Review: Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do yourself a favor and set aside a weekend to read Blindness. Or a long day, or get a lot of rest and buy some good coffee so that you can read Blindness from a dusk to a dawn. This book is written in a style that simply does not allow for many interruptions. You could try and treat the commas like periods and create your own paragraph breaks, but I think you’d be better off simply reading the novel straight through.

And when you’re done you’ll be exhausted. You’ll have been to hell and back. You’ll feel as if you’ve been brutalized, made filthy, and only at the end given an opportunity to be clean again. You’ll have witnessed a primordial evil without terror, and a deep humanity without pathos. You’ll know what it’s like to be an animal and will be satisfied that you’re more than one: for all your base urges and needs, all the pains you suffer, sweetness and light are their own reward.

Blindness is probably an extended metaphor, and the various, unnamed characters are probably archetypes for something—and that’s all well and good when the reading is done, and you’re ready for analysis. Memory, afterall, is something that serves one better if re-arranged, constructed, and made to fit one’s philosophies. But in the book itself, when you’re mired and coated with it, Saramago’s language and tone defy any other thinking than the experience itself. You will get lost in this book. You will be unable to talk about it, much, when you’re in the middle of it.

This novel is not for everyone, but then no novel is. Nor will Blindness suit you if you’re not ready for it. And yet, there is no way to test for suitability and readiness. One can never, truly, know how one will change when tragedy strikes. But one can prepare. Find that open weekend, that long day, that over-night time that you can set –aside. If Blindness does not suit you, read something else. But if does, prepare to be changed.

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Review: Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little
Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished Vernon God Little, or should I say, polished off. Some people toss leftovers into any old bucket and throw them into the refrigerator; other people lovingly arrange half-eaten slabs of meatloaf and why-bother-smears of mashed potatoes on a plate and wrap it all with cellophane. I’m not sure which more deserves the term “polish-off” when I’me sitting there at the kitchen table having eaten the half-lava /half antarctic mess, and no thanks to my fickle microwave.

Here’s a novel that won the Booker prize in 2003. I’m going to make some assumptions: it was written by someone who not born or raised in Texas. It’s possible I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the Booker prize goes to British Commonwealth writers. Maybe D.B.C. Pierre was born in London and was moved to Central Texas at age three months, lived there until his writing years came upon him, and moved back to England to pen a tour de force. Maybe I’ll make meatloaf for dinner again tonight, so good where those leftovers.

I can tell you that the first third of the novel felt like a non-Texan trying to write what a Texan would sound like. A non-teenager trying to write what a teenager would sound like. I can think of no other novel that used the word “panties” this often. And the phrase “a learning.” This read like someone who was neither Texan nor teenaged, writing for people who are neither Texan nor teenaged, in a voice that they would expect to be Texan and teenaged.

Except that I’m neither Texan nor teenaged, and I was unconvinced. By the second third I was, at least, inured to the voice. Also caught up enough to follow the cavalcade of characters and distracted enough from my own confusion at the in medias res beginning. So I had enough momentum for the final; third, thank goodness.

Because that’s where Vernon God Little shifted from a stylistic barrage and a bit of fun to an outlandish fantasy version of the American Media Justice System ™. There’s willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to a style that cops a tone (Texan teenager written by non Texan teenager). But that suspension was stretched to the breaking point and snapped. I was no longer in the novel. I was outside, just reading it.

Which is why I had to polish it off. I stuffed my gullet. I’m not the only man in America who is the family garbage can, eating leftovers so they won’t go to waste, eating them so we can wash the dishes needed for something else. I needed my e-reader and brain back so I could read a different book.

Which I plan on doing after some Pepto and a few good belches.

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Review: Defending Jacob

Defending Jacob
Defending Jacob by William Landay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was in Maui. I was on vacation. I had already read three novels. They were, each of them, kind of heavy. Not hard to read, not over-long, just, you know. I wanted something a little more pulpy. So someone recommended Defending Jacob. I’ve read my fair-share of lawyer novels, and police procedurals, and family dramas. They’re not my first go-to, but the person who recommended this one said “I think about that book a lot.” Compelling! So I gave it a try.

