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”

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1001 Books, American Mythology, Classics, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fiction, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, Mythology

Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 37


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

Nick Carraway, our “honest” narrator, is a small-town, Midwestern boy who once spent some time in New York with the greatest man he has ever known, Jay Gatsby.  To Nick, Gatsby is the embodiment of the American Dream.  He is rich, powerful, attractive, and elusive.  Gatsby is surrounded by an aura of mystery and illusion, not unlike L. Frank Baum’s Great and Powerful Oz.  And, like the wizard of Oz, Gatsby and all that he stands for turn out to be nothing more than carefully crafted, delicate constructs.  Gatsby is the dream of a man who does not exist, living in a world where he does not belong.  Although Nick, at first, understands that Gatsby is far from being who pretends to be, it does not take long for Nick to give in to the dream and to believe wholeheartedly (or to willingly consent to suspend disbelief) in the ideals that Gatsby represents.  Ultimately, Nick falls in love with Gatsby, or at least with the fantasy world that Gatsby champions; and, a romantic at heart, Nick helps Gatsby to preserve his dream and to pursue his one primary quest: Daisy Buchanan.    


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel.  He is simultaneously the one person who seems to see through Gatsby and to understand the facade, but also the person who most adores Gatsby and who cherishes the dream that this man represents.  Carraway must continually lie to and deceive himself, while attempting to reassure the reader of his honest nature and unbiased intentions.  Gatsby, or James Gatz, is fascinating in that he represents all aspects of the American Dream, from the tireless pursuit of it to the actual embodiment of it, and also, tragically, the loss of it (or realization that it does not really exist).  The other characters, Daisy & Tom Buchanan, Mr. Gatz (Gatsby’s father) Jordan Baker, and others are all interesting and important in their relationship to Gatsby.  We see Daisy as the traditional Jazz Age “flapper” – a woman interested only in beauty and riches; she returns Gatsby’s interest only because he is so materially advantaged.  Tom is the representative of “Old Money” and its condescension to but vehement dislike of the nouveau-riche.  He is racist, sexist and wholly unconcerned for anyone but himself.   Jordan Baker, the artists, and others represent the various unspoken but ever-present notions of sexual exploration, individualism, and self-gratification that are indicative of the period.  


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What typically draws readers to this book, whether or not they come away with the traditional understanding of the novel (a love story, a censure on the American Dream, etc.) is its strikingly beautiful prose.  There are moments of description in this narrative which nearly take one’s breath away, particularly as they often come unexpectedly.  Fitzgerald’s brilliance lies in his ability to undercut his every thought, showing both the positive and negative arguments of a situation within the very same paragraph (or sentence, even).  This is perhaps best demonstrated in the final page of the novel, where the beauty of the dream that is Gatsby is contrasted with the disillusionment of those pursuing the dream.  Fitzgerald explores the power of the American Dream, the heart-pounding, soul-shaking evocation of those early American immigrants who looked upon the new shores with such hope and longing, with such pride and eager determination, only to be crushed by the never-ending struggle to achieve the unattainable; to be trapped in a timeless, ageless, persistent dream that never amounts to anything but the dream.  Fitzgerald’s prose and construction somehow manage to capture all of this, as the actions and events of the story itself do.  It is a wondrous sight to behold and perhaps the primary reason why so many consider this to be the greatest American novel, and certainly Fitzgerald’s magnum opus.


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

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is quite possibly the most widely-read piece of American Literature.  But, while it is read by many, it is understood by few.  For the majority of readers, The Great Gatsby is a love story.  Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are the 1920s American Romeo & Juliet – two star-crossed lovers whose destinies are intertwined and whose fates are tragically sealed from the beginning; however, the love story is a facade.  Does Gatsby love Daisy?  Sure, but only insomuch as he has built up the idea of Daisy in his mind.  Does Daisy love Gatsby?  Not in the least – he was a whim for her when they were young, and he is desirable to her because of his wealth when they are older.   Other readers find the novel to be a depressing critique of the so-called American Dream, one which, perhaps, can never truly be reached.  Similar to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, this story predicts a bleak fate for America.  No matter how hard one works or how much one achieves, the American Dreamer will always want more – satisfaction & contentment can never be achieved.  This, in my opinion, is closer to the true nature and purpose of The Great Gatsby, but not quite all.  This is not a love story, nor is it strictly about one man’s striving for the American Dream.  Instead, it is a story about a restless nation.  It is a story about wealth and the disparity between “Old Money” and “New Money.”  Fitzgerald, through his narrator, Nick Carraway, has created a dreamy, illusory vision of a society of dreamers – shallow, unfilled people who are rising too fast, consuming too much.  Their children are neglected, their relationships disrespected, and their spirits crushed beneath the weight of soulless riches.  This is the story of The Lost Generation and the lies they must tell in order to continue living every day when they are so sad, lonely, and disillusioned.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Modernism, American Mythology, Idealism, Jazz Age, American History, Prohibition, Unreliable Narrators, Anti-Semitism, Racism, Class/Wealth in America.


