A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
I am a ravenous reader. I consume books (audio, electronic, and paper) by the pound and byte. I RARELY go back and reread a novel I've read before. It just seems a waste of time, a waste of an opportunity for another book, another story. The Great Gatsby, however, is one of those handful of books, those rare literary jewels, where this rule of thumb is consistently bent and re-broken. For readers of good literature, this novel is like scripture. IT is something you read to enjoy the page, the paragraphs, the sentences, the words. It draws you back. It haunts future books you read. It invades you.
For American Literature, The Great Gatsby stands with 'Moby-Dick' and 'Huckleberry Finn' as a monument of not just literature but the uniquely American experience. It captures the excess, the energy, and the decadence of the 'Lost Generation'. Other Fitzgerald books are amazing, but Gatsby is one of those novels that seems to have surprised everyone, even Fitzgerald.
Finding the right narrator for any book is an art form (often misunderstood, almost always ignored). Certain books require a certain type of reader. Gyllenhaal was an inspired pick for the Great Gatsby. He has the range to subtly capture the different characters, but the charisma and the energy to embody the dialogue of Gatsby and the easygoing narrator Nick.
O'Connor was ruthless in her vision. The struggle of Tarwater and his uncle Rayber against their joint destinies and the pull of fundamentalism and secularism is fully realized in this short novel. The Violent Bear it Away is biblical, American and absolutely brutal in both its imagery of destruction and language of redemption. I can only think of a handful of writers who seem to grab both my brain, my spine and my gut at the same time. O'Connor can't be over-appreciated; she was an absolute genius of passion and power. So brilliant and terrible was this novel, that I still exceedingly fear and quake.
My first exposure to Henry James was this tight little psycho-drama of a ghost story. 'Turn of the Screw' is one of those amazing little stories that twists the reader back and forth between the extremes of believing the narrator is legitimate in her fear of actual ghosts or believing she is simply mad. James' story turns on this dilemma. One slight rotation to the right and all bets are off.
For a ghost story, I was far more creeped out by the two 'angelic' children, the vacant setting, and the remote English country house. Anyway, while not blown away by the story, I still found it compelling, creepy and rich in its ambiguity.
With a hundred years of hindsight, we've learned so little.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is famous for disgusting America with its tales of meat packing workers falling into vats and rendered into lard, and all the things that went into sausages and tinned beef. (Cigar butts and poisoned rats not even being the most disgusting ingredients...) But as Sinclair said about his most famous book, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The Jungle is not primarily about the problems of an unregulated meat industry. It's about the crushing brutality of capitalism, and the problems of unregulated accumulation of wealth. No wonder that Americans prefer the less political vegetarian version.
Although Sinclair was a muckraking socialist with an obvious agenda, The Jungle is still a compelling novel in its own right. Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his young wife Ona and his extended family of in-laws. Initially believing they have found the promised land of opportunity and plenty, they are quickly taken in by various schemes meant to impoverish, indebt, and enslave immigrants like them. At first only Jurgis has to work in Chicago's meatpacking district. He is young and strong and believes hard work will be rewarded, and those who warn him of how the meatpackers will use him up and dispose of him are lazy whiners. Of course, he soon discovers otherwise. The family undergoes one mishap after another, until within a year, even the children are reduced to selling newspapers on the street and still they are all barely staying alive.
Then things get worse, and worse, and worse. Jurgis is a modern-day Job, with no God to blame his troubles on, only capitalism. He has several ups and downs, but every time he catches a break, it's quickly followed by yet another brutal smackdown. Sinclair was trying to make the reader feel sorry for Jurgis and his poor family, all of whom end up dead, prostituted, or beggars by the end of the book, and you will. The poor man just cannot win, and if he makes mistakes and chooses the less noble path when given a choice, it's pretty hard to judge him if you've never been homeless on the streets of Chicago in the wintertime.
The Jungle is a grimly detailed look at early 20th century America. Sinclair was muckraking, so obviously he's showing the ugliest bits of America he can, but history proved that most of what he was alleging was true, even if his conclusions were questionable. Even if you are strongly anti-socialist, The Jungle is an eye-opening story, and still relevant after all these years. If you think that the horrors depicted in this book are relics of a previous era, just remember that to the extent that the very worst of these abuses are now curbed (somewhat) by government regulations, those government regulations are exactly what "free market" advocates hate and want to abolish.
4 stars. Knocking one star off because while Sinclair mostly kept his didacticism in check throughout the book, using gripping drama and only a little bit of exposition to arouse the horror he intended, the last chapter was nothing but socialist sermonizing, making it less a climax than the author climbing onto a soapbox to deliver his moral.
I have to ding this version for the unfortunate choice of narrator: I've enjoyed several of Audible's Signature Performances, but Casey Affleck's reading was monotonous and completely lacking in passion. His voice lacked distinction, and he sounded like a schoolboy reading a book aloud to the class. Not every celebrity actor makes a good audiobook narrator.