One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a slow literary slog. This 1967 novel, considered a landmark work of Latin American magical realist fiction, is a major drudge. It felt like it took me 100 years to read. I couldn’t find my way around the Buendia family tree and all its weird, gnarled branches.

Even so, there are amazing and memorable moments in this book, as well as a few genuinely shocking events, including multiple cases of incest (the Buendia family has a proclivity toward incest, as well as a constant fear of birthing a monster baby born with a “pig’s tail”).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s language is breathtaking and strange:

“He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with this eyes open”

Surrealistic fiction means anything can happen, and it often does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It rains for “four years, eleven months, and two days.” They tie the family patriarch to a tree for decades. There’s a rain of flowers. All this strangeness is taken in stride, which is what makes it so surreal. The overall theme seems to be the Buendia family’s failure to learn from past mistakes.

Family matriarch Urusala notes:

“Every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from the meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.”

The word “solitude” takes on a different meaning each time it appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sometimes it means being alone and/or lonely. Other times solitude is a type of personal obligation or duty that one must endure. Solitude above all seems to be the common thread that runs through the Buendia family, as each member has their own moments of intense personal reflection.

García Márquez mentions “the paradise of shared solitude,” and says of the relationship between Jose Arcadio and Aureliano:

“That drawing closer together of two solitary people of the same blood was far from friendship, but it did allow them both to beaer up better under the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time.”

There’s undoubtedly a lot of political metaphor here. Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo is a stand-in for Colombia, and I’m sure I missed the geopolitical significance of many of the events in the novel since I’m not familiar with Colombia’s history.  Evidently there are a lot of real-life events seen metaphorically in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the building of a railroad into the secluded mountain regions, the slaughter of striking workers by government soldiers, and the influence of big business on the culture. (The novel’s “American Fruit Company” is a stand-in for the United Fruit Company, an American company whose rapid expansion into Central and South America countries in the early 1900s brought about the term “banana republics.”)

According to our omniscient overlord, Wikipedia, “García Márquez is said to have a gift for blending the everyday with the miraculous, the historical with the fabulous, and psychological realism with surreal flights of fancy.” It’s true (like everything Wiki tells us, right?) but García Márquez makes it hurt with dense language and ponderous pacing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a literary classic, but something got lost in translation for me.

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The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s lit class classic, The Catcher in the Rye, is the only sane man in a world full of assholes, and it’s driving him mad.

You can relate. We all can. Holden Caulfield holds a special place in the angst-ridden hearts of teenagers too. The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden’s few days of folly in New York City after getting kicked out of yet another prep school. Holden wants to treat himself to a few days of fun before breaking the bad news to his parents, but it all goes to hell. The women he meets are shallow and dull. He gets excited and asks old flame Sally Hayes to run away with him and live in the wildness, but she declines, thinking him crazy. The Broadway shows he sees are lifeless and uninspired (though he’s impressed with  performances by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne). He hooks up with a hooker, but the young prostitute makes him sad, so he sends her away. She returns with her pimp, who demands more money. Holden pays it, but the pimp beats him up anyway. Fun NYC visit so far.

Above all else, Holden Caulfield keeps it real, yo. He hates phoniness in all its guises, and he longs to preserve innocence. The novel’s title refers to a bastardized version of the Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Through The Rye”. Holden fancies himself “a catcher in the rye,” someone who protects children playing in a rye field from falling off an unseen cliff. He’s angered by obscene graffiti on the walls of his little sister’s school and the museum.

“If you had one million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the fuck you signs in the world. It’s impossible.”

Welcome to adulthood, Holden. Fuck you is everywhere.

With nowhere else to turn, Holden visits an old teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him sage advice.

“You’re not the first person who was ever confused, and frightened and even sickened by human behavior … Many men have been just as morally and spiritually troubled as you are right now. Happily, some of them the kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them … just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement… It’s history. It’s poetry.”

Then Holden’s pretentious paranoia gets in the way again. Was Mr. Antolini a “flit” (i.e. a homosexual)? Was he hitting on him? Was this more phoniness, another sinister agenda wrapped in the cloak of kindness? Holden flees Mr. Antolini’s home more confused than ever.

In the end, it’s the innocence of little sister Phoebe that saves Holden. He has (yet another) ridiculous plan to move out west and live as a deaf-mute (which, in a way, is kind of what author J.D. Salinger did by withdrawing from publishing and public life after the success of The Catcher in the Rye). When Phoebe agrees to go with him, Holden decides to stay. He never really believed in his crazy  plans, he just needed someone else to. The novel closes with Holden saying he spent  time in a mental hospital but is feeling much better now, thank you very much.

New York City in the 1950s is as vivid a character as any in this book, and the slang Salinger weaves through the prose makes this a kind of timeless time capsule of the era. The Catcher in the Rye shows the eternal struggle of a young man trying to find a moral center in an immoral world.

Good luck with that, Holden.

Meanwhile, why can’t I get The Catcher in the Rye on my Kindle?

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Digitize Salinger and Other Literary Pursuits

JD Salinger
The elusive J.D. Salinger

I was going through a “Why Didn’t I Read This in High School?” phase, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was up next on my reading list.

I was eager to download a copy of Salinger’s classic novel onto my Kindle. I’m a firm backer of the digital publishing revolution, since ebooks let you:

  1. Change the size and style of the text.
  2. Look up word definitions and background info on the spot.
  3. Highlight, makes notes, and export chunks of text.

These features are incredibly helpful when I’m writing book reviews (bobsbookblog.com), and must be a major timesaver for students working on school essays. (Back in my day we had to write out notes and quotes by hand on index cards, whippersnappers!)

