Tag: affairs


Beach Reads / The Awakening by Kate Chopin

August 5th, 2013 — 6:03pm

I recently read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for book club. In The Awakening, published in 1899, Edna Pontellier is living an average life with her husband, Leonce, and her two sons in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she is “awakened” to her true self by falling love with a young man, Robert, while summering on Grand Isle. Edna realizes that she has been denying herself of a life by settling for a man she doesn’t love and children that she’s sacrificing her self for, as well as a society that will never allow her to truly live her life the way she would like.

369px-The_Awakening_Chopin

When the book was published, it (and its author) was very scandalous and controversial. The Awakening is a book that focuses on women’s issues without condescension or judgement — Edna is who she is, without apology or explanation. Her struggles are some that women in the 21st century struggle with, as the demands on women have not changed since the 19th century — women are expected to keep the house, raise the children, support the husband, and now are also expected to have a successful career at the same time, and all with a smile on their face. The idea that women could possibly want more than what they have or dislike their role in society or be sexually attracted to someone that was not their husband or have an affair and sex with someone that they didn’t love, much less that Kate Chopin (who was a single mother of six, mind you) would write about these things, was too much for audiences (men) to bear, and the novel was censored upon its publication.

While not necessarily a “light summer read” that most people would choose for their poolside reading, the novel takes place on the beach and has some wonderful imagery and descriptions of the ocean.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

If that doesn’t make you want to book a trip to the ocean, I don’t know what will.

I live on the Gulf Coast, so I know that not every experience at the beach is a happy one — the same sun, sand, and surf that we enjoy in the summer can be a devastating hurricane or a shipwreck, also. Still, nothing says “summer” than a beach read, and even in the winter months a book about the beach is familiar and somehow makes you warmer.

Some good ones (read them in the next few weeks of summer or when you need a vitamin D blast in the winter):

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Art of Keeping Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
Swim by Lynn Sherr
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

2 comments » | Uncategorized

56. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

October 9th, 2011 — 6:22pm

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was published in 1930. It is a detective story that helped to popularize the “hard-boiled” private detective — the detectives are unsympathetic, detached, and determined to achieve justice by any possible means. The book is commonly associated with the 1941 movie, where Detective Sam Spade is played by Humphrey Bogart.

The novel opens with Sam Spade at his and his partner’s, Miles Archer, private eye office. A woman named Miss Wonderly comes in to hire Spade and Archer to find Floyd Thursby, who has run away with her underage sister. Miss Wonderly is of course, a knock-out beauty, and of course Spade is suspicious of her. They take the job, though, because she has cash.

Within the next few pages, Spade is awoken that night to be told that Archer, who was tailing Thursby, has been found shot at the bottom of a ditch and Spade is not exactly sad about it. You also find out that he has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. Ugh. Thursby is found shot and killed also, and the police suspect that it was Spade who shot him in retaliation for killing Archer.

The Maltese Falcon in question is a figurine of a bird that is covered with jewels. It had been a gift to the King of Spain, but has been covered with black enamel to conceal its value. Several people are looking for it and approach Spade for help finding it, including Miss Wonderly, who’s name is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a man named Joel Cairo, who is a thinly veiled homosexual, and Cairo’s boss, a large man named Casper Gutman. It turns out Gutman was the one who discovered the falcon and had sent O’Shaughnessy, Thursby, and Cairo to get it, but O’Shaughnessy and Thursby decided to keep it for themselves. Gutman is now both trying to find the figurine and kill O’Shaughnessy and Thursby.

Many people die in the events of the story, and Spade finds the figurine. When he goes to give it to Gutman (because he can pay the most), Gutman discovers that it’s a fake. After all that. What. Gutman and Cairo leave town. Spade turns in O’Shaughnessy for Archer’s murder, because, even though he wasn’t particularly fond of Archer, “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” He also mentions that it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it. What a prince.

This novel, though a good story, is frustrating on several levels. The narration tells what all of the characters are doing but doesn’t have much about what they’re thinking or feeling. In some cases, Spade is almost like a sociopath in his self-absorption. There is very little morality in any of the characters and very little discussion of emotions or feelings. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, but he isn’t particularly fond of her — in fact, when Archer is killed and his wife shows up to the office crying, Spade asks his secretary if she can deal with her.

The Maltese Falcon is one of the books that helped to popularize the hard-boiled detective story, and the movie is a very popular film noir. Perhaps I’m just not the demographic that is meant to read and enjoy this novel, because the whole time I read it, I was disgusted with pretty much every character that was introduced, Spade in particular. Sam Spade is, if I may be so bold, an asshole. In fact, it took me a long time to read this because I got so annoyed with the characters that I kept putting the book down and reading other things that did not make me feel like punching the narrators in the face.

2 comments » | classic books

96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

4 comments » | modern

79. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

April 27th, 2011 — 8:37am

A Room with a View was published in 1908 by E.M. Forster. It tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young English woman who is navigating through the delicate social circles of the early 20th century, both on vacation in Italy and back home in England. It is a critique of the social hierarchy, prejudice between the classes, and the sexual repression and hypocrisy of English society. The novel is split into Part I, which takes place in Italy, and Part II, which takes place in England.

Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Bartlett are vacationing in Florence, Italy. They have arrived at their hotel, the Bertolini, and the opening scene has them complaining about the hotel. They were promised a “room with a view” of the river Arno, but instead have been assigned rooms that have a view of the hotel courtyard. This is the first introduction of the repressive Edwardian English society: Lucy has Charlotte, who is older and unmarried, accompanying her on the vacation and chaperoning her propriety. Everything that Charlotte complains about has a thinly veiled contemptuous undertone and implies that as the unmarried woman she doesn’t deserve such grandeur. For example, in complaining about the room without a view: “Any nook does for me,” Miss Bartlett continued, “but it does seem hard that you shouldn’t have a view.” You know, because unmarried women are dead inside and don’t deserve a view. Or something.

The women are talking in the common eating room and one of the other guests at the hotel, a man, interrupts their conversation to tell the ladies that his room has a view and he and his son, George, will gladly exchange their rooms with Lucy and Miss Bartlett. Miss Bartlett is startled and recognizes the man, a Mr. Emerson, as “ill-bred.” She declines the offer and he insists, loudly and attracting the attention of the other well-bred tourists, to Miss Bartlett’s extreme embarrassment. Mr. Emerson refuses to take no for an answer and here is the first class clash of the novel:

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

“It’s so obvious they should have the rooms,” said the son. “There’s nothing else to say.”

He did not look at the ladies as he spoke, but his voice was perplexed and sorrowful. Lucy, too, was perplexed; but she saw that they were in for what is known as “quite a scene,” and she had an odd feeling that whenever these ill-bred tourists spoke the contest widened and deepened till it dealt, not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite different, whose existence she had not realized before. Now the old man attacked Miss Bartlett almost violently: Why should she not change? What possible objection had she? They would clear out in half an hour.

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub any one so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, “Are you all like this?” And two little old ladies, who were sitting further up the table, with shawls hanging over the backs of the chairs, looked back, clearly indicating “We are not; we are genteel.”

George Emerson, it must be said, is putting off a Mr. Darcy vibe and I love it. I see you pretending you’re not interested and don’t care, George. I see you.

Lucy recognizes one of the other tourists, a clergyman named Mr. Beebe who was the preacher at an Anglican church that Lucy and her family had attended. Mr. Beebe convinces Miss Bartlett that Mr. Emerson’s intentions are innocent and explains why he may seem strange:

“He is rather a peculiar man.” Again he hesitated, and then said gently: “I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit—if it is one—of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.”

Lucy was pleased, and said: “I was hoping that he was nice; I do so always hope that people will be nice.”

“I think he is; nice and tiresome. I differ from him on almost every point of any importance, and so, I expect—I may say I hope—you will differ. But his is a type one disagrees with rather than deplores. When he first came here he not unnaturally put people’s backs up. He has no tact and no manners—I don’t mean by that that he has bad manners—and he will not keep his opinions to himself. We nearly complained about him to our depressing Signora, but I am glad to say we thought better of it.”

The next day, when it comes time to go exploring Florence, Miss Bartlett is tired but hates to inconvenience poor Lucy. Miss Lavish, a novelist who is also vacationing at the Bertolini, offers to take Lucy and her trusty Baedeker guidebook on a tour of Florence. Miss Lavish takes her through the back streets to Santa Croce and Miss Lavish forbids Lucy to look at her Baedeker and takes it from her; rather than keep her nose in the guidebook, they will simply “drift” through town. Because wandering through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country always ends well.

Sure enough, Miss Lavish runs off to talk to someone (her “local colour-box”, whatever that means) and she and Lucy are separated in the crowd. Luckily she runs into the Emersons when she decides to continue exploring by herself. She decides that, although they are deemed socially awkward by the other guests, she likes the Emersons and their eccentric manners. Mr. Emerson speaks his mind and he and George are very intelligent, and they take her with them on a tour of Santa Croce. While in the church, George complains that his father means well, but always offends everyone. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that his son needs her in order to overcome his youthful melancholy. But no pressure.

The next day consists of a rainy afternoon and Lucy passes the time buy playing the piano. Lucy is a passionate piano player and seems to transform through her playing:

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions. Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom. Lucy had done so never.

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what—that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy had decided that they should triumph.

A very wet afternoon at the Bertolini permitted her to do the thing she really liked, and after lunch she opened the little draped piano. A few people lingered round and praised her playing, but finding that she made no reply, dispersed to their rooms to write up their diaries or to sleep. She took no notice of Mr. Emerson looking for his son, nor of Miss Bartlett looking for Miss Lavish, nor of Miss Lavish looking for her cigarette-case. Like every true performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.

Mr. Beebe sits and listens and remembers a time when he heard her playing at a performance at church. He remarked at the time, and tells her now, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.”

After playing, Lucy is in the mood for something big and exciting to do, a sensation that conversation just doesn’t satisfy. She decides that she wants to go to the electric tram, but she has some trepidation:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.

So many things to say. So many.

Lucy decides that though she wants to do something rebellious, she doesn’t want to get in trouble for rebelling, so rather than go to the electric tram she goes to Alinari’s shop in town to look at and buy postcards of paintings. She still feels restless and that nothing exciting happens to her. But then someone gets stabbed by a fountain in the square and suddenly life gets a lot more interesting. She sees George Emerson through the crowd of people as she faints.

When she comes to, George is holding her — he had carried her away from the crowd. He goes back to the fountain to retrieve her photographs and when he returns they begin walking back to the hotel. As they’re walking, George throws something in the river; when Lucy inquires, he admits that he threw her photographs in the river because they were covered in blood and he didn’t want her to see them. His admission of his protective instinct towards her warms her heart. Nothing like murder to bring people together.

