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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
independent
bookseller
No. 20:  

Honey-Sweet

Editor's note:
As usual, Carlisle is out to lunch. The real point of Valentine's Day, as any sensible bloke knows, is to impress chicks. And, as any sensible bloke knows, women can't get enough of tragic love. If the hero is not depressed, deceitful, and — before the story is through — dead, you'll end up with the check — and that's all. So guys, if you need a good story of love ending badly, here are a few of our favorites:

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy


This new version of the novel Nabokov called "the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth century literature" was translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, who have received a number of awards for their other translations of Russian literature.

Your Price $16.00
(New - Trade Paper)
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The End of the Affair
The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene


This novel, which Faulkner called "one of the most true and moving novels of my time, in any language," is a searing expose of the fine line between love and hate.

Your Price $11.95
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Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain
by Charles Frazier


The novel set during the Civil War is romantic in the fullest sense and has already become a classic of American literature.

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All the Pretty Horses
All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy


One of world literature's greatest living writers takes the same old love story — boy falls in love with girl he can't have — and uses extraordinary language to transform it into something altogether fresh.

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The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy


The bestselling novel of all time in India tells the tragic story of a doomed affair between a couple who dared to love outside their caste.

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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers


One of the most moving portraits in all of American literature of love's power to destroy.

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bout two thousand years ago, someone scrawled on a wall in Pompeii, "Lovers, like bees, lead a honey-sweet life." What a timeless thought. What a timely thought. It is, after all, Valentine's Day. Outside, the weather may be damp and chilly, but today romance is in the air. And aren't we lucky. Love is like booze at a Methodist wedding: it makes all the difference.

Throughout human history, love has brought joy and meaning to our lives. It's the glue that binds the social fabric and the spark that ignites the flames of inspiration. This must be why so many of our best loved stories — from Homer's Odyssey to James Cameron's Titanic — celebrate the tender passion between a man and a woman. So I've determined, this Valentine's Day, to celebrate our greatest stories of love and romance. It never hurts to remind ourselves what makes life worth living.

As far back as the Ancient Greeks, love has played a central role in the stories we tell ourselves. Back then, even the gods were romantically inclined. The members of the Greek pantheon were constantly falling in love with one another, occasionally a particularly attractive mortal, and even, here and there, with a swan or a cow. One of the most memorable of these lovers was Aphrodite, who was herself the goddess of love.

Now, Aphrodite had just as strong a hankering for the boys as any of them. And she was a stunning beauty, so she wasn't, as a rule, sitting at home on Saturday night watching Seinfeld reruns. But the greatest of her many loves was Ares, the dashing god of war.

Oh, they were so in love. And their affair was pretty steamy too. Ares would slip into Aphrodite's magnificent palace — she was a pretty important goddess — and surprise her. They would steal a few kisses and then slip away and get down to business. When the pair was together, they knew perfect bliss. The weight of the world seemed to drop from their shoulders. Isn't love grand?

Yet there was one small problem. Aphrodite was not technically available. In fact, she was married to Hephaistos, the god of forge and fire. Now, Aphrodite's wandering eye was understandable, if not entirely honorable; Hephaistos was no looker. To put it bluntly; he was a crippled dwarf with the face of a member of Parliament. He was a "master craftsman," but that title didn't yet carry the cachet it enjoys today.

As luck would have it, there was a snitch, and Hephaistos found out about the affair. Hurt and angry, he determined to seek his revenge. He went down into his workshop and forged some special chains that were both indestructible and nearly invisible (something like Kenneth Lay's conscience). He hung the chains over his wife's bed, and, like a spider casting its web, set out to catch — quite literally — the deceitful lovers in the act...

Wait a second. I don't want to finish this story. Love, we're told, is "the master key which opens the gates of happiness." This little Greek love triangle, on the other hand, is clearly headed for disaster. I'm looking for a nice story to honor Valentine's Day. This one won't do at all. Come to think of it, those Greeks always set a bad example (just ask Dr. James Dobson). Maybe if we move forward in time a bit, we can find a more appropriate illustration of love's soothing beauties.

I'm going to pass right over the Romans, who were about as romantic as a meatpacking convention, and head straight into the Christian era. Now, without Rome, Europe was in a sort of Lord-of-the-Flies anti-paradise. The whole continent acted as if all the grownups had left. They fought amongst themselves, practiced atrocious table manners, and forgot all their Aristotle.