And now that I’m done, lawyer novels and police procedurals and family dramas are still not going to be my first go-to. I’m not saying William Landay should have stuck to just the one theme, I’m just saying that none of those themes made this novel any better.

Let’s start with the lawyer theme, the court-room stuff. Its all a little too realistic. Verisimilitude is supposed to be a good thing, right? Yes, if you need to be authentic—but authentic does not equal interesting. Landay tries, by giving the judge an interesting character, for example, and providing background on some of the other courtroom personalities—but none of it is put to any use. It’s just a trial. We only get to see theatrics in the book’s “frame,” where the narrator himself has been called to testify before a grand jury for a different case altogether. But it’s not enough.

Then there’s the police procedural, which kind of melts into the family drama sections. It gets started when the main character, an ADA, assigns himself to a homicide- but then he’s taken off the case, and the procedural sort of fizzles.

And then there’s the family drama, which is mainly driven by two contradictory ideas. The main character says, several times, that he knows his son, knows him well, knows him well enough to know that he is innocent. He also points out that his son is a teenager, and teenagers are mysterious, withdrawn, and live in a world all their own, impenetrable and unknowable by adults.

So I found myself shrugging through the entire read. I’m fine with an unreliable narrator, but not an unreliable writer. And then there’s two convenient moments of deus-ex-machina to, first, tie things up, and then, throw a curve ball so that the writer can tie things up again. In a slapdash, overly dramatic, sensationalistic (and let’s face it predictable) manner. The novel went from interesting to pedestrian to boring to cheesy.

I have no idea why the person who recommended this to me “thinks about it a lot.” I’ll have to ask.

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Review: The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a terrible novel. It’s very well written and compelling and immersive. And just awful. It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and deserved it. It’s Arundhati Roy’s only novel to date and we can only hope she’ll write more exquisite prose like this. And it’s a horrible book.

I don’t mean it’s bad. I mean I felt miserable the entire time I was reading it. Vivid, lurid descriptions of a small village in southwestern India, the people who live there, the sharp lines drawn between the classes, young and old, men and women. I was dazzled by the colors. I could almost smell the rot. I could feel the filth dripping from every branch, from every grimy soul.

There are no good people in this book. Ostensibly, the main characters are good. And their best friend. But they’re not even real people, just foils for cruel injustice. To call the caste system inhumane, to call adults abusive, to call the men sexist, is all so much understatement. This is a squalid, depressing, odious, nauseating little book.

I suppose there are a few scenes of beauty and grace, but they’re too meager to make up for everything else. Too last-minute, too seemingly-tossed in. They do not balance with otherwise overwhelming sense of despair that the rest of the book offers.

By all means, go ahead and read The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy has a way with words that is unique, fascinating, brilliant. I wish she would write more. As much as this novel made me feel bad, I still want to read other books by her. I think that’s the only good thing I can say about this read.

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Review: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend of mine told me he’s read this book fifty or more times, often while on vacation. To quote him:

I always take it with me on every trip. …it makes travel all the more bearable….travel to me is a way of life and exciting and something that’s been a part of me since I was born, but it still scares the hell out of me, it’s still uncomfortable and difficult, and The Sun Also Rises is my antidote. I love reading it in foreign cities, countries. When your credit card is declined in Tangier and you have $10 to your name, you can buy a cup of sweet tea and read it and you’re back in Spain. When you’re sleeping on the floor of a flophouse in Mexico after a 12-hr bus ride among people who don’t speak your language and you’re hungry and it’s 1am, you can read it and be eating in Paris. And every character you’ve met before, both in the novel and in real life. In yourself.

Now how could I hope to offer a review better than that? I can’t, so what follows is not an attempt. To be fair, you’ve either read this book or have not, and if you have not, I don’t see how a recommendation from a stranger is going to get you to read it now.

