American Lit, Anita Loos, Book Review, Epistolary, Feminism, Fiction, Gender Studies, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, PhD

Thoughts: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

512704Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 11

I first read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in graduate school (2007?), as part of a 20th Century American Literature class. I loved that class, and the professor, because we read primarily unexpected texts – important ones, and ones which said much about the culture and politics of the time, but books which are nonetheless often overlooked, particularly in the classroom setting (such as Nathanael West’s, Day of the Locust, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, etc.). What I loved about the book when I first read it was its humor. Anita Loos’s protagonist, Lorelei Lee, a genuine flapper and perhaps America’s first sensational gold-digger, is also the epitome (perhaps the originator) of the all-too-recognizable “blonde joke.” Her story is one of “education” and “morals” – a girl who is on a journey to improve herself, except that improvement, in Lorelei’s case, simply means getting her hands on as many jewels and as much money as she possibly can.

Along for the ride is Lorelei’s best friend, Dorothy, who, while a flapper, is much more sensible than Lorelei and truly is in search of love, rather than money – a claim Lorelei makes of herself all along, but the evidence repeatedly says otherwise. Dorothy is outspoken and direct about what she wants, and this attitude – though feminists might champion it- cause Lorelei to think that it is Dorothy who is in need of “education” and “improvement.” The joke, of course, is that it is Lorelei whose choices are highly suspect and rather immoral.

Upon reading the book for a second time (this time for a Gender Studies course in my doctoral program), I find that I love all of the same things, including the humor, the wit, and the wild adventures, but I also responded strongly to the bond between Dorothy and Lorelei and also to the subversive themes, particularly women in traditional male roles (dominating sexual/romantic relationships, traveling abroad without chaperones, etc.). Much of what this book is about, and why it is so great, can be summed up by the following passage:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of a gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

The spelling and grammar errors, the flippant attitude, the game of conceal and reveal (quite prevalent in this book – she has a lot of sexual encounters, for instance, though she never, ever specifically mentions them. She does, however, mention that this “diary” of hers might be given to a gentleman, one day, so we know she’s not revealing everything), the faux-innocence, it’s all here. What is interesting about Lorelei is that she seems to think that everything is a result of fate. She never takes responsibility for the things she does, though she is a character of extreme agency. For instance, when the above scene is referred to again later, Lorelei never says “I shot the man;” instead, see says that “Mr. Jennings came to be shot.” This victim-esque mentality comes about in many ways, as when she is “abused” by wealthier men and women, whom she will later exact revenge upon (though she was in the wrong in the first place), or in her general gold-digging nature – she believes she is a girl “that things happen to,” which leaves her free to make all sorts of dubious decisions and not feel any kind of guilt or remorse about them. She is a woman with a bad reputation (which even Dorothy jokes about, though Lorelei never “gets” the joke) – she’s understood by others to be sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt, yet she doesn’t see these things in herself; ironically, she ultimately seeks “saving” (rather than “education”) by marrying a religious man who works as a censor (hilarious considering both Lorelei’s personality as well as Anita Loos’s career as a screenwriter).

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_posterThis book has received wide and varied reactions, from James Joyce who fell in love with it and reserved his ailing eyesight for the serial installments (the book having first been published in chapters, through Harper’s Bazaar) and Edith Wharton, who called it “the great American novel;” to William Faulkner, who absolutely loathed it. Many people are familiar with the 1950s film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The film, too, is brilliant, but readers should keep in mind that the two are very different. Much of the book’s essence is changed to suit the 1950s mentality and to strengthen the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy (a relationship which is often stained in the book, but which is paramount in the film). Leaving the film aside, which one might argue is perhaps more feminist, the book is deceptively complex. Lorelei comes across, in her diary, as a type of brainless valley girl, full of “Like’s” and “So’s;” but this is Loos’s genius. She exposes the underbelly of 1920s hypocrisy and morality in a raw and humorous way. As Loos herself mentions in the introduction, this book was enormously popular in Russia, where it was likened to the dreary, often fatalistic social works of Tolstoy and this is because, leaving out the humor, Loos’s depiction of the world, of capitalism, sexual commodities, body image, and the treatment of women, is all very bleak. It’s a fun ride but, somehow, a dangerously serious one, too.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Studies, Feminism, Women’s Literature, 1920s American Literature, Flappers, Jazz Age, Modernism, Epistolary.

