While browsing through the public library this past fall, I happened to spot The Great Gatsby on the shelf and picked it up on a whim. I first read ThWhile browsing through the public library this past fall, I happened to spot The Great Gatsby on the shelf and picked it up on a whim. I first read The Great Gatsby in 10th grade English class, and now, suspecting it may have gone completely over my head, it occurred to me there was something to be gained from rereading it as a grownup. Wow. Talk about an understatement. In short, I came to the conclusion that books such as Gatsby are not merely wasted on teenagers, but in fact ought to be preemptively kept out of the hands of highschoolers. Because what happens? After 10th grade English, you tell yourself you've read it, and you're rarely tempted to go back and read it again, and so you effectively miss out on one of the unquestionable greats of American literature. Everything I missed as a teenager (how could I have failed to note such a gorgeous line as "her voice was full of money"?) seems unforgettable to me now. The Great Gatsby has most assuredly earned its place in the American literature canon, for its snapshot of the Jazz Age twenties in full, exuberant swing; for its unsentimental look at the self-consciousness, optimism, and disillusion embedded in the "American Dream"; and for Fitzgerald's ability to capture moments and people in descriptions that are simultaneously poetic and meticulous.
One of the first things that struck me as I began (re)reading was the realization that when I came to this as for the first time as a 10th grader, I had absolutely no sense of the significance of the time in which the story takes place. It meant nothing to me beyond the fact that the action in the book took place A Long Long Time Ago. Now, especially at a time when Boardwalk Empire has opened up America's collective cultural awareness of what the 20s was -- prohibition, bootlegging, gangsters, social revolution, labor organizing, liberation for women on a previously unknown scale, post-Great-War euphoria and loss of innocence (yet still with blissful unawareness that a second Great War was coming) -- it is impossible not to see the story as emblematic of its time.
How could a young person such as I was fully appreciate what this era was like -- an era when almost overnight America catapulted into the new, liberating, dizzyingly technological age? Actually, the phrase "like someone hitting a light switch for the first time" is almost literally applicable here. It bears remembering that at this time the Luna Park amusement park at Coney Island was a wonderland as much for its being bathed in electric lights as for its entertainment attractions. Just take in these lines from the New York Times' May 17, 1903 article on Luna Park's opening night:
About 45,000 men, women, and children strolling along Surf Avenue, at Coney Island, from 8 o'clock last night until 1 o'clock this morning stopped at one point along this varied thoroughfare and rubbed their eyes and stood in wonder and pinched themselves to see if there was not something wrong somewhere. The Coney Island visitor does not expect much variety in the attractions gathered at the great breathing space by the sea, but here was a strange sight for Coney Island. Yawning on the dingy old pleasure thoroughfare was a monster arch, covering half a city block. The interior of this arch was a solid mass of electric lights and rising many feet into the air were four monster monoliths, traced in electric lights and surmounted by great balls of fire, which shed light over the island. . . .
They [the park's creators] have created a realm of fairy romance in colored light, so beautiful that the rest of Coney Island will have to clean up and dress up, if it is to do business. there are no frankfurters to be found sizzling in Luna Park, but there is pretty nearly everything else that was ever seen in Coney Island and many things new. But the beauty of the place under its extraordinary electrical illumination scheme is its primary feature.
When at 8 o'clock promptly last night the 122,000 electric lights had been flashed into brilliancy, and the crowd began pouring in, the visitors passed under the great arch and down a broad avenue called the Court of Honor. On the right of this avenue was a Venetian city, with its columns and colonnades and minarets, and in front of this city a grand canal bridged and illuminated. . . .
If it's starting to sound like a description of the Las Vegas strip today, only imagine what it must have looked like to people seeing electric light for the first time. It is no mistake that Nick sees Gatsby's West Egg mansion, lit up for its hundreds of guests deep into the night, as a "carnival." This new era of electricity and technology is not just an arbitrary setting for the human story - it is its warp and weft. Think also of the roles played by automobiles in the narrative. Key characters are matched by their distinctive motorcars: Nick drives a beat up Dodge; Gatsby has an extravagant sports car. Much of the action of the book, from the general lifestyle depicted in the novel to, most critically, Myrtle's secret life and her tragedy, is framed by the high-speed whisking-back-and-forth between NY and Long Island that rich men's automobiles make possible.
