The Last Tycoon by F. S. Fitzgerald—Goodreads Book Review

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Scott Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished work, The Last Tycoon begins the story of movie producer Monroe Stahr trying to maintain his integrity in an industry that has passed its peak and is tending towards decadence. Told from the perspective of his business partner/rival’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, who is in love with the producer, Stahr must apply his expertise and standards to the works that come out of his company in spite of pressures from unions, writers, and his own business partner, all while dealing with an increasingly dangerous heart condition. Meanwhile, in a flood caused by an earthquake, Stahr meets a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, actress Minna Davis, and his Spartan lifestyle is threatened.

Unfortunately left unfinished, The Last Tycoon shows Fitzgerald’s writing process at its most mature. Though many ideas and plot points are left unfinished and unvarnished, it has many of the themes and motifs present in Fitzgerald’s other works—the 20th century and its continuity/contrast with the 19th century American ideals (hence the title), a lone character surrounded by those who, despite their higher status, are his inferiors in ability, an admiring narrator reflecting on the romantic hero, and unrequited love in every direction.

However, there are also elements lacking in Fitzgerald’s early works. Stahr is not an upper class debutante, but a dynamo who knows his craft (he reminded me many times, in character dynamic and situation, of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, though Fitzgerald’s). The plot shows meticulous research on Fitzgerald’s part, and he presents and utilizes the Hollywood industry for excellent characterization and dramatic potential.

The edition I read had a synopsis after the manuscript cutoff of what Fitzgerald intended for the end, as well as copies of his notes and outline. My wife and I (we read it together) had already watched the miniseries starring Kelsey Grammer and Matt Bomer, and the two ended very differently (though the shows, itself, was unfinished, its second season being canceled due to production costs, so that’s debatable). Nonetheless, there were interesting differences between the two, and it was great to read and watch them for comparison. More importantly, there were many moments, phrases, and insights in the draft that showed Fitzgerald’s excellence as a writer. It was an excellent read, unfinished draft though it is.


Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor—Goodreads Book Review

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Unemployed, approaching middle age, and hearing voices (again), Jon Mote is hardly the sleuth type; indeed, his developmentally challenged sister-turned-ever-supportive sidekick is often much more successful with people than he. Nonetheless, when the wife of his previous literary criticism professor asks him to investigate her husband’s death, the erstwhile graduate student must return to academia to find what enemies a post-modernist could have made—which, he finds, is not a short list.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist mixes metaphysical crises with the murder-mystery plot. Throughout the main plot, the first-person narrator of Mote experiences the deeper subplot of his investigation’s effect on his own mania. With both, Daniel Taylor examines the bases and implications (rarely just theoretical) of modern deconstructionist perspectives regarding things like truth, beauty, goodness, and the ability or inability of language, reason, and literature to accurately reveal them.

In his dual professors, the older classicist Dr. Abramson and the younger, modern, and dead Dr. Pratt, as well as other characters, Taylor also articulates the debates between the old and new schools that have characterized academia in recent decades, as well as the internal politics and non-theoretical conflicts therein. Through the academic, civic, and at times evangelical milieus into which Jon and Judy find themselves, Taylor examines how one’s past shapes their consciousness as much as it does their stated beliefs and convictions, and he questions many of modern academia’s assumptions about reality and human psychological health—a conflict concretized most consistently in the contrast between the manic Jon’s experience of the world and that of his challenged but free sister.

I would recommend this book mostly on account of the narrator (reminds me of Raskalnikov from Crime and Punishment, with which this book has many thematic parallels) and because of how well it articulates the changes in academia and why they might matter, on both broad and individual levels. While I’m at best an amateur at evaluating crime dramas, the book’s pacing is excellent, its characters deeper than they initially seem, and its themes relevant to today. The well-prepared climax brought me to tears.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain—Goodreads Book Review

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What would a 19th-century factory boss from New England do if, in a brawl, he was knocked unconscious and awoke in Old England? This is the question Mark Twain considers in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court through the character of Hank Morgan—whose answer is to make gunpowder, pretend to be a wizard, and try to industrialize and republicanize Arthur’s England.

A classic of satire, Twain’s use of a frame narrative allows him to examine, poke fun at, and comment on the, as his character believes, outdated aspects of chivalric England while also doing the same at his character, himself. Like with other narrators, Morgan’s assumption that he understands things best makes him subject to parody, as well. The effect is a complex mix of humor and commentary that, even when it is didactic, is rarely unironically so.

Throughout the work, Twain’s juxtaposition of the American man of progress with the established structures of England’s narrative past concretizes the questions of what had been gained by the development of the American national character, and what may have been lost. As such, it is as much an investigation of Gilded Age culture and character as it is of the English past, from which Americans should not believe they are so cut off—nor should they want to be. Because of all of this, CYKAC exemplifies why Twain stands as a quintessential American writer, incorporating so many aspects of American culture and its origins into a humorous plot as he does.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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An exploration of a setting and the characters therein, Cannery Row follows the residents and vagrants of a Monterey, CA, community during the Great Depression. Set between Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery Store, Doc’s Western Biological Laboratory, the Bear Flag Restaurant, and the storage-shed-turned-Palace Flophouse and Grill, the book consists of a series of vignettes that loosely follow the simple plot of a group of men, led by the enterprising Mack, trying to throw a thank-you party for their friend, Doc.

Throughout the plot Steinbeck includes different vignettes of other denizens of Cannery Row, employing his selection of detail in showing characters’ situations and living conditions. However, unlike, say, the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck refrains using the vignettes as a flashpoint for explicit political discourse, instead allowing them to show and speak for themselves. Because of this, although it is less character-driven than other works, Cannery Row exhibits many of the best aspects of Steinbeck’s writing.

Nonetheless, the book shows many of the aspects of American life into which Steinbeck had such insight. Brotherhood among unlikely friends, the mixed shrewdness and compassion of local business owners, the antics of well-meaning fools, and the attempts of honest people to live well and virtuously despite their circumstances can all be found in the book, and they make Cannery Row a great example of Steinbeck’s style and ability.

Good King Harry by Denise Giardina—Goodreads Book Review

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“Chivarly dead? Perhaps not! Perhaps it is the last battle to purify it. To rid it of hypocrisies ere this new age you speak of overtakes us.”—Earl of Warwick to King Henry V

In Good King Harry, Denise Giardina explores the life of Prince Hal/Henry V in the 14th and 15th centuries. Told in first person, the book covers Hal’s childhood, including his rejection by his father and his time at King Richard II’s court, his adolescent years campaigning in Wales against Owen Glyndwr, and his eventual ascension to the throne and retaking of English lands in France, ending the book with his death.

Throughout the story, Giardina explores the themes of courtliness and chivalry that characterized politics and war at the time, and how and why Harry would largely depart from both. She also shows the growing conflict between the Lollard movement and the English Catholic Church which would, a century later, become the Protestant Reformation. Generally following the historical timeline, though with definite nods to Shakespeare’s dramatizing of it (dividing sections with quotes from Shakespeare, including truncated version of some of King Henry’s great speeches), Giardina presents a compelling and sympathetic perspective on the conflicts and complexities of King Henry. Her Harry must maintain a balance between the courtliness of Richard II and the populism of Henry IV, as well as manage the transition out of the age of romantic chivalry while striving to maintain its best traits.

This account is a compelling and captivating piece of historical fiction, and I would imagine it would be as enjoyable for readers who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s Hal as it was for this one who is.