Notable Quotes:
“Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.”

“Does this boat go to Europe, France?”

“Memory is more incredible than ink.”

“I always think that the most delightful thing about traveling is to always be running into Americans and to always feel at home.”

“Fate keeps on happening”

Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Drugs, Epistolary, Favorites, Fiction, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Psychology, Sexuality, Stephen Chbosky, Young Adult

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 15

Disclosure:  This is a book that I have read five times, now, but have yet to review.  The first three times I read it were in the pre-blogging days, so naturally I could not have posted any thoughts about it.  The fourth time, I wrote a brief comment but could not bring myself to write anything constructive. This time, I set out to read the book with the intent of reviewing it. 

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a wallflower.  Like a wallflower, there is something strangely beautiful about him.  He is silent but observant; shy but determined to please; introverted but filled with love and compassion.  His story starts in August, 1991, just as he is about to begin his first year of high school, and it ends almost exactly one year later.  He has lost someone close to him and is clearly confused about how to deal with his feelings about this loss (amongst the other complicated growing pains he experiences); so, he decides to begin writing letters to a stranger – someone who he once overheard a mutual friend talking about.  The recipient of Charlie’s letters is never disclosed – we do not know his/her name or age, his/her profession or relationship to the people in the story, just that s/he is considered trustworthy and addressed by Charlie as “Dear Friend.”  This friend becomes the unwitting conduit for Charlie’s coming-of-age.  In this year of his life, he builds and compromises friendships; he is exposed for the first time to some of the darker elements of life; he learns to drive and to dance; he goes to parties and reads books. Most importantly, though, Charlie becomes Charlie.  He blossoms from a wallflower into a “participant” – and he learns how to feel infinite.  

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Since the entire book is comprised of letters written by one character, to one person, it would be easy to question the narrator’s reliability and to wonder about the development or accurate representation of the other characters involved.  Charlie, however, seems to have only one major fault, and that is honesty (as when he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and doesn’t kiss his girlfriend).  While Charlie certainly seems to have mental issues – possibly a mild form of schizophrenia (many other reviews seem to think he is Autistic, but I would disagree) – he never comes across as the type to mislead his audience, particularly as the audience is, for all intents and purposes, just one person, his “Dear Friend” and the only one in whom Charlie confides everything.  The narrator’s reliability being established, then, allows the reader to believe Charlie’s story and to watch as he grows through experience and heals through memory, acceptance, and forgiveness.  While other characters in the book, including Charlie’s family and friends, and his favorite teacher, Bill, do not evolve as much as Charlie, they are, however, natural characters, believable in every way.  The situations these people find themselves in, from first loves and broken romances, to family holidays and personal tragedies, are written with a realistic passion, as one who is watching and engaged in the drama but who has nothing to gain from sensationalism would write them.  This makes the events, though not experienced by each of us, relevant to all, because they are facts of life. In the end, these characters are just people and these people are just living.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

At one point in the story, Charlie’s teacher, Bill, tells him that some books are “very easy to read but very hard to ‘read well.’”  This book just happens to fit that mold – its language is simple and straightforward, but it is littered with sub-context and deeper elements which are introduced at the start of the story, nursed throughout, then, finally, come to fruition at the end. 

The novel is structured in a one-way epistolary format.  It is almost a diary, except that each entry is a letter to an unknown stranger, and that stranger never responds.  Because these letters are being sent off to someone who is not expected to reply, and because (we can assume) no copies of the letters are being retained by Charlie, they tend to be much more personal and provocative than even a diary or journal might be (because, subconsciously, we all worry that someone might find our diaries and expose our secrets, or at least confront us with them – which is of particular concern when the writer is a teenager living at home with his parents and siblings).  For this reason, because the letters are assumed secret, they are simultaneously simple but revelatory. 

