So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan

An impassioned guide to The Great Gatsby by a highly qualified and devoted fan.

so we read on

NPR’s Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan (Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading) didn’t like The Great Gatsby the first time she read it for school when she was a teenager. But after teaching and lecturing about it for decades, her enthusiasm and ardent passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel infuse So We Read On (a title that spins off the novel’s famous closing line).

Corrigan argues that “if there is such an animal [as the Great American Novel], then The Great Gatsby is it.” She feels that many readers who encounter Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school are too young and inexperienced to appreciate it fully; many will unfortunately and unnecessarily form a dislike for a book that they might learn to love later in life. She also debunks a widespread interpretation of the novel as a grand, decadent celebration of materialistic American culture; it is, rather, an enormously subtle criticism of a class system that Fitzgerald felt had snubbed him.

In exploring these and other ideas, Corrigan undertakes a close reading of the text, examining language and punctuation and considering the context of the Roaring ’20s, the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald’s literary colleagues (including his “frenemy” Ernest Hemingway) and family (the famous or infamous Zelda). Despite her scholarly method, Corrigan’s work remains resolutely accessible to the everyday reader. Indeed, those who haven’t encountered Gatsby since high school are her intended audience. With humor and even the occasional pun, Corrigan offers the love of a classic novel to any and all.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dives.

De Potter’s Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

A fantastical mystery of historical fiction, peopled by amiable eccentrics.

de potter

Joanna Scott (The Manikin) spins a mysterious, slightly fanciful historical yarn in De Potter’s Grand Tour. The titular character is variously called Armand de Potter, Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem or (to the immigration authorities) Pierce L.A. Depotter Elsegern; his personal history is as amorphous and changeable as his name. De Potter lives a legend of his own design, beginning with his immigration to New York from Belgium in the early 1870s, determined to become a person of note. He joins a local society in dredging up oddities from the harbor, which sparks his interest in antiquities. With a few astute investments, he soon becomes an accomplished collector specializing in Egyptian artifacts. He simultaneously works as a teacher (educating aristocratic young ladies in multiple languages), and eventually channels all his skills and interests into a travel and touring company, which has great success. Years later, his wife, Aimée (a former student, born Amy), is devastated when he is lost at sea.

The grieving Aimée finds herself unexpectedly debt-ridden and receives a disturbing final letter from her late husband, which prompts her to examine his past more closely. It now appears that Armand looked to The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the building of his myth. As Aimée ages, she yearns for her husband, and wonders what really happened on that ship that sailed from Constantinople.

Scott’s tone is whimsical, and her characters are idiosyncratic and appealing. De Potter’s charming tale, told in split chronology both before and after Armand’s disappearance, will please readers seeking a playful trip back in time.


This review originally ran in the September 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 gold watch charms.

Wawahte by Robert P. Wells

Wells tells a haunting tale of three Canadian Indians and abuse during their forced schooling in government institutions.

wawahte

In Wawahte, Robert P. Wells sets out to tell the story of Canada’s First Nation children who were taken from their homes and their parents by the Canadian government and installed in Indian residential schools. For more than one hundred years, from 1883 to 1996, generations of children were subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, racism, and denigration in these institutions, and were punished for speaking their native languages or practicing their beliefs. As told to Wells by three Indian residential school survivors, these haunting narratives are a familiar but gripping story of Western imperial dominance. While the writing is unpolished, the accounts are nonetheless harrowing and important.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on August 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews. 8-29-2014 10-30-23 AM

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.

Worn Stories by Emily Spivack

A meditative collection of short, accessible memoirs documenting the meaning of clothing.

worn stories

Emily Spivack’s fascination with the past lives of clothing led her to create a website, wornstories.com, on which she collects “sartorial memoirs” from friends, family, acquaintances, celebrities and everyday strangers. Now her book, Worn Stories, assembles those accounts. They are short, and generally recorded as told to Spivack but are occasionally written by the contributor. Each brief narrative is accompanied by a photograph of the item, against a white background, adorned at most by a clothes hanger. The text describes how the speaker came to own the article, or what took place in and around it that made it worth keeping–sometimes for decades. A dress, a pair of shoes, a hat or accessory conveys an emotion or an experience: love, loss, accomplishment. They may symbolize a place or a time in a life, or remind us of what we don’t want to forget.

