The Great Gatsby

gatsbyI read The Great Gatsby in high school and it was OK.  It’s interesting what some years (and I’m not talking about how many!) can do to your perspective because I just finished reading it again and I loved it.  I think the beauty of the book, and the sadness of the story, are wasted on most high school students.  The future still looms far in front of them, full of opportunity and time and chances.  It doesn’t elude them, it’s still in front of them, still something to reach for and achieve.  There is no melancholy yet for their youth, for the chance to be young again and make different choices, to set the path right.

Yet in spite of all that the characters have been through, as jaded as they should be, I was struck in some ways by their innocence.   Gatsby’s unwavering belief in his love for Daisy and its ability to overcome all other circumstances reminds me of the hopefulness that exists in the young.  It’s just that they don’t have any reason to believe differently yet, and Gatsby does.  Even Daisy’s heartlessness and cruelty is wrapped in its own kind of confusion and innocence.  It’s not like she means to ruin anyone’s life…

Some of my favorite moments…

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” 

Not only shouldn’t we judge Gatsby, but we shouldn’t judge Daisy, or Tom, or any of them.  Because there are all kinds of advantages, not all of them monetary, which impact the way people behave.  It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with my kids about my son’s frustration with what he perceives as rampant apathy among some of his classmates – remember kid, you don’t know what their life is like, or what yours would be like if you were them…

And so heartbreaking:

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” 

‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

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Dear Life

dear life

Before reading Dear Life I was unfamiliar with Alice Munro’s work.  I have never read many short stories, but wanted to try this set after hearing so many wonderful things about the author’s work.  Having received the book as a gift from a friend I added it to the top of my TBR pile – and I am thankful that I did.  I know that I have another of her collections sitting in my pile of unread books and I may need to move it closer to the top…

What’s extraordinary about this book is how it examines ordinary moments in life. Ms. Munro has the uncommon ability to take the sameness of everyday life and pull out a moment, one that may seem unimportant initially, and show the many facets of humanity that make that moment meaningful and real.

This is a hard book to review or to have a one-sided discussion about.  Because nothing happens, and everything happens – life happens.  There are no moments of extreme conflict or sugary happy endings or brutal slayings or mysteries solved.  It is simply a collection of stories about life, even though there is nothing simple about them.

The last four stories are autobiographical in nature, making them a unique glance into the author’s past.  But my favorite has to be In Sight of the Lake, the story of an elderly woman suffering from dementia.  While all the stories were wonderful, I was struck by the simple sadness of this story.  Life not as it should be, but life as it all too often is.

Title: Dear Life
Author: Alice Munro
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 336
Publication: Knopf, November 2012

Loss of Innocence

loss of innocence

This is not a Richard North Patterson book.  At least not the type of book we’ve come to expect from him, thrillers full of mystery and intrigue.  Instead, it is a coming-of-age story, a prequel to Fall from Grace, which details the lives of Whitney Dane, a socialite summering on Martha’s Vineyard and preparing for her upcoming nuptials, and Benjamin Blaine, the dead body around which the story in Fall from Grace centers, during the tumultuous summer of 1968.

Whitney is looking forward to a typical summer on the island preparing for her proper wedding to Peter when she meets Benjamin Blaine, a college dropout who was working for Robert Kennedy prior to his assassination.  Her parents and her fiancé are not supportive of her friendship with this rogue, but she persists, while denying any attraction she may feel for him.  As she struggles to figure out what she truly feels and believes, and what that means to her future, she faces a betrayal that will change everything she thought she knew.

While it was not at all what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although a bit stereotypical, the characters were interesting.  Set against the backdrop of the times, with political upheaval, assassinations, and the draft, this family drama was engrossing.  This book is purported to be the second in a planned trilogy and I am looking forward to seeing where he goes with the final book.

Title:  Loss of Innocence
Author:  Richard North Patterson
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 368
Publication: Quercus, October 2013

Fangirl

fangirl

I don’t know why I love books by Rainbow Rowell, I just do.  They are amazingly real.  Eleanor & Park stole my heart, and I was enraged when a group of ridiculous parents tried to ban it from their schools, canceled Rowell’s appearances, and demanded disciplinary action against the librarians that chose the book for a teen summer reading program.  Teens need great books, great books that are real, that touch them, that make them feel understood.  Grown-ups (especially those that are parents of teenagers!) need books that remind them what it feels like to be a teenager – those terribly wonderful tumultuous times.  Rainbow Rowell’s books are those books.  Fangirl is one of those books.

