This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

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Wanting to read something from the Lost Generation time period and having really enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I picked up this 1920 fiction book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows the course of lead character Amory Blaine as he enjoys a privileged childhood of much traveling and little school, until, with the realization that college would be soon on the horizon, his mother enrolls him in his first middle school. This is rather a shock to the old bean of Amory, and as the novel progresses through his adolescence and young adulthood, it’s easy to see that his peripatetic childhood was fun but had not done him any favors in regard to his academics.

So Fitzgerald shows the reader how Amory’s life progresses (or doesn’t as the case may be), and how he is unmoored in life, not really understanding that academics are important (because they haven’t been up until this point in his life), fully aware that who he knows and who knows him is of utmost importance, and realizing he has very little intention of having a serious career of any type with not many consequences for him. His mum will always be able to rescue him.

This was written right after the Great War (WWI) had just ended (1918), and so Europe and the U.S. were still reeling from the high death count of their soldiers, the unrecognized PTSD (or shell shock, as it was called back then), and the large numbers of young men returning to an indifferent home after having survived the terrifying experiences of trench warfare. It’s around now that the U.S. has what’s termed the Gilded Age*, the “gilding” piece referring to something that is bright and shiny on the outside, but is shallow beneath the surface – just a superficial layer to cover deeper problems below.

Up until now, war had been rather a glorious thing for the returning soldiers (now free to live their own lives), and I would think that it must have been rather a let-down for them to return back to their home towns and try to pick up their lives from before the war. Another name for this time period is the Lost Generation which references back to the view that once the war was over, many did not know what would be next. For some young men, soldiering was all that they ever known, career-wise, and those skills didn’t always translate once they were demobbed. Thus, the idea of the Lost Generation – what would they do now that was peace?

So you have this idealistic young man, who had grown up in the earlier war time, who had few goals and even less structure in his life, and this rather aimless mooning around is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure – it reads as a collection of short paragraphs (almost notes) about different pieces of Amory’s life. It’s an unusual set up (especially for writing in the 1920’s) and is quite PoMo in some ways, It’s a narrative structure that works really well – the random jumping around from subject to subject, and the changes in perspective all echo the rapidly changing opinions and moods of Amory as an undergraduate finding his way through college life at Princeton.

Wiki reports that this spotty narrative structure comes from the fact that Fitzgerald only had some bits and pieces of writing put together when he first started to write the novel. The deadline for the novel came very quickly for him, and so he had to throw some writing pieces together to make a complete project. Thus, the short pieces (poems, essays, sometimes just thoughts) carry the reader along with Amory on his coming-of-age experiences as he starts the process to become an adult. (So, not sure whether Fitzgerald was structuring it like on purpose or whether it was just a lucky break for him. Either way, it worked for the most part.)

So a pretty fast read which mostly kept my attention. There were parts that you could tell were just thrown together and the ending gets very serious and philosophical (and a wee bit boring if I’m honest with you), so you can tell it’s a first novel effort. Overall, it was a pretty good read though.

* (Actually, just found out that the Gilded Age phrase was actually referring to the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, but only came into common knowledge about 1920 or so. Thought to be coined by Mark Twain. Huh. Now you know…)

Related Reading:

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Mary Norton (1943)

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Browsing through the shelves, both on-line and in real life, I was searching for a quick read for the Century of Books project, and saw that the old kid classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton would fit rather nicely for 1943. So – happily snatched it up and had a pleasant little read. (The U.S. title is singular, though, for reasons unknown, but probably linked with copyright or similar.)

Any time you read a book from long ago, there are going to be differences in how you remember things, and there were a few things about this read that I had (mis-)remembered, but perhaps it’s because I only saw the movie back then….

There’s a big difference, for example, on content and what used to be thought suitable for children (and for the times) can be somewhat jarring. This narrative includes some rather questionable descriptions of cannibalistic “savages” from which one of the characters needs rescuing – it’s amazing to see what was (British culturally) acceptable at the time sometimes. These characters had “kinky hair” and “thick full lips” – the starring characters, naturellement, were white – and so I’m curious if these sort of books are still given to children to read any more in great numbers.

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(For example, my brother had a little book called “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman (1899) given to him for a b-day present at some point, and we children all adored the book. But looking back at it, regardless of the narrative itself, the illustrations are iffy at best. But them were the times.)

So, back to Bedknobs and Broomsticks….

The edition that I had combined two books, The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both concerning three kids who move from their home to stay with an old aunt who lives in a small village in Bedfordshire. (Well, blow me over. That’s my home county!! Who would know?) The kids go outside to play and happen to see a woman flying by them on a broomstick who then crashes and they run over to make sure she is ok.

