Oh Shteyngart, Shteyngart, Shteyngart... Whatever are we to do with you? I want to love you unabashedly, to throw myself upon your bittersweet prose lOh Shteyngart, Shteyngart, Shteyngart... Whatever are we to do with you? I want to love you unabashedly, to throw myself upon your bittersweet prose like the proverbial soldier smothering a grenade to save his fellows, to take your melancholy bullet like the most dedicated Secret Service agent. Your pathetic heroes, your capricious heroines, your stunningly rendered dystopian futures; your style is instantly recognizable and you are not afraid to repeat themes until you feel you've sufficiently battered the reader with them. These are the things I love about you and why I continue to return again and again to your books. With all of this going in your favor, with all the laurels that critics throw at your feet, why on Earth can't you figure out how to write a satisfying ending?
Fresh off the success of his previous endeavor, the New York Times "Notable" book Absurdistan, Shteyngart returns to familiar territory with his post-millennial tale of love in an ADD age. The absurdly maladjusted, overweight, flop sweat ridden, and all-around pathetic Lenny Abramov meets the comely and ever fickle Eunice Parks, daughter of abusive father and traditionally subservient mother, plagued with self loathing and a yearning for a life she can't even express that she wants. In a nightmare New York where people's worth is determined by brightly lit poles beaming their credit scores, fuckability, fashion ranking, and whatever other frivolous metrics may be hip for the moment to everyone's smartphones (cheekily renamed apparats to protect the innocent), these two star-crossed lovers try to carve out a niche for themselves while also combating the incessantly niggling inner voice that demands one to conform with society-at-large.
All is not just peaches and depression, though. As he did in Absurdistan, Shteyngart relies on the larger unraveling of society to advance the plot and allow his characters to make absurd uncharacteristic transitions. Therein lies my problem with this book and why I deny it that last star. From the point the United States stops to exist in even that vaguely familiar way it had at the beginning of the book both Lenny and Eunice begin to act in ways that have little in common with the characters we've come to know in the preceding two hundred pages. After spending the entire book being a doormat for Eunice, his boss Joshie and his fiends, Lenny comes to value himself as an individual in such a sudden and jarring way that I could not help rolling my eyes. A small thing to take umbrage with, I know, but a very similar thing happened in both Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and I was dreading the same thing here.
Still there are few as capable as Shteyngart at satirizing society. From the greed and outsourcing of war explored in Absurdistan to American society in nadir here, he shows a fantastic ability at pulling the doubts and neuroses from the sea of our collective unconscious and plunking them on the page so astutely that a reader squirms with discomfort to see our very lives rendered jokes. It is this skill that initially drew me to Shteyngart so many years ago and why I continue to hold him in such high regard. I would just like his characters to make more sense as they evolve through the story....more
I wanted to like this book. I really did. The jacket copy does not lie- this book really is an homage (read: rip off) of the Harry Potter and Narnia bI wanted to like this book. I really did. The jacket copy does not lie- this book really is an homage (read: rip off) of the Harry Potter and Narnia books but with an adult twist. What a fun premise! I always wondered how an adult would approach a world where rabbits give you magical buttons, trees can stop time, and everyone listens to the sage advice of two rams. Not to mention all the possibilities that reveal themselves just by mentioning the words "University of Magic." There's so much potential within both of these premises that I figured even an autistic drunk could string together an entertaining story. Unfortunately I grossly overestimated the authorial abilities of Lev Grossman. Maybe his view of adulthood is at cross purposes to mine. I guess by adult they mean that everyone is generally miserable and behaves in incredibly selfish and juvenile ways toward one another, with healthy dollops of alcoholism and sex thrown in to titillate. I kept wanting to shake the band of heroes by their shoulders and scream "You're fucking wizards. Quit moping around and enjoy it!"
