“The problem in marriage is learning to overcome boredom.”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, May 19 to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, a story very loosely based on the tragic, comic love story of García Márquez’s parents. This book generated some of the most animated discussions I have witnessed from the group since joining back in 2020. The premise is simple: Florentino and Fermina fall in love in their youth, but it is a forbidden love, and Fermina marries someone else. As time drags on, Florentino continues to watch Fermina from afar, debatably never fully moving on with his life, even as he embarks on dozens of love affairs. He’s a man who can’t write a business letter, but crafts exquisite love letters for other people who can’t express their own feelings. 

This book has a very strong sense of place and time: rich colors, mountains you can feel, steamy streets, telegraphs, steam ships, old cars. It’s as if García Márquez sampled conditions of various places in South America, and combined the details to create one “mythical” place – a place it’s clear García Márquez has a love-hate relationship with (although, readers noted this book has about ⅓ the amount of “magical realism” compared to García Márquez’s other book, One Hundred Years of Solitude). 

The writing and translating was described as beautiful. One reader loved the “parade” of mores and social conventions through the years; we were really able to put ourselves in that place in time and understand why people behaved the way they did. We did have trouble stomaching Florentino’s love with the very young girl, just on the brink of her teenage years, but whereas now, girls that age are called little girls, back then, in traditional Latin America, they were seen as “young women.” 

In addition to an enveloping atmosphere of time and place, the book’s theme is alluring: the later love presented here is electric and rejuvenating. Childhood sweethearts, finally reunited; at the end, a revelation – maybe everything is not as sweet as we all thought it would be – and yet readers loved that, too. 

The book is epic in its study of love. One reader called it an exploration of “every different kind of love in the world.” Not only does the book detail the experiences of love, but also how a person’s outlook on love affects them, as well as how people respond to the love from another. Some read the story as a mystery – would Florentino be caught loving other women? So many choices were made based on a need for secrecy, the book certainly had mysterious airs. 

Fermina is the paragon woman, but Florentino loved the others with tenderness and endurance throughout life. If he loved the others, what does he feel for Fermina? Can it be love, if what he felt for others was love, but what he feels for her is “more”? What is greater than love? Or then, is his feeling not greater, but different? 

And then, the title! Plagues feature prominently, and the symptoms of love and cholera were discussed – how they mirror one another and what they mean. In Spanish, cólera refers to the disease of cholera, and an intense feeling of anger (although the two meanings are gendered differently – the disease is masculine and the feeling is feminine – and it is the woman who is angry throughout the novel). The word comes from Greek χολή which means bile. We also have choler in English, which means anger or irritability, and it stems from the four humors theory where choler (yellow bile) meant people were bitter, short tempered, and daring. The word choler comes from French colere, which comes from Latin cholera. Florentino is plagued by love, physically and mentally, but it is also the cholera that facilitates his isolation on the riverboat with his beloved…. Cholera is everywhere, in the people, and in the land. Circling back to our discussion on the setting, we realized Colombia is a character at play here, and the country itself is dying of cholera. When we see what has become of the flora and fauna at the end of the book, we are dumbstruck by the devastation. 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, June 16th at noon to discuss Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s not too late to read the book and join us, because it’s very short! 

Other books: 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez

Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade 

One Day by David Nicholls

Martin Rivas by Blest Gana

“Before the one percent, there was the four hundred…”

Brown Baggers met in person on Thursday, April 21 to discuss The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The book is a work of nonfiction about the Biltmore mansion located in Asheville, North Carolina – “the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.” Having recently read The Yellow House and The Dutch House, our group was ready to dive into more house-centric reading.

Similar to our other house stories, the palace takes on its own character. Our members’ initial reaction was a bit of shock, even disdain or disgust, at the opulence of the Biltmore and its people. Kiernan was critiqued within our group for writing extensively on the details about gowns and meals, but less substantially on most of the actual people living in the house. Others noted that the genealogy writing was tedious and there were far too many peripheral characters. The “name dropping” didn’t add to the story, similar to how including every single little bit of researched information didn’t contribute much, aside from legitimizing the subtitle: “the epic story…” Yes, this is an epic tale all right, and told in epic proportions. 

