Monday, November 24, 2008

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Blindness by Jose Saramago (Nobel Prize for Literature 1998) might be great literature, but not for me. It is written in an experimental style (nameless characters, long sentences, no quotation marks - see note below) which made it very difficult for me to read.

The story is about the rapid decline of civilization and civility when everyone suddenly goes blind. The depressing and violent roller coaster steady moves to more depressing and degrading levels until the story ends.

While the characterization and description was everything you might expect from a Nobel Laureate, the resolution seemed flat (to me).

Note on the translation and page layout

The translation is British, but British usage is minimal. The book opens with an observation that the crosswalks are called zebras even though that do not look like zebras.

The odd thing is that the formatting is compressed. It is not unusual for the sole formatting of double page of text to be a single indent. The dialogue is run together without the benefit of quotation marks, indentation, or new lines. I found this very difficult to read and often had to resort to using my bookmark to underline each line in order to maintain my place in reading. The was not helped by the long complex sentences such as:
Until the causes were established, or, to use the appropriate terms, the etiology of the white evil, as, thanks to the inspiration of an imaginative assessor, this unpleasant sounding blindness came to be called, until such time as treatment and a cure might be found, and perhaps a vaccine that might prevent the appearance of any cases in the future, all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patients, should be rounded up and isolated so as to avoid any further cases of contagion, which, once confirmed, would multiply more or less according to what is mathematically referred to as a compound ration.
This is from Wikipedia.
Saramago's experimental style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs match the length of entire chapters by more traditional writers. He uses no quotation marks to delimit dialog; when the speaker changes Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker's clause. In his novels Blindness and The Cave, Saramago sometimes abandons the use of proper nouns; indeed, the difficulty of naming is a recurring theme in his work.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Supposedly Fun Thing by David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing by David Foster Wallace is a collection of humorous essays of various lengths, up to 100 pages. The opening essay is about playing junior tennis in southern Illinois recounting how his analytical abilities allowed him to succeed with a dearth of actual athletic ability. This advantage failed him as his opponents reached puberty and the play moved to better courts with wind screens and flat surfaces. Regardless, of how that sounds, I found this introspection enjoyable.

The next selection was a rant about culture and TV. It started okay, but the length lead to repetition and ennui. The same was true of the title selection, A supposedly funny thing I'll never do again, about a cruise in the Caribbean. This latter essay was filled with humorous, biting observations, but, alas, it dragged on to long.

The book's style is simultaneously erudite, analytical, and satiric. If that appeals to you, ad nauseam, this might be the book for you. It didn't work for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

What to you imagine when you think of the last months of World War II in Europe? The horrific discoveries at the camps? The carpet bombing of Germany? The victorious troops march towards Berlin? Much has been written and filmed of the soldiers (both sides) and Jews (survivors and victims).

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian centers around a different group of characters. The Emmerichs are minor Prussian aristocrats who welcomed their German liberation from Poland at the beginning of the war, but now that the Russians are moving in from the east, they must escape to the west. Eighteen-year-old Anna, her mother, and young brother travel across Germany in the company of Callum, an Irish POW, and Uri, a Jewish survivor/saboteur masquerading as a German officer.

In a parallel plot, the story also follows a group of Jewish women being driven across Germany, also in advance of the Russians, while being alternately starved and forced to work in whatever factories remain.

Over the course of this odyssey, both the characters and the reader experience brutality and hope. Gradually without realizing it, without denying anyone's humanity, the book climaxes with a powerful case for Zionism.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Critical by Robin Cook

Critical by Robin Cook is reminiscent of several of his other books. The protagonists are two New York City medical examiners (Dr. Laurie Montgomery and Dr. Jack Stapleton) who have appeared in previous books, along with Detective Lou Soldano and the bumbling hood Franco.

Also reprised are the plot elements of mobsters as investors and competing mobsters. As Robin Cook fans have come to expect, the majority of the characters are MDs and the medical vocabulary is over the top.

This book lacks a tie-in to current events and issues in contemporary medical care as the earlier novels did, but the book does explore the question of scientific blindness where smart scientists get trapped in their linear thinking and never consider the right hypothesis. While this is a very interesting aspect of the scientific minds, the book only flits along the surface of the issue.

Guide to Writing for Children by Jane Yolen

Guide to Writing for Children by Jane Yolen provides advice to a prospective children's book author on two levels. On the practical level, she categorizes the different types of children literature from picture books to chapter books; from fantasy to non-fiction; talking animals to educational; with side excursions into counting and alphabet books. On this level she covers the gamut comprehensively, sharing enlightening insights on the various sub-genres of children's literature..

On the level of inspiration, I found the book more off putting. Drawing heavily on her childhood experiences, I felt discouraged that I hadn't read Alice in Wonderland at six as the author had. I was often left with the impression that she was showing off and discouraging mere mortals from attempting to write books for children.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Boys and Girls Together by Willima Saroyan

Boys and Girls Together by William Saroyan is promoted on the jacket as a masterly comedy by this depression era author. He never matched his early success as his writing career (novels and plays) progressed through the post-war years. The same jacket refers most prominently to books written two decades earlier (Human Comedy and My Name is Aram). One can't help but feel that this novel is autobiographical.