These vignettes are at turns hilarious (humorist John Hodgman’s long-sought Ayn Rand dress or trucking manager Pamela Jones’s party dress), silly (reporter Jenna Wortham’s sequined top) and poignant (creative ambassador Simon Doonan’s Lycra shorts or writer/bartender Kelly Jones’s tie-dyed wrap skirt). Some have historical significance: Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger had an ill-fitting suit made from a piece of wool fabric that was the only thing she saved from her life in Poland.

Spivack speaks directly to her reader only in a brief introduction. The collection of contributors’ reports forms a whole that is entertaining, thoughtful and loving of the universal tales we have to tell about the garments we carry through our lives.


This review originally ran in the August 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 stains.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (& Other Lessons from the Crematory) by Caitlin Doughty

A young woman’s mortuary career and enthusiasm for death inform an entertaining and thought-provoking memoir.

smoke

At 23, Caitlin Doughty had an undergraduate degree in medieval history and a lifelong fascination with death. Interested in turning her preoccupation into a profession after a move to the Bay Area, she found it surprisingly difficult to get a job in the mortuary business without relevant experience, but eventually secured a position as crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, Calif. In just a few months of working with her deadpan boss Mike, socially awkward body-transport driver Chris and jovial embalmer Bruce, Caitlin learned a great deal, as she relates in her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

She learned how to cremate bodies (do the larger people early in the day, babies at the end), what exactly happens after the oven (bones have to be ground down in a special blender to create the uniform ashes the family expects) and how to pick up a recently deceased body from a family at home (mostly, keep your mouth shut). She learned that dead people aren’t really scary, once you get used to them, and came to believe that wired jaws and copious makeup are less attractive and less respectful than simply letting the dead look–and be–well, dead.

In her memoir of “lessons from the crematory,” Doughty shares tidbits of research into the death rituals and mythologies of other cultures throughout history: Tibetan sky burial, the dutiful cannibalism of the Wari’ people in the jungles of Brazil, ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. She points out a central difference between contemporary Western practices and theirs: the Wari’ and others conform to a system of beliefs, where our so-called modern death-disposal techniques arise from a fear of mortality and a need to hide dead things away. In her experience at Westwind, and later in mortuary school, Doughty developed her own value system, emphasizing an honest relationship with our mortality and a frank acceptance of and love for our dead.

Doughty’s research, musings and anecdotes about the crematory are charmingly conveyed in an earnest yet playful voice, brimming with surprising humor as well as insight. Her coming-of-age tale encompasses love and life (and death), and her appeal for a new cultural approach to the end of life is refreshingly frank and simple at the same time that it is profound. Despite addressing a subject that will strike some as morbid or unpleasant, Doughty is an engaging and likable narrator,and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is thoughtful and approachable.


This review originally ran in the August 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 dresses.

It by Stephen King: finished

This review contains mild spoilers – like, about how characters feel about each other, and about who dies in the first 100 pages or so. No major plot-wrap-up spoilers. Medium spoilers.

Please recall my much earlier review of the first third or so of this book.


itMy It-reading friend got in touch to say that she’d been reading away while I hadn’t been. (I had been reading, just not this book.) Luckily I was just then headed off on vacation! so I sped through the last 800 or so pages, and upon my return, met her at the bar to discuss.

What happens in Stephen King’s It? I needed reminding as well; and I give Danielle credit for finding & recommending Constant Readers, a blog devoted to King’s work. Two friends discuss It in five parts, in banter-y dialog; it’s great fun, and they’re fairly expert about SK, unsurprisingly. Enjoyable and thought-provoking – check them out. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

I won’t spend too much more time on plot summary; It is fairly well established in our cultural consciousness and 1,000 people have written about this before so you can get the plot easily enough from Google if you need it. Kids become adults; good vs. evil; scary, exciting, outrageous.

