‘Gatsby’ continues to glitter

Leo in Gatsby


Taking a break from my regularly-scheduled Wednesday photo posts to talk Gatsby. Honestly, can one have too much Gatsby in their life?

I doubt it, old sport.

Like so many teens, my first exposure to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic came in high school. The Great Gatsby was assigned reading my sophomore year — and though I’ve always been a reader, it took an introduction to this work to get me excited about literature. Gatsby was a gateway drug. I sprang to Austen and Dickens after this 1925 classic, devouring Shakespeare and Welty in turn. Heck, I even humored Hemingway. I was addicted.

Gatsby book coverBecause Gatsby is accessible, entertaining, absorbing and all-around fantastic, I didn’t spend my time as a student afraid to approach Great Literature. I wasn’t scared off by serious tones and symbolism. The Canon of Fabulous Works didn’t intimidate me. My obsession with reading launched my English studies in college, which sharpened my writing skills, which led to my career as a writer and editor.

Can I thank Gatsby for that?

In a way, yes.

But as a lovesick teen girl, I wasn’t focused on the corruption of the American dream or costs of decadence. At 15, I became enamored with the Jazz Age classic because I considered it a love story. (And maybe it still is.) Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy seemed unrelentingly optimistic and just . . . sweet. Ignorant to the book’s messages, I read it purely as the story of a man who could never forget his first love. Convinced he need only money and luxury to lure Daisy away from the privileged, “careless” life she shares with Tom Buchanan, Gatsby sets off to make it big. And win Daisy back. Her green light is a beacon of hope — one that declares he can have anything he’s ever wished for . . . if he never eases up.

It’s interesting now, examining the story as an adult. I’ve read the book three times and am halfway through a fourth. We went to see Baz Luhrmann’s latest film adaptation on Sunday . . . and I became obsessed with the story anew. No matter how many times I hold Gatsby up for inspection, analyzing his motives and means and parts, I can still uncover more layers. Almost a century after it landed in the hands of its first readers, we still have so much to talk about.

Gatsby posterThat is the magic of Gatsby. Of Fitzgerald’s writing. Of that particular era of history, the 1920s: so rich and vivid and compelling. Despite some lukewarm to derisive reviews of “The Great Gatsby,”
I loved the film. I loved it so hard. Leonardo DiCaprio was a charismatic, convincing Gatsby, and I viewed his pursuit of wealth and the so-called American Dream with fresh eyes. Daisy’s portrayal by Carey Mulligan was the perfect mix of disaffected ingenue and fragile mess, which I adored, and I despised her all over again.

And can we talk about the music? I know people are all over the place with this one. Executive produced by Jay-Z, the film’s soundtrack features eclectic music — hip-hop, alternative rock — and modern tunes punctuate some of the movie’s most pivotal scenes. As Gatsby and Nick fly in that iconic car and the New York skyline comes into view, a haunting bar of Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind” caught me off-guard. But I liked it. It took what could have been a staid  interpretation of an iconic story and turned it around. I downloaded Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” from bed the next morning. I just . . . couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s so haunting.

The whole film is haunting.

The modern feel isn’t for everyone, I know. And that’s okay. But even the departures from Fitzgerald’s text — notably a framework where Nick is telling Gatsby’s story from a sanitarium, where he’s being treated for alcoholism and depression, among other ailments — just added to the narrative; for me, it didn’t take anything away. I like that Gatsby is still provoking us to imagine things differently, to ask questions and draw the text into the current world.

Gatsby and DaisyDid I think the movie was flawless? No. Nothing ever is. But I didn’t go into “The Great Gatsby” wearing my critical glasses. I wanted to be transported, entertained and dazzled — exactly what I’d expect from a Luhrmann film. And I was. As the credits rolled and the lights came up, I blinked in the dim light. I felt disoriented. Even knowing precisely what was going to happen didn’t save me from feeling breathless throughout the movie, and somehow still shocked by its close. I wanted things to be different.