Well, what does it matter if the characters are unlikable sots as long as we have an entertaining plot? Once again Grossman drops the ball. He spends interminable amounts of time explaining the details of some piece of magic only to gloss over those moments, few and far between, where I really wanted him to expound at length. There's a segment of the schooling that takes place in Antarctica that really should have been expanded upon. Instead we are treated to page after page of the post-collegiate wizards moping about Manhattan like some mystical drop-outs from a Bret Easton Ellis book. But look! Suddenly a character that hasn't been mentioned since page 73 shows up with a magic button that will finally kick the story into high gear! As the story fell apart amid the rubble of plot-saving deus ex machinas and absurd leaps forward in time I continued forging on, hoping against all available evidence that the story would salvage itself into some patina of coherence and entertainment. Sadly, that moment never arrived. I was just as disappointed once the story was over as I was during the course of it.
I can't recommend this book in good faith. It was frustrating and a chore. If, against all odds, Grossman's publisher doesn't drop him in favor of releasing a line of self-help books penned by a double amputee typing with her tongue who successfully brokered peace between Tibet and China after climbing the summits of each continent's tallest peaks, I will not be continuing with this series. For a completest like myself, that's probably the harshest criticism I could levy. Readers who are interested in the premise would be far better off with Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom of Landover books than they would with this book destined for the pulp pile....more
You can stop now. You have officially sucked all the life out of all of your characters and made them all eminently dislikable.Dear Charlaine Harris,
You can stop now. You have officially sucked all the life out of all of your characters and made them all eminently dislikable. I know this is your cash cow but, please, let Alan Ball take over for you and you can go and do... whatever it is that you do to occupy your time. Bake moon pies? Write Robert Pattinson fanfic? Hunt for the long-mythologized swamp weasel of South Carolina? Anything would be an improvement over you letting your imagination continue to run amok in Bon Temps.
I probably wouldn't mind so much if ANYTHING HAPPENED in this 300 page travesty of a "book" but I guess you were too busy counting your True Blood royalties to bother too much with a little detail like that. Instead you wanted to write 20 page scenes about taking Sookie's telepathic cousin to the park or the funeral of an incredibly minor character who you have only ever mentioned in passing before. Why should we care? You allude to much, but in the end you say NOTHING and I'm left bitter that I waited anxiously for this book to finally be returned to the library so that I could read it.
I would have been better off watching this Snoop Dogg fan video again. In summation, you and I are through. Please stop taunting me with your stupid ass book covers and ridiculous sex scenes.
Let it never be said that I am immune to the international hype machine. Previously this pernicious influence has led me to a mixed bag of authors andLet it never be said that I am immune to the international hype machine. Previously this pernicious influence has led me to a mixed bag of authors and books from Tom Clancy, She's Come Undone, Harry Potter, and Three Cups of Tea to the Sookie Stackhouse books, Stephen King's Dark Tower series and The Life of Pi. Needless to say, I am leery in my approach to books that everyone and their sister is reading and try to put off reading them until the furor dies down and people are able to evaluate their quality outside of the bandwagon effect.
With the third book in the series having just been released Stateside, film adaptations of the first two books garnering numerous plaudits from critics and the inevitable American remake preparing to suck what life there was from the Swedish original, there seems little hope of waiting for the hubbub to subside anytime soon. Love her or hate her, Lisbeth Salander is going to be a part of the cultural lexicon for the foreseeable future.
As half of an investigating duo trying to unravel the forty year old mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, there are few tropes overlooked in making Salander the epitome of "badass antisocial hacker who lives by no rules but her own." Tattoos, piercings and a distrust of law enforcement do not a heroine make. If they did, Portland would be the most peaceful city in the world. Her cartoonish aspects aside, I do have to admit to a certain fondness for her (eep- does that make me as paternalistic and creepy as her security firm employer?) and I relished the scenes where she interacted with Mikael Blomkvist, the dour and discgraced financial reporter that composes the other half of this detecting duo.
