Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite book is, the answer is always the same. The Great Gatsby. Throughout my  life, I have read hundreds and hundreds of books, but something about this one sticks with me. I've read it several times since being introduced to it in my high school English class, and my fondness for it has only grown over time. It's been a few years since I last visited it, so when I saw that one of the Back to the Classics categories this year was to reread a favorite classic, I knew exactly what I wanted to choose.

The Great Gatsby is about the elusive and shady millionaire Jay Gatsby and his tragic attempt to recapture the heart of a girl from his past. The book is narrated by a friendly and semi-involved neighbor named Nick Carraway, who watches the events of the plot unfold from his little rental house next door to Gatsby's mansion one summer in 1922. Nick happens to be the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, the woman that Gatsby is in love with. Accordingly, once Gatsby figures this out, he enlists Nick to help in his quest to steal Daisy away from her current husband and rekindle their past romance.

The problem with Gatsby's grand plans are that he is chasing after a girl who no longer exists. Too much time has passed since they were first together, and although Gatsby has spent a lifetime building a fortune to impress Daisy, she is a different person now. She embodies the shallow, spoiled attitude of rich people from the Jazz Age, and while she still feels a bit of a spark for her old, lost love, she isn't about to break apart her easy, convenient life to go back to him. Gatsby, however, is oblivious to these facts and continues to pursue her with reckless abandon. The Great Gatsby is the story of how his ambitions come apart at the seams in the face of a careless, superficial society and how everyone is ultimately helpless before the unrelenting passage of time.

What I have appreciated about this novel has changed over time. When I was a high school student, it was all about Gatsby himself. I thought he represented the very height of tragedy. He was a victim of Daisy's carelessness--a true romantic that loved in a deep and meaningful way. His love drove him to great achievements, and persevered against all odds. For him to be rebuffed after all that effort seemed criminal. I couldn't understand Daisy. I was desperate for someone to love me the way he loved her. The sadness was in the lost romance, the broken hearts.

When I got a little older, and reread Gatsby in college, it was all about the writing. Gatsby was still a tragic figure, yes, but now I could appreciate the way Fitzgerald told the story. This was the first novel I can ever recall thinking was beautiful. The structure, the word choice, and the perfect brevity of the plot blew me away. Fitzgerald was writing in a way that I viscerally responded to--I could hear Daisy's voice "full of money" and feel Myrtle's "perceptible vitality." I could see Gatsby's shirts in a "many-colored disarray" as he threw them before Nick and Daisy and taste his champagne that was "served in glasses bigger than finger bowls." The prose moved me in a way I hadn't experienced before and put a stamp on my heart forever. The sadness of the novel was now in the language, the skillful weaving of a tragic story.

As time moved on and I revisited this story as an adult in my late 20s, it was all about the theme. Having lived a bit more of my life, I was able to understand the novel's message on a deeper level. That idea of reaching back for the good times of the past and never quite being able to recapture those feelings and experiences rang true to me now. The tragedy Gatsby experienced was not a failure of Daisy's love. It was the inevitable march of time. People change, places change, and circumstances change as we get older, and no amount of effort can ever bring back things exactly as they were. Gatsby's confident assertion that one can repeat the past took on a different, and much sadder tone now. For all his enthusiasm and single-mindedness towards his goal, he was destined to fail. His intentions were sweet and romantic, but he was blinded by his past feelings, lost in them, and that was his tragedy. The sadness was in the delusion, the mistaken belief that one can ever recapture the feelings of the "good old days."

Now that I've read the book again in my 30s, my appreciation for it has deepened further. All of the meanings I've taken from this novel over the years are still true. The Great Gatsby is a mix of all my feelings. It's a well-written story with a tragically romantic protagonist that explores a deeply relatable theme. It will always be my favorite novel because something about it speaks to me in a way that other books don't. It's hard to explain to others why certain stories appeal to certain people. The best I can do is say that I feel a kinship with these words, these characters, and these ideas. This book is one of my literary rocks--a safe place I can come back to again and again to find beauty and inspiration.