While researching other thoughts and opinions on the book, I have found that one of the primary points of contention for many readers is the underdevelopment (so they say) of the main character, Charlie.  Throughout the book, we discover that Charlie is considered to be a rather smart individual.  He is given extra projects by his English teacher and he regularly receives perfect scores/grades on his schoolwork.  Some have wondered, then, why Charlie writes in such a simplistic way.  Looking back, though, and reading critically, there are two things to keep in mind: first, that Charlie is considered to be smart for his age; he is at no point called a “genius” or “brilliant” or any other superior term- just smart; second, Charlie himself admits early on to preferring common vocabulary, as opposed to loftier language (which he finds pompous and pointless).  In contemporary Young Adult fiction, a trend has developed wherein teenage characters are given the narrative or dialogic voice of Ivy League college graduates.  This is, I think, unfair to the readers and, though it might make the characters more interesting and the story more edifying, it does not represent the typical teenage voice.  Chbosky, on the other hand, aims to depict an honest teenage writer, one who is not composing essays or communicating with scholars, but who is simply writing letters.  These letters allow him to release emotion and, eventually, to reconnect him with some deeply-buried, painful and important memories.  His writing allows him to heal – it is simple but poignant and, most of all, it is real.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

This is absolutely a story which tackles many issues, from rape and abortion, to teenage sex, drugs, and suicide.  Some readers might find the amount of dramatic material overwhelming or off-putting, but when one compares this story to others which approach teenage life in a similar way, such as Go Ask Alice, it is clear that The Perks of Being a Wallflower aims to be nothing but honest.  Charlie is an unconventional narrator and his story is composed in an unconventional way but, ultimately, he is just a confused American teenager trying to find himself in a world that seems to be always changing.  Not every one of us will have dealt with all (or any) of these issues, in high school or as adults, but these things do happen and wishing them away –ignoring them- will not change their reality.  Charlie, like some readers, does sometimes disengage himself from the more disturbing things that have happened to him, or around him – but the moral of the story is that growing-up means learning to live and learning to live means participating in what goes on around us.  Ready or not, life happens – there is good in it and there is bad in it, but the meaning of life is in how we live it; it is whether we choose to navigate our own way or to get lost in the current; to be the wallflower, or the participant.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Coming-of-Age, Family, Friendship, Identity, Sexuality, Abuse, Drugs, Psychology

Notable Quotes:

“Things change.  And friends leave.  And life doesn’t stop for anybody.”

“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have.  I need to know that these people exist.”

“So, this is my life.  And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

“I really think that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.”

“What’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably?  I just don’t understand that.”

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.”

“I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.”

“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”

“Everyone else is either asleep or having sex.  I’ve been watching cable television and eating jello.”

“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons.  And maybe we’ll never know most of them.  But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.  We can still do things.  And we can try to feel okay about them.”

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

Related Links:

Smash Attack Reads, Reviews The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Movie Information

Shooting Stars Mag Interviews Stephen Chbosky

1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Detective Novel, Epistolary, Mystery, Sensation Lit, Victorian, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 8 

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is widely accepted to be one of the first –and best- mystery and sensation novels.  The main character, Walter Hartright, is also considered to be one of the earliest literary detective characters – one who later inspired the development of mystery/detective genres (Hartright’s investigative techniques, for example, are later employed by private detectives in mystery novels that followed this one).  The story revolves around a few characters who are at first drawn together by chance, but then become involved in an elaborate plot of deception, orchestrated by the ingenuous Count Fosco and his cold-as-ice wife, who just happens to be the slighted aunt of our main character’s love interest, Lady Glyde.  Lives are threatened, identities are stolen, and more than one man’s (and woman’s) place in the world is in jeopardy.  How are Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick’s (The Woman in White) destinies intertwined – and why do they look so strikingly similar?  When Lady Glyde and Marian are doomed by the devious count, will Walter – a simple art teacher with no resources and no friends- manage to piece together enough evidence to vindicate the unfortunate women – before it’s too late?  

