale about the American Dream and what is meant by the American Dream? Does the age at which you read The Great Gatsby and the era you are living through matter?  I would say yes to all of these questions.  There are multiple meanings to take from this book.

And so when The Great Gatsby begins it is 1922  The novel is set on Long Island and New York City and narrated by Nick Carraway.  Nick is from the Midwest.  He's also a Yale graduate and a World War I Vet who is working in the bond business in New York.  Nick lives in a modest house in West Egg, a nouveau rich part of Long Island that is looked down upon by East Egg, the town across the river.  Nick's neighbor is the very wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby lives in a beautiful mansion and almost every night he throws fabulous parties.  The guests show up in their finery and dance and drink the night away.  Jay Gatsby is the host but no one sees him at these parties and there is all sorts of speculation about where he came from and how he makes his money.  

Shortly after Nick moves next door he receives an invitation from Gatsby to attend one of his parties.  Nick accepts and is stunned by Gatsby's estate and the excess he sees around him.  He also meets an attractive young woman named Jordan Baker at the party.  Jordan is a professional golfer with a cynical personality that Nick falls for and it will be at this party that Nick also  meets Jay Gatsby.  The two men talk about heir recent service in World War I but Gatsby has a reason for wanting to be Nick's friend.  Gatsby knows that Nick is a distant cousin of Daisy Buchanan who lives across the river in more fashionable East Egg and Gatsby has been obsessed with the beautiful Daisy for years.  

Like Nick, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are also originally from the Midwest but from different classes.  Daisy comes from a prominent family and Jay Gatsby (Jimmy Gatz) is the son of a poor farmer.  Normally these two would never have met but five years ago a handsome young Jay Gatsby was in uniform stationed in Daisy's home town and they fell in love.  The courtship was cut short when Gatsby went overseas to serve in World War I and Daisy ended up marrying the wealthy Tom Buchanan.  It's not a happy marriage.  Tom cheats on Daisy, beats up his mistress and he's a racist and a bully.  As for Daisy despite her beauty and her flirtatious charming exterior she is silly, vain and selfish.

Jay Gatsby meanwhile has been spending the last five years pining for Daisy.   He has remade himself, grown rich through bootlegging and he's moved to West Egg determined to win Daisy back.  Nick is called upon by Gatsby to facilitate the reunion.  Gatsby is sure that Daisy never loved Tom and that he can win her back and finally have the life he's always dreamed of and I won't go any further in the story except to say that it ends in tragedy.  

This isn't a book filled with likeable characters and as bad as Tom Buchanan is, Daisy doesn't prove herself to be a decent person either.  Quite the contary and so if you ask yourself what Gatsby sees in Daisy, it's actually what she represents.  Jimmy Gatz (Jay Gatsby) the poor boy remaking himself by winning over the beautiful girl from a prominent family is at the core of this book. It doesn't matter where you come from in other words.  If you have determination you can rise high and your past and your class won't matter and I suppose that is at the center of what has come to be known as the American Dream.

But I think to read The Great Gatsby in the 1920's is different than reading it now because back in the 1920's the public was fascinated by the rich and famous to an extent I am not sure we are today.  Maybe we are still fascinated but the awe is gone.  Movie stars for example are not the Gods and Goddesses they once were during the silent film era.   I think New York has changed too. It's still a great city but the way F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced it, coming from the Midwest a successful young author and his beautiful wife, it must have seemed like a magical city with every door opened to this golden couple.

But The Great Gatsby continues to have relevance today best expressed I think by Azar Nafisi in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: "It shows how dreams can be tainted by reality and that if you don't compromise you may suffer".  I think that's a universal truth that never goes out of fashion.

The Great Gatsby is book twelve on my Back to the Classics Challenge list fulfilling the category - choose a classic with a name in the title.