Reader Review – Love In The Time Of Cholera

I haven’t posted a reader review in a long time. Sadly, this is because very few of the books I’ve read recently made me feel strongly one way or the other. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez did… but the emotions I felt weren’t entirely positive.

To start off, it’s obvious to me that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a very skilled writer. Yes, occasionally, he goes off on a tangent for a few pages, but the way he strings his thoughts together is very seductive. When I finished the first of the five long chapters, I would have easily given the novel an 8.75. In that chapter, he showed us a beautiful marriage that, while not always perfect, spoke volumes about the nature of human relationships. After that, it was all downhill. The writing remained stellar; the minor issue of content was the problem.

The moral of the story, as I’ve gathered, is that everyone is secretly cheating on their lovers – but that doesn’t matter, because it’s okay to love and/or sleep with more than one person. The characters were immoral, made snap decisions, were disloyal, constantly lied, and weren’t in the least bit likable. Fermina Daza, the female love interest, was shallow, cruel and, while normally very level headed, was prone to changing her mind about every aspect in her life all at once. Florentino Ariza, the male love interest, was simply a child from beginning to end.  He never took the feelings of others into account (with the exception of Fermina Daza). The only character I remotely liked was Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who I’m fairly certain was the one character who wasn’t supposed to be likable. Of course, this is all subjective. Just because I found the story to be a little offensive, doesn’t mean that it won’t sit right with other readers. I did, however, have less subjective complaints that I’d like to address.

Many things in the novel were simply never tied in. When I finished the book, I found myself wondering why we needed thirty pages describing Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, when he never appears again throughout the entire book, about what the smell of almonds has to do with love and about why, if Florentino admits to himself that he has been in love with other women, he believes Fermina Daza to be so special (especially since he knows virtually nothing about her life during their time apart)… little things like that. Yes, maybe it’s too much to ask for one single reason why the smell of almonds makes Dr. Juvenal Urbino think of love – but it is not too much to ask that our characters have reasonable motivations for their actions.

On the back of the edition that I purchased read the words: “A love story of astonishing power!” Well, I’m a fan of love stories. Joeseph Bedier’s Tristan and Iseult is one of my favorite books of all time… Love in the Time of Cholera, however, is easily the least romantic love story I’ve ever read.


Reader Review - Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston lingered, unread, on my booklist for well over a year. The title immediately grabbed me, but there were a couple of things that put me off. Firstly, every modern copy of this book comes with something like four introductions and two afterwords. This made me feel like there wasn’t enough “real” words to put into the story, so the publisher decided to insert analytical essays to make more money each time the book hit print. While I do believe that this is what the publisher intended, I found there was more than enough meat in this novel to make it a worthwhile read. Secondly, somewhere down the line I began to view it as a “culture book.” Zora Hurston was a black writer who wrote a book about black life in the early 1900s. It was easy for me to assume that the book didn’t need to be well written – the strong impact of writing about black life in the late 30s would supersede the need for good prose… Upon finally finishing the book, I simply can’t believe that I put it off for so long.

Early on, I noticed that the dialogue didn’t match the descriptions. At first I found it very off-putting. The descriptions are beautiful and flowing, while the dialogue is filled with rough dialects and, initially, was extremely hard to read. The first bit of description in the novel reads, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.” The first bit of dialogue reads, “What she doin’ coming back her in dem overalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?–Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?–Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her?” The contrast is obvious, and exceedingly important. A common theme throughout the book is that, while the blacks in that time were uneducated, they still had deep souls, and were just as capable as anyone else of understanding the depth that life has to offer. I came to greatly enjoy this contrast throughout the book. What’s more, the dialogue that, at first, was extremely difficult to read, became completely natural. It is my humble opinion that it rivaled anything that Steinbeck produced in both authenticity and readability.

The characters, Janie in particular, were authentic and complex. Hurston didn’t hide any part of society at that time to skew the story in her own political directions. She wrote truthfully about a generation once removed from slavery – their foibles and fortes; their dreads and their dreams. Janie’s evolution throughout the novel was a joy to see. Slowly, she breaks away from what was considered to be acceptable in black society at that time and discovers who she is outside of her social identity as a black woman at the turn of the 20th century.

The themes are powerful and vast. Zora didn’t shy away from any topic! One of her more powerful minor characters is Mrs. Turner, a black woman who hates the blackness in herself and in others. She dresses like a white woman would, talks down to blacks in much the same way, and supplicates herself to anyone, regardless of race, who looks whiter than she is. A running theme in the book, as shown through the residents of the town of Eatonville and through Mrs. Turner’s character, is that black society was partially responsible for keeping itself in a supplicant position… This is a risky theme even in modern day, but I’m sure it was shocking when the novel was released in 1937. Personally, I found these themes to be sadly haunting and profoundly human. The repression of a people for so long couldn’t be without consequences.

Let me clear on another point as well: this is not a black book. This is a human book. It is about how we as a people let our fears get the better of us, and it is a book about the many shapes of love. Janie’s relationships with her grandma, and her first and second husband hold the novel together as she discovers her own capacity to love in the midst of a very strenuous time in American history.

