One Hundred Years of Solitude-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

So, I’m pretty sure with this book, Dave and I have wrapped up Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s contributions to  The Top Ten.   And, I have to say that I am _extremely_ happy that I had the opportunity to read this book for our experiment/project.

The following authors listed this book in their top ten:

Lee K. Abbott, Russell Banks, Pearl Cleage, Edwidge Danticat (and I’ve never heard of them before but LOVE the name!), Chitra Divrakuni, Karen Joy Foyler, Michael Griffith, Alice Hoffman, Jim Harrison, John Irving, Wally Lamb, Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Jim Shepard and Alexander McCall Smith.

I remember once, years ago, picking up One Hundred Years of Solitude and attempting to read it.  I made it maybe ten pages in and gave up.  I’m not sure why, though most likely I was in the midst of reading Dean Koontz novels or something and the writing style is definitely different from that.   So, when I picked it up again, I did so without fully knowing what to expect.  I had a little trepidation, one might say.  Halfway through the first chapter, my trepidation disappeared and the story consumed me.  The language is beautiful.  I liked this one better than Love in the Time of Cholera, this one had a bit more magic to it than Cholera did.

The story follows a family and intertwined with the family, a town, Macondo.  In fact, the state of the town usually reflects the state of the family and vice versa.  The founders of the family, Ursula and Jose Arcadio Buendia are the first characters we meet.  Marquez is genius at painting characters in a few strokes.  He then spends the rest of the story coloring them in, but even if he didn’t, you would feel that you knew the character completely from the beginning.  The following is one of the beginning things said about Ursula.  Her and Jose are arguing, he wants to explore and abandon the city that he founded.  She doesn’t want to leave.  He tells her that no one has died yet in the city, so you know it’s not a real city until someone does.

“Ursula replied with soft firmness ‘If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, I will die'”.

The story follows the Buendia family from this time until a hundred years later.  Jose & Ursula’s two sons are Jose Arcadio and Aureliano.  Jose ends up having a child who is named Jose Arcadio, but called Arcadio, and then Jose runs off to not be seen for a few more years of narrative.  Aureliano stays and becomes a Colonel in a Liberal revolution.  Jose is…very well endowed.

“…the willful first-born who had always been too big for his age, had become a monumental adolescent.  One night, as Ursula went into the room where he was undressing to go to bed, she felt a mingled sense of shame and pity:  he was the first man she had seen naked after her husband and he was so well equipped for life that he seemed abnormal”.  Ursula speaks to a woman who knows how to read the future in cards and Ursula confides in her that she thinks it’s unnatural and the woman responds it doesn’t mean that at all, just that he’ll be very lucky.

Aureliano is a bit…psychic.  When he is born, he is born with his eyes wide open, and then examined everything with a “fearless curiousity”, then concentrated on the palm roof.

“Ursula did not remember the intensity of that look again until one day when little Aureliano, at the age of three, went into the kitchen at the moment she was taking a pot of boiling soup from the stove and putting it on the table.  The child, preplexed, said from the doorway, “It’s going to spill.”.  The pot was firmly placed in the center of the table, but just as soon as the child made his announcement, it began an unmistakable movement toward the edge, as if impelled by some innter dynamism and it fell and broke on the floor”.

I highlighted both sons’ traits here, because throughout the following generations, their names are used numerous times and a lot of their descendants carry either the huge genital size or the psychic intensity.

However, the trait that ties all of the generations together, is the solitude in which they live.  I’m not talking about the family as a unit living in reclusive solitude as a family.  I’m also not talking about someone who walls themselves in a room in solitude and never comes out (though some of the Buendias do just that either for parts of their lives or their whole lives).  I’m talking about each of them having distance from everyone else.  Marquez begins referencing it (that I noticed) in the second half of the book when he would talk about this descendant or that and would talk about them as solitary.  That they experienced this even in the midst of being solitary.  That they were able to not do this because of being in the midst of being solitary.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has a more fantastical feel to it than Love in The Time of Cholera.  Time doesn’t pass the same sometimes.  One of Jose Sr’s mentors, an old gypsy, dies and comes back.  Another character lives to be beyond 150 years old.  One character ascends to heaven just in the middle of a normal afternoon.  Things will happen that others say never existed.

There is so much more to this book than I have explained above, and it would take ten blog entries to go into detail into every nuance of Marquez’s story.