The next day is business as usual. Mr. Beebe invites Miss Bartlett and Lucy to go out with him and the Emersons, but Lucy insteads opts to go shopping with Miss Bartlett. She is afraid of her blossoming feelings for George, so what better thing to do than to avoid him, am I right, ladies? Their shopping excursion takes them by the fountain where the previous day’s excitement took place, where they run into Miss Lavish, who has come to investigate the murder site for her new book. Everyone is very interested in Lucy’s abridged version of the event (she left out the fainting and coming to in George’s arms, that dirty slut). They also run into Mr. Eager, a chaplain who is also staying at the hotel and who is sort of a jerk. He invites the ladies on an outing later in the week. Lucy quickly becomes jaded with her company:

This successful morning left no pleasant impressions on Lucy. She had been a little frightened, both by Miss Lavish and by Mr. Eager, she knew not why. And as they frightened her, she had, strangely enough, ceased to respect them. She doubted that Miss Lavish was a great artist. She doubted that Mr. Eager was as full of spirituality and culture as she had been led to suppose. They were tried by some new test, and they were found wanting. As for Charlotte—as for Charlotte she was exactly the same. It might be possible to be nice to her; it was impossible to love her.

This is one of the first occasions where the social hierarchy is challenged; just because you are a civilized and intelligent person doesn’t make you enjoyable to be around. Of course, this observation of her companions is juxtaposed with a conversation about the Emersons. Miss Bartlett talks about their working class background and how Mr. Emerson must have had an “advantageous marriage” but Mr. Eager confides that the marriage wasn’t all that advantageous because Mr. Emerson murdered his wife. What.

Lucy doesn’t believe Mr. Eager and the gossip doesn’t keep them from all going for a drive out in the country. The title of the chapter about the drive is Chapter VI: The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them. Forster doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

There is a lot of talking on the carriages, mostly pretentious babble from Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish; Lucy has made sure that she is in a separate carriage from George, as she is still confused about her feelings for him. The driver of their carriage has a girl with him, whom he tries to kiss while he’s driving, which I’m sure Oprah would have thing or two to say about. This outrages Mr. Eager, who demands that the girl switch to the other carriage, and his outrage outrages Mr. Emerson, who sees harm in denying people of their happiness.

When they arrive and are exploring the wood, Lucy wanders off by herself, chaperone-less. And you know what happens when girls don’t have their chaperones:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.

Oh. Snap.

George and Lucy in the meadow in the 1985 movie.

On the carriage ride back, Lucy and Miss Bartlett discuss the meadow; Lucy says that she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and had mistaken George in the field of violets for a hero in a book. Ooookay.

When they get back to their room (the one with the view, if you remember), Miss Bartlett asks Lucy “what is to be done” about the George situation. Miss Bartlett is convinced that George is unrefined and will talk about what happened; based on a conversation George had with another of the hotel patrons, one can assume that he is one of those young men who has kissed more than one girl. That cad! Miss Bartlett speaks of the kiss as an “insult” that Lucy needs to be defended against. Because she fears that George will talk and ruin Lucy’s reputation, Miss Bartlett decides that they will leave the next morning for Rome, to meet up with the Vyses, acquaintances of the Honeychurch family. Lucy promises Miss Bartlett that she won’t tell her mother about what happened, because Miss Bartlett is afraid that she will be blamed. They left for Rome the following morning; Lucy was unable to say goodbye to George.

Part II opens with Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother, and Freddy, Lucy’s brother, in their home in England, awaiting the arrival of the Vyse family. While in Rome, Cecil Vyse, the son, proposed to Lucy twice and she rejected him both times. However, Cecil travels to Windy Corner and proposes a third time, which Lucy accepts.

Cecil is described as “medieval.” It is meant to describe his physical appearance, which is also like a “gothic statue,” but it describes his personality, as well. If George is portrayed as being passionate then Cecil is pretentious. He is from London and looks down upon people in the country. He doesn’t even seem to be overly fond of Lucy, but more like an idea of her:

He had known Lucy for several years, but only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical. He could still remember his depression that afternoon at Rome, when she and her terrible cousin fell on him out of the blue, and demanded to be taken to St. Peter’s. That day she had seemed a typical tourist—shrill, crude, and gaunt with travel. But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us, The things are assuredly not of this life; no woman of Leonardo’s could have anything so vulgar as a “story.” She did develop most wonderfully day by day.

So it happened that from patronizing civility he had slowly passed if not to passion, at least to a profound uneasiness. Already at Rome he had hinted to her that they might be suitable for each other. It had touched him greatly that she had not broken away at the suggestion.

Be still my beating heart.

Mr. Beebe stops by the house in time to hear the good news of the engagement of Lucy and Cecil, which he takes as a joke at first. Freddy refers to Cecil as her “fiasco” instead of “fiancé,” and I don’t know how anyone missed that portentous bit of foreshadowing. Mr. Beebe mentions that he has heard that a nearby cottage has been bought and will be rented by a Sir Harry Ottway — it’s supposed to be torn down, but he will rent it instead.

If you didn’t guess that the Emersons would be renting the cottage, you need to forget about books and watch a Real Housewives marathon. The plotlines there may be more your style.