When I got home on Sunday, I dug through my bookshelves until I found my tattered old copy of Gatsby. It’s underlined and highlighted, dog-eared on pages where a passage or two struck me, and worn around the edges from getting stuffed into book bags and purses. I’m 100 pages into my latest reading. Despite being such a relentless lover of literature, I never re-read books. Ever. Seriously, Gatsby is the only book I’ve ever read more than once — and being on a fourth reading is sort of ludicrous. But seeing the film provoked so many new questions . . . and I wanted to be able to compare the film and book after a fresh reading of the text.

But I can’t really do that. Not really. It’s not fair to intricately compare a book to its cinematic counterpart; they’re two different ways of storytelling. Overall, would I declare the film “faithful” to the beloved text? Yes, I would. And if I agree with some of the quibbles about Nick’s role, for instance, that doesn’t dampen my overall enthusiasm. Gatsby moves me like no other story, and “Gatsby” on the big screen was an incredible experience.

I loved it. And if you love the story, too, I trust you’ve got your tickets.


Bookish thoughts on ‘North and South’

So. North and South.

Elizabeth Gaskell, you sly little minx. You’ve managed to completely evade my radar for years — and that includes a pretty substantial English education with a focus on British lit. Until Andi and Heather began talk of a readalong to tackle one of your more famous works, I was operating under the (incorrect) assumption that North and South was a U.S. Civil War-esque melodrama perhaps pitting brother against brother, father against son.

I guess that’s just my American-centric mindset.

Despite being a professed anglophile and lover of history, I can’t say I knew much — if anything — about England’s Industrial Revolution. I can feel you all readying tomatoes to chuck at me now, but I’m being honest — the only thing was a complete mystery to me. I feel like my best introduction to the whole “pastoral to industrial” transition in Great Britain came from watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

And that’s what I kept thinking about while reading. How one peaceful, idyllic place — the English countryside — could be home to 19-year-old Margaret Hale for years, and how she would love and appreciate the quaint nature of her home. How different northern Milton would seem — Milton with its filthy air and unwashed workers, fat-cat mill owners and starving children. It would be like something out of a nightmare.

Good thing John Thornton was there.

The premise of Gaskell’s classic, penned in 1855, is this: Margaret, the fairly well-to-do daughter of a minister, is forced to move with her parents from tranquil Helstone to Milton, where Margaret’s father gains employment as a tutor. It’s Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith that removes their trio from the peaceful south to the smoke-clogged north, and a series of troubles begins to stymie her family.

Margaret doesn’t have much to do in Milton. She wanders around as her father takes on pupils and her mother’s health begins to fail, meeting with local workers and learning of their plights in Milton’s mills. She befriends an ill girl, tends to the sick and notices all the children “clemming” — starving to death, that is. People clem a lot in North and South. So much so that I had to Google the monkey out of that word, trying to figure out what the heck was happening to these poor townsfolk.

Mr. Thornton is an enigma to Margaret. As Marlborough Mills’ successful owner and self-made man, he’s part of the nouveau rich that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Having earned his wealth through determination and ingenuity, he has the respect of many in Milton — but Margaret herself is unmoved. (She thinks, anyway.) As she befriends locals and a worker’s strike looms, Margaret finds herself on both sides of the issue . . . and unsure which way to turn.

It’s been so long — too long — since I dove into a good classic. Knowing next to nothing about North and South worked in my favor during the weeks I spent with this book, and I enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the language and piecing together a portrait of Gaskell’s brooding characters. The mystery surrounding Margaret’s long-lost brother, Frederick, and a supposed mutiny in which he was a key player added a great deal of suspense to the plot. As the threads began to unravel, I was completely sucked in.