Thus begins the story of how these three city kids become enmeshed in the life of a novice witch who has sworn them to secrecy in exchange for a magic bedknob (corner decoration on the old brass beds) that can time travel. I was prepared for loads and loads of inappropriate cultural references, but the only patch (apart from the previously mentioned one) was when someone gets rather singed when he’s being burned at the stake…

But it seems to have aged rather well. I have no idea if kids today are still exposed to the film or the book, but it’s pretty good and I think the questionable references could be “teachable” moments overall. I am glad to have read this one, and was surprised to learn that actually it’s two stories inside: The Magic Bedknob (where the kids are first given the bedknob) and also Bonfires and Broomsticks (where the kids use the bedknob to time-travel back to the time of King Charles).

So not bad, not good. Just so-so. Norton was also the author of The Borrowers series of books that I adored. Perhaps I should track those down as well…

New Words to Me…

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  • Sanhedrim – Biblical ref. This was a special council of 23-71 men appointed in every city in Israel. They had power over the people and were commanded by God to do actions.
  • Fourflusher (type of person) – ref: to a poker hand where you are one card short of being a full flush. A fourflusher is one who empty boasts or bluffs.
  • Hohenzollerns – A German dynastic family from which came royalty of Prussia and German Emperors.
  • You are an upas tree. Your shadow is poisonous.” A deciduous tree of tropical Africa and Asia with a sap that has been used as a poison arrow.
  • Prehensile – a tail that has adapted to be able to grasp or hold objects.
  • Causeries du Lundi – A series of informal literature-related essays by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve published over the course of 20 years from 1849-1869. Also, the name of the oldest women’s literary society in the US still existing today.
  • Sainte Beuve – See above.
  • Fane – a temple or a shrine
  • By the bones of Tauchnitz! – name of family of German printers and publishers. Though copyright laws between nations did not exist in 19th century, Tuachnitz paid authors for their work and agreed to limit their sales of English-lang books to the European continent. Authors had other agreements for sales of works in Great Britain. (Not sure why this was used as a curse of sorts…)
  • Cozening – tricking or deceiving.
  • Limner – illuminator of manuscripts.
  • Apotheosis – the highest point in the development of something; culmination or climax. Elevation of someone to divine status.
  • Hierophant – an interpreter of sacred mysteries and principles.
  • Febrifuge – a medicine used to reduce fever. (Makes sense with its connection with “febrile” etc.)
  • The weal of humanity” – Weal is a word relating to the welfare of the community or the general good.
  • Ratiocination – the process of logical reasoning.
  • Blandishing – to make white by extracting color or bleaching.
  • Noctes – plural of nocte (Latin) which means “night.”
  • Boccacio – Italian writer and poet (1313-1375).
  • Nostrums – a medicine sold with false or exaggerated claims and with no demonstrable value.
  • Fructifying – to make something productive or fruitful.
  • Coles Phillips – an American artist and illustrator (1880-1927).

And in one memorable sentence, Morley describes eggs as “hen fruit” which just cracked me up for some reason.

(Taken from The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley (1919).)

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Example of work by Coles Phillips.

The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley (1919)

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 “Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

This novella is the enjoyable sequel to Morley’s first novella, Parnassus on Wheels  and this one was just as fun and bibliophilic (as the book terms it) as the previous read. Written two years after the publication of the previous installment, Morley here further develops the storyline of the couple who go off to be traveling booksellers across the countryside.

At the starting point of “The Haunted Bookshop,” the couple (now married) are settled and running a fairly successful (but still modest) second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn, but even though the story has moved along, what remains the same is the author’s tender heart for books, bookselling, and all things to do with words. For a book nerd, this read is gorgeous.

The bookshop, now called The Haunted Bookshop (see quotation above for details), is run by Roger Mifflin and his now-wife Helen, and they live a quiet bookish life. Located on Gissing Street (ref: George) and near Clemens Place (ref: Samuel) and Shakespeare Street (ref: you know who), the shop is close to other neighborhood-based businesses including a pharmacy, a few modest boarding houses, and a small café of sorts in a neighborhood of working class people (some of whom are immigrants).

“People need books, but they don’t know they need them… Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

So, what we have here is a shortish novel (longish novella) that is part paean to the love of books and reading whilst also being, rather unexpectedly, a caper novel along the same lines as John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” (1915) with clear goodies and baddies. (Wow. Bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Being written so close to the end of World War One (which officially ended in 1918), the obvious baddie is, of course, Germany, and so when puzzling events happen, the German pharmacist is the number one suspect. It’s the set up of quiet and unassuming book people vs. a spy ring hiding in plain sight. But who can stop it, and what does it all mean?

