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ScanAs part of my current mild obsession with all things Gatsby and Fitzgerald related (and yes, this year I really really am going to read Tender is the Night after nearly thirty years of thinking about it) caused by the release of the latest film version (reviewed here) I have been keeping my eye out for any other books that touch on the subject matter.

Towards the end of May I happened to be meeting Silvery Dude for drink after work and agreed for a change to rendezvous in the rather nice little Foyles bookshop under the Royal Festival Hall. As is often the case His Dudeness was delayed by work and so I found myself in the shop by myself and because where books are concerned I have no self-control I ended up buying quite a few volumes, including Careless People by Sarah Churchwell – the eye-catching cover and the subtitle “murder, mayhem and the invention of The Great Gatsby were totally irresistible even though I’m not supposed to be buying hardbacks in more (for reasons of space, you understand).

This is one of those books where you want to grab the attention of the person sitting next to you, say “did you now…” and then read them a quote. It is full of fascinating information about all sorts of things. The structure is interesting, alternating  as it does between Scott and Zelda and their move east so that he can write what would become Gatsby and a notorious unsolved murder case which may possibly have had some influence on the novel. I will admit that I found the switch between the two elements a bit distracting at first but soon warmed to it and enjoyed the juxtaposition of the Fitzgeralds’ lifestyle and the incredibly casual and astonishingly incompetent approach to investigating the death of Eleanor Mills and her married lover. It has the proverbial cast of thousands so definitely a book to dip into or read in small chunks as it ranges widely across all sorts of subjects .

On women drinking in the age of the speakeasy;

You were thought to be good at holding your liquor in those days if you could make it to the ladies before throwing up

On love:

There are all kinds of love in the world but never the same love twice

On fact versus fiction:

Unlike fiction, reality has no obligation to be realistic.

However my personal favourite snippet of information, fact fans, is that the first recorded use of the word “motherfucker” was in 1918. That probably says a lot about me.

Although the book focusses on the period around the writing of Gatsby there is an epilogue which looks at Fitzgerald from 1925 to 1940 when he died suddenly just before Christmas, far too young and if indeed he didn’t fulfil his early promise he did leave us a with a masterpiece, for which we should all be grateful.

Oh and when I tried to blame the Silvery One for my purchases the Book God pointed out that I should have stood outside the shop with my face pressed against the glass. Go figure.

I’m not sure where I first came across On Monsters but I knew as soon as I had read the synopsis that I really wanted to get my hands on this and pestered the Book God on more than one occasion to get it for me, and bless him he came through at Christmas.

The book is a cultural history of monsters from the ancient world through the medieval period, dealing with the scientific view, the monsters of our innermost thoughts and ending with what we might think future monsters will look like.

It’s a scholarly work but very readable, though one to be savoured as there is so much to take in on each page. It has a number of fascinating illustrations, many of them drawings made by the author, of legendary monsters and medical samples and some examples of modern art which is really out there, where artists have modified their bodies (temporarily or otherwise) to create their art, or swallowed cameras to make sculpture out of the inside of their bodies. All this is about difference, which lets face it underpins a lot of our view of what a “monster” is – something other, strange, and therefore strange and frightening.

This is book full of the sort of facts that have you reading bits of the book out loud to anyone within earshot (well it does if you are me); some of these are totally fascinating, for example:

  • in the 1920s, paleontologists working in China were told of dragon bones scattered on the ground, which when investigated turned out to be the remains of late Cretaceous period dinosaurs; when they looked at the skeletons of the parrot-beaked Protoceratops it was clear how similar they were to descriptions of griffins;
  • many legends involving St Christopher state that he was a Cynocephalus, ie a dog-headed man and may images show him as such.

The existence of monsters could be a real issue for the medieval church, especially where witches and demons were involved; it was very easy to slip into heresy by claiming that they created monsters. Much better to make the argument that demons couldn’t create a new form of life but could alter the essence of something that already existed; monsters were therefore the production of chemistry rather than creation.

Over time as science took sway (and quite rightly so) our view of monsters changed as we came to understand how aberrations and anomalies can come about within different species. And once psychology gets involved then we start to see certain monsters as projections of our frustrations (a favourite theory of Freud, of course).

Asma is particularly interesting when looking at the cultural impact of monsters. He sets Frankenstein within the context of a period where monsters were seen not to be real but “terrible confusions”, though the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on France and elsewhere contributed to a Counter-Enlightenment position where there could be “too much reason”.

One of my favourite references is to the original version of The Thing (1951) where a dispassionate scientist, Dr Carrington, waxes lyrical about the beauty and  superiority of the alien being ( a position often taken by scientists in film and literature – we just don’t understand how magnificent these creatures are, you see); often the outcome is as Asma says “the alien responds to the admiration, of course, by bludgeoning the good doctor.” He also talks about one of my favourites, Blade Runner, and how we define what it means to be a “person”.

The main thing to take away from this wonderfully well written study is that monsters in one form of another are an archetype in every culture’s artwork, and will always be with us, whether a legendary beast, a serial killer or technology gone mad. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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