Maybe that’s what you should do, you should seek out a friend who’s already read The Sun Also Rises, and get him or her to talk about it. Because this is not a one-off novel that you just pick-up, read, put down, and move on. It bears discussion and debate, comparison to other books you’ve read, good and bad, other experiences you’ve had, good and bad.

So the novel’s got depth, and at the same time, it’s damned readable. Again, you either know Hemingway, or you don’t. For those who don’t, his style is well-known to be simple, straightforward, the opposite of flowery, the opposite of purple. (The opposite of this ham-handed “review.”) But it’s also compelling. As my friend points out, when reading The Sun Also Rises, you find yourself sitting in a smoky bar in post-WWI Paris, or watching the bulls on parade in Pamplona, the sun on your neck, sweat trickling down your back.

It’s been called a Roman a Clef, so there’s that, if historical criticism is your thing. It’s not mine, but it bears mentioning if only because they characters in the novel have fairly complicated relationships. My point is, for a book written 90 years ago, it’s modern. My understanding is that when it was written, it was considered, maybe, too modern—so Hemingway was ahead of his time. Or something. This is not an “old” book. You’ll find something to relate to in there, I promise.

I’m trying to say, are you doing any travelling soon? Need something to keep you company? The Sun Also Rises is an excellent choice. And when you’re done, you’ll have found something for your next trip too. And the ones after that.

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Review: Wise Blood

Wise Blood
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not sure if there’s any point to writing a review about a book that’s been out since before I was born, but what the hell. My so-called reviews are basically just blog entries anyway. Have you read Wise Blood? Maybe you should. If you’re a writer, anyway. It’s the kind of book that locks down a style and does not let go. Doesn’t compromise because it doesn’t have to. If you want to know what a “voice” is and what it can do, read Wise Blood.

And if you’re a reader, the kind of person who likes to open a book and plant his or her eyes on the first word and get pulled along and then look up eventually and realize half the day is gone. And this without much of a plot to speak of. Flannery O’Connor manages, somehow to plop you down in the post-war South without too much flowery language. You’ll get a few mosquito bites and tend to mop at your brown with a damn handkerchief and you won’t even realize it until you think about it.

I came to Wise Blood because a friend of mine was reading it, and he’s going through a rough patch, and O’Connor’s a go-to for him when he needs some perspective. But I’d read some of the short stories it’s based on before, which made parts familiar. I think you’ll find that multiple readings just make this book better. Being familiar with Flannery O’Connor in general, and this book in particular, will show off its depth, which can be glossed over, since it’s so easy to read otherwise.

Of course a novel set in the American South in the 40s is going to have some racist language in it. But to her credit, O’Connor doesn’t accept or promote racist ideas- they’re just part of the background. The distinction is necessary, otherwise every novel set in America would either be a racist screed or a pamphlet for social-justice. The former is to be abhorred, and the latter applauded, but not every book has to be about race. Nevertheless, the language can be uncomfortable. Some people don’t read Mark Twain for this reason. I’m not going to blame them- there are too many books in the world to have endure something you don’t want to endure if you’re just looking for a good read.

On the other hand, rest assured that in Wise Blood, at least, there’s not much of it. Same can’t be said for other works by O’Conner, but this one’s more about religion than anything else. Or a lack of religion. Or what happens when a fellow tries to get rid of something he hasn’t got in the first place.

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Tales from Halcyon Detectives: Old Masters

fiction by Jason Edwards

The sun rose like it does which makes for a nice start to things, day time and such. But nothing gets started on its own, does it. Sunlight chases away the cockroaches that collect around old ladies and ATMs, but then there’s the heat, and the humidity, and if your my partner, bright ideas about fixing up the place.

I walked into our office, and stumbled over the sheet he’d laid down to protect the floors from paint. “There’s no tarp so deadly as the tarp you set for yourself,”, he said. Suave little schmuck in his pink linen suit.

“You’re hilarious, Hill. What’s with the decor change? One of your divorcees get weepy over the mint green?” I managed to find my desk, my chair, a glass that wasn’t too dirty, a bottle that wasn’t too empty. For now.

