Tag Archive | classics

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

I wish I had jumped on the Harry Potter broomstick a little earlier, and certainly way before I’d watched the films a gazillion times withharry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630 my kids. But I didn’t. I did, however, promise my daughter that I would read the series this summer. I actually made the promise on CBC radio so I feel extra obligated to make an attempt. I actually read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone out loud to a grade nine class a couple years back and I certainly enjoyed reading it. Now I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I enjoyed reading that, too. Problem is, I keep seeing the movie in my head, although I guess that’s not the worst thing that could happen when reading a novel.

We join Harry once more at the home of his aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley. They haven’t changed a bit since we met in them in the first book. If possible, Uncle Vernon is perhaps even more odious. Harry is feeling particularly miserable because he hasn’t heard from either Ron or Hermione all summer long. Life is pretty grim and he can’t wait to get back to Hogwarts.

Harry is trying to stay out of everyone’s way when he enters his bedroom and is startled by a “little green creature on the bed [with] large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.” Meet Dobby, the house-elf.

Like all of Rowling’s characters, Dobby is fully realized and it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with him straight away. One of Rowling’s many strengths is her ability to make her characters gloriously human (or, non-human, but also amazingly well-drawn). Because I knew it was coming, I waited through the whole book for Dobby to be freed from servitude and I loved the written version as much as I loved the on-screen version.

Back at Hogwarts, there are strange and scary things happening in the castle and once more Harry, Ron and Hermione are called upon to figure out how to stop evil in its tracks. That part of the mystery wasn’t so interesting to me since I already knew how it would all turn out.

The part of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I enjoyed the most was Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts tutor.

Although I loved Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of the narcissistic Lockhart, he was so much funnier in the book.

And then there’s Dumbledore’s famous line, which when I finally came to it, gave me the warm fuzzies and reminded me of why these characters will endure. After all the fuss in the Chamber of Secrets and Harry’s own bouts with self doubt, Dumbledore reassures Harry that “It is our choices, Harry, who show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Truer words.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

catcher-in-the-rye-cover-imageSo I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in about twenty years (or maybe longer, although I shudder to think) because I am teaching Grade 11 this year and Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story is on the reading list. Now I have to figure out what I really think about this book – not just what I want the kids to think I think about it.  It’s a problem because I believe that Holden Caulfield is definitely a character adolescents should encounter, if only because he (and this novel) is alluded to in so much of the literature, music, and films that followed.

If you’re out of the loop, The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and concerns almost-17-year-old Holden Caulfield, a smart but disenchanted student who has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania. “You’ve probably heard of it,” Holden tells us. “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time.” Holden is flunking all his courses except for English (he’s a voracious reader) and so he’s being sent home.

When the novel opens though, Holden is recounting “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown” from a rest home in California. Once he establishes where he is, Holden starts to tell his story – embellishments (by his own admission, Holden is “the most terrific liar”) and all.

There is no question that The Catcher in the Rye is dated. Holden peppers his speech with “goddam” (a rather tame expletive by today’s standards), he smokes and drinks (not that today’s teenagers don’t, but there is something old-fashioned about the way he treats these vices) and he’s able to spend an extended amount of time in New York City without breaking the bank (I wish!). Everyone Holden encounters is a “phony” and despite his obsession with sex, Holden is still a virgin. That said, there is something thoroughly modern in Holden’s quest to make sense of  his life, which has gone seriously off the rails.

At its heart, The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up. Holden doesn’t want to, not really. It is perhaps the reason why he’s still a virgin and why he thinks the Museum of Natural History is a perfect place.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Holden can’t stop time, although I think he would desperately like to. He also can’t undo the fact that his beloved brother, Allie, is dead. “You’d have liked him,” Holden tells us. He is preoccupied with the loss of innocence that precipitates the headlong fall into adulthood. He tells his little sister, Phoebe, that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,”

…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…

Holden’s narrative amounts to a desperate cry for help, for someone to listen to him, for someone to answer his questions, questions which, on the surface (like, where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes over) seem innocent, but which really demonstrate Holden’s search for meaning.

In Holden, Salinger has created a timeless character who will always have something to say to anyone who cares to listen.

Off the Shelf – January 26, 2015

Listen to Off the Shelf here.

I was recently invited to submit a column to The Nerdy Book Club, a well-known book blog moderated by four teachers, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about classics – because that’s sort of what I wrote about.

The impetus for the discussion was actually a discussion I had with my tenth grade English class after we finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the book, of course, and while the majority of my students could see its merits they also wondered why we were reading something so – as they put it – old. So that lead us to a great discussion of what makes a book a classic.

