Monday 27 October 2014

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3.5*)

(Penguin Classics, 2010)

The Great Gatsby is one of those classics that almost every eclectic reader is bound to read sooner or later, whether for school or for fun or just to find out what all the fuss is about.  It's also, however, a classic that no one really seems to know that much about until they read it (the Baz Lurhmann movie may have changed all that now, I don't know).  All I really knew was that there was a narrator called Nick Carraway, lots of decadent alcohol-soaked parties, and that a long-standing romance between the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and a girl called Daisy was important.

This was a beautifully written novel with a cast of flawed and interesting characters and a strong dose of extremely pointed social commentary - so why couldn't I rate it higher than I did?  Perhaps in some ways the fundamental nature of the characters, their shady backgrounds and compulsive lies and airy aloofness, served to distance me from their story rather than drawing me in.  Every time I thought I'd got a handle on a character they got flipped around again.  It's skilfully done by Fitzgerald, but it didn't allow me to really invest in anything that happened.

To be honest, I think one of the most irritating things for me was that just before I started reading the novel, some idiot on the internet spoiled the ending for me.  Obviously I'm not going to say too much, but I really think the climax would have knocked me for six and added a lot to my lasting impression of the book had I not known what was coming.

As the novel progressed the contextual themes and philosophical musings occasionally got a bit heavy-handed, but I did enjoy the insight into the shifts and changes happening in Twenties society.  Fitzgerald's careful skewering of rampant materialism and consumerism, of the corruption of wealth, and the poignant emptiness of the fa├žade created by 'new money', is very well done.  Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of an ambitious self-made man holding on to an impossible dream, Daisy is a shallow butterfly, and her husband Tom is the epitome of arrogant privilege and entitled cruelty.  Of course, we only ever see what the gentle (though clearly biased) Nick Carraway wants to show us, but we can read between the lines.

I liked this novel.  I really did.  I think I'll get more from it on a second reading, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching a couple of different adaptations to see how they take this dazzling story into a new medium.  I quite liked Jay Gatsby in the end, which I think helped cement my enjoyment of the book as a whole, and I very much liked Fitzgerald's smooth writing style.  I'll definitely be reading more of his work - probably starting with Tender is the Night - and immersing myself further in the world of flappers and frippery to which he so frequently returns.

A note on my edition:  This is the foiled art deco-style Penguin hardback, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.  It has a bookmark integrated into the back flap of the dustjacket (which OBVIOUSLY I didn't use), a small section of notes in the back, and also an extensive introduction by Tony Tanner, which I recommend reading AFTER you've finished the novel (as I did) as it does contain fairly major spoilers.  This introduction may be ideal for students, and definitely contains some interesting perspectives and insights, but it's a bit dry and of the 'Look how many big words I know' ilk if you prefer your intros more informal and personal.  It also lost points for this completely straight-faced sentence about how far Nick believes Gatsby's fabrications about his life: -
"I would never... suggest that even in the most metaphorical way [Nick] ever goes upon his knees before Gatsby to be 'humbuggingly humbugged"...
- followed by repeat use of the word 'hankey-pankey', which I'm not going to lie, gave me the 'Uncle Geoffrey from Bridget Jones' creeps.  So... yes.  Beautiful edition, though!

Sunday 5 October 2014

September: What I Read, What I Watched

Du du DUH DUH DUH... another month bites the dust...  sing it with me!  Yes, you will have that song stuck in your head for the rest of the day.  YOU'RE WELCOME.  :)
~ What I Read ~
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
I've wanted to read this for a while, because I wanted to watch the movie and you know I always prefer to read FIRST - but sadly I didn't like it any more than Dash and Lily's Book of Dares.  It was a quick read, quite fun, quite amusing - but also 100% forgettable.  Like Dash and Lily, there were some brilliant little moments and some profound lines in there, but it wasn't enough to redeem the book as a whole and I've already forgotten all but the bare basics.  I'm glad I borrowed it from the library instead of shelling out for a copy of my own!  3 stars.

Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter 1)
by Thomas Harris
My first book of the Halloween season - and what a pleasant surprise it was!  Hannibal himself is only in it for about 3 seconds, so what you're really left with is a well-written crime novel that focuses almost entirely on two characters: the murderer, Francis Dollarhyde, and the fascinating Will Graham, brought in by the FBI to use his empathic and imaginative talents to get inside the mind of the 'Red Dragon', who has already slaughtered two completely unlinked families in their homes.  I found the psychology of both these individuals to be the book's strongest element, with Dollarhyde's terrifying delusions and Graham's intuitive understanding dancing around each other as the FBI gets closer and closer to the truth.  I can't wait to read more from this series - an unexpected 4.5 stars!

And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks
by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
Finally, my first Beat novel!  It's been a long time coming, though I'd always assumed On the Road would be my first... but whatever.  I got this one from the library right after I bought Kill Your Darlings on DVD and realised that the book was essentially a thinly-veiled novelisation of the real events depicted in the film.  Labelled a 'crime noir', I actually didn't think it felt that way at all; the murder is a fleeting thing right near the end of the book.  It's incredibly easy to read, filled with tiny mundane details that build up a picture of a bohemian alcohol-fuelled lifestyle largely consisting of bar hopping and drifting in and out of each other's homes to eat, sleep, love, talk and dream.  I also liked the insight into how boys would 'ship out' to work at sea, and how that process worked.  An odd one, this, in that I didn't rank it THAT highly, yet I'd really like to reread it and have my own copy at some point in the near future.  3.5 stars.