I loved it.  That sums up pretty much how I feel about this book.  When I started writing this blog entry, and was flipping through for the parts I quoted above, I had the temptation to begin reading it again.  Within 24 hours of finishing it.  I felt like I had gotten so sucked into it that I was missing major portions of the language and the descriptions etc.

I was really excited to see John Irving had picked it.  One of my favorite books of all time is Widow For One Year by him.  He had a new one come out this year, In One Person, that I finished reading the day before I picked up this book.  I thought it was beautiful, it sucked me in and when it spit me back out, it lingered for a couple of days, and still tugs at my conscience sometimes.

If you read no other book that I’ve talked about in here since May, read this one.  It’s a different pace than a lot of novels, but it’s a translation.  Find that pace, get into the book, and enjoy.



Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Anyone who knows me would in no way be surprised that I had fun reading Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. After all, I love a good laugh.  One thing that is certain is that you do get that with Wodehouse (though I was more snickering throughout as opposed to laughing out loud at any point, but still). Mind you, I didn’t know that for sure until this book as I’d never read any Wodehouse before, but I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams and Molière and such and had every reason to think I would go for Wodehouse.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Arthur Golden.)

So what do we have with Right Ho, Jeeves?  Well, we start with Bertram Wooster (Bertie) and his man (butler) Jeeves in a bit of a standoff over a white mess jacket.  Apparently, Bertie purchased this jacket (which he is quite fond of) while away at Cannes and Jeeves does not approve of. Bertie knew this was going to happen and is ready to spar with Jeeves on the matter. As a result of this jacket situation, when Jeeves is approached by a reclusive and newt-fond friend of Bertie’s for help landing a girl (apparently people are always seeking the help of Jeeves as opposed to Bertie) Bertie seizes control and tries to help on his own. Instead of fixing things, Bertie complicates the situation excessively. Hopefully, Jeeves will eventually manage to step in and straighten things out. After all, there is apparently a good reason why people don’t ask Bertie for help.

One particularly interesting thing to me, though, is that even though everyone knows that Bertie’s advice will go wrong and that they really want the help of Jeeves, they still listen to Bertie when he advises. He talks and it sounds like a good idea, though it ends up not being such, and people listen to him. For the life of me, I can’t see why they do this as opposed to insisting on Jeeves. Yet, they do. Hilarity, of course, results. I suppose things would be rather dull if people just ignored Bertie and insisted on Jeeves as there would be no catastrophes and thus no humor.

Really, the humor is the main feature of this book for me. There are a few love stories going on, and a few things other than that, but I never felt that they were particularly significant or important. I wanted the various situations to turn out well, but I didn’t worry about them too much. I figured Jeeves would be listened to eventually and things would all be good by the end. I suppose there could be come argument for a dissection of wealthy English society in here, but I personally don’t find that as interesting as a good laugh.

By way of example, take a look at this section where Bertie’s affectionate aunt addresses him regarding the current state of affairs after Bertie has screwed some things up:

‘Gone to bed, eh?’ I murmured musingly.

‘What did you want her for?’

‘I thought she might like a stroll and a chat.’

‘Are you going for a stroll?’ said Aunt Dahlia, with a sudden show of interest. ‘Where?’

‘Oh, hither and thither.’

‘Then I wonder if you would mind doing something for me.’

‘Give it a name.’

‘It won’t take you long. You know that path that runs past the greenhouses and into the kitchen garden. If you go along it you come to a pond.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Well, will you get a good, stout piece of rope or cord and go down that path until you come to the pond–’

‘To the pond. Right.’

‘– and look about you till you find a nice, heavy stone. Or a fairly large brick would do.’

‘I see,’ I said, though I didn’t, being still fogged. ‘Stone or brick. Yes. And then?’

‘Then,’ said the relative, ‘I want you, like a good boy, to fasten the rope to the brick and tie it round your damned neck and jump into the pond and drown yourself. In a few days I will send to have you fished up and buried because I shall need to dance on your grave.’

Frankly, I think this passage conveys the entire point behind reading this book all in one little package. I wouldn’t want to quote any more than that because it would spoil the ability to read these lines fresh for oneself.

Now, I’m not sure that I think all that much of Right Ho, Jeeves beyond the humor value (and I still would put Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest higher), but does there really need to be anything more than that? I certainly don’t think so. Sometimes a good laugh is all that separates us on a daily basis from going completely insane (if we aren’t already) in the face of what life throws at us.

