F. Scott Fitzgerald

Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Bruce Willis once observed that “art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” Ms. Nafisi took a much more unorthodox approach to that axiom in Reading Lolita in Tehran. The author lived in Tehran during the late 1970s. A professor of literature by trade, she applied its lessons to the vast cultural and political changes taking place in Iran during the time period. An innovative and engaging read resulted.

Disgusted by the repression and censorship of the country’s universities, Ms. Nafisi rebelled in the way she knew best. She started a book club with a group of her students. The book’s most interesting observations concerned Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Since the author taught this material for a living, she brought up a number of erudite insights. Her personal experiences during the revolution provided her with a unique way to apply those perceptions.  She observed:

The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. (Page 33)

And:

Humbert (the protagonist of Lolita), like most dictators, was only interested in his own vision of other people. (Page 48)

Ms. Nafisi also included anecdotes from before she resigned her position. I really enjoyed how she referenced examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. She wrote, “Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels—the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.” (Page 132)

Ms. Nafisi’s most incisive quote came when she compared the character of Jay Gatsby to the Iranian Revolution.

When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (Page 144)

For a work of non-fiction the author added some outstanding lyrical flourishes.

We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. (Page 172)

This was a period of hope, true, but when we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. (Page 276)

First, none of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them. (Page 330)

The author added some fantastic interpretations of Henry James’ work.

The truth is that James, like many other great writers and artists, had chosen his own loyalties and nationality. His true country, his true home, was that of the imagination. (Page 216)

…So many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that, for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within one’s self, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels, but is seldom used in James’ universe. What James’ characters gain is self-respect. (Page 225)

From a personal standpoint, I most enjoyed her commentary on various authors and their work. I should point out that the author also included condensed biographies of all the women who took part in the book discussions. It’s always refreshing to get a sense of true human drama in non-fiction.

Ms. Nafisi wrote, “Evil in (Jane) Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them.” (Page 315) After reading this book, I developed more empathy for those who experienced the Iranian Revolution first hand. The author and her students risked arrest or worse to study some great works of literature. The fact that most of us in the West can do so without fear of punishment is not something we should ever take for granted.

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Book Review – Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died by Jim Bernhard

It seems like every person who’s ever written something famous has died at some point. So many have, in fact that (the still living) Jim Bernhard decided to write a book about it. A tome regarding such a macabre topic as death may seem morbid to some. The writer still managed to present an interesting and many times entertaining take on those who have gone before us while leaving a lasting legacy of letters in their wake.

The author structured the book by presenting short biographical sketches of various writers. He began with the Greek playwrights and concluded with the late film critic Roger Ebert. In order to liven, no pun intended, the subject matter, the author added these writers views on religion along with some witty epigrams regarding their lives and work. While not a scholarly reference book it did contain many witty and amusing anecdotes; as well as sound advice. A very engaging read resulted.

The theme of rampant alcohol abuse permeated the book. Imagine that. Jack London was an alcoholic by the age of 15, which could explain why he didn’t live past 40. Notables such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams all possessed a legendary fondness for the bottle. Mr. Bernard explored some others’ experiences with it. In fact authors’ affectation for potent potables could be traced back to Geffrey Chaucer. Mr. Bernhard wrote, “So highly regarded was he by Edward II that he was granted a gallon of wine daily for life, possibly as a reward for an early poetical work.” (Loc 586) When warned about the dangers of his alcohol abuse just prior to his death, Miguel de Cervantes said, “Many people have told me the same thing, but I can no more give up drinking for pleasure than if I had been born to do nothing else.” (Loc 655) James Thurber provided my favorite thoughts on the subject. “’One martini is all right,’ he said, ‘two are too many, and three are not enough.’” (Loc 3368)

The author also included some interesting facts about the various writers he covered. For one, I didn’t know that Thomas Hardy invented the “cliffhanger.” In an early serialized novel an episode ended with a character physically hanging off a cliff. (Loc 2580) Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first use of the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” (Loc 1445) Edgar Allan Poe only made $10 from “The Raven”. Dorothy Parker supposedly came up with all the following clichés: ball of fire, with bells on, birdbrain, face-lift, doesn’t have a prayer, scaredy-cat, the sky’s the limit, and wisecrack. (Loc 3319)

The myriad uses of humor impressed me the most about this book. The author provided an amusing take on Thomas Aquinas’ burial.

Thomas’ body was given to the Dominican order, and today most of it is in a gold and silver sarcophagus in the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France—except his right arm, which is in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a bone from his left arm, which is preserved as a relic in the cathedral of Naples. Canonized in 1323, Saint Thomas now rests in pieces. (Loc 542)

Apparently, burials amuse Mr. Bernhard. He had comparable thoughts on Dante’s interment.

His body is buried in Ravenna, and the tomb erected for him in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce remains empty. Although the Florence City Council formally revoked his exile in 2008, there is no indication Dante plans to relocate. (Loc 578)

The book’s most entertaining passage described Voltaire’s deathbed.

On the morning of May 30, Gaultier and another priest came to his bedside to exhort him once more. They asked him if he believed in the divinity of Christ. Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, don’t mention that man to me again—and let me die in peace.” Asked to renounce Satan, Voltaire observed, “This is not the time to make any more enemies.” He expired at eleven o’clock on the evening of May 30, 1778. (Loc 1199)

Rabindranath Tagore (not covered in Final Chapters) wrote, “And because I loved life, I know I shall love death as well.” I don’t know that I’ll “love” it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it in Final Chapters. While witty, the book did include some serious thoughts on the subject. The follow from Marcus Aurelius seemed a fitting one with which to conclude this piece.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. (Loc 479)

Book Review – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Page 180) Without question, F. Scott Fitzgerald crafted the perfect line. Its lyricism resonated off the page. I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever truly lived not having nostalgic flashes upon reading this text. In addition, it encapsulated the entire premise of the book in a simple sentence. This shows why The Great Gatsby is still widely read all these years following its 1925 publication.

Without question, Fitzgerald penned the greatest story of unrequited love ever written. It pained me to read the following exchange between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…” (Page 110)

Wow! That’s potent prose! It’s even more powerful when contrasted with Nick’s earlier depiction of the title character.

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of “creative temperament”-it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. (Page 2)

I’ve never encountered a better set-up for a character’s disintegration. Fitzgerald developed this so well that I empathized with and wished the best for Gatsby. I did so in spite of the cryptic references to how he made his fortune. The fillip that led him to pursue this line of action really inspired me to root for the guy.

While known more for his poetic language, Fitzgerald displayed outstanding proficiency with foreshadowing in this book. He presented it in a subtle way that still drew my attention. At one point Gatsby told Nick, “I drift here and there trying to forget the sad thing that happened to me.” (Page 67) The author made an earlier less noticeable reference similar to this, as well.

As many authors are already aware, many books on writing cite The Great Gatsby for Fitzgerald’s unusual choice of a narrator. He made Nick Carraway a second cousin to Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy. In tales such as this most writers would have used either Gatsby or Daisy as the story teller. It showed tremendous skill on the part of the author to try something more creative and to do it so memorably. He selected a challenging approach, and in doing so, made exploring the world of East Egg much more enriching.

One of the greatest tributes a person can pay an author is to read his/her work. With respect to Mr. Fitzgerald I have an even greater one. He was the writer who influenced me to take up the craft and become and author myself. I’m sure I’m not the only reader of The Great Gatsby who felt so inspired.