Book choice for March 2008

The Great Gatsby [suggested by Rachel Johnston]

front cover

In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write "something new - something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned."  That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known.  A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author's generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.  Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's - and his country's - most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings.  Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...  And one fine morning - Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

It's also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan.  The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer.  They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan.  After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means - and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing.  "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel's more famous descriptions.  His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear.  When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout.  Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.


About the Author

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896, the namesake and second cousin three times removed of the author of the National Anthem.  He attended the St. Paul Academy; his first writing to appear in print was a detective story in the school newspaper when he was thirteen.

From 1911-1913 he attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey.  Fitzgerald joined the army in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the infantry.  Convinced that he would die in the war, he rapidly wrote a novel, "The Romantic Egotist" which was rejected by Charles Scribner's, who praised the novel's originality and asked that it be resubmitted when revised.

After meeting eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, Fitzgerald had high hopes for the success of his revised novel, but it was again rejected by Scribners.  After the war he took a job, but the small salary was not sufficient to support the socialite Zelda, so Fitzgerald quit in July 1919 and returned to St. Paul to rewrite his novel as This Side of Paradise, which was then accepted by Scribners and published on March 26, 1920.  It made the twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald famous almost overnight.  There followed a second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, after which the Fitzgeralds took their first trip to Europe in 1921 and then settled in St. Paul for the birth of their only child, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald, who was born in October 1921.

They travelled to France in the spring of 1924 where Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and fall in Valescure near St. Raphael.  Revisions followed during the winter of 1924-1925 while in Rome, and the novel was published in April.  The Great Gatsby marked a striking advance in Fitzgerald's technique, utilizing a complex structure and a controlled narrative point of view.  Fitzgerald's achievement received critical praise, but sales of Gatsby were initially disappointing.

[abridged and adapted from "A Brief Life of Fitzgerald" by Matthew Bruccoli, found on the Fitzgerald Society website.  Don't forget Wikipedia!]


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can now decide whether to bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected).  This month, Rachel brought three books, the others being:

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues) is an anti-war novel written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, about the horrors of that war and also the deep detachment from German civilian life felt by many men returning from the front.  The book was first published in German as Im Westen nichts Neues in January 1929.  It sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print.  In 1930 the book was turned into an Oscar-winning movie of the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone.

[Taken from the book's Wikipedia page]

About the Author

Remarque, Erich Maria (1898 - 1970), novelist who is chiefly remembered as the author of Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front), which became perhaps the best-known and most representative novel dealing with the first World War.

He was born into modest circumstances.  His father was a bookbinder.

Remarque began his studies at the University of Munster, but was drafted into the German army at the age of 18 and was wounded several times.  After the war he worked as a teacher, racing-car driver and as a sportswriter while working on his novel.

The events of All Quiet on the Western Front are those in the daily routine of soldiers who seem to have no past or future apart from their life in the trenches.  Its title, the language of routine communiques, is typical of its cool, terse style, which records the daily horrors of war in laconic understatement.  Its casual amorality was in shocking contrast to patriotic rhetoric.  The book was an immediate international success, as was the American film made from it in 1930.  It was followed by a sequel, Der Weg Zuruck (1931; The Road Back), dealing with the collapse of Germany in 1918.

Remarque left Germany for Switzerland in 1932.  His books were banned by the Nazis in 1933.  In 1938 he lost his German citizenship.  In 1939 he went to the United States where he was naturalized in 1947.  After World War II he settled in Porto Ronco, Switzerland, on Lake Maggiore, where he lived with his second wife, the American film star Paulette Goddard, until his death.  He wrote several other novels, most of them dealing with victims of the political upheavels of Europe During World Wars I and II.  Some had popular success and were filmed (e.g., Arch de Triomphe, 1946), but none achieved the critical prestige of his first book.

[Taken from  See also the inevitable Wikipedia page]




If you like horror, you owe it to yourself to read this book from the beginnings of the genre.  You will enjoy seeing the themes in Frankenstein repeated in other horror novels that you will read in the future.  The book and the movie have essentially nothing in common, so assume that you do not know the story yet if you have only seen the movie.

