Monday, October 29, 2007

Blindness, by Jose Saramago--a review

I finished Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness a few weeks ago, but had put off writing about it (mostly because I’m a procrastinator). But when Southern California was hit by the wildfires last week, it made me think about Blindness again, and suddenly the novel seemed especially relevant.

Blindness is the story of a mysterious epidemic that causes a “white blindness” that descends on an unnamed city, eventually striking most of its citizens. Among the first to become blind are an opthalmologist and some of his patients, and they are quickly imprisoned by authorities in an abandoned mental institution, to quarantine them. The opthalmologist’s wife retains her sight, but wants to stay with her husband, so she pretends to be blind. And so she is witness to the horrors of the epidemic, and helps the blind where she can. As the epidemic widens and society’s institutions fail, the small band of blind people led by the doctor’s wife have to adapt quickly to survive the horrific circumstances of a world without sight.

In this beautifully written parable, Jose Saramago explores just how fragile the concept of civilization is, and how quickly society breaks down in the face of disaster. It is an amazing exercise, writing this “what if” scenario, in which the writer brings society to almost total breakdown. But in thinking about our world today, it became clear to me that human beings often face situations--war, tsunami, wildfire—that strip away the trappings of civilization, and sometimes we are left only with human beings’ baser instincts.

Saramago’s writing style, disorienting at first, perfectly suits the subject matter; Saramago writes with a lack of punctuation, quotation marks, and attribution of quotes. I haven’t read anything else Saramago has written, but I’ve heard that this is his usual style, so he didn’t just employ it to illustrate his point here. However, it does so very well—at first one feels impaired and disoriented while reading, and meaning is occluded, but then one gets one’s bearings, and the writing becomes clearer, easier to navigate.

There is also something to be said for having to slow down while reading. I found there was a page-turning quality to the book, and I read it far past my bed-time, but Saramago’s unorthodox punctuation made me slow down, so I missed less than I might have from rushing.
I really enjoyed Saramago’s writing, too, because of his considerable descriptive powers. He describes his plague-ridden world without pulling any punches, describing a world full of excrement, vomit, the bloated bodies of the unburied dead, but also beautifully describes unexpected moments of humanity, the relief of cleansing rain, the “dog of tears”, who licks the salty tears of the opthalmologist’s wife.

I have to admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book, knowing the subject matter beforehand. I don’t generally read dystopian, allegorical or phantasmagoric fiction, because, to be honest, it often makes me uncomfortable. But this novel surprised me. Yes, it is unrelenting, but it is also beautiful. It was a page-turner, and it was unexpectedly funny.

There were times when I felt that Saramago’s version of a blind world didn’t play out the way that my version would; occasional moments I had trouble suspending disbelief. But that didn’t make it a less entertaining, or meaningful read for me. I found that the beauty of the language, the vividness of the imagery, and the urgency of the narrative more than made up for any doubts I had about the particulars of Saramago’s portrait of a world falling apart.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Read With Abandon?

This week's Booking Through Thursday question intrigued me so I decided to join in.

Today’s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

I hate to abandon books, generally, because I hate to feel like I've failed. I just don't like to give up. But over the last few years I've also decided that I don't want to waste time reading something that just doesn't grab me, for whatever reason. So many books, so little time, as they say. I've always got so many other books sitting on my shelf waiting for me, beckoning to I've gotten a lot better at giving up on books that just aren't doing it for me.

Some of the (now many) books I've abandoned, and why (if I can remember):

1. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. I know this is one of those books that people absolutely adore, but I couldn't get through it. However, I was young when I tried it, and I might like it better now.

2. Ulysses, by James Joyce. I tried to read this with an accompanying lecture-on-tape course, thinking that would help me understand it. I fell asleep reading it too many nights in a row, so I just gave up. I figure some day I'll take a real, live college course about this book. Maybe.

3. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. I have no idea what this book is about. I got about ten pages in and gave up. And Midnight's Children is one of my all-time favorite books ever. Oh well.

4. A Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt. I loved Possession, and I got more than half way through this one, but it never grabbed me. Just didn't care what happened to the characters.