Though tragedy after tragedy cast a melancholy pall over the work, it was hard to deny the attraction between Thornton and Margaret. Their tête-à-têtes regarding business and philosophy were interesting, if not sparkling with the wit and humor of other British writers like Jane Austen. So many knowledgeable people have weighed in on the Gaskell vs. Austen debate, comparing and contrasting the authors, and I won’t pretend to have anything intelligent to add to the conversation . . . especially after reading just one of Gaskell’s works. Suffice it to say that I definitely did and could see similarities between the authors, though I have to hand Austen the blue ribbon for creating a more likable, frustrating and beguiling pair in Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Margaret and Thornton — because I totally did. When Thornton professes a few things and Margaret has a few things to say back (sorry for being vague . . . just trying to avoid spoilers!), I wanted to pinch her haughty little face. Margaret is strong and capable, intelligent and keen, but she’s utterly blind to matters of the heart. That made her especially annoying as Thornton is basically awesome and all but throwing himself at her, albeit in a very Victorian way, and Margaret is too busy screwing things up with her brother and endlessly worrying to notice.

But oh, the push and pull! The tension! The will-they-or-won’t-they! It got me in the end, friends. It always does. Though I agree with others (including Trish) that the ending feels a bit abrupt, especially in light of all we had to endure to get there, I kind of liked the simplicity of it. The inevitable quality of giving in to one’s emotions. The sense of relief when we lay down our swords and just . . . let it be. And the humorous bit at the end? The sparring? I loved it.

North and South was interesting, educational, emotional and atmospheric. Though it took me a little while to get used to the language and invested in the story, I did — and really enjoyed chatting with other readers throughout the readalong. I doubt I would have gotten around to this book without Heather and Andi’s encouragement, so three cheers for book blogging!

And um, yes — I’ve already purchased the BBC mini-series “North and South” on DVD for my viewing pleasure. I’ve seen enough “RICHARD ARMITAGE OMG! ASDFG@ERY72!!!!” sentiments to convince me that 2004 rendition is a must-watch, so everyone look out. . . I’ll likely have a new literary crush in no time!



Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Introducing ‘Twelfth Night’

After spending time with the sonnets back in February, the lovely Nicole (of Linus’ Blanket) and I have decided we’re ready to — drum roll — tackle a play. I know. Pop in on our recent conversation . . . 

Nicole: So we totally dropped the ball on our final sonnets a few weeks ago. Sonnet 116 is beautiful, romantic and gorgeous, but try as I might I couldn’t think of much else to say about it. Sonnet 11 had Bill moping along long the same lines of mortality, but then he roped potential offspring – or someone else’s potential offspring into it, and I just couldn’t really smell what he was cookin’. Meg?

Meg: I’m with you! After discussing sonnets at length the past few weeks, I felt my enthusiasm wane. Sonnet 116 is fantastic and something I’d love a handsome hipster to recite to me, possibly while standing in a city street, but I can’t contribute much beyond that.

Nicole: So we decided to move on. I mean do you understand everything that comes out of your man’s mouth? We went the tried and true, “Yes dear.” Even though we had no real clue about what he was babbling about in Sonnet 11, we decided we’re ready to read a play! What? We are! Tell ‘em what we are reading, Meg.

Meg: Twelfth Night, one of William Shakespeare’s 14 comedies! It seems like my own education in all things related to the Bard was limited to the tragedies — teens killing themselves in the name of love; backstabbing best friends; ungrateful children and a king quickly disintegrated into madness. Heavy stuff. And we always hear about Shakespeare’s excellent turns of phrase and comedic timing, so now it’s time to really test that out.

Nicole: I’m along for the ride. I have almost no experience with Twelfth Night, even though I have seen a manga version floating around. (Don’t tell Meg, but I think that might be my version of the Cliff Notes!) We’re reading the Signet classic version and the plan is to discuss Act I on or around Friday, April 2.


Want to read with us? All of Shakespeare’s plays are available for free
at Open Source Shakespeare –and Twelfth Night is at your disposal, too!


Have you already read (and maybe enjoyed?) Twelfth Night — or any of the Bard’s other plays? Do you have any favorites? . . . Any we should avoid like the plague? (Pun intended.)