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Patty's Book Reviews: Tales from the Jazz Age

The Book: Tales from the Jazz Age by F Scott Fitzgerald (Hard Cover Classics, Penguin)
The Challenge: A book based on its cover

It was in Cincinnati just last week that I picked up this book. It's cover is amazing: gold leaf and vaguely Art Deco looking. Shiny. Plus, it's an F Scott Fitzgerald book, so how could I say no? (As a bit of a side note: this edition of the book does not contain the original Tales from the Jazz Age, but is a reprint of several of Fitzgerald's short stories).

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a quick read, often times humorous but more usually tinted with a hint of melancholy. Oh, alright, gobs of melancholy. It's Fitzgerald, so what would you expect?

Included in this volume are:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I only sort of knew that this was an F Scott Fitzgerald story. And by "sort of knew" I mean that as soon as I saw this was in the book my response was "oh, yeah, he did write this." It tells the story of Benjamin Button, who is born old and as he ages, grows younger. It's a bit of an odd premise, but trust me on this: Fitzgerald pulls it off and turns it into a meditation on aging and youth and all that those states entail. The parts with Benjamin's father attempting to come to terms with his son's "condition" were hysterical.

Head and Shoulders
This follows the ups and downs of a standard Fitzgerald couple: the slightly awkward, poor writer/artist (and in this case an intellectual prodigy) and his dazzling, outgoing, society girl (in this case, a dancer). The title refers to a nickname the couple gives themselves, "Heads" because one is the intellectual and literary one, and "Shoulders" because the other is the more physical person. Of course, there's a twist as to which one is which. I'm impressed by Fitzgerald's ability to take the same two types of characters and put fresh spins on them.

The Cut-Glass Bowl
I did not see this one coming; it was almost like Fitzgerald decided to write a Neil Gaiman story. At first, it appears to be a story about a woman and her semi-miserable life, but soon you learn that she threw over one man to marry another, and the first one gave her a bowl as a wedding present that he claimed will be as "cold as {she} was". Suddenly, all the events start to appear to be caused by some sort of curse on the bowl. Then she tries to destroy it, causing yet another tragedy. It was bizarre, a little spooky, and really good.

The Four Fists
The title refers to the four most important punches the main character receives in his life. Each one teaches him an important lesson in humility, and eventually turn him into the sort of person that the narrator states he has no desire to hit. That's sort of a bungling way of describing the story, I know, but I really liked this one.

May Day
Apparently May Day used to be a big society day, full of dancing and partying. I say "apparently" because it is around this concept that the story centers, but is not one that I've heard before. There are several characters, all of whom wind up being linked in various ways. The message that I walked away with from this one with is that Jazz Age parties were horrible ideas, and it was a very bad idea to be a socialist after the end of WWI.

'O Russet Witch!'
This was not my favorite of the book, I'll admit. The theme was interesting, and dealt with the dangers of Romanticizing something or someone; in this case, a russet-haired woman. There are numerous references to famous Chivalric Romance stories (the main character is named Merlin, who has a son named Arthur, for example), all of which underscore the 'don't expect a Holy Grail' message. My main problem was that it was a little awkwardly pulled off. I got the impression that Fitzgerald was experimenting with a style that comes across as really stylized writing, if that makes any sense. As an example, because the main character is so caught up in the fantasies about the girl he dubs "Caroline", many of the scenes which involve her are meant to read as if they aren't happening as he sees them (and of course they aren't).

Bernice Bobs Her Hair
Ah, yes, a story written when bobbing your hair was risque. I hope Fitzgerald meant for this story to be humorous, because it was. Or, rather, it reads so now.

The Lees of Happiness
Bring a box of tissues when you read this story, you will need it. A semi-famous actress gives up the stage to marry a semi-famous writer, and the story covers their lives together, complete with their successes and failures at achieving their dreams. There are a couple of bizarre semi-cute moments, such as when the actress attempts to make biscuits and fails, so her husband (in an attempt to cheer her up) declares them "art" and hangs them on the wall. An "aww" moment, but at the same time, who in their right mind does that? Anyway, eventually the husband has a stroke, and his wife devotedly stays with him until the end, finally reminiscing on how differently things turned out from their original hopes. It's one of those sucker-punch to the gut stories that still make you say "that was well done".

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