Fortunately, things did pick up. Eventually. By the twelfth century, Europe had entered a remarkable period of cultural flowering. This was the era of the troubadours, who wandered from town to town singing songs of courtly love and telling stories about knights and ladies and birds and bees. And the greatest of these, one of the most influential romances in all of literature, is the story of Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde actually fell in love by mistake. As the story goes, the queen had commissioned a love potion in order to cause Isolde to fall in love with her betrothed, Tristan's uncle Mark. The plan failed. Tristan got mixed up and drank the potion himself — whoops! — and promptly fell head over heini for Isolde. Sadly, their love never had a chance. Tristan could no more stop longing for Isolde than Paul Prudhomme could fit into Michael Jackson's pants, yet there was no real hope of the two ever actually getting together. Isolde went ahead and married uncle Mark, and poor Tristan had to sneak around for the rest of the story, lovesick and despairing, until he finally died — of grief (what else?). By this time, we're glad to be rid of him.

Wait a minute. If anything, this story is even worse than the first one. At least Aphrodite and Ares found happiness for a time. But doormat Isolde and sad-sack Tristan will not inspire a happy Valentine's Day. We need to find another story. And this time, we need a good one.

I suppose we might as well head straight for the granddaddy of them all. Just a few centuries after Tristan died of grief (and we died of boredom) the greatest writer who ever lived penned the most famous love story of all time:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she…
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Of course, it's Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's celebrated drama that makes exquisite poetry of young passion. As you know, in this timeless tale Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is a Capulet. These two families hate one another and fight like cats in a Starkist dumpster (or Arthur Andersen employees at the shredder). But our star-crossed kids nonetheless fall deeply in love and get married in a secret ceremony. Oh, it's so beautiful.

But after Romeo misbehaves and gets himself banished from Verona, it becomes near impossible for the couple to actually see one another, let alone...you know, enjoy the prerogatives of married life. So Juliet cooks up a pretty clever scheme to escape her family. She takes a special potion that will make her appear dead without actually causing her harm. At first everything seems to be going as planned. Her distraught parents have a funeral for her and put her "dead" body in a tomb. But when she wakes up she finds Romeo dead at her feet — and kills herself.

Oh not again. These depressing stories are really starting to annoy me. And Romeo and Juliet is even less cheery than the last one. But I've got to maintain faith. Even Barbra Streisand believes "there is nothing more important in life than love." And if you can't trust her for reliable life advice, who can you trust? But I must admit I'm having a hard time keeping my chin up. Unless the most important things in life are deceit, depression, and death, romance doesn't seem to have much to offer.

Well, I simply refuse to believe it. If Barbra says it's so, then it must be so. Love has always been considered the penultimate human achievement, so there must be at least a few uplifting love stories out there. Why don't we just move on. After all, the nineteenth century is coming up, and the Victorians wrote more love stories than Elvis and the Beatles combined.

Let's see. Madame Bovary drank poison after both of her lovers dumped her; Heathcliff became sullen, vindictive, and cruel after losing Cathy; Anna Karenina threw herself under a train when love failed; Tess is put to death for murdering the lover who ruined her, and...

Oh, hell. This isn't working at all. I'm getting worried that we're not going to find a single pleasant love story. Surely there must be at least one. Who were our favorite lovers in the last century? There must be at least one couple that made a go of it. Well, we can cross off Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler (divorce), Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (cruel circumstance), Bonnie and Clyde (automatic weapons), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (too many drunken brawls), Di and Charles (what were they really doing together in the first place?), Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (you really don't know?), Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (death by Celine Dion)...

It's no use. I'm beginning to realize that I've been duped — we've all been duped. Valentine's Day makes no sense. Why should we exert so much energy celebrating romantic love when nuclear proliferation is more benign? It's as if a national holiday — and a major Hallmark market — were created to honor the colostomy. I'll bet Kenneth Lay orchestrated the whole thing.

I'm beginning to understand Lily Tomlin's puzzlement: "If love is the answer, could you please rephrase the question?" I'll rephrase it. Do lovers, like bees, really lead a honey-sweet life? Yeah, right. Remember, a beehive also contains several thousand poisoned stingers.

—Carlisle

     

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