It turns out Cecil ran into Mr. Emerson and George at a museum and he figured that they would annoy Sir Ottway, as Cecil considers him to be a snob, so he recommended they rent to cottage. Ah, how droll! When Lucy protests and yells at him for inviting “his friends,” he assumes that she objects because they are of a lower class socially. As he tells her:

No, Lucy, the classes ought to mix, and before long you’ll agree with me. There ought to be intermarriage—all sorts of things.

Be careful what you wish for, Cecil.

Lucy and Cecil go to London to visit Mrs. Vyse, Cecil’s mother, while the Emersons move in. Freddy, Lucy’s brother, meets George through Mr. Beebe and becomes friends, playing tennis and going for swims in ponds and other generally frowned upon activities. When Lucy returns to Windy Corners (their house), she discovers that her mother has invited Miss Bartlett to stay with them while the plumbing in her house is repaired.

Freddy invites the Emersons over for lunch and tennis on a Sunday when Cecil is in a particularly vile mood. While Freddy and George play tennis and the others are watching, Cecil goes on and on about the novel he’s reading. The novel is set in Florence and there’s a murder, and Lucy quickly realizes that it’s written by Miss Lavish, who was at the Bertolini with them. Cecil decides to read a passage aloud:

“‘Leonora,'” he read, “‘sat pensive and alone. Before her lay the rich champaign of Tuscany, dotted over with many a smiling village. The season was spring.'”

Miss Lavish knew, somehow, and had printed the past in draggled prose, for Cecil to read and for George to hear.

“‘A golden haze,'” he read. He read: “‘Afar off the towers of Florence, while the bank on which she sat was carpeted with violets. All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her—'”

Lest Cecil should see her face she turned to George and saw his face.

He read: “‘There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formal lovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from the lack of it. He simply enfolded her in his manly arms.'”

“This isn’t the passage I wanted,” he informed them, “there is another much funnier, further on.” He turned over the leaves.

“Should we go in to tea?” said Lucy, whose voice remained steady.

She led the way up the garden, Cecil following her, George last. She thought a disaster was averted. But when they entered the shrubbery it came. The book, as if it had not worked mischief enough, had been forgotten, and Cecil must go back for it; and George, who loved passionately, must blunder against her in the narrow path.

“No—” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him.

As if no more was possible, he slipped back; Cecil rejoined her; they reached the upper lawn alone.

OH. SNAP.

Later that afternoon, when they’re all preparing for supper, Lucy confronts George in the dining-room. She tells him to leave or she will have to call Cecil and George is incredulous to realize that she is engaged to marry Cecil. (Now it’s getting good. Get your popcorn. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)

Then his words rose gravely over hers: “You cannot live with Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.”

It was a new light on Cecil’s character.

“Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?”

“I can scarcely discuss—”

“No, but have you ever? He is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people. That’s why I’ll speak out through all this muddle even now. It’s shocking enough to lose you in any case, but generally a man must deny himself joy, and I would have held back if your Cecil had been a different person. I would never have let myself go. But I saw him first in the National Gallery, when he winced because my father mispronounced the names of great painters. Then he brings us here, and we find it is to play some silly trick on a kind neighbour. That is the man all over—playing tricks on people, on the most sacred form of life that he can find. Next, I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for YOU to settle whether you were shocked or no. Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.”

Oh, swoon.

George storms off, passing Miss Bartlett, who of course has been lurking in the doorway, snooping her heart out. The two women join the rest of the group. When Freddy hears that George has left, he asks Cecil to join him for a game of tennis. When Cecil declines, Lucy realizes that he is intolerable and breaks her engagement that night. It is only when she is breaking up with him does Cecil finally see her as a “living woman” rather than a trophy wife and has a difficult time letting go.

“You don’t love me, evidently. I dare say you are right not to. But it would hurt a little less if I knew why.”

“Because”—a phrase came to her, and she accepted it—”you’re the sort who can’t know any one intimately.”

A horrified look came into his eyes.

“I don’t mean exactly that. But you will question me, though I beg you not to, and I must say something. It is that, more or less. When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.” Her voice swelled. “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! You despise my mother—I know you do—because she’s conventional and bothers over puddings; but, oh goodness!”—she rose to her feet—”conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people—” She stopped.

The clash between Cecil and Lucy is the clash between the old and new ways of thinking. The Victorian/Edwardian age had rigid social classes, but even more so was the rigid gender structures. Lucy is seeing herself no longer as a woman but as a person who is capable of making her own decisions and choices. Welcome to the new millenium, Lucy.

Unfortunately, she feels that this new realization means that she will never marry and will join her cousin in a life of spinsterhood and cat lady-hood, especially as she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t love George.

Lucy receives a letter from the Miss Alans, the spinster sisters from the Bertolini, who write to tell her about their upcoming trip to Greece. Lucy decides that she simply must go along with them and her mother reluctantly agrees. She also convinces everyone not to announce her broken engagement to Cecil, but to let divulge it once she is safely out of England — the secret reason behind this being that she doesn’t want George to be able to do the “told you so” dance.

She goes to visit Mr. Beebe before she leaves and Mr. Emerson is in the sitting room. George has told him that he loves Lucy and tells her that George has “gone under” — George is so full of passion that he can become overwhelmed by them, and he has become overwhelmed by his love of Lucy and is resembling Romeo in love with Rosaline. He tells Lucy that George can no longer bear to be there and that they are going back to London. When Lucy reveals that she is headed to Greece — without Cecil — Mr. Emerson forces her to admit that she loves George.