He looked at the bottle, the glass, my desk. He avoided my face, which meant he was in a good mood, more or less. He sighed and went back to the roller brush. It’s one thing to throw down a sheet and make with the refurbish. But this guy, in his suit, whistling. And not a drop on him anywhere.

I was in a bad mood myself, however. The little lady back home, getting less little by the day, and with it the hormones and the fun that brings. Fecundity, it turns out, ain’t a dirty word, except it is, if you know what I mean. “You got a problem with my morning ablations, say it.”

He just smiled, tossed a cigarette into his mouth, lit up. Took a big drag, blew it out casually. Shrugged. “There’s no bad ablation. There are only some ablations that aren’t as good as others.” He walked to his own desk, pulled a bottle out of a drawer, walked it over to me.

The good stuff. He gave me a pat on the shoulder, went back to his painting. We worked in silence for a while, me putting receipts against a telefax for a case we had, him with the roller brush and the occasional hummed phrase from an 80s era hip-hop song.

After a bit I put the bottle away, sat up straight, gave my neck a twist and crack. “Well, that’s that then. No matches, not that I can find. If Fenway’s wife is stepping out on him, we’re going to need some other kind of proof. Nothing’s happening with this paper trail.”

“In working a case, when things stall out, just wait for two guys to come through the door with guns,” he said. Which sent a chill down my spine. All the time with the Chandler quotes. Like he was writing this thing, not living it.

“Now you listen to me Hill. I got a kid on the way, I don’t need-” but it was too late. The door burst open, and sure enough, two nasty looking toughs came spilling in, both of ’em armed to cause trouble.

My partner lost no time, dropping into a crouch and ripping up the tarp. The dumb lugs hit the floor, and were wrapped up and tied in a wriggling roll faster than you could say monkey business.  I got up and walked over,  nudged ’em with my toe. We just stood there, hands on our hips, looking at ’em.

“I dunno, Hill. This ain’t got to do with Fenway. I mean, unless his old lady’s stepping with a made guy, but why would a made guy bother?”

“Yeah, that’s it.” One of the toughs said. “We ain’t got anything to do with them guys. Which is why, you let us go now, we don’t have to tell ’em what happened here.”

I knelt down. “And what are you going to not tell ’em, paisan? That you didn’t come in here with your roscoe erect, didn’t get tripped up by a guy painting the walls, didn’t get your asses handed to you out back a few minutes later by a fat old bastard in a Hawaiian shirt?”

“You don’t know who you’re messin’ with,” one of ’em said. “Don Marconi don’t-”

“Shut your goddamn mouth,” the other one said.

I stood up. Oh goody. A Don Marconi thing. I went back to my desk, grabbed the phone, and dialed. My partner rolled the two over towards the wall, went back to painting, over a symphony of curses.

“This is Kendrick,” a voice finally said.

“Alfonse. It’s Edwards.”

“I know. Caller ID. Whattayaneed. Someone to drag a coupla scumbags outta your office?”

“You got ESP Kendrick? How the hell-”

“You’re working that Fenway thing, right? His old lady’s putting the horns on him, and Don Marconi’s the hunter. Or something. I’m not the writer– you can’t probably come up with something better.”

“Well how come you never told me?”

“Ask your partner. He said you needed something to write about. Something about old man’s ennui, I dunno. Kid’s got a ten dollar vocabulary, and me with my nickel ears.”

“Tell me about it. Yeah, okay, can you send over a cruiser, coupla boys?”

“Already on their way,” he said, and hang up.

I put the phone down. “Hill. You asshole.” But I had to grin.

My partner just smiled, one foot resting on the jerks in the tarp, cigarette in his mouth, one eye closed against the smoke. Painting. “I can kill time, or kill myself. Time dies better,” he said.

I shook my head. Some guys read too much Raymond Chandler for their own good. Or mine.

