The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What a lovely cover to this book! It is the Oxford's World Classics range. I read this famous book because a friend in work and I have issued each other a challenge, of 3 titles, to each other. We only need to have read one of the three by the end of the year, and this was one of the titles he chose for me, being one of his favourites. It was my first Fitzgerald novel. I have no idea why, but I have always thought this story was about a car, or a racing driver. Bizarre, but anyway...

Narrated by Nick Carraway just after WWI, in the early 1920's, we follow his observations of some of his wealthy neighbours living around Long Island, near New York city. Nick starts with his old college acquantance Tom Buchanan, an egotistical bully, now married to Nick's distant cousin Daisy, and their terminally bored and unimpressed golfing friend Jordan Baker. Nick is invited to their fashionable gatherings, and becomes privy to the knowledge of Tom's extra marital affair, along with how low Tom's behaviour can go. Nick then also becomes fascinated by the mysterious Gatsby who lives next door, throwing lavish parties for the rich and famous elite of Long Island and New York. Many stories and rumours abound about Jay Gatsby, his background and the legitimacy of his fortune. When Nick does meet him, he finds a complicated but generous man who has courted hopes for a lost love affair with a woman from 5 years before. As the story progresses, all of these characters lives become entwined, unforgettably for Nick.

The most compelling element in this book for me, was the passion that Nick Carraway has in telling this story. He is constantly attracted and repelled by the people he describes. The sense of place, the 'Jazz Age' in America between the wars, is so palpably created, even for a Brit like me, that you fall into this novel and into another age with ease. I was as fascinated and also repelled by the characters with Nick, while enjoying being enveloped by the era. Possibility, privilege and feigned boredom.

The descriptions throughout are wonderful, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel. Rich descriptions of the great and the good...

' "Perhaps you know that lady," Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree.'

The writing was a total pleasure and I will read another of Fitzgerald's books on this alone. The last few paragraphs are some of the saddest and meaningful that I have come across.

I think that non-Americans will approach the book much differently, as I did, as a romp through a definable era, written with skillfully beautiful prose. I think a lot of Americans have the added personal exploration of American identity, the American dream, its definition and disputable loss. Wherever we come from, this is a quality piece of writing. Fully realised you can see why it is considered to be the writers masterpiece.

I totally recommend this book, generally because it is a skillful comment on an American post WWI state of mind, and for book groups because there is loads to talk about.

LitLovers do a guide, including discussion questions for The Great Gatsby. Just use the link.

For those of you interested in visiting the F Scott Fitzgerald Society website, use the link.

I now want to see the film with Robert Redford.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920

It is the middle of March (already, I know), and time for this months summary of the Literary Theory book that I found earlier in the year, and challenged myself to read and blog about it. Following on from last months summary about the rise in consumerism during 1895 - 1920, and its influence on writing at the time, I am covering another 2 chapters today.
Chapter 2 - Labour
With the rise in consumerist tendancies there had to be a work force producing the items fantasised about and desired by the buying public. Hand in hand with production lines was the need for electoral reform addressing injustices in the conditions of the working classes. Socialist fiction found a voice during this time. Political representation for working people came to the fore in fiction, as a huge advance in trade union membership took place during the period. The 2 main political parties of the day spent a lot of effort courting the working class vote. Socialism was on the rise with many organisations springing up to fight the workers cause, and although their memberships were not huge, their rallies, pamphlets and journals prompted new thought and consideration.
Writers were now promoting anti-bourgeois theories using the literary field which was mainly regarded as bourgeois. The working classes had little or no time for the leisurely pursuit of reading, that is if they could read at all.
Did the largely middle-class writers have the resources to represent accurately the working classes? Many writers chose to get around this by not highlighting the work so much as the anxieties that came with casual and unstable employment. This is famously addressed in Robert Tressle's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Authors needed to recognise the anxiety in the working classes caused by the conflict between earning and working to provide, and desiring the things advertised in shop windows and the media, and how this affected identity.
In contrast, working class writers, who had gained an education and moved up the social scale, tended to use their writing to justify their social mobility, concentrating on 'voyages of self-discovery', or the Bildungsroman (novel of development). This category of writing is typified by Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, where Jude longs for the University Spires and the aspirations of learning to take him from the labours of being a journeyman Mason. Freedom through knowledge was a widespread ambition. Hardy also uses descriptions of the workers and the toll that this has on their bodies and physical appearance in The Woodlanders. Work affects identity, 'To live and work is to deteriorate, until you are your deteriorations.' (p35). Likewise, Arabella in Jude is entirely defined by her work.
During the late 19th century there was an increase in the number of working middle-class women. This was not only a means of survival, but also identity, 'paid public work would give them dignity and independence' (Vicinus 1985, p.6), p39. New opportunities included journalism and literature. This lead the way for female pioneers such as the Suffragettes and the Land Girls.
The First World War managed to dilute any bitterness regarding politically active women because they had to take on a wide variety of jobs while the men were fighting, proving their ability beyond the home. There are many novels that take on the subject of womens work during this period.
By the end of the war, writing was exploring individual consciousness instead of work and community, now explored using stream-of-consciousness techniques.
Chapter 3 - Gold Standards
During this historical period the English Sovereign had a talismanic symbolism equating to solidity, being made of solid gold. Solidity was seen as a virtue, the English hero being its embodiment. Descriptions of 'solid', or 'mint' as a compliment were rooted in the reputation of the British Sovereign being the same. The shilling however is seen as a mere 'token' and the banknote as completely unreliable.
Imaginary money, bank notes, cheques, exchange bills etc., although used more and more, were eyed with suspicion. The gold standard was 'a defence against irresponsible expansions of credit' (p51). This monetary hierarchy was used to describe reliability and this imagery was widely used in writing. 'Mint' equalled quality and everything that was perceived of in the English Gentleman. Hallmarks guarantee origin and purity. When Tarzan meets Jane, he kisses her hand and betrays the 'hallmark' of good breeding, despite living years in the jungle.
Likewise, the same imagery is used when exposing a fake and dubious character, 'He looked as genuine as a new sovereign, but there was some infernal alloy in his metal', from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad.
Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...
Workers in the Dawn by George Gissing
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressle
A City Girl by Margaret Harkness
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The 39 Steps by John Buchan
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
Look out for the next installment from this Literary Theory book, exploring the age of Modernism and its influence on writing, in April.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Whit by Iain Banks