Notable Quotes:

“What foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

“That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

“He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow 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.”

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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Dance, Expatriate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, Flappers, Jazz Age, Literary History, Literature, Psychology, Zelda Fitzgerald

Review: Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Save  Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 16


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the troubled wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous American writers of all-time.  Save Me the Waltz is her first and only novel, one which is largely autobiographical and which covers  approximately the same time period as her husband’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night.  Both books fictionalize the couple’s life in Paris together, but each from their own perspective.  While Tender is the Night deals with F. Scott’s attempt at handling his wife’s eccentric nature (and ultimate mental breakdown), Save Me the Waltz is much more about Zelda’s hopes and dreams and her sense of being overshadowed in most regards by her husband’s great success.  Zelda Fitzgerald was considered to be one of the first American “Flappers” – a glamorous and materialistic woman whose greatest hope was to become a superior ballerina, though she only pursued dance late in life. The story itself is interesting in that it reveals Zelda’s perspective on F. Scott as well as her interpretation of that great American time period known as “The Roaring ‘20s.”


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The majority of the characters aside from Alabama (Zelda), David (F. Scott) and Bonnie (their daughter) are relatively flat and, at times, even incongruous (characters’ names spelled in different fashions, eye colors changing, etc.).  What Fitzgerald does well, though, is creating characters in relation to Alabama.  The dance instructors and love interests, for example, all come to life quite unexpected because of the way they interact with Alabama.  The relationship between David and Alabama is drawn extraordinarily well and, in fact, reminds me of a lovers’ relationship written by Hemingway in The Garden of Eden.  It is tortuously romantic – hopeless and beautiful at the same time.  It makes sense that this would be the most aptly developed relationship, considering it is at the core of the story (and the primary impetus for Zelda’s writing the story in the first place).  Little Bonnie’s character is also quite charming and her relationship with her Dad is lovely, particularly near the end. 


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

This book has been both praised and derided for its prose and style.  The structure is sound and relatively traditional; however, the prose and language itself is quite odd.  At times, it reminds me of a less sexual, female version of William S. Burroughs, as there are oftentimes breaks into vivid streams of consciousness, where one has to wonder if passages were written in a fury of (drunken? drugged?) rage; while these moments are sometimes over-the-top and even inexplicable or largely irrelevant, they are also quite beautiful.  There’s a bizarre honesty to the breaks in tempo and the seemingly random items which Fitzgerald chooses to romanticize through language.  As a lover of creative storytelling and free prose, I was quite enamored by it.  Still, for some readers the prose could be distracting or even exasperating as it is, in many ways, self-indulgent and can come across as a novice creative writing student’s first, best work. 


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

When Zelda Fitzgerald originally wrote this book, it was much more accusatory and obviously biographical than the version which was ultimately published.  Her husband believed that she had created the book in a fit of self-destruction, hoping to destroy her (and his) reputations. F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Max Perkins, “assisted” Zelda with revisions.  Although historical evidence (letters, manuscripts, etc.) seem to prove that their part in the revision process was limited and mostly geared toward making elements and characters who were modeled after real-life events and individuals more obscure, Zelda would later accuse her husband of forcing her to change the book entirely and also allege that he stole her original manuscript to write his own (Tender is the Night).  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book, then, is in its history and historical significance.  Much can be learned about the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and personalities not only by reading the story (as the two main characters are modeled directly after F. Scott and Zelda), but also in researching the creation of the book itself, as well as F. Scott’s similarly themed novel (which is ultimately much more despondent).


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literary History, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dance, Paris, Italy, Expatriate American, Jazz Age, Roaring ‘20s, Family, Schizophrenia, Creative Non-Fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue.”

“The heat pressed down about the earth inflating the shadows, expanding the door and window ledges till the summer split in a terrific clap of thunder.  You could see the trees by the lightning flashes gyrating maniacally and waving their arms about like furies.”

“People are always running all over the place to escape each other, having been sure to make a date for cocktails in the first bar outside the limits of convenience.” 

“The troubles with emergencies is that I always put on my finest underwear and then nothing happens.”

“A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird.  From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.”

“People are like Almanacs, Bonnie – you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”

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