Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dust Jacket Description:

No one ever knew who Gatsby was

Some said he had been a German spy, others that he was related to one of Europe's royal families. Nearly everyone took advantage of his fabulous hospitality. And it was fabulous. In his superb Long Island home he gave the most amazing parties, and not the least remarkable thing about them was that few people could recognize their host. He seemed to be a man without a background, without history; whose eyes were always searching the glitter and razzamatazz for something...someone?

The Great Gatsby is one of the great love stories of our time. In it the author distilled the essences of glamour and illusion so powerfully that his book has haunted and tantalized generations of readers.





Characters:
Again, like in my Lolita review, I am completely baffled by the dust jacket's falsehood. While I would agree that this novel is a love story, I will tell anyone who is willing to hear that it is not a love story between two people. No, it's a love story between a man and everything we all stretch towards but never fully attain.

It's hard to place what Gatsby is truly in love with. He certainly goes to great efforts to appeal to his first love, Daisy Buchanan. He becomes wealthy to win Daisy, but he first fell in love with Daisy's cushioned universe rather than herself. He's not quite content with his old lover and not quite content with money. He chases both despite not wanting what either is, but what they represent: he wants an easy life, connection, to be worth something, to matter. His dream is so big and abstract that he has let a woman become his vessel to it, and he hasn't bothered to sufficiently name the desire itself. The problem with his desires are that they can never be possessed. Even once Gatsby has money, he is scorned by Tom, Daisy's husband, because it's "new" money. (Which I always thought was a hilarious judgement for Americans to make, as the spirit of the prejudice comes from the old English ideals America is supposed to detest).

Gatsby is not content with being on the precipice of Daisy's reality. He wants to be the definition of her existence, like she is his. Gatsby wants Daisy to have never loved Tom. It isn't enough for her to love him, he needs to erase parts of her past and put him there. He needs to be the only one, because if he's not, it means he was insufficient at one time. He will never get his former connection with her back. He can't stand the thought, because while Daisy is clever and shining, she is vapid and bored and scared, devoid of passion or hardship. Her world of ease and delight compelled Gatsby at the beginning of their romance, but even with all the financial means one can ask for, he is still not inside of her history. He can never be. And that is the precise heartbreak of the novel.

Gatsby is the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. Even being Canadian, it took my American friend to point out how he supports the country's ideology for me to turn my focus away from Fitzgerald's use of enigmas. There are many works of art that focus on the struggle from poverty to wealth, and I have heard the story many times. Fitzgerald is not interested in the facts though; he wants to pursue why we want them and if they ultimately lead to happiness. Fitzgerald's answer is most definitely a no, but even his narrator is mesmerized by swirling lights and pampered people that embody the upper classes.

Ah, Nick Carraway in and of himself is a brilliant specimen. The Great Gatsby needed a storyteller who was a little enamoured with the rich, far enough removed from the situation to see the characters for what they were, and fully wrong in their own perception of themselves. Nick Carraway is exactly that, and he acts as a dull James Gatz, an early Gatsby without the drive or the charm. His very existence satirizes many points of the novel, and Jordan Baker works as the rip in his facade of honesty without judgement.

As for the rest of the characters, I've never seen a person like Tom Buchanan so perfectly described, and everyone helps create the ambiance of unhappy security. This book, in its depiction of American ideas and the pedestals we put them on - is brilliant. 5 flowers.

Writing:
Fitzgerald's use of metaphors is stunning. The disembodied eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg make an interesting point about God's relevance to daily life. But it also says something about a world far removed from the West and East Eggs. Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's billboard is not in the center of Long Island. It is not on Broadway, or by Gatsby's rich mansion. It's in the Valley of Ashes, dirty, beaten up, and mostly forgotten. There is also the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby can view from his house. The representation of a dream so far removed from reality that it loses meaning once he's seen Daisy. Even Fitzgerald's constant use of yellow and gold states something about wealth and its imagery in our society.

