Mennonite in a Little Black Dress {book review}

It’s my mom’s fault I am such an avid reader.  In the 35 years that I have known my mother, I have never known her to have fewer than five books checked out of the library at a time.  There is a spot near their fireplace that is a bottomless piles of books–the titles change each time I am there, but the pile is constant.

Mysteries are my mom’s brain candy of choice and I would not be surprised if she has read every mystery in our local library.  Twice.  From time to time she will read a non-mystery book that someone recommends to her.  (In fact, she picked up The Great Gatsby after my review of the movie.)  A couple weeks ago she asked me if I had ever read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  It was autobiographical and pretty “cute” my mom said.

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Seeing the Great Gatsby

I have a personal relationship with the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  That book defines my love of American Literature in a way no other novel does.  But let me back up.

I first read the book as a junior in high school.  I don’t remember much of that experience.

I read it again as an undergrad at Western Michigan University in an American Lit class.  And that is where I fell in love. Hard.

With the Roaring Twenties. With the cynical outlook on The American Dream. With the emptiness of wealth.  With the debauchery and moral-less actions of the characters.  With disliking characters but LOVING the novel.

I went on to teach it every year except one during the past 12 years.  One of those years I had five sections of American Lit meaning I read through the novel five times that year.

I have watched both the 1974 and the 2000 film adaptations of the novel, despising both for a variety of things.  I tend to show the 2000 (by director Robert Markowitz) to my juniors for the sheer ridiculousness of it and because the 1974 version (with Robert Redford, directed by Jack Clayton and with Francis Ford Coppola as a writer) is so boring I would rather watch paint dry.

I think the thing that was most disappointing about both of those films was that I didn’t walk away feeling like I had actually seen the Great Gatsby.  Yes it was a retelling (mostly) of the plot, but the plot is not even primary to the novel.  The plot is not what The Great Gatsby is about.

Both films portrayed a love story…almost a glorified soap opera.  That was not Fitzgerald’s intent at all.  He did not write a story about people loving each other. At all.

When I heard that Baz Luhrmann was working on a screenplay of the novel, I had hopes.  High hopes.

I adore his modern music meets Elizabethan iambic pentameter in Romeo and Juliet and his over-the-top cinematography of Moulin Rouge!  Going in to the movie theater on Sunday, I expected a combination of both.

I was right.

I must also admit to stalking the movie trailers and predictions for months before the film came out.  I waited a week to see it and in that time drove myself batty reading all the fun satires and the scathing reviews.  The critique that I kept hearing over and over was “it doesn’t stick to the time period. It’s not the 20’s.”

Even though I had not yet seen the film I couldn’t help but silently cry out, “You’re wrong. I KNOW you’re wrong.”

Because The Great Gatsby is not a novel about the 20’s.  Although Fitzgerald put as much pop culture in the book as he possibly could.  He was a fan of the boisterous, the loud, the showy…look at his lifestyle and his wife for proof of that.

Fitzgerald was the one to coin the term “The Jazz Age” and use jazz music and the “black movement” in his novel…even though the people around him told him not to do it.  The warned him that it was a passing fad and that it would make his book unrelateable and out of fashion quickly.

Guess who was right?

The choice to have Jay-Z do the score–and include a contemporary “black/street” music injection to the movie–was not just genius, it was exactly up Fitzgerald’s alley.  It was totally Gatsby of Luhramm to do.

Hip hop is not a passing fad, just like jazz wasn’t.

The music also tied the novel to 2013 by showing how much has not changed about greed in America.  We are shown a 20’s setting with music of today and it fits. The 1920’s, especially in The Great Gatsby, were full of debauchery and greed.  How is that different from today?

But it wasn’t just the music I liked, I also liked the casting.

The men were the best cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is a “great” Gatsby.  He has all the created polish and manners that Jay Gatsby worked so hard to pretend to have in the novel.  Tobey Maguire is a good fit for Nick with his wide-eyed worried nature.  Joel Edgerton is by far the best cast Tom of all three movies.  He is aggressive an actually carries himself in the “hulking” way Daisy describes him as.  And Jason Clarke is a perfect George Wilson from his build to his hair to his bright blue eyes.

I was not as impressed with the female character casting. Carey Mulligan is an Ok Daisy. I’m not sure any actress can portray the Daisy Fitzgerald creates with his words.  There is always something lacking, and in this case Mulligan lacked The Voice.  She was too… likable.  I actually found myself feeling sorry for her, which I never EVER do when I read the novel.

Isla Fisher plays the voluptuous Myrtle, and does it well.  Luhramm has made her into the brightest, most gaudy spot in the desolate Valley of Ashes, just as Fitzgerald does in the novel.

Of all the film versions, Luhramm gives the best impression of actually having read and analyzed the novel.  He gets all the tiny details right: the way Catherine’s bracelets jingle on her wrist in the apartment party, the way the phone book drops to the floor in the hotel room, and the way the clock tips and falls at Nick’s house.

Speaking of Nick’s house, my favorite scene in the novel is when he has Daisy over for tea and Gatsby “drops by,” so when the scene was approaching in the film, I sat forward with my elbows on my knees.

(By the way, this is also where I started to look like a weirdo being e alone in the theater and saying the lines along with the characters.)