Then he burst out excitedly; “That’s it; that’s what I mean. You love George!” And after his long preamble, the three words burst against Lucy like waves from the open sea.

“But you do,” he went on, not waiting for contradiction. “You love the boy body and soul, plainly, directly, as he loves you, and no other word expresses it. You won’t marry the other man for his sake.”

“How dare you!” gasped Lucy, with the roaring of waters in her ears. “Oh, how like a man!—I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man.”

“But you are.”

She summoned physical disgust.

“You’re shocked, but I mean to shock you. It’s the only hope at times. I can reach you no other way. You must marry, or your life will be wasted. You have gone too far to retreat. I have no time for the tenderness, and the comradeship, and the poetry, and the things that really matter, and for which you marry. I know that, with George, you will find them, and that you love him. Then be his wife. He is already part of you. Though you fly to Greece, and never see him again, or forget his very name, George will work in your thoughts till you die. It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

The next chapter opens with the Miss Alans in Greece by themselves. George and Lucy are back at the Bertolini; they have eloped to Italy, and, even though they may have alienated Mrs. Honeychurch in the process, they are living happily with each other and committed to their life of love.

Happily -- and sexily -- ever after.

In the end, Lucy is able to choose her own life and decide who she wants to marry, though her mother disapproves. The thought of marrying for position and social status is challenged in this novel — though there is a man of sufficient birth available, he is boring and stuck-up and utterly unappealing, yet the person who is exciting and interesting is of middle class (and works as a porter for a railway, how plebian!) .

There is an appendix that was added to some of the later publications of the book, where Forster elaborated on what happened to Lucy and George in the later years, but I choose not to read that part. I prefer my romances to end happily and without children and World War II, thank you very much. In my view of A Room with a View, George and Lucy remain at the Bertolini forever. Or at least they only emerge for food and sustenance, and possibly the occasional citrus fruit to prevent scurvy.

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76. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

January 6th, 2011 — 3:04pm

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in The New Yorker magazine before being published as a novel in 1961. It takes place at a school in 1930s Scotland and is told through the eyes of the female students under the tutelage of Miss Jean Brodie.

The novel takes place at the Marcia Blaine School and focuses on a group of six girls who are assigned to Miss Brodie’s class. The “prime” of the title refers to Miss Brodie declaring that she is in the “prime of her life.” The narration switches between the chronological story of their schoolhood and a series of flashforwards. The girls are influenced by Miss Brodie, who believes that she is obligated to teach them more than the curriculum. Lessons range anywhere from history to politics (specifically the goings-on of Europe and Spain) to her love life. The flashforwards reveal that one of the girls betrayed Miss Brodie and was a catalyst to the termination of her job, but she never finds out which of the girls it was.

The girls are Sandy Stranger, who is famous for her vowel sounds and “insight but no instinct”, Rose Stanley, who is famous for sex (and in contrast to Sandy is told that she has “instinct but no insight”), Monica Douglas, who is famous for mathematics and her anger, Jenny Gray, who is famous for her beauty, Eunice Gardiner, who is famous for her gymnastics and glorious swimming, and Mary MacGregor, who acts as Miss Brodie’s scapegoat and meekly accepts the blame for whatever is going on.

Throughout the novel, Miss Brodie carries on affairs with two of the male teachers at the school, the singing teacher, Mr. Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed war veteran Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd is a married Roman Catholic man with six children. Oops. Both of the men profess that they love Miss Brodie, while she reveals that she only loves Mr Lloyd. Miss Brodie never acts on her love for Mr. Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica, one of the students. She decides that a bachelor makes a more suitable mate, as a wife and six kids tends to get in the way, so she carries on a sexual relationship with Mr. Lowther. Sandy, one of the main points of view in the story, begins to become disillusioned with Miss Brodie.

The girls move on to the Senior school, though they still stick together and identify themselves as “the Brodie set.” Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. Meanwhile, the headmistress, Miss Mackay, tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. Miss Mackay had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a “progressive” school; Miss Brodie declined to move.

Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose should have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr. Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Mr. Lloyd has taken to inviting the Brodie girls to sit for him to paint their portraits, but each of their faces looks like Miss Brodie. I don’t think there’s a single teacher in this book who maintains a proper student/teacher relationship. Urging your student to have an affair with a man that you love is just creepy.

Another student, Joyce Emily, tries to join the Brodie set but the girls aren’t really having it. Miss Brodie takes Joyce Emily under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side. She does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is traveling in is attacked.

The Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit school before graduating, Mary became a typist and Jenny pursued a career in acting. Eunice became a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy has an affair with Mr. Lloyd the summer after she graduates, while his wife and children are away on vacation.

After the summer, Sandy ends the affair with Mr. Lloyd, but she adopts his Roman Catholic religion and becomes a nun. Before she becomes a nun, she meets with Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Miss Brodie. She suggests Miss Mackay try accusing Miss Brodie of fascism based ont he conversations she had with the girls, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment will Miss Brodie be able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her.

Sandy, who is now known as Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and the author of “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”, maintains that “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, “Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?”

Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) in the 1967 movie

Sandy said: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

The way the narration is set up is rather unique — you know from the beginning of the story that Miss Brodie is betrayed, even though sequentially it happens at the end of the girls’ school years. The novel also doesn’t attempt to hide the flaws of any of the characters, making them appear more human. There isn’t a definite hero to the book.