The words in The Great Gatsby are beautiful, but they also make fun of themselves at moments. Their insightful, arrogant nature only works through Nick Carraway's hypocritical eyes, and so the book seems to laugh at its own musings from time to time. I loved the various layers that the book has, and it'll make exceptional rereading material years to come. 5 flowers.

Plot:
This book's short length was surprising, but it was perfectly paced for the story. In fact, I think making it longer might have erased the mystery and ambiguity of the novel. It never dragged on or took itself too seriously, but of course that's the opposite of Gatsby's whole point. Some parts could have been more clearly illustrated, but again, it could just be my deficiency as a reader. 4 and a half flowers.

Ending:
I think it's completely appropriate and hits the story's point right on the nose. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description:
I like the imagery it creates, but it doesn't tell the reader anything. This book may be a better read without a lot of description, though. 3 flowers.

Cover:
I hate faces on covers. However, I like the old world feel of the illustration, even if not its actual content. 3 flowers.

Overall:
I can see why this book is adored. The Great Gatsby can be read in many different ways based upon a reader's priorities, and that is its brilliance. Whether you read for its depiction of the American Dream, enigmas and human connection, or some other overarching theme I've failed to discover, it is satisfying. It's a book that echoes its own protagonist's smile, and that is a feat all its own. 5 flowers.




Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Educate Emma: TV: Sherlock, Season 2

Yes, I'm wholly unoriginal with my obsession with Sherlock, but sometimes jumping on the British bandwagon leads to brilliance. I have not read the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this is one of my favourite modernizations of an original story. That should say something.

I definitely preferred season two to season one. This is not necessarily in the quality of the episodes, but how emotions were dealt with and relationships deepened. Sherlock is an easy character to let stagnant in emotional development, but fortunately for Sherlock's audience, the writers allowed him to grow further. The cinematography is as gorgeous as ever and the writing maintains its witty intelligence. Some of the plots were complicated enough to make me resort to Wikipedia, but I'm not entirely sure if this is the show's fault for lack of clarity or me just being stupid. Regardless, the season is still biting, heartbreaking, and frightfully
clever.

Now, Sherlock wasn't flawless. Irene Adler is most definitely a 'strong woman' written by the hands of men. While she starts as brilliant, fearless, observant, and interesting, she ends up turning into a female archetype we've seen countless times before: a sexy damsel-in-distress who makes boys squirm, and doesn't spend a lot of time on her own ideas. I hate to say such things about the man who crafted characters such as River Song and Amy Pond. However, certain things must be said, and Irene Adler turns into a disappointing dud by the end of the season opener. It's easy to see Irene being redeemed in future seasons as independent and clever, but her introduction this episode starts strong and ends weak. That was dissatisfying to view.

I did love how Mrs. Hudson was shown, and how John and Sherlock's relationship evolves once again. A Scandal in Belgravia may be hard to follow and disappointing in new characterization, and The Hounds of Baskerville lacking in the emotion I wanted, but this season thrives as a whole rather than the parts. The little and consistent things are what makes Sherlock so worth watching, like the exchanges between John and Sherlock, the jabs of humor during big twists, and the stunning intelligence of the plots. Gatiss and Moffat maintain the gems of Sherlock and still further its character progression at every turn. That's why it's the season itself, rather than the episodes, that make this story so great.

Sherlock is guaranteed to possess a certain level of quality in each episode, and so it lets me relax when I watch it. If you want to cozy yourself up to some familiar personalities and great dialogue, please view it. The English know their television.

Favourite episode: The Reichenbaich Fall is perfection in its emotional resonance. The feelings it spurs are heartbreaking, and it helps the show reach new heights.