The Odd Spy

writing exercise,

fiction by Jason Edwards

A man dressed in khaki chinos and white cotton chambray work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms sits in front of a rickety desk, in a tiny room in a tall building in old San Juan, Puerto Rico. On the desk, a typewriter hulks and a half-drunk Cuba Libra sweats. The air is still. Cigarette smoke hangs. The man gazes out at the Bajo Tablazo, one elbow on the desk, hand up, two fingers up, cigarette contributing to the entropy of the universe in orange embers and a subtle hint of vanilla off the filter. He slides the cigarette into his mouth, closes one eye against the smoke, turns to the typewriter, and fills the room with clacking and clicking.

The page fills with words. It’s the sentence “Look at the frog,” over and over again. Look at the frog. Look at the frog. Look at the frog. His typing pace is a mother and son running in broken gaits across a desert trying to avoid monstrous sand worms. He stops. Typo. Look at the fog. There’s sweat on his forehead, sweat in his armpits, a drop rolls down his back slow enough to give him a chill. A hot, smothering chill. He looks guiltily out the window, then back inside, at the wall opposite.

He picks up the Cuba Libre, brings it to his lips, sets it back down in precisely the same position. There’s no perceptible loss of liquid. The man unrolls the page in the typewrite a bit, glares at that word. Fog. God damn it. God damn it all to hell. In a fit he rips out the page, crumples it, cocks his hand back to throw the wad at the wall opposite the window. Considers the implications. Sighs, and drops the wad at his side.

A fresh piece of paper. He rolls it into the typewriter, twisting it up and down in a complicated rhythm, getting it just right. Gazes out the window again. Ashes his cigarette. He’s avoiding that wall now. He waits.

The view from the window is not exclusively the Bajo. There’s another building, an older one, the top three floors missing. Graffiti, water damage, exposed rebar, grit and dust. Two men in trench coats. Honest to god trench coats. How often does it rain in Old San Juan? How often is it dark? Is it ever cold?

They’re trying to stick to shadows. The man in the room can’t see them, wouldn’t look at them if he could. An old legend that when clipper ships came to the New World, they were so alien the natives literally could not seem them. The man has been in Puerto Rico for about a year, and wouldn’t know a trenchcoat from a suit of armor.

They whisper at each other. Code words and secret phrases. Each has been sent under the impression that the other is a fake spy and will surely know all of the secret words and code phrases. Proof, like a witch who doesn’t drown, of guilt. And then there will be an inspired chase scene. But who is chasing whom.

The man finds a pack of cigarettes in his pants pocket, a lighter worn smooth from a practiced thumb. Lights up. Inhales deeply. Exhales and fills the room with blue. Ashes, puts the cigarette in his mouth, squints, starts typing. Look at the frog, look at the frog. His rhythm is a drunk kung-fu master defeating ruffians.

Guns are drawn. A Mexican stand-off. A common misunderstanding. Puerto Rico is Spanish, not Mexican. The difference is the difference when asking a napkin in America and asking for one in Great Britain. A cruise ship blows her mighty horn, telling her passengers to come back and bring along their touristy knick-knacks and doo-dads. One of the spies is distracted by the sound, enough for the other spy to try and make a break for it. And shoot the other spy too. Neither plan works. And like a thousand music stands ,dropped off a tall building in a performance by a Julliard music student for his senior thesis, will, by mistake in the random cacophony include a spate that sounds too much like a snippet from Beethoven’s Fifth, earning the senor a D-, the spies manage to start an erstwhile and earnest chase through the now rapidly darkening streets of Old San Juan. Why keep the lights on when the tourists are gone.

The man finishes a page of Look at the frogs and starts another one with a practiced and repetitive rhythm of inserting a new blank page. Behind that wall opposite the window, a parabolic mike linked to a sophisticated tape recorder and computer interpret the rhythms of his typing. Ostensibly, they were recording the two spies on the broken rooftop.

The man knows better. Look at the fog almost started World War III.