The affect that teachers have on students is at the centerpoint of the novel. Miss Brodie claims that she is a teacher who states that if she is given a girl at an “impressionable age then she is mine for life.” In fact, she does go on to influence the girls beyond the realm of the classroom, both when they are in school and when they are living their lives. Sandy particularly feels the reach of Miss Brodie beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. She becomes a nun and shuts herself down to anything Brodie-esque, which shows that she is still affected by Miss Brodie. Miss Brodie draws the girls close to herself as Calvinists believe God elects few to salvation, as Sandy observes. This leads Sandy to publicly reject Calvinism in place of Catholicism. A few of the girls die as a casual result of Miss Brodie’s influence on their lives.

I can’t think of any teachers who have had that sort of an effect on me, and I certainly can’t think of any students whom I’ve affected. Influence is a funny thing. Things that you wouldn’t assume to be influential can sometimes emerge later as a large reason as to a significant life choice. However, the major moral of the story : if a teacher tells you to have an affair with someone, just say no. And ew.

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80. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

November 10th, 2010 — 8:21pm

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1945. It is narrated by Charles Ryder, who tells the story in a series of flashbacks — the novel begins in 1943 when Ryder, who is now an army officer, and his men are quartered at Brideshead. His observance of the damage the house has sustained in the years since he had last seen it sparks his remembrance of his time at the house and with the family who lived there.

Waugh wrote that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself”. This is achieved by an examination of the Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.

Ryder’s first experience with the Marchmain family is when he goes away to school at Oxford in 1923 — a man walking by on a drinking bender vomits through a window of Charles’s ground-floor rooms. The next day, Charles receives flowers and a note of apology which contains an invitation to lunch. This is the first official meeting of Charles and Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of the Marquess of Marchmain. Charles and Sebastian (and Sebastian’s stuffed bear, Aloysius) become fast friends and live a life of hedonism with the rest of Sebastian’s friends.

Sebastian is very reluctant to talk about his family and even more reluctant to introduce Charles to them — he takes Charles to Brideshead only when he is sure that his family will be away and is upset when they return earlier than expected. Sebastian has an older brother, the Earl of Brideshead whom they call Bridey, and two sisters, Lady Julia, who is older, and Lady Cordelia, who is the youngest. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is a devout Catholic and her faith is her life. She is a strong and at sometimes cold character. Lord Marchmain, Sebastian’s father, converted to Catholicism in order to marry her, but abandoned both the religion and his wife and moved to Italy.

Charles and Sebastian’s relationship has been strongly debated through the years. They have a sort of “romantic friendship”, which some people believe developed into a sexual relationship. After all, Charles states that he was “in search of love in those days.” Nothing is explicitly stated, but Sebastian is characterized as a flirtatious lush with effeminate airs about him. (It is rumored that Sebastian’s character is based off of Hugh Patrick Lygon, a schoolfriend and suspected lover of Waugh.)

Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and Charles (Matthew Goode) in the 2008 movie

Sebastian begins to become more and more enveloped in his alcoholism trying to numb his oppressive mother and her religion, and he eventually flees both his family and Charles to go on a bender in Morocco. His drinking ruins his health, and the next time Charles encounters him, he’s in a Tunisian monastary as a recovering alcoholic. Monastical rehab, if you will.

After Sebastian leaves, Charles does not see much of the Marchmain family; he marries and becomes a father, although he and his wife are in a loveless, “cold” marriage. By some twist of fate, Charles runs into Julia, Sebastian’s sister, and enters into an affair with her.

She seemed to say “Look at me. I have done my share. I am beautiful. It is something quite out of the ordinary, this beauty of mine. I am made for delight. But what do I get out of it? Where is my reward?”
That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, this magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.”

Charles and Julia divorce their spouses and are making plans to marry each other when Julia gets notice that her father, Lord Marchmain, has returned to Brideshead and is languishing on his deathbed, as the ridiculously rich tend to do. Julia and Charles visit him and Lord Marchmain has not only changed his will to bequeath the estate to Julia rather than Bridey, but he has returned to the Catholic faith and is receiving the sacraments. Julia is touched and inspired by her father’s rediscovered faith and decides that she can’t enter into a sinful relationship with Charles.

Thus the novel comes back to the “present” with Charles in the army in World War II. Charles discovers that the Brideshead chapel has been reopened, having been closed upon the death of the pious Lady Marchmain. The soldiers are able to worship at the house, even though it’s been damaged by the war. It occurs to Charles that the efforts of the builders — and, by extension, God’s efforts — were not in vain, though their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.

Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and wrote this novel as a secular expression of the Catholic faith. Rather than using sentimentality to get his point across, he uses the characters of the agnostic Charles and the flawed but intensely Catholic Marchmains. The novel also examines and judges Charles’s agnosticism and portrays it as being empty when compared to the humanity and spirituality of Catholicism. Each of the Catholic characters is redeemed through their faith — Lord Marchmain, who lived as an adulterer, is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed; Julia is involved in an extramarital affair with Charles, and she comes to feel this relationship is immoral and decides to separate from Charles in spite of her great attachment to him; Sebastian, the charming and flamboyant alcoholic, ends up in service to a monastery while struggling against his alcoholism; Cordelia has some sort of conversion: from being the “worst” behaved schoolgirl her headmistress has ever seen to serving in the hospital bunks of the Spanish Civil War.

