The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Nick Carraway shares the summer he becomes involved in the disastrous lives of the rich. Seeking to establish himself in New York City after the war, Nick takes a house on Long Island. His small cottage is overshadowed by the mansion next door, and he is introduced to his rich neighbor by his third cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is a bit of fluff from the upper-class exactly like the rest of her circle – utterly irresponsible for any of their actions, a trait that their great wealth has allowed them to get away with. As the city bakes throughout the summer and Nick becomes more involved in their circle, he learns both about what the members of “society” are really about, and gets to know more about his mysterious neighbor.
It was with great pleasure that I re-read this classic. It was even better then I remembered, and it was easy to see why this has become the great american novel – it has it all. I will leave the full on analysis to the hundreds and thousands better suited to do so, but will just touch on a few highlights. Among other things:
- Overall: The book is a great read – well-edited, not too long, plot that keeps moving. The story is unfolded through a series of short views of these people, each scene is compelling, the boring parts are edited out, and the whole picture still feels complete.
- Plot: A wonderful story arc – the reader is distracted by a series of loosely related events that all come together in ways that are totally un-predictable, but feel inevitable. Somehow the reader finds themselves both surprised to find they are at the last page of the book, and yet satisfied that the story is complete. This is a remarkably difficult task for a novel, as evidenced by how few books manage to walk this line.
- Characters: Just as today, the best stories have characters you love to hate, and that you hate to love. Nick is totally sympathetic to the reader, giving us the perfect voyeuristic position to observe the antics of the others, while still preserving our ability to judge them. In doing so he introduces us to a wild cast of characters who fit in their place, and a few well-developed characters who in their own absurdity carry out the main story line, without turning off the reader.
- Themes: Money, rags-to-riches, love, hope, upward mobility, fascination with the rich, this book is the pre-cursor to reality tv of today, but takes many of the essential features, organizes them into a decent story, and presents in a far less annoying format.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884)
The sequel to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, follow his friend, Huck Finn, whom had last found a pile of money, but was struggling to adjust to “sivilized” life. Now Huck’s drunkard father has returned to make a play for the money, and soon Huck sneaks away and escape. As his traveling companion is Jim, a slave who is running away because he didn’t want be sold off. The two of them escape and travel down the river on a raft, intending to slip away, find a port, and catch a boat north. While the plot follows their adventures, the book is really about the people they meet on their journey, and Mr. Twain has written a harsh view of the south. The strangeness begins on the river – when a house floats by, and then the adventure really begins when they encounter some thieves on a wrecked steamship. They encounter two feuding families – the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons – and are joined by two swindlers who claim to be royalty. Tom Saywer makes a re-appearance, and there are some mistaken identities before all is sorted out.
Perhaps this book was better read in its time, it presents an alternative (satirically critical) viewpoint of the south in the late 1800s, but for an enjoyable read, I personally preferred the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1719). [Note, the full title is pretty long - The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates.] That pretty much sums up the plot line, but the part about the Pirates is disappointing.
This is one of those books that somehow slipped through the cracks for me. The name Robinson Crusoe is certainly well know, and I had a vague idea that it involved some adventure on an island, but somehow I never got around to actually reading the book. The title came up as part of my literary exploration of the Caribbean, and I felt it was high time I picked up this book.
It was actually news to me just how old this book was, first published in 1719, this apparently was one of the earlier pieces of fiction. I made the mistake of checking out the “Large Print” edition from the library, and that combined with the original / authentic (read: incorrect) spelling meant this book was sometimes a bit tricky to work through.
The plot picks up pretty quickly – Robinson, against his parent’s wishes, takes to the sea and after some minor adventures finds himself stranded on an island. He is able to salvage bits from his wreck and the next hundred or so pages talk about how he survives on this island. Don’t get me wrong, its interesting stuff – Robinson was pretty creative, and I find this sort of thing interesting. Still, common knowledge suggested to me that someone named “Friday” should be joining Robinson, and the book cover itself promised Cannibals and Mutineers (and for some reason I thought there would be pirates, but on re-reading the cover, I can’t find that mention…). As the book goes on, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my Grandmother as I was watching “Cast-away”.
Grandma [enters room]: What are you watching?
Me : Cast-away. Its about a man stranded on a desert island. [Tom Hanks is wandering around the beach].
Grandma: Not much seems to be happening. [Leaves]
Grandma [returning 45 mins later]: What’s going on in that movie?
Me: He’s still on the island.
Grandma: Still? Doesn’t seem like much of a movie to me…
I personally would have edited out some unnecessary “adventures” at the end of the book (which I believe were later expanded on in a much less successful sequel that attempted to use the popularity of the first book to teach some morals), but overall enjoyed the read and am happy to add it to the list of Caribbean Literature.
The Trial, by Franz Kafka (1925)
On his 30th birthday, Josef K, a bank clerk, is unexpectedly arrested. He is not told which authority is arresting him, and stranger still, he is not told what his alleged crime is. This question looms over the whole novel – despite the initial proceedings and hearings (during which he remains free), appearances before the court – and is never answered. Initially calm, Josef becomes concerned with his situation, seeking legal counsel, and the sympathy of those who have friends in high places. There are some smaller mysteries – a room that is trashed is restored overnight, suggesting either Josef imagining things, or a very powerful entity (perhaps the government itself). A slightly confusing book that makes you appreciate our legal system, which although not perfect, strives for transparency.