A few notes from my impressions and/or my discussions with Danielle (and a little bit with my buddy Jack, who was unable to make the bar date)…

  • This book gripped me from the start, when briefly-likeable little Georgie gets it; I loved all the characters and rooted for them all the way through, in both their kid and adult form. Jack and Danielle both found them most relateable and real as kids, but I identified better with the adults versions (I don’t seem to remember my childhood as well as some people do) – although clearly, the kids were deeply likeable.
  • King’s worldbuilding skills are alive and well.
  • I adore how Stephen King always has a hero librarian in his books! (& Joe Hill too.)
  • His highly believable characters are one of his greatest feats: we agreed that this book is clearly character driven, although the plot was well done and powerful as well; and let’s be clear on King’s world-building prowess, yet again.
  • The ending was satisfying for me because it felt like the right, the realistic solution; but of course we’d always like to know more. In this case, I hunger for a little more epilogue for each of our survivors. I would love to see a follow-up book starring one of our grown-ups in his or her new life.
  • King continues to be outrageously self-referential; as I told Danielle (for whom It was her first King read! how exciting!), things will make more and more sense, the more you read him. The Dark Tower series ties in all over the place, and are you kidding me? Dick Hallorann from The Shining makes a not-insignificant appearance as well.
  • The dog dies! plus all the animal torture – gah!! Truly horrifying, King.
  • WHERE THE HECK DOES HE COME UP WITH THIS STUFF? Specifically, 27 years in between events? What is that about? The imagination astounds me.
  • I was rarely actually frightened. (There were a few nights when I read late into the dark hours in an unfamiliar bed…) I guess I didn’t buy into the supernatural threats quite enough to scare myself silly. But I marvel at the world created!

Rate ‘em: how did we like the characters? Richie is annoying but also loveable; I think his role is to be annoying to his friends, less so to the reader. (To me at least.) Stan is hard to love. Maybe because he dies so early that we know not to invest in him? Eddie is also a little exasperating but I found him sympathetic as well. Despite these three being difficult to like, I ended up rooting for them all. When Eddie and Stan really stepped up to the plate and gave it their all, they came further, you know? For Bill and Ben, heroism seemed to come more naturally. (For all that Ben is meant to be the archetype of fat loser kid, he always had a courageous hero sitting very near the surface; he didn’t have to come as far to get there.) I loved Bev, Danielle didn’t; and while Mike was maybe a little boring, he was the rock, or the tie that bound them all together (not to mention being an uber-capable librarian, which is always worth points). And Bill? Interestingly, the Constant Readers did not appreciate Bill. And I can understand the ways in which they found him boring, but I loved him all the same. As far as his being a foil for Ben & Bev’s romance, I say, not his fault; there will always be that guy (or girl), and he (or she) doesn’t always have control over that role. Fair game. In the end, I loved all seven of our kids, more or less equally – with Stan a half-step below, for not sticking around long enough to earn more love.

Favorite quotations from Constant Readers:

  • “In the Gunslinger world, they’d be a ka-tet.” Yes.
  • “This book is full of childhood sweetnesses without every getting mawkish or saccharine, which is a fucking feat.”
  • “I know you hate the Turtle, but I really like the image/concept of this lumbering creature that created the universe by puking, this really reflexive, disgusting bodily function, and now it’s dead because it puked in its own shell. I like the idea of the creator of all things being sort of witless. Or at least clumsy. I really believe that, man, if Something Made Us All, it was definitely not on purpose. A puking Space Turtle fits my ideology very well.”

On that last point: I totally agree. The turtle-as-creation-myth resonates deeply with me, and crosses over not only from the Dark Tower series, but from various native cultures from around the world (see Turtle Island). I am carrying forward this idea of the turtle that vomited up our world, and didn’t much care about it thereafter, as my new philosophy of life and its origins. Thank you, Stephen King.

He’s done it again. It is the Constant Readers’ favorite SK, and I’m pretty sure it’s Jack’s as well. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say that, but it’s definitely a great example of what he does best.


Rating: 9 newspaper boats (shiver).
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