Close to the beginning of the novel, the Mifflins agree to host a friend’s daughter, Tatiana (ref: Midsummer Night’s Dream) to give her a taste of being a bookseller, an appropriate occupation for a rich and unfettered bright young woman, and through this apprenticeship is brought in a young inquisitive newspaper reporter (the love interest) and the strange events happening around a particular book titled “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches…” by Thomas Carlyle (1845). (Don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either.)

Mrs J Graham Menzies in the role of Titania, Queen of the FairiesAs the story continues, it turns out to have three main threads: the love of books and reading, the love interest of the young couple, and then the potential cloak-and-dagger spy ring (so there’s quite a bit going on). Add to that an impressive array of vocabulary and literary and classical references, and this book is not for sissies. At first, I was taking notes of all the new words and refs that I came across, but there were so many that, in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to finish the read in a timely manner (and also thoroughly immerse myself in the plot) that the note-taking would have to calm down. I’m pretty sure that you can follow the plot without knowing all the meanings, but I think you’d probably miss quite a few of the clever references. Still, you’d have a good idea of what was going on, action-wise, so it depends on how nerdy you’d like to be, really.

(Actually, just noticed that Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a list of all the literary books that are referenced throughout the novel which looks a fun way to spend some time. Or not. :-))

Morley was a writer and journalist who had a maths professor for a father and a literary and musically talented person for his mother. It’s obvious that he grew up in an educated and literate household, and he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied from three years.

He moved in literary circles and, out of his enthusiasm for the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes, co-founded the “Baker Street Irregulars”, an exclusive and rather prestigious club at the time. By the time that he died, Morley had written more than 100 books and even had a movie made out of one of his novels (Kitty Foyle [1939]) which I’m interested in tracking down.

So, not only does his writing reflect his life, but the book is also quite autobiographical in that his real-life wife was also called Helen, they lived in several of the cities mentioned in the plot, and he really did hang out with a social group that used to spend time at another bookshop in Greenwich Village. This bookshop had the tradition of having all its authors, publishers et al. sign the door as they entered and/or left the premises and in fact, when it closed, the signed door was shipped and sent to the Harry Ransom Center (UT) for safekeeping. “A door to the past” indeed with its more than 240 signatures on it.

So – really enjoyed this read once I understood that this was going to include a caper or two, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books (and who doesn’t, TBH?)

(With this said, expect a “New Words to Me” post coming up in the next week or so.)

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (2009)

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Sometimes I happen to pick up the perfect book to read for one reason or another, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn just ended up being one of those incredible experiences. I’d been having just an OK reading life lately – nothing too exciting (although the African-Am titles in Feb were great) – and was strolling around looking for a domestic novel of sorts: nothing that dramatic and with a good story about everyday lives with easily relatable characters. Brooklyn was a perfect storm of great reading for me, and, as you can probably surmise, I loved every minute of reading it.

It’s an Irish novel set in fairly recent times (mid-20th century?) with a young woman growing up in a small town with not much to offer her. Her family’s priest knows another Irish priest in Brooklyn who is willing to set her up with a new life out there in the already well-established Irish neighborhood and her parents feel that it’s an opportunity that she could not turn down. This novel follows that journey and protagonist Eilis Lacey as she travels forth into the great unknown and a new life.

Toibin is a well known Irish author (see review of his 2005 The Blackwater Lightship here), and after thoroughly enjoying my read of the Irish writer Edna O’Brien Country Girls trilogy of novels, thought this would be a good pick for now. Additionally, I’d just seen the really good film adaptation of Brooklyn the other day and after having really enjoyed that, thought I would do a brief compare-and-contrast (as you do).

So it’s a narrative arc that’s not really that thrilling when you look at it from a distance, but when you are immersed in Eilis’ life throughout the story, it was such a strong pull for me to continue reading to find out how things worked out for the characters. In fact, it was so strong that I ended up staying really late a couple of nights as I just had to find out what Eilis chose in the end. (And I’m a dormouse usually, sleeping-wise.)

I’m not sure what exactly was so perfect about this book. The writing was great, the narrative arc was strong (without being predictable), but I think it was the actual characters (especially Eilis and her friend Tony) who really pulled me back into the pages each time. I became so immersed in their story that whenever I did end up putting the book down (for sleep and life etc.), it was a struggle to not pick up the story at every chance that I could get.

It’s a great feeling to have such a connection with a book’s story and characters, so all praise must surely go to Toibin for inventing such characters and then writing about them in such a way that I was really pretty riveted for the whole read.

I know. This sounds a bit gushy, but if you’re looking for a REALLY good read, a read that sucks you in and then keeps you there (even when you’re doing something else), you may want to try Brooklyn. It will definitely end up on my list of favorite books for the year, and I’m jazzed to try more of his work now. It was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and other big booky prizes, all of which it deserves if you ask me.

Highly recommended. (The film is good too, btw.)