Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Am I terrible if I only reread this book from a desire to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby this May? Probably, but I won’t be the only one. If you haven’t had a chance to see the trailer, this is the one to make the movie seem decent, but it may convince you that The Great Gatsby is more of a love story than it is. The book relies on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic prose to flesh out a simple story; when you take away the narration, it doesn’t seem there’s enough for a movie without tedious voice-overs, but we’ll see. In a nutshell: Nick Carraway, the narrator, moves to a small house next door to Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island. After attending one of Gatsby’s opulent parties, he is asked to facilitate a meeting between him and Daisy, Gatsby’s former lover who is now married to Tom Buchanan. Gatsby intends to charm Daisy back to himself and things become tangled. This book may have been around since 1925, but I can’t bring myself to spoil the ending even if everyone read it in high school. read more

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I don’t care for capers or artichoke hearts. One night, my husband made Chicken Piccata with heaps of these ingredients. Despite this, I knew it was an objectively good dish: the chicken was well cooked, it had an interesting balance of flavors, etc., but I still asked that he not rush to cook it again. I feel the same way about Cloud Atlas. David Mitchell is uncommonly talented and there’s nothing “wrong” with his latest book, but it’s difficult to enjoy. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books you’re not allowed to hate, because if you hate it, people say: “you’re stupid; you only disliked it because you didn’t get it.” It’s an overstuffed, self-important book, and this has engendered self-righteousness amongst its more ardent fans. read more

Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The ship came down from space. It came from the stars and the black velocities, and the shining movements, and the silent gulfs of space. It was a new ship; it had fire in its body and men in its metal cells, and it moved with a clean silence, fiery and warm. In it were seventeen men, including a captain. The crowd at the Ohio field had shouted and waved their hands up into the sunlight, and the rocket had bloomed out great flowers of heat and color and run away into space on the third voyage to Mars!
Now it was decelerating with metal efficiency in the upper Martian atmospheres. It was still a thing of beauty and strength. It had moved in the midnight waters of space like a pale sea leviathan; it had passed the ancient moon and thrown itself onward into one nothingness following another. The men within it had been battered, thrown about, sickened, made well again, each in his turn. One man had died, but now the remaining sixteen, with their eyes clear in their heads and their faces pressed to the thick glass ports, watched Mars swing up under them. (43-44)

It’s against the advice of most writing guides to begin an essay/review with a quotation (a block quotation in particular), but Ray Bradbury’s voice sells itself. I can think of no other writer who better communicates a sense of wonder and joy. Full disclosure: I put off reading The Martian Chronicles until I’d read all other Bradbury stories I could find. I worried it would be another one of those awful sci-fi books to take itself too seriously and rely on ridiculous inventions and technobabble to move the plot—that brand of sci-fi doesn’t age well. While the book is centered around voyages to Mars, the technology takes a backseat to the basic thrill of exploration. I should have had more faith in Bradbury and read it sooner. read more

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Even people who don’t like this book concede it’s well written. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was on my reading list for a few years before I picked it up. I knew it had won the Pulitzer (which meant it was either brilliant or dry), but it remained unopened on my shelf. Then I read it in two sittings and loved it. It’s hard to explain how or why this book is so entertaining; it’s such an absurd story and, if you think about it too much, a very depressing one. Fortunately, Ignatius is so loud and melodramatic that thinking gets pushed to the side. Most of the laughs that come are of the ‘this is so ridiculous; I can’t believe it’ variety. read more

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction is a messy business: too much history and it’s dry; too much fiction and readers assume you don’t know your history. Few authors juggle fact and fiction more deftly than Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, but she made a mistake in her choice of copy editor. Whether or not a reader can overlook this flaw is determined by how interested they are in the story. Much has been written about Henry VIII and his many wives, but Mantel takes one of Henry’s advisers (Thomas Cromwell) as the book’s center and keeps Henry largely offstage. By doing so, she spares herself the difficulty of writing him and the book feels more authentic for it. If there is information that Cromwell is not privy to, the reader isn’t either. Any prior historical knowledge goes a long way. read more