Luhramm gets this perfect.  From the way Gatsby is totally distracted, almost angry as he waits with Nick in a room that is packed with white flowers to how tense it is when Gatsby stands against the mantel (and the clock) looking down and Nick and Daisy with unease.

It is exactly…exactly…how I picture it when I read.  In fact, I found myself laughing at Gatsby standing in the rain at the front door the same way my students do when I read that section out loud.

For all the criticism the film is getting–when you do an adaptation of the Great American Novel, you sort of open yourself to it–I think Fitzgerald would have been happy with the outcome.

Of course there are things I didn’t like.  While I like the frame that Nick is writing this story down after the fact (that is true to the novel, by the way.  Nick actually says to the readers, “as I glance over all I have written so far…”), I can’t get behind Nick writing the story from the inside of a sanitarium.

I don’t believe Nick “cracked up” at the end of the novel.

I don’t believe he was an alcoholic, let alone a recovering one.

Nick is one of the most infamous unreliable narrator of all time, but I do not believe he was a boozer or insane.

There were also things Luhramm left out of the movie, and things he added that sort of held the hand of the viewer the way you don’t get when you read the book, but after rolling it all over in my mind, I think it’s Ok.

For instance, I think it’s Ok we don’t get the scene with Gatsby’s dad or the scene of Gatsby’s funeral.  Those points were made in other scenes in other ways and to add these would be redundant to the film.

I was bothered that Jordan’s dishonesty was all but left out instead leaving her as just an aloof, jaded character.  I did like that everyone in the book is a careless driver, and that you only understand the symbolism of that you read the book.

I was also bothered that Gatsby didn’t meet Pammy the way he does in the novel. I think seeing her brings a different kind of twist in his “perfect” plan that Luhramm leaves out almost completely in the film.  He has Nick mention her, but only so Daisy can say the “little fool” line.

In the end, as I repeated those final lines of the novel along with Nick, I realized I didn’t have the same sense of empty delusion that I have when I read the book.

In fact, I sort of liked all the characters in the movie. I don’t think that is supposed to happen.

But maybe it’s because I was so pleased with how they portrayed the characters from the novel.

What I do know is that actually seeing The Great Gatsby is a different medium than reading it.  Images affect me differently than words do.

So I don’t think anyone will ever get a version that is just right.  Because you can’t do in images what you can do in words.  Oh, it’s beautiful and it’s wonderful and it’s a grand movie, but you almost can’t compare it aesthetically to the novel because to do so, you would be discounting something important and special from each medium.

The message of social class difference comes through in both though.  And of carelessness.

And of Gatsby symbolizing a great hope that might very well be pointless.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


My Life Map

I like lists.

I also like to plan stuff.

In fact, if I am totally honest (and I always am in this space), I have five ways of keeping track of stuff: my lesson plan book, my online lesson plan book, my personal planner, our wall calendar, and our shared family calendar on Cozi.

Lately, Cort and I have been talking about having a 10-year plan.  Now that we are well into our child-bearing, we wanted to start making those vague “some day” plans into something more tangible.

For instance, ever since moving into our house, we talked about what we would want in our “forever home” and how many kids we would have, and what sorts of vacations we would love to take both just the two of us and as a family.  We’ve discussed new vehicles and possible “fun” items.  But up until recently, with the school loans and the just overwhelming BUSY of our lives, we chunked it all under the category of “Some Day”.

And just like the universe usually works, suddenly an opportunity fell in my lap.

I had the chance to review My Life Map by Kate and David Marshall with the BlogHer Book Club.

It’s actually more of a workbook/journal than it is an actual book you would sit and read, so I was surprised to see it as this month’s choice, but I am not complaining.

It starts by talking about how the book works and why it would be beneficial to make maps for your life.  It then gives you some samples of Whole Life maps.

The book’s chapters guide you through some leading questions to help you figure out how to fill in each section on the Whole Life maps.

To be honest, the Whole Life map sort of overwhelmed me.  I mean, I can fill in the past and the present, but I sort of hyperventilated when I got to the “future” questions.

And so I moved on to the Ten Year Subject Maps.

Ah. Much more my speed.

Cort and I have actually been slowly placing things in our 10-year plan…albeit in our minds and not on paper.  This was a place to write it down.  And just like the Whole Life Map, there was a section of questions to get you started.

I filled in what I could of the Ten-Year Family Plan.  And then I realized that when I turn 44, my oldest will be in the 7th grade.

And I slammed the book shut.


Other than give me anxiety, the book did help me realize that it would probably be better to do the book with Cort rather than on my own. And after I had started writing in the book, I noticed that it comes with directions on how to make the maps online…which would probably give me more room to be overly wordy.

This book also made me realize that I am not ready to sit down and plan out each and every aspect of my life in detail.

But it gave me something to talk with Cort about.

What interested me most was the list in the back of the other books by these authors, particularly The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions. You can imagine, that as a narcissistic blogger, my interest was piqued.  Also on my list? The Book of Us: A Journal of your Love Story in 150 Questions.

If you want to join our conversation about mapping our lives, come on over to Blogger’s Book Club where we are starting the convo with the question about service: Do you prefer to give your time or your money?

But this is what I want to know right now…are you a planner?  And if so, how do you plan your life?  Or your day?  Or even your hour?


Disclosure: This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.