The only thing that could be considered a separation from the Catholic faith would be the relationship between Charles and Sebastian. I am one of the proponents of the belief in the romantic relationship between Sebastian and Charles. One of my major problems with the book is the build-up of the relationship between the two young men, only to have Sebastian disappear in an alcoholic haze, never to be seen again. And then, what’s up, affair with Sebastian’s sister. Hello, my annoyance.

Readers who interpret the relationship as overtly homosexual quote such lines as the fact that Charles had been “in search of love in those days” when he first met Sebastian, and his finding “that low door in the wall … which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden” — an image that can be a metaphor for gay sex. The line “our naughtiness [was] high on the catalogue of grave sins” is also a quite strong suggestion of gay sex, which is a sin in most religious beliefs, particularly Catholicism. Reference is made at one point to Charles impatiently anticipating Sebastian’s letters in the manner of one who is love-smitten. It is also suggested in the book that one of the reasons why Charles is later in love with Julia is because of the similarity between her and Sebastian. Indeed, when asked by Julia if he loved Sebastian, Charles replies, “Oh yes! He was the forerunner”.

Thank you for backing me up, Wikipedia.

Overall, Brideshead Revisited is a great book, once you get past the disappointment of the lack of a fulfilled Sebastian and Charles relationship. There are a lot of wonderful moments and great quotes about friendship and love. While I’m not a huge fan of organized religion, I respect people who have a sense of spirituality and live for something larger than themselves. The spiritual and humane side of Catholicism is highlighted in this book, which is a wonderful change from the lurid headlines of today.

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2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

June 22nd, 2010 — 7:53pm

As one of my students told me, “This book goes hard.” Whatever that means.

The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 and has been read in basically every high school and university English class ever. I personally have read it for five different classes. However, it wasn’t until a reprinting of the book in the 1940s and 1950s that it gained the monsterous popularity that it has today. It’s taught as a parable of the “American dream” and what happens when it’s acheived.


Nick Carraway is the passive narrator to the story of Jay Gatsby, Nick’s neighbor, and Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. Nick has moved to New York from the Midwest to “learn the bond business” (spoiler alert: stay home from work in October 1929) and moves to West Egg, a community on Long Island Sound. Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin, invites Nick to dinner with her and Tom and their friend, Jordan Baker. Tom and Daisy live a pampered lifestyle. Daisy is said to have been partially inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda; the statement Daisy makes about hoping that her daughter is a “beautiful fool” because that is all a girl can hope to be is an anecdote that is attributed to Zelda on the birth of her daughter. During the dinner, Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress in New York City. Tom has been making frequent trips to New York where he meets up with Myrtle Wilson, who’s husband, George, is an oblivious garage mechanic.

Gatsby is a mystery to Nick for the first few chapters, until he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. While at the party, Nick hears all sorts of rumors about Gatsby (that he is the nephew to Kaiser Wilhelm, that he’s killed a man just to watch him die, etc) and is underwhelmed when he finds out that a stranger he has been talking to is actually Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby form a friendship of sorts, and Gatsby tells Nick about his life as a war hero who is from a wealthy family, all the while calling Nick “old sport” more times than he uses his name.

Jordan informs Nick of Gatsby’s real story — in 1917, Gatsby was an Army lieutenant stationed in Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy. When Gatsby left Louisville to make enough money to support and marry Daisy, Daisy married Tom in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby then made his fortune and bought a mansion close to Tom and Daisy, hoping that Daisy would somehow make it to one of his lavish parties.

Pause.

This is where the characters begin to infuriate me. Daisy is shallow. If she wasn’t willing to wait for Gatsby, why on earth would he think that stalking her and hanging around her neighborhood like a creeper would help win her over? And if it DOES win her over, now that he has his huge house and fancy clothes, why would any self respecting guy want to be with her knowing that the only reason she is with him is because of his money? To quote the immortal Kanye West, now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke, broke. Get down girl, go ‘head, get down.

Anyway.

Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, so Nick invites Daisy over for lunch. At first, the meeting is awkward, but once Gatsby takes Daisy and Nick to his house and Daisy has a Scrooge McDuck moment with some of his shirts:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

Now that Daisy is aware of Gatsby’s wealth and prestige, they become involved in an affair. Everything goes along fine until Daisy has the wonderful idea to invite Nick and Gatsby out with Tom. Tom becomes aware that Gatsby loves Daisy. Tom insists that he and Gatsby switch cars before they drive up to New York for the day, and when he stops for gas, he flaunts Gatsby’s car to George Wilson.

When they get to New York, Tom suddenly becomes a loving attentive husband to Daisy and confronts Gatsby about the affair. Gatsby acknowledges it and informs Tom that Daisy never loved him, as she had always been in love with Gatsby. The scene turns into a bit of a soap opera.

Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.

“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth — that you never loved him — and it’s all wiped out forever.”

She looked at him blindly. “Why — how could I love him — possibly?”

“You never loved him.”

She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing — and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.

“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.

“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.

“No.”

From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.

“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone. . . . “Daisy?”

“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. “There, Jay,” she said — but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”

Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.

“You loved me TOO?” he repeated.

Ohhh dear.

When they leave the hotel, Daisy insists on driving Gatsby’s car, to calm her nerves. Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow a bit later and as they’re driving, they notice a commotion at George Wilson’s garage. It appears that Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car — when she saw Gatsby’s car, she assumed that it was Tom’s, as he’d been driving it earlier that day, and ran out to meet it. Daisy, who was driving, accidentally hit her.