I had fun reading Right Ho, Jeeves. Really, I think that’s plenty. I might not rank this as one of the best books of all time, but I certainly want to read more Wodehouse. For me, that’s an important indication. I don’t tend to keep reading someone who didn’t impress me one way or another.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks is a book I’ve been intending to get around to for years. I’ve seen it in bookstores and always passed it up for some reason. I’d heard a lot of talk about the book, though nothing really that told me anything about the book, so I definitely intended to take a look. Well, now I’ve read it. Though I enjoyed myself, I do have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Jennifer Weiner.)

So, what is the book about? Well, we have fourteen-year-old Bone, except that isn’t really his name. He takes that name on later, but we’ll just call him that for sake of clarity.

Bone’s life at the start of the book isn’t too pretty. He smokes a lot of pot. His dad ran off on him when he was really little, his alcoholic step dad molested him, and his mom isn’t worth real much. He ends up getting kicked out of his house (drugs, stealing his mothers coin collection for drugs, etc.) and goes to live with a friend who is pretty much a flunky for some dangerous bikers:

            Russ was my friend. And the bikers were my friends too, even though they were older and kid of unpredictable. Russ had hooked up with them because of his job at the Video Den, which he’d had since before he quit school and got kicked out of his house for doing drugs. But the job was only part-time days and he couldn’t afford the apartment over the store on his own so he offered to share it with this one guy he knew, Bruce Walther who was more or less a friendly biker in spite of how he looked.

            But then Bruce’d started bringing his friends into the place.


            So they moved in, different ones, four or five of them at a time and sometimes their girlfriends who they called their old ladies or just split-tails or gash but the same ones never stayed long. The squat was this big funky apartment owned by Rudy LaGrande the guy who ran the Video Den with three bedrooms and a bunch of mostly broken furniture. The stove partially worked though and the refrigerator but I remember the toilet was stopped up a lot that winter. Russ still paid half the rent but only got the pantry off the kitchen for his room where he had a mattress on the floor and his old stereo from home and his heavy metal tapes and Playboy collection all of which the bikers used whenever they wanted so Russ kept a lock on the door.

Eventually, as one might expect, Bone and Russ get in over their head with the bikers. As such, they flee. Eventually, Bone hooks up with a cryptic Rastafarian man and even accompanies this guy back to Jamaica:

            After a while we ended up cutting off from the beach and went back into the bushes on a zigzaggy path I’d’ve never seen on my own if I hadn’t been following I-Man. Finally we came to this bamboo fence with a gate that had a red and green and gold lion’s head pained on it and when we went through the date there was this little sandy yard and then I-Man picked up a candle from a shelf beside a door and lit it and went through the door into a bamboo cave which was actually a house, this incredible house with high steep ceilings that were thatched like in Africa and walls built entirely out of bamboo tied together with vines and there were all these little circular rooms and hallways going off of each other in a hundred different directions like and ant farm I once made for school.

            The rooms had bunches of huge pillows placed around the walls for sitting on like in a harem and hammocks for sleeping in and low tables and curtains made out of beads hanging at the doors and pictures of Rasta heroes on the walls like Marcus Garvey who I-Man said was the first Jamaican to figure out how to get back to Africa and Martin Luther King who I recognized on my own and an African king in a suit named Mandela I-Man told me when I said who’s that and of course the head Rasta, Haile Selassie himself, Negus of Bathsheba, Emperor of Ethiopia, Jah Rastafar-i. I was learning a lot.

As one might expect, Bone does some growing up in the book. He goes through some bad shit, matures, and experiences some sadness when he realizes how far he has come from where he started. I won’t go through everything, since that would kind of spoil the book. I think you get the idea.

Now, the story is interesting. A lot of exciting and exotic things certainly happen. Also, the characters are well done. I thought Bone’s voice in particular rang really true to a fourteen-year-old who is something of a delinquent but means well. Still, beyond that, nothing about the book really sang to me. I just didn’t get into it very much.

I mean, what was all the fuss about? Sure, some exciting things happen…just not exciting enough to make this one of the best books of all time. Sure, Bone gets into stuff that no kid of his age should…but it’s not like he’s the first fourteen-year-old to do drugs and get in over his head with dangerous bikers (though the Rastafarians I am less sure about). Still, what is the fuss?