Fitzgerald's descriptive flair makes passage after passage nothing less than a delight to read. I'll not soon forget the image of the breezy summer room at the moment that Nick first encounters Daisy and Jordan. Everything is white and gossamer and billowy, including the "enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon." Nor the image of the change that comes over the scene with the "boom" that sounds when unexpectedly "Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor." (p. 12)
That image of that room -- its magical quality as the sun and the breeze play with the light and the fixtures and every person in it, and then the sudden change in the room when the French doors are abruptly shut, bringing everything quite literally back down to earth -- could be a metaphor for the entire central story. People are buoyed up and carried along by a beautiful illusion that they are simultaneously unaware of and yet nurse carefully along, until the jolt of unpleasant reality when their fantasy is revealed for what it is. This is clearly and most obviously the condition of Jay Gatsby and his long-cherished illusion of Daisy, but it can also be seen in Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan's relationship, and in Nick's own initially romantic engagement with this "East Coast" life, and his later disenchantment when it is brought down to sordid reality by the unfolding of events in the lives around him.
Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed then when Nick describes the green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock, which Gatsby has spent long evenings gazing away at. After meeting Daisy in person, Gatsby remarks on the green light, and Nick observes,
"Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that has separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one". (p. 98)
It seems such a little thing: to lose just one "enchanted object" seems a trifling price to pay for having the real object of one's desire literally in one's arms, and yet that sentence, that notion of an enchanted object turned into nothing more than a utilitarian light bulb, is just achingly sad.
This sadness is inevitable in a story that is all about nostalgia, especially in the sense of wishing and longing for a past that one never really had. Gatsby dreamed of a thing he had never really possessed: an assured future with the woman he madly loved. Fitzgerald seems to posit that nostalgia as the heart of the human condition, and it is also the heart of our tragedy if we are unable to overcome it: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (final line, p. 189)
The Great Gatsby is an essentially American story, too, in its exploration of this congenital dream that something bigger, something better, can be achieved, that it may be just beyond our grasp, but with the right combination of industriousness, chutzpah, and unadulterated optimism, we can indeed reach it. Nick observes, in his last moments as a West Egger:
"And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." (p. 189)
As a cynical 21st-century reader, I can't help find that last line a little grating. The very notion of this continent of "America" as the last thing in all of history commensurate with the human capacity for wonder -- well, if that's not the most compact statement of American exceptionalism I've ever heard, then I don't know what is. But at the same time, Fitzgerald may have been ahead of his time in spotting the dark underside of American exceptionalism. In the book's final paragraphs, Fitzgerald writes:
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . ." (p 187-188)
Nick's parting description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan could just as easily be a modern critique of US foreign policy for the last hundred years or so.
Before closing, as much as I've raved about the book, I cannot leave off without raising a few criticisms, as there are also things that annoy me about it. The constantly-referenced tension between East America and West America, this undercurrent of some wholesome, fair, genuine America located somewhere amorphously "out West", versus the bewitching, debauched, and unauthentic East Coast America, is as irritating as it is resistant to time. Also, women in general are pretty hard done by in this book. Myrtle is by turns a pathetic and repulsive character; Daisy is superficial at best, underhanded and manipulative at worst; and even Jordan does little more than serve as set dressing to accessorize a scene.
But these are quibbles. In 10th grade English class, I was told that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece. Now, as an adult, I actually know it. ...more
Can't remember the first time I read it, ages ago, but just re-read it and it was like reading it for the first time. It seems to me the most down-to-Can't remember the first time I read it, ages ago, but just re-read it and it was like reading it for the first time. It seems to me the most down-to-earth and believable of Jane Austen's works and Anne easily the most likeable of Austen's characters. As much as I enjoy Austen, it's always something of a guilty pleasure for me to be reading of the trials and tribulations of these wealthy women, much of whose adventures are completely tied in with their wealth and social class. Anne is the most human to me of these characters, and her love story the most "grownup"....more
In the summer of 2014, my partner and I took what ended up being a 2 and a half month road trip through the US, starting in PhiladelphiaRoad Trip USA
In the summer of 2014, my partner and I took what ended up being a 2 and a half month road trip through the US, starting in Philadelphia and heading down to Atlanta, west through the deep South and Southwest to California then up the coast and winding around the Mountain West before working our way back East to Philadelphia. I hadn’t bothered to look at any guidebooks, figuring I would be able to find whatever information I needed online along the way. While that was somewhat true -- there’s no beating the internet for lodging reservations and the most up-to-date restaurant information -- I felt completely at a loss as we were driving across states and through cities, with no real easy way to get a quick, definitive overview of where we were and what there was to see there.
