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The Books

I generally don’t reread books unless I’m studying them. There are so many wonderful books out there and more coming out all the time, it’s hard to justify revisiting old territory when I could be discovering something new. That said, sometimes returning to a book years after that first reading offers a completely new experience.

These books have both been around for a long time, so I’m not going to tip toe too lightly around spoilers.

gatsbyTHE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

Gatsby was the first F. Scott Fitzgerald novel I read. I can’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen at the time and I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t really understand it. At that age I couldn’t fully get my head around the complexity of the relationships—my most significant ‘boyfriend’ had stuck around for less than two months and love and heartache remained abstract concepts. But I enjoyed the book, nonetheless. I understood something of Gatsby’s yearning for a lost future. It may have been the first time I had stumbled across the idea and I eagerly went hunting for it in other narratives.

That special sense of longing stuck with me for the better part of a decade. Then along came Baz. Before Luhrmann’s film was even released, the 1920s were back. The David Jones store near my work was decked out in Gatsby themed window dressings, Tiffany was telling me to buy Daisy’s headdress, there were posters on every tram and billboard.  All of Melbourne, hell, all the world was screaming: ‘There ain’t no party like a Gatsby party!’ And I could feel myself getting lost in it all. If I didn’t reread the book, I knew that sense of yearning I’d so loved all those years ago would be forever replaced by whatever Luhrmann had done.

Side note: Once upon a time, I was head cheerleader of Team Baz. I still think Strictly BallroomRomeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge are wonderful films—some of my favourites, in fact. However, Luhrmann never lets his characters be ugly. Even at their worst, they remain romantically lit, the music swells and they remain beautiful. Flawed perhaps, but beautiful But ugliness is what’s ultimately required in The Great Gatsby. The party ends. The lights come on. There are corpses in the glitter. I thought DiCaprio gave a great performance and the film was entertaining, but I didn’t feel anything. A few days after the release, one of my workmates was all excited at lunch because he’d found he could buy shoes just like Gatsby’s. He could be just like Gatsby. I actually had to leave the room at that point.

Anyhoo. Gatsby. Plot. Early 1920s. Narrator Nick Carraway moves into a small house in West Egg, Long Island. Next door is a mansion of magnificent proportions where the who’s who of New York gather for extravagant parties every weekend. The owner of the house is the mysterious Jay Gatsby. He’s not from money, but he’s certainly got lots of it. In fact, everyone’s familiar with with Gatsby’s money, but very few know the man.

Directly across the bay from Gatsby’s house lives Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, who comes from very old money. Now, Tom is having an affair with the wife of his mechanic, and let’s just say it’s no accident Gatsby has bought up real estate where Daisy will have a clear view of his, er, mansion. Just in case Nick feels left out of the fun, golf starlet Jordan Baker makes herself available to take him to tea. Scramble up the couples and, voila, happy ending? Thanks for playing, but no.

The Great Gatsby is not a big book, but it packs a massive punch to the gut. If the story weren’t engaging enough, the language is something else altogether. I could go on and list all the famous quotes, but to be honest, the don’t hold the same weight out of context, so if you haven’t read the book, I’ll leave you to discover all those glittering little gems for yourself.

In short, this book is a classic for a reason. It’s damn good. One of those stories that, years after you’ve read it, you find yourself lying awake in the early hours half-dreaming about.

dr-jekyll-mr-hyde-penguinTHE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Like The Great GatsbyThe Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a deceptively slim volume. I initially read it as a set text for my first English topic at uni and it gave me the beginnings of an obsession for the Gothic that has grown to monstrous proportions since.

The story is pretty simple. An upstanding (and dare I say it, repressed) lawyer and his friends start hearing and witnessing the heinous acts of one Mr Hyde. A mysterious fellow who has attached himself to their good friend Dr Jekyll. Despite their attempts to intervene, Dr Jekyll becomes increasingly reclusive and reliant on Mr Hyde. It is only after traipsing through much heavy fog and sending and receiving many urgent late night correspondences that the friends discover what has become of their beloved friend. All sound rather dramatic? Well, yes it is rather. And that, heightened, feverish sense of impending terror is what makes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde such a ripper of a read.

The terror itself is fragmented, the story’s horrific events pieced together from secondhand accounts and letters, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the gory details and making for truly frightening reading. This is particularly well-done in the case of Hyde. We are told he’s somehow wrong-looking, but the details of his wrongness are never fleshed out. Instead he remains something Unknown and Other skulking in the shadows.

The downside to reading this in 2013 is that much of the suspense is lost. Even if you don’t know the specifics of the Jekyll/Hyde relationship, the characters have become pop icons—worse, actually, they are cliches: ‘like Jekyll and Hyde’. I had a similar problem when I taught Dracula a few years ago. A vampire from Transylvania that’s afraid of garlic and crucifixes? The students thought Stoker lacked imagination.

Meanwhile in real life…

I made time for books and ideas and writing. Gold stars for me.

First off, I spent a weekend at home where I had a massive chin-wag with my best friend who never fails to make me want to throw all caution to the wind, quit my job, move into a tumbledown garret with a typewriter, a bottle of absinthe and a big ol’ pile of books and just be happy. We commandeered the courtyard at the House of Donkey cafe and by the time we were done, we were ready to singlehandedly revolutionise the literary and art worlds (my friend is a painter and has done the brave thing, quit her job and started her own business selling her art).

Back in Melbourne, I pulled out a fresh Moleskine and wrote a journal entry for the first time in more than a year. And then I started writing ideas for short stories and random phrases that popped into my head and sounded nice and might come in handy one day and it was the best feeling. I don’t know why, but somehow life is easier to face with a journal and a pen in your purse.

One of the guys at work started a book club (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was our first book) and on a dark and stormy night, a little group of us gathered at Moat, the amazing cafe/wine bar in The Wheeler Centre’s cellar, to drink wine, eat cheese fondu and talk books. Our book for June is Perfume. Watch this space.

I also trundled along to Friday Night Fight Night at the State Library as part of the Emerging Writers Festival to hear three established Young Adult writers mouth off against three emerging adult writers. At first I was a bit uncertain about the whole thing. I went alone, thinking I could just find a seat up the back and soak everything up like the passive sponge I often am. However, they had the audience seated around big circular tables and participation was mandatory. I got rather drunk and set about making friends with a group of librarians in town for the Children’s Literature Conference. The highlight was Libba Bray swigging from a wine bottle and giving chest bumps.

These are very baby steps towards Becoming A Writer, but for the past year I’ve been so caught up in work and study, to start to make some legitimate space in my life for books and writing outside my thesis is a big deal. And this is just the beginning.

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