With the plot functioning as a boilerplate murder mystery with few surprises, it is instead the interaction between Blomkvist and Salander and the entertaining peak into Swedish life that kept me enthralled page after page. Larsson thrills on the little details of day to day life; no chair is simply a chair when he can make it an Ikea chair, characters are never just reading a book but instead are reading an Astrid Lindgren book, no one ever uses a mere laptop when they can use the iBook G4 Titanium. While this constant labeling of objects drags a bit at the beginning, and gave me flashbacks to American Psycho, it also provided a higher degree of detail than you would expect from a run of the mill beach read.
This book isn't Great Lit as I've come to understand the term, but is still a cut above your Harlan Coben or James Patterson mystery-of-the-week. Yet, as best-seller shelves everywhere can attest, most people aren't looking for Great Lit. We're looking for a distraction, for a world that isn't this one to dive into for a short time. Those looking for something to occupy their minds while slowly simmering at a beach could do a lot worse than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and I fully intend to read the next two books in the series....more
Changing seasons invariably bring a change to my tastes. Just as I put aside the dirge-like post-rock that soundtracks most of my winter in favor of bChanging seasons invariably bring a change to my tastes. Just as I put aside the dirge-like post-rock that soundtracks most of my winter in favor of breezy pop songs that make me want to skip down the street, so to do I put aside the dry contemporary fiction that is my usual bread and butter in favor of light popcorn reads that do little but excite the imagination and titillate my id. It's sort of like the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. Just as I am confident in stating that LCD Soundsystem's new record, This Is Happening, is the summer jam of the year, so too am I confident in claiming that Justin Cronin's The Passage is the can't miss beach read of the year.
Cronin's vamps are feral beasties with fleeting shreds of their humanity left, their wills subverted and bent in order to serve one of the original dozen vampires- former death row inmates turned test subjects in a government experiment. A bit long in tooth, the book spends the first 200 pages detailing the origins of this experiment and the two FBI agents assigned first to convince inmates to sign over their lives to the program, then when these test subjects turn out to be unwieldy, to procure an innocent to test their serum on. This innocent, Amy, of course turns out to be the key to everything.
Naturally everything falls apart and the vamps escape, laying waste to the nation faster than you can spell nosferatu. Herein lies my major problem with the book, and it's more a complaint of personal taste than anything else. I wanted to hear more about the initial fall, I wanted to read about pitched battles in the streets against ravenous hordes of undead monsters. Instead Cronin leaves us to piece it together from scattered newspaper accounts, military reports, and recollections of survivors decades after the fact as he shifts the time-line forward to a hundred years after the fall to one of the last remaining bastions of humanity. Kept alive by an aging bank of lights and an enormous wall, these survivors stumble across the now immortal Amy, struck mute by amnesia after a century of wandering alone, and decode the RFID chip implanted in her neck asking her to be returned to Colorado in order to manufacture a cure to the vampiric plague. What follows is an intense and unforgettable journey across the rubble of American civilization and the uncountable risks the weary band come across along the way.
It'd be easy to deride this book as just another in the long line of vampire schlock flooding the shelves in order to sate our seemingly never-ending romantic obsession with allegorical death had Justin Cronin not taken the trope to a whole new level by melding his vampires with a fascinating post-civilized America, all the tropes of a good road novel and main characters so fleshed out that they often seem startlingly human. This is a far cry from the soap opera machinations of Charlaine Harris or the Victorian primness of Stephanie Meyer and I can not wait for the inevitable film adaptation- if only for the scene featuring the high velocity escape by train that marks the high point of the book for me. I couldn't put this tome down and wish there were another 700 pages to immerse myself in....more
Books on sex are a dime a dozen these days. From tomes on how to create a more spiritual union or bring more spice to your marriage through the cunninBooks on sex are a dime a dozen these days. From tomes on how to create a more spiritual union or bring more spice to your marriage through the cunning use of super glue, paperclips, and a rubber band (the well-named MacGuyver technique) to how to give your lover earth-shattering orgasms through locating some mythical pressure point, this genre has risen to be one of the pillars of the self-help section of a bookstore. It's gotten so that this subgenre receives even less respect (and deservedly so) than the Harlequin romances that continue to be published at the rate of a gross ton each week. Yet when a writer as highly respected as sex columnist Dan Savage goes as far as to call this book "the most important piece of sexual research since the Kinsey Papers," I have to sit up and take notice.
