Category Archives: Musings

Love in a Time of Cholera: Why you shouldn’t reread your favorite books

I’m sure you’ve had this experience: you go back to reread a book that you absolutely loved when you first read it, and… Meh.

A week ago I would have told you that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera was one of the great reading experiences of my life: a deeply romantic exploration of enduring human love. I finished rereading it for the first time in a bit over twenty years (ouch), and… Meh.

The problem for me was that, where I had been swept along by the sheer romantic ache of the central story–a couple separated in their youth who finally find love in extreme old age–on this read I found their story annoying.

The character of the woman, Fermina Daza, was still a compelling one: she’s a complex, intense, interesting woman, and you can see two men losing their hearts to her. But her husband, Dr. Urbino, only rises above being a pompous prig in her memory, and Florentino Arizo, the young man who first captured her heart, is portrayed as both an obsessive stalker and a philandering hypocrite. The recitals of the endless affairs in which he indulges while waiting for his One True Love become, after a while, numbing and–eventually–distasteful. By the time he takes his final pre-Fermina lover, a school girl trusted to his guardianship, Florentino’s right to claim any kind of moral high ground for his enduring passion for the lost love of his youth is long gone. No Joycean “scrupulous meanness” here–the two men are painted in absolute, merciless detail, and boy, they don’t come across well. At which point, I have a hard time caring about the story.

My other problem was the laxness of the narrative. I love Garcia Marquez’s audacity when it comes to narrative. In Nobody Talks to the Colonel, he writes from the point of view of an entire Caribbean nation, shifting in mid-sentence from a prostitute to a bishop to a group of school children. In the amazing Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he tells you what happened in the first few pages and then spends the rest of the book dissecting the cause. In Love in a Time of Cholera, he utilizes the same quasi-journalistic approach over and over–telling us what happened and then telling us at great length how or why it happened. After a while, I found myself wanting him just to get on with it. Also, threads drop. The opening sequence involves the aged Dr. Urbino attending to the body of a friend who has committed suicide. At the friend’s house, he discovers a letter addressed to him that contains news that shakes him to the core; it is this sense of disquiet that leads, we are given to understand, to his falling accidentally to his death. What was in the letter? We never find out. It’s never mentioned again. It doesn’t feel like a literary evocation of the unknowable. It feels like a lazy cheat.

I think I’m going back to reading young adult fantasies.

Editor! Editor!

So I’ve had this experience a number of times in the past few weeks: someone starts talking about this wonderful Joseph Campbell book they’ve read, Pathways to Bliss

And I find myself feeling very shy.

Here’s the thing. Part of me is tickled pink—I spent two years of my life on the bloody book, and so it’s gratifying to hear that it had a profound affect on someone. Part of me is a bit astonished, because all I see when I open it are the typos. (I haven’t found a new one in a while—it’s been out seven years—but I know they’re in there somewhere, mocking me.)

And part of me bristles. Joseph Campbell book? Yeah, yeah, he’s the author and all of that, but who do think pulled the gorram thing together???

See, editors don’t do readings. We don’t do book tours. We don’t do radio interviews. And so we aren’t confronted with the affect our work has on readers on quite as immediate a level.

We also don’t get to toot our own horns. At least, not very loudly.

And yet there’s a part of me that definitely wants to say, “Hey! I’m listed on the title page too! My blood, sweat, and cerebral matter are splattered across every page of that book!”

Which is silly. But interesting.

Just thought I’d share that.

Lavinia: The Aeneiad Brought to Life

Many of us are familiar at this point with what is known as fanfiction, a largely internet-based genre in which writers of every level of ability apply their skills to worlds and characters created by others. At worst, they offer amateurs a chance to allow their imaginations to play in fields plowed by more skilled craftsmen. At best, they create a fractal lens to the original work, expanding the reader’s understanding of the original book and its themes, turning the perspective offered by the original author inside-out and upside-down.

Of late, this genre has gone mainstream. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked recast the Wicked Witch of the West as the protagonist of Frank Baum’s Oz books. Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad tells of the hardships suffered by Odysseus’ abandoned queen.

In Lavinia, master fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin takes a minor character who appears late the Aeneiad–Aeneas’ second (or perhaps third, but certainly last) wife, and tells a rich story around her, properly epic in scope and detail.

The book starts with a breath-taking descent into the point of view of Lavinia, princess of a minor Latin kingdom. She is a seer, and the subject of numerous prophecies–the most powerful and closely guarded imparted to her by the dying poet Virgil, who lived hundreds of years in Lavinia’s future.

The narrative continually seems to loop back on itself, as Lavinia’s knowledge as the point of view character looking back on the events about which she is telling, the knowledge imparted to her by Virgil, and the urgency of the crises through which she lived seem to cross and overlap.

As the book reaches its halfway point, several things begin to weigh it down: Lavinia’s own passivity as a character, which is quite profound, and the author’s desire to tell the story fully. The final chapters are rushed, whole decades sailing by in the space of paragraphs.

Nevertheless, this wonderful storyteller’s ability to weave a fantastic tale out of the material of everyday life (even the everyday life of the Latium of some 2500 or 3000 years ago), and the compelling philosophical questions that Le Guin raises and Lavinia considers–together they make this a worthwhile and original glimpse into Virgil’s world.

Great Literature in Five Sentences Meme

So, this is a simple meme: take a Great Novel (the more complex the better) and retell it in five sentences or less. Think Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Finnegans Wake: Abridged

goes around. THWWWAAAAAAACK. HCE dreaming. Shaun and Shem fighting. Livia Plurabelle being. And it all


Summer Knight: These Faeries Are Not All Sweetness and Light

After the first book in the series, Jim Butcher established a pattern in his Harry Dresden novels. In each volume, detective/wizard Dresden faces off against another genus in the family of magical beasties. In the second volume, it was werewolves; in the third, it was vampires. This time around, he is confronted with creatures which (unless you’re big on Celtic myth) you may not think of as scary: faeries.

These faeries are not (for the most part) sweet little Tinkerbelles or Fantasia-inspired sprites. They are creatures of what Harry calls the Nevernever who are nonetheless closely tied in with the elements of the natural world. In particular, they are connected with the seasons. Still trying to help end the war between wizards and vampires that he helped start at the end of the previous book (without being offered up as a blood sacrifice by the wizards’ White Council), Harry gets sucked into a power struggle between the two rival Faerie courts of Summer and Winter. The Summer Knight has been bumped off, his mantle of power stolen, and the Winter Queen, Mab (remember her from Romeo and Juliet?), wants Harry to prove that her side wasn’t responsible. In the mean time, Harry’s girlfriend has skipped town and his first love unexpectedly appears–but on whose side?

The action in Summer Knight is fast-paced, without being quite as horrific as in Grave Peril (Book 3); nor is it as formulaic as it was in Fool Moon (Book 2). Butcher continues to weave in threads from Harry’s past, and to expand the reader’s understanding of the parallel universe that Harry inhabits (both in Chicago and in the Nevernever). He returns here to something more closely resembling the gumshoe/whodunit form with which he began the series so wonderfully–a cross (as I have said before) between Dashiell Hammett and JK Rowling. Shakespearean references abound (beginning with the punning title), which Butcher manages to be very sly about… until the very end. Ah, well. All’s well that ends well. 😉