Review: Quarantine

Quarantine by Jim Crace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Jim Crace’s Harvest and said of it: “I’m looking forward to going back and reading his other award-winning writing.” And now I have done so, although I am embarrassed to say this is the third book I’ve read by him, not the second. When I went to look up his other novels, I realized I had already read Being Dead. I say I’m “embarrassed” because, apparently, I’m not very good at remembering authors.

But I’ll say this, that reading someone you “know” is different from reading someone you don’t. I read Harvest with no expectations. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Quarantine. I admit, I went in, expecting to be as moved, and I was not. Which may have been the fault of having expectations.

And here is a story with Jesus in it—virtually no one would be able to read a novel with Jesus in it and not have a picture in their head already. This, too, could lead to disappointment. Crace’s Jesus is not holy enough. Or he is too holy. Or too human. Not human enough. Too historically authentic. Lacking in reverence. Too reverential. Take your pick. It is a testimony to Crace’s creativity that this Jesus will be nothing like anyone’s expectations.

This is a novel that uses all the language and imagery and sensibility of religion, but is not in the least religious. Here is hard-scrabble account, the harsh reality of spending 40 days in the desert, that somehow evokes a calmness and a peace.

But for all that, Jesus is not the main character in this novel. The main character is the devil that tempts him, but not a biblical devil. An evil, but the kind that’s as familiar as any jerk that cuts you off in traffic. As ubiquitous as the lies that eat away your soul—the ones that you are told, and the ones you accept.

It would be too easy to liken one’s dropping oneself into a book to a quarantine, a fast, a spiritual journey begging questions of a god, the author. That’s maybe glib, and certainly not the point of this novel. But whenever I go into these books, either wide-eyed or jaded, I always come out of them either plump or emaciated, dirtier or cleaner—but never the same as when I started. That’s all one can really ask of a good read. I expected something else, was not satisfied in that expectation, and yet I’m not left wanting.

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A Trip To San Francisco

Discovered in 1776, founded in 1860, and rebuilt from the ashes up in 1906, San Francisco is a city that boasts 50 hills, 6 islands, 2 earthquake faults, and well over a million people in the greater metropolitan area. And even though it’s the second most densely populated city in America, there’s plenty of room for visitors. Thinking about a trip to “The Paris of the West,” the city where Al Capone died, where The Gap (inc) keeps its home office, where the Giants baseball team are ritualistically handed the World Series every year? If so, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of “The City That Knows How.”

  • Be careful you don’t confuse Fisherman’s Wharf, with “Flasherman Warf”, a dude in the Tenderloin dressed like a half naked Klingon from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • If you’re going to Alcatraz, get your tickets early. If you’re not going, it doesn’t matter when you get your tickets.
  • The San Francisco National Cemetery is very popular—people are dying to get in there. (Get it?)
  • There’s a zoo in San Francisco. If you’ve never been to a zoo before, than you haven’t been to this one either.
  • Don’t bother bringing an issue of TV Guide on the Cable Cars ‘cause they’re not that kind of cable.
  • Lombard street. Crooked. Lumbar support, so your back doesn’t get crooked. This joke still under construction.
  • The Mission district has good burritos. They’re called “Missionary Style” burritos because even though they’re not exciting, they get the job done. Heyo!
  • Facts: Golden Gate Park is neither golden, has gates, or any good places to put your car.
  • “The Painted Ladies” is NOT a transvestite review, but an area with bunch of houses painted with more than two colors. I know, massively disappointing, right?
  • Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, Grace Cathedral, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, SF Ferry Building, Golden Gate Bridge: you can buy postcards for these EVERYWHERE.
  • Chinatown allegedly has some very nice restaurants, but none of them are Panda Express, so I don’t know.
  • Haight-Ashbury is where LSD was invented, but I don’t know if it’s worth the “trip.” (Mwaah-mwaaa…)

Yes, a visit to “Frisco” should be on everyone’s bucket list. And when you’re here, be sure to call it “Frisco.” The locals love it when visitors say that. And when they ask for Rice-A-Roni. And when they complain about the cold and the fog and the traffic and your sore aching feet.