No mere work of bookshelf fluff designed to titillate (hehe) the masses, Sex At Dawn is instead one of the most well-researched works on the roots of human sexuality that I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It's no secret that most modern relationships are broken affairs- soulless/passionless marriages where neither spouse much cares for the other but stays out of some sense of obligation, or cheats rather than discussing and owning up to their feelings of flagging sexual interest (which can not help but end in bitter recriminations and acrimonious heartbreak). With porn of every flavor a mere web search away, swingers on Craigslist, casual bar hook-ups, marriage counselors popping up like mold spores, the chaste Victorian notion of "one love, happily ever after" has taken a severe beating in the past century.
If humans had evolved to be monogamous pairs raising children, what authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha call the Standard Narrative, then wouldn't these systems work better? Wouldn't we naturally fall into them rather than having to create so many social pressures and laws to force us into conforming? Through meticulous research into our closest animal ancestors (that'd be the bonobo and not the chimp, for those with scorecards), anthropological studies of foraging/pre-agricultural communities, and physiological analysis, the authors make a rather convincing case that monogamy is not intrinsic to the human condition but rather a very recent adaptation that humans are still fitfully trying to conform to.
While at times a bit dry and overly analytical, the book is still an incredibly interesting read. The section on human semen competition alone provided much fodder for discussion around the dinner table. Still, as ground-breaking as their research may be, the advice they give to couples is still the same- we need to communicate our wants, needs, and desires better and to understand that flagging sexual interest and the desire for new mates is an inherent part of our genetic make-up. This book shouldn't be taken as a clarion call for men to run out and be cads, but as a means of beginning to find better ways to define our sexuality and work toward a more satisfying future for all....more
If you're reading this book, I'm going to have to assume (or at least hope) you've read the first in the series, The Hunger Games. Otherwise you're coIf you're reading this book, I'm going to have to assume (or at least hope) you've read the first in the series, The Hunger Games. Otherwise you're completely missing... well, pretty much everything. So, as a previous reader, you know that Katniss has won the Hunger Games and saved the life of her faux-lover, Peeta. They return to their forlorn mining district to live happily ever after. Except that can't happen yet. Big things are in the offing- Katniss' willingness to kill herself and Peeta during the last games has set the Districts simmering and rebellion is in the air. The tight grip of the Capitol upon its subjects is slipping. As the highly esteemed Bob Marley once sang, "slave driver, your table has turned. Catch a fire, so you can get burned."
It's funnny, but while I was reading this book I was struck with the strangest bit of deja vu. Not so much because of the plot itself, but because every complaint I had about The Hunger Games is replicated again here- the spare style, simplistic characterizations, and a Deus ex Machina that would even make Stephen King wince. The first half is still interminably slow, filled with what could serve as plot development, were it not so incredibly uninteresting and heavy handed. The second half returns us to the arena of the Games, which is infinitely more interesting with its ever-changing assortment of things that can kill you. But even this excitement ends perfunctorily, with a big "TO BE CONTINUED" sign.
I know what Collins is doing and, to an extent, I can appreciate it. Everyone wants to build tension for the big finale that is book 3. I'm just not quite sure that this series needs a conclusion. It could have remained a stand-alone book and been far more enjoyable. I don't know about anyone else, but it was the promise of child-on-child ultraviolence that drew me to the series. With much of that lacking in the second installment, I just didn't find it too captivating. Still, I'll probably read book 3, so Collins has her hooks sufficiently planted in me. Does that make her book a success?...more
Whenever it gets to be time to review a young adult book, I find myself at a curious loss. Those things which I normally take umbrage with- overly simWhenever it gets to be time to review a young adult book, I find myself at a curious loss. Those things which I normally take umbrage with- overly simple prose, undeveloped characters, utterly unbelievable (even for the universe of the book) plot strands- are hallmarks of the genre as a whole, accepted and unchallenged. As such, I only very rarely find myself venturing into books of this sort. In fact, I really only ever make an effort to read such books when they are in some sort of dystopian future that pits children against adult oppressors. What can I say? I’m a fiend for books of this type.