Ketchup Clouds
by Annabel Pitcher
This was another book that ended up being a little different from what I expected.  From the 'teenage girl writing to a serial killer' premise, I'd expected a thriller more akin to Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.  What I GOT was something that was more like a fusion of Laurie Halse Anderson and Malorie Blackman: a pitch-perfect, wry and beautifully told story of a young woman spilling her darkest secrets to someone she hopes might understand.  It's gripping, yes, and provocative, but in a heartstring-tugging and realistic way rather than a chilling one.  4 stars - I might read her other novel at some point too.  Has anyone read it already?  Do you recommend it?

by Patti Smith
This is an odd one.  In well under 100 pages, Smith manages to cram in photographs, vignettes from her life and a dose of poetry.  I picked it up at the library after I saw it reviewed on BookTube, and I'm glad I did, even though I've forgotten most of it already.  It's undeniably well written and has its profoundly beautiful moments - I particularly liked the vignette entitled 'Nineteen Fifty-Seven', which manages to combine fire, grief, family and a dog into a heartbreaking few pages - but the poetry and more random 'artistic' moments didn't do much for me, I'm afraid.  It came across as a bit pretentious where I think it was just meant to be honest.  If Just Kids sticks with Smith's talent for writing and nixes the odd tangents, I think we'll get on just fine.  A tentative 3 stars, maybe?

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
My last complete read for the month!  Despite having owned it for years, pretty much all I knew about this one was that everyone seems to love it, and it does what it says on the cover - it's an oral history-style zombie novel.  I thought it was fantastic!  It's so convincing that occasionally, when I was reading a segment more focussed on something not directly zombie contact-related (military tactics, say), I forgot I was reading fiction.  In these more technical areas I genuinely have no idea how much detail is real, and how much was entirely fabricated by Brooks.  The oral history format also made it extremely addictive, because each person's perspective only lasts a few pages at most, so it's too easy to read 'just one more'.  This isn't light reading, exactly, but if I've managed to make it sound even remotely intriguing then I highly recommend giving it a try!  4.5 stars.

~ What I Watched ~
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)
Starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, directed by Peter Sollett
Meeeeeeeh.  So, I read the book because I wanted to watch the film, yes?  And the trailer looked quite amusing, and MOST of all I wanted to watch it because I have a tremendous crush on Kat Dennings.  I have to say, she made a great Norah, and her and her perpetually-intoxicated friend pretty much made the movie for me.  Whoever cast Michael Cera as Nick should be shot, but that's another matter entirely.  Once again, the ingredients for a good romcom were there - funny bits, kooky characters, great one-liners - but somehow it just didn't come together for me.  I watched it on Netflix, and it's definitely not one I'll be buying to rewatch or anything.  Oh well.  (watch the trailer)

Manhunter (1986)
Starring William Petersen and Tom Noonan, directed by Michael Mann
This one, on the other hand, completely outshone its trailer, and even managed to make the awful synth soundtrack feel faintly ironic instead of just cheesy.  I was urged to watch this adaptation of Red Dragon instead of the remake with Anthony Hopkins - and I have to say, it was a good call.  Will Graham is portrayed really well (not Hugh Dancy-well, but SSSSH) and Brian Cox's miniscule role as Dr Lecter is the perfect mix of charm and cunning.  It also alters the odd double ending of the book, which was possibly an improvement.  I'd definitely recommend reading it first - there were so many character details that made more sense that way - but if you're going to watch an adaptation this is WAY better than I expected!  (watch the trailer)

Kill Your Darlings (2013)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan, directed by John Krokidas
This was another one that surpassed my expectations - though I had pretty high ones anyway, so it's aaaaaaall good.  I absolutely loved it.  I'd never even heard of it until I saw it in Tesco, but I bought it on the spot because it's baaaasically another version of the true story behind And The Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks.  It's from the perspective of Allen Ginsberg, and is about him meeting Lucien Carr, being introduced to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and ultimately witnessing the fallout from the murder of David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with Carr for years.  As with the novel, however, the film is more about the build-up - the music, the alcohol, the poetry and flirtation and shabby decadence and the development of ideas that would shape the Beats for years to come.  It's funny and intoxicating but has its sudden dark, heartbreaking moments, the soundtrack is wonderful, and both Daniel Radcliffe (Ginsberg) and Dane DeHaan (Carr) are amazing.  Ben Foster is particularly impressive as Burroughs too.  I'm sure Beat experts can find plenty wrong with it - as always happens when real events are translated onto the screen - but it's one of my favourite movies of the year so far.   (watch the trailer)

~ What I'm Reading ~
Aside from a brief return to Charles Bukowski's The Pleasures of the Damned, which I dip in and out of whenever I remember I'm reading it, I've been concentrating on Lord of the FliesI'm not gonna lie, it's taking me a while - though I'm not sure why.  It's easy enough to read, and the dark undertones are building nicely - it's maybe just getting a bit... repetitive?  I'm not getting enough of life on the island and how the mindsets of the boys are shifting - it's all a bit "and then we traipsed around the beach a bit again and OH BY THE WAY SOME OF US MAY BE GOING MAD".  No real insight into why, or how - it just is.  I mean, I understand, I just think it would have been more effective to have explored that descent a little more deeply instead of just having another scene of small children eating fruit or playing in the water. 

Yeah, give it about fifty pages love.

Hopefully I'll finish it early this week, I've got so many I want to read this month!  Upcoming books may or may not include Pride and Prejudice, Austenland, The Great Gatsby and hopefully some of the non-fiction I've got checked out of the library at the moment.  Stay tuned!
Aaaand that was my September!