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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel García Márquez
Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera
It should be obvious to say that Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story. I’m not sure that it is. The young Florentino is obsessed with the beautiful Fermina — mad with desire, having laid eyes on her only once, he writes her letters, thinks of nothing but her, and waits, waits, waits, while she marries another man, moves away, gets old, becomes a widow, and is finally won over. It should be a love story. It has all the right themes, the right narrative structure, the right iconography. But as a love story, it falls flat for me.

Because there’s nothing to love. We’re told that Florentino is love with Fermina; we’re shown the lengths and depths to which he will go to win her. But we never see why. For her part, Fermina is cold, hard, unwinnable. But also entirely unlovable, even unlikable. It makes it difficult to root for the protagonist, because I really don’t want him to win. His perpetual string of casual lovers seems vastly preferable to his object of desire, even on those rare occasions when she finally does acknowledge his existence. I just can’t read it as a love story. It’s more like a story of pathological obsession and eventual concession, but with no real emotional investment in the plight of any of the characters. So the novel becomes to me only a linguistic exercise — a string of well-turned phrases instead of a story, or maybe a story that serves as a frame on which to hang the well-turned phrases.

It’s not that I’m a cynic about love. I may be, but I don’t think so. I am a cynic about the tendency to hammer love into a particular shape. Spending time with my family over Christmas, there was much speculation about when my now-married sister would breed, much speculation about who would marry next. Why? Nobody seems to know. Because that’s the next thing that you do. The protagonist gets the girl, so we call it love. Because that’s the way that the story goes, even if she’s entirely unlikable. It’s lazy storytelling, and that much worse when we live the story. Once you’ve got the kids, you wait for the grandkids. Because that’s the next thing that you do.

Love in the Time of Cholera has some nicely-turned phrases, and in that sense it lives more richly than most of us. But the frame is rickety, and the happy ending not actually that happy. Like far too many other stories, that makes it difficult to admire.

Snow Balls

Christmas 2007
I caught a ride to the D.C. beltway this week to do the holiday thing with the family. And as is so often the case, driving toward the metropolis on route 66, I started to get that desperate feeling of being flung into the maw of The Economy, Consumer of Souls and Destroyer of Worlds. Enormous office buildings tower over the highway, proudly displaying Lockheed-Martin, Silo Busters!, National Rifle Association, etc. Super-sized strip malls, super-sized vehicles, and the Christmas season merrily rung in by the sound of money changing hands.

And so I was proud of my family for finally (mostly) kicking the stuff-giving habit. A few things here and there, but mostly just charitable contributions and a shared meal. I think we’re learning. Sadly, my west-coast brother wasn’t there, so an appropriately-noduled snowman stood in for him. And did a pretty good job for a guy with polyester for brains.

The obligatory photo documentation is here.

Dignity and Shame

Dignity and Shame
Crooked Fingers
Dignity and Shame
If my web site (or is it a blog now? I think the kids are calling it a blog these days) were to be believed, I’ve listened to nothing but Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame for the last two years. Records are apparently different than books this way. I tend to read books serially — that is, one at a time, start to finish. I’m not usually one of those people who has a whole stack of books that I’m reading all at once. And when I finish a book, it goes on the stack until I’ve written something about it. And while there is always a backlog, eventually I sit down and knock a couple off the stack.
Bachmann
Of course, records don’t work that way. And the more digitally-dependent I become, the less they work that way. Gone are the days when I would endlessly flip a cassette on the school bus until I had the album memorized. Now it goes into a digital shuffle of thousands of other albums: a playlist 60 days long and growing. Other folks have already adequately lamented the death of the album, and how we’re returning to the days of 45s, except that the 45s are now called MP3s. It’s not quite true in my case; I still buy albums, but they invariably get dissected into their constituent parts and tossed into the Great Shuffle. Which means (among other things) that I hardly ever review albums any more.

But if I did, I would be obliged to point out that Dignity and Shame is a good one. Eric Bachmann has certainly had some musical changes over the years. I remember seeing him first at the Black Cat in the Archers of Loaf days when he was a tower of a young man awash in a sea of electric guitars. And then again at Lounge Ax in Chicago a couple of years later, sombre and solo with only a guitar and an digital delay pedal. And then once more at the old OttoBar in Baltimore with Crooked Fingers, for an acoustic set complete with cello and banjo. Dignity and Shame sets out in the full band direction again, going further beyond the mariachi horns of Red Devil Dawn into full-on orchestrated rock. Not the awash-in-electric-guitars sort of rock of the Archers, but a studio-produced sort of rock awash in mature songwriting and textured instrumentation and the trademark Bachmann gravelly vocals. And I guess maturity ain’t always a bad thing.

“I would change for you, but babe, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man…” — Crooked Fingers

The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives

Plutarch
The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives

The Rise and Fall of Athens
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a bit of Plutarch. I’m not sure why — it was on my shelf, and I haven’t touched it in about thirteen years, so I gave it a go. It was a lot more fun than I had expected, and not quite the way that I had remembered it. For example, while I had the story of Themistocles pretty well cemented in my head, my reading of it is so different now. When I was eighteen, I had read the story of Themistocles as the story of a tragic hero — a wildly successful general who leads the Athenian navy against the Persians and saves Athens, but becomes so popular with the people that the assembly is forced to ostracize him in order to prevent him from being appointed king. And while the facts of the story do go something like that, now I read it as a story about an arrogant, showboating dickwad who uses his many talents to ingratiate himself to people in power while making the steadfast civil servants look bad. It would seem my opinion of human social nature has changed over the years, and not in favor of Themistocles.
Plutarch
It’s been particularly fun to read the Greek Lives on the heels of Machiavelli. Athens is synonymous with Democracy, while Machiavelli is synonymous with Tyranny. The modern United States is supposed to be synonymous with “democracy building”. But guess what? Modern American federalism has far more resonance with Machiavelli than with Plutarch. We’ve got a plutocracy (at best) in which we elect our favorite millionaire based on American-Idol-style popularity contests, and the most popular millionaires get to create legislation. We’ve got Kennedy family dynasties, Bush family dynasties, Clinton family dynasties, ad nauseam. Poor ol’ W has to take weekend-long photo ops trimming brush on his Texas ranch — it’s hard work becoming a Man Of The People when you’re the multi-millionaire son of a U.S. President! Contrast this with the story told again and again in the Greek Lives, in which too much popularity is the political kiss of death. Ostracism was a pretty good incentive to stay humble. It wasn’t criminals or traitors who were ostracized (there were other penalties for those things); it was the public servant who had amassed too much power and had become a threat to egalitarianism. It was when people started murmuring things like, “Hey, this guy’s pretty good! Maybe we should hand over wartime powers to him — you know, just temporarily — until this situation with those terrorists in Sparta gets sorted out…” that the assembly would lay the chips on the table and suggest that maybe you needed to take a little vacation in Persia for oh, ten years or so. Or you could be put to death. Your call, really.

Of course, I don’t really mean to romanticize Athenian democracy. While it did strive for egalitarianism among citizens, citizens were defined as free men — free, as in “not slaves”, and men, as in “not women”. I do however, mean to point out that modern American “liberal democracy” is much closer to fascism than ever before, and nothing much like Democracy as Plutarch would have understood it. And that a little ostracism goes a long way.