It's times like these that I feel very sorry for people who don't read. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (re-read a favorite classic): 11/12 

Total Books Read in 2018: 38

Sunday, November 4, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Somehow, I've managed to make it this far into my life without ever having read a novel by Agatha Christie. I know. I can't believe it either. I like mysteries, I like suspense, I like classics, and yet, I have never managed to pick up one of these up. The "classic crime story" category in my Back to the Classics Challenge for this year was the perfect encouragement to finally give a Christie novel a try. I had already purchased And Then There Were None at a deep discount on my Kindle ages ago, so I decided to start with that one and see if I agreed with all the hype.

The plot of the novel concerns ten different characters who, at the beginning of the story, are all called to come visit a mansion located on a private island. The ten people don't know each other and each one has been invited to the island under different pretenses. For example, one is supposed to be a secretary for the homeowner, another thinks he's catching up with old friends, etc. Everyone arrives at the home around the same time and learns that the mysterious person who called them together is unavoidably detained somewhere. They are instructed to make themselves at home until that person arrives. Shortly after that, everything goes to pieces.

A mysterious recording begins to play, and it accuses each of the ten guests of murdering someone. Shocked and outraged, the guests attempt to leave the island, only to realize that they are trapped. No boats are around to take them back to the mainland, and some rain clouds in the distance suggest that they won't be able to leave anytime soon. As they try to piece together what is happening and decide what to do, one of the guests is mysteriously murdered. No one knows who the culprit is, but they quickly arrive at the conclusion that it must be one of the remaining nine guests. No one else is on the island. Throughout the rest of the novel, the characters continue to die off one by one as the survivors frantically try to figure out who the killer among them is until they can find a way back to safety.

I loved this novel. Everything about it was pitch perfect--the creepy atmosphere, the suspicious cast of characters, and the intricate, fast-paced plot had me completely engaged from page one. Christie shifts the narration around from character to character in quick bursts, so that the reader is fed little crumbs of information about everyone on the island as the plot progresses. This has the effect of causing the reader's suspicion of who the culprit might be to hop around from character to character in turn. Just enough is revealed about each person to keep the plot exciting and leave the reader wanting more. I finished reading this in just a few days, as I was anxious to see who the killer would turn out to be. The ending was satisfying and was not easy to guess.

The title of the story, And Then There Were None, is taken from a derivative of a children's counting rhyme, "Ten Little Soldier Boys." This particular rhyme has had an unpleasant racial history, and the original title of this novel was something very different and very offensive. However American publishers had the foresight to change up the title and some of the words in the poem for the American release of the novel. It's a good thing too, because this little poem is mentioned a lot in the story. It is hung up in every room of the house and serves as the handbook for the murderer, who commits his crimes according to the events of the rhyme. It was a neat little framing device that added to the creepiness of the plot.

This is a fun read if for no other reason than to see a bit of mystery novel history. Christie invented the idea of a group of strangers being called to a mysterious location and being trapped together with a murderer. This setup has been used in so many other books, movies, and TV shows that it has become a cliche. And Then There Were None is where it all started, which makes it worth the read all on its own. I didn't know anything about the plot of the novel prior to reading it, so it was a fun discovery to see how this idea played out for the first time. I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue, which I had recently watched with my husband, which presents a comedic twist on this same structure.

Sometimes the classic novels that I read are a bit of a slog. The more challenging ones are like eating your vegetables--not always fun to get through, but good for your reading-health. And Then There Were None was nothing like that. This was a literary dessert, an easy read that was entertaining and interesting all the way through. It might have been a bit lacking in deeper meanings and themes, but it was creepy fun. Sometimes, that's all you need. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good puzzle and some intrigue in their stories. It was a nice surprise for me and I'm very interested in reading more of Christie's novels in the future. I waited a long time to discover this author, and now I have to make up for lost time!  

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (a classic crime story): 10/12

Total Books Read in 2018: 37