What we did enjoy was learning about the extensive planning needed to transform 125,000 acres of wilderness into a proper European-style estate, complete with its own chateau: the forestry, the landscape architecture. There is also the general intrigue that comes with reading a work of nonfiction. No matter how much you already know about a topic, there always seems to be more to learn. So while sometimes the facts and figures dragged, some stories were more captivating! One favorite example was the story of storing art at the Biltmore during WWII to ensure its safety during wartime. 

This was also a redemption story, with Edith at its center. We loved Edith, as she was the strong, forward-thinking woman, the one with all the brains, and the intelligent maneuvering to boot. In the end, Biltmore had a positive impact on Asheville, although it’s probably fairer and more accurate to say that Edith had a positive impact on Asheville. From promoting Asheville while traveling, to being a part of the wider community, and finding ways to stay true to her roots (she didn’t come from money). It was a happy ending to read about the good that came from the Biltmore, in the end.  

A few readers mentioned that the real treasure was reading this book before visiting the Biltmore. Perhaps a book club field trip is in order? Krista would be an amazing guide! 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez on Thursday, May 19. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Other books mentioned: 

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe 

American Duchess: a novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper 

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Fowler 

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

Brown Baggers Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

The Brown Baggers book club is preparing for a new “season” of reading, which will begin in June! Each December we host a potluck party to celebrate a year of reading and to recommend and choose new titles for our next batch of books (June-May). We enjoy reading a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, but in our most recent round of voting, the nonfiction titles were hedged out in favor of historical fiction. 

So we’re giving our members a bit of flexibility this upcoming year – if you find yourself at any point uninspired or uninterested in the fiction selection for the month, we encourage you to try a nonfiction companion title from the curated list we have below (or read fiction and nonfiction both, when you have extra time!). Come to book club prepared to share about the book you read; we believe we’ll have some really interesting dialogues as our fiction readers converse with our nonfiction readers. 

June: Passing by Nella Larsen

nonfiction options:  

A Chosen Exile: a history of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

White Like Her: my family’s story of race and racial passing by Gail Lukasik

Black Lotus: a woman’s search for racial identity by Sil Lai Abrams

July: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

nonfiction options: 

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday 

Earth Keeper: reflections on the American Land by N. Scott Momaday

The Three-Cornered War: the Union, the Confederacy, and native peoples in the fight for the West by Megan Kate Nelson

Born of Lakes and Plains: mixed-descent peoples and the making of the American West by Anne Hyde

The Captured by Scott Zesch (we don’t own this book, but “Jiles wrote that much of her account of Johanna’s alienation is based on The Captured”)

August: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

nonfiction options: 

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an intimate history of domestic life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light 

Upstairs & Downstairs: the illustrated guide to the real world of Downton Abbey by Sarah Warwick 

September: The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey 

nonfiction option: 

The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger 

October: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain 

nonfiction option: 

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: sex, murder, and madness at the dawn of the twentieth century by Simon Baatz 

November: The Paris Library by Janet Charles

nonfiction options: 

The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert Edsel 

Americans in Paris: a literary anthology edited by Adam Gopnik 

Part of Our Lives: a people’s history of the American public library by Wayne Wiegand 

December: no book

January: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

nonfiction options: 

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: traveling through the land of my ancestors by Louise Erdrich 

Rez Life: an Indian’s journey through reservation life by David Treuer 

Unworthy Republic: the dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian territory by Claudio Saunt 

Coyote Warrior: one man, three tribes, and the trial that forged a nation by Paul VanDevelder

February: My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

nonfiction options: 

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville & New American Nazis (PBS documentary)

Beyond Charlottesville: taking a stand against white nationalism by Terry McAuliffe 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Thomas Jefferson Foundation 

Black is the Body: stories from my grandmother’s time, my mother’s time, and mine by Emily Bernard 

The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race edited by Jesmyn Ward 

March: Same Page Community Read

April: Matrix by Lauren Groff

nonfiction options: 

Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales: the building church, 600-1540 by Richard Morris 

Devon’s Torre Abbey: Faith, Politics, and Grand Designs by Michael Rhodes 

May: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 

nonfiction options: 

Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller drug laws and the politics of punishment by Michael Fortner 

You might also enjoy a book about the Harlem Riot of 1964. Here are two options (unfortunately we don’t own either, but ILL is an option!): The Harlem Uprising by Christopher Hayes or In The Heat of Summer by Michael Flamm 

What great nonfiction books that would pair well with our fiction titles this year did we miss? Comment below to add your recommendations!