What makes a book a classic?

First off we had to decide on the criteria we’d use to determine whether or not a book is a classic. In the end, we liked the list of qualities Laura Miller listed in her Salon article “What makes a book a classic?” She actually compiled her list from a Goodreads discussion. So, according to Miller via Goodreads a classic

  • Must have stood the test of time
  • Be filled with eternal verities
  • Capture the essence and flavor of its own age
  • Have had a significant effect on that age
  • Have something important to say
  • Achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection
  • Be challenging or innovative in some respect
  • Scholars and other experts must endorse it and study it (I guess that leave out 50 Shades of Grey)
  • It has been included in some prestigious series like Penguin Classics or Modern Library
  • It appears on lists of great books

Ultimately, though, our idea of a classic is probably defined by our own personal and highly subjective criteria…meaning, I guess, 50 Shades is back on the list.

So what happened to To Kill a Mockingbird based on this criteria. Well, of course, TKaM totally meets most of that criteria and my students could see that, for sure. Will this list make the book any more palatable for students who don’t necessarily want to read it? Like, is there anything worse than someone telling you you MUST read a book and write an essay? Unless you’re totally geeky like me, probably not, right?

My students wanted a crack at compiling their own list of classics. So, they had to pick a book – any book they’d read – and pitch it to the class. These are books that they really felt should be available for them to read in the classroom. Studied even. I’ve got 25 students in that class, so I’m not going to share all their titles, and truthfully I didn’t agree with all of them, but I will share three.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

So some people might know John Connolly as the author of Charlie Parker mysteries. If you’re already a fan, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s the story of 12-year-old David who goes on a magical quest to save his mother after she dies. And that’s the simple version. I read this book a couple years ago and I heartily recommend it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Now this is a book I haven’t read, but the student who pitched it, Chloie, totally sold it. Kirkus says the novel “uses a dog as narrator to clever effect in this tear-jerker about an aspiring race-car driver who suffers more woes than Job but never mistreats his dog.” Chloie said she’s read it several times and never gets sick of it, always sees something new in it. I think a book the bears up under repeat readings is pretty solid.

13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Now this one I have read and this one I do have some issues with, but what I like about the selection is that it demonstrated how impactful the book was for this student and there was a lot of agreement in the class about the books merits. Will it stand the test of time – or will other books eclipse it. I think probably, but what Asher did do is find a unique and original way to tackle a really difficult subject – teen suicide.

Other titles the students suggested included:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings

Ruby Red – Kerstin Gier

Playing with Fire – Theoren Fleury,  Kirstie McLellan Day

I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The interesting thing was the some of these books, by their advocate’s admission, did not stand up to Miller’s criteria – but they loved the book anyway. And that’s good enough for me.

Speaking of classics, Huffington Post recently posted a list of the 20 new classics every child should own. These are picture books geared for younger readers.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, seems every bit as relevant now, some 105 years after it was first published. The novel follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Miss Lily Bart, a stunningly beautiful woman about town. The town in question: New York City.  Despite her attractiveness, Lily is without a husband and without a fortune. In order to maintain her lifestyle – which up until now has depended on the kindness of her rich friends – Lily must marry…soon and to her financial advantage.

Wharton’s novel trails after Lily and her consorts, following them to the Hamptons and Monte Carlo, in and out of fabulous homes where words are carefully chosen and one small misstep can cost someone their standing in society. This is a novel about class and entitlement. Lily has nothing but her beauty and although it is clear from the beginning that she is in love with someone else, and he her, marrying is out of the question.

Lily is a wonderful creation and Wharton’s novel is filled with the minutia of the time. My copy even had footnotes to help me navigate some of the more unfamiliar terms of the day. For that reason, the novel certainly isn’t a quick read. The prose is dense and often seems artificial; surely people didn’t speak this way?

As a heroine, Lily might be hard to sympathize with. Modern women might find her quest to marry for money reprehensible. She uses her looks to her advantage, spends money she doesn’t have and seems impossible naive for someone who is pushing 30. But then, really, I know lots of women who play the very same games nowadays, always looking for an advantage and willing to climb the ladder (social or otherwise) by any means necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wharton’s novel and am glad it was chosen as one of our ‘classic’ reads for this year’s book club.

My copy of the novel is one of Penguin’s Product Reds, an imprint where 50% of the profits from sales go towards  the Global Fund to help eliminate Aids in Africa. About bloody time, don’t you think?