Make no bones about it, The Hunger Games is definitely an us vs. them sort of story. In a far-off-yet-unspecified future, the United States has crumbled and been reshaped into 12 districts ruled from the Capitol, nestled in the Rockie Mountains, (which I assume means it was once Denver). As an ongoing punishment for attempted rebellion against the Capitol, each District must each year send one boy and one girl to compete in a battle to the death in an arena for the amusement of the residents of the Capitol and as a constant reminder to the outlying districts of the cost of revolution. Katniss Everdeen is a precocious (aren’t they always?) 16 year old from District 12, a much-derided coal-mining district in Appalachia, who volunteers for the Games in order to spare her younger sister from certain death.
The first half of the book is easily all set-up. Explanations of the District, explanations of Katniss’ prowess with the bow and arrow, explanations of the opening ceremonies of the Games (trust me when I say that China’s Olympic Opening has nothing on the Hunger Games), explanations of Katniss’ competition- including her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta, the good-hearted son of a baker who has long had a crush on Katniss and uses this to his advantage within the Games. It wasn’t until the second half, when the Games actually begin and the kids begin offing one another in creative ways, that the book finally began to hold my interest.
Unfortunately, even this part was thin on blood, thick on explanation. I understand why this is, it would hardly qualify for young adult status if all we talked about were 14 year olds spearing small children, yet I continually would find myself beginning to get drawn in to the story only to have the action perfunctorily cut off. I was saddened. I went in expecting Battle Royale Redux but instead was treated to Running Man-lite. Still, though light on blood, Collins has created a very interesting world where the tension grows at just the right amount (and then ends so abruptly) to ensure that I will venture into the second book to see how Katniss’ silent battle against the Capitol evolves. Worth a read on a long plane flight or while coming down from a more heady piece of literature. ...more
It is no secret that science fiction tickles my fancy like nothing else. I've penned dozens of reviews by now declaiming the same thing. Yet for all oIt is no secret that science fiction tickles my fancy like nothing else. I've penned dozens of reviews by now declaiming the same thing. Yet for all of my heartfelt ardor for the genre as a whole, I have never been a big fan of Golden Age science fiction. By Golden Age I mean those authors writing either before or during the initial space race, authors whose imaginations were set racing by the vision of Sputnik orbiting overhead and whose Eisenhower minds drew long gleaming phallus-looking rockets flown by Aryan supermen set to spread the ethos of Manifest Destiny to the stars. There’s just something too clean about these visions of the future- nothing worn or battered, nothing broken down. It’s all just a little too neat and tidy, as though these futures had swept the problem of civil rights, women’s lib, or upstart youth collectively under the rug and forgotten about them.
All of which brings me to Ray Bradbury. While he only rarely set his stories among the stars, Bradbury has always seemed to embody much of what I dislike about scifi of that era. I remember well the torment of forcing myself through the slow tedium of Dandelion Wine as a pre-teen, not to mention the enormous disappointment of The Martian Chronicles (that’s a review for another day). His style has always struck me as just a tad too simplistic, events occur that are far too coincidental, everything gets wrapped up nice and pat. What I’m saying, in my typically convoluted manner, is that I was predisposed to dislike The October Country from the beginning.
A compendium of short stories originally published in various trade magazines, The October Country shows Bradbury flexing a little bit of his gothic might with tales both ominous and, occasionally, humorous. There are a lot of sideshows and carnivals, wide-eyed young boys straight from the pages of Boy’s Life investigating mysterious new tenants in cheap boarding houses, buxom wives with nary a thought in their heads, mad shut-ins, and even the stray mummy or two. While some of these tales are enjoyable- "Playing With Fire," "The Scythe" and "The Jar" are all a lot of fun- for the most part they come off as dated and cliched- never more evident than in "Next in Line" or "Uncle Einar."