C'mon, tell me, what books have you given up on?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A word about the fires here in Southern California

Yesterday I went on a crazy impromptu trip to Disneyland with all three kids, because it was parent conference day and I had already met with my kids' teachers. It was such a strange day, because Orange County and San Diego Counties were ablaze with wildfires. I didn't know it at the time, or I wouldn't have driven down into the ash-laden air to spend the day outdoors. Not that it was much better up here in L.A. County. In fact, I thought I would be escaping the smoky air by heading south. But instead I was driving into even more smoke. The hot Santa Ana winds and the orange light from the smoke in the air made the day at the theme park a more surreal experience than usual.

When I got into the car to drive home, I heard on the radio that 500,000 people have had to be evacuated from their homes in San Diego County, 1300 homes and businesses have been destroyed, and two people have died. I don't know anyone personally who was evacuated, but friends and relatives of friends have had to grab a few possessions and go. What a stark contrast to our carefree day at the Magic Kingdom.

Here's hoping the winds die down soon, and the firefighters get the fires under control. The article in the L.A. Times gives a good account of what is going on, and the photo galleries in the article are worth looking at.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The 24-Hour Read-a-thon this Saturday

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf is hosting a really great event this weekend--the 24 Hour Read-a-thon. I was hoping to be a "cheerleader" for this event, but I've got many kid-related scheduling conflicts--and I'm really sorry I'll miss it.

It starts on Saturday, October 20, at @ 2pm GMT, and I encourage anyone who has any time on Saturday to check out the details and find one of the many ways to participate.

And I'd love to hear who is planning to take part, and what your experiences are like if you do!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Where Have I Been?

Really. It's a good question. I turned around and more than a week went by without blogging. How in the world could that have happened? Well, it was the kids, the darned things take up so much of my time. But I did do some reading. And a little book-buying. You know, just to keep my hand in.

Here is the most recent pile of books, some of which were mooched, some found at my mom's house, and some bought full price at my very local bookstore. I actually have an account at that bookstore, which is a very dangerous thing. I walk in, I say, "I want this book, and could you put it on my account?" And then, miracle of miracles, I walk out with said book. Feels like the fifties, no? However, the bill does arrive at the end of the month, and it sometimes comes as a very nasty surprise!

I'm also pretty far into Of Human Bondage, which is a great book. Why haven't I read this before now? Here's a quote about reading, specifically a lonely child's awakening to the magical power of reading:

One day a good fortune befell him, for he hit upon Lane's translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night. He was captured first by the illustrations, and then he began to read, to start with, the stories that dealt with magic, and then the others; and those he liked he read again and again. He could think of nothing else. He forgot the life about him. He had to be called two or three times before he would come to his dinner. Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.
Ah, reading...what power it has!

Details of the pile:
  • A Childhood in Scotland, by Christian Miller--I had read about this on a blog, and can't for the life of me find the entry again, so sorry to whoever I would have linked to! If you read this, let me know, so you can get the credit you deserve! My father grew up in Scotland, so I'm always attracted to books like this...
  • Witch Child, by Celia Rees. Another family obsession. This is a children's book that I had heard compared to The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, which I had read as a child and liked, and recently reread. So I ordered it from my son's Scholastic Book Catalog!
  • Uncensored: Views & (Re)views, by Joyce Carol Oates. I had to get this book after seeing it referenced on a blog, and again I can't find the reference. What is up with me and my memory? I remember seeing something on a blog, and then when I go back to where I thought I saw it, I can't find it. It's like the things you lose around the house, and you can picture where they are, but then you go to that spot, and there's nothing there. Arghh! Anyway, on the back it says, "In thirty-eight diverse and provocative pieces, Joyce Carol Oates freely speaks her mind on some of literature's greatest modern authors." It's supposed to be great.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Outmoded Authors Challenge

I'm finally finalizing my picks for the Outmoded Authors Challenge that Imani is hosting. I just love the tagline for the challenge--Exploring authors kicked out of the "in crowd"!

The challenge doesn't specify how many books or authors you have to read, you just have to self-regulate so you can finish by February 29, 2008. I love that, too--so I can be a little wimpy by not choosing too many books, and then maybe I'll actually finish a challenge for the first time!