Least favourite episode: From a reviewer and feminist's point of view, it's Scandal in Belgravia. If we're talking about emotions and the journey of an audience member, it's The Hounds of Baskerville. I'll let you decide.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Educate Emma: January Overview

Okay, so maybe reading The Gemma Doyle Trilogy for the fifth time and exams took up more time than I expected. Maybe I'm going to be starting Educate Emma officially next week instead of last month. But it's still happening! It just took me a little while. Anyways, I thought a monthly overview would be a good way of keeping both you and I aware of how well I've kept up with my goals. Obviously in January I didn't do quite as well, but that is changing! I promise you.

Books: -2, since I never count my rereads.

Movies: -2. Yeah, this lady fails exceptionally.

Albums: -2. Do I have to say it again?

TV Seasons: 1: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4.

Plays: 1: Oleanna by David Mamet, which leaves me with -1 for my goal.

Pretty bad, I will give you. But I'll accomplish all my cultural goals this month! If I don't, you can still buy an Edward Cullen doll to punish me.

Educate Emma: Theatre: Oleanna by David Mamet

Oleanna might have just been the perfect play to start off my Educate Emma feature. After all, plays that provoke such intense debates usually lead to reviews that inspire thoughts in both the blogger and her reader. And that's my entire mission this year, isn't it?

I have an intense love of studying gender politics and power play. Oleanna struck at my passion, as it's about a college student, Carol, and her pompous, condescending professor named John. While their dynamic seems to be fairly usual for the confines of their relationship, it turns intense when she files for sexual harassment to the tenure board.

Carol struggles with the course her professor teaches. She's the classic awkward schoolgirl who goes into shock when she finds out about the freedom college allows. She doesn't seem to have a fighting bone in her body. Carol is dumbfounded at the concept of giving her opinion or thinking for herself. The professor's arrogant attempts to prompt her into doing so within the first act leave her feeling idiotic. She's mousey, uncomfortable, and she's the perfect archetype of a lot of scared, blinded, ambitious girls in my life.

The professor is your classic male teacher drunk on the power of "informing" his students. His mission, it seems, is to be convoluted and sexist. He rants about the downfalls of education despite using his title as platform for that belief. He's not really interested in Carol's opinions at all, but he's not spoon feeding her the way secondary school did. It leaves Carol clutching at straws. Not to mention that his unhelpful and power motivated behavior hasn't led her to understand anything.

Carol soon develops power from calling the professor on his own biases, and that dynamic creates the true soul of the play.

What is truly interesting about Oleanna is how the slightest change in dynamic sends an entirely different message to the audience. Directors always have a significant amount of power in how they can change tone and staging, but Oleanna's intrigue resides in how transparent a director's message is in the subtlest of decisions. As I see it, there are two main points within the play a director could highlight: how gender roles and sexuality change power, and how power imbalances in the nightmare of post-secondary education leave little for learning. This director decided to focus on the latter. And while that latter point is one that has a lot of merit, there is not enough substance within the script to make it worthy of stripping a professor of their tenure. The former seems to be the one Mamet himself is more focused on, and while the performance's different direction doesn't contradict Mamet's, it's unable to pack the same punch.

In fact, the play is virtually sexless, since the professor declares his authority through powerful manipulation of a student rather than the sexual violation of a woman. If Carol could have made it sexier, she certainly doesn't, as her acting seems to be more of a fourteen year old playing at sexuality than a young adult.

Both actors did a great job of showing the clear contrast in mannerisms between the two characters, and the professor is rather excellent at making the education-oriented focus known. Carol's outburst in the first act feels false though, and there is not enough of an undercurrent of anger and resentment in her personality to make her emotional progression ring true in future acts.

Regardless, the play's most viscerally stunning points still poke through. None appear as well as the one presented in the actions of the last two minutes of the play. Mamet's script is raw, intense and powerful, and in those fleeting end moments, the staging reflects that message in its full form.

I can only wonder if it would have maintained that tone through if it were played differently.

The actual point: While the play did not focus on the questions I found the most interesting, it is solid piece that does inspire compelling thoughts. I doubt the performance left any audience members numb and unthinking.