But The Catcher in the Rye isn’t available on Kindle. You can’t get it on your Nook or iPad either. J.D. Salinger never allowed any other editions of his novel other than the one published by Little, Brown and Company in 1951. The breakout success of The Catcher in the Rye spooked Salinger, and he retreated to his rural Vermont home after the book’s publication. Salinger produced three additional books, but didn’t publish again after 1961.

Salinger died in 2010, but his estate still closely guards the copyright on his work, and had never allowed any adaptions. Film directors from Elia Kazan to Steven Spielberg have been turned away, and the Salinger Estate still hasn’t sanctioned audiobooks or digital editions.

If you want to read The Catcher in the Rye (or Salinger’s other work) you have to order the same Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback (now in its 98th printing) that’s been kicking around classrooms since forever. It’s got the original 1951 orangey cover art by E. Michael Mitchell — an ink sketch of a carousel horse and the NYC skyline — on both the front and back. Besides the title and “a novel by J.D. Salinger,” there is no other cover text, no sales copy, no About the Author copy, no blurbs from other authors or academics, and no “New York Times bestselling author.” Nothing.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

The interior of the book is equally sparse. There is no forward or afterword. No advertisements for other books, no offers to join Little, Brown and Company’s Readers Club. There is no About the Author page here either. The Catcher in the Rye is 214 pages of Holden Caulfield’s inimitably cranky narrative, presented exactly how the author intended, and it’s been this way, unchanged, for nearly fifty years.

Salinger’s over-protectiveness guarantees his work is uniformly consumed. I experienced The Catcher in the Rye the same way, in the same font and format, as nearly everyone else who ever read the book. I dog-eared pages, underlined in pencil, and scribbled notes in the margins, the same way lit students have for decades. Salinger’s format constraints demand it.

According to a new documentary on J.D. Salinger, the late author left specific instructions for five books to be published between 2015 and 2020. I don’t know the Salinger Estate or Little, Brown and Company’s publishing plans, but launching new Salinger titles is an ideal time to bring all the author’s work into the digital realm. Contemporary literature should embrace contemporary formats, and ebooks are here to stay. Salinger’s work needs to be readily available, brought into the digital realm, and forever preserved in binary code.

Digitize Salinger! And Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, too!

Check out my review of The Catcher in the Rye here.

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Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

OfMiceAndMen cover
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

I didn’t read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in high school; we read The Pearl instead — and I don’t remember much about it. I wanted to experience Of Mice and Men for myself, but I didn’t expect to be knocked on my ass by its raw power.

As the father of a son with autism, I identified with George and Lenny’s lopsided relationship, especially George’s caregiver stress. Sometimes it’s hard keeping someone you love from hurting himself or herself … or someone else.

Dear, sweet Lenny — how can you not sympathize with his childlike innocence and eagerness? Everyone in Of Mice and Men is affected by Lenny’s simple-minded focus — he just wants to cuddle with soft, fuzzy rabbits. People let their guard down around Lenny, sharing personal dreams with him. George wants his own piece of land. Candy wants his hand and youth back. Crooks wants a straight back and the same treatment as the white men he works alongside. Even Curly’s slutty wife opens up — she just wants someone to love her; she needs a friend. Lenny lets them know it’s okay to dream; you can live off the fumes of pipe dreams if you have to … and you often do.

Loneliness permeates this novel. There is such longing, such sorrow among these broken misfit characters. Billy Joel says we’re sharing a drink we call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone, while the late great Charles Bukowski suggests you get so alone sometimes that it all makes sense. We’re all connected on a basic human level, yet we remain mysteries to each other, walled up inside our own heads.

Steinbeck said he wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel. Of Mice and Men is pretty damn close to perfect that way. It’s a lean, mean, dialogue-driven machine. This novel is as socially relevant today as it was when it was published in 1937 — a snapshot of a desperate working class, struggling to make ends meet amidst a shrinking job market.

According to literary scholar Thomas Scarseth, “in true great literature, the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.” Experience Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for yourself, and let the transmutation begin!

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Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

conjure wife by fritz leiber
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, aka, “Honey, I’m having one of my spells!”

It’s a horror classic, so I wanted/needed to read it.

Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife is listed on every “Masterpieces of Classic Horror” list out there, so I was eager to experience it myself for the first time.

But this tale of witchcraft in the world of academia left me with some unsettling questions, like, “What woman in Fritz Leiber’s life damaged him to the point he would write such a weird, misogynistic tale?”

Serialized in 1940 pulp magazines, and released as a novel in 1953, Conjure Wife‘s premise that all women are witches, utilizing their charms to protect home and family (and maybe help hubby get a promotion at work) is as silly as a Dick Two episode of Bewitched.

But Leiber plays it straight, and builds an amazingly detailed study of the occult in the process. A protegé of H. P. Lovecraft, you can see Leiber blending “modern” science and weird fantasy to build his own mythos in Conjure Wife. Indeed, Leiber’s crafted  witchcraft undoubtedly influenced hundreds of other witchy projects. Is hard to believe John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, or Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby could have existed without the literary trail Leiber blazed.

But sometimes the term “genre classic” is code for “dull,” “dated,” and “not very scary.” Sadly, this is the case with Conjure Wife. Toss in “sexist,” too.

Oh well. You have to expect some paranoid racism when you tackle H.P. Lovecraft, and swallow a lot of purple prose and sad, crappy poems when you take on Edgar Allan Poe. I guess Fritz Leiber is entitled to his woman issues.

Leiber’s later work, specifically 1977’s Our Lady of Darkness, expanded his occult mythos and explored the author’s  personal demons. (Devastated by the death of his wife, Leiber spent several years in an alcoholic haze.)

It’s a horror classic. I’ll have to read it.