I do want to say, I enjoyed Rule of the Bone. It is very well written and is well worth reading. However, I just didn’t find it to be the life changing experience that all the hype had led me to expect. Being told someone thought it one of the ten best books of all time didn’t help either. It’s good, but it isn’t magic.

Frankly, I would have probably enjoyed Rule of the Bone a whole lot more if I hadn’t heard a word about it beforehand. It is not a bad little book, but I just don’t see why people have thrown all this other stuff on its shoulders. All that expectation kind of ruins the good things that Rule of the Bone has to offer.

Bottom line? Read Rule of the Bone, just don’t go into it expecting that it is going to be one of the best books of all time. Enjoy what it has and leave it at that. Not every book has to be on the list of the best books of all time.

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

My book for this week is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, published 1941 originally.  I have included the original date of publication as some of the book does reference England’s participation in World War II.

David Foster Wallace listed this book as #10 on his list.  The wikipedia entry for him states that though it was not discussed much in his writing, Wallace belonged to a church whereever he lived.  Sadly, Wallace killed himself by hanging on September 12, 2008.  Wallace struggled with depression for over 20 years.

I mention his church membership, as it is relevant to The Screwtape Letters and why Wallace might have chosen it for his top ten list.

For the purposes of knowing the lens in which I read this, I feel it necessary to mention that I am Christian and an active member of a church.  I received a degree that has a theological component to it (a teaching degree including a Lutheran Teacher Degree, which qualifies me to teach in Lutheran elementary or secondary schools).

C.S. Lewis remains one of the most famous theological writers, known to most people no matter whether they are Christian or not.  His series for children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is still widely read and has recently even been made into movies that have crossover appeal to adults as well.

In terms of literature devices, I found Screwtape Letters to be fascinating.  Lewis uses the letters method to tell his story.  The story consists of letters from a “senior” demon to his protege and nephew, who is currently working on turning an individual away from God and towards Hell.  The device worked well to highlight character of both the uncle, Screwtape, and also gave you a decent character sketch of the nephew Wormwood.  Nowhere does any of the letters to Screwtape from Wormwood show up in the book.

Lewis puts in his preface “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer the public fell into my hands.”, which adds to the literary device of the letters, reminding me even of movie techniques for horror films that are filmed as if they actually happened and were recorded by the people in them (The Blair Witch Project is the most well known movie of this type).

Theologically, I really also enjoyed the book, Lewis talks in the preface about how there are two errors that believers & non believers fall into when regarding devils/demons.  “One is to disbelieve in their existence.  The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them”.  One of my rants about some denominations and churches within those denominations is the tendency to demonize basic human emotions.  I think these are an extreme of the first camp of Lewis’s statement, they don’t believe in demons so they make them into greed, lust, envy etc.  Biblically these are sins of man, there is no mention of demons tempting David into his lust for Bathsheba.  There is no mentions of the running away of Jonah from God’s summons being from a demon.  Job gives the best example in my opinion of the actions Satan can take, where he makes Job miserable in the attempt to turn him away from God.  This appears to be the point Lewis makes in Screwtape Letters.

Much of what Screwtape tells his nephew is that they can cloud a man’s mind, they can turn little things into big sins against God that will turn man away from God, thereby giving him over from God.

“But there is an even better way of exploiting the trough; I mean through the patient’s own thoughts about it.  As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind.”

“The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation”.

“But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy”.

“You can worry him with the haunting suspicion that the practice is absurd and can have no objective result”.

Writing Screwtape Letters took a toll on Lewis.  He states in the preface to a follow up he wrote called Screwtape Proposes a Toast (in which Screwtape is commencement addressing the latest graduating class of tempters).  “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment”.  “But though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long.  The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp”.  “It almost smothered me before I was done”.

Reading it also produced a small spiritual cramp for me, even while it let me see some of my own sins that didn’t seem much like sins until then.

I think that the literary devices used by Lewis make this a book worth reading by writers looking for ways to explore different fiction techniques.  I think that this book is also good for Christians to read, if they have the ability to see themselves in some of the writing.

And if you’re wondering if Wormwood succeeds in tempting his “patient” (as Screwtape calls the man) away from God, the last salutation to Wormwood is “MY DEAR, MY VERY DEAR,K WORMWOOD, MY POPPET, MY PIGSNIE”.  Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story does it?