Cath is heading off to college and her twin sister, Wren, has decided that they shouldn’t be roommates.  While Wren is off partying, Cath buries herself in the world of fan fiction online.  Even as the author of a fan fiction for the Simon Snow series (think Harry Potter-ish world) followed ardently by thousands of people all over the world, Cath is awkward and unsure, far more comfortable in her make-believe world.

“No,” Cath said, “seriously. Look at you. You’ve got your shit together, you’re not scared of anything. I’m scared of everything. And I’m crazy. Like maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I only ever let people see the tip of my crazy iceberg. Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and mildly socially retarded, I’m a complete disaster.” 

And you don’t need to know anything about fan fiction, or even care about it, to relate to Cath and her insecurities – she’s just so relatable – who hasn’t paused when walking into a new cafeteria for the first time?!

In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you?

And all the wonderfully realistic and fascinating characters only add to the story, and to Cath’s life and struggles.  There’s Reagan, the blunt, sarcastically funny, slightly wild roommate who decides she’s going to be Cath’s friend:

“I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
“I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
“Me, too. I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.” 

There’s Levi, the too nice, too relaxed, too wonderfully sweet and accepting guy with his own story and struggles:

“What’s the plan?’ she asked.
He grinned. “My plan is to do things that make you want to hang out with me again tomorrow. What’s your plan?”
“I’m going to try not to make an ass of myself.”
He grinned. “So we’re all set.” 

Others at college add to Cath’s experiences – the tough but supportive professor, the charming self-centered writing partner.  And of course, there’s Cath’s family – the mother who left her as a child, her twin sister who is on her own journey, and her manic-depressive father (I LOVED her father!):

“Honey, I’ve watched a lot of 90210. The parents weren’t even on the show once Brandon and Brenda went to college. This is your time – you’re supposed to going to frat parties and getting back together with Dylan.”
“Why does everybody want me to go to frat parties?”
“Who wants you to go to frat parties? I was just kidding. Don’t hang out with frat guys, Cath, they’re terrible. All they do is get drunk and watch 90210.” 

The thing is, all of this could be hokey – a too sweetly perfect love story, an over-the-top family drama, a traumatic freshman college experience – but it is everything but hokey.  It is real, heart-felt, touching, funny – it is life…

Title:  Fangirl
Author:  Rainbow Rowell
Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 338
Publication: St. Martin’s Griffin, September 2013

Brewster

brewster

Brewster was my latest book from my Indiespensables subscription and I was hopeful, yet tentative, after struggling through the previous installment.  I was more than pleased – I was amazed, captivated, enthralled, humbled.

Brewster is an amazing story, beautifully written, about two boys growing up in small town Brewster, NY in 1968.  When Jon is four, his older brother dies due to a freak accident, and his parents, survivors of the Holocaust, disconnect, moving into a permanent state of mourning, often forgetting or resenting their remaining son.  Ray has grown up without his mother, living with his cruel drunken father, an ex-cop and WWII veteran.

Now these two boys are teenagers – the studious Jon finding solace on the track team as he is torn between loyalty to his family and running away for real while Ray alternates between being the “bad boy” at school and protecting his baby brother from their father – and they form an unlikely, but deep and beautiful friendship.  In their friendship they find everything that they don’t have at home – love, loyalty, kindness, understanding, solace.  There are characters that are horrible – Jon’s nearly catatonic mother who is emotionally cruel to her son and Ray’s sadistically cruel father.  There are characters that are likable – Ray’s girlfriend, the kindly auto-mechanic, Ray’s little brother, Jon’s friends on the track team, the friend who is a religious zealot.  But in the end it is a story, hurtling towards a painfully devastating conclusion, of two friends trapped in inescapable circumstances and their love for one another.

Title:  Brewster
Author:  Mark Slouka
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
Publication: W. W. Norton & Company, August 2013