“[L]ove ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”


Reader Review – For Whom The Bell Tolls

I’ve read many of Hemingway’s novels and short stories, but this is the first one I felt strong enough about to review. I enjoyed it, but I tend to think that Hemingway is a little over-rated. In writing circles he’s looked at as some kind of literary genius, especially by writers who have never read him before, and while there were some things he did very well, his succinct style leaves something to be desired. Before I critique one of the most popular writers of all time however, I’d like to talk about what he did well.

Hemingway does a very good job of changing his character perspective throughout this novel. Robert Jordan, the main character of For Whom the Bell Tolls, often starts an inward monologue which quickly switches to a second person narrative. Eg. “He could not remember how many times he had heard them mention their dead in this way. Nearly always they spoke as this boy did now; suddenly and apropos of the mention of the town and always you said, ‘What barbarians.’ You only heard the statement of loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream.” In this passage, Hemingway describes the way the war-hardened American, Robert Jordan, separates his actions with his thoughts on the war. He may do something terrible, but he does it believing all the while that he is fighting for a just cause. This is a great characterization in itself, but the way he shifts perspectives so effortlessly keeps the writing fresh and interesting. This brings me to my next point.

Hemingway is fantastic at creating realistic characters with realistic thoughts, and realistic actions. Because Hemingway was a war journalist in his youth, he knew how the Spanish talked in their civil war, and when reading the novel I felt like I was there in their camp. Every single character had a personality all to themselves, separate motivations for their actions and their own reasons for being involved in the Spanish Civil War. The characters were easily the strongest part of the novel. Pablo was my personal favorite, a bitter soldier who has lost his viciousness and his will to fight. Pablo serves as a stark contrast to Robert Jordan, who, knowing he is fighting on the right side, always views his actions as necessary evils. Pablo begins to question the point of his involvement in the war, and while he would never support the fascists in any way, he doesn’t know if democracy is worth the sacrifice it takes to preserve it. This kind of focused realism is wonderful because there is no point in a Hemingway novel where characters do things that don’t make sense. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem when applied it to the realistic way in which the novel is actually written.

As much as I have always strived for realism in my own work, writing is not all about realism. Hemingway believes that, by being true to the facts, and by allowing events to unfold as they would in life, that the poetry of the situation will be far more poetic than anything he could write… I think on a deeper level, he might even view poetic language as being untruthful, and in this he couldn’t be more wrong. Throughout the novel, I found myself craving a beautiful description of a scene and instead received the stereotypical Hemingway: “He came to the river. The river was there.” The best writer should fluctuate his vernacular, so that when one comes to a beautiful scene, the way it is written adds another perspective. A beautiful scene written in a bare-bones style makes me think he is trying to say something – maybe that his character is incapable of seeing its beauty; the character is moving too fast to notice anything; the writer believes there truly is nothing truly beautiful… I think Hemingway could have dramatically improved his writing by, at least in the most impacting scenes, occasionally adding a metaphor or a simile or even using some basic alliteration. It felt like he was refusing to go outside of his arbitrary code instead of allowing himself to get swept away by his own writing – as I believe all writers should.

The pace of the story was slow, excruciatingly so at times, but the slow build of story was necessary to frame the story realistically in the week or so that a mission – in this case the blowing of a bridge – would take place. The event-by-event descriptions ultimately made me feel closer to the characters and their struggles, but one should generally avoid starting that slow. Hemingway has the advantage of being Hemingway – when people question whether or not the novel will get better, their mind answers their doubts for them: “Of course it will, it’s Hemingway!” Most people don’t have that advantage. It’s quite possible that this bothered me more than most readers because of my background in writing screenplays. I was taught from day one that a writer should start at a point of action. If I am writing a story about a man who becomes friends with a serial killer, I will start the story with guards leaving the man outside a killer’s cell instead of beginning with explanations for his visit. In this novel about a man assigned to blow a bridge in Spain, it begins with Robert Jordan walking to the camp of the people who are going to help him. On the third page we flashback for the rest of the chapter, and we see Commander Goltz assigning Jordan the task… it almost seemed amateurish! But again, because we all know what Hemingway is capable of, millions of readers give him the benefit of the doubt. What if we didn’t? If this weren’t written by Hemingway, I believe that many of my editing colleagues would have told him to write the novel at a quicker pace, and I can guarantee they would have told him to begin the book with Commander Goltz giving Jordon his mission! Why start the book with a flashback when you can just begin it a week before and skip forward!

As much as I respect Hemingway, I can also see why he didn’t get critical acclaim early on in his career. When writing, you should always assume that people are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. They are reading to be entertained, and unless you are already a world famous author you can’t write in a way that says, “I know it’s boring now, but trust me, it will get good soon!” The only person that held Hemingway back was Hemingway himself. He knew what he had to do in order to create truly fantastic works of art. He clearly had a very strong writer’s voice and he knew what he was trying to say, but he was always a little off the mark. I will likely read other books by Hemingway in the future but, despite the fierce competition between the two artists as to who was the better writer, I would prefer Fitzgerald over Hemingway any day of the week.