4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The range and depth of characters in The Woman in White is impressive, to say the least.  If Collins has one advantage over Dickens, it is that his characters are a bit richer – a bit more interesting and realistic than Dickens’s characters, who often become grotesques.  Count Fosco is perhaps one of the most brilliantly drawn characters in literature – ranking along-side Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in the perverse, unpleasant yet satisfactory enjoyment he brings to the reader’s experience with the story.  Collins has a way of creating characters that are downright evil, but with intermittent, surprising bits of good – or genuinely good, with moments of badness.  He writes truly human characters, flawed but perfect in the same breath.  Drawn thusly, the mystery aspect of the novel is further richened because one can never be entirely sure that we are seeing the true nature of any character at any given moment – after a few hundred pages of wondering just how dastardly  a character can get, he suddenly surprises the reader with a moment of genuine sensitivity or compassion.   Minor characters, too, such as Anne Catherick’s mother and Mr. Fairlie, Lady Glyde’s uncle, bring additional elements – like comic relief or historical significance, to Hartright’s narrative, increasing the complexity of the story while simultaneously further committing the reader to the main characters and their destinations.  Ultimately, the dénouement –beautiful as it is – could not have been achieved without clever assembly of characterization throughout the entire story, which is finally realized in a final letter, written by Count Fosco himself.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In my experience, 600-pages of Victorian literature can amount to one of two things:  transcendent literary genius, or a mentally exhaustive torture device.  In the case of Collins and The Woman in White, the prose was far from prosaic (Haha… get it?).  Okay, jokes aside, this is one of those pieces of literature you could recommend to someone who doesn’t read literature.  The style and language are just that good, and the story just that engaging.  The pace is well-measured, so even though there is plenty of description and flushing out of details, the story rarely, if ever, stalls.  Something in the way Collins has designed the tale (perhaps in large part due to the multiple narrators, who pick up the story as ‘main character’ while it advances) makes these 600-pages flash by as if there were half as many.  The narrative voice(s) is engaging, the language is substantive without being overwrought or lofty – finishing this book is like having enjoyed a piece of gourmet cheesecake, garnished with just the right amounts of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce, and maybe even a dash of warm caramel (getting hungry yet?).  Each bite is a delight to be savored and the story as a whole, when finished, is satisfying – so much so that the reader might be licking that dessert plate clean.    

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

First – one minor issue.  The edition I read was the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, pictured above (which, incidentally, I won in a giveaway from the awesome Allie at A Literary Odyssey).  I love the edition and I love the footnotes (although I do much prefer footnotes to appear at the bottom of pages, rather than in the back – I hate having to flip back and forth).  What I discovered from the footnotes, though, was that Collins, while a fantastic writer and an even better storyteller, was not too concerned with historical and/or legal accuracies.  This is a common pitfall with serial novels that often needed new installments to be completed quickly, to meet magazine/newspaper deadlines.  So, there were frequent mentions of things Collins got wrong, usually because certain things he described (laws, inventions, etc.) were not yet in place at the time the story takes place.  Now, without the footnotes, I would not have known the difference – so it is a small complaint and not much to dwell on, considering none of the “mistakes” impacted my enjoyment of the story.  That aside, the elements that were interesting and which added to the story include:  the examination of the rights (or lack thereof) of women in the 19th century; perception of foreigners by English natives; isolation; identity theft and the legal process (thank goodness for the discovery of DNA!); fine arts and the craft of writing; hereditary rights to income and property; secret societies and politics; and, of course, love – revenge – and the nature of family.   What makes a good story a great story is not just that it is enjoyable or entertaining, not just that it is written well, with interesting content, but that all of these elements come together seamlessly – that the reader can learn about a time, place, or culture while also being entertained.  The Woman in White achieves all of this, and how.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult

Interest:  Epistolary novels, Victorian literature, Gothic novels, Sensation novels, Mystery/Amateur Detective novels, Law and justice.

