F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

The Homesman – Movie Review

images (3)One of the best movies I have seen in a long time is The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Jones stars as George Briggs, a claim jumper saved by pious spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank. The performance of these two Oscar-winning actors is brilliant as they draw you in to the stark reality of life in the 1850s American West.

In return for sparing his life from hanging, Briggs is pressed into service as a homesman by Mary Bee. A homesman is someone who accompanies people back home when they become too ill to survive life on the plains. In the case of three women who have experienced hardships beyond their endurance, severe mental illness necessitates removal from their families.

There are harsh and disturbing images in the movie, but in the hands of a director like Tommy Lee Jones, they don’t come across as cheap, shock value scenes. Factor in an all-star cast of characters in fabulous cameos, an unexpected mid-movie twist, and visually appealing cinematography and The Homesman presents the makings of a classic film.

I don’t want to start a firestorm debate on book versus movie; however, I’m anxious to see if the novel lives up to the quality of the movie. I researched the novel and author and was pleasantly surprised to find that Glendon Swarthout is also the author of the novel, The Shootist, which inspired the 1976 movie and is best known for being John Wayne’s last film. Admittedly, I’ve never read a western, but I am interested to give Mr. Swarthout’s The Homesman a try if for no other reason than to see how closely the movie follows the storyline.

Let us not forget Marco Beltrami’s beautiful yet haunting musical score which perfectly matches the scenes from the movie. If movie music allows you to recall and relive the scenes as if you were watching them all over again, I believe the score deserves the mark of excellence. Marco Beltrami achieves this with a score that is powerfully subtle, always blending with the scenes rather than jarring you out of them, and certainly memorable.

Whether or not you are a fan of the western, I believe you will find The Homesman an enjoyable movie not to be missed.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir is an enjoyable read. I’m not sure it was the best choice in books as I was still coming down from my high after Night Train to Lisbon, but light reads are good for balancing out the heavy stuff.

Written mostly as journal entries by abandoned astronaut, Mark Watney, the endless explanations on the necessary procedures conducted to survive life on Mars were tedious. I often felt as if I was reading an article from National Geographic or a really interesting survival manual. I skimmed a few descriptions until I found the story again.

Andy Weir has proven that he knows his technical stuff, but he delivers it inelegantly and without passion. I don’t need to know exactly how many molecules of various elements are produced when splitting hydrazine nor do I need to know how much power is required to do so. All I need to know is that it’s dangerous. Besides, how many of us could actually refute the science?

untitled (5)The diary entries came across as mild locker room humor mixed with surfer dude attitude and undermined any real tension in the plot. We’re told this is how Mark Watney deals with stressful situations. A more professional approach on the part of the main character with less “ugh, whee, yay, and boo” in his responses would have gone a long way to making me believe in the seriousness of the situation and that he was a highly educated person suitable for space travel.

We’ve been here before with Apollo 13, Castaway, and mostly recently, Gravity. Even Robinson Crusoe was a survivor story. The Martian lacks in respect to these stories because beyond saving Mark, there is no human side to the story. There is no wife or girlfriend waiting on Earth, no foul play to his situation that he needs to discover, not even a friend to whom he needs to make an apology for having spoken harshly. In short, there’s not much in the way of human interest for Mark Watney.

The second way in which The Martian differs greatly from these stories is that it’s pure fantasy. Obviously Apollo 13 is real and the other tales could actually happen. Travel to Mars and/or survival on Mars is still pretend. I find it’s easier to relive historical tragedies than get caught up in the drama of make believe. But that’s just me.

The story was mildly predictable in terms of the sequence of trials and tribulations Mark had to endure on Mars. No sooner would he triumph, I’d turn the page and right on cue the next crisis would appear. The constant up and down was interesting but not as suspenseful as everyone is claiming. This is most evident when thirty pages into the book, Mark wonders if he’s going to blow himself up undertaking an experiment. With about 92% of the book left to go, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to die. Result: zero tension.

Still, Andy Weir’s book is fun. If you’ve worked your way through all your DVDs of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dr. Who, I recommend reading The Martian. If you’re not a reader, you can wait for the movie which, according to IMDB, is due out in November, 2015.

Maleficent – Movie Review

images (3)My desire to support the local library, even if it is destroying itself from the inside out, means I’m coming in late with my review of the movie, Maleficent. I’ve already mentioned this in a previous post, so enough said on the subject.

I’ve discussed the movie with my friend and co-worker ever since the trailers for Maleficent first appeared. We agreed that Angelina Jolie was the perfect choice to play the character. My friend is into behind the scene facts and gossip about movies. She mentioned that Angelina studied the Disney cartoon extensively to ensure she portrayed Maleficent correctly down to her razor-sharp cheekbones.

I must admit I’ve only ever seen clips of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, but what I’ve seen clearly depicted Maleficent as the bad character. All of Angelina’s efforts in makeup and costuming certainly went along with what I’d seen.

My biggest concern when it came time to watch the movie was that I wouldn’t be able to turn off my internal editor and enjoy watching. I worried that the makeup, costuming, cinematography, and scenery would distract from the storyline. It didn’t, and I was able to take it all in.

But let’s actually discuss the movie.

If anyone could rage onscreen with the strength of a betrayed woman scorned beyond all reason, it would be Angelina Jolie. Factor in those horns and cheekbones, and she’s one scary lady. That didn’t happen in Maleficent.

The backstory did a good job of explaining why Maleficent ended up bitter and angry, but along the way, someone decided to remove the teeth from what could have been an incredible tale. Maleficent was all bark and absolutely no bite.

Instead of watching the main character deteriorate into a sociopathic, homicidal maniac bent on the destruction of a kingdom via the cherished princess, we were treated to a kinder, gentler Maleficent. Seriously?

What was the point of making her look fierce if she’s going to offer a clause to her own curse, attempt to revoke said curse, grow close in heart to the victim of her curse, regret her own actions when the curse is fulfilled, and be the only one who could actually break the curse? These changes in script were bland at best and completely undermined the entire story.untitled (6)

Perhaps Disney was trying to make a subtle point? Bad people can be redeemed. Perhaps the writers and producers didn’t want to scare children? Take a look at what kids watch on TV. Has Disney forgotten how to portray good versus evil? They certainly blurred the lines this time.

I could ask many more questions and read many themes into Maleficent. Quite frankly, it’s just not worth it. For me, the movie didn’t satisfy, and I will be much more skeptical of the upcoming remake, Cinderella.

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