Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald

     The Great Gatsby is supposed to be a book that you read in high school.  It is one of those classics that seems to be a must for students.  However, we managed to skip it my junior year; this happened mostly because a research project and persuasive speech that came before it.  That project took too long and because I was in the "dumb" English class at that point so we moved very slowly through material.
     Before I review the book, I feel like I should elaborate.  At the time, Piqua High School had different levels of classes including: regular and enriched English, during our junior year dyad English [a combined US History and English class where readings and projects overlapped] was added, and for senior year AP was offered as well.  There was no difference between the classes other than difficulty and amount of work, unless and until you took dyad or AP.  For my first two years of high school I thought it was important to challenge myself, but then after my sophomore year I asked myself, "why am I killing my GPA by getting As and Bs in enriched English, when I could instead by flying by getting As in regular [dumb] English?"  A few of my friends had figured this out before me and a group of smart slackers entered Mrs. Krogman's classroom for junior English.  I was not challenged there and I easily blew most of my peers out of the water in my grades and performance.  I also had the first English teacher that I actually enjoyed in high school.  We read fun books, joked a lot, and she wasn't afraid to skip parts of books, or to admit that there were classics she didn't like.  Furthermore, she played an audiobook for us for at least one novel [Ethan Frome (total side note, about the same time my home computer got a virus that affected MS Word '97 called "Ethan Frome", but of course I assumed I had messed something up on the computer until I got to college and the anti-virus software there [which was up-to-date because it had a real internet connection] flagged and then cleaned all of my person files)].  More than once she joked that the State would take away her teaching license if they knew she said this, but the movie was better than the book, so there were times where we watched the movie instead.  One of those times was the slow parts in The Taming of the Shrew and others included The Grapes of Wrath [more on that in a moment] and The Great Gatsby [although here it was more because we ran out of time than that she didn't like the book].
     It was at the end of the school year, during the last period, of the last day while the rest of the class was watching The Grapes of Wrath that Mrs. Krogman pulled me out into the hall and unleashed her last effort to get me to join AP English.  I don't know for sure that it was her, but throughout that school year, especially after we registered for the next years classes in the late winter, that I think every, or almost every, senior who was at that time currently in AP English tried to convince me to take it.  Then after resisting their efforts and the long-drawn-out efforts of my guidance counselor, Mr. Cain, my peers [other juniors] who were signed up to take AP the following year began trying to convince me to take it.  One even pleaded to me that if enough people didn't sign up that the class ran the risk of being cancelled, but I was resolved to stay in "dumb" English and coast on through.  Then came Mrs. Krogman's final assault.  In my memory it as the last day of my junior year when she pulled me out into the hall and took all period, the whole 50 minutes with the classroom beside us through a door, flickering in the light of a black-and-white movie, for her to convince me and wear me down.  Eventually I agreed with her that I wasn't being challenged in regular English and that I was smart enough to take AP and even if I didn't get As [which I didn't always succeed at], AP at least came with the weighted grades buffer which added a point [so Bs counted as As].  After acquiescing to her arguments and agreeing to take the class, she then handed me a packet of summer homework to go along with the summer reading assignment [The Prince of Tides, which I hated by the way] and she sent me to the guidance counselor to change my schedule.  He harassed me that I let others convince me, but not him, and then cheerfully signed me up for the class.  At that point, I had missed my bus, and all of my friends who I could bum a ride off of had left as well, so I ended up having to wait at my school until my dad was off work and could come get me.  I lost a quarter to the pay phone to call him and then I had almost 2 hours for a ride; during which I read Crichton's Andromeda Strain still one of, if not, my favorite Crichton book- although my views on him have changed [post to come].  Anyway, I loved AP English, but never did read Gatsby in high school.
     A couple of years ago when I heard the new Gatsby movie with DiCaprio was coming out I tried to get my wife to read it with me.  I started and made it to about Chapter 4, but then I lost my free-time at night [rocking my youngest daughter to sleep because she started putting herself to sleep].  I set the book down and unfortunately did not finish it until after the DVD of the movie and the John Green's analysis of the book on CrashCourse were out.  I knew plenty about the book and had several family members, including my sister, recommend it to me.  So when I finally got my new MP3 player, Gatsby was the first classic I put on it to read.
     After having such a long introduction here it is hard to talk about the book without spoiling it.  I enjoyed the book, but not so much that I'll read it again.  I'm not even sure that I understand completely why it is a classic and why it did so well, other than that it: 1) has a lot of symbolism for such a short book, and 2) is set in a time that is historically romantic for the US and this was probably made all the more important by the onset of the Great Depression such a short time later, causing us to long for a book that spoke of more hopeful and carefree times.   I will say that I find it funny that we have a way of looking at the past with rose-colored glasses and imagine it to be better than it was, when a book like this reveals that sex, cheating, drinking, and perversion were at least somewhat common, in addition to things that I think we have actually improved upon like stopping racism and reducing spousal abuse.
     As I read the book, I couldn't help but think about the question that John Green asked in his analysis, "Was Gatsby great?"  I have to conclude that he was eccentric and not afraid to dream, nor was he afraid of a challenge, but he was thrust into adulthood so abruptly that I don't think he had the time to develop the emotional maturity necessary to ground himself or to become great.  I haven't seen either movie all the way though yet, but it is like Fitzgerald reached through time and wrote a part that DiCaprio was born to play, he's done so many roles like this that I am sure it will be a perfect fit.  The story is tragic and enduring and tells the tale of a man who burned bright and hot, and flames like that always burn themselves out too quick.

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