Notable Quotes/Excerpts:

“Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed – but what does our own experiences say in answer to books?”

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”

“I sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.”

“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.”

“The best men are not consistent in good– why should the worst men be consistent in evil.”

Blog Post, Blog Tour, Epistolary, GLBT, J.D. Salinger, Lee Bantle

Dear Jerome: A Letter to J.D. Salinger

Dear Jerome,

Mr. Salinger.  J.D.  How would you like to be addressed, I wonder?  Of course, it’s impossible to really ask, now, so I think I’ll just go with “Jerome.”  It seems real and logical.  And you seem real and logical.   Do you want to know what’s illogical?

I was discussing with someone this letter that I meant to write to you, and the things I wanted to say.  I was explaining how it’s a letter that has been a long time coming, but that I’m nervous about writing it – maybe even a little bit afraid.  How will you react? I mean, you might think this is silly, absurd, or a waste of time (for both of us), right?  But, you’re dead.  I mean, you’re dead and you will have absolutely no opinion about or reaction to this letter whatsoever.  So, why do I still worry about it?  That’s illogical.

I think, too, you would find it funny that the inspiration for this idea comes from the story elements of another book, one in which the main characters write letters to their favorite romance authors.  Can you imagine yourself a romance author?  It’s too funny.  You’re probably the least romantic writer imaginable – except that there is a certain something about your style and your messages that are a bit amorous.  They’re romantic in some way that is almost, I don’t know, an Americanized new-Gothic, maybe?  You tell it like it is, ya know?  You look life right in the face and take its measure, and that’s romantic (even when your response to life is to spit in its eye).

So, why am I writing to you, anyway?  I guess there’s been a lot on my mind lately – a lot that you have to do with.  Some juvenile side of me always hoped to meet you one day, even though I knew you were a recluse, a famous recluse, and I was a Nobody from nowhere, with absolutely no resources.  How our meeting was to happen, I can’t figure, but I did hope for it – if only for a five minute chat about absolutely nothing, over some really bad coffee somewhere.  We wouldn’t even have to talk about your books or your “secret” writings or anything like that.  What I would really love to talk about with you is just, life.  I want to know the man that created these stories – I’ve read them, I don’t need to analyze them with you, and I know you’d hate that.

You should know, though, that in all your books – all these sad stories about seclusion, isolation, and the misunderstood genius- I get that the point was that nobody could really be connected to anyone else.  We go through life looking for these connections: true love, soul mates, relatives, partners, friendships, mentors.  The truth is, though, that you’re born cold, wet, and alone and, aside from maybe the wet part, you die the same way.  Your Seymour and Teddy and Holden, they seemed to understand this, and they seemed to be different aspects of yourself – you who surely must have realized this truth about life and reality, to be able to write about it so bare-knuckled, so sadly.

You know what, though?  We are capable of connections, Jerome.  Maybe they’re not the kind we’re raised to crave or expect.  Maybe I’ll never truly be spiritually interwoven with another human soul, because that’s physically impossible.  But, so what if we can’t make these tangible connections?  We have the ethereal ones.  Your writing, Jerome, it connected me to myself – and that’s the most important connection of all.  I grew up a boy, very different from anyone else I knew.  I was not like my family, or my friends.  I was not like the people in the movies or on those teeny-bopper TV shows that everyone loved.  I was just me, and for the longest time I was fooled into believing there was something wrong with that: we were all supposed to be alike.

Your stories showed me something else.  All these things about myself that I never understood, this overwhelming sadness and melancholy, this complete infatuation with the potential beauty of life and the world, and the despair over all its (and our) failings – feeling this on a psychologically amplified level, and being frustrated that none of the cell phone-wielding, fast-car-driving, Starbucks-drinking teenage friends of mine seemed to have a clue.  You and I, we were from very different generations, but despite yourself, I think, we connected.  You might find that funny or ironic – I guess I do too, in a way.  But, I wanted to let you know that it’s possible, after all.  Meaningful connections.

Tell Seymour for me, if you see him around.

With Love & Kindness,