In hopes of finding something like the guidebooks that have been my talismans on previous trips abroad, we stopped off at a big chain bookstore in Houston, where, alas, I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but did stumble across this one, which proved to be an absolutely invaluable resource for local knowledge and finding offbeat gems in the places it covers. While it is not a general guidebook -- it only covers 11 select routes either East-to-West or North-to-South across the U.S. -- if your itinerary covers any part of those roads, Road Trip USA is an especially useful source to have at hand.
We used it most for the old Route 66, and the information it provided on the history and the current state of towns and sites along the route was always interesting and often helpful in encouraging us to spend more time off the beaten path. Without this book, for example, we would have missed quirky Jerome, Arizona, with its soaring mountainside views just beyond Sedona, and the incomparable Oatman, Arizona, a dusty three-block or so stretch of faded personality at the peak of a treacherous switchback road outside Kingman.
We also relied on it for the Pacific Coast Highway, thanks to which we took a tiny side hike to a view of an amazing waterfall we would otherwise have missed altogether. Unfortunately our timeline kept us from going too far off the boring old interstate for other parts of our trip (leaving me regretting the Bavarian-style hamlet we missed in Washington State, for instance) but I’m certain this book will be the source of more than one mini road trip in years to come. ...more
By now, Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things is a classic text on what we have learned to call user-friendly design. Twenty-first century readersBy now, Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things is a classic text on what we have learned to call user-friendly design. Twenty-first century readers will no doubt find it dated (see references to"computer mail"), but it is truly a must-read none the less. By exploring fundamental design principles through human interactions with everyday things -- doors, telephones, light and power switches, even cars -- Norman demolishes the notion of "user error" and lays down a roadmap for achieving truly user-centered design.
Long before I ever knew of this book, I already had a sense of how the way a product, an object, or a system is designed can have an impact on how well or badly people use it, or how much they enjoy or avoid using it. I am constantly redesigning things in my head: bad design drives me batty, and I have been known to kvetch to anyone in earshot, you know, if they just put this here instead..., or something to that effect. (In fact, I complain about this sort of thing so often, my partner has picked it up from me -- now, when something doesn't work right, he'll just throw a glance my way and say, "Bad design!") Good design, on the other hand, always grabs my attention. By and large, though, my responses were emotional. Reading this book not only confirmed my impulses, but more importantly, helped me understand just why bad design is annoying and even dangerous. In lucid, easy to follow prose, Norman breaks down the elements of functional design into crucial component parts: Good design is not good by accident; rather, design is good when a few key principles are honored. By contrast, when something is hard to operate, look for a violation of one or more of these principles. And, significantly, much of what has historically been attributed to "user error" is really a problem of bad design.
When this book was first published in 1998, it was titled The Psychology of Everyday Things. In the introduction to the 2002 edition, Norman explains that the "Psychology" in the title threw readers and booksellers off (it was often filed in the "psychology" section of bookstores, rather than with design books), and he re-titled it to better reflect its focus on design. However, it bears mentioning that psychology is not irrelevant here. A unifying theme in the principles of good, user-focused design is that they take into account the psychology of the human beings who will use the objects in question. Norman demonstrates the human tendency to create one's own explanations for processes and purposes that are unclear, and that often, people come up with the wrong explanation. Following the internal logic of a wrong explanation, or, to put it more academically, operating under a misguided conceptual model, can cause people to have trouble with what ought to be a simple, everyday object.
In describing how people undertake any action, Norman outlines several stages, divided into two basic phases: execution and evaluation. We start with an idea in our head of an outcome we want, and how to make it happen. In the execution phase, we do the things we understand we need to do to create that outcome. In the evaluation stage, we consider whatever feedback that is available to us to determine whether we've successfully created the outcome. Good design invisibly addresses all the stages within those two phases. The key principles to observe include visibility (the user should be able to tell by looking what a thing is doing at any particular moment, and what options there are), a clear conceptual model (the user's idea of how a thing works actually is how the thing works), intuitive mapping (controls are consonant with the actions they perform -- for example, something that should be pushed should not have a handle that looks like it should be grasped), and feedback (the user should be able to tell clearly and quickly what effect any action they've taken has had).
Obviously, the book explores all these points in far more detail, and it is chock full of commonplace examples and anecdotes to illustrate the points. And once you start looking, you'll find that examples abound in everyday life. Plugs that are oddly shaped so that they can only be inserted one way (or that are symmetrical, so they can be inserted either way without damage) -- these are examples of physical constraints that demand no thought on the part of the user to be used correctly. The dial on gas stove that must be pushed in and turned simultaneously to light the the burner is a forcing function that prevents the gas from being turned on inadvertently. A whistling teakettle is using sound for visibility: you know that you've achieved your desired outcome -- the water has boiled -- without looking, in fact, you know from across the room.