I have had this book for so long I can't remember where I got it from. I suspect I may have bought it, about 15 years ago, as a book by an author I had heard a lot about but never read. I have finally got around to reading it.
This is the story of Isis Whit, a teenager who has lived all of her life on a self sufficient farm near Stirling. Isis narrates her story, but she is no ordinary girl, because Isis is an Elect of God, a position held by those born on the 29th February in the Luskentarian sect, founded by her grandfather. Isis is devout, following all of the teachings to the letter, living simply without adornment or any technological labour saving devices, in the community at High Easter Ofference, their farm.
An important 4 yearly event is coming up for the Saved at the farm, the Festival of Love, a free loving event to begat new Elect of God the following year, God willing. There is a problem though. Morag, Isis's cousin and guest of honour as an accomplished musician at the festival, has renounced her faith and gone awol. Isis is sent forth amongst the Unsaved to find Morag and return her to the community.
This book is a satirical look at the world through the eyes of someone who has lived apart from it, by a different set of codes. An observation of modern Britain by someone naive to its workings and ways. When Isis finally catches up with Morag, it seems that she has embraced the ways of the Unsaved with gusto, and Isis has a lot to learn about herself, life outside the farm, and also some truths about her own faith.
Although very easy to read, I found this book difficult to get into. I liked the sound of it, the fish out of water themes, the kooky sect, the impending comedy. I found little of it tickled my funny bone though (other than a plane ride and a cup of tea), and the over stereotyped characters got on my nerves (the hippies were like Neil from The Young Ones, the wayward grandmother like Joan Rivers). Isis herself had little potential for development, and I knew I was plodding on out of a determination to finish it. It did however get going about 2/3 into the book, in a surprising way, when Isis returns to the farm, and the plot took off and became interesting for almost the first time. It was then that I steamed through the rest of the book.
I don't think this book was the best Iain Banks for me to start with, and I have read mixed reviews about it on the web. I do have another by this author and I will give it a go, maybe in a while. It hasn't put me off, I didn't hate this one, I just found the first chunk of it laborious and it was a shame that it didn't hold you until near the end.
You can read more about Iain Banks and his work by using the link.
I read this to complete #6 of the 2011 Octogon challenges, to read a book by Iain Banks.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

World Book Night

There has been a frenzy of paperbacks as World Book Night got under way yesterday. My box of books (Beloved by Toni Morrison) arrived last week but I waited until yesterday to hand them out. I still have some for people that I am running into this week, but they have all been accounted for.
Originally I hoped to get a womens centre in Liverpool to get involved, but after 4 attempts at contact with no response, I gave them out to family, friends and work colleagues. This was done directly, giving them to those who had shown an interest, but also by leaving some anonymously in our staff room with a note saying 'Take a book'. Both ways were fun, with some interesting conversations about the book itself, as well as the event. I sat in the staff room at lunch time, quietly watching peoples reactions, and some had already been taken, but one man, who does not really know me, so was unaware of my involvement, was really made up, showing his friends and saying he had not read that one but had heard it was good. It was nice to see him go away smiling and saying what a great idea it was. I also saw someone else walk by with a newspaper and a book under his arm. Another copy finds a home.
I have heard a lot talk on the net, positive and negative, about this event, and there have been some good alternative events supporting independent bookshops. There have also been some teething problems with the website, but all in all I think it went well.
I think anything that promotes reading is a good thing and this event has got people talking about books, watching the programs about peoples favourites and I have enjoyed all of it. Plus I got a book from another giver...Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.
It will be interesting to see if there is a lasting impact from the event. The WBN people are planning another for next year so hopefully books will get some similar national attention then. It has been fun celebrating the importance of books with others, and getting to share one of my favourites with so many. I hope, if you were involved, that you got to enjoy it too, either by giving or receiving a book, and sharing your thoughts about books in general.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye