Love in the Time of CholeraLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A beautiful, musical novel, Love in the Time of Cholera is not just about love, but about how love shapes, harries, or sustains us as we grow old. It is as much a song of unrequited love as it is a meditation on aging and the finitude of life.

Marquez’s argument, it seems, is that love might be the only force strong enough to hold death at bay for, if not interminably, at least enough time for one final lovers’ embrace. And so the novel charts an entire lifetime between three characters in order to stage this convergence. While still character-driven, a lot happens in the novel, even though it never feels like it’s happening. Marquez’s voice ripples over and through the book, and his backward-reflecting narration imbues the story with a sepia-soaked quality, as if legend has swallowed history.

Also noteworthy is the distinct Conradian homage in the novel’s second half, inaugurated by the appearance of Conrad himself during his steamboating days, But when Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza venture up the river into the wild interior, what they find is not horror, suffering, and darkness, but love–love, however, that can only survive under the guise of death on the yellow-flagged cholera boat. It is an inversion of Marlow’s journey, which is why the couple never gets off the river, but stays aboard, shuttling between ports, choosing to remain in that thrumming, life-giving moment of their romance.

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Last week a certain HBO show that everyone has talked about but you’ve probably never seen debuted its second season. Girls, as the name purports, is a show about the universal problems facing the entire spectrum of young woman who make up a large percentage of the human population, enrolled college students, and now the workforce. Sound ambitious? Don’t worry–the show doesn’t come anywhere near to living up to the promise of its title. What it does instead is describe the experience of particular kind of girl, i.e., of well-educated white chicks from wealthy families living out their post-collegiate romances in New York City. This much is announced from the show’s pilot, which, admittedly, is as far into the series as I got. It only took me one episode to recognize Girls for what it is:The OC for aging millennials who have a vague idea of themselves as hipsters.

But it’s the show’s own racial problem that has fueled reviewers’ central critique from the beginning. And it’s this problem that the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, has gone to some lengths to address in the new season. Over at Slate, David Haglund argues that when Dunham’s protagonist (played by Dunham herself) breaks up with her black boyfriend in this first episode, Dunham is, in some unsurprisingly meta-critical way, telling her critics to piss off. Haglund claims that in doing so, Dunham is making a statement about the impossibility of a white writer to represent the black experience. But I’m not buying it; it’s a too easy out. One way to deal with this issue might be to show the struggle, discomfort, and problematics associated with representation rather than choose to place diversity outside of the show’s fictional world. Over at The Atlantic, Judy Berman articulates a much more incisive analysis, acknowledging the valiant attempts Dunham makes at addressing race in the first episode, but ultimately explaining how the show will never get past its own racial problem.

If you’re a fan of the show, which is completely within your right, you can keep up with the conversation (and controversy) over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, where Dear Television presents a lively weekly recap and discussion.

Two of the twentieth century’s eminent intellectuals are on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this January and February. In the off-Broadway hit Freud’s Last Session, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines a conversation between the father (more grandfatherly here) of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Judd Hirsch), and one of Christianity’s more convincing (and convicted) converts, C.S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh).

It’s really a beautiful juxtaposition. Two totalizing belief systems, each with its own devoted followers, face off against the backdrop of World War II. The apocryphal historical meetup is set in 1939, with an ailing Freud only months away from his death and a young, fervent Lewis at the rise of his literary career. Whether intended or not, the ages of the men in the play work splendidly with the ideologies each man represents. In a clever reversal, it is Freud’s scientific analysis that feels stodgy and dated, while Lewis’s exuberance and measured skepticism toward the Church paints Christianity as a fresh face of opposition to a world gone mad.

The strength of the play is that it is constantly–and knowingly–pivoting off of this irony and our preconceived notions of science and religion. Lewis appears almost drawn to Freud’s iconic couch, inching closer and closer, much to the delight of the audience, and even going so far as to lie down and test its softness. Freud himself commits all manner of verbal slips, shades of his obsessional neuroses, including being unable to rid himself of the empty phrase, “Thank God!” which, of course, tickles Lewis. Carried by their repartee, the play swings rhythmically back and forth, denouncing and then redeeming religion and science in a playful minuet of wit, irony, and performance.

Despite WWII forcing its way into Freud’s study again and again by way of the radio, the play manages to stay upbeat through a steady injection of humor (as the doctor says, “We can’t sustain living with horror”). The humor, though, is not always of the highest intellectual caliber. We get fart jokes and homophobic jabs that make the set feel less like a world-renown scientist’s office and more like a high school locker room. The machismo escalates ridiculously, each man trying to prove himself bigger (Freudian parapraxis intended) than the other. I half expected one of them to haul out the measuring tape.

An especially uncomfortable moment for me came when Freud quips about an “encephalitic dwarf” who saved him from drowning on his own blood in the hospital after having oral surgery. Why? Thanks to the alignment of the star’s that evening, I happened to be sitting right next to a dwarf. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES. As Freud and Lewis were having a good old time laughing about the absurdity of the event, my right eye kept straining toward the edge unconsciously. Was this just as uncomfortable for him? I’m guessing that when he walked out the door that night, he didn’t anticipate that a piece of high cultural production like this would include dwarf jokes.

In any case, the play is good. The sharp dialogue and honest discussion about God and science, good and evil, morality and death, et al., kept us all in engaged, for 80 minutes, despite no intermission. The bits of horror that do creep in, though difficult to stomach, tether the play to something real, though not always deeply probed. Lewis, belying traces of PTSD, recalls an experience in WWI in which his best friend is blown-up ten feet away from him. It wasn’t the shrapnel, he says, that bothered him; it was the chunks of flesh hitting his face and body that he’ll never forget.

Freud’s response is to leverage this trauma to ask the prevailing question of the play: If there is a God, how could he allow such suffering to exist in the world? Lewis doesn’t have a clear answer. He’s discomfited–and so am I. But rather than lingering on that unease–or the shame I feel for the dwarf–I repress it instead, and wait for the next fart joke.

I’m reading Harry Potter for the first time in my life. I’m 28. I’m not exactly okay with this. After more than a decade of scoffing at its success, refusing to acknowledge it as a major cultural phenomenon, and, frankly, thinking myself above its quaint story arc, I’ve given in. I thought this day would never come. I was comfortably settled into the idea that I would never read one of the most popular book series of my generation. I grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia, The Tripod Trilogy, even Goosebumps. I knew a good fantasy book when I saw it–and this was not it.

But over the last couple of months, I’ve been getting a lot of pressure. Bullied might be more accurate. Everyone in my department at work has read the books cover to cover and is obsessed. Already being the odd man out in the group, I saw an opportunity to extend a holly branch, spend some time on their side of the street. After several weeks of delicately making excuses as to why I wouldn’t read Harry Potter, I caved. I picked up Book One at a used book store for a dollar. My co-workers were thrilled. Having earned a master’s in English literature less than a year ago, I was struggling with a minor identity crisis. Forgoing Marquez for Rowling? What have I become?

I’ve everything but the final chapter, and I’m glad I did it. It’s a great book. The characters are fun. The plot moves along at a refreshing clip. The puzzles and mysteries are genuinely engaging. And, what’s more, I now understand why people are so rapt. I can understand the obsession, the religious devotion to the author and her franchise. It’s the same reason why Star Wars is so compelling or why comic books will always be popular. What Rowling has done is created a total and self-contained universe that is similar enough to our own to be warmly familiar, but divergent enough to tap into the imaginative spirit of adolescence. So with the class critique, political intrigue, and issues of family, loss, and redemption, we can read about ourselves, but from a distance safe enough that shields us from our own guilt and anxiety about how these forces operate in our own lives.

This is not to say Rowling’s delivery is as profound as her message, however. We are, after all, plainly in the realm of young adult fiction. In the first book, it seems, there is a pure Manichean divide between good and evil. The snobbish, entitled house of Slytherin is home to the black-haired, onyx-eyed Professor Snape, and the Aryan yuppy Draco Malfoy–all hard consonants and sibilance. While the heroic House of Griffyndor seems to cull together all of the likely working-class saviors: the kind-hearted, righteous types like Harry and Ron Weasley, whose prosaic names clearly signal with whom the readers should identify. And then there’s the precocious, obsequious Hermonie Granger, with whom, because the narrative is focalized through Harry, we are meant to be smitten.

Aside from heavily regulating our emotional allegiance with the characters, Rowling perhaps also draws a little too heavily from the Chekovian gun formula. Like a slowly developing RPG character, Potter goes along picking up seemingly random items, only to discover later that they are essential to some battle or puzzle. To the adult reader, this is all very obvious. Every piece fits together neatly and all missions go off without a hitch. But as an adult reader, just once I’d like things to go off the rails for the slightly obnoxious Potter. Oh, you threw away that wooden flute Hagrid made you? Well, tough shit. You needed it to defend yourself against the bewitched killer candlestick in level 3, so now you’re dead.

Of course, the books weren’t written for me or my aging snark. They were written for kids. And for kids, it’s important that stories come together. It teaches them a grand narrative about perseverance and success that, however untrue it may be, is necessary to their riding out high school and, if possible, college so that they can have some hope at becoming something. But  for a marginally jaded 20-something like me, reading these books is like watching the Disney Channel. I can appreciate what it is and respect the craftmenship, but if I spend too much time looking at it, I start to feel like  a creep.

And this feeling is exactly why I’ve put off reading the book for so long. It’s why my wife rolls her eyes when I scoop it off my nightstand and turn on my reading light when getting into bed. It’s why I needed a stand-in text (Love in the Time of Cholera) to take with me when leaving the house because I couldn’t bear being seen with Potter in public.

I have one final chapter to read and I’m genuinely interested to learn how everything is resolved. But I don’t think I’ll be compulsively ordering the next six books from Amazon afterward or visiting Harry Potter World in Florida. I’m more interested in getting on with Marquez, and Foster Wallace, and Rushdie. Perhaps what’s most important is not being profoundly Potter literate, but merely conversant. After all, it’s a cultural sign from my generation that I should be able to identify. And it may even help me get along at work.

Postscript: And because I can’t resist, here’s a perfectly irreverent piece from Slate on the Harry Potter phenomenon by two equally ignorant Potter virgins with whom I can identify:

 

Two of my past articles are being featured on Scribd! I uploaded some of my work recently and two articles from Rangefinder and AfterCapture magazines were chosen by Scribd editors as both “Best of the Day” and “Featured.” This is a welcome surprise and an eye-opening lesson on how writing can enjoy a life beyond initial publication.

Here are links to the articles, which you’ll also find on my portfolio blog here:

“Deep into the Rabbit Hole with Alicia J. Rose”

“Matt Logue and the Art of Abstraction”

I’m up to nearly 3,000 reads. Thanks, Interweb!

The Mysteries of PittsburghThe Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A story about a white male and his post-graduate flirtations with otherness. Art Bechstein is a malingerer who tries to re-locate his zeal for life by hanging around with a fascinating cadre of non-normative characters who serve to trouble his self-assured intellectualism. The happenstance way in which Chabon introduces these characters to Art is thoroughly unconvincing, but this being his first novel, I think we can cut him some slack. What’s entirely inexplicable, and perhaps unforgivable, is Art’s family back story as the scion of a powerful mafioso. Chabon tells this part of the tale in earnest, with no traces of the biting irony that made his postmodernist forebears famous. In Pynchon, this plot element would make sense. In Chabon, it smacks of cheap thrills, like a TV-movie drama. The structure that ultimately holds these two fluttering plot threads together is equally confounding. A quaint and beautiful, yet altogether vacant symbol, the cloud factory becomes a hugely important meeting point for all of the characters, but for no apparent reason. Chabon constructs this compelling image without fully imbuing it with meaning or allowing his characters to take the time to unpack its significance. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a readable story with many brilliant passages about life after college. But like its freshly graduated characters, it hasn’t quite got it all figured out yet. Still, we can see the distinct sign of promise in this novel by young Chabon. And now, with his already impressive and growing list of accolades, we can understand why it was there to begin with.

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All hail the king!

Summer is here. For most of us this means we go to the beach. Or BBQ. Or travel. But in this house, we Break Bad.

This Sunday, AMC’s hit show returns as rightful claim to the greatest-drama-on-television for its fifth and final season, and we couldn’t be more excited. I know, I know. What about Mad Men? Sorry, there’s too much latent nostalgia for a time that, for any person who wasn’t white and male, wasn’t all that great. Fair enough, but what about Game of Thrones? Love it. But let’s not kid ourselves, GoT is little more than a souped-up political drama elaborately staged and costumed for the Narnia and RPG generation. Why do you think Daenerys Targaryen and her dragon horde continue aimlessly trudging around the Red Waste? They’re trying to level up, people.

Now Breaking Bad–that’s a show. I could go on and on about what makes it great. But in essence, for me, what’s most compelling about this show is that it continues to surprise. From the outset it’s appealed to familiarly American narratives about Walter White as the underdog hero, the down-on-his-luck but deserving protagonist, the regretful could-have-been who’s given a second chance, the principled man who would do anything to protect his family. Through these myths the show lured us into a reverie where we rationalized right alongside Mr. White and saw that perhaps, in certain extenuating circumstances, the ends could justify the means. And then the creators pulled the rug out from under us. Breaking Bad is not a tale about navigating complex moral ambiguities. It’s about how money, and the power that it commands, can corrupt. But more so, it’s about the rise of an already immoral man and (what we’re hoping this season will reveal) his deserved eventual fall.

Not surprisingly, everyone is clamoring to find out what will happen this season to Walter White and his newly acquired meth empire. This week at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu liken White to Milton’s Satan, the brooding, power-hungry anti-hero who rebels against the divine cosmic order. Like Satan, White refuses to accept the cards dealt him, to lie down and succumb to his lung cancer. Instead, for four seasons he wages war–against the cartels, his employers, and even his own family. The real question for Kuo and Wu is whether or not, like Paradise Lost, the cosmos are going to punish White for his moral transgressions.

Over at The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe discusses the series’ accuracy to the real-life drug trade affecting the United States and Mexico, which he spent six months researching for another piece in the magazine. His assessment: nearly spot-on. The short article is also a great overview of the general plot and major characters.

Part of the show’s success is that, through White’s endless bloody scramble up the meth industry chain-of-command, it has sustained a great amount of tension. We never know if or when everything is going to come crashing down around our protagonist. But now that he’s been crowned King, will the show hold on for a fifth season?  Meghan Lewit at The Atlantic seems to think so. In comparing the narrative arc of Breaking Bad to other hit shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights, she cites the creators’ narrative efficiency and awareness of the plot’s own limitations as reasons why we’re not dealing with an arc, but a steady, planned, white-knuckled incline from ground-level to final, catastrophic apex.

Enjoy the show, everyone. It’s going to get messy.

I enjoy reading. Online and offline. Books, magazines, and poetry. Newspapers and blogs. And like anyone else, I love a good read. My experience in magazine editorial has also shown me the pleasure of curating, of culling together the best, most relevant writing available that shares some common link or is organized around a presiding theme. Often when I’m perusing the many great digital publications on the Internet, these themes seem to surface on their own across various publications. Out of this daily reading practice and the sense of interconnectedness that the Internet facilitates comes the origin for The Silent Reader. I’m reading and then editorializing the Internet like some vast, plentiful edit well containing work by the world’s best journalists and writers. And yet, this well fits so easily into the space between my fingertips and mouse. Of course, I won’t get to everything, but hopefully I can shoulder some of your reading load and offer a little of my own commentary for context. So please, sit back, relax and read at your leisure. I’ll be sorting the Internet’s ones from its zeros while you’re away.

Oh, and I might post the occasional abbreviated book review, too.

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