The Design of Everyday Things is a excellent read that will continue to stand the test of time. I would recommend it not just for designers of objects and programmers of software and websites, but for anyone who spends any part of their time creating things, even something as simple as an event calendar or a filing system, that other people will have to use. Frankly, I think it's worthwhile reading for anyone who's called themselves inept for continually making mistakes using any kind of technology. Most times, it's not you, it's the design.
As a final comment on my review, I'll share a real world story of the kind of problems good design can solve. The first time I remember thinking consciously about design and safety was when I saw a magazine article about an innovative new design for prescription medicine bottles. A design grad student embarking on her Master's project was motivated by an incident when her grandmother accidentally mistook her husband's medication for her own. Fortunately, the grandmother suffered no serious effects, but it led the design student, Deborah Adler, to seriously reconsider the problems inherent in the design of the standard prescription bottle. As her thesis project, Adler redesigned it. Her new prescription bottle was flat-sided instead of round, so no more having to twist it around to read all the instructions on the label. The caps of the bottles would be color-coded with a different bright color ring for every person in a household, to make it a lot harder to mistake someone else's medicine for your own. The flat-sided design created more space for print on the label, so that the drug name and instructions could be printed more readably. Adler's student project was a runaway success. It was adopted by the Target chain as their "Clear Rx" prescription bottle, and won design awards. Check out the photo essay on Adler's website and see if you don't agree: http://www.deborahadlerdesign.com/cas... ...more
Well, this was a disappointment. I confess I didn't know any more about the book than what was written in the back blurb, which included this little cWell, this was a disappointment. I confess I didn't know any more about the book than what was written in the back blurb, which included this little characterization: "Melissa Bank's fiction is the spirited marriage of Helen Fielding and Lorrie Moore". Perhaps I leapt to conclusions, having never read anything by Lorrie Moore, but Helen Fielding it certainly was not, and as for "spirited", well, all I can say is, kudos to the marketing team for that bit of puffery. The only redeeming bit of the entire book is the final chapter, which is really so unlike the rest of the book I have to wonder if that was the single successful short story around which Banks built the rest of the book, with the other chapters existing only to make up the road to get you there.
The final chapter is the only one that lives up to any hint of what I expected given the promise of Helen-Fielding-esquery. It's quick-witted, self-deprecatingly funny, and moves at a decent pace. The rest of the chapters are morose, depressing, and self-indulgent. I found the protagonist, Jane, hard to understand throughout those chapters. I couldn't relate to her largely self-imposed unhappiness in love. I even found her hard to like in the first chapter, where she is introduced as an absurdly literate 14-year-old who's too sardonic by half and, I'll say it, unsettlingly jealous when her older brother brings home a new girlfriend. I kept waiting for the book to get better, but it really didn't until the end -- and that after some inexplicable narrative shifts and a sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb chapter where the first-person protagonist is suddenly someone completely different, accompanied by characters who do not appear before or since, and the erstwhile main character is forgotten entirely, just barely making an appearance in an offhand mention by a stranger. I rarely give a book this low a rating without seriously hating it, but it was so unsatisfying. It felt cobbled together and not ready for primetime. ...more
I read this book when it first came out -- I actually bought it as a Christmas gift for my dad (right up his alley) and ended up reading it entire, muI read this book when it first came out -- I actually bought it as a Christmas gift for my dad (right up his alley) and ended up reading it entire, much to my surprise, before putting it under the tree!
I never would have thought I would have gotten into this book, as I was not too into non-fiction in general at the time, and certainly not navy or submarine history! But, as a Russian/East European Area Studies kinda gal, I started leafing through it, and before I knew it, I was completely hooked.
First off, this is one of those great non-fiction books that is so compellingly written it soon gets you turning pages like it's a Grisham novel. :o) Second, some of the stories and facts it reveals are practically jawdropping -- you'll find yourself thinking again and again, I can't believe that actually happened.
It's a really fascinating book - I highly recommend it....more
I've loved the Hitchcock movie since I first saw it as a kid, and I read the book so long ago I don't remember how much the film diverges from the novI've loved the Hitchcock movie since I first saw it as a kid, and I read the book so long ago I don't remember how much the film diverges from the novel, but I do remember enjoying the book just as much. Classic, deliciously gothic, romantic, full of intrigue and mystery and suspense. ...more