Of course the very reason that they are cliched is because Bradbury's writing formed the background for generations of writers that have come since then. I can't hold it against him for being inspirational, but at the same time it slows my enjoyment of his works when I see where these tropes have evolved since him.
One final note on this book- the illustrations really add to the overall ambiance of dread that Bradbury tries to conjure with this collection. The pen and ink drawing of the old Victorian clapboard house that opens "Playing With Fire" was especially striking, but I found that any story that began with one of illustrator Joe Mugnaini's drawings was inevitably one that I enjoyed more than the stand-alone stories. Kudos for that, Mr. Mugnaini....more
As constant (some may say obsessive) readers, we have all come to know our individual tastes rather well. We know what books will hit our literary G sAs constant (some may say obsessive) readers, we have all come to know our individual tastes rather well. We know what books will hit our literary G spots and which will leave us feeling cold and dirty, like the regretful afterglow of a one night stand. We learn to savor those reads that are a “sure thing,” that guaranty a night of debauched pleasure. This is how it was when I first heard of the publishing of Ian McDonald’s Brasyl. There is no doubt that I am a scifi junkie. Few books scratch my itch for excitement and intelligent reflection like the worlds of the future, especially those books set in the near future which concern themselves with the cultural and social ramifications of our constant technological advancements- those books that help us to make sense of the present by extrapolating current trends into a fantastic and extreme future. Of course, what is to happen once you’ve read everything that the godfathers of cyberpunk (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) and the scribes that they have inspired (Neal Stephenson, Richard K. Morgan, and Pat Cadigan) have written?
If you’re anything like me, you scan the newly released books like a hawk in search of new authors breaking ground in a subgenre that many claim is outdated. This is how I first came across Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, a rollicking cyberpunk tale set in India as it celebrated its centennial anniversary as a nation. A week or so later, having summarily disposed of that magnificent work, I heard of his follow-up, Brasyl, set among the favelas and shanties of Rio de Janeiro. Still, knowing how necessary it is to hoard a sure thing like this, I kept putting off actually reading it until I could stand it no longer and my imagination fairly cried out for a book like this one. They say that pleasure delayed is pleasure heightened and, if this book was any indication, this is an axiom well worth repeating.
Set in three very different eras, Brasyl forms a wondrous triptych of vibrant detail and a glimpse into the Brazil that was, is, and could be. In the past we are introduced to Father Louis Quinn, a Jesuit priest sent up the Rio Negro to investigate whether one of his brethren has given in to Kurtz-ian impulses. The Rio of 2006 gives us a glimpse into the life of Marcelina Hoffmann, a producer of reality shows that even Fox would hesitate to air and erstwhile capoeira enthusiast whose search for a missing Soccer legend turns up a doppelganger of the most nefarious sort. Most exciting of all, though, is the Rio of 2032, as introduced through up-and-coming favela talent manager Edson, who has the poor luck to fall in love with a black market quantum computing specialist. McDonald weaves their stories together with careful precision, never revealing too much but just enough to keep the reader frantically turning pages.
While the plot is exciting and the descriptions of quantum realities are probably the most readily accessible that this lay mind has ever read, what makes this book so special is its setting and McDonald’s skill at evoking crystal clear images from only a few words. More than any of the protagonists, it is Rio who is the star of this book. McDonald describes everything perfectly: the capoeiristas practicing in the shadow of the Jesus on the mountain, the walls built up to keep the residents of the favelas from spreading their violence into Rio-proper, the early morning beaches populated only by saggy-skinned fishermen and sun-worshipping cariocas, the fevered excitement and communal pride that grips the nation during the World Cup, even the giant trash mountains of ewaste (discarded computer equipment, etc.) that is continuously picked over by families of scavengers in search of circuit boards to be melted down for their trace amounts of copper and gold. Early in the book Edson attends a baile (think dance party) and the way that McDonald describes the art of turntablism- the dropping in of a rhumba rhythm, how the addition of a guitar squeal at the right minute can amp the audience to ever-higher peaks of joy- is more spot on than any other description of DJing I’ve ever come across in fiction.