The story is about the sad life of an older writer and his young wife. The writer is obsessed with drinking, gambling, his wife and children. He has not been able to write for many years. He has thoughts of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) and the importance of pain and suffering in the life of a writer.

Be warned that this is literary novel with much characterization and introspection and little action.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dirty Blonde by Lisa Scottoline

Dirty Blonde by Lisa Scottoline is a wonderful legal thriller/mystery. The protagonist, Cate Fante, is a newly appointed federal judge. The plot begins with a suit by the creator of a the idea for a successful TV series against the production company. The legal battle seamlessly transitions into a murder/suicide. This becomes a crazy-cop-pursuing-a-innocent-fugitive drama, and then back to the murder mystery and after several suspects are found innocent, a surprise turn reveals the murderer. All of this action is intertwined with Cate's love life.

A well written, carefully plot, quick moving thriller. A pleasure to read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chimera by Will Shetterly

Chimera by Will Shetterly is a neat little science fiction mystery. Chase Maxwell is a down and out, ex-military (UNSEC or U.N. Security in this case) private detective with the requisite bad habits (gambling and smoking in this case). He is also a vegetarian. The damsel in distress is Zoe Domingo, the 26th in a litter born on Sunday. Zoe is a Jaguar/Human hybrid (aka Chimera). The murders revolve civil rights for Chimeras and AIs.

The book is packed with science fiction wonders in the areas of both biology and physics and lots of action. Will Shetterly avoid the science fiction tendency for characters to lecture and packs the book with pithy and humorous one-liners.
When you're sure the world's against you, it's hard for the world to prove it doesn't know you exist.
"Most of Gold's work was in artificial intelligence. What does that suggest?"
"That there isn't enough real intelligence to go around."
He collapsed in his chair, slumping forward to strike the table and his plate with his forehead. The plated flipped like a tiddlywnk, strewing spaghetti on top of the gore.
A quick and enjoyable read.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Race by Richard North Paterson

The Race by Richard North Patterson is a example of a book that tries too hard to be a topical bestseller. It makes two mistakes.

First, its topic is a Republican running for president in 2008. While this might have been interesting in 2007 when the book was published, in November 2008, the topiv made trivial and trite by the actual election.

Second, the book has so much commentary on politics, much of it is just talking head, no action; philosophical discussions of people and politics. Nothing happens.

It all adds up to b-o-r-i-n-g.

I read a few chapters and put it away.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott is an historical novel about the time of Robin Hood. It includes the archery tournament where Robin Hood splits the arrow and King Richard The Lion-Hearted's secret return to England and pardon of Robin Hood and his band.

Ivanhoe was a Saxon knight who, like King Richard, returned from the Holy Lands to oppose Prince John and abuse of the Saxons. The action centers around three events: a tournament, abduction, trial.

In the tournament Ivanhoe and the Black Knight (King Richard in disguise) ultimately vanquish the Normans.

In a mix-up reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy, some Norman nobles abduct a Saxon princess so another Norman noble can rescue her and win her affection. Much goes wrong with this plan, including the accidental abduction of the wounded Ivanhoe, a Jewish father and his beautiful daughter. One of the Normans falls in love with the Jewess, and the castle is ultimately burned down when Robin Hood, King Richard (in disguise), and company rescue the various captives.

Finally, the Jewess is accused of being a witch, but she is ultimately defended by Ivanhoe in a trial by combat.

The Jewess and her father have bigger roles in the story than either of the three heros: Ivanhoe, King Richard or Robin Hood.

I found the book very difficult to read. Sir Walter Scott was a contemporary of Jane Austen who wrote in a much more readable style. Here is a not atypical sentence (seven commas!):
Without attempting to conceal her avowed preference of Wilfred of Ivanhoe, she declared that, were that favored knight out of question, she would rather take refuge in a convent than share a throne with Athelstance, whom, having always despised, she now began, on account of the trouble she received on his account, thoroughly to detest.
Interestingly, the book opens with the observation, repeated in many places since, that farm animals have Anglo-Saxon while food have Norman-French names (e.g. Cattle/Beef, Swine/Pork, Sheep/Mutton, Chicken/Poultry).

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul has all the ingredients of a modern thriller: set in Boston, two men Tom Kelly and Father Sebastian who are not who they appear to be, a Catholic school with students locked in the catacomb-like maze beneath the school buildings, a Islamic plot to kill the Pope, and a 16-year boy, Ryan McIntyre, whose father died in Kuwait and whose mother has been almost murdered. It falls to Ryan to save the Pope and unravel the plot.

The book also offers something more: exorcisms, ancient incantations, and evil forces that inhabit, speak to and control people. For anyone with a yen for a mixture of horror and suspense, this is the book.