If you do not like horror, you probably won't like the book very much at all.

The story opens in the frozen Arctic wastes during an sea-going expedition to find a passage through the ice to the East.  Aboard the ship after a strange meeting, Frankenstein tells his story.  As a young man he wanted to make a splash in the sciences, and invented a way to create life.  Having done so, he became estranged from his new being with significant consequences for Frankenstein and his creation.  The two interact closely throughout the book, like twin brothers in one sense and like Creator and creation in another sense.

This book presents significant challenges to the reader.  Like many books that relate to scientific or quasi-scientific topics from long ago, Frankenstein seems highly outmoded to the modern reader.  In the era of psychological knowledge, the development of moods and character in the book will also seem primitive to many.  A further drawback is that this novel takes a long time to develop each of its points (even after the eventual action is totally foreshadowed in unmistakeable terms), so patience is required as layer after layer of atmosphere and thought are applied to create a complex, composite picture.  Finally, the structure of the novel is unusual, with layers of narration applied to layers of narration, creating a feeling of looking at never-ending mirror images.

So, you may ask, why should someone read Frankenstein?  My personal feeling is that there are two timelessly rewarding aspects to the book that well reward the reader (despite the drawbacks described above).  Either is sufficient to please you.  First, the book raises wonderful ethical issues about the responsibilities of science and the scientist towards the results of scientific endeavors.  These issues are as up-to-date now as they were when the book was written.  Those who developed atomic weapons and biotechnology tools appear to have given little more thought to what comes next than Frankenstein did toward his creation.  Second, the moods that are built up in the reader by the book are extremely vivid and powerful.  The artistry of this book can serve as a guide for novelists for centuries to come, in showing how much the reader can be deeply engaged by the circumstances of the characters.

Why, then, did I grade the book at three stars instead of five?  Few will fail to be annoyed by the scientific awkwardness of the story, and that is a definite drawback.  Also, only the most dedicated students of style will avoid feeling like the book moves and develops its story too slowly.  Less is more in novels.  In this case, more is less.

I cannot help but comment that this book is perhaps the finest example of appearances being deceiving that exists in literature.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a close competitor in this regard, but that fine work definite has to fall behind Frankenstein.  In this book, beings of physical beauty act in inhumane, ugly ways.  Beings of great ugliness act in beautiful ways.  The same being may act in both ways, in different circumstances.  Looks are deceiving, and our perceptions are flawed even when our attention is fixed.  If the characters could have overcome this form of stalled thinking, the horror would have been averted.  So the lesson is that the misperceptions we aim at others rebound (like a reflection in a mirror) right back onto us.

If you have not yet read Paradise Lost, Frankenstein is a good excuse to read that poem.  The development of the story in Frankenstein assumes a knowledge of that story about Satan leading a rebellion against God and being dispossessed into Hell.

After you have had a chance to absorb and appreciate the nice issues this book raises, ask yourself where you in your life are acting without sufficiently considering the implications of your actions.  Then, commence to examine those potential consequences.  You should be able to create more good results in this way, and take more comfort in what you are doing.  Both will be excellent rewards for your introspection.

(Rather preachy) review at Amazon by Donald Mitchell "Founder of The Billionaire Entrepreneurs' Master Mind --"

About the Author

Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (who died of complications from the birth) and William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was raised by her father and a stepmother.

In 1814, after a brief acquaintance, Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Her father refused to speak with her for several years afterwards.  They married in 1816 when he extricated himself from his previous marriage.

She's known today as a member of the Romantic circle, as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, and as the author of the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.

Frankenstein enjoyed immediate popularity upon its publication, and has inspired many imitations and versions, including many film versions in the 20th century.  She wrote it when her husband's friend and associate, George, Lord Byron, suggested that each of the three (Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Byron) each write a ghost story.

She wrote several more novels and some short stories, with historical, Gothic or science fiction themes.  She also edited an edition of Percy Shelley's poems, 1830.  Her biography of her husband was unfinished at her death.

See further biographical notes at Women's History or Mary Shelley's entry on Wikipedia.


Previous Months' Book Choices

February 2008
January 2008
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006