So I loved this book. It hit every tried and true trope of cyberpunk without ever feeling derivative or dull and, most of all, it brought to life a region of the world that I have been endlessly fascinated with in recent years. Music lovers who have been enjoying the sounds of baile funk that have been trickling up from our Southern neighbors in the form of groups like Bonde do Role and CSS or the mixes from Diplo will thrill to the playlist of great and hard to find music that McDonald appended to the end of the book. Also, I loved McDonald's adoption of old-school newsgroup terminology to refer to modern extended circles of friends and acquaintances as alt-dot-families. While a lot of the science fiction that I’ve attempted of late has left me feeling a little put out, Brasyl has exceeded even my wildest hopes and crafted a story so eminently enjoyable that I’m already thinking of reading it again. ...more
Everybody loves a hero. Everybody loves it even more when a hero falls from grace. There are few things that humans enjoy more than taking a powerfulEverybody loves a hero. Everybody loves it even more when a hero falls from grace. There are few things that humans enjoy more than taking a powerful person down a peg or two. In fact, we get a sick thrill from it. Whether it’s the rising up of a virginal starlet (take your pick, they’re a dime a dozen) so that we may delight in tearing her to pieces when she is unable to live up to the exceptionally demanding standards of behavior we set for others to abide by, or the fall from grace of an especially sanctimonious politician (again, take your pick), these ritualistic sacrifices of character seem to sate an intrinsic need for blood-letting. I guess this should not be too surprising when we stop to consider that one of the major world faiths is predicated on humans killing their own Redeemer. Verily, the schadenfreude runs deep in our culture.
I had no idea what to expect when I opened The General In His Labyrinth. All I knew was that it was written by Colombia’s third most famous export, the eminent Gabriel Garcia Marquez, (Shakira can suck it, she’s #4) and was a paean to the man who wrested South America from the hands of its Spanish Colonial masters, Simon Bolivar. I figured it would be a delightful romp through military campaigns and political skullduggery as reflected through the always enjoyable lens of Garcia Marquez’s magical realist style. Not so much.
The General In His Labyrinth finds the El Libertador at the end of his life. Tired and weary after over two decades of continuous war, Bolivar is a husk of a man, not the proud and full-chested figure represented in countless statues throughout Latin America. A piñata battered again and again by foes and former friends alike, Bolivar is in the unenviable position of seeing himself become a living anachronism as his nation, the country that he has shed so much blood for, outgrow its need for him. Meticulously researched from the memoirs of his confidants and his last surviving records, Garcia Marquez fairly drowns the reader in mundane details of the General’s day to day life as he prepares to either go into exile, return to power by a coup, or die. These may seem like contradictory goals to the outsider but, as the General’s aide repeats, “only my master knows what my master is thinking.”
As the weary band of warriors makes its way toward the coast, we are treated to a backwards look at Bolivar’s life as each village he passes through or compatriot who joins him on the road kindles the memory of his previous glory. The insult hurled at Bolivar by a little boy conjures memories of his first abdication of power, a slave girl reminds him of a tumultuous night between the sheets of another lover long left behind, the tolling of church bells reminds of the time when Bolivar first freed a town from its Colonial masters.
The descriptions, as they always are in Garcia Marquez’s books, are lush and beautiful, though there are none of the flights of fancy that one could expect from his regular fiction. Here he seems, at times, a bit too chained to the historical veracity of his subject to let much whimsy into the story. However, forcing him to work within a framework like this makes those moments when he gets to cut loose all the more enjoyable, whether he’s describing the ruins of Cartagena or the banks of a river. This wouldn’t be the book I recommend to those new to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an author, though anyone who is interested in either Latin American history will find this an interesting look at the last days of the Colombian George Washington, the man who freed half of a continent from its Spanish masters. ...more