When Gatsby tells Nick this the next day, Nick urges Gatsby to leave. Gatsby is depressed and is waiting for a phone call from Daisy. Nick tells him that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together!”

Later that day, however, George Wilson has found out who owned the car that killed Myrtle, and shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father, and one other person attend Gatsby’s funeral.

At the end of the book, Nick has decided to return to the Midwest and reflects on the cyclical nature of past:

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.

The Great Gatsby is often taught in school as a parable of the American dream, that someone can rise from nothing to achieve greatness. But it’s also a bit of a warning and a critique of the decadence of the time; what you want may not necessarily be what you need. Fitzgerald himself is a testament to that: after living a life of excessive through the Jazz Age, the remainder of his life was spent in financial strife until his premature death of a heart attack at age 44. His wife Zelda, was in and out of psychiatric clinics until her death in 1948. Perhaps Fitzgerald should have written a better ending.

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98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

April 29th, 2010 — 5:06pm

This week, the students at my school are taking the state standardized test, so I had three hours stuck in a classroom with seniors who were not testing. Plenty of time to read and tell the kids not to bother me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a crime novel (the 1946 film is a film noir starring Lana Turner) that was published in 1934 by James M. Cain. It is rather short, only about 100 pages, but those 100 pages were scandalous enough to get the book banned in Boston, randomly enough.

It starts out rather abruptly. There’s no exposition; in fact, the narrator doesn’t introduce himself until three pages in. Frank Chambers begins the novel by being thrown off a hay truck (he’s a tramp) and wandering into an “auto court” that is half restaurant-half filling station. It’s run by Nick Papadakis, who Frank calls “The Greek” for basically the entire novel and who speaks in stilted English, and his beautiful wife, Cora. The Greek offers Frank a job, since Frank knows a thing or two about automobiles, and Frank repays his generosity by sleeping with Cora, who seems to have a few screws loose herself. When Frank kisses her for the first time, a red flag goes up:

I took her into my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers………”Bite me! Bite me!”
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Um. Ew.

As you’d think, Frank tries to convince Cora to run away with him, but Cora has this aversion to being homeless, I can’t imagine why. So her great idea is to kill the Greek so that they can stay and run the auto court without him. What could go wrong?

The first attempt to kill the Greek involves Cora bashing him in the head with what is described as a twisted beanbag full of metal. She plans to hit him while he’s in the bathtub, to make it appear that he fell in the shower and hit his head, with the added bonus that he’ll drown if the blow to the head doesn’t kill him. But at the exact moment that Cora hits him, a cat steps on the fuse box and blows the fuses in the house, making all the lights go out and Cora panic, for some reason. Frank fishes the Greek out of the water and they call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, telling the cops and the doctors that Nick fell and hit his head. So the Greek survived and doesn’t remember being bludgeoned, so he goes back home with Cora and Frank.

But Frank and Cora! They are so in love! Their love is so true! And Cora reeeally wants the auto court. So they try the same plan in a different venue — this time, they get the Greek sloppily drunk, bash him over the head with a wrench, and then crash the car, leaving themselves with injuries. There is also a very inappropriately timed sex scene after the car crashes into the ravine and Frank has punched Cora in the eye to make it look like she was injured in the crash and it turns them both on. Cora is one twisted sister.

The police and the ambulance report to the scene, and the police are instantly suspicious of what has happened. It turns out, unbeknown to Frank, the Greek had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy two days before the accident. The prosecutor, Sackett, interrogates Frank and gets him to sign a complaint that by crashing the car, Cora attempted to kill him as well. And when Cora finds out, she is PISSED. She writes out a confession that tells everything about her affair with Frank and how he had been involved with attempting to kill Nick.

A lawyer is hired for Frank and Cora, and there is a lot of lawyerly speak involved that I think boiled down to him proving that the Greek had insurance policies before and the accident insurance was just part of the insurance package and that Cora had no idea about it. Or something. But it ended with Cora receiving a suspended sentence and no jail time — her confession was squashed by their lawyer and the prosecution never knew about it. But the fact that Frank signed the complaint and that Cora tried to point the finger at Frank sown some major seeds of discontentment at the auto court.

Frank and Cora return to the auto court, where Cora has major plans for its improvement but Frank just wants to sell it and move on. Then there was something about Cora leaving to visit her mother and Frank met and had a brief fling with a woman who trained and kept wild cats and sends Frank a puma kitten. Okay, then.

They drive to the beach together and Cora tells Frank that she’s pregnant, and they plan a life together, and on their way driving back home, boom, car accident. Cora is killed, and the description is thus:

When I came out of it I was wedged down beside the wheel, with my back to the frontof the car, but I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that wasn’t it. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.

UM. EW. Boston, you got this one right.

The cops arrest Frank and pin him with the deaths of both Cora and the Greek, and the end of the book reveals that the story you’ve been reading has been written by Frank in jail as he awaits news of his sentence, whether he gets the death penalty or not. He finds out that there is “no stay,” meaning he will be executed, and asks people to pray for “me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.”

For as short as the novel is (about 100 pages), it was rather rough to get through. The writing style is very concise and matter-of-fact with very little details. It wasn’t really enough to keep my interest, especially since none of the characters are sympathetic.

And throughout the entire book there is no postman, ringing twice or otherwise.

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