If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that my life was recently overtaken by a historical obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald and every damn thing related to the 1920s.
So yes: This list has a bit of a theme. Here are my favorite books from April and May, 2017.
If you're going to completely lose your shit over historical research into the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, like I recently did, I actually recommend starting with this biography of Max Perkins. A. Scott Berg's book is widely praised, and for good reason. It's an interesting, well-written account not just of Perkins' life, but also of the lives of the authors that he worked with, from the 20s through the 40s.
Perkins was the editor for Scott Fizgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Tom Wolfe, and many others. The book includes excerpts of their letters to each other, and clear timelines of their lives. Berg provides context that I found essential to enjoying and understanding the other non-fiction books that I went on to read.
Editor of Genius also has awesome insights into the publishing industry. I loved reading about Perkins' editing, the changes that were made to books like The Great Gatsby to get it in shape for printing, and the general "how things were done" of the age. This book is definitely a keeper for me.
A third-time read for me, and maybe I'm big cliche, but I love The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's prose is so beautiful, and so magical. Describing characters was one of Fitzgerald's strengths. Ironically, one of the big edits that Perkins suggested for this book was that Scott didn't describe Gatsby enough. Changes were made, and now Gatsby has some of the most incisive character descriptions I've ever read.
Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
This book holds up, in beauty and in readability. It's one of my favorites.
The second of my non-fiction binge books contains the collected letters between Fitzgerald and Max Perkins. Some I had already read in the Perkins biography. Here they're presented without commentary and minimal context (there are some great and useful footnotes), hence the Perkins biography feeling pretty crucial to my understanding of this book.
That being said, I love it. Certain paragraphs were cut out, which makes me feel like I have to track down the original letters just in case I missed some good dirt. I love the chatty, depressing, witty, lyrical way that Scott writes his letters. I found it sad and illuminating to see someone who is now considered one of the great American authors, openly struggling with his alcoholism, depression, and imposter syndrome. Fitzgerald is very flawed and very relatable, and I appreciate that his writing, letters included, has been so well-preserved.
Brief non-non-fiction break! The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy, was recommended (and bought for me) by Amanda Jean. What a fantastic book. It's the story of Laura Chant, a teenage girl whose brother is cursed, and who has to turn to the hot older boy witch in her school for help. It's incredibly well-written YA that doesn't condescend, talks honestly about sex, and magical metaphors for sex and puberty, and the prose is beautiful!
The characterization was also fantastic — I especially appreciated Laura's mother, who feels very real. And the magic in this book! It's creepy and delightful. The villain, in particular, is unforgettably horrifying.
Nella Larsen's Passing is the 1929 story of two black women who grew up in the same neighborhood. Clare has married a white man and is passing as white, while Irene is active in the black community in Harlem. Clare Kendry is a really vivid, memorable character. Every single description of her leaps off the page. The whole book is wonderfully written, with beautiful prose and character descriptions, and it feels so alive and relevant — even 88 years after it was first written.
The cherry on my miserable non-fiction sundae, this is the definitive book collecting the letters between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, over the course of their depressing-ass friendship. I felt that Bruccoli (who has apparently devoted his career to documenting these assholes) was very fair to both Scott and Ernest — not allowing either to be demonized, or lionized. He also doesn't let Hemingway get away with any of the inconsistencies that he introduced into the narrative of their friendship (lying about their first meetings, Scott's behavior, etc.).
I just finished this book so I'm still a little raw, but it really hit me emotionally. The Fitzgerald/Hemingway friendship was very intense, and watching it implode slowly is rough. The things they said about each other were beautiful and they were hurtful. I appreciated that Bruccoli lets the book close with excerpts of Scott's Notebooks, and every reference that he ever wrote about Hemingway. Hemingway lived 20 years longer than Scott, and spent those years writing and saying things of various levels of unkindness about him. It felt fitting to let Fitzgerald get a tiny, last hurrah in the final section of this book.