I'll be reading Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, Kinds of Love, by May Sarton, and The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott. And if I make it through those, I'm going to reread Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, as a little bonus, because it is one of my all-time favorites.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

C'mon, Everybody's Doing It...

I’ve seen this meme everywhere lately (Matt at A Variety of Words, Superfast Reader, Dewey, Literary Feline, pages turned) and since I’m a big LibraryThing user I had to do it. This is the list of LibraryThing’s top 106 titles tagged “unread”. The big question seems to be "why 106?", but nobody has an answer...

Feel free to join in! Bold the titles you’ve read. Italicize the titles you have on your bookshelf but haven’t read.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an Inquiry into Values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Everything By Design, by Alan Lapidus--a review

I received and just read an advance copy of Alan Lapidus's new memoir, Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect. Lapidus is an architect for the rich and famous, a designer of hotels, casinos, and other large buildings for the likes of Donald Trump, Aristotle Onassis, John Tishman, and the Disney corporation.

Alan Lapidus is also the son of the architect Morris Lapidus, best known for his fantasy hotels the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc in Miami. The elder Lapidus's style was loved by his consumers, but denigrated by critics as schlock. And though his son Alan worked with him for years, Morris Lapidus could only be described as difficult, as a father and as a business partner.

But even if Alan got almost no recognition from his father, he did learn valuable lessons about crowd-pleasing from him. Alan’s buildings are highly functional, and they have flair. And he is a great storyteller. You get the feeling that his friends listened to his stories about his life and work and said, “You’ve got to write a book about this.”

Lapidus doesn’t write about design per se, but he does write in a readable style about the logic he employs in designing his buildings, and how these buildings do or don’t get built. He also takes us behind the scenes in places like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Disney World, which are places that have their own logic and rules, are almost never seen by the public, and are fascinating to hear about. Also fun to read about are the personalities of the people, companies and institutions Lapidus has designed for, including Donald Trump, Bob Guccione, Michael Eisner and the rest of Disney, the CIA, and many others. He talks about the red tape he has had to cut through, the corporate cultures he’s had to navigate, and the cultural barriers he has had to straddle. It’s all very entertaining, both as a personal memoir and as a look at the foibles and excesses of the real estate world of the late twentieth century.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

And The Winner Is...

Well, I threw all your names into a kitchen colander and my eight-year-old son picked...Matt from A Guy's Moleskine Notebook! Yea, Matt! Congratulations, you have just won an all-expenses paid trip, no, wait, that's another contest. You have won a brand-new copy of The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. Please email me your mailing address and I will send it off to you.

Matt, let me know what you think when you read it. Hope you like it!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Books I Now Want

I almost always read the NY Times Book Review on Sundays and find a bunch of books I want to read (I know other bloggers who do this, like Dewey, whose blog I always check to see if we're coveting the same things!).

This week there's a review of Ann Patchett's new novel Run, and you can also read the first chapter (a great feature of the Book Review). I have enjoyed everything of Patchett's that I've read, especially Bel Canto, but also The Magician's Assistant and The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel. I really enjoy her style. As the review says, "she prefers nouns and verbs to crowded flights of lyrical adjectives and adverbs, and she doesn't dally excessively over a pretty phrase...small wonder, then, that her books tend to be such solid, weight-bearing constructions. The wonder is that they so often manage to be transportingly beautiful too."

I'm also happy to hear that one of my favorite playwrights, Alan Bennett, who wrote The History Boys: A Play and Lady in the Van, has written a new novella, The Uncommon Reader: A Novella. The NY Times reviewer didn't love it, but I think I'll have to check it out. Again, you can read the first chapter here.

There is also a review, by Pico Iyer, of the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, Other Colors: Essays and a Story, a collection of essays and one story. I've never read Pamuk, but I'd like to at some point. I may start with his fiction, however. There is one section of this book called "My Books are My Life", and the review mentions that Pamuk has a library of 12,000 books--how great is that? Makes me want to read it...

And a reminder--don't forget to let me know if you want to put your name in the hat for my drawing for a copy of Alan Weisman's book, The World Without Us, by leaving me a comment on my last post (dated Friday, September 28th) before Tuesday at midnight, Pacific time.